“Make you a deal,” I said.
Lord of Loss shook his head, his ‘face’ a smiling collection of metal strips. It was overlarge, looming as much as the rest of him.
“We’ve got a big, big bag of money,” I said. “We want to buy your services. You’ll get more than you will working for Love Lost, you get to keep your hands clean, and you can steer clear of the clusterfuck surrounding that group.”
“No,” Lord of Loss said. “That’s not how we operate.”
“You’re mercenaries,” Chastity said.
“That’s the number one thing about mercenaries, you’ll do anything for money!”
“We work for money. Rules are necessary.”
“Being able to switch sides and do the crazy betrayal thing while getting paid for it has got to be the best part of being a mercenary, and you’re giving that up!?” Chastity asked, aghast, the tension of the small army that was lined up against us adding to the extremes and modulation of her voice.
All around us, the landscape was changing. Snow was melting, heaps of it by the sides of the road that had been cleared for construction toppling and folding into itself. The wind continued to whip around us, and the air that carried that air to us made me aware of how stale it was, with something mixed into it, like an oppressive haze of baby powder or shampoos.
“We get hired, we do the job, we do it well. Rinse, repeat,” Lord of Loss intoned the words, his voice low in the way only Brutes could manage. “We keep up the rules of the game, we don’t make enemies we don’t have to.”
Others in that mob were looking ready to throw themselves at us. Nursery in particular looked ready to draw blood.
To stall, I decided to try something. “I’ll make you another deal. Talk with us. Let’s make sure we’re on the same page. If you still think that this is okay when we’re done, then we pick up where we left off. In-”
“No,” Lord of Loss said.
“In exchange,” I said. “We pay you for your time. We pass you money hand over fist to buy your time. Nursery gets more control over her area, we get nothing except your consideration.”
“Not your money to give away,” Aroa said, under her breath.
“I’m guessing it’s not yours either,” Lord of Loss said, talking past me to address Aroa. He chuckled as much as anything as he uttered, “No.”
“Did you hear what happened to the Navigators?” I asked Lord of Loss. To Nursery, I said, “Are you aware they’re putting kids in the line of fire?”
“If we talk, it’s going to be after we’ve captured you,” Lord of Loss said.
He shifted position, which prompted me to look back. Past the ground floor of the house, past kitchen, living room, and back stairwell, I could see the rear door, and I could see his bodily mass planted down there. Whatever form he wore, it was extended enough that he could cover two exits at once, and his oversized head was mobile, free to move where he needed it.
Foil, quiet up until this point, started shooting the crossbow, launching her augmented bolts. I’d known her as Flechette, back in the days when I’d thought my boyfriend, Eric, and Uncle Neil dying at the hands of an unstoppable giant lizard was the worst life was going to get. Back then, she’d had something elegant. Now she had something big.
The skewers were about as long my arm was from elbow to fingertip, tapered at both sides. They punched through Lord of Loss’ digits, where a hand or clawed foot had just touched ground to give him leverage.
He didn’t react to the pain. He did try to lift his hand up, only to jerk to a halt.
Our cue to go. I covered the rear flank as the others charged for the door. The headless spider with the crossbow strapped to its body was Foil’s mount. Parian slumped between Foil and the crossbow, leaning hard into Foil. She was, at least, managing the spider, despite her condition.
“Cut through buildings!” I told them. “Lord of Loss never seems to go indoors at any point!”
I heard crumbling and looked back. Through the narrow aperture of the front door, I could see Lord raising an oversized, clawed extremity, shedding debris. He hadn’t managed to un-impale himself or pull the needles from the stones, but he had managed to pull up the pavement.
Someone ducked underneath the hand, skidding on the ground. A cape, dressed in an all-covering orange bodysuit, who ran fast enough that they clipped the edge of the doorframe in their crazed run.
I raised my forcefield as I saw them fix their attention on me. I could fly backward without worrying too much about bumping into anything, so I kept the majority of my focus on them.
I saw them glance to one side. They aimed to go around me.
Half right. They leaped, power activating, to throw themselves at the wall. They collided in a shower of orange and amber light and sparks, and rebounded, no longer human. A swirling mass of energy.
