My pulse hammered in between my ears as I crouched down behind an overflowing dumpster, both hands covering my mouth and nose- almost as much to block out the smell as to silence the noise of my breath. I'd been in the middle of changing into my costume when the gunfire started, leaving me half-dressed and unprepared. Frantically, my trembling fingers fumbled with the clasps and belts of the old wetsuit. Luckily it was loose enough to wear over the top of my street clothes, so I wouldn't have to leave them in the filthy alley.
Suddenly the world went pitch black, an oily mist of some kind roiling into my little alleyway. Even the lazy comet trails of the pyreflies, the lanternlights that had become such a familiar sight to me, were suffocated by the dark blanket. There were a lot of them around tonight, for some reason. Hadn't seen this many since I'd been in recovery after gaining my powers..
There was an explosion to the left. Far too close for comfort. I had to move.
I gathered the pyreflies within my reach, absorbing them into my body as I climbed atop the dumpster and out of the fog. The pyreflies set my skin alight with warm tingles as they joined with me, filling me with power and a light only I could see. From the dumpster, it was only a short hop up to the fire escape and a frantic, panicked hustle to the roof of the abandoned complex I'd been hiding out behind.
My first night out on patrol wasn't turning out quite like I'd hoped.
With my bird's eye perspective I watched another explosion crater the street, courtesy of the ABB's Oni Lee. Way, way bigger game than I'd been looking for when I left the house tonight. I stifled a shout as the masked assassin suddenly appeared on top of a parked car, outside of the fog. He almost lazily pulled the pin out of a grenade, tossing it into the blanket of darkness. At least, he tried to. Something happened at the last second- it looked like his hand cramped up- and the spasming muscles threw off his aim, dropping the grenade at his feet.
Ash, glass and shrapnel filled the air as the car and clone both were destroyed in the explosion. No sign of the real Oni Lee. Bursting out of the darkness, two enourmous beasts tore down the street barking and snarling and snapping their cavernous maws. They split up when they reached the end of the road, barrelling out of sight, but I'd seen enough to id the cape responsible. Just my luck to run into both Oni Lee and Hellhound on my first night out. Either one of them would probably have killed me if I ran into them alone. I surveyed the streets below. Lots of damage, lots of pyreflies, lots of groaning bodies in ABB colours, but no sign of Oni Lee.
It was at that moment he appeared in front of me.
The only thing that saved my life was the shock in his hollow eyes. He clearly wasn't expecting me either, which allowed me the advantage of the first strike. Instinct took over and I reached out to the assassin with my senses, took hold of him and pulled.
My power wasn't anything special. A couple of months ago I'd just started seeing pyreflies everywhere I went. Small glowing balls with iridescent comet trails only I could see. With the extension of my will I could direct those free-floating lights and absorb them into my body. Where they went after that, I wasn't sure, but they filled me with a warmth and security that I was a little ashamed to admit I was growing reliant on. I had been getting complacent. That realisation had led to my outing tonight. If I just kept stalling, kept insisting I needed more pyreflies in reserve before I could make my debut, then my dreams of being a hero would just stay daydreams.
"Lancet!" I cried out, instinctively knowing the name of the ability. Pyreflies erupted from Oni Lee and spiralled into my out-thrust chest. In the past, they'd simply knit my wounds together and acted as fuel for the other, more concerning aspect of my power. As soon as the pyreflies from Oni Lee hit me, I knew this was different.
They felt grainy, as I absorbed them. Made my whole body feel sick. It was like a virus, as his pyreflies mingled with my own and changed them. Changed me. Immediately I felt bile rise in my throat, but I didn't have time to puke. Not with a murderous cape seconds away from gutting me with some very sharp knives. He probably didn't even need to sharpen them- since his clones did all the work, they'd probably technically never been used.
Immediately I reached into the well of pyreflies within my body and a form took shape. About the size of an eagle, the Killer Bee faded into existence next to me. A transparent outline at first, as more pyreflies poured into the mould it gained colour and depth. It had an orange thorax with dark stripes. An angry buzzing filled the air as its four wings began beating. Two scythe-like claws menaced the air in front of it and a needle almost as long as its body wavered from side to side as it hovered. Instinctively, I knew that glands in the bee's abdomen would deliver an excruciating toxin when the needle struck.
