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Another Way (Worm AU fanfic)

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

  1. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:
    It's the twentieth chapter ... on ff.net.

    Here, it's Part 16.
  2. Threadmarks: Part Seventeen: Dealing with Blasto

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:
    Another Way

    Part Seventeen: Dealing with Blasto

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

    "Well, now I'm asking." Claire loved her father dearly, but he really did enjoy showing off how smart he was. "What does plan B consist of?"

    "The first thing we need to do," he said, all business now, "is to keep them off-balance. Blasto has let the genie out of the bottle and if it's got Lung's powers it'll be somewhat larger now, so he won't be able to put it back where he was keeping it. But that won't stop him from trying, and while he's concentrating on that, he won't be overseeing external security. And given that you suborned his guard-creature so easily, he won't want to let them out of his sight, either."

    "Got it so far," she agreed. "So, we hit them from the outside? Keep them reacting?"

    "That is correct, my dear Marchioness. While you were in there, did you get a read on how he controls his creatures? He seems to have a penchant for using pheromones. If so, that will be his weakness."

    Claire grinned savagely, her body already morphing into her full battle-form. "I like the way you think. And yes, you're right. His guard-creatures are all attuned to react to a series of pheromones. I can give you the appropriate emitters, if you want."

    "We don't have the time," he said. "I'm coming in, and Palatina will be overhead, but I need you to get close and see what havoc you can cause. The more things that are going wrong with his creations, the harder it will be for him to be proactive rather than reactive."

    Beside her, Jonas cleared his throat. "I can accompany her as well, sir," he offered diffidently. "Unless you want me out here instead."

    "I think we'll maintain you on overwatch for the moment," her father decided. "After all, one never knows when one needs someone's skull to be converted into a cloud of pink mist."

    Claire was barely listening anymore. She slithered out of the evening wear, leaving it in a neat pile with her shoes on the rooftop she was currently sharing with Jonas. Her form was now as sexless as it was sleek and efficient, and owed more to nightmare space movies than anything related to humanity.

    The modifications she was making to herself had their basis in the adjustments she'd taken on when the Empire tried to kill her father. However, this time she'd had much more time to think about it, and there were a few optional extras she'd decided to try out. Case in point: her exoskeleton was a glossy black, laced with carbon nanotubes in such a way that bullets would simply bounce off. But with a little thought on the matter, the nanotubes were realigned and set up to contain chromatophores. As a result, her carapace went rainbow-hued, then shifted colour schemes to produce an ever-changing transmission of light 'through' her body. When she moved quickly, she knew the distortion would give her away. But if she held still …

    This time, when she smiled, she didn't open her mouth. Transparent covers over her eyes allowed her to see and yet not be seen. "See you later, Jonas."

    "See you later, chick." Jonas didn't look up from the sights of the enormous rifle. "Give 'em hell."

    "Oh, I intend to." Moving with a sinuosity matched only by snakes and particularly agile cats, she slithered over the side of the roof and down the wall, holding on with a combination of sharp claws and gecko-pads where necessary.

    When she'd modified the guard-creature earlier, she'd gotten a complete read on its vomeronasal system and what pheromones had significant effects on them. Including the pheromone that they all emitted, which translated as 'friend; do not attack'.

    She smiled an extremely toothy grin. Time to go and have fun.



    Rey Andino was not having a good day. He was down one guard-beast, and all the others were on edge. Worse, while his newest creation had already healed the damage it took in the fight, it was very much on edge (because the other creations were unhappy) and he didn't have time to settle it down. It was also about eleven feet tall at the moment, and didn't seem likely to be getting any smaller. Damn and blast that Marchioness!

    If he'd captured her, it would've been somewhat worth it. But from the way his surviving guards were snuffling around the door, it seemed she'd slipped out during the fight. Which left no fewer than three enemies at large that he didn't know the whereabouts of; Marchioness, Marquis and the as-yet unseen Palatina. And of course, his human minions had cut and run at the first opportunity. Which only proved (once more) that the only good underlings were the ones he created for himself.

    For a moment, he wondered if he hadn't bitten off more than he could chew. Marquis was formidable enough on his own, and with Marchioness and this 'Palatina' at his side, he could only become more dangerous. And that was before Lung himself got into the mix.

    No. I can take them both. He'd knuckled under to the other gangs in the city for long enough. With the Lung/Marquis hybrid at his command, he could meet any threat and overwhelm it. Between the hybrid's regenerative capability, its command of bone and fire, and the sheer ferocity granted it by the animal components (and of course, Lung himself wasn't known for his quiet and retiring ways), he would back the beast against any cape in Brockton Bay. Even Marchioness would be eviscerated and incinerated before she could repeat whatever stunt she'd used to turn the gorilla/hyena guard-beast against him. And if Marquis himself attempted to use his vaunted powers against the hybrid Blasto had made with his DNA, the creature would meet bone with bone, then trump him with fire.

    Gradually, he began to relax. His newest creation was prowling around the interior of his base, glowering at the guard-beasts when they came too close. The beasts themselves were on high alert, especially since one of their number had been skewered with bone, roasted from the inside and then torn apart before them. But they hadn't been given the signal to attack, so they were doing their best to keep their distance from the brand-new hybrid.

    It seemed more and more likely that Marchioness had been acting on her own; had her father been in the vicinity, he would almost certainly have intervened when Rey shot her at close range, no matter how little effect the bullet had on her. A stupid teenager pulling a stupid stunt. It wasn't as though there was a lack of those in the world at any given time. And now she was going to sneak back to her father and pretend nothing had ever happened.

    On the downside, he'd had to decant the hybrid early, a day before he would've judged it properly mature. On the upside, it had been field-tested and come through with flying colours. He'd seen footage of Lung in action; his creation would ramp up faster, do more damage and be impervious to the hottest flame the Asian cape could muster. And once both Lung and Marquis had been vanquished, in the absence of the Empire, Blasto would be the pre-eminent supervillain in Brockton Bay. With his hybrid at his side (perhaps two or three of them, just to be safe), nobody would dare undersell him anymore.

    Still, it didn't seem like a good idea to simply decide everything was going to be fine. Complacency had to be earned, not assumed. He directed several of his guard-beasts to perform another perimeter check, to make sure the building was secure. While they were doing that, he went over to his lab equipment and started the process for creating a second Lung/Marquis hybrid. He had enough samples of the first one to get it right, after all. And this one would be grown to full term; it would be the one he sent out on missions while its older (and less matured) brother stayed at home to maintain base security. The new one's first mission, he decided, would be to track that annoying little girl back to wherever she and Marquis called home, so that they could see what it felt like when somebody else invaded their base.

    Two of his guard-beasts let off their howl that meant 'all is not right', at the same time. Jerking his head up, he swore inventively. The problem was, he hadn't given them different alarm-howls, so he had no idea what was going on. Putting the lab gear into automatic for the moment—the tricky bit would come later, calculating exactly what sort of nutrients and how much to feed it at critical stages in its growth—he pulled his pistol again and went over to investigate.

    The first guard-beast he came to pointed its clawed digits at a trio of its packmates, which were lying sprawled in a darkened corner of the warehouse. At first he thought they were dead—the way he'd built them, they were virtually impossible to knock unconscious via either chemical or physical means—but then one of them shifted and let out a long rattling snore.

    What the absolute living fuck?

    That was impossible. It was literally impossible. His guard-beasts didn't get tired in the normal sense. They could stay up for thirty-six hours at a stretch, if he needed them to. They did have a sleep-state they could enter, but only if they encountered a certain pheromone, over a certain level of concentration. Which he hadn't released, even when that one beast had been induced to attack him.

    And yet, here were three of them, asleep. Muttering under his breath, he told the guard-beast to watch them until he returned. He had a 'wake-up' pheromone he could dose them with, but that was back in his desk. For now, he needed to check on the second alarm. Still with the pistol in hand, he headed in that direction.

    Which turned out to be the rear door to the kitchen, sitting ajar.

    He stared at the door (which he'd made certain to lock and bolt when initially securing his base), and at the neat half-circle that had been cored out to remove the entire lock mechanism. There had been no power tool use that he'd heard, and yet the thick wood had been sliced through with terrifying precision. For God's sake, there wasn't even any sawdust on the floor! Whoever had done it had cheekily left the piece of door (with the lock and bolt still engaged) on the counter beside the doorway. It was as if they hadn't cared about being detected.

    Which was worrisome. People with that attitude were invariably either so good they really didn't need to worry about such things, or thought they were, which bespoke a lack of forethought that could lead to other really bad decisions. Decisions that it would be up to him to clean up the aftermath.

    Unfortunately, he'd already met someone not half an hour ago who matched that description to a T; a teenage girl who had thought nothing of invading his base and throwing out unfounded threats, before just waltzing out again. It was looking very much like she had returned to plague him once more. Well, this time he was ready for her; his hybrid was a match for anything she could throw at him. And once the hybrid had finished tearing her apart, he could use the remains as a basis for creating his own version of her.

    Though he still had no idea how she'd removed the lock so neatly. Even the hybrid wouldn't have been able to do that. Destroy the door utterly, yes. Rip the lock out and reduce the door to splinters, definitely. But carve out the lock so neatly, without leaving any debris on the floor? Not a hope in hell.

    With that in mind, he turned to the guard-beast, his mouth already opening to issue orders for it to guard the door until he got back with something more sturdy to secure it.

    The beast was slumped on the floor, asleep.

    Looking around wildly, he backed up to the far end of the kitchen area and brandished his pistol. With his other hand, he reached into his pocket for a specific vial. Lifting it over his head, he threw it to the floor, where it shattered. The liquid within sprayed over the floor, then started to rapidly evaporate. From all around the base, he heard answering howls from his guards.

    "To me!" he yelled. In an immediate response, three of the creatures showed up at the entrance to the kitchen, looking around wildly. Their claws flexed at the air as they snuffled at the air. One of them lashed out at a cabinet, reducing it to kindling, then came up with a very surprised rat. Muscles flexed; the squeaking, struggling rodent was crushed to a bloody pulp.

    That particular pheromone was designed to put them on extreme alert. Anything alive within the base that didn't match the scent parameters of 'friend' (specifically; him, their fellow guard-beasts, or the hybrid) would be attacked in a berserker fury and torn to shreds. He'd tried keeping the previous generation of guard-beasts in that state on a permanent basis, but even when they didn't attack one another by accident, it led to problems like not eating and (in some cases) walking into walls because they were concentrating too much on their sense of smell.

    If you're in this base, you little twit, you're dead. Clenching his hand around the pistol, but taking care to move his finger off the trigger first (he couldn't guarantee that the smell of gunshot residue wouldn't result in a terminally embarrassing false positive), he stalked out of the kitchen area. On the way, he touched a guard-beast on the arm and gestured; come with me.

    With the beast at his back, he headed over toward where he kept the 'wake-up' pheromone. As he moved, he kept his head up, eyes scanning from side to side. It wasn't like a girl in an evening dress would be particularly inconspicuous, after all. And if I see her before the creatures do, I won't bother shooting her in the chest this time. He wasn't a really good shot, but he understood that a bullet in the head usually worked. And if one didn't, five or six might.

    As he pulled open the cabinet where he kept the pheromone, he heard the guard-beast behind him start to sniff more deeply than normal; glancing over his shoulder at it, he saw it staring suspiciously at a point in mid-air … just before it collapsed to the ground. Then something moved, and he saw the wavering outline of a person that wasn't quite there.

    No, not a person. Whatever it was, it wasn't human. He was an expert on human proportions, and that thing didn't have them. Which meant it certainly wasn't Marchioness, leaving the question wide open as to who (or what) it really was.

    Not that he was in the mood to ask right then; bringing the pistol around, he braced it in shaking hands. Before he could fire, the hybrid let out its attack call, a rumbling roar that shook the building. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw it charging … right at him. Flames billowed around its metal-clad body as it generated weapons of fiery bone.

    With a yelp of terror, he dropped flat. Whatever it was that had invaded his base, he didn't want to get between it and his hybrid. 'Death by out-of-control minion' was about the most embarrassing way a crime lord could go.

    The hybrid never even looked down at Rey as it leaped over him, the heat of its flames washing over his back. Turning his head, he saw it slash with a huge sword-like weapon, flames trailing behind the blade. The shimmery form of the intruder seemed to backflip out of the way, faster than humanly possible. Certainly faster than Rey could've managed on his very best day.

    The hybrid kept advancing, slashing with its blade and launching more flaming bone spikes; at any minute, Rey expected to hear a death-scream and see a limp body falling to the floor. Preferably in two or more pieces. But nothing of the sort happened. It attacked, over and over again, to no result. He'd specifically designed it to bore in after hard-to-hurt opponents and overwhelm them with damage, and this was what it was trying to do.

    As the chase went on, he came to the realisation that this wasn't really a fight. The intruder wasn't retaliating or even standing its ground. In fact, it was retreating as fast as it could, bouncing off the walls and launching itself in unexpected directions. As far as he could tell from the flickering, high-speed movements, it merely wanted to disengage. But the hybrid kept slashing, kept pursuing, growing in size, despite the fact that no return attacks were coming back its way. Every failed attack merely seemed to further enrage it.

    Roaring its anger, the hybrid kept after the intruder, now shooting more of the flaming bone spikes. These appeared to miss; three lodged in the wall, still burning, while the fourth punched into a hapless guard-beast. The stricken creature howled as it was impaled by the bone weapon, then fell back as the hybrid slashed it on the way past. Rey looked around wildly for other guard-beasts so that he could order them to assist the hybrid in cornering the intruder, but there didn't seem to be any around. In fact, the only guard-beast that seemed to be still on its feet was the now-injured one.

    Oh, come on. Rey shook his head in impotent fury. How did it put all my beasts down? How the fuck did it know how to put them to sleep?

    He began to climb to his feet, wondering if he should try to revive the fallen guard-beasts, or do something to assist the hybrid in catching its prey. Whichever it was, he realised he should do it quickly; while the furious hybrid had yet to hit with any of its attacks, those that missed were taking their toll on the interior of his base. Several flaming bone spikes were now sticking out of the wall and support pillars, and the hybrid itself—fifteen feet tall and still growing—was doing even more incidental damage by way of the flames that billowed from it and surrounded it on all sides. With each fruitless swipe of the tremendous flaming blade, slicing through structural members and furniture alike, the interior of the base was looking more and more like a war zone.

    Then, with a start, he realised that the chase had turned back toward him. The flickering almost-invisible intruder, darting back and forth, was heading in the general direction of his lab gear, the gestation chambers, his storage … and him. "No!" he shouted, holding out his hands uselessly. "No!" He didn't even consider trying to shoot the intruder; if he missed (and he probably would) then there was a good chance he would strike the hybrid, and he didn't want to do that while it was in full battle mode.

    An epiphany burst upon him, full-formed. The intruder wasn't fleeing from the hybrid, and never had been. All it had to do was stay ahead of the monstrous clone, leading his most dangerous minion on a merry chase, so that it wrecked his base while trying to catch up with its perceived prey. The intruder's doing this on purpose. Using my own weapons against me. And now he had maybe five seconds before it lured the hybrid into stampeding clean over the top of his lab gear and specimen storage, destroying everything he'd worked so hard for.

    There was a way out, of course. He never built a dangerous clone without installing some way to prevent it from turning on him. The sleep pheromone he'd engineered into the guard-beasts would not suffice in this case, but he had something that would. Hands moving with desperate haste, he yanked open a drawer and reached inside to grab the ultrasonic module.

    High-pitched sound waves—not just any high-pitched sound waves, but those of a specific frequency and strength—would serve to disrupt its inner ear functions in a way that its innate regeneration could not easily combat. Swinging around toward the oncoming hybrid, he jammed his thumb on the button. Inaudible sound waves lashed out, and the hybrid faltered—

    "Yoink!" The intruder flashed past, giving him an extremely close view of glowing eyes and a grinning mouth full of far too many sharp fangs. He recoiled, then reacted far too late to the tug against his fingers. With growing horror, he stared at his empty hand. Oh, shit. It took the module.

    The hybrid roared, no longer afflicted by the debilitating ultrasonic assault. It leaped forward, once more in hot-pursuit mode. Faced with the choice of getting out of the way or risk being trampled by his own creation, Rey dived to the side. Not even bothering to leap over precious lab gear and storage drawers, the hybrid smashed on through. The sound of his gestation chambers shattering brought tears to Rey's eyes, while flames licked over everything. Whatever hadn't been trampled and crushed was set on fire; he stared in anguish as his life's work burned.

