Dennis had never liked the Forsberg Gallery. It brought back memories of field trips with teachers overly enamored with whatever passed for art at the current exhibit. It always seemed the only things they felt were worth talking about were either painted over three hundred years ago or looked like they had been dragged out of a junkyard. After he joined the Wards it took on an entirely new flavor of discomfort as the most popular site of fundraising events. As bad as it could be when you were being led through by a stuffy teacher and enduring dry lectures about art theory, an extended night of 'charity' work was another story.

Hours of circulating in costume, being careful to precisely manage how you presented yourself, and giving the same list of talking points and canned responses over and over. It was like doing a public appearance, except everything was dressed up, excessively formal, and any missteps would be seriously reprimanded. After the liberties he'd taken at his announcement presentation Dennis had been watched like a hawk at these events.

They couldn't really blame him for that. They had seriously wanted his cape name to be 'Stopwatch'. Taking initiative at that point was practically a public service.

The pressure and scrutiny following that event had only recently been stepped down, largely shifting to the newer and most contentious member of the Wards. Shadow Stalker had made a point of pushing every restriction to the very limit. Despite her efforts she was still one of the more popular Wards, an easy task when they give you the edgy name and costume, not that Dennis was jealous or anything. That meant required attendance for her at fundraising events. And required headaches for whoever managed her.

The entire team would have been uncomfortable enough at one of these events if everything was going perfectly. By this time of night they would be on the third round of speeches, the buffet would have been thoroughly picked over and the team would be working through another round of whatever non-alcoholic beverage had been approved to look good in publicity shots without giving any chance of being mistaken for an actual cocktail. It was usually an orange fizzy mess that tasted overly of mango.

Dennis would have said that was the worst fate possible, probably with some melodramatic comparison to hostage situations or criminal organizations. Right now he could only wish he was stuck in a pompous party full of self-important businessmen, politicians, and local celebrities. It would be a big step up from the darkened gallery with harsh emergency lighting and clusters of frightened teenagers huddled around their phones.

The event hadn't even officially started when the first bombs went off. No, they were in the pre-event exclusive mixer. Dennis had long since given up trying to figure out every obscure method the PRT had come up with to squeeze more money out of people. This was another one of those schemes. Throw an extra, publically undisclosed, donation and you get access to the Wards before the rest of the donors showed up. Personal time, one on one interactions, and as many selfies as you wanted.

The crowd was full of teenagers with the occasional parent playing up their influence. He actually recognized some of them from Arcadia, though none of them were exactly his friends. These were more of Dean's social circle, the kids who were only at Arcadia for the prestige of being at a 'Ward school' and whose parents were a major factor in the school's excessive budget. Fortunately that meant there was little chance anyone would recognize him in costume.

When the first blasts had sounded no one had known what was happening. Then the power cut and the gravity of the situation set in. It had taken fifteen minutes of desperate calls while trying to manage a near panicked room full of guests and staff before he had been able to get any word on what was going on.

It wasn't good.

Confirmed bombings all across the city, including two close enough to the gallery to damage the windows on the ground floor. From what little they could tell The Rig was in chaos. Communications were down and there were signs of heavy combat. The PRT headquarters had been hit as well, just badly enough to lock down the garage and cripple any attempts to scramble the badly needed response teams.

Finally, after tense and desperate communications they got their orders. The entire team, even Flechette, was looking to him as the commands from headquarters came in. Everyone was at the edge of their seat waiting to find out where they'd be sent. This was one of the city's darkest hours and what was their mission?

Hold position and defend the civilians in the gallery.

To say the news hadn't gone over well would be an understatement. Dennis really hoped no one had managed to record Missy's reaction. If word of that got out there would be hell to pay for the young cape. Not that Sophia had taken the news any better, but profanity was at least in character for her. The rest of the team had been set to task as Dennis worked with Flechette to try to get some clarification.

The lack of a clear chain of command was not doing them any favors here. Flechette technically outranked him, but just by a hair. Having to compare birthdays in the middle of a crisis was not ideal. That said she wasn't ready to take command of the team and was still getting up to speed with local procedures and resources. That was the effects of her rushed transfer. Weld was in the same boat, but at least he would have had half a day of procedure meetings to draw on if he wasn't stuck on the Rig or wherever.

So that left Dennis to try to get some clarity from an overly stressed administration that hadn't been that well-disposed to his cape identity in the first place. What answers he had been able to glean weren't encouraging.

The ABB was behind the bombings, obviously. Mammon's warnings had been right on the mark. Maybe if he made his statements in a less dramatic and nebulous manner something could have been done about them. Instead the PRT and Protectorate had been tripping over that stunt to the point where they were probably less prepared than they would have been if he'd kept his mouth shut. The shocking part was the coordination being displayed in the attack.

This wasn't the predicted city wide random bombing spree. This was a coordinated attack and disruption effort. Through his calls to headquarters Clockblocker had been able to confirm attacks on the Rig, PRT headquarters, airport, several streets, and key infrastructure. The first wave had effectively crippled the city's ability to respond to the attacks. Worse, there were repeated explosions across the city, often catching response crews to the first wave. The result was a near total lock down of response and recovery efforts, made worse by the regional blackout triggered with the attack. With every Protectorate branch in the North East dealing with the chaos the power outage was causing in their own city no help was coming.

Simply put, the safety of the roads couldn't be guaranteed. The nearby blasts suggested there could be more explosives hidden in the area, so the region around the gallery was off limits until it could be cleared by the bomb squad. The Wards were to lock down the building and protect the civilians until a safe extraction could be guaranteed.

It was insane. The city was in chaos. They had been trained for this kind of thing, and now they were effectively sitting in a corner when the Protectorate desperately needed every resource it could get. That was the general mood in the group, and Dennis largely shared it.

That said, he was bright enough to know what was really going on here. He might not be the natural leader that Dean and Carlos were, but he wasn't the total fool that he played up for the cameras. He'd heard what people had been saying after the bank job. The presence of a Youth Guard investigation made the implications clear. The gallery was an excuse. The Wards were being kept out of the fight.

It frustrated him as much as any of the other members of the team, but he knew what was happening in the organization. People didn't think he paid enough attention to really guard what they said around him. The full face mask helped as well, as people never were sure what he was focused on. Because of that he knew how close the team was to disaster.

Ward teams weren't a right of Protectorate offices. You didn't have them in exclusion zones or high conflict regions. There were levels of threat the public would never consent to subject a minor to. What Khepri had done may have been non-lethal to Aegis, but it made the situation clear to everyone who saw it.

Brockton Bay was a dangerous city. One mistake could mean a dead child plastered across the news. It was clear very early that no power was worth risking that on the Protectorate's watch.

At least that was the policy being put in place now. Looking back at his career, all the villains he had fought, the patrols with no one but other Wards present, the idea that that wasn't standard procedure in most cities was jarring. He had been swapping stories with Flechette and rather than being impressed at the times the team had driven off Lung or Hookwolf she had seemed horrified.

