The portals that we’d jumped into took us to the Warden’s headquarters. It was an area like the lobby that I wasn’t familiar with, that was largely undamaged. Another hero team was partway through the process.
“Masks for the gas,” a staff member told us, eyes mostly on a checklist while her colleagues handed out the equipment themselves. “Goggles.”
The mask barely covered the nose and mouth, by the looks of it. I saw the other teams getting their stuff. Damsel held her kit in claw hands, using the blunted backs of each blade-finger to manage the elastic cords and pull it over, coming perilously close to scalping herself. The elastic still snapped against her temple, making her jump a little.
She saw me looking and glared. She might have planned to say something, but the guy with the clipboard that was handing out stuff to her group was holding out a chunky phone.
“I don’t like phones,” she said, dismissive. It was Trophy Wife who took the thing.
“No thanks, I’ve got a mask,” Kenzie said, bringing my attention back to this.
“You’re not coming,” I told her.
“Uh, haha, what? No.”
“You’re on comms. There’s absolutely nothing you can do on the battlefield itself. I’m not sure there’s anything we can do on the battlefield itself.”
“The deal when I joined the team was you wouldn’t leave me behind,” she said, staring up at me with her new mask, overlarge eyes staring up at me.
“We’ve brought you in, we’ve involved you. You’re a valued contributor on multiple fronts, you’ve had your time to shine, but in this?”
“I’m coming,” she said, stubborn.
“Decadent and Chicken and I are going to stay behind,” Darlene said.
“I have more field experience than Precipice or Sveta,” Kenzie told me, ignoring Darlene. “If you want me to stay, you’re going to have to hold me down, and that means you can’t go.”
“It doesn’t make sense,” I told her. “We can experiment, test the waters, give you field experience on any occasion except when we have an actual Class-S threat.”
“No. I have to come.”
“We’re going,” Tattletale said, gas mask around her face but not at her mouth. It looked like we couldn’t wear the things and talk at the same time.
I just nodded, letting her go. The Undersiders with the three older Heartbroken and Deathchester all passed through the portal. Cassie remained behind.
I looked back to Kenzie, who had her arms folded. Chicken, Decadent and Syndicate were a step behind her. The Malfunctions lingered off to one side.
“Why?” It was Tristan who asked, this time. “You have to? Because of personal reasons?”
“No,” Kenzie said, unconvincingly.
“Why?” he asked, again. His voice was gentle.
“Because… scans. I want to scan stuff. And take pictures.”
And take pictures. If it were anyone else, the statement would have been ludicrous.
Tristan looked at me though, shrugging one shoulder.
“You promised you would take me seriously and bring me along,” Kenzie said. “I want to be there.”
“How do you even plan to get close enough to the titans?” I asked her.
“I don’t. I can get some data from a distance. I’ll take some pictures of where they’ve been. Stuff related to them, like Eve’s gas, or whatever Oberon does.”
“If you want-” Withdrawal cut in, stopped.
I looked at him.
“I could look after her,” he said.
“You didn’t want to come.”
“I want to help,” he said. “If she’s that gung-ho… I’d feel really fucking lame if I chickened out.”
“I resent that,” Chicken Little muttered.
“Shush,” Candy whispered, shoving a gloved hand under his mask. “This is serious.”
“I didn’t mean that in a bad way,” Withdrawal said. “Those kids are going?”
“Not kids,” Roman said, in nearly the same beat as Juliet.
“Younger than me,” Withdrawal said. He was seventeen or eighteen, and Roman and Juliet were thirteen or fourteen. Hard to estimate when they were lanky and tall by nature.
“We’re Heartbroken,” Roman told Withdrawal. “We’ve seen worse.”
“I… have to admit, I’ve heard that a few times, but I don’t know what that is. Sorry,” Withdrawal answered.
“Heartbreaker’s kids?” Juliette asked.
“I’ve heard the name, I think,” Withdrawal said. “I don’t remember any details.”
“We didn’t have internet,” Caryatid said.
“And you thought we had it bad,” Candy whispered.
“We did,” Darlene hissed back.
Chastity clapped her hands together once. “Focus, please. We can share stories of misery from our childhood after we’ve come out of this alive. Shatter their innocence then.”
“Or, um, don’t shatter anything?” Finale asked. “We could talk about it if it makes you feel better, I guess?”
“Not the kind of thing you feel-”
Chastity put her hand over Roman’s mouth, shutting him up.
“I’ll go too,” Caryatid said, hand on Finale’s shoulder. “I’ll stick by W.D. and Lookout, keep an eye out.”
“Me too,” Finale said, very clearly on impulse.
“If you want to help, you can look after the Tenders back here at the base, run any messages or bring anything they have,” I told them. “This? Going? Not an obligation.”
“We’re heroes, we gotta,” Finale said. She looked terrified.
Fuck. Why the fuck were they being helpful? If they weren’t, I could have told Lookout it put the rest of us in more danger to watch her.
“We need everything we can get,” Tristan told me.
“I know,” I said, frustrated. I pulled goggles and the small gas filter down and let them dangle around my neck. “Yeah. We can’t waste time debating this. Should have done it earlier. Withdrawal, Caryatid, Finale, if you guys can look after Lookout, escort her to where she needs to be, keep her out of direct danger. Let’s keep to a strict time limit. Five minutes.”
