Of Wasps and Wizards, Chapter 1.
For the first time since the great failure, I walked the streets in costume again. Only instead of Brockton Bay, it was Chicago.
The buildings were higher, the city was bigger, and the insect population was slightly different. Instead of abandoned buildings, there were shady apartments. Instead of Armsmaster leading the Protectorate, you had Revel. Instead of everyone talking about Assault and Battery being sisterwives, or Dauntless being a future Triumvirate member, people gossiped about Myrddin.
Myrddin… the one parahuman doing the wizard thing that actually made it work. I still wondered why the PRT allowed it. Didn't they think it was bad PR or something like that?
It was hard not to see the man's influence on the city. Even though he'd only been part of the Protectorate for a few years, he was by far one of the most popular capes around. I could kind of understand that, having seen him in action against Leviathan.
When Legend had given his speech, talking about parahumans being tolerated because they fought stuff like Leviathan, I'd been skeptical. That had changed when I saw all the people that had shown up. It wasn't just official heroes, there were villains too. That, and people that probably didn't fit anywhere on the spectrum. Even Rogues like Parian used their powers for something and had a costume. During the Leviathan fight, I'd seen people hidden by nothing but a plastic domino mask throwing themselves at the beast with nothing but a sword.
Whatever, all of that didn't matter. I wasn't going to be a villain again. Not that I was going to join the fucking Protectorate, or the Wards. Not after what they had done. But I wasn't going to be a villain. I'd never wanted to be one anyway…
I just really missed my friends.
I hadn't taken twenty steps through the alleyway when I found my first crime. A purse snatching. It had happened about a block away in the middle of a busy street.
Well, that was a lot easier than fighting Lung had been. Hopefully it wouldn't end the same way either.
I marked both perp and victim with a fly, and send my gathered swarm through the alleyways. Then, as the thief was about to turn the corner and get out of sight, he was met by one of my new swarm-clones. I'd first used them to try and trick Leviathan, but they would work here as well.
He said something, but I had no idea what. It was loud though, and his body movements were getting panicky. He'd probably never heard of me, I was just some girl from an unknown team in a different city. He just knew that a biblical plague descending upon him wasn't something that he wanted to happen to him.
I put my attention on the swarmclone, and gestured, pointing at the purse the man had stolen. Within a second, the man had dropped the bag, and went to his knees, I thought he was praying.
I made the swarm-clone ignore him, and had it engulf the bag, and slowly started carrying it towards its owner.
The people in the street, of course, started screaming and yelling at the sight of a few bugs, and when the swarm dropped the bag at its owner's feet, she was afraid to touch it.
Great… I helped someone out, did a good deed, and now they're freaking out about a couple of bugs.
Oh well, you couldn't have everything.
Quickly, before the Protectorate could react and do something stupid, I took off my costume, and changed back into my normal clothes. I was still wearing the silk under my pants, but the armour was now in my backpack again. Then, I made my way to the shopping street where 'Skitter' had stopped a purse snatcher, found a coffeeshop nearby and waited for the Protectorate response safely drinking tea in a cosy chair.
The response wasn't as interesting as I'd hoped it would be. A PRT van arrived with less than a full squad of troopers, who took statements from witnesses, trying to puzzle out what had happened. For just a second, I tried hearing through my bugs again, but it still gave me a headache. I knew it had to be possible, I just didn't know how.
Once both troopers and tea were gone, I made my way back to the apartment building slash refugee housing they'd put me in, and made my way to my room.
I'd told them I was eighteen, and the local management had decided that it would be safer to put the eighteen year old girl that was all on her own in a smaller, private room.
At least it wasn't as bad as the emergency camp had been. Here, I only had to share my shower with seven different families.
The real problem of course, would come when they figured out that I'd given them an age that was three years higher than it actually was. Which they would. Sure, it was total chaos right now, but I had no doubt in my mind that they would figure it out in time, and at that point, they would put me away in an orphanage or something like that somewhere.
Now that would really make it hard to actually do anything worthwhile… at least I wouldn't meet Emma there.
