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Another Way (Worm AU fanfic)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Ack, Aug 31, 2015.

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  1. Threadmarks: Part Eleven: Retribution
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Another Way

    Part Eleven: Retribution



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



    Claire's powers had always had a distinctly emotion-linked aspect to them. Up until this act of utter betrayal, her feelings toward the Empire capes had consisted of no more than mild disdain, verging occasionally on actual dislike. That all changed with one action; now, she was far beyond merely 'angry' with them. Carol Dallon had suffered minor skin burns because Claire simply didn't like her; if what Claire currently felt about these four capes was put into words, it would not be printable in any language known to mankind. Run? Hell with that.

    Her father had just been decapitated in front of her. His brain had between two and four minutes before it suffered permanent damage. Her legs were still trapped, and four hostile capes stood between Claire and her goal.

    Rage burned in her core as she struggled to release herself from the rubble that pinned her down. Barely able to recognise that she was doing it, she began to change her form. Delicate skin went dead-black as subdermal production of carbon nanotubes went into high gear. She felt her skeleton begin to reshape itself as the ribcage expanded to make room for her auxiliary lungs and hearts.

    The air itself became thick and soupy, and her lungs ached from trying to draw in enough oxygen to serve her needs. Blackness crawled around the edges of her vision; Krieg watched her carefully from a prudent distance. Beside him, Hookwolf held a viciously razor-pointed spear that was as yet incomplete. If he hits me with that, I'll definitely feel it.

    Blood thundered in her ears. She struggled to complete the transformation, but her labouring lungs could not drag enough oxygen from the air. Helplessly, she watched as Hookwolf drew back the monstrous spear. He wasn't going to miss; even from her angle, Claire could see that he wasn't a novice with the weapon.

    That was when the car roared in from nowhere and collided with both Krieg and Stormtiger at high speed, knocking them flying. Cricket leaped nimbly out of the way, while Hookwolf went up and over the vehicle, smashing the windshield on the way. He landed behind it as it ploughed into rubble and stopped with a grinding shudder. But the air no longer stuck in Claire's throat; drawing in a deep breath, she forced the rest of her body through the metamorphosis. It was as she had described to her father, with the impromptu addition of slashing blades on her forearms and a long, wickedly barbed tail.

    She began to kick free of the rubble trapping her lower limbs; with the increased strength of her now-digitigrade legs, she was moments from freedom. However, the Empire capes seemed determined not to give her that chance. Hookwolf advanced on her, another spear forming off the end of his arm, while Cricket made for the driver's side door of the car.

    Before the Empire villain got there, the door burst off its hinges. Like a hugely muscled avenging angel, Jonas dived out, pistol in hand. He rolled and came up on one knee, then fired five shots in two seconds. Two missed Cricket by the barest of margins, while the other three hammered into Hookwolf, who stopped and turned slightly in annoyance. Cricket advanced on Jonas, who tried to get to his feet, then staggered back, shaking his head. Unfortunately for Cricket, she was now on Claire's 'extreme prejudice' shit-list. Worse, she was inside Claire's body-reading range, so Claire knew exactly what she was doing and how. Also, how to fuck her over.

    The battle form had an enhanced larynx, designed mainly to do what Cricket was doing, but within the audible range. Claire modified it on the fly, going for a particular frequency, one that Cricket was optimised for hearing. Then she repurposed one of her sets of lungs, removing the alveoli and adding serious muscle banding to allow sudden and violent constriction. This was going to be all about volume.

    When she let out the screech, ninety-nine percent of it went above normal human range. Dogs started howling for blocks around. The remaining one percent, a piercing shriek that went right through the head like a bandsaw on steroids, caused both Jonas and Hookwolf to clutch their ears and stagger back. Cricket, on the other hand, dropped her weapons and screamed as she tried to get her hands inside the cage that enclosed her head. Blood ran freely from her ears, eyes and nose. By the time Claire let up on the scream, the female Empire cape was curled up in a foetal position, either unconscious or catatonic. Claire didn't care which.

    With a metallic snarl, Hookwolf recovered enough to shake his head and heft the spear once more. He took one step toward Claire before Jonas cannoned into him from the side. They traded blows, the enhanced human slugging it out with the parahuman blender. While Jonas' punches didn't do much, they still staggered the Empire killer; in return, Hookwolf's blades broke Jonas' skin but slid off of the subdermal armour with which she had gifted him.

    Kicking away the last of the debris, Claire came to her feet in a smooth, lethal movement. Flexing her fingers, she felt the razor-edged claws slide into place. Her priorities were clear. Save Dad. Kill the Empire.

    Adrenaline hummed through her veins; almost absently, she redesigned her cardiovascular system for greater efficiency as she moved to skirt the fight. While she had every intention of helping Jonas take down Hookwolf, for the moment her bodyguard seemed to be holding his own, and her priority was getting to her father's head before time ran out. This didn't stop her power from acting on its own, however; while she didn't get close enough to cause Hookwolf serious injury, he did falter and stagger back as she passed by. On the other hand, Jonas' wounds closed over, and the burly South African lunged forward with a burst of extra energy.

    How long has it been? She couldn't tell; somewhere along the line, her watch had gone missing. It had been perhaps thirty seconds. Dad doesn't have much more time. The car was directly in front of her; not wanting to waste even a single second, she leaped on top of it, the snap and pull of her new muscles handling the jump easily. One stride forward, and she caught sight of her father's head, just before her instincts screamed danger! Not questioning them, she dived forward off the car on to the rubble-strewn ground.

    Even while she was in the air, something hit her left leg, smashing her sideways. Something else hit the car, shattering one of the windows. Femur fractured. She hit the ground rolling, ignoring chunks of concrete under her ribs as she told the femur to woman up and stop being such a little bitch. The fracture healed itself, and she irritably set her body to start putting another couple of layers of nanotubes over her bones. What the fuck was that, anyway?

    Coming up on to all fours, she pushed her senses out, increasing her eye size and ear sensitivity to detect her attacker more effectively. Only the whisper of wind warned her and she dived out of the way as a sharp detonation cratered the concrete where she'd been. I must've heard that before, but didn't know what it was. Now I do. Fucking Stormtiger.

    One of those attacks could obliterate her father's head; if the Empire cape knew she was going for it, he might kill Marquis for good, just as a parting fuck-you. Carefully, she didn't look in that direction; instead, she raised her tail like a scorpion's as she grew an eye on the tip. Another series of organs took shape there as well, one that was only found in a certain type of insect. An inbound warbling hum warned her to dive aside; her powers, it seemed, were zeroing in on the audible signature of the asshole's powers. Which was useful, because it allowed her to figure out where he was sniping her from.

    Even as she evaded the shot, her tail swung in that direction. The eye finally picked him out; he was lying partly covered in rubble and dust, not far from Krieg. Both had their heads raised, watching her. She brought the attack mechanism to maturity, then locked and loaded. Apertures opened just behind the eye, and high-speed darts shot out, each accompanied by a burst of steam. It hadn't been all that hard to adapt the defence of the bombardier beetle, using it to shoot bone darts.

    The darts lanced out toward the Empire capes. Her aim was good, but both men apparently used their powers, brushing the darts aside before they came close. Claire had planned for this; she used that respite to lunge over to her father's body and scoop up his head. Even as another shot hit the ground at her feet, she dived behind the end of the car so that she could concentrate on what she was doing.

    He was still alive, she could tell, but his brain was beginning to run out of oxygen. At a silent command, her abdomen split open, exposing a cavity where her digestive system had once resided. She shoved her father's decapitated head into the empty space, immediately cushioning it with surrounding tissue. The skin closed behind it, making her look somewhat pregnant. Not that she cared about her outward appearance right now. She set about hooking up the appropriate nervous and circulatory connections. Air had gotten into some of the veins and arteries; working as fast as she could, she replaced that first with basic saline and then with her own blood. Dedicating one heart and one lung to the head, she left her autonomous systems to complete the connections while she took care of business.

    Jonas was still duking it out with Hookwolf. Her bodyguard was a little the worse for wear, but as far as she could see, he was standing his ground. Good. That left her free to take on Krieg and Stormtiger.

    Of course, given that they were both ranged attackers, able to keep her at a distance beyond which her powers could really have an effect on them, this was going to be … interesting. She raised her tail to investigate the situation, just as a series of strikes smashed into the side of the car and the ground below it. Shards of concrete struck her, but they made no impression on her steadily thickening hide. Then she realised where she was going wrong. I need to change things up. Turning fast, she skittered around the car toward where Jonas and Hookwolf were still going at it.

    The Empire cape sensed her and shot out a rain of metal shards; almost casually, she brushed the few that might have been dangerous out of the air with her tail. Jonas took the opportunity to land some heavy body blows which dented metal and drove his opponent back a few steps. From everything Claire could see, he was actually enjoying himself; since she had started upgrading his body, he hadn't had an opponent against whom he could truly let loose.

    ~I am going to have to give that man a raise.~

    The thought wasn't hers; while she was familiar with the tone, hearing it inside her own head was a new experience. ~Dad?~ If this was indeed her father, then her power must have acted on her subconscious needs, and given him full access to her sensorium.

    ~The same, Claire-bear. Am I to understand that you're currently keeping me alive?~ His mental 'voice' was warm and approving.

    ~Hopefully, yes.~ She kept going, her power giving Jonas another boost as she passed by. Hookwolf staggered again, giving Jonas the opportunity to smash him to the ground. The metal-clad cape came to his feet almost immediately, but Jonas wasn't letting up.

    Claire's tail-eye kept watch on the fight as she reached Cricket; taking hold of the cage around the woman's head, Claire ripped it asunder, then unhinged her jaw. Lifting the woman slightly, she bit off her head.

    ~My dear! Your form is making you more savage than normal.~ It didn't seem to be quite a condemnation; rather, he appeared to be making an observation. If a little queasily.

    ~A little, sure. But I need her powers.~ She let the head slide down her gullet, where it lodged in a niche she opened up for it. As she did so, she stripped away everything except the brain itself, then sent arteries, veins and nerves invading it. This was a different sort of connection than her father had; Cricket was a prisoner, not a guest. ~Also, biomass. Among other things, this will be useful for when I'm giving you a new body later on.~

    ~Really?~

    ~Don't think too deeply about it, Dad. Nature does it too. I'm just taking a shortcut.~

    Taking hold of the body, she took great bites out of it, dissolving the mass into protein as soon as it hit her throat. Her body expanded as if it were a balloon being inflated under pressure.

    Her tail-eye alerted her to the danger even before Hookwolf let out a roar of rage and loss. With Cricket's left leg still in her grasp, she turned as she came up in a rising lunge. Hookwolf, his exterior a whirling maze of razor-sharp blades, came hurtling at her. He was sporting four arms and each of them was a weapon; he had an axe, a sword, a hammer and something with far too many pointy bits for her to readily identify. Jonas, for once caught on the back foot, was in hot pursuit.

