Price of Blood
1) This story is set in the Wormverse, which is owned by Wildbow. Thanks for letting me use it.
2) I will follow canon as closely as I can. If I find something that canon does not cover, I will make stuff up. If canon then refutes me, I will revise. Do not bother me with fanon; corrections require citations.
3) I will accept any legitimate criticism of my work. However, I reserve the right to ignore anyone who says "That's wrong" without showing how it is wrong, and suggesting how it can be made right. Posting negative reviews from an anonymous account is a good way to have said reviews deleted.
Part One: Unkind Fate
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
No, please no.
My breath burned in my throat. I couldn't run any faster. I had to run faster. Over the thundering of my pulse in my ears, over the frantic rasp of my breathing, I could hear the footsteps behind me. There were five of them, all boys. I didn't know why they were chasing me, but Sophia had told them to, so it probably wasn't to give me a late Christmas present.
Too late, I told myself that I should have stayed at the bus stop with the other Winslow students. That might have made the boys reconsider. But then, given the number of pranks that had been pulled on me inside Winslow itself, maybe not. I had to keep running. If I made it too hard for them to catch me, they'd give up. Surely they'd give up.
The fence on my right gave way to a narrow lane between houses. I staggered into it. Maybe I could get into someone's yard, hold the gate closed to keep them out -
"Gotcha, bitch!" Hands grabbed me from behind. I struggled, yanked myself free, but overbalanced and fell. I put my hands out to catch myself, feeling the skin abrade away on the rough concrete pathway. The breath sobbed in my lungs.
The knee that caught me in the middle of the back drove me down on to the concrete. I didn't have much air in my lungs; what little I had was driven out of me by the impact. My head bounced off of the path, my glasses coming off. Dizzy, not tracking well, I struggled feebly.
"Stop moving, bitch!" Someone grabbed my arms. I flailed about, pulling free, driving my elbow back almost by accident. It slammed into something soft that recoiled. "Fuck! My fucking balls!"
A blow to the side of my head. I tasted blood as my teeth cut into my lip. The ringing in my head got worse. I had to do something. Call for help. I strained to get air into my lungs, then let it out. A wordless shriek of despair and agony. Help. Please help.
"Fuck! Shut the bitch up!"
Someone grabbed my hair, pulled my head back. A hand slapped over my mouth, cutting off my scream. I tried to bite, sank my teeth into soft flesh. Did my best to draw blood. There, see how you like it.
"Christ fuck! Get her off me!"
Fingers like iron rods gouged into the sides of my face, forcing my jaws open. The hand was pulled free. I tried to scream again. Two hands grabbed my mouth this time, one to hold my jaws shut, the other to block off the noise. There was a ripping sound. "Here, shut her up with this!"
The hands went away, but before I could let out a proper call for help, something silvery passed before my eyes. It went over my mouth, sticking to my skin, cutting off my screams. I tried to bite at it, but couldn't get purchase. My tongue, probing, tasted something bitter and sour. Duct tape? Did they put duct tape on my mouth? I couldn't breathe; the air hissed in my nostrils, but it wasn't enough.
Another ripping noise, and I felt my wrists being taped together behind my back. Struggling just didn't help; there were more of them, and any one of them was stronger than me. I flailed my legs, kicking out wildly, not caring if I hit one of them or a fence. Anything that would get peoples' attention. But I felt them being grabbed, held together, taped at the ankles.
I couldn't get enough air through my nostrils to struggle as hard as I wanted to, but I heaved at the duct tape anyway. It stretched a little on my wrists, and slid up and down on my ankles, but I couldn't make it do anything more than that.
"Okay, we've got her." The voice was strained, breathing heavily. "Now what do we do?"
"She said to tie her to a telephone pole or something." I didn't know who the boy was, except that he was probably on the track team. Or maybe not. I didn't know. I just knew who 'she' was.
"I don't see any telephone poles around here." This was a third boy. He was panting just as hard as the first two. "Just leave her?"
