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The cracks are still spreading. I could hear the dull cracking, with sounds at the edges of those cracking noises like Swansong and Damsel’s power produced.
My forcefield whirled around me in a tight spin, far less effective than it had been as ‘the Wretch’. It was a problem when I was diving into the midst of a sea of ash, trying to part that sea.
The Ashen Titan walked between buildings, and she didn’t go on the offensive. Her ash did collect around her, with buildings in her range being consumed by her power, turned to dense and heavy powder, and collapsing to form dunes and waves that shifted and swirled in a loose circle around her.
When she moved on, it reconstituted as best as it could. Buildings were rebuilt, kind of. That which was lost to the cracks was gone and didn’t reconstitute, and because it tended to be material from the same areas, the reconstituted matter tended to be from one floor or one wall of a building. Buildings fell or were rebuilt on their sides. Where she herself was quieter than silent, muting and nullifying sounds in her vicinity with a constant background noise of powder brushing against powder, that silence didn’t extend to the crumbling buildings in her wake.
There was a big danger in how those dunes and waves masked the cracks in reality. For people on the ground, it was easy to step into a valley between dunes, only to fall through, pulled beneath. Even where there were fliers or teleporters ready to catch anyone in a pinch, the ashen powder would block their view of the victim. There one second, gone the next.
The other, bigger danger was that the powder was combustible. Selectively combustible. She barely seemed to care about me carving a furrow into her circle of powder, up until Colt flew past her, raking her with the blade hand.
The ‘ash’ rose up, and ignited, chasing behind Colt, not directly on a course for me, but damn well close enough.
I scattered the ash I could as I took flight. The idea was to give myself leeway, but in practice, I just got ash on the forcefield. When the ash ignited, she was highlighted in reds and oranges.
What the heck changed, besides your size?
The heat mostly dissipated before the forcefield broke from the intensity of it. The shift from cold air to hot air made my skin prickle and itch.
The Titans weren’t moving in a way that seemed very focused, but the way they were moving and the fact we had so fucking many of them, each with a tendency to cover or complicate a whole tract of land, it made the area feel crowded. By flying away from the Ashen Titan, I flew closer to the Ophion Titan. The sea of flesh that he was stabbing with needles.
Ophion at ten o’clock, Cinereal at one o’clock, Nemean two minutes away at my three. The mutated Gibborim Knight was fighting the Impaler Titan and Flowing Titan three minutes away, at my six.
I couldn’t shake the ongoing feeling that one of them was going to do something while my back was turned. In another situation, I would have wanted to fly around the periphery, so all of them were in my field of view, but too many of us were doing that, and it just gave them free reign to move around.
I winced as I heard the voice.
Situations like this mandated compromise. Like fighting on the same battlefield as Empire Eighty-Eight against Leviathan, I had to fight beside someone who had sold me out to the person who scared me the most.
Chris was standing on a ruined building. He’d altered his form some, and looked ape-like. The coat that had barely fit him before was now straining around his arms. Smaller arms stuck out near his nipples, working with a syringe.
“You’re not jabbing me with that,” I said.
“I know,” he said. “But I want you to jab her with it.”
One of his Titans lurked near the back. Waif-thin, with long, pale hair, her skin a color and texture I associated with newborns, vaguely bruised, too red in spots, not yet exposed to the elements. Her eyes were penetrating as they watched what was going on, her mouth agape, like it would be better paired with a vacant stare. She wore what looked like a scarf and a full-body sheath of dead skin that extended from armpit to knee, with long whiskery hairs extending from parts of it.
I floated closer to Chris, watching. As the Ashen Titan ignited a tract of her ash once again, I put myself between her and Chris, so he could work in peace.
His syringe looked like it had a combination lock, with five dials lined up, each with a set of numbers. He was dialing in a specific code, while the contents bubbled violently.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Does it matter?”
“When you might be putting others in the line of fire, or if she might activate and take over my senses, it might.”
“It’s an autonomic piloting drive. They’re instructions she’ll obey until they wear off, at which point she retreats to the last place she found me. Failing that, she retreats to her birthplace. Instructions are to activate her power. She’ll affect everyone in range-”
“-But there won’t be any effects. Subtle hallucinations, if any, unless the target is taller than she is. The other giants are programmed to not care.”
“What happens if you pull the kill switch later?” I asked.
“Same thing as if I pulled it right now!” he raised his voice, clearly annoyed. “If I wanted to fuck everyone over, I would have done it!”
Sveta landed on a nearby bit of building, coiling up her arm. She watched us, wary.
“You know that thing where you go on about how you don’t care about people, you don’t believe in trust or common decency?” I asked. “This is the consequence. If you act like a crusty dickhole, don’t be surprised if people treat you like one.”
I put my hand out.
“Sounds like justification for you being an asshole,” Chris said. He didn’t hand me the thing.
“You know that saying? Trust, but verify?” I asked.
