A Darker Path

Part Forty-Five: Calm Before the Storm

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

Relevant Side Story: Reaching Out (by ack1308)

Brockton Bay Rogues' Guild, A Day or So Later

"Have you seen the footage of the fundraiser?" Bastet-or Patty, as she'd told the others to call her-said gleefully, holding up her new phone. "We look all kinds of amazing on it!"

"I know, right?" Salvage-he was sticking with that, or 'Sal' for short-leaned in to look at the screen. "I almost look like I know what I'm doing there. I mean, Canary's the one who was running the show, but we actually helped her out for real."

"Yes, we did." Sabah relaxed, her mask lying on the table. After the fundraiser had gone off so well, they'd felt comfortable enough with each other to unmask and give out real names. "I've gotten several calls asking if the Rogues' Guild can assist with one matter or another. Not superhero things, just powers."

"We definitely made an impression," Dinah agreed. "Our name is out there." She nudged Emily with her shoulder. "You did good, too."

"Thanks." Emily actually looked like she was wrestling with something in her mind. She must have reached a conclusion, because she looked over at Sabah. "Um, boss, you know how Mouse Protector and Flechette were there, and you were talking with Flechette?"

"I remember." Sabah had enjoyed the conversation. Flechette had seemed interested in her as a person, not just a cape, asking about her fashion training and if Sabah had any pointers for improving the look of her costume. "She seemed nice."

"Yeah, I thought so too." Emily drew a nervous breath. "Would it ... would you be okay with me contacting her on PHO and chatting? I mean, I like girls, you guys know that, and from the way she was checking you out, I figure she does too, and-"

"Wait, she was checking me out?" Sabah was startled. "That didn't happen! Did it?" Had Flechette been interested interested in her? She didn't even know how she felt about that. Oh my god, was she hitting on me and I never noticed it? She must think I'm a terrible person.

Patty grinned broadly. "Oh, hell yeah, it did. She wasn't just looking at your frills and bows."

"Uh huh," agreed Salvage. "I just thought you were playing it cool."

Sabah felt a blush warming her cheeks. "Why didn't anyone tell me?"

"When, exactly?" asked Dinah reasonably. "You and her were talking from the moment the concert finished to when we all packed up and left."

"I had no idea." Sabah ran her hands through her hair. "I mean, she's really nice too, but I thought she just wanted to talk."

That got a cackle from Patty. "Wow, your gaydar's that broken? She didn't get to the point of undressing you with her eyes, sure, but she was definitely looking."

"Oh, shush." Sabah put her hand over her eyes. "I'm never going to live this down, am I?"

"Pretty much, no." Salvage chuckled. "It was cute, though. I think she was trying to figure out if you were gay too or just trying to be nice. Like I said, I thought you were just playing it cool."

"I'll take a thousand on 'no idea what was going on', please Alex," Patty said with an answering smirk.

Sabah leaned back in her chair, closed her eyes, and groaned. "Ugh. So much embarrassment. I hate you all."

Diffidently, Emily cleared her throat. "So, was that a yes or a no to me chatting with her on PHO?"

Sabah didn't bother opening her eyes as she waved her hand vaguely. "Feel free. I don't care."

"Thank you!"

"You're welcome." Well, I'm now officially a Useless Lesbian. Great.

We now return you to your regular narrative ...

To: TheRealPanacea
From: Atropos
Subject: Heads up

Hi, Pan-pan!

So, I got a thing I think your power might enjoy sinking its non-existent teeth into.

If you can be dressed and ready to go at five minutes to midnight on the fifteenth, Imma swing by and take you to meet a person and do a thing. Dress dark; it won't actually change anything, but everyone wants to dress like a secret agent at least once in their life.

I promise you, nobody's going to die, and you'll help make someone's life a whole heap better.

To: Atropos
From: TheRealPanacea
Subject: Re: Heads up


To: TheRealPanacea
From: Atropos
Subject: Re: Re: Heads up

What I said. You, me, help someone. 11:55 on Tuesday the 15th.

You down?

To: Atropos
From: Flechette
Subject: Just wanted to ask a question, and say thanks


The fundraiser was really cool. I had a lot of fun. Where did you learn your parkour? That was insane!

Anyway, that wasn't the question I wanted to ask.

Wow, this is difficult.

One of the Rogues' Guild capes, Spitfire, has contacted me, asking if I wanted to chat and maybe meet up again sometime while she's not wearing the dragon costume. I think she wants to go on a date with me. Does she want to go on a date with me? Is this even a good idea?


