The tinker device the thing above us made was spinning up, producing a metal-on-metal sound that grew louder by the second.
Too much of me was numb, and the rest of me felt like it was still on fire, the skin still bearing residual heat that hadn’t faded. When I moved, most often involuntarily, I found myself in contact with grit, pushing it into the wounds. Every breath was a labor, and that labor was made worse by the fact the rest of my body was struggling too, offloading issues to body parts I needed to breathe. Gorge rose in my throat, interrupting a breath in process, and receded just as quickly, leaving only acid in a windpipe that had already been in a sorry fucking state. I coughed, and that made everything else hurt.
We come full circle, I found myself thinking. Shitty circle when it starts and ends in burns across most of my body. Acid from Crawler, now burns from… this.
Acid in the throat, burns on the body, acid on the body…
If I’d been on the way to a coherent thought or deeper understanding, which I probably hadn’t, the pain that seized me derailed all thinking.
Sveta grabbed me, pulling me into a hug, with emphasis on pulling. I could feel her hands drag across skin that might as well have been attached by mere threads. I grunted, guttural, my thoughts dissolving into incoherent animal panic and-
I felt the impact. She’d been pulling me out of the way of danger. As she let go of me, I landed on my back, facing this creature that was as vast as the sky, and what looked like a faint blue glow in the center of a flower made of quicksilver. The flower expanded outward, rotating madly with that metal-on-metal sound, and it touched the creature’s arms, painting, augmenting, and decorating them.
It splashed into an arm, then congealed into armor with a technological component to it, covering up joints, adding spikes, arms that branched off, and faint blue plumes that might have been rockets, to accelerate the arm’s movements.
An arm crashed down amid shelving units near the bulk of the group. The quicksilver that coated it splashed out, mechanical limbs in a dozen varieties appearing around the impact site, reaching out, groping, clawing and tearing. The metal receded, arms shrinking and dragging components with them, and then those blue jets fired down, torching the surroundings, and hauling the arm and the shelving units it and the smaller arms held into the sky with the speed of an elastic band’s snap.
Three more plunged down, aimed at my teammates. Some came down as fast as the other had gone up, but the force of it seemed to damage the underlying arms.
Fuck, I could barely think.
It wasn’t like this thing was going to run out of arms anytime soon. Hundreds of arms. We’d only damaged a few.
“Get Cradle,” I said. Had I said it earlier?
“I can’t leave you here,” Sveta said. “I have to pick you up.”
I wanted to say no, but then she was grabbing me again, and my skin wasn’t in good enough shape to be grabbed. I started to black out, and forced my way back to consciousness.
Have to help if I can. Even if it’s-
Pain distracted, broke up the flow of thoughts. I had to get my thoughts back on course, and this time I could. Perhaps I could credit the mental agility of not thinking about certain topics, dodging around the thought of them constantly, or thinking despite factors.
I wanted to think I’d gleaned something from it. I felt victorious as I remained conscious and finished the thought with, advice. Lend them my eyes.
Except time had passed. Nearly blacking out and coming to felt like it took a couple of seconds. Sveta had hauled me across the white beach to the shelving units in what had probably taken at least two minutes.
Most of the others were there, or were here. Scattered around us, amid various pieces of cover.
And above us- the many-handed monstrosity was trying to find its balance. I had to twist to look, despite the pain twisting caused.
Damsel slashed at the hands that were resting on the ground, aiming for wires. More and more of the hands that appeared around her didn’t have any, with the living metal coating protecting the joints. She looked like a fencer, favoring one arm.
Focus, I thought.
Same thing I’d been doing. And it had a similar effect. This thing was ungainly, lopsided, ill-fit to the space it occupied. When a hand came down and incredible amounts of weight came to rest on that hand, it suggested a needed support. Weight-bearing.
With a metal-on-metal scream, the hands around Damsel lifted up. The thing had stopped for a moment, repositioning to put its hands out of the way of us, hands planted on the far end of the room, and against the wall on our end.
And I saw Damsel cradle her arm against her chest, claws curled in to almost touch her elbow. Four claws. Her thumb was gone, along with a whole strip of her forearm, with strings of blood, strips of muscle, or tendons dangling from the wound.
She saw me looking and pulled her arm away from her chest, leaving a slick mark diagonal across it. She let her arm hang at her side, finger-claws almost touching the ground. She raised her chin and looked up at the monster.
Choose, I remembered. That had been our Ashley standing there beside her in the dream.
You don’t have to hide that you’re hurt, Damsel.