“Stupid saying. It’s verify, then trust, except you can never really verify one hundred percent. When you try, you end up being someone’s victim.”
I stared at him. I saw Sveta straighten, tense.
“Just give me the damn needle. There’s shit to do.”
“Ignoring me, huh?”
“Chris,” Sveta cut in.
“I’d like to. We have bigger problems.”
He didn’t budge.
“I can’t tell if you’re referring to me and my sister or Lab Rat and his past victims, and I have no idea which would be scummier.”
“Hookay,” Sveta said. She leaped forward, putting herself between Chris and I. “I’ll take your thing. Where?”
“Mathers Giant,” Chris said, not looking away from me. He tossed the syringe her way. She caught it with tendrils.
A flash of gold across my vision distracted me. New lines, new numbers. Chris and Sveta turned their heads at the same time I did, to look in the direction indicated.
New Titan, from the ongoing cracks. Pouffe, not a cape I knew. Kenzie was giving data, in script so tiny I shouldn’t have been able to read it, but the information was being fed to me by mechanisms that had nothing to do with the resolution of my actual eye. Cloud mover, mass transportation.
A good, stark reminder of what we were dealing with. I took flight, Sveta started swinging her way forward. Chris loped ahead, toward Ophion and the Mother Giant, who was almost impossible to make out in the mutated birthstuff she was outputting.
“Tristan!” Sveta called out. “Launch me!”
“Yes! Toward Mathers!”
Red motes began tracing their lines through the air, off to the side. She began using her tendrils to fling herself in that direction, so she’d be there.
The creation appeared. A damaged building thrust itself into existence, and catapulted Sveta into the air. Her body came undone, flat tendrils holding clothes in the right general positions, while others worked to catch her and catch hold of her target.
The Mathers giant looked down at the person who had just latched herself onto her belly. Sveta swiftly climbed, syringe ready.
Heroes on the ground were trying to navigate the carpet of dead flesh. Here and there, the flesh poked upward, as needles protruded from the ground beneath to stab it. That flesh ulcerated, blistered, and formed tumorous lumps, discolored and constantly shifting.
The first of them began popping. Smaller creatures crawled out.
Flesh-warping against a tide of flesh-generation, neither with any apparent limits. And the only way I could interpret this was to assume that we ordinary people would lose out in the deal. This was flesh that didn’t look like it was decaying or disappearing rapid-speed like the extra flesh from Rachel’s dogs did. It would rot in real-time, and it would become a hazard on its own.
The creatures that emerged were bug-like, and bigger than cars, larger than trucks in many instances. Some unfurled wings. Others bristled rows of stingers on their backsides.
Spikes pushed through the most wounded parts of this carpet of flesh, and skewered some of the insects.
Work with me, fragile one, I thought. Tell me what you got in this shitty trade-off.
I dove, and used my forcefield to punch through the crusty chitin exterior of the largest, spike-impaled insect I could see.
My strength didn’t feel any different. My forcefield still broke after a heavy strike.
I used my aura.
It did produce a reaction. They began struggling, fluttering furously. Then they came after me.
There was no telling what the effect was. Agitation, attraction. Awe? Or was it something completely different, but filtered through the bugs’ senses to be something else entirely? Even with people, the same input could give a dozen different kinds of reaction.
There was a whole mass of them that looked like caterpillars crossed with wasps, the worst traits of each combined, so that the stubby little legs each ended in stingers. Five started making their way toward me, flying intermittently as their wings shook off moisture.
Can’t hit that hard, I thought, as I engaged the mass of them. If I took one good hit, or delivered one, I would be vulnerable.
With that in mind, I flew in, trying to keep my forcefield’s smaller frame in mind. I thought of sparring with family, and the gentleness required.
It was less like karate, more like judo. Not to punch, but to take hold.
I couldn’t focus on any one thing, but I could take in the whole.
One was closer to me than all the rest. My aura was on full force to disrupt and bother them as much as possible, while I put out one forcefield hand, trying to catch a stinger.
The point slid between my forcefield’s index and middle fingers. I pinched them closer together.
It stopped mid-air, forward velocity arrested, the stinger nearly tearing itself free of the thing’s abdomen, despite being rooted deep in the bulbous, long body.
I used my grip on the stinger to swing its hundred pound body to one side, putting it in the way of the next closest one, scraping it against two more on the way.
And then flew toward them, as they violently flapped their dark, wet wings to try to reorient.
They were fast, but that didn’t matter, because all I had to do was touch them, get a little bit of purchase, fingers curled into gentle claws, so the fingernails scraped, each one getting a chance to find a bit of purchase, a gap or a bump that a fingernail could catch on. I found those gaps and bumps on two more wasp-worms and-
-I was capable of grabbing them with other hands.
The hands on this form were closer together, instead of being spaced out across a larger body. I had two less, but it was far easier to pass something from one hand to the other, especially with all the hands being in areas around the torso.
