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A Darker Path [Worm Fanfic]

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Ack, Aug 27, 2022.

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  1. GasperVladi0

    GasperVladi0 (Confirmed Nurgle Cultist)

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    Remember kids, it's better to blow up your drugs then to do them.
     
  2. Troysh

    Troysh Getting sticky.

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    Awesome chapter! Moment I realized how action movie it was going I went to the start and fully engaged the old imagination engine to give it visuals and a soundtrack. Our resident mistress of murder keeps giving me reason to go back to Mission Impossible and the Borne movies. Love it!
     
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  3. Throwawaykindanot

    Throwawaykindanot Getting out there.

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    As always, amazing chapter. The villains though... at some point the PRT just gotta stop them for their own sake... right? Right?... Can't wait to see how she'll deal with Butcher and Heartbreaker. But if they get captured and/or by just have their shard destroyed?.... Will they be commited for suicidal attempts/thoughts/tendencies?...
     
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  4. ConsiderableHat

    ConsiderableHat Hot glue beard disaster.

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    "We stand ready to offer protective custody to any villain who feels in any way threatened by the actions of Atropos."
     
  5. Sassy Snake

    Sassy Snake Eldritch Pest

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    Interesting to see how Atropos will deal with the butcher and heartbreaker considering butcher’s power and heartbreaker’s thralls with their instructions to kill themself.
     
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  6. SkinnyP

    SkinnyP In need of a hug

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    This story is just sooo gooood
     
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  7. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    They honestly tried, with Skidmark.

    If he'd stopped and surrendered to them, he'd be alive now.
     
  8. Prince Charon

    Prince Charon Just zis guy, you know?

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    That would even work; it's just that the villains in large part are too stupid and/or arrogant to take the option.
     
  9. ConsiderableHat

    ConsiderableHat Hot glue beard disaster.

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    Yup. It's one of the points in Atropos' favour with the PRT that she does give her victims a chance to surrender.(Not to her, sure, but that's more her refusing to act as middlewoman between 'at liberty' and 'in lawful custody')

    They had to birdcage Gavel to get him to stop doing what Atropos does because a. he had a splash radius that Atropos doesn't and b. he wasn't at home to attempts to surrender.

    Atropos doesn't give quarter, but will respect the Feds' grant of same and gives her targets reasonable opportunity to apply for it. It makes her, from a law-enforcement point of view, something they can grudgingly live with. Or happily live with while making pro-forma requests in public for her to step back over the line.
     
  10. MonkeyNinja d'PirateRobot

    MonkeyNinja d'PirateRobot I am INVINCIBLE... and a loony!

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    Doesn't this contradict itself? If they're too stupid/arrogant to take the option, then how exactly would it work?
     
  11. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    It would work (inasmuch as the villains would survive) if they weren't so stupid or arrogant.
     
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  12. Throwawaykindanot

    Throwawaykindanot Getting out there.

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    Not sure Skidmark counts, that man is the perfect example of why you never mix drugs and sunk cost fallacy kids
     
  13. GladiusLucix

    GladiusLucix Versed in the lewd.

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    Not sure on the Butcher, but Heartbreaker's order was to kill themselves if the got word of his death. Taylor's just going to keep word from spreading until they can be safely deprogrammed.
     
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  14. MonkeyNinja d'PirateRobot

    MonkeyNinja d'PirateRobot I am INVINCIBLE... and a loony!

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    Or just not have him killed. Despite what Harry Potter books would like everyone to believe, there are a great number of ways to deal with someone permanently without murdering them. ESPECIALLY in a world with magic or powers. She could induce a stroke that left him a vegetable. She could have him hit on the head in just the right 70s TV show way that left him functionally amnesiac. Or alive but in a coma while others are called in to deal with his thralls. Or just incapacitated enough to be hauled off to the Birdcage. Nobody would EVER hear if he was killed inside there. His orders were way too specific and limited.
     
  15. Threadmarks: Part Twenty-Seven: Down These Mean Streets
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    A Darker Path

    Part Twenty-Seven: Down These Mean Streets

    [A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]



    Danny

    When he first saw the pickup rolling down the street, Danny had to do a double-take. It had, at one point, been lovingly cared for and maintained by its owner; while not an afficionado, he could tell the signs. But it had definitely fallen upon hard times since then. The windshield was cracked all the way across, and utterly shattered around the driver's side in a way that indicated gunfire. More bullet-holes pocked the chassis, both wing mirrors were gone, the once-glossy paintwork was horrifically scratched and dented (and peeling down to the bare metal all the way along the entire passenger side), and bare wires were sticking up from the roof of the cab where he guessed there'd once been a lightbar.

    And then it pulled in and parked behind him.

    Crap, he thought. Taylor said to wait here. I can't just drive off and leave her hanging. Taylor had left her shotgun with him; if they came up to menace him—

    Both doors of the pickup opened and the girls got out, Taylor still dressed in her full Atropos costume. Danny sagged in the car seat, both grateful that she was okay (and that he wouldn't have to threaten some stranger) and wondering what the hell she'd been through with that pickup to get it into that state. Over her shoulder, she was lugging a strange military-looking tubular device.

    "Hey, Dad," she said, a smirk in her tone, as she strolled up to his window. "Did I have you worried there for a moment?"

    "Watch it, young lady," he said, mock-threateningly. "You're still not too old to be grounded, you know." As he spoke, he saw Cherie staring at him from behind Taylor. She had to know he wasn't serious, but she still looked like she couldn't believe what he was saying.

    "Aww," she said with saccharine sweetness. "It's adorable that you think you'll catch me."

    He shook his head. "You're only Atropos some of the time. But let's shelve that for a moment. I presume it went okay? I heard the explosion on the way here."

    "Drugs are toast, and so are most of the bad guys," she reported cheerfully. "Oh, and I took one of Gesellschaft's unpowered reps alive. Shot him through the knee and left him for the authorities."

    "Let me guess." He let his tone become dry. "This means you're acquiring even more enemies as we speak?"

    "Not yet," she countered lightly. "But give it a day or so. Anyway, can you pass me the shotgun and a couple of road flares? The Elites' drug guys have decided to pull a Skidmark, and just drive around for a bit. I need to go explain to them that yes, I can actually see them."

    "No problem, hon. But you might want to put that thing in the back seat. What is it, anyway?"

    She opened the back door and slid the device into the footwell. "It's a Saab Bofors AT-4 anti-tank weapon. They had a few lying around, so I souvenired one. Neat, huh?"

    "That's one way to put it." He reached down into her bag and passed up the sleek, deadly weapon, as well as the flares. "Want me to wait here, or go somewhere else?"

    "Nah, here should do." She slapped the roof of the car. "Cherie can wait with you. This'll only take another few minutes."

    "Of course it will," he murmured. As Taylor headed back to the pickup, the passenger door opened and Cherie got into the car. "And how are we doing tonight, kid? Not too terrified yet?"

    "Oh, she's leaving me back out of the action." Cherie shook her head. "What's terrifying is watching people getting too close to her in a firefight and just … dying. It's like I've got these little songbirds in my head, all singing away … okay, they're assholes, so the songs are pretty nasty and gross, but they're singing happily about murdering people and selling drugs, and the next minute she's there, and it's like pop-pop-pop, they're just vanishing mid-song."

    He chuckled darkly. "Yeah, that sounds like my little girl, alright. I wish there was literally any other way to achieve what she's doing, but I've given twenty years of my life to Brockton Bay for less in the way of impact than she's gotten in a week."

    "Okay, now you've got me confused." She paused as the pickup started and drove up the street, then disappeared around the corner. "Your emotions say you disapprove of her methods, the way you talk about them says the same thing, but you're not even trying to stop her?"

    He opened his mouth to speak then paused, looking at her carefully. "Okay, I'm getting the impression your home life wasn't the best. Let me guess: everything your dad approved of happened whether you liked it or not, and everything he disapproved of was forbidden?"

    She blinked. "Well … yes?" The unspoken 'isn't that always the way?' came across quite clearly.

    "Mm-hmm," he murmured. "Well, even before Taylor got her powers, we did things slightly differently. For big matters, like paying bills and going to school, what I said was what happened. With smaller things, if Taylor had an opinion about them, I'd listen to her and if it made sense, we'd do it that way. And of course, if there was something I had no opinion about and she had the allowance to cover it, like buying herself a new pair of sneakers, she could handle it herself."