I knew Ashley, and I had a good sense of how she thought and processed things. Seeing the dream, I knew what was on her mind. She thought, given the chance, we’d get rid of her and get Swansong back.
I wasn’t so sure we would, but it didn’t matter, because she was convinced. I could tell.
The way the thing was getting further away from us de-multiplied the number of arms around us. With more arms pulling up and finding positions elsewhere, the room was distorting again. I could see the process of how the room distorted in reverse this time, see the distant distortion as Tatttletale’s distant area bloated and smeared around.
Put two arms fifteen feet apart, and the space increased to twenty feet, with everything around accommodating. Put two arms ten feet apart, and it increased to twelve or thirteen feet. More arms, more distortion.
In the distance, it placed limbs to expand and stretch out my room. When it tore up and removed panes of glass and those solar panels that were black except where they caught direct light and reflected gold, those things remained expanded, distorted in dimensions. Arms hauled them up to the core, feeding them into that quicksilver flower that it had teched up.
The metal-on-metal scream was joined with the sound of glass scraping and breaking, churned up by a blender. The quicksilver flower was soon decorated, gilded with gold-tinted glass and the black panes of the solar panels.
The noise set my nerves on edge. Good thing I have less nerves than I had when I entered this fucking place. I smiled at the dark thought.
“Hey, hey,” Sveta said. Her hand was very cool against my cheek, sparking pain while being welcome at the same time. “Stay with us.”
“With you,” I said, before trying again. “I’m with you.”
“She okay?” Tattletale asked.
“Victoria wants us to go after Cradle,” Sveta said, not answering the question.
“I want to go after Cradle.” I identified the voice as Darlene. “He hurt Candy and Precipice.”
I heard Chicken Little but didn’t make out the words. He might have been talking to Rain.
“What’s the logic?” Tattletale. “It means going the opposite way we’ve been headed, chasing down a guy who doesn’t want to be found.”
“He’s this thing’s host,” I managed. I started to cough and stopped myself, because I knew it’d make my whole body move and I wouldn’t be able to stop. I choked on the next word I intended to say instead. “Cut him off and maybe we cut off the power?”
“Might kick us out of the dream,” Tattletale said.
“Wouldn’t object,” I grunted out the words, suppressing another cough. My throat still burned with acid. “This dream sucks. Can’t believe Rain had to come here every night.”
“Precipice,” Sveta said, quiet.
“The way looks clear,” Tristan said. “We could make a run for it.”
“It won’t look that clear when you get there,” I said. “It’s a feint. It can hear us. Everything in this room.”
“You know this?” Tattletale asked.
I shook my head slowly, feeling skin at my neck crack. “But it makes sense.”
“Come here,” Tristan said, as he settled beside me. I saw Kenzie just a short distance away, her back to shelving, her attention divided between me and the sky above. Tristan muttered, “I don’t know enough medical stuff, but…”
“Get Cradle,” I said. “Take him out and this might all stop.”
He touched a finger to my throat. “Your heart is hammering. I can’t even count this fast.”
I winced at the shock of crushing pain through my left arm as he leaned in. “Makes some sense. Just… go? Stop kneeling on my elbow and shit while you’re at it.”
“I’m not,” he said.
I looked. Sure enough, he was nowhere near the blackened mess where what remained of sleeve and skin were indistinguishable just from the residual heat that had come through the shield, and where the metal of the buckler was slag.
The pressure swelled with the realization there was no source. Like the Wretch had me by the bone and was squeezing hard enough to crush me. It was one of… too many things that were going wrong or giving way. I kept the sounds that I made small, to minimize the chances that I’d scare the kids.
Every part of my body felt like it was defaulting to wrong inputs or wrong outputs. A brain to not process, to not dwell. An arm that didn’t move where every sensation it did have was a false one. A throat meant more for holding the acid of puke I’d swallowed again before it could leave my mouth, for holding the feeling of being burned, and a knot at the base of it like the Wretch had her fist there, right behind the collarbone, stretching it out. A hummingbird heartbeat that was beating so fast it felt like I had no heartbeat at all. Skin that was more a gaping, massive vulnerability than a wall between the inside of me and the world outside.
“Get Cradle,” I said, wincing at the pain in my arm. “You’re a natural superhero, Trist-.”
“Not your first rodeo,” I tried again. “Maybe your first dream-zone fight.”
“Second,” Tristan said, looking up. He looked like such a superhero in that moment. Square jaw, intense. A giddy and delirious part of me wanted to kiss him, hug him, embrace that as much as the handsomeness of him. Which would probably traumatize him on a few levels.
It scared me that my emotions were so out there, so far out of bounds, when I’d prized and fought so fucking hard to establish my bounds.