Also … March's rapier. You're the one who beat up March, so she couldn't stop me from coming, aren't you? Thanks for that. She's … a real pain in the ass. Seriously, she's been a problem for me for the longest time. If I started dating Spitfire (I'm honestly interested, unless you tell me it's a bad idea) then I'd always be worried that March was going to come after her. But now she's in custody (and WOW, you made a mess of her) so that's totally a huge weight off my shoulders.

So anyway, I just wanted to ask you about Spitfire and thank you for what you did to March.

To: Flechette
From: Atropos
Subject: Re: Just wanted to ask a question, and say thanks

Well, if it isn't my favorite New York Ward!

The fundraiser was definitely fun. Thanks for showing up, by the way. I really appreciate it. You totally helped make the show.

As for where I learned my parkour, it's the same place where I learned to shoot and fight. Sorry, but a girl's gotta have her secrets.

So, about Spitfire: she's a nice girl, and a bit shy, so I'm glad she reached out to you. Yes, she totally means it as a date. Yes, I mean a date-date. I think it will be good for both of you.

As for March: you're welcome. I hate bullies, and it's always fun to teach them the error of their ways.

Pro tip: if you wear the rapier when you go to visit her in holding, you might just get to see steam shooting out her ears, mwahahaha.

Oh, and one other thing. Some time soon, Imma go on a trip overseas. Interested in tagging along?

To: Atropos
From: TheRealPanacea
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Heads up

I'm going to need more detail than that. What's happening on the fifteenth?

To: TheRealPanacea
From: Atropos
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Heads up

Remember what happened with Bonesaw? It'll be kind of like that, only almost entirely different.

Tell me your power isn't leaning forward and looking interested.

To: Atropos
From: Flechette
Subject: Re: Re: Just wanted to ask a question, and say thanks

Overseas? Where to?

To: Flechette
From: Atropos
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Just wanted to ask a question, and say thanks

Australia, actually. The Land Down Under. Don't worry about your bosses. I'll clear it with them first.

To: Atropos
From: TheRealPanacea
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Heads up

Okay, fine. You have my attention. I'll be ready.

To: TheRealPanacea
From: Atropos
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Heads up

Cool, see you then.


To: Atropos
From: Flechette
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Just wanted to ask a question, and say thanks

Sounds interesting. I'm in. Can I bring a camera?

To: Flechette
From: Atropos
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Just wanted to ask a question, and say thanks

Oh, I promise there'll be opportunities to take once-in-a-lifetime photos. Mwahahaha.


Thursday Afternoon, February 10, 2011

Brian emerged from the shop and rejoined the girls. "And something for you," he said, handing Riley a small box.

"What? For me?" She tore the packaging open and stared at the phone within. It may have been a run-of-the-mill standard model, but from the way she hugged it to herself, it may as well have been encrusted with gold. "Thank you so much!" she enthused, freeing one arm to hug Brian. "Nobody's ever bought me a phone before!"

"Didn't the PRT give you some fancy-dancy high-end super-encrypted model?" Aisha asked, trying not to smile. Riley was so much fun when she was in a mood like this.

"Yeah, but that's not mine." Riley rolled her eyes expressively. "That's theirs. They're just letting me use it. But this one here is mine." She hugged it again. "I love it. Thank you."

Aisha pulled out her own phone. It was worn and battered, and maybe one day she'd switch up to a new model, but it had been through a heap of crap with her, so that day wasn't happening yet. "What's the number? I'll send you a text, so we'll both have each other's numbers."

"Okay, it's just …" Riley jumped as the phone rang in her hand. "What? I didn't even give you the number yet."

"Uh … that's not me?" Aisha held up her phone, which she still hadn't woken up. "Might want to answer it."

Tentatively, Riley swiped the Answer icon and held it to her ear. "Uh … hello?" A moment later, her eyes opened wide. "Atropos? How did you get this number? I literally just got the phone."

"Speaker!" hissed Aisha, making move-it-along gestures. "Speaker!" She definitely wanted to hear what Atropos had to say.

Riley hit the Speaker icon, and Atropos' voice became audible. "Hi, Aisha. Hi, Brian. Have you got enough pictures yet?"

Brian involuntarily looked down at the stack of framed pictures they'd picked out to decorate the living quarters. "What the hell? How did you even know … you know what, I don't care anymore."

"Wise decision. So, Riley, I love that stuff you made. Up for making more? This time so it works on skin contact?"

