Chapter I: Acid-Base

"It's all just bullshit cops and robbers." He said shaking his head, "You see Newter and Lisa think I agreed to work for Coil despite him being a horrible person because he paid well, the truth is I agreed to work for him because he was the only one who was playing to win."

"Truly, I'm disappointed." Glitch said, putting on the airs of a father scolding a rebellious teenager who'd been caught stealing from the liquor cabinet again. He was failing miserably, of course; his barely concealed snickers didn't lend themselves to being taken seriously, and neither did the fact that he was still clearly listening to his fucking Earth Aleph Podcast while he spoke.

Brian didn't even make the most minute effort to resist the urge to flip his very dangerous boss, the bird. He'd crossed that particular threshold after the second time Johan made him complete what Newter aptly referred to as 'Satan's Obstacle Course,' and that was still during the first month after his recruitment, half a year later? Well, if Brian didn't recognize the fact that his combat abilities had improved by leaps and bounds... Let's just say he probably would've already tried to murder the boss with the same high voltage tasers he'd incorporated into his fighting style at his insistence, if only for the irony.

He allowed the mass of darkness to recede from his body, making his sweat-slickened face visible and his panting audible to his sadistic SOB of a trainer. Of course, the snickers only increased in both volume and frequency.

"Come on, Grue, that's enough for today," Glitch said through the chuckles, tossing him a bottle of Gatorade that Brian barely managed to catch, "go take a shower and meet back here in thirty."

"Why?" He asked, confused and understandably so, seeing as this was the only time, he'd received such a request after training. Usually, it was more along the lines of, "Go home and rest, it'll get harder tomorrow scrub."

At first, the training had been a welcome surprise, even more so when he found out he was already much further ahead than Newter had been when he'd started. Glitch had deemed his hand to hand to be up to snuff and had even congratulated him on his foresight because he was one of the few independents who'd bothered to learn First Aid before debuting. The man himself phrased it in a much more inelegant yet somehow more accurate manner, of course.

"You know how to throw a punch, and you have the rarest thinker power of them all… Common Sense. Meaning we can move on with the real meat of the training."

"Oh, and what's that?" He'd asked. He almost wanted to laugh at the naïveté of his past self. He had actually been excited for this hell on earth!

"I'm going to teach you what makes a supervillain super." Glitch had answered matter-of-factly, a delivery that belied the sadism that hid behind his sharp blue eyes.

"And how's that?" In retrospect, Brian should've known it would be downhill from there because the smile that Glitch gave him in answer wasn't pleasant by any stretch of the word. It was, in fact, a manic grin that, due only in part to the man's cracked lips, would've been right at home with groups like the Slaughterhouse Nine.

"I'm going to break you," Glitch said seriously with the same excited smile, "then fix you," the excitement dimmed slightly at that part, "then break you again. Rinse and repeat until you stop breaking."

And, credit where credit is due, the man had done just that. He'd deemed Brian's hand to hand 'good enough,' but that hadn't stopped Glitch from forcing him to learn more human anatomy than most chiropractors knew. And he taught it under the threat of corporal punishment. Before meeting Glitch, he'd broken a bone once, after forgetting how to most effectively target the larynx Johan had mercilessly crushed both of his pinky toes in quick succession. To be fair, Brian thought with a barely visible grimace, I never forgot anything after that.

His boss also began teaching him his own flow-counter martial art that even Newter had adopted for himself, though the orange Case-53 had to bastardize it due to his tail. It was an odd yet instrumental mix between Krav Maga, Muay Thai, and Eskrima that looked like something Crane the Harmonious might have put together in her off-hours.
The Filipino martial art was especially crucial to him as Glitch also insisted on a complete 180 to Brian's fighting style so he could fight alongside the rest of the team without blinding them, a change that included the use of weapons.

To better accomplish this feat, he'd modeled Brian's new fighting style after a Japanese villain named Kurogiri, who'd died during the sinking of Kyushu. And had possessed a Shaker/Mover ability that, while not precisely similar to Brian's, did have some parts that were applicable when it came to direct combat. Now, instead of blanketing an entire area in darkness or making black smoke rise around him as an intimidation tactic, Brian or rather Grue constantly cloaked himself in a vaguely humanoid-shaped cloud of shadows. Completely obscuring his own body and making him seem much larger than he really was. This not only made his opponents miss more often than not since they were aiming for 'limbs' that weren't really there, but also allowed him to strike out with his Eskrima Sticks from where his opponents least expected it. He snorted internally at the thought. Nobody expects to be hit with a taser coming out of an ass cheek.

He was also slowly learning how to make 'clones' of himself with his shadows, he couldn't really move them freely though, and they wouldn't stand up to any kind of scrutiny that wasn't clouded by the heat of battle, but he had managed to beat Newter with that tactic a couple of times in the ring! An impressive feat, because while he laughed along with everyone else when the boss complained about the Case-53 being 'completely and utterly hax!' it was real that his superhuman strength and reflexes were no joke.

His free-running had also improved markedly. Mostly evidenced by the fact that he could complete most of the obstacle courses Glitch made for him in under a few minutes. And, more importantly, that his bowels no longer contracted in unadulterated horror every time he had to jump a gap between two buildings. But then again, he wasn't sure if that was due to him overcoming the fear of heights that all humans inherently possessed or if it was because both Glitch and Newter chased him with Paintball guns through the obstacle courses and he'd get hit if he didn't jump. Still-

"We have a meeting with a quest-giver." Glitch's excited voice stopped his reverie cold. His ever-present manic grin was still plastered over his face, but there was a hint of seriousness. By now, Brian had mastered enough gamer-lingo to understand why we're meeting a client.

