Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Part Ten: Retribution

[A/N 1: This chapter commissioned by GW_Yoda and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]

[A/N 2: Ugh. This chapter seriously kicked my butt. Not least when I realised halfway through that the neat scene I'd set up for Rune to be arrested at school was entirely null and void because … it's a Saturday. Anyway, enjoy.]

Medhall Building; 7:55 AM


Up until this point in time, Max Anders had never had much time for the so-called stages of loss. As far as he was concerned, if you had enough money and power, loss was what happened to other people. But in the last few hours, he'd found himself cycling through an accelerated version of it.

Denial: I can't believe this shit is happening to the Empire. To me.

Anger: How dare those officious assholes at the PRT try to pin this on us. On me.

Bargaining: Maybe if I offer them some kind of deal. Find and hand over whoever actually did it.

Depression: I have no idea who did it. How are we—how am I—going to get out of this?

And now he was in Acceptance. "Fuck it," he said out loud. "They want a fight, they can have a fight."

"What?" asked Victor. With Othala in attendance, he'd just come in. "Max, that's not a great idea. They've got all the capes they can muster, and every PRT trooper who can hold a gun or a sprayer. Today, they won't be playing keep-away. They'll be playing capture or kill. They're pissed."

"But we've still got more capes than they do," Max announced, holding tight to his new epiphany. "If we can wipe their capes off the board, it'll be our capes and street guys against the PRT grunts. We'll roll straight over the top of them, all the way to the PRT building. There's a reason we've held power for so long in this city. They never wanted to go up against all the capes we could muster at once. Well, now they're going to find out why."

Crusader diffidently cleared his throat. "Uh … we don't have as many capes as we used to. Kayden left last night, and Geoff and Dorothy headed out sometime early this morning, as soon as they heard. And one of our guys just told me that New Wave landed on the roof of the PRT building not long ago."

Fuck. This had just gone from bad to worse. He did the mental math. Even discounting Panacea as a frontline fighter, New Wave added seven formidable capes to the PRT's lineup, while the Empire Eighty-Eight was down by five. He took a deep breath, hating himself for even having to suggest the idea. "Have someone contact Faultline and see if she's amenable to a temporary contract inside the city."

"I already tried." Krieg sounded resigned. "She hung up on me. When I rang back, she said—and I quote—"not just 'no' but 'hell no'," then hung up again."

Max's options were drying up faster than sidewalk puddles after a summer shower. Mentally, he went through the other potential allies in Brockton Bay. Lung? The man would laugh at me, then dance on my grave. Coil? I'm pretty sure he started all this. Skidmark? He'd be more of a liability than an asset. The Undersiders? They're more thieves than front-line fighters. Also, Bitch likely has a problem with us regarding Hookwolf's dogfights.

"Don't we have any friends in the city?" he asked out loud, hoping someone would come up with something he'd forgotten.

Alabaster grimaced. "I'm pretty sure we always went with, 'we're too tough to mess with'. And we used to be. Until now."

Hard times require hard decisions. Max was sure he'd read that somewhere. Or maybe it was 'desperate times require desperate measures'. Whatever. "Okay, I know what we're going to do."

"Leave the city while we still can?" That was Krieg.

As Faultline put it, not just 'no' but 'hell no'. "Not going to happen. If we do that, the Empire relinquishes all title to Brockton Bay. We'll be seen as weak, a pushover. Wherever we set up our main power base next, the locals will be forever probing to see if they can push us out again. Not to mention, some of us have well-known civilian identities. If Max Anders vanishes from Brockton Bay the same day Kaiser flees with his tail between his legs, it won't take a Thinker to determine the reason."

"So, it's just gonna be the old secret identity two-step?" Crusader sounded disappointed. He didn't say 'I thought you had something smarter planned' out loud, but he didn't have to; the tone of his voice said it for him.

"No." Max gave him a medium glare, just to see him wilt. Though it was a testament to Justin's character that he hadn't followed Kayden from the city, so there was that. "Doing that would be almost as bad. We'd lose a lot of our popular support, and they'd be turning us in any time we were spotted. No, we're going to fight, like I said. But we'll do it smart. Victor, how would you do it? I want to see if your ideas align with mine."

The skill-thief gave him a cynical look, as though he knew exactly what was going through Max's mind, but he played along anyway. "Our secret identities are still a huge asset. Specifically, the Medhall building. Nobody knows it's ours. We can make our base here, and sortie out via the secret entrances. Othala can stay here where it's safe—"

"Wait," Othala objected. "I can make you guys impervious, or super-fast, or whatever you need. I'm a force multiplier. Why keep me back?"

Victor sighed. "Because you can't use your Trump abilities on yourself, and they will absolutely be targeting you. With containment foam, if not actual fucking bullets. No, the best place for you is back here where you can give our wounded a chance to regenerate in total safety, then go back out again."

Max rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "I'm afraid he's right, Othala. I was going to have you stay here anyway; he merely confirmed my opinion." He turned to Victor. "And how would you deploy our fighting forces?"

Victor frowned for a moment. "I'd hold them back initially, until I saw how the PRT was deploying theirs. If they're splitting them up, I'd bring all our capes down on one group at a time, singling out the capes from the PRT troopers. Once the capes are down, the troopers will be easy game."

"And if they go out in one big group?" Max didn't think they would, but it was a possibility. "How would you handle that?" He was careful to give the impression he'd already thought it through and was merely checking with his subordinate.