    There was nothing more for him here. His samples were all—or almost all—destroyed, and none of his painstakingly assembled machinery was salvageable. His only option now was to sneak out while the intruder was busy baiting the hybrid into destroying the rest of the base. And when I get set up again, I'm going to build the most vindictive assassin-beast I can manage, and I'm going to send it back to Brockton Bay to kill whatever the living fuck that thing is. As well as Marquis and Marchioness, just because I can. In his pocket were still the metal scale from Lung and the shard of bone from Marquis; with these he would craft his vengeance.

    Thoughts hot with retribution, he began to crawl away toward the kitchen area, keeping low. This served not only to keep him out of sight—so he hoped—but also to keep him below the worst of the smoke that was beginning to gather in the now-burning building. It scratched at his throat, forcing a cough from his lungs.

    With a sound like thunder, the roof blew away, smashed sideways into rubble by a golden spiralling beam of destruction. Eyes wide, he rolled on to his back as the smoke billowed upward and out of the tremendous hole thus created. He knew that blast, and whose signature attack it was. Marchioness had called her Palatina, but only a blind man would mistake the glowing figure now hovering over the hole for anyone but Purity, of the Empire.

    Not that he spent more than half a second wondering what Purity was doing with Marquis and his certifiably insane daughter (not to mention the semi-invisible thing that had just incited his hybrid into destroying his base). Rolling on to his stomach once more, he began to crawl even more urgently toward the escape route offered by the open back door. Escape now, payback later.

    He was almost at the doorway into the kitchen area (and the sleeping guard-beast there) when the hybrid bellowed in agony, falling to the ground not so far away and clawing at its ears. Even now, it was too dangerous to approach; over twenty feet tall and covered both in flame and vicious bone spikes, it was a hazard in and of itself. The very concrete beneath it was starting to blacken. He quickened his pace.

    "Uh, uh." The rasping, hissing voice came from directly in front of him. "You aren't going anywhere, mister." As he stared, what he'd thought to be a distortion due to smoke solidified, then cast away the flickering camouflage to become …

    Whatever it was, it wasn't human. He'd noted that once before, but now he was in a position to truly appreciate its form (for a very loose definition of 'appreciate'), he could see everything that made it other. Digitigrade legs, leading to a triple-toed foot armed with nasty-looking gripping claws; a semi-crouched posture that evoked images of raptors or other predatory dinosaurs; a long whippy tail that appeared almost prehensile; oddly-jointed forelimbs that looked even more flexible than human arms, armed with three-inch razor claws; claws that could fold back out of the way so that it could hold his ultrasonic module and use it; last but not least, a lizard-like muzzle filled with extremely sharp-looking teeth (currently grinning at him), and glowing red eyes. All of which was clad in a flexible carapace of glossy black material.

    He coughed due to the smoke, then cleared his throat. When he spoke, he had to raise his voice over the agonised howls of the hybrid, not so far behind him. "What … what are you?" This was the epitome of what he'd been trying to achieve with his minions. With a dozen of these, he could rule the city. "Who engineered you?" Because there was no way in hell someone had stumbled on a Changer form like this by pure luck. That form was designed to terrify. And to kill.

    "I engineered me," the creature said coolly, its voice changing to that of a teenage girl. One he'd heard very recently.

    "M-Marchioness?" he stammered, coughing again. "How—?"

    She sighed. "Everyone looks at the cute girl in the evening gown and doesn't look any further. Your human minions knew better. They've met me before, you see. They get a second chance. You don't." Despite the nonhuman configuration of features, he read dispassionate death in her eyes.

    Moving forward with an effortless speed that left him no chance to dodge, it lashed out with its free hand. He cringed, anticipating those wicked talons tearing into his flesh, but all it—she—did was lay an oddly-warm palm against his cheek. In the next second, he felt a weird sensation, as though he'd just been doused from head to foot in chilled water. Desperately, he tried to move, to roll aside, but nothing happened. "Wh-why?"

    "You tried to kill me," she said. "But I would've been inclined to forgive that. Except that you cloned my dad and tried to frame him for mass murder. And then you cloned him again." She nodded toward where the hybrid was still thrashing on the floor. "It seems you just don't learn. You'll keep trying things, and people will get hurt, and we'll have to clean up your mess. It's easier this way."

    With the same flicker-fast speed, she broke contact and stepped away from him. He moved, scrambling to his feet. Belatedly, he recalled the pistol he still held, and raised it to point at her. "Give me the module," he rasped. "Or I will shoot you in the head." He was about close enough to have a good try at it, anyway.

    She sighed. "Feel free. I just swapped scents with you." While his brain was still parsing that, she raised the hand with the module in it … and effortlessly crushed it. As pieces of plastic fell to the floor, she leaned forward slightly, red eyes gleaming with dark amusement. "You better run," she whispered.

    Silence fell in the base, broken only by the crackling of flames. Rey looked back over his shoulder, to see the hybrid hauling itself upright. Its rage-filled eyes were fixed not on Marchioness, but on him. A long inhalation of air through its nostrils inflated its chest, and it began to growl. Then it lunged forward. Far too late, he turned and ran.

    He didn't get very far.



    "I thought I told you to distract him and keep him busy until we moved into position." Earl's voice was only mildly censorious as they stood and watched the warehouse burn. "Not engage the hybrid which, from all accounts, would've given the entire local Protectorate a run for its money."

    "I didn't engage it," Claire (clad once more in her evening dress) pointed out in a reasonable tone. "It spotted me putting a guard-beast to sleep, and once it fixed on me, I couldn't shake it. So, I decided to make use of it, instead." She put a hand on Jonas' arm and nodded to Kayden. "Thanks for the assists, by the way, guys. It definitely kept things from getting too fraught." She was pretty sure Blasto had been unaware of the fact that every time the hybrid had gotten close to catching her, Jonas had put a high-velocity round through the wall of the warehouse and into the centre mass of the pursuing beast. It would've taken more firepower than even that monster of a rifle to put it down, but the shots had certainly hampered it.

    "My genuine pleasure, chick," the South African rumbled.

    "What I want to know is how you even got in there without them spotting you at once," Kayden said. "From what you're saying, even if they couldn't see you, they would've caught your scent. And it's basically impossible to remove all scent."

    "Yeah, it is." Claire smirked. "But I had a read on the guard-thing I turned. So I basically took on its scent signature. I used a monomolecular claw to remove the lock, and they never even paid attention to me once I was inside. The right pheromone put them to sleep, and once the big clone was busy with Blasto, I made sure to give them all a painless end." She didn't say anything about Blasto's death being painless. It had been quick, but that was about it.

    "All very fascinating," mused Earl. "But the fact remains that there's a creature in there that bears my DNA. I don't know the PRT will take a sample, but I don't know they won't, either." He paused. "How did you beat it, anyway?"

    Claire flexed her hand, then snapped her fingers. "Once it finished eating Blasto, I got close enough to lay a hand on it. I put it to sleep, then dissolved it down to the molecular level. There's nothing left of it to get anything out of."

    "Which is definitely something we're going to be leaving out of the narrative, when and if we say anything to the PRT about this," Earl decided. "Director Piggot doesn't need any more ulcers, and you don't need a kill order on your head."

    Claire nodded thoughtfully. "I'd rather not get on the PRT's bad side, if only for their sake," she agreed.

    "Precisely what I was thinking," Earl said. "They fulfil an important role in keeping Brockton Bay orderly. I'd rather not have to take that on as well, at this stage in my plans."

    Some may have considered the implication that he could remove the PRT from the equation to be pure boastfulness. Nobody who truly knew Earl Marchant would have been included in that number.


    Director Piggot

    Emily sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. "So Blasto's dead?" And good riddance, she thought, carefully not allowing the sentiment to show on her face. The cloning Tinker's capabilities had plagued her nightmares ever since she'd found out about them; he wasn't Nilbog, but even a minor correlation was enough to make her grit her teeth when she thought about him. And the resemblance between his capabilities and Nilbog's had been anything but minor. There was a reason he'd had a pre-signed kill order waiting for him if he ever got out of line. The order hadn't actually been her idea, but if she'd had full authority in the matter, she would probably have found an excuse to activate it before now.

    "We salvaged a hand from the wreckage," Armsmaster reported stoically. "DNA analysis is inconclusive, but we got three good fingerprints, and they match his. The remnants of the Tinker gear in the base also match what he was capable of." He shook his head. "It was bad. Whatever it was, it ate him. The teeth and claw marks were unmistakable. Also, his remains were severely burned, when there was no direct evidence that they'd been in contact with burning parts of the building."

    "Burned?" Emily shook her head. "Are you saying Lung ate him? Or his clone of Lung ate him?" Personally, she suspected she was getting close to the mark. Lung would've been extremely irate if he heard about the clone that Marquis and Marchioness had captured and abducted from the attack on the PRT building. Perhaps not to the point that he would literally eat the Tinker in question, but …

    Armsmaster shook his head. "We have insufficient evidence to determine the exact sequence of events. While we found shards of metal in the vicinity that show a fifty to seventy-five percent match with the scales Lung grows over his body, we didn't find any corpses that matched Lung's physique, even partially." He huffed in dissatisfaction. "There was also a large amount of undifferentiated biological material that had been baked into the concrete, but I'm not sure what that means."

    Emily snorted. "In other words, the typical aftermath of a clash between two or more unknown capes. Too many questions, not enough answers." Letting out a gusty sigh, she asked the important question. "Was there any evidence, any at all, that would put Marquis, Marchioness or Purity on the scene?" How Armsmaster answered was going to be very important. Marquis had essentially said that he would be going after Blasto for cloning him; Blasto was now dead. But he wasn't dead from being impaled by multiple spikes of bone (as she imagined Marquis might deal with the matter) but from being burned and eaten. On the one hand, she strongly suspected the osteokinetic to be far too intelligent to accidentally leave traces of his presence at the scene of a murder; on the other, he was entirely likely to deliberately leave them, as a message to those who could see it.

    "The roof was blown off in a way I could see Purity achieving," Armsmaster said at once. "But she didn't attack anything inside the building. There are spikes of something that could once have been bone nailed into the walls and structural pillars, but those have been burned to the point that even that's conjecture. To answer your question, ma'am; they could easily have been there, but they did not kill Blasto. That's the only bit I'm sure about."

    She nodded. "All right, then. Submit your report, with all evidence included, but keep the case open. I have a feeling this isn't going to be the last time something like this happens."

    "Yes, ma'am."

    "And one more thing before you go," she said. "The reports from the bank that Marchioness turned herself into some sort of creepy horrorshow to fight the clone of Marquis?"

    He nodded, showing that he already knew the question she was asking. "All true, ma'am."

    She sighed. "Thank you." It was just one more crappy fact in an already crappy day.

    He turned and left her office, leaving her alone with her thoughts.

    As the door closed behind him, she slumped back into her chair. First the Merchants, then the Empire, now Blasto. The villains are dropping like flies, stopping bank robberies or just plain vanishing. But why does even good news make me feel like there's another shoe just ready to drop at any time?

    And what am I supposed to do with the knowledge that Marchioness, the nice safe healer, can alter her form at will?

    The answers to both those questions, she knew, would be likely to bother her for quite some time.



    "Okay, so that's the last of his minions given a mental scrub-and-polish," Claire reported briskly. "Nobody will remember a damn thing about us, and only bits and pieces of working for Blasto." She dusted her hands off. "Those guys will come to in six hours, plus or minus fifteen minutes, so that's plenty of time to go dump them someplace they can wake up and wander off from."

    Earl nodded, pleased. His daughter's powers made things so much more convenient. "Good. That's good." He pointed at the two of Blasto's ex-minions who were lying separately from the others. "What about them?"

    "Oh, while I had them under, I dug down to their most basic motivations and asked them if they'd be loyal to you if we recruited them. Those were the only two who showed up as full positives, no matter what stresses I put them under." She raised an eyebrow at him. "I was going to wait for the okay from you before I gave them the final treatment."

    "Hm." He nodded, somewhat amused. "That's one way to make sure your people are loyal from the beginning. Certainly; once you wake them up, I'll give them the spiel then turn them over to Jonas for induction."

    "Sure." She nodded, then led the way to the last room, where a young man in his early twenties slept peacefully on a bed. "This is the clone of Lung. I've de-aged him and given him a total face and body makeup."

    Earl's eyebrows tracked toward his hairline. "So I see." The clone didn't look at all like Lung anymore, but that meant nothing at all. "You do realise that as soon as he uses his powers, people are going to start speculating about his connection to Lung. More to the point, Lung is going to take notice as well."

    Claire nodded. "I thought about that, and I thought about how his powers manifest. And I did some deep digging in his brain while I was giving him a personality and some rudimentary memories. I can't turn his powers all the way off or even change what they are, but I think I managed to adjust the way they show up. It's a work in progress, anyway."

    "Really?" This was a true surprise to Earl. "You can actually do that? How are they going to show up, then?"

    She shrugged, apparently unwilling to commit to an actual description. "Less like a dragon with metal scales, more like … I dunno, a knight in armour with a flaming sword? I guess?"

    Earl's eyes widened as he looked at his daughter. "I'm going to need to see that in action before I judge, but if you've pulled it off, I will be very impressed indeed." This was the best thing about being a father, in his expert opinion; he never quite knew how Claire was going to surprise him next.

    "Thanks, Dad." She gave him a grin, which faded shortly after. "Of course, I'm not quite sure how we're going to deal with your clone …"

    And there went his good mood. "Ugh, yes." He didn't want her remodelling the clone as she had Lung's, and asking her to euthanise it just felt wrong in a way that killing the hybrid had not.

    There had to be a third option, but he had no idea what it was.

    End of Part Seventeen
    Last edited: Nov 16, 2019
  3. GladiusLucix

    GladiusLucix Versed in the lewd.

    Jun 11, 2014
    Likes Received:
    Claire gets a little brother?
  4. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:
    That's actually what I'm thinking, to be honest.
  5. doug89

    doug89 Versed in the lewd.

    Feb 26, 2017
    Likes Received:
    It would be hilarious if the clone was around the same age as Amy, and went on to date Victoria. After the reveal Carol would lose her fucking mind.
    Scopas, BBJimmy, Zackarix and 5 others like this.
  6. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:
    That ... would be absolutely hilarious.

    In so many ways.
  7. Threadmarks: Part Eighteen: Friends and Family

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:
    Another Way

    Part Eighteen: Friends and Family

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

    [A/N 2: if anyone has not yet heard, my first novel has been published. It can be found here or here.]


    Vivid dreams swirled across his mind’s eye. An urgent voice was telling him that he had to be a dragon, and for the longest time he believed it. But then another voice intervened, saying that he was there to slay dragons, not be them. None of it made any sense, but he somehow knew it was all exactly as it should be.

    He drifted. Sleep was like being submerged in a deep pool of not-water, with the fragments of his dreams flitting by like brightly coloured fish. Or maybe tiny dragons.

    Robert, the voice who had told him to slay dragons whispered. It’s time to wake up.

    He resisted the impulse to obey the voice; it was nice and warm and comfortable in his dream, and he didn’t have to do anything except watch the dragons go by.

    Wake up, the voice insisted. If you don’t wake up, you’ll never know how the story ends.

    Oh, well, that was different then. He stopped resisting. The dream fragments scattered like autumn leaves or startled dragons as he began to move. He ignored them, kicking for the surface.

    Opening his eyes was harder than he’d thought it would be. Light was a lot brighter than it was inside his head, too. He blinked, bringing up his arm to shade his eyes. That was harder, too. It felt heavy as lead, though there was nothing restraining him.

    “Uh,” he grunted, and realised for the first time that his mouth was horrendously dry and that there was a foul taste in it. “Blagh.”

    A face swam into view above his; a girl, maybe thirteen or fourteen? He wasn’t good at telling age. There was a dash of freckles across her nose, while frizzy auburn hair was tied back in a businesslike ponytail. As far as he could tell, she was wearing a hooded jacket. Her hand slid under his head and helped him sit up, then a squeeze-bottle came into view. He accepted the tube into his mouth and sucked greedily at the pleasantly cool water. She let him take a couple of mouthfuls, enough to clear out the horrible aftertaste and re-hydrate his tissues, before she removed it again.

    “Better?” she asked, letting him lie back again.

    “Yes, thanks.” He nodded to her, then realised her didn’t know her face. Didn’t know her name. There was a lot he didn’t know, in fact. “Uh, what …?”

    She did something out of his view, and the bed smoothly elevated him until he was half-sitting, looking across at her rather than up at her. “My name is Claire Marchant,” she said, as if she’d plucked the question out of his head. “You’re in my father’s house. Do you remember your own name?”

    “Robert,” he ventured. It sounded right, anyway. But there was something missing. “Robert … Robert … uh, why can’t I remember …?”

    “Your last name? Don’t worry.” She gave him a reassuring smile. “It’ll come to you in its own time. There was a car crash.”

