Thirty-two capes, most of them locals. If this had been any other day, it would have been a massive show of force and a sign that some bad guy was about to have a very bad day. Now though… it was less than a fifth of what we started with, maybe an hour ago. Everyone else was either dead, wounded, or had fled the city by now.
The ones that were left… Not enough. Just not enough.
My team had been decimated. Vista stood right next to me in a pose that struck me as vaguely military. Her hair was plastered on the side of her almost expressionless face. Another mask. Aegis was little better, floating just overhead. Close enough to show that he hadn't ditched us, but too far away to talk to him. What were we supposed to talk about, anyway? Half our team was gone. Clockblocker was dead, Browbeat was too badly injured to fight, Kid Win's drones were scrap, and Sam… wounded. Just wounded. She could still make it.
Our Protectorate team looked almost as bad. They were all here, except for Assault and Battery. I didn't know what happened to them. Were they dead? From the looks on the others' faces, they could be. They kept their distance. None of them were willing to talk, or even look us in the eye. Guilt over what happened? None of this was their fault and I didn't hold them responsible for anything, but would they feel the same?
Then I looked at Lady Photon, and found myself counting my blessings. The woman looked like a walking corpse, even with her sister at her side. Her eyes were dead and I could see she was just going through the motions at this point. I could understand what she was going through. I only lost Mom, and it pretty much broke me. Would have destroyed me if Emma hadn't been there. I was lost for weeks, but here Lady Photon stood.
The Empire 88 contingent stood to the side, away from the others. Probably had something to do with them being the only villains who hadn't run yet. Kaiser stood impassively like a statue and I wondered what he was thinking. Empire 88 had lost a lot of capes the past few weeks. I could imagine he'd want to cut his losses and run, but his pride (or possibly Hookwolf) would never allow that. Good. I hoped he died fighting. Not like Outbreak could make him any uglier.
And then, there was someone I really didn't want to see. A girl in a black cloak and a white mask stalked towards me, eyeing me like a cat.
"Banshee." She said, not breaking eye contact for even a moment.
"Shadow Stalker." Did that girl have any idea how much self-control it took not to murder her on the spot?
Stalker's head tilted just a little to the side. "Why am I not dead? Sorry, it's just something I've been wanting to know for a long time now."
Aegis tried to step in, but I shooed him away. Vista shot a glare, but otherwise didn't bother us. I used my power to give the two of us some privacy. If the effect put her off her game, so much the better. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
She turned away from me, looking at the assembled capes. "Look around you. What do you see?"
"Capes, and a psycho I'd strangle if I wouldn't get in trouble over it."
She smirked. "You wanna know how you figure out who's the leader in a group? Old trick I learned from being a vigilante: check body language. People instinctively... what's the word...magnetize towards their leaders?"
"Right, gravitate. People instinctively gravitate towards their leaders. They turn towards them when they walk by, huddle near them where they stand… Check out the Nazis. Rune, for instance. Look at how she's practically glued to Hookwolf." Stalker was right. The empire girl practically mirrored the giant supervillain and she wasn't the only one. Interestingly enough, Kaiser was standing alone. "Now look at Vista. Look at who she's imitating. I'll give you a hint: it's not Aegis."
"You got a point?"
"You're strong, Banshee. Strong like me." She said, saying the word 'strong' as if it was the highest praise someone could get. "Anyone who takes on fuckmothering Lung is. I spent weeks trying to convince myself otherwise, but I was only fooling myself. What I don't get is why you didn't just kick my ass back in Winslow. What the hell kept you?"
"You want me to hit you?"
"I want to know why you didn't stand up for yourself. You could have stopped me any time you wanted to. Why the hell did you just lie down and take it?"
This girl was insane. Completely insane. "Fine, you wanna know why?" I hissed, doing my best to keep my composure. "Emma. Emma's asshole friends. Emma's asshole father. The school faculty who care more about Piggot's money than actually doing their jobs. The PRT who stick their fucking heads in the sand. They were the problem. Not you. You're just a sick girl who's full of shit."
