3.b. Interlude: Wards (2)

Shadow Stalker

Four hours ago.

"You sure about this?" Sophia asked carefully, keeping her voice down as she spoke into her phone. A burner phone – she'd been warned that PRT issued phones were probably bugged.

"Yes," Skitter replied quietly. She kept her voice low. "Transfer the files over the usual way. Just stick to the plan and we'll handle it on our end."

"I could help you," said Sophia, with a quiet grimace.

She could hear Skitter shaking her head. It always amazed Sophia how somebody so terrifying could talk so softly. "We don't want the other Wards to wonder where you are. Stick with them for now, you can't let them get suspicious."

The thought made Sophia twitch. She could accept the reasoning, but still the thought of being trapped on patrol for the rest of the night with her team made her squirm. Sophia would much, much rather be with the Undersiders tonight – actually getting stuff done. The prospect of being benched alongside with Dennis, Dean and the other losers on a useless patrol made Sophia groan inwardly.

Still, just like Skitter had told her to, Sophia emailed the Undersiders all of the files on the Teeth's movements that the PRT provided.

"We've got two teams out tonight," Skitter continued. "Grue and Runaway will take the north end, while Bitch and Regent will take the south. Your job is to stick with the Wards and make sure they don't cross with us. It might get close if we have to check out the same places, so stay alert."

Sophia nodded. "Will do." She hesitated. "You're sure that Piggot is still in the city?"

"We've got good odds that she is," Skitter replied simply. She never shared where they got their information.

"The PRT couldn't find her," Sophia noted.

"Well, we've got different resources," said Skitter. "Arms– Butcher has cleaned his tracks well, but we have some leads. We'll use the PRT info and cross it with our own, but Bitch and Runaway are both going to be moving across the city, seeing if they can track her scent."

There was a pause. "Tell me about Shadow," Skitter asked finally. "The Trump. Are they keeping him locked up?"

"Yep – he's in the secure floors under the PRT HQ. No one is even allowed close, they've got constant guard. Dragon herself is handling the system's security."

"Any sign they might be moving him?" Skitter pressed. "Any sign that they might give into Butcher's demands?"

She shook her head. "None. The place is pretty secure."

"Ok then – then Butcher will have to provide much more leverage. He's going to have to twist the screws in tight against the PRT if he ever wants that Trump. We can't let him mess this city up anymore than he already has. Right now, that means finding the hostage."

Sophia bit her lip. There was another matter that the PRT seemed almost nervous to mention, but she knew it was in the air. "You know that Director Piggot has kidney failure?"

"We're aware."

Of course she was. "She needs regularly dialysis," Sophia continued, awkwardly. "If she goes without treatment for too long…"

Her voice trailed off. "We're working on it," Skitter replied. She paused. "We find track Piggot down, we end whatever presence Butcher has in the city at the same time."

And they stop the Butcher from pushing the PRT into bringing down the hammer on Brockton Bay, Sophia added silently. The Undersiders were trying to establish their order, and the Teeth were trying to rip it apart. The Butcher's plan was bad for everyone, including the Undersiders.

There was an awkward moment of silence. Sophia knew how important this was to Skitter, and Skitter could get really… intense when she got focused. The Undersiders had invested a lot in her – there was three million sitting in Sophia's bank account (even if she could hardly spend it without drawing suspicion). Sophia knew she needed to impress.

And she did. Sophia found herself desperately wanting to impress.

The image of Skitter clutching a machete, hacking four men apart in an instant, flashed in front of Sophia's eyes.

Transferring the files seemed like the very least Sophia could do. "… You know there's a new recruit on the Ward?" Sophia said eventually. "Her name's Flechette. She seems like she's got potential."

Skitter never replied. Sophia forced her voice to stay steady. "She's a high-level Striker, but with a grab-bag of other powers too. Real name Lily," Sophia said. "New transfer from New York. An orphan."

"You think she could be a recruit?"

"Possibly," Sophia replied. "I think she must have been pretty lonely to transfer here."

"Then play nice with her for now. Scout her out, discreetly," Skitter ordered. "I'll get Tattletale to make a file on her when she can."

"Alright. I'll pass on anything I find." Sophia grinned brightly. "Happy hunting tonight."

"You too."

They hung up. Sophia took a deep breath, still grinning. The Undersiders were on the warpath. Honestly, she really hoped that ArmsButcher was actually still in the city, just so Sophia could watch what Skitter did to him when she found him.

The thought made her feel almost giddy.

Focus, Sophia snapped at herself. Right now, the other Wards were only just getting ready to go out. Gallant and Clockblocker were suiting up, and they had finally found the new guy, Weld, walking through the city. They would be moving out shortly, and the night was only just getting started.

Still, her team was starting to get on her nerves more and more recently – mostly because, since she found the Undersiders, Sophia had begun to realise how totally redundant the Wards were.

She was still waiting on her new identity, but otherwise Sophia would be totally willing to jump ship and join the Undersiders right now.

The Undersiders actually valued her. They had paid a lot of money to recruit her; they valued her skillset, and her attitude. Recently, the Undersiders had even been passing on captures for her to bring in, to improve her performance.