The outcome looked and felt grim enough that I was finding a whole lot of stuff I’d been holding onto didn’t matter. There was a very real chance I’d never see my parents again. Amy.
Things I needed to come to terms with.
“I’m not using my power or anything,” Tattletale’s voice cut through my thoughts, forcing me to focus my thoughts like I might try to focus my eyes in a moment of double-vision. “But now would be the time to go if we were going to go.”
Focus, I told myself.
“Go kick some ass,” I said, reaching over and across my body for Tristan’s arm and missing it entirely. I pointed instead.
“I don’t want to be the guy who charges in and leaves his friends vulnerable behind him. Not anymore.”
“You have my permission. Go. Vamos.”
He stood at that.
The relief that hit me came with another momentary blackout. Sveta’s cool hand on my forehead stirred me to awareness again.
Tristan was talking to Kenzie. “-don’t want to see this.”
“I’ve seen worse.”
“That-. Okay. Keep talking to her. Keep her alert and aware. If she needs something, give it to her.”
“Can we move her closer to Precipice? Chicken’s watching him and-”
“Can’t move her,” Tristan said.
“Sveta,” Tristan said.
Sveta lurched to her feet.
“Eyes on the sky, Kenz. Same rule we gave to Chicken. If it comes for you guys, you run. Leave the wounded behind.”
Kenzie looked down at me, her eyes large in the gloom.
“I mean it,” Tristan said, sounding as intense and almost angry at Kenzie as I’d ever heard. “You run.”
“I’ll run,” Kenzie said. “If you start running now. The sooner the better.”
“Look after Victoria, Kenz. Tattletale, look after these guys?”
“Love Lost? Colt?”
I heard Love Lost’s footsteps. Obviously, she wasn’t one to reply.
“I’ll stay,” Colt said. “I’m too slow like this.”
“Okay. Damsel!” Tristan called out, his voice booming. “Want to help kill an asshole!? Might end this!”
The thing was moving, and all I could do was lay there, focusing on breathing, while Kenzie crept closer.
Darlene and Candy kept even more of a distance. Candy had both of her hands pressed to the side of her head, and Darlene had one hand pressed there as well. They hunkered down by a shelf, hiding, their position apparently chosen to keep an eye on me and Kenzie, and on Chicken Little and Rain.
I could see the blood that streaked down Candy’s arms, into her sleeves and to her elbows, seeping through the cloth in blobs.
Darlene looked hurt too. Her ear and eye were bleeding, the eye closed, but she was using her hands for Candy’s sake. She might have been hit by shrapnel at one point.
“Put pressure on that,” I said, too quiet for them to hear.
“Are you putting enough pressure on it?” Kenzie asked.
“Yeah,” Darlene said.
The thing made its next move. Arms were augmented with metal and glass now, and when arm plunged like a thrown spear, the impact site where it penetrated was a dozen arms of metal and glass. The glass exploded, and the arms ripped and tore.
The resulting cloud of dust concealed the scene. Shards of the glass glinted in the dim light. I had to imagine it’d be nigh-impassable. Blocking the other group’s path.
God, my arm hurt. Like the bone, muscle, and everything else was being crushed endlessly, but never actually broke.
Tattletale walked over to stand over Darlene and Candy, pulling medical stuff from her bag. She looked over at me.
We’d seen each other’s worst moments, or interpretations of those moments. That… it kicked down doors. More boundaries gone.
Three more arms plunged into different points in Cradle’s territory. The first arm receded. The remainder were working on maneuvering the large body closer, so more arms could reach.
Protecting Cradle. Looking between shelves and through the gap between two pieces of sheet metal that backed two shelves, I could see the silhouettes of the others. Charging in nonetheless.
“Thanks Tats,” I said.
“What’s she saying?” Tattletale asked.
“Thank you,” Kenzie said.
“For shooting the thing.”
“I heard that one. What were you doing charging in like that? You reckless idiot.”
“Had to distract it. Stick to the game plan.”
“Brute mentality, no brute powers. See where it gets you?” Tattletale asked. “You-”
She stopped as more hands plunged down. Four, at my best guess. All aimed for the other group.
I had a sinking feeling, watching. The onslaught was increasing in intensity as the thing drew nearer to them.
“Any insights?” I asked.
“No power,” Tattletale said. She sounded bored, detached.
“Still,” I said. “You don’t cape for… years without figuring some shit out.”
“Are you trying to be nice, Antares?” Tattletale asked. “You saw where I come from, you feel bad?”
“Let’s not fight,” Kenzie said.
“You feel sorry for me?” Tattletale asked.
