Chapter 18: Taken
The air was full of ash.
Counterpoise wheezed under her mask, slumped against a wall. Acacia stood over her, scanning the deserted streets. The buildings were relatively tall, all three or four stories, previously grey brickwork now stained by soot. Cars were abandoned along the street, most with their windows smashed. The trees planted along the sidewalk were charred husks, some still smouldering, the glowing red bark mixing eerily with the haze.
"The fire is still east," Acacia said, "but there's no reports it's spreading outwards anymore."
"Do y'think someone took Burnscar out?" Counterpoise asked, voice rough.
Acacia tapped her fingers against her thigh, staring at the glow lighting up the night sky.
"Unless someone got lucky I don't think we've anyone that could get close enough."
She nudged Counterpoise, "Come on. Hatchet Face is probably still around."
"I know, I know," Counterpoise mumbled and rose with a groan.
"HQ, this is Acacia 09-11-Potter-Green requesting update."
"Acknowledged Acacia. Currently the only known hostile in your area is Hatchet Face, but Crawler was reportedly heading in your direction from the north."
"Lovely. Any chance of an assist?"
"Acacia this is Dragon. You've got assistance heading your way. If you meet, you will assume she is hostile at first, but she is helping."
"Right..." Acacia replied, sharing a glance with Counterpoise, "how will we know who it is?"
There was a momentary pause before Dragon replied.
"It's classified, but she's a… special asset. I've worked with her before."
The two of them shared a confused look.
"Let's head west," Counterpoise suggested after a moment, beginning to spin her sling in graceful loops.
They moved in silence for a few minutes, jogging past empty streets. The ash had begun to clear from the air, but the smell of smoke still lingered strongly. All the lights in houses had been turned off, and Counterpoise wondered if the people who lived there had fled or were hiding and hoping. Acacia jolted to a stop.
"I can hear something," Acacia whispered, turning to scan along the top of the buildings. Counterpoise followed her gaze and kept her sling spinning, searching for movement.
"It must've been the wind," her partner eventually said, and Counterpoise knew there was a severe frown on her face below her helmet.
The continued on, slower this time, taking the time to peer around corners before crossing any intersections. Not long later Acacia stopped again.
"We're definitely being-" she began. A crack sounded out, loud in the quiet. They both stayed still, ears straining for any more sounds. A deep, low laugh echoed along the street.
"Fuck," Acacia hissed. Counterpoise took a step closer to her, slowly turning in place, breathing quickly.
She heard the screech of twisting metal and leapt aside in time to dodge the wreck of a car that flew over her head. Counterpoise rolled with the motion, coming back up to her feet and firing in the same movement. Hatchet Face was charging at them, weapon ready to swing, and brought his free arm up to block, the ball scoring a deep line into his forearm.
Counterpoise immediately turned towards Acacia, leaping onto her back. Acacia ran, wooden armour pushing her faster than any sprinter.
Counterpoise looked back, pushing at her power, spinning her sling until it was letting out a shrill whine above her head, then launched the ball towards the chasing brute. It tore straight through his shoulder, sending a spray of blood outwards and leaving a gaping hole. He switched directions, sprinting down a sidestreet.
"He's flanking us," Counterpoise gasped out, still clutching tightly to Acacia's armour. "Go right!"
They continued zig-zagging westwards, trying to keep to wide, well lit streets. Counterpoise had already reloaded her sling, keeping it ready for another shot, but Acacia suddenly tumbled to the ground, swearing. Counterpoise tumbled off her back, bringing her sling up, but the energetic undertone she was familiar with didn't start up.
"Armour's locked up. Can barely move it," she said, gasping.
Hatchet Face leapt down onto the road from a nearby roof with a crunch, leering at them and blocking the roar ahead.
"Clever bitches for running away," he grunted, pacing forwards. Counterpoise stood in front of Acacia, trembling but unwilling to move .
"Brave, too," Hatchet Face continued, sneering when a sling projectile bounced uselessly off his skin. "Shame. Want to see how many limbs you can lose before you aren't brave anymore? Your friend can watch."
Counterpoise didn't respond, trying to load an explosive shot into her sling with shaking hands. She jerked up when she heard a pained gasp, only to see Hatchet Face staring down at a golden sword sticking out of his chest.
Khepri stood behind him, towering over his smaller form. Counterpoise's mind went blank. The Endbringer reached out, grasping his head, and for a moment the villain's eye's flashed gold before he slumped down, dead. Acacia jolted to her feet, moving in front of the unresponsive Counterpoise.
Khepri watched them for a moment, still as a statue, before taking a step back and raising her hands placatingly.
