Radiation – 18.6

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There were capes with the sort of power where it didn’t matter what the fuck they were shooting, they’d put a hole in that something.  Damsel’s power was like that.  So was Foil’s.  Over the course of the last fifty minutes, four more had joined my squad.  All trying to do something- to find a weak point, slow a Titan down enough, get at a joint or incapacitate a limb.

There were capes where it didn’t matter what the fuck was coming at ’em, they’d take the hit and stay in the fight, or do something equivalent.  I was one of those capes.  Kind of.  Our job was to protect the first group.

Titan Skadi’s blade came down from overhead, slamming into the woman who was protecting our artillery line.  Skadi’s massive axe-hand cleaved into her from forehead to pelvis, but didn’t make it further, as the woman’s hands pressed in on the flat sides of the blade, her whole body trembling with the exertion.  Skadi pulled the weapon away with a jerk, and the woman’s two halves fell to either side, a fresh version of her partially naked, blood-streaked upper body lunging out of the massive wound like a person coming out of the water.  Bigger, stronger, with a wreath of molted, wounded versions of herself draping one side of her chest, hips, and forming a skirt down to the ground.

Skadi hadn’t stopped though.  The woman was already lunging, covering a quick thirty feet in her efforts to get in the way of the next axe swung.  She caught the blade itself with what might have been only the longest two fingers of one hand, slowing it down just enough she could kick the part of the hand that wasn’t blade, the curve of the axe that led down to the lowest point of the blade, and send it up and away.

Her wounded fingers peeled back to become a sleeve of sorts, skin thinning, a fresh hand revealed.  She was already preparing for the next attack, panting for breath, clotted blood making its way through her hair.

She straightened, and I could see the pride in her eyes.  Every damn move we made that kept people alive and kept us going was worthy of that, I knew that.  I knew that the Flower of the Hecatomb was a cape who had been brought to our world by Khepri and never put back where she belonged, and her journey had been a long and hard one.

She turned to say something, because she’d bumped into someone in her haste, and she came face to face with a person who was trapped in a dissolving state, thirty percent of a person frozen in time, their bodies cut off at a point, the edges constantly shedding a ‘smoke’ of geometric shapes- triangles, squares, circles.  A tinker in a business suit with a floating platform the size of a trash can lid, little desk terminal rising up to his chest, and a gleaming tinker mask that made it look like there was a hole in his face you could put an arm through… he was so close to her they could have touched each other.  Another cape from another world that hadn’t found his way back, he’d acclimatized more, spoke our language.

I saw her head turn more as she realized the reality of the situation.  First, looking past the one person she’d tried to apologize to, she saw the people she’d just tried to save were already safe, phased out of existence, every body or body part that was in the way of harm gone, everyone who had been cut in half frozen in stasis.  I saw the pride disappear as the tinker gave her the briefest of looks before hitting buttons on his desk, ending the stasis.  The capes he’d affected resumed moving.  The person Hecatomb had tried to talk to became whole again, looking very surprised to have a ten foot tall, gore-streaked woman with bronze skin looming over him.

I could imagine the horror Hecatomb  felt as she looked the other way.

The artillery line was a number of our stronger attackers who couldn’t really navigate the battlefield itself.  At one side, the side she’d just tried to save from being axed, there was an amorphous cloud that people were delivering their attacks to.  A matching cloud was very close to Titan Eve, and produced some kind of nanotech replication of every strike and power effect, calculated and adapted to in the fly.

At the other end of the line, capes with short ranged abilities were getting help from Gunnery Anne, one of Advance Guard’s backline capes, who handled the training of their rookies.  She added range to all abilities, turning strikers into blasters.  Some Master minions even translated, rust spiders with fifty twitching, spindly limbs getting a brief touch from her before leaping hundreds of feet to where Titan Skadi was embroiled with the long glowing tendrils of a shaker effect.  They offered a constant barrage of fire, point blank attacks extending for hundreds of feet to scour and carve into Oberon’s back and sides.

Had been getting help from Gunnery Anne.  Had added range to all abilities.  Had translated.  Had offered a constant barrage.

Oberon hadn’t even had to turn his head to look.  A leap with a backflip, and hooved feet struck road.  The ones who weren’t beneath the hooves were still torn up into froth, bodies torn up as hooves dug deep into the road’s surface, churning up a violent mess of snow, ice, cracked asphalt and gravel-filled subgrade.

Out of position, Hecatomb reached the spot two seconds too late.  Struck at the hoof and ankle, and was left to stand there amid ruined bodies as Oberon leaped back.

It took seconds.  One bad call, by a cape who had been fighting for forty minutes with zero room for error.  Hecatomb was too frontline, the tinker Ex Nihilo was too much of a backline cape.  They didn’t know each other, didn’t speak the same languages, probably, and hadn’t been positioned to know where each other were.

I wanted to tell her it was okay.  That she shouldn’t take it to heart.  I could have given her a hug, when she had been working to be a hero in a strange world where she knew nobody and nothing, and that heroism had come down to this.  One mistake she would carry with her for the rest of her life.

I wanted to condemn her, to yell at her, to say that if she couldn’t keep people safe, she needed to let us know, because Oberon had just torn through twenty capes and we couldn’t afford to lose those capes.  They were humans, most of them people fighting for humanity’s sake, with families, friends, teammates.  They were people who could do some damage to Titans, and we had too few of those.  And every person that died increased the chances that if and when the next breakdown came, cracks spreading, Titans rising, each and every death we’d suffered here could be the one that made the critical difference between someone turning into a Titan or not.