Sophia was valuable to the Undersiders, whereas she had only ever been a semi-liability to the Wards. The thought of switching teams – to join one of the fastest growing and most notorious young gangs on the coast, a team where she could actually have real power, to be among the core group – that was a thought that made her grin.

Sophia found herself caring very much what Skitter thought of her. She found herself trying very hard to prove herself, even thinking about all the things she could do for the Undersiders, all the different ways she could be their mole. Sophia could access PRT files and data, maybe even steal some Tinker-tech when it was finally was time to defect…

Around her, she heard the call to gather for their patrol. Sophia resisted rolling her eyes, but she turned to head to the meeting place. One night, and hopefully the last night I ever have to spend on patrol with this godforsaken team



The silence was uneasy. Gallant stayed quiet, watching the emotions swirl around him.

Clockblocker was scared. It was a purplish-green sort of fear, mixed in with panic and bad memories. He wasn't a cowardly person, but Clockblocker still couldn't help being scared.

Weld's aura had a deeper sort of fear. It was a dark deeper fear, like an insecurity that sunk to his bones. He was focusing on staying determined and trying to prove himself, but Gallant could see the doubt and hesitations cracking around him.

Meanwhile, facing Weld, Grue was a different sort. His aura was solid, hard like a brick. He had a very firm mentality, mixed with self-confidence and focus. He was a bit scared too, actually, but Grue kept that fear to one side and focused firmly on the task at hand.

Shadow Stalker was different, though. Normally Shadow Stalker had a very sharp presence, as focused as a knife, but now he could see twinges of something else flashing across her. She wasn't happy with meeting the Undersiders – not scared, but… maybe upset? Disappointed, like she had let somebody down? Like she had failed in her job and she was cursing herself? Gallant couldn't understand her aura.

Her emotions didn't make sense, and it made Gallant suspicious slightly. Shadow Stalker had been acting so off recently. His eyes lingered on Shadow Stalker for a bit, but Gallant knew he was just being paranoid.

Then again… a dark thought hit him, maybe if I had been a bit more suspicious about Amy, I could have stop her from leaving, and maybe then

No, he snapped. The thought alone caused him to flinch slightly. Don't think about that. Not now. Focus on the mission. Focus.

He forced his attention to the other villains, trying to size them up. Grue was strong and confident, but Gallant could understand him. Gallant's emotion sense could penetrate Grue's darkness, in any case.

But the really strange one was Cutthroat. It was the first time Gallant had ever seen a person like him. Cutthroat's emotions were so faint they were barely there, occasionally flickering on and off like a broken lightbulb.

The thought of someone totally emotionless sent shivers down Gallant's spine. Somehow, Gallant didn't think his emotion blasts would affect Cutthroat at all, and he found himself instinctively backing away from the villain.

And all around them, the black mass of insects buzzed and skittered. There were some large bugs in the swarm. He found Clockblocker edging near him for reassurance. Gallant stared at the insects, trying to figure them out.

It took a long standoff for them to actually start talking. Grue kept his arms folded, facing off against Weld.

"… You want to team up?" Weld said eventually. Weld was suddenly a lot less confident surrounded by bugs. Metal or not, Skitter had a way of making everyone take a step backwards nervously.

"We're both after the same thing right now," Grue said with a shrug. "Seems sensible to team up, hmm?"

"Do you know where Piggot is?" Weld demanded.

"No, but we've got a few better leads than what you have," Grue retorted.

Gallant could see the doubt in Weld squirming. He was trying to do his duty, but he was unsure about which one. Weld is a boy scout at heart, Gallant thought quietly, even if that heart is tinged with so much doubt and bad memories. Weld wanted to protect his team, to fight against villainy, to fulfil his mission, but right now those objectives were almost clashing.

Weld did what any boy scout would do; he went to ask for orders.

"I need to make a call," Weld said stiffly, stepping away but keeping a suspicious eye on Grue and Cutthroat. His hand reached for his communicator, phoning back to base. He talked into the phone so quietly that not even Gallant could make it out.

There was a long awkward silence as Weld made the call. Nobody relaxed.

Slowly, Clockblocker shuffled towards Gallant. His eyes were on the swarm, slowly retreating into the darkness. "… There are bloody scorpions in that swarm," Clockblocker said hoarsely, although Gallant couldn't tell. It was hard to make out any shapes in the blur.

"I know," he replied quietly.

"And have you seen those spiders?"

"I know," Gallant repeated.

Clockblocker shook his head, the clock mask on his face spinning. "… We should stop them," he muttered. "… This isn't good, we need to stop them." He hesitated, glancing at Grue and Cutthroat. "We can take them right?"

"Them? Probably," Gallant whispered. Six against two. "But do you want to face Skitter?"

"She's got to be around here close, though, doesn't she?" Clockblocker hissed. "Her real body, I mean. She has to be nearby."

"That depends. Do you know what her range is?"

That caused Clockblocker to pause. The question of Skitter's range was a hotly debated and very disturbing topic. Some evidence suggested the range was within a few blocks. Other evidence measured it within miles. Hell, it seemed to change day-to-day, recently.