"Oh, in that case I'd make a straight run for the PRT building, once they're far enough away not to be able to react in time," Victor said flatly. "If we can take that, especially if we get our hands on Piggot, we've got 'em by the balls. Then, it's a simple matter of arranging a cease-fire. They back the fuck off, and they can have their precious building and Director back."

"And if they're thinking like you are," Othala put in, "they'll have their medical setup in the building too … with Panacea. I think she'd be an even more valuable a hostage than the Director. I mean, Piggot can be replaced. Panacea can't."

"Either way," cautioned Victor, "we have to be careful not to actually hurt or kill Piggot or Panacea. If we take the building, it's got to come across as a reasonable response to an unreasonable escalation, not a sudden jump to HOSV status. The last thing we want is for Costa-Brown and Legend to suddenly start taking notice."

"My thoughts exactly," Max claimed boldly. The general public thought 'HOSV' stood for 'High Occurrence of Supervillains' or something like that, but Max had heard from a solid source that it actually meant 'Hive of Scum and Villainy'. In such a circumstance, most citizens tended to evacuate the city and martial law was imposed for the remainder. The irony being, of course, that supervillains could only truly thrive within a normal law-abiding environment; when everyone was breaking the law equally, the profit margin went straight out the window. Villains needed marks to prey on, or what was the point?

However, the next bit he could handle himself. "Victor, once the action starts, I'll need you to hang back, because they won't be going in for hand-to-hand combat. Draw a sniper rifle from the armoury, and look for opportunities. Crusader, hang back as well and protect Victor, and move him from point to point when necessary. Your ghosts can handle front-line combat, but you can't."

"And the rest of us just … wait here until something happens?" asked Alabaster. "You know the boys won't be happy about having to face the PRT and Protectorate on their own."

"No." Max made a snap decision. "You, Victor, Crusader and Stormtiger are going to go out in civilian garb, just four regular citizens. Go to each of our hangouts in turn and inform them of what our plan is. Tell them to stand ready." He didn't want to simply call them because he had no idea of who would be where, and he had no desire to spend an hour on the damn phone just to reach a dozen people.

"What about me?" Rune stepped forward. "You didn't mention me."

"You are going to be staying right here, young lady," Max said. "When we need to start moving our forces around quickly, it'll be at a moment's notice. But even then, you need to keep your head down. You're another one they'll be targeting. Like Othala, you're not bulletproof."

"Aww." Rune's head drooped. "I could maybe help the guys get around faster."

"You could," agreed Max. "But that would make it harder for them to get where they're going without being spotted by the PRT and their stooges. We need to play it low-key, at least for the time being."

"Yeah, okay, got it." Rune nodded, though she still didn't look thrilled.

"Hey," said Othala. "If you could come down with me and help set up the clinic for incoming wounded, that would be a great help, yeah?"

Rune smiled. "Yeah, I can do that."

The pair headed out together, and Max dusted his hands off. "Well, I believe I laid out the current plan of action. Get to it."

They got to it.

Max watched them go, then picked up his glass of bourbon from the desk and headed over toward the windows to look down at the streets of Brockton Bay. Krieg came to stand beside him, his own glass in hand.

"Do you really think we have a chance?" he asked quietly.

"I don't see why not." Max sipped at his drink. "You've already sent word to Gesellschaft. If we can survive today, tomorrow will be easier as they realise that we're not just going to roll over for them. Inside of three days, we'll have reinforcements. Also, once someone gets to Night and Fog and tells them to get the fuck back to Brockton Bay, maybe they'll start doing the job they were sent to America for."

"This would be a lot easier with those two, and Purity as well," admitted Krieg. "Why is it, when we started losing capes for the first time in forever, did we have to lose some of our heaviest hitters? Hookwolf, Purity and Night—those three could almost win this for us on their own."

"Only Hookwolf's dead," Kaiser reminded him. "Kayden's just … working things out. She'll come back on her own." This was their first real separation since they'd married. He had to believe she still loved him. After all, how could she not? "And when she comes back, Night and Fog will too."

"I certainly hope so." Krieg fell silent, staring out over the city's skyline. "I still can't believe how all this blew up over a single dog."

Max nodded. "I'm just glad we've only got the PRT and Protectorate on our case. This is at least survivable."

"Isn't that the truth."

PRT Building ENE

Operations Room

"Director Piggot to all points." Emily paused to marshal her thoughts. "New information has been received. Pursuant to this, I will be very shortly requesting arrest warrants for persons of interest, and search warrants for locations of interest. Once signed, these will be conveyed to the teams who can make best use of them. Until then, stick to the original plan. Piggot, out."

One by one, the various team leaders radioed through their acknowledgements. Emily listened with half an ear, while she watched her analysts tear into the list of names and narrow down locations where they (or their associates) might be found. Equally interesting was the subsidiary list of names and descriptions fitting people not identified in the original list.

They would have arrest and search warrants ready to roll just as soon as Velocity could convey them across town and get them signed. The irony was almost palpable; in life, Shadow Stalker had been divisive and a rule-bender. Her death was bringing them together to pull off a victory against the crime in the city that hadn't been seen in years.

Still, Emily wasn't going to argue with results. If this ended up with the PRT and Protectorate rolling up the Empire Eighty-Eight once and for all, she would give the little twit all the credit in the world. If only for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and provoking the wrong gangbanger into killing her.

"Hey, I got another hit," said one of her analysts. "We got Othala via Victor's secret identity, right? Well, check this out. Mugshot of Tammi Herren, aka Rune, before going into juvey and triggering there. And here's a high school yearbook photo for Teresa Biermann. Niece of Othala, and she's taken Fenja and Menja's surname. I'm pretty damn sure it's the same kid."

