Another Way


Part Twenty-Two: Developments


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


Director Piggot's Office

PRT ENE


Emily Piggot raised her head at the knock on the door. She knew what this was; word had come down the chain of command that she was getting another strike squad commander to boost her numbers. However, the nameless bureaucrat who had drafted the memo had neglected to add any details. Whether this was due to some kind of obscure grudge, pure forgetfulness, or an assumption that she didn't care about such details, she didn't know. The upshot was, she had no idea who was on the other side of that door.

Well, there was only one way to find out.

"Come in," she called.

The door opened, and her new officer marched in. Neither one saluted; being uncovered and indoors, that wasn't a thing. But as he came to a halt before her desk, he offered a nod of respect for her rank. She returned it without even realising it, because she was in the process of rising to her feet. Her damaged legs allowed her to walk, and she was able to get along with just one cane these days, but it was still painful. However, she wanted to stand, so on her feet she was.

"Lieutenant Calvert, reporting for duty." He was tall, even skinnier than she recalled from their first meeting, but still looked fit enough. Unlike her.

"Calvert," she said, trying not to let her voice become a hiss as her eyes checked over his uniform. Those were PRT undress blues, and the rank tabs on his shoulders were indeed those of a lieutenant; just as they'd been before the powers that be had cashiered him.

Quietly, of course. Nobody in the PRT wanted any of the details of the Ellisburg debacle reaching the general public. How he'd made it back in, she absolutely wanted to know. But she also knew without a doubt that she'd have to be subtle about questioning him. Her impression of him—first, last and always—was that of a twisty snake.

"Director Piggot," he replied with just as little emotion. "It's good to see you again."

Even if the sentiment had been genuine, the feeling wasn't mutual. "I'd heard you were out. Civilian contractor. A little surprised you accepted this kind of pay cut." Nobody joined the PRT to get rich on what a lieutenant took home.

He offered an almost-shrug. "I disliked being a contractor more than I thought I would. No matter your prior experience, they see you as an outsider. Not one of them. And too many times, I saw my advice being discounted because of that. I don't know if people died because of it, but I figure it was only a matter of time. So when they offered me a commission again, I took it."

He was lying. She didn't know what the lie was, or why he was trying to pull the wool over her eyes, but there was bullshit floating in the air right now. However, it wasn't her place to call out her newest subordinate on a perceived untruth. Not until she could prove the bullshit, anyway.

Shortly before she'd met him for the first time, he'd shot his commanding officer because the man wasn't climbing the ladder into the chopper fast enough. In her opinion, this should be enough to give any of his future commanding officers a permanent itch between the shoulder blades.

They hadn't been managed to quite convict him on criminal charges, given that the situation at Ellisburg had been remarkably fraught, and nobody behind Calvert had made it off the ground at all, which his defence lawyer had parlayed into a case of temporary insanity due to overwhelming danger. As the only other survivor of that particular clusterfuck, she'd been called in as an expert witness.

Personally, she thought Calvert should have gotten a more stringent punishment than the Other Than Honorable discharge he'd ended up with but the PRT wanted the whole mess swept quietly under the rug, so they'd allowed his legal counsel to negotiate a (relatively) favourable deal in exchange for zero publicity.

The judgement should have disqualified him from ever wearing the uniform again, but here he was. Back in her ambit, as a strike squad commander no less. She managed not to glare at him, though he could probably feel her distaste from across the desk by now. "Why were you posted here? I didn't request anyone new."

He cleared his throat. "I understand that you've had an upsurge in cape violence in recent weeks. Plus, it seems that a fairly notorious villain has resurfaced. Things are likely to be unstable until they reach a new normal. I'm here to help keep a lid on things."

"Old news." While she wasn't totally happy with the current situation (translation: fuck that shit!) there were some high points here and there. "The major situations have been resolved. Our biggest mover-and-shaker gang has basically been gutted, and the remnants have gone underground or moved on. Most of the others seem to be staying under the radar until they can figure out what's going on. Cape crime is actually down from what it usually is, this time of year."

