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Another Way (Worm AU fanfic)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Ack, Aug 31, 2015.

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  1. Threadmarks: Part Twenty-Five: Shenanigans
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Another Way

    Part Twenty-Five: Shenanigans

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

    Marchioness

    The transition from Orlando back to Brockton Bay was as flawless as the trip down had been. Claire, Earl, Kayden, Justin, Robert, Jonas, and the Mercia appeared on the roof of the PRT building, along with the Protectorate and Brockton Bay Brigade members who had also attended. The only real indication that they’d moved—apart from the shift in scenery—was a minor reduction in temperature and humidity. Back to what they should be, in Claire’s opinion.

    “Whoof,” said Strider. “That was a big one. Good going, by the way. Nice to have met you all.” He tipped them a mock salute, two fingers tapping the brim of the peaked cap he wore, then vanished with a muted crack of displaced air.

    “Ahh, it’s good to be home again,” Earl said. He nodded to Armsmaster. “A pleasure working alongside you. I shall attempt to keep the unpleasantness between us to a minimum.”

    “Trust me, what your people achieved today was impressive.” The armoured hero shook his head. “If we can keep going the way we are, I’ll be fine with that.” He turned to Claire. “And thank you too, Marchioness. We would’ve lost some good people today, if it wasn’t for you.”

    “Not to mention, half of Florida would still be under water,” Assault jibed. He was still a little green around the gills—apparently, teleportation didn’t agree with him—but he was right on point with the humour. “Watching it all just drain away like that was spectacular.

    Claire shrugged. “My dad might be a villain, but I’m not about to stand back and let people suffer or die when I can do something about it. You might call it heroic. I just call it doing what I can.” She was pleased to see that Armsmaster’s attitude was genuine. When she’d originally met him, he had exuded an air of unhappiness, but right now he seemed to be riding the rush of victory.

    Having watched Leviathan being pitched out to sea like the world’s longest-range fastball would’ve done a lot to improve everyone’s mood, she figured.

    She also knew, just as Armsmaster did, that her commitment to healing people (both in Brockton General and Endbringer fights) was what kept the PRT from pursuing her father in any significant manner. As it happened, she was fine with that; helping people was something she enjoyed doing. If she could tweak Director Piggot’s tail just a little in the process, that was a bonus.

    “Well, I’m not one for puns, but if anyone could be said to have turned the tide, it was you and your … what did you call it again? Mr. Bloom?” Armsmaster paused, ignoring Assault, who had just facepalmed. “Uh … just a question … it can’t …”

    “Travel?” Claire shook her head. “No, he’s very likely going to spend his time soaking up the sunshine in Florida. Now, if someone else threatens Orlando or the local area with large-scale destruction, he might wake up again and deal with it, but I can pretty well guarantee he’s never going to show up in Brockton Bay.”

    Armsmaster hid his reaction well, but Claire was standing close enough to tell when his stance relaxed very subtly. “Good,” he said. “That’s somewhat of a relief.”

    “But what’s gonna happen now when someone goes to cut their lawn, and their flower garden objects?” This time, Assault seemed a little more serious. “If it—he—is all the plants, things could get messy.”

    Claire shook her head. “Mr. Bloom is bigger than that. The bit that got up, that was all he needed to deal with Leviathan. At that scale, it would be like you getting upset with your eyelash mites for eating your dead skin cells. He literally won’t notice. Unless someone decides to bulldoze an entire forest or something.”

    “Eyelash mites?” Assault’s eyes were mostly hidden behind his tinted visor, but he seemed to be trying to look cross-eyed at his own eyelashes. “I have eyelash mites?”

    “Everyone does,” Armsmaster said impatiently. “What’s likely to happen if someone does set about demolishing a forest?”

    She knew exactly what would happen, but she made a show of rubbing her chin. “Well, I have told him to play nice with people, so his first response would probably be to grow back all the trees that were knocked down. If they did it again … well, their bulldozers and chainsaws wouldn’t actually survive the experience. And by that time, he’d most likely be in contact with me.”

    Earl put his hand on Claire’s shoulder. “And then we’d take an interest.”

    Armsmaster seemed to freeze for a second. “It … he … can communicate with you from there?”

    “If he really, really has to … yeah.” Claire raised an eyebrow. “When people talk about contacting someone over the ‘grapevine’, it’s not necessarily a figure of speech.”

    Assault facepalmed again.

    “So, uh, hey, how about we show Marchioness and Marquis our appreciation by giving them a lift down to ground level?” asked Mega Girl brightly. “I mean, the elevator can do it, but it’s kinda crowded, y’know?”

    “I’m on board with that idea,” Lady Photon agreed. The left sleeve of her costume had been torn away and the ragged edge was a little bloodstained, but nowhere near as badly as it had been when she was injured. “We all owe them a huge debt of thanks. Laserdream, Shielder, if you could link your shields with mine?”

    She moved into a clear area of the roof along with her two children—the family resemblance was too strong for it to be otherwise—and placed a glowing force field flat on the roof. Shielder, who looked about ten or eleven, reinforced it with his own, while Laserdream added more around the edges and added a safety rail. Lady Photon looked it over critically, made a few minor adjustments, then nodded toward Earl in an unspoken invitation.

    “Thank you, dear lady,” he responded. With Claire at his side, he boarded the glowing structure. Kayden chose to light off her powers instead and flew a dozen yards upward, clearly waiting to escort them down. Lacking the ability to fly, the rest of Earl’s contingent stepped on board as well.

    Moving steadily, in a manner they’d clearly practised, Lady Photon and the two younger heroes carried Claire and the others up off the roof and descended alongside the PRT building like the smoothest of outdoor elevators. Kayden drifted down on one side, and Mega Girl on the other. Even though she knew treachery was not being planned, and she was pretty sure her comrades had figured it out too, Claire could still feel the tension permeating those around her. There was always the chance something could go wrong, after all.

    They reached the ground without incident and Lady Photon dissolved her force field, followed a moment later by the other two. “Well,” she said. “I want to thank you again for saving my life. I don’t remember much about it, but Mega Girl says it was bad.” She held out her hand.

    “You’re welcome.” Claire had saved too many lives in the hospital to be feeling awkward about this, but still she found herself wanting to blush in response to the unreserved gratitude. Repressing the instinct, she shook Lady Photon’s hand firmly. “There’s no reason capes can’t work together when it really matters.”

    “And be friends, right?” Mega Girl landed beside Claire and hugged her. “’Cause you’re a hero in my book for saving Lady Photon.”

    Claire hugged her right back. “Always. I might not be a hero like you, but you’re one of my best friends here in Brockton Bay.”

    That broke the ice, and first Laserdream then Shielder took turns at hugging Marchioness. “Thanks for saving Mom,” muttered the boy as they broke apart.

    “Hey!” hissed Laserdream, elbowing him. “No secret identities, twerp!”

    “It’s alright,” Claire assured her. “I’d already figured it out, and I’m pretty sure it’s an open secret in Brockton Bay anyway.”

    “Yeah,” rumbled Jonas, looming next to Claire. “It is.”

    Laserdream blinked and stared at the huge man, and Claire grinned. While Jonas wasn’t as tall as Manpower, he was broader in the shoulders. She’d designed his enhancements to give him both power and presence, and they absolutely worked. “See?” she said cheerfully. “Even Watchman knows about it.”

    “Well,” Earl said briskly. “We have to be on our way, and you no doubt have things which you wish to attend to. Allow me to bid you a good day, and let us hope that our next meeting will be equally harmonious.”

    Lady Photon nodded to him. “I’ll second that. Come on, kids.” A moment later, she was airborne; Mega Girl and the other two followed on.

    Earl dusted his hands off. “Mercia; you’ve all done very well. Go home, rest up. Bring the pony bottles and first-aid kits back in when you report for duty. Everyone else, let’s return home as well, and see if anything unusual has transpired in our absence.”

    As the long-coated men vanished into alleys and side-streets—whether rooftop-running or sticking to street level, they could cover ground across the city at a frankly astounding pace—Claire followed her father to where the SUV awaited. It was less conspicuous than a limo, and the flip-plates prevented casual identification. They all climbed in, and Jonas started it moving. After a few moments of watching the mirrors, he nodded and removed his domino mask. “Nobody following us, sir, and no radio emissions coming from the car.”

    “Good.” Earl turned his head from where he was sitting in the front passenger seat and smiled thinly. “The Endbringer Truce is a thing, but I have little faith in people to stick with such an agreement if they believe they’ve hit upon a foolproof way to get around it.”

    Robert relaxed, allowing the metal armour to recede into his body. “They’d do that, even after what we achieved in Orlando?”