"Fuck that," growled a fourth. "She got me in the nuts. Bit Joe. Kicked you in the chest." I didn't remember kicking anyone, but I was pleased that I had. I hope it hurt. "She's gonna pay for making it this hard."
Hands wriggled into my pockets, found and retrieved my house key and the little coin-purse I kept for the bus. I tried to breath steadily. Let them take your stuff. It's just stuff. I didn't know what had happened to my backpack; it had been dropped, somewhere back along the way, because it was weighing me down. It was probably gone by now, too.
Coins jingled; I heard murmuring. "Fuck, three dollars forty-two? That's not even a pack of fucking gum!" Something struck me on the back and the head; I saw coins bouncing on the ground in front of me.
"Well, fuck. No money. A shitty plastic watch. She doesn't have a phone. No jewellery. So much for making her fucking pay for it." A weight on my back, which I had almost forgotten about, lifted off of me. Suddenly, I could breathe a lot more easily. "Fuck it. Let's just leave her."
"No." It was the guy I had gotten in the testicles. "Fuck that. Let's have some fun with her. She owes us that much."
"What, you mean -?"
"Yeah, I mean that." His voice held a challenge. "Unless you're pussy. Pussy."
"I'm no fucking pussy." There was anger in the voice. The sense of vague hope – maybe they'll just leave me to get free – began to give way to a growing dread. They wouldn't. Would they?
"Then fucking prove it." I heard a zipper slide down. "Get some."
"I dunno." It was one of the others. "DNA and all that shit …"
Yeah, I thought frantically. DNA! Evidence!
"Dude. I always come prepared." My heart sank. "Condoms catch all that shit. They won't have anything to go on."
The hopeful note in the one boy's voice was one I never wanted to hear. "You got enough for all of us?"
No. No no no. Please, no. I began to struggle again, to make as much noise as I could.
"Shit! Hold her down!" Hands grabbed me, rolled me over on to my back. It was hugely uncomfortable, with my hands taped behind me, but they didn't seem to care.
"She can see our faces. She'll be able to tell the cops." That was one of the blurry forms in front of me, sounding doubtful. I nodded emphatically.
"Doofus, she doesn't know us from fucking Adam, and she needs glasses anyway. Now hold her steady." I felt hands fumbling with my pants.
"Sketch artists ..." It was the one who had worried about DNA.
I could easily visualise an eye-roll with the tone of the voice. "Okay, fine then." A ripping sound was followed by a strip of duct tape coming into view. I rolled my head frantically from side to side, but it was no use. The tape came down, and I saw nothing more. "Happy?"
That was when I really started to lose control.
Up until then, I had been determined to let them have their prank and go on their way. Tying me up was worrisome, but I figured that once they were gone, I could get bugs to chew through the duct tape – at least, I hoped they could chew through the duct tape – and I could go home. But tied up, gagged, blindfolded and about to be gang-raped by a bunch of jocks … no. Just. Fucking. No.
I could easily have brought the bugs in before this point. Chasing them off with a swarm of bees or wasps would have been child's play. But my control wasn't the greatest; more to the point, attacking civilians with a swarm of stinging insects would have outed me and my powers, and not in a good way. I wanted to be a hero. Letting these guys – and, by extension, Sophia – know about my powers would do my heroic career no good at all.
But this changed everything. I didn't give a shit about my heroic career, about my just-barely-started costume. Not if this was the price to pay for secrecy.
I could feel every bug in my radius. Normally it was about one and a half to two blocks; right now, it was all the way out to four blocks. I had no idea why, but I wasn't arguing. I grabbed every one of those points of light that could bite or sting or even annoy someone, and gave them the same order. Come here. Help me.
My top was pushed up. "Fuck, she wears a bra? Waste of time, you ask me."
I struggled, whimpering through my gag as the undergarment was pushed up and hands groped me. Other hands grabbed at my waistband. I arched my back, pushing my butt down on to the ground as hard as I could. No. No no no. Don't. I'm begging you.
"Fuck, what's keeping you?"
"She's not exactly fucking cooperating, dude." I could hear the exasperation in his voice. Good. Give up. Go away.