What she told him about how things operated in New York was equally unnerving. The length of time where you were basically doing foot patrols through safe areas before you could even shadow a Protectorate hero was mind boggling. New York was by all accounts a more active cape scene than Brockton Bay, but they held back half of their heroes.

Maybe that was it. Brockton was at a rough standoff. The Wards and New Wave had let the heroes meet the gangs on equal footing. Only now the Wards were being held back and New Wave was in chaos.

That was another thing. It was weird seeing one of these events without even a token appearance from Victoria's team. They showed up to present a united front, boost attendance, and probably secure some of the take. Dennis didn't really understand the finances, but the night had felt weird without Dean and Victoria doing that 'pretend you don't know each other' thing. He secretly hoped they would be able to rally in the face of this, but some of the rumors flying weren't encouraging.

Dennis was just finishing his walk through of the groups on the mezzanine level. The dozen or so teenagers and handful of adults were on edge, but reassured by his presence. It made him feel the real weight of the situation. Clumps of formally dressed teenagers huddled on benches with their friends, faces lit by the light of their phones as they sought any information on what was happening. All looking to him like he had all the answers and power in the world.

Little did they know the Wards were struggling with exactly the same problem.

He moved into the small side office the gallery staff has offered as a sort of command center. The rest of the team were clustered in the light of the few monitors that Chris had been able to keep active with some on-the-fly tinkering.

Chris was the only member of the team who didn't look like they were attending their own funeral. It was kind of crazy, but the only one of them who wasn't completely devastated by the failure at the bank was the one with untreated injuries, broken equipment, a confiscated invention, and a severe reprimand. You would never know it from looking at the boy as he had repurposed the broken pieces of his hoverboard and, despite being prohibited from building anything new before the review board's evaluation, had been tearing into his old projects like a man possessed.

Dennis was fairly certain that the 'new' guns he had brought to the event had been assembled from the massive pile of half-finished inventions that amassed in the tinker's workshop. Without the cellphone charger he had rigged for the guests things probably would have devolved sharply after batteries started showing red. What he had managed here, constructed out of a coil from one of his guns, an old PC the staff assured us wasn't needed any more, and a scattering of salvage from the gift shop, was keeping the team better appraised of the situation than the sporadic updates Dennis had been receiving from headquarters.

"What did I miss?"

Chris glanced up from the mess of cables he was fiddling with. "Police band's still a mess. Three more recorded bombings since you left, but response is minimal. Looks like the Merchant capes are trying something, but theory is it's just to throw their weight around. Empire's still patrolling their territory. Probably trying not to look weak in the face of all of this. More reports of assaults and looting inside the Docks. Private security has managed to lock down the boardwalk. Still no official word on what happened on the Rig, just that camera phone video from the shore. And the broadcast..."

He trailed off and Dennis glanced at the main screen. Possibly the only clear picture they had of what was happening in the city was coming from the time-delayed stream of Uber and Leet's alliance with the ABB. Though with the direction it was taking it might be more appropriate to refer to it as a snuff film.

Dennis had switched out for his shift around the gallery right as Grue had been caught. He hadn't seen the results, but enough people had been watching the stream on their cell phones for the audio to provide a very disturbing mental picture. The central monitor showed the aftermath, spindly remains of a human body thankfully wrapped in shadow.

The broadcast cut to showing the last two remaining Undersiders, Tattletale and Khepri, running for their lives through the maze of storage units. The entire situation was like one of those monkey paw wishes. Someone took every ill intention the Wards had manifested towards the Undersiders following their defeat and saw how they could be fulfilled in the most terrible way possible, both for Undersiders and the city as a whole.

"Shadow Stalker, you're up." Dennis didn't have high hopes for her as a calming influence, but it would help to get her away from the broadcast. She had a history with Grue and hadn't taken it well when he'd got himself captured. Dennis didn't know exactly what was going on there, but between her frustration at being cooped up during the crisis and whatever unresolved score settling she'd just been denied the girl looked ready to explode.

It seemed like she just might do that instead of taking her shift. The tall girl pulled herself off the wall and looked ready to challenge him directly when Flechette stood between them. "Let me take this one? I need to stretch my legs."

Dennis glanced between the two capes, then nodded. "Keep an eye on the adults. Some of them don't seem to be dealing with this as well as their kids."

The new transfer nodded and shouldered her metal crossbow thing. Arbalest, or whatever its proper name was. Dennis sent her some silent gratitude as she left, but another look at Sophia told him it was a temporary measure at best.

A fixed camera showed Khepri run into view, then drop to the side to avoid the blast of a bomb she couldn't possibly have seen coming. She groggily pulled herself to her feet only to almost run into a pack of the armed civilians the ABB had forced to fight for them. Unfortunately they were only armed with melee weapons and were clearly no match for Mammon's tinker tech.

The super knife was a blur as it sliced apart clubs and improvised weapons, buying her enough space to drag her baton across the cement wall of a locker, spraying the mob with shards of concrete. Before they could recover she vanished down a side path, out of sight of the camera.

"She's trying not to hurt them." The attention of the entire room shifted to the normally silent hulking form of Blake. He just shrugged. "Could have gone through them a lot bloodier than that."

"Villains try to minimize casualties to keep the heat down. Not that it seems to matter for them." Vista's voice was bitter in the darkened office. Next to Sophia she seemed to be having the hardest time processing this mess. If it were anyone else her age Dennis would have kicked her out after that thing with Regent. He knew the girl well enough to understand what would happen if he tried. Vista had been on the team longer than him and had seen more field work at that. She could handle the grisly scenes being displayed better than her age suggested.

He shuddered just thinking about what had been shown. Trust Bakuda to come up with fates that made being pinned under frozen bugs look appealing. There was also the disturbing idea that she had designed her traps to one-up the Undersiders actions at the bank. It was a thought that made him even more concerned over what was happening out in the city.

"I don't know, they let you all off in one piece. Except for Aegis."

Vista's head snapped towards the older girl and Dennis could see the rage on her face. Things hadn't gotten any better between them since the bank. In fact, ever since her meeting with the new Youth Guard representative Sophia had been walking around with a huge chip on her shoulder. The current situation had only made things worse.

"You think that's funny you bit..."

"Anything else from headquarters?" Dennis practically shouted as he cut in. All he managed to do was get both girls pissed off at him. If this is what being a leader means then it's a mystery why Dean was so keen on it.

"Uh, no." Chris fumbled for more at Dennis's urging. "Got a list of priority dispatch areas, but the roads are a mess and response teams aren't getting through."

Sophia leaned forward and looked at the map on the second monitor. "Fuck it, I'm going."

Dennis whipped his head towards her. "Not happening. We're defending the gallery."

"A drunk rent-a-cop could defend this place. We're being tucked away because the rest of you screwed up. Well I'm not letting that stop me." The girl started checking her equipment and drew both crossbows.