The impact when he hit the Wretch was violent, the impact carrying through the air to scatter papers, money we hadn’t grabbed, and the washed and dried silverware that had been laid at the edge of the kitchen’s counter.
He recovered, momentum lost, clearly startled that what he’d planned hadn’t worked.
Reminded me of mom, just… bigger and spikier. Aggressive instead of defensive.
My focus was on him, so I didn’t get to see what was happening at the exit here. Precipice was stepping in, at the least.
I stared down my opponent. They were dressed like a hero from one of the old Japanese superteams, covered head to toe, hard helmet with full face coverage, a bodysuit with stretchy material with light decoration. They did have some padding, though. Elbow and knee pads-
“Need help, Antares?” Candy interrupted my observations.
“Save your juice,” I said.
Elbow and knee pads, and some chest protection that made it ambiguous if they were flat or if they had pronounced pecs. Whatever the case, armor could indicate vulnerability, either to bait, as was my case, or by accident. Theirs was too light, too built for things other than deflecting bullets or stopping knives.
They acted again. Again, a sharp, high-speed lunge, not aimed at me or at the others, but at a wall. Again, the impact, sparks and light. Post-impact, as they rebounded off, they’d become a large, whirling death ball formed of hard energy.
A stray arm of the Wretch blocked the way, deflecting them. They landed hard, sliding on the floor and bumping into a table. They wasted no time in using their power again, holding to the pattern, but glancing off of the ceiling instead. Blocking it meant flying back to get myself thoroughly in the way put me perilously close to the Heartbroken.
They were an air hockey puck. Not well suited for the direct strike, always bouncing off of something sufficiently hard and flat.
I was ten invisible people superimposed over one another, each wildly swinging sledgehammers around.
The thought, as casual as it was, threw me off. The natural hazard. It had made taking care of me at the asylum that much harder, and I hadn’t made it easier.
I drew in a deep breath, throwing myself to one side to intercept again.
The pit of despair was there, waiting for me to get too close before I had that stomach-sinking feeling that anyone felt if standing on a ledge, provided they were unable to fly. It was easier to deal with and wholly recontextualized now that I didn’t feel like someone was lurking nearby, ready to give me a shove or hem me in. But easier was different from easy.
The others hadn’t slipped through.
“What’s the holdup?” I called back.
“Spider’s too big for the door! Moving over to snake, dealing with the big guy!”
I would have provided some assistance, but I couldn’t take my attention off of the air hockey puck.
The puck leaped forward, but dropped like they were tripping over their own feet. The goal, though, was to make as straight a shot as he was capable of, lunging while close to the ground, striking the floor at a shallow angle and then going directly for our team.
I’d kind of expected it, though. My mom had done that a few times in sparring, trying to roll between my feet.
Pads meant vulnerability. The hard bit of plastic or metal at the wrist was meant to help him when post-power, skidding to a stop. I blocked the impact, mindful that I wasn’t too close to heartbroken, then followed up, chasing.
They weren’t fully recovered when I crashed into them. I wrapped my arm around them, gathering them up into a full nelson.
They stomped the ground, propelling us both into a lunge, straight for the ceiling. I used my flight to reorient us in the air, denying them the follow-up contact. Then I used my aura, my chest pressed hard against their back, the feeling emanating from me and into them point blank.
I wanted to break them, to make their efforts less strategic and more flailing. I could feel it in how they jerked and kicked, now.
They grazed furniture with a kicking toe, and again, we were propelled away, hard. I twisted us in the air so it was my back that slid across the ceiling. The paint and the ceiling’s surface cracked badly with the contact, and something on the other side pushed back. It was meaty, broader across than my back was, and it slurped.
I didn’t break through that thin layer of ceiling, and neither did the thing on the other side. Not until my enemy reached up to hit it. Paint broke, cracks spread out, and we were boosted away from it, the boost no doubt being the original intent.
I was glad it wasn’t a death-ball boost, at least.
Their power had two components. The dash, the boost, the ‘kick-off’, where they moved four or five times as fast. If they could bounce off of a solid surface as they did it, then they went full death ball, becoming a whirling sphere as tall as I was.
