The words felt alien, wrong somehow even as I spoke them. Two words. That was all it took. That wasn't right. There had to be more to it. A human life was gone. Gone. It was never coming back. She was never coming back. It had to take more than two words to erase someone's life.
Why wasn't that a rule? Why wasn't there a rule somewhere that said that when someone died, you had to use more than two words to express that fact? There just... there had to be more to it. There had to be. People died, and everyone else just... kept going. The world turned, the sun went up and down, and everything kept going.
I felt something vile rise in the back of my throat, burning a bit as I closed my hand over my mouth. I turned my head to cough sharply, feeling the stinging tears at my own eyes. God. Oh god, please. Please don't let this be real. I didn't mean it. I didn't mean any of it. I'll take it back. I'll do something better this time. Fix it. Please fix it.
My eyes closed tightly as I prayed to no particular deity. Please. Please.
"What did we do...?" I moaned in horror as the scenes in question played back in my own memory against closed eyelids.
Instantly, I felt a sharp pain in my cheek as I was slapped, hard. Before I could fall, a strong grip took hold of my collar, and I was shoved back against the wall with enough force to almost knock the wind out of me.
My eyes opened, and I found Sophia's enraged, unhinged glare directed at me. She was holding my collar so tightly I could barely breathe. Beyond her, I saw Emma staring with wide, pleading eyes that were still damp from the tears that I knew she kept shedding.
"Nothing." Sophia growled out the word, squeezing tighter for further emphasis. "We did nothing. It's not our fault the bitch couldn't take a few jokes. Not our fault she was too much of a wimp, a loser, to even stand up for herself. That's all she had to do. Just once. Just fucking once!" She shouted the last word, looking even more angry now, so furious that I didn't dare move. "All Hebert had to do was fight back, one fucking time. That's all I wanted. I wanted her to prove she deserved to live. She didn't. She fucking didn't, and that's not our god damn fault. It's not my god damn fault, and I'm not fucking going to suffer for it."
I stared, disbelieving. "She's dead." I managed again. "Taylor's dead, because we-"
The blow sent me to the ground, sending dark spots dancing through my vision before Sophia took hold of my hair and yanked hard. She ignored Emma shouting her name, and yanked harder. I thought my hair was going to tear away from my scalp.
"I said, we did nothing!" The shout came against my ear, and I felt Sophia's other hand catch my wrist, pinning it up against my back and twisting just enough to send a spasm of pain through it.
"I don't care how cute you think you are, Madison." Sophia's voice had quieted, but was no less angry or dangerous. "If you push me on this, I will win. Because I'm stronger than you, I'm smarter than you, and I'm better than you."
Her breath was hot against my ear. "Like I said, I'm not going to suffer just because poor little Taylor Hebert has a fucking heart attack from some stupid locker prank. A heart attack? What teenager has a fucking heart attack? She died because she wasn't fit, because she was a loser, a fucking pathetic little shit who can't take a joke. She just sat there with those stupid, pathetic mopey ass eyes instead of doing something about it. She was prey. That's why she died, because her own body knew she was too weak to live."
"I'm not going down for that." She continued, giving my hair an extra twist. "She was prey, but I'm a predator. She was a loser, I'm a winner. So push me on this, push me just a little bit more, and we'll see how strong you are. We'll see if you last any longer than she did."
"Let her go, Soph." Emma was there next to us, her voice pleading, desperate. "Just let her go. She's not going to talk to anyone, are you, Maddy? No one's going to say anything."
Sophia released me, and I fell to my knees, flinching as my body assessed the pain she had doled out over those few moments.
"That right, Madison?" The girl, whose psychotic tendencies I was only beginning to understand despite being around her for so long, pressed. "Your mouth stays shut, and nobody finds out we had anything to do with that fucking freak's heart attack. Got it?"
I looked up, and saw Emma's pleading look. She just wanted this to go away, even if that meant ignoring it. I knew she was upset about Taylor. She'd have to be. Even after everything... everything we did to Taylor, I knew that she and Emma had been friends at one point.
She'd just considered Sophia to be a friend worth not only dropping her former friend for, but worth turning against completely. Worth attacking, shaming, humiliating, even torturing.
Worth killing? Because I held no illusions on that front. Taylor was dead because of us. Because we pushed her too far. She was dead, and it was our fault, whatever psychotic justification Sophia spat out.
I took a breath, then let it out. The pain in my scalp was distracting. "They'll investigate." I said flatly.
"They won't find anything." Sophia replied, rather smugly, I thought. "And even if they did... well, they'll pretend they didn't."
That made me frown. "What... why...?"
"Sophia," Emma's voice held a warning tone. "Don't."
In response, Sophia turned to stare at the other girl. Whatever expression she had, it made Emma shrink back, averting her gaze with a fearful look. The message had been clear. Sophia wouldn't hesitate to turn her crazy against Emma as well if she felt threatened.
Then she focused on me once again, the dark skin of her hand passing back and forth in front of my face. "You watching this, Mads? Because this might be the most important demonstration of your life."
As I stared, afraid to look away, Sophia's body turned wispy and indistinct. Before my eyes, she took a step sideways, passing right through the wall before emerging again. The look on her face now was predatory, mixed with something like pride. She enjoyed showing off, and she was enjoying the look of shock on my face.
"You- y-you're... you're a... you're a..." I couldn't say it. "You're a cape. You're a villain."
To that, Sophia tilted her head back and laughed out loud. It was brief, and then her face was suddenly bare inches from mine, her hand gripping my hair once more.
"No, Madison." She said in a low, dangerous voice. "I'm a hero. I'm Shadow Stalker."
A cold chill ran through me, and I whispered, "But she's with the Wards."
"That's right." Sophia nodded, before leaning even closer, so that our noses were touching. "That's why nothing is going to happen to me. You say a single word about this, and it won't be just me shutting you up, it'll be the Protectorate. You think they'll let something like this get out? They'll bury it deeper than Taylor's being buried."
"If they need to, they'll bury you too." Sophia's words had turned to a whisper that sent a shudder through me and drew an involuntary whimper. "My word versus yours, Maddy. Best case scenario, best case, you take the full heat. You want to be some kind of martyr or something, be my guest. But you go down alone. You bring me up, and you better pray the Protectorate gets to you first."
"Because if they don't, if I think you're a threat, then Taylor won't be the only student with a memorial in the hall at school."
Sophia straightened, her expression turning back to the welcoming smile that I was more familiar with. "Or we can just keep being friends." She said easily, extending her hand to me. "You want that, right, Mads? You want to be friends with me."
I stared at her. The threatening, psychotic look was gone. She looked normal, not the slightest bit unhinged. She even looked a little bit amused at the entire affair, like everything was just one big joke, like it wasn't a big deal.
"You're crazy." I said, not realizing I'd spoken aloud until Emma's eyes widened in alarm.
The blows came rapidly, one after another. One hit my face and knocked my head to the side, and then I felt another two blows against my chest and stomach, doubling me over. A blinding pain hit my leg and dumped me to the ground, followed by two hard and violent kicks to my stomach that made me throw up what very little I'd been able to eat since hearing the news that morning.
I curled into a ball, taking two more kicks against my arms before the attack stopped. It took me a moment before I risked opening my eyes.
Emma was leading Sophia away, tugging her out of my otherwise empty house, where we had met up to talk this out after the news of Taylor's death had spread through the school.