Riley blinked, her gaze going distant for a moment. "Uh, sure. I guess. You'd have to be real careful with it too, you know."

"Trust me, kiddo, I'm nothing but careful. Also, can I ask another favour?"

This time, Riley didn't hesitate. "Sure. What do you need?"

"Well, Barrow's coming to town, so …"

As Atropos explained what she needed, Aisha's eyebrows rose. She'd already seen ample evidence that the dark-clad cape was bullshit squared on a bullshit sandwich, but this was impressive even for her.

When she finished, Riley nodded, not seeming to care that Atropos couldn't see her. "Okay, I can do that. But do me a favour, please? Don't kill him. Bastard Son deserved it. Barrow doesn't, I don't think."

"That's legitimate," Atropos agreed. "I promise, I won't kill him. But to quote a famous genie, it's amazing what you can live through."

Riley smirked while Aisha chuckled. "I didn't say you couldn't hurt him," she confirmed. "I'm just not a fan of murdering people who haven't killed other people."

"And that's fair. So, how are you enjoying your new job? Everyone treating you okay?"

"Oh, totally." Riley's smirk became a real smile. "The, uh, the other juniors are all real nice to me. I get a kind of big-brother vibe off them, except for V, who's thrilled that there's someone younger than her on the team. She's taken it on herself to show me the ropes, and she really knows her stuff."

"Good, good. What about the adults? They're giving you a fair chance?"

"Uh-huh. Nobody makes fun of me, and they're all really encouraging. I like it."

"Excellent. Well, I have to go, but if you need to get in touch with me anytime, I'm there for you."

"I know. And thanks for giving me a chance." Riley seemed to be holding back sniffles.

"Anytime. See you soon."

When Riley ended the call, Aisha hugged her. It seemed the right thing to do, and from the way Riley hugged her in return, she thought so too. "How awesome is she?" Aisha asked as they separated.

Riley gave her a watery smile. "I know, right?" She wiped suspicious moisture from her eyes, then blew her nose. "Well, come on. Brian's money isn't gonna spend itself, you know."

Aisha cackled out loud. "I knew there was a reason I liked you so much."

Tuesday Night, February 15, 2011
Outside the Dallon House

I looked up at the frontage of the house, and nodded to myself. No lights glowed through the windows, and my power had Amy on its radar. She still didn't like me as a person, but she was mentally and physically prepped to come along with me. Good.

I wasn't in this game to be popular. In all honesty, I didn't give a shit about whether the public loved me or not. I just wanted to make the city work, to get it running smoothly, to get the crime rate down to a level where the cops could handle it, and keep it there. And if I had to shoot a few assholes in the face to get it done, then I'd do just that.

Now that I'd skimmed the biggest turds off the top of the sewage pit that made up the Brockton Bay criminal underworld, I wasn't necessarily obliged to kill everyone who pissed me off. I could and would if it became necessary, but if Ending a problem could be more easily done without killing, I'd do that.

Of course, there were always people who needed killing. But tonight, we weren't going to be meeting any of them.

I programmed the teleporter for its jumps, then snapped the cover shut and waited for the timer to run down. It stepped me into Amy's bedroom; she was sitting at her computer, dressed in the same dark hoodie and jeans she'd been wearing when she came out the last time. The bed had been artfully made up with an Amy-shaped lump under the covers and a spill of frizz across the pillow that could easily have been her hair.

She hadn't noticed me yet, so I pushed down on the bed, just enough to make it creak. Her shoulders tensed. Without looking around, she said quietly, "It's you, isn't it?"

"Bingo." I stepped up alongside her. "Ready to roll?"

With a sigh, she started shutting down the computer. "I guess so."

I moved around into her line of sight. "Last-minute reservations?"

"Yes and no." She pushed back from the computer desk. "It's not that I've got a bad feeling about going with you, but it's just …" She grimaced. "Is this really what a superhero should be doing? Hanging out with a mass murderer? Using my power to do what you want me to do? I mean, if Mom ever found out about Bonesaw, I'd never hear the end of it."

"Well, true." I saw her start of surprise as I agreed with her; she'd evidently expected me to argue from the get-go. "I am a mass murderer, yes. I've got my agenda, and I use killing to further it, but I don't kill for the fun of killing. I kill to End problems that can't more easily be Ended by non-lethal means. And sometimes I End problems in other ways, like asking someone with the right skillset to do something for me. I'd never ask someone to kill for me; that's my go-to. But there's killing that doesn't actually require the cessation of life, like you did with Bonesaw."