"Shadow Stalker, look..."

"No you look." She pointed at the screen. "Priority doesn't mean the area needs a photo op. It means there's actual violence happening and someone needs to get there five minutes ago." She strapped the crossbows to her thighs and turned to vanish through the wall.

Dennis swore to himself for a second, then burst out of the office. He could see Sophia climbing the stairs to the rooftop balcony. Going for the highest point, maximum glide distance. His mind spun trying to figure out what to do, how to handle the situation. Carlos could have brought her in line, but she at least partially respected him. Dean could have talked her around, but he didn't have the charisma or thinker powers to pull off something like that. So what option did he have?

He made his decision in an instant. As fast as he could move without drawing attention he powered into the gallery, past guests and staff alike. He found Flechette by the scaffolding and plastic tarps that signaled an exhibit in the process of being installed. Probably one of those multi story scrap metal monstrosities that are supposed to represent the manifestation of an SAT vocabulary word.

He pulled the girl aside and spoke quickly "Shadow Stalker's leaving. She's heading for the conflicts in the docks."

He could see the worried expression through Flechette's visor. "Against orders?"

"She does that. Look, I can't talk her down from this, not the way she's set on it. She... She's not as tough as she thinks she is. If something happens to her tonight..." He left the question hanging and Flechette seemed to understand.

"What do you want me to do?"

It was a big responsibility. Also, as his first serious act as leader it could easily be his last, but better a harsh reprimand than a dead Ward. "The only one of us who could keep up with her is Vista, and they don't get along."

"I noticed. You want me to tail her?"

"I want you to go with her." Flechette shot him a surprised expression. "She's heading for the roof. Tell her I sent you to stop her, then go along with her. She doesn't have bad blood with you..."

"And if she thinks I've broken protocol as well she's not going to slip off."

Dennis nodded. "As leader I'll take the heat for this, however it goes down. Just keep your phone on and try to look after yourself."

Flechette bit her lip and looked towards the roof. "I will. And thanks." She put an arm on his shoulder. "You make a good leader."

Dennis felt a surge of emotion at that completely at odds with the dire nature of the situation. The girl hefted her crossbow thing and moved after Sophia. At least that was something. If things went sour Flechette would have the sense to bail or call for help. It could make the difference.

When he made his way back to the office Blake rose to meet him. "Look, I'm sorry about that."

It took Dennis a moment to figure out what Browbeat was talking about. "Oh, right. Don't worry about it. Everyone's on edge." He let out a breath. "I sent Flechette with her. It should be okay."

That got a chorus of nods. Blake stepped forward and adjusted the purple jumpsuit he'd used since before joining the team. There were talks about replacing it, but with him having the only 'win' at the bank he's been promoted enough that the look had become somewhat iconic. He's probably be stuck with it for a while.

"I can take the next shift."

"You don't have to."

He shook his head. "It's alright. I don't mind."

Dennis could understand why. Blake was probably the most awkward cape he had ever encountered. He was probably the only one more comfortable patrolling a dark museum full of frightened civilians than sharing a room with friends. He nodded to the big cape and watched him pace out of the room.

After Blake left Chris turned towards him. "It's not good for the Undersiders. They got Tattletale."

Right, monkey paw. The results of it were clear as day on the monitor, the horrible meshing of flesh and inanimate material. Somehow the fact that the girl was still alive and conscious made it even worse. If Bakuda was going for intimidation she was doing an excellent job of it.

"She was trying to call someone when Bakuda caught her," Vista added. "Trying to get help."

He raised an eyebrow behind his mask. "Think it's Mammon?"

The two other capes shrugged at him. "Not many other options. You'd have to be pretty desperate to call your arms dealer for help."

Dennis glanced from Chris to the image on the screen. "I think 'pretty desperate' is about the right word for this."

"Just Khepri left." From Missy's tone Dennis couldn't tell if she was concerned for the girl or eager to see what Bakuda had in store for her.

"She's doing better than people expected." Chris pulled up another screen. "See?"

"People are betting on this?"

The tinker shrugged. "It happened on some of their streams. It was just all set up ahead of time here. Probably while they were prepping things."

It was a disturbing concept, but worse things happened in the cape community. It was unexpected for the villain team, but that seemed to be the theme for the night.

"How do you think they managed to keep their gear working?"

"No idea. Probably change it before it can malfunction? If Leet's been on a time limit then the only thing holding him back would have been commitment to his theme."

That made sense, but was another worrying thought. Everyone considered the pair fairly harmless, but this was a big departure from their usual style both in competence and brutality. Meeting them in the field at this level of aggression was a scary thought.

The feed had shifted back to the main courtyard. Bakuda had climbed up on some crates and was making a grand speech about the glory of the ABB, a new age for the city, her genius, and so on. Most villains didn't monologue, but the ones that did seemed to try to cram five villains' worth of clichés into a single speech.

She was just wrapping up a rant about how 'no one would dare oppose them' when an explosion rocked the courtyard. For a second he thought it was another of her bombs. She hadn't exactly been stingy with the explosives. That idea was dispelled by her clear shock at the event and by the sight of what had to be a tinker tech motorcycle.

The vehicle barreled through the blast like it was nothing, turning into a perfect skid and stopping dead in the center of the courtyard. The dust trailed off it, highlighting every curve and angle of its bodywork. The bike looked fast. Rather than the glowing mess usually associated with tinker tech this bike just looked ready to launch itself at Mach speeds. There was something about it that made it seem like it was about to break the sound barrier when standing still.

Its rider's appearance was both shocking and familiar. From one glance it was clearly Mammon, but he had either changed his costume or Amy had badly understated things. The costume was just incredible.

He wore a long coat fluttering in the wind and momentum of his entry before settling. The material was somehow both deep black and able to catch the light just enough to highlight motion and shape. He wore a cowl on his head, a far cry from the reported bandanas, but still had that steel visor. The same material was peppered across his costume, highlighting shape, contour, and equipment. Not the chunky plates that had been reported as a possible Empire connection. His torso was looped with belts and bandoliers of small pouches. The color scheme was simple but dramatic, black, grey and white.

He turned to Bakuda and raised a gloved hand. The microphone didn't pick up his words, but from her reaction it was clear what was happening. This was the creator of the Undersiders' weapons and the help Tattletale had called for.

"He can't be serious." Vista was staring at the monitor with mad intensity. "What is he trying to accomplish coming in like that?"

And then his bike split open, folded up, and surrounded the tinker in a suit of power armor. The transition was so fast, smooth, and natural that the shock of it almost overwhelmed the shock of the fact that it played the Transformers sound effect during the process.

All three wards stared blankly at the screen as the tinker, now identifying himself as Apeiron, squared off against Bakuda. Gradually attention shifted to Chris who seemed at a loss for words. Finally he found them.

"Uh, okay. That's really good armor. Like, better than what I made for Gallant."

"It has turbines. Can it fly? If it can fly why did he come in through the wall?"