Sophia let herself be led, smiling mockingly back at my crumpled form. "Just remember, Mads, you had a choice. You chose this. I tried to help you. I tried to make you better. This, what comes next, it's your fault."
Then they were both gone, and I let my head slump once more, falling limp against the floor of my family's dining room as I felt a bit of blood trickle from my nose.
Sophia had said one thing that I agreed with, after a fashion. This was, in some ways, my fault. It was at least partly my fault that Taylor was dead.
My eyes closed, and what I saw, I forgot immediately. But the effects of what I had seen, the effects of that trigger event, changed everything in my life, forever.
I must have zoned out, because the next thing I knew, the door was slamming shut. I jumped, startled, as my older brother came stomping through the house. I knew it was Trevor, because he was the only one that stomped like that. He hated his college classes, and he hated the job that he went to after those classes even more. Hence the stomping.
Trevor stormed right past the dining room without looking inside, which was probably a good thing considering I didn't feel like trying to explain why I looked the way I probably did.
With that thought in mind, I picked myself up and turned to find the mirror on the wall. I moved closer to examine myself, wincing at both the hollow, terrified expression that stared back at me, as well as my bloody nose and bruises.
Gingerly touching my cheek, I closed my eyes and tried not to whimper. What was I going to do? What could I do, even? Sophia was a member of the Wards. She was a cape, a hero even. They'd never take my word for it, and Emma had made it clear that while she obviously felt horrible, she wasn't willing to turn against Sophia. We had both made our bed, and Emma was willing to lay in it. Or she was just too afraid not to.
Fuck. It should be Emma that felt this way. Taylor had been her friend in the first place. She should be the one so racked by guilt she felt like throwing up again. She should be here, not out with Sophia.
Sophia. Even the thought of her made me shudder. I'd known, intellectually, that she was a sociopath. But somehow when it had been directed (mostly) at Taylor, who never fought back, it had been easy to ignore. Bad stuff was always easier to dismiss when it wasn't directed at you.
But now... I put my hands over my face gingerly and shuddered. Now everything was wrong. Taylor was dead. She wasn't supposed to die. Why did she have to die? Why did I have to feel like this?
I hadn't known just how crazy Sophia was. I hadn't known just how close to the edge Taylor was, or that the stupid locker prank would... would kill her.
I didn't know. I felt like screaming that at the top of my lungs, annoyed brother be damned. I didn't know!
There were consequences to my actions, and I had ignored them. I had dismissed them. And now, ignoring the consequences was coming back to haunt me.
The whole time that I'd stood there, I'd felt an odd little itch almost directly behind my eyes. I squeezed them shut, then open, then shut again. When I opened them the third time, I jumped a little at the sight of a hazy, indistinct line going from the middle of the mirror, past my face, and off behind me.
Turning, my eyes followed the nearly transparent line from the mirror to one of the dining room chairs. Frowning, I hesitantly lifted a hand to brush at the line, only to have my fingers go right through as though it wasn't really there.
Yet, I could somehow feel the line. Not with my hand, but with... some other sense. I could feel the connection between the mirror and the chair as the line remained taut between them.
What... what was going on? Confused, I imagined my sense traveling up and down the line, then gave a slight tug at the end with the chair.
The effect was instantaneous. The chair leapt off the floor and hurled straight down the line that connected it to the other object. Eyes widening, I let out a yelp of surprise and hit the floor, just in time for the chair to hurtle over my head and slam into the mirror with a terrifying crash that sent glass shards flying.
By the time that I had picked myself off the floor, Trevor had come galloping back down the stairs and slammed his way into the kitchen, one hand holding his old Little League baseball bat from several years earlier. His eyes were wide and wild as he gazed around the room before locking on me. "Madison," He asked in clear disbelief. "What the fuck happened? What did you do?"
I looked at the shattered glass on the floor, surrounding the broken chair. "I... I... it was an accident." Truth.
"An accident." He echoed, staring at me, then at the mess. "What the hell? How- no, you know what, I don't give a shit.. I'm not cleaning it up, and I'm not explaining it. That's your job. You get to tell mom and dad why you did... all this." He gestured around with the bat, then left the room with one last remark over his shoulder. "Maybe they'll finally figure out that you're not the cute little innocent girl you pretend to be."
His words made me flinch, where a week ago I would have ignored him. Sighing, I turned back to look at the room once more.
The line was back. This time it stretched between one of mom's paintings, and the glass centerpiece on the table. "Oh no, no no no." I reached out with that invisible sense once more, testing the line but not pulling on it. I was so intent on making sure that the centerpiece wasn't pulled by the line, that the next thing I knew, it was being pushed back along the same line, increasing the distance between it and the painting rather than shrinking it as the line between the chair and the mirror had.
Lunging with an arm outstretched as the centerpiece was shoved off the side of the dining room table, I cried out in desperate alarm. Mom loved that little glass thing almost as much as she loved her kids.
In response to my alarm, the push on the line reversed and instantly began to pull instead. The centerpiece stopped falling, and went flying into the air toward the painting instead. I barely managed to put myself in its path, catching it against my chest with a grunt.
Carefully, I set the glass down, looked around the room once more, and then fled the room before something else could happen. I had to get out of there, and figure out what the hell was happening to me.
Walking quickly down the street, I kept looking around. The near-transparent lines kept following me, jumping between any two given objects seemingly at random. I just ignored them as best as I could, trying not to think about what would happen if the line connected between a couple of cars and I let it pull them together.
Harder to ignore was the other line. I hadn't noticed it in the house, but once I walked outside, there was a pale pink line going straight from the middle of my stomach and off into various people that I passed.
The postman was the first one that I noticed it on. The pink line connected the two of us and then just sat there. I felt nothing through it and kept walking. A few steps later it jumped to attach itself to Mrs. DeCampes walking her dog, and again I felt nothing.
Then the line jumped once again, as a blue sedan passed me on the street. I saw the line attach itself to the driver, and the pink color turned slightly darker, to a very faint red. This time, when I started to walk on, I felt a weak, yet noticeable tug back the other way.
Turning, I watched as the sedan pulled away, and the light red line grew tighter, still giving that faint tug. I could ignore it, but the feeling confused me. Not to mention the fear that came with the thought that the pinkish red line might do what the other line could do and somehow yank that car right at me.
Instead, the faint red line let itself be spooled out, stretching further and further as the car got further away.
Then, as the sedan began to turn at the corner on the end of our street, another car went right through the stop sign, failed to stop in time, and crashed into the rear right bumper. The red line vanished, and I stared in shock as the two drivers slowly got out of their vehicles and began to yell at each other.
I must have stood there on the sidewalk staring for five minutes before I tore myself away, turning to run in the opposite direction. Every step I took, the transparent line kept attaching itself to various objects, while the pale pink line kept one end attached to me and the other jumped from person to person. Sometimes it was so lightly colored pink that it was almost as invisible as the other line, while other times it grew slightly darker and I would feel that faint tug.
I was passing a rundown gas station that had been closed forever, when the pale pink line abruptly latched on to a tall figure with a large duffel bag loitering outside of the boarded up building. The line went from pink to a very dark red, and solidified so much that I almost couldn't take another step away. The line was so tight, so strong, that taking one step away was like pulling against a physical cord that didn't want to stretch any further. I could move away, but it was physically tiring to do so.