I didn’t make a call on exactly what to feel, because I had shit to do.  With no resolution made, the feeling sat heavy on my chest, like all I had was the common element between the two contradictory impulses.  Feeling disheartened.  Profoundly sad.

All I could do was carry that feeling, like when hiking, tired as shit, and then being made to carry another ten pounds worth of stuff for the remainder of the way.

Our capes who weren’t annihilators or ‘survive most things’ were on the ground, some using powers, some providing others a chance to get around.

No end to this slog in sight.

That thought came with a panicky feeling, one I wasn’t willing to carry.  I flew harder, focused more.

Damsel had leaped off of a building, blasting with her power to extend the leap, black dress and hair flapping behind her.  Oberon brought up one hand, almost a ‘stop’ motion, except backhanded, and produced a delayed shockwave, if it could even be called that.  A wall of force.

She had already stopped blasting, brought her hands forward, and blasted her way past that wall of force, one handed, knees pressed to her chest, head ducked down.  As close to a cannonball one might hope to manage while putting out maximum-recoil, reality-shattering force at full blast.

A second later, she blasted behind herself again, to regain forward momentum.

Titan Oberon took a step backward.  I flew after Damsel, anticipating that Oberon might attack, and when he chose to attack Foil, I instead shouted, “Hold!”

She stopped using her power.

My boots found the spot on her back between her shoulderblades and at her tailbone, steadying her rotation through the air.  I flew, driving Damsel forward and toward Oberon.

I stopped, let her carry on forward.  “Sveta!  Damsel!”

Damsel swatted at his ‘face’ with a two-handed blast as she hurtled one direction and he lunged the opposite way, toward me.  Sveta was airborne, tendrils out and ready to catch her.

I dodged Oberon and dodged the spray of blood that gushed from his new head wound.

Foil.  I shifted direction.  Foil had leaped off a building as Oberon  sent a shockwave rippling toward it.  Gundeck had fired a salvo of ten missiles at her with some weird, fucky targeting.  She stepped on each missile in turn, buying herself seconds.  Buying me seconds to get to her.

Oberon punched out another shockwave, heavy with his breaker energy.  I put myself between Foil and the blast, and felt it saturate the forcefield, making it pull apart.

I felt something tug on my forcefield with immense strength.  The shockwave.  I canceled the forcefield, dismissing it and letting that clingy energy fall away.

Behind me, on either side of Foil, dust, snow, gas, and other airborne material was glowing gold-green, before that same tug threw it into the face of the nearest building.  The shockwave, delayed, and extra effective against a material that had been made even more weightless, even more vulnerable to outside forces.  The force with which it struck the building made the building creak.  People on the ground used shaker powers and changer forms to survive the impact.

Re-enabling my forcefield, I caught Foil, bracing her head and back with multiple hands.  Off to the side, the missile barrage turned in the air and chased Titan Oberon.

I followed her gaze.  She was less concerned for her own welfare than on the damage that had just been done to our artillery line.

On the ground, the gap in the line was being reinforced by Parian’s dolls.  A giant doll with a smiling daisy for a head was the only one of the original batch.  Three more just looked like giant, naked babies, no eyes, no hair, no clothes, no features.  Conserving cloth now.

Another kind of frontline combatant.  The expendable sort.

The Titan leaped back, dodging.  Solarstare was standing on another rooftop, and directed a blast from her eyes to the Titan’s leg.  It looked like molten gold or magma, moving too fast for how solid it appeared to be, a column that was a good five feet around.  Chunks of Titan Oberon flew free with the blast.

The intention was clearly to slow the Titan down so the missiles could catch up.  Instead, the Titan rolled with the blast, ducking and almost twirling as it was driven back.  Two of the ten missiles were caught up in Solarstare’s blast.  The Titan’s sweep of an arm produced a shockwave that disrupted the remainder, and broke up the flow of Solarstare’s power enough he could hop a good distance away.

Other capes were there to meet him.

Solarstare stopped her output.  What had been near-solid material became white flame, hot enough to do more damage to Oberon just from the residual stuff that clung to where she’d hit him, and to turn the road and the rubble of fallen buildings to a glassy texture.

Flame became sparks, heavy in the air, and those white sparks glowed bright, brighter, too bright

I was already shielding my eyes.

Her power produced a three-stage effect.  The third one was more of a problem for us than for the Titans.  Anyone who didn’t shield their eyes would be blind for twenty seconds to two minutes.

I would have told her to fuck off, personally, but the people in charge seemed to think she was having enough of an impact that the hazard was worth it.  If Gundeck weren’t here, someone who worked with her and managed her, then I might have questioned if they realized it.

Gundeck hefted two guns very much like what I’d envisioned getting when I’d asked for weapons.  Each looked like it could be mounted on a tank or boat, barrels telescoping out to a full ten feet in length, with gaps for venting along the sides.

Each fired one shot, a single armor-piercing shell.  The kind, I imagined, that would put a hole through an aircraft carrier.  It put a hole in Skadi.

Tinkertech reloaded his weapons as he let mechanical arms pull them back, and he let one beefy, armored mechanical arm hand him a shorter firearm.  He had enhanced strength, but not enhanced durability, so he leveraged most of that strength carrying his military inspired tinker weapons.  The mover that was helping him get around the battlefield perched nearby, looking nervous.

“If I’d left earlier…”

I looked down at Foil.

She was fixated on the line Oberon had trampled.

“I had no crossbow, no darts.  If you hadn’t kept me in the fight, I would have been down there.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that.  I settled for, “No way of telling.”