"Drama?" Chris hazarded.

"And the... sound effect?"

The tinker just shrugged. "The same? Look, see how it moves? That's full human range of motion, every axis represented at every joint. The engineering on something like that... well there's a reason most tinkers don't bother."

Dennis swallowed. "So we have a highly skilled tinker who still drops cartoon references in his equipment?"

"Quiet." Vista shushed them and turned up the volume so they could hear more of the exchange. Specifically the frank refusal to leave without Khepri. And the blatantly implied reason.

"Well, that..." Dennis dropped off mid-sentence.

"...explains how the Undersiders were able to afford their gear?" Vista offered. Her reaction to the revelation was complicated, sort of a mix of frustration and vindication. Dennis just shrugged and watched Apeiron, weird name that, banter further with Bakuda, even precisely identifying the effect of one of her bombs.

They looked to Chris for confirmation, but he just shrugged. "Sounds right? And based on her reaction..."

Based on her reaction he was right and rubbing it in her face. He then transitioned to threats, then bragging.

"He broke Oni-Lee's arm?"

"That's what he told Amy. Didn't you read the transcript?"

Chris just shook his head. "Haven't had a chance. Who do you think she's talking about?"

Dennis shook his head. "No idea. Wait, is he giving up?"

The armor had opened up allowing the tinker to stride forward. Without the amplification his words couldn't be picked up, from her reaction it wasn't a typical surrender. Chris gripped the edge of his chair as the empty suit of armor strode forward with fluid grace and took a position next to the tinker.

"Do you..." He turned from the screen to them. "Do you know how hard that is to pull off? The kind of programming it requires? The control systems?"

Chris may have been excited, but all Dennis heard was 'powerful tinker, really powerful tinker, really really powerful tinker.' over and over.

A series of orange holograms appeared around Apeiron's left arm. They seemed to shift through functions in a technical way. Some kind of interface?

The tinker raised his arm and a glowing orange sphere the size of a beach ball appeared floating in the air beside him. It seemed to be composed of overlapping partial shells of beautifully carved transparent material rotating around a glowing core. It looked technical, artistic, and threatening all at the same time.

Bakuda screamed and launched a grenade in a high arc. With speed reminiscent of Khepri's knife and form that any PRT officer would be proud of, the tinker raised a small pistol and put a glowing shot straight through the tiny target.

The shot detonated the grenade in a lightning storm that caused the cameras to stutter out. The Wards exchanges concerned glances as the image returned. Bakuda and the two ABB members closest to her were smouldering from some type of attack the broadcast has skipped. A separate feed showed the tinker leap up and suspend himself from the floating drone. The explanation for the mysterious action was provided immediately.

"Where's the fucking robot?"

The electronic voice was greeted by the sound of screaming turbines as the sight of the empty armor diving towards the courtyard with both crackling electric clubs extended from its arms like spears.

Watching the aftermath made Dennis wonder why they hadn't felt the shockwaves when the attack happened. It wasn't clear how delayed the stream was, but surely they should have been able to notice something like that? Or had they just dismissed it as another explosion?

The courtyard rippled in a way that looked like Vista using her power, but instead of a flowing spatial warp it fractured into hundreds of crevices and leveled every locker in the area. Miraculously, or possibly by design, an empty area had been targeted for ground zero, so casualties were minimal. When the camera settled it focused on the tinker walking towards a set of jeeps with his pistol drawn.

"What's he planning?"

"Shot to the engine block?" Chris offered. "Powerful enough gun could shut down the jeeps. He'd be able to..."

He stopped talking as an orange blade, the same color as the holograms on his left arm, sprouted from the pistol. It crackled with the same energy as the robot's clubs and was as intricately designed as everything the tinker carried. With three quick swipes the jeeps were reduced to a pile of sparking scrap.

They watched as he set commands for his robot and drone before disappearing into the facility. The three Wards exchanged concerned glances as the feed became a display of the tinker's robots harassing the ABB.

"So..." Started Dennis. "I think we can confirm that's the guy who equipped the Undersiders."

"And not exactly with his top end gear." Chris rolled back the stream to the destruction of the jeeps. "Not even close to them. And see the sparks? Reactive cuts. There's a lot of energy going into that."

"How bad are we talking?" Vista leaned in. Dennis followed her eyes and noticed how deeply the slashes had cut into the ground around and even behind the jeeps.

Chris made a confused gesture. "I don't even know how that worked. It's like he managed to destabilize matter in a projected plane, then somehow amplified the effect."

That wasn't reassuring in the slightest. The door opened to reveal Browbeat, looking as concerned as he could behind his mask.

"You guys saw that right?"

"Yeah." Dennis nodded. "How are the guests and staff taking it?"

"Not terribly. It's something else to focus on." He glanced over his shoulder. "I think anything that's standing up to the ABB right now is a relief."

As much as he hated comfort coming from a villain rescuing other villains he could understand that. It was hard to get any information right now, and the clearest picture of what was happening in the city had been Bakuda's tour of horrors. Seeing someone stand up to her was a big deal. He just wished it had been a Protectorate response team instead of a new terrifying tinker.

Chris turned to Missy. "How bad do you think that weapon would be if it was used Downtown?" He might have been a tinker but no one on the team knew more about the dynamics of structures than Vista.

Normally the shaker would have preened at having her authority recognized. Instead she just looked dower. "Devastating." She shook her head. "That broke the foundation of the facility. The shockwaves must have been titanic. I don't know if it would actually bring down a skyscraper, but I wouldn't feel safe in any building after a hit like that."

Which begged the question, why the hell did he have something like that on hand? Giant area attacks weren't common loadouts for new tinkers. The idea that he just happened to have a weapon like that on hand when called was a disturbing thought.

"I'll... I'll take the next patrol." Dennis almost thought about interjecting. Vista had made her feelings on the new tinker very clear. Sending her out where people were celebrating his arrival seemed like a less than ideal plan. Still, she wasn't likely to start anything around the public, though would undoubtedly vent to the team in private. He nodded to her as she left the room.

"Any updates on the city?" His own phone had been silent with no updates from headquarters. It was frustrating that they could piece together a better picture from police dispatch, news reports, and social media posts than they could from official channels.

Chris shook his head. "More explosions, but the frequency is dropping off. Oh, the Rig's not on fire anymore, so that's something."

Meaning maybe now they'd finally be able to get some news on what the hell was happening over there. And it might even come through a proper update rather than a leak to PHO.

Dennis let out a breath. The night was wearing on him. He'd had extended combat missions that felt less exhausting than being stuck in the museum.

After the tinker's disappearance the broadcast had become much less engaging. It mainly consisted of the ABB trying to organize some kind of resistance or expedition only to get disrupted hard by Apeiron's robots. It was a stalemate that was exciting for about the first two minutes, then became repetitive. The robots were tireless and seemed to be getting better as time went on, while the ABB and Bakuda only got more frustrated.