    “Yeah, they would,” Claire said as she reached forward and returned Earl and then Kayden to their ‘civilian’ appearances. “Some people fixate on ‘us versus them’ and ‘win at all costs’ to the point that it actually negates any advantage they’d get out of it. And they still don’t see where they went wrong.”

    Kayden rolled her eyes. “Oh, trust me. I know how that one goes. And I suspect you do too, Justin.”

    “Yeah.” Justin nodded as he removed his helmet. “Panzer was so hell-bent on getting revenge on everyone for everything that she didn’t even stop to think about how she maybe would’ve been better off just walking away.”

    “Thus embodying the very essence of the sunk cost fallacy,” Earl agreed. “Of course, it’s a particularly insidious problem. Simply cutting one’s losses before they get too great is a lesson many people simply refuse to learn. Even knowing this, it took me a certain amount of soul-searching before I could convince my more combative instincts that it was a good idea to take my dear Claire and relocate to Boston. But in the end, I believe it was the best possible move.”

    “But … heroes.” Robert seemed to be struggling with the concept. “I mean, I understand villains being dicks to each other. You guys not included,” he added hastily. “Other villains, sure. But not heroes … right?”

    Earl chuckled. “Oh, we’ve performed our share of shenanigans against other villains. Skidmark wasn’t even bothering us before we went and ensured that his merry band of misfits wouldn’t pollute the streets of Brockton Bay with their poisons anymore. As for Kaiser, he attacked us first, but we did much more than give him a slap on the wrist in retaliation. However, yes, heroes are just as capable of such activities as villains. They merely possess better public relations, so that people are less prone to believe it of them.” He paused, frowning in thought. “Except, oddly enough, those who are most earnestly and actively heroic; the general public are ready to believe bad things about them in a heartbeat. It’s somewhat of a paradox, to be honest.”

    Claire raised an eyebrow. “I’m actually wondering if the other heroes don’t talk smack about them behind their backs, to make them look bad. So when an actual rumour comes along, people are ready to believe it.”

    “Being the only non-cape in the car, chick,” rumbled Jonas from the front seat, “I’m thinking you might have the right of it there. Never seen so many prima donnas in one place until I came to Brockton Bay with you and Mr. Marchant.”

    The laughter lasted all the way back to the house.

    <><>​

    When Claire got out of the SUV in the undercover parking area, Abigail and Marcus were there to greet them. What gave her pause, however, was the fact that Abigail’s arm was in a sling and Marcus had a split lip.

    “What’s been going on here?” Earl moved toward them with fast steps. “Did a sparring session get out of hand?”

    Claire almost didn’t catch the lightning-fast flicker of Abigail’s eyes to her and back to Earl, but then the Irish woman’s shoulders slumped in resignation. They both knew that as good as Abigail’s body control was, not even she could successfully lie to Claire.

    Which raised the question of exactly what Abigail might want to lie about. Claire knew damn well that her old bodyguard—and her father’s ex-lover—wouldn’t betray them under even the most stringent of circumstances. And it was highly doubtful that anyone could’ve convinced her otherwise in the few hours they’d been gone.

    “I wish we could say that was all it was, Earl darlin’,” Abigail said. “Unfortunately, it was a sight more than that. Not more’n half an hour after you left, the Mercia you had patrollin’ your territory sent in a report of the blasted green an’ reds causin’ problems. No sign of th’ big lizard, though. Not at first, anyway.”

    Earl tilted his head curiously. “I’m not hearing anything yet about why you’re reluctant to tell me what happened.” He rested his left elbow in his right hand, and rubbed his left index finger knuckle over his lips. “Unless you’re about to tell me that you personally engaged Lung yourself.” Claire saw his eyes flick sideways to the teen boy. “Or you let Marcus do it.”

    “That’d be a little bit o’ yes, and a little bit o’ no,” Abigail said hastily, as Kayden began to fuss over Marcus. Claire moved a little closer so that her power could start accelerating the healing for both of them, but her attention remained on Abigail’s story. “Y’see, it kinda went like this …”

    <><>​

    Abigail
    Four Hours Previously

    Twenty minutes after Jonas drove away with Marquis and Claire and the others, Abigail muttered one of the less offensive Gaelic swears she knew, and got to her feet. The lounge was comfortable, God knew—if there was something Earl Marchant could do, it was supply luxurious living conditions—but right now she didn’t need comfortable. She needed something to do.

    “What’s wrong, Ms. Beltane?” asked Marcus, also looking up from the movie they’d been watching.

    “Nothing, Marcus storeen,” she said, linking her hands over her head and stretching upward as hard as she could. “I mislike sitting still for too long. Think ye that you can show me where your uncail Earl has hidden his gymnasium in this monster of a house? ’Tis exercising I have a mind to do.” That there would be a gym, she had zero doubt. Jonas needed someplace to store the car axles she suspected he used as bar-bells these days.

    “Oh, sure,” Marcus said, jumping up off the sofa as well. He grabbed the remote and paused the movie, then led the way out through one of the doors. “We’ve also got an indoor heated pool, if you wanted to do some swimming. I’m sure Kayden wouldn’t mind loaning you one of her swimsuits.”

    She smiled at his ready enthusiasm. “And I’m likewise sure that she’d be much appreciative if we asked before borrowing. Just the gym will be doing me fine for the moment.”

    His reply was cut off by the sound of a phone ringing. He glanced around, then darted down the corridor a few yards to where an antique-looking phone was perched in a nook. Taking up the receiver, he visibly composed himself. “Hello?”

    Abigail’s hearing was good, but not good enough to make out words from the tinny buzz coming through the earpiece. Marcus, on the other hand, evidently heard everything that was said. “Speaking. Report.”

    Now, what’s going on here? Abigail knew full-well that Earl Marchant rarely had just one iron in the fire, and (to stretch the metaphor a little) was not averse to starting new fires, just so that he could put irons in them. Whatever this was, however, Marcus hadn’t been expecting it.

    Slowly, after what seemed like several minutes of unintelligible speech from the person on the other end of the phone and terse questions from Marcus, the teenager slowly put the phone down. “Well, shit,” he muttered.

    “Well, don’t be keepin’ me in suspense,” Abigail urged. “Why the serious face? What’s the craic?” This was the first flaw she’d seen in the young man’s well-mannered façade, and she wanted to know what had caused it.

    He visibly steeled himself and turned to her. “You know that Uncle Earl—Marquis—controls a large amount of territory, mainly taken over from when the Merchants and the Empire left town, yes?”

    “I did not know that specifically, but it surprises me not at all,” she replied. “Your uncail and I have little love for the Empire, to be sure. Have they returned?”

    “Not them, no. It’s the Asian Bad Boyz. Lung’s gang. They tried pushing in on us a few months ago, and Kayden literally threw Lung out of Uncle Earl’s territory. The Mercia are reporting probing attacks, no real damage yet, just thrown rocks and bricks. So far, nobody’s trying anything more.” He looked pensive. “If Uncle Earl was here, he’d know what to do. And I know what he’d tell me to do. Stay right here.”

    “He’d want you to be safe while he went out and took care of business, sure and he would,” Abigail agreed. “So, this Lung fellow would likely be front and centre, aye? Where are they sayin’ he’s at?”

    Marcus shook his head. “They’re not. Nobody’s seen him yet, and that’s what worries me. I haven’t been doing this as long as Uncle Earl, but I know that’s not like him at all. He’s got to be in the spotlight.”

    Abigail fancied she could see the pieces of the puzzle clicking together. “If that’s what your uncail says, then I’d be of a mind to believe it. Have ye a map to show me where the Marquis territory extends?”

    “Uh huh.” Marcus nodded, transparently relieved that Abigail seemed to know what she was doing.

    Not that she did, exactly, but she’d been in a lot of tight places over the years, and she had a few hunches about what was going on. And it was always better to have more information about the situation.

    Exercise forgotten, she followed him to what looked suspiciously like Earl’s study from back in Boston, transposed to the new house. All the same books, in the same order, on the same bookshelves. Marcus pulled a folded map off a shelf and spread it out on the desk, clicking on the lamp to show the detail. “The house is here. We control this area here …” His finger traced over the paper. “Around to here. ABB territory is here. The Mercia who called it in said the attacks are happening here, here, here and here.”

    Abigail studied the map. She wasn’t what anyone would mistake for an expert in strategy, but a few things suggested themselves to her. “So, no attacks on this quarter, at all?” Her fingernail ran over the map, covering a short distance.

    “None that he mentioned,” Marcus confirmed with a frown.

    “And all your men are currently engaged, keeping the current ones at bay, aye?” The idea that was forming in her head was one she didn’t like, but this wasn’t a popularity contest.