My last ‘fragile one’ hadn’t had a torso, so much.
The fifth one was slow in coming at me. I didn’t flinch as it lunged for my head, then stopped where it was at.
At my bidding, fingernails ran down the length of its body, head to the stinger it thrust out blindly, and two hands pulled the cut open, practically bisecting it. Crushed and twisted apart, one by one, the other wasps fell to either side of me.
Okay, I thought.
This is a good lesson.
Soft, not hard.
I flew through another swarm, mindful of where each limb and section of this new, fragile, invisible other half was. My arms were longer than many of the smaller stingers. If I flew to position myself away from the larger stingers, I could reach the meat of their bodies.
I didn’t hesitate as I flew, and I didn’t make more than a second or two of contact with each wasp I flew past.
They ended up in pieces and by the time those pieces hit the ground, I was already on my way.
Fighting you every step of the way for as long as I did conditioned me to be brutish. Trying to intimidate nazis and criminals made me brutish.
I kept two of the longer stingers, with the ragged guts and organs still clinging to the base ends.
Skewered two more, used the skewering to reposition them, and removed their skewers, so I had four. Each was as long as my normal, non-forcefield arm, and dripped a constant quantity of clear fluid. I could smell it, astringent.
It made me think of Crawler’s acid, which made me think of the acid burn at my hairline. Made me think of Amy, and that damned scene Engel had inflicted on me.
I put the feelings to rest, and tore through the rest of the wasp-worms between myself and Ophion. More wasp-worms were flying up around him, a barrier or shield. He was the hive they protected.
I drove the stingers in as deep as they would go, aiming for the spot where the chewed-gum mass of his upper body met the lower body. Flesh seared visibly around the penetration points. Flying up, I dragged hands and fingernails through the skin. Flesh peeled back, pulling away from surface tension alone, but only revealed more layers of the chewing gum, tumor-like mass.
It was a question of small improvements in efficiency. Before, ungainly, arms set further apart, it was better to deliver heavier hits, recover, deliver those hits again. Now I grabbed, instead.
Grab and tear. Slice with fingernails and separate what was sliced. Dig.
With only the wet sounds of flesh sliding against flesh filling my ears, I had no good cues to tell when he reacted. Only guesswork. Guesswork to dodge a cluster of his mutation-spikes, that were black against a backdrop of gray, dirtied snow and black, unlit landscape.
I flew away, and was in the midst of flying when a spike clipped me. Forcefield down, momentum broken.
I had a glimpse of spikes, where powers flashed on another battlefield. People fending off the Nemean Titan. I could imagine it was a dozen or two dozen new spikes a second, stabbing upward and inward, with himself as the spike’s fruitless, uncaring target.
I flew in a straight line, because the best impression Kenzie’s night vision tech was giving me suggested a morass of a dozen spikes all coming in different directions- criss crossing, straight up, from nearby buildings. Distance from any source of the bio-alteration spikes was more important than any evasive action- it barely felt like he was aiming. The outlining that her tech gave me was delayed by a second, and these things took about that long to get to me. Less like it helped, and more like it taunted me, notifying me of the near-misses.
My forcefield returned, and I was in the midst of breathing a sigh of relief when I felt the jarring crash of another spike striking home, a foot from me, pointed dead-on at my heart. I twisted in the air as the broken point continued to thrust forward, and it scraped the ornament at the top of my breastplate, damaging it.
All around me, I could hear the spikes sinking into him. Wet, sucking sounds, slapping sounds, fluids dribbling, audible where they splashed onto spikes below.
Forcefield still down. Spikes still coming. I saw flashes as heroes used powers. It wasn’t reassuring. It was another hazard to avoid, when I was trying to get clear. I tried to watch for incoming spikes, and nearly missed his hand moving. Reacting to something else, defending himself. Barring my path in the meantime.
I flew back, away from the ground and the nearby buildings that formed the foundations for the stabbing, pencil-thin spines. To buy myself a fraction of a second.
A spike struck my breastplate, found a moment of resistance, punched through, and reached me. It was the same moment my forcefield came back, extending from skin outward, around clothes, to meet the spike and fizzle out again.
I flew back and away hard enough that I slammed into Ophion’s side, and might have concussed myself if his flesh wasn’t so spongy. Escaping the one spike and pulling it free of my breastplate. I flew up-
The pain was blinding. Full-speed flight into a spike. Me meeting spike, rather than the other way around. I’d collided with the shaft shoulder-first. Pain sang down my arm, and my right hand felt numb.
I wasn’t breathing anymore, and I wasn’t thinking each action through. I flew up at another angle, and found another barrier. Sideways- a stretch of snow in the distance below provided a pale gray backdrop to see a cluster of spikes.
Penetrating his own body. Not to mutate, but to stabilize and armor. Putting me in a fucking corner in the process.