Dennis left for a brief patrol while Chris cycled through the security cameras he'd been able to power up. They showed the same thing they had all night, absolutely nothing. No one was threatening the gallery. No one even wanted to be in the area. It was clear as ever that they were being kept a safe distance from the fighting.

When he got back the broadcast had shifted from the courtyard to a faceoff between Uber and Leet against Khepri and Apeiron.

It was the kind of match up that wouldn't do the rumors about the nature of Uber and Leet's relationship any favors. Even after years that was still a popular trolling topic, mostly because of Leet's juvenile tantrums over the subject.

Unlike the broad shots of the courtyard this was shown from close up, with the benefit of body cameras in addition to their floating surveillance devices. As such they could actually make out the dialogue as the fight began. It was a disturbing demonstration of extreme durability and unknown technology from Apeiron against Uber and Leet with actual functional technology. Even with all the unknown properties on display there was one question that had to be voiced.

"What the hell is the Tripredacus Council?" Chris just shrugged, but surprisingly it was Blake who illuminated things.

"Third party in the whole Autobot and Decepticon standoff. Usually plotting from behind the scenes. No real connection to either of them. Actually have a completely different origin, goals, everything. Usually they showed up to cause problems for both sides."

The both looked blankly at the hulking cape, causing him to shrug in embarrassment. "I used to watch reruns after school. The sixth season of Beast Wars was really good once they got back to Cybertron."

"Think that means anything, or are we just looking at another Leet?"

Chris shrugged. "Honestly? It could just be a style thing. Lots of tinkers add little flourishes. If you're building a transforming motorcycle then making it sound like a transformer isn't that much of a stretch."

"Hold on, roll that back." The Wards listened to the exchange between the capes again.

"So the ABB really has a new thinker." Dennis shook his head. "Is that all it takes to make those clowns dangerous? Knowing when their gear will fail?"

Chris looked grim. "Probably? They can basically cycle through whatever they need. And with one shot items, well it's basically a guarantee."

"This is bad." Browbeat's voice was more deadpan than usual.

"It's been bad from the first blast. But yeah, this is worse. This is a persistent problem." Functional Leet would have been scary if all he was doing was game jokes. Functional Leet thrown in with a bloodier ABB was a nightmare.

Apeiron started to trade insults with Leet at a favorable exchange rate while Khepri cut through zombies in a manner disturbingly reminiscent of the end of the bank fight. Unlike most people Dennis had seen that from his pinned position rather than on the replay cameras. It was the kind of thing that stuck with you, even compared to the nightmare of being frozen under bugs. Watching her now it was clear no one in their right mind would get within arm's reach of her, a fact made clear by Leet's call to Uber to finish things.

The capes watched the attack and aftermath mostly in confusion. "Was that a Street Fighter thing?"

Chris shrugged. "No idea. I've only seen those characters in the crossover they did with King of Fighters. Uber and Leet always reference the most obscure stuff."

"I think they've kept making them."

"Yeah, but nobody plays them outside of tournaments and really hardcore fans."

Whatever the effect was it had caused the first real injury the tinker had shown in the entire fight. His costume was ripped and torn in dozens of places, exposing bloody flesh, battered skin, and some kind of machinery coating his arms. Then in face of Uber's taunting blue circuit like lines spread over his body and the injuries vanished.

"That... is not what Amy described." Dennis looked to Chris, but the tinker just shrugged.

"No idea. Looks like something technical, but I mean, glowing lines? That could be a thousand things."

"Effective though." Blake gestured to the fully recovered tinker. "I couldn't heal nearly that fast."

"I'm pretty sure Amy would need more time as well. That's serious healing tech." Which was in line with what they already knew.

What he did next was not.

"He can make bugs? He can make bugs that Khepri can control?" No one had any answer for that question, and the effectiveness of the bugs was as terrifying as their sudden appearance.

"Oh, and mass produce those drones." Kid Win's voice was tinged with envy. "That's just great."

The broadcast cut back to the courtyard with Uber and Leet's sudden retreat in the face of capture, leading to another long shot of untrained ABB trying to deal with mystery tinker tech. What had been revealed in that fight wasn't exactly encouraging. Between the drones and instant bugs it was a tossup of which news was worse. Vista chose to weigh in when she returned from her patrol.

"Mammon can make bugs? Mammon can make bugs that Khepri can control?" No one wanted to correct her on the name, and Dennis had a feeling she'd keep using that term in her own head long after his chosen name had been accepted by the public.

"Do we have any idea what he's doing with that stuff? Amy said it was healing and teleportation, but he's shooting fire, lightning, and insects from it?"

Chris had no answers, and the rest of the group was at a loss. Just something tied into the contents of his pouches. Any number of tinker devices could be hidden there. Dennis shook his head and took his patrol of the museum.

He wasn't exactly patrolling the museum, just the party space on the mezzanine level. If not for the blackout this would have had a very nice view of Brockton's skyline along with the bay and PHQ. At the moment the Rig was one of the few points of light in the darkened city, though the evident damage made that far from comforting.

Inside the museum things weren't looking much better. The catering had been picked over and was now just scraps surrounding a melting ice sculpture. The event had been planned for far more than the tiny group that got caught in the blackout, but canapés and hors d'oeuvres didn't make the most filling meal so had vanished fairly quickly. Now all that was left were clustered groups of frustrated, emotionally exhausted civilians trapped away from home and safety. At least the staff had taken some comfort in the assurance that they would be getting overtime for this mess.

The most popular viewing was clearly Bakuda's broadcast, with the audio coming clearly from more than half of the phones. How many people in the city were watching it? In the country? They didn't post exact viewership figures, but the chat, gambling, and online reactions were orders of magnitude greater than their typical broadcast.

A few people were edged away from the main group talking to friends and family members. Dennis had checked in with his mother at the start of the night to make sure his parents were safe. His mother assured him they were fine. That his father would be fine. Unless the blackout extended for days there shouldn't be a problem with his treatment. That things would be fine.

He had heard it before. They had been here before. Things would always be fine, even when treatments got more and more severe, more draining. Even when they suddenly needed a bone marrow transplant. Things would be fine, but that had to be acted on immediately. There was no time for things to be fine.

No time. That thought, the needle approaching his skin, the horrible feeling of blacking out and then...

Then he was a cape. He had joined the wards, been the fun guy, broken the tension, kept Vista from getting too serious, played against Aegis, been there for Chris. Then the leukemia had come back. Then the bank had happened. Then the team had fallen apart, and no amount of humor would hold it together. He had to be a serious leader dealing with serious things that he just wasn't ready for. That no one was ready for.

He had been so caught up in his thoughts he hadn't noticed the man approach until he was right on top of him. He cursed himself. This was supposed to be a patrol. Yes, it was basically babysitting duty, but it was a dangerous night. He needed to stay on guard.

