My first instinct on seeing every cape present make their moves was that I’d played a pivotal role in the Simurgh’s master stroke. It was too much, all together, with too many people in the line of fire. All on my signal.
Solarstare’s power gushed into the open lattice and filled the hollow of the Simurgh’s body, right on target, until Chevalier’s second shot hit and jolted her, sending her flying back a good fifteen feet. Excess liquid splashed dangerously close to where Tattletale and the capes she’d gathered around herself were hunkered down.
Three tinkers were using their tech together in what I could only assume was a ‘cross the beams’ maneuver, but they missed in the initial moments, raking the already damaged ceiling – ceiling I’d damaged in earlier fighting, and brought chunks down near the primary group of Wardens.
Damsel was moving unpredictably, using recoil to fling herself around, and Narwhal’s forcefield spikes were traveling in the same airspace.
But this battlefield wasn’t just about those capes. Vista warped the residual ‘splash’ of molten gold and the cascade of falling rock. Hookline and Disjoint were at the ready, Hookline grabbing Damsel and pulling her out of the way of the spikes, while Disjoint reached out with dismembered limbs and shoved capes out of the way.
There were others. Advance Guard had a few members nearby, with Signal Fire hurling out a homing fireball that embedded itself in the Simurgh’s stomach and proceeded to suck in other airborne projectiles, concentrating them in one area. Resound had a sonic blast that she channeled into that same spot.
Solarstare’s power erupted into superhot flame. Much of it was within the Simurgh herself, and there were spots, especially where she was wounded, where the glow of heat within her made her silver body glow orange and yellow.
Byron’s motes detonated into mist, sweeping over the Simurgh. Vista controlled the mist’s path, concentrating it. Dust and smoke particles froze into frost-like lattices, and her exterior was super-chilled, at the same time she burned from within.
She folded wings around her, and they snapped and cracked with the movement as they drew around her body, frozen on the outside, with her body glowing red-hot from within. A single crack at the lattice at one shoulder widened, inching down toward one nipple-less breast. Just from the stresses.
There was no scream in my head. For the moment, for this final batch of attacks, she wasn’t fighting, she was barely trying to defend herself, and she was taking a lot of punishment. To see it, I could imagine the Simurgh had vacated the shell of her body, and this was a Simurgh-shaped statue we were so focused on taking down.
Solarstare’s flames began to glow brighter, shedding motes of light not too different from Byron’s. The motes began to glow brighter, brighter-
Until Grue covered them up, shrouding the Simurgh in darkness.
She chose that moment to move, throwing herself back and away, closer to Sveta, Dinah and I. Closer to the hole.
Dragon, still poised partially in the part of the hole that extended to upper floors, lunged down, driving the full weight of a quadruped mech the size of a house into the Simurgh. The motes of light spilled out, almost rolling as they danced along the floor into the darkness.
I shielded my eyes, twisting my head away, and hooked my good arm around Dinah’s head to shield her as well, just in case.
Grue’s darkness did away with the worst of it, but it was still bright, and the brightness lasted. Even though Dinah and I weren’t touching ground, I could feel the rumble through the air as a whole section of the facility gave way.
I chanced a look, using just one eye, and I saw that the hole in the floor had widened, the fight between Dragon and the Simurgh continuing below.
“Sveta,” I said. “What can I do?”
“Nothing,” she told me. “Except maybe don’t use the aura like that again. I almost hurt someone.”
“Okay,” I said, quiet.
“Go fight. I’ll manage,” she said, as she struggled to pull herself together, in what looked like one step forward, one step back, her body pulling itself apart into spaghetti tangles within a second or two of her getting a body part into roughly the right shape. “I’ve managed for a long time.”
I placed Dinah on the ground, then flew.
“No!” Chevalier called out.
The call wasn’t just for me. There were others who were rushing forward, ready to descend for the next stage of the fight. Damsel was one.
I paused, looking back.
“Hold!” he called out, his voice deep, commanding. “Five seconds!”