Remembering the faint red line that had led to the car crash, I stared at this dark red one hesitantly. What did it mean? How dangerous, how bad was a situation that went from no tug, to an almost irresistible one?
The loitering man gave one last look around, ignoring me, before turning and walking into the abandoned gas station. The line tugged me along with him, and I let it, following along across the parking lot.
When I reached the entrance, the door wasn't quite closed all the way. Hearing voices inside, I moved closer and listened.
"So you got the product or not?" A loud, annoyed voice demanded, making me jump as it echoed through the obviously empty building.
"It's right here." A voice replied from right near the door, clearly the man I had been connected to. "Lemme see the cash first."
"Nah. Product first, then cash." The first voice responded smugly. "That's how Skidmark does things." There was a slight pause, followed by, "Unless you'd like me to call him up and see if he wants to change things just for you."
The man near the door replied quickly, nervousness evident in his voice. "No no no, that's fine. Just... here, look. Everything you ordered." I heard the duffel bag unzip, and something inside was jostled around as though the man was shoving his hand through it to indicate to the other man what was there.
"Cool." The first voice said approvingly. Then I heard a distinctive clicking noise that anyone who had seen any movie with guns involved could recognize.
"What the- hey!" The man by the door sounded even closer, as though he had taken a step back toward the door. "What the hell, man?!"
The first man gave a low chuckle. "You think we're stupid? You think Skidmark got to be leader of the Merchants because he's a fucking retard? You've been talking to that cop lady, Detective Rodriguez."
I could feel and hear the other man edging closer to the door. "N-no way, man. No way I'd talk to no cop." There was a pause, and the first man must have done something with the gun, because the man that my line had attached itself to gave a sharp cry of fear. "Okay, okay, okay! I'm sorry! I'm sorry, okay? I'm sorry! It's my girl. She's pregnant, man. I'm gonna be a dad. I'm gonna be a dad. I can't be doing this. I just wanted out."
The first man's voice was hard and cold. "Shoulda trusted us."
That red line turned even darker, almost black, and I felt bile in my throat once more before jumping through the doorway with a shout. "Stop it!"
Both of the men were taken by surprise by my sudden appearance, and the influx of light in the otherwise dark room as the door was slammed open briefly blinded them. I heard a gunshot as the first man reflexively pulled the trigger, but his aim had been thrown off by his surprise.
The gun was coming up again, pointed in my direction. I saw the transparent line attach itself to one end of the pistol and then to an abandoned crate in the corner.
I reached out with the sense that ran along that line. Anchoring the crate where it was, I pulled at the end of the line that was attached to the pistol. It instantly leapt from the man's hand, slamming into the crate with so much force the plastic container was cracked.
"Fuck!" The man who had been disarmed shouted. He started to come at me, and I quickly recoiled, terrified. My blind desperation for the man to get away from me sent the tether toward the back of the man's belt, while the other end connected to the far wall. I tugged on the end attached to the man's belt, and he went flying backwards barely a second before he would have reached me.
Something hit me from the side, sending me crashing to the floor. It was the man I had followed in here. He shoved me out of the way, ignoring my fall as he ran straight out the door and fled for his life. The dark red line that had connected us was as pale as any of the others that I had passed before, now that he was out of immediate danger.
When I looked up to the other side of the room, the other man was scrambling out a nearby broken window, apparently deciding that this wasn't worth continuing.
Left alone in the abandoned gas station, I let my head slump back toward the floor and closed my eyes to take this in.
I had powers. Strange powers. The first was fairly easy to understand. I could connect any two objects and either pull one toward the other (or both together maybe?) or push them apart along the same line.
On the other hand, there was that second line that kept connecting me to other people. It seemed to have little to no effect as long as they were safe, but the more immediate danger the person it connected to was in, the more it pulled me toward them. It was like a danger sense related to others, rather than myself.
Powers. That's what they were. I had powers.
As I lay there on the dirty ground, still bruised from earlier, I closed my eyes and muttered three words under my breath, the three words that meant nothing at this point, and yet also meant everything.
"I'm sorry, Taylor."
Over the next several months, I gained a firsthand knowledge of just what kind of hell I had helped put Taylor through. With the loss of her favorite target, and my refusal to go back to the way things were, Sophia had decided that I made an adequate replacement. Emma remained too much of a coward to make more than a halfhearted protest before gleefully joining in with any idea that the crazy bitch put forth.
From nasty remarks made whenever their hangers-on passed by, to stuff being 'accidentally' spilled over me or my stuff, to being all but openly attacked in gym class under the guise of one sport or another, and more, Sophia made her point perfectly clear. This was the tame stuff. If I screwed her over by going to the authorities, she'd retaliate.
It wasn't just Emma either. All of the friends that I'd thought I'd had abandoned me. Given the choice to either stick up for the person who had been the number three girl in the top clique in our grade, or kick me to the curb and vie for that spot themselves, the decision they made wasn't exactly surprising.
Through it all, I suppressed the urge to use my new powers in class. I wanted nothing, absolutely nothing, tying those powers to me. Besides, a not insubstantial part of me felt like I deserved it. I'd not only done nothing to stop the bullying that had ended with Taylor's death, I'd perpetuated it. I'd had fucking fun. So no, I didn't deserve to speak up and make them stop now that they were directing it toward me.
So that was school. All of my time other than that over the last months had been directed toward practicing with these new powers so that I could understand them, and toward preparing to use them to help people.
That was something I had to do. After what I'd done, what I'd helped cause, what I'd contributed to, I had to use the power that I'd been given to help people. Not only because my power literally directed me toward people who were in danger of being killed, but because Taylor's death was at least partly my fault. The red line gave me the opportunity to save people. The motivation was buried deep inside, where it woke me every morning and kept me awake long after I had laid down at night. It drove me to practice with my power, ignore the things that Sophia and Emma, my former best friends, did, and to prepare to actually show myself to the city at large.
April had arrived before I felt like I was ready. Finally, I stood in my bedroom, staring down at the outfit I had put together over the last dozen weeks.
My costume was simple. It consisted of flame-retardant ACU (army combat uniform) pants in urban camo, a pair of black steel toe hiking boots, a white turtleneck that was tucked into the pants and held tight with a wide leather belt, and a black vest that had an attached hood. At the top of the ensemble was a white balaclava mask that left my eyes exposed.
Finally, my gloves were tight against my wrist, and I used two buckle strap wrist bands to hold them even tighter. That way, if I made one point of the line attach itself to my glove, and the other two some distant object, pulling from the object's end would yank me along, rather than just tearing my glove off.
It wasn't going to win any awards, that much was for sure. But unless I wanted the police to know exactly and precisely who I was just from tracking suspicious (and expensive) deliveries, I had to make do with what I could get at the local thrift and military surplus stores.
Besides, I wanted to separate my costumed self as much as possible from my 'real' self. In school, I was known for wearing cute girly clothes, with lots of pink and blue. While popular, I was not exactly what most would consider to be overtly hot. Instead, I was more... adorable and cute. In the past, I had played that up because it got me attention. Now, I kept the same habits (in spite of the belittlement about being a baby or how I should go back to middle school that it got me) so that my cape-self would never be associated with innocent, girly Madison Clements.
It was late by the time I began to suit up, and when I left the house through my bedroom window, the whole neighborhood was dark.