The man was one of the handful of adults that had been part of the pre-event mixer. That meant parent or influential relative of one of the teenagers. It was an older Asian man with a suit and demeanor that just screamed 'corporate executive'. He looked fairly nervous about approaching him, so Clockblocker did his best to put the man at ease.

"Hello. Can I help you?" Stage voice, no hint of concern at the situation. Everything is calm and normal, nothing to worry about here.

"Oh, uh, yes. Thank you. And thank you to your team for staying with us during all this..." The man trailed off and checked his watch, probably a nervous habit. Dennis couldn't blame him.

"It's no trouble. We're happy to help whenever we can." This was hamming it up more than he intended. It turned out combining his own instincts with a question of 'what would Dean do?' resulted in something that could probably be described as 'parody Legend'.

"Ah, yes. I wanted to ask, I haven't seen Flechette in a while. Is she patrolling the area?"

Dennis didn't change his stance, but a bit of unease started to creep up his spine. Only questioning about Flechette, no mention of Shadow Stalker vanishing, or Kid Win who had been managing the communications monstrosity since he set up the cell phone charger. Had this man come with anyone?

Cape stalkers weren't unheard of, but usually were more subtle or at least age appropriate. The man didn't seem the type, but the type was good at not seeming the type. He decided to brush it off and give the team a warning.

"She's taking patrol outside the main area. Nothing to worry about. Let us know if there's any trouble."

He left before the man could say anything else. Making his way back to the office he tried to piece together his instincts on the man. Cape stalker didn't seem right, but something was definitely off.

"Any news?" The faces that turned to him were grim. "What? Something with Bakuda?"

Chris shook his head. "Taunted Apeiron when he found Grue, then bombed the place to smithereens. They're playing cat and mouse in the storage rows at the moment."

The news that Grue was dead was a shock, even given his condition following Bakuda's demonstration. That said, it wouldn't have caused the reactions he was seeing. "Then what?"

Chris indicated a screen showing a PRT database he was fairly certain they weren't supposed to have access to. "Casualty list from the Protectorate."

His blood froze. "How bad?"

"No fatalities." Vista offered. "But Armsmaster's in critical condition. Velocity is stable but incapacitated. So is Assault."

"Weld is listed as out of commission. No details on what that means."

Dennis took a breath. "So they're down to Miss Militia, Battery, Dauntless, and Triumph?"

"Plus any members of New Wave they can call in." Chris offered dryly.

He felt rage and frustration at being stuck here boil back to the surface. They should be out there. They should be making a difference, not stuck here watching rich kids while the city was being torn apart. All because they screwed up so bad the entire future of the team was in danger. He took that feeling and pushed it down. He took a moment to consider the situation further. More clearly. And it came to him. "Movers."

"What?"

"They took out the movers. Rapid response. Velocity has always been the first on the scene. With Armsmaster's bike he was close behind. Assault and Battery have that speed trick they do to cycle kinetic energy. Losing either of them shuts that down."

"You think they pulled off a targeted hit during a prison break while coordinating a blackout with half their forces supporting Bakuda?" Missy sounded understandably incredulous.

"They do have a new thinker." That got some concerned looks from around the table.

"What about Dauntless?" Blake asked.

Dennis shook his head. "Infinite growth means he's managed by the Protectorate as a whole. Focusing on defense at the moment, so probably the worst flyer in the city."

"What about Stormtiger?"

He looked at Missy. "Fine, worst flyer who doesn't launch himself on blind trajectories guided only by hope, Nazi insanity, and cocaine."

That got a weak smile from the girl, but it quickly died. "I should get out there."

"Oh, there's an older guy, business suit. He was acting a bit off. Asked about Flechette pretty insistently."

"Cape stalker?"

"Maybe? Not the vibe I got, but keep an eye on him?"

"Got it."

Dennis let out a breath and sank into a chair. The broadcast was still showing the courtyard, the robot and drones buzzing around the ABB while they pushed out further and set up more equipment. "Still no progress?"

Chris shook his head. "Looks like a standoff. Probably going to putter out soon. There's not much point in bringing the fight to Bakuda, so they'll probably slip out soon."

Chris turned his attention back to the screen just in time to see the robot diving into the ground, weapons extended, for a second time that night.

Nobody commented on the inaccuracy of the prediction. It was completely overshadowed by the fact that apparently the earthquake weapon was not a one shot. Apeiron hadn't brought out some desperate one-shot big gun. He had the ability to do that, to cause that level of devastation, whenever he wanted.

Maybe there were limits. Maybe it had a cool down, or limited shots, or some other restricting factor. But they weren't stopping him now. The second hit absolutely leveled the facility. The area was turned into a field of rubble. Fear and panic were plastered across the faces of the ABB. And then his voice came from the crater.

They watched the exchange play out in silence. Bakuda has set herself up as the most feared tinker in the city. Probably in the eastern seaboard. He mocked her. He belittled her to her face. He picked at her insecurities and reduced her to ineffectual attacks swatted down with contempt. Then he strode out of the mist with his glowing arm and Khepri at his side and looked down on her like she was nothing. The robot and drones fell before them like a royal court while Bakuda struggled to find any footing. It looked like things couldn't get worse.

Then the howling came.

Concerned glances were exchanged in the office. "Hellhound."

"They didn't show her, just said they'd dealt with her." Chris pulled up a clip on another monitor.

"Wait," Blake asked. "They found Hellhound? And saved her."

"He is a good healer." Dennis offered as they watched the screen.

Then the dust pulled back revealing choking clouds of black smoke. A giant dog monster darted in and out of the darkness, just clear enough to show two riders on its back. One of the ABB hostages pointed something out and the camera focused on it.

Tattletale.

Her clothes were tattered, but she was alive, whole, and as cheeky as ever. On the other side of the courtyard Regent made himself known. The dog edged out of the darkness showing Hellhound and Grue on its back.

He had healed the Undersiders. He had totally healed them from the worst injuries and mutilations possible. Panacea couldn't handle some of what had been done. Regent, he hadn't had much of his arm left, but he was as hale as ever.

"God damn." Blake's voice was reverent. "I don't know if I could come back from that stuff, and he just..." He made an astonished gesture.

A horrible thought entered Dennis's head.

"He said he sells his services?" He hated himself for even asking. Fortunately they didn't know. They took it as an honest question, not a potentially traitorous one.

Chris nodded. "We won't be able to stop him. Healing like that, they won't care about regulations or villain status. Damn it, he'll be funded forever."

Dennis just nodded and tried not to think about his trust fund, whether it would be enough, could possibly be enough.

Contemplation of the miraculous abilities on display was abandoned as Bakuda opened fire erratically on the Undersiders. Hellhound's dog started tearing through the ABB. Grue sent pillars of darkness into the sky. Tattletale and Regent vanished from the scene, though the effects of his power quickly became evident on Bakuda. Apeiron shielded Khepri from gunfire as she sent his manifested insects at the shooters, aiming without line of sight. All the robots launched into the sky.