It didn’t make sense as a response, but my focus was elsewhere.  I couldn’t afford to make mistakes like the Flower of the Hecatomb had.  I had people to keep track of.

Damsel might have been down there too.  Her blast was short ranged, and it was only her unwillingness to be beholden to another person that kept her here and active.

Sveta was sticking by Damsel and Solarstare now.  Solarstare used her power again, aiming for where Gundeck’s bullets had punched into Skadi, while Skadi was fighting her way through Titan Eve’s clouds.

I’d have to protect my eyes in a few seconds.

Others-

“Victoria!” Foil called out.  “Opposite direction!  Fly!”

I reversed course, then checked why I was reversing course.

A vague black-brown headless bird shape was soaring our way.

“Let me off!  Onto its back!” Foil shouted.

A Parian creation.

I didn’t ‘let her off’, but I did lower her to where her feet were on the thing, then made sure she was secure on its back.

“I’m good to let go?” I asked, over the rush of the wind.

Foil nodded.  “Don’t go too far!”

It wasn’t really flying so much as it was gliding.  It seemed heavier than might have been necessary, and only the gliding aspect of it really kept it aloft.

I stayed flying with Foil, making sure this was okay.  Skadi teleported, appearing on Fume Hood’s opposite side, and was blocked by a wall that formed while she was mid-swing.

“She’s out of supplies!” Foil called out.

I thought she meant a Titan at first.  “Parian?”

“Yeah!  If she’s using leather- leather’s her best material, but it’s hard to get!  We’ve done this before, trick is that she needs to keep an eye on me!  She can’t see out of her creation’s eyes!”

“I can keep doing what I’m doing if that’s easier!”

“Others need your help!  I trust her!  She probably has a reason!”

The others. I pulled away a bit, still close enough I could fly in to catch Foil if she fell or if a shockwave rippled past us.

Gundeck had a mover to mobilize him, but sometimes needed proper, outright protection.  Solarstare was in Sveta’s company.  A cape I didn’t know was flying close to them, playing defense.

Teem was the fifth of our six ‘annihilators’, though I was more of the opinion that Solarstare and Teem weren’t quite in that bracket.  He was more independent, circling around looking for opportunities.  Teem had flirted with joining heroes and villains at different points, with the closest call to actual commitment being when he’d stuck with the Crowley Fallen for a bit.  That he gravitated toward the ‘jackass’ type cape and seemed so reluctant to actually commit to anything, including a serious attack against a Titan left me with a less than stellar view of the guy.  When he did act, he produced a tide of what looked like all the master minions that had gone from the drawing board to the trash bin.  Too small, too weak, missing essential parts…  Most were so dumb they fell or wandered into the cracks in reality.

Still, I’d keep him alive.

Number six was the leader of the Girls at Bat.  The gas from Titan Eve’s attacks against Skadi was getting uncomfortably close to her.  Sveta was closer to her, one of three capes fielding the far side of this particular clearing, where a half-dozen stomps had leveled buildings and gas had leveled more.  There were capes handling the defense and mobility there, but I had a bad feeling.

“Don’t do anything for a minute!” I told Foil.  “Heading over there!”

Foil used a hand gesture, the Syndicate connection letting Parian know what she meant.  The headless bird lifted her further up and away.

It took me a minute to get to our sixth ‘annihilator’.  I had a second to hold my eye closed, bringing up camera feeds.

Capricorn was bridging gaps and making the shattered landscape easier to traverse.  I could see evidence he’d shored up a building nearby.  I would have been nervous if I’d been on the ground beneath that kind of structure.

Rain was helping with the wounded.

I already knew what Sveta was doing.  Right now she was getting Solarstare out of the area, as the artillery line gave their all to try and take down Oberon.  Much of that was in the nanotech blob that hovered over him.  Hurting him was slowing him down.  It was the Prancer effect, that his power made him more and more agile as he avoided harm.  The sustained onslaught kept him from picking up speed.

Lookout was on the computer.  She gave me a wave as I checked in.

Text appeared outside of my field of vision, above where my eyebrow was.  DRAGON WANTS HELP WHEN YOU ARE FREE.

I nodded my confirmation.

Dragon had been in the fight earlier, leading one wing of the artillery line.  Skadi had gone after her enough times that she had backed off, so the Titan wouldn’t hurt bystanders in the course of attacking Dragon.  Now and then, she fired off shots with her laser cannon, but most energy went into forcefield protection for the non-artillery backline.  Relief capes, care for the wounded, and, from my Syndicate awareness of Tattletale, I could tell it was the thinkers.  Everyone who wasn’t actively fighting.

More stuffed animals were marching out of that encampment.  These ones were bloody, dusty.  The fabrics that they were made of were… recognizable.  I saw some that had the hard, angular designs of Advance Guard.  Panels of body armor dangling if they weren’t worked into the materials.  Straps aplenty.  Reflective material.

Tiger and unicorn.

How did that conversation go?  Can I strip the dead to use their costumes for my stuffed animals?

The cape I’d come to help was Switch Hitter, leader of the Girls at Bat and not a cape that had sought out the big time by any means.  She wore a wool baseball cap with a brown ponytail sticking out the back, a winter baseball coat, scarf, and domino mask, and her legs were skinny in black leggings beneath the heavier top layers.  She held a baseball bat in each hand, but each one was power-touched.  One was elaborate, ornate, with the appearance of…

I was distracted by Teem, who was airborne, his silhouette barely visible behind the output of what had to be thousands of minions ranging from the size of a quarter to the size of a bear.  Titan Eve stumbled, and her wall began to break up.  Skadi gouged her.  The tide of creatures turned on Skadi, and made her buckle.  Some, it seemed, were clinging and doing a bit of damage.