"Well, undo the fucking pants!"
The first bugs arrived as the button on the front of my jeans was opened. Despite my best efforts, the zipper went down. I spread my knees apart as far as I could.
"Oh, for fuck's sake, get her legs together!"
There was a chuckle. I wanted to rip his throat out. "You won't be saying that in a minute."
I felt strong hands pushing my knees together; bucking and twisting, I did my best to struggle, but again, there were too many and they were too strong. But my reinforcements were about to turn the tide.
"Fuck! Ow! What was that?"
"Dude, you just got stung by a bee! Ow! Fuck! Was that a wasp?"
"Is it just me, or are there suddenly a lot of bugs around here?"
"Fuck, that's a black widow!"
"No, dude, that's not a black widow! That's about ten of them!" It was only four, but four was bad enough. I decided to hold off the truly venomous bugs from attacking unless things got really bad. No need for any deaths.
"Shit! Fuck! Ow!" More wasps had arrived on the scene. There were enough bugs here now for me to get a general idea of what was going on. The boys had not retreated, but they were fully occupied with fending off the attacking swarm. I rolled on to my side and started a bunch of cockroaches attacking the duct tape around my wrists. They ate everything else, I figured, so they could probably gnaw through duct tape with ease.
"What the fuck's going on?" I could hear fear in the tone.
"Fuck this shit, I'm outta here!" One of the boys bolted, then another. I let them go.
I eased up on the attacks, concentrating on the cockroaches. That was my mistake.
"Shit, look at that!"
"Look at what? Fuck, this is too weird! Where'd all these bugs come from?"
"They're not attacking her! And those roaches are going for the duct tape!"
Shit. Shit shit shit. I realised, too late, that I should have waited for them to all go before I started freeing myself.
"Shit, she's a cape?" The third boy shook his head. "Fuck that, I'm out." He bolted as well. I began to relax slightly, but the fourth boy was still looming over me.
"Is this all you, bitch? You a fucking cape? You making all these fucking bugs attack us?"
I was startled by the venom in his voice. Before I had a chance to react, he kicked me. His boot rammed into my stomach, bending me double as I lay on the ground. The breath drove out of me and I fought not to vomit. Help … attack …
"Dude, let's just go. Come on!"
"No, fuck this bitch! No psycho cape gets to pull this shit on me! We knock her out, the bugs go away!" He drew back his leg; I tried to pull my head out of the way, but it was too late. The smashing impact sent me spiralling into the darkness.
Air. I could breathe. Cold air flowed into my lungs. I inhaled deeply, then bent double with a hacking cough. My stomach felt bruised. Bringing my hands around, I felt at it, then realised what I was doing. The duct tape around my wrists was hanging in tatters, with cockroaches still industriously gnawing away at it.
I felt at my mouth, which tasted like it was full of blood. Most of the duct tape there was gone as well; I leaned to the side and spat out … blood, with a tooth in there as well, if the fuzzy white dot was any indication. My mouth felt like someone had kicked me there. Which, as I recalled, someone had.
It took me a moment to realise that I was seeing the blood. Seeing my tooth. I felt at my eyes, then peeled away the remnants of the tape from there and my mouth. My jaw throbbed. It felt swollen, and when I tried to move it, something grated horribly. A shaft of pain shot up into my head, and I clenched my eyes shut tightly, trying not to scream.
After a moment, as I breathed deeply, the pain went back to a dull background throb. I think I've got a broken jaw. Fucking asshole. When I saw the guy again, or Sophia for that matter, I was going to punch them right in the face. A lot.
Once I had calmed myself down with images of Sophia's nose breaking under my fist, I checked the tape around my ankles. It had been also dealt with. Oh, good. I have to say, cockroaches are good for something. Rolling over, I climbed unsteadily to my feet. And then my pants promptly fell down. Oh, right.
Bending over, I pulled them up, hoping that the roaches hadn't gone to town on them as well. Fortunately, they hadn't; I didn't feel any unwanted ventilation. Nor did I feel any unwanted cockroaches; as useful as they were, I still got the creeps when they ran over my skin.