    “Uh, car crash?” He frowned. “What car crash?” Something had happened, that he was sure of. He vaguely remembered … flames? “Did it catch fire?”

    “It got pretty hot for a while there,” she confirmed. “We were nearby and helped you get out of the situation after you lost consciousness.”

    Far from putting his mind to rest, her answers were only generating more questions. “If I was in a car crash, why am I not in the hospital?” He looked down at the swathe of sheet covering him. Surreptitious twitches proved that his legs and other arm were present and correct, and there were no obvious messages of pain coming back. However, something that wasn’t present was any kind of IV leading into his arm. “How badly was I hurt, if I was unconscious?” He put his hand to his head. There were no bandages there, which only confused him further.

    “Something needed to be done immediately,” she said, her tone serious. “But there were two reasons why we brought you here instead of to a hospital. First, you’re a parahuman. Second, no hospital can match what I can do, so it made sense to cut out the middleman.”

    “Wait, what again now? I’m a parahuman?” He stared at her. “Are you sure?”

    “Mm-hmm,” she said cheerfully, nodding to add emphasis. “As far as I can understand things, you manifest some sort of metallic scaled armour, along with a flaming sword. Pretty sure that’s something ordinary people can’t do.”

    “… oh.” He looked down at himself. There was a certain lack of scaled armour and flaming sword, but somehow he knew she wasn’t pulling his leg. Then something else she’d said came back to him. “What do you mean, no hospital can match what you can do?”

    “Oh, that?” She chuckled warmly. “This would be extremely awkward to keep secret, so I’m going to need you to stay quiet about this.” Reaching up, she pulled the hood up, tucking her hair into it. “Just one moment …” Giving him a smirk, she turned her back to him.

    Not entirely sure what was going on, Robert continued to lie on the bed. It was warm and comfortable, and Claire seemed to know what she was talking about. Admittedly, she was being a bit mysterious right now, but teenagers loved their drama. He wondered absently how he even knew that, when he didn’t know his own last name.

    “Ta-dah!” She turned around again, pulling the hood back down. Midnight-black hair, long and wavy, spilled out over her shoulders in a glossy tide. He blinked, registering the fact that she was taller and had a different face, and even her voice was subtly more musical. “Marchioness, at your service.”

    “… wow, that’s a good trick.” Robert was very impressed; but more than that, he knew that name. Once again, he didn’t know how he knew it, but Marchioness was definitely a name that had lodged in his memory. “You’re the healer, right? Marquis’ daughter?”

    “That’s correct.” She gifted him with a cheeky smile. “Though one day I think it would be pretty cool if someone called Dad ‘Marchioness’ father’.”

    “I wouldn’t object to that, so long as they said it with the appropriate respect.” The new voice belonged to a tall man with neatly styled brown hair. He was dressed casually enough, but there was a glint in his eye that told Robert he would be far better off never crossing this man. Moving over to the bed, the man held his hand out. “Earl Marchant. Also known as Marquis. You’ve met my daughter already, I see.”

    “Ahh … yes, sir.” Robert grasped his hand and shook it. “I’m pleased to meet you, and grateful that you’re helping me … but I still really don’t know why I’m here. Is it because I’m a parahuman?”

    “Essentially, yes.” Marquis indicated Marchioness, who nodded to acknowledge the gesture. “As Marchioness already mentioned, she had to perform extensive work on you. Work that would’ve been beyond any hospital. But on top of that, your status as a parahuman would’ve been outed not long after you went in through the front doors, and the PRT would’ve been all over your case in very short order. No matter how that turned out, you would be on their radar. And do you really want to trust their information security to keep your identity as a parahuman secret?”

    “Um, okay.” It made sense in a sort of bizarre, backward way. Of course, he’d never had to worry about a secret identity before. Or at least, he didn’t think so. “So, uh, why are you unmasking to me like this? I mean, you barely know me.”

    Marchioness fielded that one. “Because if we tried to keep our identities secret from you while you were living in our house and we’re trying to do our thing, the cover stories would rapidly grow out of control, and we’d lose sight of which lies we’d told last. Dad and I both think you can be trusted; and besides, we both know your secret. Fair’s fair, after all.”

    “Your thing …” Robert blinked, then looked at Marquis. “You’re a villain, but you’ve been out of town for some years.” He switched his attention to Marchioness. “And you’re a healer, but you’re also his daughter. How do you even make that work?”

    “Because, despite their best efforts to convince the world otherwise, the PRT isn’t actually run by drooling idiots,” Marquis said dryly. “With a little luck and a lot of chutzpah, my darling daughter engineered a confrontation with Armsmaster himself inside the Brockton Bay General Hospital. Everyone left peacefully, and Armsmaster undoubtedly had a lot to tell Director Piggot when he got back to the PRT building. Including the fact that she would be attending Endbringer battles as an area-effect healer, for free. That makes for a great deal of goodwill, which I am entirely willing to capitalise on.”

    “Oh. Right.” That made a lot of sense. Which only raised the next question. “Okay, so where do I fit into all this? I mean, now that I’m healthy, do you want me to move out? Am I expected to join your team? What’s the situation?”

    “Neither.” Marquis waved his hand around the room. “You may stay as long as you like. I will make enquiries as to your true identity, if you so wish. My only condition is that if you leave us to become a full-fledged superhero, that you do not invade our home to capture us. That has happened once before, and did not turn out well for the team that attempted it.”

    “Wow, nope.” That sounded like a totally dick act to Robert. “I’d never pull something like that. But yeah, if you can look into who I really am, that would be great.”

    “I will set the ball rolling the moment I leave this room,” declared the supervillain. “My best wishes for your speedy recovery, young man.” He exited the room, leaving Robert more than a little bemused.

    A feeling of lethargy stole over Robert. “Um, I think I need to get some more sleep,” he confessed to Marchioness. “If that’s okay with you, I mean.”

    “That’s fine,” she assured him with a knowing smile. “You’ve been through a lot. Sleep’s a great healer.” Reaching out, she placed her hand on his forehead. It was cool and comforting. “When you wake up, you should feel a lot better.”

    As he drifted off to sleep, he didn’t even consider doubting her words.



    “You impress me more and more every day, Claire-bear,” declared Earl. Leaning back in the sofa with his arm around Kayden, he raised his glass of champagne. “How did you create that young man from the faux Lung that we fought?”

    “It was easier than I thought it would be, Dad.” Claire sipped at her fruit juice. On the one occasion that she’d tried champagne, she’d coughed so hard bubbles came out of her nose. As far as she was concerned, any drink that required a physical upgrade to enjoy wasn’t worth drinking. “I mean, Blasto was a total butcher. Sure, he could clone literally anything, but the hack job he did in giving the poor guy his mindset was like scribbling with crayons where you and I are like a book. Well, I’m like a book. You’re like a stack of encyclopedias.”

    He gave her a suspicious glance. “Are you accusing me of being old again?”

    “I prefer to call it ‘rich with experience’.” She smirked at him. “I couldn’t give him the required life experience, not without basically leading him through fifteen years’ worth of pretending to do stuff, so I cheated. I dumped a bit of my actual knowledge in there, then filled in around the edges with memories of memories of having done stuff. Then I covered over the rest with some retrograde amnesia. So when he does something he knows about, he gets a few tag-along memories that I planted there, but for the most part, he’ll blame not knowing stuff on the car accident. And I made sure to give positive reinforcement for some things he ‘remembers’ doing, and negative for other things.”

    “You’re right about it sounding easier than I thought it would be,” Kayden commented. “Is it going to stick? Will he revert to being ‘rawr, Lung’ after a while, or if he gets traumatised?”

    “No more than you’re gonna revert to being a ten year old child if you’re traumatised,” Claire said. “He didn’t have any underlying memories or personality that are likely to crop up. What I laid in there is like ripping the middle pages out of a comic book and gluing in a doctoral dissertation. It’s a lot more sophisticated than what he had before, and it’s not going anywhere.”

    “So, is he going to join us?” Earl held up his glass and studied the bubbles. “I didn’t want to queer your pitch in there, so I played it by ear.”

    “I don’t know,” Claire confessed. “He’s definitely inclined to be loyal to us, and there’s a good chance of it, but I’m going to leave the final decision to him. Maybe if you ‘find’ information that he doesn’t really have much of a family to go back to, that will tip his hand.”

    “That’s certainly doable,” her father declared. “Let me get back to you on that. But speaking of clones, how is the other one doing?”

    Claire took a deep breath. “I’ve still got him in stasis. While I’ve more or less planned out what I want to do with him—specifically, de-age him and make him my younger brother, so we can both watch over him as he grows up—I want to observe Robert and make sure nothing goes dramatically wrong with the personality implant or anything else before I start working on your clone.”

    That got her father’s attention. “Your younger brother? You intend to make him my son?” He shook his head slightly, as if to dislodge something inside. “That’s … I never even thought that would ever happen.”

    “Should I be jealous, Dad?” Claire’s dig was accompanied by a cheeky smile. “I barely mention the idea of you having a son, and you’ve already gone all goo-goo eyed.”

    He snorted. “Not jealous. Never jealous. You are my firstborn, and my only daughter. Raising you has been a privilege and a delight. With a son, I can do that all over again. And this time, I can actually teach someone how to use their powers without feeling like I’m making it up as I’m going along.”

    Kayden chuckled. “For someone who spent so much time as a solo act, you’re certainly gathering a team around yourself now.”

    “And that is in no way a bad thing.” Earl clinked his glass with hers, while Claire sipped at her juice.


    A Few Days Later

    Mega Girl

    I’ve got every right to be here, Vicky told herself as she swooped in for a landing at the Brockton Bay General emergency room. I’m a hero and she’s doing good things. We’re colleagues, comparing notes. And the paper did post the times she’d be here, so it’s not like I’m stalking her.

    Still, as she walked in through the doors, she couldn’t help feeling nervous. Marchioness was an unknown quantity in more ways than one. She was the best healer Vicky had ever heard of, and she was at the same time the daughter of an infamous supervillain; one who had severely embarrassed the team Vicky called her own. The first time they’d met, she’d known basically everything about Vicky, while Vicky had known nothing about her. But she was so nice to me. And that was the deciding factor, here.

    “Oh, hey, Mega Girl.” Vicky could’ve sworn Marchioness had been looking in totally the wrong direction to see her come in, but she was already sitting up on the folding recliner and turning around in greeting. “Good to see you again. You’re looking well. No casualties this time, I hope?” The smile, which could’ve been mean, was broad and welcoming, with just a hint of cheekiness from the question. As Vicky approached, she stood up.

    Vicky felt her apprehension melt away. “No, no casualties this time,” she assured Marchioness. “That was a real wakeup call for me. I’m a lot more careful, since then.” She grimaced. “Though Traction never made it to prison. The Empire Eighty-Eight attacked the transport, murdered some of the guards, and broke her out.” She wasn’t quite sure how many of the guards had been murdered, but it had been at least one.

    “Huh.” Marchioness suddenly looked introspective. “That’s kind of funny.” Blinking, she met Vicky’s eyes again. “Not funny ha-ha but funny weird. Dad and I had a run-in with the Empire not long ago, and we kind of dispersed them. But Traction wasn’t among the ones we dealt with.”

    “Oh. I see.” Vicky had been aware of the way the Empire Eighty-Eight’s presence had been fading away from the Brockton Bay gang scene, but it hadn’t occurred to her to ask exactly what had happened to a gang that strong. Now, unless Marchioness was pulling her leg hard enough to dislocate the hip joint, she was looking at one of the people who had happened to it. And while Marchioness clearly enjoyed the hell out of being enigmatic and just a little silly, Vicky hadn’t caught her in any lies yet.

    “Yeah. Thanks for that. I’m gonna mention it to Dad when I get home, so we can look into it. We don’t want any remnants of the Empire sidling around here under the radar and causing trouble. Look at the hassle they made for everyone when we could see what they were doing.” Unbidden, Marchioness gave Vicky a hug then waved her to a seat on the recliner. “Want a soda? Gummy bear? I’ve got plenty. So, how’d your mom take things, the last time we met?”

    Vicky took the seat, accepted the soda but declined the gummy bear. Marchioness sat down beside her and opened one for herself, observing Vicky expectantly.

    “In a word … badly.” Vicky grimaced. “She’s still very unhappy about what happened back then, I think. I mean …” She glanced around and lowered her voice, even though the emergency room was more or less empty. “She’s gone through therapy, and I think she’s a lot better than she used to be, but … some things still trigger her. And by ‘some things’ I mean any mention of your dad.” She popped the cap off the soda and took a long drink in an attempt to cover the awkwardness.

    “Ew. Um.” Marchioness raised an eyebrow. “Is this gonna be a problem? I don’t want it to be a problem. I want us to be friends.”

    “It shouldn’t be a problem,” Vicky hastened to say. “We'd already been to see Deputy Director Renick, and he said that your dad’s off limits so long as you’re around, and she seems to accept that. Most of the time.” She paused a moment later, as the realisation that she probably shouldn’t have said that crossed her mind. “Um. Crap. I’m bad at this.”

    “Hey, it’s okay.” Marchioness grinned and draped an arm around her shoulders, giving her a side-hug. “We’d basically figured that one out already. It’s why he hasn’t been going out without me, unless he really has to. And he hasn’t been committing crimes … well, not against normal people, anyway. We did kinda mess up the Empire when they tried to kill him, but nobody died. And hey, we recruited one of them.”

    Vicky blinked. From ‘dispersing’ the Empire Eighty-Eight to ‘messing them up’ was a big step, but the other one was pretty big, too. “Wait, what? You recruited one?”

    “Yup.” Marchioness beamed sunnily at her. “Everyone’s gonna figure this out pretty quickly, but me and Dad have a new team member. Probably more than one, soon. She used to be Purity, but now she’s calling herself Palatina, and she’s not a Nazi anymore, so you’re not allowed to call her that.”

    “You recruited Purity?” Vicky was severely impressed, despite herself. Purity was—had been—one of the big hitters in Brockton Bay, short of Lung himself. He was tougher, but she had flight all the time and her blasts had much longer range. Of course, her stealth was non-existent, but she couldn’t have everything. “How’d you pull that one off?”

    “Kaiser was a dick,” Marchioness said airily. “She realised that, so when we made him leave Brockton Bay, she stayed behind and joined up with us. She’s a really nice person, once you get to know her.”

    Vicky shook her head. “Do you mind if I tell the rest of the Brigade about this? It feels like something they should know.”

    “Oh, totally.” Marchioness nodded earnestly. “I’m not telling you anything that I don’t think your folks should hear. Unless you want to keep some of it to yourself, like us being friends and all. I mean, I’m not a villain, but I’m not so sure your mom would see it that way, seeing how I help Dad out with stuff sometimes. And I don’t want you getting into trouble.”

    “Aww, thanks,” Vicky said. “That’s the nicest thing anyone’s said to me in like, ever. Well, except for all the other nice stuff you said when we first met.” She leaned against Marchioness slightly, enjoying the company of someone who really got her. “I’m glad you’re not really a villain. I’d hate to have to arrest you.”

    Marchioness snorted. “What would the charges be? Reckless healing?”

    That got a giggle from Vicky. “Being suspiciously nice to people?”

    “Loitering in the emergency room?”

    “Healing for fun and profit?”

    “Making heroes look silly?”

    Vicky was laughing too hard now to keep going. She wiped her eyes, snorted with laughter, and wiped them again. “Oh, man,” she said once she managed to get herself under control. “I so needed that. Thank you.”

    Putting her soda bottle down, Marchioness booped her on the nose playfully. “You’re welcome. I’ve got friends here, but you’re my first friend in costume who’s my age. It’s nice to talk to someone who gets it, you know? What it’s like to be a kid with powers.”

    “Aww.” Vicky put her arm around Marchioness and hugged her right back. “I’m totally good to talk about that all day long if you want.” She shifted a little with discomfort and put the empty soda bottle on the floor. “Though I’m gonna have to get up. Bathroom break.”

    “That’d be right. Abandon me for your bodily needs.” Marchioness rolled her eyes as she let Vicky go. She pointed at a discreet door in the corner of the room. “It’s through there.”

    “Oh, thanks.” Blessing the fact that her costume had been designed with ease of access for this specific instance, Vicky headed into the bathrooms.

    As she settled down to do what needed to be done, she reflected that this had been a really good idea. Marchioness was fun to be around, and there was even stuff she could tell the rest of the Brigade. She’d heard stories about heroes having unofficial backchannels with villains and vice versa, but she’d never understood how that worked without the hero compromising their ideals. Now, she was starting to get a better idea of it.

