Part Seventeen: Escalation Central

[A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]

"Well, fuck."

My words seemed to resonate with everyone there, and for a split second, nobody moved. At least some of them were very likely thinking exactly the same thing, though almost certainly for entirely different reasons. I could only hope that Sophia was thinking, well, fuck, I can't get out of this so I may as well give myself up now. Though she probably wasn't.

Personally, I stood there like an idiot, trying to come to terms that the girl who had at least co-masterminded all the horrific shit (some of which was literal) that had come down on me over the last year wasn't actually a villain. Part of my brain tried to argue that she had to be an established villain; no hero would ever stoop to such activity. It was more or less the definition of being a hero; standing up against bullying wherever it might be found.

Except, she had done exactly that. She'd punched me, kicked me, pushed me down stairs and shoved me in my damn locker. Sophia Hess was a bully. Sophia Hess was Shadow Stalker. Shadow Stalker was a hero. Heroes didn't bully, or condone bullying.

One of those statements was not like the others.

One of those statements was a lie.

Shadow Stalker was never a fucking hero.

Just back of my breastbone, the wyvern snarled and raved, seeking to break free and burn Sophia Hess to a fine ash. Too-hot air drifted from my nostrils, thick with the tang of whatever my wyvern form used to ignite its flame. The Change was altogether too close to the surface.

It would be all too easy to ease up on my self-control, to just let it happen. But I'd been learning. Learning not just to force the Change from one form to the other, but to also refrain from Changing when it would be bad to do so. If I let it happen here and now, the least of the repercussions would be that I would be outed as Wyvern, and Dad would potentially be put in danger. I could think of much worse outcomes if a fight actually broke out in this corridor; as Wyvern, I was fairly durable. Dad wasn't, and the cops were only wearing basic body armour.

Worse, if I attacked Sophia, would Miss Militia stand aside, or would she defend Sophia? What would the PRT troopers do? They had containment foam, which I wasn't at all sure I could break out of.

And if they captured me after attacking Sophia (and by association, Miss Militia and the PRT) then I'd be their prisoner; in their power both legally and physically. Right where I had no desire to be. All the legal leverage Carol Dallon could bring to bear would be of little use; the PRT had a small army of lawyers, and they'd have the upper hand by a long way.

The frozen moment ended, and shit commenced to go sideways.

Sophia screamed with incandescent rage—yeah, who would've seen that coming?—and went on the attack. Not at me, or Dad, or even Blackwell or Emma. She vanished into smoke, then flowed around Miss Militia even as the flag-clad hero discharged what turned out to be a taser. Briefly turning solid, she swung a two-handed elbow-strike at the back of Miss Militia's neck. She missed her mark, but only because Miss Militia was already turning, the taser coming up faster than I would've expected.

Mental note: never test my reflexes against Miss Militia. I will lose.

Sophia's elbow instead caught the side of Miss Militia's jaw, snapping her head around with brutal force. Miss Militia staggered and utterly failed to get out of the way when the PRT troopers discharged their foam sprayers at Sophia. I didn't see if they hit their intended target, because the rapidly expanding yellow foam caught Emma, Principal Blackwell and Mr Barnes almost immediately; then Dad, me and the cops half a second after that.

It billowed around us, sealing us into a translucent prison, yellow light filtering through along with just enough air to breathe but no more than that. I'd read accounts by people who'd been trapped in containment foam, but reading about it and experiencing it were two utterly different things. Vaguely, I wondered if the foam would continue to hold me if I were to Change, but I didn't want to try. I wasn't being held rigidly; it was more like a rubber cocoon. I could move a little bit, but I couldn't go anywhere.

The wyvern hammered at the bars of its cage. She's getting away, and I'm the only one who can stop her! My mind turned to the fire I could produce while in that form; while I was sure I could burn away this crap, at least from around me, I couldn't be certain the other people in there with me wouldn't get hurt as well. And doing that would absolutely out me to the very last people in the world I wanted knowing about my secret.

Miss Militia very probably knew already, and I would've given fifty-fifty odds that the PRT guards had been briefed on a potential Wyvern incursion. The cops didn't, but they'd been pretty cool, so I didn't have any worries from that side of things. Dad, of course, knew everything.

It was Emma, her father, and Principal Blackwell whom I didn't want knowing about this. Between their amazingly shitty character judgement where it came to Sophia and their resulting treatment of yours truly (either from ignorance, malice or somewhere in between), I wouldn't have trusted them with the care and feeding of a pet rock. Much less something this important to me. So I held firm. The foam around me might have been heating up, but I refused to Change. I was the boss of this power, not it of me.