Emily leaned closer to the screen, scrutinising the two images. The earlier image was scowling instead of smiling and had shadows under her eyes and was gaunter around the cheekbones, but the resemblance was utterly unmistakeable. Even looking past that, there were tiny details that both shared. Far more than two merely similar-looking girls would have had. "I concur," she said. "Put her in the list."

"Yes, ma'am."


"There's a question you want to ask, but you don't want to sound stupid," Dad observed. I wondered how he knew; he hadn't even looked around at me. Oh, right. He's killed more people than I've had hot dinners. I guess that lifestyle breeds a certain amount of attention to detail.

"Yeah." I ruffled Chewie's ears. "How exactly are we going to find this Peterson guy, anyway? Look him up in the White Pages?"

"That is actually one way to do it," he said. "Normally, I'm given more time to locate my targets and arrange an exit scenario both for them and for me." I rolled my eyes at the assassin joke. "Sometimes I'm given the details up front, or the person's prominent enough to make it no trouble finding them. But in this situation, I'm going to go with an age-old favourite: I'm going to find someone who knows what I want to know, and ask them."

I raised my eyebrows. "Ask, or 'ask'?" Just in case he didn't get it, I put finger-quotes around the second version of the word.

"I usually go with the first, then graduate to the second when and if necessary." He didn't seem to be bothered by the prospect either way, which didn't overly surprise me.

"So how do we find people who are likely to know where he is?" Because that part wasn't particularly clear to me, either.

"I know where he was living before he was arrested for the murder of Fleur," he said. "He's almost certainly moved since then, but people don't travel far from their home neighbourhoods, especially if they're in a gang that runs said neighbourhood. So, we go to an Empire hangout in that general area."

I nodded, reasonably sure I'd followed his chain of logic. "And what if they object to telling you?"

He smiled coldly. "Then I know I'm on the right track."

Derek 'Deke' Foster

The lights were turned off in the front of the bar, and the 'CLOSED' sign had been hung inside the front doors. Deke and the others sat in the back, trying to play cards but utterly unable to concentrate on their hands. A small TV in the corner was showing the news but with the sound turned all the way down, and nobody wanted to look in that direction.

One of the guys coughed, and everyone jumped like a gunshot had gone off. "Sorry," he said weakly. "It's just so goddamn quiet, you know?"

Deke took a deep breath and let his hand brush the pump-action shotgun leaning against the wall behind him. "If one damn asshole says anything about it being 'too quiet', I will fuckin' shoot them," he promised.

"Maybe we should just go home," muttered someone else, too low for him to pick out who'd said it.

This time, Deke did pick up the shotgun. He didn't point it at anyone, but he did lay down his cards—they weren't worth shit anyway—so he could hold it across his lap. "Nobody's going home."

The guy who'd coughed, Joe, sat up straight. "Why the fuck not? The PRT and Protectorate are gonna be busting every Empire place, kicking in doors and stuff. Why should we just sit here and wait for them?"

"Because that's not what our orders were," Deke said steadily. "Our orders were to go to the hangouts and wait for Kaiser to tell us what to do. If we go home, do you think they don't already know who we are? We've all worn the fuckin' colours in public, you moron. They'll just kick in our front doors and arrest us there, where we've got no backup. So we're staying, until we get told what to do."

"Admirable," said a new voice, by the back door. Deke looked around, wondering who the fuck that was, because it didn't sound like Ferg, who'd been standing guard—

Ferg stumbled backward into the room, his hands held up in surrender, mainly because there was a gun in his face. And holding the gun was someone Deke not so much recognised as he simply knew who it was.

"Sit," ordered the newcomer, and Ferg more or less fell backward into the one empty chair. "Question for you gentlemen: are you afraid of the Dark?" The pistol twitched fractionally toward Deke, and he dropped the shotgun like a hot potato. "Smart man."

"Uh, hey, we haven't done—" Joe began.

The Dark's pistol flicked in his direction, and he shut up. "Quiet." The Dark turned to look at Deke. "I need the whereabouts of one man."

Deke kept his hands in plain view. Everyone else, he was pleased to see, did the same. Even among the young bloods in the crew, word had travelled fast. Nobody crossed the Dark and lived; it was as simple as that. "Who?" Right then, he was willing to reveal the location of anyone he knew.

At that moment, the Dark's head came up and he stepped aside from the doorway. Deke wondered what was going on, until he heard the rumbling sound of a motorbike. Someone else was arriving, though he had no idea who, or how the Dark had known about them before anyone else.

A moment later, an imposing figure darkened the doorway, accompanied by the sound of clinking chains. Stormtiger stepped into the room, hands busy with the act of settling his blue-and-white tiger mask in place. He stopped, looking at Deke's group. "What the fuck are you lazy bastards just sitting around for? Why isn't someone on guard? What are you all looking at?"

"Me." The Dark spoke the single word with such menace that chills went down Deke's back; when Stormtiger spun around, the pistol was eighteen inches from his face. Too close to dodge, too far to bat aside.

"Jesus fuck!" Stormtiger legitimately jumped six feet backward, but nobody laughed at his fright. "Listen, man, we didn't do that armoured car, and the dogfights are all shut down. Kaiser's told us all we've got no beef with you."

"I know." Somehow, even those two words bore a world of menace. "I have a name: Larry Peterson. I need a location."

The room was filled with a brief silence, as several grown men each visibly refrained from asking 'why do you want to know where he is?', mainly because they damn well knew the reason. Deke considered asking who wanted Peterson dead, but decided that if the Dark wanted them to know, he'd tell them.