Once I was far enough away from my house, and closer to the bad side of town, by the assorted apartments and warehouses that made up most of the so-called 'docks' area, I decided that it was time to cut loose and really experiment with what this power could do. Up until then, I had been resisting overt displays so that I wouldn't get caught and questioned. Now, in costume, I felt like pushing things.
Looking toward the far top corner of a warehouse in the distance, I extended a hand toward it. I let my line attach itself to my glove, and to the smoke stack that I could barely see the top of. For a moment, I stood that way, closed my eyes to murmur a prayer, and then tugged from the smokestack end of the line.
I'd thought that I was ready. I was wrong. A panicked and utterly undignified squeal escaped me as I was torn from the ground, hurled through the air, and all but flung at the smokestack. I nearly rammed straight into the thing before managing to connect a second line to the warehouse roof and released the first one. Before I could face plant against the chimney, I tugged on the new line. Immediately, my forward momentum halted and I began to fall straight down. At the last second, I reversed the pull into a push, stopping myself from slamming into the roof of the warehouse. I adjusted the strength of the push as low as I could, so that gravity could still pull me down, but at a greatly reduced speed.
It was with shaking legs that I finally settled on the roof, almost collapsing to my knees before catching myself. I turned to look back at where I had been standing over two blocks away. Two blocks that I had traveled in seconds.
"That..." I said slowly to myself, eyes wide in shock. "That was..." I worked my mouth and then gave a little jump into the air with my hands high above my head. "...AWESOME!"
Pointing both hands at the ground, I attached the lines between the roof and my gloves, and gave a hard push that shoved me a dozen feet into the air. Then I reached out a hand toward another building, attached another invisible line, and yanked myself that way.
It was a constant balancing act between pushing and pulling, and I nearly wiped out several more times while I was getting the hang of it. I had to constantly switch between yanking myself forward to gain momentum, and pushing myself to control or mitigate that momentum, or to change directions. It helped when I belatedly realized that I could just attach my 'push off' lines to my boots to simulate a really high jump, leaving my hands free for the subsequent 'pull'.
It was also the most pure fun I'd had in my entire life.
So enthralled was I with experimenting, that I very nearly entirely missed the dark red line that had attached itself from my chest to some point around the corner until it yanked me unexpectedly off balance. Almost crashing into a billboard, I adjusted at the last second and looked at the red line.
In spite of myself, I gulped uncertainly. Behind the mask, I was still squishy, confused little Madison. I was still afraid of what might happen if I got involved.
And yet, the idea of not involving myself, and letting another person die, was so much worse. Swallowing back my fear, I pointed a glove along the same path as the red line, attached my own line to the nearest streetlight (which itself wasn't giving off any light), and let it yank me that way.
Landing on top of the broken streetlight, I nearly slipped right off before catching myself. In the dim parking lot below me, I could see three street toughs, members of the local ABB gang if their Asian features were any indication, surrounding and looming over a smaller figure, who had fallen to the ground. The red line had attached itself to the fallen figure.
As one of the Asian men raised his hand with a chain wrapped around it, I called out to grab his attention. "Hey!" Once all three of the men whirled and looked up, I made an exaggerated motion of confusion, raising both arms in a wide shrug. "Is this where the line for the new iPhone starts?"
Immediately, two guns were pointed at me, and I instantly used a line attached to my boot to push off the streetlight and into the air, then reached out a hand toward the side of the nearby building and yanked myself that way. Twin shots rang out, but I was already off the lamp and hurtling over their heads. As I passed by, I attached a line to the barrel of each gun, with the other end of the lines attached to the corners of the parking lot. A swift tug hauled the pistols out of the hands of the two men who had been using them.
Before I could crash into the side of the building, I reversed my pull line into a push line, released it once my momentum was going in the opposite direction, and then used a very light push line to give myself a swift, but relatively gentle landing.
I faced the three gang members, one of whom still had his chain, while the other two were blinking at their empty hands. I continued as though I hadn't been interrupted by their gunfire. "To be honest, I don't get the hype, personally. I mean, it's a phone, just like the last... which version is this?"
One of the men lunged to grab my arm, a knife in his hand. "You have any last request, funny girl?" He demanded in faintly accented English.
"Sure." I replied easily, not bothering to shake him off or struggle. "Could you hit a high C for me?" When the man just blinked in confusion, I first attached his knife to the lamppost, and it was yanked away from him. Then I tilted my head to the side while attaching his shoes to each other. With a smile that was hidden behind my mask, I made the line push both shoes away from each other. The man's feet went out from under him, hauled out to either side as he was forced into doing the splits.
"Thanks!" I called out after his loud, shrill shriek had filled the air, fulfilling my request.
Unfortunately, I'd let myself get distracted. The remaining two men each grabbed an arm and began to yank me away. The one with the chain glowered, pointing a finger into my face. "You get tour of Lung's base, little girl. You will not like it." He was, sadly, smart enough to cover my face with his free hand so that I couldn't see to attach any lines.
"A tour?" I echoed, trying to mask the sudden fear I felt when the dangerous leader of the ABB was mentioned. Lung was far out of my league.
The men were holding me tight as they dragged, and I needed a distraction. I went with the first idea that came to mind. I screamed. "I DIDN'T SIGN UP FOR ANY TOUR. I WANNA GO HOME I WANNA GET OUT I WANT YOUR BADGE NUMBER ARE YOU EVEN A COP DO YOU EVEN LIFT WHAT KIND OF TOUR IS THIS LET ME OUT THIS IS KIDNAPPING DO YOU KNOW HOW MANY YEARS IN PRISON YOU CAN GET I'M A WHITE TEENAGED GIRL THAT'S JURY CATNIP THEY'LL PROBABLY GIVE YOU THE DEATH PENALTY YOU SICKO!"
Apparently the semi-random tsunami of words I was hurling at the men made them pause in confusion, just long enough for me to twist my head free from the man's hand. The second I could see again, I attached the backs of the men's pants to the nearby wall, hauling them away from me so quickly that they hit the wall hard.
Yet not quite hard enough. I had been trying to avoid killing anyone, and I must have lessened the blow too much. They were still standing, though briefly stunned. Before the pair could collect themselves, I pointed, attaching the line from the ring on one man's finger, to the nose piercing that the other man sported. A tug on the line made the man's hand lash out lightning fast to smack the second man in the face so hard he collapsed with a nose that was spraying blood.
Keeping the line attached to the man's ring, I quickly switched the other end so that it was linked to the zipper of his pants. Subsequently, he punched himself in the groin so hard he literally started to throw up after collapsing.
Each of the three men were all down, in various states of agony, and I finally turned my attention to the person that had gained my other power's attention. The dark red line had faded once more, and the figure was already picking themselves up off the ground.
"Ugghn..." She groaned, shaking her head slowly before focusing my way, giving me my first glimpse at who I had saved.
"Who the hell are you?" Shadow Stalker, Sophia demanded.
It was all I could do not to lash out physically at the sight of Sophia in her Shadow Stalker guise. Honestly, I felt a little sick inside when I looked at her. She was a member of the Wards, a hero. She was supposed to help people, and be a beacon of hope and safety to the public. I didn't think that 'give a shit when your actions directly result in someone's death' was asking for too much.