"Counterpoise, go," Acacia growled out, even as her voice shook. She tried to push her teammate away as she began to grow her own sword out from her gauntlet.
"Counterpoise," she hissed, "please."
"I'm helping," Khepri said, sounding surprisingly human. She looked down and shook her sword, trying to dislodge Hatchet Face's corpse. It slid free, thumping to the ground, and Khepri looked back up at them.
Dragon's voice came through the radio. "Please don't be alarmed, Khepri is an ally."
Acacia laughed, and Counterpoise shook herself out of her shock.
"Acacia…," she said, resting her hand on the other cape's shoulder, "please don't do anything rash."
"You should go," Khepri interrupted, "I am perfectly capable of eliminating the rest of the Nine without your help. You can stay safe."
Acacia bristled but didn't move closer, even as Counterpoise was struck by the feeling that the words seemed familiar.
"We wouldn't be here in the first place if we wanted to be safe, and we're not letting you go around our city unwatched."
"Acacia," Dragon began.
"If she's really on our side then she won't have an issue with it."
"Then you will have to stay with me," Khepri replied quietly, turning away, "and keep out of the way. There are monsters in this city, after all."
Acacia and Counterpoise shared a glance, Acacia scowling, and Counterpoise broke away to hurry to Khepri's side to follow the Endbringer's long steps in a jog.
"I consider her a friend," Dragon said over the comms, "please give her a chance."
Acacia didn't reply for a moment, even as she strode after the pair in front of her.
"I heard rumours she was working with the PRT."
"She has been. She saved Heartbreaker's victims from him."
"She also destroyed an entire city a month ago," Acacia growled out.
"It was a tragedy that we're hoping to avoid happening again. The situation is complicated."
Acacia watched the pair in front of her, taking in the sight. Khepri towered over Counterpoise, almost twice as tall, and Acacia was struck by the image of a small child walking next to their mother. She gave a low laugh.
"Crawler sighted north of the river," Dragon informed them.
The three of them came to a halt, forming a loose triangle. The Endbringer looked between them, head tilted as sand began to gather at their feet.
"What," Acacia said, moving to half stand in front of Counterpoise.
"You will need to stand on these," Khepri replied, gesturing towards the discs of sand she had formed.
Counterpoise saw Acacia stiffen and she stepped forward onto one of the platforms before her friend could protest. It took a few seconds before Acacia followed her lead, hesitantly moving onto the disc. Both of them crouched as they rose into the air, but the sand rose up to hold them in place.
Counterpoise's breathing began to quicken and for a moment she struggled against the unyielding sand before she centered herself, keeping her sight focused on the ground below them.
They landed silently and softly, the sand dispersing quickly, and Khepri heard Counterpoise let out a gasp of relief.
Dragon spoke up again. "Crawler is just east of your position. Jack Slash, Shatterbird and Bonesaw were last seen entering an office building three kilometres west, ten minutes ago. Mannequin, Burnscar, and the Siberian are unaccounted for."
"Mannequin is dead," Khepri said, as she turned and headed unerring along the streets, her footsteps silent. A loud crashing and roaring could be heard along the street, and it was barely a few seconds before a car came hurtling round the corner and crashed into the wall, Crawler close behind it. He looked similar to what she remembered, a heaving mass of dark flesh studded with eyes. The villain skidded to a stop when he spotted Khepri.
"An Endbringer?" he asked, beginning to shuffle forwards. "Oh… oh yes!." Crawler laughed in a voice that sounded like bubbling tar and gravel, bounding towards her in a mounting charge. "Jack kept us away, but now I'm finally getting a chance!"
The ground began to shake as Crawler got closer, each footstep rumbling out.
"Circle round to the side and stay out of his way," Khepri instructed the two parahumans, shifting her stance so her khopesh was out and low to the side.
They nodded, running away from Crawler's charging bulk. He roared again, delighted and eager, speeding up as he got closer to Khepri. She braced, and a loud crunch rang out as Crawler impacted onto her immoving form. His head was caught on her arm as the rest of his body swung in a high arc over the Endbringer, his neck twisting unnaturally far back. Crawler landed on his back, breath forced out of his lungs.
"More," he groaned, twisting away and out of her grip. Crawler righted himself, lowering his front half in preparation to pounce. Khepri flicked her arm out, throwing her sword straight into Crawler's head. It sunk to the hilt, from which grew thick golden chains that quickly wrapped around the villain's body.
Khepri walked forwards as Acacia and Counterpoise returned.
"I checked on the driver. He's dead," Acacia said, her voice short. "How are you going to deal with Crawler? He just adapts."
