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It looked like lightning striking in slow motion, but it was black with distortions here and there around the edges; blurring, fisheye, telescoping and hyperclarity. When this lightning struck, it remained where it was.
Where enough different strikes intersected enough times, that which lay within broke away, falling back to reveal something else on the other side. The Cheit portal was the biggest case of it. The border between Gimel and Cheit broke away, and as it did, buildings from that other Earth were revealed, intersecting with facets and slices of Gimel. Some small, some vast.
The merging saw buildings collapsing, or shedding one wall out of four.
The camera toppled backward, providing a partial view of the single parahuman at the epicenter of it, only partially in frame. It was apparent she was taller than the buildings around her. Some of those buildings were five stories tall, at least. What was visible looked like sheets of black crystal and rolling carpets of fine grey-green smoke that looked soft from a distance, but revealed themselves for what they were near the base, near the camera, as they broke apart into clouds and curling wisps.
Head not in picture, but she did twist slowly, hips rotating, upper body rotating more, as she took in her environment. Her silhouette was only barely human now.
Near the portal, at the worst of it, more was falling away. Gimel revealed Cheit, Cheit revealed Gimel, and when both fell away, there was a landscape of black crystal that seemed to connect to this new titan.
She moved a limb, a heavy ‘hand’ that gave off smoke constantly. Smoke that had been lazily curling around her moved suddenly, solidifying into a solid form like the face of a nearby building that was suffering some of that black-lightning cracking, green-gray in color. Shoring it up?
The building came down violently. The solid gas exploded out into a rolling wall of the stuff, which consumed the camera’s view.
Or had she been intentionally tearing it down?
Visual snow and static slowly overtook the camera’s field of view, glass cracked, and then the feed went black.
The screen shifted to footage from a distant camera, showing cracks spreading. Those cracks produced more smoke, but this was only debris from roads collapsing, buildings toppling, as those black-lightning cracks extended for miles. The silhouette of the smoke-titan was visible at the epicenter. She was walking, head bent.
Eric, like many others, was all tension as he watched. He leaned forward and gripped the table’s edge, having stood from his seat.
“How many people are still in the city?” he asked.
“Thousands. Tens of thousands,” Citrine said, from the end of the table.
Which was a far cry from tens or hundreds of millions.
“Do we have word from the leadership?” he asked.
“Making calls, some incoming,” Pearce reported. “The call center downstairs is handling it.”
The Wardens led from the front lines, because they had to. The people who knew how heroes worked and how villains thought were the same types of people who wanted to be in the thick of things, helping. Most of the time, it worked. The appearance of Gimel and emergence of the city with all of its doorways to other worlds was a dozen diplomatic crises in one. Add in the villains banding together, villains from other worlds who had been stranded here who needed to be broken up, and a massive population of vulnerable, displaced people, and the Wardens had their hands full.
They’d made it this far. Two years.
The screens were switching constantly. Searching as if to find one thing to lock onto that would turn this incident into a clear picture.
The main screens switched to each show half of an overhead view. Satellite camera. The epicenter of the attack, the clouds of smoke from the resulting destruction, and those cracks that spread out, like that from the tap of a hammer on a windowpane, except in three dimensions, not two. A city in black and white, with a shadow of gold due to the prevalence of the solar windows reflecting tinted light down onto snow.
That shadow of gold was swiftly becoming ordinary shadow. The smoke and dust was reaching high enough to cut off some of the light.
Abruptly, the damage began to spread at another point in the city.
“Overlay. Bring up the overlay,” Eric said. Belatedly, uselessly, he added, “Please.”
They brought up overlays. First, the series of icons in bubbles that floated over the city, showing who was where. Part of Larue’s team elsewhere in the facility was tracking capes by geolocation and affiliation.
At the center of that new manifestation of cracks and destruction, a purple bubble with a triangular point extended down. The icon, a stylized woman in a fedora with tie, minimalist face, marked it as Contessa. The purple served to label her as a special case. The Red Queen and her group were other special cases.
“Do they have eyes on her?”
“No,” Larue said. “Sending a flier in with a camera.”
The Wardens would need to know what was happening.
Cinereal’s icon in a white bubble with a point at one corner, a ‘6’ encased in the corner. Six parahumans in her group. There were other bubbles for Valkyrie and her flocks, Narwhal, for Stonewall, Miss Militia, Legend, and Topflight. White for Wardens.
The PRTCJ were looped in with Wardens staff and Patrol. Guarding the staff, setting up heroes, managing portals and setting up camps and waypoints that helped guide refugees out or served as points to defend in case of attack. Their icons were surrounded by bubbles of light green. The same numbers in the bottom right to indicate how many were in each group, but other icons at other corners to mark if they were adjacent to unpowered groups, and what groups those were. Defense, situation management, comms, infrastructure.
Other hero teams got blue. He noted each, wishing there was one that would provide an easy answer. Foresight, the Shepherds, Breakthrough, Advance Guard, Solace, Rooftop Champs, Dream Parade, The Wayfarers, Auzure, Wizard Stars, Trueblue, Erring Right, Rowdyhawks, Sward, Virtuous Industries, Huntsmen, Girls at Bat, Shelter Skelter, Good Vandals, Twee, and then a half-dozen more who were too small for him to remember, or who were offscreen, trusted to handle things like helping out in Gimel’s Europe.
Six mercenary teams that the Wardens had elected to hire. Yellow bubbles. Three Librarians, Palanquin, Liquid Gold, Lickety Split, Trigger House, and Riina.
There were other mercenary groups the Wardens hadn’t hired, but they were marked down on the map as not bubbles, but icons within red ‘x’s. There were a lot of red ‘x’s. Villains. Some of the ‘x’s had diamonds above, to the right, and even below. The numbers of diamonds indicated priority and threat to the city. When mercenaries were also notorious villains, they got treated like villains.
The villains matched the heroes in number, more or less. Many were staying within or near the city.
The door opened, and Armstrong came in the door. Eric straightened up. Armstrong was part of the Warden’s parahuman science counsel. This whole mess had to be more in his ballpark, didn’t it?
