I watched as Damsel re-positioned Byron. He was propped up to be kneeling, and she held his face with the tops and flat sides of her fingers, which were blunt, like the tops of kitchen knives. Her face remained close to his, her hair swept over one of her shoulders so it wouldn’t drape him.
By small measures, she changed the angle of his face, her eye watching as the reflected scene changed. Byron, hospital room. Byron, injured. Byron, staring off into space with tears trailing down his cheeks. Byron looking grim, in what might have been the Shin prison.
Tristan watched, his arms folded, his expression serious.
Damsel reached out with one hand, bladed fingertips touching the crystal pane that she was using as the mirror. It was like looking at a drawing of a cube, sans shading. From one angle, the cube could be seen as exterior walls, point facing out. From another, it could be seen as interior walls, point facing in. The bladed fingertips pulled away, then touched down again. Switching between the two with each time she tapped them.
Byron, with a bloody nose. Byron talking, with a haunted look in his eyes.
Damsel pushed him, with enough force it looked like he would smack into the pane of crystal. Her bladed fingertips tapped. He hit the interior wall, rather than the exterior one, bounced at a less violent angle than he would have if it had been the latter, a half-dozen reflections around him moving in sync, sliding out of view as Byron moved out of their frame of reference.
The Byron Damsel had just been handling slid out of the frame too, for that matter. It was another one who moved to the edge of its particular facet of crystal and kept moving beyond it. Damsel put her foot out, toe against crystal, her leg keeping him from falling too violently. I saw a flash of light appear at her foot, before racing off to the distance by a lightning bolt of a path.
“Wuh,” he said.
She didn’t bend down to help steady him, only keeping her leg where it could brace him until Tristan knelt by his brother’s side.
Byron looked up, then around. The sky was pitch black above us. The ground was like any other landscape, except with a bit more twist to it. Rolling hills that tilted a bit too far to the left or right with each roll. All in red crystal that trended toward black, with faint red glows where the two planes of crystal met, highlighting edges and cracks.
“Uhh,” Byron said. He looked at his brother, then seemed to realize who he was looking at. “The fuck?”
“That’s the last of us,” Rain said.
“Now that I’ve seen it done, and now that it’s too late, I’m really feeling super uneasy about this,” I murmured.
“Also really freaked out you’re that good at doing that,” I said.
“Good,” Damsel said. “Freaked out is a compliment.”
Byron and Tristan talked, exchanging words in murmurs.
“Where did that Byron come from?” I asked. “Where did the sleeping Byron go? Kenzie didn’t get hurt, is Kenzie the Kenzie I know?”
“No,” Kenzie said. She touched her pinafore dress, then hair. “I don’t think I ever wore this combination of stuff.”
I hadn’t either, for that matter. Costume top, the Brockton Bay watercolor remembrance dress.
I was pretty sure I’d been more okay with my fate back there against ‘Mr. Hugs’ than I was with the present state of existential horror. A few others in the group had some degree of uneasiness clear in their expressions and postures too.
“If it helps,” Tattletale said, “Don’t think of it as us being out here in the open air, mountains and pits all around us. Think of it as us being on the other side of the glass. Each crystal is a computer, each pane is a single area of focus, we’re things one program set into motion that are now poring through the file system until our program runs out and we wake up again.”
I thought about it, trying to put my thoughts to words.
“That makes it worse,” Sveta said, before I could manage.
“That,” I said. “What Sveta said.”
“Most of this is happening through the Corona thingy,” Kenzie said. “Um, Byron?”
“What?” Byron asked. He was getting to his feet with Tristan’s help.
“That means you’ll probably go back to… not being okay,” Kenzie said.
“Oh,” he said. I could see his eyes move, see his lips press together.
He didn’t volunteer anything more.
“It might help kickstart things,” Kenzie said, with some enthusiasm. “Like getting a running start, might stir things up.”
“Maybe,” Byron said. “Stirrings sounds right.”
“Vista has been stopping by a lot. You seemed to notice her,” Tristan commented. “If you need any motivation.”