Heh… Emma. It felt weird to think about her. I didn't even know for sure, it was still a one in ten chance that she'd survived, but it felt a lot better to just assume the trio was finally out of my life. Even if they had survived, what was the chance that they would come to Chicago? Let alone that I would meet them here?
The refugees had been spread far and wide in order not to put too much pressure on any one location, with some luck, if any of them had survived, they would be in San Francisco or something, all the way on the west coast.
I made my way past the single guard at the front, flashing him my tiny plastic card, and walked past the common area, in which people were discussing enthusiastically around a computer screen.
"Something interesting?" I asked.
A few of them turned around. One of the guys, Leon, he had three children and a dead wife, responded.
"They finally released the names of the fallen capes, we're figuring out who survived and who didn't," he said.
I joined them, only slightly interested. Cape stuff just… it felt so empty and strange, after knowing what it was really like.
Seeing the list, I scanned it for the names of the deceased. None of Faultline's crew, she'd apparently been out of town in a job. Most of the Nazis were dead, although Purity, Crusader and Fog had apparently managed to make it out. I spotted Oni Lee's name too, suddenly remembering about his existence. Strange, to think that the ABB was now completely gone. Not so strange, if you thought about the fact that the entirety of Brockton Bay was gone.
I looked further, and tears started welling up in my eyes.
Tattletale - Sarah Livsey
Strange, that she'd decided to use a fake name, even with her friends. If we even were her friends… We had been friends, right? She hadn't just been manipulating me, using my power for her own ends?
I wiped away the tears, trying to find the rest of my old team. The team I'd abandoned, hours before they'd died.
Hellhound - Rachel Lindt
Rachel's name was the next one I found. I'd been looking under the B, but apparently, the PRT wouldn't even honour her chosen name in death. How the fuck they got away with calling themselves heroes, I didn't know. It was all bullshit anyway.
I idly wondered about what had happened to her dogs. Had they all died too? The last time I'd seen them, shortly after Rachel's death, Judas had been carrying an unconscious Glory Girl, bringing her to the top of a building where she'd be safe, at least for a while.
Alec was the next one I found. They'd used his new cape name, but the old real one. Jean-Paul Vasil.
It still felt weird, knowing one of Heartbreaker's children. He'd been… not what I'd expected. Not evil. Sure, he could be a dick, needlessly needling people, but he'd already come so far that it was hard to blame him for that.
The last name I found was Brian's. Grue, Brian Labourn. Briefly, I wondered if his sister had made it out. Probably not, the chance was low, and I hadn't seen her coming out of the shelter.
It was ridiculous. Gladly was allowed to survive, and my friends had to die.
"See anyone you know?" Leon asked.
"It's just… I mean… wait, Rory Christner?" I replied, I knew that name from somewhere. How would I know Triumph?
"Christner? Where?" someone asked.
"Triumph…" I replied, pointing at the line of the paper.
"Isn't that the mayor's son?" the person asked. A few others nodded and replied in the affirmative.
I kept looking through the list… trying not to think about the fact that the mayor and the PRT were so closely connected. It made sense, in a way. The Protectorate was led by an incompetent asshole, and if my father had been correct, so was the city itself.
Finally, my eyes fell on Shadow Stalker's name. I still remembered her death. Friendly fire, some out-of-town villain had thrown lightning at Leviathan, right through her breaker state.
Shadow Stalker - Sophia Hess
Sophia… Sophia had been Shadow Stalker, a ward, a hero…
I wish I could've gotten angry, could've shouted in righteous fury, but all I could think of was that bloodcurdling scream… She'd been a horrible person, but at least she'd died with honour? Something like that?
Trying to handle that piece of information, I left the room, and headed for bed. My room was small. A bed, a nightstand with a lamp, a few books I'd gotten from the library.
I started drifting away, trying not to think about my former team, my friends… Sleep did not come easily.
It had been four days since I'd gone out in costume again, and I hadn't worn it since.
Why? Because I didn't need it, and because I didn't want anyone to see me. Everyone probably still thought of me as a villain, and I was pretty sure I couldn't handle someone like Myrddin or Revel in a one-on-one fight, let alone what would happen if there was more than one of them.