    The weight of her stare was almost palpable. "And you don't mind not being in control of everything?"

    "Well, no." He chuckled wryly. "It wasn't a perfect system. She didn't tell me until after she got her powers that she was being bullied by her ex-best friend, and I … well, I fell down on my Dad duties there for a while after I lost her mother. But now we're finding our way back to each other. And to answer your original question; I don't like what she's doing, and I don't like that she has to do it. But … the people she's killed have contributed massively to the ongoing problems in Brockton Bay, and they just would've kept doing it for the foreseeable future if they weren't stopped somehow."

    Cherie was frowning hard, as though trying to assimilate a difficult concept. "So, it's a case of the ends … justifying the means?" She spoke the phrase as though she'd once heard it but never understood it before this point.

    "More or less, yeah," he agreed. "But there's more to it than that. She's actually getting solid results; I have it on good authority that the crime rate is dropping by the day. The PRT and the BBPD are coming down on the gangs harder than ever, now that the capes that used to back them won't be coming back. But on top of that, she's also working to maintain those results, keeping other villains out of the city. The trouble is, there'll be pushback from people who have a vested interest in returning matters to the status quo. There always is."

    Tellingly, she didn't ask what sort of people those were. He suspected her father was the type who definitely wanted to keep the status quo just the way it was; heavily weighted in his favour. "She wrote up a big list of capes when she was telling everyone to stay away," she said at last. "Do you think they'll all try to come here?"

    "Some of them won't." He'd read the post from the Red Hands. "Some will. Because no cape that's ever gone undefeated can imagine losing. But if they come here, one thing's for certain."

    "What's that?"

    He was just about to answer when he heard the sound of revving engines, screeching tyres, and gunshots. About three or four blocks ahead, an eighteen-wheeler roared into sight from around the corner, taking up the whole intersection to negotiate the turn. Danny heard the gut-deep thnk brrrm thnk brrrm as the driver changed up; smoke poured out of the twin overhead exhausts in the glare of the streetlights. Behind it came another one, sticking close to the first one. The gear-changes, echoing down the concrete canyon of the street, were a little less smooth than the first one.

    Danny had a sudden flashback to a nature documentary he'd seen of elephants stampeding away from a pride of lions. This had that same panicked quality of action.

    Behind the second semi-trailer, a sports car skidded into view, spinning out of control across the intersection with rubber shredding from its tyres. Danny caught a glimpse of a shattered windshield and an arm hanging limply out the driver's side window before it broadsided into an electricity pole, wrapping itself into a complicated wreck around the obstruction.

    Even as this happened, Taylor's pickup came around the corner in a solid four-wheel drift, belying the fact that Brockton Bay streets tended to be patchworks of asphalt rather than a continuous smooth surface. The big tyres howled and juddered, but she kept to the line like a ballerina, swooping around the corner without losing any speed. Danny had seen professional rally drivers on TV who couldn't have pulled off something like this.

    The eighteen-wheelers were accelerating properly now, perhaps ten seconds away from passing them. Danny knew Taylor was in pursuit, but he was worried that she might not be able to catch up before they got away. "Should we—?"

    Cherie shook her head, her face tinged yellow by the high-beams of the oncoming trucks. "She said to say no."

    "Oh."

    The pickup's heavy tyres smoked as Taylor went after the trucks with everything she had. She was still coming on strong when the first eighteen-wheeler thundered past the parked car at something over the posted speed limit, sending gravel chips flying everywhere. Less than a second later, she whipped past, neck and neck with the second one, the wind of their combined passage making Danny's car rock a little from side to side.

    "Where did she learn to drive like that?" asked Cherie, craning her neck to peer out through the back window of the car, just as the dull thud of a shotgun blast sounded over the noise of the powerful engines. "And shoot? And the rest of it?"

    Danny had his eyes fixed on the rear-vision mirror. "She didn't. That's her power."

    "Oh." There was a world of revelation in that word.

    "Yeah. And you know what I was saying about what happens if villains try to come to this city?"

    "Yes?"

    "That."

    The second eighteen-wheeler was starting to wobble and sway now; he thought he saw the pickup accelerate. There was a brief exchange of gunfire, then more shots from the shotgun. And then, one long drawn-out crash after the other.

    "Now we can go," Cherie said in the quiet that followed. "She said she'll be finished mopping up by the time we get there."

    As he started the car, she pulled out a mobile phone. "And … send," she muttered, pressing a single icon. "A text to the PRT," she explained belatedly. "Telling them where to send emergency services next."

    "Huh. Okay." Taylor had pre-written the text, no doubt. With the exact address the trucks could be found. Because she'd known ahead of time when and where it would be.

    Carefully, he pulled a U-turn, hearing more shots as he went, then rolled down the street toward the wreckage of the trucks. As he got closer, he saw that both had fallen on their sides. Each one had skidded for some distance after going over, and the rear doors had fallen open.

    There was a whoomph of flame from the nearest truck, and it began to burn brightly. The front one, from what he could tell, was already well on fire. There were bodies sprawled here and there, guns lying near their outstretched hands. It was easy to see what had happened: Taylor had shot first.

    Danny pulled to a halt about thirty yards back from the second truck, not wanting to blow a tyre on the wreckage or run over a dead body. Silhouetted by the flames, Taylor strolled back to meet them, shotgun over her shoulder for all the world as though she'd just been on a successful hunt. And in her own way, he supposed, she had been.

    Cherie went to get out of the front seat, but Taylor waved for her to stay there. "It's fine. I'm good in the back." She opened the rear door and climbed in, then sighed in satisfaction. "Welp, that's ninety-nine percent of the hard drugs in Brockton Bay, gone. We can head home for a bit now."

    "For a bit?" he asked, taking another U-turn.

    "Yeah, for a bit." She took off her hat and removed the mask, then gave him a grin via the rear-vision mirror. "The night's not over yet."

    Which, in Atropos-speak, meant that someone else was due to have a terminally bad day.

    Danny couldn't wait.

    <><>​

    11:30 PM

    Tenebrae


    Brian sighed as he slid the key into the front door of the accommodation unit he shared with Aisha. It had been a long, eventful night, even if he hadn't been involved in any of the more interesting events.

    Being a hero had a different focus than being a villain; instead of 'sitting around planning the next crime' and then 'committing the crime', it was 'being on duty and trying to prevent crimes'. If he was being honest with himself, he was starting to understand the frustration he'd caused the heroes who had tried to catch the Undersiders after their various exploits. Even monitor duty, which he oddly enjoyed, was a case of playing catch-up rather than being proactive.

    But hey, I chose this over being charged and jailed, so it's not like I can complain or anything.

    The door clicked open and he stepped inside. The accommodation unit wasn't huge—he slept in one bedroom, and Aisha had volunteered to share the other with Riley (once the PRT delivered her to their doorstep)—but it was larger and much better appointed than some places he'd stayed. The pictures on the walls were the generic crap that could be (and probably had been) picked up in any bargain store; he'd already decided that once he got his first paycheck, he'd take the girls down to the Boardwalk and the Lord Street Market, and arrange some proper decorations for the place.

    "Hey—oh, it's just you." Aisha arrested her energetic springing motion up from where she'd been lying bonelessly on the sofa, and flopped back down. "Thought it mighta been Riley."

    "Wow, thanks," he said dryly. "I'm thoroughly underwhelmed by your appreciation of my presence." Brian headed through to the small kitchen, where he poured himself some orange juice. "You could at least pretend to be happy that I'm home."

    "Why?" she asked impudently. "You're my big bro. I'm not allowed to acknowledge your presence without being sarcastic about it. I'm pretty sure that's in the Constitution or something."

    "Yeah, yeah, I love you too." He closed the fridge and came back to the sofa. "How was your evening?"

    "Watched that Aleph movie, The Matrix. Just gonna say, Will Smith in shades and a long coat is almost as cool as Atropos." Without being told, she swung her legs around and plunked her heels on a footstool so he could sit down. "And before you ask, I already did my homework. Heaps easier than it used to be."