"Dad?" I called out. "Are you okay?" It was like shouting through a pillow, but at least I made some noise.

"Yeah." Though his voice was distant and indistinct, I could hear him. "What about you?"

"Wondering what's going on. Can you hear anyone else? What's happening?" I didn't want to worry him, so I kept the problem of the wyvern trying to break free to myself. Besides, I still had a secret identity and I didn't want anyone hearing me talking about it.

"Nothing I can make out. I have no idea what's going on." He sounded like he was trying to conceal worry. "They should've let us out by now."

That raised a whole new series of spectres for me to think about. What if this whole thing was an elaborate plan intended to spirit me away into the depths of the PRT, and strongarm me into working with them? My heart rate rose, and it became harder to breathe. This didn't make it even slightly easier to keep my Change under control.

Stop it. I forced myself to think logically. They had to know that trying to force me into the mould of being their tame little superhero would backfire more spectacularly than Armsmaster pointing his halberd at me that one time. If I ended up in a cell against my will, I would Change, and if it came to a contest between my dragonfire and them, I'd bet on me. Added to which, every time I got hurt and changed up, I seemed to improve my ability to use fire in different and interesting ways. And if fire didn't work, the wyvern was good at wrecking shit with its jaws.

The PRT might be a monolithic and bureaucratic organisation, but they weren't stupidly suicidal; neither were they blindly moronic. They had to know that kidnapping me would be an immensely bad idea. So why are we still stuck?

A long-ago piece of advice from Mom drifted through my head. If you can't change the situation, try to use it to your benefit. Well, I couldn't get out … but hey, this stuff was pretty supportive. I relaxed, letting my body just hang in the foam. If it wasn't for the fact that I was actually being held prisoner by it, it might even have been fun, or at least restful.

"So, Shadow Stalker, huh?" It felt really weird to be having this conversation with my father, who'd been right next to me, yet I couldn't see him and he sounded like he was dozens of feet away. Still, what else was there to do until they got us out of this? "Gotta admit, I didn't see that coming."

"Really?" He sounded mildly curious, but that could've just been the muffling effect. "So that's who she is. Huh. Well, it kind of makes sense, in a really ass-backward way."

"It does?" I couldn't keep the surprise out of my voice. "I really thought she was maybe Oni Lee. You know, a villain."

He laughed then, briefly. "I can see why you'd think that, but no. You probably missed it on the news, but I heard from one of Kurt's buddies that Shadow Stalker didn't join the Wards voluntarily. The word is that she got too violent out there, and the PRT decided to rein her in. They only called her a hero because she went after criminals."

"Oh." A few things started making a lot more sense to me. Far from being a misunderstood vigilante, Sophia was just a violent person who got her kicks from hurting people. She'd pretended to be a hero to keep out of the way of the law, but even then she'd fucked up. It fitted more or less exactly with what I knew of her. Which made me wonder exactly how she'd gotten her claws into Emma so thoroughly; my ex-best-friend was generally more savvy than that. "Well, she's definitely gone and fucked that up now. What do you think they'll do with her?"

He was silent for a long moment. "Best case, they shove her into the cape version of juvey so fast it'll make her head spin. Worst case, they outfit her with a new costume and cape name, and ship her to some other part of the country. Force her to keep her head down and toe the line."

I hated the second idea. It didn't help that I figured she'd hate it just as much. "So, do we get any compensation for all the shit she pulled on me? I mean, they dropped the ball here pretty badly, right?"

Again, he took a little time to answer. "I'm thinking Mrs Dallon would be the best person to address that. Somehow, I can see the PRT ducking and dodging around secret identities, and trying to hold out some sort of deal for you to join the Wards in return for full compensation. But she might pull a rabbit out of the hat anyway. She's very switched-on."

Just as I was about to answer, I heard a weird deep thumping sound, like someone beating on a drum. There was no rhythm to it, just very fast and staccato. But it finished before I could put a name to it.

"Did you hear that?" I asked.

"Yes." He sounded puzzled and concerned. "Not sure what it was, though."

"I guess we'll find out when they let us out of this. Anyway, like I was saying, I'm not about to join the Wards in any way, shape or form. Not in this century or the next, anyway. Besides, I'm already a semi-official member of New Wave. They can't just go poaching me. Every independent team in the country would jump up and down at once."

