Another Way


Part Twenty-One: Panzerfaust


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


Marquis


Earl rubbed his chin between thumb and forefinger. "Crusader's ghost saw you, but didn't attack you or try to raise the alarm?" He sounded dubious about the concept. "You're certain it wasn't just looking in your direction?"

The young man he'd renamed Robert after his change at Claire's hands shook his head earnestly. "Totally. He was looking right at my face. I could see him, and he could see me. I thought I was dead, right then. But he just turned his back on me and went away. So me and Miss Claire got out of there."

"That, at least, was the correct move," mused Earl, thinking hard. He pulled the handheld radio from his pocket and clicked in the push-to-talk button. "Marquis here. Any movement on the perimeter?"

"One here. Nothing on north side."

"Two responding. Nothing on west side."

"Three here. All clear to the south."

"Four here. Street looks clear."

He knew Four was on the rooftop almost directly above them, and that the man's eyesight and hearing were vastly beyond human norm. The same went for the other three. They were also physically boosted, with strength and reflexes that would bring tears of envy to the eyes of an Olympic athlete. This was par for the course with any one of his loyal troops.

The disloyal troops, on the other hand—those who had joined under false pretences, usually as moles from the PRT or the other gangs—he had placed in a division of their own, so they could chase their own tails and inform on each other.

A smile creased his face in the darkness. Claire's powers had come at a cost, as did everything valuable in life, but she had truly made him proud with her capability and judgement.

"Dad?" she asked now, bringing him back to the present. At the moment, she wore her Marchioness form, including the evening gown, for ease of communication.

Though it consisted of just one word, the question had several layers inherent in the asking. Most centred around the two aspects of Do we have a plan and How are we going to do this?

"We have one major priority here," he stated, addressing his words to both Claire and Robert, though they were meant mainly for the latter. "Removing Panzer as a threat to Marchioness. How we do this is not yet set in stone, though I would be satisfied with the Kaiser solution. As for her allies, we are looking at varying levels of danger. Do not attempt to face Night and Fog on your own, and if you get into melee with Alabaster, go on the defensive. If you exert yourself trying to beat him, he will wear you down."

"What about Crusader?" asked Robert hesitantly. "He didn't attack me …"

"The reasons for which I refuse to speculate," Earl said flatly. "To assume he's automatically on our side is to leave ourselves open for betrayal. He may well have assumed you were a hero, and was unwilling to attack you for one reason or another. Once he finds out you are working with me, his priorities may well change. We will not overtly attack him unless and until he strikes at us, but we don't turn our backs on him or his ghosts."

"If I can get close to him, I'll see if I can figure out his motives," Claire offered.

"Not a bad idea," Earl allowed. "Just be careful. Your organic carbon fibre armour might stop his ghosts' spears, and it may not. We do not want him suddenly getting the idea that we're betraying him, and turning his ghosts on us unexpectedly."

"Yeah, no, pass on that," agreed Claire.

"As for the attack itself," Marquis said, "I believe a dynamic entry from the front will work for both Knight-Errant and myself, while Marchioness finds a roof entry and gains access that way. A two-pronged attack from an unexpected direction is far more likely to work than a simple frontal approach." He looked to Robert. "We will work in concert, flanking any opposition we encounter. Alabaster we will nail to the ground. With Night and Fog, your job will be to deal with Fog while I keep Night honest."

More than a little surprised, Robert stared at him. "M-me?" he stammered. "But you're much better at fighting than I am."

Earl nodded. "Yes, but your regeneration will keep you safe from his acid touch, and your flaming sword will likely cause him more than a little discomfort. It may even ignite him like a cloud of flour."

"Okay." Robert nodded. "And Mi-uh, Marchioness? She'll be alone. What happens if she runs into Fog?"

Claire grinned, showing a few too many teeth. "Oh, Fog and I are old friends," she purred. "I might just have to remind him of that fact, though."

Earl's smile was all proud father. "That's my girl."


