Natalie Grayswift sat with her butt in the dirt, twigs and leaves caught in between locks of her hair, scrapes and bruises wherever grass stains weren't. The just-uncomfortably-cold breeze made her shiver involuntarily as she cast a baleful glare across the lush, wild horizon of the world outside the dome she'd grown up in. She hastily slapped imperceptibly tiny bugs off of her shoulder, only to regret it immediately as her arm writhed in exacerbated soreness.
"Ugh." She hefted her backpack. "... How did it come to this?"
Samantha opened the door to Jacent's apartment and savored the scent of bamboo furniture underneath heated oils lightly infused with incense. Burning the incense itself was slightly more to his liking, but he'd made the consideration for Carrie's sake, so as not to irritate her asthma when she visited. When not despoiled by the smell of barbecued pork, it gave the place an old world feeling, as if she'd stepped directly into the past. She hung up her translucent blue umbrella, gazing at the rain drizzling down outside; she'd hoped it would clear up by the time she set out.
A steady thump-thump-thumping gathered her attention, something heavy but not entirely solid being impacted over and over. She sauntered down the hallway, turning when she saw an open door, and inside, Jacent, punching at a full body training bag. She watched him wordlessly for a few minutes. He stuck at it over and over, from multiple angles, jabbing and hooking and swinging with single-minded determination, drawing breath and expending sound and fury squarely into his vinyl, sand-filled opponent. She adored him for his gentleness, his kindness, but in these motions she saw a savage animal, the relentless assault of a beast that had been put through a gauntlet. She disliked even imagining it.
And just like that, he stopped, switching off the nigh-feral instinct to come back to humanity, looking down at her with sweat beading down his forehead. "Hello, Samantha."
"Are you coming to the Town Meet today?" she asked. It had been a while since they'd attended, and Murphy had made overtures that it would be helpful to their image to make an appearance; the secretive nature of their operations tended to leave the public uneasy.
"No, thank you." He didn't attempt to qualify this with an excuse, but rather awkwardly looked aside and turned to towel himself off.
Samantha stepped inside the workout room. It was a mess, atypical of his usual way of doing things. For someone who'd been homeless all his life, he was oddly fastidious- but one wouldn't have been able to tell for all the exercise equipment, hand wraps, dirty, empty plates and tiger balm everywhere. The rest of the house looked fine, but this room alone was chaos... probably because it was the only place he'd been. "You haven't been to school in a few days. I haven't seen you much." She looked up at him with her one visible eye, a piercing orange gaze with scrutinizing intelligence behind it. "Have you been training this entire time?"
Her gaze went right through him. Knowing better than to lie, he wiped his face and sighed. "Yes... I need to be able to beat Grendel once and for all. Natalie has so many problems, I can't make her deal with mine."
Samantha considered that. "This is one of those arch-nemesis things that I'm not going to understand, isn't it?"
He finally, grudgingly cracked a smile- the first one he'd formed in days. "Yes."
She put her hands up, conceding. "Fine! I'll be bored by myself."
Nothing had ever beaten the post-invasion Town Meet for sheer participation and interest, but they'd been consistently more active than ever before, each and every time. Little wonder- reconstruction, reparations, disputes with neighboring cities, debates on policing and even the enstatement of inkling rights had taken place in a relatively short timeframe. Today's, however, almost felt sedate by comparison. With homes being reconstructed, loved ones being found at long last, and Echelon dealing competently with the otherworldly threats, it felt like something resembling normalcy had finally come to Locksmouth once more.
"Mmm, ahhhh~" Sal Silverfish yawned somewhat uncharacteristically; normally he was the most enthusiastic person during Town Meets, but even he couldn't seem to be bothered that afternoon. "Do the police have any statements they'd like to make?"
"Yes," Officer Murphy stepped up, clearing her throat. "Out of consideration for our citizens' concerns about safety, we've negotiated a soft lifting on the ban of weaponry inside of Locksmouth. Anyone who uses such an implement for self-defense purposes only will be required to register these weapons with the police department and acquire a Class 4 Collector's Permit," she said, sounding like a doting teacher. "That means a safety seminar, a proficiency test, a written test to show knowledge of compliance laws. If you're wondering if your weapon qualifies as a Class 4 item, when in doubt, register it," she said sternly, before pointing toward the seats. "Samantha, that means you- we know about your air gun. Officers Birch and Colley aren't pressing charges due to the regrettable nature of the Ink Tank incident, but, they still didn't appreciate being knocked over," she couldn't finish without smirking a little.