She could see from his expression that the conversation had taken a turn he wasn't expecting. "But … Marquis is back in town. Wasn't he one of Brockton Bay's biggest hitters, ten years ago?" Why isn't he making his mark, he didn't quite ask.

"From what I understand, yes. That was before my time." She lowered herself into the chair again, carefully. "He's also an exceedingly infuriating man. Also, not to be underestimated. And that's not even counting his daughter."

"I'd heard he had a kid." Calvert nodded. "Marchioness or something, wasn't it? Scuttlebutt says she's some kind of healer. She any good?"

Emily drew in a deep breath. "She's got an ongoing deal with Brockton Bay Central Hospital. She shows up there and sits in the emergency room watching cartoons and eating junk food, and people sitting nearby have their injuries healed and diseases cured just by being in the same room. I've watched the footage. Assuming what's going on there is genuine, she's very very good."

One of Calvert's eyebrows twitched upward. "Interesting. Have you thought about organising a grab? Once we impress on her that aiding and abetting a known criminal figure is a crime in and of itself, we might be able to flip her—"

Emily's legs complained as she came to her feet again, but she didn't care. This was the sort of shit she needed to nip in the bud, as of fucking yesterday. "Lieutenant Calvert! You will stand at attention and you will listen to every word I have to say!"

The harsh tone of her voice brought him up short, as she'd intended. He stiffened to attention, thumbs alongside the seams of his uniform trousers. "Ma'am, yes, ma'am!"

Taking the cane, Emily stalked out from behind the desk, letting the thump of the heavy wood against the carpeted floor act as a kind of punctuation. Slowly, she began to circle him, still talking. "Marquis is indeed a problem, but not one that can be solved by the simple act of attacking him head-on. Doing so—and let me tell you, kidnapping Marchioness would be a fuckup of the highest order—would ensure that all his attention was on you when it came time to deciding who to murder horribly first. Are we on the same page so far? Say 'yes, Director Piggot'."

"Yes, Director Piggot!" His eyes didn't move from a point on the wall over her desk.

"Good." She moved around in front of him. "Second point. Marquis is currently expanding his territory by leaps and bounds. Crime against individuals is dropping off hard in that area, because he has his men circulating and providing protection. For a price, of course."

Calvert's lips twitched, then stilled.

She nodded to him. "You have something to say?"

"Protection rackets are old hat," he said, his tone barely removed from an outright sneer. "Not exactly high-end criminal activity. Hardly what I'd expect a top-drawer supervillain like Marquis to get into."

"Protection rackets, yes." She shook her head. "It's not a racket if you're not just shaking them down for the money. If you're actually providing the required protection, it's called a security operation. His men are, by all accounts, horrifically well-trained and sporting significant body armour. They're also courteous and polite, and they take their jobs extremely seriously. They don't have to threaten anyone to get people to sign up."

He raised his eyebrows. "I bet that's caused more than a bit of a backlash."

"The opposition has tried, and failed." Emily knew she should not be cheering on the employees of a supervillain, but she still felt a certain amount of satisfaction in saying so. "Anyone who's gone after these guys, individually or en masse, has gotten curbstomped so hard it's ridiculous. After the first few incidents, the local business owners have been falling over each other to sign up for a protection plan. And by all accounts, it's working. The few times the criminals actually get away with their crime, he personally reimburses the business owners for their losses."

By now, Calvert had a frown on his face. She nodded and gestured for him to speak.

"So what you're saying is, he's not performing any grandiose acts of supervillainy?" It was partly a question and partly a statement. At her nod, he went on. "Because I could've sworn I read a report about him robbing a bank just recently. Or doesn't that even make the radar around here, anymore?"

Her nostrils flared at the implied slight, but she answered him anyway. "Old information. That wasn't him. Or at least, if it was, it's the best bait and switch I ever saw. He walked into the PRT building, along with Marchioness and another associate, and requested to see me."

"And you didn't have him foamed and arrested on the spot?" Calvert didn't seem to be getting it.

