Taylor Hebert, Medhall Intern


Part Twenty: All For One


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


Tracey Grimshaw


The voices outside the cell were barely audible to Tracey, but the single shot startled her badly. What's going on?

And then, after a few moments, she heard a key rattling in the door lock. Sitting up from her slumped position on the cold concrete floor, she prepared to plead for her life with whoever opened the door. Pride was all well and good, but you couldn't be proud if you were dead.

The door opened, and the last person Tracey hoped or expected to see looked into the room. "Tracey?"

"Taylor?" Her one-time intern looked terrible. Taylor was filthy, her normally immaculate hair was downright bedraggled, her Beautiful Me outfit was stained and creased, and her eyes looked haunted. Tracey's heart plummeted toward the centre of the earth. "Oh, no. They got you too?"

"No. No, no, no." Taylor limped into the room. She had grazes on one knee and both elbows, but there was a smile of pure joy on her face as she knelt down beside Tracey. "Brian and Greg got me out just in time. How are you alive? They said you crashed your car, but I knew that couldn't be true, so I thought Mr Ferguson had gotten to you. Then I saw what was on the computer, and I thought they'd killed you for knowing too much."

She hugged Tracey then, dispelling any notion that this might be a particularly vivid hallucination. Tracey hugged her back, holding her close. "No, they've been trying to find out who I sent the text to. How did you find me, anyway?"

"By sheer accident." Taylor stood up and helped Tracey to her feet. "We're running from Hookwolf and the others, and Greg's escape plan led us here. Brian beat up the guards, then I got curious about what they were guarding. Can you walk?"

Despite the dire circumstances, Tracey had to chuckle. Taylor getting curious about something and making a totally serendipitous discovery was totally on-brand for her. "I think so, but I haven't had anything to eat or drink since … how long's it been? They never switch off the light in here." She would've broken it if she'd been able to reach it, or had anything to break it with. Instead, she'd had to cover her eyes with her arm to get away from the endless glare.

"It's Wednesday afternoon, a bit after three." They got to the door, which Greg helpfully held open for them. "Greg, do you have anything in your backpack for Tracey to eat or drink?"

God, forty-eight hours. No wonder my stomach feels like a wrung-out sock. Tracey looked on as Greg produced a water-bottle and a protein bar out of his backpack. "Oh, thank you. You're a total lifesaver."

"We have to move," said Brian. Tracey had seen the big guy on the front desk a few times, but this was the first time she'd learned his name. "They will be looking for us, and we need to find a way out before they find us."

"I thought Mr Grayson, I mean Victor, was still in a wheelchair," Greg said as they started hustling down the corridor, or at least moving as fast as Tracey could totter.

Taylor was assisting her, which was a great help, as were the water and protein bar she was ingesting as fast as her body would allow her to. She could almost feel the energy flowing back into her body. Or perhaps that was adrenaline.

"Othala," Brian stated flatly. "When this all kicked off, he probably asked her to finish up the healing in one hit. Chances are, they've been stringing it out to make it look natural."

"Yeah, that makes sense," agreed Taylor. "Something else I'm wondering, though. Why didn't we grab the guards' guns? At least give us a fighting chance if they catch up with us. Or am I missing something?"

"Ho ho ho, now I have a machine gun?" Greg added.

Brian shook his head. "Not going to happen. Stallone's character in that movie was a cop. He was trained in using firearms. I know which end bullets come out of, and that's about it. We don't know the safe way to handle them, and we don't know how to use them properly. Maybe with an hour or two to look them over carefully, we could chance it, but we don't have an hour."

A four-way junction lay up ahead, and he gestured everyone to stay back while he crept up to the corner. Somehow, with a wave of his hand, he created a puff of black smoke, which he stuck his head into briefly before it dissipated again.

"What just happened?" Tracey asked, looking to Taylor for an explanation.

"Brian's a cape," Taylor said quietly. "Long story. All clear?" she asked, raising her voice a little.

"All clear." Brian gestured them forward. "I think there's an elevator down along the left corridor."

"We've just come around three sides of a square," Greg agreed. "That's probably the same elevator that the ladder came down beside." As everyone looked at him, he shrugged. "I counted my paces."

"Fair." Brian pulled out his swipe card. "Now, does anyone think we've used up all our luck so far, or should I try to see if my card still works to get us up to lobby level so we can bust out of here?"