The bat looked like it had been encased in craggy glass or ice, the interior replaced with a localized galaxy or black hole.  Glittery motes of light swirled around a dark central nexus.  It rested against her shoulder.  The other bat was wreathed in gold horns, trim, and other decoration that didn’t seem to touch the bat it lazily rotated around.  The wood at the core glowed.  The bats didn’t match her costume at all.

“You’re a sight for sore eyes,” Switch told me.  She swung the gold bat, the other one still resting against her shoulder.  A slash of gold flew out and hit the wall of hard gas, parting it.

“Trapped?”

“Nah,” she said.  I thought for a moment she might be a Rachel type, not prone to explanation or sharing, but then she added, “Lonely.  Freaked out.  And my eyes are actually sore.  These goggles, they do nothing.”

She attacked again, a trio of one-armed swings made with enough force and intensity that I had to imagine the bat was made lighter by her power, or she had some good muscle on that arm.  The slashes cut through the wall and hit Titan Eve.

“If you need an escort out, protection while you do anything particular…”

“If I go, who’s replacing me?” she asked, her back to me.

“I don’t know.  Nobody, probably.  We’ll manage.”

“Will we?” she asked.  She threw the galaxy bat to one side, and it was wood as it clunked against the rooftop.  She took a two handed grip on the golden bat, and it grew to double size.  She began swinging again.

Not that Titan Eve or Skadi even seemed to take particular notice of the efforts.  Skadi was her overwhelming, ongoing concern, still focusing on Eve as a primary target.

“You were using the galaxy bat earlier.  It seemed to do more.”

“I was.  But it’s messy and things are messy, and I can’t-”

She froze, gripping the bat.

“Switch?”

“Hitter,” she said.  “I prefer that if you want a short form.”

“Sorry.”

She shook her head.  “What happens?”

“When?” I asked.

“When… we lose.  We retreat.  Or they win because we can’t hurt and distract them enough?”

Bad things.

But the tone of her voice- she didn’t need to hear that.

“We retreat, we consolidate information.  Some thinkers have new details, my team’s tinker said she had scans.  Something will probably come up.”

She held the bat out in front of her, and I had to imagine it partially or wholly blocked her view of the Titans.  It moved with every breath she took, and it moved a lot.  “So many people are dying.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m tired.”

“Come on,” I told her.  “I can take you partway.  Rest, drink, decide if you’re coming back into the fight.”

“But-”

“You’re no good like this.  You’ve been at this a while.”

She shook her head, swallowing hard, still holding the bat out.  “My team’s- they’re out there.  With the…”

She shook her head, hard.  She made a small noise as she swung the bat, hard.  The golden lash that seemed to peel off of the bat smacked Skadi in the shoulder, carving out a furrow.  She didn’t straighten up right away, breathing hard.

“In the, um, the ranged fire group.  The bullpen.  They’d lose heart- if I called out.  I can’t-  can’t.  They said… Wardens said.   I’m one of the people who can really hurt these bastards.”

The ranged fire group.  The artillery line.

The shape of Skadi and Oberon in the clearing obscured Switch Hitter’s view of the artillery line.

I felt more than a little impatient, as much as I understood where she was at.  I spoke calmly, insistently, “You are.  Which is why it’s important to stay in fighting shape.  You’re tired.  You need to go back, you rest, maybe you come back in when these guys are too tired to keep going.”

She didn’t move, gripping the bat with what I imagined was a white-knuckle intensity.  I reached out tentatively, and placed a hand on her shoulder.  She jumped.  When she looked over her shoulder at me, there were tears on her cheeks.

A dark, shitty part of me was angry at her.  It hit me in a surprising way, like finding out a strange and angry dog was in the same room as me when it suddenly snarled.

Fuck.  We needed everything we could get.  We…

The lighting changed slightly as the fog of gas roiled and already muted sunlight peeked through.  I wasn’t sure if it was the illumination on those tracks of tears, but I found my sense of sympathy again.

“Can I give you a hug?” I asked her.  She didn’t respond, her expression hardening, then losing that hardness, like she couldn’t hold onto it.  I, meanwhile, wrestled with my own feelings, wondering what the hell had just hit me.  I was pretty sure I hadn’t ingested gas.

I had to calm myself down enough that I could give her shoulder a gentle shake instead of a more violent one.  The part of the shake where I pulled her toward me a bit seemed to break the spell, or be the second invitation for a hug that she’d wanted.  She wasted no time in hugging me, less like any hug than I’d had, more like I imagined a drowning person might cling to a rescuer.  The bat she still held in one hand thumped against my hip.

Text appeared across my right eye: POOR GIRL.

I didn’t break the hug as I bent down, using flight to stay balanced.  I picked up the second wooden bat from the rooftop.

Then I flew, carrying her away and back toward the back line.  I could feel her shaking.  I could hear her breathing while I was barely aware of my own, like I was holding my breath and I had been for a while.

Hit a wall.  Fighting too long, too hard, with too little to show for it.  Maybe she’d seen the thing at the artillery line after all.

What could I say?  She was seized with panic, but that was only part of it.

The standard method of handling a panic attack was to ground the person.  But there was no fucking ground, so to speak.  There were holes in reality.  There was no air, nothing in the environment I could point to that wasn’t ulcerous with gas, even when it wasn’t organic enough to rightly have ulcers, or riddled with holes, or decayed, or slimy, or chewed up from the fighting.