“Armstrong, sir. Do you want to take charge?” Eric asked. “This looks more like Parahuman Science than Command. Cinereal left me as her proxy, but I don’t think she’d be upset if I passed the baton.”
“I will,” Armstrong said. “Fill me in.”
“The Major Malfunctions and Towline, two minor teams, were at the main Cheit portal. It looks like one of them second-triggered and had a broken trigger at the same time,” Eric reported.
“Fume Hood,” Antares said. She leaned against the console nearest to the door, arms folded, head bent. Her hair was bound into a loose braid, damp at the edges, and her face was framed with strands of hair that had gone wavy with the way they’d dried. “She is- was a blaster, compressed gas spheres.”
He felt his pulse quicken, seeing and hearing her. He kept it under control. Wasn’t her fault, and getting into a mental mode or state where everything she said or did irritated him wouldn’t help any of them. There were bigger things to focus on.
“We have another,” Larue said, arm extended to point at the screen. “It seems to have cascaded, capturing Contessa, possibly altering her or using her as a vector. Flier on the way with a camera. It looks like the city is breaking down and caving in.”
“Civilians?” Armstrong asked.
“We’re guessing a few thousand, tens of thousands,” Eric said, turning to face the man. “A lot of the stubborn types that wouldn’t leave. Maybe some elderly without connections or people to ensure they evacuated. Stragglers.”
“Let’s see about getting some heroes in there. Start by contacting them. See who’s up for it. This is high-hazard. In the meantime, let’s get all the information we can. Cameras, and let’s talk to our thinkers. This is thinker headache territory, so warn them. Eric, would you reach out to them?”
“Yes sir,” Eric said. He took a seat, opening up the laptop, and pressed his keycard to the corner to unlock it and log himself in. He had an earbud and cord with a microphone attached in his pocket, and he plugged it in.
“What the hell is happening?” Armstrong asked, as he leaned over the end of the table, looking like the furthest thing from an interim leader of a hero organization. A belly, a heavy brow, sharp chin, wrinkled forehead and receding hairline. The lab coat was maybe the only thing about him that suited him.
“It’s Gimel’s apocalypse,” Antares said. “Everything the agents were set up to do after Scion won or rounded up this cycle, they’re doing it now. Cast aside the humans, accumulate raw power, then use that power to blow it all up and cast fragments of themselves in every direction.”
“We interrupted that,” Eric said.
“Technically we did,” Citrine said.
Fuck you, Eric thought.
Antares cut in, “Nobody interrupted anything. We disrupted it. They’re staggering forward instead of doing this in a clean way. Processes conflict, they can’t organize, so they’ll just steal energy and materials from us, wiping us out, then destroy what’s left when they try and probably fail to make a coordinated exit. We threw a wrench in the works, but the machine is still trudging forward, smoking and doing a lot of damage in the meantime.”
“Killed the conductor, but the train is still on its tracks?” Armstrong asked, sounding almost wry. Wry tended to go alongside happy, though. This felt more like gallows humor.
Tens of thousands dead, possibly. Buildings falling.
“We have cameras on Contessa, I think,” Larue said.
She was growing, but not in a smooth way. Rather, in staggered stages, parts of her lunged into being. A black stone wolf’s head, three hands reaching up to grasp at one another’s wrists, winding and almost braiding together in their efforts. Forking, another wolf’s head. A curl of what could have been hair or horn writ in more black stone with traces of white. More curlings and decorative growths.
Until there was a silhouette, a vaguely woman-shaped figure with head turned skyward, back arched and chest and stomach thrust up and out, ‘arms’ dangling. She had no face, but instead a morass of that hair-like, horn-like curling of black stone, like a curtain of it was draped over her head. Three large wolf heads framed her neck and helped form one of her shoulders. Everything below was a jumble, images so layered and lost in one another that they were almost pure decoration.
The black-lightning cracks around her were intense, with more straight lines than the other disaster.
She didn’t move a muscle, if she even had muscles. But she did open her eyes. Amber eyes all up and down her body, some so small the chains of them looked like veins of gold, appearing in cracks and the centers of curls. In tumbles of blacks tone hair and open mouths. Everywhere but where a human silhouette should have eyes. Each bright in the midst of smoke and snow, contrasted by the blackness of her.
“These might be the new conductors,” Antares said. “Architects, maybe, because they’re building something.”
The screen showed a distant view of the others. Kronos, turned to look to one side. The fuming titan, now visible at her full height. Maybe six or seven stories tall, small compared to the others, her head more like a cowl or hood of black crystal, no face visible beneath, with the gas leaking out resembling long hair left to drape out, tumbling down her front until it dissolved.
“We’ve got another appearing,” Larue said.
“Don’t say that,” Armstrong said. Stress was clear on the man’s face.
“I’m sorry, sir. One more in Gimel.”
“Cameras. We need eyes on them. Who are they?”
Who did we lose? Eric thought.
He stole a glance back at Antares, but she was stone still, tense.
“Was it cool?” Vessel asked.
“It was… not uncool. Guy in charge invited me over, told people to give me the royal treatment. They had hired this punk band that night, teenage guys with dirt under their fingernails, shirtless with sixpacks, stubble on their chin. Crazy hair. Handed me a beer, y’know, me being a minor. I said something lame like I couldn’t, and this guy who looked like he could rip someone’s head clear off their neck told me if I was willing to go to war, I could drink. Then the band pulled me up on stage.”
“Fun,” Armiger said.
“It was. When you’re a kid, you want nothing more than to be an adult. I felt adult. They took me to the head of the boss, he asked me what I wanted to do. Later he introduced me to other people. They respected me, and I got into that whole mess because my parents couldn’t. They were all, like, school, extracurriculars, curfew. Every time I tried to do my own thing or build social networks, which are kind of important, they’d ground me. I was a child to them and they made it one hundred percent clear they were going to treat me like a child.”
“Were they…?” Armiger asked, “Uh, nazis?”
“My parents? They had beliefs,” Scribe said, offering an apologetic shrug. “At the time, I felt like they kept all the bad parts while ignoring the good parts.”