Marchioness


Claire had to remind herself that overconfidence was a killer. And while she herself was as physically capable and resistant to damage as she could manage, that did not also apply to her father and to Robert. The clone of Lung was certainly tough, with a level of regeneration that rivalled the leader of the ABB, but his combat capabilities were still at a relatively basic level. It had taken Jonas years to get her to where she was now, and having three people willing to train him did not allow him to learn three times as fast.

It had been relatively easy to get to the building under cover of her optical camouflage, then crawl up the wall and approach the crudely-wired security camera from above. Her options had been to either snip the wires or block the lens with a mixture of snail mucus and octopus ink, and in the end she'd gone with snipping the wires. It was fast and easy, and the people inside were going to figure out things had gone wrong soon enough; no sense in delaying her entry by trying to be fancy.

Once the camera was out, she slithered down to the doors themselves, then modified one of her claws into a narrow monomolecular blade and sliced through the wood, coring out the lock neatly. It was a trick she was quite proud of, not least because it looked badass as hell. Her father and Robert were already on the way over before the lock hit the ground, so she turned around and went straight up the wall.

It had only been common sense to expect a camera covering the roof access, so of course there was one. Fortunately, this camera had the same problem with exposed wires as the other one had, and snipping the wires with a purpose-modified pair of claws was but the work of an instant.

Getting in was another problem altogether. The roof access door was made of metal; while this would not pose an impossible obstacle, it would also be a lot noisier than cutting through wood. So she improvised. A tentacle the thickness of a shoelace, though vastly stronger, slithered out of her fingertip and around the door jamb. It felt around the inside of the door until it felt the push-bar, then braced itself and went as rigid and unbending as a steel rod three times its thickness. Claire put one hand against the doorframe and pulled sharply on the other end of the improvised lever. With a clunk, the door came open.

Venturing inside, she let the door click shut, then pushed her camouflage back to maximum and made her way down into the building. Initially, she was just scouting, looking to locate the bad guys before she opened hostilities on them. Her feet secreted a fine powder that was more or less imperceptible to the naked eye, but which her enhanced senses could pick up just fine, so she wouldn't end up scuttling in circles.

Up ahead, she heard a sound like a hundred knives dancing on their blade-points, but when she snuck her head around the corner, all she saw was an open door; within, a woman examining her hands. The woman wasn't trashily dressed or currently building some death machine, so Claire presumed it was Night. The ex-Empire cape was reputed to turn into a mobile blender when she was unobserved, which explained the noises Claire had heard just before she actually looked to see what was going on.

Do I take her down, or leave her for later?

The temptation was almost palpable in nature. Night would never see her coming, and so long as Claire kept eyes on her, the fight would be over before it began. One hit, and the woman would be down and out to it.

Except therein lay the next problem. Once Claire took her down and secured her, she would have to keep the woman in sight from then on. If she didn't, reports suggested that she would recover from any and all damage when she changed forms. They didn't mention the possibility of metabolising knockout toxins, but that wasn't something Claire was willing to gamble on.

Which left two options. Either kill Night outright, or apply a change to her brain so that she was no longer an enemy. Claire had trouble with both of those options, for differing reasons.

For the first one, she was certainly physically capable of executing Night before the woman ever saw her. But she liked to think of herself as a good person, or at least a person with good intentions. Jumping straight to the cold-blooded murder of an unsuspecting adversary smacked of the kind of villainy that her father spoke out against. There was no style to it.

Changing Night's brain permanently was also something she was quite good at doing by now. But there were two ways to do it; the slow and careful way where she knew she wouldn't leave a gaping hole in the command structure she was putting into place, and the quick and dirty way where such flaws were almost inevitable. Right now, she didn't have time to do more than a quick and dirty job, and she wasn't certain that Night's Changer recuperation wouldn't even fix that. She certainly wasn't banking on Alabaster being vulnerable to such things.

So she left Night to her own devices—hearing the hundred-knives chorus on the floor as soon as she turned her back—and set out to explore more of the base. She'd just come out into the main workshop area, and had just had time to register holy crap, that's one fuck-off big-ass tank when the fire alarm started shrieking.