More crashes. It had to be ten arms, though I couldn’t see the entirety of it. Some speared down, some raked their individual paths. One after another.
It was so hard to breathe, and the pain when impacts shook me interrupted the process. My heart was still aflutter and it was probably contributing to my thoughts being a little… lightweight. Shallow thinking, like the twilight before sleep, that I could steer only with constant attention.
“You don’t know anything about me, okay?” Tattletale asked. “You don’t get any points if you end our relationship with some well-intentioned questions. You triggered because mommy and daddy didn’t love you because you were normal, then proceeded to show you were the last person who ever deserved powers, maiming people and using your sister to dodge the consequences when you hit them a little too hard.”
“Stop,” Kenzie said.
“Hey,” Colt said.
The silence was maybe the heaviest silence that I’d ever heard. Heavier than the times after my family had left during visiting hours. Heavier than the rooftop after Dean had died, when I’d flown up there to cry on my own because I couldn’t cry in front of his family and everyone else in the hospital. Heavier than the silence after I’d been fouled in basketball, in the before and after of my own pained cry.
Heavy because the hands had made an all-out attack on the other group. Ten hands, all together.
And then they’d stopped.
I could taste the dust and the glass particulate in the air.
Tattletale’s voice picked up, starting slow, then building in speed, “I bet you knew she liked you, you knew she was in a bad place, but it was convenient to keep using the girl instead of getting her help. Bit you in the ass, huh? I bet what gets you is that you know you deserved those years in the asylum.”
I focused on breathing.
Kenzie reached for and took my hand. She held it in two of hers, clenching harder than was necessary. “Tattletale-”
“It’s okay,” I said.
“Is it, Victoria? Is it really? You’re dying. You’re not going to last the… thirty-one minutes that remain, here. This is it, we’re probably going with you, and I’m not going to mince words or tell you some convenient things that help you go without regrets.”
She didn’t address me further. Darlene stared up at her, and Tattletale reached down to push a lock of hair from Darlene’s forehead. Darlene pulled hear head away, then hugged her cousin.
Regrets. Things I needed to come to terms with. I’d been dwelling on it earlier, a tangent.
I felt like I could let my mind touch on the subject of my mom and dad and how they’d betrayed me in their individual ways, and I could make a kind of peace with that. I could touch on the things they’d said and done and ways they’d let me down and a kind of tension that had been there since I could remember was released.
The thought didn’t provoke fear or defense reactions in the same way. A deep sadness and feeling of loss, yes. A small stab of alarm, worry, like a primal part of me had to cover the bases in case she could somehow reach out and find me here.
But I was out of her reach, and a growing part of me was feeling like I didn’t need to worry because the chances of me seeing her again were getting a lot closer to nil.
My breathing was hoarse, more because of the fuckery in my throat than anything. Every breath hurt.
I was free to make peace with… I wasn’t sure I was coherent enough to summarize what that whole thing with Amy was. In a state where all the edges were rounded off and thoughts could glide from one to another, if I didn’t think or pry too much, I could extend a measure of understanding, see where she had been coming from and why. Maybe. I could forgive her, probably, find that internal compromise. Forgive her for myself, at the very least.
But like hell was I ever going to do that. Like hell was I going to forgive her for anything, even my own peace of mind. Like fucking hell was I going to compromise. Understand? Yes, but only as a defensive measure, like I tried to understand this many-handed fucker. Fuck no, hell no, fuck. If there was a chance she could find out how I’d felt about her in the end, and powers meant there was always a chance, I wanted the answer to be bitter and hurtful. Because she’d remained too much of a coward to own up to it in reality and totality. Because fuck her.
Anger made my blood pump and woke up the pain, bringing me back to reality. My parting throughts on the subject, as I labored to breathe, were simply that I could make peace with my lack of peace on this one subject.
“I don’t need your words to help me get there,” I said, my voice soft. Probably too soft for Tattletale to hear.
“Antares said-” Kenzie piped up.
“I don’t care,” Tattletale said.
The thing was gravitating more our way. It hadn’t attacked since that burst of ten attacks all at once, aimed at the others.
“I’m pretty spooked,” Colt’s voice could be heard.
“Me too,” Chicken Little said.
“Not me,” Candy said. “Nope. Ate fear for breakfast the first six years I was alive, sometimes for real. Can’t touch this.”
“Braver than me,” Darlene said.
“Way braver than me,” Chicken Little could be heard. “Mr. Hugs sucks.”
I laughed. Out of sync with the tone of the situation, fed by a little deliriousness and released frustration. It wasn’t a happy laugh, but it was a mighty one, full-body, in a way that made me hurt in twenty different ways, made me cough between laughs.