    “All the ones we’ve got in town right this second, yeah.” He gestured in what was possibly a southerly direction. “Uncle Earl and Claire took the rest down to Florida with them, to fight Leviathan.”

    “And Lung would almost certainly know that, by fair means or foul.” Abigail nodded slowly. “How quickly can we get there?” Again, her nail tapped the gap in coverage. “If Lung is anywhere, this is where he’ll be. Moving in, finding a target, and showing that Marquis isn’t the boss of him.”

    Marcus grimaced. “He’s going to kill people, isn’t he?”

    “Aye, Marcus storeen,” she said soberly. “Your uncail has set a store of his reputation in this area. To me it sounds as though Lung is bound and determined to undermine that, by any means he can. And folk like that care not who they hurt, so long as they get what they desire.”

    “But Uncle Earl will go after him, then.” The boy seemed to have trouble parsing the concept. “He has to know that.”

    “They also look not overly far into the future,” she said. “Also, mayhap he believes doing this will enrage your uncail to the point that he will attack without caution. After all, if it is the same Lung I’ve heard of a time or three, he withstood the worst Leviathan could throw at him once before.”

    “It is,” Marcus confirmed. “But—”

    “I had not finished,” Abigail said. “There is the other concern, that he will simply murder all witnesses and claim innocence of the entire affair.”

    Marcus looked horrified. “We can’t let that happen!” He turned and dashed out the door.

    Young and fast he may have been; Abigail was older, wiser and a good deal faster. She caught up with him just a few strides down the corridor, and brought him to a halt by the expedient of hooking two fingers into the back of his collar. “Whoa down there a wee while, me bucko. Something needs to be done, to be sure and all, but far fewer have died from stopping and having a crafty ponder than from not doing it. First of all, how were you going to get there in time?”

    “We’ve got vehicles in the garage,” he said, not quite pulling against the hold she had on him, but not relaxing either. “Jonas has been teaching me how to drive.”

    “Stick shift?” she asked, raising an eyebrow interrogatively. For as long as she’d known him, Earl Marchant had stuck with manual-transmission vehicles.

    “Well, yeah,” he said. “Come on, we’ve got to do something!”

    “And we will,” she assured him, her decision crystallising into place. “But I’m driving.”

    <><>​

    Marcus

    As the four-by-four drifted around yet another corner, tyres smoking and howling, Marcus hung on for dear life. He’d been reasonably confident in his ability to drive, but Ms. Beltane’s mastery of the wheel blew that all the way out the window. There would’ve been no way in hell he could’ve gotten them across town as fast as she had, and certainly not without hitting something.

    This wasn’t to say she hadn’t broken a few road rules. As far as he could see, she’d broken them all; at least, the ones he was aware of. Of the few she hadn’t shattered outright, the majority of those were probably severely bent and traumatised as well. Two separate police cars had made abortive attempts at giving chase, and had been left behind with equal ease.

    “How close are we?” she asked, only needing to raise her voice a little to compensate for the roar of the engine; in every other way, she could’ve been taking the vehicle on a nice leisurely Sunday drive down to the Boardwalk and back.

    “Next block!” he called back, sticking his head out the window at the sound of another police siren. Yeah, it was definitely following them. “We’ve got another one!”

    “Just when we don’t want one,” she said, as if complaining about a mild summer shower. “Marcus storeen, your uncail used to be able to drop tyre-poppers, caltrop style. Has he shown you that technique, yet?”

    “Yeah.” Marcus didn’t like using his powers extensively, because snapping off something he’d formed was always painful. Uncle Earl had assured him that it always would be. Still, he didn’t want to disappoint Ms. Beltane. “Give me a second.”

    Taking a deep breath, he formed a ball of bone in his left hand, then used his right to snap it off. He clenched his teeth as he did so, but the sharp stab of pain up his arm was over quickly, and now he held the primary weapon he shared with his uncle. Holding it partly out the window, he caused it to grow and spawn caltrops, one after the other, as fast as he could manage it. When he leaned forward to look in the mirror, he could see the tiny white objects bouncing and skittering in the wake of the four-by-four, but the oncoming cop car hadn’t hit any yet, so he kept making them.

    And then it abruptly swerved sideways and skidded to a halt, halfway up on the sidewalk. “Yes!” he exulted. “Got him!”

    “’Tis not out of the woods yet we are, fear óg,” she reminded him, slowing the vehicle to normal driving speed. “The damage is done, now ye’d best be removing the evidence.”

    “Ah. Right.” A little chastened that he’d needed reminding, he reached out with his power and dissolved all the bone he’d dropped back along the way, included the sharpened piece that had punctured the car tyre. Though they may harbour deep suspicions, none of the investigators looking into the crash would find more than the finest of dust, blowing in the wind.

    And besides, nobody outside the household knew about him yet. The only other osteokinetic in Brockton Bay was safely in Florida, fighting Leviathan. Even if they identified the powder as being bone-related, Uncle Earl had the best alibi on the planet.

    The piece he’d been growing the caltrops from, he kept. It was not outside the realms of possibility that he would need more bone in a hurry, after all.

    “Okay, done,” he said once he’d felt the last caltrop collapse into fine powder. “Let’s go. I think I know where he’s headed.”

    Immediately, the four-by-four accelerated once more. They had a dragon to stop.

    <><>​

    Lung

    This had been a long time coming. Kenta knew that some would see it as weak to strike when his enemy wasn’t even in the city, but it was merely good tactics. One did not attack the foe where they were strong, after all.

    The point wasn’t to attack Marquis and best him in a one-to-one struggle. If Kenta could make the man stand still long enough to burn him to a crisp, that would be ideal, but as Marquis consistently declined to fight like that, he had to do it this way. Proving to the bone manipulator that there was no place safe from Lung if he put his mind to it might just bring Marquis to battle once and for all. And once the fool had been cremated (Kenta had heard that Marquis didn’t allow drugs or run prostitutes in his area at all, which was the true mark of a fool) the mantle of Brockton Bay supreme crime lord would fall to him at last.

    But that would come later. For now, he was savouring the fear he could feel from the shopkeepers and residents on either side of the street. They’d thought they were safe under Marquis’ dominion? He would teach them otherwise.

    But just up ahead was his target. This was where he’d literally been ejected from Marquis’ territory two months ago, making him a laughing-stock of the underworld. The jokes had even circulated among the ABB—albeit briefly—bringing him more shame than he’d ever felt in his life before.

    Now … he was going to take back his pride.

    It was a heady feeling … one that lasted right up until the familiar bone-clad figure stepped around the corner in front of him. At the sight of Marquis, the ABB men around Kenta stopped in their tracks, looking around nervously.

    “I thought he said Marquis wasn’t here,” one muttered.

    “How can he be back already?” hissed another.

    “Careful,” murmured another. “Lung might hear you.”

    Lung had indeed heard, and he felt anger growing in his heart over the cowardice of his men. He was the one they needed to fear, not Marquis! Marquis was nothing! A pretender who played with bones! Kenta was a dragon, who grew as large as he needed to be, and whose fire could hold even an Endbringer at bay!

    Still, if he was here, the rest of his motley group might be around somewhere, so it was wise to watch his back. Keeping a cautious eye out for Purity—he knew of the name change, but it didn’t fool him—Kenta moved toward Marquis. He wasn’t as big as he’d like to be certain of dealing with his foe, so he didn’t immediately rush to the attack.

    “That’s far enough, Lung.”

    Kenta stopped, his hands flexing. Despite the trademark bone armour, Marquis didn’t sound quite his usual confident self. Had he been injured in the fight with Leviathan? And where was the rest of his gang?

    “Step aside,” he ordered brusquely. “You cannot win against me.” Already, he felt his muscles enlarging, while the tingling of his skin that told him scales were on the way.

    Marquis chuckled, again giving Kenta pause. The sound was pitched a little higher than normal for the crime lord, which again made him wonder if Marquis was wounded in some way.

    “If that were true, you’d already be running this territory. Back off, now, before I do something you’ll regret.”

    It hadn’t been his imagination. Marquis didn’t want to fight. He was putting up a good bluff, but there was something wrong with him. This was not the crime lord Kenta had been humiliated by, before. Something was lacking.

    “I think not.” He grinned toothily behind his metal mask. “This turf is mine. Step aside, or bend your knee to me.” To underline his words, he let flames flare up from his hands.

    “Marquis bends the knee to nobody.” The bone-manipulator held up his hand, where Kenta could see that he held an off-white ball, about the size of a baseball. A moment later, he threw it, hard.

    Kenta ducked, but the ball went a yard over his head. If Marquis had been aiming it at him, he was definitely not on his game. “What was that supposed to—” he began, just before the chorus of yells from his men cut him off.