Still not breathing, struggling, I flew into another spike that was blocking my way. Like I was in a forest, a fucking bad dream of a forest where I fell rather than ran, and I couldn’t see the trees or branches I ran into.
Struggling to get away, I squeezed between spikes. My forcefield was back up, and I used it to punch, in hopes of breaking one. I only broke the field.
Only made it another few inches of squeeze before my face mashed into the line of another spike, humming like a current ran through it.
This wasn’t how I wanted to go out. I’d made a peace of sorts with the fact that heroes didn’t live long lives, but-
My breastplate came in two sections, the lower part hinged to the upper part so I could actually bend over. Now the lower section caught against one spike I’d squeezed past. The rough, sandpapery edge of the spike by my face abraded my cheek.
I don’t want to go out as a pawn of some fucked up bio-altering Titan. I don’t want to go out as a heap of acid-melted flesh. I don’t want to go out as a Wretch.
I tried to swallow and failed. Tried to see some cloud or snow or even stretch of Titan that gave me a pale enough backdrop to see a gap large enough to fly through. It felt like I looked in ten different directions and when I was done I felt like I hadn’t seen what I’d looked, hadn’t registered the actual gaps or anything.
Think, Victoria. Master protocols. Logic your way past emotion.
They came at me from different angles. They were meeting at the same spot, but the base points were further apart. If I slid down, scraped my way closer to the ground, maybe they’d be far enough apart to squeeze past.
A bio-alteration spine lanced its way into my forcefield, which couldn’t even fully expand, and met its resistance, pausing for the half-second my forcefield held together before continuing on its way, sliding into flesh with a wet sucking sound.
Just a foot from my ear, it found its home in Ophion’s body. The shaft of it had passed through my armpit, right past my breast, and perilously close to my face, which was bent down.
I continued to slide down, breastplate scraping against the narrow, abrasive spines. And as I made it further, the way got easier.
Until I was blocked by an ‘x’ of two more spines.
A twist, a bit of flight to help me on my way, and-
The sides of three spines running in near-parallel pressed against my bicep, elbow and shoulder, close to my gun wound.
I tried to fly down, and my injured foot came into contact with a sharp point that caught on the material of my boot heel.
I let out the breath I’d been holding, and it came out as a very small sound.
I was so high up. There was no light of powers or pale New Wave costumes anywhere nearby.
It was so very lonely, this high up.
Logic your way past the panic, I thought. Move carefully, avoid any points that might be sticking out nearby. Get a feel for the surroundings.
More room to move my legs than anything. Down.
A few seconds of running into blocked paths told me down was so much fucking worse. Down was closer to the ground and closer to the ground was a denser collection of these spikes that had come out by the dozen.
A wasp wormed its way past, and I killed it. I tried to use it as a buffer to feel my way for spikes, but when I did scrape against a point, it began twitching violently and swelling.
My efforts to put it down only killed it.
Up was sparser. Up, as it turned out, had more points that stuck out into the air, ready for me to scrape up against them, where they hadn’t penetrated Ophion’s lower body.
I bumped into another barrier. Here, an array of spikes I couldn’t even reach my hand through.
This is how we lose? Trapped? Stripped of civilization, stripped of humanity? Tools and expendable resources for things far, far more powerful than us?
No. Master protocols, Victoria. Emotion your way past logic.
Say it again.
Fucking fuck that!
My heart was pounding, hammering.
No, don’t lose control. Logic your way past emotion. Think, reduce everything down to procedure.
Logic your way past emotion, emote your way through logic.
Didn’t make sense.
But it was an endless loop that could keep me going moment to moment.
A spine struck me across the throat as I thought I found an open way forward and flew right into it. I snarled, the sound approaching a whimper at the midpoint, before I ducked my head and scraped past it.
With no idea if I was getting further in rather than out.
Did I even make a difference in all of this?
An idea for people to sacrifice themselves, that might have been Contessa’s plan?
Another way blocked. Fuck this so much.
Forward was criss-crossing spike-points. A fence I could barely make out. I moved left to right, hand-over-hand, when I heard the whisking sound of a rough-sided spine rubbing against another. I twisted, bringing my knee up to my chest.
The metal plate at my shin blocked the point, pressing so hard into my leg I thought the muscle might tear. The plate shifted, and the pressure eased, but I found myself trapped, pinned. The point I’d narrowly dodged penetrated Ophion, and his fluids ran down its length, drenching my foot.
I heard more, the whisking, spine-on-spine sounds, like pencils wrapped in sandpaper brushing against one another.
I struggled, fought.
Made about an inch of progress, where the spine pressed against my greaves.
The spine hit my forcefield, breaking it. A half second of reprieve. Then it carried onward, thrust up and in from its origin point far below, at a point of ground I couldn’t see. Again, that sucking, wet flesh sound.
Pain jumped from the penetration point at my knee to my foot, from the penetration point at my knee to my gut, making my mouth yawn open, my entire body wanting to throw up on reflex and yet too paralyzed to follow through. Freeze-frame trapped in the first moment of the hurling process.