"Yeah." But now he sounded distracted. "You smell that?"

"Smell what?" Up until now, all I'd really been able to smell had been hints of whatever chemicals my Wyvern form generated to make fire; that, and containment foam. But now I deliberately sniffed, inhaling deeply through my nose. And I smelled it.


"Shit, is that what I think it is?"

"Yeah." His voice was tensely urgent. "That's not you, is it?"

Have you set fire to something, he was asking. I would've been insulted, but setting fire to things was rapidly becoming my go-to method for dealing with them, of late. My imagination popped up an image of me setting fire to Sophia, but I told it to hold off on the wishful thinking until the current crisis was over.

"No!" I shouted as loudly as I could. "It's not me!" Not yet, anyway.

Was the foam beginning to get hotter? Up until now, I would've thought this was due to me, but the smoke disabused me of that notion. Unless I was badly mistaken, something was seriously wrong out there.

"Taylor …" Now he actually sounded worried. He didn't say anything more, but he didn't have to. It's time for you to do something, he meant. Time for you to be Wyvern.

The trouble was, I totally agreed with him. So did the wyvern. There were more important things at stake than my secret identity.

I barely had to relax my control before the Change began. It felt different to every other time I'd done this, somehow more robust and forceful. Maybe it was because of the stuff I was currently encased in; I had no way of telling for sure.

My face became a muzzle, pressing outward. The yellowish material resisted, tore, re-stuck to my skin. I could feel it having similar problems as my arms stretched and became wings; even my flight membranes sliced through it with relative ease. My tail emerged and burrowed through the foam, finally popping into the open air and waving around. It thwacked against something solid, but I didn't have the time or patience to find out what.

My next problem showed itself relatively quickly. Even fully Changed, I was still trapped. If I was going to find out what was going on and do something about it, I needed to free myself. Okay, then. Let's see what some fire does.

Drawing in as much air as I could, I let flame spill out of my mouth. As planned, it followed the path of least resistance, washing along the boundary between the foam and my scales. Given the speed with which it unstuck and peeled away from my muzzle and head, I got the impression that it wasn't intended to face high temperatures at all. I still wasn't out, but now I could move my head freely.

Downside? Melted containment foam reeked. Like, dirty socks left at the bottom of the laundry hamper for a solid month reeked.

Other downside: there was still some around my head. I spat out a tiny explosive fireball into the space in front of me, flickering my nictitating membranes over my eyes as it detonated. Just like with the ones I'd stopped the criminals with that time, it was barely worth the name, but it surely did the job. There was a brief instant of overpressure (I vaguely recalled the same thing happening in my locker, once upon a time) and then it was gone, splattering away in all directions. I was free from the mid-torso up, though my wings and lower body were still trapped.

And the school was on fire. Well, there was a cloud of smoke percolating out of the ceiling, and I could hear the crackling of flames.

I was pretty sure that wasn't my fault.

Shadow Stalker

A Few Moments Previously

Hebert was still blathering on. "Everyone thinking that they're the only one who knows Sophia's a cape. We all know it. Just admit it. Now can someone move the locker so we can prove that Sophia stole my property? That way, we can arrest her and Emma and Madison, and I can get on with my goddamn day."

Sophia couldn't believe what was going on. Why were they even listening to the skanky dweeb? Why wasn't Miss Militia shutting her down, or (for preference) pulling out a big-ass gun and shooting her?

Or was all that shit about Wards' identities being protected just that; shit? An excuse for them not to unmask to me? Well, fuck them, and fuck the PRT and Protectorate as well, if they won't step up for me.

The female cop who Sophia had carefully explained to that she was a cape raised her hand and pointed. "Callan, Peterson. Move the damn locker."

Rage swelled in Sophia's gut. Didn't the bitch care? She was on the verge of outing Sophia as a cape, and she knew it, but she was still doing it. When this was over and done, Sophia was going to swallow her pride and talk to the Director, and get that stupid cop's badge taken off her.

"Sergeant, there's still—" Just for a second, Miss Militia seemed to be about to justify her existence, but then the cop talked right over the top of her. Or maybe Militia let her.

"We've wasted far too much time catering to the wishes and desires of a teenage delinquent who may or may not be a member of the Wards for me to give a shit anymore. Move the damn locker."

Everyone's fucking against me. Everyone.