My goal in the now was to pump them full of emotion without saturating my own team, and to keep them from achieving their move. I kept us away from the spreading break in the ceiling, with red membrane-covered flesh pressing down against the hole, too wide to penetrate.
“Bring him here!” Chastity called out.
Him, then. She did say she had a body sense.
Bringing him closer to the ground came with a danger, though. If he touched the ground, he could kick off of it. I tangled my legs with his, moving us in the air so those tangled feet weren’t anywhere near the floor.
Chastity stalked closer. She raised her right hand up over her left shoulder as she advanced, and it glowed nebulously with a dark blue energy. She had to make a small hop to give herself the height to make contact- a backhand swing that caught the air hockey puck across the face of the helmet.
He was torn from my arms, slapped down against the ground. He didn’t bounce or rebound. The floor cracked beneath him, far more fragile than it should have been
My foe groaned, as he slumped down to the ground, hands going to his helmet, so he could hold his head up. The sound he made was a long groan like every single involuntary utterance I’d made while cringing about middle school me, except with the duration and volume dialed to the maximum.
Chastity raised her hand up near her face, covering the smile she wore. One of her fingernails was glowing, and a ring at one of her other fingers was catching that light in a way more intense than normal. “Bitch slap delivered.”
“Not the reaction I expected,” I said, as I floated away from the air hockey puck. “Distilled defeat, you said?”
“It looks different for everyone, but everyone reaches a point where their body can’t take anymore and shuts down, whatever the mind thinks it wants. I hurry things along,” she said. She gave the ceiling a dubious look. “Let’s get outside. Outside has to be better.”
“You’re going to need to protect me,” she said, waggling her hand in my general direction, the glowing fingernail in focus. Then, like she was just now remembering, “And I’m going to need to protect Precipice.”
She hurried back toward Precipice with a kind of urgency. The bitch slap target was ignored, assumed out of commission. She had a body sense, too, which apparently mapped out to anyone she’d used her power on, while also helping her aim her attacks by keeping her aware of where her potential slap targets were.
Her ‘bitch slap’ was a dangerous weapon, but a fragile one. One shot, and if the target wasn’t immune or resistant to emotion powers, then they were out of the fight. If she was more confident or powerful in her target’s eyes, it hit harder and lasted longer. The fragility, though, was that the second she was taken down a peg, the effects all broke, everyone she’d slapped down was back in play, and she ate some of the backlash.
It wouldn’t be too bad so long as she only had one foe she’d slapped down.
The others were outside, with only Candy at the door, watching and waiting for her sister’s return.
I flew outside and up to a point where I still had the house to my back but I could see over the others’ heads. We were surrounded, but they were managing. Parian had threads going out in every direction, hampering the potential attackers, Lord of Loss was having to pull a clawed extremity from the side of the house where it had been nailed down, and it looked like he was reconfiguring into a form- three giant heads and multiple arms were drawing back into a central mass.
“I wasted juice,” Candy was telling Chastity. “Lord of Loss doesn’t feel it.”
I could have told you that, I thought. That was a shame. “Nursery. If you can hit Nursery, do it. Just- nothing permanent.”
Candy looked up at me, then nodded.
As horrifying as that woman is, I thought. Foil was still assisting Parian, who was hunched over atop a spider. Her being there made using the large crossbow difficult, but Foil did her best.
The Heartbroken hurried toward Parian and Foil. Aroa got tangled in threads that Parian was manipulating, and Parian had to devote attention to maneuvering the spider, rotating it so she could see Aroa, and then disentangling her.
With the damage to her throat, it was apparently easier to use cosmic power to telekinetically fill a spider made of fabric, then manipulate that spider to turn around, than it was to twist herself around.
Lord of Loss reached out with a clawed extremity, spikes still embedded in it. Closer to his main body, that limb was unfurling, but there was still enough anchoring for it to move and manipulate things.
The claw reached, and I flew to put myself between the others and the hand. I’d block and fend it off-
The length of the arm hid a lance within it. It passed through a gap in the palm of the claw, thrusting toward me and toward the others. I used the Wretch to grab it, but the banding of white stone-like or metal-like strips ran along the length from tip to base, twisting it to give it a kind of rifling. Not something I or the Wretch could get a hold on.