"No. I didn't. Because he had Marchioness along."

"The healer? I fail to understand."

Emily resisted the urge to rub her forehead. "The extremely capable area effect healer, who has stated that she will be attending Endbringer attacks for free. That healer."

It was as though she'd flipped the switch on a twenty thousand watt spotlight. Calvert's confused expression cleared right up. "Oh. Oh."

"Yes." Emily gritted her teeth. "Oh. Now you can see why I've been forced to treat him with extreme care. Fortunately, he's made it easy for us by not actually doing anything that puts him into direct conflict with us."

"I can understand that, yes." Calvert tilted his head slightly in query. "So what did he have to say when he met with you? Or did you meet with him?"

"I did it via remote screen," she confirmed. "He inquired about the amount that was stolen, along with information about how many people were hurt, and handed over escrow cards that supplied enough cash to cover everything, including medical costs, with some left over. If it was him who'd robbed that bank in the first place, the amount reimbursed would've left him severely out of pocket. So I believed him when he said he didn't do it."

"What the hell, ma'am?" Calvert's confused expression was back. "I can see a supervillain disclaiming responsibility for a particular crime, especially if it goes against their 'code'." Still standing at attention, he couldn't use finger quotes. Emily heard them anyway. "But to actually pay money back for a crime he didn't even commit in the first place?"

Emily shook her head. "When you figure it out, Lieutenant, be sure and let me know. In the meantime, were there any other questions about why you don't mess with Marquis that you needed answered right this second?"


Coil


"Just one," Thomas said. He had more than that, but he was asking those questions in the other timeline, and getting the answers he needed. That version of Emily Piggot was a lot less happy with him. "You mentioned an associate. He has a team now?"

"So far it's a team of three, including him," Piggot said. "The associate, I'm almost certain, used to work with Kaiser in the Empire Eighty-Eight. The rest of them have just evaporated after some kind of cape battle that was over before we got there. She calls herself Palatina at the moment, but I'd lay odds that she used to go by Purity. How and why she joined Marquis and rebranded, we're going to have to leave in the 'what the hell is going on out there' drawer for the moment."

"And of course, Marchioness has extended the same protections over her as over Marquis." It seemed a no-brainer to Thomas, anyway.

"Correct." Piggot gave him a hard stare. "Now, you're on the same page as the rest of us as to why Marquis and his crew are a hard hands-off for the moment. Do you have any problems with this?"

There was only one correct answer. "No, ma'am. No problems."

"Good." Her eyes dropped to her paperwork. "Dismissed. The Deputy Director can take you down and introduce you to the men."

"Ma'am." He turned and marched from the office, closing the door carefully behind him. Despite his calm demeanour, he was seething. It wasn't supposed to be like this!

When he first got his powers from Cauldron, he'd decided that he needed a suitable location in which to build his powerbase, one with more than its fair share of chaos and unrest. Being able to pick and choose between outcomes was all well and good, but he needed somewhere that his powerset could provide a large enough thumb on the scales. New York or LA, despite the thriving population of villains in each one, would be too hard to manipulate due to the influential heroes also living there; in addition, he needed to be a medium-sized fish in a medium-sized pond, not a tiny fish in a huge pond.

Brockton Bay, with its disproportionate number of capes in a relatively low overall population base, seemed more suited to the task than most. What had really nailed it down for him was the fact that Emily Piggot was the Director there. He hadn't spoken with her since their brief meeting after Ellisburg, but he knew that if he had suffered the kind of injuries she had, forever denying her the chance to be who she'd clearly wanted to be when she joined the PRT, he would be depressed at best and suicidal at worst.

(This was presuming that she hadn't done what he had, and purchased powers from a certain underground organisation. Which she wouldn't have, given her extremely vocal views on capes and powers. Technically speaking, her views could be a cover … but Piggot wasn't exactly a subtle individual. He couldn't see it.)

