"We cleared out the storage closet for you," Grue, or I guess now Brian said. The room was clear, with only an inflatable mattress in it. "I know it isn't much now but with that two thousand you're getting as a first installment; you can start to work on getting furniture."
Not much?! I thought incredulously. Two thousand a month was probably more than my father made in a single month. That wasn't considering the…jobs that we would be pulling off.
"Thanks," I almost whispered, "I really appreciate it." I glanced over at Rachel who continued to just glare at me between the doorway, sitting at one of the tables, her dogs watched attentively. Brian followed my field of vision and changed his expression. Rachel looked away and the dogs lost focus.
"Don't mind her," Brian said, "you'll get used to her." I nodded slowly. "Come on, let's go get some food in you."
I didn't really get a say before I was half dragged out of my new room by Brian. He wasn't forceful at all, and he gave me a reassuring smile, it was oddly boyish considering how adult his face looked.
The pile of boxes was more like a tower, a monument to man's hubris. Lisa was sitting at the table within view of the large television, glancing at her laptop, a piece of pizza was already in hand. I had always considered Marcone's dough to be a higher quality than the more widespread pizza chains, and it showed, the cheese and toppings didn't slide off of the pizza as she held it in one hand. The others were already taking pieces, putting them onto styrofoam plates.
I looked at the pizza cautiously.
I bitterly noted that I hadn't eaten all day, that I hadn't even eaten dinner yesterday either. I had been waiting for my dad to get home because I wanted to cook with him.
I glanced at Rachel, who was half glaring at me, not as intensely as before. I didn't grab a slice.
"Take a piece, dork," Regent, or Alec said. My lips pursed at the name before Brian spoke again.
"What Alec is trying to say is," Brian started, "that you're a part of the team now. This is your home, and you are entitled to eat with us too." I swallowed.
"Okay," I mumbled. I cautiously picked up a piece, putting it on a plate. I must've looked so stupid treating the piece of pizza like it was going to bite me before quickly grabbing it. I noted that Rachel was now watching me intently, not glaring, just observing. I sat down next to Alec, and Brian sat next to me. Lisa was on the table, typing away at her laptop. Alec flipped a channel and for a brief moment, I thought it was an action movie, blasts of energy passing by a Spartan with a spear that seemed almost made out of electricity. I realized a second later that it was Dauntless, the rising star in the protectorate. His spear was suddenly parried by a greatsword and the spear, Arclance, I think it was called, found itself imbedded in the asphalt.
His opponent had dark grey skin, a skin tone that was absolutely not natural. They were in armor concealed by an ashen cloak, their face covered by a golden mask, I didn't see any eye sockets, instead there were two glowing circles, one right between where the eyes should have been, the other on the forehead.
Dauntless quickly raised his shield and a sphere of white light extended and his opponent leaped twenty feet back to avoid getting knocked down by it. Dauntless used this moment to free Arclance from the ground before the ashen warrior charged forward with a burst of speed.
Below the fight, I saw scrawling words:
FIREFIGHT BETWEEN EMPIRE 88 AND COIL'S MERCENARIES ESCALATES INTO FIGHT BETWEEN PROTECTORATE AND INFINITE CONSORTIUM.
Another Planeswalker, I thought. I looked at Ugin who watched from the pools of becoming.
"Do you know this one?" I asked in the Prison Realm.
No, Ugin admitted, I've not seen this one before.
"Damn," Alec breathed, watching as Dauntless slowly got overwhelmed. Dauntless was good, but his opponent was on a whole different level, the skill and experience between the two was like night and day. Before long Dauntless found himself on the ground, skidding to a PRT van that had been turned over, the metal bent where he landed.
He shook his head out of a daze, probably a concussion and then the tip of the greatsword was pointed at his neck. His opponent stared at him for a brief moment before sheathing their sword and walking away.
"Damn," echoed Brian.
"I just checked online," Tattletale announced, "she goes by Nameless. She's Infinite Consortium."
"Why are the Infinite Consortium there," I asked. "Before they'd been arms dealers that gave out tinkertech to gangs. Now they're directly interfering with crimes in progress?"
"I will admit it's a bit out of character," Brian said while staring at the screen. "I've never even seen this one before, or knew she existed."
"She's showed up one other time," Lisa noted, "it was a couple of years ago, when the Infinite Consortium was on the rise, the PRT attacked a warehouse that they had been doing arms deals out of, she was there, single handedly wounded and maimed twelve PRT officers and beat both Assault and Battery."