Taylor


I shook my head. "They control the elevators. We might not get dropped fifty feet into the sub-basement, but they could totally open the doors right where Hookwolf and Cricket are waiting for us." In my mind, I still had trouble envisaging the rough-hewn but helpful Bradley as Hookwolf, but somehow it was a lot easier to see Melody as Cricket. Probably because I'd associated with him more than her, and because she'd never really been nice to me.

And now they were hunting us with murder in mind. It was something I had to keep reminding myself of, which was why I was calling them by their villain names instead of their civilian identities. The villains weren't my friends.

I was starting to realise they never had been. They'd only protected me because I was the clever intern who found the moles and saved them money, not because they liked Taylor Hebert the person. Of course I was valuable to them, because I protected their bottom line … until I didn't. And then I was just a liability.

"Maybe we could risk it?" Tracey's tone was both tired and wistful. "I'm sick of this place. I just want to get out."

Greg shook his head. "No, Taylor's right. The moment we ping that elevator, they'll know … shit. Shit, shit, shit."

By this point, we were close enough to see the elevator floor display, which was why Greg had started swearing. Because the display was active, and the number was counting downward. And not one of us was optimistic enough to assume they weren't coming for us.


Greg


"Fuck it. "Brian slapped his access card and keyring into Greg's hand. "Everyone, back against the wall beside the elevator. Taylor, hold hands with Greg. Tracey, hold hands with Taylor. I'm going to try to separate Stormtiger from the rest and disable him, then get back to you. If I can't, I'll kick that maintenance door in and go up the ladder. Either way, thirty seconds, you get in that elevator and get the hell out. Understand me?"

Even as Brian gave his rapid-fire instructions, he was pouring huge volumes of that same inky black smoke from his free hand, filling up the corridors. Greg could see the stress on his face, the knowledge that his lone stand, even aided by his powers, would most likely see him dead or seriously injured. "I could stay," he offered tentatively.

Brian's large hand clamped on his shoulder and pushed him back against the wall. "Appreciate the offer, man, but nobody can see in my darkness but me. I've got to do this on my own. But if anything happens, I've got a sister. Take care of her for me."

The inky wall was already starting to close in, as Brian's cape power obscured the overhead lights. Greg clasped his wrist briefly. "We'll bring them down. All of them." For you, he meant. Your sacrifice won't be in vain.

Brian's eyes searched his face for a moment, then he nodded. "Yeah." Then the darkness became complete. Greg's questing hand found Taylor's and her fingers squeezed his. He squeezed back.

The vibration of the wall told him the elevator had reached the floor they were on, and he started the mental countdown. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi …


Brian


I've got one chance to get this right. Brian braced himself in front of the elevator doors, standing a little off to the side in case someone blindly threw or shot something straight ahead. They didn't know he was a cape yet, so with anything resembling luck, he might be able to take them by surprise and remove Stormtiger from the equation.

He'd never directly fought any of the Empire capes before, but he knew damn well that trying to beat up Hookwolf was a losing proposition, especially after he popped armour and blades all over his body. When facing an opponent that more closely resembled a combine harvester, discretion was by far the better part of valour. Which also meant that he couldn't afford to get surrounded by the others and herded into Hookwolf's arms.

He pulled out his baton and flicked it to its full length, wishing heartily that they'd gotten around to putting him through the training courses for tasers or mace. Knowing what he did now, he was less than surprised that they'd been dragging their heels on the matter. But given the current situation, the less time spent wishing and the more time spent doing was probably a good idea. At the very last second, as the number panel displayed SB2, he pulled off his socks and shoes, then picked up a shoe.

The elevator doors opened. If Brian had needed any proof that Taylor had been telling the truth about the Empire Eighty-Eight running Medhall, he now had it. Stepping forward out of the elevator, hands held out in front of him, was Hookwolf. The villain even had his trademark metal mask on.

Behind him was Stormtiger, flanked by Cricket; last out were Victor and Kaiser himself. Brian breathed as quietly as he could, aware that Stormtiger would probably smell him (and the others) as soon as he started using his powers. Victor was armed with a pistol held low against his leg, not that it would do him any good until he could see something. Brian didn't intend to give him the chance.

"What the hell?" asked Hookwolf. "What happened to the lights?"

"Fuck," Stormtiger replied. "Cape. Gotta be. Go careful."