Which meant that she should've been a prime target for careful manipulation and gaslighting; building himself up as both her most trusted subordinate as Thomas Calvert, and her most feared adversary as Coil. Given a free hand, he would've been essentially running the local branch of the PRT within six months, and the city itself within twelve. Never the man in charge, unless he was pressed for options. He much preferred having several layers of deniability between himself and official scrutiny.

But all that was gone by the wayside now. It was never going to happen. At least, not as quickly as he'd hoped and expected. Far from being the weak and quivering wreck he'd anticipated, the Piggot woman was standing on her own two feet, driven by a will that almost rivalled his own. She would never operate in the field again; that was for certain. But she'd somehow made the transition into the desk job without losing the fire he'd seen in her on that fateful day, the fire that had allowed her to survive Ellisburg.

As he headed for Deputy Director Renick's office, he gritted his teeth in annoyance. It was becoming abundantly clear that Emily Piggot would never be his patsy. Much of his planning would have to be either scrapped or reworked. Worse, if her analysis of the situation was correct, even the ongoing low-level chaos in the city was far lower than he'd expected.

It was hugely ironic that while he had come to Brockton Bay with the intent of capitalising on the unrest and adding to it as needed, an actual supervillain was in the process of calming down a good deal of that same unrest.

Goddamn it, Marquis. Why couldn't you just be a villain like everyone else?

Now he was going to have to find a way to form some sort of alliance with the man, or neutralise his influence on Calvert's affairs in some other way. Of course, if the daughter was as good a healer as Piggot claimed, perhaps some use could be made of her in his organisation, when he got around to building one. He'd never had much to do with children, but surely they were easier to manipulate than adults?

It was something to think about.


Lung


Kenta was … not frightened. He was never frightened. Even when fighting Leviathan, he had never felt fear. Anger, yes. Frustration, certainly. But fear had never entered into the equation. So what he felt now could not be quantified as fear.

Still, there was something wrong. Something subtly off with the undercurrents of crime in Brockton Bay. If he was a fish in the ocean, it would be the sense that something large and dark and currently unseen (perhaps unseeable?) was prowling out there in the deep, occasionally circling near, but never quite coming into sight.

So he felt … uneasy.

There had been the instance with the challenge from Marquis delivered by way of one of Kenta's own henchmen, now dead. That gauntlet, once thrown down, had never been picked up. Marquis had not moved against him, and he'd found no target belonging to the bone-shaper that he could attack in turn.

Kenta had told himself that the challenge was merely posturing, that Marquis had neither the power nor the will to step up and confront the Dragon of Kyushu on his own territory. But then he'd heard of the clash with the Empire Eighty-Eight. Somer's Rock, destroyed in a massive explosion. It was an assassination attempt, he was sure. But of whom, by whom?

Had that been Marquis trying to decapitate the leadership of the Empire, in one fell swoop? Or was it one of the neo-Nazis, deciding that the loss of a neutral meeting ground was worth it to destroy a potential rival? The subsequent battle—more hinted at than witnessed—had proven that at least some had survived from both sides, though the sightings of a huge flying cat-like creature had confused everyone immensely.

As if that wasn't bad enough, there had been the other incident that had hit rather closer to home. He'd been astonished, then outraged, when he turned on the news to find that someone bearing a remarkable resemblance to him had attacked the PRT building. This had returned to astonishment when the clone (or whatever it was) had been handily defeated by someone looking a lot like Purity, working in conjunction with Marquis and Marchioness.

Finally, there were the men belonging to Marquis who had spread out through what had originally been Merchant territory and then into what had been Empire turf. They wore no costumes, flaunted no obvious powers, but they were strong and fast, and very organised. Every clash between them and his men had left the ABB people lying on the ground nursing a variable number of broken bones. And word was spreading; when the Marquis men take your money to protect you, they protect you.

The time to wonder was over, he decided. He had waited long enough for Marquis to make a move against him, but the veteran supervillain had stayed his hand. Kenta chose to believe that the man had repented from his initial intemperate statements; however, they had been made, and the piper was due his payment.