Sam leaned forward smoothly. "My deepest apologies; next time I'll file the proper forms to knock them over," she said, getting a laugh out of the procession.
"Alright then!" Sal said with finality. "If that's all, I believe we can call this- nnh?" He flinched as the doors swung open loudly, as if kicked in. Moments later, Cedric marched down the main walkway, followed by Khurl Reefstone and Leihanne Veviroux, who wrestled a cloth-draped figure between them. Natalie's pack eyed each other in confusion.
"Uh!" Murphy shot up in her seat. "Those two girls are wanted criminals, Onyx, I better hear a good explanation for this!"
He took one of the main speaking slots reserved for arbitrators, brusquely ignoring her. "Fellow citizens of Locksmouth, we have a traitor in our ranks." He glared up at the seats. "And her name, is Natalie Grayswift!"
Jacent sat upon a bamboo platform, sweat rolling down his body. Even now, he didn't struggle to recall it: The Art of War.
"Feign madness, but keep your balance."
Natalie Grayswift stood up to the challenge from her quite literal high ground, one foot on the mid-bar of the hand rails, arms folded. "You're gonna need something good for this one, you conniving jackwagon."
Cedric continued on as if Natalie had said nothing, which unnerved her more than a little. "We've taken Echelon at her word, and given her incredible authority in our city and out. She's exercised that power here, and in Harbington and Anchorsway as well. But how has she repaid this trust? With treachery."
Khurl pulled the sheet away, revealing a very nervous-looking blue-eyed beetle girl. "H-Help me! I have nothing to do with this! I've been kidnapped!"
Natalie's eyes widened. "Cedric!" She cried in disbelief as the din in the room rose. "Are you stupid?!"
"Drop the hologram," Cedric said sternly.
Widget grimaced. "I-I don't know what you're talking ab- aaaah! AAAAH!!" Leihanne's hand began reaching for her face. "Okay okay okay!!" Her hologram fizzled out hastily, showing the robotic body underneath. "Nonononono!! AHH!!" She hissed when Leihanne grabbed her arm instead, causing it to fizzle, pop and crackle in disruptive malfunction.
"This, as you can see, is a robot," the badger noted. "And unlike any living room automaid, or Mega Molly's animatronic, she's fearing for her life." The crowd gasped as they fully realized the implications of this.
"Hhhn, stop, stop!" Widget struggled against Khurl's strength as Leihanne's hand once again neared her face.
Carrie leapt up, fists clenched. "You touch another part of Widget, Veviroux, and I'll break off every last finger you got!"
The room went quiet. Cedric motioned for Leihanne to stop, which she did. He wore a smug, satisfied smile that sickened Natalie to her stomach. "So you do know her."
Carrie's fur stood on end- trembling, ears burning as she realized the trap she'd stepped into. Her ears folded as she glanced at Natalie apologetically.
"A robot that Natalie would know well enough to be friends with," supposed Cedric. "Now where could that have come from?"
Nat glared daggers into Cedric's face. "Don't you do it, don't you dare-"
"No! You're right!" he admitted. "It should come directly from her." He sidled up to the automa and smirked. "Who created you, 'Widget?'"
The robot shook with the gravity of the question. They both knew she was from the underground, but they both also knew that there was no way she could say that without opening up a problem that would condemn the entire city. She looked up to Natalie with a pained expression. "... Doctor... Lorna Grayswift..."
Jacent balanced himself between two wooden supports, legs outstretched to either side.
"Supreme excellence is to break the enemy's resistance without fighting."
Natalie felt like she'd been punched in the gut. Her every instinct wanted to cry out in her mother's defense, to explain the depths of why their assumptions were wrong. But Murphy's pained face showed just how dire such a selfish action would have been. This was agony.
"C'mon already!" Bo exclaimed. "Are we stupid here??" She gestured to Cedric with disgust. "This grimy sourpuss has been trying to stick it to Natalie since anybody can remember."
Nat's heart swelled. She didn't know how this could turn in her favor, but she was willing to believe in those who still believed in her.