    Her body-sense picked out exactly where in that mass of metal was Hookwolf's core. She didn't try to avoid his attack, but instead lifted her hand, preparing to slam a spike through -

    ~My dear. If I may?~

    She wasn't sure what he was intending, but she trusted him. ~Go for it, Dad.~ She completed the connections, giving him nominal control over her body.

    From her hand, instead of a spike, burst … bone. An endless stream of it. Hookwolf struck it, shattered it, but was slowed down. Each individual piece seemed to explode into clamps that locked around Hookwolf's body. He broke them again and again, but breaking them only made for more pieces, which then expanded once more.

    ~What the fuck is this? Where am I?~ The mental voice was thoroughly enraged, and slightly deranged. Claire could see exactly what was wrong with Cricket. She began to tweak, even as her father continued to work his bone shards in between Hookwolf's layers of armour.

    ~Oh, hi, Cricket. Guess what. You helped kill my Dad, so you get to loan me your powers for the duration.~

    ~Like fuck I am. My powers are MY powers, bitch. Nobody uses them but me.~

    Claire sighed internally and brought Cricket to a mental even keel that would have required hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of therapy and medication to achieve in the normal run of things. ~We can do this the easy way or the hard way. The easy way is you do what I say. The hard way is I shave away everything from your brain that makes you 'you' and I just keep the part that controls your powers. Your choice.~

    Cricket considered this. ~And what exactly do I have to do?~

    ~Help me take down the Empire.~

    ~I'm not turning on Hookwolf.~

    ~We'll spare both of you so long as you help out.~

    ~Deal.~

    ~Excellent. How's it going there, Dad?~

    His voice was satisfied. ~He's a tricky one, but I think I've got him locked down.~ Before her was a mass of bone over eight feet tall and ten feet across. From within, Hookwolf's life-signs pulsed brightly.

    ~What if he digs his way out?~

    ~You forget, my dear, that was my favourite trick in the old days. He's got two yards of solid bone under him as well.~

    ~Sweet. We'll be back for him. Right now, it's time to take out the trash. Cricket, if you will?~ She turned and bounded over the car, her new sonar ability mapping out everything before her. Three pistol bullets and an explosive burst of wind came back at her; while she dodged two of the bullets and the wind attack, a shield of bone stopped the last bullet.

    ~Dad, you know I can survive bullets now.~

    ~There's no sense in taking chances, princess.~

    Even as the lightning-fast exchange took place between them, she felt the air become thick and soupy once more. Her responses felt sluggish, the very air impeding her motion. She opened her jaws and roared; while impressive, the audible part of the roar was the least part of what she was doing. Also included was an ultrasonic squeal, courtesy of Cricket, that disabled the inner ear and induced extreme vertigo. That held them up just long enough for Claire to get within a few yards of them, and then they were asleep.

    Unsurprisingly, both men had sustained broken bones and other injuries from to the collision. Not that this would change matters in any way; biomass, after all, was still biomass. Picking up Krieg, she unhinged her jaw and began to eat him, making sure to keep the brain intact.

    <><>​

    Jonas approached her as she finished off Stormtiger's legs. Politely, she turned to face him. Something crunched under her foot as she did so; looking down, she realised that she'd just crushed someone's cell-phone. Crap, we might've been able to use that. “Yes?” she asked, tuning her voice to resemble what it had been while she was still human. She didn't blame Jonas for being just a little cautious; as it was, her current form was a nightmare of jet-black armour plate, fangs and razor-sharp claws. Having added the mass of three adult bodies to her own, her size was now equivalent to that of a grizzly bear. Of course, in any physical contest, said hypothetical bear would end up very dead, very fast.

    “Ah … is that you still in there, chick?” he asked diffidently. “Just asking.”

    She nodded. “It's still me, Jonas,” she assured him. “I'm just … upgrading. The Empire's declared war on us, so I'm going to show them exactly what a bad idea that was.” She flexed her spine, and another row of spikes extended alongside the first.

    “Ahh … right. It's just that … well, I can't find your father's head.” He grimaced. “I wanted to give him a proper burial … to show my respect, and all …”

    ~If I can speak to him, princess?~

    ~Sure thing, Dad.~ She adjusted the vocal chords a little, then handed over a certain amount of control to him.

    “That's all right, Jonas,” he said, in a reasonable approximation of his own voice. “I'm currently alive and well. It turns out that our dear Claire is extremely … versatile. She acquired my brain before it expired.” He nodded toward the burly man. “Though the gesture of respect is greatly appreciated.”

    When Marquis started speaking, Jonas' eyes opened wide. To his credit, he didn't back away, but waited until his boss had finished.

    “Right then, sir,” he declared. “So will you be, uh, coming back, then?”

    “Claire assures me that it won't be much trouble to make me a new body,” Marquis said, sounding somewhat bemused. “But in the meantime, I agree that now is the time to end the Empire once and for all. So if you can take my body home and put it in the large freezer, we'll be home soon. We can talk about a burial ceremony then.”

    Jonas nodded firmly, apparently relieved to have something concrete to deal with. “And what about the asshole inside that bone block, sir?”

    Claire made her mouth smile; or at least, she bared her teeth. This time, Jonas did step back. “Oh,” she said in concert with her father. “We'll deal with him.”

    <><>​

    Brad Meadows struggled to burst out of the enclosing block which held him prisoner. Every time he forced the bone to crack, it immediately fixed itself, robbing him of the leverage he had just used. Metal spikes and blades pushed their way into the bone, which then solidified around them, trapping his weapons. He was just lucky that the bone was porous enough for him to breathe …

    A shudder ran through the block, and he thought he heard a crack. He heaved, and felt part of the block shift. Fuckin' yes, he exulted. The cavalry has arrived. He just hoped that whoever it was wouldn't gloat too much over his predicament. And that they'd left some part of that … whatever that bitch was, so he could shred it for killing Cricket. They'd slept together a few times, but it wasn't romance. It wasn't even a relationship. At most, they were battle buddies with benefits. But nobody kills my battle buddy.

    The bone in front of him crumbled and fell apart, and he flexed his arms, bringing new blades to the fore. Image was everything, and he intended to show the image of a warrior ready for anything. “About fuckin' time …” He stopped talking as he took in what was waiting for him. The Brute he'd been fighting – and for a total unknown, the asshole could really land a punch – was standing back a ways, arms folded and a look of satisfaction on his face. His totally unscarred face. Okay, that just wasn't fair; the guy was a Brute and a regenerator?

    All of this passed through his mind in a heartbeat. Then he raised his eyes to take in the horror looming over him. Eight feet tall if it was an inch, a much larger version of whatever it was had eaten Cricket, and it was right there.

    And he couldn't move.

    The thing brought its head in very close to his; the vaguely reptilian muzzle was plated in something black and shiny which he suspected would be proof against anything he could do to it. “Hi,” it said, in the voice of a teenage girl. “You cut my Dad's head off while he was still alive. While he was still awake. I'm gonna return the favour now, mmkay? Just so you know what it's like.”

    His vocal chords unfroze, and he found that he was able to speak. Taking a shuddering breath, he stammered, “F-f-fuck you, bi-”

    The monster struck.

    <><>​

    Claire watched the car drive away down the street. The chassis had taken surprisingly little damage from the collision with rubble, and the tyres were still whole. After shoving it back on to the road, she had ripped the smashed windshield out of the car; Jonas had assured them that he could take it from there.

    Of course, there was the other problem she had to deal with now.

    ~ … no fucking way I'm working with that bitch. She killed you! She killed me!~ Even with the mental reconditioning she'd given him, Hookwolf was still obnoxious.

    ~I worked out a deal with her. We help her, we get to leave town.~ Cricket, on the other hand, seemed more than anxious to please.

    ~You're shitting me, yeah? You made a deal with her?~

    ~Yes. We can't beat her. It can't be done.~ Certainty coloured the woman's mental voice. ~We do this, she lets us go. Together.~

    ~If you're about finished?~ Claire prompted. ~We've got places to be.~

    [Now, now. Give them a little more time, princess.] Her father's voice, communicating on the private channel she had set up, was a little amused. [They've got a lot to get used to.]

    [Okay.] She let the argument between Cricket and Hookwolf slide into the background. ~So, James. May I call you James? This was all your idea, yeah?~

    ~It was.~ Krieg's voice was resigned. ~I see now that it was a mistake. I think I should have used a much larger bomb.~

    Fury blinded her for a moment, and she caused his pain centres to flare. ~You want to die, you son of a bitch?~

    [Princess, you said we needed him. Remember what I said about the difference between torture and killing?]

    [And what if I haven't decided which way I want to go?]

    [Then decide. Now.]

    ~Gah. Ahh. I stand corrected. That was … singularly unpleasant. What do you want from me?~

    ~Just one thing, and it gets you a second chance.~

    ~And that is?~

    ~Help us take down the Empire. Use your powers when and where I direct. And once this is over, you get to leave Brockton Bay forever.~

    ~I … I have family here.~

    ~Then take them with you. Just never come back.~

    ~That's it?~

    ~That's it,~ she agreed.

    ~Then I accept.~

    ~Good. Stormtiger?~

    ~Did you fuck with my brain?~ The villain's voice was abrupt.

    ~Yes. You had a few mental issues. I removed them. I wanted you thinking clearly when I presented the deal.~

    ~You had no fucking right to do that.~

    ~You had no fucking right to blow up Somers Rock and cut my Dad's head off. Yet, you did it. I'm really not seeing your high moral ground, here.~

    ~But - ~

    ~Listen,~ she interrupted him. ~I've got many options for making sure I get what I want. This is the one where you get to walk away with your mind intact. Now, deal or no?~

    ~What's the difference to you?~ He sounded resentful.

    ~I want to be able to look back and say that I gave you every chance before I just took what I wanted. Do you really want me to go that way?~

    ~Oh, for fuck's sake!~ yelled Cricket. ~Take the fucking deal already! She's got us over a fucking barrel!~

    Claire saw the moment when Stormtiger's stubbornness collapsed. ~Fine. Deal.~

    ~Excellent. And just in time, it seems.~ She tilted her head; at long last, sirens were becoming audible. ~Took them long enough.~

    At the back of her mind, her father chuckled. ~It's only been ten minutes, princess. Give them some credit.~

    ~What happens now?~ That was Cricket. ~You're good, but if we tangle with the PRT and the heroes, this gets a whole lot harder.~

    ~If we're going after Kaiser and the Empire, we'll have to evade the forces of law and order first.~ Krieg was surprisingly matter of fact over the whole thing, which made Claire wonder exactly what he'd seen and done in his time. ~I suggest we take to the sewers.~

    ~Fuck the sewers, fuck the PRT and fuck the heroes too. Put me in the driver's seat and I'll show you how to do serious damage.~ It appeared that Hookwolf was also in a mood to cooperate … for a given definition of 'cooperate'.