“Fifteen,” Kenzie said.
“Five. These things go by quicker and get hairier than you tend to imagine at first. If we’re playing defense trying to keep these titans from connecting, whatever that means, we can’t be distracted also keeping them away from where you’re at.”
“Five,” Tristan told her. “Or you’re not coming. Antares is right.”
“Yep,” Sveta said.
Kenzie looked like she was going to argue, turning her mask from one of us to the other. Then she relented.
“Do you want a network?” Darlene asked.
“Yes,” I said.
I could feel Darlene’s power seize me. I became acutely aware of where she was, and every physical sensation she experienced, including the thrum of her heartbeat pounding in her chest. I felt Lookout, and Chicken little, then Tristan, Sveta, and the Undersiders and Heartbroken. The Undersiders were riding the dogs.
Eerie, to mentally parse that I knew exactly how far away they were and I was not on the same Earth as them. It was the kind of thing I understood in a logistics, general awareness sense, but now I could sense it with an awareness that I hadn’t been born with.
This is how they experience the world.
This must be how you experience the world, fragile one. Seeing around the corner, so to speak, into Earths that I don’t occupy.
“We ready?” Tristan asked.
The woman with the clipboard held out the device that looked like a cell phone had had a baby with an iron ingot, same as the guy further down the hall had given to Damsel. Heavy, with an antenna sticking out the top. There was a loop so it could be worn around the neck or hooked into the costume.
I was, through Syndicate, aware of Tristan reaching for it in the same moment I did.
I took hold of the thing, then passed it to him.
If nothing else, because Tristan needed this, and because I planned to have my hands full.
“Leader of each group gets one,” the woman said. “Try not to lose it. They’re our only reliable communication with the infrastructure as damaged as it is.”
“Got it,” Tristan said.
The Malfunctions phased into my syndicate-awareness.
“Five minutes, then you evacuate Lookout into a portal. Take her to her team, get her to comms, then protect her,” I told the Malfunctions. “I don’t know if a critical piece of information would call Titan Skadi to the location or what, but… please.”
“Guarding the kids. Okay,” Withdrawal said. Dead serious.
It wasn’t a glamorous task, but I had the impression they wanted to be useful, and if I was being one hundred percent honest, it would be a bit of a load off my mind if Lookout and the Malfunctions were all safe.
“Lookout, you go. no joke, no wiggle room,” I said.
She nodded. She had her flash gun at her belt and her belt shifted, slithering around her. The belt buckle unfolded, revealing itself to be the eyehook. She had said she was digging up and repairing old stuff. She reached to her belt and pulled out one of the antenna-eye things.
“Kneel?” she asked.
I knelt, putting my hands on her shoulders not to steady myself, but to ensure I had her full attention.
“Seriously,” I told her, locking my eyes to hers, staring into the eyes of her mask. “Five minutes. You stay safe.”
“I got it. Yes,” Kenzie said, before pushing the device into my eye. I could feel the faint traces of metal against the internals of my eye, eye socket, and the meaty space behind the eye socket.
Tristan took another mask.
“Okay,” I said, straightening. I blinked, and the device came online, giving me information, text, and the ability to view things through the eyes of my team. “Any chance someone made a note of the guns I asked for?”
“Guns?” Sveta asked. I just shrugged.
“No notes, nothing like that was left here, sorry,” the woman with the clipboard told me.
“Alright, thanks,” I told her.
“Uncomfortable under my helmet,” Tristan said, adjusting his mask. He tried talking with it on, and it came out muffled. Nobody who wasn’t within arm’s reach of him would be able to hear. He fixed his goggles, and the eye sockets of his helmet rested against the domed eyecovers.
That would be a problem.
I glanced at the woman with the checklist. Nothing else?
I could feel the others fall into step with me, Lookout with a bit of a bounce, and a wave back toward her friends. Toward the tear in reality.
The air that blasted against my face was cold. I closed my eyes, and it felt very much like I blinked and found myself elsewhere.
We emerged from the portal with breathing devices and goggles in hand or already around our faces. Into a shattered section of city near the water. There was no ‘south’ here, only freezing water, some of which was frothing violently as it disappeared into a crack on the beach. The froth was kind of startling in how white it was, when everything else seemed painted with a dark palette. The sky was dark gray, overcast and heavy with dust that didn’t seem to ever quite settle. The ground was snow made dirty with the damage from the cracking, once white, now a pale, stained brown-gray with the dust of fallen buildings.
White froth and the costume features of our assembled groups, a vein of silver across Rain’s tech, red decorative elements on Capricorn’s armor, Sveta’s sky blues and forest greens contrasted with her colorful patchwork coat, the reds, blues, and yellows standing out against a background that was largely gray. Kenzie was the most monochrome of us, but even she had glimmers of silver or gold where tech at her belt or mask lit up. The eyes of her mask had glowing gold irises, set above a frozen smile.