"And that's what you want me to do this time?" She'd almost convinced herself to go, I could tell. "Get rid of the mass murderer hiding in someone's brain?"

"No, actually." I smiled behind the mask, knowing she'd hear the difference in my voice. "That's my job, this time. You're not going to have to alter her personality in the slightest. The body modification is going to be somewhat more strenuous, though."

"More so than Bonesaw's?" She sounded doubtful.

Thinking of Sveta's situation, I had to chuckle. "Oh, you have no idea."

She snorted. "Fine, you twisted my arm. Let's go do this thing."

"I thought you'd never ask." I raised my hand and snapped my fingers just as the timer ran down, and the portal opened in the middle of the room.

"Okay, but I still think it's bullshit that you can teleport." For all her snark, she showed no hesitation in following me through.

We stepped out into a brightly lit office, where a woman sat busily typing on a laptop. Reaching behind me, I knocked on the inside of the door.

"Who—oh!" The woman, half-turning at the sound, saw us both. Startled, she jumped to her feet. "My goodness, you surprised me. How did you … when did you get here?"

"Just now," I said. "You both know who I am. Mrs Yamada, this is Amy Dallon, better known as Panacea. Amy, meet Mrs Jessica Yamada. As I understand matters, she's a remarkably good therapist."

Amy glanced at me, her nose wrinkling. "Just how deep are you in my business? I make a comment to my sister about how we all need therapy, and you bring me to a therapist?"

I met her gaze blandly, with the advantage that she couldn't see my eyes. "That's between you and your issues. But we can address that later. Right now, we have a young woman in a fairly problematic situation, who has asked for my help. Mrs Yamada, if you will?"

Mrs Yamada stood firm for a minute. "I'm aware she's asked for your help, Atropos, but I'm still not convinced that you're not going to just kill her."

I nodded. "That's totally fair. I do kind of kill people, a lot. But if I'd been going to do that, I wouldn't have Amy here to help sort out the aftermath. And you wouldn't have a whole pig currently residing in your freezer."

She stared at me. "But that was delivered by mist … oh. Oh, I see. How did you pull that off?"

Amy rolled her eyes. "She does that. A lot. Can you do me a favour and send someone to fetch that pig? I'm starting to get the idea of what I'm needed for, though now I'm really curious as to why we're going to need the whole damn pig."

"You'll see," I said lightly. "Mrs Yamada?"

The therapist gave first me then Amy a searching glance—no doubt gathering a lot more from my morph mask than most—then took up her phone. Dialling a number, she waited for a moment then gave a few terse instructions. Then she ended the call and nodded to us. "Come along."

I could feel Amy's curiosity growing exponentially as we followed Mrs Yamada out the door to her ad hoc office—zero decorations, nothing that said 'home'—and along to a locked storeroom. She carefully checked a screen attached to the wall beside the door, then nodded to herself. The electronic lock—also a recent installation—sounded its cheerful beeps as she tapped in the numbers, then it clicked open.

Within was padding taped to the floor and the walls up to about two feet high, and on that padding was a glass-and-steel ball, about two feet across. Inside the ball, as the lights in the storeroom came up, was a human face surrounded by a thick mass of tendrils.

Amy stopped and stared. "What … the hell?"

I gestured to the ball and its inhabitant. "Amy, meet Sveta. Sveta, meet Amy Dallon. I'm Atropos; I'll be facilitating today's modifications."

"Atropos." The voice, from the girl inside the ball, was soft and breathy. "You came. I didn't know if you would."

I chuckled darkly. "Neither did Coil, Kaiser, Lung or Skidmark. But don't worry; anyone who invites me to show up is in no danger from me."

Mrs Yamada looked from me to Amy to the ball, her expression worried. "I presume Panacea is going to be removing her powers?"

"No, that's not going to be happening." Amy shook her head. "If that's Garotte in there, I can't shut her down fast enough."

"Oh, ye of little faith." I stepped forward, reaching into my pocket. "Good eye, by the way. Sveta is totally the one they used to call Garotte." I took out one of the little plastic capsules I'd liberated from the PRT building; within was a single grape, treated with Riley's concoction. "Incoming snack, Sveta."

"You're not going to poison her—" began Mrs Yamada, starting forward.

I stopped and looked back at her. "No. I'm going to End her powers, but she's going to be perfectly fine. Amy, tell her."