"Who?" Brian couldn't help but ask. Working in the Crew wasn't what he expected. For a start, the jobs were few and far between, so each member supplemented their own income doing odd jobs on the side.
Newter sold his spit to the Merchants, Glitch had his live streams, and Connor, well he didn't know what the Irishman did and honestly, he didn't really feel like asking. Most of the jobs that they did were ones that individual members of the Crew, usually Connor, proposed, and then everyone collectively agreed to undertake. The profits were naturally split equally afterward. Brian… didn't have a side-job, so he really looked forward to the times when Connor did some rumor digging, and they would usually hit minor gangs or random stores.

This, however, was something else. If Brian didn't count the Hookwolf job, which was commissioned by Coil, this would be the first commissioned job Brian would undertake as part of the Crew, assuming we actually get a 'quest.'

"Lung." Glitch answered absently, face set in a neutral expression.

Wait, what? "Wait, what?!" Honestly, he was the very soul of eloquence.

Glitch nodded absentmindedly.

"You mean the leader of the ABB, 'I fight Endbringers one on one,' that Lung?"

"No," Glitch said deadpan, "I meant the organ that helps us breathe."

Brian sighed, "You don't have to be a dick about it, I'm just asking why he would hire us."

Glitch tilted his head, and his expression changed to one of puzzlement as if he was a bird that couldn't figure out what he was seeing, or in this case hearing.

"I mean Coil's one thing," he started explaining, "like you said, it's up for debate whether he even has powers or not. But Lung is borderline S-Rank, and Oni-Lee's only slightly below that, why does he need us?"

"You'd be surprised. Lung's actually our second-best native client after Coil." Newter answered with a shrug from behind them, and both their heads swiveled over towards the Case-53. Newter was wearing his costume, which consisted of a dark blue Kevlar vest over a black wifebeater and a pair of grey tactical pants. All of which would do little to camouflage him, given his bright orange skin, but Brian supposed it did make him look more professional.

"Yes," Glitch continued with a nod, "you're right in that the ABB has a lot of powerhouses, but subtlety isn't exactly their thing, so they hire us for jobs that require a less collateral-damage touch."
Brian snorted.

"Lung's always such an asshole about it, though," Newter complained while stretching loudly. "He always tries to haggle like a used-car salesman."

"More like an old school Japanese salaryman who can burn you to a crisp," Glitch corrected lightly, shrugging off his sweatshirt and picking up another Gatorade.

"Anything I should know before we meet him?" He asked casually, but if the muted chuckles he could hear emanating from Newter were any indication, his efforts at seeming blasé about meeting 'The Dragon of Kyushu' weren't panning out too well.

"Just two things, I guess." Glitch began either not noticing or completely ignoring his subordinate's state of mind. "The first is just generally don't be rude, the second is reach for your own tea first, don't expect the host to invite you."

He blinked, "That's it?"

"Yeah, he's an asshole," Newter repeated, gesturing with his hand in a 'so-so' motion, "but compared to some of the other crazies we've dealt with outside of the Bay he's a pretty reasonable asshole."

Glitch hummed his agreement, "The drinks thing isn't even that important either, but he likes it when people stick to East Asian customs, and that's an easy way to show him you at least cared enough to do some research."

"Wait for a second," Newter quickly exclaimed before Brian could finally march off to the showers, "I have an amazing idea." He completed chuckling to himself all the while.

"What, you want me to replicate Lung a bottle of Sake or something?" Glitch asked, seemingly mulling the thought over.

"No," Newter corrected and looked towards Brian, "You need to keep your civvie safe at all costs for your sister, right? Well, since this is your first real big debut…"

"I was not aware your new member was also a Case-53," Kenta began leadingly while unashamedly staring at said new member. The Cape seemed to be entirely made out of shadows and hadn't spoken a word since Glitch's Crew had arrived at Jade Dragon.

"You wouldn't be," Glitch returned with a nod, "he only joined up relatively recently, before he worked as an independent and since his power allows him to shift into a more humanoid form. Our new member usually used that to draw less attention; this is the form he's most comfortable in, though."

The shadows shifted in a facsimile of a nod; it might have even been cute had the sight not registered with Kenta as being fundamentally wrong. Wrong because while one could describe Grue as a living shadow, it was far more accurate to describe him as a living void, it was like looking at nothing and that in it of itself was, if only subconsciously, terrifying.

"I see, Grue, is it? It's always good to meet a fellow Changer, tell me, do your powers also get stronger during a fight like my own?" His attempt at gaining information was the furthest thing from subtle. Yet, even with all the subtlety in the world, he knew that any Cape professional enough to be a part of Glitch's Crew wouldn't be forthcoming with any information, especially for free. But he wanted to build some kind of rapport with them, have quickly found out that if he didn't, their prices would rise accordingly, and… it would be a lie to say he wasn't inquisitive about the newest Case-53's power set.

Grue for lack of a better word looked bewildered, and the silence grew tense as he refused to answer a direct question, if even with meaningless platitudes, in my territory.

An obviously feigned cough cut the tension like a hot knife through butter, the Thinker of the group a Mr. Blonde interjecting with, "Apologies sir, but I'm afraid our new member's form precludes verbal communication. If he had something to write with, I'm sure he'd be happy to answer, but-"

"-But," Newter, the other Case-53 of the group interrupted, "I'm afraid his answer will disappoint you; he can't ramp up like you, but he can grow in size at will, though not nearly as much as Fenja and her sister."

Lung nodded. He wanted to ask whether his strength also grew proportionally. Still, it was unlikely they'd be more forthcoming with any information. After all, he only learned this much by pretending to be insulted.

"How long has he been a member?" He tried a different track, something which would actually be slightly more relevant to the matter at hand.