Reminded of that, I pulled my bra back into position, then yanked my shirt down into place over it. Blushing, I looked around to see who I might have accidentally flashed. There was nobody there. At least, nobody moving. But someone was lying there, about three yards away from me. Face-down. Not moving. I couldn't see any more details, because my glasses were nowhere to be seen.
Taking a deep breath, I took hold of all the bugs on the ground … and for the first time, realised just how many there were. And how many there were in the air, as well. All around me. For blocks and blocks.
"Oh, god," I mumbled. They'd be able to see this swarm from space. I was so outed.
But first things first. The command I had previously sent to my tiny minions now bore fruit. A bunch of them were clustered around what felt like my glasses. Bending down, I picked them up. For a miracle, only one lens was broken, and the arms only needed a little bit of straightening. I fixed that, then put them back on … and nearly threw up.
Because right in front of me, the guy lying face-down … was dead. Either that, or he didn't have any problem with having been eaten down to the bone in several areas. Hundreds of bugs were still working away at him; I could feel their satiation as they gorged themselves on his …
This time, I did throw up, turning to one side and relieving myself of my last meal. And the one before that. This didn't do my broken jaw any favours at all. I spat, painfully, to get rid of the lingering taste (unsuccessfully) then averted my gaze from the corpse. Now that I was paying more attention, I noticed another suspiciously human-shaped mound of bugs not so far down the alley. Oh, god. What have I done?
I had told the bugs – all the bugs – to come to me, to help me, and to attack. They had done this, even while I was unconscious. And the two boys had died.
I hadn't known my orders worked like that. I'd barely given any bugs any mass orders at all. Mainly, it had been 'come here' and 'go away'. Of course, I'd gathered black widows to start the weaving process for my costume, but even that wasn't going too great.
Leaning against the fence, I spat again, then breathed deeply, trying to clear my head. Okay, then. I'm well and truly outed. Everyone in Brockton Bay who's not blind, deaf and dead is gonna know that there's a bug cape here. I glanced down at the corpse, then hastily averted my gaze again. And I've just killed two guys. Another deep breath. Okay. Okay. I can get through this. It wasn't my fault. All I have to do is explain what happened. Explain what they were going to do. Self-defence is a thing, right?
My jaw hurt like a son of a bitch. I hoped that I wouldn't have to do too much talking. Carefully avoiding looking at the dead bodies, I started out of the alleyway. I just wanted to go home. I'd tell Dad what had happened, and he could call the police and let them know that it was all over. It was all going to be okay.
The mass of bugs roiled and hummed over a section of north Brockton Bay. A circle about eight blocks across had been evacuated. Helicopters criss-crossed the sky above it, cameras pointing downward. The evacuation had been a nightmare; people had barricaded themselves into their houses, blocking every ingress point, and still the bugs got in. PRT drivers, volunteers all, had donned protective gear and driven vans into the area. To get as close to the houses as possible, they had driven over fences and mailboxes alike in their quest to get people on board and out of the area. And still, it hadn't been enough.
Armsmaster, a hundred yards away from the nominal outer perimeter, called up the latest count of casualties on his helmet HUD. Of the ten thousand, five hundred and sixty-three people in that area, seven thousand twelve had been stung, bitten or otherwise attacked by the sudden aggressive uprising of insects and spiders. There had been two hundred and fifty-four confirmed deaths, most from allergic reactions to bug stings. Twenty-nine people were known to be alive in the area, having managed to secure bug-proof shelters. Eighty-seven people were unaccounted for. A few hundred others were being inconsistently reporting missing and found by concerned family members and friends, but Dragon had sorted through the data and identified only eighty-seven who were actually likely to be in the area.
A beep in his earpiece signalled an incoming call. He flicked his eyes over the HUD and accepted it. "Director."
"Armsmaster. Any change in the situation?" Her voice was clipped, precise.
Despite the fact that she could not see him, he shook his head. "None. Are there any suspicious activities anywhere else in the city? Ransom demands?"