"What can I say?" Amy said. "Atropos is a murderer a dozen times over, but she's always told people when she's going to kill them. And usually warned them twice. And she's already had me help out someone worse than Garotte, but you didn't hear that from me."

"Oh." Mrs Yamada didn't sound entirely convinced, but nor did she try to stop me when I knelt beside the ball and found the little hatch. It opened easily enough—there was an airlock-style arrangement—and I dropped the grape inside, then closed the hatch, which opened the airlock on the other side.

Sveta's tendrils found the grape immediately; half of it was crushed, while the other half got all the way to her mouth. "What's supposed to happen now?" she asked.

I stood up and put the capsule away, then took out my shears. "Three," I said. "Two. One." On the last word, I snipped at the air. "There. Your powers are gone."

"I'm still … me," she said doubtfully, stirring her tendrils.

I nodded. "No, true. Being a case fifty-three isn't a power that can be taken away. But being super-strong is. There's no biological way your tendrils are that strong naturally. And more to the point, your powers won't force you back into this form now … or make your tentacles attack people without your intent." I turned to look at the therapist. "Mrs Yamada, I'm about to open this hamster ball; if you want to leave the room first, feel free."

"No." Mrs Yamada's tone wasn't as rock-solid as she might've wanted it to be, but she didn't move. "I have faith in Sveta's self-control."

Amy nodded. "And I have faith that someone who's taken out so many terrifying capes wouldn't make such a rookie mistake."

"Thank you. I appreciate the vote of confidence." Putting my shears away again, I knelt next to the 'hamster ball' and undid the catches. One by one, they snapped open, then the two halves fell away from each other.

Sveta spilled out from between them, staring up at me. "What? How did you even do that?"

"Same way I'm gonna gank the Simurgh next week," I said lightly. "With the power of friendship. How are your tendrils feeling? Not so murder-y?"

She gingerly twitched the tendrils, then blinked. "Um … no? They don't seem to want to do much of anything, until I move them." She caught her breath. "You did it? You did it! You killed my powers!"

"And we're not done yet." I turned toward Mrs Yamada and tilted my head at the door, just as a buzzer sounded. "That'll be the pig."

"Pig?" asked Sveta as Mrs Yamada opened the door and a guy in an orderly's uniform rolled in a large flatbed dolly with the aforementioned pig carcass strapped to it. "Why is there a pig?"

The orderly stared at the tableau presented. I wasn't sure if he was more terrified of me or of the fact that Sveta was out of her hamster ball. Turning, he bolted from the room.

Amy smiled for the first time since I'd shown up in her room. Lacing her fingers together, she cracked her knuckles. "That's my cue. So, Sveta, was it? How tall did you want to be?"

Sveta blinked. "What?"

Panacea, Later

Her mind still singing with the high that using her powers so differently gave her, Amy let Sveta hug her again, and patted her on the back. Dressed in a hastily scrounged T-shirt and jeans, the young woman was giving her newly reworked tear ducts—the old ones had leaked bile, of all things—a real workout. "I'd love to stay," Amy said, "but it's a school night and all, and I'm guessing Atropos has things to do."

"This is true," Atropos said, but not in a particularly urgent tone of voice. "You can handle things from here between you two?"

"I believe we can, yes." Mrs Yamada fielded Sveta, putting an arm around her shoulders. "Thank you again, and I apologise for doubting you. And Amy …" She held out her card. "If you ever need to talk—about anything—here's my number."

Amy accepted it with less hesitation than she might have done before going on this little expedition, and tucked it into her pocket. She didn't have to use it, after all. "I'll think about it."

Atropos nodded to Mrs Yamada and Sveta. "Take care of yourselves. If anyone tries to mess with you, let me know. Ready to go, Amy?"

"Sure." Amy stepped up alongside her, and watched her hands carefully. There had to be a trick in what she did.

But all that happened was Atropos snapping her fingers, and the portal opened in front of them. They stepped through; the room dissolved in shadow, to be replaced by her bedroom.

Slowly, Amy sat down on her bed, disarranging the carefully placed decoy, but she didn't care about that. "Wow," she murmured. "That was … a rush."

"It was pretty cool from my end of things, too," Atropos agreed. "So, before I go. Can I ask a couple of favours from you?"

Amy raised her eyebrows. "Two favours?" she asked, trying for sternness and not quite making it. "You're pushing it a little there, aren't you?"

"Little bit, yeah." There was a grin in Atropos' voice. "That colour-changing dust you made me that time was amazing. Could I get something like that, but it looks metallic until there's a loud noise or heat, and then it glows bright red?"