    Implicitly conscious of Marquis still in front of him, Kenta glanced back over his shoulder. All the men he’d brought along, as well as their knives, steel bars, and the occasional gun, were secured in a network of bony struts that had sprung out from the ball in all directions.

    “Now it’s just you and me.” Marquis’ tone was light, as though he was utterly unconcerned that Kenta could fry him alive inside that bone armour. “Care to try your luck, or are you going to be smarter than that, today?”

    Every instinct Kenta had told him Marquis was running a bluff. That this was Marquis, he had no doubt; nobody else could handle bone like that. But there was something missing about the man, something he couldn’t quite pin down. It might have been the tone of voice, or perhaps the body language or stance, but whatever it was, Marquis did not want this fight.

    Which meant Kenta absolutely wanted the fight. Reluctant opponents were the best; they barely showed any opposition, and folded as soon as they could plausibly get away with it. Marquis had never shown reluctance for battle before, but he was now.

    And Kenta knew what that meant.

    Victory was at hand.

    “It’s not my luck that’s run out, bone man,” he growled. “It’s yours.”

    And he launched into the attack.

    <><>​

    Marcus

    His bluff was almost working, he could tell. He’d been applying all the lessons Uncle Marcus had given him on how to walk confidently and to project assurance with every word, but while the twenty-odd ABB guys had fallen for it, Lung hadn’t quite bought it. Marcus could feel the suspicious gaze of the leader of the Asian gang searching him from head to toe, looking for the discrepancies.

    He’d formed the bone armour the same way Uncle Earl did, with thicker soles in the ‘boots’ to make up for the few inches he lacked in height, and he was almost certain the helmet allowed him to mimic his uncle’s voice closely enough that people would think he was Marquis. The idea had been to prompt Lung into leaving of his own accord, thus avoiding a fight he wasn’t ready for.

    But it hadn’t worked. The more he tried to push the bluff, the more suspicious Lung got. He hadn’t quite realised Marcus wasn’t Marquis, but the suspicion was enough to goad him into attacking.

    Frantically, he tried to remember his hand-to-hand lessons; would a throw even work against someone of Lung’s size? An image flashed up in his mind’s eye of Claire dropping Jonas on the mat with ridiculous ease, but he also knew she had a whole series of advantages that he just plain lacked. Still, he had to try.

    The one thing he couldn’t try against Lung, he knew, was the same sort of bone manacles he’d just applied to the ABB men. Created on the fly, they were sufficient to restrain someone of normal human strength, but Lung’s Brute rating would allow him to tear straight through them. While Uncle Earl had the ability to create bone faster and stronger than Lung could smash it, Marcus still hadn’t gotten to that point, as demonstrated by an attempt to bind Jonas in the same way.

    In short, it hadn’t ended well.

    The throw was not one of his best. In fact, it was one of the worst he’d ever actually pulled off. It didn’t help that Lung got in a hit on him, smashing his helmet against his face, as he sent the gang lord over onto the roadway. He also went down, his head ringing. There was a taste of blood in his mouth, and a couple of teeth were loose; that, at least, he could fix.

    When he looked up, Lung was already getting to his feet. Marcus’ bone armour was interfering with easy movement and his head was still spinning; he could see the Asian crime lord would be up first. He still wasn’t very good at going underground, but it looked like his only choice—

    The roar of the four-by-four’s engine burst onto his eardrums. He flinched aside as it thundered past, mere inches from him, and smashed headlong into Lung. The impact flung the dragon-tattooed man twenty feet into a wall, and sent the vehicle into a tyre-screeching four-wheel drift. Lung slumped to the ground at about the same time as the four-by-four slammed side-on into an electricity pole, the engine stalling out.

    Climbing unsteadily to his feet, Marcus stumbled over to where Lung lay semi-conscious on the sidewalk. He generated a pellet of bone from his hand, gritted his teeth through the pain as he snapped it off, and tossed it onto Lung. Under the urgings of his power, it grew to encompass the crime lord, leaving just a few holes for breathing. Lung would recover from the impact, but he would take a little while to break out of the bone prison.

    When he got to the four-by-four, he found Abigail clenching her teeth as she tried to get the driver’s side door open. The pole had hit the back door, but the side of the vehicle was comprehensively caved in all the same. “Are you okay?” he asked.

    Abigail drew in air through her teeth as he managed to get the door open from the outside. “I reckon I dislocated my shoulder an’ all,” she admitted. "Hurts like the hound of Lugh Lámhfhada were tearing at it. Lung?"

    “Locked down for the moment,” he assured her. “He’s going to be pissed when he wakes up, though. And that’ll be sooner rather than later.”

    “Aye,” she agreed, then looked up at the rooftop and grinned. “But it isn’t our problem anymore, so it isn’t.”

    Not sure what she was talking about, he turned his head and looked … and there, standing on the rooftops were members of the Mercia, with more arriving all the time. “Oh,” he said. “Oh, good.”

    At an unseen signal, they all jumped down to ground level at the same time—thirty and forty foot drops—like stepping off a curb. Several came over to where Marcus was standing with Abigail.

    “You’re not Marquis,” one said.

    “No,” agreed Marcus, and pulled back the bone from where it covered his face. “I wanted to make Lung back off. He wouldn’t.”

    “Understood,” said the same one. “We’ll escort him and his men out of our territory now. You probably need to get back to the house. Unless you need medical attention?”

    “I’m fine,” Marcus said hastily. “But Ms. Beltane’s got a dislocated shoulder.”

    The Mercia man looked at Abigail. “I can put that back in for you, if you want.”

    She grimaced. “Yeah, go ahead.”

    Marcus stepped back and watched as he took hold of her arm. “On the count of three. One … two …” There was a swift movement, and Abigail made a sharp sound as the socket popped back into place.

    She worked her shoulder tenderly as she stepped away from the long-coated man, then gave him a dirty look. “Count of three, huh?”

    He seemed mildly amused. “It always works. Do you need a hand getting back to the house?”

    Rubbing her shoulder, she winced. “Not sure I’ll be able to drive like this.”

    “I can drive,” Marcus assured her. “Jonas has been teaching me.”

    She gave him a dubious look, then nodded. “Sure, and you’ll have to,” she decided. “It’s not racing we need to do now.”

    Half a dozen of the Mercia surrounded the four-by-four; at a voiced command, they lifted the entire vehicle up and moved it sideways, clear of the pole. The back door was badly bent, but two of them took hold of it and forced it back to a rough approximation of its proper shape. “It still needs repairs,” one of them said, “but that should get you home.”

    “Thanks,” said Marcus, then nodded toward where the shell he had over Lung was starting to move and shake. “You’ll be okay here?”

    The man nodded. “Dissolve the bone anytime you like. He won’t be up to facing us all at once.”

    “Good.” Marcus climbed into the front seat of the four-by-four. Abigail was already in the passenger seat, rigging up a sling for her injured arm. Carefully, he closed his door and applied his seat-belt. Breathing deeply, he looked over the dashboard and tried to remember the lessons Jonas had given him.

    Hopefully, this would go better than the fight with Lung.

    <><>​

    Claire

    “… and then the lad drove us both home, as smooth as you please,” Abigail finished up. “He stuck to the speed limit, and nobody paid us a blind bit of notice.”

    “Good, good,” Earl said. “I’m pleased you’re both okay; or you will be, once Claire finishes dealing with your injuries. What I’m less pleased about is how you could’ve been hurt or killed out there.”

    “Don’t be mad at Ms. Beltane, Uncle Earl,” Marcus urged. “It was my idea. Lung deliberately set things up to draw the Mercia away from that area, and he was going to do his best to wreck it before they got back. All because you were down in Florida.”

    Earl nodded grimly. “That part hadn’t escaped me. But you two went into the fight with barely a plan between you. I thought I taught you better than that.”

    “Yeah,” Jonas added. “Especially the part about never going toe-to-toe with someone who’s bigger an’ stronger than you. Never ends well.”

    Marcus looked down at his feet. “I thought I could bluff him,” he confessed. “I nearly had him, too. If I’d been just a little bit better at it, maybe I could’ve gotten him to back off without a fight.”

    Claire shook her head. “Nope. He probably believed you were Dad, alright, but he didn’t care. You were alone, as far as he could see, and he had his men with him. There was no way he was going to back down in front of them. That fight was gonna happen, one way or the other.”

    “I suspect that it’s time I moved you on to more esoteric applications of our powers than merely generating basic weapons and armouring yourself with bone,” Earl decided. “Also, we need to work on your burrowing capability.”

    Marcus nodded. “Totally. I don’t ever want to feel like that again.”