    Of course, Mom might be harder to convince. She was just starting to try to work out exactly how to elide over this specific instance without actually lying when there was a tremendous crash that shook the building.

    What the hell was that?


    A Few Moments Earlier


    “Okay, there she is. Right where the newspaper said she’d be.” Sherrel tapped a control and the screen zoomed in. Inside the glass sliding doors of the hospital emergency room, a slender form lay on a recliner, soda bottle in hand. She bared her teeth in atavistic glee. Fuckin’ take away my drugs will you, you little bitch?

    “You sure this is the best way?”
    asked Crusader over the radio link. “I mean, my ghosts could've gone straight in there and dragged her out, and she couldn’t’ve done a damn thing about it.”

    Sherrel puffed out an aggravated sigh. “This is the best way because I fuckin’ said it was the best way, capisce? That little skinny cow fucked with my high. Nobody does that. So we’re grabbing her my way. Because I know my way works.” She checked to make sure she was broadcasting to everyone at once. “Does anyone else have a problem with that?”

    Alabaster's voice was the epitome of no-fucks-given. “Ain’t no skin off mine. Grab her how you want to grab her.”

    Night and Fog didn’t even bother answering. She’d made it clear that she wanted Marchioness alive, so eventually they’d stopped volunteering innovative ways to kill the girl. Once she had the little bitch in her clutches, she had no doubt they’d move on to suggesting how best to torture her. She was definitely on board with that aspect of matters.

    “Okay, good,” she said. “You can start your distractions now.”

    This time, there was a round of replies in the affirmative. She waited until the scanner reported that BBPD and PRT units were responding to all three incidents, then made her move. Under her direction, the stealthed tank rolled off the main road and across the grassy verge before it clattered down on to the asphalt of the parking lot. She could’ve used the armoured vehicle to shove cars out of the way, but she didn’t want to give away her hand too early. Using careful hand movements, she guided it between the rows of cars until the entrance to the emergency room was dead ahead, the only obstacle a few scrubby little bushes.

    Taking a deep breath, she rammed the control forward. “Woo hoo!” she yelled as the image of the emergency room doors loomed large on the screen.



    The first Claire knew of what was going on was when the emergency-room doors, along with part of the wall, shattered inward with a tremendous crash. A large metallic prow with ‘FUCK YOU’ painted on it, with a hand flipping the bird between the two words, protruded through into the room. Heavy caterpillar tracks ground forward, pushing the large vehicle further in.

    “Marchioness!” The voice was feminine, despite the distortion from the speakers. “Surrender right the fuck now, or I kill everyone here!” Giving substance to the threat, a turret motored upward from the top surface of the tank, and a gun barrel rotated to line up on the nurse’s station. At the same time, a large horizontal hatch dropped open at the front of the tank. Within, there was a cavity about the same shape and size as a coffin, with heavy padding. “Get in, or else.”

    Claire looked at the gun. She didn’t know all that much about them, but that one looked like it meant business. The nurse was currently hiding behind her desk, but against something that size, mere wood and glass would do nothing. And even if it missed her, there were people farther back in the building who were at extreme risk.

    “You realise if you go through with this, the Birdcage will be the least of the problems you’ll be facing.” Keeping her voice calm, she pushed hard on her power, trying to find whoever was driving the tank. “My dad will make whatever the PRT does to you look like a gentle pat on the wrist.” She was coming up blank on the ‘people inside the tank’ thing. Either there was nobody in there, or they had it somehow cloaked against her power, in the same way she’d neither heard nor seen it until it busted through the door. Which meant she couldn’t oppose them directly.

    The gun angled around, then fired. On the wall, the TV exploded in a shower of sparks, but that was nothing to the shockingly loud sound inside the confined area. Claire felt her ears ringing, and fixed the minor trauma. If she was going to get out of this, she needed to have all her faculties at top capability.

    As the gun motored back around, the voice spoke once more. This time, the menace was far more than a mere suggestion. “Get in the damn capsule, or I kill everyone in the damn hospital.”

    Jonas, Mega Girl, where are you? Not daring to even glance toward the bathroom door, Claire went over to the front of the tank. Once she was inside the capsule, she could become her battle form and maybe even burst out. Though, from the thickness of metal, it looked unlikely. Someone was going all-out on capturing her; from the looks of it, they weren’t taking any chances.

    The question was, who? The Merchants hadn’t had any Tinkers, and they were shut down anyway. The gun jiggled impatiently, and she carefully climbed into the capsule. Was it the Empire, maybe? She and her father had broken the gang up pretty good. Though …

    Oh, shit. As the capsule closed around her, the padding pressing in from all sides, she realised what was going on. Traction. She was recruited into the Empire, and we never mopped her up with the rest of them.

    The capsule clicked shut and locked, and the tank’s engine revved, preparing to reverse out of the hole. She felt the jolt as it went over some rubble. Then it lurched again, swerving sideways and jamming in the side of the hole.


    Mega Girl

    With the bathroom door barely cracked open, Vicky watched as Marchioness climbed into the capsule of her own accord. The girl had guts, she had to admit. Willingly allowing herself to be taken hostage to save others was something that even heroes had trouble doing. Normally, she would’ve been out there taking on the tank from the word go, but there were far too many things to go wrong. Whoever was driving the thing clearly had their finger on the trigger right now, and she didn’t want to cause another live-fire incident. The next one might go through people.

    She watched as the tank began to rumble backward out of the hole it had made, the cloaking field settling over it again to make it almost impossible to see or hear. Then it stopped, swinging sideways, and she heard the tracks grinding uselessly against the concrete.

    Okay, it’s hung up somehow. This is my chance, while the driver’s distracted. Wrenching the door open, she launched across the room and out through the hole. The gun barrel was pointing in entirely the wrong way, and it had only just started to swivel to her before she grabbed it and tore it out of its mounting with a loud screeching of metal on metal.

    That was when she realised there was someone climbing on to the back of the tank; a big man, wearing dark clothes and a balaclava. Staring at the guy, she opened her mouth to ask questions but the person driving the tank got in first.

    “What the fuck? Where did you come from? What’s going on here?”



    Sitting in the driver’s seat of the town car with nothing to read, and only soft music on the radio to listen to, might have been terminally boring to some people. Jonas Hart knew better. He’d lived through incidents in Africa that would’ve made the worst of Brockton Bay look like a Sunday afternoon picnic at the beach.

    As it was, his entire job was to watch over his little chick and ensure that no harm came to her. She’d forbidden him to come into the emergency room and keep people away from her, so his only other option was to stay outside, as close as he could manage, and keep tabs on her. She was tough, he knew that much; any normal person trying to pull shit with her was going to end up on the wrong end of a lot of hurt before Jonas even got to them. But it was the powered ones that promised to be problematic, so he kept an especially sharp eye out for them.

    Which was why he was horribly shocked and surprised when he heard a rending crash from the direction of the emergency room doors, after glancing away for just a few seconds. Before his disbelieving eyes, an entire small tank had materialised, ramming its way into the emergency room door, right where his little chick was. Swearing luridly at himself—you had one goddamn job, you useless fucking idiot—he grabbed the balaclava from the passenger seat, checked that the pistol was safely in his shoulder holster, and leaped from the car.

    Not that he thought a pistol would do a goddamn thing against a fucking invisible tank, but who knew; he might need it.

    Sprinting across the parking lot, he paused at a Yield sign and grabbed it. With a powerful twisting heave that would’ve left the old Jonas slack-jawed with disbelief, he tore it from the ground, then kept running. Distantly, he could hear the demands of the tank driver for Marchioness to surrender. He hoped she would remember the words he’d drummed into her for if she was ever kidnapped, over and over again.

    Do whatever it takes to stay alive, chick. I will come for you, and I will get you back.

    Then he heard the metallic clank as something closed up, and the engine note changed; it was about to go into reverse. You’re not getting away, not if I can help it.

    Bracing himself, he took hold of each end of the pipe holding the sign and heaved. The mild steel bent like putty in his hands, and he crimped it into a hairpin shape. Then, just as the tank began to move, he shoved the bent pipe into the gap between the tracks and the road wheels. The tank moved a grand total of two feet before the pipe got jammed up against the road wheel. A single pipe may have been able to deform enough to make it past the obstacle, but with two it had no chance. The tracks ground to a halt and the tank began to swivel on the tracks until the nose jammed against the far side of the hole it had made.

    Just as he leaped up and began climbing up the back of the tank toward a promising-looking hatch, he heard a rending screech. For a second, he thought the tracks had somehow chewed up the pipe he’d used to jam them, but it had come from the front of the tank. Then a familiar face came into view over the top of the tank; or at least, a familiar costume.

    “What the fuck?” squawked the speakers. “Where did you come from? What’s going on here?”

    The blonde teenage girl facing him looked as though she had the same questions in mind. He got in first. “I’m an ally, Mega Girl. Where’s Marchioness?”

    “Down in the front,” she said automatically. “Some sort of holding space.”

    “Get her out. I got this.” He grabbed hold of the edge of the hatch he’d been crawling toward, and wedged his fingers underneath. While he didn’t pretend to understand the specifics of what Miss Claire had done to his physiology, he knew what was strong and what was weak. His bones and tendons were tough, but his fingernails and his flesh were weak (though subdermal armour took care of the former for the most part). So he didn’t try to claw it open; he just set himself and heaved.

    Bolts gave way, one after the other, and he tore the hatch off, holding it in front of him as a shield, just in case whoever was inside decided to start shooting. No such thing happened. In fact, as he looked down into the tank, he could clearly see there was nobody in there. The interior of the tank contained a lot of what he suspected was Tinkertech … and something that anyone would recognise. A blinking red readout, counting down. One minute thirty on the clock.

    “Self destruct!” he bellowed, tossing the hatch aside and leaping forward over the front of the tank. Just as he landed, Mega Girl forced a hatch open with a crunch of bending metal. His little chick climbed out, looking as healthy as ever, and he heaved an inward sigh of relief. But there was still the other problem.

    “Self destruct?” repeated Mega Girl. “I hate those things! How much time?”

    “Minute twenty,” he told her, glancing at his watch and dropping ten seconds off the time that he’d seen. “I can help you push it into the parking lot …”

    “No, I got this.” Stepping forward, she put her hands on the nose of the tank and shoved, driving it backward out of the building with a sound of metal tearing at concrete. Jonas had no doubt that this would be an expensive interlude for the hospital, or at least their insurance provider. He also had no doubt that his strength was simply no match for hers.

    Once the tank was clear of the building, Mega Girl lifted it up over her head and took off; not straight up, but angling toward the east. As if drawn by a magnet, they followed her out into the parking lot. Marchioness looked up in the sky, while Jonas kept a close eye all around for any attempt at a repeat performance.

    “How long?” she asked.

    He checked his watch again. “Thirty seconds, chick.”

    “Thanks for being here, Jonas.”

    “My pleasure and my job, Miss Claire.”

    “Do you think she’ll be okay?”

    He checked his watch again as he answered. “Mega Girl has shown she can take a hit before, miss.” Fifteen seconds.

    “Yeah, but this is an exploding tank. Who makes an exploding tank, anyway?”

    “I’m certain your father and I will find out, chick.”

    “Actually, I’m pretty sure—”

    The splash was distant, only made audible by the quiet of the night. About a second later, there was a long drawn-out eruption of sound. Jonas fancied he saw a brief glow in the sky to the east.

    “Did you hear that?” asked Claire, pointing. “I think it just went off.”

    “I believe it did, chick. She threw it in the bay first.”

    “Oh. Good. Hey, look!” She raised her arm and pointed. Jonas saw it immediately; a grey-clad figure, vaguely illuminated by the city lights, flying back toward them. Side by side, they waited for her.

    Mega Girl came in for a slightly wobbly landing, looking absolutely bedraggled. Her hair was a mess and had seaweed in it, and her costume was drenched.

    “Wow, you got a bit close to the explosion there, huh?” asked Claire, the devil of amusement dancing in her eyes.

    “WHAT?” asked Mega Girl. “I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”

    Claire sighed and stepped forward. She laid her hand on Mega Girl’s arm, and the blonde blinked. “Wow,” she complained at a more normal tone. “Never gonna do that again. I thought my ears were gonna be ringing forever.”

    “Well, I can fix your ears,” said Claire with a smirk, “but you’re going to have to deal with the rest of it yourself. Love the seaweed, though. Really sets off your ‘drowned rat’ effect.”

    Mega Girl blew a raspberry at her, then grinned. “Mom’s gonna have absolute kittens, but I don’t care. I had a good time tonight. Even with the exploding tank. Who do you think sent it?”

    “I’m thinking Traction,” Claire decided, rubbing her chin. “She’s the only Tinker I know of who might have a grudge against me. The trouble is, how do I track her down if she’s gonna be using stealth tanks?”

    “We’ll figure out a way.” Mega Girl pulled her into a sudden hug, ignoring the squawk of outrage as her evening dress got soaked with the seawater still dripping from Mega Girl’s costume. “In the meantime, I’m glad you’re okay.”

    “Pfft, get off,” protested Claire, shoving her away ineffectually. “Yeah, I’m glad you’re okay too, you great lummox. Thanks for being here.”

    “Hey,” said Mega Girl. “What are friends for?”



    “Well, that was a waste of time and effort.” Crusader rolled his eyes. “Great timing there, Sherrel. You showed up at exactly the same time as Mega Girl did.”

    “What I want to know is, why didn’t you blow the tank as soon as you saw it was over?” asked Alabaster. “It’s what I’d do.”

    “Because Tinkers who don’t allow for timers on their self destructs are otherwise known as ‘casualties’,” Sherrel told him tartly. “We always need a chance to shut it off, in case some smartass figures out a way to remotely activate it.”

    “Well, what are you gonna do now?” Justin leaned back and swivelled on his chair.

    Sherrel sneered at him. “Set up another tank, of course. It was bad luck that screwed me up this time. She has to be lucky every time. I only have to be lucky once.”

    “Says every failed gambler ever,” jibed Alabaster.

    “Screw you,” Sherrel told him without heat. She aimed her finger like a gun at the frozen image of Marchioness on the screen. “I’ll get you. Sooner or later, you little cow, I will get you.”

    End of Part Eighteen
    Last edited: Feb 19, 2020
  8. Prince Charon

    Prince Charon Just zis guy, you know?

    Feb 20, 2014
    Likes Received:
    Ah, she has her first Nemesis. I rather suspect she's disappointed about the quality, though, even if she benefits from it.

    Admittedly, that is much smarter than I expected. The effects of not melting her brain on the regular, I guess.
    Scopas, NavigatorNobilis and Ack like this.
  9. Threadmarks: Part Nineteen: Taking Care of Business

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:
    Another Way

    Part Nineteen: Taking Care of Business

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

    Robert wasn’t at all sure where the sword came from, but when he summoned it, it grew out of his hand. Much like the armour that covered his body, it was there when he needed it, and vanished when he didn’t. He had trouble remembering more than vague details about the world, but he was reasonably sure that people didn’t ordinarily extrude metal armour from their skin, or cause long metal blades to grow out of their hands. Even without the armour, he was particularly durable and strong, but with it … he would’ve said he was unbeatable.

    Except that he wasn’t.

    “Attend to your guard, boy!” Even as the words cracked across the training room, a bone club came whistling past his sword and smacked into the side of his head, sending him sprawling. The steel helmet protected him from the worst of the impact, but his vision wavered and his ears rang with the impact. “Don’t look at where my weapon is! Focus on where it’s going to be!”

    “I’m trying!” he protested. “You keep changing your weapon!” He’d thought he just about had the hang of the bone sword Marquis was using, until it became a club and the veteran supervillain totally changed his fighting style.

    “It’s true,” Marquis agreed. “I do. It’s one of the ways I keep my opponents off-balance.”

    “Well, it’s sure working on me,” muttered Robert. “Every time I think I know what I’m doing, you change the rules.”

    Marquis made the bone club disappear. “On the contrary, the rules never change. You’re simply unaware of which game you’re trying to play. It’s very simple: don’t get hit.”

    “You’ve been doing it for a lot longer than me.” Robert tried not to sound like he was whining. “No matter what I try, you hit me.”

    “Would you rather I allow you to think you were more skilled than you are?” Marquis raised an eyebrow. “That kind of shoddy training gets people killed.”

    “Yeah, I know.” Robert tried to muster a coherent argument. “But you’re so much better than me. It’s like you’re doing stuff you think I should know how to react to, but I’m not even up to the level you’re dumbing it down to.”

    “Hmm.” Marquis rubbed his chin between forefinger and thumb. “You may be correct. Very well; we shall change opponents.”

    “Don’t look at me,” Palatina advised over the rumble of her treadmill, next to the wall. “I’m best at ranged combat.”