“And now?” Vessel asked. She looked nervous. She tucked blue hair behind the portion of her mask that covered her ear. “Sorry, nevermind.”
“It’s okay. I’m willing to talk about it, it’s just… it’s not like I want to go stand in front of cameras or write some public letter saying how dumb I was as a kid. We got an amnesty and that should count for something.”
“Sorry,” Vessel said. “Shouldn’t have brought it up. Pre-amnesty.”
“It’s okay! Really! To answer your question, do I still think there were good parts,” Scribe said, hunching forward a bit. “Not going to lie. You wouldn’t see anyone joining if there was nothing good about it. But now? I think there were way less than I thought then. Community, some desire to see things improve, even if they weren’t entirely right about how. I look anywhere else, I don’t see the same kind of drive or push that I remember from when I was in the Clans. Later in the Empire. So I want to keep that part of it. Loyalty, strong ties, d- um, drive.”
“Yeah,” Vessel said. She frowned a bit at the stutter.
Scribe had already been over a lot of this with Vessel and Accolade. Accolade was off to one side, smoking off his nerves from their earlier, brief encounter with the Red Queen, mostly staying quiet.
Armiger was the latest member of their group. She hadn’t had any late night patrols or hangouts with just him, so she hadn’t gone into it much.
“And the… other stuff?” Armiger asked.
“Fuck that stuff,” Scribe said. “Right now? Our priority is saving the city. W-we need to, um. Save people. What I always believed was that we needed someone strong in charge, in a fucked up world with Endbringers and… giant p-p-… childbirth abominations. Strong leadership, firm hand on the rudder, focus, some good soldiers, and these are the people who protect the meek and good people who can’t be soldiers. Only difference is I used to believe in some r-racist shit. Just… adapt that crap. Protect everyone, um…”
“You okay?” Vessel asked.
“I’m okay now,” Scribe said. “I think. Working on what I, um…”
She trailed off, trying to find the thread of what she wanted to say.
Vessel touched her arm.
“I’m okay,” Scribe said, annoyed. She didn’t like appearing weak. “I’m w-working on what I don’t have exactly right. They need soldiers more than, hm…”
“V-Victor,” she snarled the word.
Victor rounded the corner. His chuckle was low, deep in his throat, and made broad shoulders shake.
“The f-fuck,” she asked. Victor had the ability to steal abilities in a field while augmenting his own. He’d been aiming it at her. Taking her gift of gab. “You dick.”
“Sorry,” he said. “Wanted to make an entrance, and the best entrance is the sort that kicks in the door and puts down the scariest guy in the room right away.”
“I’m not your enemen- enemy, you phimo- phimotic cock jockey.”
“Turn it off.”
“Just did,” he said. “Wanted to see if there was any sign of the old you in there.”
“You aren’t s-s-supposed to be talking to a recalcitrant ex-supremacist,” she told him. “Remember?”
“Vessel, Armiger, and Accolade won’t tell, will they? You guys are cool?”
Vessel was sitting up straighter, hand at her hair again. “We’re cool.”
The boys nodded.
“Give us some privacy?” Victor asked. “We’ll hang out later?”
All three looked to Scribe instead of giving an immediate answer, though Vessel looked like she’d be crestfallen if Scribe shot it down. Scribe nodded.
“It’s your funeral if you get caught. They’ll count it as a mark against you,” she said.
“You could eat crow and say sorry.”
“I don’t say sorry,” she told him. She looked off in the direction of the station and the procession line of naked giants that were marching away from it. “What do you want?”
“I wanted to see if you were okay.”
“You’re always fine. You were ‘fine’ when Coil outed us. You were ‘fine’ when Kaiser died. You were ‘fine’ when you were injured. You were ‘fine’ when we went back to the Clans and the new leadership treated us like dirt and blamed us for what happened in Empire Eighty-Eight.”
“Morons,” she said. “What if I was fine?”
He put a hand against the wall and leaned over her. “What if you weren’t? I see how restless you are. I know who you are and where you come from.”
She resisted the attempt at intimidation. “And?”
He relaxed, straightening. “And you’re family. Closest thing I have to family, anyway.”
“Only if I get to be the big sister, or the cool aunt. Or kickass grandma who whips your ass if you so much as look at her funny.”
“Sorry. Baby sister.”
“Fuck that. No. That creeps me out.”
“Creeps you out, huh?” he asked, his expression placid, his gaze penetrating.
“Can’t imagine it,” she said. “It makes me think of Christmases by the tree, pulling stuff out of the stocking while some rosy-cheeked mom and dad look on proudly. Music playing on the radio, something baking in the oven, gingerbread so thick in the air it congeals in your throat.”
“You’re mentally ill. Nobody does that.”
“I’m fucking not doing it with you of all people, Victor. You don’t need me for a sister. You’ve got a girlfriend to terrorize and celebrate holidays with.”
“Mmm,” he made a sound. There was zero emotion on his face as he said, “Gospel’s a good girl. I still worry about you.”
“Don’t. I’ll have Christmas with Vessel or someone else with no family left. Drink and black out until New Year’s.”
“Yeahhhh,” Victor drawled. “That screams that you’re doing perfectly fine. Sometimes you need to ask for help, reach out and shit, y’know? Reaffirm old ties?”
“I really don’t,” she said.
“You triggered in prison, Scribe. Alone, abandoned by others, including the Clans you had just done jobs for. The entire system working against you. Whether you want to admit it or not, you’re in prison now. Alone. You’ve got these tenuous connections to those others, and the entire system is stacked against you.”
She wanted to reply, and the words weren’t there. His power?
No, she knew the feel of it.
Yeah, sure. He wasn’t wrong. That was pretty much where she was at. She didn’t like thinking about it.
“Unless you apologize, you’ll always be an ex-Nazi to them.”
“That’s what you were after?”
“No, what I was after was checking in. Reaching out. This is secondary.”
He was so good at sounding precise, confident.