Tossing the shoe off to the left, Brian sidestepped quietly to the right in his bare feet. These were less than optimum in a combat situation, but he wanted to be silent as possible. The ruse was almost certainly older than civilisation, but it was still a good one; as muffled as it was, the sound of the shoe hitting concrete still turned all four heads.

"You hear that?" That was Hookwolf.

"Yes," agreed Kaiser.

Brian moved in as silently as he could, his feet skimming over the concrete. Hookwolf, Victor and Kaiser were all going in the wrong direction. All he needed was for Cricket to step away from Stormtiger and he'd be able to incapacitate both of them in short order. It was [I]easy, [/I]even against skilled opponents. Very few people practised blindfolded against sighted foes, after all.

The burst of disorientation took him by surprise and nearly knocked him off his feet. He staggered, staring with disbelief as Cricket moved directly toward him. Even as he tried to evade and block her incoming blow, she sent him reeling again with what he belatedly realised was a sonic attack to his inner ears.

A snap-kick sent the baton spinning from his hand, then a backfist to the jaw rattled his cage and loosened teeth. He was still up, but disoriented, and she hit harder than any woman he'd ever gone up against. Before he could do more than put a basic guard together, she buried her heel in his solar plexus. The breath went out of his lungs in a painful whoosh and he began to involuntarily double over, only to meet her knee coming the other direction at speed.

He straightened up from the impact, but his consciousness was already flickering around the edges. The full-blooded kick to his sternum arrived like a battering ram and drove what little air he'd gotten back into his lungs straight out again. He vaguely felt his feet leave the floor before he crashed down on his back.

His last thought before real darkness closed in on him was, I'm sorry, Aisha …


Taylor


I couldn't see a thing; all I knew was that Greg was holding my right hand and Tracey my left. Noises were happening in the darkness right in front of me, and I was trying to silently count seconds in my head, but I didn't know if I was doing it right, or if Brian was even okay. Despite me knowing that it wouldn't matter if my eyes were open or shut, I had them as wide as I could, just in case I might spot something that could be of use.

The first inkling I had that things were going badly—that is, even worse than they'd already been—was when Brian's darkness started to shred and fade away before my mental countdown had quite hit twenty seconds. Kaiser, Hookwolf and Victor were about twenty feet away, looking in the wrong direction, but Brian was down with Cricket standing over him, and Stormtiger was close by her. And both Cricket and Stormtiger were looking directly at us.

Tracey froze, her hand clenching painfully tight around mine. I wanted to move, but I had no idea which way to go. We couldn't run and we couldn't fight; with Brian down, we couldn't hide either.

Greg acted, hauling on my arm and bodily dragging Tracey and me to the lift. "Go-go-go!" he yelled, slapping Brian's swipe card into my hand and shoving us inside. I managed to make myself react, swiping the panel inside the elevator and blindly stabbing at the buttons with my fingers. But just as Greg started to jump back inside with us, metal-clawed fingers closed around his arm and he was hauled out again with a yelp.

Cricket stepped into the open door of the elevator and gave us what might have been a smile. "Hi," she rasped, every word an effort. "Didn't really think you'd get away, did you?"

I pushed Tracey to the back of the elevator and got myself between her and Cricket. "Don't you dare hurt her!" We were screwed, I knew we were screwed, but I couldn't help myself. Tracey had already been through enough. And maybe if she agreed to say nothing …

Even though I was looking for it, I barely spotted Cricket's shift in balance before her casual backhand bounced me off the side of the elevator and dropped me to the floor. "Never tell me what to do." Even through the ringing in my ears, I heard death in her tone.

My head was spinning, but I tried to get up anyway. Tracey was screaming somewhere above my head, then I was grabbed by the collar and dragged out of the elevator. Suddenly, the screaming stopped and I tried to focus, fearing the worst.

"We have here an unfortunate mess." As my head cleared, I recognised Mr Anders' voice, though with an extra edge and echo to it that I'd never heard before. My glasses had been knocked off in the elevator, but I was able to make him out, wearing his Kaiser armour, standing before us.

Of much more urgency to me was Cricket; she was holding me up against the wall with a very sharp-looking curved blade not very far away from my neck. The side of my face where she'd hit me throbbed and felt swollen, but that wasn't even remotely the worst of my problems right then.