Shadow Stalker laughed. "If I'm full of shit, then why does the universe keep proving me right? Everyone here is either pissing their pants or trying not to. You? You're waiting." She turned away and nodded towards Vista. "Don't die, Soldier. The kid needs you."
Christ, I want to kill her so badly.
Sighing, I focused on someone else. In the corner, Armsmaster and Chevalier were conversing. Planning, I hoped.
"This is crazy." Chevalier said. "In fact, this might just be the craziest idea you ever had."
"Says the guy who got drunk, binge-watched Japanese cartoons and decided he needed a giant, flaming sword."
"To be fair, it did work."
"Thermite, Chevalier. With your bare hands. The look on Panacea's face was priceless. I still have the pictures from my helmet-cam. Remind me to make them your desktop someday."
The knight-in-shining-armor grunted. He scanned the crowd and his eyes fell on me, for a second. A small gasp escaped his throat, but he quickly composed himself. Armsmaster noticed, but he didn't make an issue of it. Instead he turned to his armband and said: "Ready, Dragon?"
"Armbands have been reprogrammed by your specifications. Good luck."
"You too." The Tinker cleared his throat. "Thank you all for coming. I know you're probably expecting me to have some sort of mad plan to stop this nightmare. I am a Tinker, after all." A few in the crowd chuckled. They were probably Tinkers too. "Sadly, there is no plan; not for them. Leviathan and Outbreak are just too strong to fight. Our best hope is a mutual kill or Scion's intervention, but aside from that… We can't take the fight to the enemy, but that doesn't mean we're going to sit idle. Outbreak's monsters are still running around, killing everything in their path. There are thousands of innocent people trapped in the city and I'll be damned if I'm going to give up on them without a fight."
A few cheers erupted, but it was muted at best.
"Outbreak's creatures are centered around the sinkholes. Pay close attention to your armbands, they'll tell you where you can do the most good. Shakers, you'll manipulate the environment and herd the monsters into killing zones. Blasters, rip them apart when they're clustered together. Movers, if you're not on taxi duty, get as many civilians out of here as you can. Drag them if you have to. Close-combatants, you go to the shelters and plug up any holes the others have missed."
Armsmaster stepped forward. "Let me be clear: We are outnumbered by several orders of magnitude. We will not be able to win. Our job is to get as many people out of here as we can and leave. Nothing more and nothing less. Do not try to fight Outbreak on your own and do not let yourself be taken alive. If you are, I'll kill you myself…and I'll expect all of you to do the same for me."
No cheers this time. Just a solemn nod, followed by the drawing of weapons.
Armbands began rattling off orders. Me, I was on 'dragging civvies out of their shelters' duty. Not looking forward to that. Before I could run off Vista pulled me to the side.
"You're coming back, alright?" She said. "You're staying alive and that's an order. I've lost enough friends today."
"Yes, ma'm." I replied. I couldn't promise that, but I'd be damned if I didn't try.
Meanwhile, Leviathan and Outbreak were still trying to tear each other apart. We are…limitless. A voice boomed. Proud. Powerful. Terrifying. Outbreak was talking to me again. We wield powers that have not been seen since the Old War. We are everywhere. We see so much… And yet, it is not enough.
Leviathan grabbed the Outbreak creature and threw itself backwards. The two slammed into the ground with enough force to cause another earthquake.
We cannot stop this beast. We can only delay it, and only because it lets us. It and its masters are…beyond us.
The Endbringer slammed its fist in Outbreak's chest. It hammered again and again, every blow going in a little deeper than the last.
Our time is ending, Taylor Hebert. We have failed, and you stand to succeed where we could not. Perhaps history will repeat itself.
What the hell was it talking about? What does it want? Why me?
Raw emotion flooded my mind. Laughter, coming from inside my head. Or was it something else? Because the Others will not listen. Because the Guide has yet to find you and bind you to her will. She is wise and powerful, but her vision is limited. She cannot see the battle for what it is. Blinded, in more ways than one.