“I’m fucking trying, Victor. I’ll show them with actions, but I won’t apologize. I won’t go to them crying ‘sorry’. That’s not how I roll.”
“Showing them with actions means walking back everything, you know.”
“And I heard you were picking on Capricorn earlier.”
“He’s actually a degenerate example of humanity, Victor. On every count. He tried to murder his brother. Moonsong’s ex. And she’s cool. I think giving him some shit is fair.”
“No other motivations? Nothing underlying? You’re one hundred percent better?”
“Fuck off. Like you’re any better, you fraud. The religious crap you’re latched onto now is just excuses. I’m-”
She fell silent. Victor had turned his head sharply, hand raised.
She turned to look, and she saw Moonsong approaching. Brown haired, wearing a costume with a dress built in, a slit down one side. A moon motif, of course, played into everything, from mask to shoulder decoration, belt, and bracers.
“It’s a process,” Scribe finished her rant, bitter. They’d been overheard. This was going to fuck her so bad. Fuck.
She could actually feel the walls of the metaphorical prison now.
“Hi, Moon,” Victor greeted the young woman.
Moonsong made no sound while she walked, and her hair had some float to it. Reducing her own gravity or something. She had her arms folded.
She didn’t return his greeting. She seemed stuck in her thoughts.
Scribe touched the wall behind her as she slouched back. She focused, and she concentrated her power in her fingertip. Pressed it out into the wall. A small telekinetic signature that slowly encapsulated the entire structure as the signature grew more elaborate. Wrapping it in a kind of forcefield that would only hold it, not protecting it.
Her other hand found her staff.
Speak of the devil and she appears.
Not that Moonsong was a devil. Not that Scribe felt like she would get attacked. But she’d dealt with volatile types. Especially after returning to the clan for the third time. She didn’t face down an unhappy parahuman without being ready to fling a half-ton of concrete at them.
“I need you to leave my rookies alone,” Moonsong said, finally turning to look them in the eye.
“I can’t speak for Scribe, but I won’t go after them to find your mole or whatever,” Victor said.
“No mole,” Moonsong said.
“Come on. Let’s get real,” he said. “You sent one of them to watch us and feel us out, see if we were talking about stuff.”
“You wouldn’t have come here this fast if there wasn’t one.”
“No mole,” Moonsong said, for the third time, giving him a hard look. “Believe it or not, I’ve been keeping an eye out. If one of the two of you aren’t visible at any given time, I wonder, I double check. I listen in.”
“Are we in trouble?” Scribe asked.
“Right now? We’re in crisis management. We focus on the city. The citizens. You guys leave the rookies alone. That includes you, Victor. I know Vessel thinks you light up the room.”
“Not doing anything to Vessel.”
“I know you’re not doing anything to Vessel. Because I told you. It’s an order. One romance in the team was bad enough, but because it brought you on board, Whorl and I agreed to let it slide, especially when Gospel is as level headed as she is. Vessel isn’t. She’s great, but I’m drawing the line.”
“Alright,” Victor said. His face gave away nothing. When he took enough from people, they lost a bit of it forever, and he kept a bit of it forever. He’d stolen stuff from people in the past and that included the ability to maintain a perfect poker face, among many, many other things.
“Scribe, I don’t want to hear you’ve been hanging out with the rookies.”
“I’m a rookie.”
“You might be new to us but you’ve been a cape for years. If you’re around them, I want chaperones. People I’d trust as part of the conversation. I don’t want them being part of your process.”
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
She’d be stuck like this. A prison without walls, but still a prison with other people dictating her every move. No hope of advancement, no hope of more.
“Victor, Can you go join Tribute at the front line? Keep an eye on those giants?”
“Of course. I really did want to reach out and see if Scribe was okay,” he said. He smiled, and he was good at smiling in a way he was good at a lot of things. It was the sort of thing that would be a bit chilling if Scribe didn’t know he was on her side.
“Scribe, walk with me,” Moonsong said.
Scribe fumed internally, but she walked. This was Victor’s fault.
“What you were saying about wanting to show where you’re at with actions instead of words, Scribe?” Moonsong asked.
Oh, she’d really overheard. “I don’t get any privacy, huh?”
“No. No you don’t. If you were on lists and if there were big red warning labels on your Parahumans Online page, then you get a ‘trust but verify’ treatment post-amnesty.”
“Doesn’t feel like the amnesty is helping me any.”
“It’s better than prison.”
“This is prison!” she snarled. “God.”
“Key point in that is trust. I don’t love a lot of how you were talking and what you were saying, what you weren’t saying. I’m still going to trust the intent is there. I’m going to give you the benefit of a doubt.”
“And keep me from socializing, keep me away from Victor.”
“Didn’t think you liked him.”
Scribe brought her staff around so it rested against her shoulders and the back of her neck, her gloved hands gripping either end. She shrugged, a little more dramatic with the staff where it was.
She wasn’t sure she did, but… he was one of the only people she still knew from the old days. The only person, maybe, who actually knew her.
“I need you to leave Capricorn alone. That’s an order. We don’t pester other teams when we could be depending on them to save our lives later.”
“You called it a process. I’m working on my own process. I won’t say I’m perfect. Sometimes you just have to pretend it’s all hunky-dory, play nice, interact with enough people, and it surprises you by becoming normal.”
“I feel like that’s everything I was trying to get away from when I ran away from home. I triggered so I could escape it in prison. Thought control.”
Even now, it bothered her.
“Well, I can tell you I’ve been there. Not as intense as what you got as far as… picking up on what others were saying around me. But it doesn’t feel like thought control now. I used to be homophobic. I’m… better, I guess. I think it’s a weird thing to do, but I can roll with it. An old teammate resurfaced, came back from the dead, actually, and reminded me-”
There was a deep shudder that rattled the city, breaking some windows. Broken glass cascaded down building faces. Moonsong broke into a run. Scribe adjusted her staff, sat on it, and took to the air, one hand on her wide-brimmed hat, the other gripping her staff.
Her eyes were on Shin Station. The giants just beyond it.
It wasn’t them. They looked as disoriented as she felt.
Opposite direction. She flipped around in the air.