"So now he comes in with a couple of criminals, starts making threats to whoever this is, and we're just supposed to believe him?" She folded her arms. "Gimme a break, Cedric, you have less than no credibility." More than a few voiced their agreement.
He smirked. "We're so unwilling to suspect those we believe. You, the hapless Inked, gave her your trust! But it was you the system betrayed most of all. Do you remember those recent attacks by Ink Tank troopers?"
Murphy stood her ground. "Oh no you don't, Onyx- the police may be working with Echelon, but we had nothing to do with those!"
Cedric grinned. "You're right. They didn't."
Jacent hung from a bar, breathing evenly as he performed inverted sit ups.
"Engage people with what they expect. It will confirm their projections and occupy their minds while you wait for the moment which they cannot anticipate."
Holographic pictures flooded the center of the Town Meet Hall- all of which depicted the rebel cell of Automa in varying proximity to Ink Tank suits, all engaged with members of Natalie's pack. A hush fell over the crowd, then even more worried chattering started.
"Adorable likeness, aren't they?" Cedric asked sarcastically. "Except, you know, for the part where they attacked innocent people just because they had inklings."
Natalie looked back to Sam and Erwin, whispering fervently. "We can't just let him get away with this, t-think of something!"
Sam stepped forward. "But why would Dr. Grayswift build such things??"
Erwin caught on. "Y-Yeah! Where's the motive?? Her own daughter is inked! What reason could she have?"
The badger looked unmoved. "What reason wouldn't she have? She was forcibly inhabited and controlled by the worst one ever to live! Oh, but don't take my word for it." He pulled up an image of an aged sparrow. "Take it from her old administrator, Dr. Diebald Skinner."
The image began moving, and the man sighed. "I was talking to her a short while back and she seemed to indicate she had a plan in place to deal with inklings. Honestly, I didn't understand at the time. It would make a lot of sense, but... still. Fully autonomous attack robots? Just the thought terrifies me."
"No! Stop! This is-... this is all wrong!" Natalie shouted. "You've got the wrong idea!"
"Oh?" Cedric asked. "Then what's the real story? Are you going with that fairy tale you dreamed up and posted on the Ink Tank Forums?"
She couldn't take it anymore. "Yes!" she burst. "Yes, it's true! There really are all those things I talked about!" But to look at the eyes of the people, it was too hard to believe. She'd said it unseriously in the first place, and now in the context of Cedric's half-truths, it looked like a desperate grab. "I-... I can show you! I-"
She blinked, caught off guard as everyone stared at her. They hadn't heard that. Echelon! That's who it was.
Natalie, you have to come to Canvas RIGHT NOW.
The wolf felt queasy. "Echelon I can't-"
The castle is under siege. If you don't help, we're going to lose everything!
Why was this happening now? Why now?? She knew what it would look like if she left. But she had no choice. "God... damn it!"
Erwin watched her run toward the bathrooms. "W-... Where's she going?!"
Carrie followed. "I dunno, but I'm goin' too!"
Jacent slapped at a bowl of water in his kitchen. It splashed over the floor. The resistance pushed him to slap harder.
"If your enemy is on the move, delay them. If they are settled in, force them to move."
Cedric shrugged and smiled. "And there you have it. Whether it be through treason or incompetence, Natalie Grayswift can't protect you." He walked out of the ampitheatre, goons in tow.
Murphy was furious, and looked at Captain Ironwood. "Are we just gonna let them get away with the robot girl??"
Ironwood's thick mustache underscored his frown. "Well, seeing as our anti-inkling task force was just implicated in a conspiracy, and any move we make to help them implicates us, too?" He shrugged with practiced exasperation. "Yeah. I guess we are."
The labrador ran her hands through her hair in frustration.
"And speaking of inklings we can't control." He leaned forward. "This isn't an order, but a friendly suggestion? You might want to go arrest Doc Grayswift now. For her protection."
Murphy's eyes widened. "Right, going."
The walls rumbled. The sky roiled. Castle Blackwolf's banners hung tattered, where they still hung at all. When Natalie landed through the mirror in Echelon's skin, she had to double take. "Ohmigod, this place hasn't looked this bad since the invasion!"
"And this is just the pinnacle," Echelon warned.