When it looked like the ABB might be able to mount a defense the earthquake weapon was demonstrated not to be a two shot either. The robot performed a low flyby, tearing a terrifying chasm directly through Bakuda's position. The rift swallowed numerous pieces of equipment, nearly taking the operators with it.

They watched Apeiron and Khepri abandon their position and walk through a squad of the toughest group of ABB on the field like they weren't there, fire and blade flying as they moved. Then they vanished into the darkness and Bakuda was left cowering under human shields with broken equipment.

"Well..." Dennis didn't know where to go from there.

"Fuck?" Suggested Chris.

He cracked a brittle smile. "Sounds about right."

Blake was just shaking his head. "How do we deal with something like that?"

Dennis let out a breath. "In all likelihood? We don't. Welcome to the new Wards, where we babysit while the city burns." He dropped his head. "I doubt they'll let us within a mile of the Undersiders at this point."

Despite the frenetic pace of the broadcast there wasn't a lot happening. Bakuda was messing with something while hiding from the sweeping attacks of the robot and drones. Chris distracted from the gloom and frantic chaos of the broadcast by cycling through the rest of their data sources. The bombings were at least dropping off, though response and rescue was still a mess. No update on the state of the Protectorate heroes or Weld. He did find a report of Shadow Stalker and Flechette stopping an assault in the docks, so that was encouraging.

The sound of a blast drew their attention back to the fight. Bakuda had launched something into the air that wiped out the drones, cleared the darkness, and buried the robot in a pile of rubble. The bomb tinker had assembled a nightmarish conglomeration of barrels and rockets being aimed deeper into the facility.

A fresh set of drones rose from the ruined lockers, but were met by the first tracking missile Bakuda had deployed. Its payload wiped out all five constructs, then scattered like seeds across the ground.

Impossibly the seeds started to grow, sending glassy black vines clawing into the air and towards the source of the drones. You could see the heat shimmering off them and small fires sprang up from any flammable items in their path. From within the horror brambles a series of explosions rang out, each seeming to slow the progress slightly. Finally the growth stopped, leaving a burning crystal thicket the size of a three story business complex.

Bakuda launched something and the view shifted to a remote drone. It showed the Undersiders huddled behind Apeiron in a clearing in the barbed strands. The ground in front of him was scorched and blackened, apparently the result of whatever had held the mess back.

They watched as he pulled an item from a pouch and allowed a glowing mass to fly into his pistol. Then he activated his sword and the blade grew from the gun. Then grew some more. Then it kept growing.

The tinker stood there with an honest to God anime sword, complete with swirling aura. Dennis looked to Chris for any explanation but just got a hopeless shrug. The blade was crackling even worse than before and the glow from whatever he had added to the weapon was mounting at a frightening rate.

Apparently Bakuda thought so as well because she decided to launch everything she had. Rockets, mortars, bombs, and grenades sailed towards the Undersiders. Then the tinker swung the sword.

That was the last thing they were sure of, because everything afterwards was a chaotic guessing game. You could see the crescent of orange light tear into the sky, obliterating everything in its path. You could see the initial shockwave tearing things apart. After that land and air became indistinguishable as everything was swept up in the blast.

When the display settled it was limited to an off center depiction of the former courtyard. There was a sense of stunned aftermath that the Wards would likely have enjoyed if not for the sudden frenetic knock at the door tearing them back to reality.

Dennis calmed his heartbeat and quickly rose to open the office door. He was greeted by the face of the man he had spoken with earlier, only several times more desperate and panicked.

"Sir, is there a problem?"

"I need to speak to Flechette." His answer was frantic and his eyes scoured the inside of the office.

Dennis steeled himself. "I'm sorry, she's not available. If you could return to the group..."

"No!" He practically screamed. "There's not enough time. Have..." He checked his watch. "Seven minutes and I have to ask her about the train."

"What train? What are you..."

"Clockblocker..." Chris's voice was hollow. Dennis turned to the tinker and he held up one of his cobbled together devices. Dennis couldn't make sense of the display, but Chris clarified. "His neck."

A chill went up his spine. "Sir." His voice was deadpan as he spoke. "Could you turn around?"

The man looked conflicted, but slowly rotated with awkward, shuffling steps. There, creeping just above the collar of his shirt, was the edge of a fresh scar.

Dennis fought his urge to pull back from the man, something Blake and Chris didn't manage. He swallowed. "Sir? I'm going to need you to move away from the group. Down the hall please."

He was practically crying as he moved. Dennis's mind spun as he considered his options. Seven minutes. There was no doubt as to what would happen after that. What could they do?

Anything. At this point anything would be better. "Kid, I need something that can make contact with the bomb without setting it off."

"What are you planning?" His hands were already scrambling through the gear scattered around the office as he asked the question.

He swallowed and put more confidence into his voice than he felt. "If it's close enough to a continuous object I can freeze it. Then we can get it out."

"Oh, yeah. Great idea." His hands froze. "How are we going to get it out?"

Dennis shifted his gaze to Browbeat. It took a moment for the big cape to register his intention.

"What? No, God no. I can barely do self-biokinesis. This is another person. I don't know medicine. All I could do is try to mash stuff in there. What if I screw this up?"

"The base situation has him dying a horrible death. Just try to take it up a smidge from there." It was darker humor than he was used to, but these were darker times.

The improvised surgery took place in a bathroom off the side hallway. Chris had managed to cobble together some multi stage needle thing that he said should be able to make contact without setting off any sensors. Dennis kept a finger on it ready for Chris's signal. Blake stood by looking like he might vomit or pass out and Vista stayed by the door, ready to stretch as much space as she could in a room full of people in the event something went wrong.

Dennis didn't feel any difference in the device when Chris signaled him, but pushing his power into it he could feel the extent of the implanted bomb. Smaller than a ping pong ball, not perfectly round, and lodged just under the man's skull.

The man practically stopped breathing when the bomb was frozen. He could see the skin distort around the embedded object as subtle shifts in the man's body pulled on the frozen device. It reminded Dennis a little too much of the frozen insects that had invaded his eyes and mouth during the bank job.

He stepped aside and made room for Blake. The cape removed one of the gloves of his jumpsuit and placed a hand on the man's neck. Without the covering Dennis could see the bone plates and extra muscles that Blake manifested as part of his power. This was new ground for the cape, but they needed someone with an idea of the human body.

The man flinched as bones pushed their way through Blake's skin and cut into the man's neck. The apparatus extended like a living scalpel, guided by bio-control and tactile telekinesis. Slowly, Blake guided the man off of the time frozen device, keeping a palm pressed into his neck. When he pulled it back there was a greyish mass where the bomb had been.

"Collagen." He panted. "Biologically neutral, no markers or allergens. Should be absorbed by the body eventually, or you can get someone who knows what they're doing to deal with it." He let out a long breath. "Damn thing was wrapped around an artery. Had to jiggle it out like a stuck piece of toast."