    “We are going to have to address that at some point,” he noted. “But not today.” He looked across the gym to where Claire in her Marchioness form, wearing a martial-arts gi, was sparring with the scary man-mountain who pretended to be their bodyguard.

    Robert had watched Jonas bench half a ton without breaking a sweat earlier. He was no weakling himself, but that was a level of power he knew he couldn’t match. One punch from the big guy, he knew quite well, would probably put him clean through the wall.

    He wasn’t quite sure if Jonas was hamming it up for the boss’ daughter or if she really was that fast, but each time one of those huge fists lashed out, it connected with nothing but air. In return, she was beating on him like a punching-bag, though her punches and shin-strikes seemed to be having little effect.

    “Claire!” called out Marquis. “Cease playing patty-cake with Jonas. Robert needs tuition in the basics before I can get back to teaching him how to stay alive in a fight.”

    “Just a second, Dad!” Claire moved aside smoothly from a piledriver blow from Jonas, took hold of the arm, then spun and twisted in a very specific way. To Robert’s astonishment, Jonas’ feet left the mat as he somersaulted up and over, landing on his back with a muffled crash.

    Claire didn’t let go his arm; a brief but fierce scuffle developed between the teenage girl and the burly ‘bodyguard’ that ended up with Jonas face-down on the mat. His arm was angled up behind him at what looked like a very uncomfortable degree, and Claire was sitting on his back with her left foot wedged in behind his left ear. “Give?” she called out.

    Jonas grunted and tried to throw her off, but lacked any kind of serious leverage. She ratcheted up the tension on her hold a few degrees. After a few more seconds, Jonas slapped the mat with his free hand. Claire immediately released his arm and rolled off his back, coming to her feet in a single lithe move.

    “I might have to increase the play in your shoulder joints a little,” she said as she offered a hand for him to get up. “I’m thinking I took you down a little too easily there.”

    “Could be, chick,” the big man rumbled, accepting the help. She braced herself and heaved him up. “Are you getting faster, or am I slowing down?”

    “You’re not slowing down,” she assured him. “I’m experimenting with a different neurotransmitter-analogue. Maybe fifteen percent faster reactions. But it would have unpleasant side-effects on any human system that hasn’t been tailored to accept it.” Reaching up, she slapped him on the shoulder. “But we can talk shop later. Let’s go see what Dad wants.”

    “Fifteen percent?” asked Marquis as Claire and Jonas approached. “Really?”

    Claire shrugged. “It ranges from fourteen to sixteen, so I went with fifteen. It’s a work in progress. Anyway, what’s up?”

    Robert could see the writing on the wall. Marquis was going to tell Jonas to spar with him. It didn’t matter that the man was technically unarmed; nobody who had been within reach of those fists would use that particular term about Jonas with any degree of seriousness. It was bad enough when he got hit by whatever bone weapon Marquis was favouring at the moment. He was reasonably certain that Jonas was capable of putting his fist through a brick wall without doing himself appreciable damage. And he wasn’t at all certain he was fast or strong enough to evade or block a blow from the enhanced bodyguard.

    This is going to suck, big-time.

    “Young Robert has raised the excellent point that I’m too far out of his league to teach him properly,” Marquis said without the slightest hint of irony in his voice. “Claire, you’re the one here who’s learned self-defence techniques most recently. Do you think you could tutor him until he’s got a basis we can build upon?”

    “Sure.” Claire shrugged, then glanced at Robert. “If that’s okay with you?”

    “Uh, sure.” Robert glanced from Jonas to Claire, recalling the ease with which she’d thrown the much larger man. “Just go easy on me, okay? I’m pretty sure you’re stronger and faster than me.”

    She grinned, and he could’ve sworn her teeth got a tiny bit sharper. “No promises.”

    Well, it’s still probably going to suck, Robert reflected. Just not quite as much.



    Kenta stared at the footage. If he hadn’t known for an absolute fact that he was not the one in the imagery being blasted out through the front wall of the PRT building, he would’ve been taken in by the masquerade. The flames and metallic scales were hard to mistake for anyone but him.

    On the screen, the impostor hit the asphalt and rolled over several times, then snarled and began to climb to his feet. On his chest, the area of scales that had been blasted away by the energy beam began to grow in again, thicker and heavier than ever. Except that he never made it all the way; an off-white barrier sprang up around him, then filled itself in faster than he could break out. By the time the glowing woman emerged from the hole, the other Lung was thoroughly encased.

    What was Purity doing inside the PRT building? A moment later, he dismissed the question as irrelevant, as he had every other time he’d watched this video. The answer would come out, or it wouldn’t.

    His eyes narrowed and heat built up around his hands when he saw the red and green colours worn by the minions of the fake Lung. If he was not much mistaken, they had fled his service after badly failing him. Running away was bad enough, but they were still purporting to be members of the ABB. This was a mortal insult; if he ever found them again, he would do to them what he’d done to their craven leader.

    The sound on the phone video was so bad as to be not there at all, so he could only guess at what was said between Marquis (for who else could it be?), the girl in the evening gown, Purity and Armsmaster. He would’ve given a great deal to know exactly who Marquis had called to make Armsmaster back off; was the veteran supervillain now working with the PRT?

    As the car drove off, tinted windows and obscured license plate making it impossible to garner any clues about its ownership, Kenta leaned back in his chair and thought about what he’d just seen. The girl was almost certainly Marquis’ daughter, the rogue known as Marchioness. She had to have a Master rating by the way she’d managed to gain ascendancy over his ex-minions or even his own doppelganger, because they’d walked to the car without the slightest fuss.

    Which meant that something was going on behind the scenes. Possibly more than one ‘something’, given the number of strange events that were happening around Brockton Bay at the moment. The disappearance of both the Archer’s Bridge Merchants and the Empire Eighty-Eight from the underworld scene, save for Purity, who appeared to have taken up with Marquis. The strange story of the bank robbery both perpetrated and foiled by Marquis. The explosive immolation of a warehouse in the Docklands, the area now sequestered and shut down by the PRT.

    Stripping away all the inconsequentialities, this spelled a potential opportunity for Kenta and the ABB, both to expand in operations and to gain revenge for the insult inflicted by Marquis. He was fully aware of the fact that with allies, Marquis was stronger than he ever had been before, but he didn’t care. The bone-manipulator would die for crossing him and claiming ABB territory, and for turning his previously-loyal followers against him.

    As for Marquis’ allies, Kenta wasn’t overly concerned. Purity’s blasts were powerful but she couldn’t take the same sort of damage that she could deal out. He could weather a few of her shots until he got in close, then he’d deal a killing blow. Likewise, it seemed that Marchioness needed to be close to her victims to make her Master ability work. His flames could easily fry her from a distance, before she could ever lay a hand on him. No, the real danger was Marquis and his osteokinesis; fortunately, Kenta was strong enough to smash through barricades and tough enough to take a hit from any bone weapon the older man wished to try on him. It would be a tough fight, but the leader of the ABB knew he would win. He always had.

    He vaguely recalled hearing that apart from her Master ability, Marchioness also healed people at the Brockton Bay General Hospital. Being able to heal was useful, but there was nothing she’d be able to do to bring Marquis back from what Kenta intended to do to him. Let’s see her heal a pile of ashes.

    The idea of capturing her from the hospital to use as leverage to bring her father out of hiding occurred to him, but he dismissed it almost at once. As one of the two major criminal capes in the city, a move like that would almost certainly bring down unwanted attention on him and the rest of the ABB. Especially considering the odd influence Marquis seemed to possess with the PRT. He, himself, could stand the heat, but if the authorities took to arresting his minions as fast as they showed their faces, the ABB would not last long. Also, he couldn’t think of a way to kidnap her that didn’t involve getting close enough for her to Master his minions, or even himself.

    Having his minions attack Marquis’ footsoldiers seemed a valid tactic. From what he’d heard, the men were competent but didn’t include any actual capes. They were advancing into what had been Empire territory, and shooing drug dealers out of Merchant turf, with little in the way of opposition. Moving into ABB territory, they were being a little more circumspect, but so far they were having things all their own way. A few judicious defeats, he decided, should both send the right message and draw out Marquis to deal with the problem.

    Whereupon Kenta would intercept him and deal with his problem, once and for all. Deprived of their natural leader, Marchioness and Purity would be relatively easy to mop up.

    Half-closing his eyes, Kenta allowed a predatory smile to cross his face. Once that happened, the ABB would be the undisputed cape gang in Brockton Bay. They would rule, and draw tributes, from Captain’s Hill to Lord Street; from the Forsberg Gallery to the Docks. And if anyone else tried to muscle in on that action … well, there was a reason they called him the Dragon of Kyushu.

    He started the video again from the beginning.


    PRT ENE Building

    Director’s Office


    Colin wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else.

    Normally, he maintained a strictly professional relationship with the Director because she was the Director. Her dislike of capes was an open secret within the local PRT and Protectorate, but for the most part she seemed willing to step back and let the heroes sort things out. Until she wasn’t. When she decided that the Protectorate or Wards had overstepped the line, she wasn’t the type to send a passive-aggressive memo suggesting that they clean up their act. No, she wasn’t that sort of person at all. Emily Piggot was ex-military, formerly a front-line officer, and it showed.

    When she was pissed at someone, she didn’t get passive-aggressive at all. She just got aggressive.

    “So, a tank,” she said flatly.

    “Yes,” he confirmed.

    She closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Heavy, covered in armour, big gun on the front, caterpillar tracks, slow and noisy … that kind of tank?”

    “That’s the description we got from Marchioness, Mega Girl, and the staff who witnessed it, yes,” he said. Internally, he winced at the phrase ‘slow and noisy’. Those three words did not bode well for his immediate mental well-being.

    “Where did it come from, and why was it not detected before it came within half a mile of the hospital?” she asked, as if to a child. Colin hoped that she never had children, if only for the sake of her putative offspring. She wasn’t a bad person, but ‘good’ did not equal ‘nice’, especially in her job.

    Fortunately, he’d done some looking around in the aftermath of the attack on the hospital. Marchioness had answered his questions, but with a certain amount of blunt sarcasm. She was also a little vague on how she’d avoided being abducted, claiming that Mega Girl had been there to save the day but only giving a few basic details.

    Mega Girl had been a little more forthcoming, reporting that ‘a big guy in a mask’ had assisted her with disabling the tank before she flew away with it. No, she’d never seen the big guy before. No, she had no idea who he was. He was a Brute, she’d told Colin, but everything had happened so fast. No, when she got back to the hospital, he was gone …

    Backtracking the tank itself, he’d discovered that the tracks ran out alongside one of the major roads, about two blocks from the hospital. “At my best estimation, it was dropped off by a large truck of some sort,” he said. “As for why we didn’t notice it before it hit the hospital itself, especially given that it passed by several security cameras, none of which saw anything significant, I’m going with a cloaking device for the time being.”

    “Anything significant?” she asked, proving that she was paying attention. “Was there something not significant that they picked up?”

    “Yes, ma’am,” he said, glad to have something positive to report. “The tank left trackmarks in the roadway, which gave us a timestamp for each camera it passed by. Enhancing and examining the footage of those cameras, we were able to detect a distinctive fuzziness, as if the tank had been photoshopped out of the footage. By measuring the movement of the camera, we were also able to detect the vibration caused by the tank going past, even though it cancelled audible sound. I am reasonably certain I can devise a drop-down filter that will allow me to spot the next such cloaked vehicle.”

    The look on her face showed that she was not enthralled by his pronouncement. “The next such cloaked vehicle?”

    “Well, yes.” Despite his best efforts, his voice took on a didactic tone. “This Tinker dislikes Marchioness personally, but only knew enough about her personal habits to attack her at the hospital …” His voice trailed off as facts connected themselves together in his head to make a brand-new picture. “Wait … of course …”

    “Of course what?” snapped Piggot. “Have you worked out a machine that will track this goddamn Tinker down and disable the next invisible tank he Tinker builds?”

    Her tone was mainly sarcastic, but he didn’t mind. “Not yet, ma’am, but I’ve been trying to work out who could be behind this. Marquis and Marchioness have only been back in Brockton Bay for a short while, and we have a distinct lack of villain Tinkers as it is. But I just remembered. You may recall my report about Traction, the powersuit user who got injured while I was giving Mega Girl a training run?”

    She nodded, an expression of enlightenment crossing her face. “The Bailey woman, correct? She was broken out of prisoner transport by the Empire Eighty-Eight. There were casualties. You think she’s our culprit?”

    “I do.” It was good to be on the same page again. “She showed all the signs of being a habitual drug user, and in fact was attempting to steal pharmaceuticals when she was apprehended. Marchioness was in the emergency room at the time, and not only healed her but cured her addiction and alerted me to the fact that she was awake and playing possum.”

    Piggot considered that. “Well, she’s definitely a Tinker, and for a motive I suppose she might be holding a grudge against Marchioness for warning you that she was about to escape.”

    “Not even that, ma’am,” Colin told her. “Marchioness forced her to go fully sober. Removed all the chemical cravings from her body. She’s having to face the world as it is for the first time in a long time. Worse, if there’s anything I’ve learned from going against the Merchants, it’s that addiction can be in itself an addiction. Even when they’re totally clean, addicts still crave that perfect high. I would bet my halberd that Marchioness made it so she can’t just get straight back on the drugs, and that she’s pissed at Marchioness for taking that from her.”

    “In other words, no good deed goes unpunished.” Piggot grimaced and shook her head. “It makes sense. God knows I wish it didn’t, but it does. Where in a sane universe does someone build a goddamn stealth tank to abduct the person who cured their addiction … and what did she want with Marchioness once she had her?”

    Colin figured the first question was rhetorical, so he felt safe in answering the second one. “If I had to guess? Revenge, or maybe to try to force Marchioness to take away whatever’s stopping Bailey from getting high. And then revenge.”

    Piggot nodded in understanding. “That definitely ticks all the boxes. Cape names aren’t the best way to determine someone’s powers, but a Tinker calling herself Traction sounds like someone who could build a tank, to me at least. Motive, means and opportunity.” She drew a deep breath. “We got lucky this time, that Mega Girl and this unnamed Brute were nearby. No indication on who he was? Security footage?”

    “I looked for that, too.” Armsmaster shook his head. “Whoever it was knew how to evade security cameras. He wore a balaclava and dark clothing. About my size, maybe a bit heavier through the shoulders. We don’t have very good imagery of him and once the action was over, he left the area covered by the cameras without even looking back. Apart from the fact that he can apparently bend metal in his bare hands, I would’ve taken him for a wannabe non-powered vigilante.”

    “So, another newbie on the scene who hasn’t taken the time to get a proper costume together, who happened on the scene and helped out,” Piggot summarised. “We’ll almost certainly see him around and about at some point in a proper costume, unless something happens to him. At least he seems to have the right instincts, which doesn’t always happen. Either way, he helped us dodge a bullet. This time.”

    “Yes, ma’am.” Colin didn’t need that to be explained to him. “The question is, now that we know someone has a definite motive to attack Marchioness, is Marquis going to do the smart thing and keep her undercover until we’ve got Traction stuffed in the Birdcage?”

    The look she gave him then would’ve made him snort if he was inclined to be amused at times like this. “Now, now, Armsmaster. We both know that they haven’t yet convened the trial to see if Traction is Birdcage material, and the law of the land says she’s innocent until proven guilty.”

    “Of course, Director.” He kept his voice deadpan, eliciting a very faint smile from her. “Whatever happens to Traction, there are several reasons we don’t want Marchioness getting hurt; her status as a potential game-changer at Endbringer battles is just one of them.”

    “I concur.” The humour was entirely gone from her voice now. From the sound of things, Piggot wasn’t hopeful about Marquis doing the smart thing. “She might be the daughter of a notorious supervillain and murderer, but she’s still just a teenage girl. More to the point, if she were to be hurt or killed, I shudder to think about the revenge Marquis would wreak upon whoever he considered responsible.” She interlaced her fingers and clenched her hands together. “Which is why I’m going to be taking a very risky step, hopefully to avert an even riskier outcome.”

    “Ma’am?” This conversation was going places Colin hadn’t expected it to. “What do you have in mind?”

    Piggot looked up at him, her face set in determined lines. “We both know Marquis isn’t the type to step back from adversity. He moves forward, faces it and overcomes it. The only reason he left Brockton Bay was the threat against his daughter before she had powers; he came back because she now has powers of her own and can take care of herself. Do you concur?”

    “I do.” He nodded cautiously. So far, her logic seemed to be holding up, but he wasn’t sure he liked where it seemed to be leading. “Which means …?”