"A little over half a year," Glitch answered, tilting his hand in a so-so motion, "though I can guarantee he's as good as the rest of us, if not better."

Kenta's eyes involuntarily strayed towards Newter, and the orange teen shrugged in seeming confirmation. "I see," Lung added finally, "I hope that's true. I'd hate for him to get hurt; you know what happens to people who disappoint me." Glitch knew it firsthand too. The two Capes had only ever fought once, and while Lung got to experience being drenched in liquid nitrogen more times than he cared to admit, it was the mercenary who'd had to retreat in the end after his right arm had been badly burned.

One of the reasons he both liked and hated the man simultaneously, Lung reflected, was his imperviousness to threats. Most people, including his fellow gang leaders, would've to shit themselves at the mere thought of gaining his ire, and even if they didn't, villains, generally speaking, had to react to threats by swinging their dicks around, so they didn't seem weak. Glitch, however, let everything short of a physical attack slide off him like water off the back of a duck. Thus, it was no surprise that his thinly veiled threat was answered by a lackadaisical shrug. "I invite you to judge his performance for yourself if you give us the job, but just so you know he is the primary reason why Hookwolf's capture went as smoothly as it did, and that was before he'd joined."

By which of course, Glitch meant the by now infamous disappearance of the E88 Cape in broad daylight with absolutely no witnesses and many, many corpses. A removal that Glitch had taken credit for by dropping the man off at the curb of the PRT Building while the Nazi was barely alive a day later. It was brave, some would even say stupid of the man to bring it up, as it did kickstart a brief Gang War between his ABB and the E88. The latter, of course, thinking he was the one to hire the mercenaries to dispose of Hookwolf. It was not an unfounded assumption; Lung had hired the group to patrol around his territory before when he'd been briefly incapacitated by the Flu, and he did stand to gain much by having the largest provider of underground dogfighting rings removed from the Bay.

But it wasn't him who had hired them. And if this mysterious Villain or, if some of the nuttier PHO conspiracy theorists were right, mysterious Hero who had hired Glitch to dispose of Hookwolf struck again, it could prove catastrophic to the tenuous balance which the three significant gangs had settled into recently. It was, after all, a balance that Lung grudgingly needed to maintain as the last Gang War hadn't exactly done wonders for his ranks.

"Indeed?" Kenta asked semi-rhetorically in lieu of having something of substance to say. There was no way he was airing out those particular thoughts in front of them after all. "If that is the case, then please accept my compliments, your job was masterfully done, and I am thankful to have such a troublesome opponent removed from the playing field." Not exactly a lie yet not exactly the complete truth either.

"Honest praise," Newter muttered with a small look of surprise.

"And we'll accept it graciously," Glitch completed with a small bow. The conversation briefly lulled into a comfortable silence, but it was quickly broken when the mercenaries' leader turned to look around the little alcove where they were seated. "I'm afraid I am unfamiliar with this restaurant; do we order or is there a set-"

Lung held up a hand, and instantly there was peace and quiet, a welcome change from his own subordinates. A change because Glitch's Crew, no matter how much it irked him to admit it, was professional, unlike his own ABB, except for Lee. It almost reminded him of his Yakuza days, even. Though in those days, he wasn't the one shutting other people up. "Do not concern yourself, I already ordered for all five of us."

A look of distaste passed over the orange Case-53's face. However, it disappeared as quickly as it came, Grue was as inscrutable as he'd been since the beginning of the meeting, Mr. Blonde either didn't notice his unsubtle powerplay or more likely just didn't care and Glitch? Well, Glitch meanwhile made a showing of looking around and sniffed the air loudly, or at least loud enough to be heard beyond the confines of his elaborate Tinkertech mask. "Thank you," he said earnestly.

Kenta raised both eyebrows, no one had ever thanked him as Lung or Kenta for that matter for a very, very long time and much less for a power play. "For what?" he asked cautiously.

"Your order," Glitch replied as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, "I could be mistaken but given the smell I take it you ordered some Pu'er Tea for us, though I do hope it's fermented, I can only stand caffeine in Coffee if I'm honest."

Lung blinked owlishly in surprise at the mercenary for a few moments, he didn't even notice that Glitch's two subordinates who had the required anatomy were doing much the same. "You know your teas," he finally said.

A low chuckle answered his unspoken query, "I know enough to tell when a host is gracious. And I can tell that this place is of superb quality, so, as I said before, thank you, it has been a while since I've had good hēichá."

"Ni hui shuo zhongwen ma?" Lung asked excitedly despite himself.

"Sorry, I don't speak Mandarin," Glitch answered with a shake of the head in English, "I know enough to ask for the bathroom or the nearest train station, swear words, that sort of thing."

Of course, he doesn't, Lung thought with a flash of disappointment which he quickly quashed, if Glitch did, he probably would've spoken it when I first hired him. "No apologies necessary, though I must say that your pronunciation is perfect for a foreigner, might I ask where you picked it up?"

"Being cussed at by Chinese gamers online probably," Newter spoke without prodding for the first-time, making Mr. Blonde snort in good humor and Grue move in a way that probably indicated amusement. Glitch himself tilted his head as if to say, 'there you go.'

Lung snorted, and as the food arrived, he had to admit the ensuing conversation was relatively free-flowing, though only in a 'what's new in Brockton Bay' sort of way. The only exception to this was a brief yet fairly interesting tangent on the nutritional requirements of Case-53s as he realized that Grue could consume food as well, swallowing everything into the mass of shadows, including the plates only to regurgitate what he either couldn't or simply did not wish to eat. He was going to have a talk with the staff about getting rid of those particular plates after today, though maybe I can sell Newter's glass at a markup if it still has spit…

Eventually, after they'd finished their tempura, they arrived at the real meat of the conversation, the actual reason he'd summoned the mercenaries.