To our west was Titan Eve. The kind of tall that meant I had to raise my chin slowly to take in her full height. The sky was dark but she was darker, as black as crude oil with a cloak of grey-green fog pouring off of her, more fog for her ‘hair’. Many of the buildings weren’t even waist high for her, and most of those buildings were lost in a pea-soup sea of fog.
To our east was Titan Oberon. Hulking, hunched over, with complex antlers seeming to take up a third of his body mass, arcing over his back. Where Eve moved slowly and steadily along the beach, he looked like he was amped up for a fight. He didn’t move smoothly or directly in our direction, but instead lurched a few feet forward, stopped moving, occasionally putting a hand out to touch a nearby building and rock it to its foundations. Like he had no foot speed that wasn’t either ‘full steam ahead’ or ‘hard stop’.
I hadn’t expected the noise. Wind taking odd courses across the cracks, producing whistling sounds here and there, like an eerie, inconsistent song that ranged from whooshes to hissy squeals.
The dull and constant grind, complete with a vibration that ran across the city and shook small bits of snow from rooftops and windowsills, as Titan Eve marched continuously forward. She had no feet to leave the ground, and moved instead like a sword too heavy for the wielder to carry, the tip in soil, dragging through as it was pulled behind the owner. She was that sword, her lower body churning through ground, though I could only tell by looking well past her to the places she had been. Titan Oberon creaked and groaned with every movement, and his footfalls were loud enough with three-quarters of a mile of distance that I could imagine they might deafen us up close.
A constant, horrible noise that never found any resolution or climax.
“Masks ready. Put them on before you think you need it,” I said. “That gas might move faster than you think.”
The Undersiders were on dogs, navigating the shattered landscape. Deathchester was just a bit ahead of us, having stepped forward before stopping. Damsel stood on top of a car. Hookline and Gibbet were paired together.
Deathchester wore black coats, black slacks, black dress with patterned, torn hose, black boots. Here and there, there were scarves, gloves, and armbands in checkerboard white and black. A few gorier bits, like Sidepiece, or old bloodstains on clothing. The checkerboard pattern was what stood out to my eye, when everything else was so muted.
“Two objectives,” I said. “This is a fact-finding mission, and we keep them from connecting.”
“Fact,” Damsel spoke without looking back at me. Her attention was on Titan Eve. “I’m going to find out if I can connect an annihilation blast to that thing’s face.”
“Be careful,” I told her. “The masks might work, but the original Fume Hood could still melt flesh with her gas. We don’t know what this one can do.”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” she said. She moved her claw-hands, indicating for her team to follow.
“High ground is going to be important,” Tristan said.
“Get up, then,” I said. “Anyone need a lift?”
“I’m staying,” Kenzie said. “I want to get photos of the cracks.”
“We’ve got her,” Withdrawal said.
“Thank you. It means a lot to know she’s in good hands,” Tristan said. He sounded like a leader, a younger Chevalier, with that tone of voice and confidence that inspired others to be better. Withdrawal seemed to take courage from just that statement, from the way he stood a little straighter in his agility contraption. Hadn’t done that for me.
But as easily as Tristan had done that, I could see him glance over at the Titan Oberon, than down at the road, lost in thought, a little defeated before this battle had even started.
“Keep an eye out for any rolling tides of gas, get her out of trouble if something comes up,” I told the Malfunctions.
“Now that we don’t have such a big audience, I’ll give you a chance to give any input, if you’re aware at all,” Tristan said. I glanced at him to see who he was talking to. Tristan tossed his spare mask skyward, then changed out for Byron.
Byron put a hand out, and Rain steadied him. Sveta caught the falling mask, then pressed it to Byron’s chest. He clapped a gauntleted hand over it.
“Bit disorienting,” he said, looking around. “I knew when I put my armor on that I might be plunged into this, but this is… hoo.”
He wasn’t usually one for the emotional exclamations. That little awed ‘hoo’ coming from him made me huff out a breath, feeling my own emotions spike a bit.
Yeah. Dropped off between two titans, each proceeding steadily toward one another to… clash? Mate? Create a crack that would glow?
I wish I knew more about what a ‘connection’ entailed.
He took a second to pull the mask on.
“I won’t be useful for much,” Byron said. “Bring me out if you need water, I’ll swap back to you. Sorry.”
He swapped out.
Awake, but not well.
Tristan nodded to himself for a moment.
“Up?” I asked.
I grabbed his armor, looked over at Sveta, who was picking up Rain, and nodded.
“Sorry. I know I’m heavy,” Tristan said.
“I don’t think that’s a problem anymore,” I said. I asserted my grip, and the metal creaked.
“Why?” he asked, in the same moment I took flight.
I saw a flash of his face, he peered through the goggles and past the metal of his helmet to see me with my arms at my sides. I could feel his gut lurch through Syndicate’s power.
Sveta followed, and I felt her reaching out, finding the handholds.
I deposited him on the tallest rooftop with a view of the area. I paused, taking in the view. A third of the buildings around us had broken or were leaning, the rest seemed stable.
The Undersiders were across the street, perched on a building that had fallen over and now leaned heavily into another structure. They rode dogs in pairs and trios.