    “Which means I’m going to have to authorise PRT and possibly Protectorate surveillance on Marchioness whenever she’s seen in public,” the Director stated firmly. “No information gathering, of course no attempts to hinder her or take her in. Call it an informal protection detail. If anyone tries anything against her, that’s when our people step in.”

    “And if she makes us?” Colin considered it a distinct possibility. Marchioness had come across as being very sharp, and that didn’t even factor in what training her father may have given her in counter-surveillance.

    Piggot’s expression soured. “Then we’re going to have to come clean. The absolute last thing I want is for Marquis to get the impression that we’re lurking around with the intent to abduct his daughter. But unless that happens, we have to stay discreet; the second last thing I want is for the news organisations to find out that we’re offering free protection to the kids of supervillains. That shitstorm would go thermonuclear faster than Behemoth playing with plutonium.”

    “I don’t like it.” Colin shook his head. “Marquis is very good at what he does. If he spots the surveillance crew, gets the wrong idea, and goes in for the attack, we could easily lose people. The man is utterly ruthless and damn near unstoppable when he wants to be.” He took a deep breath. “I agree that we need to put people on her … but we’re also going to have to inform Marquis about it before we do.”

    If Piggot had given the impression of sucking on a lemon before, now she looked like she’d just gone through half a dozen of them. “I like that even less. If he chose to alert the press …”

    “I don’t think he’d actually do that,” Colin said with a shake of his head. “All it would achieve is to draw unnecessary attention to Marchioness, and he won’t want that.” A brief grimace crossed his face. “I can see him critiquing our technique or telling us to back off, but I can’t see him making a public song and dance about it.”

    “As much as I hate to admit it, I could live with that,” the Director agreed. “If we’re seen to be making an honest effort to protect her and he tells us to back off, then whatever happens afterward will not fall on our necks. It would be a pity and a crying shame if she got hurt, but we can’t save every cat from every tree.” She took a deep breath. “I’m going to find out from the hospital when she’s due to be in there, and have a rapid-response crew nearby on those dates. It’ll be slightly more problematic if she chooses to go out and about in public with no prior warning, but we’ll work something out.”

    “I can change up the rosters so we’ve always got a member of the Protectorate or the Wards ready to detach from regular duties and ‘patrol’ the area she’s in, if that happens,” Colin decided. “Perhaps we can bring Mega Girl in on this; she seems to be building a rapport with Marchioness.”

    “That’s not a terrible idea,” agreed Piggot. “Now, one last hurdle. Contacting Marquis and letting him know what our plans are before we set all this in motion. As much as I hate to be giving a supervillain a heads-up on our movements …”

    “It’s a good idea in this case.” Colin liked it no more than she did, but extraordinary situations required extraordinary measures. “And fortunately, we have a phone number for Marchioness.” He reached into a belt pouch and produced a copy of the card the girl had given him. The original had gone through so many tests and analyses that it had essentially fallen apart.

    “That’s probably going to be the only convenient thing in this whole damn case,” Piggot muttered as she took the copy.

    “I hear that, ma’am. I’ll get started on the roster change.” Colin turned and headed for the door.

    “You do that.”

    The last thing Colin saw in his rear-view camera before the door closed behind him was Piggot staring at the number on the card as if it were a bug she really, really wanted to squash.



    “And that’s how you deal with someone who tries to grab you from behind,” Claire said cheerfully as she helped Robert get to his feet. Off to the side, her father was still sparring with Jonas, full-power blows thwacking into bone shields and hardened subdermal armour. Both of them, as far as she could tell, were enjoying the workout. She didn’t go that hard into the full-contact stuff until she’d added on some body mass, but she was good at evading attacks even when she was at her normal weight.

    “I see.” Looking self-conscious, Robert rubbed at his butt. “I know I’m hard to hurt and I heal fast, but you’ve been putting bruises on me faster than I’ve been getting rid of them. Maybe I should’ve been wearing the armour.”

    “Nope,” she said definitively, and tilted her head toward the bench where her stuff was laid out. “Let’s hydrate. Wearing the armour would’ve been bad, because it protects you.”

    “Isn’t that the idea of armour? To protect me?” He followed her over to the bench and took the bottle of Gatorade she handed him.

    “You need to learn,” she pointed out. Twisting the top off her own bottle, she chugged down a few mouthfuls. “You don’t learn if there’s no incentive. Bruises are an incentive.” Her phone was on the bench, so she sat down and hit the power button.

    “How did you learn?” He gestured in her general direction, then took a long drink himself. “I mean, you’re naturally fast and armoured, right?”

    She nodded. “Yeah, but Dad’s had me doing martial arts for years, since before I got powers. There was one teacher I had who made me look like I was standing still on my best day.” A little sadly, she thought of Abigail, wondering where the Irish cape was now. With a deep breath, she shook herself out of the mood. “Once I’ve got you up to speed with the basics, Dad and Jonas can start applying the tougher stuff. By the time they’re finished, you’ll be able to handle anything anyone out there can throw at you.”

    “Yeah, but that’s because they’ll be throwing it at me in here,” he said, looking just a little rueful.

    “That’s the way it goes,” she confirmed, then looked down as her phone pinged. “Huh. Two missed calls and a text.” She opened the text and her eyebrows rose.


    I need to speak to your father about ensuring your safety, especially regarding the hospital incident. Please have him contact me at his earliest convenience.

    -Emily Piggot, PRT ENE Regional Director

    “Dad!” she called out across the gym. “I just got a text from Director Piggot! It’s for you!”

    That got his attention to the point that he put up his hand to stop Jonas as he turned to face her. “That’s a first,” he remarked. “Okay, training’s over for the day. Robert, Jonas, hit the showers. I’ve got to take this.”

    As the other two headed out the door, he went over to where Claire was holding out the phone. “I confess, I’m intrigued as to…” He stopped, re-reading the text. “What, really?”

    “I know, right?” Claire asked. “They’re so worried about my well-being that they’re actually willing to do something more than passively-aggressively snipe from the sidelines?”

    “Oooh,” observed Kayden as she stepped off the treadmill and swiped a towel over her forehead. “Burn.”

    He raised an eyebrow and smiled at Kayden’s sally. “I tend to agree. It would be a change, yes. Of course, it may be a little premature to think about celebrating just yet. So, once we’ve showered and changed, we shall be taking a drive around Brockton Bay so that we can make a call.”

    “‘We’ as in me too?” asked Claire, though she already knew the answer. It was only polite to ask.

    “Well, of course.” He smiled. “It’s about you, after all.”


    Apparently Abandoned Warehouse

    Backup Empire Eighty-Eight Base


    “Are you really going to make this about you?” asked Justin. He scratched the back of his head as he looked over the chassis of Sherrel’s latest creation.

    She hadn’t wasted any time since losing the remote-controlled tank, getting straight back into the workshop. In all honesty, it was a little daunting. Was every Tinker this driven, or had they picked up a particularly obsessed member of the fraternity? Or was it sorority? He couldn’t remember. All he knew was that, despite the fact that she was the most recent recruit after himself, Alabaster and Night and Fog, she had somehow ended up calling the shots.

    Sherrel looked around, her glare razor-sharp despite the fact that she had to flip up the light welding goggles to make eye contact. He involuntarily took a step back at the intensity of her gaze. “Of fucking course it’s not about me,” she snapped. Reaching out, she turned off the welder and set the welding rod down. “But I don’t see any of you clowns making a move to do something about the skinny little cow who murdered three-quarters of the Empire Eighty-Eight in cold blood.”

    Justin grimaced. “Well, we don’t know for a fact that it was her … I mean, Marquis …” He’d joined the Empire after Marquis had left Brockton Bay, but the stories that the older hands had told him had stuck in his head. The man had run his turf on his own, with no cape backup, and nobody crossed him if they wanted their skeleton to be in the same shape when he was finished. He didn’t know exactly what had happened at Somers Rock or at the Medhall Tower, but if anyone had killed that many capes, his money would’ve been on the bone controller, not some healer chick.

    “Marquis does bone, you idiot!” she snapped. “Not great big black flying tigers, or whatever the fuck it was that they saw flying around Medhall! So either it was Marchioness, or some projection of hers, or maybe some friend of hers from out of town. But no matter fuckin’ what, Marchioness is the one behind it all. So we are gonna grab her. End of story. Unless you’ve got something better to do while we wait for Marquis or Lung to push their territory this far.”

    Justin was no longer wondering how she’d managed to take over the small group. He had no real idea how to lead (even if he’d possessed the ambition for it), Alabaster couldn’t be bothered, and Geoff and Dorothy didn’t have the initiative to break out of their self-created ruts. “No, no, you’re right,” he said. “I’ll just leave you to it.”

    “Sure. Good. Hey, before you go, grab me a beer, would you?” She gestured at the bar fridge beside the workshop door. “See if that shit’s worn off yet.”

    “No problem.” Justin wished his ghosts could manipulate non-living matter. In the absence of that ability, he went over to the fridge and took a beer out, then handed it to her.

    “Thanks.” She popped the cap off and took a drink …

    … and sprayed the mouthful all over the wall. “Fuck!” she screeched, as the mostly-full bottle sailed across the workshop to shatter against the far wall, the glass shards joining a deepening heap there. Old, dried beer stains bore mute testimony about previous attempts to see if she could handle booze again. It was apparent that today was not going to be the day.

    Backing out of the room, he closed the door behind him. He was going to have to see about getting more beer into that fridge. In fact, now would be a good time—

    Turning, he bumped into Alabaster, who raised a sardonic eyebrow toward the extremely illustrative cursing emanating from beyond the carefully shut door. “Still can’t drink, huh?” the other man asked with a smirk.

    “Gah!” Justin was almost certain that the white-skinned man had snuck up on him on purpose. “Yeah, still tastes like shit to her. Listen, maybe you can talk to her. Make her see sense.”

    “See sense in what?” Alabaster had a shit-eating grin a mile wide on his face.

    “This!” Justin gestured broadly. “All … this. We’re getting in too deep. Going after Marquis’ kid? This isn’t what the Empire does. We’re here to—”

    Alabaster took bunched his fist in Justin’s shirt and slammed him against the wall beside the door. “The Empire isn’t here anymore,” he growled. “Because of whatever bullshit Marquis and his kid pulled. Killed them, ate them, disappeared them, whatever they did. Purity’s defected and Kaiser along with everyone else … vanished. Now, we can scuttle back into our hole and whine about how it’s not fair, or we can bring the fight to them. We can’t take down Purity without taking on Marquis, so we take him down. The best way to do that is to have his kid hostage. Make him come to us.

    Justin did his best to inhale. Alabaster was a lot stronger than him, and he knew better than to try to fight the older cape. No matter how many ghosts he summoned to grab Alabaster, the guy wouldn’t go down and he wouldn’t stop fighting. “You know they’re gonna Birdcage her,” he managed. “Attacking a hospital? If they get their hands on her, her feet won’t have time to touch the ground. Hell, if she keeps going, it might even end up as a kill order. And us with her. You really want it to go that far?”

    Shaking his head, Alabaster let Justin down. “You just don’t get it. This is the big leagues we’re playing in here. Hookwolf went for years with a Birdcage sentence hanging over his head. Think that stopped him from going out and doing his thing? Like fuck it did. If we backed away from something just because the authorities might not like it, we’d never fucking get anything done.” He slapped himself on the chest. “And if they want to kill-order me, let ’em fuckin’ try.”

    Yeah, but what if they succeed? Justin didn’t say that out loud. “Right,” he said, trying to sound convinced. “I think I might go and check my armour over. If we’re gonna be going hard, I need to be prepped.”

    “Yeah, good thinking.” Alabaster slapped Justin on the shoulder. “Wouldn’t do to have your whiny bitch ass shot or stabbed, just because you got too close to the action.”

    There was nothing Justin could say to that without sounding either defiant or whiny, so he kept his mouth shut. As he headed off to where he kept his gear, he could feel the jaws of the trap closing in on him.

    What can I do? Talk to Geoff and Dorothy? It would be an even worse idea than trying to talk sense into Sherrell. Those two would do whatever she said.

    If he turned on the team, they’d kill him. If he tried to walk away, they’d track him down and then kill him. If he stayed where he was ... shit was going to go sideways.

    No matter what he did, he was screwed.




    Claire leaned back in the car seat as her father carried on the conversation over speakerphone. The route Jonas was driving allowed the big man to watch for tails and in general make sure that the PRT wasn’t pulling a fast one. Not that she or her father thought they might, but he hadn’t lasted so long in the villain business by assuming everyone would follow the rules.

    From the tone of her father’s voice, he was slightly irritated but mostly amused. Also from the sound of it, Director Piggot had not been in control of the conversation. Claire had had to cover her mouth a few times to avoid giggling out loud at some of her father’s comments.

    “In conclusion, Emily,” he said, “while I cannot prevent you from deploying your fine men and women when and where you choose, and I am not in the least bit averse to extra protection for my daughter ...”

    He paused meaningfully.

    After a few seconds, Director Piggot prompted him. “Yes ...?”

    Marquis leaned forward, despite the fact that she couldn’t see him. All humour was gone from his tone. “If your men screw up in any way and these idiots get to her because of it, I will not rest until I’ve gotten full restitution from them and you. Is that perfectly understood?’

    There was another pause before Piggot answered. “Absolutely.”

    “Good.” He cut the call, then turned to Claire. “Well, Claire-bear, it seems you’re going to have a whole new level of security.”

    She frowned. “But you threatened her. Wouldn’t it be smarter for her to stand back, now that you’ve said that?”

    “For most of us, yes,” he agreed with a chuckle. “For the good Director, a threat works like a red flag. She can’t let it go by. And in addition, this means the Protectorate and PRT will be focusing on you.”

    Her frown turned into a look of suspicion. “And what will you be doing while they’re concentrating on me?’

    He smiled, showing his teeth. “Tracking down Traction, of course.”

    End of Part Nineteen
  10. Threadmarks: Chapter Twenty: Socialising and Scouting

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:
    Another Way

    Part Twenty: Socialising and Scouting

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

    Northwest Middle School


    “Emma, Taylor, hey!” Claire’s voice sang out behind them in the corridor. Taylor turned first, with Emma just half a beat behind. Her eyebrows raised as she saw her other best friend forging her way through the crowd, towing a slightly younger male black-haired version of herself (albeit skinnier and a little less self-assured) by the hand.

    “Hi, Claire.” Taylor nodded toward the boy. “Who’s this?”

    “This is my cousin Marcus,” Claire said happily. “He’s just transferred in from Boston, and he’ll be staying with us for awhile. I just thought I’d introduce him to you guys before I took him to the office and got him straightened out.”

    “Well, hi, Marcus.” Emma beamed at him. “It’s good to meet you. Don’t listen to anything Claire tells you about us—”

    “—because it’s all true,” Taylor interjected. “But we’ll deny everything to our dying breath. Do you like sports? I like sports. Track and field, mainly. You look like you can run.” She tilted her head to the side musingly. “Or are you a swimmer? We’ve got a great swimming pool here—”

    “Okay, okay, wow,” broke in Claire, laughing. “Give him a chance to get a word in edgewise, will you?”

    “It’s okay, cuz,” Marcus said with a grin. “They’re your friends, not mine. I don’t really want to intrude.”

    “Nuh uh,” Emma declared. “Until you get your own friends, we’re adopting you. It’s the rules. Because we’re gonna be coming over now and again—”

    Taylor rolled her eyes. “Mainly because Emma and her swimsuit have fallen in love with Mr Marchant’s heated swimming pool, am I right?” She held out her hand. “Hi, I’m Taylor Hebert. How do you feel about frogs?”

    Marcus raised an eyebrow questioningly. “We have an agreement. I don’t pick them up and they don’t pee on me. Why?”

    Taylor shuddered theatrically. “We’re supposedly dissecting them today. Last time I did that, I threw up.”

    Emma waited until Marcus had shaken Taylor’s hand, then held out her own. “Emma Barnes. We did frogs yesterday. Mine got away from me. Jumped out the window.”

    Claire snorted with amusement. “It had help. There was at least twenty feet between your desk and the window.”

    “What?” asked Emma, with badly-feigned innocence. “Frogs are good jumpers. Everyone knows that.”

    “Especially when they start wriggling around after you pick them up, huh?” Claire had the light of mischief in her eyes now. “You guys should’ve seen it. She let out this shriek that should’ve busted all the windows, then just threw it.”

    Taylor felt bad about laughing, but then she saw Emma was chuckling too, even as her face turned almost red enough to match her hair. “I thought it was dead,” Emma claimed. “Then it just woke up all of a sudden and started croaking. You’d throw it away, too.”

    “Okay, yeah, that would’ve been funny to see,” Marcus said. “Would’ve been funnier if you’d hit someone else with it, but the window is still good.”