"Not that we don't appreciate the food-" Mr. Blonde began leadingly.

"But I doubt you invited us over because we're good conversationalists." Glitch finished.

"You are good conversationalists," Kenta said with an airy wave, and it was right as well. Since most people didn't appreciate being dined out as a prospective business partner these days as much as Glitch's Crew did, especially not in his line of work. "But you're right, that's not why you're here. As you've most likely surmised, I have a job for you, a little pest control to be more precise."

He could only see Newter raise an eyebrow, but the change in body posture from the others also indicated they were keenly interested. He personally preferred Glitch's Crew over Faultline's for this exact reason. Meaning not only because they were undoubtedly more reliable but also because it was a well-known fact by now that all the members weren't what one would call right in the head. And enjoyed jobs that were more challenging and, therefore, more exciting, making them positively pre-disposed not to charge as much for them, whereas Faultline was the exact opposite.

"Of whom?" Glitch asked with stapled fingers, the unasked question being, which Nazi do you want me to kill? Lung merely slid over one of the newer smartphones on the market across the table. Said smartphone displayed a blurry picture of a lanky female Cape wearing a dark hoodie, hockey mask, and carrying around a crossbow that can be commonly found in stores for hunters around the East Coast.
Glitch whistled in appreciation and tilted the phone, so his other compatriots could catch a glimpse, though their reactions were much more subdued he could tell the photo grabbed their attention.

"I've heard of her, new vigilante PHO's calling her Stalker, was spotted around the docks and sometimes further into your territory," unsurprisingly it was their Thinker who spoke first.

"I heard she was pretty violent. Didn't think she'd be giving you this much trouble, though." Glitch commented lightly, but the thinly veiled barb was felt all the same. "From what I've heard, she's just a Mover, and you got the second-strongest mover in Brockton Bay, working as your lieutenant." Left unsaid was that Glitch was or at least considered himself to be the strongest.

Lung shook his head. "She definitely has a Mover sub-rating, but according to the guys who've run into her, she's primarily a Breaker and their weapons, including guns, have no effect while she activates her 'shadow form'.". Here he couldn't help but look towards Grue, "and since she only attacks at night, she's basically impossible to track down after she escapes."

Newter stifled a snort and attempted to elbow Grue, though the shadows merely shrank away when he tried. "You hear that, buddy? 'Shadow Form,' I think we just found your long-lost cousin." The mass of shadows moved in a slightly threatening manner, and the orange Case-53 raised his hands in mock surrender.

"Interesting," Glitch muttered, raising a hand to rub his chin but stopping at the last minute when he remembered he had a mask on. Is his mask really that comfortable? "Very interesting indeed, I take it you want us to PK this vigilante of yours?" He didn't know what those two letters meant, but the way he said it left little to no doubt in his mind.

"No, at least not exactly," Lung began while taking a sip of his plum wine and savoring the familiar burn. "I just want her to stop interfering in my operations. However, you get it done is up to you, but if you decide to 'PK' her, then do so outside my territory and in a way that isn't linked to me."

"How much?" The ever-practical Mr. Blonde interjected.

"Fifty grand total, twenty-five if you accept and another twenty-five once the job's finished." Lung answered, and none of them, except for maybe Grue, who he couldn't read, were ready to take the job. In fact, Newter was about to speak, presumably to argue or decline, but Glitch raised a hand to forestall his subordinate's exclamation.

"This would be a fair price if the job was just to fight her, but we both know that's not where the difficulty lies."

Lung shook his head, "I'm well aware, but tracking her down cannot prove to be such a hassle, especially with a Thinker."

Mr. Blonde snorted, "I appreciate the vote of confidence, sir, but my powers don't just magically tell me the location of anyone I want."

"Besides," Newter added flippantly, "from what I can gather, you want this done as soon as possible, right?"

Kenta nodded hesitantly.

"Then that makes the price even more contentious. Tracking her down will prove time-consuming, time that could be spent on other work, that would be more profitable, though I'll admit less enjoyable." And there was the crux of the matter. Lung knew he was lowballing them, Faultline would've likely already demanded double, but the thing is unlike the woman Glitch enjoyed jobs that tested his mettle as a warrior, not unlike Hookwolf actually.

"Then what price would you suggest?" Lung growled threateningly.

The four Capes-For-Hire shared a look, "Eighty-Thousand."

He shook his head, angrily. "Maybe, maybe the job is worth seventy-five, and we both know that's pushing it."

"If you round it up to eighty," Glitch responded with more calmness than he felt, "then I guarantee you we'll get it done in a week or we'll do it for free."

Newter and Mr.-Blonde quickly turned to look at their companion in shock, before schooling their expressions equally as fast. Kenta smirked under his mask.

"Agreed." He said with a vicious smile. If their Thinker doesn't think they can do it, how good can their odds be?

[Interest], Generator muttered in my mind. My Passenger never deviated from using a constant volume. Still, somehow, I always understood how exactly it wanted to convey certain things, and here it tried to come across as thoughtful. Odd because my Shard knew full well that I was aware it had a one-track mind that precluded it from grasping the full consequences of what we were seeing.


"Yeah, yeah, murmur it up d-bag," I answered verbally and, in my mind, added, "you know I'm right. Otherwise, you could be fulfilling our job on your own."

[Grudging Acquiescence], [Scathing Insult], [Subject: Progenitors]

I snorted, teaching my Shard snark was an ongoing process that was made almost impossible by the fact that his' species?' could only communicate in concepts, but I had made some progress since we'd met. Nothing to the level of the banter that John Connor and the T-800 shared in Terminator 2, but still, progress was good all things considered.