On the other hand, just because I had to restrain myself physically, didn't mean I had to do so vocally. Once I had recovered from the realization of who I had just saved, I immediately swept into an exaggerated bow. I deepened my voice slightly, hoping that combined with the muffling from the fabric against my mouth, and Sophia's own dismissal of helpless little Madison as prey would fully hide my identity. "No need to thank me, ma'am. Rescuing helpless damsels is part of the job."
It took Sophia just a second to follow what I was implying. "Rescuing helpless- what the fuck?!" Her face was hidden behind the mask that had a stern woman's expression designed on the front of it, but I read enough of her body language to know that she was angry.
That and it was Sophia, so 'angry' pretty much went with the territory.
I held my hands up placatingly. "Careful, you've had a bit of a rough night. I know meeting a real superhero is exciting, but take it easy."
Furious now, Sophia grabbed for the crossbow at her side. "I don't know who the hell you think you are, but-"
As the crossbow came off her belt, I extended a hand, linking the weapon to my glove and giving a pull so that the crossbow flew out of Sophia's hand and straight to my own. I turned the weapon over, making a show of examining it as I raised my voice in mock excitement. "A present, for me?! No, please, I couldn't possibly. A hero doesn't need payment to do the right thing."
While Sophia stood, briefly shocked into silence from the force of her disbelief and anger, I tossed the crossbow aside and held my arms open as though waiting for a hug. "Shhh. I know you were scared, but I'm here now, you're safe."
That did it. With an inarticulate cry, Sophia lunged toward me, her shape turning indistinct as she used her shadow powers. I just lifted one foot slightly, put a line between my boot and the ground, and gave a hard push to propel myself a good fifteen feet into the air so that she would pass through the empty space where I had been. Turning in the air, I used a slight pull from one of my gloves to the nearby wall before lowering the intensity of the push so that gravity would set me back down a few yards away.
"No, no. Sorry." I made my voice sound consoling. "No autographs today."
Spotting her crossbow nearby where I had tossed it, Sophia dove that way and snatched it up. She turned, but before either of us could do anything else, a figure flew down from the sky and landed between us.
When he straightened and looked toward me, I recognized Aegis, the current team leader of the Brockton Bay Wards. His costume was rust red with silver-white trim and an emblem of a shield. He also wore a matching helmet that covered his face.
"What's going on?" He asked, looking between Sophia and me.
Holding her crossbow in one hand, Sophia gestured for Aegis to move. "Out of my way. Some smartass needs a lesson."
The boy seemed to ignore that, turning back toward me. "You wanna tell me who you are?"
Sophia made a motion as though to move around Aegis, and I saw the area around her distort, the street and building beyond where she was standing seeming to scrunch up together, almost like an accordion of images. Then another pair of figures moved through the distorted space, and when it moved back top normal, two more had joined us. There was Vista in her green and white swirly costume with the skirt and clearly optimistic breastplate, and Gallant in his gunmetal and silver armored costume that made him look like a science fiction hero's take on a medieval knight.
Vista stood with a hand up against Sophia's arm while speaking to their team leader. "She saved Shadow Stalker."
"Bullshit!" Sophia declared vehemently. She shook the youngest Ward member's hand off her arm. "She just got in my way."
"It's okay, Stalker." Gallant spoke for the first time. I noticed that he had also moved beside Aegis, putting the both of them between Sophia and me. "We'll work it out. All that matters is that the bad guys are down."
From the way Sophia was standing, she didn't quite agree with that assessment. "What the hell are you even doing here?"
There was a little reproach in Aegis's voice as he answered. "Vista called in for backup when you took off on your own. You know she's not supposed to be doing solo patrols yet."
Most of the top of Vista's face was hidden by her green visor, but I still recognized her scowl. I wasn't sure that it had happened exactly as Aegis said, but the younger girl apparently wasn't willing to argue with him. Whether her reluctance to disagree was more because of my presence or Sophia's, I couldn't say.
"So like I said, what do we call you?" The leader of the Wards focused on me once more as he restated the question, now with Vista and Gallant watching me curiously as well, while Sophia just seemed to scowl and look away in annoyance.
I hesitated, reconsidering a few times. Was there a better name I could use? Should I even give a name? Was the name that I'd chosen too silly or stupid?
Then again, this was a team that let someone like Sophia stay. I could already tell that they didn't really get along with her, yet they'd still let her get away with murder if she just kept calling herself a teammate. So what the hell did I care what they thought of my name?
"Tether." I answered after that brief pause. "Call me Tether."
"Tether." Aegis echoed before nodding. "Right, well thanks for..." He paused, glancing over his shoulder at Sophia before turning back to me. "... assisting our teammate. Vista, could you use the zipties on those guys before they wake up, and call in the nearest Black and white to pick them up? Assuming there were no capes in the mix?" I shook my head, and he gave the nod for the younger girl to go ahead.
While Vista was busy with that, Aegis stepped closer to me. "So listen, it looks like you did good here."
"Well." Gallant interrupted. "She did well here."
"That too." Aegis replied. It sounded like he was smiling. "Well and good. Point is, if you'd like to join us, the Wards could always use another pair of hands."
I felt a wave of intense disgust wash over me at the very thought of joining a team that would keep a psychopath like Sophia on their payroll. It was obvious that she did little, if anything, to disguise her sociopathy. Yet they kept her around anyway. They made excuses for her actions. They let her get away with it. The thought of voluntarily allying myself with that kind of attitude, to say nothing of actually unmasking so that Sophia would know who I was, brought an almost physical sense of revulsion.
A few feet away, Gallant actually staggered a little, as though I had hit him. The other Wards turned, but before the boy could speak up, I noticed something much more concerning. Sprouting from my chest was not just a single dark red line, but three. All were stretched out and around the corner.
"Help." I said immediately. If my power was telling me that three people were in immediate mortal danger, I needed assistance. Even if Sophia was part of that assistance. My disgust at her insanity, and at the Wards acceptance of it, wasn't worth more than people's lives.
"What?" Aegis glanced my way, distracted from checking on his teammate, who was waving him off and gazing at me with what felt like curiosity.
"People need help." I said firmly, extending a hand toward the nearby building. "Trust me, if we don't haul ass, three people are gonna die."
With that much said, I connected a line to the building rooftop and launched myself forward and up.
It wasn't hard to follow the red lines. They seemed to tug me onward, urging me to move faster. I kept going until I heard a sudden burst of gunfire from the direction of the lines, then homed in on the sound.
Another sustained round of automatic weapon fire greeted me as I hit the ground just behind a line of four men who were shooting at something massive that was rushing toward them. Connecting the barrels of each of their guns to the pavement, I forced the weapons to drop out of their hands, a second before some kind of car-sized monster-dog slammed into the group and sent them scattering like bowling pins.
"Holy crap, Lassie." I uttered out loud. "You keep juicing like that, and they'll totally take your home run record away."
The monster animal lunged my way now that its original prey were sprawled out every which direction. I launched myself skyward to avoid its lunge, extended a hand to snag a line against the ground nearby, and landed somewhere behind it, trying to get an idea of what was going on.
There was a flickering light in the windows of the building that I had landed near, which I now recognized as flames. In the doorway to my left, a blonde female figure in a violet and black skintight costume was slumped, unmoving. One of my red lines pointed her way, while the second was connected to a figure in what looked like dark motorcycle leathers and a helmet with a stylized skull on the front, who was also lying on the ground without moving.