Well, I had just found the muscle of the Infinite Consortium, though, it would be better to say that all of them were extremely dangerous in their own way.
"Have you ever met the Infinite Consortium?" I asked the group. I didn't know if they got their equipment from Tezzeret's organization or not, and maybe I was thinking that the villains were more connected to one another than they actually were. I knew, even before this news reel that Coil's faction and the Empire 88 clashed with each other more than they did the Protectorate. Brian shrugged.
"There's a meeting place for villains, a sort of neutral ground," Brian started, "I saw Satellite there, representing Tidehollow. The Infinite Consortium, as far as I know, doesn't own any territory. If you want to do business with them, they find you."
"That's terrifying," I said in a half mumble. As Nameless walked away she suddenly disappeared with a sound like a whip being cracked before the PRT troopers could swarm her. The channel suddenly changed, and suddenly a tyrannosaur was lifting a man off a toilet seat and shaking him in it's mouth.
"Oh, it's that Earth Aleph import," Alec noted, remote in hand. "The dinosaur one."
"Classy," Lisa said. I cautiously ate the slice of pizza, watching to make sure nobody watched me eat. I dunno, I just felt incredibly insecure about it, if there was something wrong with me, maybe I did something when eating that made me look gross.
I barely knew these people that I'd just joined up with and I didn't want to make a bad impression.
I felt relieved though that the group was more focused on the movie right now than me, though Rachel did watch me for a bit longer, before watching the movie.
Eventually I was engrossed in the movie as well.
I walked the shores of Shandalar again, with Ugin atop one of the jutting islands that waves crashed along. I knew it was an illusion, but it helped center me in my sleep. I had been restless, on an unfamiliar bed, knowing I would never get to see home again. I tried not to cry myself to sleep, I missed my dad, he might've only just gotten out of his funk, but it had meant a lot to me.
Ugin offered to bring me into an illusion, something to help my mind wander. I took it, and while I watched the tropically colored drakes dive into the waters and reemerge with fish, I started to fade off into sleep.
"Should I tell the others about you?" I asked him. Ugin was a good fifteen yards away, he was almost as big as the jutting formation he stood on. I wondered if it was capable of supporting Ugin's weight because it was simply an illusion or because Ugin himself was weightless.
I leave that up to you, Ugin said. I'll advise you on my opinion but I'll leave the decision to you.
"I don't know if I can trust them with that just yet," I said. "Hell, I don't know if they'd even believe me. Surprise, I'm an apprentice wizard who gets lessons from a ghost dragon via this magical gem."
There might be a way for me to directly communicate with them, Ugin, Perhaps an illusion?
"Maybe," I mused. I considered for a moment. "Can you cast from the Spirit-Gem?"
Yes and no, Ugin said. It's not so simple, otherwise when I first got here, I would've used the connection to the Spirit-Gem to dispatch my brother when he had the gem.
I heard some muttering off where the roaring ocean was. The mortal dragon couldn't touch me, so including him in the illusion hadn't been necessary.
Not that I'd wanted to see Ugin's brother, I hated him. I don't think he'd ever said a kind word to me before. So, I ignored his invisible presence and continued to walk.
"Still pretending to be one of us?" I did hear him rasp from the ocean. Ugin turned his head, to where I was guessing the solid elder dragon was. Everything was quiet for a moment. Ugin looked ready to start talking when I shook my head at him.
I needed to stand up for myself.
"I'm not pretending," I said. There was that chuckle again, like sandpaper and rolling boulders.
"Sometimes, I dream that I still have my spark," he spoke up. He appeared inside the illusion of Shandalar now, on the beach with me, he took up so much room that his right leg and forearm were still deep in the water of the illusionary beach, while his other side was directly against the cliffside. "I dream that I spread my wings across the blind eternities, and fly through it, free, unblemished my time." He looked down at his twitching wing, the hurt one that didn't work right. "But I always wake up."
That unsettled me. I didn't say anything.
"One day you'll wake up too, little girl," the elder dragon continued. I simply glared at him.
That's enough, Ugin said, his voice was tense, the second time I'd ever heard it raised above anything quiet. The Mortal Dragon disappeared from the view and I continued walking along the beach.
"Ugin, I think I'm going to go through with that plan," I said finally. Ugin tilted his head. "Learning lessons as I sleep. If you think about it, your brother is right in a way, this is a dream, one where I retain information, real information."
I'm still cautious, Ugin said, I don't want to push you too hard.
"It's necessary," I said, "We have enemies all around. I need to get stronger."
He looked unsettled. Same as before.