"A yo' mama joke?" I asked incredulously, "Should I remind you that Cthulhu's cousin literally had to fuck himself to make you?"

[Exasperated Fondness], [Inefficiency]

I rolled my eyes and got back to work at my Shard's insistence, still not sure whether or not Generator could pick up on the gesture, but it was the thought (which he definitely could) that counted. I kept browsing Shadow Stalker's, currently only known as Stalker's, thread on PHO with my civilian account RNGenthropy.

What I found there was what triggered the original subject of discussion. You see me, and therefore Generator had a mental image of Shadow Stalker due to my metaknowledge. A picture of an arrogant Social Darwinist brat who vented repressed emotional trauma with a good old fashion bout of fisticuffs (read: Crossbow Bolts) instead of dealing with it properly. Kind of like a poor man's Batman, my Brain added unnecessarily, yet I still found myself laughing at the thought.

Still, the prejudice that I inherited from Taylor Hebert only made me think I had a grasp on Sophia's personality. I figured out fairly soon, though later than I would've liked, that Taylor's descriptions of specific people were wrong by a wide margin, not because the universe didn't mirror the story, but simply because she was a teenager.

A teenager who believed that there were two kinds of people on the planet. Either you were an asshole who was out to get her. Or another variety of assholes who didn't care about her at all. And this starting position from which to gain a grasp on other people's personalities always led to said grasp being off the mark to varying degrees. The prime example of this being Lung, whose Worm's protagonist mainly describes as an angry, mindless Killer Croc who could barely speak in understandable English. But keep in mind their first and subsequent meetings had been colored by the fact that Taylor made his dick rot off with spider venom. So, it's at least a little understandable that the big guy would be a tad peeved whenever they met.

Thankfully, as far as I could see for Sophia, Taylor's description was close enough. The black teen was definitely violent and somewhat impulsive, and while I hadn't gone, nor did I have any plans to go to Winslow to confirm the veracity of Taylor's descriptions of her bullying. I would carefully operate under the assumption that it was true merely because all of her reports certainly fit into the psychological profile of her as a vigilante.

The problem was that this assessment of her personality made me subconsciously connect her gross inadequacies in empathy and ideology to her competence. I initially thought that Sophia in costume was a more savage yet less repressed version of Glory Girl. And, therefore, even more, impulsive going after the first bad guy she saw like the hungry predator she so wanted to be, mindlessly chasing when she smelled blood.

This was almost laughably off the mark. Truth be told, I was actually impressed with her work as a vigilante, she wasn't called 'Stalker' for no reason as she always waited to strike at the opportune moment. AKA, when there were no other Capes present and almost always when the gangsters she fought, were at a severe disadvantage. The ABB had sustained several losses after she'd ambushed a group of them when they were leaving a bar drunk as skunks, the merchants usually got their asses handed to them at the same time, they were high, and she even took a page out of my handbook with the E88, following the members home and discreetly throwing Molotov's through their windows. She had done more damage to the gangs than most heroes in the city did, and she was careful not to patrol in predictable patterns making her almost impossible to track down.

If you don't have an unfair advantage, that is, I thought with a cackle as I pulled up a map of Brockton Bay and highlighted the four households which were registered under the name 'Hess.'
I narrowed down the list a fair amount, but it would still be pretty hard to find her in the one-week Lung had given me as my time limit. But all things considered, I was pretty sure that the easternmost house on my screen was the one. It was near a bus stop that could get her to Winslow without much of a hassle, and there was one more geographical particularity which helped me cement the theory in my mind.
See, given Sophia's ethnicity, it was almost a given that she'd hate the Empire the most, but Stalker was most well-known for going after the Azn Bad Boyz more than any other Gang in the Bay, why is that? Simple, if my hunch is correct, then it's because her house is way closer to Lung than Kaiser.

A plan to fulfill my end of the contract began to form in my mind.

I smirked mockingly, "Too bad, Ms. Hess, If you'd just been a little less lazy, who knows what you could've achieved?"


I tried to stifle the ensuing laughter as best I could, "Asshole."

Sophia Hess looked down from a rooftop with a scowl, not an uncommon occurrence. In fact, her face bore such a scowl far more often than not, but it was usually because someone or something had managed to arouse her ire. Now it was precisely because of the opposite, there was nothing happening, and nothing had happened for the last few weeks. All because someone paid the fucking wacko to do the PRT's job for them, she thought with a scoff as she felt her power take hold. In her shadow-state, she was soundless, lighter, stronger, free, and she exploited these advantages ruthlessly to make a leap towards the neighboring rooftop that would've had Olympic athletes fuming in jealousy. Not that anyone watches those anymore.

Despite the rush of wind and ecstasy of adrenalin that came whenever she attempted any kind of superhuman feat, she was ultimately left disappointed once again. The alleyway she was staring down at had as much in it as the last one she was patrolling, that is to say, zilch. Well, not exactly nothing, she thought with a frosty contempt that she usually reserved for her prey, just a dead cat a whole lot of fucking garbage and… She had to blink for her brain to properly register what she saw. Once she did, it only caused her ever-present scowl to deepen.

I suppose I could take a potshot at him for public urination, she sighed she wasn't quite ready to lower herself to that level yet, she'd leave those particular kinds of 'villains' to the government's lackeys and the soccer moms' kids that was their area of expertise after all.

She let out a deep breath and adjusted her hockey mask, watching the former almost hypnotically as it condensed into a mist in front of her. She was just about to call it a night as she belatedly realized it had become two in the morning, again, and on a Wednesday no less. Her extracurricular outings were a perpetual source of conflict between her and her mother, not only because the older woman had no idea what she did as if she would even care, but also because she often found herself doing it during school-nights and much as she didn't want to admit it her calling was taking a toll on her grades. Grades that hadn't exactly been exemplary even before she'd triggered.