I remained where I was. My heartbeat pounded, and I felt like it was enough that people would be able to see my pulse at my neck, my vision threatening to go dark like I’d stood up too fast.
Damsel, in her own way, was struggling too. In this, at least, we were somewhat alike. She didn’t want to stop.
She looked at me, and I saw recognition on her face. Too soft to be Damsel recognizing the pain in the ass heroine Antares. That fleeting look was replaced by a look of disgust, then rage, then something even deeper than rage. She brought a hand to her head, and belatedly seemed to remember she had giant, multi-jointed knives for fingers, and couldn’t actually run her fingers through her hair or hold her head. They remained poised there.
The floor below us erupted into a tide of blue light. I stepped back from the hole in the floor, shielding my face.
The light dissipated, then came again, this time with a different kind of flow. Instead of a single mass of what could have been plasma or liquid flame, it was a hundred streams that bent at angles and wove into and through one another like a great angular braid.
As they fired, the beams transitioned to become less blue and more red.
The light dissipated.
“Go!” Chevalier called out.
I went, giving Damsel a wide berth. Good thing too, because she used her power to slash out with a wide, fan-like blast that might have maybe grazed me if I’d followed my initial course. I gave her that extra second to get where she was going. Wasn’t worth the risk to follow too soon after.
It ended up making something of a difference. The ground cracked all around us, and segments of floor began coming down in chunks. More holes, more damage. A whole pillar was pulled beneath.
As everything began to cascade down, the Simurgh rose back up, no longer grappling with Dragon. Legend, too, chose a moment to come flying in.
Two of the big three Wardens were present. I wasn’t sure if Narwhal qualified as a stand-in for Valkyrie, but… it was good to see.
The collapse was being rectified, cracks shrunk, holes diminished, and supports raised by way of forcefield and giant stone hands. Byron shifted gears, drawing on the floor with motes, before solidifying them. He’d done the same with ice, back when we’d been fighting the massed Titans, but now he paved a floor of rock with sweeping, shallow conch-like spirals.
She used her telekinesis, and more cracks began to creep out all around us.
“She doesn’t have her hooks in you, but she-” Tattletale’s voice was cut off as she got clear of a cascade of bits of ceiling, high above us.
Tattletale had been telling us that yes, we were free of the Simurgh’s influence, but that didn’t extend to the facility.
She supposedly screamed to gather data, and she used the data to inform her precognition. We momentarily had the edge because everything about our movements flowed from Dinah and Dinah being a blind spot. But the environment… she’d already worked out those calculations, already gathered the data and knew the ins and outs of cause and effect here.
The entire facility around her was putty in her hands.
I checked on Damsel, who was on the floor below, using a continuous, shallow blast around herself to ward off falling debris.
She gave me a hard look. I looked away.
I could see the weapons that were being brought to bear against the Simurgh, here. Legend’s lasers, Dragon’s tech, Solarstare’s beam.
A single punch from me didn’t matter. Not here.
“Damsel!” I called out.
Her lips moved, her expression twisting even further.
“Torso!” I called down to her.
Again, she replied. The roar of her power and the sounds around us drowned her out. Too far away, and I wasn’t getting any closer while she was in a mood. Too dangerous.
I took flight, looking for Torso.
If I couldn’t do the necessary damage, maybe I could at least enable the people who could. Torso was the heaviest hitter I could think of off the top of my head.
I found Deathchester, peeking out through the hallway the Undersiders had been in. Gibbet was creating half-circles of debris around and behind the Simurgh, not that it helped a ton, when she could use telekinesis or wade through them, breaking them in the process. When one was picked up to be thrown, Gibbet reduced the scale of that chunk of floor or pillar, letting it shrink to nothingness before it could be used to bludgeon anyone. Trophy Wife was assisting the wounded. Sidepiece- I spotted her with some of the attacking forces.
The room went from dark to bright as Legend used another laser. Hitting harder than I’d seen him do, especially in confined quarters.
The screaming was finding its way back into my head. Small, slow, steady, but it was creeping in, building up, and it was doing it faster than it had initially done.