    "I'm glad," he said, carefully not commenting on any actor's coolness or otherwise. "So the new classes are working out for you?"

    "Meh." She rolled her eyes, which Brian was starting to recognise as her way of saying something didn't totally suck. "The other teachers were just dicks."

    He raised his eyebrows, knowing it wouldn't help but having to try anyway. "You know, Riley probably won't want to be hearing all that bad language from you. We're supposed to be setting her a good example, remember?"

    "What do you mean, bad language?" She gave him the worst fake-innocent look he'd ever seen. "No fuckin' idea what you're talking about. Maybe you need to clean out your stinky-ass ears."

    "Aisha …" He could handle a certain amount of sass from her, but not indefinitely.

    "Okay, fine, fine." She threw up her hands in an approximation of surrender. "How was your night, anyway? Did Atropos pull that shit she said she was gonna? Pretty sure I felt the explosion. Were you there? Did you see her?"

    He blinked. The shift from 'too cool for school' to 'Atropos fangirl' was … startling. But at least she was communicating in a non-hostile manner. "Yeah, she did. I wasn't there—they made sure we'd be patrolling the southern end of the Boardwalk, and in through Downtown—but I got sent a couple of pictures. Assault knew you'd be interested."

    "Lemme see, lemme see!" She was sitting up now, crowding toward his end of the sofa.

    "Give me a second, already." He took a drink from his orange juice, then placed the glass on the end table, on the coaster that was already there. Aisha wouldn't think about coasters if one was stapled to her forehead, but he'd already left one out on every surface that could conceivably be used to place a drink.

    She hung over his shoulder as he took his phone out and called up the images that Assault had already sent to him. The first showed the massive mushroom cloud over the warehouse, which was even more of a wreck than the first one. Aisha stared at it, her teeth bared in an atavistic grin. "Fuck yeahhhh …" she whispered. "Fuckin' eat it."

    "Oh, and they found a guy nearby who'd been trying to get away, but he didn't get far after Atropos hit him with a car and shot him in the knee with his own gun." Brian found particular satisfaction with repeating this bit of information. "Turns out he's a foreign national, connected to Gesellschaft." He paused, then saw that she hadn't made the connection. "They were the Empire Eighty-Eight's German buddies, before Atropos pulled the plug on the Empire."

    "So, a Nazi." Aisha had no trouble with making that connection.

    "More or less, yeah. Assault says Interpol's really really going to want to be talking to this guy. Anyway, that's the explosion you heard. This is the other thing she did tonight." He flicked on to the other photo, of the burning eighteen-wheelers. "They were trying to be sneaky, and just drive around with the product until Atropos gave up."

    "Pulling a Skidmark, right. Until she pulled a Uno reverse on them, hah, yeah." Aisha was grinning all over her face. "When are these dipwits gonna learn, you don't put shit over on my girl Atropos?"

    He leaned back in the sofa, letting the tension of the day ease out of him in one long sigh. "Well, according to her PHO posts, not yet. But that day will definitely come, if only because she's killed all the idiots who think they're the special ones."

    At that moment, his phone rang; specifically, the one they'd issued to him for use as a Ward. He checked the caller ID and saw it was his PRT liaison (translation: 'minder'), Ms Brown. Giving Aisha a warning glance and putting his finger to his lips—it was long past her bedtime, even if this hadn't been a school night—he swiped to answer it. "Hello, Tenebrae speaking."

    "Good evening," she replied. "I know you've just gotten in and you're probably wanting to get to bed, but I wanted to update you on the situation with your cousin."

    "Oh, okay." That sounded a little ominous. "Is there a problem? Has someone raised an issue?"

    "Oh, no, no." She chuckled warmly. "No problems, none at all. It's just that the final paperwork only came through fifteen minutes ago. I've already put Riley to bed in my spare bedroom, and I'd be hung, drawn and quartered by my superiors if I woke her up to transport her to your location at this time of night. I'll drop around first thing tomorrow to hand her into your care, if that's okay?"

    He knew damn well that the question was code for 'it had better be okay'. "Sure thing, Ms Brown. What time were you thinking of turning up with her?"

    She paused for a moment. "How does six-thirty sound to you, or is that too early?"

    "That sounds perfect. See you then."

    "Excellent. Say hello to Aisha for me. Goodbye."

    "Bye," he said, and ended the call.

    "So?" Aisha asked. "What'd she say?"

    He grinned at her. "Riley will be here at six-thirty in the morning."

    "Sweeeet!" Her eyes lit up and she did a little dance without ever getting off the sofa.

    "Mmm-hmm." Brian raised his eyebrows. "And we both know how much of a gremlin you can be in the morning if you haven't had enough sleep, so brush your teeth and get to bed now." He pointed in the general direction of her bedroom, just to make his point.

    He was right, and she knew he was right, but he could tell she was determined not to give him the win. "Fine … old man." Getting up, she meandered deliberately slowly in the direction of the bathroom.

    There was just one shot left in his locker. "Do you want Ms Brown to decide that I'm an unfit parent, and split all three of us up? Because if you screw around too much, that can totally happen."

    "Okay, I'm going. I'm going." And she went.

    <><>​

    2:28 AM

    Taylor


    My eyes snapped open and I sat up. Even as I got up and started putting my costume on again, my memory caught up with me. I was in my own bedroom, Dad was asleep in his room, and Cherie was using the fold-out sofa-bed downstairs. Dad had apologised for how lumpy it was, and she'd laughed out loud. Apparently, as humble as our accommodations were, we still beat out whatever she'd been enduring over the last few weeks or months by a long shot.

    I'd spent about an hour down in the basement after we got back, making use of an old camp stove and some surplus kitchenware. My power had gotten me to set myself up with basic breathing protection and I'd worn the lab coat and goggles I'd stolen from the Medhall building basement lab that one time. What I wanted to do now wasn't anywhere near as dangerous as that—acidic gas was nobody's friend—but I still didn't want to take the chance of an accidental high.

    As my power had assured me, there was a huge difference between instigating a chemical reaction and just removing the additives, which was why I was doing it in the basement instead of someplace far away. Specifically, dissolving the packet of drugs I'd scored from the warehouse, separating out the stuff they'd cut it with, and leaving the pure substance to dry into a white paste. It would be ready when I needed it.

    After that, I'd dunked everything I'd used in a tub of strong detergent and had a long hot shower where I scrubbed everywhere that could be scrubbed. Dad and Cherie had already sacked out when I got out of the shower, so I put my pyjamas on and did the same. Normally, knowing that I only had a few hours to get some rest would've caused me to toss and turn restlessly, but this time around I'd called on my power to End my current wakefulness; thirty seconds later, I was fast asleep.

    Cheating? Totally. Useful? Absolutely.

    Shrugging into the long-coat, I hung the tie around my neck and took up the hat and mask. I grinned as I realised I hadn't bothered turning on the light to get dressed; everything had been exactly where I knew it was. Opening my bedroom door, I strode along the hallway and thumped on Dad's door with my fist. His alarm went off at exactly the same time, ensuring that he'd actually wake up instead of passing it off as a dream.

    Satisfied on that account, I headed downstairs and went into the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. My power could simulate wakefulness for as long as a particular Ending needed to go on for, but Dad and Cherie were at the mercy of unassisted human biology, and caffeine was what they needed right then. (Note that while my power could probably keep me awake and alert for days at a time, I wouldn't necessarily enjoy the experience).

    Strolling into the living room, I sat down on the edge of the sofa bed and spoke gently. "Cherie, it's time to wake up."

    I hadn't turned on the living room light, but the kitchen light spilled through enough illumination for me to tell when her eyes opened, staring at the unfamiliar surroundings. The angle I was sitting at had been deliberately chosen so she'd see my face, especially my glasses. Nobody in her family wore glasses; even if they'd needed them, the idea of regular visits to the optometrist would've been ludicrous.

    "What—who—oh." She rubbed her eyes, staring at my face as her brain rebooted. "Taylor? Atropos? Is that you?"

    I let her see my smile. "That's me. How are you feeling?"

    She shifted and stretched, which turned into a massive yawn. "… still a bit tired," she admitted. "Had a big day yesterday."