She shook her head to clear it. Now she was just pissing herself off with this much self-introspection.

It's almost comical sometimes, she thought. The universe worked in assholish ways, because why else would she hear a gunshot from close by right when she made up her mind to head home?

The vigilante bit her lip in thought. Usually, she avoided getting mixed up in ongoing fights Capes or no. Though she'd never admitted it out loud, Sophia knew she wasn't that smart, but that didn't automatically make her stupid. She knew how long independents lasted in this city, and she was at least capable of assessing her power fairly and comparing it with some of her fellow Capes in the Bay, and it just didn't stack up.

So, she resolved to fight smart and not hard, using her power in the most effective way. A tactic that hunters no matter the species had utilized since the inception of carnivores on earth, the sneak attack. And the first rule of this doctrine might as well have been, don't get mixed up in an active gunfight while carrying a crossbow. But she hadn't seen any real action in months, and if a fight had broken out between some gangs, chances are there were no Capes involved since she could hear guns. Besides, she thought with increasing resolve, it's not like I have to intervene; I'll just call the cops or the PRT to deal with it depending on what I see.

Her decision was made then and there and not only because she could hear more gunshots in the time it had taken her to think. She felt her power take hold, and soon what any idle onlooker would've seen was a silhouette rapidly jumping from rooftop to rooftop. Eventually, in a few minutes in which the wind blew right through her, she materialized atop a rusty water tower that overlooked a warehouse where she could hear the gunshots coming from.

ABB territory and I don't see any bodies yet… probably a spat with the Merchants then. Bodies meant Empire-Eighty-Eight, while Skidmark's bitches usually left without much of a hassle unless one of the Capes was present.

She fumbled for the binoculars that hung across her neck. It was a bulky piece of equipment and one with limited functionality, it was only meant to serve as a toy for little boys pretending to be secret agents or something after all. But to her, the barely functioning night-vision capabilities the toy boasted along with it being in her price range made the binoculars a godsend.

The man she saw outside the warehouse served both to further support her theory and disquiet her. A white guy was standing there, automatically precluding him from being ABB. He either had a blood-splatter on his face or just had freckles, either way, it left her wishing for some of the equipment the PRT grunts had access to. She zoomed in further and noticed the man was idly holding a cigarette, or maybe a joint in his right hand.

Definitely, Merchants, she thought with a gleeful smile, those faggots were the easiest prey, usually so high they mistook her for their own shadows. But what didn't set her at ease was the lack of any ABB members, did the Merchants get so high they started shooting at each other? But if that was the case, they would still be deep in Lung's territory, and if there was something that the racist jap didn't tolerate, it was Non-Asians doing any kind of business in his turf.

She allowed her power to seep through her in order to get a closer look, but it didn't work.

At least not as intended, she deactivated it with the most inescapable sense of alarm she'd ever felt barring when she'd first triggered. The cloying sense of emptiness and being unable to breathe when she phased through the water tower and on to the roof made her pause and realize that her surroundings had changed.

Though maybe they didn't, and that scared her more than anything, she was still on the rooftop, or for all she knew, she might have fallen off, and this was purgatory. Sophia couldn't' know anything for sure, because she couldn't see, she couldn't use her power without suffocating and feeling like she ran a marathon and as she soon found out because she couldn't hear her own panting. She couldn't hear anything.

Something shoved her forwards, and she tumbled to the ground, barely even comprehending that she no longer had access to her crossbow, which probably tumbled off of the rooftop. Her hockey mask was the only thing that saved her from breaking her nose. She swung around wildly, hoping to hit what was probably (hopefully) a Shaker/Trump whose power interfered with hers. She forced herself to stop swinging wildly when her brain reminded her that logically she still had to be on a precarious rooftop.

Instead, she took a few deep breaths and got into her best approximation of a martial arts stance. Only to have her legs kicked out from under her as she tumbled to the ground violently scraping her left knee in the process.

"Prey," a raspy voice intoned. It was so spectacularly cliché that if it were a horror movie, she'd have laughed out loud. But it wasn't a movie. It was just a horror. She slowly walked away from the voice, being extremely careful not to fall off the ledge, took the deepest breath she'd ever had, and activated her power. Nothing can hurt me.

"It is pitch black," the voice intoned matter-of-factly, and it seemed to come from all directions now, but for some reason, it sounded exasperated? "You are likely to be eaten by a Grue."
That was when she felt it, an unspeakable agony.

Few people knew what it was like to be struck by lightning, even fewer could tell someone else what it felt like.

If she would've been asked Sophia Hess could've told them.

The first thing she heard when she came to was the rattling of a small light bulb chain. The old bulb wasn't attached to the roof as strongly as it probably should've been, and it swayed from left to right after it was turned on. Some would've called the effect hypnotic, but for Sophia, it only made it much harder for her eyes to adjust. Once they did, she took in where she was.

A stark white room, sitting tied up on a metal chair, which in of itself was welded to large steel pipes on the floor, and attached to a concrete wall. That particular realization came quickly, providing the answer to the second question she had asked herself since finding herself here, namely, 'Why can't I stand up?'.

The first question was obviously 'Where the fuck am I?', but the answer to that was not as forthcoming and was shoved aside by the hazy delirium born from a throbbing pain emanating from her back.

The fact that she wasn't gagged surprised her since a lesser person would've cried or screamed for help by now. Sophia was not a lesser person. Not anymore. Therefore, she resolved to get herself out of her current predicament. She looked around through the slits of her hockey mask and smirked slightly, the Cape that had grabbed her and whose power interfered with hers wasn't in the room, meaning they probably didn't know that she could use her power to phase through her restraints. She began to phase into her Breaker state before being interrupted, not by the darkness, anything but that. But by a voice tinged with what she could tentatively call amusement.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you."