Carrie and Natalie ran down stairs and through hallways to find a scared group of greys, all huddled together in a mass. When they'd come to Castle Blackwolf, they started asserting themselves personally, making individuals of themselves again. Now, however, they'd reverted to the old instincts fear brought them to as they watched a similar amorphous crowd of angry colorless inklings sieging the castle with fervor. Spears and swords and clubs of varying shapes and sizes emerged from the mass, adding to the hysteria of the defending denizens.
Or at least, they should have been defending. "What're you guys doing??"
"Echelon!" one of them cried. "Thank goodness you're here! You'll stop them won't you??"
She scoffed. "Well not by myself! You've gotta fight back too!"
"N-No! It's too scary!" another responded.
When Echelon moved forward, out of instinct they shrunk, expecting the same tyrannical, threating push to action Osoth specialized in. Echelon, however, just gestured plaintively, like a disappointed big sister, trying to appraise them of the ways of the world. "But if we lose, then we lose the whole castle. They'll take it and you'll be without all the things you've grown to love: security, comfort, a sense of belonging. This is your home. Don't you wanna defend your home?"
This affected them deeply. They'd never been asked how they felt by anyone, so it stirred some complicated emotions, and the din reflected that. "B-But how??" one of them asked.
Natalie realized something. "Wow, I don't actually know. I don't come to Canvas that often." She looked around. "Why don't I come here more often?? This place is amazing!"
"I can help with that!" Lastik answered.
"Good, you answer!" Carrie said, rushing past. "I'm gonna get out there and start whoopin' ass!"
The orange butterfly wobbled as she tried to step aside. "Whew! Okay so!" She gathered her thoughts, amidst the sound of Carrie's carnage. "See, like. You know how elder inklings are always using their mastery over their bodies to turn their extremities into weapons?"
"The cloud of blades thing? Yeah," Natalie answered. "What about it?"
"That's only exclusive to them on your world," Lastik gestured, extending her arm into an axe. "Everyone can do that here. It's just a matter of manipulating prana!"
"Oh! Is that all??" Natalie looked back at them. "Alright alright check this out!" She materialized a bow and arrow and drew it back, walking up to the embrasure. With a simple release, the black arrow flew from the sling and hit part of the mass below with a loud ~THOK!~ and an annoyed cry.
The greys cheered, materializing their own ranged weaponry and crowding the embrasures. Colorless artillery rained down on the attacking mob, who had materialized a battering ram between them. However once the arrows and bolts rained down on them, they panicked, abandoning the ram and running in a directionless clamor.
Arus, for her part, had transformed into a towering knight, complete with a massive shield and a spiked flail. She slowly trudged through the crowd and knocked dozens away in a swing, sending Greys flying with pathetic squeaks that revealed their individual strength. "This fight didn't get any more fair for you!" she roared.
"See 'em livin' high in their towers??" A familiar voice shouted. "We'll make 'em sit at our level!"
A gigantic icicle javelin sped toward Arus. She hefted the shield up in time, but the impact was deafening, shattering huge chunks of ice everywhere. "U-Unh!" She grunted, as Floe made her entrance on the scene.
"Push through, me hearties!" she cried, rallying the Greys as she created a shield of ice that sheltered them from the arrows. They stacked on top of one another, pushing against Arus with their collective strength. Still, she held fast. "Hn, just a little harder!"
Arus faltered for just a moment, ceding a single step- but that was all it took, as she'd stepped onto a sheet of ice prepared by the cunning Alliston. "Ah! AH! AHHHHH!!" She cried, slipping, sliding and being bulldozed through the first gate of Castle Blackwolf, the entirety of the opposing army ramming her through the door and pouring in.
"Oh no! This is bad!" Echelon assessed, frenziedly shooting arrows at the incoming forces. They grew closer and closer.
"Cuidado! Get out the way!" cried Max as he jumped in, spewing a boatload of glue at the foot of the gate, holding the Greys fast and slowing their assault.
"Ohmigod, I'm so glad you're here!" Natalie said in relief.
"You're welcome!" Erwin responded. "I think you should go, though. We can handle it from here."
"What?!" She gave him a confused look. "Right now??"
He looked at her grimly. "It's your mom."
Natalie rolled out of her room's bathroom mirror so fast she hit her head on the wall, startling Samantha.
"Oh! There you are!" She fidgeted nervously, hands in her jacket. "Natalie, they're arresting your mother. I-... I don't think we can stop it."