It came ripping through the air. A crack in reality, black and surrounded by distortions of light, curls of vapor from temperature changes.
One curl of vapor came with a blast of pressurized air. She tumbled back, slipping from her perch atop her staff. Her glove didn’t find traction on the textured length of it.
She fell, dropping out of the air.
The next moment, she felt like she was in water. As though she’d plunged into a river without breaking past any surface or getting wet.
Breaking her fall. Partially breaking.
She hit the ground hard, her head striking the hard ground. All around her, more cracks tore into the ground, which rumbled. Some of the segments of ground were lifted up, and buildings on the street were toppling.
Surrounded by four walls of concrete. A fitting combination with her new social prison.
The air was as dangerous as the ground. Crouching down, she drew her sigil on the surface of the shattered road, listened to shouts and made sense of zero of it.
Any time she couldn’t go up kind of fucked with her head. Not being able to go anywhere–
Fucked with her everywhere. Head to toe. Gut, breathing, heart.
She gripped her hat and pulled the brim down. She knew it was useless, that it flew in the face of her status as a veteran cape, but those black tears above her were terrifying, and with nothing else at hand that she could do… she used her hat like a little kid might pull the blanket over their head.
The giants were a few blocks away now, and they were screaming and hooting. The only noise was the rumble of buildings falling.
A roaring knife-on-a-plate scream, as a section of road just… went. Toppling into darkness. What lay on the other side of it was only darkness.
Her vision wavered, a very similar kind of darkness taking over everything. A vision crept over her, of people who weren’t people, all standing in profile. Most were symmetrical from left to right, but not all were. Writ in any number of shapes, any number of materials.
She heard a sound between a shout and a scream.
She let go of the brim of her witch hat.
Wavering, she turned, searching.
“I’m here!” she cried out.
There was an inarticulate cry.
She followed the sound.
Past broken road. A leap over a gap.
Moonsong and Armiger were there. Vessel was lying on the ground next to a face-down Tribute, her chest glowing. She’d merged with another cape, capturing that person and holding them inside her as a power source and modifier to her own knowledge base and personality. One of the other injured, no doubt. Accolade, maybe.
All looked to be unconscious at first glance. At second glance, they were moving, but without any coordination. Something in them had broken.
Armiger, at least, had his powers. the forcefield above him elaborate and getting more elaborate by the second. A shield with wings, horns, a lion’s head, flags… It would reach a point where it was more fancy than effective, with the idea being it swung from forcefield to a mental effect that radiated out in front of it.
Except the mental effect had no use here. It was protecting their group against falling and flying rubble. Moonsong’s field was altering the gravity, making any falling stones less terminal in their velocity. They hit the shield and tumbled off to a point below.
A crack was creeping closer to him. Yawning wider.
Scribe opened her mouth to call out, and only produced a, “Yuhh!”
She knew what it was. She knew the shakiness and the feeling like missing a stair, that came before she’d even taken the step.
She did take that step, however. She could have and would have jumped the gap in front of her to reach their section of road, but she didn’t trust herself to make that one-foot jump. So she headed left, toward the inches-wide gap. Her foot didn’t land right, her sense of balance failed to give her anything, and she tumbled, hard, rolling across that gap.
Hand resting on the ground, she willed the symbol to appear. The signature that locked her telekinesis to this particular chunk of road.
Then she lifted them up.
It wasn’t easy, with the cracks above and around them. When turning her head and identifying things was hard. It didn’t help that the cracks were deceptive in where they were, because her eyes couldn’t easily discern if they were large and far away or small and close, especially as some swelled and others narrowed, like pulsing veins.
Slowly, the others roused. She’d scooped up what she could of the Shepherds, and she couldn’t see others below.
“T-thank you,” Moonsong said.
Scribe just kept them flying.
As they moved, she saw.
A massive figure, hunched over, black-bodied, with golden hair running down the spine, moving as if billowing in a wind that wasn’t actually there. Hands extended down to the ground, arms overlong with more of that gold hair from elbow to wrist. It bore a crown that took over part of its face, that looked like something between hair in the wind and gold, many-pronged. Below that crown, there was only a mouth, corners downturned.
“Victor,” she said, naming it before she’d even fully comprehended what she was seeing. She turned to Moonsong, angry, “Was this the Red Queen?”
“No.” It was Tribute who had answered. “No, it’s… I felt it. The pull, the tug. I almost…”
“Almost what!?” Scribe cried out, angry. Their ‘ride’ wavered in the air.
“Almost gave up. Let it in. Almost didn’t find the strength or focus to pull away.”
“He gave up?” she asked.
“Victor has been struggling,” Moonsong was quiet. She sounded despondent, surprisingly so given how she’d never seemed to like Victor. “Gospel broke it off. I think he’s had a lot of self doubts. Loneliness.”
Scribe watched, looking down. He was bigger than any of the nearby buildings. Anyone who got too close to him lost… everything, it seemed. Almost instantly. Knowing his power, a lot of it could be permanent.
This was her Victor?
The chill and deep, surprising sadness she felt was lanced through by horror.
When he’d swung by, talking to her against orders… he hadn’t been reaching out to help or give support.
He’d been reaching out for help. To get support.
She’d missed it.
“Victor!” She screamed his name.
He raised his head. Looked at her with a face without eyes.
“Be strong!” she shrieked the words. “We are family!”
His overlong arm swung out, a paw of a hand clawing through the air, straight toward them.
Armiger created his forcefield. Rune dropped the chunk of street they were riding by several feet. The hand was partially deflected, only missing them through the coordinated defensive maneuvers.
In the wake of the blow, again, she felt that wave of Victor’s power, writ large. A loss of all faculties. Balance, coordination, everything else. Given enough of a hit, and they wouldn’t regain what they lost.
They broke away, backing off.
He started to pursue, but the giants had started to scatter, still screaming and hollering. Others in the back were violently giving birth. Their faculties were diminished, but
“It’s not him anymore,” she said.