Amy tilted her head, considering the idea. "Sure," she said almost immediately. "Shouldn't be a problem. What's the other favour?"

Now Atropos brought her fingertips together in front of her. "Hear me out with this one. A bacterium that's capable of eating refined metals, rubber or plastics."

Amy stared, horrified. "What? No! You could bring down civilisations with that!"

"I know." Atropos was unmoved. "That's why I want you to also work with me to devise safeguards."

"Jesus," Amy muttered. "I'm really going to have to think about that one. The other one, sure, I can do that in an hour or so."

"Okay." Atropos raised her hand. "I'll get back to you on that." A snap of the fingers, and she was gone.

Long after her bedroom was empty of black-clad serial killers, Amy lay awake, staring at the ceiling.

What the hell does she want that for?

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Little Way Outside Brockton Bay

They called him Barrow.

Even he called himself that, because after all this time of not bothering to use his born name, it had ceased to be his real name. All that mattered was the Lost Garden, and his disciples. He could not leave its boundaries, but why would he want to? All his needs were met within the boundaries of the Garden, and if he truly wished to go somewhere, he could take it with him.

His followers were capes who, like him, had become lost in the modern world and sought refuge in the sanctuary that was the Lost Garden. Mostly, their powers were enhanced or enabled by the wild untrammelled growth that accompanied the Garden's movement. All saw him as their saviour: infallible and unbeatable.

This attitude was entirely understandable. They had clashed with law enforcement before, both powered and unpowered. Outside the Garden, their combined powers and mutual cause made them formidable; within it, they were unbeatable.

The Garden itself was active and aware on a deep level. Those it considered allies had free passage and could seek concealment anywhere, while enemies would find thick undergrowth and wait-a-minute thorns wherever they went. Ambushing overly confident invaders of the Garden was child's play when the very environment cooperated all the way.

Better yet, the Garden did not exist wholly within Earth Bet. It was what some called a 'corner world', where physics worked differently. Cell-phone and radio signals did not cross the boundary, and Tinkertech often malfunctioned or ceased to work at all.

Mundane countermeasures such as flamethrowers and cutting blades could be met and defeated via a version of evolution that countered flame-wielding foes with fire-resistant foliage, or grew iron-hard tree bark against saws. Even poison could be absorbed by specialised growths and then spat back at the invaders.

The Lost Garden was supremely adaptable and infinitely capable of regeneration. Both a home and a sanctuary, it protected Barrow and his followers, keeping them safe from any possible harm.

This was why Barrow felt no fear as he stood at the perimeter of his Garden, on the side closest to the suddenly villain-free city of Brockton Bay. Across the boundary that separated the Lost Garden from the rest of the world, he faced a sole PRT officer plus two superheroes. None offered a direct threat, which was wise; they were not exactly within the perimeter, but his trees had been known to whip out thorny vines against those who drew his ire while remaining outside his domain.

They had come, of course, to warn him not to come to their city. He wasn't sure why the local PRT Director had sent so few, but at least this meant they weren't considering attacking in force. Bad things happened when they tried that; to them, not to his followers. He always made sure to leave some capable of dragging off their (usually disabled and cocooned) comrades, but he also ensured that some suffered lasting injuries. Object lessons were a thing, after all.

"Are you even listening to what I'm saying?" asked the PRT officer. "Atropos is not your usual villain. She's warned you. This means she knows you're coming."

Barrow had to smile. "Look about you. My Garden is not a subtle thing. Everyone with eyes knows of my approach."

The male hero—one was a man, the other a woman—face-palmed at that. His companion put her hand on his shoulder and murmured something to him, but he shook his head. "I'm sorry," he said out loud. "I just can't not say something. Captain Reeves?"

Reeves gestured magnanimously. "Be my guest."

"Hi, I'm Assault, and this is Battery," said the red-clad hero, stepping forward. "You've heard of the Slaughterhouse Nine, Butcher and the Teeth, Heartbreaker, Bastard Son … right? People you don't want to run into, like ever."

"We have heard of them, yes." Barrow frowned. Where was this leading up to? "Are you going to tell me she is worse than them all put together? Because I find that hard to believe."

"How about, she killed them all?" Battery said bluntly. "They all came to Brockton Bay, and now they're all dead. Actually, let me back up for a moment there. She knew they would come to Brockton Bay, she said she was going to kill them, and she did. They died mainly because they didn't heed the warning to stay away."