Our window is closing.
“Antares!” I heard the voice. Win.
I turned to look at him, but I didn’t have the capacity to shout back.
I gave him a hand signal, somewhere between a point to go and a thumbs up, with a belated nod to confirm.
I had to hope the damage we were doing was enough. That we could put her down or keep her down for long enough she wouldn’t be up for a fight with Titan Fortuna.
I would have called out, but it was hard to shout when the left side of my ribcage felt like it was hanging on by luck more than anything. Instead, I landed beside Trophy Wife. “Where’s Torso?”
I flew through the crowd, so I didn’t have to jog.
Torso had fallen into a crack in the floor and gotten wedged inside. Two capes were struggling to get him out.
Chevalier fired another cannonblade shot. The ringing in my ears that followed joined in with the scream. I watched as the blade was raised high, then brought down, cleaving into the Simurgh’s already damaged shoulder.
With my forcefield, I did what I could to help lift Torso up, crushing the jutting portions of poured concrete floor to allow him to slide freely up. It was mostly a brute from Foresight that did the lifting part.
“Torso,” I said.
He turned his eyes toward me, mismatched, painted on the surface of his oversized head.
“Can I try flying you?” I asked.
He gave me a thumbs-up.
Okay. Here was the trick, then. I disengaged from my forcefield, visualizing and forming the cocoon shape, the ribcage splayed open so I could fly out. Then I turned it toward Torso. Forcefield arms reached out, grabbing him under the armpits, where his arms stuck out of the heavy armor that covered head and upper body only. I lifted him into the opening in the forcefield-
His head lolled back, smashing into the forcefield. I felt it go, dashed to smithereens.
For what felt like three, four, maybe even five seconds, my forcefield didn’t come back online. A problem that had only ever occurred with Scion-level hits and Ashley’s blasts.
“Don’t move your head,” I told him.
He turned that stupid fucking face my way, an uneven, shakily-drawn smile on the lower face, dull and oblivious.
“Please,” I told him. “This is important.”
Again, I repeated the exercise. Lifting him, hands reaching inside to brace his head.
The area shook. He flinched, his head moved to tear free of the bracing grip, and he bashed my forcefield into oblivion with a small tap of the back of his head against the ‘shoulder’ of it.
I clenched my fists.
“Losing battle, Antares,” Disjoint called out. “Torso’s a professional fuckup. Whatever clever plan you’ve got for him, he’ll fuck it up.”
Torso awkwardly rubbed the back of his head, like he was slightly embarrassed or abashed by this.
“Fuck it,” I said. I used my forcefield, disengaging from it, but this time, instead of giving him a ride, I used six hands to pick him up. Two at the armpits, two at the wrists, two at the thighs. I held him like I would a battering ram.
“Don’t move, let me try this, I’ll do my best to keep you safe,” I told him. The guy felt more awkward to hold than my twelve tons of gun, and I couldn’t even get to grips with how or why. It wasn’t that he was heavier. It was that the weight was weird.
“Won’t work,” Disjoint told me.
“It’s worth a shot,” I told him.
“Godspeed,” Disjoint said. “But it won’t work.”
Flying with Torso felt like an extension of being Torso. Keeping my grip was tough, because the weight seemed to shift every few seconds, to the point he nearly tore out of my grip twice in the time it took me to get ten feet higher in the air, matching the Simurgh’s height. Flying forward posed the same problems, only worse, because it complicated up and down and somehow made it impossible to keep from curving left or right.
The screaming in my head was worse, now, compounded by the stress of the moment. I tried to maintain my course in flying toward the Simurgh, and she veered one direction, not even as an apparent consequence of my approach, but because of the way the fight was going.
A pillar shattered, the rebar exposed as the exterior came away in jagged splinters. To keep my forcefield going, I used Torso as something of a human shield, drawing the limbs in. Chunks of concrete struck his giant head and upper body and bounced off, with no harm done. When I tried to reorient, he nearly tore free of my grip again. By the time I had my bearings and was flying straight, the Simurgh was relocating, taking some evasive action and crashing through Narwhal’s forcefields as Legend opened fire.