A sharp whistle interrupted my assessment, and the nightmare dog tore back to leap over my head. It landed ahead of me, rushing to join a solidly built girl with auburn hair, who was standing next to the unmoving form of another of the massive canines as though protecting it. From the sight of the plastic dog mask on her face, it seemed rather obvious that Lassie belonged to her. The third line was connected to this girl.
Slightly to the side of her was a boy who looked like he'd gotten lost on the way to a renaissance faire, with his billowy white shirt, skintight leggings, and crown. He even carried a scepter, while his own face was hidden behind a simple mask.
The boy and girl, and their giant dog friend, stood facing down another figure. The man looked to be almost eight feet tall. His face was hidden behind a metal dragon mask, and I could see various dragon tattoos all over his exposed chest, though some kind of silver metallic scales were growing to cover those designs.
With a deafening howl, the giant dog monster lunged for the standing figure. He just stood there, caught the dog's jaws and howled back in its face like a madman, then pivoted and pitched the animal hard into the wall. It didn't rise again, even as the girl in the dog mask shouted something in anger.
Beside me, I saw Aegis come in for a landing. He had carried Gallant. Vista distorted space a little to the side of where we were, and came through it along with Sophia.
When he saw what we were facing, I heard Aegis curse under his breath. "Kid," he said to no one in particular that I could see. "Call in Armsmaster and whoever else is nearby. Lung's here, and he's already amped up."
"We're gonna need some help."
Lung. The leader of the ABB. One of the most dangerous super-powered criminals in the city. He had fought the entire local Protectorate to a standstill and the best they'd managed was something like a tie.
We were so screwed.
He was already growing bigger as a result of his little altercation with the dog, letting out a roar before starting toward the spot where the boy and girl still stood. Partway there, his arm twitched up and the beast punched himself in the face, staggering in mid-step. I'd seen the boy in the Ren Faire costume jerk the hand with the scepter up at the same time. It didn't seem to slow Lung for more than a second however, and the boy turned to retreat.
On the other hand, girl in the dog mask stood her ground, keeping herself between the rushing villain and one of her unconscious dogs. I had the nagging suspicion that she was about to try punching the guy.
It was Aegis, however, who did the punching. He'd flown straight up after calling for backup, and now he flew down again, fists outstretched until he slammed straight into Lung's shoulders, driving the now ten foot tall monster down into the ground barely a foot from his target.
For her part, the dog mask girl promptly lashed out with a foot to kick the briefly fallen beast in the face. It barely seemed to register, as the scale armoring by that point had spread to cover the rest of his body.
It wasn't an attack that she'd be able to try again, as flames were already spreading over Lung's body, engulfing him with enough heat to start melting the concrete beneath himself. I could see the girl forced to back up, pressing herself against the fallen dog while Lung began to straighten.
Abruptly, the ground just behind the briefly prone beast began to distort and twist, bending down and around to create a hole. Aegis, whose skin had been turned black and red in the spots where the armor had failed from the heat, rolled off of Lung and fell onto his back in front of the beast. He raised both feet, reared back, and then kicked the monstrous cape in the shoulders as hard as he could. The blow was enough to send Lung sliding backwards and partway into the hole that Vista had created.
As soon as the ABB leader had fallen halfway inside the hole, Vista, who was still standing beside me, made a gesture andpushed the space around the ground together, closing it in once more and pinning him in place.
Immediately, Gallant began to pelt Lung with several quick blasts of concussive energy that, if I remembered correctly, could alter the emotions of the person he was hitting with them. If he was altering Lung's emotions, it didn't really seem to have much effect. The man gave another roar and began to break his way out of the pavement that trapped him.
Though all of that, I had simply stood in place, frozen from fear. Random thugs were one thing, even if they were armed with guns. Guns were things I could just yank away from people. But Lung? He was a monster. Worse, he was a monster who literally kept getting stronger the longer that you fought him. I was so far out of my league it was ridiculous. What the hell was I supposed to do, besides play the part of the wayward traffic cone for Lung's out-of-control bus to run over on its way to something vaguely threatening?
Simply put, I was scared, and I froze. Someone shoved me aside, as Sophia pushed past me, muttering something about rookie cowards getting the hell out of her way. She brought up both of her crossbows, having retrieved the other one from wherever it had been, and shot a pair of darts against Lung's metal scales. The darts remained shadowy and insubstantial until they had passed through the armor plating before they solidified.
It definitely got the man's attention. He let out an inarticulate bellow as he straightened, shoving the last remains of the concrete off of himself. An even hotter burst of flame melted the bolts that were sticking out of his back, and he grunted slightly while whirling toward us. Sophia shot another pair of bolts at him, but he swiped these out of the way contemptuously.
Aegis made to punch the gang leader in the side, but Lung didn't even look at him as he brought a hand down to engulf the young hero's head, squeezed tightly to lift him off the ground, then set him directly on fire before pitching the now flaming missile straight at Sophia. She turned shadowy, and let the burning Aegis pass through her to crash somewhere out in the street.
He was coming straight at us then, and Sophia wasted no time throwing herself out of the way. Vista, on the other hand, grabbed my hand and yanked me backwards. We took one step, and suddenly the pair of us were out in the street where Aegis was rolling around, trying to put the flames out.
Finally, finally I snapped out of my frozen terror. Reaching a hand out toward the nearby fire hydrant, I anchored one end of a line to the end of the hydrant, and the other end to the street. Then I pulled hard against the hydrant, yanking the cap off and sending a geyser of water into the road. As soon as he saw it, Aegis managed to roll that way, making the water engulf him and put out the flames.
Gallant sent two more blasts at where Lung was, then shook his head before calling out to us. "He's got so much anger! I'm trying to calm him down, but it's like bailing a rowboat with a tablespoon. I need more time!"
It didn't look like time was something he was going to get. The massive beast of a criminal had already oriented back toward the boy who looked like an escapee from a science fiction King Arthur story and raised a hand to direct a fireball that way. Gallant barely managed to throw himself out of its path, and was prone on the ground when the man prepared a second volley.
"Hey stupid!" Some idiot called out.
He whirled, and I realized, oh crap, the idiot is me.
Trying not to gulp too obviously, I waved a hand. "Lung, seriously? Who's your archenemy, the Marlboro Man?!"
A growl escaped the huge, armored man, and he pivoted to face me. I managed, somehow, to avoid wetting myself at my own success in getting his attention. Instead, I assumed a thinking position, tapping my head a few times as though considering. "Wait, wait, I've got it. Someone told you that lung cancer kills, and you were too stupid to realize that it was the cancer that was the deadly part."
By that point, Vista and Aegis were both staring at me like I was insane. I'm pretty sure they both took a step away from me as well. Not that I could blame them for that.
"Get him." I said to Aegis, pointing to Gallant. "And follow us so he can keep hitting the guy."
"Follow you where?" The leader of the Wards threw up his hands in confusion.
Lung was already throwing himself my way, so I extended a hand toward a nearby billboard and connected it to my glove while responding. "I dunno, is the opera in town?" The line yanked me off the ground and sent me flying back toward the billboard just as Lung landed where I had been even as I called back over my shoulder. "Because we could really use a fat lady!"
Just as I reached and landed on top of the advertisement for some local fast food place, Lung had gathered himself and then leapt after me with another bellow of rage. I gave him a quick wave, then connected one of my lines from the bottom of my boot to the billboard and shoved myself hard up and away from it. I went a dozen feet into the air and backwards, while Lung hurtled himself through the sign, leaving a hole behind.