He would not strike at the man's child; at first, anyway. The fact that an attempt had been made to kidnap her, and it had gone badly for the kidnappers, indicated to him that there were hidden safeguards in place against such a thing. Besides, he didn't wish to bring the wrath of every cape from Brockton Bay to New York down on his head for attacking a hospital. That way lay the Birdcage at best and a Kill Order at worst.

No. He would strike at Marquis' territory, at his men, and draw him out that way.

And then Brockton Bay would truly see the measure of the man called Marquis.


Crusader


Claire's heel impacted Justin under his sternum and drove him back harder than any teenage girl had a right to do so. He staggered, the wind driven out of him, then landed on his ass with an undignified thud. Two of his ghosts moved to lift him to his feet as he held up his hands in surrender.

"I give, I give. How did you even do that?"

Marquis' daughter barely seemed to be breathing hard, despite the fact that they'd been sparring for over an hour. Her movements as she came closer were catlike, almost alien in their precision. When he looked at her eyes, he shuddered; they were feline, slitted vertically with gold on either side. As he watched, nictitating membranes slid across and back, faster than he could blink.

"Part of it's training, and part of it's remaking my body to do what I want it to do," she explained. Her voice, at least, was normal. "I've had a lot of practice with that, over the past few years. My bones aren't calcium, my nerves don't work the way yours do, and my skin is as bullet-resistant as I can make it and still be flexible."

"That should still leave your internal organs vulnerable to blunt force trauma." He straightened up painfully and shook his head. "They aren't. I've had my ghosts pummelling you and it hasn't done a damn thing."

"Well, no," she admitted, taking a towel from where it hung on the rail. "I've rearranged and remodelled them for greater efficiency, as well as rebuilding them out of much sturdier materials. Carbon fibre, for instance. I've had to carefully juggle my metabolism so my body can naturally renew my new organs, but it's a thing. Even one of your spears won't do much more than puncture my epidermis." Tossing the towel to him, she took another one and wiped her face with it.

"Just don't question it," advised Robert, heading past on the way to the showers. From the way Jonas had been throwing the other young man around, he should've been showing more wear and tear too, but only his exercise outfit was exhibiting scuff marks. "Miss Claire takes the normal rules, folds them into a paper plane, and tosses them away."

"I do not." Claire sounded amused. "I take note of the ones I choose to follow at the moment, then fold them into a paper plane and toss them very accurately. Some rules need to be followed, even if I don't have to." She gestured across the gym to her father. "Isn't that right, Dad?"

"That is correct, Claire." Marquis—Justin was more or less okay with thinking of Marchioness as Claire, but his new employer would always be Marquis—stepped away from Kayden and offered her a brief bow of acknowledgement. They had been sparring just as strenuously as Claire and Justin had, only without the use of powers. "There is such a thing as the uncanny valley. While your Marchioness persona offers many options, you need to be sure not to stray into it. Very well, everyone; that seems to be a wrap. Refresh yourselves, and I shall see you all in the morning."

Claire nodded to Justin. "See you later. And remember to work on that disengage. It doesn't matter if you're wearing body armour, or even if I've got you reinforced like I do everyone else; being tagged is always bad."

He nodded ruefully, quite aware that he was being schooled in hand-to-hand capabilities by someone who had to be ten years younger and fifty pounds lighter than him. "I'll do that. And thanks for giving me a chance."

"Eh, it's all good." She offered half a shrug. "Dad says we need good people around us." She strolled off in her father's direction, leaving him staring after her. Did she just call me a good person? After everything I've done?

Kayden came past him, heading for the exit. "Hi, Justin. How are you finding it? Working for Marquis, I mean."

He fell into step beside her. "Is it a bad thing if I say 'weird'? I mean, I never knew Kaiser's real name until I'd been with the Empire for years. But I know everyone's real names here. Are they that certain I'm not going to turn them in, or simply out them to all and sundry?"

A chuckle escaped her lips. "You don't see it, do you?"

"What?" He couldn't figure out why she was so amused. "See what?"