Off to the side, Damsel was back out of the hole. She used her power to run up the side of a pillar, then raked it with a lick of her power to create a handhold, claw fingers gripping the edge. Waiting for the Simurgh to draw in closer.
Which, I thought, might be my best bet. Flying was too hard like this.
The entire area glowed as Solarstare used her power again.
“Come on,” I murmured. The screaming was getting worse. I saw the Simurgh block Crystalclear’s thrown crystal with a bit of debris. She wasn’t even facing him, though I wasn’t sure how much that mattered. Had he been here when I’d used my power? Or was she getting to the point where she was one step ahead again?
Other Foresight members were joining in. Anelace was holding two tinker blades I knew he hadn’t made himself, each one looking more like cut-outs in reality, showing only a startling white nothingness that stood at stark contrast to the black of Grue’s power, wherever it lingered.
A lot of capes were choosing safe ground, waiting for their opportunities to step in. The exact opposite of the initial problem we’d had, where we all attacked at once and almost screwed each other up. The danger now was that we’d all wait, and the opportunities wouldn’t line up.
Had to make them.
I flew up higher, still holding Torso, and watched as the Simurgh either floated or was driven one way or the other. Solarstare’s liquid beam ignited to fire, and the Simurgh floated back from it.
Damsel leaped from her perch, blasting to move more laterally than vertically.
A chunk of debris flew at her, and she shot it out of the air. It put her off course, and she had to blast again to break her fall. She landed on rubble, and tumbled to the ground.
I descended, holding my parahuman battering ram. It was akin to flying into a heavy headwind with the Wretch at its least aerodynamic, veering, tugging-
Torso flexed, arm extending forward, like he was going to fucking punch the Simurgh, and the movement combined with the weirdness of Torso’s fluctuating center of balance tore him from my grip. He sailed downward, a top-heavy missile with the exact opposite trajectory of Damsel and her blasts- more down than forward.
The Simurgh floated a matter of feet to the right. Torso slammed face-first into the ground, where it had been reinforced by Byron’s power.
“Fuck!” I swore, immediately regretting the volume of the swear word as my chest erupted in pain.
Torso got to his feet, and began a shaky attempt at chasing the Simurgh, even though she flew well above where he could reach.
Okay, not Torso. Other opportunities- Damsel?
I floated down to her.
“You do not want to be near me right now,” Damsel growled. She tried to stand and failed.
“Want a ride?” I asked.
“I want nothing from you.”
“There’s a truce,” I told her. “The whole idea is we work together. Let me help you kick ass.”
“What’s the point of stopping her if it costs me everything?” she asked. She found her feet. With her claw-tips on the ground, she propped herself up, so she didn’t have to put her weight on her leg. It looked like her knee that was messed up, her dress in tatters where her power had ripped into it at the sides.
“Saving the world?” I asked.
She gave me a ‘get real’ look.
“Leaving a legacy?”
“I’ll leave a legacy on my terms. I won’t give her an inch.”
She wasn’t talking about the Simurgh. She was talking about Ashley. Our Ashley. Breakthrough’s.
“That’s the vector the Simurgh chose to attack you through?” I asked. “Swansong?”
“None of your business.”
“And from your attitude, it’s working?” I asked. My voice was a little thinner than I wanted, as I found myself catching my breath with the pain of saying more than a few words at a time.
She pointed her claws at me.
I met her eyes with my own. They were entirely white, rimmed with black eyeliner and mascara that one of her teammates had put on her, smudged at one corner, one eye had blood that had settled into the hollow of the socket, like a tear cast in blood and frozen in time.
“Doing this? Not giving an inch? It makes you weaker, not stronger. It’s fragile, being inflexible.”
“Fuck you,” she said. Uncharacteristically vulgar, blunt, with a minimum of pride or herself in the line.
I didn’t really have a response to it, either.
“You just want me to cave, so she comes out.”
“She went out peacefully, proudly, in a damn cool way-” I started.