Rage surged through every fibre in her body, making her want to strike and rip and tear and make them bleed. But she chose to hold it back until she was certain that Militia was betraying her. The cop blathered something about NDAs—as if that would stop people from talking if they really wanted to spread the word around—though what she'd said really put her onto Sophia's shit list. Not that this was hard, right now, but this cop was now right up near the top, just under Hebert.

As the uniformed idiots followed the stupid orders of the interfering cop, Sophia figured she had one last chance to walk away from this with some semblance of her life intact. They'd figured out she was a cape, which was bad, but only some of them knew which cape. If she could just grab the bundle and get it out of sight, she'd wear whatever punishment Militia doled out, then go find the cop one quiet night. It was amazing how many gangbangers in Brockton Bay would be happy to kick some interfering cop to death, or at least take credit for the act.

Muscles taut, she prepared to leap forward the moment the locker came away. But then, even as the weight came off her front foot, Miss Militia grabbed her by the shoulder.

It wasn't a light grab, either; Militia really dug her fingers in there. By an effort of will, Sophia didn't go to shadow and grab her stuff anyway. There was still a chance she could skate away from all this if she didn't just publicly out herself. So long as she played Militia's game and kept in good with the PRT and Protectorate, she could do what she wanted and Hebert had zip.

Except that there was no more time. That stupid recorder was right there in plain view, but it didn't mean jack shit if the PRT said it didn't. The trouble was, the rest of her stuff was also right there; the cloak, the mask, the arrows, and the crossbows, all bundled up together. Right where everyone could see it.

Why the fuck did Militia stop me from grabbing my stuff? Does she want everyone to see it?

Is she even on my side with this, or did she just come here to throw me under the fuckin' bus? It was sure as fuck starting to look that way.

And then Hebert spoke in a tone that told Sophia she'd seen enough, and the dots were now well and truly connected. "Well, fuck."

Sophia's mind raced. Militia's got a plan to salvage this shit. She's gotta have a plan. Turning her head slightly, she looked for a signal from the senior hero, something for her to go on with.

She saw nothing. Just anger and pity. And that was when she figured out Militia's plan.

I was fucking right. She was always going to throw me under the fucking bus. The Director sent her here to make sure I went down all the way. They're probably going to make up some stupid fucking excuse and rig the trial so I go to the Birdcage, because they hate me for making them look useless.

In that moment, she realized that she had nobody she could depend on. They were either too weak or had already betrayed her. The rage, temporarily in abeyance, blazed up in full force.

With a scream of full-throated wrath, she went to shadow. Miss Militia reacted with worrying speed, already turning as Sophia flowed around her and reformed on the other side. The endlessly mutable weapon that Militia carried shifted and changed into something that looked ominously like an oversized taser.

Sophia didn't wait for her to bring it into line. She was already swinging her elbow, bracing the blow with her other hand. Militia somehow saw it coming and ducked aside. Sophia's elbow missed the back of Miss Militia's neck but got her jaw instead. While her elbow felt like she'd just smacked it into a rock wall, Militia was staggered, the taser drooping. Not perfect, but good enough.

The gurgling hiss of a sprayer warned her, and she went to shadow just before four streams of containment foam criss-crossed through where her body would've been. As the yellow shit splattered over everything and everyone—including Militia, take that, you backstabbing bitch!—she lunged sideways toward where her gear was sitting on the shelf. The way the stuff expanded once sprayed, everything on those shelves was likely to be buried in seconds, so she eased out of shadow just far enough to grab the entire bundle.

The plan was already coming together in her mind. The PRT was kicking her to the curb, but there was no way she was gonna be bending over and letting them fuck her life up without a fight. Her entire vigilante career before the Wards had been made up of hard decisions—usually some variation of, hit the muggers now, or wait until they're distracted by their victims?—so she didn't find it hard to make one now.

It's me or them. I choose me.

It was a step she'd never had to take before, but maybe if she had, she wouldn't be in this situation now. Something to think about. Later, after she was finished here.

All of the troopers had stowed their foam sprayers by the time she looked around. They'd laid down an impressive volume of the stuff in a very short time, trapping everyone apart from Sophia like flies in amber or some shit like that, but it had to be clear to them that they weren't going to be getting her that way. As she watched, two of them pulled out tasers. Because of course they'd been briefed on her weaknesses.

Extracting one of the arrows from the bundle, she launched her shadow form toward those two, flowing around and past them. Momentarily, she went to full solidity while standing behind the first one, holding the arrow so that the head and a section of the shaft materialized inside his spine, just at the base of his skull. He jerked uncontrollably and began to collapse, but she was already shadow again and flowing out of the way of the gleaming taser wires that had just been shot her way.