Panzer


"Hey, Panzer." Alabaster's remark was cut in half by a yawn. This had to be from boredom, because as far as Sherrel could see, the man never got tired. She wondered if he even slept, or if his resetting power took care of that too.

"What is it?" She put the soldering iron down and popped her goggle lenses upward so she could look at him. Deep down, she felt the craving, not for drugs but for the feeling the drugs gave her. It drove her, made her want to finish the tank so she could have another crack at Marchioness, to get her ability to be addicted back. Still, Alabaster rarely screwed around so she was willing to find out what he wanted.

"Your shitty-ass security cameras are on the blink again." He gestured back toward where she'd set up the rudimentary console. "Can't see the front door for dick."

"Fuckin' what?" She'd double-checked the connection on that one. "Go outside and see if a bird crapped on it or something. I'll look at it from this end."

"Get Crusader to go check on it," he said, not quite ignoring her order but skating very close to it. "His ghosts can fly, yeah?"

"Crusader's just about stomped on my last nerve," Sherrel snapped. "I tell him to do that, there's every chance we'll get into a ten-minute argument about how he's too tired to do it or some shit, or you go and do it right the fuck now and save ten minutes of fucking around."

Alabaster folded his arms. "Ever think maybe he's acting like a pissy little whiny bitch so you won't tell him to do shit? You're basically rewarding him for being lazy."

Sherrel advanced on him. "I. Don't. Give. A. Shit," she snarled. "You got out of sewer duty because you don't wanna get your clothes dirty. Fine. This isn't sewer duty. This is walking outside and looking at a camera." She stomped past him to the makeshift security console. "The sooner you do it, sooner you can get back to doing crosswords, or whatever it is you pass the time with."

"Fine." He threw up his hands dramatically. There might even have been an eye-roll involved, but Sherrel wasn't looking. She heard him leave the room; while he didn't slam the door, exactly, he did close it with a certain amount of force.

I need to finish the tank soon, she decided. If we don't get out and capture Marchioness in the next few days, we'll be at each other's throats. Closing her eyes, she imagined the pleasure spreading through her veins, once Marchioness was forced to reverse the change that had been made to her physiology. Of course, once the little shit did the job and put things back the way they were supposed to be, she was gonna die. Nobody fucks with my high.

Dropping into the chair, she looked over the screens that related to the security setup. Rear entrance was fine, side entrance showed no problems, roof exit … wait, what the hell? She glared at the screen that was supposed to be portraying the roof exit, but was just … blank. Just like the front door camera.

This was looking less and less all the time like a simple equipment failure (always a potential aspect of being a Tinker) and more like someone was fucking with them. There was a big red button taped to the table beside her, with a clear cover over it. The person on security console detail was supposed to hit it if they saw any shit going down on one of the cameras. It was connected to the fire alarm system (she'd disconnected the sprinklers first, and made use of the tubing in the process) so if someone hit the button, everyone would know about it.

"Panzer." Dorothy entered the room, looking … not nervous, she didn't have the imagination for that, but unhappy. "Do you have a camera in our room?"

"Why the fuck would I have one there?" demanded Sherrel, just wanting this stupid fucking conversation to be over already so she could find out from Alabaster what was wrong with the front door camera, and maybe get Crusader to get over himself already and check the roof exit feed.

"I don't know." Dorothy looked directly at her. "But I was in there just now, and I changed back to human when nobody was there. Someone was looking at me."

Sherrel flipped up the cover and slapped the button.


Marquis


Alabaster, Earl decided, was a very irritating person to fight. They'd been easing into the base, giving Claire time to get to the roof and effect her own entrance, when he came down the corridor and almost literally bumped right into them. All of Earl's efforts had immediately gone toward preventing the paper-white neo-Nazi from raising the alarm, which meant he'd disabled Alabaster's pistols first before attacking the man himself.

Right then, Alabaster had opened his mouth to call out a warning; fortunately, Robert had showed the presence of mind—or perhaps he'd just panicked—to stab the man through the chest. And the diaphragm, as it happened. While such an injury would be likely to prove very quickly fatal to the normal run of humanity, on Alabaster it merely served to shut him up for a few seconds.