Legend’s beam rocked the room. There was a squeal that followed, even though the laser was silent. My head rang, and I pressed a hand to my temple.
“-and I have little interest in disturbing her.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Will you let me help you? Please?”
She scowled, and shook her head.
I took off. Leaving her behind. Flying toward the Endbringer, who was getting her bearings, smashing Relay from Foresight.
I could understand it. The terror. The panic. The fear of losing herself. She was a personality that flowed from a singular source, and when she and Ashley had been alive, they’d shared memories and dreams. The information they’d provided had helped the Wardens get an inkling of how the dream space worked, the crystal landscape, and the agents’ place in all of it.
It was just so fucking tragic that she stood at that crossroads and took this road.
I flew past Sveta, who had pulled herself back and was pulling herself back together, and reached the edge of the Wardens’ defensive line.
The impossible whirlwind of telekinetically flung objects was starting up again. She was blocking more of what we were putting out. Her chest gaped open, the laser had flensed away flesh, revealing more of the feather-lattice across her arm and upper body, half of her face was damaged, revealing bone like dark, tarnished silver, and her wings were, by contrast, mostly intact.
Byron created a crag of stone, shoring up a pillar. The mist expanded out, flowing in a cross-ways direction, and the Simurgh moved some of the mist, partially shaping it. It caught a laser.
“Hit the wing!” Narwhal called out. “You know the weak points!”
“Where do you need me?” I asked.
Chevalier turned his helmet toward me. He had shrunk his blade, and was sliding ammunition into the chambers.
“Which one of you?” he asked.
“You see her?” I asked.
He nodded. “Like you, but made of light, smiling as much as you’re not.”
“Either one of us is available,” I said.
“Protect us for now. She keeps-”
Debris was hurled our way. Narwhal raised a forcefield, and I floated up and out, to shield the crowd.
“Just like that,” he said. He turned to others, and began barking orders. “Vista, get us on target! The rest of you, if you can go on the offense, we need it now! Let the roof fall, if you have to!”
Byron obeyed. Following the order, changing where he was putting the constellations.
With that reaction, I knew, he wasn’t coming back to Breakthrough. Already, he was a part of the Wardens’ apparatus.
There were more capes coming up the stairs. The Major Malfunctions. Finale hung back, but Withdrawal vaulted over the pile of debris we were using for cover, while Caryatid got directions from Golem and found a position beside me, arms out and raised.
Some of the braver capes were getting in close, and Withdrawal joined them, venturing into that telekinetic storm. Every movement he made was matched by a sound from Finale, wincing in anticipation of collisions, squeaking in alarm. Those sounds joined the battery of other shots she was voicing.
One of the three tinkers from the ‘cross the beams’ crew at one of the ‘cubicles’ that Teacher’s old propaganda teams had worked from was struck by a bit of rebar, speared to the pillar behind him. A moment later, the tinkertech they’d been working on was lifted free, held up in the air.
The weapon fired, a beam aimed at us, forking, and I blocked the bulk of it, flying forward so I could catch more of it before it forked out and around me.
Withdrawal moved close to the tinkertech, reaching, but failed to grab it, not that it looked like he was really trying. He landed, hugging his syringe, and rolled with the landing, before crouching, both hands at a terminal on the syringe’s side.
The problem was, he had extremities that weren’t covered by the manton limit. She got a grip on the extended limbs with telekinesis, and pinned him.
“Vista!” Byron called out, his voice overlapping with my inarticulate cry.
His constellation erupted into existence, a spike of blue, spiraling rock, like fossil or some seashell. Vista’s power twisted it in the air, and it blocked the section of ceiling that would have taken Withdrawal’s head off.
Withdrawal disengaged from his tinkertech frame, and he held his hands over his head, pointing up at Byron’s stone. It looked like he was holding a remote control.
The Simurgh was blocking three out of four of our moves now. We had enough big guns that she was still taking a beating, but it didn’t feel like enough. I could believe she was one or two steps ahead of us, but it didn’t feel like we were fighting a sea of toppling dominoes, wondering where they went or what the end result would look like.