This was how I'd planned to fight crime in the bay in the first place and I was kicking myself for not having summoned one sooner. I couldn't exactly walk around out of costume flanked by monster bees though. But then when I'd gone to change into my costume, I'd been interrupted by the fighting between Hellhound's crew and the ABB goons.
The Killer Bee hummed forward, but Oni Lee was already on the attack. I stumbled backwards as a knife parted the air my throat had occupied seconds before, leaving a thin red line across my neck that stung when I swallowed. His attack had cost him though, as my fiend sunk its stinger into his shoulder. I was still careening from my near miss and as I staggered backwards, I realised too late that I was going to fall. I threw my arms out behind me and screwed my eyes shut, but a pair of arms wrapped around my waist and held me.
I turned to look upon my saviour and saw the mask of Oni Lee
In slow motion, three things happened. First, the Oni Lee in front of me crumbled into a pile of carbon ash and pyreflies. Second, I screamed as third, the Oni Lee behind me hoisted me over the side of the building and dropped me.
I didn't have time to think. Ever since my Lancet had taken Oni Lee's pyreflies, I'd known something had changed. Now I focused on that grainy feeling, allowing it to swell until it was all I could feel. It was like a blueprint in my mind and I followed its instructions to the letter. I drew a mass of pyreflies to the forefront of my mind and threw them towards the ground.
One second I was plummeting towards the ground, the next I was standing on it. Immediately after, there was a meaty thud from behind me. I turned and instantly regretted it, this time actually throwing up as I was viscerally confronted with proof of my own mortality. After an eternity of seconds, my- the corpse disintegrated into ash and released a handful of pyreflies. I drew them into me, reabsorbing them. Wiping my mouth with trembling hands, I looked up. Oni Lee was staring down at me, impassive. The Killer Bee was long dead, its pyreflies dancing higher and higher into the night sky, the only source of light to illuminate my killer. Even so, all I could see of him was his mask.
I don't know how long we stayed like that, but it couldn't have been for more than a few seconds. Suddenly, a pillar of flame interrupted our impasse, silhouetting Oni Lee against it. It was a few blocks away, but it was tall enough that it towered above the two-storey buildings around us. The flames were accompanied by an inhuman, metallic shriek. It sounded like a train's emergency brake but deeper, booming. It was the screech of metal on metal, and it was screaming one word.
It had to be Lung, and he was screaming for Lee.
Oni Lee spent a second longer staring down at me, backlit by the warm oranges of Lung's flame. He bowed, a slight incline of his head that was almost swallowed by the distance and shadows, and then he was dust. I'd survived. I had fought Oni Lee, a violent cape known for leaving corpses in his wake, and I had survived.
I balled my fists and tried desperately to stop the tears I could feel welling in my eyes. Just surviving wasn't good enough. I hadn't come out tonight to just survive. I wanted to be a hero! More than that, I'd just stolen Oni Lee's power and used it in front of him. Come tomorrow, I'd have a massive target painted on my back. Whether for recruitment or elimination would probably depend on the sort of mood Lung was in after dealing with Hellhound and her friends.
I had to stop Oni Lee from talking.
I jogged towards the sounds of fighting, creating a host of fiends as I went. All told, I had accumulated enough pyreflies over the last few weeks to have three of the Killer Bees I'd used in the fight against Lee follow me, supplemented with a strange conglomeration of shapes that bid me call it a White Element. Chill mist roiled off its disparate limbs as they floated along by my side. I just hoped it would be enough to slow down Lung.
Over the thumping of my feet and the distant roar of conflict, another sound made itself known. A steady humming that grew louder and louder. An incoming engine.
As the motorcycle sped towards me, Armsmaster- for there could be no mistaking the rider- caught sight of me. I couldn't see much of his face beneath his helmet, but his irritation was obvious regardless. He glanced towards the sounds of Lung's rampage, just for a moment, before wheeling his motorcycle around and pulling to a stop in front of me.
"Identify yourself," Armsmaster projected his voice towards me with the kind of confidence I only wished I could muster. He practically shone in his blue and silver, the polish of the steel in stark contrast to the grimy street around us. He didn't sound hostile, but there was definitely an edge to his voice.