I looked into her eyes, and there was nothing there. No warmth, no recognition of a fellow human being. Then and there, I knew that she was just waiting for the word to end my life, and she wouldn't even spare a second thought afterward.

From the corner of my eye, I could see that Tracey was alive, mainly because Victor was holding her up with a pistol barrel pressing up under her jaw. Beyond her, Greg was at Stormtiger's mercy. I may have been imagining things, but the blue-masked villain seemed bitter over the trick with the cleaning products. And finally, Brian was slumped on the floor with Hookwolf standing over him.

We were done, I could see that. There was no hope for escape, no hope for rescue. All that was standing between us and death at the hands of the Empire Eighty-Eight was whatever passed for mercy in Kaiser's mind.

I wasn't exactly optimistic on that count.

My stomach clenched as I realised that I was going to die here. Today. Now.

I don't want to! It was a despairing wail against the inevitable darkness.

"It doesn't have to be this big a mess." Victor didn't turn his head away from Tracey. "There's a possibility we can salvage something out of it."

I didn't dare hope that we'd get out of this, but his words still snared my complete and total attention.

"I'm listening." Kaiser strode toward Victor, his metal armour clanking on the concrete floor.

"We've already seen how much value Taylor Hebert can be to Medhall," Victor began. "And Veder is also highly resourceful in that regard."

"You're just sayin' that 'cause she saved your life, an' he clocked Shadow Bitch." Stormtiger didn't sound convinced on either instance.

Cricket nodded. "Plus, that just makes them dangerous."

"Granted on both instances," Victor acknowledged. "But hear me out. Suppose we could secure their guaranteed loyalty? Given a little supervision, they could continue to be real assets to Medhall and the Empire."

I really, really didn't like the sound of the phrase 'guaranteed loyalty'. Part of me wanted to lash out and yell at him that I'd never agree to work for him again, but the part that was involved with self-preservation desperately told it to shut the fuck up. I was still alive, and I wanted to stay that way, however forlorn a hope that might be.

"Interesting concept." Kaiser sounded mildly intrigued. "How would you go about guaranteeing their loyalty, so they didn't just email our secrets to the PRT and Protectorate at the first opportunity?"

"A couple of little carrots, and a few sticks." Victor sounded pleased with himself. "Hebert and Veder care for each other. Guaranteeing Veder's safety would help keep Hebert in line, and vice versa. Also, we could allow them to spend time with each other. A raise in salary couldn't hurt either. As for the sticks, there are several we could use; blackmail, threats to family, and so forth."

"Fuck that." Stormtiger actually sounded pissed now. "This little shit made me snort bleach. I'm gonna rip his guts out an' make him choke on them."

"Stormtiger." Kaiser's tone was mild, but we all heard the edge underneath it. "Not at the moment. I'm still thinking about this. Victor, where would we get blackmail material from? You've already checked Hebert and Veder out, and they're depressingly well-behaved."

"Ah, that's the best bit. It's ready-made, just waiting for us to use it." Victor nodded toward Tracey, then inclined his head in Brian's general direction. "Hebert kills Grimshaw, Veder finishes off Laborn, I get footage of both instances, and we hold that over their heads in case they ever decide to be heroes and expose the evil deeds of Medhall." There was definitely sarcasm in the end of his statement. "And if they think they can talk their way out of it anyway, they've still got family."

I'd thought my stomach was filled with dread before, but now it froze completely solid. No, not Dad.

"I like it." Kaiser nodded slowly. "And if they decide to die instead of committing murder, their families' lives are forfeit as well. All the sticks. Cricket?"

She only paused for a moment, then nodded. "Yeah, sure. She won't have the guts anyway."

Kaiser turned his head to look at me. "She might just surprise us. Stormtiger?"

"Fuck, no. They're too dangerous, like Cricket says. An' this little cocksucker needs to suffer an' fuckin' scream before I'm finished with him. I nearly died, back there."

"Well, he was running for his life, so we can't really blame him …" Kaiser sighed. "Hookwolf?"

"Hm." The burly villain thought about it. "Yeah, why not give it a try? Hebert's got grit. She might even come around."

"Well, that's two for and two against. I've got the tie-breaker, and I also think it's worth a shot." Kaiser dusted his hands off with a clash of metal on metal. "So. Taylor, Greg. Are you willing to buy your lives and your families' lives with a little bloodletting? Grimshaw and Laborn are going to die anyway, but this way you get to survive. What do you say?"