I couldn’t ask about her teammates or any people I could reunite her with, because I wasn’t sure her team was okay, and that could be the last reality she wanted to come to terms with.

“What got you into hero work?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “What?”

“How long ago did you become a hero?”

“Four years- five years.  I took a year off.”

“That’s a good record,” I told her.  “Same team all the way through?”

Foil motioned.  I raised an arm, flying in closer.

She made another motion, and then she dove, serrated railing-spear out.  She slashed Oberon along the back while he was using his shockwaves to tear through the tide of Teem’s minions that poured down from high above.  I followed her, ready to catch her if something happened.

Oberon did another one of those punches that seemed to infuse the very air with breaker energy.  It clung to a forcefield one of our defensive capes was holding up.

The forcefield came apart violently.  Oberon bolted forward.

A single shot from Gundeck stopped him mid-stride.  He resumed moving, charging into the building Gundeck was on.

Gundeck used a back-mounted rocket to get back and away.  Oberon pushed over the building, and in the process, collided with Damsel.  She’d been within the upper floor of the building, using her power to hold and contain a large sphere of the annihilation energy.

Sveta evacuated her as the building came to pieces, and Oberon fell over, a large hole in his upper chest.

It didn’t stop him, but one of his arms hung at his side.

“I was with Sacred Heart at first,” Hitter said.  “I used to be a warrior angel.  It was cool and then it wasn’t.  Legend might have opened doors, but people can still be shitty in private.  The team management said I could do whatever I liked, but the guys who were being shitty could do whatever they liked too.”

I could see the warrior angel theme working a lot better with the galaxy bat and the golden bat.

“I’m sorry,” I told her.  “That’s why you had the gap year?”

I felt her flinch at a loud impact in the fighting below.

“…Quit for a year.  Perfect timing, no teammates when the end of the world came.”

She was breathing more normally now, which wasn’t to say she wasn’t still audible with it, still faster than I would’ve liked.

Foil was waving me down.  I really wanted to go drop Hitter off, then come back to support the teams, but…

Shit.

“Detour,” I said.  “Sorry.”

“No.  Do what you have to.”

Foil was steering the gliding bird.  I flew over and provided some support, so it wouldn’t require so much effort to keep the bird aloft, and so the movement would be smoother.

“Antares, I’m retreating,” Foil said.

“Oberon’s hurting, Skadi and Eve have a stalemate, and that’s a balance we can maintain.”

“How much longer?” Foil asked.  “If you tell me it’s ten minutes, I’ll push through.  But I don’t think it’s going to be ten minutes.”

I looked from her to the Titans.  Oberon was focused on recuperating, and Teem was making that difficult, flying up and pouring more minions on the Titan.  Skadi kept trying to find weaknesses in Titan Eve’s defenses, and when she succeeded, she delivered heavy, gouging blows.  Eve’s gas didn’t seem to affect Skadi much.

“Damsel is at her limit and I think she’ll start making mistakes soon,” Foil said.  “She needs to retreat too but she won’t because she’s proud.”

I looked at Damsel, who was with two of the capes who weren’t Sveta.  Sveta was helping Gundeck pick up tech that had been damaged.

Foil continued, “The expendable troops like Parian’s stuffed animals are running out.  One of the flying defenders we were leaning on got taken out of the fight by the green mess on his forcefield.  This-”

“This is working,” I said.  “Slowly, but it’s working.”

“It’s not working,” Foil said, back straight, voice firm.  “I think if we go back, they’re going to tell us that.  It cost us… so much to get even this far.  You fly, you don’t use your muscles to lift.  Some of us have been running, climbing, fighting, scrambling for cover for close to an hour.  If I had to quick-step over fucking random missile stepping stones one more time, I don’t think my legs would move fast enough, even with enhanced timing and coordination.”

“I’m glad it’s not just me,” Switch Hitter said, quiet.  “The tiredness, not the missiles.”

“It’s everyone,” Foil said.  She turned my way, visor-covered face aimed right at me, my own reflection dark in the tinted surface.  “Even you, Antares, it might be wearing you down more slowly, but I can see it in how you stand.”

No magic at work, no gas affecting emotions and making Switch Hitter break down while it made me angry.

Just… too much hopeless fighting.

It was a repeat of my sentiment from earlier, my anger mixing with my sympathy for the Flower of the Hecatomb.  The feeling that existed in the intersection between the two emotions.

I looked away.  “I’m going to go get the others.  Can you give Switch a ride?”

Foil nodded, “Might be a rough fight, but…”

I transferred my passenger over.  Foil made an arm motion, using the Syndicate connection to pass it on.

I flew to Damsel, Solarstare, and Sveta.

“Retreating?” Sveta asked me.

“No,” Damsel said, before I could answer.

“Yes,” I said.  I knew Ashley Stillons well enough to know how to handle this.  Damsel wasn’t Swansong but both were Ashley.  “We need your help to slow them down if they attack us while we retreat.”

“No.  If you want me to follow your instructions so you can get me close enough to them?  Fine.  But I’m here to kill Titans.”

Ok.  Maybe not quite.

“Morale is breaking.  People are worn out, they’re spooked, we need to regroup.  Trust me, there’s two dozen people on the ground there that you’ve impressed by getting in the thick of things and staying there.  If you’re not the first one to walk away, they’re not going to care about you retreating.”

Solarstare, right next to us, used her power.  I could feel the air rush past us as the massive, twisting column of molten gold sprayed out.  Skadi stumbled into a cloud of gas, which solidifed around her.  Blisters appeared on her armor.