    ~I don't see the problem.~ That was Stormtiger. ~We can barrel past the PRT while they're still pulling their thumbs out of their asses.~

    ~Heroes are the problem, dumbass,~ Hookwolf said. ~They'll slow us down long enough for the PRT to get involved.~

    Stormtiger was unfazed. ~So we just eat them, too.~

    ~That way lies a kill order. Also, my darling daughter doesn't want me killing heroes. Thus, we don't kill heroes.~

    ~Technically, it's not killing if we let them go later,~ Krieg pointed out.

    ~I doubt very much that the PRT will hold the same opinion. So we don't go there.~

    Claire smiled. ~It's okay. I've got a plan.~ She began to reshape the shared body.

    ~The fuck?~ That was Hookwolf, half a second ahead of the others.

    ~Whoa, what are you doing?~

    ~Not a tactic I would've considered.~

    ~What the fuck?~

    Rising over the babble, Marquis' voice came through loud and clear. ~Need a hand there, princess?~

    ~No, I got this,~ she said. ~So long as everyone does their part.~

    As the first emergency vehicles turned on to the street, the massive midnight-black leonine creature leaped into the air. Enormous wings, braced with steel and feathered with bone, unfurled and flapped thunderously. Buoyed up by telekinetic force and following winds, the creature gained altitude at a startling pace. Banking around in a long turn, it set course for the downtown area of Brockton Bay.

    ~So, James. Where can I find Kaiser?~

    ~Do you know where the Medhall building is?~

    She smiled again, baring her teeth to the wind.

    <><>​

    Max Anders

    Max tapped away at the computer on his desk. From time to time, he glanced at the clock on his desktop. The time had just passed nine o'clock, which meant that the trap at Somers Rock should have been sprung by now. It's a pity that we have to blow up the meeting place, but I suppose James is right. It's worth it to get Marquis out of our hair.

    Time dragged on; thirty seconds became a minute. And then his cell-phone rang. He snatched it up and hit the answer button. “James. Give me the good news.”

    The first clue he had that something was wrong was in the very tone of Krieg's voice. Normally urbane and collected, the Empire lieutenant was breathing raggedly and sounded as if he were in pain. The second clue came in the first four words.

    Max, we fucked up. We killed Marquis, but the girl isn't just a healer. She's a Changer. And they've got another cape, a Brute. Hookwolf's taking him on right now. Cricket's out of the fight. I'm injured, Stormtiger as well. And the girl – there she is! Get her!”

    Krieg's voice was cut off by the sound of several gunshots, followed by a monstrous roar that strained the capacity of the speaker on Max's end. From the sounds of it, Krieg's phone then clattered to the ground. Then Max heard what had to be heavy footsteps. Far heavier than a teenage girl should be able to make. What sort of Changer is she? he asked himself. The next sound turned his stomach, but he forced himself to listen anyway. It was the sound of teeth crunching through gristle and bone. It was the sound of someone being eaten. The sounds went on for a minute or so before a sudden burst of crackling static ended the call.

    Max Anders grimaced. If his surmise was correct, he'd just heard two members of the Empire Eighty-Eight die. Worse, Krieg was an important link to Gesellschaft. At worst, he had to assume that the Empire had just lost four capes to an unspecified Changer and an unknown Brute. That made her … formidable. The only good news in all that was Marquis' death. Of course, this also had a downside, in that the girl was now angry at the Empire. Quite a downside.

    On the upside, she had no way of knowing where he was. The worst she could do was harass his people; given adequate lead time, he could set up an ambush relatively easily. A Brute could only do so much to protect her; hit the Changer hard enough and she would go down.

    He nodded and raised his desk phone. “Alert all operatives in the building to report to my office immediately.” Without waiting for a response, he put the phone down again. The Biermann sisters were in school at the moment, which was a pity; they would have enjoyed this mission. However, even without them, the Empire could certainly muster enough firepower to contain this situation.

    Purity was the first to arrive, shooting him a quick smile. He made sure to return it; while he wasn't ready to begin courting her quite yet, that time would be soon.

    Next in the door was Justin, or Crusader as he was calling himself. The Empire's newest recruit, Justin was only seventeen and cockily sure of his capabilities. Max was interested in seeing how well he did against this new menace.

    Geoff and Dorothy arrived together, strolling in side by side as if stepping out of a fifties sitcom. Max was only just now getting over the shudder that went down his spine whenever he saw them. Behind that immaculate grooming and those empty smiles was … something horrible. But they were loyal to the Empire, so he ignored his own feelings about them.

    Panzer was a little tentative about entering, in her reimagining of a World War Two tanker's uniform, with the goggles pushed up on her forehead. She sidled into the room and stood at the back of the group.

    Last to enter was Alabaster, still buckling on his shoulder holster. He stepped over to the group and stood there, waiting.

    Rather than bid them sit – there weren't enough chairs – Max stood. “We have a problem,” he stated flatly. “You people are the solution.”

    Justin looked around, surprise creeping over his expression. “Uh … aren't there normally more people here? Like Hooksy and Cricket?” He glanced toward Max, and something about the latter's expression caused him to belatedly add, “Uh,sir?”

    Max decided to ignore the disrespect, this time. “That's the problem. Krieg, Stormtiger, Hookwolf and Cricket went out to make a deal with Marquis. Unfortunately, Marquis attacked them, along with his daughter, and an unknown Brute.” The lie rolled easily off his tongue. “I've lost communications with them. As far as we know, they're either dead or in captivity. I want you to go to the site of Somers Rock, and evaluate what happened there.”

    “Somers Rock?” Purity looked stunned. “That's truce territory. Marquis would never have violated a truce, especially with Marchioness along. He always respected that sort of thing.”

    Why can't people just believe what they're told? Max kept his expression tightly controlled. “I got a call from Krieg. He said something about Somers Rock blowing up. He and the others only just got out in time, then Marquis' people attacked. There was also something about Marquis being dead and the girl being a Changer, then he was cut off.” He pointed in the general direction of north. “I don't know any more. Go. Find our people.”

    There was a general exodus toward the door, though Purity stayed behind a moment. “I hope you're right about this, Max,” she said softly. “I've never heard of Marquis doing something like this.”

    “He's been away for years, Kayden,” he said smoothly, exerting all of his charm. “Then he came back and found out that his old territory had been taken over. Are we surprised that he's taking shortcuts to get it back?”

    Reluctantly, she nodded. “I guess.” Turning to the window, she opened it. As she climbed on to the sill, she looked over her shoulder. “I'll let you know what happens.” Arching forward, she dived clear of the building, on what looked for all the world like a one-way trip to the pavement far below. But one second later, she lit up and rocketed away. Max walked over and closed the window.

    Maybe I need to work on her a little more. She really should've just accepted my word.

    <><>​

    Kayden Russel

    I'll be there long before the others. Kayden felt a twinge of smug superiority as she blasted across the city. She knew that Max was singling her out for special treatment because he recognised her worth. She was one of the Empire's hard hitters; as a flier and a blaster, she could stay out of the reach of most enemies while hitting them with attacks that could level buildings. Which meant, of course, that she wouldn't be so stupid as to land before the others got there. Air support stays in the air.

    Brockton Bay had very few other fliers; while she'd heard that the Wards were fielding a kid who could fly and take a hit, she doubted that he'd be opposing her any time soon. Thus, she was concentrating mainly on the ground to make sure she didn't lose her way. Which made it a considerable surprise when she swept around a building and came within twenty feet of colliding with … what the hell was that, anyway?

    Pulling sharply upward, she arched backward in a classic Immelmann turn, then rolled over to look at what she'd nearly run into. While she got a good view, it didn't help her confusion any. It was … a tiger? Or maybe a mountain lion? Whatever it was, it was also about ten or twelve feet long, with enormous wings keeping it aloft. The wings and eyes were the only thing about it that broke the darkness of the rest of its body, the former apparently composed of steel and bone and the latter a glaring yellow.

    If it was any consolation, the creature … thing … whatever it was, had been just as badly surprised by the near-miss as she was. It was only just now recovering; belatedly, she realised that it was turning, beating its wings strongly to gain altitude toward her.

    She didn't recognise it as an enemy, but nor was it any ally that she knew about. She considered calling Max to ask him, but then she recalled that he didn't know any more about this than she did. Still, she was now sharing airspace with a truly bizarre creature, and she had time to spare. If I can recruit it, Max will be thrilled.

    “Who are you?” she called. “Can you understand me?” This is gonna suck if it can't understand or speak English.

    The creature's mouth opened, and what came out was English, but she needed a few seconds to comprehend what had been said. “It's Marchioness,” she heard. “We met at Somers Rock. I was with my father.”

    What?

    She took a moment to stare at the creature before her. It had to weigh half a ton at least. Against all sane logic, it was supporting itself in the air on a pair of massive wings – that weren't, she realised after a few seconds, even moving. This did not fit her memory of the slender girl in the evening dress. But Max did say she was a Changer. Wow, some change. Reflexively, she backed off another few yards. “Are we gonna fight?” she asked cautiously. “Kaiser says you attacked his men. Where were you going?” All of a sudden, she felt a lot less smug about being a flier, especially given that the others could give her minimal backup from the ground.

    “Kaiser blew up Somers Rock with us inside it!” shouted the … the girl. “Then Hookwolf cut my dad's head off! He was gonna kill me too! So yes, we attacked them!”

    What.

    “No, no, that can't be right,” Kayden protested. “Max would never do something like that.” The Max she knew, and occasionally fantasised about, was a better man than that.

    Isn't he?

    She knew how stressed he was getting about Marquis' return to Brockton Bay. He could be extremely ruthless if he had to be; she knew this. But would he break the neutrality of Somers Rock to be rid of an enemy like Marquis?

    “It wasn't his idea,” Marchioness shouted back. “It was all Krieg. He just went along with it.”

    To her dismay, Kayden found that to be more believable. That sort of move was very Krieg. Especially if he set it up first and only told Max afterward.

    Kayden took a deep breath. Marchioness didn't seem to be attacking just yet, and it didn't seem as though she could gain altitude as fast as Kayden could, so she didn't have the upper hand in a potential fight. Which meant that Kayden could afford to talk. “Okay, so tell me what happened.” While I compare it with what Max told me. “Where did the Brute come from?”

    “The Brute?” Marchioness seemed a little confused. “Oh, you mean … ha. No, he's not a Brute. He's just … really strong and tough. He's one of Dad's men. He hit Krieg and Stormtiger with the car, and saved my life.”

    Kayden was pretty sure that 'really strong and tough' was more or less the definition of Brute, especially someone who could pick up a car and hit someone with it, but she let that go. “Where are they now? How badly are they injured? And what about Hookwolf and Cricket? What have you done with them?”