I couldn't help but snicker, drawing the attention of some of the others around me. One of the capes overhead asked Aegis if I was alright. He didn't answer. Whether he didn't know the answer or didn't want to say while still in my range, I couldn't tell. I decided to pretend not to notice. What was I going to say anyway? That I was hearing voices and the giant zombie monster has decided to take a personal interest in me?
Besides, I still had no idea what it was talking about.
You do not understand, but you will. When you meet the Guide, do not trust her blindly like the Others have. Perhaps…perhaps when she sees doubt, she will experience it herself. Maybe then, she will finally understand and join us, as she always should have done.
I shook my head and the voice was gone. For now, at least. Vista had dumped us in front of an Endbringer shelter. We ran inside and started getting everyone out, but from the noises I was hearing… The shelter hadn't been breached, but it wouldn't be long before it was.
She does not deserve another eon of regrets.
"C'mon, move, move!" I yelled, ushering everyone out. Outbreak was-
-closing in. Men in expensive clothes with fake smiles and false promises. They said we'd go on a trip to faraway places, but I could feel there was something wrong. I didn't know how, but I could tell that they're lying. They just want to make us feel safe so we wouldn't-
-run around like headless chickens.
What…what was that? A thought? An illusion? A memory? If so, whose? Did Outbreak just…
"Hey, blue bitch!" Someone said. I turned around. Niflheim, some Empire 88 character I only recognized from a briefing. A tall, bare-chested giant of a man with icicles falling off his massive, rune-covered pauldrons. Probably one of Kaiser's new recruits. "The hell's wrong with you?! Get your head together!"
Yeah, right. Easy for you to say. You're not the one being mindfucked by a sentient virus. I was just-
-running. Tried running. Couldn't run. Walls closing in. Walls of white and gold, pristine, even in the chaos. Screaming. My own, and others. Filth and bugs, crawling under my skin. Bugs, coming out-
-of the walls. Outbreak. It broke into the shelter. Forget the psychic bullshit, I needed to fight. I pulled out my glaive and started tearing the monsters apart.
"Okay, people!" The Nazi shouted after a few minutes. "Civvies are out and we're leaving. Move!"
He could barely turn around before a blue forcefield impaled him. Another appeared, this time dismembering one of Outbreak's creatures. A larger creature squeezed itself into the room, walking and stumbling. It looked like it had too much to drink. More forcefields started appearing, seemingly at random. Some were stuck in walls, others impaled human and monster alike. It was chaos.
The large monster fell over and started to blow up like a balloon. Then, it practically exploded, showering the shelter with gore. In its place was a bright blue forcefield with a human being inside. When the bubble disappeared, I recognized him immediately: Shielder from New Wave. I thought he was gone. Looking at his shaking hands and dead eyes, I might not have been wrong. Whatever happened to him, it couldn't have been pretty. That said, I had a bigger problem: was he going to attack me? His shields (which apparently were able to bypass the Manton Effect) had torn through the shelter like a lawnmower. I was lucky to be alive. If I startled him…
Can't take that chance. I drew a tranquilizer arrow and shot him while his shield was still down. Before Outbreak could come back, I slung the boy over my shoulder and ran towards the exit.
The boy couldn't be much older than I was, I realized to my horror. We weren't-
-far from the target now. The four of us surrounded the final door and got ready to breach it.
Four? Yes, four. The three others were wearing armor much like my own, but covered in golden accents. Their weapons too. Now that I thought of it, my own armor and weapons were the same. It screamed Tinkertech, but I had no idea where we got it. I trusted them, though. My weapons and my teammates. More than I ever did the Wards, my father, or even Emma. Why? Who were these people?
We kicked down the door and poured through. I raised my golden-plated rifle and scanned the area. No guards, no traps, no drones. Just a few computers and him.
He was very tall. Thin, yet still imposing. A bald man, wearing a black long coat. He didn't look like much, and yet… and yet he was the enemy. Not an enemy, but the enemy.
Flashes of memory appeared in my mind. Cities destroyed, monsters unleashed, lives ruined, an entire civilization in flames, and he was the cause of it all. He did this and he had to die for what he's done. I had no idea where this certainty came from but it was there nontheless.