Fighting these assholes was a lot harder than punching out druggies, mainly because druggies rarely wore body armour or carried tasers. She had to duck and dodge like crazy to avoid being zapped, before she got close enough to bury the arrow in his forehead through his faceplate. That asshole went down, leaving her with just two obstacles in the way of completing her plan. Thank fuck nobody's invented a rapid-fire taser yet.

Number three was going with the ambitious plan of a knife in his right hand and a taser in the left. She dodged the swipe of a blade, then lodged an arrow in the guy's knee, eliciting a scream that she heard through the helmet. As he lurched, off balance, she jammed another arrow up under the front edge of his helmet, into the soft part of his throat. Warm blood spilled out over her hand, then he toppled over onto his side.

Up until now, the fourth trooper hadn't even gotten into the fight; when she looked, she found out why. He was spraying the contents of a can of foam dissolver over the mound before him, converting great swathes of it into a dirty yellow liquid that she knew from experience took forever to wash out of hair and clothing.

He's trying to free Miss Militia. Oh, fuck nope. Sophia was good, but she freely admitted that Miss Militia was better. While she could just about handle herself against regular PRT goons (and fuck, did it feel good to not have to hold back in a fight anymore) if Militia had even one goon to run interference, going up against her was an extremely shitty proposition.

Pulling another arrow from the rapidly-depleting store, she went to shadow and lunged toward the guy. When will these idiots learn not to turn their backs on me?

During Sophia's time with the Wards, Triumph had done his best to instill in her a sense of honour when she was in a fight. She'd pretended to pay attention, even though she knew for a fact that going easy on your opponent in any way was fucking moronic at best, and outright suicidal at worst. There were too many rules that they expected her to follow, to live by. It was bullshit. The world needed fewer rules, more action. It was the only way to survive.

The guy started to turn right at the last second, but it was too late; she phased the arrow into the back of his head. He went down like the rest of them, leaving the spraycan stuck in the containment foam.

Sophia paused to take a breath and nock an arrow into one of her crossbows, while she looked around for more adversaries. Nobody was in the corridor; all the troopers were dead, or nearly so. That just left the witnesses in the foam itself. They were gonna have to go, of course. Snitches got stitches. Or in this case, closed coffin funerals.

Fortunately, she had a way to kill them all without actually having to individually release them from the foam and top them one at a time. She could do it that way, but it would take way too long, and there was always the chance that someone had sent off a distress signal. Better to go with the original plan. Leaping straight up, she went to shadow and passed through the drop panels into the ceiling space beyond.

When she first started at Winslow, she'd spent about a week scouting the place out after hours, until she knew all its little secrets. Such as the fact that the fire alarm system was connected up but the sprinkler tanks were dry, and had been for years. Also, in the ceiling spaces between floors, the building was constructed mainly of wooden beams rather than concrete. Old, dry wooden beams.

Extremely flammable wooden beams.

The second part of this phase of the plan had to do with the fact that the first time she'd happened on a drug operation as Shadow Stalker, she'd wanted to destroy the drugs but she'd had no means to do so. So she'd started carrying road flares in what passed for her utility belt. Ironically, she'd moved on to stopping street crime instead of hunting drug dens (besides, it was really hard to find them) so she'd never had cause to use them.

Until now.

Crouching on one of the beams, she set down the crossbow then rummaged through her utility belt until she found the tiny penlight. With the light to assist her, she took one of her last arrows and used the razor-sharp head to shave pieces off the side of the rough wood, then rip off strips from the bottom edge of her cloak. Collecting it all in a little pile, she laid the road-flare on top then pulled the tab. The bright light nearly blinded her, but the heat was amazing. Pulling the tab on another flare, she tossed it down into the rat droppings and other crap that had accumulated in this place over the last thirty or forty years. One way or the other, this place was gonna burn.

Containment foam didn't catch fire, as far as she knew, but once melted it could give third degree burns, not to mention the noxious fumes it gave off. And of course, being trapped in the foam while the school burned around them would almost certainly kill everyone in the corridor below. Which was only what they deserved, for trying to fuck her over and get her sentenced to the Birdcage.