“Tattletale says to try to avoid using powers,” Eric reported, ending the call and freeing Tattletale to do whatever it was a villainous information broker did. “We should let the cracks settle. It should stop. At least until there’s another precipitating event.”
“I want to go,” Victoria said. “Armstrong, give me permission?”
“No,” Armstrong said. “It’s ultimately up to you, but you know what’s on the other side of those cracks better than anyone else in this room. The leadership is on their way. We’d appreciate your input.”
“To actually use?” she asked. “Or is this like before?”
She looked at Eric as she said it.
“To use. Really,” Armstrong said. “I don’t want to lose you in fighting against threats if you can tell us something critical in a briefing later.”
“Okay,” she said. She looked haunted, tense. “I don’t want to sound pissy or uncooperative, but if I feel like I’m not helping, I’m going to leave and go help. Please don’t count it against Breakthrough if I do, I’ll break ties with them if necessary to keep from hurting their standing. But I can’t do nothing.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to,” Armstrong said.
Eric had almost come to respect her, initially. She’d seemed like she played along. But she was too deep in things. She needed to be far away from this in the same way a doctor needed to avoid operating on his family, a judge couldn’t deliver a sentence to her spouse.
He’d cracked. Lost his cool. He couldn’t blame her, not exactly. Being a hero took a kind of insane grit that did a number on anyone. That kind of grit tended to make heroes really obnoxious to deal with. The worst of them got childlike. The best of them, like Chevalier, could present themselves well.
He was too tired, running at ten out of ten since last night. Antares hadn’t ever been official PRT, though she’d come close on two fronts: she’d almost joined once, before her hospitalization, and she’d slept with a Ward. That probably meant some knowledge by osmosis.
It didn’t mean she ‘got it’, though. That parahumans were so close to the problem it made their judgment suspect sometimes. That oversight was needed. The ex-PRT capes got those things, accepted the objective calls.
“What’s the overall situation?” Eric asked Pearce. “How are communications?”
“A few things on our board,” Pearce said, her attention not leaving the screen on the terminal in front of her. Two lesser staff members were doing the typing and navigating on sub-screens. “The anti-parahumans are disseminating a video. It’s the inciting incident. People are panicking, getting ugly.”
“Who can we divert?”
“Nobody. There are other crises. Shin.”
“What’s happening in Shin?” Antares asked.
The portal had shattered. The damnable lab was gone.
Marquis considered versatility the most important thing in powers. Survive, cover as many bases as possible, and victory was inevitable. He found himself using everything he had just to survive. Wings of bone became a shield, and that shield became a wall. He felt the strain in his bones and the pain as holes were punched in that wall.
But he was buying time. Buying opportunity for the refugees they’d brought to Shin to get away. Not through the portal- that was now a briar-bush tangle of distorted cracks in reality, reaching up to the clouds and off to either side. Just… away.
Other capes, ex-prisoners from Gimel, ex-Fallen, and ex-followers of Goddess were doing much the same. Some had powers that helped, but only in maneuvering, only in defense.
The Goddess giant hurled chunks of the shattered landscape and buildings. Her alignment wasn’t working. Not against this. The Gibborim Knight was holding firmest. The armor it had built and wrapped around itself was seemingly the only thing that could endure the onslaught.
“You were such a good girl,” he said. “You tried so hard.”
He grunted as his shield was struck and split in two. He threw himself to one side as another strike speared through the gap, but something wrenched at the half-shield that was still attached to his arm. It threw him to one side, twisting the arm in its socket. If there was any unique sensation he was intimately familiar with, it was the feeling of one’s own bones breaking.
Grimacing, he knit the shattered bone of his arm together, then wrapped his arm in bone armor that would brace it and hold things steady until the damage to things other than bones could heal.
“It has been a pleasure knowing you,” he said.
So tall she was effectively out of earshot, Hunter didn’t respond. She only laughed, incessantly laughed, as she brought razor lines spearing down from the sky and up from the ground with enough force to crack bones harder than steel. Her body seemed to be made up of those lines and cracks in reality.
He disconnected himself from his shield and he went to his daughter. He scooped her up in his arms.
“Almost gave up,” Amelia murmured.
“Best if you don’t,” he said.
“I failed her. Hunter,” she said, hugging him, face buried in his shoulder.
“Focus on the good. We need you with us.”
She used her power on him. He could feel the pressure in his shoulder as the damage healed.
“Best if you don’t, whilst you’re not feeling your best,” he murmured.
She stopped, leaving the work undone. He’d seen her like this before. Broken.
He put a hand over her ear so he could raise his voice. “Retreat! Shin Defense Initiative, everyone to me and away! Leave the giants to it!”
Lab Rat was there, barely recognizable as a hulking, fifteen-foot tall rat-like figure with a conical face formed of tumors like clusters of giant blood-gorged ticks. He had four of the clones clinging to his fur and to the blankets that covered them, and what looked like half of a workshop besides, machines as large as cars hanging from chains.
The others… Marquis looked. He counted heads, saw the trickle of evacuees.
He was so thirsty. It was something that always got to him in battles, if they ran long enough that the adrenaline faded. The thirst, the human needs. Once he reached that point, he tended to make his exit. It was the point that things started getting sloppy.
“I don’t think I can do this,” Amelia mewled.
“I think you must. There is no question,” Marquis answered.
He knew from experience that she didn’t tend to respond to that kind of prodding or absolute, even though it was part of what drove him. Rigid codes and obligations he set up around himself.
He had no idea what else to say.
Instead, he focused on helping. He extended and expanded bone before hardening it, because this new Hunter hit hard enough to demand he use bones harder than steel. He created blade-like growths and set them into the ground with extended roots of bone penetrating frozen soil. Walls to shield those running for safety.
Flashbang, he saw was one of the last ones out. Of course. Flashbang turned to look at Hunter, created a large orb in his hand, and hurled it skyward. He created another orb while it was airborne, tossed it up.
Ah. The newer orb had a shorter fuse. It detonated and launched the first orb almost straight at Hunter. Detonating in her face.