“Antares thinks you’re terrible at names, Chicken,” Kenzie said.
“I’m not that terrible,” Chicken Little said.
“You kind of are,” Tattletale said. “But it’s one of your many good points.”
Hands crashed through something distant with a sound so sharp it made my ears ring.
I looked at our exit, and there were overly long, mechanical hands near and above it, barring the way, along with dropped pieces of concrete and rubble that had been picked up elsewhere and brought to that pitch black wall we were supposed to run through. Even if we sent the kids, there was no way they’d get past.
“Hey Tattletale,” Candy said. “Hey.”
“What? If you want to tear me down because I gave Antares a reality check, you can save it. That thing is on its way, as soon as it can find a hand to stand on that Damsel didn’t hack at.”
“I gotta, though,” Candy said. “Reality check. You helped give us the best years we ever had. I know Imp went to you for money now and again and you paid, even though we were more hers than yours. I know you found the tutors and you found the fashion people and junk. I know you found Aroa’s mom and I know that didn’t go well but it was real nice you tried. Um-”
I heard a sniffle. From her or Darlene.
“Chicken Little, you’re one of the best guys I know, and I don’t really like being around guys, especially ones that seem nice. But you’re cool enough and nice enough that you kind of won me over and I think you helped fix a little bit of a part of me that’s broken, just by being you. I know you think you’re a scaredy-cat and I want you to know you’re braver than anyone because you step up despite being that afraid… I don’t really know how to start and end these little speeches, except, um… if you somehow get out of this and I don’t, marry a Heartbroken your age and become an official member of this family.”
I heard Darlene hiss something.
“If you were gone, then the only Heartbroken his age would be Flor and Darlene,” Kenzie said.
“Well, I guess that makes it simple, doesn’t it?” Candy asked, her voice artificially bright. “Flor it is. If I made it out I’d volunteer myself, but-”
“I will kill you,” Darlene said, audible this time.
“I think we beat him, Dar,” Candy said. Harder to make out, because she was talking to someone sitting next to her. “We made some of the coolest friends, we figured out how to like each other again, after he turned us all against each other. We had a family and homes and puppy piles and swimming and shopping and crushes and schools… terminally boring catch-up classes. Everything he tried to take away from us we got back in spades. Yeah?”
Darlene’s answer was broken up. She cleared her throat. “I messed up tonight.”
“Yeah. But that’s ok. It doesn’t change things. Nobody’s holding it against you, right Kenz?”
“Right,” Kenzie said, right next to me. Holding my hand.
I felt hands strike the ground, supporting the greater whole. It loomed larger over us, the loser it got. More hands, emerging from that swirling tinkertech core.
“You’re the most beautiful person I know, Kenz,” Candy said. “I can’t tell you how much it means to me that your hair right now is a hairstyle I gave you. I know we grumble, I know we gripe, but I would spend every day with you if we could get away with it. Okay? Maybe that doesn’t sound as fancy but-”
Kenzie gripped my hand, harder.
“I would too!” Chicken Little piped up. “I didn’t get to say anything earlier tonight but I really didn’t mean things I said and I want to make it up to you.”
He yelped at an impact. A sweep of a hand, crashing through a metal shelf, mostly sheet metal. The crash spread the living metal and living glass, with reaching arms that tore at other cabinets. I peeked around the corner and I could see another two shelves get torn to pieces.
It reached all the way back toward the concrete, the hand in question hovering, then picked up a broken piece of slab. It threw it in our general direction, bowling through a few more shelves.
Gonna be a minute now.
“Yeah,” Candy said. “I’m sorry if we didn’t get that far. I would’ve wanted sleepovers and adventures and for-real visits to Aunt Rachel’s until you were sick of us.”
“That’s not possible,” Kenzie said. Ms. Talkative, reduced to three and a half words.
I gave her hand a squeeze.
I didn’t have it in me to stand, let alone fight. No flight, no powers, no connection to the shard. Just me.
I heard a distant shout. An instruction.
A female voice.
Someone in that group was okay. And they were… way over there. Trying to communicate with us. Too far away, muffled.
I sat up, and immediately regretted it because it meant my senses were on full alert as a hand swept through an empty glass display. Loud as shit.
Something had happened, or they were doing something.
“Help me up,” I grunted.
“I don’t think you’re in any shape to get up,” Kenzie whispered.
I could feel my heart now, but it was in the nauseous imminent-heart-attack sense. Adrenaline surged, giving me the energy to perk up, pay attention to my surroundings.