Skitter's real body might be vulnerable, but her swarm was pretty much not. "She could be miles away for all we know," Gallant whispered. "If we do take them down, then her swarm might follow us for miles. All the way back to HQ and then further, maybe. You know what happened to the Empire, right?"

Clockblocker shuffled, glancing around. Any of the other Undersiders they could defeat, but Skitter was something else…

"… Fuck, I wish I was made of metal…" Clockblocker mumbled under his breath.

It took nearly five minutes of frantic whispering before Weld put down the communicator. His iron face was stiff. "Alright," Weld said finally, looking around the team. "We'll do it your way. There's absolutely no way we're letting Piggot end up in your hands – and if you've got leads that could take us to her, then we'll bite."

The Wards shuffled nervously with that statement. Their auras flickered. Weld looked just as unhappy, but he focused on Grue. "If we find the Director, she comes back with us. No question. Understood?"

"Fine." Grue's posture didn't shift.

Weld hesitated. "… And if anything happens to us," he said carefully, "you get a Protectorate team and a kill order dropped on your heads. Our GPS trackers stay on. Understood?"

Gallant saw Clockblocker's aura squirm with that statement. "Of course." Grue nodded. "Find the Director, run the Teeth out of town, and afterwards we'll all go our separate ways."

"Then we'll play nice for now. Consider this a truce." Weld folded his arms, mimicking Grue's pose almost. "What are your leads?"

"We've got a few," Grue said curtly. "We've got dogs sniffing around the city and there bugs searching buildings grid by grid. That's the slow approach, but we're here to scout out information and pass it on to Tattletale." He motioned slightly to his helmet. Was there a camera in his helmet?

"What do you have?" Weld said distrustfully.

"We know that the van that snatched Piggot was later dropped off here. She was taken near her house, and she changed vehicles two different times. The last time was probably in an overpass south of here. She took a detour into the subways, and she could have ended up anywhere after that," Grue explained.

There was no response. Weld's microphone was on, passing the information straight to HQ. "However," Grue continued. "The shell company that ordered the van also ordered some custom equipment in the city – medical equipment."

Gallant flinched. "Piggot has kidney problems," he said.

"Exactly. We think Butcher arranged his own medical machines for her. He could be planning on keeping her long term."

Weld hesitated, glancing at his team. "… The Butcher threatened to kill her at the end of the night," Weld said uncertainly. "Twenty four hour deadline."

Grue shrugged. "Then maybe his plans changed." He paused. He had a microphone in his ear too, Gallant guessed. "Yet he still ordered the equipment in the city, so there's good money that the Director is still in the city. But that's where the lead goes cold. We're trying to track down the medical equipment – if we had a serial number we could maybe find it – but we're still looking for the bits and pieces to fill in the blanks."

"That's it?"

"More than you had two minutes ago," Grue said with a snort. "Like I said, we're here trying to catch a scent."

"Then where next?" Clockblocker demanded. Around them, the bugs were slowly creeping away and disappearing into the shadows. Gallant saw insects scuttling into the sewers. Somehow, not being able to see the insects was making Clockblocker even more nervous.

"Depends," Grue said with a pause. "The Teeth are being tracked too heavily; we think that Butcher must have hired local help to move his equipment. Track down whoever moved the stuff, we get a lead."

Weld's hand moved to his ear. Miss Militia telling him something, Gallant guessed. "There's a bar a block away that gangs use frequently. Good place for unsavoury help – it's a local hotspot in this area," Weld said eventually. "That was going to be our next stop."

Grue nodded, motioning at Cutthroat. "Then let's go."

Gallant couldn't help but notice how Grue didn't ask the name of the bar, and he was already moving in the right direction. Did he already know where we were going? Gallant wondered, but the thought made no sense. Now how could they get information like that?

"You first," Weld said coolly, keeping his eyes fixed on the villains as they started walking. The two groups walked firmly apart. Clockblocker and Gallant stuck together, so did Shadow Stalker and Flechette, while Weld walked at the front and Chariot lingered at the back. There were few words as the group started to move.

The Undersiders left their van in the street. There was a moment of uncertainty before they headed off.

Gallant noticed the way Flechette kept her distance safely from Cutthroat, while Shadow Stalker seemed the most reassured out of them all.

The Undersiders-Wards team up, Gallant thought bitterly.

"You really think we can trust them?" Clockblocker asked him quietly, his voice low.

"I can't see any duplicity in him," Gallant replied in a whisper. Then again, he could barely see Cutthroat at all, and Grue would follow whatever whoever he was talking to said. If Skitter decided to attack, then Gallant wasn't so sure he'd see it coming.

Gallant noticed a spider lingering on the rooftops. A massive spider, eyes so large they reflected the streetlight, with smaller insects skittering around it. It watched the group walk, quietly. Gallant shivered as he stared, trying to convince himself he wasn't going mad.

"… And I think we might have another problem," Gallant whispered softly. Clockblocker looked at him. "… I never wanted to say it in case I was just going mad, but…"


"Those bugs," Gallant pointed to the rapidly disappearing, skittering shapes. "… They're angry."

He could see Clockblocker's confusion. "Huh?"