I could hear Candy cooing, jostling Darlene and Kenzie, who joined in, and reaching past Darlene to push Chicken Little, who rolled his eyes.
“Ah,” Byron said. “Maybe. Let me finish processing the… overwhelming information I have right here, before getting into that?”
“Sure,” Tristan said.
I looked away, turning my attention to the crystals around us. Each facet of crystal was its own area of focus. Every time I thought I understood the logic behind a particular facet, I’d see an image that was out of place or ill-fit.
Maybe it did make sense, but the things that linked those out of place images were things like thoughts or associations.
Me, at various ages. Kid Victoria, often viewed in the mirror, or in videos, or in photographs. Then me after Gold Morning, in a Patrol uniform, watching a bunch of eighteen year old guys in similar uniforms spar. Then more Victorias from childhood, broken up by an out of place scene of me in my Antares costume washing my face with one hand while holding a tissue to my nose to stem the blood with another. That one was immediately followed by a scene of me in Gilpatrick’s office, the Wretch reaching for the glass, getting canceled before it could break that glass and inconvenience Gilpatrick.
Was the connective tissue between those things something to do with youth or my past, with that sparring and bloody nose outliers being a moment I’d already forgotten, where I reminisced about being young or studying?
Was it a kind of education instead? Each thing connected by a theme of me learning things? Learning things about myself? In that case, the photos and videos were a kind of study of my past self. The sparring exercise and bloody nose something tangential to that? Coming to terms?
My life, facets of me, arranged by something else’s sorting system.
Sveta walked up behind me, her face sharing the image. The images became incoherent, choppy, with the wrong lighting, like a television screen with the darkness cranked all the way up. A lot of the scenes seemed to be from the dream she’d just had.
A fleeting image appeared, disappearing before I could even open my mouth to remark on it. A fishing village surrounded by tall trees, perched on an outcropping of black rock that had been scratched or painted with swirls in white. It moved like the viewpoint was swimming or in a boat.
“My sibling and I were like Tristan and Byron,” Sveta said. “I got mad, went to work on my own, draw.”
“Even then, huh?”
Sveta shook her head. “I dreamed about drawing on blackness when I was in the hospital, I mentioned it to Jessica. It’s why I picked up the painting.”
I remembered something like that. I knew she’d dreamed about things and wanted to paint them, but I hadn’t known the painting had been in the dream.
She indicated the pane, which was showing more images from my memories, now. “I slipped and fell. It wasn’t from some tree onto the parking lot. It was from black rock onto black rock. We both got taken away. We both got vials after that, but I was the one to survive.”
“Are you remembering this now?”
“More or less,” Sveta said.
It showed more blurry, fractured images from Sveta’s memories. Darkened, incomplete, stuttering.
“I’m so… so angry, all over again,” she whispered. “Like when I first heard about Cauldron and what they were doing.”
I thought of my own fit of fury directed at Amy, in Rain’s dream room. “They’re monsters. Depending on how this goes, maybe they’re monsters we can vanquish once and for all.”
“It’s not that simple,” Sveta said. “You’re thinking of Teacher?”
“Yeah. Maybe Citrine and the Harbingers, depending on their perspective.”
Sveta nodded, watching the scenes. She stepped a bit to the side, to see what other facets were revealing. “It’s not so simple.”
“I’m really glad you’re okay,” Sveta told me.
“I’m… more or less there,” I replied.
She touched my arm, then walked away. I glanced at the reflection, and saw a storm in that too-dark, too-distorted image that seemed to follow Sveta. Then it was Victoria at a birthday party, classmates around her, sister beside her, cousins Eric and Crystal off to one side, a little too old and too young to be hanging around with her.
Candles out, the lights turned on a little too quickly.
I wish I was a superhero. I knew the wish because I’d made the same one every year.
I looked away.
The group was exploring, but at this stage in things, it was a rather tentative exploration. Fanning out, until we were no more than fifteen feet away from the next person. Peering into crystals, trying to figure things out.
I decided to break pattern, because there was no way we’d find Teacher if we didn’t get moving with a bit more speed and distance covered. I walked away, not briskly, but not dawdling either, thumb of my right hand scratching at the edges of the bandaging at my left hand. Bandages with blood on them for an injury that wasn’t there.