    “They're … alive,” Marchioness answered, just a little evasively. “I had to, uh, resort to extreme measures. But they tried to kill us!” Indignation coloured her tone. “I thought Somers Rock was neutral!”

    “It is,” Kayden assured her. “But Kaiser said you blew it up.” She tensed, building up energy in case the tiger-thing decided to attack her.

    “What?” Marchioness sounded confused. “I told you, Krieg blew it up. I smelled the explosive, but Dad and me still got caught in the explosion. Then they attacked us so we had to fight back.”

    “Wait, what do you mean by 'extreme measures'?” asked Kayden suspiciously. “And where are they?”

    “Before I answer, I need you to promise that you won't freak.” If a half-ton pitch-black flying tiger could be said to look shifty, this one did. “I mean it. It's gonna sound really weird.”

    We have super-powers. I can fly and shoot blasts of energy. My boss can make metal appear from nowhere. I think 'weird' is our ground state, right now. “Okay,” she said cautiously. “You've warned me. How weird are we talking?”

    “Um, I ate them?”

    For a long moment, Kayden thought the girl was kidding. But when no laughter was forthcoming – although she wasn't sure that she wanted to see this thing laugh – she began to take the statement seriously. “You did what?”

    “Okay, I didn't exactly eat them. Not all of them. I kept the brains alive, inside me. The rest of them I used for biomass. But they're alive. You want to talk to 'em?”

    The girl's voice was matter of fact, even as she said things that Kayden just knew would keep her awake in the early hours of the morning. I kept the brains alive, inside me. “Wait, what? Talk to them?”

    “Sure.” The girl's voice changed then. “Purity. Do you recognise my voice?”

    “Krieg?” Kayden didn't know whether to be relieved or horrified. “Is that really you?”

    He seemed to sigh. “Yes. We miscalculated badly. It was all my idea, but … I really had no idea what resources Marquis could call on. Once Marchioness recovered, the battle was lost.”

    The tone, the word use, everything he was saying seemed to be pure Krieg. But this could be a trick of some kind. “Tell me something only you would know.”

    “My name is James Fliescher. Hookwolf's name is Bradley. The second letter of Kaiser's surname is N.” His voice was resigned. “Purity, we can't win. She's got all of us in here. She's got access to our powers. We broke the truce. We blew up Somers Rock.”

    This was too much for her to handle at once. “What does she want? Where's she going?”

    “It's me again.” Marchioness was speaking now. “It's really simple. The Empire attacked us. Your boss declared war on us. I'm gonna take the war to him, and I'm gonna put an end to the Empire. I thought you were nice when we first met, so I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt here. You didn't know they were gonna do this, did you?”

    Kayden grimaced. “I didn't know anything about it.” She paused, a question occurring to her. “Why were you even meeting there? Whose idea was it?”

    “I'll let Dad explain that one.” Marchioness' voice shifted again. “My dear Purity. Radiant as ever, if you'll excuse the witticism.”

    “Marquis.” She would have recognised his cultured tones anywhere. “I thought you were dead. She said Hookwolf cut your head off.”

    “He did.” The tiger's head nodded. “But my daughter is quite ingenious. She saved me, just as she saved the brains of the others. However, that's neither here nor there. A few nights ago, some Empire men attacked people under my protection, in my territory. I contacted Kaiser over the matter, and he claimed that they weren't Empire. He offered to meet at Somers Rock to discuss the situation. I took the offer in good faith. But apparently it was a trap. So here we are.”

    “Okay.” She rubbed at her temples. “You say they're alive, but they're just … brains, now? What happens when you're finished with them?” She had a horrifying image of a pile of human brains ejected on to the ground, unable to see, hear or even feel what was happening to them.

    “My daughter will be supplying them with new bodies,” Marquis stated. The sky is blue, water is wet, Marchioness can make new bodies for disembodied brains. “They will, of course, be required to leave Brockton Bay and never return, but this does not seem to pose a problem for them, given the alternative.”

    Why am I not surprised, when the other option is sharing a city with something that can eat their bodies and use their powers? “Right. So you're going to confront Kaiser now, I take it?” Max, she decided, was not going to be happy with this.

    “Sure.” It was Marchioness again. “Krieg might've thought of the idea, but he signed off on it, so I think it's only fair. Are you gonna try to stop me?”

    There was just one chance to avert this. “Do you even know where you're going?”

    “Yeah. Krieg told us. The Medhall building. This means that Kaiser's Max Anders, right?” For a half-ton flying tiger, Marchioness was being amazingly chirpy.

    There goes my chance of talking to him alone. Kayden sighed slightly. “Yes.”

    The tiger's head tilted a little. “So, are you gonna try to stop me?” she asked again.

    Kayden considered her options.

    <><>​

    Max Anders

    “No, I don't know where she is. I thought she was with you.” Max gritted his teeth. “She was supposed to scout out the area and report back to you. You haven't seen her at all?” Why couldn't people just do what they were told?

    Not a peep,” Alabaster said. “We got cops and fire department all over the scene at Somers Rock, though, so we couldn't stop. PRT's out in force, too.”

    “So what did you see?” demanded Kaiser.

    There was a muted discussion, then Alabaster got back on the phone. “Somers Rock's totalled. Wreckage everywhere. Big-ass chunk of bone stuck in the ground; looks like the PRT's gonna have to truck it away.”

    “Marquis.” Max put his hand over his eyes. I thought Krieg said he was dead.

    What we thought, yeah,” agreed Alabaster. “Also, some big-ass bloodstains with forensics guys crawling all over them. I counted five. One was on the chunk of bone. So maybe that's where Marquis bought it?”

    “We can only hope. Anything else? Bodies? Pieces of bodies? Body bags? Were they questioning anyone?” Max knew he was grasping at straws here, but he had to try.

    Nope, no bodies. They were talking to a couple people, but nobody looking like a Brute or that little girl,” reported the albino. “Looked like local street trash, to be honest.”

    “Right. Stay in the area. See what those people do once the cops have finished talking to them.” Max leaned back in his chair. It was a long shot, but it was the best one he had. “Call me back the moment you've got something.”

    Gotcha, boss.” The phone went dead. Max put it down again, closed his eyes, and rubbed at his forehead with his fingertips. What the hell's going on? Where is Purity?

    As if in answer to his question, there came a tap at the window; at the same time, light impinged on his closed eyelids, turning his world pink. “Finally,” he snapped, leaping from the chair and striding over to the window. Undoing the latch, he flung the window open, holding up his arm to shield his eyes from her glare. “Where the hell have you been?”

    She stepped inside, abating her glare as she did so, and that was when he realised that something was very wrong. For behind her, hovering soundlessly on outstretched wings of steel and bone, was an oversized tiger, wrought in utter blackness. Its burning yellow eyes focused on him as Kayden spoke.

    “Max, we need to talk.”



    End of Part Eleven

    Part Twelve
     
    Last edited: Nov 19, 2017
  2. Dreadis

    Dreadis No idea whats going on

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    Its Tires in American
     
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  3. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Unless it's either written down, or the actual pronunciation differs (such as 'aluminium' vs 'aluminum') then I will use British/Australian spelling.
     
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  4. Dreadis

    Dreadis No idea whats going on

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    I have no clue on the pronunciation, might have to look it up for that one.
     
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  5. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Ah... you done goofed, Max. One lie too much. And it seems your people are picking a chance to live over dying for you.
     
  6. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    It's the same.
     
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  7. alethiophile

    alethiophile Shadowed Philosopher Administrator

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    Ahaha.

    On being attacked, just forcibly merge with everyone else in the fight and steal their powers, then grow wings and fly away. Clearly this was the most intuitive and reasonable course of action to take.
     
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  8. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    For extremely specific definitions of 'most', 'intuitive' and 'reasonable', sure. :p
     
  9. Prince Charon

    Prince Charon Just zis guy, you know?

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    I'm getting Taylor vibes, here.
     
  10. edale

    edale Versed in the lewd.

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    Oh god... Skitter vs Marchioness... Escalation vs Escalation... Weep over the possibility of this ever happening.

    Zion would be ducking for cover.
     
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  11. pepperjack

    pepperjack A Variety of Cheese

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    Hyperbole, of course. Pretty sure he wrote the book on "eat all enemies and steal their powers."
     
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  12. edale

    edale Versed in the lewd.

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    Well considering a weaker version of Marchioness and Skitter working together killed Zion in one universe already...:D
     
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  13. Thief of Words

    Thief of Words Still Broken, but Less Lost

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    In his defense, it's a smidge jarring to see when the story's set in the U.S. with no real reason for the discrepancy innate to the story (such as Michael Allen being viewpoint character or narrator to provide a source of the idiosyncrasy) to have sudden usages that the characters wouldn't include.
     
  14. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    I see your point.

    Unfortunately, I can't guarantee that I'll catch all such spelling idiosyncrasies, though I will do my best to correct slang terms.
     
  15. mouse

    mouse Know what you're doing yet?

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    eh, if you were writing your own story, regardless of the setting I'd expect you to use your natural spelling rather than Americanisms for anything that's not explicitly written in-universe. It's only the 'borrowing another's setting' that makes it potentially confusing, and even that I'd argue is not especially relevant, given you're the one writing this story regardless of the origin of the base universe.
     
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  16. SwiftRosenthal

    SwiftRosenthal Connoisseur.

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    Yeah. Just imagine how weird it would be to read a Harry Potter fic in which everyone speaks Texan, even the narrator.
     
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  17. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Actually, as it happens, I'm trying my hand at a novel where the two main characters are from Georgia. So I've been reading up on Georgia slang.

    Interesting reading, and I've been careful to insert it where needed.
     
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  18. SaintMichael95

    SaintMichael95 Not too sore, are you?

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    Love the story, but honestly, and I'm probably going to get slammed for this XD, I wouldn't have cared all that much if Marquis had actually kicked the bucket. I don't much like people that mess around with a married person, granted he's a villain but still.

    And besides I don't really think it makes much sense that he would do that even when approached by the woman and not actually seeking them out. In his words he doesn't want to wreck a marriage. It would make more sense to me if he just didn't take the risk. Not to mention that he is supposed to have an aversion to hurting kids and women. Well, what happens when the husband eventually finds out that the wife cheated on him and gets a divorce? It's well known that divorces are particularly hard on children and in many cases traumatizing. It doesn't make much sense that he would be willing to be a participant in traumatizing children, thus why I don't think he would take the risk, I.e. sleeping with a married woman that has kids. Just doesn't make much sense to me, and I honestly don't see what it really adds to the story anyway...