Doing far too little damage. Cracks, a gushing of blood like a bathtub of blood had been emptied from the opening, next to nothing in the way of blood after the initial burst, and then no bleeding at all. It wasn’t that the wound had closed up, but that she bled differently. Still laughing, she turned her face toward them.
Marquis threw up a shield just in time to protect them from the retaliation.
By the time he had backed away enough to see over the top of the shield, the wound at her face had disappeared.
She lunged forward, gripping her own razor wires and leaping between them as a monkey might leap from branch to branch. Buildings groaned and tipped over as the wires that extended into them bore her full weight, but she didn’t touch ground.
Capes from the prison were attacking and protecting one another, but they weren’t coordinated. A pair of them were from Lab Rat’s choices of powerful recruits for his personal team. The wires appeared from inside of them, extending from shoulder to hand and out the palm, Out each foot, and out of the mouth.lifting one to a spread-eagled position fifty feet above the ground. Thin wires looked thicker as the blood ran down them. The cape struggled.
The other one was mangled, twisted up, his upper body doing three rotations to the right as the wires pulled on him, his lower body doing two rotations to the left. His midsection simply split. He didn’t die immediately, not exactly, but at least the screaming was brief.
Hunter’s hand came to rest on the first, the one that was spread eagled. He was dragged down along wires, and those wires cut him apart from the inside, exposing bone.
Too far away for Marquis to reach to that bone and attempt to spear for Hunter’s vitals. Not that she had any he could see. She had no eyes; only a blindfold of wires and cracks in reality.
She moved on to her next prey. La Llorona. She was choosing leaders, captains. Powerful capes. A small mercy Marquis and his daugher hadn’t been that close by when Hunter had attacked.
The Gibborim Knight attacked her. It was sufficient distraction for everyone else.
They fled. Running from the spreading disaster, shepherding the refugees. Marquis turned the armor at his arm into a basket of sorts to hold Amelia close to him, extending legs and his other arm so he could prowl forward on skeletal limbs, traversing broken ground and fallen buildings.
“Is she hurt?” Flashbang asked, as he caught up with Marquis. As always, there was that brief moment as the man who had raised his daughter looked at Marquis and wrestled momentarily with feelings and prejudices before setting them aside. He wasn’t asking about the enemy.
Marquis took a second to consider and give Amelia the chance to speak before saying, “Only her heart and her pride.”
“It’s more than that,” Amelia murmured. Like this, she reminded Marquis of the little girl he’d once held in his arms. “What’s even the point?”
“The point is you have somewhere to be later,” Flashbang said. “Amy, you made a promise. You will not break that promise to her. I- I know what you’re feeling. Like the last few walls around your heart are down and all you have to do is reach through to where your powers are. The reason I’m not is… I made promises. To your mother. To Victoria. To you.”
“I’m supposed to go talk to somebody in the middle of all of this?”
“You are absolutely supposed to,” Flashbang said. “Amy, you’ve hurt Victoria enough times-”
“You hurt her. You know you hurt her. You won’t hurt her this time by not following through.”
“And after? I promised to go to a therapy session, it’s just one session.”
“You’ll promise me you’ll go to the one after. Right here, right now. I think you need it as much as I do.”
“I don’t- what happens after that one?”
“The promise I need you to make is that you’ll attend the appointment after. That doesn’t end at the next appointment. When you’ve attended appointment number two, then the promise means you’ll go to number three. When you’ve gone to that one, it means you’ll go to number four.”
“The way things are going,” Amelia said, “I don’t think we’ll have any therapists in a couple of days.”
“Then it’s an easier promise to make. But you need something on the horizon to focus your eyes on. Surrender in the here and now is not how I raised you.”
Flashbang met Marquis’s eyes.
“Promise,” Flashbang said, with a raw edge to his voice.
Amy didn’t respond, but she did nod her assent.
“We’ve got yet another one in Cheit,” Larue reported. “Not one we know. They were a cape who didn’t broadcast their powers. A stranger, it seems.”
“Do we know the powers yet?” Armstrong asked.
There wasn’t much to do at this stage. Only to record, identify, and prepare to brief those who made it back here. Some were on the fringes, out of reach of this cracking. Some were at the new refugee settlements. Some where here. Then there were the ones in the city proper. They were the ones who had it roughest. Right in the epicenter, as the city steadily caved into itself.
“Antares,” Larue said.
“It’s bad news,” she said.
“I don’t know what it is. The capes in Breakthrough’s area have gone quiet. Phone lines are down, satellites are struggling with all of the interference. But we can’t reach them.”
Eric quietly studied her expression, watching her process. Her eyes moved around like she was working her way through a logic program.
“They’re okay,” she said, quiet, before looking up. “They have to be okay. I’m not worried about them. Tell me the cracks aren’t extending too close to New Brockton Bay.”
“They aren’t. Not yet.”
“Then Lookout and her team should be fine. Do we have word from the Major Malfunctions? They were right near the center of it.”
“No word, no communications,” Larue said. “I’m sorry. Sorry, I’m getting some calls, I’ll let you know if-”
But she was already nodding, too quick, almost cutting him off.
Larue resumed what he was doing at the computer, hand moving his right headphone over his ear again.
Eric typed up information for the Thinker team, sorting it.
He kind of knew what Antares was feeling. Cinereal was out there. The inverse of Antares, with whom he’d lost his cool. Antares batted her eyelashes, dressed up, smiled and pledged cooperation, only to do the opposite. By contrast, Cinereal stuck to the stylish costume the PRT had given her once upon a time, but she didn’t manipulate, she said exactly what she meant and acted like a gruff hard-as-nails pain in the ass, while ultimately being cooperative.
She was out there in the thick of it. His boss. His partner in some ways.
“Another report coming in, garbled,” Larue said. He typed furiously.
Eric felt a profound despair wash over him at those words. They kept hearing about more, but they weren’t hearing about any wins. Some capes were fending off various titans, trying to fight, and after half an hour of this, there still weren’t any reports of ‘Titan defeated’.
“Took a second to confirm location. It’s in one of the pocket worlds,” Larue said.
“Which one?” Antares asked.
“Prance,” Moose said. Begged.