In addition to that, It also helped me keep safe from actual villains. They might be able to beat my bugs, but that wouldn't help them if they couldn't find me.
So instead of walking around in a silly mask and a silk outfit, I'd spend these last few days installing myself in cafés and coffeeshops, relaxing and reading while my bugs scouted the surrounding area for crime.
Although… what I really did was more like training, trying to use the bugs to explore the city, figure out what was what, using more and more of their senses. I'd managed to figure out how to have at least some vision, although it was strange and not all that reliable. I could see contrast between dark and light, but it was nothing like my own eyes.
The sounds too, I was getting better at. Or at least, identifying tone of voice. Individual words were almost impossible to make out, but I could figure out when someone was talking, whether they were shouting or not, that kind of thing. It helped, since I just needed to figure out when someone sounded scared in order to identify possible crimes.
Today however, I wasn't just waiting for something to happen on the streets and in the alleyways. Instead, I'd discovered an interesting titbit of information about the local villains.
They had some sort of drug storage here. I had no idea what, but it had an effect on some of the bugs, and the people working with it were almost completely naked. It seemed like it came straight out of some sort of crime drama on TV.
Problem was, I had no idea whose lab it would be. I wasn't very familiar with the local villain groups, only indirectly knowing some of them. Local crime was weird, at least in comparison to Brockton Bay, although that may have just been my point of reference being all fucked up. There were even rumours that one of the gangs wasn't even led by a parahuman. I had no idea how that could happen, why hadn't one of his lieutenants up and decided to murder the guy and taken his place? It was probably one of those shitty PHO rumours that went about.
So, I spent a few hours, observing the drug lab three buildings over with my bugs, when to my surprise, I saw several men systematically moving towards the apartment, holding on to guns.
I wondered what it was, and cursed my lack of information. A rival gang? Traitors in the ranks? The police? They didn't look like cops to my bugs, but it was hard to make out.
I decided to wait, and keep my swarm in reserve. I didn't want to interfere with a police operation, but if it came down to a fire fight, I needed to move quickly in order to minimize collateral damage.
The men moved closer, and I noticed that one of them was a woman. Eventually, they stopped in front of the apartment holding the drug lab. One of them fiddled with something, and half a second later the door's lock was busted, and they entered the room, shouting.
I really hoped they were shouting something along the lines of "Police, you're under arrest!"
Most of the people inside reacted slowly, stopping what they were doing and putting their hands in the air.
I noticed I'd been holding my breath for the duration of the operation, and exhaled just as I noticed someone coming out of a door, sneaking up on the cops.
I called on my swarm, sending them into the apartment, out of the walls, but it was too late. The man moved forward with a ridiculous speed, and his hands reached through one of the cops, who screamed out in pain.
A cape… They'd had a cape in reserve. How the fuck did I miss that?
The cape's victim fell on the flour, shouting in pain, trying to reach for something at his belt. As were the other cops.
As my swarm started entering the apartment from all possible entrances, the few bugs I already had inside sensed something strange.
The cops were capes too, I realized, as all four of them activated a changer ability. Their limbs started twisting, their clothes bursting, and my bugs could feel hair growing on their skin. Within seconds, they were more like wolves then men, and I felt the hurt man rush forwards, jumping on the criminal cape.
As I struggled to understand what happened next, the changers started tearing through the assembled people, tearing through their flesh.
I didn't need to think for long, and send my swarm into attack mode. They may have been criminals and drug dealers, but nobody deserved to be torn apart like that.
The swarm bit and tore at the changer-cops, but they weren't as effective as I'd hoped. It felt like they had some sort of low-level regeneration, or something else that was protecting them.
But while my attack wasn't that effective, it still spooked the changers, which almost immediately started fleeing by jumping out of the window, landing on the streets outside. From there, they ran between the assembled crowds, quickly leaving my range.
Back inside the apartment my bugs tried to figure out just exactly what had happened.
The cape, the one that had attacked the cops/changers/murderers, was lying in a pool of blood, dead. In much the same manner, a few of the assembled thugs and helpers had been slain. The others, the one that I had been able to safe, were running around like madmen, trying to evade the bulk of my swarm.