“What’s our goal? Finding Teacher?” Byron asked.
“Essentially,” Tristan said. “Man is it weird to talk to you.”
“We have other objectives,” I said. “The original Earth N portal. It was that way?”
Kenzie corrected, reaching up, moving my arm a few inches to one side.
I looked down at her. “You sure?”
“I have a good sense of space, and I remember which direction the room was oriented,” she said.
“You want to see it from this side?” Tristan asked.
“Let’s see what we’re dealing with, yeah.”
It ended up being Damsel who led the way. She approached a rising hill to our left and walked over to one slice of it, waiting for our group. She put a foot down, experimentally, and stepped onto a downward slope.
I couldn’t quite figure out the how or why of it until I’d walked another five steps and saw the hill in a fresh context.
“What keeps you from doing the paradigm shift that you used to heal us?” I asked.
“Me,” Damsel said.
She stepped onto the downward slope and shifted her footing, until her feet slid on the dark, glass-like surface, hands out for balance, claws pointing back.
“That’s real helpful,” I muttered. I did my best to follow suit. The kids were right behind me, with Chicken Little going down the slope in a sitting position, feet bracing him, Candy trying but landing on her ass, and Kenzie and Darlene managing it.
Every surface existed in multiple contexts. As I slid down, not hurtling, but moving fast enough my braid was picked up by the air, I could see glimmers and flickers of other things, painted in reds and blacks on the black crystal with red highlights. A forest. Campfires. A boat in water. The Fallen Camp.
“Damsel!” I called out. I ducked low to reduce my profile and reduce air resistance, even though I wasn’t sure this place even had any. I did what I could to catch up to her. “Can we-”
She glanced at me, then did much the same as I was doing, and her shoes were better for it. Pulling ahead.
Turning my body more, ducking lower, I tried to close the gap.
And… she seemed insistent on maintaining the lead. Fine, whatever.
“Any tips?” I called to her back. “To avoid any accidents?”
“It’s as Tattletale says,” Damsel said. She bent her knees more, then hopped up to a flatter plane of crystal, running a few steps until the momentum had been eaten up. She turned, not even glancing at me, just looking at the rest of the group. “We’re just bundles of code encapsulating our selves, written in a language we’ll never understand. When this ends our brains will be translated back, we’ll wake up, and all will be normal. The ‘trick’-”
I hopped up to the platform she was on, leaning my upper body back as she made giant air-quotes with her claws.
“-is that there is no trick. All of these versions of ourselves, hurt, crying, laughing, young, present-day, costumed… they exist simultaneously. You choose the face you want to present.”
I felt simultaneously frustrated at that, and at the same time, I was pretty sure I had a good idea as to why she was so good at managing this side of things.
The kids were next to arrive, Chicken Little putting his feet out to stop himself, kicking at the side of the platform, catching Candy. Darlene and Kenzie reached the platform and flopped over it, feet still on the slope, upper bodies on the slope itself. I bent down to pick both of them up, then again to help Chicken Little and Candy up.
“The storm is chasing you more,” Kenzie remarked, pointing down.
I looked, and I could see the flashes of light, some brighter than others. Ashley was the brightest, producing more flares of light that traced their way along neurons on the other side or surface of the crystal plain, traveling their zig-zag, forking lines as they raced to places unknown.
Darlene was second-most, but it took me a moment to notice, because her flares of light were less intense. Each time she flared, there would be a brief, stuttering light between her feet and Candy’s.
And, I had to watch for it to see it, but as Darlene smiled at something, she produced another stutter, another light that raced off the same way.
“Sending messages home, I guess,” I noted. “I bet if you chased that, you could find your power’s source.”
“Mmm,” Damsel made a sound. She raised a hand, claws extended my way.
As if to make that moment more dramatic, the stuttering light appeared between us, before we each sent our individual lights racing off to different points at the horizon.
She dropped her claw.
“I don’t suppose you could trace a line to Teacher that way, huh?” I asked.
She shrugged. “You try.”