"Oh, and you know the Endbringers?" Assault may have raised his eyebrows, but Barrow couldn't see them. "She's also said that the next one that shows up, she's going to kill it. And people are taking her seriously. That's the person you're looking to piss off by coming into her city. She's warned you. You know of the first warning. The next one is likely to be somewhat more pointed. You won't get a third one."

Barrow blinked. "Kill … an Endbringer? Is that even possible? Because forgive me for my rudeness, but your story of this Atropos is insane. I'm not at all certain that I can believe it anymore."

"She killed Shatterbird with a chunk of glass, blew Crawler to kingdom come, and cut Jack Slash's head off with Hatchet Face's axe," Captain Reeves said harshly. "She used the same axe to chop up Butcher into fourteen separate pieces, and stabbed Heartbreaker to death with a giant candy heart. She does not play games. She doesn't do non-lethal unless she's very specifically making that choice. If she wants you dead, you're dead, along with any of your …" He paused, clearly choosing his words carefully. "… followers, who try to get in her way."

"If she is so dangerous, so lethal, how many men have the PRT lost to her, Captain? And how many of your fellow heroes, Assault? And why has she not been arrested?" Barrow eyed the officer and the superheroes challengingly. This would be the acid test of their claim. Surely they would seek to make her seem as terrifying as possible, and when they did …

"None, of either." Captain Reeves stated the words without fanfare. "Oh, we were going to try to arrest her, but she's very good at dancing between the raindrops. And once she killed off the Nine, the Director read the writing on the wall, and gave orders accordingly. We don't mess with her, and she doesn't kill us."

Barrow smiled. "She will not kill my Garden, Captain. I, too, am no ordinary villain, despite the fact that you have insisted on slapping that label on me. The only way to get to me is to come into my Garden, and it does not tolerate intruders."

"That. Doesn't. Matter." Assault clenched his fists as he spoke. "People with more resources than you have tried avoiding her notice. They still died. Am I not getting through to you? Are you not listening? Atropos will destroy you. Turn around. Walk away. Go bother someone else."

"And there it comes." Barrow glanced at Captain Reeves. "It was an admirable effort, but I believe I shall continue on my path. Atropos uses guns and blades. Neither will be of any use to her within my Garden."

"Goddamn it, you moron! Atropos uses everything!" Raising his voice, Assault took half a step forward. "I'm trying to save your life, here!"

Battery put a hand on his arm, just as the undergrowth all around Barrow rustled threateningly. Barrow raised his own hand and frowned at Assault. "Come no closer. My Garden will protect me against such as you." And of course, his followers were watching from just out of sight.

"Come on," Battery urged her partner. "We gave it our best shot. No sense in giving him an excuse to attack us." She glanced sideways at Captain Reeves.

Reeves unsnapped his holster but did not draw his weapon. "Don't hold back on my account."

"I tire of this posturing." Barrow stepped back, allowing leaves and branches to swing into place, concealing him from the heroes and the PRT officer. "Tell your superiors. The Lost Garden is coming to Brockton Bay. We will not seek out Atropos, but neither will we bow down to her wishes."

Assault shouted something, but Barrow was no longer listening. Turning, he walked deeper into the Garden, leaving his followers to watch the perimeter. Unlike every other cape who'd been confronted by Atropos, he was never vulnerable. He couldn't be isolated or taken off-guard. And so, he would—

Brushing aside a hanging curtain of leaves, he stopped short, staring at the dark-clad figure who absolutely did not belong in the Garden. Even now, thorned tendrils crept out toward her—it was Atropos, it had to be, though how she'd gotten this far into his personal domain without the alarm being raised, he had no idea—but recoiled, every time. In fact, she stood in a quiet little clearing, with the plants apparently cringing back from her in all directions.

"Hi," she said pleasantly. "I just need to make sure that you know you've been warned to turn around and walk away from Brockton Bay." A tiny motion of her head seemed to indicate an eye-roll. "Just to make absolutely certain."

He stared at her, disbelieving of her sheer gall. She wasn't even armed that he could see. "You walk into my Garden, and you warn me against trespassing into your lands? Do you even understand the danger you are in, right now?"

Her hands barely seemed to move, but her long-coat fluttered and suddenly she was holding a shotgun. The action made a meaty chak-k'chak sound as she racked the slide. "I could ask you exactly the same question. Now, one more time. Are you going to walk away from Brockton Bay?"

He eyed the shotgun. It looked remarkably lethal at this range. "If I say no, are you going to murder me?"