    Taylor smirked, then she and Emma looked at Claire. “He’ll do,” they said in well-practised unison.

    “Oh, good.” Claire looked at each of them, then shook her head. “Congratulations, Marcus. My crazy friends approve of you.” She tilted her head in the general direction of the admissions office. “Come on, before they decide you aren’t showing up today and give your stuff to someone else.”

    Marcus grinned again. “Coming.” He gave Taylor and Emma each a smile. “Nice meeting you. See you around.”

    “Bye, Marcus,” Emma and Taylor chorused as he followed his cousin into the teeming crowds of students. Then they looked at each other and giggled.

    “You threw the frog out the window?” Taylor snorted with laughter.

    “Well, wouldn’t you?” Emma shook her head. “I just, you know, did it without thinking. Marcus seemed nice. And he didn’t zone out when you started up your motormouth.”

    “Excuse me?” Taylor’s voice rose with well-simulated indignation. “I do not have a ‘motormouth’. I have a well-tuned sense of word placement, which allows me to speak extemporaneously and at length while lesser beings are aimlessly wondering what they’re going to say next. You may as well say—”

    “How can I say anything?” Emma retorted. “Like Claire said, you barely let anyone get a word in edgewise.”

    Taylor sniffed haughtily, elevated her nose a few extra degrees in the air, and decided to try a line her father had used once. “I’ll have you know, I resemble that remark.”

    “Well, yeah … what?”

    “You heard me.”

    Still amiably bickering, the two friends wandered down the corridor toward their respective home rooms.



    The construction machinery was visible from several blocks away. Danny tried to pay attention to the road but it was difficult; the closer he got, the more curiosity he felt. Finally, he pulled up at the entrance to the new compound that had been set up since the last time he’d been there. The guard stepped out of the shack with a clipboard in his hand and approached the window of his car.

    “Good morning, sir,” he said. “I’m going to need to ask for your name and your reason for coming onsite today.” Despite the polite tone of his words, Danny could see the metal speed hump just inside the drop-barrier with the row of holes on top; if anyone tried to bull on through without being cleared first, the pop-up spikes would almost certainly eviscerate their tyres.

    “I’m Danny Hebert.” Danny gestured at the narrow section of the Boat Graveyard he could see through the open gateway. “I’m with the Dockworkers’ Association. Earl Marchant called me and asked me to come over.”

    “Ah, yes, Mr Hebert.” The guard ticked something on the board. “I was told to expect you. I just need to see your ID and you can go right in.”

    Feeling somewhat surreal, Danny pulled his wallet out and showed the man his driver’s license.

    “Perfect.” The guard made another notation, then gave a high sign to whoever was still in the guard shack. “Just take a left after you’re inside. Park next to the site admin shack. They’ll outfit you with a hard hat and a high-vis vest, and let Mr Marchant know you’re on site.”

    Danny nodded. “Gotcha. And thanks.” He waited until the barrier rose far enough then rolled on through, his wheels bumping over the speed hump. Following the instructions he’d been given, he turned left and parked alongside a row of other vehicles.

    Moments later, after he’d introduced himself to the admin staff, they’d outfitted him with the promised hard hat and vest. When he stepped outside, he was greeted by the sight of Earl himself, striding over from what looked like the direction of the most activity, also wearing a hard hat and vest. Unlike the others, Earl’s hat and vest had the word ‘BOSS’ stamped across the front in large letters. Several men and women trailed in his wake.

    “Danny, glad you could make it,” Earl said cheerfully. “Come on, let me show you around.”

    “Uh, sure.” Danny fell in beside Earl, the others automatically making room for him. “So, what’s going on here exactly?”

    “Well, I looked at various ways we could get these ships out of the way and most of them are prohibitively expensive or would take too long. But there’s one or two ways that will work within a reasonable timescale.” Earl gestured at the waterfront, where various machinery was being installed. Out on the water, derelict ships rocked slowly at anchor, while others were visible only by way of their superstructures protruding above the waterline.

    “I’m guessing these ways are also costly,” Danny said. He vaguely wondered what Earl saw as ‘prohibitively’ expensive. What he was already seeing looked way too rich for his blood.

    “Yes, but in my line of work you have to give a little to get a lot,” Earl said. His tone was definitely upbeat, which Danny saw as a good sign. “So, we’re assembling winches and cranes onshore, to drag the ships out of the water. From there they’ll go onto cradles where they can be moved out of the way and disassembled at our leisure. On the water, we’ll have salvage vessels and tugs as well as a dredge, to get the ships to where they can be dragged out of the water then clean up after them. The biggest ones are going to have to be pulled in close, cut up in place, and removed from the water piecemeal. With me so far?”

    Jesus Christ almighty. This is like a major military operation. “Yes,” Danny said faintly. “At least, I think so. Where do I come in?”

    Earl smiled. “I was hoping you’d ask me that. You see, I’ve got all my employment slots filled, except for the part where the ships get dragged out of the water and torn down to their component pieces. I was wondering if the Dockworkers had anyone free who had the appropriate heavy machinery tickets.”

    Danny blinked. He scanned the machinery that was in the process of being installed. “Uh … how many people do you need?”

    “I don’t know.” Earl’s smile turned up at the corners, as though he was enjoying an enormous joke. “How many can you supply?”

    In that moment, Danny knew that Earl was aware of exactly how many Dockworkers there were on the Association’s books, and was intent on supplying full employment to them all. How the man had gotten that information he had no idea, but he hadn’t asked for this favour and Earl hadn’t overtly offered, so it slid past his radar. Just barely, but it slid past.

    “I’ll have to check the books to see who’s got the right qualifications and get back to you on that,” he prevaricated. He wasn’t about to sign off on the Dockworkers being used for criminal purposes—that way led to the Association being virtually owned by the gangs, which he’d fought against for the whole of his adult life—but this was good honest paid work. If Earl wanted to employ everyone, he didn’t want to supply either an undercount or an overcount before they even started. He was going to play this straight down the line.

    “Absolutely.” Earl beamed at him approvingly. “Do you have any idea how refreshing it is to work with an honest man? I was speaking with Mayor Christner and some of his councillors just the other day and when I floated a trial balloon about this project, you should’ve seen all the agendas appear out of the woodwork. Not a one of them would so much as offer verbal support unless I agreed to help fund their little pork-barrel side ventures, or promise a make-work job to their useless cousin-in-law. I swear, if I’d let them have their way I would’ve ended up financing half their pension plans and three of their mistresses.”

    This wasn’t in the least bit surprising to Danny. What he did wonder, though, was how this worksite was being allowed to go ahead without official interference if Earl hadn’t agreed to pay their thinly disguised bribes. “Did you have any problems getting the permits?”

    Earl rolled his eyes. “I see you’ve had to do business in this town before. Fortunately, this is not my first rodeo.” He buffed his already-perfect nails on his vest and inspected them. “I have been known to be persuasive from time to time.”

    “So you got the permits.” Danny made it not quite a question, but it was a definite invitation for an answer. Needing work or not, he wasn’t going to put the Dockworkers into a situation where the Association could be fined for sending people onto a worksite without the appropriate permits.

    “I did,” Earl assured him. “I had to speak a little plainly to some of them, and one or two may have found reasons to leave town after the fact, but our overhead expenses were remarkably low, considering the situation. Everything is above-board and legal on this worksite. The requisite paperwork has already been couriered to your office. All it needs is for you to sign off on how many men you’re willing to send over.”

    Translation: they tried to put the screws to him, and he intimidated them into playing ball. Part of Danny wished he could’ve been there but the rest of him was glad he hadn’t, if only because he could remain officially ignorant of his new business associate’s methods of persuasion. He’d have to keep a close eye on any further deals he made with Earl, though; while their current business situation might all be on the up-and-up, there were no guarantees that this would remain the case.

    “Got it,” he said out loud. “What progress have you made on the ferry?”

    “Oh, once we’re up and running with the Boat Graveyard, we can get right on that,” Earl assured him. “I got the permits for that signed at the same time. Same people, even.”

    Danny raised his eyebrows. “And they didn’t try to roadblock you with the gangs?”

    “What gangs?” Earl spread his hands disingenuously. “The Azn Bad Boyz—and if that’s not a ridiculous name, I’ve never heard one—are the only group causing problems at the moment. And I hear even they are keeping their heads down right now.”

    “We’ve still got Marquis,” Danny reminded him. “His men are going around collecting protection money.” The tiny gold M was on his nightstand at home; he didn’t quite have the nerve to wear it around in the daytime.

    “True,” agreed Earl. “I can’t claim to know the man well, but I’ve associated with his organisation before. I do know this much about him; if he pledges protection, protection will happen. Causing trouble is not what they do.”

    Danny nodded, recalling that one night. “Yeah, I can’t argue with that.” He paused, blinking, as an idea occurred to him. “Actually, I wonder …”

    “Yes?” Earl raised an eyebrow.

    Speaking slowly, Danny worked his way through the idea. “Marchioness is a seriously capable healer. I’m wondering if we could arrange a kind of ongoing insurance arrangement with her, if she’s agreeable of course, to have her able to show up to deal with any workplace injuries while this work is ongoing.”

    “Well.” Earl chuckled dryly. “You have hidden depths, Danny. Asking to hire on a supervillain’s daughter as your medical insurer takes balls, I’ll give you that.”

    “Well, she did save my life not so long ago, so I know what she’s capable of,” Danny pointed out. “And I’ve heard a rumour that she’s being paid just to show up at Brockton General and heal people. If they’re doing business with her, I don’t see why we can’t.” Worry began to nibble at the edge of his confidence. “Do you think he’d get pissed off at us if we asked?”

    “I’m certain he thinks the world of his daughter,” Earl assured him. “But if the request was made with all due respect to her wishes and needs, I can’t see why he would become angry.”

    “Well, I’d be prepared to arrange for whatever entertainment she enjoys to be set up,” Danny said. “Out of my own pocket, even. TV, computer game console, fridge with snacks, whatever. Over and above whatever we pay her, of course.” He looked at Earl. “I’ve only met them once. You sound like you know them better than I do. Think you could reach out to him and make the request?”

    After a moment, Earl nodded. “I believe I can handle that, yes. Leave it with me.” He held out his hand.

    Danny shook it, feel better about the whole deal already. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”

    Earl smiled. For once, the expression reached all the way to his eyes. “No. Thank you.



    The rumbling of the car into the garage would have gone unheard by any normal person, but Claire had long since relinquished any claim on the word 'normal'. Getting up from where she’d been watching TV with Robert and Marcus, she wandered on down to meet her father.

    “Hey, Dad,” she said, and gave him a hug. “How was your day?”

    “Fruitful and interesting.” He ruffled her hair playfully. “How did your introduction of Marcus at the school go?”

    “Well, Taylor and Emma think he’s nice,” she said, batting his hand away. “After I spoke to the principal, she agreed that his grades were good enough that he didn’t have to stay back a year. He says his day went okay after I went to my classes.”

    Earl raised his eyebrows. “Spoke to her, hmm? Was that all you did?”

    As much as she would’ve liked to lie through her teeth, he could somehow pick up on when she was doing that, even when she suppressed all her tells. It was very unfair. “I may have depressed her critical thinking capability and made her a little suggestible. It didn’t take much.” She glanced over her shoulder, but her ‘cousin’ hadn’t followed her to the garage. “The grades we faked for him were pretty good to start with.”

    “Well, he is a bright lad,” Earl noted without any irony at all. “In other news, I may have secured you some extra after-school employment, if you’re interested?”

    She raised her eyebrows. “I’m already doing Friday and Saturday evenings at the hospital. What else did you have in mind?”

    His mouth stretched in amusement. “Danny Hebert has advanced the idea of paying you a stipend to be on-call for injuries at the Boat Graveyard worksite. He’s also willing to spring for a TV and a snack fridge for your exclusive use while you’re on site.”

    “Sure—” She paused as he raised a finger. She knew what that gesture meant. Slow down and think about it. “Uh, depending on the size of the stipend, I mean. But yeah, I like Mr Hebert, and Taylor’s pretty cool too. So as long as they’re not trying to rip me off, I’d be happy to do that. Besides, it helps your thing along if the work goes smoothly, yeah?”

    He nodded; she could tell he was pleased at her evaluation of the situation. “It does, yes. We haven’t discussed the exact size of the stipend, but given the medical insurance payments that we would otherwise be shelling out for an operation of that magnitude, there’s definitely some wiggle room in the budget.”

    “Okay then, let’s do it.” She looked up at her father. “Whose idea was it to bring in the TV and snack fridge?”

    “His, actually.” He shrugged. “I’ll say this about Danny Hebert. He’s not stupid.”

    “Well, that’s true. Taylor’s pretty smart, too.” Claire grinned at him. “It was weird the first time, meeting Taylor when she only knew me as me, but I think I can handle it.”

    “I’m sure you can, Claire-bear.” Earl raised an eyebrow. “So, I’ve got a few ideas where Traction, or Panzer, or whatever her name is, might have gone to ground. Interested in coming out and scouting the locations with me?”

    She brightened right up. “Definitely. Are we bringing the boys with us?”

    “Robert, yes,” he decided. “Marcus … not yet. At least, not until he’s had all the tutoring I can give him in dealing with bone.”

    Claire pursed her lips slightly. “That might cause morale problems later. If Marcus gets the idea that he’s being sidelined because of his age, he might act out. After all, he’s as strong-willed as you, and doesn’t have nearly the life experience to teach him not to do something stupid like that.”

    After a moment or two of contemplation, Earl grimaced. “Damnation, you’re right. I would do that exact thing, at his age. In fact, I did do something remarkably similar when I was only a few years older than he is now. The end result could have been very messy, extremely fatal or both. Fortunately, the blind luck that looks out for fools and drunkards saved me, though it did teach me a salutary lesson about paying due care and attention to what I was doing. There’s no guarantee that the boy will even survive to learn the same lesson.”

    “So what are we going to do?” Claire had no illusions that her father was going to reverse his ruling on Marcus coming out with them. As unfair as Marcus might accuse his ‘uncle’ of being, Earl very rarely changed his mind once it was made up, and only when he was presented with an extremely good reason for doing so.

    “Well, I was thinking of inviting Kayden out on the scouting mission,” Earl mused. “Do you think she would be overly upset if I asked her to stay home and keep Marcus company?”

    “Probably best if she did,” agreed Claire. “She’s not exactly stealthy at the best of times, and Marcus likes her.” She had trod lightly when it came to arranging the memories for her father’s clone. After reducing his apparent age to a year below hers, she’d given him an edited version of her own impressions of Boston, along with vague impressions of parents, now deceased. Taking her cues from how Robert had reacted to his mental implants, she’d ensured that Marcus’ own brain did the heavy lifting on interpreting the memories she’d installed, filling in the gaps as needed. This ensured that he never ran into an actual amnesiac block, but always figured that the details of a particular event or person had slipped his mind.

    Kayden, as an official member of the team, was a near-constant visitor to the house, and had been accepted by Robert and Marcus as being equal to Earl and Claire in authority. In Claire’s opinion, she filled the necessary role of ‘team mom’ for the boys, which Claire didn’t really feel qualified to perform.

    “I shall speak with her about it,” decided Earl. “She gets a say in this as well, of course. Where might I find her?”

    “I’m pretty sure she said she was going to take a nap,” Claire said. “I think she wanted one of us to come get her when you got home.”

    “Well, then, I shall attend to that myself.” Earl shook his head slowly. “I’m still not sure what Kaiser was thinking when he turned on her. Or if he was thinking.”

    Claire grinned as they started through the house. “Well, his loss and our win. Apparently, treating someone with respect and decency pays off. Who knew?”

    “I know you think you’re joking,” he retorted. “Far too many people have tripped up on that very respect. Fear or feelings of inadequacy are altogether too common as a controlling tactic in villain gangs.”

    Claire rolled her eyes. “And more than one hero group, I bet.”

    Her father raised an eyebrow. “Once again, I suspect that you think you’re joking.” He strode off toward the rooms that had been set aside for Kayden’s private use; both he and Claire made a point of ignoring the fact that they adjoined his rooms.

    Claire headed back to the main lounge room, a grin on her face. Capes were dysfunctional in so many ways; heroes were probably no different, in the long run.



    “Okay … a little more … more … nearly there … perfect. Now hold it!”

    Justin grunted and sweated, his hands hurting where they gripped the cable, as Panzer gunned the engine of her new tank and trundled it under the suspended gun turret. Alabaster seemed to be able to do this all day—because of course he can—while Geoff barely seemed to be trying. To Justin, it felt like he was carrying the whole thing all by himself.

    “Okay!” yelled Panzer. “Lower away! Slowly!”