"A little looting, downtown, but nothing of note. The police are handling it. Nothing that would indicate prior knowledge of this situation."
"Hm." He almost wished that it was a ransom situation. That way, he'd have someone to hit. "Does Dragon have anything that might fit this scenario?"
"I've spoken with her. She says that she's flying a specialised suit to Brockton Bay as we speak."
"Oh, good." He felt a little tension leave his shoulders. "ETA?"
"Good. I -" He paused, his eye on one of the camera feeds. "That's funny."
"I assume you mean funny-peculiar."
"Yes, of course. Look at the north-west quadrant of the swarm. It looks almost as if it's breaking up. Dispersing."
She took a moment to reply. "You're right. It does. Do you still hold to the theory that the cape creating this is in the geometric centre?"
"It would make the most sense, especially if this was being caused by a new trigger."
"So the cape may be leaving that area. Travelling southeast."
"I'm still not entirely sure why the cape never moved in all this time."
"We'll have to ask him or her that question. Preferably in an interrogation room."
"Wait. All quadrants are showing bugs dispersing. Is the radius of effect shrinking?"
"Perhaps a Tinkertech gadget, then. If it's running out of power …"
"That would make it a proof of concept, or a distraction, or both."
"Still think it's a new cape, Armsmaster?"
He grimaced. "It fits the pattern. We haven't had a bug cape in the city before, and this one appeared very dramatically."
"Hmm. You may be right. I've got the swarm breaking up more and more. Chopper Two has just spotted a person walking down the street, toward the perimeter."
"Description?" Armsmaster was already zooming in that camera feed as he asked the question.
"Subject appears to be a … teenage girl or skinny boy … long hair, we'll go with girl. Walking a little unsteadily. Dirt or blood on her face and down her front. I think she's wearing glasses."
Armsmaster agreed with the assessment; he also had caught the flash of light as the girl tilted her head to look at the overflying helicopter. "And the bugs are definitely dispersing?"
"It looks that way."
"I'm on the move." Swinging his leg over his cycle, Armsmaster sent the signal to start the engine. All the work he had put into reducing startup time paid off now; no sooner had he settled his weight on to the saddle than the thrumming roar built up beneath him, every readout in the green. "En route to intercept."
"Keep to the perimeter. The bugs might return."
"Roger that." Displaying the acceleration of a much lighter vehicle, the cycle rocketed off down the street.
It was only after I left the alley that I felt secure enough to start sending the swarm away. I kept a lot of bugs nearby, of course, but the vast majority were able to disperse and go their separate ways. Maybe I can even get away with this. I was pretty sure it wasn't going to happen, but I could always hope.
Down one street and then another I walked. I was reasonably certain that I was heading in the general direction of home. Winslow was somewhere behind me. I wasn't sure quite how far; as far as I could tell, it had been outside of my bugs' range when I was in the alley. I was also one hundred percent certain that I never wanted to go back.
There was a bus stop in the distance. I walked toward it, then recalled that my bus fare was scattered on the ground, back in the alley. I hadn't even thought to try to get my coin purse back. So, walking it is. It was just another layer of crap on my already oh-so-wonderful day.
It was creepy as hell, walking down empty streets. The only thing that broke the silence was the sound of helicopters overheard. I guessed that they'd been there since before I told the bugs to go away, but I hadn't heard them till then.
Halfway across an intersection – no cars, which was kind of a first for me – I noticed faces peering out of a Denny's across the way. I hadn't seen a public phone, but maybe they'd let me call Dad and get him to pick me up. I might even get a glass of water to wash the taste of blood and vomit out of my mouth.
As I approached, the faces shrank back, as if afraid. Of me? Yeah, that's gonna happen. The doors failed to open, so I tapped on them. The guy who was closest to the window shook his head vehemently. I tapped again. He shook his head even harder. I tried to indicate by gestures that the bugs were all gone, but I was pretty sure it was wasted on him.
My jaw was hurting more than ever. I wanted to cry. My stomach was still sore. I turned away from the shop-front, and there they were.
"So where is this mystery girl?" Colin didn't care how abrupt he sounded.