I could feel it slide in, slowly, displacing fluids that came out in gulpy spurts, and I could feel it twisting everything it touched. Flesh mixed up like it was a liquid in a blender, not something solid. Swelling, flowing out of the wound.
My hands pressed hard against the fabric of my pants leg, as if I could muster force field strength and stop it from carrying on any further.
My leg trembled as it kept going, hitting nerves, then touching bone, the point scraping against bone like it could leave a furrow, a permanent etching.
Except I felt my knee and hip swell in reaction instead.
Keep the cycle going. Logic your way through the emotion. Emote-
I screamed, pushing out with my aura.
-through the emotion. Emote through the emotion. Emote–
I screamed again, raw, angry, fighting, gripping spikes and trying to pull myself back and away.
Something or someone hit Ophion.
It made things move. Gave me leeway.
I flew and fought my way back and out, and stopped where my bone had corkscrewed around the spine, swelled around the tip, almost bonding with the abrasive exterior.
My efforts to get free told me my leg weighed as much as the rest of me combined. Pulling back and away made primal instincts kick in. I wanted them to be the instincts that let a coyote chew its own leg off when caught in a trap, but they were freeze instincts instead.
I can’t bring myself to do this.
I need you to. Fragile one.
Take the reins. Take control, use flight, use forcefield. Do something.
Nothing. My leg kept swelling, the feeling bubbling into my midsection.
In the moment, midway through the struggle, I felt my consciousness slip. Darkness taking over for a moment, like a blink that had nothing to do with my eyes.
I wanted to give the Fragile One credit, to think it was her. But it was a guttural cry I’d made, my own fight against pain tolerance.
Maybe the fact I couldn’t tell was the best sign it was her. If it was as easy as asking for it, then parahumans all over the place would have managed to get that help from their powers.
The spike came free, and the tip was crusted in irregular shapes of bone, slick with blood. With it gone, and the cessation of the swirling mutation deep inside my leg, I flew. Toward Ophion.
Adrenline sharpened my senses. The Ashen Titan’s ongoing fight against what looked like Legend was a brighter backdrop.
I could see a hundred black points sticking out, where they’d been stuck in Ophion. I flew between them and him, aware that if he shifted his mass even a little, I would be unavoidably slammed into them.
Until I was high above him, well away from any spikes, my thoughts delirious, my leg impossibly heavy, my mind numb.
What had I even been thinking? That I would tear into him? That I’d do some meaningful damage? What had we even done since the start of all of this that had mattered worth a damn? I wasn’t even sure the destruction had.
And now I’d suffered something I’d told myself I’d never let happen again.
I couldn’t even look at it. Just seeing the bulging, lumpy silhouette in the corner of my eye was enough to make me sick to my stomach.
I was halfway back to the ground, flying in such a way that my leg wasn’t beneath me and I didn’t have to look at it while looking where I was going.
My sense of things was distorted enough that I fucked up my landing. I hit a slope of spikes that were angled away, and rolled down it to the ground.
I saw two ex-Prison capes and Chris. They were looking over to the horizon.
I looked, and I saw a building with handprints in it as big as titan Ophion’s head.
More appeared by the second. The building was lifted up.
She used to be weak, with ten thousand overlapping selves. Now she’s not weak.
Dragon’s ships unloaded what looked like a barrage of missiles. Each missile detonated into a singular, pitch-black sphere that expanded out, large enough to swallow a six-story building. As the spheres shrank back and dissipated, they bled more black stuff. By just the fallout from the barrage, the building was shredded to nothing.
“I need Rain,” I said, my eyes dropping to the ground.
Chris didn’t answer.
“Please,” I said. “Point me to him. I’ve got to chop this off.”
I was aware of the display, but my eyes weren’t reliably going from left to right, up to down, like I wanted them to. It was like my focus bounced off of everything I looked at, picking up only surface details. I felt like I could throw up, and I couldn’t bring myself to follow through on it.
“I’ve got a cure,” Chris said.
I looked up, saw him advancing with a syringe, and crawled back, using flight to accelerate the movement to double what it would’ve been, even without my fucked up leg.
I saw more of the leg, and I looked away.
“I don’t trust you,” I said. “I don’t trust powered healing.”
“I planned countermeasures.”
“You sold me out to her.”
“I did. I figure it’s like giving an alcoholic a drink, when you need them to stop shaking and start performing, for just a little while.”
“I didn’t deserve that. The worst thing I did to you was care enough to check in on you.”
“Yeah,” he said. “And you didn’t deserve for your sister to steal a piece of you to keep with her. You didn’t deserve for me to offer her a clone template, so she could make a copy of you.”
He said it to hurt me. To push me.
I tried to swallow and failed. Tried to take a deep breath and failed. My mouth was open, like my upper body was trapped between an impulse to scream, say something, breathe, swallow, or hurl, and unable to do any of the above.
