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Chapter 9
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"You sure about this?" Tattletale asked with a vulpine grin.

Worried but confident. Has faith in her comrades, but is aware of their mortality. Does not like being sidelined. Annoyed. Wants to finish this quickly.

Caster huffed. "If you let a fish off the hook, there is no telling when you'll catch it again."

Palanquin.

The club's name was spelled out on a sign made of yellow tubes. At night the neon scrawl would shine in welcome, a siren's call to those drawn by the steady thump of music. Now the tubes were dark, illuminated only by filtered sunlight. The sidewalk was clear of all except cigarette butts and scattered trash. Not a single drum beat escaped the double doors.

The two of them stood before the waist high chain barring the front. Caster rattled the links in irritation, then moved to duck under. Tattletale tapped her on the shoulder and pointed toward the nearest alley.

Thud. A boot cracked against a young Asian man, knocking him out of the darkened space. A lit joint bounced along the sidewalk. A large Hispanic came up from behind, grabbing the punk by the collar of his red sleeved jacket.

"Don't smoke that shit around here," the Hispanic man growled, shoving the punk the rest of the way out the alley.

The Asian kid caught his balance just before spilling onto his face.

"When Lung–"

"Lung got himself put in the can," the Hispanic retorted. He stomped on the joint and ground it into the cement with his rubber sole. "And even if he was out, he'd know better then to start shit with Faultline's crew over some dumb ass kid's sore ego. Now get out of here before I call the cops."

A final shove sent the young man three steps down the sidewalk. The gangster scowled back and made a show of dusting off his green pants.

"Fucking chico."

The punk strutted forward, a broad swagger to his step. His gaze fell on Tattletale and Caster. Tattletale gave a vulpine smile. He froze. His eyes widened. Caster's attention shifted his way, her expression marred by irritation.

The gangbanger gulped. All pretense dropped, he took off in a run.

"Sorry about that," the Hispanic said. The bouncer undid the chain barrier then stepped out of the way, gesturing toward the door in invitation. "Head on in. The boss already gave the word."

With a polite nod, Caster pushed through the main entrance.

Even though it was late afternoon, the club's interior was dark. There were no windows. Thin overhead tubes provided the primary form of light, their blue, red, and purple glow designed to deliver atmosphere instead of illumination. A handful of overhead lamps lit the two main bars, positioned to the left and back sides. Hundreds of glasses were spread, face down on the table. A female employee buffed a few more cups, while a male second cleaned the booths in preparation for the night's guests.

"We've been made," Tattletale informed, eyes adjusting to the dull light.

Caster's gaze shifted to the blonde, the door closing behind her.

"Hmm?" she noised. "Is there going to be trouble?"

Not from Earth Bet. Does not understand cape culture. Assumes hiding her identity is pointless. Assumes interested authorities can easily obtain it. Assumes such authorities know better than to interfere. Suffers from culture gap. Places no value on the unwritten rules.

Tattletale jerked her focus from the brunette, cutting the flow of information.

She grimaced. Tattletale wished she could say Caster was wrong. But she wasn't. The PRT had enough Thinkers to unmask half the capes in North America in less than a year. The government could do the same, though the effort would take closer to five. Tattletale herself could unmask most with an hour's effort. Hell, she had uncovered the identities of the Wards just by watching the nightly news.

And yet, no one did.

The PRT and Protectorate refused to seek that information. They couldn't afford to. Even the act of collecting identities would shatter a major taboo. The rules, for all their caprice and contortion, were one of the few precedents that kept the system from spiraling into collapse.

Capes, one and all, were broken people. Heroes needed an opportunity to throw around their weight, to feel their lives had meaning. Villains needed the prospect of escape, the knowledge that they could turn over a new leaf. Rogues needed a chance to curl up in the dark, to hide away from the world and play with power.

And the PRT? The PRT needed the opportunity to flip the bit players to their side and the leverage to throw the strongest at the Endbringers.

Caster was smart, but she lacked the necessary history to see the big picture on Earth Bet. She didn't know how fragile the world was. She didn't remember the bitter failures and broken dreams. That was the one aspect of Unit 09 that scared the hell out of Tattletale.

It was also the one thing that comforted her the most.

Because Caster not having those fears implied Earth Tav had found a path out of the trap. A method to build a stable world despite the presence of numerous cape equivalents.

Pushing those thoughts aside, Tattletale took a second to recall the ABB wannabe. The Asian punk's face flashed across her mind. His widening eyes. The hint of fear and recognition. Her power whispered in answer, leaking secrets like a demon nestled against her ear.

Frightened of Caster. Knows of her. Knows she beat Lung. Knows her face. The ABB has an image of Caster's face. Caster's bounded field made it impossible to get clear pictures during the bank battle. The image was not collected during the bank battle. The image was collected earlier, during the initial fight with Lung.

ABB seized evidence before the PRT secured the scene.

Oh, now that was interesting. But it wasn't the information Tattletale was looking for. She refocused on the punk, this time tuning her memory to a period a little later. The shift in his posture. The way he turned and ran.

Recognized Caster. The image of Caster's face was shared amongst the ABB gang members. The ABB is looking for Caster. Caster shamed the ABB. The ABB wants to restore its rep. The ABB has put a hit on Caster.

Closer, but nothing Tattletale couldn't guess on her own. She let her power play out a little longer.

The ABB will attack. Insufficient resources, the ABB cannot attack. Multiple detonations in progress, source Bakuda. The ABB has an operation in progress. The ABB is breaking out Lung. The ABB does not want to confront Faultline's crew. Lung will insist on leading the assault. Any assault will take time to organize.

Probability of attack while inside the Palanquin, negligible. Chances rise upon exiting. Two percent chance of ambush after ten minutes. Six percent chance of ambush after twenty minutes. Eleven percent chance of ambush after thirty minutes. Eighteen percent chance...

Tattletale stopped the thread.

"They won't do anything while we are in the Palanquin, but we should watch for an ambush on the way out," she explained. "There is a good chance Lung will lead the assault, especially if we hang around long enough for the ABB to build a force outside."

Caster pressed her lips.

"That could be a problem." She sighed. "Shirou will be angry, but I'll tell him to head over and back us up."