Terror filled my every cell. I tasted bile at the back of my throat, but all I could think of was Tracey's face when I stepped into her room. Killing her was unthinkable. Refusing to kill her and letting Dad die was equally inconceivable.

I was locked into a dilemma that I couldn't see my way out of. One way, I died, along with everyone I loved, while the other would require me to sacrifice part of my soul forever. I turned my head to look past Tracey, whose terror was manifest on her face, to see that Greg was equally conflicted.

Through the roaring in my ears, I heard Kaiser's voice. "Well, then. It seems—"

My mind broke.


Or rather, that was how it seemed. I floated, apparently weightless, in what appeared to be interstellar space. Greg and Tracey were there as well, both looking as stunned as I felt. Two gigantic things spiralled past us like active embodiments of DNA, and five smaller objects orbited between us like crazy planets.

Unseen cords bound around us and pulled us together, while the 'planets' crashed together soundlessly and formed a single mass. Then they split apart into three and shot toward each of us. There was an inevitability about the whole process; I felt that even if we'd been able to dodge, they still wouldn't have missed.

The impact staggered me on a visceral level, and then I saw the cords. One linked me to Tracey and one to Greg, and there was a third one linking Tracey and Greg together.

And then, of course, I forgot it all.


Kaiser


Max staggered, then caught himself. What had he been saying? "Uh, seems that—"

Everyone appeared to be on the back foot. That was a bad thing. Why was that a bad thing? His brain was still rebooting, as though he'd just drifted into a daydream. But he didn't do daydreams.

Something was wrong.

"You. Starved. Me." Tracey Grimshaw was a gentle young woman, who had never raised her voice in anger that he knew of. Now her tone was harsher than he'd ever heard it before. Victor, just coming back to himself, was a fraction too slow to react when she grabbed him. Or maybe she was just too fast. One hand around his wrist, and the other around his throat.

Max's feeling that something was badly wrong ramped up at that blatant action, and then jumped into turbo overdrive when tendrils of dark energy began flowing from Victor's body into hers. Other tendrils reached out to Cricket and Stormtiger, groping hungrily through the air.

Shit. Shit, shit, shit. She's triggered with powers.

He gathered his mental resources and focused on the area under Grimshaw's feet. Metal spikes impaling her body would surely break her concentration—

He hadn't noticed the Veder lad sidestepping around Stormtiger until it was too late and Veder had hidden behind the aerokinetic's bulk. And then, just as Max was about to shred Grimshaw, there was a crack like a bomb going off and Stormtiger was sent flying—directly toward him. Max had just enough time to see that Veder was holding his hands in a double palm-strike pose before Stormtiger barrelled into him, bowling him over.

Fuck, they both triggered!

As Max rolled to a halt, he saw Hebert fend off a strike by Cricket and neatly disarm her of one kama, something he wouldn't have believed possible if he hadn't seen it. Then she made a tossing motion, there was a flicker of blackness through the air, and she dropped through the floor and out of a black patch on the ceiling to land behind Cricket. Twisting in midair, she tried to come down with a dropping elbow strike, but fortunately Cricket picked up on the teleport gambit (this was absolutely not her first rodeo) and turned in time to deflect it.

Sonovabitch. It's all of them. We have to lock this down hard. "Cluster trigger!" he yelled.

There was no more thought of perhaps salvaging Hebert and Veder. That had gone out the window when they triggered. Now it was a case of dealing with three pissed-off grab-bag capes.

Victor was already on it. Still holding his pistol, he angled it toward Grimshaw's head and pulled the trigger with zero hesitation. But instead of punching through her skull and spraying her brains all over the wall and ceiling, the bullet … splashed off her skin like water? That was what it looked like to Max, anyway.

And she wasn't even finished. Her eyes now glowing with darkness (Max wasn't sure how that worked, but power weirdness was weird by definition) she let him go and gestured with her hands. A long cylinder, outlined by webs of the same dark energy, formed behind him, an instant before Victor was sucked into it by a howling gale and spat out the far end to tumble off down the corridor. Max was reminded of a wind tunnel in an aerospace facility he'd toured at one time.

Stormtiger climbed to his feet and sent a couple of air-blades hurtling toward Veder, who held out his hand, palm out. A spinning, shimmering disc formed in front of him; when the air-blades hit it, they were sucked in and dispersed. Then Veder held out his other hand. Stormtiger's chains rattled; disbelievingly, Max watched them come apart link by link, the metal flying across to the teenage boy. It solidified on his forearms, forming midnight-black metal bracers. And then Max's armour started to come apart at the seams, also flying toward Veder.

