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Binary 15.5

It was just after dark when Dragon's ship deposited us on the helipad atop the PRT building in downtown San Francisco. Colin and Dragon's primary body were already there, as were Alec and Jess. I stepped off the Dragoncraft a few feet above the pad, falling and landing softly. Beside me, Sophia appeared in a puff of shadow.

Colin nodded at us. "Taylor, Sophia."

"Hello, everyone," I said. "Where are Marissa and Brian? I expected to see them here."

"They're on their way," said Colin. "They were held up for a while by a couple of Bonesaw's creations, but they should be here within the hour."

"Excellent." I rolled my shoulders. "What's the situation in the city? What have they done so far?"

"Shatterbird blew out every window and glass wall between the Presidio and MoMA," said Jess grimly. "That was several hours ago. Since then, they've sent us their demands and timeline via a corpse animated with some of Bonesaw's tech. A cape's corpse."

"Who?" I asked.

"None of ours," said Colin. "An Elite member who went by the name Commandante. We suspect they may have eliminated him because his Thinker powers would have been useful in fighting them."

"Makes sense," said Sophia. "Any sign they know we're here?"

"Almost certainly," said Dragon grimly. "Given that they specifically requested you, Mairë."

I blinked.

"They suicidal?" Alec asked dryly. Sophia shot him a dirty look.

"Overconfident, I think," said Colin. "This is a recruitment run for them. Each of them nominated one cape as a potential new member, and they've said that for every nominee that doesn't either attack them or surrender to them by midnight, they'll start killing people. One person per absent nominee, per hour."

I grimaced, looking out at the dim twilight in the West. "Gives us a little under three hours," I said. "Who are the nominees?"

"We don't know all of them," said Jess. "Shatterbird nominated Thunderclast, a member of the local corporate team Eminent. Mannequin nominated a Protectorate Tinker named Piston. Siberian nominated, uh. Me."

"And I've been nominated by my dear sister," said Alec dryly. "Cherie Vasil, better known by her nom de guerre: Cherish."

"And Jack Slash has nominated you, Mairë," said Colin darkly. "Though he referred to you by the name Annatar."

My eyes narrowed. "He wants to test himself against me," I mused. "He's famously persuasive. He wants to test that charisma against my own."

"Best of luck to him," said Alec. "That's not where the problems end."

"We've finally found one of Noelle's missing Eidolon clones," Jess growled. "He's with them."

Oh, that's… "That's not good," I said lamely.

"Maybe Jack Slash does stand a chance," Alec snarked.

"It appears the Eidolon clone killed Crawler and took his place on the roster," said Colin. "He's calling himself Carte Blanche. We… believe he killed the other clone, but we've been unable to verify."

"He's hard to track or detect," said Dragon. "Even with the Rings."

I sighed. "That makes sense," I said. "I suppose we'll be getting some insight into just what Eidolon is capable of. Is the real one coming to join us?"

"We haven't heard one way or another," said Dragon. "But he is the clone's nominee."

"I nodded. "Let me check in with someone." I closed my eyes and reached out to Hyarmenya. Fortuna? I called.

…Intriguing, came the response. We still cannot model you, despite our expanded capabilities. By the way: Behemoth is likely to attack somewhere in North America.

Good to know, I said, making a mental note. Do you know if Eidolon is planning to come to San Francisco to deal with the Nine?

As far as I know, he is, said Fortuna. He is currently occupied with a Cauldron project on an alternate Earth but should be on his way to you in an hour or so.

Thanks. I withdrew. "Eidolon's probably coming," I said. "As reported by someone who'd know."

Colin looked hard at me. "Do you think he'll be an asset or a liability here, Mairë?" he asked. "As we learned during the battle with Noelle, he can be… difficult to work with."

I shook my head. "I don't know," I admitted. "I don't know enough about his powers, or how they'll interact with his clone's, to be sure of anything. What we can assume is that he won't want to follow our lead."

"Then we should be ready to play around him," said Dragon. She looked at Jess. "What other local capes have offered support?"