"Peterson," Stormtiger repeated, then his brain clearly caught up with what he was saying. "That Peterson?"

"That's the one." The Dark gave the faintest gesture with his pistol, as if to say, 'get on with it'.

"Well?" demanded Stormtiger, half-turning his head. "Do any of you lazy fucks know where Peterson is?"

Joe hesitantly raised his hand. "Uh … pretty sure he's at Casey's," he ventured.

Deke spared no thought to Larry Peterson's imminent demise; that was a done deal. His only emotion was relief that Joe had known and spoken up.

The Dark let his gaze pass over each of them; Deke swore he could feel it, like a burning torch. "If he's not there, I'll be back." Then he vanished out through the open doorway.

Slowly, as the fear leached out of his body, Deke let out a long breath. "Fuuuucccck," he muttered.

Stormtiger took two steps to the table and loomed over it, and Joe. "You're certain Peterson's at Casey's?"

Joe nodded spasmodically. "Y-yeah. It's where he said he was goin'."

"Good." Stormtiger looked around the room. "Okay, so the Dark didn't want to kill us, so we're all good. Now, as for the fuckin' PRT, Kaiser's got orders for everyone."

Deke wanted to know something. "So … we're not gonna ring Casey's and warn Peterson, right?"

That earned him a glare from Stormtiger. "Don't be a fuckin' moron. The Dark was never here, and we never saw him. We absolutely did not tell him where he could find one of our own. Got it? Now, Kaiser's orders …"


Neil hunched over in the PRT van, feeling cramped. He knew he took up two seats compared to anyone else; just in costume, he was still bulkier than a fully kitted-out trooper. Armsmaster sat opposite him, and Triumph was next to the Protectorate leader.

"So, where are we going?" he asked. He hated having to ask, but the PRT had their in-helmet comms and hadn't thought to offer earpieces to the capes.

"Right now, we're just showing the flag." Armsmaster sounded grumpy. Neil could understand why; the man was proud of the bike he'd built up from stock into one of the most distinctive vehicles on the East Coast. "Cruising the streets, being visible, until the Director sends us new orders."

"Um, I think I might've missed something in the briefing," ventured Triumph. "Why aren't you out there on your bike, sir? That's kind of your thing, isn't it?"

Armsmaster nodded. "It is, but the Director decided that the Empire might just try to dogpile PRT-friendly capes and take us out of the picture. So, for the moment, we're riding inside. That way, they have no idea what they'll be facing if they hit one of these vans."

"Oh. Right."

"Well, I hope we get these orders soon," Neil quipped. "Because if we don't, my spine's going to be bent over so far, I'll come out of this about four feet tall."

It wasn't exactly hilarious, but he got a laugh anyway.

Then Armsmaster's head came up. At the same time, the van accelerated, and took a corner rather more sharply than previously. All the troopers in the van started checking their weapons.

"The new orders?" Neil asked. He really, really hated being out of the loop.

"Absolutely." Armsmaster's teeth showed in what might have been called a grin by someone who wasn't paying attention. "We've got him."



Max checked his phone to find a text from Victor on it. He was making good progress from one hangout to the next; by Max's estimation, the Empire's people should be all informed within the hour. Alabaster and Crusader were also checking in on the regular, with only Stormtiger falling behind. This sort of thing happened. Max suspected that his newest lieutenant was having to dodge PRT patrols.

Placing the phone back on the desk, he leaned back in satisfaction. All according to plan. They'll never know what hit them.

The desk phone rang, startling him. As he sat forward, he automatically checked the caller readout. It said LOBBY SECURITY.

Now, why are they calling me? He'd been tempted to shut the entire building down for the day, but as opposed to a few bars and bowling alleys, important people would notice if Medhall itself closed its doors ahead of time. Still, there were very few people in the building on a Saturday morning, and they were all loyal to the cause that he professed to follow.

Taking up the handset, he said, "You've got Max Anders." Unspoken, but entirely understood, were the words, 'This had better be very important.'

"Sir, this is Grantley. The PRT is here, right now. They've got a warrant to search the building—hey!"

There was a confused thudding or clattering sound, then a different voice spoke. "Max Anders? This is Armsmaster. We need to speak with you, immediately."

What? He blinked in shock. "What do you mean? You can easily make an appointment with my secretary, first thing Monday morning."

"That's not how it works. Remain where you are." The call ended.

Max stared at the handset, then dropped it on the cradle and jumped up from his desk. Hurrying over to the windows, he stared down at the street in front of the building. At least three PRT vans were out front, and those were just the ones he could see.

All of this could only mean one thing. They know. The PRT knows. There could be no other explanation for them hitting his place of business in such force, with a search warrant of all things.

Worse, Armsmaster hadn't asked him to stay where he was, he'd demanded it. He had exactly zero doubt that there were capes and PRT troopers on the way up to his office right then. They've got proof. There's no way in hell they'd base an operation of this magnitude on a mere supposition or a suspicion.

"What's going on?" Jessica and Nessa had come to their feet, but it was the former who'd spoken. "What's the matter?"

"It's the PRT and Protectorate," he explained rapidly as he launched himself back toward his desk. "Somebody's just outed us. Outed me. They're raiding the building."

"Our armour!" Nessa looked down at herself with good reason; her weapons and armour, and that of her sister, was kept stored in the sub-basement set aside for Empire business.

Jessica was more pragmatic. "Who talked?" she asked, striding up to the desk. "Who knew and talked?"

"Night and Fog wouldn't have the imagination," Nessa decided. "Does Kayden hate you that much? Does she hate the Empire that much?"