Instead, while it skidded past me, scraping by the Wretch and numerous invisible, super-strong hands, I pushed it off course.
The lance dissolved. I had to maneuver to keep the strips from catching or slicing at me as they withdrew.
I couldn’t get in close, because that put me in reach of another three claws. Five claws if I considered the dissolving ones.
He’d been a mass of large faces, thin arms, and large claws. Everything about reach and perception. Or I was assuming the extra faces were for perception. It was possible it was the equivalent of a man in the jungle wearing a mask on the back of his head to confuse the tigers that wanted to pounce on him from behind.
He’d improved over the last little while. I could remember him being limited to forms. He’d spent time with Marquis, hadn’t he? And Marquis was a top tier changer, with inventive, by-the-moment adaptations.
Lord of Loss seemed intent on taking a few lessons from that playbook. I kept a wary eye out. This was brute-against-brute standard playbook, unfortunately.
I raised my voice. “They tore people to pieces and those pieces are still alive! They took pieces so those people can’t even be put back together!”
“You pulverized Valefor’s jaw,” Lord of Loss said.
“If you don’t see the distinction between Valefor and a plucky band of heroes who made it their life’s mission to stop human trafficking, then something’s really fucking wrong with you, Lord of Loss.”
“I think there are lines,” Lord of Loss said, as he dissolved into more narrow lengths. Two claws with morasses of white strips joining them to his main body gripped the house to hold him aloft. “Between Valefor and those heroes, yes. But playing fair and destroying others? That’s a clear line too.”
“He’s a monster, Loss, and if that’s what you think, why the fuck are you helping people who butchered heroes? They crossed your line!”
“My line gets drawn when I’m hired,” he said. “I can’t quit a job partway through. I’ll consider things after.”
“The damage is being done now! They’ll use that weapon or power again!”
“You think,” he said.
I grit my teeth.
I saw the silver blades appear. Precipice’s power- slicing through the air, to cut at the thickest portion of Lord of Loss’s supports.
I flew, maximum speed, to capitalize on it before the opportunity was lost. Precipice had to have decided to do it to capitalize on Lord of Loss being distracted with conversation.
Lengths of Lord of Loss’ mummy-wrapped-in-iron-bandages form extended out, encasing the parts that had been marked out with silver lines. External support.
A clawed extremity reached my way. I slammed into the palm, hoping to throw him off enough that the silver would snap and the limbs would give way.
No effect. He didn’t topple. Clawed digits of a hand larger than I was closed in around me. I spun, relying on the spinning force combined with the reach of the Wretch to ensure I had enough of a gap to get out.
The music box tune was plinking all around us, and as Precipice and the heartbroken hurried to stay in rough formation with the spider, I could see tracks of footprints where the snow had been pressed down, and the thin red of bodily fluids was leeching up into the compacted snow, through the slats in the road-turned-flooring.
Crimson footprints in white snow.
Snowbanks were moving, not just because they were crumpling to become misty building interior, but because they acted as suitable containers, and Nursery’s power worked by filling up containers. That included filling up living, people containers, throats, sinuses, ear canals…
Chastity had her whip out, and was using it to repel soldiers. The cracks were audible and distracting as she cleared a path for the spider to move forward. The soldiers that weren’t powered were dealing with being tugged and limited in their movements by a thousand fine pieces of thread.
The ones that were powered were the focus of Foil’s crossbow and darts. One shot aimed at a man wearing armor bands that hugged his muscular physique, with each band connected to the next with short chains. The bolt passed through armor by the ‘penetrate anything’ effect, grazed the skin, then came back into reality through use of Foil’s enhanced timing. The bolt was effectively fused to the armor it had been passing through, it retained its momentum, and it threw the the man off balance. His hand touched the road, and another bolt passed through armor to secure the armor of the forearm and armor of the gauntlet to the floorboards below.
Lord of Loss shifted position on his perch. He was making himself into the heavy-hitting centaur form, but for now the four legs and one arm were spindly, drawn overlong, to the point it didn’t look like he could support himself. The arm that wasn’t formed was expanding into a shield to protect him. At the top of his head, strips were hardening into a position where they formed a crown of braided antlers.