    It also just occurred to me, as divorces are extremely traumatizing, and kids are much more prone to triggering than adults, what if the kid triggers, knows who exactly their mom cheated on their dad with, decides to track them down and kill them in revenge. Then Marquis has a pissed off parahuman child out for his blood, literally and he's caught between his vow to not hurt women or children or possibly die if the power set the kid triggered with is especially powerful. As Marquis would say, there's always a bigger shark, or parahuman in this case.

    These are things I personally believe Marquis would consider, and so I highly doubt he would actually do that, because even if it is so infinitesimally small, the risk of mentally harming and traumatizing a child through the divorce that happens partially due to him, and possibly creating an implacable enemy with a revenge boner for him, is still there.
     
  19. macdjord

    macdjord Well worn.

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    If he were the kind of person to think that way, then he wouldn't be a gang boss in the first place - he'd either be a Hero or a Well-Intentioned Extremist Villain like Accord trying to make the world a better place. The fact that he's willing to do what he does implies he doesn't consider himself accountable for the indirect consequences of his actions that way - if causing a divorce counted as 'hurting children', then surely disappearing their father would too.
     
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  20. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Note that his (previously mentioned) technique is to break off the relationship before it ever gets to "Imma leave my husband for you." and he makes that clear to them. They get to have a strings-free affair (he's not being clingy to them) and he gets to have a roll in the hay.
     
  21. SaintMichael95

    SaintMichael95 Not too sore, are you?

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    Eh, well either way, I still wouldn't have shed a tear if he had died. Kinda wish he would have tbh...
     
  22. Thief of Words

    Thief of Words Still Broken, but Less Lost

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    No worries. Just wanted to put my two cents in on it, since it's a pretty common giveaway.
     
  23. Threadmarks: Part Twelve: Home to Roost
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Another Way

    Part Twelve: Home to Roost

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



    “Max, we need to talk.”

    The utter banality of the words caused Max's brain to stutter to a halt for a split second, before he focused once more on the apparition hovering outside the window. Wind blasted in through the opening, while the flying beast's wings moved not at all.

    Max Anders was not a stupid man, nor a naïve one. He'd been brought up at his father's knee with the full expectation that he'd take over both family concerns when the time came. To learn how to manage Medhall efficiently, he'd studied business administration in college. Running a criminal empire required a rather more esoteric skillset, one which Allfather had taken it on himself to teach Max—Kaiser, once he'd triggered—in their spare time.

    A significant part of that education had to do with potential betrayal from within the ranks. Backstabbing, after all, was almost written into the villainous lifestyle. The conscientious supervillain not only learned how to deal with it effectively and efficiently, but also how to spot it before it became a problem. While Max didn't know what this thing was, he had a very strong suspicion that it wasn't friendly. Also, that Purity was on its side rather than his.

    At a thought, metal blades sprang from the floor between him and Purity. One in particular, he aimed at her. Before the gleaming curtain walled off that side of the room, he had the grim satisfaction of seeing the shocked look in her eyes as the blade punched in through her lower abdomen. She was not the first person he'd done this to; once the blade burst out between her shoulder-blades, her remaining life expectancy could be measured in minutes. But he neither gloated nor took it on faith that the midnight-black thing would long remain outside the window. Nor did he blindly accept that his metal wall would stand against it for long.

    Lunging for his desk, he threw himself over it to land on the floor beyond. The noise of a thunderous blow followed him over, and metal shards smashed into the sturdy wooden barricade. Ordinarily they would have torn clear through the desk, but Max had planned ahead and concealed heavy steel plates behind the decorative panels.

    But this was only a temporary refuge, and he knew it. Up under the edge, right where a seated person might find it, was a prominently displayed button. He reached up and jammed his thumb on it. Seconds seemed to stretch into hours as the wall panel behind the desk slid aside with a low hum to reveal a cramped elevator. Giving the area around the desk another layer of razor-sharp blades, he lunged out from under the desk and into the elevator. Once inside, he slapped his palm on the lower of the two buttons, and the door slammed shut once more. The elevator dropped away, leaving him scrambling for a handhold, for there were no stops between his office and the sub-basement where he was bound. Had he more warning, he would've warned the pilot to warm up the helicopter on the roof, but no such luck. In any case, an unarmed helicopter had no chance against a hostile flyer, such as the tiger-thing seemed to be. On the whole, he judged it better that he take the underground route to a safe location. One that only his trusted lieutenants knew about. And to think I was considering Kayden for that position. Absently, he wondered what inducement she'd been offered to change sides.

    Mere seconds before the elevator reached its destination, he heard the first explosions from above. This was a mixed blessing; on the one hand, it meant that the motion-sensors in the elevator shaft were working. On the other, it meant that the tiger-thing had fought its way through his blades and gotten to the elevator shaft already. Shaped charges, triggered by the sensors, would be blasting columns of molten metal across the shaft, destroying anything foolhardy enough to try to follow him. The elevator itself was safe from the explosions; while it wasn't Tinkertech, it had been designed to not need anything so failure-prone as a cable.

    It juddered to a halt and the door whisked open just as metal fragments began to patter on its roof. Striding out confidently, he slapped the panel which would send the elevator upward as fast as it could travel. As satisfying as it would've been to have it loaded with explosives, that would make his initial trip in it fraught with peril, especially if his enemies had access to the detonation codes.

    More detonations sounded from above, but he was still moving. A heavy set of blast doors barred his way, right up until he pressed his palm to the reader, whereupon they opened with a hiss. Stepping through, he traversed a short length of corridor, the raw concrete unadorned save for fluorescent tubes affixed to the ceiling. Behind him, the blast doors slammed shut once more. Ahead, another set of doors slid open and interior lights came on, illuminating a pair of seats situated side by side in a small capsule. Extravagantly padded, they were equipped with five-point restraint harnesses.

    When he'd had this built, the possibility had crossed his mind that he would be bringing along an essential personal assistant, or even a wife or child, so he'd had the second seat installed. In the event, he was glad not to have someone else along; in time of crisis, so many people argued. If they'd all just do as he said and kept their questions for later, things would go much more smoothly.

    Taking one of the seats, he swiftly fastened the restraints, then pressed the button on the wall beside the arm-rest. The capsule doors slid silently closed, fastening with a definite clunk. He felt himself being pressed back into the padding by the acceleration as the capsule started off along the magnetic-levitation track. It had been expensive for a section of sewer line to be written off the city council's books. Having an escape capsule built into that section of sewer line had cost a lot more, but he'd never begrudged the cost. As powerful as he was, as powerful as the capes he commanded were, he'd always acknowledged the possibility that someone would penetrate his secret identity and attack him when he was out of costume, despite the unspoken rules forbidding that very act.

    Of course, he'd always thought Kayden too loyal to backstab him like that. A wry grin twisted his lip as he mused on the fact that I thought my minions were loyal could be placed on the headstone of many a deceased villain. The important fact of the matter wasn't that she'd led the enemy—whoever that was—to his very doorstep, but that she'd been punished for the crime. With any luck, the winged tiger-creature had either been sliced to ribbons by the blades in his office or immolated by the shaped charges in the elevator shaft. In any case, flyers rarely had a way to track their prey through solid earth, so he was almost certainly free and clear and ready to plan his return attack. Which reminded him; he had yet to contact his loyal minions.

    Something he couldn't do without his phone. As he recalled, he'd left it sitting on his desk when he went over to open the window for Kayden. An unwise move, in retrospect. But then, if it were so easy to spot traitors in advance, nobody would have that problem. So be it. He'd just have to wait until he got to his destination before contacting the team.

    It seems that the most careful of planning can still outsmart itself. He'd ensured that the capsule, although well underground and travelling as fast as a car on the streets overhead, could still transmit a cell-phone conversation to the towers above. Unfortunately, he'd assumed that he would still have a phone on him with which to hold said conversation. I should've had a phone system built in.

    Still, no harm done. There was a perfectly functional landline where he was going, as well as a latest-model cell-phone in the wall safe. If his precautions had been carried out as planned (and if not, heads would roll) all the data on his phone's SIM card as of a week ago would be on it. Max Anders was a man who planned for every eventuality.

    Now that the adrenaline had worn off, he was beginning to analyse the events that had taken place in his office. Krieg said Marchioness was a Changer. What if that flying creature was her? Dispassionately, he considered the idea. If that was the case, then his actions had probably saved his life; the girl almost certainly held a grudge over his part in the events that led to the death of Marquis.

    It didn't really matter. As powerful as she was, his four remaining loyal capes would almost certainly be a match for her and Purity both. They came at me through my civilian identity. I'll see them dead for that. Whatever identities Marchioness and Marquis had been using, he would trace back until he knew where the girl called home, then deal with her once and for all.

    At least I put an end to Purity. He still found it hard to believe that she had turned against him so readily, until something occurred to him. What if Marchioness is a Master as well as a Changer and a healer? The disquieting thought made no kind of sense at all, but since when were powers supposed to make sense, even at the best of times? If this were true, Purity had never truly been disloyal, which he strongly wanted to believe. This would also make it a pity that he'd had to kill her, but a Mastered minion was just as dangerous as an actual traitor.

    The capsule bumped to a stop. Max checked his watch; it was just twelve minutes since he'd hung up on Alabaster's call. He released the restraints and stood up as the doors opened automatically. Stepping out of the capsule took him into a squarish room constructed of the same raw concrete as the other end of the escape tunnel. Heavy metal doors faced him; he laid his hand on the palm-scan pad and watched it turn from red to green. The doors slid open, revealing the stairwell beyond.

    Ten minutes later, he panted up the last flight of stairs to his destination. He liked to keep fit, but this was ridiculous. From thirty feet underground to eighty feet above, up a stairwell that was barely ten feet on a side, he was utterly sick of the endless grind of concrete steps.

    It was a block of upscale townhouses, of which he was the ultimate owner. During their construction, he'd quadrupled the going rate to ensure that a relatively small square area of each floor was marked 'load-bearing' and not looked at too closely by the building inspectors. As a result, he had a secret stairwell from underground to the top floor, unsuspected by all but a very few. Krieg had known about it, of course, although nobody else did, not even Hookwolf. Max had planned to take Purity to this place once they became a little closer, but was now quite pleased that things hadn't progressed that far. And now they never will.

    He paused to catch his breath, wishing now that he'd ignored Krieg's advice and installed an elevator instead of the stairwell. Never mind that this would've blown out the number of bribes that he needed to pay (and bodies he needed to hide), it would've been so much more convenient. A silk handkerchief sufficed to wipe the sweat from his brow, and he tapped in the code to enter the townhouse proper.

    The doors hissed open and he stepped out into the master bedroom. This consisted of acres of fluffy white carpet, surrounding a bed that only escaped the designation of 'king size' by being even larger than that. Max looked back over his shoulder with satisfaction to see two sections of apparently ornamental carved oak slide back together. Hopefully I never have to use that goddamn stairwell ever again. The walk-in closet, he knew, held a selection of suits tailored to his specifications. There was food in the refrigerator, the freezer and the pantry. A single phone call would have the townhouse staffed to his satisfaction within an hour.