Max tried to tune them out so he could think. The secure elevator, hidden behind a secret panel, beckoned. But he had to warn his subordinates; if only because not doing so spelled the end of any chance he had of rebuilding the Empire Eighty-Eight after this debacle was done. And mobile signals were crap inside an elevator. So, he typed as fast as he could, linking every Empire cape into the outgoing text message. PRT in Medhall, aware of secret. Take all due precautions.

Just as he was finishing, he heard the pounding of heavy bootsteps outside the main doors to his office, and reflexively reached under the desk to hit the emergency-lock button. Then he pressed the Send icon, and watched as the text … did nothing. The little circling icon just spun around and around.

Something hit the doors with an almighty crash, and the steel-cored doors actually bulged inward slightly. Max's eyes widened with shock. Christ, what've they got out there? A rocket launcher?

The phone was still trying to send the message, but he didn't have any more time to waste, especially after a metal blade with a glowing edge began to slice downward through where the main locking mechanism was. Slapping the panel open, Max stepped into the lift.

"Ladies," he said. "I'm going to need you to hold the line." Then he hit the button for the lowest level. As the doors closed, he was already starting to form his armour, aided by the genuine Rolex on his wrist.

Who betrayed us? Is Nessa right? Was it Kayden? He didn't want to think it was her, but she'd certainly shown her disdain for the way the Empire Eighty-Eight operated. If she still thought that Max had ordered the death of that stupid fucking Ward, then her entire departure took on a whole new light.

She'd had motive and she'd had means. And the opportunity would've been simple. A stop for gas at any of the towns she was passing through (Max had enough reach to know she was out of the local area, at least) would've given her the chance to drop a dime on him and not even Theo would know about it.

Another thought shook him up. What if it wasn't even Kayden? What if it was Theo? While the boy was Max's own flesh and blood, he'd never showed any enthusiasm for taking up the family business, or even for the creed the Empire was built around. Max had always had hopes of bringing him around, of bringing out the man in him by way of tough love … but what if Kayden's babying of the boy had brought out a resentful streak instead?

There were too many variables. Following the demise of Hookwolf and Cricket, one of the others might have decided to make a play for the top spot; what better way than to turn in the boss and lay low for a while, then re-emerge and claim leadership over what was left? After all, that was how he'd claimed leadership of the Empire Eighty-Eight … well, minus the turning Allfather over to the PRT and laying low aspect. Some members of the Empire must surely have suspected he had a hand in his father's death, but nobody had said a word about it, so those that did must have approved.

But that was enough dwelling on the past. What was done was done; now he had to move forward and deal with the present.


Like its predecessor, the bar we'd been directed to was dark and lifeless, with a CLOSED sign in the window. Also like its predecessor, it had a bunch of guys sitting around nervously in the back (it sounded like they were chatting quietly, but my control still wasn't good enough to listen in on human speech. It was all rumbling and squeaking, and barely anything in between).

"They're there, but they aren't any more agitated than the last lot were," I reported. "No capes, either."

Dad chuckled dryly. "I wonder if the Empire realises that they're advertising where they are by the number of businesses that are shut down on a normal Saturday morning. Oh, well. When your enemy's making a mistake …"

"… don't interrupt him," I finished. This was something Dad had drummed into me. A good operator forced his opponents into making mistakes that he could then exploit, but a really good operator saw the flaws in his opponents' tactics and adjusted his own tactics to suit.

"Correct." He pulled his pistol into view and checked the chamber; I saw a brief glint of brass before the pistol vanished again. That firearm was very definitely loaded. "Did you want to come in this time, or stay out here?"

I knew why he was asking. This was going to be his first paid kill since Mom died, and he wanted to be sure I was okay with it.

"I'm fine staying out here," I reassured him. "Besides, Chewie is likely to get lonely if we leave him in the car, and I'm not really certain that we'll make quite the impact we need to if I'm carrying a friendly puppy."

"Valid point," he agreed, and got out of the car. "Just make sure you don't concentrate so much on me that you let someone sneak up on you."

"Understood." I wouldn't be a very good backup if I got taken out before things even got serious.

To show him I meant it, I took my own pistol out—making sure not to point it at either of us, or at Chewie—and checked my own chamber. Like his, there was a round in the breech, and the safety was all the way on. If I had to shoot someone, all I had to do was flick it over with my thumb. But of course, that presupposed the massive swarm I'd have all over my hypothetical opponent was having zero effect. Carefully, I put the pistol away again.

"That's my girl." He gave me a nod of approval, then headed across the road toward the bar.

I watched him go then started a general lookout of the area, vastly augmented by the bugs. Every human being within two and a half blocks was under my surveillance, with insects riding their clothing undetected. I knew where everyone was and, to a certain degree, what they were all doing. This included the people inside Casey's; there would be no unpleasant surprises from that direction.

Of course, there was definitely going to be an unpleasant surprise, but we were going to supply it, not them.

Medhall Building


"I'm not sure … why we couldn't … have taken the elevator," panted Gallant, thumping down the stairs in hot pursuit of Miss Militia.

Crystal didn't even bother pretending to be using the steps, gliding down the stairwell in the Protectorate hero's wake. "Because elevators can be locked down," she said sweetly. "Or, you know, dropped into the basement."

"Ssh!" hissed Miss Militia, hefting a multi-barrelled shotgun that looked like it could be used to shoot down low-flying pterodactyls. "Gallant, I'm sure you've got a silent mode for that suit."

"I'm using it," he panted. "Running doesn't help."