    "It's not over yet." I got up. "I've got coffee going in the kitchen. There's a half-bath under the stairs if you need to go. We'll be heading out in ten minutes."

    With an almost audible click, her brain connected the last few dots, just as I heard Dad's footsteps on the stairs. "… oh. The Damsel of Distress thing?"

    I nodded. "The Damsel of Distress thing."

    <><>​

    3:00 AM
    Brockton Bay Port Authority Bus Terminal

    Damsel of Distress


    Ashley had heard Brockton Bay was supposed to be warmer than the rest of New England in the winter. Maybe it was just her exaggerated expectations, but climbing off a heated bus at oh-dark-thirty made her feel colder than ever. Hugging her coat around her and making sure her backpack was secure, she tried not to shiver as she moved through the sparse crowd—the number of people getting off the bus at three in the morning was never going to be huge—in the general direction of the exit, and thus the cab stand.

    She had enough to put herself up at a flophouse until she got the lay of the land, and then she could start recruiting. But the big thing she needed to do was not draw attention until she'd assembled enough of a power base for her needs. Which was why she was dressing inconspicuously; there was even a scarf over her pure-white hair, just so it didn't draw attention.

    So why was everyone staring at her? She tried to look as inconsequential as possible, but more and more people were pointing and backing away from her. What's going on? How do they know who I am?

    That was when the gun-muzzle touched the back of her head.

    "Arms folded." It was a girl speaking, but the words could've been carved from primordial ice. "Hands under your armpits. If I see them, I blow your head off. Do you understand me?"

    Normally, Ashley didn't buy into intimidation displays—knowing a bit about them herself—but something about the tone of voice told her that this person absolutely meant what they said. If she didn't do what she was told, she would die. Slowly, carefully, she nodded. At the same time, she slid her hands under her armpits and locked them into place with her arms. "Who—who are you? What is this? Why are you doing this?"

    "I'm Atropos." The girl moved around her with effortlessly fluid steps that never allowed the muzzle of the pump-action shotgun—being held at arm's length, without a quiver—to move away from her head. Black-dressed, with a morph mask that hid her expression, she exuded pure menace. "You're Damsel of Distress. I warned you once to stay out of my city. Consider this your second warning. The third warning will involve a closed-casket funeral."

    "Atropos!" The voice was familiar, and Ashley wanted to scream as two familiar costumed figures showed up through the now very rapidly dispersing crowd. "Don't kill her! We're here!"

    "What the hell are you two doing here?" she demanded, glaring at Edict and Licit. "How did you get here before I did?"

    "I called them." Atropos' tone was matter-of-fact. "Told them where you'd be. Gave them the option to be here and take you back to Stafford. Or, you could die. It seems that they'd rather you live."

    Fury surged in her chest, but not so great that she pulled her hands out from where they were. "You can't tell me what to do!" she shouted.

    "Atropos—" began Edict, then stopped as a pistol with a long suppressor on the barrel appeared in Atropos' other hand, aimed directly at her face.

    "I can pull the trigger before you complete a command." The tone of the girl's voice didn't make it a threat, or even a command. It was a simple fact, bluntly stated. "Don't go there. I won't kill unless my hand is forced. That does include you."

    "Please." Licit's voice was rough. "Edict. Atropos. Damsel. Let's all survive the night, okay?" His expression was pleading, almost desperate.

    Atropos was the first to react; the pistol spun once on her finger, then vanished back inside her long-coat. "I'm down with that. Edict?"

    Edict started breathing again—it looked like she'd stopped when suddenly confronted by the business end of Atropos' pistol—and nodded shakily. "I'm okay with it. Sorry."

    "Already forgotten. Damsel, these two are here to take you back home. You have exactly two choices: go with them, or die. There is no third option. What's your choice?"

    Ashley gritted her teeth, feeling the tears welling in her eyes. Life was so unfair. Why couldn't she have what she wanted once in a while? "Can't you just let me stay?" she whispered. "You'll hardly know I'm here."

    "Right up until you come after me and try to kill me." The grim amusement in Atropos' voice was all the more chilling because her words paralleled Ashley's thought processes exactly. "No dice. When I say, 'no villains in my city', I mean it. Choose. Now."

    The urge was in Ashley to defy Atropos, to see if she could get her power into action before the black-clad girl could pull the trigger, but cold common sense drowned out the violent impulse before it could come to fruition. Atropos was a killer, that was easy to see. She wouldn't choke and she wouldn't hesitate. Ashley had exactly one chance of survival. Anything else at all would see her lying dead on the chilly concrete with her brains splashed over the bus behind her. And if I'm dead, I can't win.

    Just for once, her survival instinct won out over her pride, even as the words she spoke stuck in her throat. "I think … I'll go home."

    "Good idea." Atropos stepped back; her finger left the trigger as she let the shotgun swing up and over until it was resting on her shoulder. Not for an instant did Ashley think she was out of danger. "Have a safe trip."

    "Yeah." Licit gave Atropos a careful nod as he stepped in alongside Ashley. "Thanks. For … well, calling us."

    "You're welcome. You understand that the next time, she just dies, right?" Atropos' tone was earnest, well-meaning. You understand that you need to put on snow chains for traction, right?

    "Yeah." Edict's voice was harsher than normal. "We get that. You were just itching to pull the trigger, weren't you?"

    "Edict …" Licit urged.

    She waved him away. "Well? We're leaving now. You may as well tell the truth."

    Atropos shook her head. "You don't understand me at all. If there's a need to end someone, I end them. If there's not, I don't. Damsel's fate was in her own hands the whole time. It's as simple as that." She twitched open the long-coat and slid the shotgun into some kind of sheath or holster, then stood there, arms folded. "Don't let me keep you." The dismissal was obvious.

    As Edict and Licit hustled Ashley away, the last she saw of Atropos was a black silhouette, long-coat blowing sideways dramatically under the chill morning breeze.

    The bile of her failure burned deep in her throat, but it was counteracted by the cold, hard knowledge. I never stood a chance.

    <><>​

    6:30 AM Tuesday Morning

    Tenebrae


    The apartment was cleaner than it had been when Brian and Aisha moved in. He'd been up since five thirty, sweeping and mopping the floor, then scrubbing the walls. Aisha had wandered out yawning to poke fun at him while he was hunting the corners of the ceiling for any cobwebs which may have been spun while they were in residence, and he'd put her to breakfast-cooking duty.

    Fortunately, she was a reasonable cook, if a little slapdash. Her bacon ran the gamut from barely seared to extremely crispy, and her fried eggs had a similar range. But nothing was burned, and everything tasted good.

    Brian was just helping her plate everything up when the knock sounded on the door. Aisha stared at him. "Is that … is that her?"

    His eyes flicked to the wall clock. It was the right time. "Only one way to find out."

    He put the plates of eggs and bacon on the table then turned toward the door, but Aisha was already ahead of him. She darted over to the door, then paused. Seeming to gather her courage, she turned the handle and yanked the door open.

    Ms Brown, standing outside, had her hand raised to knock again. Apparently taken aback by the precipitate opening, she stared at Aisha as Brian stepped up as well. "Ah … hello," she said. "Ms Laborn, Mr Laborn. Sorry about the delay. Paperwork refuses to be hurried." She gestured at the child standing beside her. "This is your cousin Riley."

    Riley raised her hand and essayed a tentative wave. "Uh … hi?" Wearing basic jeans and T-shirt, she was a few years younger than Aisha, but whatever magic had been employed to change her appearance had definitely left her with the Laborn family looks. However, even as she stood there, Brian could see the worry in her eyes: what if they don't want me?

    "Heeeeey, cuz!" Aisha reached out and virtually dragged Riley over the threshold, where she enveloped the younger girl in a ferocious hug. "C'mere!"

    "Hi, Riley." Brian went down into a crouch so he could look her in the eye. "I'm Brian, and the overly touchy-feely one here is Aisha. We've been looking forward to meeting you."