The man smiled, standing up and stretching his arms out to his side, as if welcoming us. He tried to talk, but we were faster. In seconds, his body was riddled with bullets. He dropped to his knees and fell sideways, still smiling.
Our leader, a man in bulky armor, slowly and cautiously walked towards the corpse. We followed him warily, wondering if we were walking into some sort of trap. Our leader touched the corpse and nothing happened. No traps, no tricks. The enemy was dead. He rammed his fist into the enemy's skull and pulled out a small crystal. The body dissolved into ash. Not important.
If I could have seen our leader's face, he'd probably be smiling. I certainly was. It was exactly what we came for.
Our leader put the crystal on the floor and crushed it under his boot. I-
-stumbled, but managed to catch myself before I fell. Goddammit, not again.
"I need a mover!" I yelled. Moments later, a man wearing a red costume and a top hat materialized right in front of me. "You, get him to Panacea!"
"I don't remember him going in…" He replied.
"I fished him out of Outbreak's stomach. He needs medical assistance and quarantine right away."
Top Hat looked down at the boy and sighed. "Young lady, I think a mercy kill might be kinder."
Oh, no. Not on my watch. Enough people had died already. "Panacea, quarantine. Now."
We glared at each other for a few moments before he shrugged and said: "Oh, well. Not my problem. Of you go, Mr. Dogfood." Shielder was suddenly replaced with a rock and Top Hat vanished with an audible pop. What a prick. I-
-lowered my head and let the man put the shawl around my neck. He smiled, as he did with all the others, and bowed before moving on to the next. I didn't know who he was, but I knew what he was: a high-ranking official who was using our victory for his own gain. I felt nothing but contempt for him and his like. Still, there was a knot in my stomach. There were people around us, dressed in gold and white. Honoring us. Thanking us for saving them. They had no idea what was coming.
The drums rolled. One, two, three.
At the count of nine, we would do what we must. Something that would no doubt cause us to be reviled for all of history, but that's just the way it is. Not doing this would be infinitely worse.
Four, five, six.
We were tools, to be created and consumed in times of crisis. Nothing more, and nothing less. And now, we would turn on our makers. I didn't know why, exactly, but it was necessary. The reason was just out of reach, at the edge of my memory.
Seven, eight, nine.
The tenth beating of the drums never came. As one, we pulled out our blades and moments later, the stadium was rendered lifeless. I looked at the floor. A woman I had murdered. Someone important, but I couldn't remember why. I felt disappointed as I looked at the corpse: the girl with her perfect skin, her sparkling eyes, and her beautiful golden hair. She had bled like a human, screamed like a human, and died like a human. For some reason, I felt that it shouldn't have been this easy, and yet it was.
These people we killed, these…emperors… I looked up to them. I thought they were like gods and felt disappointed when they just…weren't. I-
-felt a sharp pain in my right arm. Something had grabbed me. One of Outbreak's monsters had sank its teeth into my arm and pulled. Before I could so much as blink, something tore. I fell backwards and looked at the stump where my right arm used to be.
It tore off my arm.
It tore off my fucking arm!
"Give that back!" I growled. I poured my power into my remaining hand and punched it in the face. My fist sank into its skull and the creature shook apart. I pulled myself up and grabbed my severed limb. Maybe a healer could put it back.
Or at least, it would have if it didn't disintegrate right in front of me.
I stared at the ash pile that used to be my arm, completely dumbfounded. I have a self destruct system?! What the hell, power?!
Then my legs started to wobble. People around me were shouting. There was gunfire and fighting, but I was having trouble keeping track of it all. My mind was still as sharp as ever, but my senses were a mess. My severed arm…was I bleeding out? Shouldn't I be losing consciousness then?
Finally, my legs gave out and I collapsed. There was muttering and shouting and someone dragging me onto a pick-up truck with some other wounded capes. Dammit, they were medivaccing me out. I'm tougher than this. I could still fight. I was tail-whipped through an apartment complex less than an hour ago, for God's sake! I wanted to look around, find whoever put me on this truck, and tell him to stop, but my neck wasn't working anymore and my hearing was a cacophonous mess. Why? What the hell's wrong with me? I wanted to help, to will myself back together again like I did before, but my body just refused to cooperate.