Tattletale winced. "Archer. Stick to cape names while we're suited up. Sets boundaries. Makes it so those of us who play by the rules don't have to wonder whether we're stepping over the line."

Caster gave her a look.

Thinks you are being silly. Will play along to be polite.

Well, that was about the best she could hope for.

Caster closed her eyes, murmuring a quiet aria to activate her circuits. Tattletale's power pulled data from the context, fusing it with the thaumaturgy lessons from last few days to synthesize new knowledge.

Has a bond with Archer. Allows communication. Allows sharing of senses. Allows allocation of energy. The bond is undetectable. The bond cannot be jammed. All features are bidirectional.

After a few moments, Caster spoke. "He's in the middle of something right now, but Archer promises to be here in half-an-hour."

They proceeded forward.

The meeting was upstairs, in the glassed in VIP lounge overlooking the main dance floor. The stairwell was guarded only by a red rope stanchion. Screee– Caster nonchalantly scooted a metal post to the side.

"Hey!"A voice interrupted. "Didn't you see the rope? That means you're not supposed to go up."

An orange skinned kid vaulted in from the back. For a brief moment, he clung to the ceiling. Then he dropped to the ground with catlike grace. Newter. One of Faultline's capes. A Striker who secreted a powerful hallucinogenic drug through his skin.

The orange boy gave Tattletale a suspicious look.

"Tattletale. The boss lady doesn't like you. I'm surprised she let you in."

"We're here by invitation," Tattletale replied with a grin.

Newter's eyes flicked to Caster, but showed no recognition.

"Well, you'll have to wait. Faultline is in a meeting right now. A meeting with important people."

"How odd," Caster observed lightly. "Because I distinctly remember setting up our meeting two days ago."

Newter's lips quirked tauntingly. "As I said, important people."

Knows me. Does not know Caster. Does not know the Undersiders are working with Unit 09. Was not informed. Faultline assumed we would not show.

Which would be a reasonable presumption, except that Caster was anything but reasonable.

"Funny that you say that," Tattletale drawled. "You do know who you are talking to, right? The cape that took down Lung? The same woman whose team smashed the Protectorate just a few days ago? Ringing any bells? Surely Faultline gave you at least one debriefing."

Newter's eyes flicked between the two women. "She's not wearing a mask."

Was told not to trust you. Is cautious, but is now worried he made a mistake. Not sure what to do. Will break if pushed.

Tattletale's lips spread in a vulpine smile.

"If you don't trust me, you can always run up those stairs and ask Faultline. I would hurry if I were you. You hear those bombs earlier? A gang war is breaking out and Caster's team is involved. Despite that, she made an extra special effort to be here, because she's polite. But if you keep giving her the run around?"

Tattletale trailed off, smile growing wider.

"Well, just ask yourself this. Do you really want the cape that took down Lung pissed at you?"

Newter scowled, posture shifting as he readied to move. "Just so you know, I'm not doing this because I'm scared. I'm doing this because Faultline likes to treat her business partners right. Got it?"

Newter turned sharply, prehensile tail swishing behind him. He vanished above. Words drifted down the stairwell, louder than before. A moment later Newter peered down, a sour expression on his face.

"You two can come up."

Like the main floor, the balcony was lit by a purple and blue glow. That dull illumination was augmented by half-a-dozen flood lights, washing away the colored hue. The leather couches and polished oak tables fit the plush décor. A small mini-bar filled the far corner while further back was a door marked employees only.

Faultline claimed the center of the nearest couch as though it were a throne. The Striker was in full costume, a strangely tasteful blend of riot gear and ballroom dress. Faultline nodded toward Caster. Her expression flickered with displeasure when her eyes crossed Tattletale's.

Tattletale returned a smarmy smile.

Finds your presence threatening. Fears you will see through her plans. Does not like you. Regards your intelligence as fake.

Tattletale's grin faltered, transforming into a scowl of her own. She knew damn well that there were people in this world smarter than her. Caster was one, a true genius. A woman who could grasp points related to thaumaturgy faster than Tattletale, power included. But, even before she triggered, Tattletale had been bright. Not top of the class, but near it. And if there was one thing Tattletale hated, it was being looked at like an empty suit riding a Thinker power.

"You can tell your employer that we won't accept his contract until the others agree to a truce," Faultline said firmly. "We aren't going to stick out our necks unless the Empire promises to take some of the heat, no matter how much money you are offering."

The man Faultline addressed was built like a brick, and his face was as flat as one, too. He was dressed in military fatigues. His posture was utterly professional, giving nothing away. A sidearm was belted at his waist, and he carried the weapon as though it were part of his body. His flint eyes flicked toward Tattletale then Caster before returning to Faultline.

"Ma'am, my employer is not asking that you handle this alone. This agreement is only to solidify our joint block before the meeting at Somer's Rock. If no truce can be reached, the contract will automatically extinguish–"

Mercenary. Works of Coil. Coil is planning to push for the elimination of the ABB. Wants resources in preparation, to show commitment and to pressure Kaiser.

"I said no contracts until after the truce," Faultline cut in, this time far more harshly. "And I don't mean to interrupt, but I have a prior meeting planned."

The Mercenary's face remained blank. "Of course, Ma'am. I'll be happy to discuss this matter later, or if you prefer, my employer is willing to speak with you directly.

Did not expect us to be here. Was told that Faultline would fold. Is unsure how to handle the current scenario.

"I think that would be best," Faultline said coolly. "Newter, please see Captain Minor out."

Newter slid up beside the mercenary, smiling like a shark. "You heard the boss."

Captain Minor turned without a word, allowing Newter to lead him out. His gaze crossed over Tattletale with a flicker of acknowledgement.

Will inform Coil that you interrupted his meeting. Coil will demand answers.

Tattletale watched him leave, her sickness hidden behind her easy smile. Coil may have lent the Undersiders to Unit 09, but as far as he was concerned Tattletale still belonged to him. Whether that clash of perspectives would lead to her freedom or ruin remained uncertain.

Unbidden, Tattletale's eyes were drawn to her brunette teammate.

Sees you as an acquaintance and valuable asset. Will defend you while you are under her charge. Does not regard issues arising from your background as her problem. Knows you have an agenda. Is suspicious of your intent. Politically savvy.

No dice then.

But not a serious problem either.