The others had all arrived now. Rain, Sveta, Tristan, Byron, Colt, Love Lost, and Tattletale. Damsel stalked off as everyone got together, talking among one another.
I saw her turn her head, and light flashed beneath her feet, before jumping over to a distant figure. Something lurked on a distant slope, not dissimilar to what ‘Mr. Hugs’ had looked like. A burning torch of a figure, tall and ladderlike. The more I looked up the taller it seemed to get. The light touched him, then raced off to Damsel’s usual spot.
It turned our way.
“Let’s go,” I called out.
Damsel, unfazed, walked to another slope I couldn’t help but see as uphill, before stepping down and sliding down it.
“This is hard on the legs,” Darlene complained.
“Let’s go,” I said, still watching the distant thing.
“Easier than walking,” Sveta said, giving me and the distant figure a worried look.
“Sit,” Chicken Little suggested. “It’s fun.”
“But sitting is a kid thing to do,” Candy told him.
“Is it?” he asked.
He walked up ahead and stood at the edge of the platform, swaying slightly, before hopping down. He followed behind Damsel, standing this time. He looked back, his expression serious until he turned his attention back to where he was going.
The other kids stuck with him, with only a couple of nervous glances back before sliding down. Candy kept her balance this time.
I approached the edge, and I could see reflections all around me. My mom and Uncle Neil. Amy.
We’re all the summation of the faces we wear and where we come from, I thought, interpreting Damsel’s words.
Vicky, Victoria, Glory Girl, Wretch, Scholar, Warrior monk, Antares…
Whatever I was these days, that was so willing to come here, to break rules, to callously suggest we kill Cradle, and to feel nothing but mild relief when that shelf fell on him, taking his life.
Whatever I was this moment, trying to be stoic when there was a not-impossible chance that we’d have another fight like we’d just barely survived if we didn’t get moving.
“Come on!” I raised my voice, hardening it.
They came, finally. Love Lost approached the slope at a run, going full velocity this time, looking as serious as I’d seen her.
We all stepped down, following the leaders in sliding down the slope.
The group that was already at the bottom looked stricken, stunned, or distracted.
“Careful!” I called out. “Something’s up!”
I braced myself, eyes to the sky as I coasted onto the platform. If there was something problematic, I didn’t want to be caught by it.
“What’s going on?” I asked, walking forward. I kept my head angled so I wasn’t looking at the crystal protrusions. Around the largest protrusion, I could see our way forward. The distortion that was probably the Earth N portal. But that wasn’t their focus. “Problem?”
“Just the opposite,” Darlene said.
I looked. Darlene had her arms around Chicken Little’s shoulders, hugging him from behind. He seemed as oblivious as ever, his attention on the crystal.
A red haired woman loomed in the image, viewed at a weird angle. Red haired with freckles, and wide hips that seemed wider because the image made her head seem small and her legs seem large. The clothes looked very 2000’s.
If I unfocused my eyes, looked at the image that was almost too blurry to see, superimposed over hers… I walked to one side so I wouldn’t mess up Chicken Little getting to see his mom, and I saw Uncle Neil pick up a younger Eric by the suspenders of his overalls. Manpower and the little boy that would become Shielder.
Tattletale reached the platform. I saw the glimpse, looking past her at the image, the closet I’d seen in the dream, her body blocking the silhouette of the figure within. She didn’t look.
Sveta’s image was almost clear as she walked by one pane, showing the Case Fifty-Threes. Dark as it showed people huddled indoors at night, illuminated by a small fire.
For Tristan and Byron, it was old teammates. Two of those teammates were distorted, like so many of Sveta’s scenes were. Too dark, too fast or too slow, inconsistent, stuttering, seeming to show something and then skipping away.
For Love Lost, a man, Asian, with scraggly stubble. For Colt, it was her mom and dad. People I’d seen in a video, once upon a time.
The panes that Kenzie walked by were green text against a black screen, lines of chat in a chat room.
I turned away, because there were expressions and reactions that weren’t for me to see. In turning, I came face to face with another image. Black, the lights almost out, the image distorted, stuttering.
What I could make out suggested it was Dean.