Come on, we're better than this. Even four on three—now that Victor had been tossed out of the fight—they should be able to make a better showing. Max didn't want to try spiking Hebert, due to the fact that she was sparring with Cricket at lightning-fast speeds—where the hell did she learn to fight like that?—and Grimshaw didn't seem to be fazed by high-speed metal, so he turned his attention to Veder. Iron spears erupted from the wall behind the boy, only to be pulled away from it and absorbed directly into the armour that was constructing itself around Veder.

Hookwolf mustn't have seen or realised that Grimshaw could splash bullets, because he headed for the young woman in a full charge, bristling with spikes and blades. Max turned his attention to Hebert, who'd just hit Cricket in the chest with a palm strike, hard enough to knock her onto her ass. This meant she was clear to be attacked, so he sent a bunch of spikes erupting from the wall and floor, intended to kill her or at least pin her in place long enough to be killed at their leisure.

But she pirouetted out of the way, then threw Cricket's kama. It whickered across the distance between them and sank into his unarmoured shoulder. Screaming from the unexpected agony, he spun around and fell to the floor.

Stormtiger threw air-blades at Hebert, who threw up her hand and generated a ball of pure blackness, three feet across. The air-blades went into the ball heading for Hebert, but came out at an angle and smashed into Hookwolf's side just as he reached Grimshaw. His unarmoured side; not satisfied with Kaiser's armour, Veder had stolen Hookwolf's metal as well, and had formed it into a set of glossy black plate armour, complete with kite shield.

As Hookwolf staggered, Grimshaw grabbed his arm. The dark tendrils latched on and crawled all over him, then more lunged out toward Max, Stormtiger and Cricket. Bleeding and dazed, trying and failing to grow more metal, Hookwolf fell to his knees. Veder stomped forward, still pulling in metal—Cricket's face-cage was now gone, as were the spikes Max had intended for Hebert—and sending it to his companions, building armour around them as well.

Stormtiger launched an air-blade at Grimshaw, only for her to throw a tendril at it; the air-blade dissipated before it got halfway to her. And then she sent out brightly glowing tendrils that latched onto her allies, as well as the downed Laborn. Even as he backed off to avoid the black tendril reaching for him, Max had a really bad feeling about what the glowing ones did.

"What the fuck do we do?" demanded Stormtiger, pulling Max to his feet by his uninjured arm.

By now, with all the metal that had been thrown around, Veder had put substantial armour on all three of his comrades. Worse, when Max tried to grow spikes on the interior of this armour, it just wouldn't take. No matter what he tried, no matter what his allies tried, it was countered.

He was losing, and he didn't like it.

The moment of inattention was all that was needed for the tendrils seeking him and Stormtiger to latch on. Immediately, he felt the sharp, agonising drain, the steadily encroaching weakness. He instinctively threw up a barrier between them and Grimshaw, interlocking metal blades going between the floor and the ceiling. As the last blade slid into place, the tendrils cut out; he staggered, looking at the angry red patch on his hand.

"We can't fight them." It was only the truth. "We need backup. Find Victor and call in everyone else. They'll be trying to get out and go to the authorities. We have to capture or kill them before they leave the building."

Stormtiger shook his head disbelievingly. "What a clusterfuck."

Max didn't disagree.


Taylor


I stared around wonderingly. My mind was still buzzing with the after-effects of the skills I'd 'seen' in the capes we'd been facing. Button-mashing my brand-new abilities, I'd yoinked everything—tapping, not stealing, it seemed—and shared it out to everyone.

And then I'd fought Cricket. And I could teleport, kind of. I'd beaten Cricket. Hookwolf was down and unconscious. The others had run away.

"Did we win?" asked Greg disbelievingly. "I think we won."

"We won, for now." Tracey was walking tall in the armour Greg had put around her. "But they aren't done yet. We need to get to the PRT now."

Brian sat up and looked around. He went to rub his head, then encountered the helmet Greg had put on him. "What happened? And why am I wearing armour?" He looked around. "Why is everyone wearing armour? And how come we're still alive?"

"So many questions, so little time." I headed over and helped him up. "We'll fill you in along the way, once we figure out everything that happened. How do you feel?"