Deathchester took the street, and for a moment, it seemed like their plan was to seize the low ground. Then Gibbet used her power. She had her trademark hangman’s noose and the post that was shaped like an upside-down ‘L’, and those posts were growing larger, stabbing out of the ground and nearby buildings.
I wasn’t sure why she had the fixation with that specific motif, but I had to admit I could see the value in the combination of sturdy wood and rope. Her team climbed, gray Jester Mockument was like a monkey as he scaled his way up. Hookline had his own tool. Damsel kept one foot inside a noose and let the rope rise up as the post grew. Trophy Wife hopped up from one bit of wood to another, making those leaps with ten or twelve stories of fall below her.
Only Torso remained on the ground. He started running toward Titan Eve. After about five seconds, he tripped and fell, cracking pavement as his head struck it.
I watched him as he struggled to get to his feet, swayed like he might fall backward, then started sprinting forward once again, oversized torso and head in graffiti-painted white stone or something, his pelvis, arms and legs all skinny and clad in black cloth. A crack in the road barred his way, so he began making his way to what looked like a light pole that had fallen across the gap. His sense of balance on flat ground was bad enough, he wanted to tightrope walk ten feet of snow and ice crusted wood over an otherworldly abyss?
He tripped and fell again a few feet before the foot of the pole, skidding and sliding forward a few feet on landing. From my angle, I couldn’t tell if there was a slope, but if there was, he could have slid right off, disappearing into the darkness.
“Your power,” Tristan said. He was already drawing with motes. It looked like a wall separating buildings.
“Since the dream room,” I told him.
I could feel Foil messing with her crossbow, loading shots. Tattletale crouched at the corner of the roof closest to Titan Eve.
“Titan Oberon feels more doable as a fight,” Sveta said. “If we attack one, he has to be easier to take down, doesn’t he?”
“We don’t know what he does,” Rain told her.
“If he was Prancer, that means he’s fast.”
Fuck me. They were just so huge. They were separated by at least one and a half miles, but they were entirely focused on one another. It was like being between two steamrollers, no tools, no weapons, just naked hands and desperation.
Couldn’t let them meet.
There were other teams on the task. A few blocks down, heroes were erecting forcefields. A tinker was teleporting in something that looked like a candlestick with a pointed bottom, segment by segment.
“This power change,” Tristan said.
“Did it come with any resolutions? Realizations? Changes in… anything?” he asked. “For Byron and me, it was our relationship.”
“Did the power change the relationship, or did the change in relationship precipitate the power change?”
“The second,” he said, his gaze still fixed on Oberon. The wall below us coalesced into being. Thick, three stories tall, and curved, so it blocked off one side street and one main street. Already, he was making more motes.
“A bit of a change in perspective,” I told him, watching him work while avoiding eye contact with the group. “Near death experience. Seeing some of those scenes in the crystals.”
“Same as us, then,” he murmured.
The titans drew closer.
“What do we even do?” Rain asked. “Holy shit.”
“We gather intel. Look for any signs of connections forming. Experiment, see if you can affect them emotionally, see if you can use your blades. Try to interfere with their powers, if any. Any constructions she makes, anything he does.”
Through the Syndicate connection, I felt Tattletale move her arm. A wave, a point.
I turned to look at her, then followed her arm.
She was pointing at Titan Eve.
My heart was in my chest as I floated up.
Below, Tristan’s clunky phone beeped. He unclipped it and raised it up, pressing a button.
As if to punctuate the statement, Tristan made his other wall solidify on the street below. Blocking another road. I could kind of see his intention. It wasn’t to stop the titans. That was a bit too hard of a call.
But anticipating the flow of gas and controlling it. Steering it away from the Malfunctions and Kenzie, who was leaning over one of the smaller cracks, taking pictures of what lay below. I could tell through my connection with Syndicate.
“Giving you a warning. She’s about to attack,” Tattletale said.
“Attack?” I asked. “Us?”
“The other Titan.”
“They’re not connecting?”
“She’s weaker. She has her own connection, she wants to beat him down enough or disrupt his power enough to subjugate him. He just wants to get his hands on her and subjugate her. He’s strong enough to do that without having to break her down first.”
“He’s that much stronger?” Rain asked.
Titan Eve held a hand out, and the smoke below her moved up toward the waiting hand, solidifying into a spike. With a motion of her arm that did not seem like it should have been as effective as it was, she sent the spike forward.
Titan Oberon moved with surprising quickness, leaning to one side, turning its body sideways to let the bolt pass it by. It struck a building behind him, detonating into a gas cloud that seemed to consume the entire building, at least eight stories tall.
Yeah. If one of those landed near us, there wasn’t going to be much chance to get the hell out of the way.
“We let her weaken him!” Tristan called out. “Try to strike a balance so neither side is strong enough to be confident!”
His voice was loud enough that Deathchester heard.
Behind Oberon, the gas cloud abruptly condensed, shrinking in size like there was a black hole in its midst. It reformed with a speed that I couldn’t follow with my eyes.
A spike of solidified black-green gas punched through Oberon’s back.
The speed with which the gas had reformed and punched in our direction produced a blast of wind that we felt as a cold breeze, even three quarter miles of distance between us and him.