She flicked a glance back over her shoulder. "Marchioness. Claire. She's the secret. She can read people. I'm not sure how thoroughly she can do it, but any new hires get to meet her before they get shown anything of value. Some get told everything, some get told only what they need to know, and some … well, there's one division of Earl's organisation that never quite seems to go anywhere or do anything interesting. Those guys know nothing at all."

"Plants." It wasn't hard to make that connection. "Informants. Ringers."

"Got it in one." She smiled. "From what I understand, the first time around he was betrayed by a disgruntled minion. This time … the people who are likely to do that are in a place where they can't. They don't even know the location of this house, let alone what Earl's name is."

"And in the meantime, they're reporting on each other to their respective bosses, and not getting a single idea about what he's really doing." Justin shook his head in admiration. "That's actually some kind of impressive. If you can pull it off, of course."

"Apparently, she can." Kayden tilted her head slightly. "Did you want to know anything else? I do need to shower."

"Just one thing." He grimaced. "Why me? How could they know I wouldn't betray them? How can they just … trust me?"

Her gaze on him became intense. "Well, are you about to betray them?"

"No." The word popped out before he had a chance to think about it. "No, I'm not. It's not the Empire—"

"No, you're right. It's not." Kayden looked amused. "It's run by a man who's a damn sight smarter and more visionary than Kaiser ever was."

"If you'll just let me finish." He wrinkled his nose at her. "It's not the Empire, and that's a good thing. There, people like Bradley and Melody were always kind of sneering down at me, pushing me to be purer than pure because I wasn't as tough as they were. It was almost like being in a cult, only I didn't see it at the time."

"It was exactly like being in a cult, because that's what it was." Kayden's voice was quiet, introspective. "I only saw it myself after I got out, after Max tried to murder me. Does Claire have you doing the mental exercises, too?"

"Uh, yeah." They weren't easy, but he pushed his way through the exercises whenever he had a chance, forcing himself to see different people as different, not wrong. Somehow, Claire knew whenever he wasn't keeping up with them, and her disappointment was almost palpable, so he tried all the harder. "Does it get easier?"

"Eventually, yes." She patted him on the shoulder. "Well, I'm going this way. Have a good night."

"Night." He headed off to the showers. There was a lot for him to think about, but the future was brighter than it had been in awhile.


Lung


It was possible to tell when the small motorcade passed into the Marches, as Marquis' territory was called by the locals. The streets were cleaner with far fewer potholes, all the street-lights were operational, and there was no graffiti on the walls. Even the stylised 'M', gold over blue, was affixed to street signs instead of being hastily sprayed onto buildings. That spoke of a man who had made his claim over an area and did not intend to leave in a hurry.

We will see about that.

From time to time, Kenta spotted a man (or possibly a woman) in a black long-coat, a gleam of gold on one lapel. These people were often standing in the shadows, occasionally on a rooftop, and every single one turned to watch as the ABB contingent drove past. If Kenta had been of a superstitious bent, he would've found it creepy as fuck. But he wasn't, so he didn't.

At least, that was what he told himself.

Fewer buildings were boarded up, and it seemed that shops were staying open later at night instead of locking the goods up behind multiple metal screens and going home. This was because people were up and around; not adolescents out and about to cause mischief, but those he assumed to be workers, going to and from late shifts. While he'd heard that muggings were almost unheard of in the Marches, it was something that had to be seen to be believed.

Of course, all they'd had to contend with up until now were ordinary people who couldn't put up a proper fight. They hadn't had to deal with someone like him before. Well, he was here now.

Up ahead, he spotted what would be a good enough target for the night's exercise; a small group of shops including a convenience store, an all-night grocery and a liquor store. "Stop here," he ordered.

Obediently, the driver pulled the car over to the side of the road. The other two vehicles parked behind his, and the men in them got out. Some watched the alleyways, while others scanned the rooftops. He thought their caution was a little overblown, but they were the ones who'd had to deal with Marquis' men, not him.