Where one spindle-leg punched through the roof, I could see the red mist rising. Meaty squelches and growths reached up and wound around his leg, only to break away as he shifted his footing. Umbilical cord growths reached out, groping for potential targets.
I considered striking at someone else while Lord of Loss was finishing. How long did I have? Ten seconds? Twenty? How much time to get to another point on the battlefield, eliminate the biggest problem, and still be here if I was needed to protect the others?
He might have read my mind, because he proved why I couldn’t just leave him to his own devices- he reached out with a hand, as if to point. Again, the lance emerged from within, stabbing out, rotating as it emerged this time. A hundred feet long, and the tapering point closest to me was still thick enough I could have wrapped my arms around it, if I didn’t have the Wretch to do it for me.
Again, to much less effect than the last time, I deflected the point. With the Wretch doing the heavy lifting, I was free to look back, seeing what he was aiming for.
The cloth snake flanked our group and kept a good five or six of Lord of Loss’ soldiers from approaching. It was winding through and among cars. If I were him, I would have speared the snake and flicked the cars to put them in the others’ way.
For now, I could keep it from being accurate. It struck ground close to the snake, then swiped to one side. Cloth tangled around the lance’s point, and the snake tore, losing a quarter of its total length. The thing started to deflate, and then the tail section twisted itself together, tight enough to offer a seal.
In the movies or comics, sparks would have flown as the Wretch fought the rotation and force of the lance. Here, it was only movements of cold air, some collected ice and snow shedding and falling as a deceptively gentle rain to the street below.
He drew back, his entire body pulling away to help bring his lance far enough away that I wasn’t embracing its length anymore.
He laughed. My expression behind my mask could have been stone.
I couldn’t stop it. The next one would strike home. Every time he repeated himself, he was more forceful, more consistent.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
That he was being such a gloating asshole about it made me feel worse.
Options. What are my options?
If I couldn’t deflect, catch, or otherwise influence the hit- predict the target and move them? Or something else?
Just thinking about my options helped matters, my confidence surging back… and in the wake of that, I was aware that my emotions were jumping all over the place.
Precipice. Fucking Rain.
He’d hit me with his power, after being explicitly asked not to. Why?
To signal. There was no visual indicator he was using his power.
He wanted me to act… and I had an idea what he wanted me to do. I flew at Lord of Loss. Another hit, like the one I’d delivered before, only the silver blades weren’t in place.
Even if this didn’t work, it might delay the next telescoping lance from coming out.
I slammed into Lord of Loss, and this time there was an effect. Far below, two forelegs of his centaur form were breaking. I was slower than the thrown silver blades, so Precipice had signaled me, then timed the throws to connect just before I did.
Lord of Loss lurched forward, his forward tilt and the falling legs damaging the house as they toppled. His shield came forward, the end slamming into the ground, which allowed him to avoid a faceplant. Already, his legs were reforming.
Silver blades hit the shield, and I hit Lord of Loss. The shield broke, and the broken end skidded on the ground. Where it skidded, floorboards broke and shattered, and masses beneath the floorboards began to move, disturbing them further.
It was taking two of us just to keep an Endbringer-sized breaker from getting fully put together and building up his momentum. Our team wasn’t getting away because forward progress was a slog, hampered by Nursery’s power and the soldiers that had to be dealt with one by one.
My ears rang in the wake of a blast somewhere down on the battlefield. It was one of three shots- lasers that hurt to listen to. The cape was one of Lord of Loss’s underlings, it seemed, and they were slinging blasts like nobody’s business. A flaming lob high overhead that forced our guys to scatter, then a volley of green and black spheres, that cracked like eggs and leaked out acid. Foil turned the spider-mounted crossbow around to fire, and the blaster threw something to their feet- crystal encased them, freezing them immobile within for less than a second. It was less than a second because Foil’s shot hit the crystal and both the bolt and the crystal shattered. The cape was free to fire off some more artillery-like lobs.
Foil was running out of ammunition.