Tattletale had a full month to wiggle in close to Unit 09. Archer she already had in the bag, though her power had warned her that relying on him alone was a quick route to a bad end. Overmind was an easy target as well. She just needed a friend, and Tattletale was happy enough to provide.

That gave her half of Unit 09 right out of the box. Unfortunately, it was the wrong half.

The real keys to the kingdom were Caster and Saber. Caster lead the pack, while Saber played Jiminy Cricket for the team. At first blush, flipping the tiny blonde looked simpler. Helping out a poor girl was Saber's kind of thing. Alas, Saber was as politically savvy as hell. Worse, she already suspected that Tattletale had pushed the bank job knowing that Unit 09 would bail them out. That alone wasn't enough to earn Saber's ire, but another blatant manipulation would put Tattletale on Saber's shit list.

Caster, on the other hand, remained too enchanted by the prospect of free labor to recognize Tattletale's gambit.

Honestly, Tattletale was fairly confident that she could get an out just by being upfront about the whole affair. But nothing in this world was free. Negotiating Caster's protection would cost Tattletale half a year of her freedom and screw her relationship with Grue and the Undersiders. For all that she feared Coil, Tattletale wasn't desperate enough to make that trade.

Yet.

Tattletale grimaced. Hopefully it wouldn't come to that.

"I'm surprised you're here," Faultline declared. "With everything going on, I expected you to postpone this."

"I am a firm believer in punctuality," Caster said lightly, sliding deeper into the room. "For those in our line of business, our word is everything, is it not?"

Caster smiled like an angel dribbling venom. Faultline's expression darkened at the hidden insinuation that Caster had kept her word while Faultline had not.

"I promised you a meeting and you got one," Faultline retorted bluntly. "Speak your part. You have ten minutes to convince me that this is worth my time."

Forceful introduction. Wants to put Caster on edge. Is aware of Unit 09's rep. Is aware Unit 09 has a Master. Calm. Radio bud in her left ear. The meeting is being recorded. The speaker plays back what happened three minutes ago. Anti-master measure. The recording will not be stored on site.

Oh, that was a neat trick. Tattletale would remember that one the next time the Undersiders ran into an unknown Master. With her power, the setup would work better than it did for Faultline.

"We understand each other, then," Caster said pleasantly.

The brunette swayed around the couch and took a seat opposite Faultine, folding her legs in a ladylike manner. Tattletale leaned against the couch's back, mirroring the position of Faultline's guard – Gregor the Snail – but not his posture. It was symbolic. Subordination to show Faultline that the Undersiders were working for Unit 09, but tinged with enough rebellion to declare to all that Unit 09 did not control them.

That's what Tattletale told herself, anyway.

Caster took a long moment to settle before she spoke, a subtle jab at Faultline's time limit.

"What I am interested in is information," Caster said clearly. "Specifically, information concerning parahuman anomalies. I hear that you are something of an authority on the subject."

"Then you've heard wrong. I hire Case 53's, but that's all. If you want information on anomalies of that sort, you should hit up the Protectorate. I hear they have an extensive collection of medical records," Faultline said, her last line delivered with a nasty edge to it.

Tattletale leaned forward, hungry for the spilled secrets. Reaction is personal. Not grief. Aggravation. Faultline has been researching the subject. Faultline's efforts have been frustrated. A cover up. Faultline suspects the Protectorate.

Oh, this was better than they hoped. Lets see. How to go about this? First a test, to make sure Faultline was following the thread Tattletale thought she was.

"Please. There's no need to play ignorant," Tattletale interjected, her lips twisting into a vulpine smile. "We've heard the rumors. Cash rewards for anything related to Case 53's. Their memory loss. Their monstrous forms. Those special marks all of them have on their bodies..."

Tattletale swirled in her finger into the shape of an upside down omega.

Faultline glowered. Tattletale's smile grew broader.

"If your power told you that, then you should know that this is private business and you should stay out of it," Faultline spat.

"Private business that neatly aligns with my own," Caster said brightly. "That makes us natural allies."

Faultline's eyes snapped back to the Asian brunette. "And why would I bring you into this?"

Suspicious now. Has been swindled before. Doubts we know anything useful. Thinks you are using your power to steal information.

A little bait, then?

"Because Caster is your best bet on finding out what is wrong with Gregor over there," Tattletale supplied. "She knows things about capes and powers nobody else knows. If there is any chance of fixing whatever happened to him, she's the one you want to talk to."

Gregor stirred. Faultline's guardian was a big man, pudgy, rounded, and obese. His head was hairless, not just on the top either. Eyebrows, eyelashes, and everything else were missing. Most disconcerting was Gregor's skin. Hard growths glinted in the dull light, looking like some horrible disease.

Case 53, the result of powers gone wrong.

"You think you can fix him?" Faultline's tone was thick with dismissal. "You are hardly the first to claim that."

"Whether or not it is something that can be fixed can only be determined after an examination," Caster said succinctly, delivering a pointed glare at the freckled blonde behind her.

Tattletale smiled back, unapologetic.

"You want to experiment on my team," Faultline observed caustically.

"Examine," Caster corrected. "Experiment implies that I am doing something to him in order to see the result. All I am asking for is a diagnostic. Think of it like an appointment with a doctor."

Faultline's expression darkened.

Distrustful. Has heard similar offers before with nasty results. Has concluded that we have nothing to offer. Will end the meeting shortly.

Bad. Tattletale glanced toward Gregor.

Interested, but suspicious. Is willing to take risks on a long shot. Faultline will bend if she has reason to believe the process is safe.

Okay then.

"Though more than a bit unpleasant," Tattletale interjected, flippantly. "Nothing a strong fellow like Gregor couldn't handle, unless his pain tolerance is less than that of little old me."

Tattletale gave Gregor a smile. The balding man met her gaze for a long moment, having caught the implication. Gregor leaned down close then whispered into Faultline's ear. The Mercenary leader's expression twisted into a scowl.

Gotcha.

"Half a million," she said in clipped tones. "Up front."

Does not want to set precedent. Will not settle for less than a quarter of a million.

Caster's smile turned deadly sweet. "I am asking for no more than an hour of your time. Ten-thousand at the most."