    He wasn’t sure if he could handle ‘slowly’ right then, with his hands on fire as they were, but he did his best. This was exactly what he wasn’t good at; his ghosts were only capable of interacting with things that were alive, like people. Inch by inch, his feet trying to skid on the floor, he paid the rope out with the others as the turret slid into place on the tank.

    With the last metallic clank signalled that it was properly seated, he let the rope—now slack—drop from his hands. They were red and sore, and he was almost certain he could see a couple of blisters in the process of forming. “I did not sign up for this,” he muttered.

    “What was that?” called out Panzer, looking around from where she was crouching on the hull of the tank, inspecting the turret.

    “I said, I’m going for a shower,” Justin replied, deciding a straight lie was the best idea. Besides, he actually needed one. Between his abraded hands and aching back, he’d had enough manual labour for the one day. So much for the life of luxury and ease Kaiser promised me when I joined the Empire Eighty-Eight.

    “We still got another turret to put in,” she called after him.

    He didn’t so much as break step. “Then get everyone out of the room and have Night drop it into place in her monster form. I need a shower.”

    “I thought of that. She’s not manually dextrous enough. She’s nothing but blades in that form!” Panzer actually sounded angry about it.

    “Well, I’m still done for the day.” He left the room, closing the door behind him.

    I seriously do not need this shit right now.



    Sherrel huffed as she put her hands on her hips. “Fuck,” she growled, staring at the closed door as though she could force Justin to come back through with sheer pissed-off willpower. Unfortunately for her, all of her talents lay in the region of building shit, so her glare accomplished nothing of note.

    “Want me to go get him?” Alabaster cracked his knuckles. He looked as fresh as when he’d started, for obvious reasons. “I can fetch the little pussy easily.”

    “No, don’t bother,” she said, waving him off. “You could bring him back but you can’t make him actually pull on the damn cable. And I need all three of you to do the lifting.”

    “So why don’t you have a winch to do the lifting?” he asked pragmatically.

    “Because I dismantled it to help build the last tank,” she said acerbically. It hadn’t really been her fault; Mega Girl had been the one to toss the tank in the bay, not her. She’d expected to be able to use the thing for months, and in the meantime she could’ve bought herself a new winch.

    “So what are we gonna do until he feels like helping again?” He looked at her as though she might give him a job that involved going out and hurting someone.

    “Well, I dunno about you, but there’s other things I can build.” She turned toward the large and very cluttered workbench. “I’m thinking a scout drone of some sort. If we can follow Marchioness remotely, we can pick and choose the spot to grab her. At the same time, we can identify who her friends are, and grab them too. I can just tell she’s the unreasonable type.”

    Alabaster grinned. “Hostages solve so many problems.”

    “I’ll take your word for it. Okay, where’d I put that microturbine?”

    Tuning out Alabaster, she set to work on the latest project. Sure, her tech might be clunky as fuck, but she could take actual scrap and make a working tank out of it. Or, in this case, a scout drone. She just had to remember to allow for a mass and power budget for the cloaking unit she was going to have to build into it. Otherwise, her scout drone would rapidly become a skeet drone.

    So of course, thirty seconds later a motion sensor alarm went off.



    The car rolled silently down the darkened street. Some of the streetlights had been damaged, and some had apparently stopped working altogether, leaving no artificial illumination except for the headlights. Robert could have easily believed he was in a ghost town, for all that Downtown was thriving only a few miles away.

    “It looks a little run-down,” he said, peering out the window at the grimy, cracked brickwork and the boarded-up windows of the buildings beside them. He braced himself as the car jolted through a pothole. It wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last, though Jonas was avoiding most of them.

    “Run down? It’s gone to hell.” Miss Claire shook her head. “How can they let it get this bad?”

    “Politicians feathering their own nests,” Mr Marchant announced, disgust in his tone. “With the bribes they tried to offer me to give them favourable deals on the port renewal, half of City Hall must have their hand in the till. And infrastructure is one of the first things to go. Once our venture is properly established in this city, there will be some changes around here.”

    “So run for Mayor,” Miss Claire suggested, her tone joking. “You can’t be worse at it than the idiot they’ve got in charge right now.”

    Slowly, he turned to look at her. A smile spread across his face. “Do you know, I just may do that. See if they can handle actual cut-throat politics.”

    “I didn’t really mean it,” she protested hastily. “I mean, what if they look into your background?”

    “Earl Marchant has an established background,” he pointed out. “It just so happens that he attended a school that was conveniently destroyed when Behemoth attacked New York, though of course I have copies of his purported scholastic records. The trail is fuzzy enough that anyone looking into me will blame the passage of time rather than deliberate obfuscation.”

    “We’re almost there, sir,” Jonas noted from the front seat. “The location is just up ahead.”

    “Good. Pull over here.” Mr Marchant looked at the other occupants of the back of the car. “Time to get your game face on, Robert.”

    “And remember, in costume you’re Knight Errant,” Miss Claire reminded him. She, of course, had already made herself over into her Marchioness persona.

    “Knight Errant, gotcha.” Robert took a deep breath as metal slid out of his skin to form the distinctive helmet and armour. “I still can’t really believe you’re actually letting me come along like this.”

    “All the training in the world means nothing without time in the field,” Marquis—no longer Mr Marchant, Robert reminded himself—intoned as he opened the car door and got out. “You’ve got to get your feet wet someday, boy. If you get in trouble, cover up as we’ve shown you, and one of us will come to your assistance. They may try to separate us. Do not let that happen.”

    “Don’t get separated, right.” Robert waited to allow Miss Claire to get out before him, then climbed out as well. He had no illusions about being there to protect her, despite his noble-sounding codename. If anything, they were there to protect him.

    From the car behind, four men got out. They wore the long black coats and discreet ‘M’ badges that marked them out as Marquis’ men, and had an air of quiet assurance. While they didn’t look the same, they still gave the impression of somehow being cast from the same mold. This was probably due to the way they moved in unison with each other.

    “Gentlemen.” Marquis gave them a nod.

    “Sir.” One of the men stepped forward and returned the gesture, bowing his head slightly deeper. “Orders?”

    Marquis pointed at a large building farther up the street. For all Robert could tell, it might have housed a factory, a printing plant or a supervillain’s lair. From the outside, there was no way to tell. “We’re going to investigate that location. You are to watch the perimeter and provide backup if we call for it.”

    The man nodded again. “Understood, sir.”

    Together, they moved up the quiet street. The men in black fanned out, hands in coat pockets and eyes checking everywhere. Robert was aware that they had some of the same modifications Miss Claire had performed on Jonas, though he hadn’t seen them in action yet. They seemed outwardly confident and competent though, and this heartened him.

    When they reached a point across the road from the building and down a ways, Marquis stopped to study it. Robert cleared his throat tentatively, then regretted it as all eyes fell on him.

    “Yes?” asked the veteran supervillain.

    “Uh … what about underground? Like, through the sewers?”

    Marquis looked down at the cracked concrete sidewalk and rubbed his chin. “Hm. You have a point. I can’t see Panzer driving her machinery through a sewer tunnel, but if she’s in there, it might be annoying for her to escape that way.”

    “I’ll go down and look,” Miss Claire suggested. “Knight-Errant can come with me as backup.”

    It took Robert a couple of seconds to realise that she meant him. “Uh … me?”

    “Yes, you, boy.” Marquis raised an eyebrow. “Unless you’re scared of the dark.”

    “Well, no, I’m not.” Robert was pretty sure about that, at least.

    “Good. Give me a moment.” Miss Claire went over to a manhole cover, crouched down, and lifted it one-handed with no real sign of effort. Still holding it up on one side, she slithered down into the darkness, much more easily than her evening gown should have allowed her to do. The manhole cover clinked gently back into place.

    Robert glanced at Marquis, not entirely sure what he should be doing. Had she decided not to take him along? The crime lord didn’t seem overly worried as he studied the building across the road.

    Then the manhole cover lifted again, and a black clawed hand emerged holding the bundled-up evening gown. “Come on down,” hissed a throaty voice that sounded vaguely like Miss Claire’s if he listened very carefully.

    “Uh, right,” muttered Robert. He took the gown and passed it on to Marquis, then lifted up the manhole and climbed down himself.

    Almost immediately, he was glad that Mr Marchant and Miss Claire had made him perform such esoteric actions as climbing ladders and doing calisthenics while wearing the armour, because without that practise he would have been a lot less sure in his movements. Step by step he descended, pulling the cover over the hole until he was encompassed in total darkness. All he had now was his sense of touch, and that was curtailed by the metal plating over every part of his body.

    Eventually his feet found level flooring, though it felt unpleasantly squishy underfoot. He looked around for Miss Claire, his eyes wide in the darkness as if that would help him see better.

    It really couldn’t.

    “Miss Claire!” he whisper-shouted. “Uh, Marchioness! Where are you?”

    From directly overhead, an amused-sounding voice hissed, “Ceiling lizard iz watching u …” followed by a snicker.

    Tilting his head back as best he could, he stared upward, unable to see anything until suddenly two glowing opalescent eyes faded into existence, along with a great many sharp teeth in a very pointed grin. And then, they were gone again.

    Oh, wait, he told himself. I can do stuff too. Holding out his hand, he summoned his sword. As always, it seemed to grow out of his skin as if extruding from his body. When he gave the mental command, it lit up, flame crawling along the length of it.

    This illuminated the sewer tunnel he was standing in, showing that he was all alone. The ceiling above was empty, which made him wonder where Miss Claire had gotten to.

    “This is not funny,” he muttered.

    And then, right where he was looking, the eyes opened again and blinked twice. The razor-sharp teeth made a reappearance as well, still grinning.

    “Oh, I think it’s hilarious,” Miss Claire murmured, her outline showing as she skittered briefly to another part of the tunnel roof. As soon as she stopped, she seemed to flatten onto the brickwork and the patterning on her body changed to suit her surroundings. Even knowing exactly where she was, Robert could not make her out. It was a decidedly creepy feeling, and he was glad she was on his side.

    “I’m sure you do,” he said softly, knowing she could hear him perfectly well. “What’s ‘ceiling lizard’ about, anyway?”

    “Oh, it’s a meme from a story I read about online,” she replied just as quietly. “I’ll show you later. Let’s get scouting.”

    “Okay.” He lowered his flaming sword a little, so he could see where he was walking. There was no way in hell, he knew, that any amount of light would pick out Miss Claire if she didn’t want to be seen.

    They proceeded onward at a cautious pace while he tried to limit the noise he was making. Miss Claire was sometimes visible and sometimes not, but never more than a shadow out of the corner of his eye. The sewer didn’t smell all that bad as far as he was concerned; or at least, it could’ve been much worse. He supposed he should be thankful that this area was in disuse, or everything might have been a lot … fresher. So to speak.

    At one point, he stopped at a Y-junction, waiting for Miss Claire to come and show him which way she’d gone. When she did appear, she actually showed her entire head and shoulders outlined in greenish phosphorescence. Without speaking, she lifted a single claw to her closed mouth, then pointed down one of the tunnels.

    He got the message, dimming down his flame even further until he could just barely see the sewer floor in front of his feet. As quietly as he could, he followed along behind her, noting with gratitude that she’d chosen to leave a line of glowing green footprints on the roof of the sewer tunnel. He didn’t know what she’d found, but he figured she didn’t want him just charging in, so he took extra care.

    And then he heard the voices. At the same time, a long black tail swung down out of the darkness and nudged his sword with the tip. He doused the flame immediately, then realised why she’d done it. Up ahead, barely visible even in the pitch darkness, there was a dim square of light in the ceiling of the sewer tunnel.

    “Because I said so, that’s why!” yelled a female voice. Robert had never heard it before, but he guessed it might be Panzer. “I don’t care if you’re going for a shower! Something just tripped the motion sensors in the sewer, so you’re going to go look!”

    There was a pause as somebody answered, but so far away as to be inaudible.

    “Because Alabaster and Fog don’t go into sewers, and if Night runs into someone she’ll be helpless!” The shouting woman sounded angry by now. “You don’t have to go down yourself, you little pussy! Just send a couple of your stupid fucking ghosts! Make yourself useful for once!”

    Again, there was a near-inaudible answer. The woman didn’t do any more shouting. Instead, there was muttering and clanking and a few noises that Robert couldn’t place.

    Miss Claire’s hand appeared before Robert’s face, once again outlined by phosphorescence. She made a gesture of turning around, then another of walking. Robert agreed wholeheartedly with the plan; let’s get out of here before the scary ghost cape shows up. He was uncomfortably aware that inside his metal armour, he was all too squishy.

    With Miss Claire in the lead, he began to retrace his steps, trying even harder to make no noise whatsoever. It was twice as tense now, the nebulous threat of someone in the tunnels giving way to the very real threat of something that knew they were there.

    Onward he crept, twice flattening against the wall to avoid the notice of a drifting ghost. On the second incidence, he was almost certain he’d been seen, but it didn’t turn its head. It didn’t help that he was thoroughly lost by now, and had no idea where he’d come up if he climbed out of the sewers now.

    Also, he wanted a shower so badly.

    And then, the worst happened. He turned a corner just as a ghost dropped out of the ceiling, directly in front of him. Staring at him. Their eyes met, and he realised he was dimly illuminated by the radiance coming off the ghost itself.


    He knew damn well he couldn’t do a damn thing to the ghost, but the long spear it carried was seriously worrying to him. It could skewer him a dozen times while he was regenerating the first hit, and it could keep stabbing him until he was dead. Worse, there was nothing he or Miss Claire could do to stop it. The best she could do was keep him alive, and even that would be problematic if it called in reinforcements.

    Eyes wide, he stared at the intangible form before him. Drawing in a deep breath and ignoring the dank air of the sewer, he prepared to run as fast as he could. Even in armour, he was fast—not as fast as Miss Claire, but she was a special case—and maybe he could outpace it until he could find an exit from the sewer?

    And then, it deliberately looked away from him and moved off down the sewer tunnel.

    It had seen him. He knew it had seen him. Why had it ignored him? Why was it letting him go? Was this some kind of trick?

    “Well, come on,” hissed Miss Claire from directly above him. “Don’t just stand there. Let’s go.”

    Obediently, he stumbled onward, following the phosphorescent footprints in the ceiling once more.

    As he went, one thought kept worrying at the edges of his mind.

    Why did he let me go?



    Justin dismissed the last of his ghosts, then opened his eyes to look at Panzer, who was glaring at him from three feet away. “What?” he snapped.

    “Well, what’s down there?” she demanded.

    “Nothing.” He tried to make his tone off-handed.

    “No, it’s not nothing.” She prodded him in the middle of his chestplate with her forefinger. “Something down there set off a motion sensor. Twice.”

    “Well, I didn’t see anyone.” He knocked her arm aside. “Must have been a rat.”

    “The sensor was halfway up the wall!”

    “A big rat.”

    “They do get pretty damn big in the sewers here,” Alabaster offered, sounding amused. “Less so since Blasto stopped dumping stuff down the drain, but still damn nasty. Why do you think I don’t go down there? Renewal’s all well and good, but some smells you never get out of your clothes.”

    Panzer drew air in through her nostrils, then let it out again in a frustrated huff of annoyance. “Fine. Go have your fucking shower.”

    Before she could change her mind, he went. It wasn’t until he had the door of the bathroom closed and the shower running that he allowed himself to think about what he’d seen.

    An armoured hero, scouting out Panzer’s base. Here to take the out of control villain down, once and for all.

    Closing his eyes, he let the spray run over his face.

    And not before time.

    End of Part Twenty
    ArKFallen, anwan7, Scopas and 12 others like this.
  11. Alexcorvin

    Alexcorvin Ran All Out Of Fucks To Give

    Sep 8, 2015
    Likes Received:
    You know... I was half hoping it would be lewd. Not saying you need to or anything, Ack, just thought ti would be, since, you know, QQ. Any chance it might at some point (when the girls are older, I mean... unless you want some underage lewds... I wouldn't mind...)?
    Ack likes this.
  12. Scopas

    Scopas Getting sticky.

    Nov 1, 2018
    Likes Received:
    Hmm... Adolescent girl who's basically an eldritch abomination... likes to keep watch from the ceiling...

    My mind turns to Nobody Dies, and the many, many Rei's contained therein.

    Great update, Ack!
    Ack and Prince Charon like this.
  13. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
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    Sorry. Claire is currently thirteen, and due to this, there will be no more underage lewds in my fics.

    If this fic lasts until she's at least eighteen, then that's a different story.
    Alexcorvin likes this.
  14. Scopas

    Scopas Getting sticky.

    Nov 1, 2018
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    Damn, what painful news.

    Well, hopefully these idiotic trolls sustain prolonged intestinal issues.
    Ack likes this.