Lord of Loss advanced, two of his legs unsteady, forcing him to use the end of the lance or the shield to support his weight. I circled over his head like a vulture, ready to act, and he was keeping an eye out for me. The lance moved, swiping out.
The movement of the lance produced a shockwave that threw my flying off course.
Have to be careful, I told myself. Can’t- can’t repeat the Crawler situation.
With the force that lance was swinging around with, a good hit could destroy the Wretch and produce a residual flurry of wind that would slam me into a hard surface.
Mood, I thought.
Self-doubt and regret was Precipice. Another signal.
I took the signal for what it was and engaged Lord of Loss. Again, the lance swiped past me. The aftermath was worse than it had been, pulling me into the eddy of air that followed after the lance.
I closed the distance, and I landed a solid blow. Lord of Loss began to crumble.
One-two punches. I wasn’t even sure it was possible to take Lord of Loss out of commission, but if we could slow him down enough…
The crumbling continued.
Did we kill him?
With each piece that hit the ground, more of the ‘floor’ broke, where the floor was just something interdimensional, a landscape rewrite that produced floorboards about as durable as popsicle sticks, with a whole lot of fertile meat things beneath that surface.
He emerged, a phoenix from its egg. Bird-form, built like a hawk, but with elaborate, extensive wings, and ‘streamers’ of metal strips that were more rigid than not, with sharp edges. Each pump of the wings was slow, barely matching the downward pull of gravity. Each pump was stronger than the last.
He turned human, shedding his breaker exterior, then went breaker again.
I flew to intercept, while it was still largely immobile. He didn’t try to dodge, and he didn’t fight me. With the Wretch active, I punched in, and I broke through the exterior.
I saw Lord of Loss himself. A figure, not that tall for someone who made such chronically large breaker forms. He wasn’t human, but existed instead as a nimbus of glowing strips that formed a vaguely human silhouette where they intersected most and were brightest. Where they pulled away, they became solid.
The loose strips and broken ends began to close in around me, like I was now standing in the midst of an giant’s open mouth, fangs on either side of me, fingers curling in to keep me from escaping. It was still flying, if lopsided, but that wasn’t my immediate concern.
I had to pull away. He got to keep flying.
Aroa and Chastity were dealing with the blaster of infinite variety. Aroa’s power was a blast of her own, but not the kind that was easily dodged. It was as instantaneous as lightning, and it left afterimages more than actual images, and those after images curled instead of zig-zagging, peeled off instead of forking.
She wasn’t one of the strongest Heartbroken, based on what I’d been told. Not in this kind of situation. Not with relatively short range. Her power stung people, whole-body, and it adjusted the pain response to make them like pain, whether it was from her or another source.
In another circumstance, I imagined she could be like Regent, insidious and very dangerous. Here, it was a way to distract, unnerve, and even condition an unwary foe to not want to get out of the way of danger.
Lord of Loss’s bird form took evasive action to avoid Precipice’s power. One good hit could buy me the chance to get in and take him down, since he would be unable to flap his wings, but he wasn’t inclined to allow that.
As I closed him, I saw his head turn, noting me. He veered to one side, crashing through the skeleton of a building that was only beams and girders dusted with snow and covered in sheets of ice. As pieces toppled, I was forced to back off.
We were getting bogged down. The blaster had been doing something strategic in lobbing that fire and spreading that acid. The ground had been broken, and one mass had sprouted, less of a tongue and more like a woman stretched out to ten feet in length, hairless and skinny, and wrapped up in a layered straightjacket of her own flesh and translucent, veiny flesh. Her toothless mouth yawned open as she jerked one way and the other, her attention on Candy.
Escape routes were lost to mist and Nursery’s power. The enemy’s soldiers that were still in the fight were putting up a good fight. One had a Foil bolt through the barrel of his gun, but was holding the gun by the barrel with the bolt used as a spear.
I changed direction, swooping in to go after the problem elements. Broken legs would have to do.
As I veered off, so did Lord of Loss. One could have seen it as us flying in formation, but it was the opposite. I made a sharp right turn, Lord of Loss made a sharp left.
I knew what he’d do- there were only so many destinations for him. I was faster, but he could hit harder and bigger.