    Jonas chuckled. “Oh, you’ll definitely feel like that again, kid. But the next time ’round, you’ll know what to do about it.”

    “Which reminds me,” Kayden said. “This was a direct attack from Lung. He was trying to demoralise your people and maybe even take some territory. How are we going to respond to that?”

    Earl smiled slowly, showing all of his teeth, with zero humour involved. “We’re going to visit the ABB and explain the error of their ways. I might even shout.”



    End of Part Twenty-Five
     
    Last edited: May 23, 2022
  2. meloa789

    meloa789 Versed in the lewd.

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    It is good to see this back. Yeah, after some time they have to learn that Marquis and his band are not to be fucked with.

    Also a funny thought occurred to me. Given how Amy is more willing to use her abilities without moral limitations, what are the odds that she will jump in joy when they ask her to augment PRT troops and she accepts?
     
    Ack and Prince Charon like this.
  3. Threadmarks: Part Twenty-Six: Consequences
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Another Way

    Part Twenty-Six: Consequences

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

    PRT ENE Director's Office
    Director Piggot


    "Hold up a moment, Armsmaster." Emily located a recorder and set it running. "What were Marchioness' words exactly?"

    "One second." Armsmaster seemed to concentrate for a second, then nodded fractionally. A recorded voice began to play back, in his own voice.

    "Well, I'm not one for puns, but if anyone could be said to have turned the tide, it was you and your … what did you call it again? Mr. Bloom?" There was a brief pause. "Uh … just a question … it can't …"

    "Travel?" That was Marchioness. "No, he's very likely going to spend his time soaking up the sunshine in Florida. Now, if someone else threatens Orlando or the local area with large-scale destruction, he might wake up again and deal with it, but I can pretty well guarantee he's never going to show up in Brockton Bay."

    The recording stopped, and he nodded to Emily.

    She pressed STOP on the recorder. "And that was all she had to say about it?"

    Slowly, he rubbed his chin. "She did mention that the plant entity could theoretically get into contact with her if it really needed to, but that was about it."

    "Alright then." She suppressed a shudder. The footage of this … Mr Bloom … standing up and hurling Leviathan out of sight was only made more terrifying when it lay down again … and utterly vanished. Within seconds, there was no trace that it had ever existed. Then and there, she resolved never to visit Florida. "Just one more thing to cover."

    "Yes, ma'am?" Armsmaster's tone never shifted, but she was reasonably sure he knew exactly what she wanted to ask.

    "The origin of this creature. Do you think it might be something that was there before but was only woken up by Leviathan's attack? Or a cape, Triggered by Leviathan? Or …" She grimaced, not wanting to even air this concept, but knowing it was something she had to do. "… did Marchioness create it?"

    "Before we even get into this," Armsmaster said carefully, "I want to make a few points. First: Marchioness has never done anything like this before, anywhere in Brockton Bay."

    "That we know of," Emily countered grimly. "Roots go underground as a matter of course. Could she have done something like it, here?"

    He shrugged. "Theoretically, sure. Realistically? I sincerely doubt it. Healing is a long, long way from creating an entire sapient plant-based entity. It's a considerable jump from one to the other. Second: Marchioness was busy for almost the entire time she was down there. Locators for the armbands indicate that she never left Marquis' side. And for a lot of the time, she was healing the casualties of the battle."

    Her lips tightened. "Which was specifically the duty she'd already said she would carry out. We all know she's only doing it because that keeps her and Marquis out of the hands of the PRT or the Protectorate."

    "I think you do her a disservice, ma'am." Although she was nominally his superior, his censorious tone was impossible to miss. "She and her contingent went above and beyond. Purity—I mean, Palatina—was right there in the middle of the fight, handing out the damage as hard as she could. The only cape deaths were the ones Leviathan deliberately killed on the spot. I saw members of the Mercia literally diving into tsunamis to rescue injured people … and succeeding. Cooperating to lift rubble in the ton-weight range while Legionnaire's ghosts dragged people to safety."

    "You admire them," she said flatly. "You admire what they've done."

    "Not for the fact that they're villains," he countered. "But because they showed up despite being villains, did what they said they were going to do, and did it damned efficiently. Did you know, Marquis even equipped them with pony bottles of air before they went down to Florida? Five minutes isn't much, but it can be a life-saver when you're trapped underwater."

    Emily wasn't an idiot. She could read the room. Armsmaster wasn't about to think the worst of Marquis and Marchioness, even with this alarming new development to worry about. "Understood," she conceded. "So what's your personal view on the origin of this Mr Bloom, and what we should do about it? Because you know I'll have Director Lane of Forty-Four and Stackpole of Fifty-One asking me some tough questions, and that's not even counting the Chief Director." PRT Department 44 was based in Miami and 51 in Tampa, and she wasn't certain which one would try to pull jurisdiction over Orlando.

    "I don't believe we can do anything meaningful about it, ma'am," he said bluntly. "From what Marchioness described to me, the thing is a vast plant-based distributed intelligence. The very most we could manage against it would be to mildly annoy it, and cause it to contact Marchioness and Marquis for assistance. If we leave it alone, it will leave us alone."

    The subtext may as well have had a neon light flashing next to it. We do not want to annoy Marquis and Marchioness. Emily could kind of understand the reasoning, but at the same time it rankled her on several levels that she couldn't do anything about it.

    "Very well," she said. "Dismissed. I'll await your full report on the matter."

    Pretending to relax, she leaned back in her chair and watched him leave the office. The door closed, which allowed her to shut her eyes and massage her temples with her fingertips. Okay, how the fuck do I handle this?

    The answer was as obvious as it was unpalatable. Put it on the pile with the rest of the shit, and deal with problems as they come up. A long sigh left her lungs. Same old, same old.

    At least we don't have anything like that here in Brockton Bay.


    She didn't know that for a fact, but she could certainly pretend.

    <><>​

    Marchioness

    "All right, then." Earl looked at the map of the city which was already spread over the table. "Lung has made his move. He failed, due to Abigail and Marcus, but he needs to learn just how bad a mistake that was. We are taking the fight to him. Or rather, I am taking the fight to him."

    "Wait, you're going to take him on alone?" Justin blinked as everyone turned to look at him. "I mean, that's … he's dangerous. He fought Leviathan, for crying out loud. Nobody can take him one-on-one."

    "That's what he's led everyone to believe," Earl said firmly. "And that's what he believes himself. I'm going to put that to the test."

    Claire took a deep breath and stepped up alongside him. "I'm coming, too."

    Earl nodded. "Yes, you are, but not to fight Lung. You're going to have a different job, one that's just as important."

    When her father spoke in that tone of voice, she knew there was no point in arguing. Besides, she was interested in what role he had in mind for her. "Which is …?"

    Resting his knuckles on the table, Earl looked around at the assembled group. "We will be sweeping through ABB territory. The Mercia will be tasked with locating and subduing Lung's men and women, and bringing them to Claire. She will, in turn, be 'persuading' them to abandon Lung's cause. All but two of you will be backing up the Mercia, and helping dig the ABB out of their hidey-holes."

    Abigail tilted her head. "All but two? Earl, darlin', I had no stomach to fight a monster, but you cannot be leaving me out of this battle as well."

    This time, he chuckled. "And I never intended you to. I will welcome you into our ranks for this. No, the two who aren't coming along will be Kayden and Marcus."

    The two thus named stared at each other, then at Earl. Marcus went to speak first, then paused and ceded the floor to Kayden.

    "Why?" she asked bluntly. "Is it because I nearly died? I'm fine now. Claire healed me up."

    "Yes, you're fine," he conceded. "But how are your power reserves? You once told me that Claire couldn't refill those, and you ran yourself dry today."

    "I have some," she protested. "There was sunlight after Leviathan went away, and after we got back here."

    He shook his head. "Not enough. This fight is likely to last into the night, and I will not have you going into harm's way with just vapor in the tank. Please, sit this one out."

    "Argh." She clenched her fists. "I hate it when you're reasonable like that. Okay, fine, but the moment this meeting's over, I'll be sunbathing on the roof. Just in case."

    "And I would have it no other way." He looked at his young clone. "Marcus, you had a question?"

    "Yeah." Marcus grimaced. "Am I being sidelined because I screwed up? Is this some kind of punishment?"

    "What? No." Earl shook his head. "Yes, you made mistakes. Everyone does. It's part of the learning curve. But you survived, and you're the wiser for it. No, this isn't a punishment. This is so that Lung continues to believe he's only ever faced me."

    Marcus blinked. "Oh … oh. Oh, I see. He'll think you're off your game, and he'll get all overconfident."