"Yes, show me! Make me hurt! Make me stronger," he rumbled, writhing in the chain's grasp, watching the Endbringer with eager eyes. Khepri stalked closer, raising her palm to rest it gently on Crawler's snout.
Crawler began to speak but froze as his eyes flashed golden.
His form began to shrink, steadily shortening, flesh shedding off and disintegrating into ash. Within only a few moments he was reduced back to human, a small, trembling man, still misshapen in places, Khepri's sword falling to the road next to him and burying itself in the tarmac.
"What..." he gasped, voice high, "there's… no pain."
Crawler shuddered, once, staring at Khepri's mask, then fell still as the rest of his body burned away in a soft gold glow. The Endbringer stood, turning slightly to look at the two parahumans watching with wide eyes.
"Six more," Khepri said, picking up her sword as she strode away.
Relief, fear and nausea warred within Acacia, even as she flinched at the sound of Burnscar's neck snapping.
"Why didn't you…" Counterpoise began, voice hitching when Khepri turned to look at her, "with the eyes."
The Endbringer's head tilted to the side slightly.
"You don't have to answer that!" Counterpoise squeaked.
The Endbringer nodded then turned away again, gesturing for the two of them to follow.
"Maybe we should've headed back to HQ, Acacia. Dragon is watching her."
"I'm not letting that monster roam around my home without making damn sure people have some warning when she snaps."
They followed after the Endbringer, who had been ignoring the calls from the radio and instead marching directly towards her targets.
"Your friend," Khepri said after a few minutes, causing both capes to jump in surprise, "Shepherd."
"You've met him?" Counterpoise asked, moving closer. "Do you know where he's been? We've been worried, he went to help Dragon and then-."
"He has been working with me. He helped with Heartbreaker. He is immune to all master effects," Khepri replied in the same even tone she had been using all evening.
"Is he okay, though?"
"Shepherd is… healthy. He misses you both, greatly."
"Why hasn't he come back?" Acacia challenged, louder than she intended, moving to walk between the Endbringer and Counterpoise. "It's been almost a week."
Khepri didn't reply, and Acacia shifted so she blocked her path forwards.
"You aren't telling us something."
"You are correct," Khepri agreed. She reached out, quicker than Acacia could react, and picked her up by the scruff of her armour.
"Oi!" she yelled, grabbing at the hand holding her.
"You're slowing us down. I'll put you down when we get there."
Khepri dropped Acacia when she arrived in front of a nondescript building. Counterpoise had to hold in a hysterical giggle at the wood-manipulator's disgruntled expression, the underlying terror of her situation killing it in her throat.
"Be careful," Khepri said, as she raised her palm. The building shook, almost imperceptibly, then was compressed into a tight ball. It left a wide gap, the carpets of the ground floor still in place, beyond which were gathered three of the remaining Slaughterhouse members. A blade immediately swung out, but a wall of sand rose up to protect Acacia and Counterpoise. Shatterbird's hail of glass was intercepted a moment later.
There was a furious grimace on Jack Slash's face as he stared at the Endbringer.
"Jack," Shatterbird began, and was silenced when she was pulled into the tarmac with a sickening crunch. Bonesaw's spiders began to run forwards and faded into dust as they got closer.
Khepri dodged to the side as the Siberian shot past from behind them, the monochrome killer grabbing Jack and Bonesaw as she did. The young tinker was trembling, and hunched closer to the Siberian's side.
"We'll have to continue this at another time, Khepri," Jack said, although he seemed far less sure of himself than in the videos Counterpoise had watched. The Siberian crouched, preparing to leap, then popped out of existence. Both Slaughterhouse members started in surprise, and Bonesaw let out an unhappy sob.
"Or perhaps not," Jack tried to smirk, but it came away as more of a grimace.
Khepri prowled towards them, the tarmac rising up around them to hold their legs in place.
"I-" The tarmac shot up and wrapped itself around Jack's mouth.
"No, Jack," Khepri sighed. Bonesaw began to scream and writhe, trying to reach the other villain, but her bindings dragged her away.
Jack stared as the Endbringer approached. She stopped an arm's length away from him, tilting her head, watching the expressions twist on his face.
His mouth moved, but no sound made it past the enveloping sand. Khepri reached out and gripped his face tightly, and Jack's eyes flashed gold.
It was quiet in the Portland PRT building. Acacia sat at a table in the deserted break room next to Counterpoise, both of their masks discarded on the table. Khepri sat opposite, her form human sized, if still tall. Three cups of cold tea sat in front of them.
"Thank you for helping," Counterpoise offered into the silence. Acacia closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
"You killed my friends and destroyed my home," Acacia said, almost whispering, "so tell us what you wanted to and then leave."