I closed it.
“Did- did she?”
“Clone? No. Make a strip of Vicky to keep close? Yeah.”
I nodded. Flying got me to my feet. I began limping toward him. One leg, really. The other leg dragged behind, scraping through cold snow.
He backed away a step.
In the background, Dragon continued fighting an invisible threat. Orange flames licked the sky near the Ashen Titan. Near us, the black spikes were everywhere, taller than any building, a mesh around the Ophion Titan, who was injured.
I kept approaching. Chris decided to stand his ground. He offered up the syringe, like it was a peace offering, or something that would make me shy back.
“It’s alive, you know. Tucked into her bra even now. With its own tiny heartbeat.”
I closed my eyes, letting the mental picture come and go. I reached the point where Chris and the Syringe were in arm’s reach. He put a hand out, indicating for the two Shin ex-prisoners to back away.
I took the syringe. “I guess that’s a good barometer.”
“Of?” he asked. “You’re not making any sense, you moron.”
“If she still has it when I see her next, I’ll kill her,” I said. “If not, then… I don’t know.”
He stared me down.
“What do I do with this?” I asked, holding up the syringe.
“Stab it into the altered site. Press the plunger down. It’s a syringe. It’s not hard.”
I held onto the thing, still staring at Chris.
It was like he wanted me to hate him, and that extended to wanting me to kill him.
Or something. I couldn’t pretend to fully understand him. But I felt like ending his life here after he’d offered me a cure would prove him right in something.
I wanted to say something that would penetrate that exterior of his, convince him, or even bother him. Kenzie had managed it.
Like mentioning Swansong, and how she’d actually grown as a person.
Or telling him he deserved his own misery.
A gold alert flashed in my right eye. A series of reports about cracks. Ongoing. I ignored it for the time being.
The fighting continued in the background. I could look up at the Ophion Titan and see the damage I’d done, still healing, while capes flew around him. Narwhal was using the damage as a target point for forcefields, leaving them embedded whenever they sank home, to slow and stop his regeneration.
I stuck the plunger into my leg, high up on the thigh. I pressed it down, my mind numb.
The feeling of bones moving and flesh stirring was almost as nausea-inducing as the transition had been in the first place.
I stared Chris down as it took effect. Used flight to stay upright.
He nodded as he watched the change regress.
“He’s a bastard,” I said, looking up at the Titan. I could see the Mother Titan attacking it. A giantess with a boneless creature ten times her mass extending from her nethers, grappling Ophion, tearing away flesh.
I wanted to spit in his face, to scream at him, to throw him into those black spikes, or to hurl on him, if I hurled after all.
But there was no point to it.
The gold alerts continued to come in. I skimmed it, saw ‘cracking’, and took it as an alert there was still more coming.
“If you enable her again, if you speak to her, if you give her an excuse or an opportunity to be horrible, if you lie to me or use her to hurt me again, that’s it. You lose your last chance with me.”
“I’m only now on my last chance?” he asked, almost sneering.
“I’m giving you my formal declaration of war, laying out the rules.”
I winced, as my leg twitched like a hummingbird’s wings might flutter.
“I’d have more respect if you just followed through, no warning at all.”
“If I followed through, you’d be a sad, unimpressive smear on the ground in a place nobody’s ever going to come back to.”
He shrugged, pretending like he didn’t care.
My leg was bare, shrouded in tattered costume legging, my boot and armor gone. My injured foot, at least, had healed. I smiled at that, but it was a mean, ironic smile, directed at myself. A joke only I was in on.
I handed the syringe back to him.
“You know-” he started.
With my forcefield, I gripped his wrist, hard. I felt it move, in a way I hadn’t bid it to, and canceled it almost immediately.
Chris huffed out a breath, backing away a step.
My control went away.
I cleared my throat, hiding how very disappointed I was in that fact. “What were you going to say? Be very careful.”
“I’m here for purely academic reasons. If I got mutated a bit, I could get good data, change back. I can get readings on the Titans and there are insights there. Being a part of the big stuff. But I meant what I said. Dead serious. I don’t see how we win this fight. They’re not even trying right now, and they almost got you.”
I looked up, then over at the other Titans. At the ongoing fight with the Custodian Titan. At Nemean, who threw stuff as he retreated.
“Thanks for the save, knocking it back, giving me a gap to escape through.”
“Didn’t even know you were up there.”
“For the fix, then.”
“Whatever, Chris,” I said.
I flew away.
The heroes were spread so thin with all the Titans we had around us. There had been fifty or sixty, we’d picked up another thirty or so in reinforcements, which felt more like they were at least partially covering what we’d lost in the chaos and happenstance injuries. Now we had Titan Fortuna, Ophion, the Nemean, the Impaler, Shortcut, the Ashen, and the Custodian.
Ten capes for each? Maybe?
Granted, one of those capes was Legend, Dragon and Defiant and Narwhal were present too. And I wasn’t counting the Giants.