"Hm." Crystal got the impression she was pursing her lips behind the bandanna. "Go more slowly, then. Laserdream, with me."

"Ma'am." He slowed down a little, the heavy thumping sounds easing off.

Miss Militia continued downward, with Crystal following close behind. When they hit the bottom of the stairwell, Miss Militia gestured at the door. "Can you open that silently?"

Crystal felt like grinning, but this wasn't the time or the place. "Yes, ma'am." She placed a layer of her crimson force field over all the door except for the lock—this wasn't to protect the door, but was in case whoever was on the far side decided to shoot through the door—and quickly cored out the lock itself with a quick burst of identically-hued laser. Where her field was barely stronger than plywood, her laser sheared through steel, concrete and wood alike.

"Good." Miss Militia tugged at the untouched door handle—Crystal dismissed the force field—and it opened smoothly and silently.

"—over here?" asked a teenaged girl's voice.

"Yes, that'll do nicely," an older woman replied. "Thanks, Tammi."

Miss Militia leaned in toward Crystal and cupped her hands around her mouth. Up against Crystal's ear, she whispered, "Othala and Rune."

Crystal nodded to show she'd gotten it. Being fliers, they'd tangled with Rune before, but not so much with Othala. Eric had once given the blonde villain the nickname 'Sabrina the Teenage Nazi', and it had stuck.

These two weren't the Empire Eighty-Eight's biggest hitters by far—that distinction probably belonged to Purity and probably Night or Stormtiger—but they definitely helped make the Empire as tough to beat as it was. Rune's power gave her aerial bombardment capabilities, as well as the ability to Move her comrades across the city en masse. Othala, on the other hand, could take injured and make them whole once more. Worse, she could give healthy capes other abilities altogether, making them a total pain to fight. Alabaster on his own was bad enough, but Alabaster with the ability to fly was horrifying.

They didn't have time to wait for Gallant, and his heavy tread had too much chance of alerting the bad guys anyway. Miss Militia seemed to be of the same mindset; gesturing for Crystal to follow her, she started off down the corridor toward the voices.


Once the lock was dealt with, Colin stepped back for Manpower to make his entry. The New Wave member's force field was capable of dealing with any surprise attacks that the Empire capes could muster, after all. This time, when the massive cape hit the doors with his shoulder, they burst open and he entered with an entirely unnecessary shoulder-roll.

Colin followed him in—minus the shoulder-roll, which was far too difficult to pull off, no matter how flexible he made his armour—with his halberd at the ready. Kaiser was known for metal spikes and barriers, so the plasma cutter on the axe-blade was ready for use.

Except that there were no such obstacles to be found. In fact, the office was clear, save for the two eight-foot-tall women who were currently grappling with Manpower. It wasn't much of a stretch to recognise Menja and Fenja, even without their signature armour and weapons.

At Colin's side, Triumph let out a bellow; one of the women was blasted away from Manpower, rolling over and over until she hit the wall and left a dent. Colin reversed his halberd and fired a dart into the other one. Unarmoured, she was an easy target, and the powerful soporific soon had her shrinking back to normal size.

While Triumph secured the two prisoners, Colin looked around suspiciously, triggering various vision modes in his HUD. There was nobody in the office apart from his fellow heroes and the PRT troopers who had followed them in. Even the tiny ensuite—quickly checked by a couple of troopers armed with confoam sprayers—revealed no hidden villains.

"Okay," said Manpower. "Where the hell did he go? That was the only door in or out. And he had to be in here to lock it, right?"

"You'd think so, yes." Colin went behind the desk and leaned down to examine the array of buttons underneath. He didn't press any, but he knew the tech guys would probably have a field day disassembling Kaiser's office. "When I was speaking to him on the phone, my helmet recorded the ambient sound. It's identical to what we've got right here. He was in this office, less than a minute ago."

"And he can't teleport. And the Empire's got no Tinkers to make him an emergency teleport getaway device." Manpower was more or less going through the options now, as though searching for the hidden key to Kaiser's disappearance.

Colin, however, had a different viewpoint, as befitted someone who built things as part of his powerset. "That's all true. But he very likely did have access to the architects when this office was being built, or rebuilt. And with his kind of money, do you think he could've had an escape route constructed within the building itself?"

Manpower's eyes widened. "Shit, you're right! This was his villain lair, and every lair has a back door."

They both turned to look at the wooden panelling directly behind Max Anders' desk. It was clean, pristine, and showed no sign of being anything other than a wall. If a piece of inanimate timber could exude smugness, it would have.

Manpower punched it. His seven-foot frame and concomitant musculature gave him serious heft and throw weight, but even that didn't explain the sheer power that went into the blow. Colin had long theorised that the largest member of New Wave had the ability to fluctuate his protective force field to add more damage to his punches, either kinetic or electrical. And this time, his fist was a pure battering ram.

Pieces of wood flew everywhere, destroying what had to have been five or six figures' worth of handiwork in an instant. Colin cared just as little as Manpower evidently did, especially when the rubble fell away to reveal the closed door to an elevator.

Manpower grinned. "Bingo."

The Dark

Every sense alert, Danny approached the back door of Casey's. There was a guard on the door, an older man holding a shotgun as aged as he was. Danny's eyes narrowed as he recognised the man. He'd once been an up-and-comer in his own right, but now it seemed he'd been absorbed into the Empire.

Stepping sideways as the guy turned away from the wind to light a smoke, Danny came up behind him. The muzzle of his suppressed pistol touched the old man on the back of the neck, and Danny saw every muscle freeze. The guy knew exactly what it was, and expected to die at any second.

"Hello, Frankie." He kept his voice down.