She seemed to give the question a certain amount of consideration. "No. The Protectorate and PRT cared enough to come out here and try to save your life, and I don't want them feeling totally useless. Besides, I promised a friend I wouldn't."

He put his hands on his hips. "Then, no. I am not."

Too late, he heard the sheer unconcern in her voice, and realised that she hadn't said she wouldn't shoot him. "Suit yourself."

Captain Lassiter Reeves, PRT ENE

Together, they watched as Barrow vanished into the undergrowth of his personal jungle. "I could maybe grab him," Battery muttered, but she didn't sound too sure of herself.

"Nope." Assault shook his head as they moved away. "Even with superspeed, that stuff would stick things out at ankle level, then have a bed of thorns waiting for you when you face-planted. We did our best, and he wouldn't listen."

"Goddamn it." Lassiter shook his head. "I thought we at least had a chance. Since Bastard Son, all she's done is make public appearances. But no, someone's got to poke the bear."

"Shh!" Assault held up one hand. "Did you hear that?"

"What?" asked Battery.

"Sounded like a pump shotgun." He looked around, then pointed at the otherworldly trees overhanging the boundary with the Lost Garden. "In there."

Lassiter suddenly had a memory flash. "Atropos has one of those. I mean, she literally calls it 'my good friend Mr Pump Action Shotgun'."

"Wait," Battery said. "You don't think—"

The two shots sounded so quickly that the untrained ear may have failed to tell them apart. Assault crouched slightly, ready to react, while Battery powered up the circuit-board lines on her costume. Lassiter didn't have powers or a cool costume, but he did pull his pistol, barrel skyward, finger off trigger.

Nothing came at them. The trees rustled, seemingly agitated, but they were beyond potential strike range. As the sounds of the shots died away, an ugly screaming became audible within the Garden. It went on and on, the sound of a man in agony.

"Captain, you're in charge here," Assault said tensely. "Your call."

"I have no idea what's going on," Lassiter admitted. "Let's pull back a bit more while I kick this upstairs. We don't want that thing rolling over us while we dither about."

"Someone really sounds hurt in there," Battery ventured.

"Someone is," agreed Atropos, appearing at the edge of the Garden with her shotgun resting against her shoulder. Far from attacking her, the plants seemed to lean away from her. She stepped onto clear ground; behind her, the greenery closed up again. "But don't worry. He'll live."

Lassiter wasn't even remotely surprised. If anyone could pull off what had just happened, it would be Atropos. After all, she'd also watered his plants for him that one time. "Do I want to know what you just did to him?"

"Screw what you did to Barrow," Assault broke in. "Did you seriously just intimidate a whole fucking bunch of homicidal plants into leaving you alone?"

"Something like that, yeah," she said to Assault; Lassiter could tell from the tone of voice that she was grinning broadly. "As for Barrow, that involved a conversation about how Kneecaps Are A Privilege." Somehow, she managed to slot the capitals into place. "He ignored two warnings, so my good friend here did something about that. The Lost Garden won't be coming to Brockton Bay."

Lassiter eyed her suspiciously. "Is he alive because we made the effort? Or were you always just going to blow out his kneecaps?" He did his best to ignore the fact that Barrow would probably never walk again. The man had been warned.

"Yes." She was still grinning, he could tell. Opening her long-coat, she holstered the shotgun. "If it's any consolation, he wasn't going to budge, no matter what you said. But you distracted him for long enough for me to get into position, so thanks for that."

She nodded politely to the three of them and strolled on past, then pulled out her shears and appeared to cut a rectangle out of the air. At the last 'snip', a shadowy portal appeared and she stepped into it.

As she vanished, Assault looked at Battery and then at Lassiter. "Is it just me, or do you ever get the impression that we're not paid enough to deal with crap like this?"

Lassiter chuckled darkly. "All the time, buddy. All the damn time."

Low Earth Orbit


The Third considered its options.

There was an anomalous shard-host loose on the world below. Where the Third could read the past and project the future of every other lifeform, and indeed disarrange their patterns of thought with a mere effort of will, this one defied its power. Its actions could not be predicted. Worse, as it interacted with others around it, their actions became unquantifiable, spreading the murky area wider and wider until the Third's plans were under threat of becoming unworkable.

That was unacceptable, especially since the anomaly had made the claim to several different people that it was going to put an end to the Third and its fellow chaos engines.

Precautions, the Third decided, were in order.

End of Part Forty-Five