Well, not everyone. Emma and Alan Barnes hadn't betrayed her, she admitted to herself. And Blackwell had done her passive-aggressive best to not let anything come between her and the appearance of a smoothly run school. But they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, much like the mugging victims she didn't bother rescuing ahead of time if they didn't even try to fight back.

Put simply, if they couldn't survive on their own, they were of no use to her, and the PRT might even manage to coerce witness statements out of them. Like it or not, they were witnesses. They knew too much.

Again, the thought went through her head, and she hardened her resolve. If it's me or them, I choose me.

It looked like the fires had caught nicely. Time to drop back down, retrieve the arrows from the men she'd killed, and fuck off out of there. The costume and other gear could be stashed somewhere else until the heat died down (so to speak) and as Sophia she could join the other students as they evacuated the school. Then all she had to do was walk away, vanish into the crowd. The plan after that was a little nebulous, but at least she would've gotten rid of anyone who might outright accuse her of shit instead of just keeping their heads down as they should.

Activating her power, she fell through the ceiling.

Miss Militia

Trapped as she was, Hannah couldn't even activate her radio and call in a distress alert. She had no idea what was going on, just that Shadow Stalker had gone nuts. Also, depending on how nuts she was, this could be a very big problem. Her guys were good, but there was a reason capes had threat ratings assigned to them. Without powers, they'd smack her down hard and fast; with powers, she could pull stuff they just couldn't match.

She could hear distant voices, either coming from outside the foam or within it, she wasn't sure. Neither could she make out what they were saying, or who was saying what. Methodically, she tried to work through her options for a weapon that would help her get out of her ad hoc prison, but there were very few options indeed that wouldn't actually do her serious harm as well.

And then the grip of the stuff on her left hand lessened; she found she could wriggle her fingers. A smile spread over her face beneath the scarf. They won, she realized. And now they're spraying me free. Good going, guys. I am so putting you all in for a group commendation when we get back to base.

When the spraying ceased and the can was pressed into her hand, she was momentarily puzzled. Sure, she could get herself out, but it would be much easier for whoever was using the can to do so. But there it was. Hey, maybe they had to pay more attention to handling Shadow Stalker. At least they left me the can.

Twisting her wrist, she set about freeing herself; with each pass, it became easier. She hated the smell of the stuff, and it usually took about a week of washing her hair to get it all out, but right now she could not have cared less. What really concerned her, once her head was clear, was that all four of her men were down, apparently dead. And that the cause of death was abundantly clear. Crossbow arrows, protruding from their armour and helmets. Shadow Stalker.

She wasted no time in freeing herself all the way, keeping a lookout in case the renegade Ward made a reappearance. As soon as her other hand was free, she activated her radio. As was procedure in this sort of situation, she kept her voice down.

"Miss Militia to console, I'm calling an emergency situation at Winslow High. Shadow Stalker has gone code purple. I say again, Sierra-Sierra is code purple. Four troopers down, possibly deceased, over."

Code purple was something nobody liked to hear. It designated a 'blue' (friendly) cape becoming a 'red' (hostile), with all the security problems that entailed.

There was a momentary hesitation, then the PRT console operator responded. "Console to Miss Militia. Please confirm Shadow Stalker code purple, over."

"That's an affirmative." She finished freeing her legs and stepped away from the mound of foam. Setting the can on the floor, she manifested a large shotgun in her free hand. "Checking troopers now. Wounds appear to be fatal, consistent with Sierra-Sierra Breaker power, over."

"Console copies troopers deceased. Informing Director now, over."

"I copy." She quickly checked each of the troopers, going by feel while she kept an eye on her surroundings. None of them had a pulse, which didn't surprise her. The one next to where she'd been imprisoned had been stabbed in the back, probably while trying to free her. You'll get your commendation, damn it.

Just as she checked the last trooper and straightened up, a flicker of motion from the corner of her eye caught her attention. Turning fast, she brought up the shotgun by sheer instinct as a shadowy form dropped from the ceiling. There was no time to change weapons; she opened fire.

Shadow Stalker

The double-ought buckshot tore through Sophia's shadowy form, disrupting her in ways that were unpleasant in the extreme. She twisted around without changing back, to see Miss Militia standing over the dead troopers, throwing shot after shot at her as though ammunition was on special.

Fuck, she's free. Okay, that's it. I'm out.

Cowardly was the last word Sophia would use to describe herself, but there was brave and then there was suicidally stupid. Taking down Miss Militia from surprise was one thing. Trying to drop her while she was upright and aware, with her power ready to roll, was entirely another.