"Dark." To Frankie's credit, his voice didn't shake. "Shit, I never thought it'd be you who'd kill me."

"Doesn't have to be. How many years has it been?" How many men are inside, he meant.

"About a dozen, I reckon." Frankie was just as quick on the uptake as ever.

"Hm. Impressive."

"You here on business?" The sir was implicit.

"Afraid so, Frankie." There was a pause while Danny let Frankie work that one out, then he decided to give the old man a break. "Why don't you just go home? I never saw you, you never saw me."

Frankie nodded. "Thanks, I will. About time I got shut of these assholes, anyway." He carefully leaned the shotgun against the wall and walked away, never looking back even once.

Danny moved on into the building, letting the pistol lead the way. The murmur of voices gave him his direction, and he stepped into the room before anyone was aware he was there. He knew a small swarm had preceded him, buzzing at ankle-height, and was ready to fly into anyone's face if they tried doing anything stupid.

"Morning, gentlemen," he said, his voice cutting across their chatter. "Are you afraid of the Dark?"

And with that, he had their complete and total attention. Shadowed against the doorway as he was, they couldn't see his face, so his manner had to project total menace. But that was merely a matter of practice. And of course, they could see his gun.

One guy yelped something obscene and clawed for a pistol; Danny shot him in the face, not bothering to go for a non-lethal wound. Doing that sort of thing too often would send entirely the wrong message about people being allowed to pull guns on him.

The subdued whipcrack—apart from certain purpose-built versions, there was no such thing as a silenced pistol—echoed through the room, while everyone else froze. Danny noted with satisfaction that Peterson wasn't the idiot who'd pulled the weapon. This meant he'd be able to fulfil the terms of the hit.

"You," he said harshly, gesturing with the suppressor. "On your feet."

There was no mistaking who he was indicating, but Peterson still went with the dumb-show of who, me? before two of his more awake erstwhile comrades literally shoved him upright.

"Wh—what do you want me for?" he quavered. But there was a growing look of comprehension in his face. He knew. For seven long years he'd managed to escape the final price for his actions, but now karma was finally coming back around.

"You talk too much, Larry," Danny said, confident that when Peterson was drunk, he would certainly get boastful about his one big deed. "Some people don't like little shits talking like you're better than the capes. And they finally took notice. Come on." He gestured with the pistol.

Peterson looked around, evidently realising that not one of the people in the room would lift a finger to defend him, mainly because they didn't want to die. "Guys? Help me. He's gonna kill me!"

"And if we try, he'll kill us, you stupid fuckwit," grunted the big guy in the corner. "Fuckin' go an' die like a man, you little pussy."

The man Danny killed had been trying to draw a pistol; it had landed on the floor near his outstretched hand. It seemed Larry wasn't trusted with firearms because he didn't attempt to pull one out himself. Instead, he dived for the discarded weapon. Danny fired while he was in the air, taking a little more care than with the first snapshot. Peterson screamed as the bullet smashed through his wrist, turning it into a useless mass of destroyed bone.

Danny stepped forward and grabbed up Peterson by the collar and dragged him out of the room. Even when he was out the door, he still heard no movement from within.


I got out of the car as Dad came into sight, manhandling the idiot we'd come to kill. Peterson's right wrist was bleeding, but it wasn't like he'd have to live with the problem for long. As I came over, pulling out the burner phone that we'd bought for the occasion, Dad forced him into a kneeling position.

He waited until I had the camera up and recording video—catching the back of Dad's head, but the look on the face of Fleur's killer perfectly—before he leaned forward. "Larry Peterson," he intoned. "New Wave sends their regards."

Dad waited just long enough—Larry's eyes opened wide as the full realisation hit him—then he aimed the pistol at Larry and shot him in the face. Blood and brains sprayed out to paint the sidewalk, then Larry slumped to the ground. I stopped recording.

"Nicely done," said Dad, putting the pistol away and taking the phone from me to check the recording. His voice sounded from the phone speakers, much more tinnily, then the poc of the shot heralded the end of Larry's life. "And that's perfect. Much easier than doing it myself."

"New Wave, huh?" I asked as we headed back to the car. "That's a bit dark, isn't it? I thought they were all about cape accountability and transparency."

His voice was dry. "There's a life lesson there. No single solution works perfectly for all problems. Even the most transparent of systems requires a little darkness here and there."

I nodded, looking back at Larry. He'd been a bad person, and had evidently felt no remorse for his crime despite the waterworks in court, given that he'd joined the Empire anyway after his release. I had no way of knowing what sins he'd perpetrated since then, but intellectually I felt that despite all that, I should feel bad about his passing.

But I didn't. He was a null, a cipher, in my emotional landscape. Now that he was dead, I felt nothing at all about him.

"Lingering regrets?" asked Dad, following my line of sight.

I opened the door and got in; Chewie immediately jumped into my lap. "No, actually," I said, hugging the wriggly little pup. "None whatsoever."

He smiled as he started the car. "That's my girl."


The elevator finally reached the sub-basement that wasn't even on the building plans housed only on Max's personal computer system. It was below the clinic, below the parking garage, and below the secret meeting area for the Empire Eighty-Eight capes. This area wasn't large, but it contained several items that might be of use to a supervillain on the run. These included a change of clothing, a briefcase full of cash, another case containing escrow cards connecting to accounts holding large amounts of untraceable cash plus several very well-made fake identities, a car that was registered to someone who was not Max Anders, and an exit tunnel for the aforementioned car.