Prancer had entered his breaker form, but it was a broken entering. His figure was like a man who had leaped through what he’d thought was an open window and crashed into glass. Except the glass had remained in the frame. A thousand shards impaling him, opening him up.
The glass in this case was bands of black and gold that braided, wove together, and forked, wrapping around him, through him, taking him to pieces.
Only part of his head, mouth, neck and shoulder were really intact.
Moose backed up, hand out to usher Daisy and some of the others back.
The idea had been that this would be a safe place. Almost a place to retire. They’d had the cash, the resources, the connections. Money for security, money for recreational drugs. A place to low-key party and relax, when they were so very, very tired.
Recuperate from heartbreak, after losing Velvet.
“Halfway there,” Prancer said. “Maybe I’ll get to see Velvet on the other side.”
More than halfway, Moose thought. “I don’t think that’s the way it works. Doesn’t seem like a good reason to go through with this.”
“I don’t think I can walk backward on this road,” Prancer said.
“Try moonwalking?” Moose asked, trying to crack a joke, failing. He sounded as despondent as he felt.
“No. Too much of a grip on me.”
“Don’t suppose you could concentrate real hard, then?” Moose asked.
“I want to see it. The concentration,” Moose said, moving closer to Daisy and the others. Prancer’s ‘girlfriend’ and the other people who had come to party and never left. He shielded them with his body.
“I don’t know how I’m supposed to do that,” Prancer said. “Are you trying to distract me by confusing me, slow down the transformation?”
“Jus’… give me the reassurance you tried. Something to keep in my memories.”
“You’re so lame, Moose.”
“I’m a simple guy. I like it straightforward. Would you?”
Prancer frowned, then closed his eyes, expression contorting.
Moose, seeing that, reached back to Manuel, fumbling at the guy’s side.
Manuel handed him the weapon he was reaching for. A gun. Moose checked it, aimed it for the part of Prancer’s face that was still Prancer, and not this grossly mutated breaker body, and-
Prancer’s body acted. All Moose could see was the part of its face that was already in its breaker form. A glowing eye open, while Prancer’s was shut.
The gun went off. It struck Prancer in the side of the head, blowing off a chunk. Prancer’s body, in turn, struck Moose with a black claw bigger than Moose was. Moose tried to fend it off, parrying with a blast of force, but it still struck him back and down into the ground.
Numb, Moose lay there, listening to the small gasps.
He looked down and around him, and saw that he had been thrust into the midst of three of their friends, Daisy included. He had survived the hit because of his powers.
They… they were alive, but in a minute, they would be dead from the way he’d been shoved into and through them. Bodies in tatters. Daisy’s eyes were so impossibly wide. Manuel’s stare was somehow vacant and accusatory.
The numbness got worse.
He’d been here before. Experienced this before. In a past life. He turned, aiming with a hand that shook too much to aim well. Shot Daisy twice – once as a near-miss, again to actually end her pain as he intended. He turned to Manuel, and he didn’t get a chance to do the same for their buddy.
The thing that had been Prancer attacked. Another crushing blow, another blow Moose only barely fended off. The thing punched with the force of a train crashing into something, and leaped back with his hypernatural agility and speed.
Prancer charged in, leaped, using the momentum of falling from two hundred feet in the air to augment the force of his blow.
But by the time he reached Moose, Moose was already on his way to matching and exceeding his old friend’s stature. On his own way down the same road Prancer had just traveled.
The thing that had been Prancer didn’t deliver the strike with any force. Instead, with the lightness of a feather landing, came to perch atop the broad back of the thing that had once been his and Velvet’s mutual friend and lover.
And the world around them dissolved into black-lightning cracks, the small refuge they had built falling to pieces.
Two became one, damaged, broken, and haphazard, because many of the needed connections weren’t there.
Still more than the sum of their parts.
“That makes two in the pocket world, I think,” Larue said. “With more confirmed reports coming in and the initial effect fading, I think we’re getting a final tally.”
“How bad is it?” Armstrong asked.
“Between ten and twelve. Um, Armstrong, Sir. Eric…”
Eric sat back, shocked. There were only a few answers that would really merit that kind of awkward opening, aimed at both ex-Director Armstrong and himself.
“Cinereal,” Larue said. “We’re getting cameras in for a better view, but…”
But there was a screen mounted on the wall that showed her from a distance. Everything within a city block of the figure was dissolving into gray ash.
If Cinereal’s power held true, that ash could heat up to temperatures like thermite.
Gone, turned against them.
Eric’s mentor, patron, supporter. His partner in a way. She’d elevated him with the implication she’d drop him if he didn’t keep up with her, and he’d kept up. The one person he’d been able to count on to back him up, and he was going to be feeling the lack of that backup if his heated spat with Antares came up.
Above all else, she’d been a friend. Someone he’d respected and liked.
He glanced back at Antares, half expecting the girl to be gloating, lording it over him.
He caught her with moisture in her eyes, using her sleeve to dab at the corners.
Larue was busy bringing up images, picking out the best shots of each of the titans they knew about. Armstrong had other preoccupations. Other staff members were busy, reeling in their own ways, or pretending not to notice others’ grief.
“I lost a friend,” Antares told Eric. “The rest of my teams seem to have made it out okay. This time. They’ll probably expand the damage on purpose or gather power for another breaking like this, until they’ve broken everything.”
But she still had the bulk of her ‘teams’ intact. He could see the marker for the Major Malfunctions with the three in the bottom right corner. Her tears might have been ones of relief, after a hell of tension.
Eric nodded, his jaw too set to actually respond.
“Cracking seems to have slowed down,” Larue said.
“Call your people back, Director Armstrong…” Citrine said, still at her seat at the head of the table.
The Mayor motioned toward a screen, that same overhead view from before. Now it showed the damage that spanned three-fifths of the city, which itself more or less spanned everything between New York and Boston and New York and New Brockton Bay. Shadows from the dust that had reached the sky above the city cast it in a noticeably darker tint, as though it were night.
“…The only things that are salvageable here are your heroes’ lives.”
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