The truck lifted up and slowly flew through the streets. This was it, then, I thought as I crawled to the edge of the truck. The battle wasn't over, but it was for me. All I could do now was sit tight and watch helplessly as my city was being destroyed.
The barricades were holding, for now. Not for long, though, by the looks of it: most of the capes were already in full retreat. Only a handful were still fighting.
Armsmaster with his nanothorn halberd and Chevalier with an honest-to-god flaming sword, back-to-back and letting nothing past.
A few blasters, annihilating anything that got too close to the retreating civilians.
Hookwolf and an Empire 88 contingent.
In the background, Outbreak and Leviathan were squaring off. I saw a few vague blurs trying to attack the two, only to be scattered by a blade of water shot out from the Endbringer's hand. The armband rattled off a few more names.
Useless. Our efforts, all of it, useless.
Then, a golden figure tore through the clouds. Scion. Without preamble or ceremony, he opened fire on the two monsters, sending both of them flying. He clapped his hands and a wave of golden light washed over the city.
Suddenly, there was pain. My skin was literally boiling. My body felt like it was burning from the inside out. I was dying…and then I wasn't. The pain was gone and I was alright.
"Hey!" Someone shouted. "Hey, what the fuck, man?!"
I could move again. Moreover, my arm had grown back. Did my power do this? Was it Scion? What the hell was happening to me?
"Stop shouting." I yelled at…wait, who was I yelling at? Judging by the costume, it must have been Rune. "Seriously, you're going to wake the fucking dead." I chose to ignore the sputtering.
Instead, I pulled myself up. Outbreak was melting. As in, actually liquefying. Not just the main creature, but all of them. Leviathan was cautiously backing away from the Golden Man and the dying monster. Scion, though, he was standing still. No, wait, he wasn't. He was staring. He was staring at me.
Scion. Was staring. At me.
His expression was difficult to read. Shock, disgust, anger, hatred…maybe a mix of all four? The greatest hero on Earth was staring at me and he looked like he wanted me gone. Why? How? What did I do?
I never felt more judged in my life.
Scion raised his hand. I saw a golden light, and then nothing.
I…I saw nothing anymore. I felt nothing. Heard nothing. One moment, I was there, and the next everything was gone.
Did I…did I just die? Did the most powerful hero in the world just kill me?
I tried processing that. What would everybody else think? What would Dad think? What was going to happen to me?
Would I get to see Mom?
Something changed. I could feel my body again. One by one, my senses returned. Then my muscles started moving again. I tried to get a feel of my surroundings. My vision was still blurry, but I could hear a soft hum. Machinery of some kind? I couldn't tell. Wherever I was, I was alone. I could tell that I was in some kind of pod, though. A pod that felt oddly familiar, somehow. Also, I wasn't having flashbacks to the locker or freaking out, which was worrying in and of itself. Then again, I'd been through a lot today: Endbringer, Outbreak, Brockton Bay being destroyed, fucking dying, and then ending up… here. Wherever 'here' was.
Guess everyone had their limits…
I heard a sharp hiss and the pod opened up. I lost my balance, fell out, and landed face-first on the cold, metal floor.
I slowly got to my feet. My body felt wrong, somehow. Weak and poorly adjusted. Like I exchanged one bike for another one, but the second doesn't quite handle the way you expect it to. Was that what happened to me? Did I die and get reassembled in the afterlife, or wherever this place was? Where was I anyway?
The room I was in was massive. Not very big, but tall like a cathedral, or maybe a throne room. Old, too. The white and gold walls were faded and massive things that looked like glowing trees tore through the cracks. The only pristine part was the pod I'd fallen out of, and it was part of some massive golden ornament or device that I couldn't even begin to understand. The place screamed Tinkertech, and yet it looked like it had been abandoned for decades. Where the hell was I?
I needed answers.