"Great job." Dennis congratulated him, but was overshadowed by the tearful hug the big cape received from the businessman. It took a few minutes to get the full story from him. Less than a minute after that he was on the phone to Flechette.

"Hello?"

The voice that answered the phone was a lot more upbeat that Dennis would expect for someone fighting muggers during a blackout.

"It's Clockblocker. Can you talk? It's urgent."

"Oh, sure. Shadow Stalker and I just ran into a new cape."

"Is everything alright?"

"Oh. Yeah, not like that. She's awesome. What's this about?"

"Does the name March mean anything to you?"

There was silence on the line. "Just a minute, I need to take this." The voice was distant. She'd moved the phone away from her face. "Yes, thank you. Yes, you too." There was the sound of rapid footsteps, then she spoke again. "What about March?"

Dennis took a breath. "She's joined the ABB. From what we can put together she planned all of this, everything tonight."

"Fuck. God fucking damn it."

"You know her?"

"Old villain from New York. She can take a gang of pickpockets and turn them into a team they won't let Wards near. With the ABB..." She trailed off.

"Yeah, looks like it. She was after you, had a plant in the gallery."

"Figures. Are they, I mean, have you?"

"He's fine." He considered his next move. "He was supposed to lure you away by asking about the train." There was dead silence. "Does that mean anything to you?"

"My trigger." There was real rage in her voice. "March knows about my trigger. I don't know how, but, oh God damn it."

"Look, she's coming here. I need everything you can give me. Strengths, weaknesses, habits, tactics, anything. If she's coming she's probably not coming alone. We have over thirty civilians here to protect. Anything you can give will help."

Flechette began to talk.

And Dennis began to lead.

A big part of that was just stepping up and being the person who took the initiative. Come up with a plan, even if it's not perfect. Utilize your resources. And report.

He pulled up the PRT.

"This is Clockblocker. We have reliable intelligence that multiple villain capes are incoming on our position. Arrival imminent."

There would probably be a mountain of paperwork for this. As soon as Weld was back Dennis was going to dump as much as possible on him.

"This is Console. Prioritize the safety of the civilians. Support is... not available. You have clearance for intercept and engagement. Withdraw if possible."

Now they tell us we can leave. They may have had less than five minutes to come up with a plan, and that plan may have endangered a civilian, but given the circumstances and the vindictive feeling of the civilian, it seemed appropriate. It might also be his ass once Piggy got ahold of him, but after tonight he could live with that.

Which was how Toyoda Tsuneo, fifty two year old business executive, found himself standing in a darkened hallway next to a feminine figure in purple half obscured by scaffolding and plastic sheeting. The man did not need to fake his nervousness as he paced back and forth in the confined space.

Slowly, steps began to echo through the museum. They grew closer and closer until finally a figure could be seen through the gloom of the hallway. It cast a striking silhouette, particularly the large rabbit ears emerging from the military cap on its head. There was a slight swish as a long object was swung back and forth behind the figure. Finally the approaching person stepped into the light.

She wore a red and green marching band uniform with peaked cap in the same shades. Her face was completely covered by a rabbit mask and two large ears emerged from the hat on her head. Behind her back the glint of a saber was just visible.

"I brought her." The man volunteered. "Just like you said."

"So you did." Her voice was light and musical. "...just on time too, why a couple minutes more, and..." She made a popping gesture with her free hand. The man swallowed in response. "Now, where's that device? So hard to keep track." She made a show of patting down her pockets, then glanced up at the feminine figure. "Glad you could join us. Aren't you just dying to find out…" Her voice cut out as her eyes fell on the figure.

With the wave of a hand a mass of plastic sheeting launched itself over the rabbit cape. The corridor behind them distorted, allowing the man to reach the end in a single step and a white clad cape covered in clocks to step into his place and with a single lunge the plastic sheeting locked in place like a force field. The purple figure swelled in size and stature, taking the familiar form of Browbeat. Meanwhile the corridor widened and warped, revealing a girl in green and a boy in gold and red armor, training a pair of pistols on the villainess.

The woman ran a hand over her impassible plastic prison. "Clever. Bringing out new tricks for me. I guess you had to learn something after that bank." She sighed. "Such a shame."

"Give it up, you're trapped and surrounded."

The woman tilted her head slightly, causing the rabbit ears to brush against the plastic. "Really, did you think I'd come here alone? Flechette isn't the only one Bakuda made presents for. All those little rich kids, so vulnerable, and you're not there to protect them."

Vista just smiled at that. March seemed to catch on. "Really? What a pity, then I suppose..."

Oni Lee appeared in front of the cape shaking his head. Kid Win shifted to get a shot on him, but a new copy appeared in reach, causing him to roll and fire wildly while propelled by his new greaves.

"Lee? Change in plans. Bring the place down." With a nod the demon masked ninja began reaching for his belt. Dennis exchanged a panicked glance with Missy before diving forward. He was barely looking where he was going, just tagging clones and bombs wherever Vista put them or him. Blake had bulked up more than Dennis had ever seen and was taking on four clones at the same time. A near constant barrage of stun bolts were flying from the erratic arcs Chris kept launching himself.

It looked like they might have the upper hand, like they might win the day. Then a crackling sound came from March's prison.

The cape had extended her rapier through the time frozen material and was trailing it in a spiral, leaving a path of misty purple blue behind it. The path started to spark like a line of gunpowder. When it reached the end of the spiral the plastic exploded to shreds. Time frozen material completely negated like it was nothing.

"Bullshit!" The word came before he could process it. March raised her sword and lunged towards him.

Then she stumbled, her blade coming short. She shot Vista an angry glance, then her mood changed to levity once more. "Oh well, time to call it for today." She slipped towards the railing of the mezzanine, dodging stun bolts and a clumsy swipe from Browbeat while also working around a dozen Oni Lee clones. She flipped onto a piece of scaffolding, saluted with her saber, then slid down it like a fireman's pole while trailing a line of wavy purple-blue energy behind her.

The diminishing presence of Oni Lee's duplicates was enough indication of what was happening. "Vista, get us out of here."

The girl nodded and space warped through the mostly empty building. They followed her steps as the gallery seemed to turn backwards, inside out, and upside down around them. Finally they made it through all the distortions, to a reinforced corner formerly just large enough for a janitor closet.

At the moment you could fit a football team in it. Or the staff and early arrivals of a charity event, plus one very stressed businessman.

As soon as they were inside Dennis froze the door, the only portion not warped by space. With the gallery spread out by Vista's power they didn't feel the blasts, but they could hear them. A lot of them. And the collapse. Chris guessed March had hit a main support pillar. When the dust finally settled, the last of the time frozen clones dissipated and bombs detonated, they pulled the civilians out of the remains of the gallery with a combination of Missy and Blake's powers. It was a mess, but they had come through alive. That had to count for something.

Plus no one would ever have to endure a field trip to the Forsberg Gallery again. There's always a bright side to things.