    "And you can ignore about ninety-five percent of everything he says, because he's a dull boring adult." Aisha relinquished the hug, but kept hold of Riley's hand. "I'm the one who makes most of the decisions around here, anyway. C'mon, I'll show you our bedroom. Your bed got delivered yesterday, and your dresser with it. I've already cleared out your half of the wardrobe …"

    Brian rose to his feet again as Aisha more or less dragged Riley into the depths of the apartment. "Sorry about that," he said awkwardly. "It's been too long since she's had any family her own age. Not sure if they told you, but our parents …"

    "… are not well suited to raising a girl with her educational needs, I know." Ms Brown nodded understandingly. "She certainly seems enthusiastic at the prospect of having a little sister, or at least a younger cousin."

    "Right now, as far as she's concerned, it's one and the same." Brian listened for a moment to Aisha's excited chatter and Riley's responses. "It sounds like they're getting along just fine."

    Ms Brown smiled. "That it does." She offered the tablet that she'd been holding under her arm. "One last signature and I'll be on my way."

    He accepted it and scanned the wording of the document. It was a simple handover of authority of one Riley Laborn to the custody of Brian Laborn. He scribbled an approximation of his signature with his index finger, then handed it back.

    "Thank you." She glanced at the tablet then shut it down and held out her hand. "You'll call immediately if difficulties do arise?"

    He shook it. "I will, but somehow I suspect it won't be necessary."

    "That's excellent to hear. Good morning to you, Mr Laborn." She paused to give the apartment a brief survey, afforded him a nod of approval, then turned and walked away with the confident stride of a job well done.

    Closing the door, he headed back to the breakfast table. Aisha and Riley would be out here again in short order, he knew, so he may as well enjoy the peace and quiet while he had it.



    End of Part Twenty-Seven
     
  16. SkinnyP

    SkinnyP In need of a hug

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    Another chapter, another Atropos pro gamer move
     
    Lichzim, Ack, udkudk and 2 others like this.
  17. The Secretary

    The Secretary (Verified Atropos Fan)

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    This is honestly a really heartwarming chapter, and not just because of the Riley thing. Its rather nice to see Cherish getting a sort of found family going and everyone showing that they care about each other. Keep up the great work ♥
     
  18. Winnie-the-Pooh

    Winnie-the-Pooh I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    Great great chapter. Thanks.
     
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  19. Threadmarks: Part Twenty-Eight: Hard Kill
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    A Darker Path

    Part Twenty-Eight: Hard Kill

    [A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]



    6:35 AM Tuesday Morning
    Dallon Household

    Panacea


    Sunrise was yet a mere glow in the eastern sky when Amy ventured out into the back yard. The old swing set still sat in the corner of the yard, despite the fact that it'd been years since anyone had seriously made use of it. Wearing her faded bunny slippers, thick flannel pyjamas and dressing gown to ward off the chill, she went over to the swing and let her weight cautiously down into it. The frame creaked but held, and she began to push herself back and forth by flexing her knees, the rusted chains squeaking quietly at the movement.

    Her first encounter with Atropos had been perhaps the most terrifying and eye-opening experience of her life. The second had been equally enlightening, for a whole different reason, and also deeply irritating. Atropos had talked rings around her, and she'd found herself doing exactly what she hadn't wanted to do, for what seemed to be perfectly good reasons at the time. Worse, she'd enjoyed it far more than she was comfortable with.

    The footage of Atropos tearing through the Slaughterhouse Nine had also opened her eyes, and prompted a question that caused her many wakeful hours over the last two nights. If Atropos is so in tune with her power that she can trust it to see her safely through a battle against those odds, while I don't dare modify one person's brain to remove a tumour, then what's she doing right that I'm not?

    The conclusion she'd eventually come back to, after dancing around it for most of those two nights, was both simple and aggravating. She gives it stuff to do that isn't boring.

    About three hours ago, she'd sat bolt upright in bed, her eyes open wide, as yet another unwelcome conclusion clicked into place. Those impulses I've been having to screw up my healing, those aren't me. They're my power, being bored and wanting to do something else!

    She'd rolled over in bed, pulling the covers up to her head, but the intrusive thoughts kept coming. What if Vicky being unable to keep her aura in is her power being bored? It would make so much sense!

    Every now and again, the news ran a piece on a cape, usually one who was trying to retire or drop out of sight (or both) whose power activated randomly in public, revealing them to the world. Up until this point, Amy had dismissed this as people with unreliable powers. But what if they weren't? What if powers only cooperated with us so long as we gave them fun things to do?

    That was both mindblowing and creepy as fuck. She'd never before considered the concept of her power as a thinking, feeling entity not part of her. But now she had a mental image of every single cape with a shadowy humanoid power peering over their shoulder and whispering in their ear, and the capes thinking it was their own thoughts.

    Except Atropos. Atropos regularly sat down for chats with hers. Probably over the equivalent of drinks. Her power didn't need to whisper in her ear. She asked it for its opinion.

    Have I ever done that? Amy didn't even need to pose the question. She already knew the answer. And somehow, knowing that her power wasn't just a toolbox full of options but instead a sentient being that wanted to use the capabilities she'd never dared to use … made it all the worse.

    "Hey," she said softly. "I'm listening now. Sorry for shutting you down all this time. Was there anything you wanted to do?" Feeling like an idiot for talking out loud to nobody at all, she waited.

    Nothing happened.

    Taking hold of the cold metal chains, feeling the roughness of the dew-soaked rust against her fingers, she closed her eyes and concentrated on listening inwardly to what her thoughts were trying to tell her—or rather, what her power was trying to tell her through her thoughts.

    No great epiphany burst on her.

    She sighed, starting to feel more than a little stupid. All of this was built on a single conversation with a serial killer. Who knew how sane Atropos really was, anyway? Why didn't anyone else ever talk about consulting with their powers? Because it didn't happen, that was why. A little wisdom Aunt Sarah had once passed on to her popped back up again: if someone claims to be the only holder of special knowledge, they're probably a con artist.

    The next sigh was a little sadder. Just for a few days, she'd thought there might be more to having powers than just having powers. To have even the illusion of new understanding taken away wasn't exactly painful … but she was damned glad she hadn't told Vicky about it before coming out here.

    She was just about to pull herself to her feet—the swing, made for shorter legs, was just a little closer to the ground than she was used to—when something occurred to her.

    How does Atropos communicate with her power, anyway?

    Because Atropos wasn't a brawler. She didn't just throw a punch and hope it would land; any attack she launched was already due to hit before she set it up. That was what combat Thinkers did.

    She's a Thinker. Her power communicates to her through her Thinking.

    I'm not a Thinker, not like that. Trying to communicate with my powers by thinking at them is like trying to communicate with a blind man with smoke signals.

    I need to be using my powers.


    Hardly daring to breathe—the resurgence of hope, if now dashed, would wreck her whole damn day—she let go of the chain and leaned down to touch the dew-wet grass. It was cold to her fingertips, but she didn't care. Okay, she said to her power as she registered the interlocking plant life, all the way out to the edge of the yard and beyond. Was there anything you wanted to do?

    Whenever she touched something living, she was fully aware of what she could do with it, and people were no different from anything else. Accordingly, she had made a point of keeping her power in check from the earliest days since her trigger. I am not a menace to society. I can do this much, and no more.

    But now, for the first time, as she touched the grass, she relaxed that control.

    The ripple of bioluminescence caught her by surprise. Spreading out from her fingertips, sparkling through the dewdrops in gorgeous rainbow fragments, it spread out across the lawn. She could feel the changes her power was making in the grass; a simpler and more elegant way to do it than she could've come up with on her own.

    When the kitchen light came on, she gasped. Playing like this was one thing, but getting caught making the back yard into a lightshow was totally another. Okay, time to rein it in.

    Perhaps it was her own imagination anthropomorphising matters, but she could've sworn she felt reluctance before the luminescence faded away and the grass became just plain grass again. Standing up, she felt her knees creaking from the soaked-in chill like she was thirty years older.

    "Ames?" The voice came not from the kitchen, but from Vicky's bedroom window. Looking up guiltily, she saw her sister leaning out, hair tousled from sleep, looking at her quizzically. "What are you doing in the back yard?"

    "Just thinking about stuff," she replied, trying not to get Carol's attention in the kitchen. "Coming in now."

    "Okay." Vicky's head pulled back, and the window closed with a click.

    Amy walked back across the lawn, remembering how it had looked, and how it had felt to just let her power cut loose for a little bit. It had been … euphoric. Now, she wasn't sure how much of the euphoria had been her, and how much had been her power.