    "More overconfident, but yes." Earl smiled dryly. "There is a saying to the effect that one should never interrupt one's enemy while they are making a mistake. I prefer to ensure that they make the mistake in the first place; that way, I know exactly when and where it's going to happen. And because he's made an incorrect assumption due to your actions …"

    Abigail let out a bark of laughter and slapped the table. "An' that's the Earl Marchant from the old days, sure enough. Never let an opportunity slip by, do ye?"

    "I wouldn't be the businessman I am if I did." He leaned over the map. "Now, we'll do our best to contain them within their territory. Claire will drive through the middle with Justin's ghosts ranging ahead for scouting purposes. Robert will maintain this pincer arm, Abigail will take the other side, and Jonas will provide the lid on the bottle. I will remain with Claire and Justin until Lung is spotted, then the rest of you keep the rank and file honest while I engage him."

    Claire listened as her father laid the plan out. It was simple and elegant, making use of prominent streets for advancement directions. "You've had this in mind for a while, haven't you?" she asked suspiciously.

    He nodded. "Just because it wasn't the time to remove Lung from the board didn't mean I couldn't plan for it. Do you believe you're up to the task of taking away his power base?"

    By which he meant removing the loyalty to Lung while leaving the rest of the mind intact. "Absolutely." She'd had plenty of practice, after all.

    "Good." He dusted off his hands. "Let's get to it, then."

    <><>​

    Legionnaire

    It was weird having so many points of view, but Justin could handle it. None of the ghosts gave him a detailed view of what was around it—the fewer, the better—but he was able to scout out the buildings surrounding him as he advanced down the street with his detachment of Mercia. Instead of the plate armour and spear of Crusader, he wore a basic idea of what a Roman soldier would have, and carried a shortsword. Behind him, almost as though they were out for an evening stroll, came Marquis and Marchioness.

    One of the ghosts entered a room containing people—at least, he figured they were people instead of furniture when they jumped up and started attacking the ghost—so he pointed. "Three," he said. Three of the Mercia broke off from the group and ran toward the building. They didn't bother with the front door or even the fire escape, instead choosing to scale the frontage using a level of parkour he wasn't sure was humanly possible.

    When they entered the room, his ghost stood back to block the door. The Mercia were very good at what they did, but their job was much easier if the prospective targets couldn't get away. The fight, if he could call it one, was over in seconds; afterward, the Mercia dragged the subdued ABB members down the stairs in the same manner as an exasperated adult returning a stubborn child to bed.

    Marchioness went to meet them, the Mercia flanking her to deter snipers. She was basically bulletproof, but why tempt fate? She went from one to the next, briefly laying her hand on their foreheads. Once she was done with them, she stepped back and they were released.

    "Wh-what—?" stammered one.

    "Go," she ordered. "Back to your families. Lung's reign ends tonight."

    They didn't need telling twice. All three scrambled to their feet and bolted in different directions. Marchioness nodded to Marquis, and they resumed their advance.

    "Incoming," Justin warned as one of his perimeter ghosts watched a bunch of figures run by. "Seven Mercia, with passengers, from Knight Errant."

    It never failed to amaze him just how much Marchioness could improve the base human condition. He himself was far more durable than he had been before joining up with Marquis, but these guys were basically inhuman. During the Leviathan fight, he'd watched them running at street speeds over flooded terrain, bringing downed capes in for healing. Impressive as hell, and just one more reason why he was so damn glad he'd chosen to join when he did.

    The Mercia dashed into sight a moment later, zip-cuffed prisoners slung over their shoulders. They paused to dump the ABB on the sidewalk, then reversed course and headed back the way they'd come. Justin kept a lookout with his ghosts as Marchioness moved to deal with the latest delivery; any potential ambush would likely fail horribly, but there was no sense in taking chances.

    <><>​

    Abigail

    Now, this is the life.

    Eyes peeled for ABB markings, Abigail ran the rooftops alongside the Mercia, grinning in the cool evening air as she matched them step for step and leap for leap. Her power enhanced her body and turned her into every athlete's impossible dream, but it seemed her little Claire acushla had learned how to do the same with Earl's own men.

    Already they'd flushed out and sent several of Lung's finest over to Claire for 'persuasion', as Abigail chose to call it. It was a valid tactic; they had neither the means nor the desire for keeping prisoners long-term. All they really wanted to do was bleed Lung of his men with as little in the way of harm to innocents as possible. If Marquis was to be taking this territory, then it was never too early to begin fostering goodwill.

    "Fifteen to Beltane." That was the radios they all carried, with earpieces so that nobody had to fumble with them while running. "Found a warehouse with markings, and guards outside. Looks like a gathering place. Grid thirty-two-A."

    "Beltane to Fifteen, on my way." She looked around, trying to recall which way that grid square lay; the Mercia to her right pointed. "Beltane to Marquis; 'tis running him to ground we might be doing. I'll be keepin' ye posted."

    "Understood. Take care." And that was the man all over. He said what he meant, and meant what he said.

    "Roger, copy an' all that military jazz." She let go the earpiece button, and leaped from the rooftop. Twisting in a way that would've been impossible before she got her powers, she caught a streetlight and swung off it, then stuck the landing on the wall of the building across the narrow roadway.

    Without so much as a pause, she swarmed to the roof of the new building, sprinted across the flat surface, and cleared the dividing alleyway with never a qualm. In her element now, she headed toward the location she'd been given, instinctively mapping out her path before she ever got to it. To her, a rooftop was a runway, a parapet was a springboard, and an irregularity in the brickwork was an open invitation saying, "climb here!".

    When the warehouse came in sight, she saw at once why Fifteen had considered it significant. The prominent ABB gang tags on the outside might have been an indicator, but the four armed men standing out at the front sealed the deal. There was something going on inside, something she wanted to see.

    She was a shadow in the night, a whisper on the wind. Fast as a thought, smoother than oiled silk, she jumped from rooftop to rooftop until she reached the last gap. Too wide to leap across, it was bridged by a single power cable. Below was unyielding concrete and armed guards; before her, the resolution of her curiosity.

    Pfft, she told herself. Who wants to live forever, anyway?

    For all the bravado of her thoughts, she was cat-cautious with her foot placement. She advanced across the open gap, allowing the cable to impress itself on her soles through the thin shoes she wore, the better to gauge her balance. It was well that darkness had advanced sufficiently for her not to be silhouetted against the sky above; should one of the guards see her, she would make a fine target.

    Finally, she reached the roof of the warehouse. Moving as silently as she was able, she sidled up to where a skylight promised visibility of what transpired below. The promise turned out to be a lie, as the glass was grimy from exposure to decades of Brockton Bay pollution, but she had other options.

    Abigail generally carried little on her person during her forays, the more to keep her hands free and limbs unencumbered during a tight spot. The wrist-wallet containing a selection of lockpicks she left alone; the rusted-shut lock on the skylight needed a little more than that kind of finesse. Conversely, the pistol she carried holstered in the small of her back would count as overkill in this case.

    However, the small pry-bar she kept strapped to her right thigh and the tanto blade sheathed to her left, promised to be much more useful. She'd selected the tanto for its strength and durability, as well as its ease of maintenance. While she could use it to stab people (and had done exactly that, more than once) to her that was more of a useful secondary function.

    Wedging the pry-bar under the skylight, she applied leverage until the aged wood creaked and a wide enough gap opened to slide the tanto in until its triangular point was nestling against the locking mechanism. Then she extricated the pry-bar, spun it end for end in her hand, and thwacked it against the pommel of the tanto, somewhat like a hammer with a chisel. Or rather, in this case, exactly like a hammer with a chisel; there was a muted crack as the tanto smashed through the rusted metal, destroying the integrity of the lock and releasing the skylight.

    She paused for a long moment, listening for shouts of alarm or the drumming of running feet. None came, so she eased the skylight open—requiring the use of the pry-bar for the first few inches, until the hinges got the idea of what they were meant for again—and peered within.

    There stood Lung, along with about a dozen of his men, clustered around a selection of cars. Nobody was looking up, which didn't overly surprise her. In a building this old, creaks and cracks had to happen all the time when they settled.

    "Beltane to Marquis, 'tis Lung himself I'm lookin' at," she murmured into her radio mic. "Larger than life an' three times as ugly."

    "Marquis to Beltane, just to verify. You have positive identification of Lung at grid thirty-two-A." Earl's voice was intent and focused.

    "Aye, to be sure an' all," she said. "I'd know that ink anywhere, an' the mask is still dented from when I smacked the great lummox with your car."

    "Good. We're on our way. Keep me posted. Guardsman, Knight-Errant, start pushing in toward thirty-two-A."