"Protectorate, Eminent, and Watchdog," said Jess promptly. "Haven't heard a peep from the Elite since Commandante's… appearance."

"Do they have a plan already in place?" I asked.

"Not much of one," drawled Alec. "Mostly just hide until the Nine pop up to start killing people at midnight, then go in after them. They can't find them yet."

"Nor can I," said Dragon darkly. "Do you think—" Suddenly she cut herself off, looking towards the door to the rooftop in surprise.

I followed her gaze just in time to see it open. Out stepped Brandish, of all people. "I was hoping I'd find some of you here," she growled.

"Why are you here?" Sophia asked.

"Work. Civilian work." Brandish shrugged. "Just because I work in Massachusetts courts doesn't mean I don't have to travel. I just got back to my hotel room after slipping out of the lockdown, and found this shoved under my door." She held out a paper.

I looked. It was hard to read in the faint electric light around the helipad, but scrawled in an untidy, childlike hand was a written invitation.

"Who nominated you?" Colin asked.

"Bonesaw," said Brandish, sounding disgusted. "But it's not a nomination for me. It's for—for my daughter. For Amy."

I considered her. The way she stumbled as she spoke of Amy, as if struggling to carry the weight of her guilt and shame… I understood that feeling all too well.

Dragon sighed and looked at me. "If I move really quickly I can get Amy here before the midnight deadline," she said. "It'll mean breaking a couple of airspace laws."

"No." Brandish's voice was sharp. "You are not dragging Amy halfway across the country for this. She doesn't owe them anything."

I frowned at her. "What gives you the right to decide for her what she gets involved in?" I chided.

She winced and looked away. "I… You're right, of course. I just…" She looked back at me, almost pleading. "It's not like we're actually considering giving people up to them," she said. "So why bring Amy all the way across the country for it? Let me fight in her stead. Please."

I was still frowning as I studied her. I had a feeling I knew where this was going, and I wasn't yet sure how I felt about it. "Let me ask her," I said, and reached out with a mental hand.

Yes, Taylor? It was Amy's voice, but not Amy speaking.

Shaper. The Slaughterhouse Nine are in San Francisco and have demanded Amy either fight or surrender to them in the next three hours. Brandish is here and has volunteered to fight in her stead. If Amy wants to come, Dragon can pick her up, but she'll have to be quick.

There was silence for a few beats. Then: Ugh. Amy's voice was rough with sleep. Fuck. What? Say again?

I repeated the explanation tersely.

Fuck. Um. I can come if you want me, Taylor, but honestly I just got to sleep an hour ago after a thirty-hour day. Even with Nenya, I'm not sure how competent I'll be.

I nodded. That's all right, I said gently. Get some sleep. I'll let you know how things went in the morning—assuming the news doesn't get to you first.

Great, good. Uh. Amy hesitated. …Take care of her for me, would you? Don't let her…

I won't, I promised. My eyes opened. "Amy can't make it," I said. "Brandish, you're up."

Brandish nodded sharply without a word.

"We need a concrete plan," said Dragon. "Let's head downstairs, call a meeting with the rest of the Protectorate and Eminent, get Watchdog on a call. We may only get one shot at this—we have to make it count."

Step one.

My left hand rested on the hilt of Sunrise as I strolled down the steep hill. The streetlamps overhead filled the street with golden light. A siren sounded in the distance, but the city was otherwise silent, as though every single inhabitant were holding their breath.

The silence was broken by a scraping noise as Alec dragged his baton along the asphalt behind me. I shot him a look. He just shrugged at me. An apelike thing, one of Jess' projections, swung beside us on its long arms and rolled its eyes at him. He just shot it a cheeky grin.

Movement, Dragon whispered through our earbuds. Side street ahead of you, on the right. Going fast.

I gave a silent nod. My grip shifted on my sword.

Dragon's voice came again. Contact in 3… 2… 1…

A blast of wind emerged from an alley in front of us, four figures soaring out like scraps of cloth upon the gale. Three alighted easily on the ground, while the fourth hovered above them.

"Hey there," said Jack Slash. There was a sly little smile on his instantly recognizable face, as though he knew something no one else did.