Withdrawal went back to his syringe, slipped something into a chamber, oblivious to his surroundings as more debris fell around him.
The chemical in his syringe turned yellow. Veins crawled across his costume, yellow, and the fabric turned yellow where it had been pink. The lenses shifted color too, to orange.
He couldn’t lift his own syringe on his own, but he stood it on end, then stepped on a jutting bit at the side.
The spray rained down over himself and his frame.
A larger chunk of ceiling fell. I flew forward, ready to intercept, when more came down above the Wardens.
I caught smaller chunks, and hit the bigger ones, slamming into them at full force, to drive them away. Below me, capes were forming barriers overhead. Narwhal’s forcefield, Golem’s stone hands.
Withdrawal was back in his frame, now, covered in yellow that looked like he’d sloshed a bucket of paint over himself. As a chunk of broken concrete platform floated near him, he sprayed it with a gush from the syringe.
The platform hit ground.
I could see as he did more, spraying more things, hitting the tinkertech the Simurgh was using, and causing it to fall. Everything he sprayed came free of her telekinetic grip, and none of it was getting picked up again.
The screaming in my head increased in intensity by the second, until I couldn’t see straight. I closed my eyes, shaking my head, and almost missed a hail of metal spikes. Caryatid caught it, instead.
I would have replied, but someone touched my leg, pushing me aside. I obliged, floating over.
Win, with a reduced-down version of my gun mounted on his power armor. He opened fire.
“Stay focused,” Narwhal said. “We need a few more good hits before I feel good about this.”
I wasn’t sure we were going to get them.
Withdrawal’s trick with the paint was great, but it was defensive. For our offensive tricks, our heavy hitters were out. Dragon’s mech was in pieces. Chevalier appeared to be out of ammunition. Damsel was injured and uncooperative. Torso was running around like an idiot.
The Undersiders- not enough straight combat powers. Deathchester, they didn’t have much that did the kind of damage we needed to do.
Rain was over there, I saw. Awake, coherent, trying to help out. But Rain’s power was at its weakest right now. He could create the blades, but he couldn’t throw them.
I raised my voice, hating myself for it. “I’m going! I see a way! Back in a minute!”
Not that we had a minute.
Chevalier was venturing out of the barricade, and glanced back at me. From behind his visor, he met my eyes, then he looked at the Fragile One. He nodded.
Giving me permission.
I flew over. To the Undersiders, to the back line of Deathchester, and to Rain. Gibbet was cloning the painted bits of wall and floor that Withdrawal had covered with the stuff that made the rubble too slick for telekinesis to grab, walling off sections and piles so the Simurgh couldn’t grab as much. The Simurgh, for her part, was gradually rising higher. She blocked the majority of what we put out there. Legends’ beams. Win’s gun. Gundeck’s barrage. Miss Militia’s turret fire.
I could feel it. She was poised to escape.
“Rain!” I called out.
“I just got my sight back,” he said. “Mostly. I don’t know why I just lied. I’m half blind.”
“Will you trust me?”
“Will it fuck her up?” he asked.
“I hope so.”
Same thing I’d tried with Torso. My forcefield opened up. I picked up Rain. I pulled him inside the shell of the Fragile One.
When she took off, I flew with. Rain held within, the weight of him pressing against the inside of her.
I was vulnerable, my front pressed against her back, but in fairness, so was he, leaning on me, on us, to this degree.
The Simurgh rose up, toward the hole in the ceiling. I flew us to meet her. The golden beam lanced out beside me, carving out a line in the Simurgh’s leg.
“Blade!” I called out to Rain. I positioned an open mouth at his wrist, letting his hand out, teeth grazing his skin.
He created the blade.
The Simurgh twisted in the air, staring at us with eyes that had nothing to them. One silver eye, and one perfect silver orb in a badly tarnished silver skull framed by wisps of hair.
The ceiling, the wall, and pieces of everything around us pulled away, reoriented so the most ragged, pointed parts were poised toward us.