“Go,” I whispered. “Run. Toward the others. If they’re safe and it’s not after them, you need to figure out why. Go.”
She held my hand, and I could remember the scene I’d seen in the dream.
She wasn’t about to let go.
“Darlene! Candy! Chicken! Tattletale! Colt! Take Kenzie and run! Someone’s still alive over there, go to them!”
Kenzie gripped my hand.
But Candy and Darlene, leaning on each other, were there in a flash. Chicken Little stood at the end of the haphazard aisle, looking.
“We won’t make it,” he said, looking up.
“We will,” Tattletale said.
The Heartbroken girls hauled on Kenzie’s arm. Tattletale hauled on Chicken Little.
Colt lingered, looking back toward Rain.
“Antares- Precipice!” Kenzie called out.
“No goodbyes,” Tattletale said. “I should have drawn the line earlier. No goodbyes. Run.”
The hands came down. Between them and their destination. Through shelves.
The pump of adrenaline and the rush that was dulling the pain served to put me straight into cape-thinking mode. There was a logic or a rhythm to how it went on the offense. We just hadn’t figured it out. There was a good chance we wouldn’t, still.
But we could try.
“Hey!” I bellowed. I banged my hand against metal shelves. “Here!”
It loomed over me, hands plunging down to support its weight.
The dust of its attacks swept over us, obscuring every last thing, bringing a rain of glass fragments that pattered off of the metal shelves, fallen and otherwise. A sweeping limb dashed it just as fast, turned the precipitating shards into a barrage.
It had stopped its attack again.
As the scene cleared, I could see why. Tattletale stood there, kids behind her, Colt beside her, gun raised, pointing.
Cradle stood in the way. He looked so young, and he stood there with glasses scratched up to the point they looked unusable, wearing bloodstained clothes.
It had stopped attacking because any attack against Tattletale risked hurting Cradle.
“I heard you earlier. No bullets,” Cradle said.
“Did you also hear us say that your shard-buddy can probably hear everything in this room? Gotta keep some tricks up our sleeves, and I gotta tell you, it’s really satisfying to successfully bluff an extradimensional monster like this.”
Cradle moved his arm, and it was apparent he carried a large combat knife. He’d perhaps brought it into the dream the same way Tattletale had brought her gun.
They stood a mere ten feet apart. Tattletale in the area with the shelves. Cradle in the area with the concrete slabs.
“You brought a knife to a gunfight?” Tattletale asked.
“I don’t think you have much fight in you,” Cradle said. “I dare you to pull the trigger.”
“Cradle. Ryan,” Colt said. “Hey. Things were going so well. The dreams were getting better, I could at least control them on my nights, and give tips to the others to make them less bad. We weren’t all screaming at each other or getting mad.”
“And then you pull this,” Cradle said. “It wasn’t ‘better’ for me. Not really.”
“Wasn’t it? You can’t have enjoyed that?”
“I’m supposed to enjoy being stuck? Being trapped in the wilderness, only two people to keep me company? No way to get home, no way to tinker, my agent slowly pressing in on me, demanding I build when I can’t?”
“I’m talking about the dreams. You and me, we’re in prison because we hurt a lot of people. Some of these people. But we can at least keep the dreams peaceful.”
“I don’t want peace,” Cradle said. “I want revenge. You all intruded on my life, my deal, my space, my dreams. Now I’m really, really hoping that when my agent here tears you to shreds, it puts you all in comas where you have nightmares every damn moment you’re under.”
“You’re kind of a terrible person,” Chicken Little said.
“So why doesn’t she shoot me?” Cradle asked.
Tattletale kept the gun leveled at him.
“Thought so,” he said, barely audible.
Cradle started forward, marching her way. She swung the pistol, aiming to pistol-whip him, but he had the knife, and the knife gave him more effective range.
The cuts were deep, the slashes painting sprayed arcs of blood momentarily into the air. Forehand and backhead swing, into Tattletale’s forearms.
The many-handed thing creaked, hands picking up and orienting, ready to plunge. Cradle barely seemed to care, one eye on the hands, the rest of his attention on the attack.
Hands came down. Aimed at distant points. The others.
“Can’t get me from behind,” Cradle said. “And in front of me-”
Tattletale attempted to back up, and in the doing, she nearly tripped over Chicken Little, dropping to a crouch in the process of catching her balance. Colt rushed in, and Colt got stabbed- twice, her punches and grabs ineffectual. She wasn’t combat trained.
The kids were backing up, the hands finding position as the main ‘body’ of the thing reoriented. Cradle, too, backed up, until his back was to a fallen concrete slab.