Can afford to pay, but doing so would limit her liquid assets. Will refuse any cash settlement over fifty-thousand. Negotiation is impossible.

"Is that supposed to be a joke?" Faultline retorted.

Tattletale clicked her tongue and wagged her finger.

"Don't be like that. You want this information as much as we do," she inserted. "This is a good chance for you. Let Caster do her thing. Afterwards, she tells you what she knows. If it's good, you tell us what you know. If Caster gets nothing, we cough up a hundred thousand. That's a pretty solid deal for a couple of hours of work."

Faultline pressed her lips and pondered. Caster's eyes narrowed in irritation. The brunette was growing annoyed at her constant interjections. Tattletale flashed a smarmy smile. I know what I'm doing. Have a little faith.

"And you'll trust me not to demand the pay anyway?"

"Mercenary, your word is everything." Tattletale retorted.

"And I'm to believe you'll cough up the funds when I'm unsatisfied?" Faultline challenged.

"Mercenary, their word is everything," Tattletale repeated with a grin.

Faultline frowned, giving Caster a measured look.

"Fine. I accept your deal, but you'll prove that you are the real thing right here, right now, where I can see it."

Shit. Tattletale grimaced. It had not occurred to her that Faultline might demand that. She looked at Caster. The brunette's expression was schooled.

"I don't have my equipment," Caster said firmly.

"That's your problem," Faultline retorted, folding her arms.

Caster sighed then reached into her pouch. "Very well, but don't be surprised if we learn nothing. You over there. Gregor, was it? Strip."

Gregor looked at Faultline. Faultline eyed Caster then reluctantly nodded.

"Just so you are aware, I am not pleasant to look at," Gregor said while pulling off his shirt.

"I've seen things that would make you look like Adonis," Caster replied with an flawless smile. She held out a gem. "When you are done, swallow this. I didn't prepare this one for examination, so expect to be sick for the rest of the day."

Faultline's expression darkened.

"We have demanded they show their ability without preparation," Gregor observed. "We cannot expect everything to go as planned."

Gregor the Snail pulled off his clothes. The bald man's skin glistened in the dull light. Pale. Translucent. Shadowy bones shifted in the depths, the surface itself covered in crusty shells. The sight was grotesque and Tattletale had to hide the twitch of her lips.

"Any chance of injury or death?" Faultline asked, coolly.

"No," Caster answered brusquely. The brunette was all business now. "At worst he will suffer a low grade fever for a week, and only if I don't get a chance to purge my prana. He will, however, be incapacitated for several hours."

Caster's words did not make Gregor pause. The heavyset cape tilted back his head, swallowing the tiny topaz. Gregor's expression shifted into a grimace a second later. His frame shuddered, the only sign of the fiery pain spreading through his body.

"It would be best if you laid down."

Gregor opened his mouth to say something, then thought better of it. With a hurried nod, he laid himself down on the ground face down. Faultline watched in worried silence, her fists tight with suppressed fury.

"Without the proper equipment, evaluating his circuits will be tricky," Caster conversed, kneeling at the obese man's side. She placed her hands over his back, not hesitating to touch his slimy skin. "However, given my prior experience, I am fairly confident that–"

Caster's arms jerked back as though struck. With a sudden jolt, the brunette shot to her feet.

"Are they blind!"

Faultline's gaze snapped toward Caster. "What is it? What did you see?"

"Even a first year apprentice could see what they were doing wrong!" Caster ranted. Her entire body was shaking with anger. "But what do they do? They jam it in anyway!"

Tattletale's eyes shifted between Gregor and Caster. Silence. Her power offered nothing. The empty quiet was eerie, but it was not the first time Tattletale had encountered the phenomenon. Sometimes, when a question dealt with thaumaturgy, her power refused to speculate.

No data to build on. No knowledge with which to hypothesize. Eager as it was, even Tattletale's Thinker power refused to work in a void.

"They? Then you are certain a human did this," Faultline pressed.

Has prior evidence that Case 53's are the result of human experimentation. Is looking for confirmation. Is looking for the source. Is looking for a cure.

"Of course," Caster retorted with acrid tones. "There is no way a Type would screw up this badly."

Tattletale wrenched her gaze away from Gregor. Dull pain throbbed behind her eyes. Tattletale rolled a thumb over her temple. A couple of hours of work and she was already on the cusp of a thinker headache. At this rate, she would have to ask Caster for a vacation.

"My power isn't giving me anything," she interjected. "Can you give me a few clues? Maybe I can shake something out."

Caster growled, then shifted into a severe lecture pose. Her words came out clipped, revealing her agitation.

"As I told you before, parahumans get their powers from a spiritual organ. This organ, in turn, connects to the body by way of surplus circuits. This a concept so simple a child can get it. However, these fools, did not bother to check if Gregor had surplus circuits. Instead they installed it blind, like a blithering idiot."

Tattletale frowned, focusing on Gregor.

Nothing.

No. It wasn't nothing. A chill swept through her, raising goosebumps as it went. She was wrong. It wasn't that her power refused to speculate. It was that it couldn't.

"It's a blind spot...," Tattletale breathed. "Like the Manton Effect. Powers can't see anything related to circuits, or how they interact with parahuman powers."

Whoever had done this was groping in the dark. It was creepy. Tattletale was confident that her power worked on Endbringers. It couldn't be nullified by Trumps. She shouldn't have blind spots. It didn't make sense. Why this? The Manton Effect was about safety. What purpose did hiding circuits serve?

What was Type-D afraid of?

Caster gave Tattletale a questioning look. Faultline knelt at Gregor's side. He grunted in response. Faultline squeezed the man's shoulder before standing.

"Can it be fixed?"

Caster frowned.

"Yes. No. Maybe?" Caster hedged. "Gregor's symbiotic organ resolved the lack of circuits by supplying its own. The warping of his form was nothing more than a side-affect of the organ imposing its alien logic. The quickest fix would be to remove Gregor's parahuman ability altogether. But, depending on how the organ integrated with his biology, that might prove fatal."

"And if he wanted to keep his power?" Faultline asked.

"I would need to temporarily disconnect the organ from his existing circuits, then amputate the modifications," Caster explained. "To recover the power after would by trickier, requiring that I carve artificial channels for the alien circuits to follow before reinstalling the organ. However, even then –"

Newter shoved his head through the door. "Uh, boss, we have a problem."