"I mean, actually angry," Gallant explained in a low voice. He could see the red tinge that surrounded Skitter's swarm – it was a faint emotion, but it was like the feeling was shared and spread between every insect. "As in, I can see their emotions. They feel angry."

Clockblocker frowned. "Wait, do insects have emotions?"

"Well, no," Gallant said uncertainly. Explaining his powers always made him uncomfortable. "They're bugs. Bugs are so basic they don't have anything near as complex as human emotions. I mean, higher animals – maybe. Sometimes I can read cats or dogs but it comes and goes, and I once saw an ape at the zoo that felt like a really young baby, but…" He knew he was rambling slightly with nerves. "… but not insects. Yet these insects are different – these insects are actually feeling emotions."

It took a while for Clockblocker to understand. "Wait, you mean that Skitter…?"

"I mean she's actually in the swarm," Gallant said in a hushed whisper. "She's not just controlling them, she… she is the swarm. I can see her emotions in the swarm – I mean, it's weak, but…" The emotions in the bugs felt like looking at something through cloudy water. It was distant and obscured, but Gallant could still feel the emotions in there.

"But… But…" Clockblocker stammered. "… How's that possible?"

"I don't know. When I saw her at the bank robbery they looked just like normal insects, but now… now those bugs are angry, man." Gallant felt lost just thinking about it. He noticed the emotions in the bugs were slowly fading away, maybe Skitter was directing her attention to another part of her swarm? "It's like she's inside of them," he repeated slowly, watching the shimmering emotions ripple through the swarm.

There was a long moment of quiet.

Clockblocker twitched slightly. "So… um… how angry exactly are we talking here?"

Gallant hesitated. Sometimes, vocalising emotions were so hard. It was hard to put into words something he could just feel. "Imagine if…" Gallant said carefully. "… Imagine if somebody stole one of your favourite video games. Now, it was an old game and you weren't really playing it, but it's yours and this guy took it without permission, and now you're feeling extra protective about all of your other games. That sort of… anger, irritation, pride, you know? Possessiveness. That's kind of what that swarm is feeling right now."

"Huh," Clockblocker said dumbly.

Gallant stared. "… I really don't think Skitter is very happy about Butcher being in her city," he said finally.

"Huh," Clockblocker repeated.

They were failing behind the rest of the group. "We better catch up," Gallant whispered.

He could hear Clockblocker mumbling to himself. "… Bugs…" Clockblocker muttered under his breath. "… Mutant bugs… Giant, mutant bugs… Angry, giant, mutant bugs…"

They walked around a broken outlet store – with a van sticking out of the roof. "One thing I don't understand," Grue said suddenly, looking back at Weld. "The Teeth is pushing you hard. I expected fire and brimstone from the heroes, but I haven't even seen Protectorate in the streets. What, Butcher holds your Director hostage and you don't even bring out the big guns?"

Weld twitched. "It's complicated."

"He broke the rules first. What's so complicated about it?"

Weld stared darkly. "Behemoth," he said darkly. "We've got Behemoth coming up shortly, and we can't afford to waste strength. The Endbringer preparations have already begun."

"So why not just bring in the Triumvirate and just smear Butcher's ass?" Grue snorted.

A few Wards shared glances. "The Triumvirate can't move, not easily," Gallant replied. The Triumvirate and many of the Protectorate's upper echelons were essentially a national defence – they couldn't commit to a conflict easily. "They have a lot of responsibilities – and at least two out of three members always need to stay available for rapid response. Just in case anybody else gets any ideas while they're distracted. They only really come together for S Class threats."

"We've got Alexandria," Clockblocker noted quickly – saying the name as if the Undersiders were about to get cocky, like Clockblocker felt the need to remind them.

Grue laughed hollowly. "Oh yes. I haven't seen her flying around much, either."

"She's got a lot on her plate."

"You mean she's concussed," Grue said with a shrug. "Diluvium dropped a mountain on her head repeatedly, and Alexandria is struggling to walk it off." People stared at him. "Remember, Skitter was there."

"Alexandria is fine," Weld said coldly. The conversation made him uncomfortable. Nobody wanted to admit that their side's best weapon had a crack in it.

"Really? Have you seen much of her –"

"We're here," Gallant announced loudly, ending the conversation as he pointed down the street. The road ahead was milling with people, one of the few populated areas in the damaged streets. There was a trashcan burning in the middle of the road.

"Everybody stay down," Weld ordered, walking forward to check it out.

The bar came into sight. Grue and Weld were talking quietly about a plan of attack. The rest of the street was deserted, but the bar was thriving even at night. None of the patrons looked friendly – like it was serving as a hostel in the devastated cityscape.

Grue and Weld pulled out of their brief huddle. "… Ok, they probably won't be friendly, so lets get ready," Weld said firmly. "All rookies, stay in reserve." Flechette and Chariot squirmed. "Gallant, why don't you stay back and watch them?"

Gallant nodded. If it turned into a brawl, Gallant was one of the most vulnerable people there. Weld was indestructible, Shadow Stalker could dissolve into shadow, and Clockblocker could freeze anything before it touched him. It made sense for Gallant to stay behind.

"Runaway," Grue said suddenly, motioning at Cutthroat. "Why don't you stay out of this fight as well?"