He pulled free, and the spike broke, becoming gas again. He swatted at it before it could become anything, and the force of the swing produced a wind that dissipated the gas.
I started flying. To put myself in the air between the two of them, in case Titan Eve was too strong for him and I needed to intercept something, or… whatever he might do.
Heroes at the other location were hitting Oberon with powers, and I felt Foil kneel, crossbow raised, and shoot several bolts in quick succession. I knew her power let her bolts pass through anything, and if she timed it right, which she could, with her timing ability, then she could make them stick.
But they were so small, and he was so big. Were there vitals she could aim for?
Titan Eve produced more spikes like the first one, gathering them into a collection in front of her. A triple-threat attack, to all appearances. Get hit, you had a spike as large as a city bus in you.
For Titan Oberon, it would be a fairly superficial wound. For any of us, it would be an ugly ending.
He started to move away, but one of the heroes at the location near him hit him with a power, a beam of light that lanced around one arm and locked it into position, like a massive white shackle or set of laser-tongs. The Titan couldn’t move out of the way.
Titan Eve attacked, hurling every last spike his way.
With his free arm, the male Titan swatted at the air. It produced a shockwave that put the prior impacts to shame. The spikes weren’t bullet fast, but they were moving fast. In the next moment, they weren’t moving at all.
They spun tip over end, scattered into the air, and struck home at different points within the city around us.
I flew higher to track it. I could see the gas expanding. Green, but with a bubblegum pink hue to the very edges and the deepest recesses.
I hoped Kenzie’s camera was gathering this data and relaying it to everyone.
The gas was quick to dissipate. Kind of. I could see the aftermath, where buildings had disappeared into the gas were revealed again now.
All of them with more holes than Swiss cheese. More holes than any sponge. The largest of the holes yawned open, moist, draining out the liquefied contents within. The holes with nothing liquid to drain out smoked slightly, with more gas like the initial blast.
Fuck me. That was a lot of damage in a very short span of time.
I watched as liquid spurted out, and then things emerged. The colors were pastel green and pink, with a bit of black where they had pincers or legs, and they looked like translucent maggots, larger than people. They began tearing at the surroundings and spilling over one another in their efforts to worm free of the cavities that had appeared, and most of the affected areas were more cavity than anything.
The implications of that.
Alarm surged through me as I flew around the site, staying well above it. I saw Titan Eve attack again, flinging more spikes, three aimed at Titan Oberon’s feet, middle, and head.
He stepped back, fighting against the efforts of nearby heroes and crashing through a forcefield that was trying to hem him in. He swung one fist and the shockwave seemed to disrupt whatever was hampering him. The backswing of that same fist knocked away two of the three projectiles.
One of them landed close to the heroes who had been hemming him in. I didn’t see the aftermath.
The third landed on the ground near his feet, and promptly billowed out into gas. Same color, same kind. Green with a trace of hot pink in the recesses and very edges.
That gas touched one of his hooved feet, and he stumbled.
I could see the damage. Holes riddling his hoof and lower leg, which promptly gushed blood and other fluids. The ‘maggots’ came soon after, worming out of his own flesh to devour whatever they could get their mouths on. The rims of the holes seemed to be hardened- it explained why the affected buildings hadn’t collapsed, but the flesh was soft enough for them to burrow in and bite.
He reared back, then stomped with his injured hoof. The impact of that stomp reached me a half-mile away.
More blood gushed out, but so did a tide of what looked like a hundred dead maggots.
A clap of his hands dissipated the gas and another spike that was soaring through the air. It went off course, landing in the water.
Those shockwaves. That wasn’t Prancer.
“Moose?” I asked the cold, empty air around me.
He dropped to all fours, back hunched over, and I could see the flashes of green-gold light dancing between each individual muscle.
He leaped, as far up as forward.
No, that was definitely Prancer.
It took me a full second to fathom the sheer scale of the leap. A mile and a half might have separated him and Titan Eve, and he was now on a collision course with her.
I flew to intercept. I couldn’t even fly up in time to reach him before he started his descent, but I could meet him near the landing point.
I went straight for the part of him that I knew I could get a grip on. That damaged hoof, where the rims of the holes seemed to be structurally reinforced.
Breath hissing through the mask, I flew with all of my strength. Same ideas as in the past, but with cleaner execution. In the air, there was no leverage from the ground to grant that added power when you needed. There was rotational power.
I moved the forcefield, with movements of my hand and with my own control over it. To give it spin, so it hurtled around me. The force of limbs and irregular shapes cutting through the air actually made flying forward harder, slowing me down. Titan Eve was creating a wall of hard gas in anticipation of the impact. I was going to have to deal with that too.
I reached it when he halfway back to the ground, and the spinning forcefield raked the surface of the hoof’s underside. I grunted with exertion and sudden panic. Not what I wanted.
I could feel the sheer force and weight of him, in the moment after. I was about to have his full weight come down on top of me.
One of the hands got a grip on the rim of a hole in the hoof’s underside. Well, less of a grip, more that the hand found the inside edge, palm flat against it. It bucked a little with the the impact of my hand, bucking a bit more when I flared out with my aura. Then the forcefield found more holds.
I tried to pull the hoof back, and he reacted almost instantaneously, going the other direction, forward.