Those few seconds had been invaluable, though. Earl had sent a spray of bone that clamped onto Alabaster and locked around his face to form a solid gag, forcing the Empire villain to breathe through his nose, and silencing any outcry he might make. It did not, however, convince the white-skinned lunatic to give up. In fact, if anything, it exacerbated his efforts to break away from them.

It very quickly became clear that Alabaster was a highly capable and versatile close-in fighter, made only more so by his ability to utterly ignore any wounds he might suffer and by what seemed to be the ability to ignore any level of pain. He was not above breaking his own limbs to escape any attempt to cage him in, and anything grown from his own bones vanished when he reached the reset point. While he wasn't beating Earl and Robert, he wasn't losing either, and that was all he had to do. Endlessly regenerating, he would not tire or make mistakes, while his opponents eventually would.

Or at least, Earl knew that he would, whereas Robert's regeneration had the possibility of keeping him fresh through a gruelling combat. But for all of that, Alabaster could also regenerate, albeit in a different fashion to Robert or even Claire.

Three times Alabaster made a break for freedom, and three times he almost made it. Twice, Earl caged him in with bone. Alabaster battered at the barrier, shattering it with his fists and feet and revealing what had to be a minor Brute level of strength.

On the third attempt, Robert tackled the Empire cape full-on, bringing him down with a tremendous thud. Utilising a move Earl could've sworn Claire had taught the clone, Robert rolled to his feet with the still-winded Alabaster's throat clutched in his hand. But they had to move fast before he recovered and the fight began all over again.

Slamming Alabaster against the wall, Robert ran his sword through the man's chest and into the plasterboard beyond, pinning him there. Earl was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth; within half a second, he had Alabaster encased in bone as white as his skin, arms and legs firmly pinned by the rock-hard carapace. But he wasn't satisfied with simple bonds. Alabaster had proven himself a highly tenacious and altogether too persistent opponent so, once Robert had withdrawn the sword, Earl thickened the bone sarcophagus to a foot thick in all directions, leaving only his head protruding from the top.

"Well done, son," he said with a congratulatory slap on Robert's shoulder. "Let's go."

Just then, the fire alarm went off.


Crusader


Standing under the pounding spray of the hot shower, Justin wasn't quite sure what to do with himself, now he knew enemies (not his enemies, but enemies to the group) were gathering outside. He wanted the other side to win, but he didn't want to go to prison. Panzer had seized control of their little group, mainly because Dorothy and Geoff needed direction and Alabaster didn't give a damn.

He himself didn't have the temperament to be a good leader. At best, he'd flail around and screw everything up; at worst, he'd try to treat everyone like his ghosts, and they'd all just walk away from him. But Panzer seemed intent on forcing a confrontation with Marquis, which in Justin's mind was a huge fuck NO!

The worst bit was, the other three were just fine with this. He couldn't discreetly assassinate her (even if he was inclined to do so) because then he'd have three people on his case that he was damn sure he couldn't kill in a hurry. Except maybe Dorothy, and she would only die if he watched her all the way to her last breath and beyond. As soon as she was free of observation, she'd transform immediately to her monster configuration, fully healed. (Which, just saying, was only slightly less bullshit than Alabaster's four-seconds-and-change reset capability).

And while his ghosts were capable of at least slowing down Alabaster and Dorothy via repeated stabbings, Geoff suffered under no such limitation. In fact, Justin knew damn well there was nothing he could do to stop Geoff from murdering him at will, at any time. This was one of the reasons he hadn't raised too loud an objection to Panzer's plans to date; if she ordered Geoff to dispose of him, there was a very good chance the man would do just that with no hesitation whatsoever.

It was almost as if the universe were deliberately finding reasons for him to regret working with brainwashed Nazi supervillains or something. Not that they were any better than working with enthusiastic new recruits; or rather, unstable new recruits. Who had somehow ended up in charge.

I want out but even if I do get out, I'll have zero friends and a lot of enemies, some of whom will be my former friends.

Fuck my life.