"Pretty amazing for someone who just got the shit kicked out of them," he admitted after a second. "I'm not even feeling any bruises."

"More walky, less talky." That was Tracey. She ran her hands over the closed elevator doors. "Where's the swipe card?"

I frowned. "Pretty sure I dropped it inside there when Cricket hit me."

"Non-issue," said Greg. "Because apparently I can do this—" and with a wave of his hand, the entire elevator door came apart and particles of aluminum flew to his armour, where they provided swanky-looking highlights. The steel framework was redirected to the rest of us, where it made the armour a little more complete. "Voila. No door."

Beyond was an empty elevator shaft. "Also no elevator, it seems," I observed, leaning and looking upward. "I can see it, though. A bunch of floors upward." It took me a second to realise that the near-total lack of light in the elevator shaft didn't bother me in the slightest, or that my awareness of all the metal around didn't go away when I looked in different directions.

Another moment later, I realised that I could see perfectly in darkness, but I was still short-sighted in normal light. How unfair was that?

"Okay," said Brian. "That's all well and good. But how do we get up it?"

Greg stepped up. "I think I can get us out, but it'll involve property damage." He looked at the remains of the elevator doors. "More property damage."

Hookwolf groaned and tried to get up. Tracey zapped him with one of those weird black energy lines, and he subsided again. "I have an amazing lack of care factor, right now."

"Time to make some headlines." Greg jumped into the elevator shaft. In the next instant, there was a deafening WHOOOOSH and he rocketed up the shaft while a solid gale-force wind blew out the open elevator doorway. A few seconds later, I heard a KBOOOM and bits of debris fell back down the shaft.

"Well, that happened," I said.

Brian raised his eyebrows. "He's really, really into this."

Tracey chuckled dryly. "We noticed."

Greg dropped back down the elevator shaft, slowing his fall with regular doses of whatever his rocket ability was. He actually went below the level of where we were, then blasted himself upward just enough to land in the doorway. "Holy shit!" he yelled. "That was amazing!"

"We've got an opening?" I asked.

"Yeah." Greg seemed to be trying not to hyperventilate. "Goes to the lobby. Ten feet up the wall. I miscalculated a teensy bit."

As I recalled, the lobby ceiling was thirty feet high. "I think we can manage."

Leaning into the open shaft, I called up one of the shadow-patches I'd used to teleport around Cricket—it seemed I could also step through shadows, which was wild as fuck—and tossed it upward. It hit the edge of the hole Greg had blasted, and stuck there. To anyone else, it would be a blot of anomalous shadow, as though something was obscuring the light, but to me …

I moved up to the wall, face-first, close enough to cast a shadow, then stepped right through. On the other side of the shadow was a ragged hole in the concrete elevator shaft wall, chunks of reinforced concrete littering the floor below. For a mercy, nobody had been hurt, though I made a mental note to talk to Greg about being more careful in future.

On the other hand, this was Medhall. As far as I could tell, this was Nazi fucking Central for Brockton Bay. Like Tracey had said, my care factor wasn't exactly overflowing at that moment. Less than five minutes before, I'd been faced with the choice between me murdering Tracey or letting me and Dad get murdered, by Max Anders himself.

Fuck him, and fuck all of them.

"Hey!" The voice caught my attention. Two security guards were pointing pistols at me from about thirty feet away. I hadn't even known they had firearms until now. "Get down from there! Hands behind your head!"

I had a better idea than surrendering. Diving back into the shadow, I rolled out from underneath the security desk. The guards were less skilled overall than Hookwolf and Stormtiger and Cricket, but I found I could tap into those just as easily as I had the others. This built on the meagre training I'd already had, so I was reasonably confident I could take them down if I could just get the jump on them.

When I was fighting Cricket, she'd tried to use some kind of sonic ability to put me off balance, but to her surprise and mine, I'd had a counter; the ability to silence a small area around me. I used it again now, to sneak up on them.

Which would've worked if the damn phone on the desk hadn't started ringing just before I got close enough to put them inside the six-foot radius of the silence effect. One of them turned to look and saw me. I couldn't hear what he said, but it really didn't matter. They knew I was there, so I dropped the effect.

Both of them turned and pointed their guns at me. I didn't have flashy ranged effects like Tracey or Greg had gotten, but I could detect all metal in a sixty-foot radius, more or less. I knew exactly where each gun barrel was pointing, and I could even 'see' the bullets inside the guns.