He’d flown through the construction sites that littered Love Lost’s neighborhood. I did the same.
Come on, Wretch. Don’t fuck with me. If you go from grabbing shit to refusing to grab anything here, I’m going to be pissed.
The first attempt failed, as I skimmed past a stack of what looked like solar glass panels, rigged up with chains so the crane could lift them up. The Wretch didn’t touch any of it.
On the second attempt, I veered too close to the mist. The tarp I grabbed with both my real hands and the Wretch broke away. Nursery’s power had turned some of it to curtain or some shit like that, and the connection between the two halves wasn’t strong.
I could see something writhing beneath the curtain that fell aside now that the tarp was no longer attached.
My teeth grit, I circled around. The others were winning their fights but losing the war. Candy wasn’t using her power, Aroa wasn’t a gamechanger, Chastity had a tightrope to walk, and Foil was doing a damn good job considering she was preoccupied with the injured Parian, but she was still running out of ammunition.
And then there was Precipice. Rain. I looked at him, and he turned from looking at Lord of Loss, who was tracing a loose u-turn, to look up at me.
To be sure he could see me, I used my arm to point at the nearby crane.
He fired, striking at the neck of the crane itself.
Again, still flying toward my target, I indicated.
Come on, I thought. Get this right, and please, don’t let the wind jar the crane and make the neck split, because that’s not what I need.
The silver blade cut into the cable, this time.
I flew into the hook, grabbing it, activated my strength and tore it free. Multiple cables thinner than my wrist trailed behind me.
Lord of Loss was diving. He skimmed damaged buildings on his way down, and the ones touched by Nursery’s power broke apart. More holes in the ground, more meat rising up.
But he was drawing nearer and nearer to the ground now. He wasn’t going to crush anyone in the group, slamming into them with a bird form the size of a large truck. He was going to destroy the landscape and let Nursery’s things out.
A loop in the air let me catch the midpoint of the cabling. From there, it was a question of catching up. I’d turned right, hit the construction site, and now was charging in. Lord of Loss was bigger, more ungainly, but powerful, and he’d needed more time and room to turn around. Now we were roughly the same distance from the group, both flying in like jousting knights, and my teammate and allies were hunkered down near the point where Lord of Loss and I were likely to clash.
Parian was knitting her snake and spider together, forming something else. Chastity and Aroa fended off the others nearby, with whipcracks and blasts.
Precipice hit Lord of Loss across the wing, and Lord of Loss froze. He glided, not flapping, not moving, and continued his steady, inexorable descent. With his course being what it was, he would hit the edge of the road and slide alongside the group, carving out a trench.
That trench would mean no escape.
Precipice’s silver line wore off. Fresh silver blades hit. One at the head. Another at the body.
By virtue of being faster, I passed over the group, veering to one side so I didn’t brain or slash any of them with the trailing ends of the cabling, and flew straight at Lord of Loss.
The giant bird made of calcified metal strips laughed, a booming sound. Like he was having fucking fun.
I crashed into him, the loops and cabling catching him at the neck- but he wasn’t rigid. I tried to steer his whole body up, but he angled his wings to force the dive.
Leaving the loops where they were, I grabbed the hook. I had a split second to decide what to do with it, and… there wasn’t a building or landscape feature in reach that I could latch onto. Given scale and momentum, I doubted it would have mattered.
Instead, using my strength, I impaled the one wing and hauled on it. He fought me, and it was an arm wrestling contest, with the distinction that neither of us were using our own strength.
I almost faltered, feeling the doubt creep in, knowing that a particularly violent crash with steel cabling whipping around everywhere would be worse. Then the feeling disappeared.
It wasn’t enough to steer Lord of Loss far enough away to matter. But Parian had her combined animal, almost shaped like a hand planted on the ground, with the arm extending up and out. Akin to a spear planted in the ground to stop a charging horse. Lord of Loss rammed into it and the vibration that ran through him rattled my brain, shaking my senses to the point that I momentarily lost touch with everything.
We spiraled out, and a combination of jarring impact and a cable looped around my arm kept me from flying up and away from the crash site.