"Summoner," I panted, giving him the cape name I'd settled on. Between that and Fiendmaster, it had seemed the least likely to get me labled a villain. "I got stuck in the middle of a fight between the ABB and Hellhound's group. Hellhound got away, but Oni Lee spotted me. He fled once the fighting with Lung started."
"The Undersiders?" Armsmaster frowned, before an explosion and the distinctive sound of shattering glass tore through the night. Judging from the jets of fire arcing through the sky, Lung was getting mad. I could almost hear Armsmaster's jaw creaking. "I don't have time for this," his motorcycle came to life with a tiny roar and he wheeled away from me. He deliberated for a moment, then: "Hop on."
No sooner was I safely aboard the bike than Armsmaster hit the accelerator. It was a smooth ride, quiet enough to talk over without yelling. If there was one word that defined it, it would be efficient. The barest minimum of energy lost to sound.
"So we're clear terminal, I'm giving the vigilante cape a ride to safety and giving them a chance to brief me on the situation," he spoke into some mouthpiece hidden in his helmet. His face didn't move, his eyes glued to the road in front of him. Even still, I could feel him scrutinising me with every second that passed. "You fought Oni Lee. Are you injured?"
"A little. A scratch, it's nothing," I replied, the cut on my neck stinging even worse now that I had time to acknowledge it. Armsmaster nodded as I recounted the evening's events to him- leaving out the fall from the top of the building.
"Well done. Oni Lee is dangerous, that you got away at all is impressive," Armsmaster's approval filled me with undeserved pride. I suppressed it. I'd gotten a surprise hit in, floundered about then gotten myself killed. If my power hadn't copied his, if Lung hadn't called him away, I wouldn't be here to have this conversation. The sounds of fighting had gotten closer and there was a noticeable increase in temperature. Lung was close.
"Terminal, this is Armsmaster. The vigilante cape Summoner has given her report. The disturbance reported half an hour ago has escalated into an ongoing battle between Lung, Oni Lee and the Undersiders. Requesting backup." he brought his bike to a smooth stop and turned to face me. "Thanks for your assistance Summoner, but we'll take it from here."
"What? I can help!" I protested. He took me all the way to Lung just to turn me away? The Killer Bees buzzed angrily behind me, responding to my emotions without conscious command. Armsmaster held up a hand to forestall any complaints.
"As a member of the PRT, I would be legally liable if I allowed you to take part in this fight and you got hurt or injured. For that reason, we are agreeing to part ways here," he instructed, taking my agreement as given. There was a metallic click as he retrieved his halberd from its place of storage on the side of the bike. Despite my anger, I couldn't help but be in awe of him. He turned away from me, hefted his halberd over his shoulder, then he was gone. I stood stunned as I watched him race around the corner, his parting words reverberating in my head.
Lung regenerates. Don't hold back.
Making sure there was nobody watching me, I used Oni Lee's power to move from rooftop to rooftop and get the drop on Lung that way. I left pyreflies behind every time I did it, which was a little worrying. I put it out of my mind. Pyreflies were plentiful enough in the city that I could always collect more. Now, what I needed was speed.
I arrived on the scene well before Armsmaster, to find a ten foot tall Lung belching fire indiscriminately. Or rather, I saw his head and shoulders. Everything else was blanketed in more of that sense-occluding fog. No sign of Lee, but there was ash on the roof. He'd been here. I stayed on my toes while I waited for my fiends to catch up.
There, on the left! A group of five gangers in the ABB colours burst out of the fog, coughing and hacking amidst the smoke from Lung's fire. Two of them had guns which they immediately put to use, firing back into the fog with reckless abandon. Lung shuddered for an instant, but he was long past the point of worrying about bullets.
Suddenly, Lung's head whipped in my direction. What? Had something given me away? I held my breath, ducking behind a vent and praying he hadn't seen me. Something bright flew overhead. Not one of his usual bursts of flame, this one had more weight to it. It travelled in an arc, well over the building. If he was aiming at me, he'd missed.
Suddenly, I couldn't feel one of my Killer Bees.
Impossible! They were still over a block away! How could he possibly-
Lung bent over and for a moment, I couldn't see him through the fog. Then, he hefted up a chunk of road the size of a car and blew on it. Flame engulfed the bitumen, little black drops dripping down onto his armoured face with an audible hiss. With only one arm, he threw the second fireball. This time I was ready. Though they were out of my sight, I directed my fiends to scatter. The ground shook as the projectile landed, but none of my fiends were hit.