“I said not to do that so close to me!” Damsel raised her voice.

“Easy,” Sveta said.

Solarstare looked over and smiled.  “Sorry.  Saw a chance.”

“A chance to blind me?” Damsel asked.  “Set us on fire?”

The gold ignited.  We all backed away, Damsel blasting with her power, long claw fingers extended to provide the widest distribution possible to provide a kind of shield against the heat.

We were momentarily cast in shadow as Titan Skadi appeared in the air, landing atop Titan Eve.

I tensed, watching.  Was this a connection?

The cloak of gas around Titan Eve solidified, and she shrugged free of it, backing away, bumping into a building in the same row of commercial buildings we were perched atop.  One of the buildings rumbled without toppling, like the internals were collapsing in on themselves.

The flash of light came next.  Damsel snarled.

Snarled more as Titan Eve crashed into the building she’d bumped into, while we had our eyes covered.

Sveta spoke up, “Antares and I have you.  We’ll adapt if there’s any side effects from powers.”

I had the immediate impression that Sveta was here not so much because she was keeping them out of danger, but because she was keeping them from being at each other’s throats.

“Damsel of Distress, listen to me,” I said.

“Don’t talk to me like you’re my father, using my full name.  You saw the dream.  You should know what I did to him.”

“I know and right this second I don’t care!  Fuck off!  Listen, they aren’t going to care if you back off!” I told her.  “You kicked ass, you hurt Oberon, you got your moments.  But if you stay and you die, they’re going to pity you!”

I saw emotions cross her face.

I saw new emotions take over.

“If you die after getting a few feet of bladed fingers shoved in your ears and end up deaf and lobotomized, I think they’ll pity you more,” she said, snarling the last few words.  “Not that I think a lobotomy would do much.”

Solarstare laughed.  Damsel’s expression changed.  Almost feral.

My forcefield caught her wrist before her clawed hand reached Solarstare.  I saw the power dance from palm to the tip of the long claws.  Sveta pulled Solarstare clear out of the way.

Damsel used her power, a slow-burning rumble of blackness in her clawed hands, just to my left.  If I’d lowered my arm to my side, I would have touched it.

I caught her other claw.  The power burned there too.

If one spark or flicker danced back toward her wrist, it’d hit my forcefield, and I’d lose that protection.

Damsel smiled.  Her power intensified.

“Come with us and win later or stay here to lose now,” I told her.  “And we are going to win later.  I fucking hate that we’re backing off now-”

I gave hate every bit of emotion I was feeling, almost barking the word.

“-I just had an argument with Foil over it.  The only way I’m making my peace with this is that I’m thinking we need to do it to win later.  Need to.”

Titan Skadi drove Titan Eve into the row of buildings.  The building that had lost all of its internals collapsed.

“Swansong would have gone with you.”

“Probably.”

“So I won’t,” Damsel said, staring me down.  She didn’t flinch as the building fell.

Off to our right, Titan Oberon was rising to his feet.  Gundeck opened fire on him.

“That makes you more of a slave to her legacy than if you were your own person,” Sveta said.

“Do you want to die when I’m done with her?”

“No, I don’t want to die,” Sveta told Damsel.  “Neither do you.”

“What if I don’t give a shit about dying?” Damsel challenged her.

“You sound like my nephew,” Solarstare chimed in.

“Not helping, Solar!” I hissed the words.

“You could say ‘you want ice cream’ and he’d be all ‘no I don’t!'”

“Sveta,” I said.  “Take Solar?”

“I think I should take Solar and you.  If she wants to stay, let her.”

I relaxed my grip on Damsel’s wrists, then pushed them away, so they went back toward her sides.  In the corner of my eye, I saw the claw move back in my direction, power flaring-

My instincts were divided between tearing her to pieces and buying into a bluff.  I decided on the bluff, then remembered my judgment of what was an ‘Ashley’ behavior wasn’t quite right.

But it was a bluff.  She had no idea that my forcefield was reaching for her, and that I turned it off a moment before it touched her.  Her claw folded up, fingers all together with a clack, power dissipating into wisps and arcs of darkness.

She didn’t budge, and still held a confident smile.

“You’ve got a team to look after,” I told her.

“If the idiots are still alive,” she said, pushing past me, but she did push past me, her shoulder brushing roughly against mine, heading toward the defensive lines.

I took flight, “Going to check on Gundeck.”

There were more capes in the artillery group right this moment, all of the benched ones and the ones who weren’t part of the present rotation joining in.  Dragon had repaired a cannon enough to use it, opening fire as well.

Skadi kept fighting Titan Eve.

I flew up to Teem, reaching his side.

“Ready to retreat?”

“I’ll catch up,” he said.  He’d been touched by gas at one point, and had holes in his arm.  His own minions were wriggling through the spaces, maggots in their jaws.

Gundeck, then.

He was doing the bulk of the work with Oberon, attacking from a different angle with well placed shots, utilizing impossibly high-velocity rounds with multiple guns in tandem.  I could see parts of his armor glowing red hot around the vents, as he overheated.

“Ready to go!?”

“Guess I have to be, don’t I!?”

“Want a lift?”

He nodded.

He was, all guns and gear included, about as heavy as anything I could lift.  I carried him off, tracking Teem, Sveta, Solarstare and Damsel out of the corner of my eye.

The other capes on the battlefield, ones on the ground, utility capes, movers, even Imp, who had delivered the occasional bomb to a titan that stayed still enough, were making their gradual retreats.  I didn’t fly at my fastest speed, just so I could keep tabs on them.