“You didn’t tell me,” I murmured.
The light flashed from my feet, through the crystal pylon, and sputtered out. The scenes changed. Dean in a dozen contexts, all choppy, pieces missing or too dark to see. Then Eric and Sarah and Uncle Neil, with Crystal out of focus. Then Dean again, shirtless, wearing jeans, his face practically scratched out.
“You were the one person who didn’t let me down, if I forgave the whole dying thing,” I whispered. “And I think I could’ve. Especially with today’s close call.”
Dean, sitting by the window in a classroom, staring outside. Except a blot of darkness smack dab in the center of the image blocked most of the view of him.
“You couldn’t confide in me? You couldn’t say ‘hey, I bought my powers’?” I asked. “You had to lie about triggering, and dealing with that? Did it even happen?”
The images gave way. It as the Pelham backyard, Erik, Aunt Sarah and Uncle Neil in the pool. Crystal was in the pool too, but only visible as shadows as she swam underwater.
The Dean images didn’t come back, like I’d scared them away.
Not that I really waited.
I turned away, feeling anxious and hurt to a level I didn’t really want to dwell on, and found myself glancing at and trying to understand a bloody scene.
The boy that was dying looked like he was eighteen or so. The scene was dark, black, distorted, stuttering.
Even though it was an event that happened earlier in the chronology, the stutter gave me a glimpse of a hand, Ashley’s hand, reaching for his arm and obliterating it with a burst of darkness. The stump gushed blood. The other arm was already in the same state.
Damsel turned her head and saw me looking. She turned to face me, as the scene behind her changed to something more illicit, Ashley straddling the same teenager’s face, dress draped over the top of his head. Hands -not claws- reached up to run fingers through her hair, to stretch her arms, even cross her wrists at her chest, but never to put her hands near him. Much of it was obscured by more stutters, darkness, and distortion.
I didn’t want to see that part of it. It was eerie, personal. But-
There. The image turned back to blood, annihilation. A mute rendition of a scene where the boy sat in a chair, both of his arms bleeding.
And Ashley, the point of view for that particular scene, stared down at him. Put a foot out to keep him in the chair when he tried to stand.
“The Jewel of Boston,” Damsel said. “‘J’. Accord’s. He had powers but he only ever showed me the one. He could mold himself to be anyone’s perfect person.”
Kenzie approached, and I took two swift steps before putting my arm out, stopping her from getting far enough around the corner to see the image that was playing out.
“Perfect person?” I asked.
“In personality. He was someone who could fill the lonely void in any of our hearts, and we all have one, hm?” Damsel asked.
“Yeah,” Darlene said, off to the side.
“He intended to betray me. He’d killed four others already, made them love him, broke their hearts, broke them, humiliated what remained, then killed them. I got out unscathed.”
From her tone of voice, tense, too controlled, it didn’t sound like she had.
“Love and caring makes you weak,” Damsel said. “I annihilated that love and caring and I watched it bleed out. I didn’t even know the particulars. I had an inkling something was up, not about him, just… something. So I murdered him.”
“Oh,” Kenzie said, very quiet. “Swansong mentioned-”
“I know what Swansong mentioned!” Damsel raised her voice and her claw at the same time.
Kenzie, meanwhile, dropped her head, and moved obediently when I pushed her back and behind me.
Damsel met my eyes.
“We should get going. You’ve been… impressively helpful so far,” I told her.
“Picking your words carefully to appeal to the arrogant supervillain,” Damsel said. “Working that ‘impressively’ in there, hm? Swansong knew what you were doing and accepted the words like a dog accepts scratches behind the ear. Servile, weak, disgusting.”
“I think it takes a certain kind of strength to know how to receive affection,” Kenzie said, her voice small. “And give it.”
“I didn’t really know, you know?” Damsel said, ignoring the comment. “About the Jewel. Armstrong would tell me later. But right then? He was just a boy. All I had was an instinct, and I still maimed him. That’s how little a perfect affection means.”
I frowned, and Damsel locked her eyes to mine.