I lay where I was, cold and hurting from head to toe, a steel cable draped behind me and two uncomfortably beneath me, and I thought about how I’d need to kick Precipice’s ass, after this. I knew he was trying to make Lord of Loss hesitate, that I’d caught only the edge of the effect, but he needed to put one and one together. If the heartbroken’s power wouldn’t work, why would his?
Lord of Loss was pulling himself together. I was just about as fast as he was, which wasn’t fast at all.
A silver blade hit Lord of Loss in one wing. He’d been leaning on it for support and balance, and it broke with the pressure.
I backed up, skirting the hole that Parian’s stuffed spidersnake had made as the impact had driven it into the ground. Mass was rising up, but it was enough competing parts that they were getting jammed up in the hole.
“How’s Parian?” I asked.
“Not good. We’ve been trying to get out, stick to shaker protocols-”
“Don’t fight them on their turf,” I said.
“But she covers so much ground with that power.”
I nodded, my jaw set. Fuck, I hurt all over.
There weren’t any good escape routes on foot, and I didn’t trust carrying a whole team by air. It was one thing if I carried Kenzie’s projection cube with straps. Another thing if it was a team of people, some injured.
Aroa had a bloody nose, but her eyes glittered. Chastity had three glowing fingernails. Candy-
“I still have a shot. I’m saving it for Nursery, right?”
I nodded. “Might not end the effect.”
“You could let us be taken prisoner,” Foil said. “Fly away, get help.”
I shook my head.
“Keep it in mind as a last resort.”
“Last we saw, Nursery was pissed. If I leave you, you all get the Nursery treatment.”
Chastity’s voice was low, dangerous. “I told myself I’d never have a baby. I’ve changed too many diapers, given too many baths, fed smelly food to smellier cousins and whatever. I’d sooner die.”
“Let’s not let it come to that,” I said. “And while we’re assessing what to do and what not to do… Precipice.”
“Sorry,” he said. “Panic.”
“If it was a gun or a toy I’d take it away from you,” I said. “It almost fucked me up when I tried to lasso him.”
“Sorry,” he said.
The bulge where the stuffed doll had been driven into the floorboards was opening up now. The bits of flesh that had been competing for space at the edge of the hole were now rising tall. One reached out to start pumping seeds into the ear of one of Lord of Loss’s soldiers. Another started trying to feed on the stuffed animal. Futile. The stuffed creation fought and smashed until it was pulled down.
Others were creeping out, trying to seize on fallen soldiers. All together, they stopped, leaving those soldiers alone.
“She’s here,” I said. They’ll be controlled instead of acting animal.
“She’s there,” Aroa said. She grabbed Candy by the shoulders, spinning her around.
Candy blew a kiss.
I couldn’t see a result, aside from a stagger on the distant Nursery’s part, where she stood by a building. But I felt a general change in the movements of Nursery’s creations. Some started groping for unconscious and injured soldiers again.
“Two out of ten,” Aroa said.
“I don’t trust your reviews,” Candy said.
“If you want to pose while using your ability you have to do way better than that.”
“You’d lie just to make me feel bad because you get your-”
“Focus,” Chastity said.
“Okay. But I’m out of power, just so you know. I hit her with a quarter tank of happiness oversaturation.”
The battlefield was Nursery’s, even if she wasn’t in control; she was keeping one hand on her head and looking around in alarm, but she was still creating mist. Any hard impacts broke the ground and released monsters.
Lord of Loss, immune to those monsters, was stomping around, tearing everything up. Some of his soldiers were still there at the edges.
I had to digest the flow of events, scouring my brain to think of how we were supposed to get out of this.
I surveyed the battlefield, where Lord of Loss was near the center, standing tall again, not any worse for wear. The ground was room temperature with stale air, the air above cold, and the two combined to make something that was the worst of both worlds, reeking of blood and bile. Tentacles, tongues, and skin-straightjacket women were standing out from the ruined landscape, others were moving beneath the cracked floorboards to the point that those floorboards bulged or oozed with meat. The stuffed animal that was losing its fight against the meat.
“I think I get how your power is really supposed to work,” I said.
“Mine?” Rain asked.
“Who else?” I asked. “Listen carefully, because whether I’m right or wrong, this is going to suck.”