    Abigail tuned out the responses, focusing her attention more on what was happening below. Between his accent and the rumbling tones of his voice, his words were hard to make out, especially within the echoing confines of the warehouse. But his body language told a story she was able to read.

    He was active but not agitated, indicating that he knew something was going on, but not the extent to which Marquis' forces had already depleted his reserves. From the movements of his hands, he intended to take action against someone else, and it wasn't hard to figure out who. The Empire Eighty-Eight was a spent force within the city, and the Merchants had vanished once Earl had decided to remove them.

    That left Marquis and the Mercia.

    "Beltane to Marquis," she said, a little more urgently than before. "If I'm not much mistakin' his purpose, Lung has a mind to invade your turf an' commence the murder until you show, an' this time end you for good an' all." As she watched, the ABB members started toward the cars. "An' it's due to happen now." She came to an abrupt decision. "I'll be delayin' 'em, howevermuch I can."

    "Beltane, no!" Earl's voice was sharp. "We'll be there in minutes. Don't put yourself in harm's way."

    "Last I checked, 'twas not the boss of me that ye were." Abigail slithered in through the gap in the open skylight. "Free agent an' all that. Catch ye when ye get here."

    There were no rafters directly below the skylight, but a catwalk ran past a few yards to the side and down, but the trouble was, it was on the hinge side. Well, no matter. Catching the edge of the opening with her fingertips, she swung forward and backward once then performed a backward flip-and-twist that let her snag the catwalk with one hand.

    Hanging there for a moment, she glanced back over her shoulder. Car doors slammed, and the first engine started. The large roller-door at the front of the warehouse began to rumble upward, opening the way for them to leave.

    There was no time to scramble onto the catwalk proper, and find the stairs down. Looking downward, she spotted a stack of ancient crates that had probably been mouldering there since the days when this warehouse had been part of a going concern. From the looks of it, sometime in the first century BC.

    Grabbing the catwalk with her other hand, Abigail swung back and forward again. When she released her grip, she was heading for the wall of the warehouse. She performed another flip-and-twist before she hit it, kicking off with her heels to redirect her momentum.

    The crates were stacked two high; she hit the top one with enough force to crack it open and send splinters flying everywhere. However, she was already collapsing to absorb most of the impact and rolling forward off to land on the next one. That one merely shivered and threw out dust, but she was still in motion. The two hits, solid as they were, reduced her falling velocity to the point that when she reached the grimy concrete floor, she was able to roll to her feet as part of the move.

    Hitting a dead sprint in two strides (she knew damn well she was going to feel those bruises in the morning, but those were the breaks) she drew her pistol but did not fire. She wasn't about to try to hit Lung; even in his unenhanced condition, he still had a Brute rating and a regeneration power that would shrug off low-powered bullets. Shooting him would just be a good way to piss him off with no way of dealing with the consequences. Neither was she shooting at his men, mainly because there were more of them than she had bullets.

    However, one resource that he needed and had a limited supply of was car tyres. Unfortunately, while the tyres were clearly visible to her, and would make great targets, the angle was less than ideal for her purpose. One of the many pieces of esoteric information she'd picked up over the course of her (extremely) chequered career was the fact that a bullet-hole in the tread of a car tyre would deflate it far more quickly than one in the sidewall, and she needed deflation now rather than three miles down the road.

    The roller-door was still rumbling and squeaking its way up on its runners; she suspected that it had last been greased about the same time as the crates had been stored within the premises. However, it was a large door and its age was telling on it. So far, it was only about two feet off the ground, with an ABB minion standing by the panel, his finger firmly pressed on the 'up' button.

    In the next few seconds, the door was going to be high enough for cars to go under and she was still behind the pack, as it were. Without missing a step, she raised her pistol and shot the man at the roller-door. Clutching his shoulder, he let go the button and reeled away to the side; the door stopped, and so did the cars.

    This was what she'd wanted, but now she had what she didn't want; the close and personal attention of every person inside the warehouse. Fortunately, she was behind the cars, so they couldn't easily shoot at her, but as heads (and arms, with pistols in hand) popped out of windows, it appeared that they were going to have a damn good try at it.

    Crossing over behind the cars, she fired at every tyre she could see a patch of tread on. Most of her shots hit, and the cars began to settle, but it was far too soon to pull out the champagne to celebrate. A veritable fusillade of shots came back toward her, sparking off the concrete and whiffing past to end up who knew where.

    She kept moving, sticking to the rear quarter of the cars and maintaining the lowest profile she could manage. Once she'd fired her last shot, she knew it was time to bug out. Besides, some of their shots were coming uncomfortably close.

    Swerving abruptly—she didn't want to give them any kind of easy target, after all—she ran between the cars, facing them with the choice of holding fire or potentially shooting each other. Someone began to open a door in front of her, and she vaulted over it without missing a step. Hitting the ground on the full, she ran and dived, rolling under the partially-open roller-door as the ABB goons tried and failed to adjust their aim once again.

    As soon as she was clear of the door, she came to her feet without slowing down, and not a moment too soon. While she hadn't exactly forgotten about the four men outside the front of the warehouse, they'd kind of slipped her mind in all the excitement. Which meant she was now facing four more guns, and this time they didn't have the disadvantage of shooting at awkward angles from inside a car to hamper them.

    Her best chance was to keep moving; standing still right now was tantamount to suicide. She spun, dodged, threw the tanto at one man and her empty pistol in a flat spin at another's face, and bolted for the surrounding shadows.

    Shots sounded, more than from just the two who weren't dealing with her missiles. Some came from within the warehouse, punching out through the thin metal of the roller-door. It didn't matter that they were firing blind; an unaimed bullet could be just as lethal as one carefully placed on target. Abigail just concentrated on getting out of sight.

    A hammer-blow to her calf muscle knocked her off-balance, and she hit the ground. One guard was down and bleeding all over the concrete driveway, another was tugging at the tanto that had sunk into his shoulder muscle, while a third sitting on his ass, looking a little concussed. Only the fourth had come through unscathed; he grinned maliciously as he prepared to fire again.

    The Mercia man was a blur in the night as he leaped from a rooftop and drove the last one to the ground. Others showed up mere seconds later, securing the other three and checking on their injuries. One knelt by Abigail to check her leg. "How does it feel?" he asked.

    "Painful," she admitted. "I'm of a mind that the bone is fine, though."

    "I'm thinking the same. Looks like the bullet only went in an inch or so after breaking the skin." He quickly affixed a bandage to it. "That should hold you until Marchioness can look at it. I'm guessing you didn't opt for the full dermal weave?"

    "Aye," she agreed. "It felt too confining, so it did. A girl has to be able to move."

    "Well, you'll be tap-dancing again in no time." He stood up, helping her to her feet, and nodded toward the roller-door, which was inching upward again. "Here we go."

    "Abigail." It was Earl's voice; Abigail looked around to see him, as well as Claire and Robert and Justin, standing at the foot of the driveway. And coming in from all directions, clad in the black long-coats that had become their trademark, pushing ABB members in front of them, were the Mercia.

    <><>​

    Kenta

    Lung growled impatiently and wrenched open the exit door beside the large roller-door. Simply standing there while it slowly ground its way upward was begging to be ambushed by anyone on the other side. He'd stopped his men from shooting after the first volley through the door, mainly because firing blind was a waste of ammunition. If the woman was gone, she was gone, but he'd had guards outside so they—

    He stopped short, staring at the scene that greeted him. Things had definitely gone sideways.

    There was a large fresh bloodstain on the cracked concrete apron in front of the warehouse entrance, that looked like it had come from one of the external guards. The guard, plus the other three (in various states of disrepair) were being dealt with off to the side by members of the Mercia. Where the hell did the Mercia come from?

    What really got his attention, though, was Marquis, standing front and centre. The bone-clad crime lord was flanked by two men, wearing armour in two entirely different styles, each holding a sword. Behind the trio was a bunch of his own men, kept in check by more Mercia. The woman who had attacked them inside was being treated by Marchioness, but she was no longer his concern.

    "Lung!" That one word, from Marquis, crackled with authority. "You wanted me. Here I am."

    He felt the heat within his chest as he stepped forward. There was a fight looming, and his power knew it. Already, he felt the subtle hints that he was growing larger. "You're back already?" It was a taunt. "When you faced me just a few hours ago, you fled like a coward."

    "I was busy." Marquis met his derision with a dismissive tone. "I didn't have the time or inclination to deal with you properly. Now, I do. Like I said before, are you going to be smart and walk away, or am I going to have to do something you will regret?" Raising his hand, he made a come-at-me gesture.

    It was the phrasing that convinced Lung. Marquis had lost face from the earlier draw, so he'd brought all his underlings to try to scare his opponent off this time. The trouble with that tactic was simple.