The vigilante froze, somehow both metaphorically and literally. As the slow, deliberate footsteps of a man wearing a straitjacket and a faceless chrome mask resonated throughout the room. The man himself suddenly stepped into her field of vision, and Sophia didn't even bother to repress the shudder that came when she realized he'd been standing behind her the entire time, and she hadn't noticed.

"Oh, and why's that?" She didn't really care for the answer even on the off chance it did have a bearing on her survival, but she'd seen enough TV where this sort of situation played out. The more you get your kidnapper or torturer talking, the less time they had to focus on you.

Glitch, because what other cape dressed like that, gestured vaguely to his neck, before he began to scratch at wildly enough to draw blood. For the third time that night, Sophia was disappointed she hadn't realized something sooner. She despised that feeling more than anything now.

She scoffed derisively, but it was forced in order to hide the very real spark of fear that was bubbling up, this was a man who made a living out of hunting other Capes, a predator for hire and one she wasn't sure she could take on, and that was assuming the darkness Cape wasn't nearby.

"So, what you keep me locked in your sex dungeon and give me a dog coll-"

She spasmed wildly when Glitch presumably pressed a hidden button somewhere on his mask that caused the collar to shock her. With a sense of creeping fear, she noticed the parts of her body that her power had taken hold of actually hurt more when he did.

"Pretty much spot on," the insane Cape commented idly once her the shock had seized, "though I'm afraid the collar was less my kinks showing and more necessary in this case. Electricity is the only thing that can hurt you, after all."

That stopped her cold, and the words only reminded her of the painful throbbing she could feel on her back and the fact that said pain was inflicted while she was using her power. Please, no, don't tell me I can get hurt again.

She swallowed thickly, "Why?"

The faceless mask tilted itself to the right, a substitution for a raised eyebrow, "I'm sorry, you'll have to be more specific."

"Why am I here, why did you kidnap me?!" Her voice regained some vitriol by the end, due in no small part to a spike of adrenaline born from the pain of the electric shock.

"Generally speaking?" Glitch asked rhetorically, waving his hand in an airy motion, "I had Grue camp along your patrol route and kidnap you because Lung paid my Crew to get rid of you. More specifically? You're here so I can stop you from fucking with the ABB by telling a story."

"A story?" She repeated incredulously.

If Glitch picked up on her sarcasm and incredulity, he didn't show it and instead nodded sagely as a very large and dense looking leather-bound tome materialized in his hands. Sophia blinked; she knew like most residents of Brockton Bay that their city was home to an insane Shaker that had access to a Pocket Dimension, but seeing him use it was something else. The air noticeably warped where the harmless book appeared, but all it made Sophia wonder was how many weapons he had immediate access to. How many tasers?

"Yes, a story, a nice little fairy tale actually," he elaborated and gestured to the side of the book where the name Grimm was boldly inscribed with gold letters. He coughed once theatrically and begun to speak in what was probably his best approximation of a British narrator while Sophia fumbled with her restraints to no avail.

"Once upon a time there was a little girl. You wouldn't call her a particularly special little girl, as she was neither very tall, pretty, charming, hard-working, or even particularly funny. In fact, barring her being a bit of a tomboy, the girl could've been described as being exceedingly dull."

"A very nice story," Sophia interrupted through gritted teeth while trying to dislocate her thumbs in order to remove the handcuffs, an action she had seen performed several times in action movies, but one she'd never attempted herself for lack of necessity, "but I don't see the fucking point."

Glitch shook his head, maybe sadly, but it was hard to tell with his helmet on. "Don't worry, it'll become readily apparent soon. Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes, see because of this girl's apparent shortcomings she was bullied mercilessly and relentlessly by the other children. But what the other children didn't understand about their victim was that soon something would happen that would transform her from prey into a predator, so everything, even their childish taunts and shoves, would just pass through her unnoticed. This is the story about how the little girl became special."

"Stop it," she hissed out dangerously but felt as if her arms were as heavy as lead. And she couldn't muster the will to try to escape as memories that didn't happen were being dredged up.

"You see, this little girl's father had left soon after her ninth birthday, and her mother being the kind, caring woman that she was didn't want her little girl to go through her most important, formative years without a parental figure, so she did what any woman would do in that situation, she put herself out there…"

"Stop it!" She repeated kicking and screaming, but for all the good it did her, she may as well have remained stock still as the chair didn't even budge an inch, and all she accomplished was bruising her wrists.

"Most dates were flukes as they often are in general, even more so for single mothers that have two kids to raise. But eventually, she found one that stuck, a nice, caring man that wouldn't leave his family like the last one. She liked him so much, in fact, that she introduced him to her two kids. He and Terry, the eldest son, got along great, a shared interest for Sports facilitated that much, but the little girl, who was named Sophia by the way, also caught his interest if in a different way."

"Please stop," her plea was yearning, hopeful, broken. She barely even registered that Glitch knew who she was.

"At any rate," Glitch continued unperturbed, "The man did some very naughty things to that little girl. Of course, neither her mother nor her brother believed her until it was far too late, and the man had done something so naughty, that it gave little Soph special powers. Now, the little girl wasn't weak anymore at all, she was strong, a predator. Even though all her powers allowed her to do was run. Run and hide from the miserable wreck that had become her life. The story doesn't really have an ending, except that now the little girl grew up and believes that everyone who can't take care of themselves deserves to suffer like she did until they learn how, that until you're strong, you don't deserve to be loved, and deep, deep down the little girl who grew up understands one, inescapable fact. She's weak, and this 'strength' she projects is façade. She keeps up to avoid getting hurt."