So I obliged, instead, reversing direction and hauling the hoof forward, putting myself directly beneath the hoof and the ground, pulling it a little further than he intended to go.
It was only through my Syndicate connection to Kenzie that I had any sense of where the ground was. I slipped free in the last moment, canceling out the forcefield so I had the space, re-enabling it so I had something when the hoof crashed and skidded across broken road.
The shockwave rippled out, and I felt it hit the forcefield, hit me. I was thrown through the wall of hard gas, within a short distance of Titan Eve, and into the side of a window, where the wooden infrastructure of the building splintered.
Residual momentum carried me skidding across the floor.
All to mess up his footing a little. He’d landed on one foot, the other slipping. Now he climbed to his feet again, and I could see only a narrow slice of him through the windows on the floor of some business headquarters I was in
He didn’t move like a giant, with the added mass, the added air resistance, or any of that. Even without the power boosting the occasional movement or creating a shockwave, he was faster than an ordinary person.
Shrouded in gas, that was creeping into the space I was in, because I’d punched through the wall Eve had created, returning some of it to its ordinary state, I’d punched through the wall of the building.
And the fight between Titans was now something like a hand to hand brawl. If one of them got the advantage, it would ‘connect’ to the other.
Couldn’t let that happen.
Scholar the fuck up, Victoria, I thought, as I flew out through the window to the side, avoiding the gas.
The wall of gas was still mostly upright, but every punch he struck tore down more of it. Spikes erupted from the far side, and he avoided most.
Pull on what we know, I thought. If you want to chime in, fragile one, you’d better give me some nudges.
Prancer had some Moose in him. Had he stolen the power? Or were they related?
Related powers factored into what Titan Eve was doing. That pink gas, it wasn’t in her normal set of talents. Was that a power the agent had but hadn’t handed out? Something for a future host, or a possible evolution of the power?
Like how my family had lasers and forcefields as redundant things, but some of us kids, like myself, had something pulled from the same agent. My damn sister had her dad’s master of biology, but a completely different angle. He controlled one aspect of his, she controlled a thousand different aspects of anyone but herself.
Tristan and Byron had the same root power but other stuff came and went, like he’d remarked, and it changed with mental state.
Did the Titans have full access to the full portfolios they’d managed as agents?
Capricorn and Backwoods were creating barriers to wall off the worst of the gas. Backwoods threw splinters of wood that exploded into barricade form, some of those barricades exploding out two or three times, extending the reach and density of the branches each time.
And down on the ground between the two titans, I could see Torso running toward Titan Eve for several seconds before stopping, changing his mind, and running toward Titan Oberon.
A shockwave rolled past, and Torso fell over.
I flew low to the ground, trusting the forcefield to keep me safe from the gas.
Car. I flew under it, pulling everything tight to me, then expanded out to flip it over, and grabbed the undercarriage by four different places.
With the soupy gas around me, I could barely see what I was grabbing. I pulled off the muffler, but grabbed the axle and the metal of the car body.
I passed a second car, and swiped at the rear bumper, causing it to tip over nosewise. I grabbed it by the underside too.
A car to the left of me, a car to the right of me. Metal creaked as the weight of the car pulled against the different points I was holding.
It wasn’t the kind of gun they mounted on tanks or armored cars, but it would have to do.
I wasn’t aggressive as I flew up and around.
Have to maintain a balance, I thought.
Sveta was rappelling up the antlers. Rachel and the Undersiders were huddled. Capricorn was running damage control. Precipice threw blades.
And Kenzie? Kenzie was retreating. Withdrawal was dragging her by the arm.
I hoped she had something.
I waited, watching, looking for any cue. He was big enough and powerful enough that he didn’t need to draw his arm back for most move, or raise his knee too high for a massive action.
He backed away from another cloud of gas, and I flew back as well. He brought his arms back, like he was spreading his wings, and the motion produced a shockwave that parted gas and made Undersider, Breakthrough, and Deathchester alike have to hunker down or get a grip on their surroundings. I flew in to intercept.
I hurled the first car, aiming for the wrist.
I might as well have been dropping a truck onto a highway for all the damage I did. An indent, a small crater, and a gushing of blood that tapered off before the car had finished tumbling off of his arm and off to the side.
But the motion of hurling the first car was something of a half-circle spin, and I grabbed the underside of the other car with more hands, tightening the spin while pulling it in close. It was akin to a shotput throw, and I spiked the second car down for a similar impact site.
I followed right after.
Two cars striking within seconds of one another, followed by my dive.
He was intending to clap, but as I struck my target, raking at the edge of the shallow crater the cars had made, using some of the imbalance formed by the initial impacts, I managed to pull the one hand down.
The clap still happened, but it wasn’t square. The air rippled, and everything was cast away from him. Gas, fragments of the wall Titan Eve had made, and various members of our group. Precipice and Sveta could stop themselves. The Undersiders had a rougher go of it. Deathchester too. They were bowled over, sent sliding along the rooftop, and knocked from their Gibbet-made perches, left to find their footing or cover elsewhere.