But even so…
I spotted my teammates. Found Rain with Tristan and Kenzie.
I landed, wincing at the contact with bare foot on cold ground.
Tristan was fixed on the horizon, where he was making one of the bigger constructions of lights and lines I’d seen out of him yet.
Sveta, maybe because she’d seen me, hopped down to ground level. Her face was slick with moisture. She looked concerned, but I waved her off.
I couldn’t take concern right now. Couldn’t dwell.
“Oh, Victoria!” Kenzie piped up. She practically flew to me to get closer, and I saw her hand reach for me, felt the clawed eyehook grab me instead. “I wasn’t paying enough attention! I would have sent people to help, but I was distracted.”
Because you’re puppeteering around this body? I thought. But that was uncharitable. She had her reasons. I didn’t trust my feelings in this moment, and any scenario where I gave Chris a pass on his shittiness but snapped at Kenzie was too fucked up for words.
“I managed,” I said. I bent down, pulling off my one intact boot, then the one sock. “Where are the rest of our damn capes?”
“The Machine Army,” Kenzie said. “Um, Oberon and Auger. Skadi. The new Pouffe Titan. Custodian, but she already got here and brought capes with her. We’ve got more reinforcements coming. Some big heroes are trying to recruit when they’re not fighting. Using their ‘rest’ periods between fights to do stuff.”
Flying capes were directing ranged fire at the Ashen Titan. I missed my gun, and the impact it had had.
“Chris thinks they’re aimless right now. Is our chessmaster Titan preoccupied with strategy? Figuring out some puzzle?”
“No,” Rain said. The silver eyes of his mask looked out over toward the Titan Ophion, who was nested in his barrier, as capes tried to shoot through the gaps. “But I’m glad you guys noticed that too.”
“Build on that thought,” I said. “No why?”
“They’re not fighting.”
“Some of them are,” Kenzie said.
“Aimless I see, but not fighting isn’t right,” I said.
“They’re reacting, but they’re on autopilot. The new ones are sticking to instincts, but they’re increasingly disorganized. Nemean Titan’s just running, Ophion’s just growing his monsters and defending himself, Cinereal is walking and building up her ash. Custodian is just an asshole, I think. I think…”
He trailed off.
I looked at the Titans. Confirming what he’d said.
“…She might have gotten my message.”
“What did you say, Rain?” I asked.
“I said… everything, kind of. Or one thing in a million different ways, each with their own weight.”
“But what was it?” I asked.
“It was Staci Hartwick, reading a letter to me. It was Byron at group, talking about working on letting things go-”
I saw Tristan turn, looking back at us.
In the next moment, the Nemean Titan lunged for a group of heroes. Explosions slowed him and broke his forward momentum. Tristan finished his construction. The buildings exploded into existence, ramming the Titan.
Who brought a foot up and did an acrobatic backflip. The force of his landing made rubble cascade from piles, and shook buildings on unsteady foundation.
A big hit, dodged and deflected.
Rain went on, “-It was Jessica accepting Chris and Swansong. Swansong talking about work she was doing with the Wardens, and seeming proud.”
“This was when she appeared? Swansong?”
“Forgiveness?” I asked.
“She doesn’t deserve forgiveness,” Sveta said.
“Not forgiveness,” Rain said. “I don’t know enough, it’s not my place. More like… acceptance.”
Off in the distance, the Titan Fortuna stood still, her ‘face’ pointed at the clouds and the stars above us, arms limp at her sides, the wreath of wolf heads at her shoulders each with their noses pointed up.
“Why?” I asked.
“Gilpatrick asked me to think of what I’d say to myself. And I thought of her… I thought she couldn’t even make the decision of which course of action to take, back when we had to decide. Maybe I understand a bit of what it’s like to be caught up in someone or something else’s current. I feel like I didn’t have a thought of my own in my head, until I saw the doors of the shopping center burst open. Even then, it was a rocky road. I dunno. Not trying to make excuses.”
“I want to say you’re allowed to make excuses,” Tristan said, working on drawing out another diagram. “But that feels like I”m saying it to myself. Fuck.”
“I just thought, okay… I bet it’s really hard to go against a voice in your head that is literally always right all the time.”
“For a certain interpretation of ‘right’,” Sveta said, quiet.
“For a… yeah,” Rain echoed. “Yeah. So… cool. Really shitty, but we kind of need you to fight and try now.”
I thought of Chris, handing me the syringe.
And I thought of the weird link my brain had drawn of that memory of the room and of Contessa. Amy, who had her own fucked up voice in her head. How helpless she’d seemed.
Forgive? No. Never.
Accept? I could accept the reality that she’d been fucked over from the get-go, that the situation had been ugly, that day everything had started to go wrong. That Tattletale had planted seeds in her head and with nobody to turn to, those things had run rampant, twisting up her thoughts. I knew that, objectively.