    But first, he knew, he had to disarm the alarm system. Then he could contact his capes and inform them exactly how badly the situation had gone sideways. He started toward the bedroom door, then paused, sniffing. He made a point not to come here too often, and only a trusted few had access to the place … so why did he smell steam from the en-suite bathroom?

    There was no way that this could be connected with what had just happened. Even if Purity knew about this place, and had survived being almost classically impaled, there was no way she'd fly here just to have a shower in his bathroom. Which meant that there was someone else in his bathroom. Someone who'd broken in, gotten past his top-of-the-line security system, and had just had a shower in his personal en-suite!

    Almost unbidden, metal slid out from his Rolex, swiftly covering his hand with a flexible gauntlet of steel. From this, a foot-long blade sprang forth. Whoever this was, they'd made a very bad mistake by invading his personal space right at this time. Normally, he might have called the police, but now he had some personal issues to work through, and they were in the exact wrong place at the exact wrong time.

    He started toward the door to the en-suite, blade at the ready. Whoever was in there, if he questioned them in the tub, it would make it a lot easier to dispose of the blood. Two steps on, however, the door opened, spilling a wave of steam into the bedroom. The intruder stepped out, dressed in one of Max's monogrammed bathrobes, drying his hair with one of Max's Egyptian cotton towels. “Why, hello, Max,” said Marquis. “I do like this place. Amazing bathroom facilities. Although I may have depleted your shampoo somewhat. Terribly sorry.”

    Max had seen parahumans do a great many strange things in his life. However, the only one he knew of who could recover from a decapitation was Alabaster—that had been a frankly stomach-turning power demonstration—and Marquis was no Alabaster. How is he even alive?

    He never saw the tentacle that slid up behind him and coiled around his ankle …

    <><>​

    Twenty-Three Minutes Ago

    Claire

    Purity stepped through the open window and powered down, her glow fading to nothing. Before her stood a handsome blond man, whom Claire assumed was Max Anders. He gave the order to kill Dad. Her power wanted to shred him, to make him die screaming in his own filth, but she held it back.

    [Good girl. Self-control is a good thing in this situation.] Her father's mental 'voice' was calm and collected, in spite of whatever feelings he might have had about the situation.

    Internally, she grimaced. [I really want to screw his day up.] It would be so easy. While she couldn't kill him or even mortally injure him from this distance, she could certainly slow him down until she got within killing range. But her father wanted to give Purity a chance to speak to Max, so she held back.

    “Max,” Purity said. “We need to talk.” The wind-rush generated by Stormtiger's power was keeping them airborne, but it also threatened to drown out the spoken word. Fortunately, Cricket's power was able to overcome this problem, so they heard the woman's words clearly.

    ~Oh, fucking hell.~ That was Hookwolf. ~Can she get any cornier?~

    ~If it works, does it matter?~ Krieg sounded amused.

    The flickering lightning-fast conversation—speech was much easier when transmitted over dedicated neural circuits—was interrupted by Max's next move; specifically, he sent a forest of blades lancing up from the floor, hiding him from view. Claire's life-sense didn't need line of sight to detect him moving away from them and leaping over something, possibly his desk.

    That put him just on the edge of her range for temporary conditions, but she was distracted by something much closer and more dire; one of the spikes had punched into Purity's stomach and out between her shoulder-blades. The real problem was that some of the blades were blocking the window, so that she couldn't get close enough to give Purity the assistance she needed. ~Purity's been stabbed.~ She shared her life-sense image with everyone.

    ~Purity!~ That was Krieg. ~God damn it, Max.~

    ~Can you help her, Marchioness?~ Her father's voice was unexpectedly urgent.

    ~Yeah, but I have to get closer.~

    ~Leave that to me. May I have control?~ He sounded as though he knew what he was doing, so she passed the 'reins' of the shared body to him. ~Thank you. Stormtiger, Krieg, make sure none of the glass hits her. Hookwolf, more metal in our claws.~

    ~Of course.~

    ~Sure thing.~

    ~You got it.~

    She felt the massive body brace itself and swing its paw, even as newly strengthened razor-sharp claws extended outward from the appendage. The blow struck the glass and the metal behind it, shattering both into a thousand flying pieces of shrapnel. None of those pieces, however, hit Purity; they all either curved around her or fell short. Now that the main obstacle was out of the way, she clambered in through the window, pushing aside the few metal blades that got in her way. The woven nanotube composite making up her outer skin barely even dented before the metal bent and broke.

    Now that she had access, she extended a tendril from her shoulder toward the stricken woman. It wrapped around Purity's arm and she started healing the damage as fast as she could diagnose it. Purity, who'd been slipping into shock a moment before, blinked her way awake and looked around. “Fuck,” she said. “I never thought he'd do that.” Then she looked down at herself, at the length of steel currently anchoring her to the floor. “Fuck!” Furiously, she looked around. “Where is that asshole?”

    “He went over there.” Claire gestured to the desk, where several shards of metal had embedded themselves into the wood panelling. “But—”

    She got no farther as Purity raised her hand and fired off a helical blast that carved its way across the office, eliminating the desk and part of the wall. A secondary explosion shook the office from a cavity in the wall.

    “—as I was about to say,” Claire said, after the echoes died away, “he's taken an elevator downward. He just left my range.” She made her tone severe. “Now, I need you to hold still. I've got your wounds closed, but that's still a very sharp blade inside you. Move and you could slice yourself open again.”

    “Right.” Purity held very still. “What are you going to do?”

    “Let me check something.” ~Cricket, how solidly is the blade attached to the floor?~

    ~Give me a burst of sonar and we can find out.~ The pit fighter seemed intrigued.

    ~Okay.~ Claire opened her mouth and let the inaudible sound-waves strike the base of the blade. ~How's that?~

    ~Perfect. Not strongly attached at all. Figure you can rip it off the floor, no problem.~

    ~Excellent. Thank you.~ Claire turned her attention to Purity. “Okay, we've got good news. We can probably lever this blade off the floor. That'll make getting it out of you a lot easier.” She made her voice upbeat, trying not to think about the penalties for slipping at the wrong moment.

    ~A suggestion, Marchioness?~ Even now, her father was unfailingly polite.

    ~Anytime.~

    ~Widen the wound channel, and I'll coat the blade with bone to dull the edge. That should make it somewhat less perilous for the young lady.~

    Once it was suggested, the concept was obvious. ~Good idea. Let's do it.~ “Okay, just to warn you, I'm going to widen the, uh, wound channel. This might feel weird, but I'll be moving your vital organs to go around it.” She pre-emptively lowered Purity's epinephrine levels, and flooded her bloodstream with endorphins to make her more relaxed and less jumpy.

    Purity's initial nervousness began to melt away. “I'm good with anything that saves my life right now. Just so long as nobody makes jokes about long hard things sticking into me.”

    On second thought, Claire decided, she may have overdone it just a touch.

    Even as she opened up the channel the blade had punched through Purity, making sure to keep blood vessels intact and organs functional, she could feel Marquis following through, layering bone on the steel to cover the edge and make it both blunt and smooth. In fact, the whole process took rather less time than it had to describe what she was going to do. “Okay, done. Now, power up.”

    Almost immediately, Purity began to glow with an almost intolerable brightness. Claire closed her main eyes and opened another pair designed to operate under this level of light. “Good.” Extending the toes of her paw into fingers, Claire took hold of the blade and tore it free from the floor. “Now, lean back and just let yourself drift out the window.”

    “Okay.” This was accompanied by a giggle. Purity, stoned as she was, followed orders perfectly. Claire tilted the blade to follow her movement, watching carefully as foot after foot of bone-coated metal emerged from the hole in Purity's abdomen. The process only took seconds, but it seemed like hours to Claire.

    “Right,” Purity said, now hovering outside the window sans blade. “Where's that murderous prick? I wanna shove that fucking blade so far up his ass he can polish it with his toothbrush. Or something.” She started forward.

    ~That's a bad idea.~ Krieg spoke dispassionately. ~He's got the elevator shaft booby-trapped.~

    “Purity, stop!” Claire called urgently. “Krieg says there's booby-traps.”

    “Well, how the fuck are we supposed to fuck his day up?” Purity stopped and came back to her. “Ask Krieg where he's going.”

    ~That's easy.~ Krieg somehow managed to convey a cold smile. ~And the best bit is, we can get there before him. Provided that Purity doesn't slow us down, of course.~

    <><>​

    Purity

    Woooohoooo!” Purity hung on for dear life as the flying tiger arrowed its way across the city. Even though she wasn't feeling quite as amazing as she had when Marchioness took the blade out of her guts, she was still rocking some serious adrenaline. Marchioness had formed a weird saddle thing on her back, along with hand-holds; these came in very handy, given that they were going a lot faster than her normal top speed. Apparently Stormtiger's power when combined with Krieg's and applied to a half-ton flying tiger equalled about three hundred miles per hour for airspeed.

    It had felt very weird when Marchioness closed the wound through her torso, without so much as a lump of scar tissue to show for it. She was sure she should've been feeling more pain, but there hadn't been so much as a twinge. The girl … tiger … whatever … was good at what she did.

    At some unseen signal, the tiger slowed dramatically and swooped down toward a block of townhouses. Flaring its wings, it came in for a four-point landing on an outdoor patio. Purity slid off to the ground, still grinning widely. “That was awesome!” A frown crossed her face as something occurred to her. “Though people probably saw us coming here …”

    The tiger's massive head shook from side to side. “I used bio-pigmentation to paint our underside blue. We just looked like a little piece of sky moving really fast.” It turned toward the keypad next to the door barring entry into the townhouse proper. “Krieg says the security code's five eight five eight five.” It snorted. “Creative.”

    Purity rolled her eyes in agreement. The Empire Eighty-Eight's initials interspersed with Hitler's? Imaginative it isn't. She went over to the panel and tapped in the numbers; a moment later, the red light on the door turned green and it clicked open. Grabbing the handle, she pulled it all the way open, then looked at the bulky tiger. “Uh, you might need to fold your wings or something …”

    The tiger—Marchioness—chuckled, a girlish sound which was extremely odd under the circumstances. “It's okay. We've got this.” A moment later, the steel and bone 'feathers' fell from the wings and clattered to the concrete of the patio; the wings then melted back into the tiger's body. Then it began to stretch in a most disturbing fashion. When its shoulders were barely the width of a muscular man's, it eased forward into the townhouse. Purity followed, closing the door behind her.

    “So, you sure Max is coming here?” she asked as the elongated tiger prowled through the living room. She watched as a massive paw reached out and delicately turned the handle of a door into what seemed to be a well-appointed bedroom. Marchioness began to enter, the odd layout of her current body form making the operation quite a protracted one.