“Sorry, Rain,” I whispered.
“No,” he said, but his tone was serious, not protesting.
“Can’t back down, can’t retreat.”
“Wouldn’t want to. Fuck her,” Rain said. Beside me, his gaze was focused on her, unflinching.
She’s not a her. She’s not a person, she doesn’t have feelings, and she isn’t fuckable. Not in the way where I can say ‘fuck you’ and find a bit of strength in it.
The Simurgh lunged, but not for the hole in the ceiling. For the floor.
I dove, with enough force that I thought my collarbone would tear free, or that lightheadedness I was feeling might cause me to black out.
The telekinetically poised debris collapsed in on us, barred the way.
I didn’t flinch, didn’t waver.
Someone shot one chunk. Others warped, veering out of the way.
A pillar of black-blue Capricorn stone speared out below us, more a barrier than the chunks it shoved out of the way, then dissipated into motes of light a second later.
We closed the distance, and the blade met the Simurgh’s silver flesh, carving out a shimmering silver line, so close in color that it looked like there was no line at all. From shoulder to back, to hip.
There was a dull rumble as more of our surroundings tore away, ready to smash us, and I decided to make the call. To break away, to say this is enough.
I couldn’t drop Rain, or risk losing him, which meant I had to use me. I kicked out, hard, my foot meeting the silver line. It flared, bright, and the Simurgh’s wings spread out around us, until they were ninety percent of what I could see. The pain of the jolt reaching my ribs and collarbone made my vision split. I couldn’t see straight.
I stopped descending. I could feel the forcefield break, as rubble hit it, and groped out for Rain.
“It’s okay,” Rain said.
I blinked, struggling to get my focus back, as darkness creeped in around the edges.
There was a crash far below us.
I managed to focus my vision on a distant point, feeling like a baby trying to focus her eyes for the first time.
Below us, more than half of the Simurgh’s body, including one arm, some smaller wings, and both legs, lay on the basement level of the facility. The accumulated damage from the Wardens, Rain, the beams, and the temperature shifts had added up enough for it to break away entirely. It lay there, limp and still.
The rest of her had slipped away.
Couldn’t pursue. Rain was using his power to remain suspended in the air. I let the Fragile One return, and got a firm grip on him, before floating up.
That was it. That was the damage we could do.
I floated up, slow and unsteady, wanting to be ready to let Rain catch me if I passed out and lost my flight and forcefield.
Capes were standing at the edge, looking down. Avoiding certain sections- not because the cracked ground was unsteady, but because Sveta was still there at one edge of the hole, back by the wall.
“Is that going to be enough?” Legend asked.
“No,” Narwhal said.
Legend flew down one floor, then out the hole in the exterior wall.
“It may have to be good enough,” ReSound said.
“It’s not,” Narwhal said. She looked haggard, ground down.
The screaming in our heads was fading, now. This time, I was pretty sure, it was because she was leaving. Escaping.
“There’s an option,” I said. “Tilt the balance.”
“Committing wholesale to your idea?” Chevalier asked.
“If your enemy steps forward to throw a punch, pull them further forward. If they retreat, drive them back,” I said. “Give them what they want. Too much of it.”
“I think this is just giving them what they want,” Chevalier said. Narwhal nodded.
“What is this giving them?” ReSound asked.
“Fume Hood and Dauntless,” I said. “We ask them to join the Fortuna network.”
“Putting us precariously close to the Titans completing their network,” Chevalier said. “Which makes it critical that one of our contingency plans works.”
“But it gives Fortuna a chance of fighting the Simurgh off,” I said. I swayed a little, even though I was flying.
“We’ll look into it,” Chevalier said. “Legend’s chasing. If he can do enough damage-”
Narwhal was already shaking her head. She didn’t seem to think he could.
It wasn’t my place to make this call. I couldn’t wrap this up. Not in the condition I was in.
I left them to it. I dropped down to the ground, and released Rain.
I saw him hold his wrist.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Broken, I think,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a trick we can use too often.”