Another line attached me to a passing car, and I let it haul me a good twenty feet through the air before finding a nearby building to latch onto with a separate line. This was followed rapidly by an elevated train track, a tall antennae, another car, and the statue in a nearby park that let me turn the corner there and propel myself down another side street.
Through it all, Lung kept chasing me, bellowing once in awhile. It was all I could do to stay out of the reach of his flames. My pants may have been fire retardant, but I didn't think they had rated them against a giant, screaming rage dragon when they made that notation. To say nothing of the rest of my so-called costume. Frankly, I wasn't sure it was going to survive all the sweating I was doing, let alone any actual hit from those flames.
Somewhere behind us, I occasionally caught glimpses of Aegis, carrying Gallant and trying to keep up while the other hero sent blast after blast of emotion changing energy into the enormous Lung. Again and again, he pelted the armored beast, trying to calm him down.
It was working. Lord help us all, but it was working, albeit slowly. Without a direct target to actively fight, since I wasn't stupid enough to stand there and trade blows with the guy, Lung was gradually being affected by the emotion blasts. It was subtle, but he was definitely slowing slightly, and I thought I could see him getting smaller as we went on. It was also getting easier to stay ahead of him, and his flame blasts were coming further apart, and not traveling quite as far.
One blast after another, he was slowly losing his rage and thus his power. I was able to keep hauling myself just out of his reach, so he didn't have a direct fight to keep himself amped up against the calming blasts that Gallant was sending at him.
Finally, the man had shrunk so much he couldn't keep leaping after me. He fell, landing heavily on the top of a roof. I oriented myself to land on the edge of the same roof, while Aegis and Gallant came down on the other end, the latter sending several more blasts into Lung's now prone form, just to be sure.
Everyone, myself included, held our breaths as we watched the man. He shifted a little, clearly trying in vain to hold onto his anger. Then he slumped once more, falling flat to the roof before the sound of snoring reached us.
"Someone," Aegis's voice was soft, as though he was afraid of speaking too loud and waking Lung up. "Needs to get this guy locked in foam."
I hesitated before speaking up. "What about the people that he was attacking?" A glance down revealed that the red lines had disappeared, but I had to be sure.
It took Aegis a moment to answer, and from the tilt of his head, he was listening to someone else. Finally, he looked back at me. "They were villains, the Undersiders. Vista says Shadow Stalker pretty much sat on top of Grue, the guy in the skull helmet. So they've got him. Hellhound escaped with her dogs, Regent, the other guy, scrammed before we even got Lung's attention, and Tattletale was gone when they went to grab her."
So it had been a villain on villain fight. Still, from what I knew about the Undersiders, they didn't really deserve to die. Especially not in a fight against someone like Lung. And even if the idea of Sophia capturing anyone made my skin crawl, at least he had been a bad guy. And Vista had been there to stop the other girl from going too far on the unconscious Grue.
Still, it meant that this Regent, Hellhound, and Tattletale had escaped. I couldn't decide how I felt about that.
Before I could focus too much on it, Gallant took a step my way. He held a card toward me. "In case you change your mind, or just want to talk." I held a hand out, connecting a line to the card and my glove to pull it to me. Yeah, at that point I was showing off. Sue me.
"It's my Wards e-mail address and phone number." Gallant explained. "Keep in touch."
"He's right." Aegis added with a nod. "You did good-" He winked at the other boy. "-and well tonight. We could use someone like you. Even if you are insane."
Then why do you keep someone like Sophia around?! I wanted to scream at them. Once again, Gallant gave a shudder, and looked like he was about to ask something.
I didn't give him the chance. Reaching a hand out toward another building, I replied as evenly as I could while the disgust rolled through me. "Yeah, maybe we can team up again sometime. Just put a giant spotlight with my symbol on it in the sky."
As I started to let the tether pull me away, Aegis called, "We don't know what your symbol is!"
"Good point!" I shouted back to him. "Make it giant laser letters across the sky that say, 'Totally Awesome Girl Who Kicked Lung's Ass'. That outta narrow it down for me!"
Then I was gone, letting the invisible line yank me out of their sight. Later, I would let myself fall down and start shaking from the shock of everything that had just happened, what I had survived.
But right now, right now I just wanted to close my eyes, let the wind rush over me as I rushed through the air, and remind myself that I really wasn't dead. I had survived my first night out, which had been much more eventful than I had expected.
Totally worth blowing off that 'how have capes affected the world' assignment from Mr. Gladly.
Interlude 1 – Wards
As soon as the tinker-made elevator doors slid open on the Wards level of the Brockton Bay Parahuman Response Division headquarters building, the red haired teenage boy who had been leaning against the wall next to them straightened with an eager grin. "Is it true?" He asked while the doors were still opening. "Did you really bring in Lung without any help from the adults? Man, I bet that made Armsmaster feel like a..."
"Feel like a what, Clockblocker?" Armsmaster, standing in his armored suit behind the line of the boy's teammates (a couple of whom had been attempting frantically to wave him off with muted hand gestures down at their waists).
"Uhhhhhhhhh..." Dennis's brain stalled for a moment as he stared with wide blue eyes at the leader of the local Protectorate. The man's visor hid the top half of his face, but his mouth was not exactly smiling. Then again, the man rarely smiled at all. "Feel like a... really good teacher." Dennis let his head bob up and down quickly. "I mean, if we're this good, you must be... like..." At a loss for words, he simply whistled appreciatively.
"You are such a retard." Shadow Stalker announced dismissively before namesaking her way past him to head for the security door entrance.
"You shouldn't say retard." Missy, Vista in the field, scolded as she emerged from the elevator along with a rather toasty looking Aegis, and Gallant.
Sophia, who was taking her mask off with one hand as she walked to the door, used her other hand to flip the younger girl off. Then she leaned in toward the security terminal and let the retinal scanner read her eye before the steel doors slid aside.
It was, Dennis noted, probably better than a rectal scanner. The damn thing wouldn't have been able to get a clear reading past the enormous stick his teammate had jammed up there.
At a gesture from Armsmaster, the rest of the group made their way through the doors as well. They joined Sophia, who had already tossed mask and crossbows aside, and was giving the heavy punching bag a once over in the corner, and Chris/Kid Win, who was still watching the monitors.
"Debriefing time?" Chris asked, spinning his chair away from the console.
Nodding, Armsmaster gestured to the other chairs. "Everybody take a seat. Let's figure out what just happened." When Sophia continued to attack the bag, he cleared his throat until she finally relented and stalked over to one of the seats.
"So like I was saying," Dennis, turning one of the chairs around so that he could sit on it the wrong way, interrupted. "Did you really bring in Lung?"
"Lung is in custody, along with Grue from the Undersiders." Gallant confirmed with a nod, prompting a pair of whoops from the two Wards members who hadn't been there.
Aegis/Carlos, who had removed his helmet and the ruined top half of his costume, stood nearby while gingerly testing the burns on his skin. His power, which made him all but unkillable by granting him numerous backup organs as well as making other organs take over the processes of ones that had been damaged, would also eventually heal what had been done by the burns. "We didn't do it alone."
Sophia made a disparaging noise and folded her arms. "Practically."
Ignoring her, Armsmaster looked at Aegis. "That's what I want to talk about. Tell me everything that happened, and everything you know about this girl."