"Down on the floor!" yelled one of the guards.

"Hands behind your head!" the other one countered.

The phone rang again.

I raised my hands. "One of you might want to get that."

There was no doubt about who was on the other end. Kaiser would be circling the wagons, telling security to lock the building down, probably making it a terrorist threat. Telling them to shoot to kill.

There was a roar from the hole in the wall. One kept his pistol on me, while the other turned back toward the hole. I was pretty sure I knew what was going to happen next, so I braced myself.

Greg, still clad in his ornate armour but with his shield on his back, came up the elevator shaft and out through the hole like he'd been doing it all his life. I personally suspected that he'd bounced off the walls a few times until he got it right, but his entrance was better late than never. I was glad to see that he had passengers: Brian on one arm and Tracey on the other.

He misjudged the landing a bit, probably because of the extra weight. They hit the floor hard, and Greg had to go down onto one knee, the armour over his kneecap smashing a marble tile. I couldn't be certain that the tiles where Brian and Tracey had landed weren't cracked either, but I didn't give a flying fuck. They weren't my tiles.

In the ensuing silence, the phone rang again. Then the guard who wasn't covering me called out in tones of disbelief. "Laborn? Veder? What the fuck?"

I felt vaguely insulted that they hadn't recognised me as yet, but figured that it was the whole lack of glasses and black armour thing.

The guard facing me half-turned his head. "What, really? Laborn?"

"You know," Brian said as he strode forward, "a crapload of things are a whole lot clearer to me now. Gus, I'm gonna take a wild stab and say you're a card-carrying follower of the Empire Eighty-Eight. Joe, I'm not so sure about."

"That's actually a good thing, Joe," I added helpfully. "Just saying."

"I don't give a fuck what you've got to say," said the guy with his gun on me. "Get over there with the rest of them, or—"

"No." Greg stood up. "After the day I've had, idiots pointing guns at me really shit me off." He gestured and both pistols disintegrated, the metal particles flying toward him and becoming part of his armour. "Now, you two can step aside or we will go right through you." He shrugged his shield onto his arm. "I really don't give a damn which one it is."

"What he said." I flipped a shadow-patch onto the floor on the other side of the security barrier, then threw more at the security cameras. The cameras would be blind as long as the patches lasted. One more patch went to the ground at my feet; I stepped into it, and popped up next to the sliding doors.

"Joe?" asked the guy who'd been covering me; I assumed it was Gus. "What the fuck do we do?"

Joe backed up, hands in the air despite not having been ordered to put them up. "What do you think? We step aside and we let them leave. I'm not paid enough to go up against capes, especially if they're leaving."

I noted that neither of them queried Brian's reference to the Empire Eighty-Eight. This meant that either they hadn't noticed it, they figured it wasn't important, or they didn't want to acknowledge it. If I was a racist dirtbag facing off with a black cape, I'd probably choose not to emphasise that part of my lifestyle too.

The phone on the desk continued to ring, but neither Joe nor Gus made a move toward it as Greg led the way out through the security barrier, with Tracey behind him and Brian following up. As they joined me at the doors, Brian turned toward Joe. "Oh, and by the way? I quit."

As an exit line, it wasn't too bad. I smacked the big green let-me-out button, and the doors rumbled open. We walked out of Medhall, still wearing our armour, drawing the curious attention of passers-by. I half expected cop cars, helicopters and guns pointed at us, but it had only been a few minutes since Kaiser had made his getaway. Even if cops were on the way right now, we still had a little time.

The PRT might be a little quicker—I could actually see the top of the PRT building in the distance—but even they'd need time to mobilise.

"Okay, we're out," Greg said, as we set off down the street. "Now what?"

I'd actually been thinking about this. "First, we contact our families and tell them to go to ground. Kaiser is absolutely going to try to grab them for leverage. Second, we get to the PRT building and get our story in first."

"Damn right," Brian agreed. "The last thing we need is a kill order."

"But how are we going to get to the PRT building?" asked Tracey. "Walk? No bus is going to take us."

Brian rubbed his chin. "Once we get hold of a phone, I have a friend I can call."

"One that would give us all a lift?" I asked sceptically. "Looking like this?"

He grinned. "Oh, you have no idea."


End of Part Twenty