Objectively, I knew our parents had done a pretty shitty job. Carol was Carol and my dad was the kind of person who only really stepped up when the ship was sinking and it was literally do or die.
Objectively, I hadn’t been there for her, I hadn’t seen the signs. I had my own objective excuses, like the death of the boy I’d hoped to marry one day down the line. That I was raised by our parents.
Forgive? Never. What she’d done was unforgivable. What Chris had done was unforgivable, and he had his own set of excuses. I didn’t have the benefit of memories or things that would help me figure him out. I didn’t understand him, or why Jessica saw good in him when he seemed so very twisted.
It didn’t matter.
She hadn’t made a clone of me. Okay. She had made a living strip of me, and I was pretty sure I knew when and how.
My next conversation with her would be the last, one way or the other.
It felt like I’d solved a puzzle with no answer. A bit of a weight off my shoulders. Like maybe she wasn’t a bogeyman lurking around the next corner. Still someone and something I’d have nightmares over, for fucking sure. But I could think the next conversation would be the last without sticking a question mark on the end.
My leg hurt where it had healed. I rubbed my thigh with the heel of my hand.
“Is it possible there’s a window where her precognition isn’t working?” Tristan asked. Breaking the spell of thought.
“I don’t know. It’s like she passed on some instructions,” Rain said.
“The way the Titans moved,” I said. “Yeah.”
“Do you think it’s possible?” Tristan asked. “She got this message, and now there’s a war waging inside of her? Between Contessa and the Titan?”
“I kind of relate,” Sveta said.
“It’s a chance if we’re right about this,” Tristan said.
“I don’t know if it is,” I said. I thought about what Chris had said, twice. About the others and what they’d observed. That this wasn’t a fight we could win. She’d already plotted her moves. “We speculated earlier that she chose how our powers would be altered. And she made them more aggressive. A little sloppier. Trying to capitalize on this weakness, using tools she arranged for us to have… it feels like the wrong answer.”
The fighting was ongoing. Now that I knew to look for it, I could see that hesitancy, the lack of coordination.
“The last times it felt like we made any moves that mattered, it was with the opposite of this aggression she prompted in us, giving us aggressive powers,” I said. “When we went to the shard world.”
“Can’t get there without the dream room,” Kenzie said. “I don’t think we have a day. You saw my alerts?”
“Your alerts?” I asked.
I had to refocus my vision. I saw the log of alerts. Cracks extending. Cracks extending. Cracks extending.
No. All one crack, all with the same label.
Extending impossibly far, from the origin point. By pure happenstance.
“Who?” I asked, because looking through it was too difficult, and I wasn’t sure I could bring myself to, to stumble on a name of someone I knew.
It wasn’t, really. Worse, that it was someone I hadn’t really talked to.
“Valkyrie,” Kenzie said. “They got her.”
I swallowed, hard. I found the notification marked out in gold. The icon in the distance and the corresponding label too small to really see.
I felt too emotionally shaky for this.
“We fight,” Tristan said. “Do what we can. Last until tomorrow night…”
The words felt hollow.
This was already too hard. Another twenty-three hours of this?
“Another way?” Sveta asked. “Colt understands the dream, would she have ideas?”
Rain shook his head.
Then he spoke up, not looking at any of us, “But we saw through the crystal. We saw people running around.
“Can we get a message through?” I asked. “To Swansong?”
“Maybe,” Rain said.
“Maybe,” he said, again. “Harder. I wouldn’t even know where to look.”
“I might be able to figure out a transmitter or something,” Kenzie said. “Project into the crystal, maybe.”
“I’ll stay,” Tristan said.
The conversation ceased for a moment. We looked at him.
“We should go,” I told him. “This isn’t a fight we win. It’s practically preordained.”
“There are people I know and owe something to on this battlefield,” he said. I looked for and saw them. Old members of Reach. One a member of the Flock, now without a Valkyrie. Another a member of the Shepherds. “And the only things I’m good for are marketing and fighting, and there’s no market here.”
“You’re good for a lot more than that,” Rain said.
“I’ll stick with you, then,” Sveta said. “The rest of you go.”
“But-” Rain started.
“But you understand the dream room, you know where to find her. You’re more useful over there. You didn’t have the sense to grab any tokens tonight, so you’re useless on a battlefield.”
“If saving them is important to Tristan, it’s important to me. He’s- you’re kind of the first person who looked me in the eye after I confessed the Fallen stuff, Trist.”
“Go,” Tristan said. “I’m too stubborn to listen to you at this point. I’ve got Sveta and my old teammates to look after. My mind is made up.”
“Your brother,” I said. “He’s along for the ride, you know?”
“I know. Believe me. I protect him most of all.”
I set my jaw, wondering if I could drag him. Would his conscience be clear?
“There’s no time,” Sveta said. “This is getting worse by the minute. You go. We’ll manage.”
We went, in hopes of delivering a message that mattered.
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