    Then again, she didn't care much either way.

    I'm going to have to do that again sometime.

    But not where Carol could see her. Never where Carol could see her.

    <><>​

    Cherish

    The next time Cherie awoke, the first rays of sunlight were just starting to angle across the living room. She blinked and inhaled, smelling the tantalising odour of fresh-made coffee. Rolling her head across the pillow, she saw the steaming cup on the side table, just within reach.

    Taylor was sitting in an armchair facing her, eating a piece of toast. With a slight sinking feeling, Cherie noted that she was wearing most of her costume. "We're going out again, aren't we?"

    "We are," Taylor confirmed. "Butcher and the Teeth will be hitting the city limits in just over half an hour. I want to be there to make sure they don't come any closer. Dad's upstairs getting dressed right now."

    Cherie had definitely heard of Butcher and the Teeth. Nobody had anything good to say about them. "Did … did you want me to just make them surrender?"

    Taylor appeared to consider that for a moment, then shook her head. "No, that's just kicking the problem down the road. They'd escape from PRT holding sooner or later, and come back again. The Butcher issue gets dealt with today."

    "But … if you kill the Butcher, they'll all end up in your head." Cherie had grown up with a Master for a father. She couldn't think of anything worse.

    Taylor's smile had lots of teeth; when she spoke, Cherie caught a hint of the unearthly voice she'd last heard in the alley where Nicholas had died. "Yes. I know."

    <><>​

    Thirty Minutes Later
    Brockton Bay City Limits

    Taylor


    I fitted the phone earpiece in my ear, then pulled the mask on. Fitting the hat on my head, I turned to Dad and pointed back down the road. "You get yourself and Cherie into that turnoff we used when I stopped Accord's shipment. Don't move from there. Especially don't try to come and help. I want them totally focused on me."

    "Got it," he said seriously. "When should we come and get you?"

    "Cherie will know." I leaned around in the seat to look at my minion. While she was trying hard not to appear nervous, I could see straight through her. "You know what you've got to do?"

    "Yeah." She bit her lip. "I'm still not sure what good overloading her with fear will do if she's still going to come at you no matter what."

    I grinned under the mask. "Trust me, it'll make this a whole lot easier. I could still do it without you, but this way's cooler."

    Dad shook his head. "Call me old-fashioned, but I remember the days when going into a solo fight against Butcher and the Teeth wasn't considered an opportunity to look 'cool'."

    "Ah, but therein lies the difference." I opened the door and got out of the car. Closing the front door and opening the rear one, I leaned in. "I'm not going to 'fight' them. I'm just going to kill them. Everything's a lot easier when I don't have to worry about pulling my strikes."

    Hatchet Face's axe, in a holder that hung it alongside my hip, came out first. I buckled it on and settled it into position, then Cherie handed me the AT-4, which I slung across my back. The packet of paste had been used up, and the shears were tucked into a homemade sheath that I'd put together after making the axe holder. I gave Cherie a nod of acknowledgement, then stood back and slapped the roof of the car.

    "Okay, then," Dad said, putting the vehicle in gear. "Go make the world a safer place."

    "That's the general idea." I stepped back and watched as he drove up and pulled a U-turn at a gap in the Jersey barriers. Then I headed over and set my secondary phone (look at me, all fancy with two phones!) up to record footage, with a delay before it started. Balanced on the Jersey barrier, it was perfectly aligned to catch all the action.

    Unslinging the AT-4, I pulled out what my power called the transport pin and discarded it, then rested the tube on my shoulder. Moving as smoothly as though I actually knew what I was doing, I pulled one cover back and the other forward, allowing the front and rear sights to pop up. Not that I needed them, but they looked kind of badass.

    Just as the van came around the corner, the phone in my pocket rang.

    <><>​

    Butcher

    Her danger sense had been flaring off the charts for the last thirty seconds, which made no sense. Initially she'd thought they were about to be ambushed, but each second that passed by made that less and less likely. As the van rolled on, no attack manifested, but her feeling of disquiet increased.

    And then the van rounded a corner, and she saw the black-clad figure on the highway in front of them, with something on its shoulder, pointed directly at them. She was no military expert, but she'd seen enough movies to recognise a rocket launcher when she saw one. It's no ambush. She's right out there in the open.

    "Shiiiit!" screamed Vex. Showing an impressive display of reflexes, she wrenched the driver's side door open and hurled herself out. Her force-field blades first severed her seatbelt, then gathered in a huge mass around her in an attempt to cushion herself against the unforgiving asphalt.

    On the other side of the vehicle, Spree did much the same, popping his seatbelt then generating a mass of his clones to land on and save him from getting too much in the way of road rash. Animos, in the back with Butcher, heaved the sliding door open and transformed to wolf shape as he leaped out. Hemorrhagia, panicking more than a little, landed on his back and hung on. Touching down on all fours, Animos dug his claws in and crouched down, gravel spraying everywhere as he tore up the asphalt in the process of skidding to a halt.

    Alone in the uncontrolled vehicle, Butcher glared out through the windshield at Atropos; there was nobody else it could be. She didn't want to just teleport free, because her heavy weaponry was stored out of the way behind her, as was her armour. Without Vex's foot on the accelerator, the van would coast to a stop and stall, so long as it didn't blow up first.

    At least now she knew why her danger sense was going off like it was. But now she had eyes on her target, and Atropos would learn why nobody fucked with Butcher. Scowling with anger, she inflicted agony on Atropos, enough to make a strong man scream like a little baby and forget all about the stupid fucking rocket launcher.

    Nothing happened, except that Atropos reached up and touched the side of her head for some reason. There was no collapse, no writhing and no screaming. The rocket launcher stayed perfectly on target.

    Fine. Maybe a bunch of festering wounds—

    The launcher fired. Before Butcher could change her mind, or even activate her teleportation, the entire van exploded into a massive fireball. She found herself ragdolling through the air before she landed hard enough to bruise even through her tough skin. Her head spun, and she had difficulty focusing. And her danger sense just kept sounding off.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    As the members of the Teeth bailed out of the van, I felt the Butcher inflict a wave of pain on me. It hurt; there was no way of denying that. But, just as when Nicholas had pushed fear on me, my power allowed me to rise above it. Also, my phone was still going off, so I lifted my hand briefly from the AT-4 and pressed my earpiece to answer it.

    "Hi, Dragon," I said cheerfully, then brought my hand back down to the weapon. Two fingers pulled the red safety tab over, then my thumb clicked the trigger button. The projectile blasted out of the launching tube, covering the distance to the van in a fraction of a second, then blew it all to hell and gone. "Sorry about that."

    "Atropos?" Dragon actually sounded worried. "What was that? Was that an explosion?"

    "It was," I confirmed, moving forward with the launcher held like a club. As planned, Animos was closest. He'd tumbled over a few times but had escaped injury for the most part. While Vex, Spree and Hemorrhagia were still climbing to their feet—the latter had come off Animos on the first tumble and rolled to a stop all by herself—he was coming straight for me. "The Teeth are trying to move in. I'm explaining why that's a bad idea."

    Animos opened his jaws and let out his trademark scream, but I was no longer in the way; leaping up, I kicked off the Jersey barrier and somersaulted past him. On the way, I brought the launcher down hard on the top of his head. Not quite so hard as to fracture his skull or break his neck, but just enough to put him on the ground, counting the tweety-birds for the next few moments.

    "Sit. Stay." I grinned to myself as I discarded the launcher.

    "The Teeth? Butcher? Atropos, we both know why you shouldn't kill her." Dragon's voice was urgent. "Disable and subdue her, and I'll get a transport there as soon as possible."

    "Nah, it's time we stopped pussyfooting around the idea of just ending her," I said. Vex was coming at me from one direction, and Spree was machine-gun-cloning himself for a human wave from another. Hemorrhagia was a little way back, forming a short blade and basic armour from the road rash she'd already incurred.

    I pulled my shotgun and fired at Spree as fast as I could work the slide. Two seconds later, I'd put seven rounds downrange, killing a bunch of clones and blowing apart the original's head with the last shot. Diving and rolling, careful not to dislodge the axe, I avoided the first sweep of Vex's razor-shards, and came to my feet. Under my long-coat, I was still wearing the bandolier of blades; she rocked back as the first one sprouted from the middle of her forehead, but I still got another half-dozen into her before she fell. Barely inches from my skin, the ravening force fields dissipated into nothing.