Cutthroat just nodded passively, his face still hidden. Weld paused for a second, before turning to Shadow Stalker. "You know, Shadow Stalker, why don't you stay out here too then?"

Gallant sighed a quiet breath of relief of having someone between Cutthroat and him.

That left Weld, Grue and Clockblocker walking towards the bar. They made an unlikely trio as they crossed the street.

There was a long pause. The reserve team of Gallant, Flechette, Chariot, Shadow Stalker and Cutthroat stood awkwardly on the sidewalk.

There was a moment of quiet. Across the street, it looked like a few gang members were taking issue with the capes.

The sounds of muffled fighting started quickly. There was a bang of someone trying to punch Weld's skin, followed by a painful scream of a man clutching broken knuckles.

Gallant just watched. The moments dragged by, and, for some reason, Gallant felt the need to make small talk.

"… So… um… Runaway," Gallant said finally, turning to Cutthroat. "… Do you have any hobbies?"

All eyes stared at him. Cutthroat didn't reply. Gallant slowly turned away.

Across the street, black shadows burst over the bar. There was a crash as a figure was slammed through the window.

"All hostiles subdued," Weld said after a pause, over the radio. "Coast clear. We've got… um…"

"Twenty seven," Clockblocker added.

"… Twenty seven counts of drunken disorderly, civil unrest, and assault," Weld reported.

Shadow Stalker groaned. "Fucking paperwork."

Inside the bar, amidst broken bottles and debris littering the floor, there were men sitting very unhappily on the ground. There were three figures still frozen, mid-motion, by Clockblocker's touch. Weld stood guard over the men, and somehow not one of them made a move. Gallant could smell the booze and drugs in the air, and he could see the anger and fear swirling in the air.

Lots of people lost everything in Brockton Bay, Gallant thought quietly. Lots of desperation. Crime and violence had a way of spreading like a virus in the right circumstances.

Cutthroat slinked in through the door at the back, his shoulders hunched. Gallant sensed Cutthroat's weak emotional aura disappear just a bit more. Cutthroat took a deep breath, inhaling the air.

There was a long moment of quiet. The others were still inspecting the arrests, but Gallant and Grue were focused on Cutthroat.

"… Him," Cutthroat said finally, pointing at a skinny man in the middle of the queue. It was the first thing he said in a while.

Weld turned to stare. The man was mid-thirties with unkempt hair. He nearly pissed himself as all eyes focused on him. "What?" Weld demanded.

Cutthroat just nodded. "Him," he repeated quietly.

Gallant stared at the man. His emotions were mad with fear, but there were also the shades of guilt. Lots and lots of guilt. He was feeling very guilty – far too guilty. "He's right," Galland said suddenly. "It's him."

He never knew what the man had done – but he knew that Cutthroat must have picked out his scent, and the man was feeling very, very guilty.

The man nearly squealed as Weld – gingerly – lifted him upwards. Grue turned to him, his skull mask grinning. His voice reverberated with his powers deeply. "… You worked for the Teeth," Grue said darkly. "You handled equipment for them."

The man's face was bone pale. "I don't know," he gasped, almost frantic with fear. "I don't know nothing…!"

"Tell us where the Director is," Weld demanded.

He shook his head, gasping for breath. "I don't know, I swear I don't know."

"He's lying," Gallant said, narrowing his eyes as he read the man's emotions. The man looked like he was in the middle of his worst nightmare. "He knows something, but he's too scared to say." Gallant hesitated. "He's really scared."

Weld's eyes narrowed. "I don't know…!" the man squealed. "It was only some boxes, I… I…"

He was gasping for air. Weld cursed wordlessly, letting him drop. "We've got to bring him in," Weld said eventually.

"You do that and we run out of time," Shadow Stalker noted. Her crossbow was loaded.

"Well we can't make him talk!" Weld snapped.

"You sure?" Shadow Stalker challenged, her voice dangerously low. The man was almost ready to faint.

"Hell no!" Clockblocker snapped at the implication, staring in shock. It frightened Gallant just how comfortable Shadow Stalker felt with what she was suggesting.

"He's not talking," Weld growled, glaring at Shadow Stalker.

There was a tense moment. All eyes were on Weld, and the man. Grue gently pushed Weld to one side. "… He would talk to us," Grue said softly.

Weld looked outraged. So was Clockblocker. So am I, Gallant realised. The man felt so, so scared.

"… Please…" The man begged, tears weeping down his eyes. "… I can't say nothing… You don't know Butcher… You don't know what he'd do to me if I said a word…"

There was a long moment of quiet. The fear was so thick it was choking. "… Piggot's life is on the line," Shadow Stalker said quietly.

Weld's eyes flickered. "He's scared," Grue muttered quietly, whispering to Weld. "Let's just give him something else to be scared about. Just give us five minutes. Walk away, secure the perimeter, and come back in five minutes."

Gallant could see the doubt rage inside of Weld. Every second must have been agonising. "… You don't hurt him," Weld said finally, his voice barely a whisper. "Not a scratch, do you understand?"

Grue nodded. Weld was stiff as he walked to the door. Flechette and Clockblocker watched with stunned, wild-eyed shock. Gallant saw Grue walk up to Cutthroat.