The Siberian stared us down from his right. To his left stood a willowy young woman with dark hair streaked with crimson and a complex tattoo visible up to her shoulders.

Above them floated a man in silver robes. With a sinking feeling, I noticed that there was a spider motif across his chest.

Almost immediately, I felt the familiar sensation of a Shard trying to find purchase across my mental defenses. There were two, this time. I clenched my left hand, still resting on Sunrise's hilt, and the One Ring burned bright on my finger, bolstering my Ring-Bearers in defense.

"Hello," I said.

"Eidolon's not here yet?" the clone asked.

Jack Slash gave him a sidelong look—difficult, when the clone was floating directly above him, but he managed it. "Easy there, Carte Blanche," he said, perfectly enunciating the French. "He'll show." He grinned at me. "I'm much more interested in talking to those who are here already."

I nodded. "You wanted me," I said. "Here I am."

"Yes, indeed. Here you are." He spoke slowly, almost languid. "I have to say, I'm a big fan of your work, Annatar. I thought about coming by Brockton to see it in person, but other things came up. You know how it is."

I didn't answer. Alec and Jess were both tense by my sides, but they held steady, watching me for any cue. For now, Sunrise remained sheathed.

"Hey, little bro," said the girl beside him—Cherish—grinning at Alec. There were sharp edges in that smile, some of which were pointed inward. "Heard you went straight. Say it isn't so."

"Cherie," Alec said. He tried to sound nonchalant, but I could hear the tension. "Heard you decided this crowd would be a good time. Say it ain't so."

As they spoke, my eyes looked the Siberian up and down. Her body language was stiff—almost imperceptibly so, but it was there. A disconnect, as though the human mind behind her was communicating with her body through a wire. She met my eyes, and I knew I was right. There was no soul there, no life—just an automaton, likely a projection. But who was the Master?

"Not to interrupt the touching reunion," said Jack Slash, "but we're on a bit of a timetable. So—are you fighting, or are you going to try our tests?"

"Tests?" I asked.

His smile widened. "You didn't think we'd just take on anyone who wanted to join, did you?" He chuckled, his eyes never leaving me. "No. Each of us will give a test to all of our nominees—starting with Carte Blanche up there, as our most junior member, and ending with me. So—how about it?"

I considered him. It was his power I could feel scrabbling against my mind, but he didn't even seem to have noticed that it hadn't breached. "Why did you want me to come?" I asked. "I'm surprised at you, really."

"Oh?" he raised a brow. "How so?"

"I wouldn't have expected overconfidence," I said. "You've been leading the most successful set of mass-murderers in the world for more than two decades. I assumed that took more caution than this."

"You sure I'm the one being overconfident?" he asked, sounding amused. His power grew more desperate in its attempts to breach my mind, but I was certain he wasn't even aware of it. "You've done some incredible things, sweetheart, but you've never tangled with people like us."

I was silent for a moment, weighing my options. "Did you know," I said finally, "that you have a secondary power?"

He blinked. His smile shrank minutely in surprise. "What was that?"

"A secondary power," I said. "Your Shard tries to interface with other people's minds, if I had to guess."

"It only works with other Shards, actually," said Carte Blanche. "Ironically, the best way to kill Jack Slash would be with a normal human." He shrugged. "Or a Cauldron Cape, if their Shard was sufficiently degraded. Echidna probably could have done it."

Jack Slash's expression had frozen. "What are you talking about?"

"It's why you've been able to hold your group together," I said. "Why you've been able to outsmart and outplay every hero and villain that's come after you before. Your Shard could literally see them coming, and fed that to you on an instinctual level. I tell you this because, well," I brought my right hand to my left hip and drew Sunrise, "it won't help you here."

His teeth bared. There was uncertainty in his eyes, but the battlefield was familiar territory. "Give it your best, then, Annatar!" He struck outward with a knife. The blade extended out, a dozen feet or more, but clanged uselessly against my armor.

"My name," I said, "is Mairë. Dragon?"

The Dragoncraft fifty feet above them decloaked, and fire rained down.