"I have only had free will for a short time," Khepri replied, leaning forwards and nudging her cup to the side. She pulled her mask off and placed it carefully onto the table, which let out a groan as the weight settled.
"It is not an excuse," she continued, green eyes glancing up to match Acacia's gaze, "but it is a reason."
"You think that absolves you?!" Acacia shouted, slamming her palms on the table and rattling it. "Hundreds of thousands of people died in Perth because of you."
"Half a million in Perth. Around seven million and three-hundred thousand in total."
Khepri looked back down at the table again, tracing the single blue line on her mask.
"I do not know all of their names, or their faces. I do not know who they were, or who they could've been. I did not even know the number myself; Dragon had to give me the estimate."
Acacia slumped back into her seat, and Counterpoise squeezed her hand.
"I cannot reverse what I did, but I hope that I can try to make the world a better place now."
Neither of the capes replied at first, and Acacia found herself watching Counterpoise. The younger girl was focused on Khepri. She glanced at where she was holding Acacia's hand, then reached out for Khepri's. The Endbringer stilled as Counterpoise's delicate fingers curled around the back of Khepri's hand.
"You are very quick to offer sympathy," Khepri said quietly, "and trust, only on Dragon's word."
"Well you did wipe out the Nine, so that counts for you," Counterpoise replied. She shrugged.
"I suppose, I think a hero does the right thing even when it scares them out of their mind. That they're willing to extend trust first, because that's what you should do. Being brave in the face of fear." Counterpoise blushed slightly. "It's cheesy but…"
"It's not enough," Acacia said, glowering, "for her."
"I haven't had much need to be brave in a long time," Khepri said, looking at her mask again, "but I do now. I must apologise to you both."
"Apologise?" Acacia asked, shifting to sit up in her seat.
"Yes. I have been lying to you both for a long time, at first because it was sensible but then because I was afraid."
"Lying? But we haven't-" Counterpoise stopped, eyes wide. Khepri tried to smile.
"Mika?" Acacia asked, her glower growing deeper as Counterpoise's jaw snapped shut. The younger cape grit her teeth, her hand squeezing hard onto Acacia's own.
"I thought you seemed familiar," Counterpoise said, closing her eyes as she took a deep breath.
Khepri stood stiffly, slipping her hand out from Counterpoise's before gathering the white mask and hooking it onto her belt. She hesitated for a moment, then stepped away from the table.
"I'll leave," she said, face impassive.
"Wait, Shepherd." Counterpoise rose, jerkily moving round the table to stand in front of the Endbringer. She took another long, deep breath, staring straight at Khepri. Acacia jolted to her feet as well, braced to move but stuck on the spot.
"I'm… furious," she continued, voice strained, "and if I wasn't so scared of you that I can barely think I would slap you." Her hands reached out, as though to grab at Khepri's armour, clenching and unclenching.
"Mika," Khepri began, stopping when Counterpoise shook her head.
"No, you don't have the right to use that name anymore. You-. Fuck." She bashed one of her fists against Khepri's chest, then swore again at the pain. "I don't know what to feel at the moment. I thought I-."
"I'm sorry," Khepri said, hands raised and hovering near Counterpoise's own.
"I know, because Shepherd was a softie who hated hurting people. Go. But come back. I need to think." Counterpoise lurched forward, hugging Khepri for a moment, then turned and walked away stiffly. Acacia watched her go, then turned to Khepri, her mouth a thin line. She opened her mouth, paused, then shut it before sighing.
"I'll look after her. Go and check that Bonesaw hasn't escaped." The parahuman turned away, following her teammate down the corridor.
"Acacia… I am sorry."
"I don't care. Just…" Acacia shook her head, then continued walking away.
K: [Query] Are you going to stay up there forever?
S: [Negation] I do not think I will receive the same welcome that you do, sister.
K: [Encouragement] You haven't even tried.
S: [Irritation] I know how it will go.
K: [Thought] You can't predict me.
K: [Idea] So let me introduce you. At least to Dragon.
K: [Irritation] I'm having to be brave. For all of us. It doesn't always work for me either.
K: [Encouragement] We can be brave together then.
S: [Amusement] Do you think I am afraid?
K: [Agreement] I think you're so used to seeing the future that you don't know what to do without that vision. This isn't just about my humanity, Alicia.
K: [Sister] Alicia…
S: [Resignation] I will try.
Big thanks to Burn Note and Evil Atlas for beta reading and editing, this was an especially difficult chapter. And thank you to everyone who reads and reviews, I appreciate you all.