"… Do you want to handle it, or should I?" Grue asked quietly. "… Or should we ask her?"

Cutthroat paused. "… I'll handle it," he said finally, his voice almost resigned.

Gallant watched as Cutthroat's emotions disappeared completely. It was like Cutthroat completely disappeared from Gallant's emotional radar, fading away like a ghost.

The man was begging wordlessly as Grue picked him up from the floor and walked him to the backroom – a store room. Cutthroat followed, while the Wards busied themselves logging the other arrests and pushing them out of the door. There are spiders skittering on the ceiling, Gallant noticed quietly.

"Watch them," Weld ordered darkly to Gallant. "Make sure…"

His voice trailed off, but Gallant nodded. Grue stood guard by the door to the storeroom, and from the outside Gallant couldn't see a thing, but he could hear the words.

"… Please … just let me go…" The man was begging.

"Do you have internet on your phone?" Cutthroat asked finally, his voice so low Gallant could barely make it out.

"…What… huh…?"

"Internet. Does your phone have mobile internet?" Cutthroat asked calmly. Gallant wasn't sure what he was expecting, but that wasn't it. The man must have shaken his head. "Oh," Cutthroat replied. "Here, take my phone then… Go on the browser, yep right there… go on to Google image search."

Gallant listened with rapt attention. The whole bar was tense. "… Now then, can you do me a favour?" Cutthroat continued. "Can you Google 'Stuart Hamilton', for me please?"

There was a moment of confused silence. "… Oh god," the man gasped.

"Yep," Cutthroat agreed. Gallant couldn't sense him at all right now – he was completely emotionless. "He was a bleeder. Next one, search for 'Richard Child, 2010' for me?"

The man merely made a muffled sound. There was a pause. "Dammit," Cutthroat sighed. "They've censored the pictures. Look really closely, there, in the corner? That blob? That's his head."

There was a quiet weeping noise. "Hmm… let's think…" Cutthroat mused. "Can't remember his name – try searching for 'Security guard, Dallas train tracks, May 2011', maybe?"

Gallant closed his eyes. He wished he could block out the mental image as well. The man was weeping. "… He'll kill me…" the man cried. "… You don't know him… he's a monster, Butcher will kill me…"

"Hey, easy now," Cutthroat continued. "Next one. Let's look at the best case options for you. Try searching 'Michael West, Chicago', for me?"

There was pause. "… Ah yes," Cutthroat said conversationally. "That's what a severed spine looks like. See the tube down his throat?"

There was sound of quiet sobs. "Hey, open your eyes. Look," Cutthroat continued. "One last one. How about an old favourite? Google 'Callum Wight, New York West High'."

Gallant saw Flechette stiffen. The man's sobs stifled.

"Oh yes," Cutthroat said with a gentle sigh. "You know, it's a shame that they couldn't really fit it all in one picture. I guess he was just too spread out."

"… Why…?" The man begged, so scared he could barely breathe.

"Why?" Cutthroat paused. "Well, you seemed scared about what Butcher was going to do to you if you talked." There was sound of a shrug. "So I figured that I'd balance the scales a bit by showing you exactly what I'm going to do to you if you don't talk."

The words came very quickly after that.


There were times when Trevor regretted drinking that vial. Not many, but occasionally.

His family had been poor. He had been cape geek with poor grades and no shot. He had been a sullen teenager destined for mediocrity. Sixteen years old and, as far he could see, his life had already been over.

Trevor certainly hadn't been happy when the weird guy in spiral mask called Coil had recruited him for a spy, but he could accept it as soon as the prospect of vials and powers came into the equation.

Coil had wanted a spy, and Trevor had just wanted a life.

And now, Trevor was shooting over the city in a power-suit, the jetpack's rockets blaring behind him as he accelerated faster and faster. Even as he raced, his head was filled with visions of all the different devices he could build. It was like his mind was tuned just to think of things that could move fast.

The downside was that he had to work for a supervillain.

Still, being a double-agent would only be temporary. These powers were for life.

"ETA five minutes," Weld ordered over the radio. "Chariot, scout the area, but do not engage. Repeat, do not engage."

He grimaced, but there was no argument here. The row of houses were in mid-class suburban distract, a weirdly normal part of the city. The clock was ticking, and the capes had to move quickly.

The man in the bar had provided the delivery details for the medical equipment. That had provided the serial numbers, and a few quick calls later they had a shipping notice. Several shipping notices, actually, and it had taken another few calls to identify the real one amongst the false leads. That led to an address.

Weld had wanted to call in a PRT strike team, but the Undersiders had insisted that they could get there first. The Butcher's deadline was coming up – he had given twenty-four hours before he killed Director Piggot.

Chariot could see the house from above, but it looked completely normal. Then again, Butcher wouldn't have picked anything that would stand out.

He saw the van racing down the street towards the cul-de-sac. An exterminator's van, just like the one Grue and Cutthroat had taken to the garage. Clockblocker had been incredulous that the Undersiders apparently used exterminator vans as their secret undercover transportation vehicles, but Grue had simply replied "Skitter thought it was funny".