Then I heard it.
The buzzing of my Killer Bees became audible as they approached. Had they given me away? I knew that Lung's transformation made him stronger, tougher and enhanced his pyrokinesis. Did it enhance his senses as well? What was a monster like him doing in Brockton Bay? Frantically, I directed the bugs to arrive at street level rather than join me on top of the building. The last thing I wanted right now was Lung looking my way.
Fortunately, someone had taken the distraction as an opportunity. Lung's bellow of rage was deafening for all of a second, but suddenly grew distant. Like I was hearing it from underwater. Apparently there was a limit to what the fog could conceal.
Then there was silence. I peered over the edge of the rooftop, desperately urging my fiends to hurry up. With Lung entirely subsumed by the fog, I had even less way of knowing what was going on down there.
The silence was abruptly broken by three of Hellhound's van-sized monsters leaping out of the fog onto the building next to mine. They were terrifying to look at, bones and ridges jutting out of their flesh with seemingly no regard for symmetry or aesthetics. One of the monsters looked like it was half-dead, a hideous gash running the length of its entire body. None of the beasts were free of burns- clearly, they had taken the brunt of Lung's assault.
"We've lost Regent." a feminine voice drifted across the rooftops. No sooner had she spoken, than Oni Lee struck. I had no idea where he'd been hiding but he was no match for Hellhound. A swish of one of her beast's long, sinewy tails was all it took to interrupt his attempt to carve the speaker open. Lee went flying off the side of the building, but I knew from experience he had an easy way out of that.
As if on cue he reappeared on the rooftop, further away from Hellhound's beasts this time. He tossed a knife into the air, catching it with nonchalant ease. With his other hand, he plucked a grenade from his bandolier. The three capes gave a cry of alarm but Oni Lee didn't speak, didn't react, didn't hesitate as he went for the pin.
That was when Armsmaster jabbed the tip of his halberd into the small of his back.
Lee writhed as electricity arced between two tines that had protruded from the tip of his weapon. I could just barely hear the tinny whir of his grappling hook being retracting into the halberd. How on earth did it all fit in there?
"Come quietly, Undersiders," Armsmaster commanded even as he cuffed Lee's hands and feet. Though his back was turned to me, I could tell by the stiffening of his posture that he was frowning. "Computer, make a note: Include blindfold in the standard patro-"
"Shouldn't you be more worried about Lung?" the same voice from before interrupted. Something about the way she spoke was odd. As though she hadn't planned on interrupting him until the moment she had. She sounded rushed, as if she was racing to fit her words in before some deadline only she knew about.
Right on schedule, Lung crashed into the side of the two-storey building with a bellow of rage. He had managed to jump most of the way to the top, but he wasn't strong enough to clear tall buildings in a single bound. Yet. Brickwork and masonry shattered against the ground as Lung tore his way up, knife-like talons digging into the building with ease. His eyes were embers- literal embers of rage- as he crested the lip of the roof.
"'Ound 'ou," he forced out around his twisted mouth. Metal plates covered three quarters of his body, including his face. With the way his face had been changed, metal scales elongating it, making it more snout-like, I wasn't surprised he was having trouble with his words.
"Bitch, we're leaving," a distorted voice instructed atop one of Hellhound's monstrosities. There was a whistle from the third figure- Hellhound, presumably- and the beasts bounded away across the rooftops. Lung made to follow, but Armsmaster was already in place to intercept him. Lung towered over the protectorate hero and for a moment, I thought he was going to crush him. There was the ring of metal on metal and Armsamster met Lung's backhand with the steel of his halberd, giving no ground.
All I could smell was smoke. My eyes were stinging from it. But I couldn't help but stare transfixed as Lung reared back, flame erupting around him to bear down on Armsmaster. He still had his back to me. He still didn't budge. Silhouetted by flame, Armsmaster calmly twisted and pulled on the pole of his halberd, arranging it into the configuration he wanted with the demeanour of a combat veteran. His actions were smooth, unhurried and calculated as he stuck the tip of the halberd into the side of Lung's chest- one of the few places left that his scales had not grown to cover.