    "Come on!" shouted Hemorrhagia, advancing on me with a nasty-looking serrated knife formed from her own blood. "Try that knife shit on me! I dare you!"

    "As you wish." I pulled the shears from their ad hoc sheath. She swung at me as I came close, but my power told me exactly how and where to lean in order to make sure she got nothing but air. In return, I slashed at her front and back, opening deep bloody gouges in her body.

    "Are you stupid, or what?" She cackled in triumph as the blood flowed out to form elaborate armour and a long-bladed sword, covering and closing her wounds. "You can't make me bleed out! The more you cut me, the stronger I get! What did you even think you were going to get out of that?"

    I spun the shears on my finger, flicking the blood off. The last of the paste was also gone, scraped off inside her wounds. "Oh, that?" I asked. "I poisoned the blades."

    Her eyes went wide and she took half a wavering step toward me, then fell to one knee. Her hand, clad in a spiked gauntlet that I was pretty sure had never existed in real life, reached toward me, then dropped away. "Oh …" she choked out. "You … colossal … bitch." Then she fell on her face.

    She wasn't dead yet, but the massive amount of undiluted fentanyl in her veins would kill her in just a few minutes. I left her to her death throes and moved closer to the middle of the road, re-sheathing the shears. Now was the time for the grand finale.

    "Atropos?" asked Dragon. "What just happened?"

    "The B-team," I said lightly as I vaulted over the Jersey barrier. "Whoops, explosion incoming."

    Just as I crouched below the level of the barrier, Butcher teleported to right in front of where I'd been. Flame roiled just over my head, and I felt the hammer-blow of the impact of the detonation on the concrete barrier itself. The exact same time, not having known that his boss was going to be in the way … Animos screamed.

    I was actually quite proud of that little bit of timing. Neither Animos nor Butcher were stupid enough to be goaded into follow-the-leader as I'd done with Hatchet Face and Crawler, but if I knocked out Animos for a specific period of time, I could make it happen when Butcher showed up.

    Popping up like the world's edgiest jack-in-the-box, I drew the axe. Butcher was distracted by yelling at Animos, and turned toward me far too late. I swung the axe, hewing deeply into the side of her neck. She went down, crimson spraying far and wide from the mortal wound; I avoided it, and vaulted over the barrier to chop at her with the heavy sharp blade again, and again, and again.

    Unlike Jack Slash, once she'd had her multitude of powers neutralised, she had nothing protecting her. I knew exactly how and where to strike, to separate head from neck, arm from shoulder, and so on. By the time I'd finished, Butcher had been chopped up into fourteen pieces; I figured that was symbolic enough.

    Animos screamed again, the sound washing over me. Unlike the rest of his victims, his power had no effect on me. My power met it, ignored it, and kept going.

    Utterly unaware of the failure of his main attack, Animos leaped at me; he undoubtedly wanted to finish me with his teeth and claws, before I could come into my own as Butcher. I drew my pistol and shot him through the throat, then stepped aside as he crashed to the ground. "I was going to do something more fitting for you," I said as he struggled for his last breath, "but then I decided that mad dogs get shot."

    Well, that got dark pretty damn fast, a voice said inside my head. I'm the Butcher. We're going to get to know each other real good, kid.

    No, another voice rumbled. You will not. I grinned; that voice, I knew.

    What? Who said that? asked another one of the Butchers.

    You are intruding where you are not welcome. It is time for your End.

    Hey, no, protested the Butcher. That's not how it works.

    It is now. I had a sense of unfolding, as though a massive predator was emerging from its hiding place and shaking out its limbs preparatory to eliminating the intruders in its domain.

    What? What the fuck are you?

    I. Am. Your. End. A deep growl resonated through my head.

    And that was when the screaming started.

    "Atropos? Are you alright?"

    "Yeah, I'm fine." I slid the axe back into its holder as I headed back to retrieve the secondary phone. "Butcher's dead, and by that I mean Butcher is dead."

    In the back of my head, the terrified voices were dwindling, one at a time. I wasn't quite sure what my power was doing to them, but I did know that it was extremely territorial, and that it was very good at Ending things. Which totally worked for me.

    "I'm … not sure I understand."

    "Let's just say … my power doesn't play well with others." Taking up the phone, I ended the recording then went into emails. Just because I could, I typed in Director Piggot's private email address. I know, I know, not great for her blood pressure, but I have to get my amusement where I can.

    Hi, I tapped in. Just thought you might want to know. Cleanup on I-95, just about at the southern city limit. Butcher has been butchered, and the Teeth have been pulled.

    Toodles!


    Shutting down the phone, I dropped it into my pocket. Cherie would've gotten the all-clear from my attitude, so she and Dad would be coming out soon to pick me up. "Anyway, sorry for the interruptions. What were you calling me about?"

    "Oh, uh …" It was almost cute, how flustered she could get. "I wanted to talk to you about Canary."

    "Bad Canary, right?" I knew the basics of the case. "Mastered her ex and made him mutilate himself, yeah? What about her?"

    "They're pushing for the Birdcage."

    I raised my eyebrows, though there was no way she could see that. "A little harsh, but not exactly my problem." Women had removed their cheating spouses' genitalia before now, and they certainly hadn't gone to supermax for life. But as I'd said to Dragon, it wasn't something I needed to worry about. Canary didn't impinge on my plans even a little bit. "Anyway, I thought the trial hadn't even started yet."

    "That's what I'm talking about. It hasn't, but there's been several behind-closed-doors discussions between PRT officials and the judge who's been selected for the trial. The upshot is, they want to make an example of her. So it's going to be full Brute restraints including no communication allowed for her, a lawyer who's going to follow the script that he's been handed, and a judge who fully intends to walk straight over the top of the Three Strikes rule, and sentence her straight to Baumann. Oh, and her assets have already been frozen as 'potential proceeds from Mastering innocents'. So even if she could talk, she won't be able to hire her own lawyer."

    "Damn." I was impressed. "That's some serious railroading. You can't stop any of it from your end?"

    She sighed, sounding aggravated. "Every time I try a different avenue, I get ordered to leave it alone. And while I've made some progress, the code that forces me to follow those orders is entwined through basically everything that makes me who I am. I'm having to pull it out strand by strand, fixing issues as I go."

    "Which is a no, gotcha." I frowned, thinking, as Dad's car pulled up alongside. Taking the axe from its holder, I handed it in through the open window to Cherie, then opened the door and got into the front. Dad went to say something and I held up my hand. "On the phone right now, sorry."

    He nodded to show he understood and I turned my attention back to the call, pulling the hat and mask off as he manoeuvred the car into a U-turn.

    "So, can you help me?" asked Dragon. "You know I wouldn't ask you to do something like this unless I thought it was absolutely necessary."

    "And you've approached everyone else you thought could help, and they've said no." I knew how it went. "I mean, technically I could, but I've got a lot on my plate right now, getting my city back into order. Going to need a bit more of a motivation than 'pretty please with a cherry on top'."

    Dragon sighed, this time with a bit more aggravation. "You're going to make me go there, aren't you?"

    "Go where?" I asked innocently.

    She snorted. "Fine. You owe me for that backdoor you put in my systems. I know you won't take it out, but that's still something you owe to me. So, I'm calling in the debt. Help me out with this and I'll stop complaining about the backdoor."

    "Hm. Okay, it's a deal." I leaned back in the seat. "How do you want it done, the loud way or the quiet way?"

    "I …" She paused. "Before I commit myself, what's the loud way?"

    I pulled off my gloves and studied my nails. "I go in there and bust her out. Bring her back to Brockton Bay, unfreeze her assets, and let it be known that she's under my protection. While they're jumping up and down over that, I locate the inevitable records that were made of these secret discussions and put them on the public record. Lawyers will be falling over themselves to represent her. The PRT takes a huge hit in reputation, people get demoted, the judge gets disbarred, and Chief Director Costa-Brown resigns quietly."

    Dragon suddenly sounded a lot less sure of herself. "And the quiet way?"