I moved my army, using them to block off the windows and the door, and waited for the Protectorate to arrive. Outside, on the side of the building, I used part of my swarm to write something on the wall:
'Call 911, 7 wounded survivors, several armed men.'
In the meantime, I tried not to act suspicious, and walked to the bar to order more tea. The entire situation had attracted an audience, which was, in some ways, rather nice, seeing how the onlookers included what had, just seconds ago, been a massive line.
As I sat back down and grabbed my book again, some shitty post-apocalyptic teenage romance bullshit from Aleph. It was a good timewaster, if nothing else.
Outside, I noticed that the Protectorate had responded. This time, it wasn't just a small squad gathering information. I noticed Revel, the leader of the local Protectorate, joined by the tall and crazy Myrddin, the even taller Campanile, and Tecton, the leader of the wards.
As they approached, Revel started flying, heading for the broken windows through which the changers had escaped. As she approached, I made my swarm retreat, giving her a full view of the people inside. She called something out, and the rest of the heroes entered the building. As they approached the door in question, I scattered my swarm, sending them out into the walls again. Only a few of them remained in the apartments, watching what was going on, feeding me information.
Half a minute later, the heroes were joined by paramedics, who started treating everyone in inside.
Half an hour later, most of them were gone again. Tecton and Campanile had escorted the prisoners, Revel was with the ambulance, and Myrddin was left alone, standing in the former drug lab.
He reached into his robe, grabbing some sort of strange tools and waved around his arms, using his powers. I kind of started to understand why he pretended to be a wizard, his powers were most certainly weird enough. Or maybe he was legitimately insane, and the hand waves and 'spells' were just unnecessary theatrics
Then, all of a sudden, after he'd inspected the claw marks on the floor, he started talking to himself. He wasn't even mumbling, just talking to the room as if there was anyone there, asking questions, getting annoyed when no-one replied. I really wondered what he was talking about. Was he just crazy? Did he have an invisible teammate?
Suddenly, Myrddin swung around his staff a little, and I felt something strange on my bugs. Like they were… well, I really had no way to describe the feeling, but they were lighting up a little?
Wait, had he been talking to me? I moved my bugs around, placing them on the floor in front of him, spelling out a sentence: 'can't hear you, can't speak,' they spelled out.
That seemed to satisfy him somewhat, and the strange feeling on my bugs stopped. He waved around some more with his hands, staff, and a pendant around his neck, after which he decided to leave. After he'd left the room, he spoke to some of the police officers standing outside, who started to secure the site, gathering evidence.
An hour later, I left, making my way back to the shelter in time for dinner.
The following morning, I left again, trying to stay away from the useless drama that tended to accompany whatever the rest of the people there did all day. On my way out, Leon noticed me, and told me about a notice from the main office in Chicago. They wanted to talk to me at ten in the morning. So, in about half an hour.
Oh great… that probably meant they'd figured out I wasn't as old as I'd told them I was.
I'd have to report in, they'd send me to some kind of crazy orphanage or whatever, force me to go to some fucking bullshit school again, try to get someone to adopt me…
Or, I could just do what I did yesterday, and buy myself some more time that way. That sounded like a much better idea.
I walked through the city for a while, lost, and wondering what to do. Almost subconsciously, my bugs went to work, scouting out the area around me, tagging people on the back of their heads, telling me where everyone and everything was.
Chicago was no Brockton Bay, but that didn't mean it was entirely safe, just that most of the supervillains were less serious about the whole 'take over the city' thing. No Coil here, at least not that I knew. Probably still some kidnapping assholes drugging children.
I wondered if Dinah had made it out… probably not. At least I could be pretty certain that Coil was gone too.
The weirdest thing about Chicago however, was that from what little research I'd been able to do, it seemed like quite a few of the villains took inspiration from Myrddin. There was a group of them pretending to be vampires, rumoured to be busy in the sex industry, using their dark allure and shitty romance novels to lure in horny idiots. The press took that kind of stuff, and ran away with it.
To make my point for me, I came across a newspaper stand selling papers with images from yesterday's fight on the frontpage. Or rather, a shitty picture of the wolves, and a better one of my bugs. Out of curiosity, I bought it, using the money I'd been able to smuggle out of my supervillain account.