“Heads up!” Chicken Little called out, voice high.
The hands came down. Three of them. I had to turn my face away.
It was like Cradle anticipated it. Or he understands how it works. He-
And I could connect some of the dots. Why Cradle was safe, why the others hadn’t been attacked and why the many-handed thing had drifted our way instead.
I drew in a deep breath, the skin of my chest cracking and oozing.
“It isn’t avoiding just Cradle!” I called out, with every bit of volume I could manage. “It’s avoiding killing anyone that’s in their own room!”
Meaning if they could get to their own rooms, they’d be safe. By leaving our boundaries, we invited attack. And here- in the room with the empty shelves and displays-
It kept hesitating. Avoiding striking home. Waiting.
Snag’s influence at work. Maybe he was here, in a fashion. There was some other logic at work too, maybe a desire to emulate Cradle and maim or corner us to torment us as much as possible. But for right now, this knowledge of the safe spaces was all we needed.
“Get closer to Cradle!” I called out, my voice straining around attempted coughs. “Try to kick him out of his room!”
A man with a knife was less threatening than that thing, and the entire group that was over there seemed to agree.
Darlene picked up a piece of fallen shelving, a long bit of sheet metal. Unwieldy, inconvenient, floppy, she held it up at an angle with the bottom end dragging on the floor, the rest of it aimed at Cradle.
Pushing it aside took focus, time, and movements he didn’t have in excess, when the rest were getting closer.
When he had a moment, he aimed for Chicken Little, knife out, and lunged.
Tattletale threw herself in the way. She’d dropped her gun, so she only had her hands.
He sliced her, again and again. Back, back, shoulder, arm- she looked up, trying to get a sense of him, and he caught her above the ear and near the eye.
Darlene threw something, and Tattletale found a moment to get a grip on his shirt, trying to drag him around, closer to the other room. Colt was there, kneeling, too badly hurt to move from where she was.
Knife fights were ugly, and Cradle seemed to know that. There weren’t good moves to defend oneself from a knife user who was aware of the full potential of the weapon, and any move that was anything less than good meant horrific damage, often going past skin and into muscle, if not organs.
Tattletale took the brunt of it, because the alternative was that the kids would do the same.
Hands plunged down around us, but they didn’t come down directly at that little fracas. They were aimed at Damsel, Love Lost, Sveta, and Tristan.
Keeping it busy was good. It forced it to stay at a certain orientation, a certain height and position where it could reach them at the edges of their territories, should they step out.
I heard a cry, a roar that was so filled with anger and emotion that I honestly mistook it for Love Lost’s scream. I didn’t even take it for a word at first, and it was guttural and filled with pain.
Cradle’s name, turned into a ragged cry. Cradle turned to look, because the volume of the shout no doubt made it sound like the source was close.
But it was Rain, injured and unable to move.
Providing Tattletale an opportunity to stagger to one side and pull at Cradle’s sleeve, slinging him around in a quarter-circle.
Cradle staggered back, banging against shelving. A piece of rubble the size of a fist bounced off of his arm. Darlene’s continued ranged offense.
His expression twisting, Cradle started forward- and his shirt snagged on the shelving.
“Go,” Tattletale said, talking to the kids. “Back to your rooms until we come for you. Go.”
And the others came. The cavalry was there.
And the many-armed thing had more targets it could attack, all in close proximity.
Tristan had his shield, protecting Sveta and Damsel from the flack, but it bowled him over in the process, living metal arms reaching for his shield and dragging him across rubble. Sveta and Damsel carried on. Love Lost was just really athletic, even in this world, and managed to avoid the worst of it.
“Get Cradle!” I called out. Unnecessarily.
It was Damsel who reached him first, spearing him before he could unsnag himself from the twisted metal of the empty shelf unit.
Spearing him through the shoulder.
“No killer instinct,” Cradle snarled at her.
“You really want to tempt-” she started replying.
He hacked at her already damaged hand with the combat knife. The injury brought her to her knees, interrupting the retaliatory swing with her other hand.
Sveta reached the shelf, and kept her distance from Damsel and Cradle both. Instead, she leaped onto the shelf itself, one foot and both hands finding purchase near the top.
It wobbled, and it wobbled more as a hand plunged down right behind where Sveta had been. Glass arms, liquid metal arms, and floorboards went flying all around us.
And it crashed down, impossibly loud.
The dust cleared, the glass stopped raining down.
Love Lost had joined Sveta in bowling over the shelf. Bringing it down on top of Cradle.
And without the host, there was no agent in this space. No light source in Cradle’s portion. No monster looming over and around us.