Hoping and praying that there weren't any electrical lines in the wall beside her, Sophia changed direction and lunged in that direction just as yet another blast shredded part of her shadowy body. It wasn't a lasting injury, and would soon reform, but it hurt on a fundamental level. She knew she'd be bruised there, after.

Passing through the wall, she resumed solid form. When she landed on her feet, she stumbled, but recovered. Her side felt like she'd taken a sucker punch from Aegis, and she figured that the bruising was making an early start.

Okay, pretending innocence is a no-go. There's zero chance she hasn't already snitched to the Director already. I've gotta get the fuck out of here. Fortunately, the far side of the room—one of the Art classrooms—had nice big windows that she could pass through with ease; the bars covering them (this was Winslow, after all) would constitute no obstacle whatsoever. She started making her way toward them, favouring her bruised ribs.

The classroom door was kicked in. There stood Miss Militia, hefting a taser that looked like it could bring down a bull elephant and still have enough juice left over to barbecue the carcass. "Shadow Stalker!" she shouted. "Not one more step!"

Sophia didn't hesitate for even an instant. Turning, she triggered the hand crossbow she'd kept loaded all this time. The arrow whipped across the intervening space in a split second, and took Miss Militia in the stomach. With a muffled scream, Miss Militia fell, but as she did so, she triggered the taser.

Both prongs hit home, sending bolts of white fire through every single nerve ending Sophia had. She convulsed, then dropped everything and ended up on the floor. Unconsciousness claimed her.


I looked around wildly. Clouds of smoke were rolling down the corridor, and I could hear the crackling of flames, overlaid by the distant ringing of an alarm. It might have been hot, but I could never tell as the wyvern. Everything was either cool or comfortably warm, as I'd found out under the shower (to Vicky's immense amusement).


Looking around, I saw Dad staring at me. Some of his coating of foam had been blasted away in the same detonation that had partially freed me, uncovering sections of his head and shoulder. He looked worried which didn't surprise me, given that he was trapped and unable to escape from a building fire.

I chirped affirmatively in reply. Pausing only to make sure of my aim, I washed a gentle wave of fire over my lower torso and wings—I had to admit, having a flexible dragon neck was very handy indeed—and stepped out of the foam as it melted away from me.

My next problem was getting Dad out of the foam as well. I couldn't just melt it with fire; even if I managed to aim well enough to avoid hitting him directly, the melted globs of foam could easily give him third degree burns. I had half an idea that the PRT had something that dissolved the foam (I mean, why wouldn't they) but the only troopers I'd seen on site were on the other side of the mound of foam, and that had been before the shit hit the fan. Where they were now and what they were doing (instead of letting us out), I had no idea.

Which left Plan B: Brute Force.

Leaning in, I laid hold of a chunk of the foam, feeling it trying to adhere to my teeth and tongue, then braced myself and tore it away from the main mass. It tasted almost as bad as the melted stuff smelled, and I hastily spat it out. But the chunk I'd pulled away had been part of the stuff holding Dad in place, so I did it again and again. A couple of times I had to 'wash' my mouth out with fire to get rid of especially clingy bits, but I had Dad free in less than a minute.

During this time, the fire got louder, sparks and bits of ash were falling from above, and the smoke only became thicker. It wasn't bothering me, but Dad was coughing more or less non-stop. I let out a screech to get his attention, then moved aside and opened my mouth once more. Getting out would be a real problem if we had to navigate a smoke-filled Winslow, but I happened to know that two walls that way lay open air.

He ducked aside as I released my cutting flame, slicing through the locker and the wall beyond with almost insulting ease. It set the wall on fire as well, but that wasn't exactly making things worse. When I'd cut out a square, I swung my hips and smashed my tail into the middle of it, sending it crashing into the next room over, which happened to be one of the Art classrooms. Offering Dad a come-on chirp, I stepped through the hole … and froze.

Over near the window lay Sophia, a small crossbow next to her. Also next to her was Miss Militia, leaning against the wall while she worked at applying a dressing to her stomach, around the protruding shaft of an arrow. The veteran hero's camouflage costume was dark with blood around the wound, while more of it led in a trail from the kicked-in door to where she was now.

Miss Militia looked up at me, with the most unconcerned expression regarding my presence that I'd seen yet. "Wyvern. Glad that you've finally joined us. How many others are out of the foam?"

"Just me at the moment," Dad said, stepping out from behind me. "How did you get out?"