She felt something wet rolling down her cheeks.

"What did you think of the story?" Glitch asked idly.

'Go fuck yourself,' is what she wanted to say, but it came out as an unintelligible choked sob.

"You see, personally, I don't like the way it ended very much." In one smooth motion, Glitch removed the lower half of his mask and lunged at her, lifting her hockey mask slightly and pressing his lips against hers. She bit down, hard. He didn't even flinch, let alone pull back. The coppery taste of blood that was quickly pooling in her mouth paradoxically made her calm down.

"W-what the fuck is wrong with you?!" Sophia screamed the rage she'd been holding in for years, spilling out with the force of a lake no-longer held back by a dam. "You don't know a goddamn thing, just because you know my name, you think it gives you the right to try some first-year psych student bullshit!"

"You're right," Glitch answered completely seriously, "I don't know all that much for a fact. However, there are a few things I do know. For one thing, I know you are a wonderful person."
The last sentence derailed her train of thought as if Alexandria herself had been standing in the proverbial train's way.

"A bit of an asshole," he added with a wry grin on his bloody lips as he wiped an errant tear from her cheek. She didn't stop him. "But, a wonderful person, nonetheless. You are beautiful, strong, and, most importantly, worthy of being loved no matter what anyone else says, especially if that someone else is you. I know that the last time you let someone in, they hurt you, and they hurt you bad. But I Glitch, bestow upon you the name of Huntress, a fellow Player worthy of the title, and therefore I shall endeavor to suture your wounds as best I am able!"

Sophia tried to laugh and instead snorted wetly at the last statement, which was delivered in an almost perfect impression of Mouse Protector, albeit with Glitch's particular brand of cheesiness thrown into the mix. The man removed her hockey mask completely, letting it fall on the ground with a clatter, and ran a hand tenderly through her messy hair, which was filled with sweat due to the night's ordeals.
He kissed her, she bit down again, it wasn't as hard this time, not that she would've ever admitted it. His lips moved away from hers, trailing softly along her cheeks before reaching her earlobe. She stifled a moan when he began kissing her along the nape of her neck, but going by the brief pause of his ministrations and the self-satisfied smirk that formed on his face, he could tell anyway.

"Bastard," she muttered angrily. He just chuckled, which managed to piss her off more.

"You're technically correct," he said, still kissing her neck, but his right hand gripped the zipper of her hoodie and yanked it down forcefully. "Which to be fair is the best kind of correct, but that wasn't very nice, Soph Soph."

Her hoodie's removal forced her brain, which was still reeling from earlier, to catch up with the current events as she struggled in place, like a weak, useless worm. "What the fuck are you even doing?!"

"Whatever you'll let me." He replied as he sliced open both her shirt and bra with a butterfly knife that suddenly manifested in his hand. "If you want me to stop, just say 'stop.'"

Her C-cup breasts heaved as she tried to take in more air, and even with the upper part of his helmet in the way, she could tell that his eyes were locked squarely on them. His lecherous grin only confirmed it. "Go fuck yourself!" She started to struggle again, but her efforts were half-hearted at best and not only because her muscles ached from both the earlier free-running and escape attempts.

"Ah, but Soph Soph!" Glitch said with faux petulance, "I have such a nice alternative right in front of me."
His lips resumed trailing down her neck. Eventually, they reached where she knew they were headed. She sucked in a breath as he nibbled on her left nipple. It's hard from the cold, she told herself, even if she didn't and probably wouldn't even believe it. He alternated between her nipples and his hands massaged the breast that his mouth wasn't paying attention to. This went on for some time, Sophia occasionally interjecting with insults that became less and less frequent as time went on. This went on for god knows how long, because she certainly didn't. But eventually, he bit down just right. She couldn't have stifled that moan even if she'd wanted to.

"Did you just cum?" He asked slyly, his face nestled between her breasts.

"You, c- cock-sucking asshole."

"I'll take that as a resounding 'yes' then," he said more to himself than to her as his lips continued to trail down her abdomen. She barely noticed when he undid the button of her jeans, but she most certainly did when he began pulling her panties down and kissing his way up her thighs.

"S-stop," she murmured more quietly than she'd intended. And surprisingly, he did, his lips curling into a frown before straightening in a neutral line. He pulled back and began to raise her panties back up.

"Wait, just like that?" She asked incredulously.

He smiled again, his lips were cracked and somewhat swollen. My fault. But he had a nice smile, in any other situation she'd have called it charming. "Just like that," he confirmed as he reached to put her jeans. As he lifted them up, his head drew closer to her crotch, and he blew air at exactly the right spot.

He hovered there briefly, and she interrupted him before he could pull back.

"D-don't… keep going." He didn't for a moment.

"You'll stop going after the ABB." It was a demand, not a question. She nodded, what else could she do?

Then with all the subtly of a bear, he ripped her panties off and started to eat her out. Her back would've arched through the merciless attack, but her restraints prevented that. Her walls clamped down around his searching tongue as she let out a wanton moan for the second time that night, even then he continued sometimes with languid licks along her folds, sometimes paying attention to her clit exclusively and sometimes pumping her with his fingers alone.

After what felt like an eternity of bliss, the next thing she knew, she was staring at a haunting pair of deep blue eyes as his length slammed into her again and again. Glitch's own face contorted in an expression of maddening ecstasy.

"I'm going to cum inside you," he said through labored breaths and a flushed face. She nodded mutely. "That wasn't meant to be a question. I'm going to-."

He let out a bestial grunt, and she a high-pitched squeal as thick ropes of white-hot semen splattered along her insides.