He was just starting to wash the soap off when the alarm shrilled through the base, grabbing his attention and holding it. For a moment, he thought the place really was on fire, until he belatedly recalled how Panzer had ripped out the copper piping and rewired the alarm system. Still, that probably meant the guy he'd seen before was assaulting the base. Hopefully with about two dozen PRT as backup. He hadn't recognised the costume, but with the gleaming silver armour and sword the guy had looked heroic as fuck; and with Kaiser just plain vanished, they didn't have access to the latest Protectorate rosters anymore.

Still, he hastened to get out of the shower, because if someone came looking for him, the last thing he wanted was for anyone to suspect he was in on the raid somehow. Also, it would be the height of irony for someone on the other side not to have gotten the memo that Crusader was one hundred percent okay with the base being raided, and to come in shooting. The best outcome right now was that he armoured up and got the fuck out of Dodge while everyone else was (hopefully) being beaten down and arrested by sword-guy and his Protectorate and PRT buddies.

In any case, it was a good idea to find out what was going on, so once he had pants on he sent out a couple of ghosts to scout the area. This was because the ghosts were an exact copy of him at the moment he produced them, and he didn't feel like flashing anyone right now. There was nobody in the corridor outside, and no sound of fighting, at least not anything that could be heard over Panzer's fucking repurposed fire alarm. So he pressed onward, even as he hurriedly pulled on the rest of his costume.

As luck would have it—because fuck my life. Again—the first person one of his ghosts saw was Panzer, in the area near the security console. Worse, she saw the ghost at the same time.

"Get dressed and get out here!" she shouted, putting the finishing touches on a gun he knew she hadn't possessed that morning. It was big and ugly and lumpy, and he was sure he saw parts of the toaster sticking out of it. This made it a Tinker gun, which meant he had no fuckin' idea what it did, and there was a good chance she wouldn't either until she fired it. Mentally assigning it an equal chance of firing Mach 1 slices of toast or high-powered microwave lasers, he made the ghost perform an elaborate salute—no sense in letting her know he was rooting for the other side—and had it drift out through the wall.

The other ghost, which he'd sent toward the area of the front doors just to see if they'd been kicked in yet, found them idly swinging on their hinges with the lock altogether missing. He didn't bother spending time trying to figure out what had happened to it, because one: he really didn't care, and two: Alabaster was only a few yards inside the doors. The guy was alive (duh) but not going anywhere at all, mainly due to being encased from the neck down in what looked very much like either white stone … or solid bone. About a foot thick, if Justin was any judge. More bone had been used to form a very effective gag, leaving him just his nose to breathe through, which he was doing so at the moment, snorting like a steam-train and glaring at Justin's ghost. Vague sounds emanated from within the enclosing calcitic prison; with a lot of effort, Justin figured Alabaster was trying to shout, "Get me out of this, you fucking idiot!"

Much as he was doing right then with Panzer, he had the ghost nod earnestly (they both knew his ghosts couldn't touch nonliving matter, so attacking the bone was a no-go) and head off through the wall with an air of I'll be right back with help. Because that was where he was going. Right after he stopped for coffee … in Boston.

Still, that had been a turn-up for the books, as he'd once heard someone say. There had only ever been one bone manipulator in Brockton Bay, and although Marquis had left the city before Justin ever got his powers and moved to the Bay to join the Empire Eighty-Eight, his reputation preceded him like a Mack truck on steroids. The older capes he'd spoken to, the ones who'd been around when Marquis was still a power in the city, had told stories about why you did not fuck with the guy.

And now he was back, and although Justin didn't know exactly how he'd managed to deal with Kaiser, Krieg, Hookwolf and the rest all in one afternoon, it was obvious this was his work. Which just served to raise a question about the guy with the sword. That had clearly not been Marquis. He'd seen pictures of the guy in action, and he went for bone armour and elaborate bone weapons that he basically pulled out of his own body. Not silver plate armour and a metal sword.