Very well then, Ugin said. We'll start tomorrow night…
With that I woke up back on Earth. Everything was quiet, the silence was like a low rumble. It was still dark out, a night light in an electrical socket lit up the shadows of the chairs.
Every footstep I made felt like a crashing noise, but nobody was up. I exhaled and went to the bathroom and turned on the shower.
It was ice cold. It felt like I had just gone and dived into the lake. I suppressed my yelp of surprise and played with the knobs, until I got a temporary respite in the form of lukewarm water. That had only lasted a minute before once more I fought with the shower. I gave up and started just dancing around. Keeping myself active and in motion in the water would keep me from losing too much body heat.
It was still winter, and while the winters in Brockton Bay were incredibly mild, having spans of time where you wouldn't even see a snowflake, it was still cold. I didn't want to give myself hypothermia the moment I left the loft to go down stairs. I dried myself thoroughly before putting on the new clothes Lisa had gotten me. I grabbed a flashlight and exited the loft, going downstairs. It was still cold, as I put my arms in my armpits, and the breath that shuddered out of my mouth billowed like hot steam, but I knew that there were a few spiders around here. I started to call spiders to me from all around, looking mainly for black widows. I wanted to practice weaving threads, before I'd go around the neighborhood gathering spiders. I'd need to rotate them and keep them in cages, I didn't want any of my new teammates getting hurt.
Beyond that, the Black Widows that I planned on using were territorial, and would kill one another if I wasn't around. Time passed, and pale light slowly gradiated from the darkness through the abandoned factory's windows. Then I noticed someone behind me with my swarm senses.
"What are you doing down here?" It was Bitch-or Rachel. I glanced over at her, she had a leash with her three dogs, Brutus, Judas, and Angelica. Angelica seemed a bit off as far as Rachel's naming theme she had going on, maybe I'd ask her about it later.
"Working on my costume," I said, I made perfectly sure to keep them away from Rachel and her dogs, not that they would bite, but I didn't want to send the wrong message to her.
"With spiders?" Rachel asked. Something was weird, she was blunt, even abrasive in her tone, but she wasn't as aggressive as she'd been when we first met.
"Yeah," I started to explain, "they can create threads with a textile strength around Kevlar, the benefit is that it'll be way more flexible than a Kevlar suit."
"Mm," Rachel grunted with a nod. There was a minute-long awkward silence, which I didn't mind. I had the distinct feeling that one wrong move could set her off. It was still tense though, and I hoped, just a bit of small talk would help alleviate it.
"Why do you call yourself Bitch?" I asked, before wincing, realizing how bad that might sound.
"Because it's the name I chose for me," Rachel responded. I blinked at that.
"So, you'd rather be called Bitch than Hellhound because you chose the name for yourself," I asked cautiously.
"Do you have a problem with it?" she growled, gritting her teeth. I shook my head.
"Sorry, I won't ask anymore," I said quickly before concentrating back on the black widows.
"Wimp," she hissed. My hand tightened slightly, but I tried to ignore her. I didn't hear her leave, but I continued to work. She finally spoke again. "Why do you let them call you Skitter?"
I glanced back.
"What do you mean?" I asked. She looked annoyed, but she continued.
"I don't let them call me Hellhound because it's a way of controlling me," Rachel said, "by giving me a name, they get to control how my life runs. But if I name myself…well, I feel like I become my own person. So why do you let them get away with calling you Skitter?"
No dragon would allow another to name it.
I swallowed, trying to think of a good reason.
"I guess I'm just bad at names," I replied. "So why not?" It was the truth, as far as that went.
Rachel seemed frustrated, for a moment I thought she might attack me, but then she spoke again.
"Doesn't matter if the name sucks," Rachael insisted, "It's your's."
"Alright then," I relented, "so what should my name be?"
"Don't be a dipshit," Rachel groaned, "I just said you have to come up with the name yourself." I exhaled, before nodding. She gave me an impassive look.
"Okay," I said to emphasize the point, she finally got it.
With that she just…left? I tilted my head in confusion. I shook my head and went back to working on the threads. They ran out of protein at some point so I had a few bugs walk up to them to feed them. It was morbid, I thought, but I'd need to do it if I wanted to be protected when I was doing my new job. A number of hours later, Lisa came down the spiral staircase.
"Still alive down here?" Lisa asked with a smile. I nodded.
"Yeah," I said, "had a weird talk with Rachel." Lisa frowned.
"She didn't hurt you, did she?" Lisa asked. I shook my head.