    “Sure,” she called back over her shoulder. “He just showed up. Ten stories down. It'll take him a while to climb this far.” There was the click of another door opening. “Oh, perfect. Just what we need.”

    “Perfect? What's what you need?” Purity followed Marchioness into the bedroom, her feet sinking almost to the ankle in the fluffy white carpet. She had to detour around the bed, which seemed large enough to host a volleyball game, along with the cheerleaders and the spectator stands. Marchioness was head and shoulders through the next door, blocking Purity's view into the room. “What's in there?”

    “A bathroom.” Marchioness' voice did have a certain echo to it, reminiscent of floor to ceiling tiles. “More specifically, a tub. A big one. Or maybe a small pool, I can't quite decide which. Anyway, it's perfect for what I need.”

    “Perfect for what?” asked Purity, frustration growing as she tried to peer past Marchioness' shoulder. “And Max is on the way up, so whatever you're going to do, do it!”

    Marchioness chuckled. “He's not feeling so fit. The poor guy's gonna have to take a few rest breaks. We've got time. Oh, and if you've got a weak stomach, I'd go and turn the TV on. Just saying.”

    “Why? What are you doing in there?”

    Purity didn't know what she expected, but Marchioness' answer wasn't it. “Decanting Dad.”

    This was followed by a sound both familiar and horrifying. Purity wasn't a cat person, but she knew people who were, and she'd once been subjected to the experience of having a cat bring up a hairball in front of her. At the time, she'd thought the animal was dying. Even being assured that it was going to be fine didn't make her feel any better. The sickly choking noises had haunted her nightmares for weeks afterward.

    Marchioness' shoulders hunched and those same noises echoed from the bathroom, only magnified and enhanced by a factor of fifty. Purity stood it for about ten seconds, just long enough for another round of nausea-inducing noises to start up, then she fled into the living room, closing the bedroom door firmly behind her. Looking wildly around, she saw that Max had a well-stocked wet bar; better yet, it was unlocked. She pulled it open, then took a glass and a bottle of something that looked both alcoholic and obscenely expensive, and poured herself a generous shot. The first sip burned all the way down, but it wasn't too bad, so she took another one.

    Whatever mess she makes in there, she told herself firmly, I am not cleaning it up.

    <><>​

    Marquis

    Marquis opened his eyes. He was curled in a foetal position on a hard cold surface, encased in some sort of translucent sac. Uncurling, he felt the sac tear; warm liquid ran out and cool air rushed in. The sac retracted, pulling back from around him as he opened his mouth and took his first breath of air in what seemed like days. Looking at the world with his own eyes, smelling the air with his own nose … it felt almost strange.

    His daughter looked back at him with a jet-black tiger's face. She raised one eyebrow. “Now will you let me give you improvements?” she asked, a certain touch of asperity in her tone.

    “Would improvements have saved me from decapitation, Claire?” he asked, carefully climbing to his feet. Belatedly, he realised that he was very naked. Grabbing the shower curtain, he held it in front of himself.

    Claire chuckled. “Seriously, Dad? I just made that body.”

    “Irrelevant,” he grumbled. “There are proprieties to uphold.”

    Of course, considering the number of times she'd reformed his body between Earl Marchant and Marquis ('the classic model', as he thought of that version) it would've been astonishing if she didn't have the wherewithal to recreate him cell-by-cell. Seeking to change the subject, he added, “About those improvements?”

    “They would maybe have worked,” she said defensively. “The subdermal armour definitely would've saved you from a lot more damage if I hadn't had to start from scratch about two seconds before the explosion.”

    He sighed, knowing when he was beaten. “Fine. Once we're done here, you may do it.” His nose wrinkled, partly because of the smell of the fluid he'd been surrounded in. “Did you have to make that horrific noise?”

    Claire giggled. “Nope. But it got rid of Purity so we could talk. Anyway, you need to shower, and Kaiser's about seven minutes away. And knowing you, you're gonna want to make an entrance. I'll make your left eyelid twitch when it's time to finish the shower.” She began to withdraw from the bathroom.

    “Claire—” he began. She stopped, looking attentively at him. He shrugged awkwardly. “Thanks. For saving my life.”

    Her grin was one hundred percent smartass teenager, for all that it was on a tiger's face. “Anytime, Dad.” Then she was gone, the bathroom door pulled shut behind her.

    Marquis shrugged, a wry smile of his own crossing his face. Every day, she rewards me for being her father. Someday, I hope to be worthy of that. Turning on the shower taps, he braced himself against the Niagara-like onslaught of water that blasted down at him, scouring his body of the lingering traces of whatever Claire had formulated in place of amniotic fluid. He reached for the shampoo. Kaiser's on his way up, hmm? Well, I'd better hurry if I want to be presentable when he arrives.

    <><>​

    Marchioness

    ~I cannot believe that you used us—our bodies—to remake your father.~ Krieg was less than pleased. ~Could you not have consumed a side of beef or something similar before bringing him back from the dead? Max has one in the freezer, if you'd just asked.~

    ~Listen,~ Claire replied testily. ~The moment I ate you, it became my biomass, my body. Reclaiming it for you would've been like pouring a cup of water into an aquarium then trying to scoop that same cup of water out again. There's no point.~ She turned her attention to Max. He was puffing steadily now as she added lactic acid to his muscles and artificially induced a higher level of fatigue. Still, it looked like he'd be here in another minute or so; reaching out with her powers, she triggered the nerves in her father's left eyelid, making it flutter and twitch.

    ~Wait a goddamn second.~ That was Hookwolf. ~What about my ink? Those tattoos took days to get just right. You saying I gotta get all that shit done again? What if I forget something?~ He actually sounded legitimately upset, more so than when he'd been eaten.

    ~And my scars,~ chimed in Cricket. ~Scars are a badge. If you're not showing scars, you're not saying who you are. What you've done. Who you've beaten.~

    ~Okay, everyone shut up.~ Claire's patience was at an end. ~You'll get your tattoos and scars back. I can't guarantee everything will be perfect, but give me an idea of what you want and you'll get it. Geez.~

    Crouched in the walk-in closet, she didn't move a muscle as the secret doors slid open. Concealed in the carpet, the fluffy eyeball on a stalk observed as Max stepped into the room. She made her father's eyelid twitch again, to let him know that it was time.

    Max seemed to realise that something was going on, even before her father opened the door. By the time Marquis stepped out, the leader of the Empire Eighty-Eight had a metal gauntlet on his left hand, along with a wicked-looking blade in that same hand.

    As she snaked a pure-white tentacle out of the walk-in closet, she listened with half an ear to her father's words. He'd never been anything but on point. Presentation, he'd always told her, was the fine line that divided supervillains from mere powered criminals. Even back when his methods were somewhat harsher than they were now, he'd never ceased to portray himself as a cut above the common herd.

    Kaiser managed to shake himself free from the stunned shock, and his brain started to show the same activity that she had noted a moment before, when he summoned the metal glove and sword. If Claire was any judge of matters, he was about to use his powers again. The smart money was on something to do with her father. Not on my watch.

    The tentacle wrapped around Kaiser's ankle, latching on tightly. Even without the close contact, she would've been able to exert some influence over his brain; with it, her control was absolute. Every ounce of self-will he had dropped away, leaving him utterly suggestible and unable to even consider hostile action. He still knew who he was, and who Marquis was, but he didn't care. Claire could've put him before a table stacked high with delicacies and he'd starve to death before he took a bite … because he wouldn't care one way or the other.

    In the back of her mind, Stormtiger stirred. ~Okay, that's just fucking terrifying.~

    ~Fuck yeah,~ agreed Hookwolf. ~If I'm gonna go, I don't want it to be like that.~

    ~He's not dead, you idiots,~ Claire told them with a little irritation. ~Just … on hold.~

    Nudging the walk-in closet open, she stalked out into the bedroom. Kaiser stood there, eyes dull, sword drooping. He didn't react to her unexpected appearance, nor to Marquis' approach.

    The older villain studied the younger for a few moments, then shook his head. “I have to say, that's slightly unsettling. Is he still alive in there?”

    “Sure,” Claire said cheerfully. “I've just got the part of him that wants to kill you locked away. I'll be changing it back before I release him.” She turned to Max and said clearly, “Come with me to the living room.”

    Oblivious to the fact that he'd just been addressed by a jet-black tiger, Max obediently started toward the living room. Claire padded alongside him while behind them, Marquis entered the walk-in closet. Before she closed the door, Claire saw her father holding up a suit against himself in a speculative fashion.

    <><>​

    Purity

    Alcohol wasn't Purity's forte. In fact, she rarely drank. But in this case, she'd downed about half a glass of Max's really expensive stuff before Marchioness—a little reduced in size—accompanied a puppet-like Max into the living room. She didn't miss the white tentacle protruding from the tiger's shoulder and wrapping around her ex-boss' ankle. Nor was she oblivious to the blank look in his eyes and the way he moved at Marchioness' direction.

    “What did you do to him?” She put the glass down, but not too far away. More alcohol might be needed at any moment, after all. “Is he dead?”

    Marchioness rolled her eyes. “Why does everyone assume that? No, he's not dead. His higher functions are just temporarily suspended for the moment. Otherwise he'd probably be filling this room with razor-sharp steel. We've already seen how that goes.” She sighed. “I'll turn him back on in a moment, but first we need to take precautions. Max!”

    He turned his dull eyes toward her. “Yes?” he asked, with the barest inflection in his voice to indicate a question. Purity had to suppress a shiver from going down her spine. Max had tried to kill her—the blood-stained holes in her costume were ample proof of that—but now he looked empty. As if the man she had once harboured serious fantasies about had been cored out, and all that was left was his shell.

    Marchioness fixed her burning yellow eyes on Max's. “Once you are able to think for yourself, you will follow my orders to the letter and the spirit. Do you understand me?”

    “Yes.” The word may well have been uttered by a zombie.

    “First order.” Marchioness's voice was harsh. “Don't use your powers. Second order. Don't attack anyone. Third order. Don't ever lie to me. Do you understand?”

    “Yes.” Again, the only part of Max's body that moved was his mouth.

    “Good. I'm giving your mind back now.” She withdrew the tentacle; for a long moment, nothing else seemed to happen.

    Then, Max's body seemed to fill up from the inside. His eyes opened wide, then blinked, and he looked around. As his hands clenched together convulsively, he drew a deep breath of air into his lungs. “What the fuck did you do to me, bitch?” he grated harshly.

    “Don't speak to me like that,” Marchioness chided him; as gentle as the words were, he flinched back. His hand went momentarily to his throat as she spoke again. “Now, sit down.”

    Almost as if moving against his will, he sat down in a comfortable armchair, opposite where Purity sat on the white leather sofa. His eyes fixed on her. “What—how are you still alive?” The confusion in his voice was clear.