"Move."

Lung shoved Newter into the room before stepping in behind. He was seven feet of well-defined muscle. The only clothes Lung wore were a pair of blue jeans and his metal mask. Tattoos of vivid, Eastern dragons, rippled around his shirtless chest, stretching with Lung's growing body.

Transformation is in progress. No immediate conflict. Lung is feeding off the incipient combat. The effect is normally impossible. Transformation is not caused by drugs. Drugs have no effect on his power. Adrenaline has no effect. The transformation's catalyst is anticipation. The motivator is fear. Fear of Caster.

Caster gave Tattletale a look. "I thought you said they would wait until after we left."

A sick lump dropped down Tattletale's gullet. Her vulpine smile wavered. "Apparently, I was wrong."

Lung is scared of Caster. Lung deals with fear by destroying the thing he is afraid of. Lung will not hold back. Lung is willing to risk everything to win this fight.

Fuck.

"You knew about this," Faultline accused.

"Bad time for that," Tattletale dismissed, hardly paying her any attention. "Caster, Lung is planning to kill you."

Caster raised a brow. Lung let out a short, barking laugh. With a sharp gesture, Lung directed his men into the room.

Oni-Lee, with his black body suit and distinctive demon mask entered first. A handful of ABB gangbangers filed in after. Lung held out a hand. Oni-Lee transferred a steel briefcase into his leader's open palm. Without hesitation, Lung threw the case onto the table, shattering glasses and scattering cups.

Cash. As much as Lung could scrounge up on short notice. Not enough to appease Faultline. If she refuses, Lung will kill her. Lung will kill anyone that opposes him. The ABB has gone too far. Lung expects intervention by PRT and Protectorate affiliates.

Faultline glanced at the case, which had slid to a stop within arms reach. "You think you can just buy me off?"

Lung turned his metal mask toward Faultline. His voice was flat. "Leave or die."

"He means it. If he has to, he will kill everyone in this room," Tattletale supplied.

"Tattletale, if you would escort Gregor out," Caster said brusquely.

The brunette moved forward, stopping in the middle of the lounge, dividing the space evenly between Faultline and the ABB.

"That is assuming you don't have a problem if we wait?" Caster asked pleasantly.

Lung folded his arms. He was already half-a-foot taller than when he walked in. "When we fight is irrelevant, but if you try to run I will murder your companion after I finish with you."

"Then I request you take that fight elsewhere," Faultline snapped.

"No. We fight here," Lung growled, jolting forward in a manner that made half the audience jerk back. "Cower, complain, or take your money as you like, but I will not be moved."

Faultline glowered. Caster gave her a sharp look.

"Look after your own," Caster said, gaze flicking toward the obese man on the floor. "But if you want to join in after, feel free."

"You won't live long enough for them to save you," Lung's voice rumbled.

"Really? I thought it was the other way around," Caster replied with an angelic smile. "You were a lot bigger last time we fought."

Nervous. Confident she can beat Lung, but is worried about his support. Her costume is bullet proof. Various charms ensure that impact force is spread and ablated. Can be reinforced for additional defense. Negates small arms. Negates low yield energy weapons. Reduces the effect of heavy impact.

Head is exposed. Vulnerable? No. Caster has additional defenses. Additional defenses are invisible. Defenses are not sufficient to negate small arms fire. Military grade rifles present a fatal risk and are a primary concern. The tactical situation is disadvantageous. Caster intends to retreat to an open area. Cannot fight effectively and defend us at the same time.

Wishes she had her spear.

"He gets stronger the longer the fight goes on," Tattletale warned.

"Then I suggest you hurry," Caster said chillingly.

Tattletale nodded and looked down at Gregor with a grimace.

Irregular body type. Weighs approximately three hundred pounds. Carrying capacity in combination with Faultline, no more than two-hundred. Less with mobility.

Faultline threw the metal briefcase to the orange skinned boy. "Newter, grab Labyrinth and Spitfire then meet me in the hall."

Newter nodded and rushed out the back door. Faultline stooped to take Gregor's arm.

"We can't lift him," Tattletale said.

"Do your best," Faultline snapped. She shifted her gaze to her ally. "Gregory, you're going to have to help."

Gregor managed a stiff nod.

Tattletale took the other arm with a grimace. "Just so you know – ooff – I don't do upper body exercises."

"Then I suggest you start," Faultline grunted, while lifting her half.

Between the two of them, they had enough strength to lift Gregor's torso. Fortunately, once the bulky cape got his feet underneath him, he was able to support his own weight. They moved toward the exit at a brisk pace, providing little more than balance and direction.

Tattletale set her hip into the doorbar, pushing it open. She spared a glance back as she and Faultline navigated Gregor through the gap. Not fast enough. Lung was topping eight feet. Scales spread along his arms, silvery shields rising through puckered flesh.

The aperture swung closed behind them.

The back hall was lit by florescent lights. A series of doors punctuated the right, opening into rooms unknown. Ten meters ahead was a metal door marked by a glowing exit sign, which would have been more useful if they were not on the second floor and propping up a three-hundred pound slug man.

Newter rushed out of a side room, pushing a woman in a wheel chair in front of him. Spitfire was a step behind, curly brown hair fluttering, mask halfway onto her freckled face. Her eyes widened at the sight of Gregor, and she moved to take him off Tattletale's shoulders.

"No. I want you and Newter to switch. Get Labyrinth to the back and secure the exit. Newter, watch our six," Faultline countermanded.

Bang! B-b-bang! Bang! Bang!

Tattletale flinched. The first gunshot was followed by a whole lot more. Metal thudded into wood with a meaty clunk. The rain of heavy bullets could almost be mistaken for hail.

Something heavy hit the walls. With a crash and tinkle, glass shattered.

BOOM!

A concussive shock slammed into Tattletale's back, all but knocking her to her knees. Gregor lurched. The door behind tore from its hinges then clattered across tiled floor. A sharp tone filled Tattletale's ears. Faultline shouted, her voice lost to the void.

Grenade; Type M67. One-hundred-eighty gram payload. Aerial detonation, three meters above the main dance floor. Caster retreated out of the VIP lounge. The separation provided space for Oni-Lee's attack.