"No, she seemed less hostile to me," I explained, "she asked me about my cape name."
"Huh," Lisa grunted. I nodded. "It's good to see she's warming up to you."
"There were a few times I thought she'd sic the dogs on me," I admitted.
"She almost did, at one point, back when we first brought you in after…" She flinched. I got her meaning.
"After the night with Shadow Stalker," I said, I didn't even want to mention the rest of it. I was shoving the rest of it out of my head.
"That's why I was putting myself between you and her," Lisa said. "It…stopped an attack." That chilled me, I was this close to having been attacked by Bitch. Back when I had done research, I had come across her wiki page, I'd heard of the things she'd been capable of with her dogs.
"She almost attacked me," I said, hugging myself. Lisa walked over and patted me on the back, I looked up and she gave me that mischievous smile.
"The important part is she didn't," Lisa said. "I think it's a good start that she's talking with you to begin with."
"She rarely talks with any of us," Lisa noted, "much to our detriment honestly, but I don't think she does it on purpose."
"Why does she do it then?" I asked. Lisa kept quiet, instead, she smiled at me.
"That's honestly not for me to tell," Lisa said, "Rachel had a rough life though. You can imagine, right? An orphan, not well liked because of her looks, going from foster home to foster home. Then she got her powers, and things got worse for her from there." She paused, looking at me.
"What?" I asked.
"Honestly," Lisa noted, "it's a lot like your story." That gave me pause. I beckoned Lisa to continued. "They rate her as a master, but that's not entirely true. She 'roids up those dogs but they have to be trained, or they just do whatever they want. So, imagine her trigger event, she has no control over the dog and it goes apeshit."
"Oh…" I guess in a sense she was a lot like me. I glanced out the exit that Rachel had taken with her three dogs, before I sighed. "And she's been on the run ever since."
"I don't think that she's ever had a friend before," Lisa said. She patted me again. "Hey, so, Brian and I are planning on going out today, do you want to come with?"
"I was hoping to use this time to work on my costume," I said. Lisa glanced over at the army of spiders I'd called to me.
"Spidersilk?" Lisa asked. I nodded.
"It'll be flexible and durable, but probably not on par with Kevlar, if I had Darwin Bark Spiders, it could be better," I noted.
"Oh right, those new spiders discovered a couple years ago," Lisa said. "Maybe that'd be something to consider contacting the boss about. He supplies us with various tools we might need for any given job."
"Where were you guys planning on going?" I asked.
"Out and about," Brian's voice echoed. I glanced over and saw him enter into the abandoned factory, he had coffee and a bag from one of the doughnut shops in his hand. He had that boyish smile again that was enjoyable to look at. He handed me a coffee and I took it. I honestly preferred tea, but I more than welcomed the kind gesture.
"My hero," groaned Lisa as she took a cup and a bagel.
"Not on my watch," Brian joked, and I resisted the urge to flinch. I liked these people; I really did but I constantly had to remind myself they were supervillains. "We were thinking of going out for a bit of shopping today." I flinched, I didn't want to go outside, I didn't want the PRT after me. I hadn't been clearly thinking at the time, but it occurred to me that I'd been hunted down by Armsmaster, someone at one point I'd been a fan of.
It honestly hurt.
"Mainly," Brian began, "We were hoping to get you an actual bed."
"We should get some tiny aquariums from the pet shop for your project too," Lisa said. Brian looked at Lisa quizzically. "Taylor here is building herself a costume out of Spidersilk, it'll be extremely durable."
"No shit," Brian whistled. "If it works out, in the future I might pay you to make me a costume."
That was an interesting thought to say the least. It was at least better than the alternative to committing crimes, which I was still trying to mentally steel myself for.
"I'll look into it," I said, "it occurred to me a few days after I got my powers, that I could easily use them to make a costume. So, I'll probably be working here to do that, if that's alright, I was just testing how to spin the spidersilk threads before I really get started." Brian nodded.
"I'll help if you want," Lisa said with a smile.
"What about the PRT?" I asked. "They could attack me."
"If they do," Brian said, "I'll make sure every villain in Brockton Bay knows the Protectorate is attacking people out of costume." I couldn't hold back the flinch at that. Considering the villain to hero ratio in Brockton Bay, that would actually be devastating for the Protectorate. Brian saw my expression and continued. "I wouldn't do that unless it was our only choice. I understand the necessity of the Protectorate but we couldn't just let them get away with it either."
"Okay," I relented. The two smiled. "What about Alec?"
"Alec's staying behind to watch the loft," Lisa said. "Plus, he just got a new game that he wants to play."