    “Marchioness saved me,” Purity said simply. “You're lucky I'm not blasting you into little tiny pieces right now.” Part of her wanted to, very badly.

    “You turned on me!” The animation and agitation she saw was all Max. “You led the enemy to my door! I had no choice!” He leaned forward. “What did they offer you?”

    Purity shook her head, frowning. “Nothing. We spoke. They told me that you'd had Somers Rock blown up. You set a trap in a neutral part of town. This is all on you, Max.”

    “Seriously, Purity?” His voice rang with sincerity. “You chose to believe them over me?” His chuckle sounded almost natural. “They played you. But we can still—” He broke off, choking, fighting for air.

    That was both a lie and an incitement to attack Marchioness, Purity realised. Wow, those orders are nasty. She took a deep breath. “You don't get it. She's subsumed Krieg and the others who killed her father. They spoke to me and verified the story.” She pointed at Marchioness. “Tell her that it's all a lie. I dare you.”

    Max glared at her, furious, but didn't speak. A damning silence passed, broken only when the bedroom door opened. Marquis stood there, immaculately clad in one of Max's best suits. He strode forward with a nod toward his daughter, then seated himself on the sofa beside Purity.

    “Now, it seems, we're getting to the nitty-gritty,” he announced. “So, Maximilian, has my darling daughter outlined the terms of your surrender, or are we still in the process of beating around the bush?”

    “Bush, I think,” Purity commented when Max stayed silent. “Though I think we're about done.” She raised her eyebrows. “Terms of his surrender? I'd think that terms were superfluous by now. He's defeated, well and truly.”

    “The rules of conduct—” began Max, before Marchioness silenced him with a shake of the head.

    “Don't apply,” she finished for him. “You struck first. You've forfeited your right to appeal to them. Be glad we're leaving you alive. As for what happens next, you'll obey Marquis' orders as you would mine.”

    Purity saw the fleeting smile cross Marquis' face before he began to speak. “Max Anders, otherwise known as Kaiser. You will dissolve the Empire Eighty-Eight in such a way as to make the dissolution seem natural and normal. You'll tell anyone who asks that it's your idea. Then you will leave Brockton Bay, never to return. You will never use your powers or influence to direct, assist or even suggest any hostile action against myself, my daughter, our associates or our holdings. You will never pass on to anyone what happened to you today, especially Marchioness' part in matters. Is any part of this not understood?”

    Max shook his head jerkily. “I understand all of it.”

    “Good.” Marquis' voice was like a razor hidden in silk. “Next. You will transfer ownership of all your properties in Brockton Bay into my name, or into holdings that I will name for you. You will likewise transfer all liquid assets into my control, save for … hmm. One percent. You can keep that much, I suppose.”

    Purity saw the pain in Max's eyes as every word went home. She'd thought her time in the Empire had inured her to the suffering of others, but this was the first time she had seen a man killed by degrees without a hand being laid on him. Any pity she might have felt for him was overwhelmed by the memory of his blade stabbing through her.

    “I'll need a computer,” Max replied, his words slow and reluctant. The compulsion to follow orders was pushing him, and his will was pushing back. Unfortunately for him, his will was nowhere near strong enough. “There's one in the study.”

    “Good. Be a good boy and carry out your orders, if you don't mind.” Marquis rubbed his hands together as Max rose from his chair. “Next on the agenda. Krieg, Hookwolf, Cricket and Stormtiger. I'll be offering you a choice. Stay here in Brockton Bay under my command—and I will expect absolute loyalty—or leave forever.” He looked expectantly at Marchioness.

    There was a long pause, then the tiger spoke in Krieg's voice. “I believe I shall be leaving with my family. There will be too much to explain, otherwise.”

    “That's your choice.” There was a glint in Marquis' eye. “The same prohibitions will apply to you as to Kaiser, of course.”

    The tiger seemed to choke slightly, then nodded. “Of course.”

    “Very well.” Marquis looked at the jet-black beast expectantly. “Does anyone else have anything to say?”

    When it spoke next, it was in Marchioness' voice. “The other three have agreed that they want to leave as well. To quote Hookwolf, Brockton Bay won't be the same without the Empire.”

    “Well, that's true,” Marquis agreed. “Personally, I see it as an improvement, but that's only my opinion.” He showed his teeth in a smile. “Fortunately, it is the opinion that counts at the moment.”

    “And what about me?” asked Purity, unable to stay quiet any more. “What happens to me? Am I to be given the same ultimatum; swear loyalty to you or leave Brockton Bay forever?”

    Marquis turned to look at her, one eyebrow raised quizzically. “My dear, I had no thought of inflicting that choice upon you. You, of all the Empire capes, have shown that you are a person of integrity and honour. You may stay or leave as you will. I make no demands upon you.”

    “Oh.” She felt somehow unbalanced, as if she'd been geared up for a fight that never eventuated. “So … I can just … go?”

    “Well, if you wish, certainly.” He smiled at her, then reached out and took her hand. “Or, alternately, there may be a place in my organisation for you. If you're interested in working with me, that is.” The words were almost careless, but the gaze that accompanied them said much more. She felt herself flushing slightly.

    “I, uh …” She swallowed. “Can I think about it?” The room was rather warm at the moment. She had been on the receiving end of charming offers before now, especially from Max, but she didn't feel as though Marquis wanted to conquer her. Or if he did, it would be very much a two-way street. Either way, she intended to take some time, and a cold shower, before she gave him his answer.

    From his response, it was as if he'd expected nothing else. “Of course,” he said at once. “Take all the time you need.”

    <><>​

    One Day Later

    Claire

    The breeze was a little brisk today; Claire put her hands into her jacket pockets and hunched her shoulders slightly against it as she stood outside the bus depot. She could've simply adapted to the cold, but she preferred to do it this way.

    “So how does it feel?” Her father's question sounded slightly amused. She turned to him, to see the faint smile at the corner of his mouth.

    “What, being back to normal?” She shrugged. “No different, really. It was kinda weird sharing my head with five other people for a while there, but I never actually felt that I was the wrong shape at any time. I guess my brain adapted on the fly or something?”

    His smile became introspective. “That's a very useful capability, Claire-bear. Along with the rest of them. You got me out of a very bad place yesterday. Which only proves that once the time comes, you are definitely the person to take over my organisation.” He put his arm around her shoulders, and she snuggled in to him. Moments like this made it all worthwhile.

    “That's not gonna happen for a very long time,” she said bluntly. “I'm happy being who I am for the foreseeable future. You aren't gonna get sick, and so long as I'm around the PRT's gonna be hands-off. And if anyone else tries the crap the Brigade pulled back before we left Brockton Bay, I'll send 'em back tied into pretzels.” She hoped it wouldn't be necessary, but sometimes it just was.

    “Well, granted,” he agreed. “All of which is true. But at some later date, I may simply wish to retire. Or something else might happen to me, while you aren't there to save my life.” He paused. “Ah, there they go.” His smile stretched into almost gleeful humour. “I wonder how long it'll take them to realise what you did to them?”

    “Oh, I set the mental blocks to gradually dissolve over the next few days.” Claire let her smile match her father's. “About two days from now, they'll wake up, look in the mirror and realise exactly what I did.” The reactions, she decided, would be epic.

    Together, they watched through the glass wall as four people boarded the bus to Chicago. There was a Jamaican man with long dreds and an assortment of tattoos on his brawny arms, a diminutive Asian woman with several serious-looking scars on her face and neck, a broad-shouldered man of Middle Eastern appearance, and a tall handsome African-American.

    As the bus door closed behind them, he sighed, sounding wistful. “I do wish I could see their faces when it happened.”

    “Well, I can give you the addresses where they'll be,” she offered. “You've got a couple of days to arrange for cameras to be put in place.”

    He snorted with laughter. “I think I just might. And Krieg?”

    “He'll be out of town in a couple of days.” She shrugged. “Moving family takes longer. Who knew? I didn't change his face, but in a couple of days he's going to realise that he just doesn't have the same dedication to the cause as he used to. Maybe he'll find a new line of work.” Personally, she didn't think so, but there was always a chance.

    “We can only hope.” He turned to walk away; she followed him. “And talking about our earlier subject, I notice that you haven't pushed me any more about installing improvements. Are you less worried about my safety than you were before?”

    One corner of her mouth quirked up slightly. “In a manner of speaking.” Figuring it out in three … two … one …

    On 'one', the penny dropped. “Why, you sneaky little minx! You already did it!”

    Her expression became a full-fledged grin. “Well, I was rebuilding you from scratch anyway …”

    They reached the limo where it was waiting by the curb, with Jonas beside it. The big man opened the back door; Claire climbed in, but Earl paused. “I am shocked. Shocked, I say. That my own flesh and blood might sneak around like that. Jonas, do you have any idea what my daughter's done?”

    “Yes, sir.” The South African's voice was a pleased rumble. “And not before time, sir.”

    Marchant rolled his eyes as he got in. “I am beset from all sides. And you say that you don't want to run the organisation. You've already suborned Jonas away from me.”

    Claire giggled, highly amused at her father's ham acting. “Hardly, Dad. You know he'd die for you.” Which couldn't be disputed, after the events of the day before.

    “Hmm. Well. Yes.” He gave her an exasperated glance. “Well played, Claire-bear. Well played, indeed.”

    Jonas got into the driver's seat. “Oh, and before I forget, sir. While you were out of the car, Miss Russel called, accepting your offer of dinner tonight. Did you want me to lay out your evening clothes when we get home?”

    Her father leaned back in his seat. “That would be splendid, Jonas.” He waved a languid hand. “Home, and don't spare the horses.”

    As the limo pulled away from the curb, Claire looked out the window at Brockton Bay. That's the Empire down. Now just the ABB to go.

    She could hardly wait.



    End of Part Twelve

    Part Thirteen
     
    Last edited: Dec 21, 2017
  24. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    That's one gang dealt with. And quite a fitting "reward" too.
     
  25. macdjord

    macdjord Well worn.

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    Slightly-drugged Purity is hilarious.

     
  26. Zackarix

    Zackarix ...

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    Marchioness is terrifying.
     
    Scopas, Ack and Prince Charon like this.
  27. Metallix666

    Metallix666 Versed in the lewd.

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    Kaisers 'escape' attempt reads like something from a Bugs Bunny cartoon. That's not a complaint :D
     
  28. SamueLewis

    SamueLewis Not too sore, are you?

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    Hookwolf, Cricket and Stormtiger... Which one of the E88's capes is that fourth one?

    Edit: Also, they watched as five people took that bus, but you described only four.
     
    Last edited: Nov 20, 2017
  29. ShadowStepper1300

    ShadowStepper1300 I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    Krieg.
     
  30. SamueLewis

    SamueLewis Not too sore, are you?

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    He's still in the city and his appearance hasn't changed
     
    Ack likes this.
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