The PRT officer held up a tablet showing a map of the swarm-infested area. "She's about two blocks away. Approaching the Denny's, the one with people inside."
"Oh, shit." That was Velocity. "What if she's trying to get bugs in there?"
Armsmaster turned to the officer. "Do you have their number?"
"Right here, sir." He held up a post-it note.
Colin didn't take it. "Ring them. Impress on them that they must not open the doors for her. No matter what she says or does."
"Roger that, sir." The officer turned away.
"You know, the bugs are almost gone …" Velocity was rubbing his chin.
"What if we just went in there?"
Colin shook his head. "Bad idea. You saw how they swarmed anyone who tried to enter."
"But the swarm's gone, is what I'm saying."
Colin considered that. He seemed to be correct; the swarm had attenuated to … well, nothing. While it had been ongoing, the bugs had converged with extreme prejudice on anyone moving into the area. There were two possibilities here; either the swarm-controller had given new orders, or the bugs were waiting in ambush.
And then there were the people holed up in the fast-food restaurant to consider. If the bug cape really wanted to get bugs in there, it was going to happen. A rock would do it.
"Armsmaster, this is Miss Militia. I have eyes on target."
Hannah was lying on a rooftop one block back from the danger zone. She had made her weapon into the most elaborate sniper rifle that Colin had ever seen, with a scope that could pick out individual hair follicles at half a mile. "What's she doing?"
"Just walking. Limping, really. She seems to be hurt. Holding her stomach. There's blood on her face and shirt. I can't get a good look, but there seems to be something wrong with her face, like her jaw's swollen."
Despite the fact that she couldn't see him, Armsmaster nodded. "Does she appear to have been attacked by the bugs?"
"I'm not seeing anything like that, no. To be honest, she looks like she's just been beaten up. Pretty badly, at that."
This was starting to fit the profile of a new trigger. He came to a decision. "Keep an eye on her. We're going in."
"We are? Who's 'we'?" asked Velocity.
"You, me …" Armsmaster paused. "I could really do with Vista or Clockblocker, but I can't expose Wards to this sort of danger. Just the two of us for the moment, until we get this figured out. Plus some soldiers." He raised his voice. "I'm calling for volunteers to go in with us. Four men. Two with containment foam."
"What's containment foam going to do against bugs if they decide to swarm us?" asked Velocity.
"It's for us, so we don't get stung to death before help arrives," Colin pointed out.
"Oh." Velocity looked enlightened. "Right."
So far, eight men had presented themselves. Armsmaster looked them over. "You, you, you and you. Stay behind us. No hostile moves unless I authorise it. Understood?"
The highest ranking of the four men picked – a sergeant – straightened to attention. "Sir."
"Good. Let's go."
"Miss, I'm going to have to ask you to stand down."
The voice was firm and authoritative. I couldn't tell who'd spoken, or even who they were, because they had the sun behind them. As I squinted through the glare, the broken lens of my glasses sent spikes of bright light into my eye, making me wince. Painfully, I brought up my right hand to shade my eyes. As I did so, I saw the men tense. Rifles, or what I thought were rifles, were raised.
"Don't shoot me," I mumbled. "Please." Even trying to speak sent a jag of pain through my jaw, causing tears to trickle down my cheeks.
One of them stepped forward. He was taller than me by a good six inches, and so much broader that it was ridiculous. As he did so, he blotted out the sun, and I got my first good look at him.
"Armsmaster," I mumbled. I took a shuffling step forward, then another. "I just wanna go home. Dad'll be worried." Armsmaster was a hero. He would help me get home. It was going to be all right.
"Miss, you're going to have to come with us." His tone brooked no disagreement.
"No." Something grated in my jaw with the intensity of the word, and I nearly screamed from the agony. "Just lemme go home. Please." I tried to step past him, but something gave way inside me. Sinking to my knees, I hugged myself and let the tears come.
That tiny surrender paved the way. The tight rein I had been holding on to consciousness slipped out of my grip, and blackness welled up.
I think he caught me as I began to fall sideways.
End of Part One