“Don’t look past the surface if you can’t accept what you see,” she said. “It was the same for your Swansong. Same feelings, same ideas, same decision to kill a boy she was fond of when she wasn’t sure, because power is that much more important than love. She made that call, same as I remember, and you think she wasn’t using you, Lookout?”
Behind her, the boy from the chair sat on a desk, wearing only a bathrobe. He had a piece of meat on a fork.
I spoke up, “You’re making yourself look small, Damsel, picking the most vulnerable person here and picking at the sorest sore spot.”
Damsel sniffed, dismissive.
“I’m not the most vulnerable,” Kenzie said, looking up at me. “That’d be Byron or something. He’s in the hospital.”
“Uh, sure,” Byron said, poking his head around the corner.
“You don’t even know a cute, super awesome heroine is visiting you,” Candy said, mischievous. “Vista is Aunt Rachel’s friend, which means she’s not just kickass, she’s kickass with cool friends. She visits Aunt Rachel’s, Byron, and she likes dogs. If you get better and come along with her, you can sit in the puppy bucket. That’s where you get put in one of the great honking big laundry buckets and they put a whole litter of puppies in with you. It’s great.”
“It sure sounds great,” Byron said, with just about as much enthusiasm as Byron showed for anything, which was about two bars below Tristan’s baseline.
“Except when they pee on you,” Chicken Little said. “That happens.”
“It’s an excuse to swim,” Candy said, jostling him, tugging on his arm.
Chicken Little shot one last look at the woman in the one crystal, looked at other crystals but found them too narrow to provide a coherent picture. He gave Candy his full attention, as Darlene butted in to break Candy’s grip on his arm. He asked, “Swimming in winter?”
The conversation had turned, and I was keeping an eye on Damsel, who had gone very still, and on Kenzie, who hadn’t stopped looking at Damsel.
“Let’s keep moving,” I said. “We don’t have a ton of time and we have a lot of ground to cover.”
“Yeah,” Kenzie said.
So many of us, we had a couple of people. People we’d loved and lost, that were reflected in crystals here. In one crystal, a few friends I’d known in school that I’d called best friends once, who had drifted away. In another, Sveta… possibly because she’d left the hospital to go with Weld.
I could see that for Kenzie, it was like every crystal had a dozen faces, and each face had a different person.
“Damsel,” Kenzie said.
“Let’s not engage,” I said, my hand at Kenzie’s back to keep her moving. I was aware of how stiff Damsel was. She’d been ignored, her provocations hadn’t worked.
Kenzie looked back at Candy, who was jogging over to catch up with her. “I think you’re great, Damsel. You’re stylish and beautiful and intimidating and badass and awesome and you’re a kickass villain who’s only going to kick more and more ass as time goes on.”
If Damsel attacked, what was I even supposed to do? One knife had done enough damage to Tattletale, who was actually the one who’d gone ahead now, and Damsel had ten.
No powers here, nothing in the environment to salvage as an improvised weapon. I had my buckler, at least, but everything put together, I gave better odds to Damsel.
“And?” Damsel asked, her voice sharp as she penetrated the hanging silence after Kenzie’s statement, as though a sentence had been left unfinished.
“That’s all,” Kenzie said, and she smiled at Damsel.
Damsel, for her part, smiled back, “And here I thought you’d be clever.”
She was, I thought to myself, but I didn’t want to poke the bear by mentioning it. Seeing Damsel mirroring Kenzie’s smile was unnerving enough.
Tattletale was standing on a ridge, staring off into the distance while avoiding looking at the crystals.
The others were catching up. There were too many spots that reflected into deeper parts of ourselves and our world, and a region where the people we’d loved dwelt was… it was captivating.
Devastating. Chicken Little kept looking back. Darlene flinched as she walked past a crystal and an unkempt man walked beside her, black haired and lanky. And her mood had darkened afterward.
Is this place aware we’re in it? Does it care? Is it throwing these things at us to screw with us?
My instinct was no. That this was just happenstance, and that this was the kind of analysis and digging into our beings that the overarching system was doing as a matter of course.
“What are you looking at?” I asked Tattletale.
Kenzie broke away from me to go to the other kids.