"Girl?" Chris spoke up, interestedly. "What girl?"
"She called herself Tether." Gallant/Dean offered, glancing toward Sophia for some reason. "I got the impression this was her first time out."
"Makes sense." Armsmaster agreed. "We haven't heard anything about her until tonight. Powers?"
Carlos and Dean glanced toward one another for a moment, and it was Missy who spoke. "Telekinesis?" She sounded unsure.
"Really?" Dennis was interested now. "Like, full scale tk?"
"We're not exactly sure on that." Dean admitted.
Missy, clearly excited by the idea of another potential girl in the group besides herself and Cranky Pants, put in, "She could fly."
Carlos hesitated once more. "She wasn't... exactly flying. She was more... gliding or swinging. Or..."
"It was almost like a zipline thing." Dean offered a little helplessly. "She'd point at something and a second later, it was like her arm was being pulled that way."
"Maybe an invisible telekinetic servant force of some kind, that follows her directive to carry her around." Armsmaster considered. "Like the boy in Chicago who transforms himself into a telekinetic whirlwind."
Rather than continue to speculate blindly, Gallant moved to the console. "I took some pictures with my helmet cam."
"Because that's not creepy at all." Dennis muttered under his breath.
Where most of his teammates would have given him the evil eye, Dean just laughed. "I thought everyone else might like to know what she looks like, for future reference." He ran his fingers over the keyboard after plugging his helmet's computer in, then straightened away from it as the image of the girl in question standing on the roof after Lung had been brought down came onto the screen.
"Cheap costume." Armsmaster observed clinically. "So she's not a tinker, and she's working alone, most likely."
"This was when she left." Gallant advanced the pictures through a short series of slides that showed the girl stretch an arm out, then let herself be pulled along seemingly by the hand.
"Looks a bit like Spider-Man's webswinging to me." Armsmaster, arms folded as he watched the screen, put in.
The Wards stared at him blankly. Chris offered, "Spider-Who?"
"Eww." Missy shuddered. "Is there really a spider-themed cape out there?"
Armsmaster looked a bit affronted and taken aback. "No, Spider-Man. It was a... you know what, never mind. It's before your time. Before real super powers. Comic books." With the advent of real life super heroes whose exploits and stories people could follow, the fictional variety had fallen out style before any of the current Wards had been born.
"Well, she's definitely being pulled by something." Dennis pointed to the picture on the screen. "See how her glove is straining forward, pulling the rest of her along after it?"
Carlos nodded, rubbing his own shoulder. "I'm surprised one of her arms didn't get ripped out of its socket, the way she was throwing herself around in the air."
Examining the picture for himself, Armsmaster nodded. "So, likely a minor breaker ability, keeping herself in one piece when she swings around like that. We'll note it as a Breaker level one for now, and for the telekinesis or... whatever it is, a tentative Shaker level five or six until we have a better idea of what exactly she's doing with it. Any idea on strength level for it?"
Dean answered, "She tore the lid off a fire hydrant pretty easily with it. And Vista said that she was able to control two of the men who attacked Sophia into beating themselves up."
"Body control?" Armsmaster grimaced.
Missy shrugged helplessly. "That's sort of what it looked like from where I was. One of the guys just punched the other one in the face, then he hit himself in the umm... yeah." She gestured vaguely, and every male in the room blanched.
"Shaker Six, Breaker One. Anything else?" Armsmaster prompted.
It was Carlos who responded, after he, Dean, and Missy looked at one another. "She... knew that the Undersiders were in danger."
Frowning, Armsmaster shook his head. "Come again?"
"It's true." Missy offered. "She said that three people were going to die if we didn't follow her, then she just jumped away. And when we got there, Lung was about to kill the Undersiders."
"There's four Undersiders." Chris pointed out mildly.
"Regent ran away." Sophia finally put in, her mouth twisted in a contemptuous smirk. "Coward."
"That's three." Armsmaster said slowly, looking to them. "She really said three, specifically?"
They nodded. Dean added, "It was like something told her they were in trouble. Not who, more like... a direction and a warning."
Considering that, Armsmaster shook his head. "A Thinker ability that tells her when people nearby are in trouble. Maybe that's how she found Shadow Stalker."
Sophia bristled at that. "I could have taken those guys."
Dennis grinned at the volatile girl. "Sure, I bet you were really luring them in with that whole 'sprawled out on the ground, totally helpless while the bad guys stand over you with weapons' routine."
Growling, Sophia half rose from her seat. "Look you stupid little-"
Armsmaster swung his halberd off his shoulder and put it in front of the girl. "Are we about to have a problem?"
Freezing as the weapon was placed in her way, Sophia frowned for a moment, then used her power to slide backwards through her own chair before straightening. "Whatever," she muttered. "I need a shower. Let me know when you're done gushing over some stupid wannabe."
Rather than object to the girl leaving, Armsmaster continued the debriefing. "Some death sense or something. Seems to be rather short range and short warning, so we'll call it Thinker Two, since it does involve some small measure of future sense."
Chris whistled low. "Shaker Six, Breaker One, Thinker Two. We could use her."
Missy was nodding emphatically. "Especially since she's a girl. This must be the only city in the country where the boys outnumber the girls so much in the Wards." It was a well known, if little understood fact that more females ended up triggering than males.
"Did you make the offer?" Armsmaster asked them.
Carlos shrugged helplessly, wincing a little at the pain the gesture caused his burned body. "Of course we did. It didn't really help. We might as well have spat on her food and tried to sell it back to her, for how she reacted."
Frowning, Armsmaster gazed at the boy. "Her outfit looks that cheaply made, she's got some kind of sense that spurs her to help people in trouble, and she still turned down an offer to join the Wards? That doesn't sound right."
Straightening from his seat, Dean took a step back and gazed after the way that Sophia had gone, before speaking up. "Sir, I don't think she was reacting to the idea of the Wards in general."
Having followed the course of the boy's gaze, Armsmaster looked that way as well. "Explain."
"I felt disgust, contempt, and confusion whenever we brought up joining us." Dean continued after a moment. "Loads of it. But there was also the same feeling whenever she looked at Shadow Stalker."
Missy raised her hand before speaking up. "I don't think she knew who she was saving at first. When she found out, it looked like she was taunting Sophia, goading and insulting her. Sophia was going to attack her before we showed up."
"Sounds like she has a history with Shadow Stalker." Armsmaster mused.
"Maybe a classmate?" Chris put in from his own seat.
The Protectorate hero considered that for a moment before shaking his head. "Probably not. Shadow Stalker was masked the whole time, and you said this Tether reacted badly the second she saw who it was. No, my guess is that she's someone Stalker has a history with in costume."
Aegis grimaced. "Didn't Sophia have that whole 'don't save someone unless they stand up for themselves' thing before she joined us? Maybe Tether's one of those."
Armsmaster nodded. "That's my guess. Try looking into the last six months of information we have about people that Shadow Stalker was involved with."
"Before or after she joined up?" Chris asked.
The man hesitated, then sighed. "Both. She says she's being better, but we should look into her... 'rescuees' either way. Whoever this Tether is, I would bet that she's one of the girls that Shadow Stalker either refused to help, or helped too late."
Once he had nods from everyone, Armsmaster went on. "Now, let's talk about how your group is going to track down the other three Undersiders before they have time to regroup and rescue their leader..."