Okay, Marquis and armour guy. At least. He didn't know if this was a good thing or a bad thing. Villains were less likely to arrest everyone in sight, but they had been known to murder everyone in sight. He tried to recall what he'd been told about Marquis' tendencies in that regard, and got back a vague memory of being told if someone really really got up in his grille, that person just … vanished. Like he'd never been.

Which is what Kaiser and the others did, he belatedly realised. Both the getting in his grille thing and the vanishing thing. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuckity fuck. Okay. Rule number one, don't get up in Marquis' grille. I want to walk out of here in one piece.

Honestly, the more he learned about what was going on around here, the less he wanted to be any part of it whatsoever.

Swearing under his breath, he continued to strap his armour on.


Fog


Geoff Schmidt was not what anyone would call a deep thinker. He had his priorities, and he attended to them. When not attending to them, he usually awaited further orders. He and Dorothy had their rituals that filled in the time while they were awaiting orders, although being displaced from their apartment meant Dorothy could not cook for Geoff and the others, and he could not sit at the table with the paper while she cooked.

This was moderately unsettling for him. He preferred to be able to go through the comforting motions, rather than think about what to do next. He didn't like thinking. Thinking was painful, and brought back memories of things he did not want to think about.

Being given explicit orders he could follow to the letter; that, he liked. Whether these orders were to kill someone messily or to walk to the post office and retrieve a parcel, he would carry them out precisely. If anyone attempted to stop him from doing what he needed to do, he could react and deal with the problem. Reacting wasn't something he had difficulty with. In some distant part of his mind, he was aware that he lacked initiative and the capacity for independent creative thought, but another part of his mind told him this was perfectly okay, so it was alright.

So long as he and Dorothy had someone to tell them what to do, they'd be fine. Panzer liked telling them what to do, so they were happy. Not as happy as they'd been in their apartment where Dorothy could cook for them and he could sit at the table with the morning paper, but happy enough.

Panzer had pressed the button that made the fire alarm go off, and she had told Geoff to go up to the roof exit and if he found someone on the way that wasn't part of the team, to kill them messily. He hadn't heard the orders she had given Dorothy, but this didn't matter. As Night and Fog, they never missed and they never lost. Once he had killed everyone he found at the roof exit, he would rejoin Dorothy and perhaps she would be able to cook for them again.

Going upstairs in his particulate form was difficult, so he was walking. Panzer believed enemies were breaking into the building, so he was carrying a pistol. One technique he had been shown for when he wasn't being backed up by Dorothy was to pretend to be an ordinary person and fire off a shot from behind cover, then go to fog and overwhelm the opposition while they were returning fire. That was a solid plan, so he was going to do it first.

He reached the roof exit and frowned. It was closed, which meant there were enemies inside the building that had somehow gotten past him. This meant he hadn't carried out his orders yet. Fortunately, he was now at the top of the stairs, which meant he could assume his Fog shape while pursuing the enemies. He could not carry heavy things like pistols in this form, but that did not matter to him. When he rolled over them, they would die screaming. They always did.

Leaving the pistol on the top step, he changed to fog and began to drift down the stairs once more.


Panzer


Gritting her teeth in aggravation, Sherrel jammed the last component into place and picked up the large screwdriver. It seemed everything and everyone was conspiring to piss her off today, and she couldn't even get high to let it all go over her head. When I finally get this bitch to give me my high back, Imma get blitzed for about a month straight. After I feed her her spleen for putting me through this shit.

Holding the gun with one hand, she expertly tightened the screw. Her thumb depressed the power-up switch and she felt the coils start to energise. Pulling her top lip back from her teeth, she let out a snarl of triumph. These fuckos might think she was helpless because she was a vehicle Tinker without a vehicle, but she also made weapons for her vehicles. True, it was only just light enough to carry, but it was designed to fuck up other vehicles, so it would make an absolute motherfucking mess of any person it hit, cape or otherwise.

"Hey—"

Reacting without thought, she turned and threw the screwdriver like a knife. It turned end over end and hit its target, the blunt plastic handle bouncing hard off Crusader's helmet.

"—what the fuck?" he yelped, ducking and covering his head with his hands as she swung the accelerator cannon toward him. "Hey, cool it with that thing!"