Lung didn't start jerking, so clearly he wasn't going for the taser he'd used to subdue Lee. I actually wasn't sure what he was going for, because Lung barely reacted at all. Whatever he'd been trying to do, it clearly hadn't worked and now Lung was going to burn him alive.
So I did something stupid.
Lung's roar was more surprise than pain, but it was enough that the flames did not consume Armsmaster. Pyreflies burst from Lung's steel-clad body and raced towards me, covering the space between us in an instant. I felt the cut on my neck close over as my body soaked them up and braced myself for what I knew was coming. I was afraid it would be like with Lee, a disgusting gritty feeling that made me want to vomit. But as I made Lung's power part of me, he didn't feel like that.
He was worse.
It began as a pleasant warmth, but as the ripple of change passed through the pyreflies that composed me, it swiftly became overbearing. My entire body was a furnace and still the heat built, burning me to a crisp. My breath was smoke. My bones were ash. My body boiled. And then it was over. My vision swam in the aftermath, just vaguely managing to make out Lung's burning, glowing eyes staring directly at me. I'd been screaming so loud that even without his super hearing, he would have been able to pinpoint which building I was on from halfway across the city.
Armsmaster said something, but I couldn't make it out over the roar of the flames that arced towards me. I reached for the new power I had stolen from Lung, taking hold of the fire with his pyrokinesis and redirecting it away from me. Using Lung's power was an entirely different experience to stealing it. My body glowed with a cheerful blaze, warm and comforting and utterly painless as the inferno turned back on itself.
There was only one problem: Lung's power got stronger the longer he'd been fighting- and he'd been fighting far longer than I had. The flames, though diminished, were still racing towards me.
I covered my face with my forearm, allowing it to take the brunt of the attack. The exposed parts of my wetsuit burned away like they were paper, leaving my bare flesh to blister and bubble beneath the flames. Dimly, I realised that being burned alive hurt far less than absorbing Lung's power had led me to believe. The distance between us must have bled some of the strength from his attack. Either that or he was getting weaker.
My fiends had finally gotten into position, so I directed them towards Lung and let their instincts do the rest. My two remaining Killer Bees circled him, ducking and weaving between great gouts of flame that seemed to be getting less accurate by the second. There was the clang of metal on metal as Armsmaster finally broke through Lung's guard, leveraging his halberd beneath one of the scales that covered his chest and prying it off.
It had the same visceral feeling as ripping someone's fingernails out, if their fingernails were jet black and the size of dinner plates. The flesh beneath it was red and raw, the top few layers of skin having come away with the scale. Armsmaster backed away, his armour bubbling beneath the plume of flame Lung retaliated with, but something was different now. The flames weren't as hot. His movements were sluggish. His skin wasn't healing.
Lung was getting smaller.
Knowing what I did of Lung, we had to end this now. Given time, he would undoubtedly overcome whatever Armsmaster had done to him and if he did, there would no stopping him. My Killer Bees circled Lung, dancing between the flames. Before, Lung had been too heavily armoured for them to reliably land a hit. Now, he had a glaring weak point.
The Killer Bee plunged its stinger into Lung's chest, pumping it's excruciating payload into his bloodstream. Seconds later it was ash; unable to avoid the flames of retribution while needle-deep in him. Pyreflies circled higher and higher into the sky as Lung stumbled backwards. He was only seven feet tall now and nowhere near as bold. As if to compensate, he wreathed himself in flames. I ordered my remaining Killer Bee to hold back, waiting for him to drop his guard. A moment passed. Then another. Lung advanced slowly, carefully towards where Armsmaster was in the midst of a coughing fit. It didn't look like Lung was going to put himself out anytime soon.
Fortunately, I'd planned for this.
There was a sound like the tinkling of tiny bells as the White Element directed its power towards Lung. A cloud of mist was briefly visible against his back as the temperature suddenly plummeted in a very localised region. There was a brief hiss as the fire went out and an audible crack as the scales that protected his spine protested the sudden cold.
Lung's scream was no longer an inhuman shriek of metal against metal. Now he was just a man in pain. He thrashed about some more with ever-weakening jets of flame, but the Bee's toxin and whatever sedative Armsmaster had used seemed to be taking hold.
The fight was over.