“Looking back the way we came. We covered a lot of ground. More than you’d think.”
I looked, and I tried to interpret the landscape that shifted like an optical illusion, tracing the slopes we’d come down, finding the starting point.
“Yeah,” I said.
“There’s something over there,” Tattletale said.
Over the horizon. The sky wasn’t entirely black.
“I’ll go on ahead,” I told her.
“We’re not letting Damsel have the lead anymore, hm?” Tattletale asked.
“We don’t care who has the lead,” I said, rolling my eyes slightly. “And I do care about figuring out how to navigate and work with this place. If we’re going to beat Teacher at his own game, then we need to learn how to mess with this system, get our fingers into the works.”
“Don’t let me stop you,” she said.
“Watch Kenz?” I asked.
“I don’t need watching!” Kenzie raised her voice.
You already sound like a teenager, Kenz. Hurling yourself down that path?
I put my foot out, finding the slope before us. It wasn’t really angled though, just… awkward to walk on, nothing flat, everything at ankle-twisting angles.
I could shift my head to adapt to the perspective I wanted, but putting my foot out still found resistance.
It’s not about my head, it’s about me, I told myself.
Damsel had pushed us when she’d wanted us to go from one representation to another. I’d flown enough to be familiar with that stomach-jarring perspective shift, the dips and dives that one associated with roller coasters. I’d experienced just a bit of it when taking that one step to follow after Damsel, when she’d gone down the slope.
I tried to capture it, forcing that feeling as I took that precarious step forward, my entire body following after with the sensation in my gut moving out to the rest of me.
My foot found flat ground. What had been a plain of ground like a folding fan stretched partially out was now closer to a somewhat precarious staircase, though nothing had changed visually. I climbed it with one hand and both feet, moving at an angle as I went.
I put Dean behind me, as best as I could, but doubt clawed at me. The blurry image had marked him as Cauldron. Which made sense. His parents were rich.
Which just… I didn’t fault him exactly. I didn’t blame him for going to them, not when it had probably been his dad who’d bought the powers or something. But he’d lied to me.
Why did the list of people I could absolutely trust or look on with fondness seem to grow so short? Especially when those people went and died on me?
I crested the top, and then dropped low. A patch of daylight, spreading out into the faces and facets of crystal, captured in veins.
The landscape here looked like the landscape I’d seen when flying from my Patrol assignments to the ruins of Brockton Bay. Cracked, with ravines where there shouldn’t be ravines. Images that were supposed to be writ large were broken up, out of sync.
And white lights that danced across the landscape hit the ravine and stopped, stuttered, or shook the ground, causing more schisms to form.
Three things like we’d seen in the room of dormant guardians stood there, by a tear in reality. A great white schism in this landscape. The area reflected around it was terrain from the city, captured and folded into the crystal or just there but not visible from my present vantage point.
Images all around me were animating, picking up on what they could glean from me that was relevant. Empire Eighty-eight, Leviathan, the Slaughterhouse Nine, the Fallen. Violence. Deaths. That was just the nature of the routines and subroutines of this particular neighborhood.
Three agents, interacting with this tear and the cracked sky and ground around it. One looked like a neckless giant crossed with a puddle of oil, shimmering in rainbow hues, features nonexistent. Another like a tall, slender woman in a dress, with a headdress of spikes radiating out for fifty feet around her. The last was barely there, insubstantial, a wisp of pale yellow in a vague centaur shape, with a broad slash of black instead of a face.
And fifty of Teacher’s goons, dressed in white, carting in technology, working to build something connected to this tear. Working with the agents.
I watched as light flickered, dancing across the landscape, across the sky, and to the great black fissure. Stuttering lights connected to everything nearby, like a blinding flash of lightning, utterly silent, that left ghostly images of planet-sized monstrosities dancing amid the spots in my eyes.
Each of the three gargantuan agents turned to look, in near-synchronicity with the goons in white. Anticipating.
The flickering stopped, the lights going out, everything returning to the way it had been. Collectively, they returned to their nearly silent work. Preparing, I was sure, for the moment that flickering started and didn’t ever stop.