"Come on, new girl," Brian said, and we left the factory.
I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it didn't happen.
I half expected that the PRT would be coming in droves when we entered the mattress shop, Armsmaster leading them with some sort of disintegration canon for my zombie bugs.
It colored the whole experience, I was tense, always checking through the senses of my swarm and bugs around to make sure everything was alright.
"Hey," Lisa smiled, "relax."
"That's not really assuring," I told her, "you've been wrong in the past." Lisa sighed.
"It's true, I'm not infallible," Lisa said, "but I'll know when someone is trying to get the drop on us."
"I'd been meaning to ask," I glanced around, the store was pretty empty actually. "What was up with the paper bags?" Brian turned away, meanwhile Lisa looked like she was about to start laughing. "What?"
"Should I tell the story?" Lisa grinned. Brian groaned. "Okay, so, we agree that in case of an emergency, we should have spare masks in the cars. So, one day, Brian goes to pick up his little sister from school, they stop at a gas station really quick, and when Brian comes back, his sister's already gone through the glove box and finds the spare masks." Brian looked absolutely embarrassed. "And that's how Brian's sister found out his big brother was a cape."
"I had a talk with her after that," he said, "so what we did instead was we got paper bags, cut out proper holes for them. It's easy to just turn them over onto the side that doesn't have holes on them. People expect to see paper bags for things like shopping so it's not entirely out of place." I nodded.
I picked out a mattress and bedframe, altogether it'd cost me around five hundred dollars. I'd learned from my dad how to scout out for the best sales and I had found what I was looking for. Not too expensive, it'd keep me comfortable, and it worked. We put the mattress in the back of the truck and went onto the pet store.
I figured it would look suspicious if I bought some twenty tiny plastic cages, so I just bought five this time around.
The whole time, I hadn't seen a trace of the PRT, I was out in public, so what was going on? They'd been gunning for me so insistently yesterday and now there was nothing.
That night in the prison realm, I started to focus my spells more. I had a better grasp now than I did before, everything was coming to me way easier.
The next morning I'd woken up, and I noticed no real strain on me. I was relieved, it made things a lot easier. I went downstairs, with my plastic cages. It was cold out and there was a bit of a raw feeling in my cheeks as I found different black widows in the neighborhood, and beckoned them into the plastic cages. I decided I could rotate the black widows around this area, keep the ones I was using at the loft in cages, but the others spread out around the neighborhood. I could gorge them and change mating habits to make more black widows if need be.
It would take a while, but I could practically turn the downstairs loft area into a secret costume factory.
The silence rung with an echo as I returned to the loft, the red light of the rising sun turned the clouds purple on an indigo shaded world. I was about to open the door when Rachel opened it first, her three dogs pouring out immediately after she opened it.
"Hi," I said. She didn't answer, choosing to instead glare at me. I sighed, glancing at her as she put her hands in her pockets letting the dogs run in front. I thought about what Lisa had told me, and while she was far more hostile than the others, I did want to get to know Rachel better. "Hey."
She turned around, annoyed.
"What do you want?" She asked.
"Where are you going?"
"None of your business," She growled. I backed up a bit. "I don't like you and I want to be left alone."
"I understand," I told her, "But if you ever need help with anything…don't be afraid to ask." She looked absolutely confused.
"Are you making fun of me?" she asked.
"No," I said, "I want to help." She glared at me for a long moment. I had to wonder, how many people had burned her, hurt her, used her. Maybe it wasn't safe to be around her, but I did in a way feel like a kindred spirit to her. Maybe she saw that too, I dunno, maybe I was just seeing things that weren't actually there.
"I'm going to my dog shelter," Rachel said. "Will you leave me alone now?"
"I can still help, if you want me to," I told her. She looked frustrated.
"Are you stupid? I don't want your help!" She yelled at me. I flinched back and she paused suddenly. She seemed to be trying to calm herself down. "What do I get out of it?"
"I'll leave you alone, I won't bother you again, I won't get in your way if I ruin your day," I said. Rachel seemed to consider it before she spoke.
"Fine," she spat. "I'll give you five minutes to put your bugs away, if you're not here by then, I'm leaving without you." I nodded, going inside to put the cages down in a hidden area, and leaving a note for the others.
I half expected Rachel to have left before five minutes, but she was still waiting when I came back. We were silent as we walked together.
A pit in my stomach told me that maybe I was making a bad decision, that maybe I was wrong, but regardless, I wanted to at least try.
I was glad I did.