As I made my way down the fire escape, I saw from up close the destruction that had been wreaked on the street by Lung's blind rampage. Pyreflies danced overhead, untroubled by the rubble and burnt out cars that dotted the road. I hadn't seen this many pyreflies in once place since the hospital. That was a sobering thought. Sure enough, there were bodies in the street. I tried my best not to look, but I couldn't keep my eyes off one of the bodies.
Literally. It was like there was a hand on the back of my head forcing me to stare at one body in particular.
It looked like a teenaged boy, wearing the charred remnants of what had been a costume. If what was leftover was any indication, the fire had improved it. His bare chest was one big burn and his legs were sprawled at an odd angle. He looked directly at me with frantic eyes, beckoning me to come to him. He tried to speak, but all that he could manage was a hoarse rasp. The smoke, no doubt. In frustration, he slammed his fist weakly against the ground. My left leg jerked on its own, towards him.
Taking the hint, I made my way over to the boy. Judging from his costume, this must be the Regent that the Undersiders had left behind. I stepped gingerly over the charred remains of his sceptre and knelt next to him. Fuck. It looked bad.
"My name's Summoner, I know first aid," I said, checking our surroundings for any immediate dangers. The gangers who could move had long since cleared out, leaving only the cripples and the corpses, neither of whom looked like they'd be posing any threat. Regent's eyes rolled backwards and for a brief moment I thought I was losing him, but the moment passed and I realised he was just a jackass.
"If you're well enough to roll your eyes at me, I can go," I said, my anger spilling into my tone. His arm shot out and grabbed my leg, his grip weak but insistent against my burned skin. I understood how he felt, but there wasn't really a lot I could do for him besides keep him company while we waited for an ambulance. Unless… I drew the pyreflies floating overhead towards me, taking them in. With a portion of my newfound fuel, I filled in the blueprint for a Water Flan next to us. The blue, jelly-like creature wobbled as it slid onto Regent's chest, flattening itself out until it spilled over his sides. He let out a hissing, rattling sigh as the flan settled into place, cooling his burn and staunching the flow of blood.
"I'm going to go get help, okay? If you need me, just pinch this little guy and I'll know about it," I said, extricating myself from his grip and making my way up to the ruined roof where the fighting had taken place.
Armsmaster wasn't in much better shape than Regent had been. What little of his armour wasn't bubbled and warped from the heat of Lung's attacks had been carved away, long strips of blue metal coiling into spirals where Lung's claws had tried to peel it off him. He'd removed his helmet entirely and I dutifully averted my eyes, but his face was so blackened by soot that his secret identity was probably safe regardless.
"All in all, not a bad night," he coughed from where sat, leaning against the lip of the roof. Lung was down for the count a little ways away, my fiends hovering over him in absence of any further instructions. Oni Lee lay face-down next to Armsmaster, exactly where he'd left him. "You did well, Summoner. Not every hero can say they helped bring in two villains on their first night out."
"Maybe three? One of the Undersiders is still down there, but he looks pretty hurt," I said, a little uncomfortable with Armsmaster's praise. He'd done most of the work, all I'd done was distract Lung a bit and finish him off. Sirens wailed, heralding the arrival of the paramedics.
"I think everyone here could do with a trip to Brockton General," he laughed, transitioning into a hacking cough. Yikes, how much smoke had he breathed in? "Are you injured? He sent a lot of that fire your way," he asked. I blushed, though the reddening of my cheeks probably wasn't noticeable beneath the burns. My costume hadn't escaped from the blaze, save for the goggles and faceplate that had been part of the wetsuit. The clothes I had been wearing underneath were still preserving my modesty- mostly- but my jeans were showing a bit more leg than they used to. Bright, shiny, lobster-red leg.
Like a switch had been flipped, I realised that I was in a lot of pain.
"Oww," I slumped down next to Armsmaster, eliciting another chuckle-cough from the protectorate hero. He clapped me on the shoulder. It hurt- that arm had taken the brunt of Lung's attack- but I didn't mind. It was a gesture of camaraderie. We'd fought together, saved each other's lives at least once, and made the Bay a little bit safer doing it. Lung, Oni Lee- they were bullies preying on the people of Brockton Bay and we'd done something about it.
I smiled, my first genuine smile in over a year and a half.