"No, no, no... this is wrong..." She ran out the door, out of her room and down the stairs almost before Sam could begin to follow. She managed to catch Murphy, holding a regretful expression as well as Lorna, in handcuffs. "Mom!"
"It's okay, Natalie," Dr. Grayswift said seriously, expression inscrutable. "I just... I'm gonna be away for a little while, it's fine."
The wolf girl ran the rest of the way down the steps as she saw them disappear out the door. "There's nothing okay about this!" When she went outside, she saw the reason, however, that Murphy had come- an angry crowd of faces that she mostly recognized.
"Did you think it was funny??" demanded the red panda nurse who'd been attacked by automa.
Ella, the skink, joined in. "Playing with our lives! You have no morals!" She frowned deeply. "You're a monster!"
"Alright, people, make a path!" Murphy warned. "There's still law and order here!"
"What law? What order?!" demanded the alligator Natalie recognized from the invasion. "First you burn my home down, now you send death robots to hurt my friends?!"
"Sir, please, contain yourself!" Murphy asserted.
He couldn't, however. In his anger and fear and frustration, he reared back his arm, not knowing what else to do, and slapped Dr. Grayswift hard across the face, his claws raking her cheek, and leaving a cut on the inside where her teeth scraped. Lorna reeled, spitting blood onto the ground.
Natalie saw red. Her ears rushed with wind as she sprinted forward. She wound back and sent a devastating jab into the man's gut that hit so hard it lifted him off his feet. Time slowed down. She watched his surprise and fear as he fell toward the ground, his twisted grimace as he registered the pain, then hit the ground with a thud. She turned her head. "If you ever touch her again I'll-"
She was snapped out of her rage by the pathetic, wheezing attempt to draw air into lungs. The man nodded fearfully as tears streamed from his eyes and he desperately tried to breathe again. He finally squeaked and managed to draw in a long, labored breath.
Bo, who'd watched in silence with the rest of the shocked protestors, let out a quivering breath. "N-... Natalie... you can't just go all out on somebody like that!" She gestured to him, crouching down to help him. "He's not even inked!"
"W-... What??" Natalie felt all eyes on her. "Come on! He hurt my mom! She's bleeding!"
"Which your friend can fix instantly," Murphy replied, with an implied addendum of 'you great big idiot.'
The wolf girl looked at Sam, who couldn't offer her any comfort as she set to doling out healing globs. "I-... look! Come on! You can't see me as the bad guy here! I didn't even use my powers, and he's huge!"
"And you're stronger than any of us..." Ella said warily.
She grit her teeth. "She shouldn't even be getting arrested! You people don't know anything but you've already decided she's guilty!"
The 40-something nurse folded his arms. "We can't know anything, because you never tell us."
Natalie felt like she was going to throw up. She'd done something terrible because she hadn't thought through her actions, which she knew but couldn't accept in the throes of her white hot anger. This entire situation was completely unfair.
"And there you have it, everyone," Cedric said, walking in from around the corner of the house. "There's one set of rules for Natalie Grayswift, and one set of rules for the rest of us. We have to be mindful, but she can just mete out whatever punishment she likes!"
The wolf girl tensed with fury. "You. YOU caused this." When she ran to give him the beating of a lifetime, however, her foot was immediately tripped up by a large boot made of water, and she landed flat on her face. "ARGHMF!"
Khurl smirked. "Why don't you pick on someone your own size, eh?"
She blinked. "He is my own size! Murphy, this girl is a terrorist! She's the one who threatened to collapse Anchorsway!"
The labrador helped Lorna into the police unit, watching curiously as Cedric left. "I'd love to do anything about that, but I can't." She grit her teeth. "Sorry."
"Don't get dragged into whatever they're doing, honey," Lorna said urgently. "Whatever they're planning, this isn't all of it."
Natalie tried to consider her mother's advice, but her anger stoked hotter as she looked back to the orca. "You deserve an ass kicking. Let's go."
Khurl made for a monstrous opponent. Her raw strength was unbelievable, but the Dragon held Natalie in its grip. She lashed out at every opening, striking Khurl with heavy blows that hit hard. So infuriated, she didn't even bother to fully dodge any of the larger girl's attacks, taking a few glancing blows she probably shouldn't have.