Gundeck fired one shot, and my forcefield failed.  He dropped out of the air.

I dove after him, catching the man.

“We hit a wall,” I told him.  “They couldn’t keep it up with the pressure and all the running around.”

“We were bound to.  If not now, would have been later.”

Because this is ongoing.  There are more titans.  They don’t get tired.  They’re powerful.

I still couldn’t bring myself to make total peace with it.  I dropped Gundeck off at the edge of the camp, then circled back.  I saw a cape carrying Torso over one shoulder, Torso’s limbs dangling.

“He okay?” I asked.

Torso stuck out a hand, clad in its elbow-to-shoulder black glove, thumb up.

“Wore himself out,” the cape said.

Right.

I saw other faces.  Capricorn had been at one of the flanks.  He stopped at a point below me, and I flew down to his level.

The stragglers headed our way.  The artillery line was backing off too.

Oberon stood straight again.  The damage of the holes to his face, upper chest, and hooves had healed.  Other damage had become shallower, mending.

We would walk away from this and he would be back at full strength in half an hour, maybe an hour.

“Vic!” Sveta called out.  “Capricorn!”

I floated up.  Capricorn jogged over.

Precipice was there with Sveta.  The Undersiders were gathered, some a bit worse for wear.  One of the dogs was melting, but it looked like that was because the dog form was wearing off.  I’d seen it when we’d grouped up before.

Some of those were off on the other side of the crowd.  Members of Deathchester now.

“We can’t retreat,” Tattletale said.  She had her hand on Foil’s shoulder.  Foil craned her head around.

I shook my head.  “I know we can’t, it’s disastrous, but-”

“We can at least call this a draw,” Tattletale said.  “But it’s not going to be easy.  One last push.”

“Five minutes,” Rain said.

“Remember when I was chopped to pieces?” Tattletale asked.

“I remember,” I said.  There were other things I could add, but it wasn’t the time.

“Remember when you sent me a message in gibberish?  And I spelled out a message for you, and-”

“I got gibberish.”

“Yeah.  Guess who’s speaking gibberish right now?”

She wasn’t really expecting me to play twenty questions.  Her eyes pointed the way to the target.  That battlefield had only three Titans on it, with a few scattered people distracting and holding the line.

I could have asked which Titan, but Skadi abandoned her fight with Titan Eve to appear at our defensive line, blades crashing into forcefields and a hastily erected wall of mucus, and Tattletale’s gaze didn’t waver.

“Not Oberon, Lookout said there’s nothing in there.”

“Eve,” Tristan said.

“I’d show you a gallery of pictures, do my detective ‘how I figured it out’ monologue,” Tattletale said.  She kept her hand on Foil’s shoulder, as Foil tried to leave.  “But-”

“But you cheat, so it’s kind of like a golfer hand-dropping a ball in the eighteenth hole and bragging about technique,” Imp said.

“But there’s no time,” Tattletale said.  “It’s in the smoke.  And the stuff she’s been doing, slime, maggots, everything except rolling clouds of death aimed at us, she’s trying to tell us to go away.  It’s… not words, it’s her body language.  Filtered like our communication was filtered, because she’s far away from having a body right now.”

“Why?  She thinks she can win?” Sveta asked.

“She had chances, before Skadi.  Right now, though, she just wants to retreat.  She’ll go to Dauntless.  Titan Kronos.  All we have to do is keep those two Titans occupied while another group goes after Titan Auger.  They’ll defend their network.  Then Titan Eve ceases to be a threat.  It’s a draw.  Now that we know Eve wants to retreat-”

Think she wants to retreat,” Imp butted in.

“-we have a way out.  And it’s temporary and it’s shitty, and we’ll have people running off to fight other titans, but it’s the best we can do for now,” Tattletale said.

“Sometimes you talk, and you keep talking…” Rachel said.

Sometimes she keeps talking?” Imp cut in.

Rachel elbowed Imp harder than necessary.  “…You could stop talking halfway through and it’d be just as effective.”

You’re going to get on my case about speaking style and nuance?” Tattletale asked.

“If you’re being dumb about it, yeah,” Rachel retorted.

“Ooh,” Imp said.  “Come on, Heartbroken, gotta back Aunt Rachel up.  Give me a good ‘oooh’.”

There was a very unenthusiastic set of ‘oohs’ from three very tired, slimy, and banged up Heartbroken.

Text appeared at the corner of my vision: C&D: Oooh.

I looked over at the crowd while the Undersiders were being dumb.

“Already told the Wardens.  They’re recruiting people for the big push,” Tattletale said, as I looked in that direction.

“How big a push?” I asked.

“Five to ten minutes of hard fighting, and we have to hit them hard enough we’re in Skadi’s sights from start to finish.”

I looked at my team, and they nodded.

Precipice wasn’t at his best, since our stunt with the dream room had left him with minimal power.  No range, no accuracy, no good way to use his power to perform weird maneuvers, no tinkering, no emotion power.

Sveta was tired but she’d been helping, doing good work.  Tristan was heartsick, if nothing else, his face sweaty behind the cover of his mask.

Foil was still staring in that direction.  Parian was over there.  Even the Undersiders looked tired.

Everyone, really.  Foil hadn’t been wrong.  Lots were coughing, because they’d inhaled trace gas.  Some were rising out their eyes with squeeze bottles that had tapered nozzles.  Others were grieving.  Teams that had gaps in their ranks, maybe people who looked like they were trying to take charge when they had no idea how.

“She’s crying behind her mask,” Foil said, with alarm.

“I know,” Tattletale said.