Tattletale's ears popped. Sound flooded in. The ringing continued.

"– 'kay?" Faultline yelled again.

"I'm fine," Spitfire said, shaking her head from the daze.

"Then move!"

Spitfire seized Labyrinth's chair and wheeled her forward in a rush. Tattletale, Faultline, and Gregor waddled after, the big man lurching at a sick gait. Newter, with the clearest head of all of them, hopped up, flipped over the group, then began a slow retreat while watching their backs. The journey seemed to take forever, but eventually Tattletale reached the exit door and pressed through into a stairwell that terminated on the floor below.

Exit on the lower floor. Gregor is unsteady. He cannot descend the stairs. Faultline is aware.

Tattletale shifted her eyes to Spitfire, following the logical thread. The curly haired brunette was leaning down next to Labyrinth's ear, quietly whispering.

"... far, far away. A path to somewhere safe. Away from the scary noises. Can you do that for me?"

The room shifted.

No great sound or force accompanied Labyrinth's power. Instead, the surrounding structure began to flow like taffy. The outer wall peeled away, bricks shuffling over stone surfaces. The stairs unraveled. The steps swung out from the Palanquin, transforming into a sloping path that wrapped around the adjacent building before blending with a sidewalk far beyond.

Spindly pillars grew from the ground beneath, joining seamlessly with the path to form an aerial walkway. Arches stretched overhead, organic white trunks formed from thin crystal. The tile path darkened, the surface turning dark and spongy. Alien plants sprang up along the length, exotic petals opening on the branches to unleash unearthly scents.

Through the gap Tattletale caught glimpse of the street below. Three cars and half a dozen ABB gangster were parked outside the Palanquin, claiming the entire avenue as their own. Traffic piled up, the older citizens of Brockton Bay directing their cars well around the hazard.

A gangbanger shouted and pointed his gun up. Another man yelled back, quickly redirecting the thug's attention toward the main door. Tattletale's eyes flicked over the group, content in the knowledge that she would not be targeted.

Oni-Lee used conventional explosives. Bakuda is not present. Troops are limited in number, but disciplined. Senior members. People Lung trusts. The rest have been deployed elsewhere.

Tattletale's head throbbed, her thinker headache was growing worse. Okay. What kind of mission takes precedence over killing Caster?

No interest in the Undersiders. No interest in Faultline. Lung's forces are insufficient to declare war on the Empire Eight Eight. Limited information in brute holding. Limited debrief after escape. Likely target is Overmind. A punitive mission. Lung has no expectation of victory. Bakuda's death is acceptable. Unit 09 deaths are also acceptable. Lung considers it a win either case.

Fuck.

Shifting to escape Gregor's weight, Tattletale fumbled for her phone. She had been party to enough of the prebattle prep to know Archer's plan was to split the team. Worse, Caster had called Archer back for support, which meant Saber's squad was about to start a fight with the Merchants without a safety net.

Best case scenario, Archer runs into Bakuda on the way in. Which would leave Caster without backup for a few more minutes. Worst case scenario, Saber's team gets caught between a rock and a hard place. Fighting a bomb Tinker was bad. Fighting Bakuda at the same time as the Merchants was downright suicidal.

Beta squad needed to know now.

"That had better be important," Faultline growled.

Tattletale speed dialed Regent's number, knowing that Overmind didn't have a phone and Saber might be in the thick of combat. She lifted the device to her ear, listening to the ring.

"Lung sent Bakuda to do as much damage to Caster's crew as she could. I need to give them a heads up," Tattletale explained. The phone clicked. "Hey, can you hook me up with 'U09'?"

There was the sound of fumbling on the other end. A soft breath rolled over the receiver. Overmind had picked up the receiver.

"Thank god I got a hold of you," Tattletale breathed.

Faultline pointed to the path with her head. Taking the hint, Tattletale pinned her phone in place between ear and shoulder talking absently while guiding Gregor down Labyrinth's ramp. Newter hung back, watching the exit. The first, hazy tendrils of smoke slipped out the door. The building rumbled. Shots sounded on the street.

The unpowered members are retreating out the front. Oni-Lee and Lung are still fighting inside. No explosions. Oni-Lee is worried about building's integrity? No. Lung ordered him to stop. Oni-Lee is only here to give Lung time to ramp up. Once Lung is at full strength, he will kill Caster himself.

Which meant Caster was still standing. A good sign.

Lung exploded out the side of the building.

The now twelve foot cape smashed into a storefront across the street. Lung pulled himself out of the crater, knocking aside shattered mannequins and broken brick. His metallic claws gouged the wooden sills as he lurched back into the light. A pair of blades flashed from the Palanquin's depths, burying themselves into the darkness just beyond Lung.

The man shaped dragon suddenly stopped as though chained in place.

Caster flowed out onto the street. Gunfire erupted in answer. The sharp pop of hand guns melded with the rat-tat-tat of automatic fire to create a cacophonous ensemble. Caster moved, flickering across the road with dancing steps, evading streams of scattered bullets. Her arm slashed out. Air froze into a wall of subliming ice, sealing off the western half of the road.

She twisted, foot catching concrete with the lightness of a ballerina.

Asphalt crumbled where she pushed off.

Oni-Lee appeared two meters to Caster's right. Light glinted off a pair of knives. Caster aborted her dash, right arm rising to guard her face. The blades plinked off Caster's costume. She turned, left hand dipping to her skirt. A weapon flew from her hand, with an ephemeral edge five times longer than the dagger Oni-Lee threw.

The sword punched straight through the Mover's heart.

Oni-Lee burst into a torrent of fire and ash. A copy of the cape already stood on the roof above Lung.

Caster used the brief respite to send a brutal hail of gandr toward the ABB's remaining goons. Dark bullets punched into their cover, an SUV with the doors thrown open. Metal screamed. Glass shattered. Three out of four gangbangers went down.

Some of them would never get back up.

Tattletale grimaced at the carnage. Caster was going to have a body count after this for sure. Not good. Not for Unit 09 nor the Undersiders who would be guilty by association.

"O, you listening to me?" Tattletale asked, ignoring how she had hardly been doing so herself. Hey, she had a Thinker power to fill in the gaps.