"Target in sight," Chariot reported, his Tinker-tech buzzing as he lowered the thrust. He dropped onto the road on his roller-skates, easily keeping pace with the van. It was still hours before dawn, the roads were black and deserted.

"You sure about this?" Clockblocker asked nervously.

"Tattletale thinks this is the place," Grue replied, as if Tattletale could never be wrong. Maybe she couldn't be.

"Alright, we go in hot. Chariot, scan the place with heat sensors. Gallant, can you catch their aura?" Weld said firmly. He was definitely the sort that seemed more focused when he had a job to do.

"Aye, aye," Chariot said with a grin, his roller-skates flaring as he shot forward like a bullet. The inertial dampeners work wonders, Chariot noted.

The van pulled up around the corner of the house, hidden under a cloud of Grue's darkness in the night as Grue drove. Chariot's thermal imaging, previously a Kid Win's design, flashed as Chariot scanned the building in a second.

"I've got two heat signatures in the house, in the basement. South corner." Chariot hesitated. "Um, one of them is, uh, quite fat."

Weld's voice was firm over the radio. "Alright, we're calling in backup. We can get a PRT team here in–"

"Wait," Gallant said suddenly. "I can sense them. There are two. One of them is really angry and the other is really scared."

"How scared?" Weld said sharply.

"Scared for their life," Gallant said with a gulp. "Desperately."

There was shuffling from inside the van. Weld was still trying his radio.

"We can't wait here while he kills her and gets away," Shadow Stalker said urgently.


"She might be dead before backup arrives," Shadow Stalker argued. "I can go in through the wall – ambush them in shadow form."

"If he sees you–"

"She'll still have a much better chance than if she were alone." That was Grue, shouting from the front seat.

There was a hesitation. "Alright," Weld said finally. "Life or death – we go in. Shadow Stalker, you go first. You get a thirty seconds head start, try to disable him, and then we're going in hard straight after you."

"Hell yes," Shadow Stalker sounded almost happy as she jumped out of the van, turning to shadow form to sprint faster.

"Chariot," Weld ordered, as Grue revved the engine. "Do you think you could take that wall down?"

Chariot grinned brightly. At times like this, he never regretted the vial at all. If it wasn't for the vial, he'd be at home surfing stupid forums, and now he was about to tear down a wall so superheroes could breach.

"Hell yes I can," he said happily, revving his rockets harder. He shot down the road, and turned at such high-speed that it would have splattered him without the inertial dampeners.

The van was shooting down the cul-de-sac. They were coming in hard. Chariot roared up in the opposite direction, before triggering his power-suit. Two grappling hooks fired out from the side, shooting straight into the wall of the house. One of them pierced the wall, the other pierced the floor over the basement.

Chariot was rocket-powered, and clocking over a hundred miles per hour. That wall didn't stand a chance.

The wall tore straight off, just as the van drove through it. The bricks showered everywhere, but the capes were already charging outwards. Weld took the lead, with Grue's darkness flanking him. They were in under a second, absolutely beautifully timed.

For a second, all Chariot could hear over the radio was scrambled noises and shouting, before twisting the rockets around shooting back into the house. Sparks flew from his rollerblades.

The most exciting thing this cul-de-sac has seen all year, Chariot thought with a massive grin.

"You get him?" Chariot asked eagerly, firing his forward thrusters to come to a halt admist the wreckage. It looked like a perfectly ordinary suburban house until Chariot dragged the wall off. "Tell me you got him–"

There was a man screaming. Chariot grinned, but then frowned. They were very girly screams.

He burst down into the basement, his power suit clacking through the hole in the living room floor. There was a man on the floor wearing nurse's scrubs. Shadow Stalker was on top of him, pointing her crossbow at his chin. The other Wards were around him, looking confused.

"Oh god oh god oh god!" The man in nurse's scrubs screamed. "Please don't kill me, please don't kill me!"

There was another voice. A woman's voice. She was shouting angrily, bellowing through a nearby door Gallant blinked. "Um… he is the scared one," Gallant said slowly. "Then the angry one is…"

He pointed to the adjoining room. The door was locked, but Weld charged in, tearing the door off its hinges. Chariot was left staring around what used to be a perfectly ordinary suburban house, wondering desperately if he had to pay for anything they destroyed.

"… All you had to do was knock!" The man wailed. The man was scrawny with a weak chin, and well-groomed hair. "I was supposed to turn her over to the first people who knocked!"

There was a moment of confusion. Shadow Stalker didn't lower her crossbow, but her grip slackened.

"You kidnapped Director Piggot?!" She demanded. Grue and Cutthroat paused at the back, looking around the house.

"I never kidnapped her!" The man whined. "I was looking after her! He told me to look after her!"

The woman's voice was screaming bloody murder from the other room. "Get me out of this bloody place!" She snapped as Weld and the others broke through the door, looking confused. "How's the PRT? Have you caught the bastard yet?"

Chariot looked in confusion between the nurse and the other room. Shadow Stalker was still questioning the man. "'He'?" she shouted. "Who the hell is 'he'?"