Slowly, almost leisurely, he emerged from the car. Looking around, he spotted three of the black long-coats; one on the rooftop, speaking on the phone and the other two on the ground. Of those two, one was standing and watching him and his men, while the last one seemed to be hurrying the people out of the stores. Out of harm's way.

It was a sensible precaution, he supposed. It was difficult to get protection money out of dead people.

"You," he said, indicating ten of the fourteen men he'd brought along. "Watch behind. Make sure we are not attacked from surprise. The rest of you, with me." Stepping off the curb, he advanced across the street, his men trailing behind him.

The one Marquis man stood watching him until he was halfway across, then held up one hand, palm outward. "That's far enough."

Bemused, Kenta stopped. He saw no weapons being trained on him, and no laser designators were visible in the night air. "You do know who I am, yes?"

"Yes. You're Lung." The man didn't seem hugely impressed to be standing in the presence of the one man who had fought Leviathan to a standstill. Or, more to the point, someone who could fry him to a greasy smear on the pavement with barely a thought. "You're also outside ABB territory. I haven't been told that you're here with permission, so I'm requesting that you leave."

"I do not ask permission." Kenta spat the word out. "I go where I please. And I say that where I stand is Azn Bad Boyz territory. Which means that you are trespassing."

"Marquis hasn't told me this is your territory." The man in the long-coat was still speaking as though he were discussing the weather, as if Lung were not already bulking out and emanating heat. "Until he does, I'm going to assume otherwise. I suggest you take your men and leave."

There was a shout of alarm from one of Kenta's men. He half-turned his head to see black-clad figures moving on the rooftops. It was then that all became clear to him. The man on the ground; talking, visible, being politely obstructive … was stalling. Every member of Marquis' corps must have started moving the moment his cavalcade went out of sight, and now they knew where to come.

Kenta gestured to his four men and pointed at their sole adversary. "He offends me. Remove him from my sight."

This was a calculated move. Would the man fight or retreat? Would more join in to assist their comrade, or would they hang back to observe? He didn't know their tactics, how they fought. They had a certain reputation, so they couldn't be too incompetent.

The four moved forward, readying their weapons. A steel pipe whistled as it was swung through the air. Yellowing fluorescent light glinted off a switchblade. Metal links clinked as a chain was shaken out of a sleeve. The last man, bigger than the rest, grinned as he settled a pair of knuckledusters onto his hands.

As they neared their adversary, he stepped backward, up onto the curb. Just for a moment, it seemed that he was retreating, but then his retreat ceased and he went from reacting to acting. Moving almost in a blur, he moved on the man with the steel pipe, took it away from him, and hit him with it. Even as the first man began to go down and the others reacted, the man in the black long-coat attacked again and again. Kenta decided there and then that the man had some level of super-speed; nobody normal could move like that. Worse, between the whistling crunch noises and the bone-deep thuds, it was clear his men were taking a thrashing.

Less than three seconds later, four ABB men were down, not having scored a hit on the Marquis man. Kenta considered himself no stranger to violence, but he had to admit he was more than a little impressed. Of course, the man had to be a cape. Probably a combat Thinker with a little bit of Mover, from the way he was fighting.

"Last chance." The man hadn't so much as broken a sweat. He just stood there, swinging the pipe idly forward and back, forward and back. "Pick up your trash and go. We don't abide littering around here."

Littering? LITTERING?

Kenta flung his arm forward, sending a burst of fire slashing toward his black-clad target. To his astonishment and anger, the man entirely evaded the flame, as though he'd been trained to do exactly that. More shouts of surprise came from behind him, but he didn't care. This annoying little insect had stood in his way, and so he was going down.

As he drew back to throw another burst of flame, the man darted toward him, not away, until it would be virtually impossible to dodge the fire a second time. Kenta barely had time to wonder why he was so intent on committing suicide, when the black-clad man's aim became clear. Specifically, the pipe he was holding, aimed at Kenta. Repeatedly.