"I'm listening," Overmind replied with an aggravated tone. "But the ABB is going to have to wait. We're already tangled up in a fight with all four fucking Merchants, and I don't think they're going to back off if we ask nicely."

"Four?" Tattletale questioned.

Wait, they were tangled up with the Merchant's already? Shit, she hadn't been paying enough attention.

"Never mind that," Tattletale said hurriedly. "Oni-Lee is leaving any minute now. He's a teleporter. If you're in the middle of anything big, it's not going to take him long to find you."

Caster turned toward Lung. Green circuits criss-crossed her arm then expanded into floating circles just beyond her finger tip. A dark orb gathered, increasing in depth until it seemed to drink the light. She took aim at Lung, who tugged at the empty air in frustration, but failed to take a single step.

The hilts are mystic codes. A blade is formed when the weapon is injected with prana. The resulting sword is both tangible and conceptual. Lung's shadow was pierced. Lung cannot move. Lung is being held in place by his shadow. Application of force has minimal effect.

Oni-Lee must have concluded the same. In an instant, he appeared in front of Caster, shoulder checking the brunette to throw off her aim. While Caster staggered under the sudden impulse, an egg shaped object fell to the ground between them.

Grenade.

Caster realized it in the same instant. She leapt back. Dark magic crackled. Energy slashed through Oni-Lee, reducing him to ashen mist. Boom! The shockwave rippled over the ground and slapped Tattletale in the face. Gregor's weight bumbled into her, nearly throwing her off the ramp. Her ears popped, but not half as bad as before.

Caster, however, was hit far worse. The brunette floundered dizzily, inner ear thrown out of whack by the overpressure. Oni-Lee teleported into her face, knives thrusting toward Caster's exposed neck. Somehow the brunette recovered, hands snapping up to seize the demon-masked cape's wrist. She twisted. Oni-Lee's arm broke with a sharp crack. Caster threw him to the ground, then stomped on his skull, crushing it like a melon.

Lung exploded into fire.

The sudden surge of light cut Lung free. Claws dug into the earth. Lung burst forward, crossing the street in one, monstrous lunge. His right arm crashed down like a battering ram, plowing deep into the sidewalk and sending concrete skittering in every direction.

Caster danced back, swaying under Lung's follow up slash. With a twist, she slammed a black key into Lung's ribs. Blade and blood tore through Lung's back. The Brute ignored it, his tail lashing out to spear through the space Caster occupied an instant before.

The brunette reached for a second sword, red-shawl aflutter as she flowed to Lung's flank with an angel's grace.

Only to be kicked into Lung's waiting claws by Oni-Lee.

The dragon man seized Caster with a fist, her armor creaking under the force of his grip. He raised her high, then smashed her into the concrete. Once. Twice. Thrice –

Lung froze in mid motion. Fossilized flesh expanded from the weapon thrust through his chest. Caster used the pause to jam another sword through Lung's elbow. With a roar, Lung chucked the brunette straight through the Palanquin's wall. His enemy cast into the club's darkness, Lung turned his claws upon himself. Keratin blades stronger than steel sank through bone and scale, severing the stricken limb and ripping out petrified organs.

With the swords discarded, the gaping wounds healed at impossible speed.

The four parts of Lung's mouth expanded. The dragon breathed. A jet of blazing light lanced out. The beam twisted in midair, slashing through a wall only to cut its way back into daylight. The searing stream snaked itself through the Palanquin's structure. Inferno spread in the aftermath, rising and moving to seal the building in a blazing barricade.

A cage. Lung intended this result from the beginning. He lost control when Caster deserted the Palanquin. Discovered how to escape her trap early on. Bided his time. Is intending to use the club's interior to seal her movements. Believes the smoke and fire will weaken her. Is certain he is strong enough to win.

As if in confirmation, Lung growled and thrust a long claw toward the east. Oni-Lee bowed to his leader before turning to ash. Lung stomped forward, smashing aside wood and brick to make room for his now sixteen-foot frame.

The Palanquin began to rumble.

The building's integrity is insufficient. Lung and Caster are too strong. The structure will crumble. The ramp is connected to the Palanquin. The ramp is connected to the adjacentapartment building. Force will transfer through the medium. The wall above is fragile.

Tattletale glanced up and cringed. Labyrinth's twisting ramp had distorted the nearby space, borrowing from the three story apartment nearby. The brick structure was eroded by weather, the mortar cracked from age. Half that integrity had been lost to the Shaker's creation. If it was disturbed now...

"Shit," Tattletale cursed. She fumbled her phone to get a better hold on Gregor's arm. "Move!"

Faultline followed her gaze. "You heard her. Pick up the pace!"

They double timed it.

They had already descended most of the way down the ramp in the midst of the fight. Now they rushed the last few meters. The Palanquin creaked and groaned. Columns of smoke rose from the gaps, whirling into dark clouds above. Rippling flames grew on every surface. In that hellish interior the war continued, bangs and crashes sounding as Lung and Caster relentlessly fought.

C-crack. Rum-umb-umble.

The ramp shifted as they turned into an alley one street further back. Brick poured down in a flood. Tattletale released a breath and relinquished Gregor into Spitfire's care. Finally comfortably distant, she pulled away from Faultline's crew and took a position on the sidewalk to get a better view.

"Still there?" Overmind's voice called from over the receiver.

"Building just came down. Had to get out of the way," Tattletale replied, setting the phone properly against one ear. "You?"

A pause. Tattletale's power read the clues.

A sharp intake of air before silence. Breathing remained measured after. Surprise. Nothing immediately threatening, but important enough to call Overmind's attention. A new threat. Unit 09 has been located by the ABB. Highest probability, Oni-Lee.

"He's there, isn't he?" Tattletale said.

Lung shot out of a wall in a twisting, twining ball of serpentine flesh. Caster rolled amidst the dragon's grasp. With a final tumble, she slipped around Lung's monstrous claws then leapt high into the air. A pair of black blades flashed down, burying themselves to the hilt in Lung's shoulders. Fire erupted from the wounds, an inferno more intense than the air warping heat exuded from the man himself.

With a great roar, Lung surged into the air, beating his wings once to match Caster's height.

In response, the brunette's arc shifted, gravity suddenly doubling its grip. Lung flew over. Caster touched ground then skipped to the side two steps, each eating a full six meters of space. Crackling darkness gathered in her hand.