“What the hell?  You were telling me not to go to her?  What the hell happened?”

“I told you and I’m still telling you.  Don’t,” Tattletale said.

“Why the fuck not?” Foil raised her voice.  Heads turned.

“Because if you go, she’ll lose her nerve,” Tattletale said.

“If you’re sending her into a suicide rush, I swear-

“You have to finish your threats,” Juliette chimed in from the back.  “Tell her you’ll kill her.”

“Not the time, Juliette,” Imp said.

“It’s not a suicide rush,” Tattletale said, quiet, soothing, confident.  “But it’s not easy.”

“If you think I can’t support my girlfriend-”

“I think you can support her.  You’re good for her.  Too good,” Tattletale said.

“That’s the most ominous shit I’ve ever heard,” Foil said, sounding more agitated than when she’d been trying to convince me to retreat.

“Yeah, well,” Tattletale said.  “Be there for her after.”

Parian left the conversation, went to another group.  The Rooftop Champs.

One question.  A short discussion after.

In the distance, Titan Eve was losing.

We didn’t really have long.

I floated closer.

“The Wardens gave permission for some.  For most,” Parian said.  “They’re marking some.  I asked other groups.  I can’t really stay, they keep telling me to hurry things along, but-”

“No?” the woman with the feathered dragon boa as her costume feature said, sounding unsure.  “I-”

“He’d want to help,” another member of the group said.

“Thah-” the third member started.  “Fugh… maggot.  Preshing my brain.  Paral-”

“Paralyzed part of your face,” Feather Dragon said.  “Yes or no?  You’re the tiebreaker.”

“Yeh,” he said, bowing his head.  “He want- wants to help.  There.   It moved.”

“Thank you,” Parian said.

She turned to leave, saw Foil, and stopped in her tracks.

Tattletale pulled Foil in the opposite direction, away.

I floated up a bit, watching Parian.  Because the Wardens seemed to be waiting for her.  People were running out, telling groups to get ready.  Making last minute recruitments.

And I saw her approach the rows of bodies.  People covered in sheets.  Some with people standing by them.  She took the sheets, drawing out threads and weaving them together.

Then, with telekinetic control over fine blades, she began cutting into bodies.  Some had been crushed, some had been cut, others afflicted with gas, their skin ulcerous.

“Oh my god,” I heard Foil.  She pressed her hands over her mouth.

Flayed skin sewn to skin, like Parian had used cloth before.  Orifices sealed shut.  People became parts of a wider canvas.  That canvas, with many dead, began to take form.

The sheets became one doll.  Like Parian’s bigger creations, it reached a height of about twenty feet.  I’d seen smaller at the fight against Leviathan.  This one remained featureless.  Nothing spared for decoration.  Bloody, because the sheets had covered people that had been torn apart.

When thread ran out, she began using tendons from the body, or hair.

Skin stretched like most cloth didn’t.  But that wasn’t why it was so much bigger, or why it seemed more flexible than the cloth creations, less clumsy.

“How long have you fucking known?” Foil asked, below me.  Her voice raw.

“Since last year,” Tattletale said.  “We were figuring out Rachel’s power.  Why it was different with Bastard than with the dogs.  Why it was better with some others.  Best with Rollo, her first.  Turns out, the dog that she had when she triggered wasn’t a full dog.  Half coyote, we’re guessing.  It always worked better with halfbreeds.  Always will.  She still prefers dogs.”

Rachel grunted.

“Par always said it wasn’t intuitive, like most people find their powers,” Foil whispered.

“That… was essentially what she said, before she asked me for help.  Just in case.”

The thing took form.  It wasn’t Titan sized, but it was a bit bigger than the Gibborim Knight had been.  Skin stretched translucent thin.  It was mostly human shaped, streaked with the blood that had leaked out in the flaying.

It looked like she’d only had permission for a third of the dead.

Foil wasn’t the only one who looked horrified.

Wardens were calling out their orders when a shadow fell over the camp.

Skadi plunged her blade straight down at Parian.

The skin-thing struck out, protecting its controller, wrestling Skadi to the ground.

She cut, and the telekinesis that saturated the skin seemed to protect it from the cut.

From there, a share of the capes joined that fight, focusing on Skadi.

And we had our orders, to tackle Oberon.  To keep him busy.

“Go,” Tattletale told Foil.  “She doesn’t want to see you.”

“I don’t want to see her.  Not like this,” Foil replied, her voice choked with emotion.  “Holy fuck.”

“Go,” Tattletale said, insistent.

“Fuck you for telling her.”

“She always knew, deep down inside, I think,” Tattletale said.

“Oh fuck off.”

“You know her background, how she triggered.  It was always about skin.”

Foil shook her head.

It was Imp who steered Foil away, Heartbroken right behind her.

Parian’s creation was putting up a good fight.  Only a few places were cut, but the telekinesis was holding, and the cuts were being stitched.

Fume Hood- Titan Eve- No.

Fume Hood was already fighting as she made her retreat.  The fastest capes were engaging Oberon.  Teem had never left the battlefield.

I took flight.

No question now that we’d get our ‘draw’ for this encounter.  Skadi pinned down, Oberon still a bit damaged.  If it could be called a draw.  Fume Hood was still in there if that thing was trying to communicate, trying to pull its punches and scare us off instead of annihilating us.

Horrifying and noble in equal measure.

And we fought by similar measures, drawing out the last of what we had available to spare.  Some of us paying our own prices.

I reached the Titan, and I drew on my partner’s power to deliver the first blows of the second round, screaming while I did it, because she couldn’t.

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