Dance with me, I thought. I made my forcefield spin once again. I could see the impact of the rotation and hands slicing against air on the gas around me, and maneuvered to use it, hands turning to be flat against the wind and fan it more, driving gas toward Titan Oberon, our most immediate threat.
Let’s hurt him.
I looked for an injury, any injury, and settled on the one on the arm.
Multiple hands together, forming a point of sorts, as I dove for it. Ignoring me for the most part, he even raised his hand up to bring it into my strike.
The force was enough to break the forcefield. I held my breath, just in case, and did what I could to use flight and a furious, scrabbling effort to dig my hands into crevices and keep from being thrown away from my target.
I was in the midst of a small crater I’d made.
Come on. Come on. Come on, girl. You didn’t nearly lose your mind sitting in that situation room so you could do nothing now.
I felt the forcefield settle back into place. I even saw hints of her in the air, which still had traces of gas in it. A face here, a reaching hand there.
Put that hand here. Put all of the hands here.
With enhanced strength, I drove multiple hands into the deepest, thickest crack I could find in his wrist.
With enhanced strength, I pulled those hands apart, scrabbled in deeper with others. Digging my way into a wound while trying to part it wider.
Chunks of flesh came flying loose with a massive tide of blood. He reacted, bending over. I flew back and I caught the largest chunk, only for it to come apart in my hand. I’d hoped for a shard of bone or something hard.
Gas-crafted spikes sank into him, and I could feel Rachel riding. Her dog leaping from the building. Other people capitalizing on the weakness.
It was a bad combination, one that left me no time to stop, rest, or figure out if I could capitalize on this.
Rachel carried a three-pronged hook on a chain. It wasn’t hookline’s, but it was a similar idea. She rode and she dragged that hook dragged behind her as she rode across the hunched-over titan’s shoulders.
I flew around. “Sveta! Be ready to catch them!”
“Ah!” was her reply.
The fresh new spikes exploded into more gas. I knew I had to keep the gas away from Rachel and the dog, especially when it could put that many holes in anything. Same principle as before, fanning it away.
The hook was touched with Foil’s power, and it carved a furrow a foot deep and thirty feet long before Oberon reacted. He straightened, and she lost her footing, the dog finding a momentary foothold on one of the antler prongs.
Sveta was there a moment later, grabbing them and securing them. Holding on with one hand, Rachel swung the grappling hook head around, then let it drag against more of his back, before it no longer had anything to grip and fell within a foot of her.
“Don’t hit yourself with it!” Foil cried out.
The gas was putting a million holes in the flesh of Titan Oberon, some large enough to fit a basketball in, some only big enough to dig a finger into. And despite my efforts to spin and fan the gas away, it was creeping closer to my best friend and Rachel.
I saw it graze the dog’s foot, and I saw flesh turn red and raw, boils appearing and popping to reveal perfect cavities and deep channels where there had been flesh before.
“Fall!” I ordered.
Sveta fell for a moment, then stopped herself, her arms dividing up into ribbons to catch onto prongs. Rachel was staying put, stubborn.
“Fall!” I ordered.
Rachel began working with the grappling hook again.
“Rachel, damn it!”
Sveta decided to instead yank Rachel off of her handhold. Another tendril caught the rope of the grappling hook and hauled it off-course so it wouldn’t fall on or tear through the pair of them.
Diving, I had to avoid the hook. I caught them, and ensured my grip was secure without being bone-crushingly strong before pulling them away and toward a safe rooftop. I could feel Sveta under one arm, Rachel under another, the dog held uncomfortably by four more.
I deposited them on the surface, huffing for breath. Both women had a sheen of sweat from their exertion on their faces, breath fogging around their mouths. Rachel had a grip around one hand, which had a hole in it, the skin around the hole scarred. A trace of the gas.
A flash of light nearly blinded me, and the moment came with a spike of fear, that Kenzie hadn’t left, that she was using her gun.
She wasn’t. The heroes who had been closest to Oberon were here. Some of them.
Injured by gas. One had a bandage wrapped around a stump of her arm, and the bandage was soaked through black.
Another had the holes riddling his face and neck, raw and red, with flesh pulsing deep within. I could see through to where his skull was, but whatever that gas was doing, it wasn’t letting him die. It was him that produced the beam of light that turned into a shackle where it hit.
Oberon was taking something of a beating, but he wasn’t going down. Gas-induced rot had taken much of his face, hoof, and upper chest, but he still stood as tall as he ever had, not even breathing hard.
Which wasn’t to say we hadn’t made our small impact.
Titan Eve advanced toward him, moving through her barrier, and his movement was defensive, producing a shockwave, then a second. Hammering at her, to slow her approach.
When he took his own step, it was backwards, away.
We have to maintain a balance until we can find a chink in the armor we can exploit to maybe end this forever.
And that balance means we now have to deal with Titan Eve. My friend.
I saw Titan Oberon’s head turn. The wound at his wrist was slowly healing, as was the wound at his back.
He surveyed our group, studying us.
Titan Eve rose out of the smoke, standing tall, gas gathering and swirling around her.
“Stop her!” Tristan called out. “We fight the strongest one until they back off!”
Until they back off or we don’t have the strength to keep these steamrollers from steadily advancing on one another.