“Where are you going?” Tristan asked. He was injured himself, badly enough I’d be sending him to the hospital in any other circumstance. The shield was a mess now.
The question was directed at Damsel.
“Out,” she pointed at the far wall. “These are simulated bodies, aren’t they? I don’t know about you, but I want to move to a simulation where I’m not so scratched up.”
She swayed as she stood. She was missing a thumb, and had a deep notch in her forearm, more damage along that arm. The limb trembled where she held it against her chest, to try to stem the bleeding.
There were more injured than able bodied. It was Sveta who picked me up, sweating and grunting as she dragged me, putting in enough effort there weren’t words.
Tattletale limped about halfway. Love Lost helped Colt. Tristan helped Byron. The kids stayed with Rain while waiting for escorts.
We passed through the wall of darkness. Into a room like the one we’d just left. More stark, barren… and with three more things like the one we’d just left behind. One made of blades that flowed in and out of themselves while having no individual substance beyond what they kicked up from the ground and carried up into their own mass. One was sleek, cat-like, and multicolored, quadrupedal, with a pattern like flames along its pale length, starting pale blue at the shoulders and reaching a pink-red at the hindquarters. Another existed as a mess of geometry, suspended in air, dark and still.
And all were still.
I could imagine this room rotating, the gates opening, the guardians taking their turns.
We carried on. out of the mutable rooms, and onto a plain of carmine crystal, with veins that could have been cracks, ore, or blood vessels. Above, just darkness. Below, more darkness, with flashes here and there.
We weren’t healed by the transition between spaces, and too many of us were dying.
Tristan didn’t speak as he laid his brother down, then went back for Rain and the kids, but I could see how stiff he was.
I looked into a spike of crystal to my right, and I saw my reflections. Faint, so fleeting I could barely make them out. They seemed to go blacker, illuminate again, then dim, and then I realized that was my own vision suffering. Each face had something different. A fixation on mouths. A fixation on- I could only interpret it as similarities to my parents, if I wasn’t seeing memories of them in the crystal too.
“How?” Sveta asked.
Damsel was in one piece.
“Offer me something and I’ll show you how,” she told Sveta.
“Accolades,” I managed, my eyes not focusing well enough. “Awe. Admiration. When and if we figure out anything about this space, we’ll have to admit it was you who pioneered it, you who figured it out first. We’ll even have to tell the Wardens, eventually, and your name will come up.”
“Laying it on a little thick,” Damsel said.
“Is that even possible?” I asked her, managing a faltering smile. My lip cracked.
She approached, and motioned for Sveta to move with a sweep of the claw. She reached for me with clawed fingers, and I went stiff.
The blades didn’t touch me, but the lengths and backs of the fingers did. She caught me around the head and throat.
“Can’t replace me if I’m this good at this,” she said, forcing my head around so I looked at the spike of crystal. I could see myself, in various dimensions and aspects. And I could see her.
I could see Swansong, prominent among those jumbled images.
She pulled me off balance, accidentally scraping me with a finger, then pushed me.
I fell into and across the recess, that looked like a spike from a certain angle. Or that was both. I could see just how bad the injuries were in the faces and facets, magnified large by the broadest, flattest planes.
I came to a stop, panting for breath. I reached for my shoulder where I’d been scratched- and found my shoulder intact.
My hands explored my face and arms. No burns. No wounds.
“I was being tongue-in-cheek before, about the awe and admiration,” I said. “But now it’s for real. You’re… scarily good at that.”
“No shit,” Sveta said.
“I’ve been here before,” Damsel said, as she headed over toward Tattletale. “Spent a while here when I was dead. You learn your way around.”
The light danced around like a subsurface lightning bolt. Images were illuminated.
And I could see others. Reflections that weren’t me and weren’t us. Glimpses of the real world, pale in the midst of those flashes.
This was it. The system. The source of powers.
As vast as Earth was. Maybe more so, if each piece of the landscape had multiple interpretations and variations, depending on how you approached it.
How the hell do we find Teacher in all of this?
The able-bodied joined Sveta and I. The kids all holding each other’s hands, clinging to one another. Love Lost. The injured awaited Damsel’s attention.
Everyone a little haunted, traumatized a few times over.
We’d… we’d revisited our starting points. The traumas that plunged us into this world. And by Candy’s words to the others, I was pretty sure there had been a point or two there where just about all of us had resigned ourselves to our deaths. We’d faced the visceral ends of our journeys. The end of the vast majority of parahumans- death at the hands of powers.
Starts and endings, all faced together.
And this… I looked out at the landscape. Is everything that was in between.