He stepped out, heading for the bug-out stash, but before he'd made three steps, there was a huge crash from right behind him. Spinning around, he saw that the interior of the elevator was totalled, given that most of the roof of it was on the floor. Picking himself up from the remains of the former roof was Manpower; his gaze fell on Kaiser, and he grinned. "Hi."

Fuck. Do these assholes ever give up? Kaiser waved his hand, causing a thick fence of metal palings to spring up in front of the elevator. They were stronger than his office door, so they should hold—

Vzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Grabbing up the nearest briefcase, Max turned to look as the strange buzzing noise ceased, then a plasma blade slashed off the iron fence at shin height. The metal palings fell over with a tremendous clatter on the raw concrete flooring, to reveal Armsmaster alongside Manpower.

More sheets and spikes of metal extruded from the floor and ceiling as Max hastily tried his best to delay the two heroes. "You won't be able to get them all!" he called out as he retreated, grabbing the second case on the way. "I warned them before I came down here!"

"I jammed the signal," Armsmaster replied. The stink of plasma-heated metal wafted through the air. Manpower was taking the initiative to wrench several more spikes from the ground, speeding the efforts to get through. "Your team is going down."

Max wrenched the car door open. The keys were right there, in the ignition. Ignoring the seat belt, he turned the key, eliciting a roar from the engine. Throwing the car into gear, he spun the wheels as he prepared to get the hell out of there.

One of his own metal spikes smashed in through the rear window of the car, passed by close enough to dent the armour on his right arm, then speared through the dashboard and firewall into the engine. It clunked horribly, seized, and the car swerved to a halt. The airbag went off, pinning him back against the car seat.

The driver's side door was ripped off, then dropped to clatter to the floor. Inhumanly strong fingers dragged him from the car, then began prying the armour from him, until enough of his arms were exposed to apply flex-cuffs. Armsmaster stepped in front of him. "Max Anders, you are under arrest. You have the right to remain silent …"

Well, fuck.


Crystal followed Miss Militia out of the corridor and there they were; a normal looking young woman chatting to an equally mundane teenager as they laid out medical supplies. Except that their faces matched the pictures they'd been sent, of Othala and Rune.

Their movement must have drawn the attention of the pair, because Othala turned to look at them. She was a great actor, because after just a split second of oh, fuck her expression turned welcoming. "Oh, hi," she said chattily. "I don't often see superheroes down here. What's the occasion?"

If Crystal hadn't been looking for it, she wouldn't have spotted what Othala was trying to do; that is, sidle closer to Rune. As her hand reached out and back toward the blonde teen, Crystal encased Rune in a force field.

"The occasion is that you're under arrest," Miss Militia strode forward, aiming a large taser at Othala. "You have the right to remain silent. If you choose to give up this right—"

"No!" screamed Rune, smashing both fists on the force field bubble and kicking out at the same time. The field fractured, and then she was free. "This doesn't happen this way!" She threw herself forward onto the table, one hand beginning to scrawl a sigil onto it while the other reached for Othala.

Crystal hesitated; Othala was blocking her best shot, and she didn't want to injure the older villain for something she hadn't even done. And then an energy bolt flashed past her, grazed Othala, and hit Rune full on. Othala staggered, and Rune collapsed in a weeping mess.

"Yeah," Gallant said, stepping up and blowing imaginary smoke off his finger. "It does."

That Evening

Pelham Household

Sarah sat back on the sofa with her feet up. She was a little bruised—Stormtiger was no pushover—but they'd located and arrested every Empire cape they could. According to Crusader, Purity had skipped town already, along with Night and Fog, which had absolutely not helped the Empire's cause in any way. She'd heard of a rumoured split between Purity and Kaiser, and hoped that meant the flying Blaster wouldn't be back to break him out of lockup.

"We did good today, didn't we?" asked Neil as he came to stand by her. He'd been grinning ever since he and Armsmaster had taken down Kaiser and brought him in for processing.

She reached out and captured his hand to give it a kiss. "Yeah," she said. "We did."

Leaning down, he returned the kiss to her lips. "Found a parcel in the mailbox today, addressed to you." He took a bubble-wrapped package from his pocket and handed it to her.

"Thanks, hon." Frowning, she worked her nail in behind the pasted-over flap as he wandered away again. Who's sending me stuff?

A little bit of work had the package open; an extremely unremarkable smartphone slid out into her hand. Brow still wrinkled, she looked it over. Then realisation hit, and she pressed the power button. I think I know …

The phone woke up in very short order. She figured out why when she saw that all internet capabilities had been shut down, and there were only two icons on the home screen; a notepad app, and a video app. Hesitating between the two, she finally tapped the notepad app to open it.

There was exactly one note, titled Per our previous arrangement. It contained a price—high, but not exorbitant—and a set of banking details. Last came a single word. Sound.

With that warning, she turned the sound down to nothing before she opened the video app. As she'd suspected, there was just one file to play; she tapped it. The face that had long since been burned into her memory looked back at her. She played it through once, just to see what happened, then turned the sound up fractionally so she could play it again with the phone up to her ear and hear the Dark's voice say, "Larry Peterson. New Wave sends their regards." On the third play-through, she took atavistic glee in the horrified comprehension that crossed the asshole's face before the Dark shot him at close range. From the way he slumped over—and the gore sprayed over the asphalt behind him—he was comprehensively dead.

Smiling, she closed the video. She would go online in a moment from her own phone and send the money. The price was not too high to pay, especially considering she would've parted with three times as much with a song in her heart. But for now, she decided she could relax and enjoy the feeling of a wrong finally made right.

Rest in peace, Jess.

End of Part Ten