She fired. Lung folded his wings and plunged. The dark spear cut through silver scales and ripped out the dragon's back in a geyser of flesh and blood. Lung smashed into the ground undeterred, concrete shattering under his enormous weight. The now serpentine cape coiled, then burst forward in a blink. Caster flashed to the left, evading Lung's X shaped maw.

But she didn't quite escape the right fore claw Lung hung out wide.

Lung's great talons slammed around Caster's chest, plucked her from the ground, then smashed her straight into the concrete. Caster squirmed in his grip, straining against Lung's weight and strength, unable to budge his incredible bulk. Lung peered at her through a side eye then raised his head.

He breathed in.

Fire was sucked into his maw. Heat drained from the air until chill wind whipped around Tattletale's costume. The great flames consuming the Palanquin gutted out, orange light spiraling inward to form a ball of intense white light. Lung's X shaped maw rolled around the flame, as though caressing a star. Then the dragon turned and spat a rod of white hot fire straight at Caster's face.

The beam split into rivulets a meter before it reached, shattering like water upon an umbrella. Searing heat poured into the asphalt, releasing an oily stench. The road glowed orange and the surface became viscous. The heat, however, refused to touch Caster. Lung roared in frustration then shoved her deeper into the molten rock.

Caster gestured with her free arm. Liquid concrete flowed out from underneath, formed into stone spears, then stabbed deep into the joint of the arm that held her. Blood exploded out. Lung screamed. Caster rolled, flipped to her feet, then burst out from underneath the beast.

Lung flailed. A rear claw smashed down, half a meter short. His tail swished, but Caster leapt above it, another ball of darkness charging in her hand. The serpent twisted, shooting forward in a flash. Caster touched ground and rolled below, then slid around the trailing claw with superhuman grace.

Darkness tore through Lung's chest.

He jinked back.

Lung's jaws closed around Caster's head, bearing her to the ground. Hastily raised arms stopped Lung's teeth before they could puncture her skull. Daggers of bone rent Caster's costume then punched through the flesh and bone beneath. Still, the brunette held, body wiggling under Lung's weight, struggling to get a breath of space.

Ice crawled over Lung's silver scaled lips.

A desperate fore claw smashed into Caster's chest. He might as well have punched a tank. Bladed fingers skittered off her armor drawing no more than faint lines. A second rushed strike did no more than the first.

The ice bit deeper. The lower right fraction of Lung's jaw cracked and tumbled to the ground.

Lung shifted his grip then drove his claws up under Caster's armpit, bypassing her breastplate altogether. Blades tore through armored cloth, penetrating deep into softer flesh.

Caster stiffened then sagged.

Lung pulled away, claws tearing free with a sick splurch. Shreds of red meat and vital organs splattered onto the street. Lung stumbled back. The serpent turned its head then suddenly slammed it into the concrete. Scale and bone cracked. Lung rammed his face into the ground again. Half his head broke away, allowing new flesh to grow in its place.

Lung lifted his serpentine neck high and screamed his victory to the heavens.

"▂▂▃▃▄▄▅▅!"

This is like a game of cops and robbers. The memory sank into Tattletale's gut like a knife and twisted. Her vulpine smile was frail mockery when Lung turned toward them. The wyrm strode forward, dragging Caster's carcass with a rear claw.

Right lung, perforated. Left lung, eighty percent of the mass is missing. Heart, dislocated. Linked arteries, severed. Massive internal bleeding. Oxygen transport system has collapsed. Brain death will ensue in –.

Tattletale wrenched her eyes away. She didn't want to know it. This... this was her fault, her responsibility. It was her job to see the ambushes, to pierce the enemy's plot, and to ensure that no one was caught between a rock and a hard place. And even if she screwed up, no one was supposed to die. Get banged up? Definitely. Spend a few weeks in prison? Probably. Die? That was against the rules.

But you've always known that not everyone follows the rules, her traitorous mind whispered.

"T?"

The voice on the other side of the phone was faint, distant, as though coming from different planet. Tattletale flailed, not sure how to answer. When she did, the words slipped out unthought and unbidden.

"Rin's dead."

Numb, she pulled the phone away from her ear and hung up, not wanting to hear Overmind's answer.

Lung loomed over the alley. The heat of his presence felt like a bonfire. The villain lazily tossed Caster's smoking body at Tattletale's feet. His X shaped jaw parted, rows of steel rending teeth gleaming in the afternoon light. With a single snap, he could crush her skull. With a casual slap, he could separate legs from chest. Lung could kill her. Trivially. Easily. Like stepping on a bug.

And there was nothing she could do to stop him.

No hostile intent. His goal is to intimidate. A message. Be afraid. Back off. Don't mess with the ABB. Lung will escalate if that communication is not received.

Despite herself, Tattletale gulped.

"You got what you wanted," Faultline barked, standing from where she had been tending Gregor. "Now leave. Unless you want to spoil what little good will you've bought."

Lung laughed.

The sound was deep, guttural and unnatural, like a boulder coughing. Lung turned away, his great feet carrying him meters in a single step. He rose up, two wings spreading until they shadowed both lanes of the main street.

Lung vaulted into the sky, the heavens themselves thudding with the reverberating beat of his wings.

-oOo-

Black Keys – The iconic weapon of the Church's Executors, the blade and hilt symbolizing the keys of providence. A black key is a conceptual weapon whose blades are formed through the application of power (prana) in conjunction with faith. Though shaped like a sword, a black key is weighted for throwing and thus serves poorly as a melee weapon. When not in use, black keys appear as simple hilts, which allows their users to carry dozens or even hundreds of the weapons at a time.

Rin's use of the black keys originates from her training with her guardian Kirei Kotomine. As an Enforcer, she developed the art of their use and incorporated the weapons with her fighting style. Though less versatile than magecraft, a black key can be triggered and thrown faster. Further, the weapon cannot be as easily defeated with magic resistance, a real concern when carrying out disposal contracts for high class Dead Apostles.

Ordinarily, black keys require strong faith to properly utilize. Faith that Rin lacks. As such, she prefers keys enchanted with more conventional thaumaturgic mysteries such as Cremation, Internment and similar rites.