I was ready to start figuring out if I could do anything against Titan Eve when Tattletale held one hand out and back, as if to tell us to stop, to hold.
There was a pause, and I saw precious ground being lost as she moved forward, soaring toward the Titan Oberon, who backed up.
Titan Eve tipped backward all at once, with her full height collapsing back onto several city blocks worth of road, across cracks in reality, and onto the occasional small building. The impact was deafening, and the ensuing ruin and destruction created enough dust, smoke, and plumes of gas that it became impossible to see anything.
Titan Oberon punched the side of the building the other Undersiders were on, then sliced the flat of his hand through the corner of the building. They were already running, leaping to the next rooftop. I only realized it had happened by the sound, and by Syndicate’s power keeping us coordinated and aware of each other.
“Get back!” I told Rachel and Sveta. “I’ve got to check in!”
Sveta nodded. Even though she was a matter of feet away, her face was barely a silhouette. She coughed, then grabbed onto Rachel with tendrils, pulling her behind. Rachel pulled at her dog’s collar.
I flew up and across the street, trying to find a vantage point where I could make out the situation.
Tattletale was regrouping with Deathchester, Parian, Foil, and the three Heartbroken. Roman and Juliette were at the edge of the building with Chastity, Roman holding an axe that he was using to kill human-sized maggots that had crawled up the side of the building.
“What was that?” I asked. “Eve took a hit.”
“Torso headbutt,” Tattletale had to pull her mask away from her mouth to say it. She put it back and glanced at Damsel, who nodded confirmation.
“Okay,” I said, frowning, trying to make out the situation. The forcefield, at least, kept me from inhaling concrete dust and residual gas.
“He can’t do that many more times,” a cultured voice said, beside me. I looked, and saw a man in a gray jester’s outfit. He stood beside the gawky, disproportioned Mockument, who wore a very similar outfit.
“Okay,” I said. I looked at Tattletale. “What do we do?”
“I don’t know,” she said, pulling her mask aside again. “Same plan. Keep them from connecting.”
“What we’re doing is barely budging them.”
Tattletale nodded. She looked out of breath, coughed.
When we can stop to breathe, there’s no clean air.
“Any insights? Any ideas?”
“No,” Tattletale said. “Not with this, specifically.”
Oberon attacked the building Rachel and Sveta were on. I floated up and about fifteen feet in their direction before I saw that they were okay, Rachel riding, Sveta behind her.
“What if we can’t?” Parian asked. “Where do we draw the line and say we retreat and regroup?”
“If we retreat and regroup, those two are going to connect up, we’ll die if we aren’t far enough away, and the people who pick up where we left off will have to fight stronger titans with a more cogent network. When enough of them network, that’s it,” Tattletale told Parian. She didn’t pull off her mask this time, and the words were muffled, quieter, but they still had a weight to them. I saw people react.
She coughed twice. “Go. Do what you can now.”
Doing what we could meant dealing with Titan Eve while Oberon now wanted to hurt us.
I floated up, ready to take off, but Tattletale’s hand gripped my wrist.
The Heartbroken were hanging close, but they weren’t in earshot. Everyone else mobilized.
“What?” I asked.
I saw about fifteen different emotions cross Tattletale’s face, eyes behind goggles, lower face behind the clear gas mask. None of them were good.
“That bad?” I asked.
She let go of my wrist.
“What?” I asked.
I saw her expression change, the eye contact slide away. She turned, and it seemed like she was going to go, not answering my question, nor stating what she’d intended to say.
I grabbed her by the upper arm, hard enough to bring her attention back to me. I met her eyes, me looking through my goggles, her looking through hers, the air ranging from milky white to grey.
“This isn’t like Scion was,” she told me.
“There’s more of them. Each one has the full capabilities of the agent that originally worked with the host. All of the powers it could have handed out.”
She shook her head.
“Not that,” she told me, voice still muffled by her mask. “Scion was one and done.”
“Beat him, we kind of return to a semblance of normal. Couldn’t do anything about the cycle that preceded him or the stuff that was supposed to follow after. That wheel’s still turning, and it doesn’t turn backward.”
I shook my head. “I don’t…”
“I saw into the cracks. I saw the connections, the glows, I put it together with what I remembered from last night. There will be more titans, as sure as water flows downhill. If we win every fight from here on out, all we’ll do is hold the line, and every week or month for the next three hundred years, there will be more cracks, more titans.”
I turned to look at the pair of titans, and at the pitch black ruin that crawled across the city. Cracks in reality.
“And if we lose, you weren’t lying. We die, they get stronger, they move closer to their endgame?”
“Welcome to the new status quo,” she said, beside me.
I shook my head. “No.”
“Don’t tell my team. Don’t tell your team. It won’t help matters in the short term. I’m only telling you because a part of me likes you and a part of me thinks you’re a pain in the asshole. Means you occupy a narrow space where I can share this burden with you and not feel completely awful about it.”
I saw the corners of her lips turn upward behind the material of her gas mask.
“Well fuck you too,” I said, still reeling with the idea.
Titan Oberon chose that moment to stomp his hoof, producing a shockwave larger than any we’d dealt with so far.