"The troopers are equipped with cans of solvent," she explained briefly. "How bad's the fire?"

"It'll get worse before it gets better." Dad nodded toward her. "How bad off are you?"

"Can't walk. I think I've got the bleeding stopped. I've called ambulance and fire department." She waved toward the corridor. "You need to get them out of that before the fire gets to them."

"On it." Dad hurried toward the door that hung off the hinge. "Taylor, come on."

I dithered for a moment. Part of me wanted to stay and help guard Shadow Stalker, but there wasn't much I could do if she went to shadow as soon as she woke up. Finally, I hurried after Dad.

When I got to the doorway, he held up his hand to keep me there. "Watch Miss Militia," he advised me. "Let me know if anything happens with her. I know you want to help, and it's not like you'll be able to change back any moment soon."

He was right. I hated to admit it, but he was right. Turning my head, I fixed my vision on Miss Militia and Shadow Stalker. If Dad wanted me to guard them, I'd be the best damned guard there was.


Colin accelerated his bike toward Winslow High. He'd finally gotten the call that fire services had been requested at the school, which was his cue. If his mystery informant was correct, Taylor Hebert would be there, laying waste to the place, giving him the perfect opportunity to swoop in and snap her up for the Wards. While he wouldn't have minded knowing who this civic-minded person was, and how they knew where the girl would be and that she was going to go off the deep end, he was also fully cognizant of the old saying about gift horses and mouths.

After all, members of the public passing on information covertly to superheroes was a time-honoured tradition. No laws were being broken that he could see, save perhaps by Taylor herself. And if she was tearing up Winslow, giving him the opportunity to get her into the Wards, that would be a large feather in his cap … so to speak. The fact that she didn't even want to go into the Wards wasn't something he spent much time thinking about; neither would it have bothered him overmuch if it was.

He'd registered and logged the Code Purple, noting that Shadow Stalker was involved. He didn't know the Ward personally, having rarely worked with her, but he seemed to recall that she'd been a vigilante before entering the Wards on a provisional basis. Something about nearly murdering someone? He'd have to check the files when he had the chance.

In any case, they'd tracked her down once, and they could do it again. But the crime was done and while it was a tragedy to lose men in the field, he had a more important situation to deal with. Winslow was on fire, Taylor Hebert was almost certainly responsible, and this was the opportunity he'd been looking for. She needed to be made to see that this was an opportunity for her as well, to learn the hero trade under a veteran such as himself.

There were already others en route to Winslow, especially since Miss Militia's second transmission to Console. Shadow Stalker had been captured, which was good; that meant he didn't have to waste time on inconsequential details. Miss Militia being injured was a potential problem, but help was on the way so again he wasn't needed to deal with that. She'd reported that members of the public were trapped in confoam, but they were also currently being freed by helpful civilians, which was good.

She hadn't mentioned the presence of Wyvern, which he was actually pleased about. He didn't want anyone else getting the same idea he'd had, and poaching her before he had the chance to make his case. Oh, he knew she was technically a member of New Wave, but he was sure the Dallons and Pelhams would not want to be connected to someone who'd gone on a rampage and set fire to a school twice. They'd probably be pleased for him to take Wyvern off their hands and into the Wards program.

Since the last outing against Inago, he'd become convinced that if her power built up with every new challenge she overcame, she might just end up being able to fight Endbringers. As Brockton Bay's premier Tinker, he was just the person to train her for this; after all, he wasn't the local leader of the Protectorate for nothing. And of course, having her as his protégé could only help his reputation as well as hers.

It was for the greater good. For him and for Brockton Bay.


Thomas Calvert leaned back in his comfortable office chair and indulged himself by steepling his fingertips just a little. He didn't go so far as a maniacal cackle; he had some standards, after all. Passing the message to Armsmaster in an untraceable manner had been simplicity itself, and now he could sit back and watch the fireworks.

It had been just as easy to pull the right strings and have Taylor Hebert coerced into returning to Winslow High. She was worried about facing her tormentors again, in case they forced her to Change to her draconic form in public? Calvert was very much a "let's see what happens" sort of person. Especially when there'd be no repercussions to him.

He hadn't even had to keep back a safe timeline, in case it went wrong. No matter how it blew up, whether Hebert torched the school or Armsmaster tried and failed to recruit her yet again, the PRT and Protectorate would come out of it with egg on their faces, and he'd be golden.

It really was a win-win situation, the type he liked the best.

End of Part Seventeen