"Don't fuckin' sneak up on me, then," growled Sherrel. "What took you so long?"

"Normally, I get help to put my armour on," he explained lamely. "It's a lot quicker that way." He waved his spear. "But I'm here now. What do you want me to do?"

"Fuck, do I have to think of everything myself?" she yelled. "Send your ghosts around and see what the fuck's going on!" She paused. "Hey, did you send a ghost into Dorothy's room? She said she changed to her human form earlier, and nobody was there."

He blinked rapidly, then took a deep breath. "Uh, yeah, that was me, sorry. It took a wrong turn. No harm, no foul, right?"

Wait, what? So all this bullshit is because Justin was peeking at Dorothy? Motherfucker!

"Son of a bitch!" she yelled, and stomped through into the security area. Reaching under the table, she flipped the switch that turned off the incessant fire alarm. "I should seriously let those two take you apart like a fuckin' pita wrap. I thought for sure we were under attack, you insensitive perverted cocksucking asshole!"

As if drawn by her tirade, Dorothy came into the room, carrying her bandolier of smoke grenades and wearing her specially prepared cloak. Sherrel knew it had hooks on the outside, so Dorothy could throw it over an opponent's head and it would latch onto their costume, preventing them from seeing her. The smoke grenades were of course intended to bring about the same effect via a totally different mechanic.

"Why has the fire alarm stopped?" asked Dorothy.

"Because we were never under attack!" yelled Sherrel. "Crusader did something stupid and made me think we were. Because he's a fuckwit." Gritting her teeth, she set the cannon down on the table, because it was too fucking heavy to lug around for too long. And if she kept it in her hands for much longer, she'd be tempted to shoot Justin with it.

A brownish-grey fog roiled into the room then reformed into Geoff, looking vaguely puzzled. "We are not under attack?"

"No, we're not," snapped Sherrel, but even as she said it, a doubt assailed her mind. Wait a minute … where's Alabaster? He should've reported back by now.

"Oh, I wouldn't say that," purred a voice from the corridor leading toward the front door. "But don't mind us. Do carry on."

Sherrel spun around, eyes going wide. Marquis stood in the doorway, fully armoured in bone with an elaborate battle-axe in his hands. Beside him was a younger man, armoured in silver plate, holding a longsword that had flames flickering up and down the blade.

Fuuuuck.


Marquis


It was a calculated risk to make a grand entrance, but Earl had a soft spot for such theatrics. It wasn't enough to beat one's opponents, so much as it was often necessary to prove to them that they'd never stood a chance in the first place. Stepping out and posing with Robert beside him was pure gold, morale-wise; and besides, he knew something they didn't.

"You." Panzer's voice was a low, almost animalistic growl. She didn't look away from Earl, but her hand felt back behind her toward where she'd left the oversized rifle.

"As you say," Earl responded lightly. "Me."

He wasn't quite sure why—his grounding in human psychology was entirely self-taught from hard experience—but responding to anger with cheer always seemed to awaken a much deeper anger in those he tried it on. It was a useful tactic, and one he employed whenever it seemed necessary.

An angry opponent, after all, was one who wasn't thinking straight.

"Where is she?" If the 'you' had been a growl, this was a straight-up snarl. "Where's that bitch?" Her hand fell on the rifle and she scrabbled for the handgrip. He wasn't worried yet, as it was too heavy to lift one-handed. Besides, he had other concerns.

"Are you referring to Marchioness?" His tone was still light, but had a distinct steely edge beneath it. "I'll thank you not to call my daughter such names. For your own sake, rather than her sensibilities. The last person who truly got her angry was Kaiser, and you probably don't wish to find out what happened to him."

As he'd instructed Robert, the boy was watching their backs while he kept an eye on Crusader, who was observing the whole interaction as if frozen with indecision. He still didn't trust the ghost Master fully, but so far he seemed to be unwilling to step up. Good. Every enemy we can sow doubt with, the better.

"Night!" screamed Panzer. "Fog! Crusader! Get them!" At the same time, she swung around to the table and snatched up the massive rifle.