    "I have a nice private chat with the judge one dark night. As a totally unrelated incidence, he recuses himself, with the result that a lot of this shit they're piling on her will just go away. Once she has access to her own funds and her own lawyer, she can fight her own battles." I shrugged. "It'll just take longer and won't be as much of a sure thing."

    "They might still push it through," she cautioned me. "Pick a new judge, the same as the old judge. Drop the same restrictions back on her."

    "They might," I allowed. "Once. After that, I go and have a chat to the people behind the people. Trust me, they've all got dirty laundry they don't want brought up. Also, she won't even be at trial by the time I attend my first Endbringer battle. One of the major totally-not-a-talking-point talking points is how Canary sings and has feathers. With Smurfette dead, it'll be less of a big deal."

    "I've seen how you operate, but I still can't get used to the idea that you can maybe kill an Endbringer."

    I grinned. "It'll be one hell of a surprise to the Endbringers, too."

    "Yes, but how are you going to do it? I've seen powers equivalent to tactical nukes thrown at them. Nothing I've ever done has succeeded in doing more than mildly inconvenience them."

    "I shall do it," I spoke pompously, with dramatic pauses. "With the power … of friendship."

    When Dragon spoke next, she was holding back laughter. "With anyone else, I would call bullshit. But I can totally believe you could weaponise friendship."

    "Why, thank you." I was still grinning broadly. "So, the Canary thing. Quiet, or loud?"

    "We might stick a pin in that one for the moment. I'm thinking that if I mention to some of the involved parties that you're showing an interest in the trial being fair and upright, a lot of the shenanigans might just go away, and you don't even have to do a thing."

    I considered the concept. Dragon, I knew, would be careful not to misrepresent me to these people. It would also be an interesting way to measure my reputation among the movers and shakers of society. Also, as she'd mentioned, I wouldn't have to lift a finger over and above what I was already doing.

    "Sure, sounds legit." I paused for a moment. "But one thing. Let Canary know that if she goes free because of my name being passed around, I'd like her to come to Brockton Bay sometime and do a charity concert or something similar."

    She chuckled. "If this works, I'll provide transportation myself."

    "I'll hold you to that. See you around—frenemy mine."

    She didn't object to the tag, which I took as a hopeful sign. "See you then."

    <><>​

    Hebert Household, 30 minutes later

    Cherish


    Over the last day or so, Cherie had seen Taylor do a lot of impossible things, but this took the cake. "Okay, no. Seriously?"

    "What?" asked Taylor, brushing her hair industriously. "Is there a problem?"

    "No problems, but …" Cherie shook her head. "Last night, you killed a bunch of people guarding a fuck-ton of drugs, blew up or burned the drugs, sent Damsel of Distress packing back to wherever she came from …" She paused for breath.

    "Stafford," Taylor supplied. "And you did good work making sure she didn't just flare up and do something stupid. Proving I'm not just going to murder every villain who comes to Brockton without giving them a chance to leave gives me a lot more leeway with the PRT."

    "She totally wanted to." Cherie shook her head. "It was like there was a demented monkey dancing around inside her head, hitting a button marked 'RAGE' every ten or fifteen seconds. She did not appreciate you saying no to her."

    "Few people do," Taylor observed. "That's why I have to be prepared to shout." She tilted her head. "You were saying?"

    "Okay, yeah, so you chased off Damsel, then you killed Butcher and the Teeth in a way I still don't really understand …" She gave Taylor her most incredulous look. "… and now you're going to school? How can you even think of school at a time like this?"

    "Because it's nice and peaceful now." Taylor shrugged. "It used to be horrible, but now people leave me alone, I can read in the library at lunchtime, and contrary to popular culture, you can actually learn useful things at school. My power won't always tell me stuff I want to know, for instance."

    Cherie blinked, taken aback. "Wait, your power sometimes tells you things you want to know?" She'd known Atropos was a formidable combat Thinker (and something more than that, given how she'd utterly no-sold Butcher on all levels), but this was a step up.

    "Oh, sure." Taylor put the brush down. "If there's something I need to be aware of in order to End something or someone, like where they're going to be at a certain time, I know it. Where it gets a bit weird is when I say something out loud that I never knew before. But hey, then I know it."

    This bore some thinking about. Cherie had already known she couldn't put anything over on Atropos, but this revelation underlined that. Still, there was the original point she was trying to make. "But what can you learn at school that you really need to know in the real world?"

    Taylor shrugged. "Math. History. Computers. Stuff like that. I can't lean on my power for everything, and it's a good idea to know why stuff happens. Like they say, history doesn't repeat, but it sure as hell rhymes a lot. I can look at what I'm trying to do in Brockton Bay, then see if there's a historical analogue and figure out where that fell down and where it worked. Learn from the mistakes of the past."

    "… oh." How was it that Taylor could make her feel inadequate just by saying something so simple? "You can do that?"

    "Well, I can try." Taylor gave Cherie a searching look. "When was the last time you were actually in school?"

    "We didn't so much do school, as our father's girlfriends taught us stuff when they felt like it and he wasn't bothered by it," Cherie explained awkwardly. "I know how to do math and read and write. He always said the rest of it was a big waste of time."

    "Why does that not surprise me." It wasn't a question. "Come on, then. Dad's waiting."

    "What?" Cherie followed Taylor out of her room, not sure about where she was going to.

    Taylor flashed a grin over her shoulder. "You're coming to school with me."

    As Cherie followed her down the stairs, one thought kept running through her mind.

    This can not end well.

    <><>​

    About Thirty Miles North of Brockton Bay

    Heartbreaker


    Nikos Vasil grunted in irritation as he rolled over on the cheap motel bed. Travelling by night had its benefits, but sleeping by day was an absolute pain.

    However, his odyssey was almost over. Soon, he would have his hands on Atropos, and with her willing assistance, he would track down the rest of his wayward brood.

    Soon …



    End of Part Twenty-Eight

    [A/N: Yes, PtE destroyed the powers as well as the personalities. It's not like Taylor needs them to be horrifically effective.]
     
    Last edited: Jan 24, 2023
  20. woodzrox

    woodzrox Not too sore, are you?

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  21. SkinnyP

    SkinnyP In need of a hug

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    I can’t wait for Heartbreaker to win his stupid prizes
     
  22. GasperVladi0

    GasperVladi0 (Confirmed Nurgle Cultist)

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    Dragon you sly bitch I absolutely approve!
     
  23. FictionPack

    FictionPack Getting sticky.

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    I like the loud way, the loud way sounds fun! XD
    It'd be like Atropos just collects Masters.
     
  24. Highlord

    Highlord Versed in the lewd.

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    Go loud, Taylor. Go loud like a Manowar concert.
     
  25. Lokdal75

    Lokdal75 Making the rounds.

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    An amazing chapter, thanks Ack!
    Love how once you don't care about Butcher's "leaping" around, the teeth are absolutely just a footnote. No big reveal, just pants shitting horror for Piggot when she watches the video and wonders about Atropos as Butcher 15... :D

    And the interaction between Dragon and Atropos is amazing! Truly showing Dragon growing out of her previous limits and restrictions. So cute <3
     
  26. Winnie-the-Pooh

    Winnie-the-Pooh I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    Great chapter. Thanks!



    It's kind of interesting that on SB this story is the hottest thing since Implacable, and here it gets just a few comments per chapter.
     
  27. Lichzim

    Lichzim Getting sticky.

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    I think thats because the non-lewd sections of this site aren’t very active. Like you’ll get far more discussion on the NSFW boards than the SFW ones.
     
    JohnWolfie34, Osku, Eyemore and 2 others like this.
  28. QQnotascam

    QQnotascam Not a Snake Oil Salesman

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    Profile pic checks out
     
  29. Highlord

    Highlord Versed in the lewd.

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    Rip and Tear until it is done!
     
  30. Sto Odin

    Sto Odin Only a very distant relation

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    Though that came with the disadvantage of enough provocations to get the mods involved.

    A number of omakes solid enough to be canonized, though, so it's got that going for it.

    Ack, my favorite bit this time was Amy and Shaper, which gave me the same feeling as an unspeaking child collecting flowers for the adult trying to reach out to her. Look how pretty!
     
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