    Lung didn't scare.

    Drawing in a deep breath, he let it rumble out of his chest in a rolling plume of smoke. Already, he was as tall as the highest point on Marquis' crown of bone. "The only one who will regret today, bone man, is you."

    He couldn't see Marquis' face, but he imagined the man was rolling his eyes in an attempt to look and sound brave. "Big words for a small-time gangster."

    The taunt sparked anger inside him. "I fought Leviathan!" he bellowed, raising echoes from nearby buildings.

    Marquis didn't budge. "You lost to Leviathan," he corrected Lung. "Kyushu still sank. He won."

    Lung's bout against the second Endbringer was a cornerstone of his pride. He'd been trying to cut Marquis down with words before he killed the man for real, but this was something he would not countenance. Letting out a roar of fury, he bore down on Marquis, claws sliding out of his fingertips, ready to rip and tear.

    An instant before he reached Marquis, a wall of bone sprang up around the man in a move so smooth it had to be practised. Lung didn't care if he'd rehearsed the trick a thousand times; it might stand up against fire, but it would crumble before his claws. He struck at it, shattering the barrier into a thousand pieces ... but, like a magician's trick, Marquis was no longer there.

    Too late, he heard the scraping noise of bone against concrete … from behind him. As he began to turn, a slashing blade took out both his hamstrings. He fell headlong, then twisted to look up at Marquis standing there behind him with a massive bone-bladed weapon, as large as life.

    A cowardly attack. I will kill him, or die trying.

    "You know, I watched the footage of the fight." Leaning casually on the weapon, Marquis watched him struggle to regain his feet. "What there was of it. And I noticed something interesting."

    The sheer amount of rage sleeting through Lung's body pushed his regeneration into overdrive, and he was another foot taller when he stood up once more, his Achilles tendons already healing. "I s'vived that fight!" he roared, his mouth starting to deform and slur his words. "More'n you'll do here!"

    "Oh, please," sighed Marquis, leaning aside just far enough to avoid a claw-swipe. "Leviathan let you live. You were making his fight easier, not harder." He spun aside from another blow, then formed the bone walls around himself once more.

    Lung wasn't going to be caught unawares like that again. Spinning on the spot, he slashed his claws through where he figured Marquis would re-emerge. The strike was hard, fast, unstoppable ... and it hit nothing but air.

    The bone blade, on the other hand, came whistling down past Lung's head, from behind. Lung had just enough time to realise that Marquis hadn't moved before it sliced his right arm off, just below the shoulder. Roaring in agony, he tried to spin around to disembowel his foe, but this time the blade severed the tendons behind his knees. He went down again, harder than before.

    "While you were engaging Leviathan," Marquis continued, barely breathing hard yet, "your flame grew so hot nobody could approach. You kept everyone else out of the fight. The only one he had to deal with was you. And you couldn't kill him, or even do enough damage to drive him off. Congratulations. You helped sink Kyushu."

    "NO!" thundered Lung, surging to his feet. "YOU LIE!" Not even bothering to grab up his severed arm and trusting in his regeneration to close the requisite blood vessels, he stepped forward but stopped short of weapon reach. Even a dragon could learn something once it was beaten into his skull a few times. Flames wreathing his body, feeling the familiar burn rising in his throat, he reared back and opened his mouth, ready to immolate Marquis with a fireball.

    Faster than a striking snake, a needle-tipped bone spike shot from Marquis' hand, flickering in the harsh glare of the overhead lights. It covered the distance to Lung in rather less than the blink of an eye, spearing in through his open mouth. There it formed a plug then split off two branches, one going up and one going down.

    Lung clawed frantically at the spike. He couldn't exhale fire with it in place; more importantly, he couldn't breathe. Snapping it off short, he worked his claws into his mouth, trying to get a purchase on the intrusive object. Stabbing pains in both his head and his chest told him that he had very little time to get it right.

    And then, he was out of time. His right eye went dark as something erupted from the socket; a moment later, a bone spike bored its way out between two of his ribs, low on the right side of his chest, pushing aside metal scales as it did so. He fought for breath, trying to force some air into his labouring lungs past the blockage in his throat.

    Suddenly, the blockage dissolved; he drew a long shuddering breath of air, then coughed mightily to expel the cloud of bone dust from his throat. Not sure what had happened, he was nevertheless not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. He fixed his one good eye on his adversary and prepared to attack once more. All he needed was to get one good hit in ...

    "Stop." It wasn't the word or the raised hand that stopped him. Rather, it was the sudden feeling of pain as spikes sliced into his heart and lungs, and a disorienting wooziness that threatened to put him on the ground again. He staggered, trying to understand which way was up. His flames flickered and went out.

    "Wh ...?" He couldn't figure out how to say more than that.

    The disorientation receded. "I have blades digging into your heart, lungs and brain," Marquis informed him crisply. "At any time I choose, I can shred them. Even with your regeneration, you would die. Do you understand? Nod if you do."

    After a long pause, more due to having to remember how to nod than from reluctance, Lung nodded.

    "Good." Marquis sounded satisfied. "This was never a fight. It was a demonstration of futility. Nod if you understand that, too."

    Again, Lung nodded. He could do little else when his adversary literally held Lung's heart in his hand.

    "You will disband the ABB," Marquis ordered. "They will cease operations in this city, tonight. You will return the protection payments you've taken. Nod if you understand."

    There was no point in not nodding. But Marquis was a fool if he thought a simple nod was enough to force him to adhere to a forced agreement. That money was his, and—

    Agony shot through his chest; he lurched and went to his knees.

    "And we were getting along so well, too." Marquis shook his head. "It's a bad idea to lie to me. Nod if you understand."

    Cautiously, Lung nodded. How did he know I meant to go against him? It seemed that Marquis' inflated reputation wasn't so inflated after all.

    "One more time." Marquis' voice was implacable. "You will disband the ABB. They will cease operations in this city, tonight. You will return the protection payments you've taken. Your sex workers will be each given a cash settlement, their belongings returned, and allowed to go where they will. And you will provide information for locating anyone who has been abducted and sold on by the ABB. Nod if you understand."

    He knew what that meant. Nodding now would mean truly admitting defeat.

    It was only now, far too late, that he began to feel a kind of sympathy for everyone else he'd ever forced this kind of choice upon. He'd been just as demanding, or even more so.

    Slowly, haltingly, he began to lever himself to his feet.

    He was done. He knew that, now. No matter how hard he went at Marquis, the man had an answer. Strength was met with guile, weakness with strength. With Marquis' powers, he was inside Lung's guard, literally holding his vital organs hostage. Lung couldn't even lie to him; somehow, the man could smell an empty promise.

    He could feel the collective gaze of his ABB on his back. They would be wondering what he was going to do, how he was going to get out of this. If he was going to get out of this. They had seen his defeat, his shame, his humiliation. He was no longer greater than them, in their eyes. He had fallen. His mystique was gone, forever shattered. His reputation was in tatters. Lung the Indomitable. Lung, the Dragon of Kyushu. He and his reputation had been almost casually dismantled by Marquis, in front of an audience of his own people.

    Worse, now that his power base was gone, no matter where he went, the CUI would be looking for him. They would capture him, and drag him back to China to bend his knee before another unbeatable adversary.

    All roads led to ruin.

    He coughed, and spat blood on the concrete, then raised his one good eye to Marquis' face. "Fuck you," he rasped. "I will not." I will die on my feet, rather than live on my knees.

    Marquis tilted his head slightly. "No?" he asked. The subtext was clear. There's no way back from this.

    Lung raised his chin. "No," he affirmed. I know. Do it.

    Slowly, Marquis nodded, as though he understood the thought process that had led to this decision. Perhaps he did; he certainly understood the art of war better than Lung ever had. The moment Lung had first decided to act against him had inevitably led to this point in time.

    The long-handled axe appeared to be light as a feather in Marquis' hands; Lung barely had time for one last thought.

    This is a good death.



    End of Part Twenty-Six
     
  4. macdjord

    macdjord Well worn.

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    Mercia OP pls nerf
     
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  5. meloa789

    meloa789 Versed in the lewd.

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    At the right hands Marquis' power is a game changer and this chapter just proved that.
     
  6. NavigatorNobilis

    NavigatorNobilis Follower of the Second Star

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    Weird way to spell "and that's how we like it", but you do you.
     
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  7. ChiChi

    ChiChi I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    pony bottles?
     
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  8. Vetrom

    Vetrom Getting out there.

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    Pony bottles refer to tanks and bolted on breathing apparatus providing a small amount of air to use in case of emergency equipment failure or other rescue situations.
     
    Ack likes this.
  9. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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