Several things happened in very quick succession.


Marchioness


"Where's that bitch?"

Clinging to the ceiling of the room, more or less directly above Night and Fog, Claire bristled. I'll show you bitch … bitch. But before she could decide what action to take, her father spoke. His answer, she had to admit, was far classier than any that she could've thought up on her own.

And then Panzer started the fight. Claire didn't worry about her father or Robert; they could take care of themselves. She was more concerned with the Gesellschaft duo, as Fog dissolved into a cloud of particulates and Night stepped into the middle of it, effectively concealing her from view.

Except from me. Claire grinned as she shifted her vision to the far ultraviolet, allowing her to spot Night through the obscuring fog. Then she dropped into it herself. Growing a third eye to allow for three-sixty degree vision was child's play for her by now, and she barely paid attention to it as she delved into Fog's mind. While she couldn't read his thoughts, she could certainly look at the shape of them and do something about it. Turn back and fall asleep, she ordered him, impressing the requirement on his brain like a red-hot poker.

As he reverted to human form and slumped to the ground, she reached out her tail toward Night, who was staring at her shifting, camouflaged body in confusion and what might have even been anger. The purpose-grown fang at the very end plunged into Night's side and injected a potent soporific before the woman even thought to dodge.

"What did you doooo?" mumbled Night, even as she fell over.

Yeah, I'll answer that one later, if at all. Making sure her third eye had a clear view of Night, Claire looked to see how the rest of the fight was going.


Crusader


Panzer aimed the massive rifle at Marquis but just before she fired, he pulled up cloaking bone on all sides. She pulled the trigger anyway, spitting out what seemed to be a series of razor-edged metal discs that blew the middle three feet of the bone column into shards and dust. Justin yelped and ducked away; some of those discs had come perilously close to him.

"Fuckin' do something!" she screamed at him, repositioning her aim toward the guy with the flaming sword.

As if in slow motion, Justin saw the bone column rise up from the floor behind her, open up, and Marquis stepped out. Reaching out, the osteokinetic flowed bone all over the gun and over Sherrel herself, encasing her in an instant.

"And that will be enough of that," he stated firmly. He looked over toward Justin. "Do you stand down?"

Realising he was still holding his spear, Justin nodded and let it clatter to the ground. Carefully, he raised both hands to shoulder height. "This wasn't my idea," he said. "None of it was."

Marquis nodded gravely. "Of course, you will understand if I seek a second opinion."

"Um, sure?" Justin had just watched Marquis and his people take down several horrifically dangerous capes in quick succession. He wasn't going to argue with anything the man said.

The creature that stalked toward him was barely visible; if he squinted just right, he could see a flickering outline. It reached him and put a clawed hand on his shoulder. Just a moment passed, then it spoke … in a warm feminine voice. "He's sincere."

And just like that, the fight was over.


Marquis


"So … what happens now?"

Earl looked around at Crusader's question. With Panzer and Alabaster properly secured, Claire was back in her human form, consolidating her influence over Fog and instituting the same with Night. Apparently her worries about the monster cape reverting mental conditioning were groundless, as Earl himself could have told her; after all, Gesellschaft had managed to brainwash the couple in the first place.

"That depends," he said, taking the opportunity to think about what to say next. "You can stay in Brockton Bay as an independent, or you can join my group. There will be a rebranding if that happens, of course. Or you can leave town. Those are your options."

"Wait, you'd let me join?" Crusader looked taken aback at the idea. "Just like that?"

"If you were sincere, certainly." Earl tilted his head. "There are certain … ideals … that you will have to let go of, but we can help with that. However, Kayden has made the transition with little in the way of problems, and you have capabilities that would be useful when we take the fight to Lung."

"You're going after Lung?" Crusader blinked. "What, really?"

Earl showed his teeth. "Of course. How else am I supposed to show that I'm serious?"

"Well, shit." Crusader scratched the back of his neck. "How can I say no to that? I'm in."

Chuckling, Earl slapped him on the shoulder. "Welcome to the team."


End of Part Twenty-One