He gulped. "… Armsm – um, Butc – well, he just told me to call him Colin," the man admitted. "I'm a nurse. He hired me to look after her, to treat her. I knew it was… em… irregular but, well, he didn't give me a choice!" The man said pleadingly. "I was scared; he just said that I had to take care of her!"

"You were going to kill her?" Shadow Stalker growled.

"What? No! Never! Take care as in, actually, take care of her. He wanted her to be comfortable!"

Chariot turned to look in the room. He saw Director Piggot, wearing a thick, woolly dressing gown, hooked up to a very expensive dialysis machine in a room covered in drapes, fluffy cushions and pillows. A lot of those cushions were scattered across the floor. There was also a lot of broken china scattered on the floor too.

The last picture that the Butcher had sent showed the Director on the floor with a gun to her head. There was no sign of a gun or even any sharp objects in the room now. Piggot still looked absolutely seething furious as she snapped at Weld and Gallant to unfasten her.

The nurse looked absolutely terrified. "… I mean, she assaulted me!" He protested. "Do you have any idea how many cups of tea I made that she threw at my head?"

They all stared incredulously. Shadow Stalker turned to look at the broken china littering the floor, before groaning and dropping the nurse to the ground.

Gallant had said there was one very scared person and very angry person. None of them had expected the angry one to be hostage and the scared one the hostage-keeper.

"What were your orders?" Clockblocker asked urgently. "Your exact orders. What did the Butcher tell you to do?"

"Keep her comfortable!" The nurse exclaimed. "He said keep her safe, healthy and comfortable until someone arrived to collect her! I'm a nurse! I monitored her blood pressure, made her cups of tea – I even cooked a casserole!"

There was a casserole and broken dish smeared against the wall as well, Chariot noted.

Piggot was still snapping and shouting. She looked red-faced furious – being held hostage in a comfortable room with a personal nanny to babysit her. The room looked more like a private hotel suite than any sort of prison.

The Director was barking at Weld as he tried to unfasten her awkwardly from the dialysis machine. She was demanding updates and progress reports that he couldn't give her, and not even waiting for a response. Grue and Cutthroat stayed carefully out of her sight as they searched the house.

"… Okay…" Clockblocker said slowly. "… Either Butcher is really confused about how a hostage situation is supposed to work, or there's something else going on here."

"The rest of the house is empty," Grue reported. There was movement from outside – they must have woken the neighbours up. "That's it, I'm calling Tattletale."

He took a phone and hit speed dial. He turned it onto speakerphone, Chariot noted. It was answered instantly.

"Did you find her?" A sharp voice answered quickly. A girl's voice – Tattletale. Chariot had only ever heard rumours about the supposedly almost-psychic villain. The Wards listened carefully, everyone looking around confusedly. Shadow Stalker was still half-heartedly restraining the nurse.

"Did you know that she wasn't in any danger?" Grue demanded.

"I think I might have figured it out about five minutes ago," Tattletale admitted, almost sheepishly.

"And you couldn't have let us–"

"Um, hello?" Tattletale snapped irritably. "I'm on recovery here, remember? I shouldn't be using my powers at all until my head heals – but you still dragged me into this. And thanks a lot – the headache that I've been having for the past week is now just a little bit worse."

Grue floundered slightly. Clockblocker was staring confusedly at the phone. "So what the hell is going on here?" he shouted.

"Well, I've got a theory," Tattletale replied cautiously. "But…"

"We're waiting," Clockblocker said impatiently. He seemed annoyed, glancing between the villains. "You know, whenever you're ready."

Tattletale huffed, but ignored him. "So all that Butcher wants is the Trump in PRT custody right? He's not interested in anything else," Tattletale said. "So why did he kidnap the Director?"

"She was a hostage, he was ransoming her…"

"But he knew that the PRT would never, ever turn a prisoner over. They would never fold on that score –not publicly, at least," Tattletale argued. "Instead, Butcher stole Piggot and the only thing he accomplished was forcing the PRT to try and search for her."

There was a moment of quiet. The capes glanced between each other. "In fact, Butcher didn't just kidnap Piggot – he also threatened to take more hostages like her," she continued. "… And so he forced the PRT to dedicate more resources body-guarding other officials as well – which required personnel that were already running thin. He knew how badly the PRT would be stretched."

"You mean he sent us on a wild goose chase," Shadow Stalker said slowly.

"Yep. The thinner capes were spread – either searching for Piggot, tracking him down, or body-guarding other Directors – then that's all manpower that he doesn't have to deal with. He made everybody think he was going for Shadow indirectly…" Tattletale explained, before hesitating, shuffling around on the other side of the line. "… which actually makes things all the more open for the direct option."

There was a moment of silent. "… The direct option?" Flechette repeated carefully. In the other room, Piggot was still shouting urgent demands.

"Why do you think you haven't received any reply from HQ over your radio yet?" Tattletale challenged.

It took them a while to catch up. "… Wait a sec," Clockblocker said with a frown. "… Are you saying that you think that the Butcher is about to assault Brockton Bay PRT Headquarters?"

"Nope." They could hear Tattletale shaking her head. "I think that the Butcher has just assaulted headquarters roughly ten minutes ago. It might be a good idea if you took your time heading back, guys."