Moving turning, kicking, striking, the man danced around Kenta like a dervish. As the leader of the ABB and possessor of a basic Brute rating even when not ramped up, Kenta could take a hit. But the rain of attacks landing on him were more than just a hit. They were hammerblows, leaving welts and almost driving him to his knees with the incessant assault. His head rang and he staggered from side to side. When he brought up one arm to cover his face and head, what felt like a tree-trunk drove into his short ribs, knocking the wind out of him.

This destroyed his balance, and he went down anyway. But he had one last fuck-you up his sleeve. As he dropped to one knee, he gave his growing anger an outlet, bursting out with flame in all directions. There was a brief scream from in front of him and he bared his teeth in triumph.

But when he opened his eyes, Marquis' man was still on his feet, albeit a dozen yards away. His own downed men were the ones who had cried out; in fact, it seemed that their clothing was still on fire. Were he any other man, Kenta would have felt more than a little embarrassed at that point. But he was Lung, and Lung was never in the wrong.

Another member of Marquis' men stepped out of the shops, bearing a bulky red cylinder. Kenta tensed, wondering if Marquis had in some way managed to get hold of containment foam. But it was just an ordinary fire extinguisher; a few quick passes put out the burning clothing.

The man who had attacked Kenta tossed aside the bent pipe; it clattered to the roadway. "Lung, you're done here. You've done more damage to your men than to us. Take them and go."

Kenta snarled under his breath. Even now, the injuries dealt him by the hail of blows were healing, the aches and pains gradually fading away. So what if four of his weakling minions were down? Big deal. They were expendable anyway. They all were. He, Lung, was the important one.

"Fight me," he struggled to say. While his jaw hadn't separated yet, it was getting there, making it hard to speak clearly. Metal scales slid out of his skin, and he felt flames dancing around his body. "Fight me and die … or bring Marquis here."

The silence that fell then was broken by a single repetitive sound.

toc

toc

toc

Kenta looked around as Marquis rounded the corner, an elegant white cane made of bone in his hand, striking on the pavement with each step. "I'm here, Lung." He came to a halt, hands crossed over the top of the walking stick while he eyed his potential adversary. "You, however, will be leaving."

Angered past the point of casual banter, Kenta opened his mouth and let out a blast of fire in Marquis' direction. It washed over the street, lighting up the night; when it died down, he saw that a curved shell of bone had taken his place. Despite the heat of the flame, the bone only seemed mildly scorched.

The little man thought to hide from him! How dare he! Kenta roared and leaped at the barrier. Grabbing it with massive clawed hands, he ripped great chunks away, tearing it to pieces.

And that was when he discovered there were not one, but two people on the other side. Marquis, of course, and a golden-eyed woman in a gold and blue costume. The woman was crouched down, grinning up at Kenta.

"Hi," she said, and flared into incandescent light. Kenta had time to form one brief thought—Purity—before she hit him at point-blank range with her spiralling blast. Firing upward as she was, she launched him bellowing into the air. He had barely enough time to register that the remainder of his men were down and secured—it had happened behind his back, while he was focusing on the one man beating on him—before the entire tableau was out of sight.

The landing was going to hurt, but the knowledge that he'd been forcibly ejected from Marquis' territory, leaving his men behind, was going to hurt his pride even more.

This is going to suck.


Marchioness


Claire strolled around the corner with Robert and Justin, to join her father and Kayden at the site of the abortive battle. "Well, that was brief," she observed. "I'm guessing you did it this way to cut down on collateral damage?"

"I did," agreed Earl. "We'll meet again, someplace where I don't have to worry about people's livelihoods. And then we can make a crater with him. Several craters."

Robert frowned slightly. "I wonder how well I'd go against him," he mused. "I mean, he does fire and I do fire. He does armour and I do armour."

Claire put her hand on his arm. "You'd beat him."

"And you know this how?" asked Justin, watching bemusedly as the shop owners crowded around Marquis, thanking him for his intercession. The Watchers, as Claire privately called them, had melted back into the shadows from whence they came.

"That's easy," Claire said airily. "Didn't you know? The knight always beats the dragon."

Justin facepalmed.


End of Part Twenty-Two