He’d had his hand stuck through the biggest opening I could provide while still protecting him, and I’d either let the teeth crush bone or something had hit his hand, and the forcefield hadn’t given him leeway.
I felt a pang of guilt, and tried to push it away. There were protocols, for Simurgh fights. We weren’t supposed to dwell on guilt.
But the fight was done. She’d escaped.
Sveta was leaning against the wall, struggling to hold herself together.
“Keep your distance,” she said. “Don’t-”
The tendril lashed out. I caught it with the Fragile One’s forcefield hand.
She jumped, startled at that, and immediately reacted with more lashing out, more grabs. I caught them, deflected them, let others grab me. I moved a fistful of caught tendrils into one hand and held them, making my steady approach.
“We did it,” I told her. “If we get through tonight, this is fixable.”
“Not to me,” I told her. “Remember? We hung out all the time. You can’t hurt me.”
Her tendrils weren’t so much for striking as they were for grabbing and squeezing. My forcefield broke if struck, but held up to grabs and squeezes with little difficulty.
“Can I?” I asked, as I got in close enough to have her in arm’s reach. “Hug you?”
“Can you?” she asked.
I nodded, reaching out- before wincing, my fucking collarbone.
“Yeah,” she said, sounding more like Sveta and less like panic distilled. “Yeah, I thought so. You idiot.”
“We did okay,” I said. “Rain did well. You got Dinah. Now we have more to do.”
“You need medical care,” she said. “So does Rain, looking at him.”
More like herself by the second, stern, mom-ish. Like a good mom who cared. As the agitation dwindled, so did the shifts in her tendrils. It still wasn’t great, but… yeah.
“We can get that downstairs,” I said. “Do you want to, uh, ride in the Fragile One?”
“The Fragile One.”
“My forcefield. Or are you confident?”
“If Rain keeps his distance, I think we’re okay. Maybe keep an eye out for me?”
As a group, we made our departure. On to the next phase of the plan. We passed by the heroes who were recovering, getting first aid, or taking a minute to light up cigarettes or get their grounding in whatever ways they needed to do. Talking, being alone.
Tonight’s fight still wasn’t done.
On impulse, I looked back at Damsel.
It didn’t look like she was getting her bearings. She was alone, but she wasn’t finding or gathering up a strength in it.
We passed through the bulk of the Wardens, and I kept an eye on Sveta’s tendrils. Mostly, she seemed to have settled, though her body barely held a human shape. There was no lashing out. Her focus, at least for the moment, was on taking care of us.
“Good showing, Precipice, Breakthrough,” Golem said.
“Thanks,” Rain said.
I wished it was better. I wished I had confidence for this next phase, or that Fortuna would beat the Simurgh. Hopefully some combination of Legend, Dauntless, and Fume Hood working with Fortuna would stall her or scare her off.
Byron sat on a stone hand with Vista, his helmet off, his hair plastered to his head.
“Coming?” Rain asked.
Byron shook his head. “A mite too tired. Worn out. Can you get on without me?”
“Absolutely,” I said. I looked at Vista. “Look after each other, okay?”
Vista nodded, her hands resting on Byron’s helmet, which sat in her lap.
Out through the doors, down the stairs. One floor down, to the labs. To Chris and medical care, which I was all too happy to get. I wondered if they had a means of giving quick blood transfusions, because I was pretty sure my lightheadedness was due to a lack of the precious red stuff.
The door slid open. Cryptid, leaning over the workshop bench, strewn with beakers, flasks, and haphazard machines, turned to look at us. He was half-rat.
A syringe clicked, and plunged into his neck.
“Do we have an audience?” I heard Riley’s voice, cheery. “Show them, show them.”
Chris- Cryptid stared at us.
His posture, defensive. A glare on his face.
“We’ve been working on all this time, I walked him through it. I do think it’s a particular bit of genius, even if we’re cutting it close,” Riley announced.
The bad feeling in my gut solidified into something ugly.
“Where is it, Cryptid?” I asked.
“Didn’t make it,” he told us.