The Midwestern Arcane, the title read. Apparently, it was a local tabloid, going by the general tone of the paper, it seemed to be aimed at people that, like Myrddin, believed in magic.
The wolves hadn't been changers, no, they had been werewolves. Didn't matter that it hadn't been a full moon, magic didn't work that way according to the writer of the article.
Strangely enough, the article also claimed that the bug controller was, in fact, not me at all, but rather the ghost of an exterminator that had died on the job, protecting people even in death. I had a small, private laugh about that. The proof, according to the writer, some lady called Susan Rodriguez, was in the swarmclones. You see, back in Brockton Bay, this "Skitter" person had been a villain that send her bugs around personally. The bugs in Chicago however, often formed together in a phantom body, which could be explained by the fact that the spirit of the exterminator (she'd latched on to someone called Billy) desperately wanted to have a real body again. Plus, he was acting as a vigilante, helping people, which obviously meant it couldn't be this Skitter person.
The fact that Skitter had survived Leviathan's attack, and not been spotted anywhere else, well that was just horribly inconvenient, and could be ignored.
I went through the rest of the paper. It described actions one could take when fighting vampires, the importance of not placing those mats that said 'welcome' in front of your doors (apparently, magical stuff couldn't enter your home unless you invited them in, and those mats counted) and a report on why car possessions were a hot thing these days. Sure the Protectorate said that it was a new parahuman trying out their power, but everyone knew that Director Heathrow was in League with the Vampires. You see, that was why he denied their existence, saying those were just parahumans with a shitty gimmick, or emo teens.
Wandering through the city, I eventually stumbled into a newly opened restaurant, one that I was intimately familiar with nonetheless.
Fugly Bob's Bob had survived, and had relocated his restaurant to Chicago as well. Apparently, today was opening day. Looking at how empty the place was, it didn't seem like Chicagoans liked it's rustic, lard-filled charm.
'A Brockton Bay classic,' the sign above the counter said. I made my way there, and I was almost immediately greeted by Fugly Bob himself. He wasn't actually that ugly. Mostly, he was just fat, and he used his burgers to make people look like him.
"Discount for a long-time fan?" I asked. It wasn't true, in fact, the only people I knew that actually liked his food were my dad and Regent, but Bob didn't know that.
"A fellow Brocktonite? You can count on it!" he replied merrily. "You know what, I'll get you a challenger for free, you won't even have to finish it!" he continued, cheery as always.
I grabbed my free burger, gave him money for a drink, and moved to a seat near the window to start on the most unhealthy breakfast I'd ever eaten.
Slowly, the new burger place started filling up, naïve Chicagoans, or Chicagoites, or whatever they were called trying out the new place, feeling good for supporting a business-owner that had lost everything to Leviathan. It probably helped that I was sitting by the window, trying to eat the biggest burger they'd ever seen.
About half an hour into my burger, someone sat down in front of me without asking. I looked around, it wasn't that busy, he could've picked any other table if he'd wanted to sit down.
The man looked to be about twenty-five or so. He had short black hair, and a stubble that said 'too lazy to shave' more than it did 'I think this looks cool'. He was wearing a long black jacket, that was really more like a coat, like something out of a shitty cowboy movie. I was tall for my age, for a girl, and he still towered over me, sitting in front of me. Most attention-grabbing however, was the silver pentagram hanging from a chain around his neck. Had he seen me carrying the Arcane, and thought me a fan of the mystical? He was most definitely a Myrddin fan, those pendants were sold in basically every knick-knack store in Chicago, and there was only one reason anyone would want them. Because they believed magic was actually real, and wanted to become a wizard or some shit like that.
I looked at the man, annoyance visible on my face. He just sat there, calmly, and spoke.
"Skitter, I presume? We need to have a talk about hexenwolves, and about lying to people about your age."
I panicked, realizing what he just said. I had a strange feeling that this wasn't just someone that fancied himself a wizard. Or, actually, this was still someone that fancied himself a wizard, but he had the parahuman abilities to back up his claims somewhat.
Myrddin had found me.