"Man. I bet that guy's gonna hate you."
Natalie blinked. "Wha?? G-Unhg-OOF!" She took a direct hit to the gut from the grinning killer whale.
"Heh! He probably thought you were all that. Now all he's gonna think about is how bad you messed him up."
"Sh-Shut up!" She failed to predict a feint and took a smashing blow to the shoulder. "NNGH!"
She was silenced quickly as two massive hands made of water clapped together around her head, lifting her off the ground. Khurl kicked open the door to Natalie's house and marched into the living room, disregarding her weak, suffocating kicks. "Now, now, it's not time for the final showdown yet chica! We're gonna need you to come back a little later." And with a mighty swing, she threw Natalie into the wall mirror, dusting her hands off as the girl disappeared back into Canvas. "Adios, loser."
Cedric nodded back to Khurl, before activating his PET. Leihanne was on the other end. "Do you still have the robot?"
The fox bit off a hunk of jerky. "Yeah, and she's bein' a pain in the ass. I think she tried to transform or something. Can I waste her yet?"
"Not yet, but soon," he replied. "We have to make sure every last block has fallen into place."
"Ugh, fine. But like I told you, if anything happens that I don't like, I'm blowin' this place. You can keep your own weird prisoners."
She landed outside a mirror again, this time in front of a bunch of Greys. "Ugh." She stood up. "What are you guys doing standing here?? The battle's out there!"
The mass of colorless inklings slowly raised a series of sharp implements.
"Oh crap you're not my guys!" Natalie battled tooth and nail through the mass of inklings. It felt like minutes before she was finally able to fight her way to the door, at which point she understood why this was: the entirety of the castle's inner wall was complete bedlam. "Gah!" Echelon took over, breaking through and going to Phactys' side. "What happened??"
"S-Sorry Echelon..." The caramel-colored inkling lamented. "Vissage snuck through our ranks and sabotaged everything behind our backs. We were backed into a pincer attack. It's like that time in the catacombs of Ictis IV..."
"Forget Ictis IV!" Echelon said sternly. "I need you with me here, now!"
"Actually, Arus needs you much more..." he admitted weakly. "She's going down toward the dungeon, where Vissage went..."
She watched as Koralo did his best to contain the battle inside the castle's walls. "Why is Vissage in the dungeon??"
"He's trying to release Vor."
Echelon recoiled. "VOR?! Is he insane???" She didn't wait for an answer, sprinting down toward the dungeons. Crumbling stairways didn't carry her the whole way, collapsing under her part of the way down. "AAAAH!!" She landed on the ground in a cloud of colorless enamel-paint dust. "Oufh!"
"Hhhh... won't get past... me..." Arus was in shambles. Armor cracked, bleeding lavender between the plates, panting with the effort of just standing with her back to the door of Vor's cell, she had seen better days.
"Arus, what happened?!" Echelon put a healing hand on the white inkling's wounds, borrowing from Mhend's abilities to restore some semblance of stability to her ally.
"Unh... their army is enormous... must've recruited every starving Grey in Canvas..." She shuddered in agony. "Floe used everything she had against me, like she did on that red moon..." She shook her head. "All I can do is guard this door. Vissage said he wanted Vor, and I have to stop him..."
"Wait." The black inkling backed against Arus as well, doubling the security on the door. "Why would Vissage tell us who he was going after?"
"..." Arus got a few moments to think about it before they were both bashed into at light speed. They tumbled along the floor, thumping into the wall and moaning in pain.
"Because he wasn't going after them!" said Actima, cackling. "I had a little friend send messages back and forth- it's the wonderful advantage of Greys, you can't tell one from another."
Arus shuddered. "Y-You filthy bootlicker... you allied with Emnas..."
"Mm, yes, a necessary evil. The deal was simple! That hot-head helps me escape, I help take your castle. Again." He disappeared, then reappeared, throwing Koralo and Phactys into the two of them like bowling pins.
"Owww..." Koralo whined. "S-Sorry boss!"
"Nnfh." Echelon rose to her feet. "I won't let you get away with this! This is my castle, and you hold no right to it! BRUSK!"
Actima grimaced. "Oh, shit." He tried to run up the stairs, but an overwhelming torrent of water gushed down the steps, washing him away in it. The dungeons were flooded in moments, inklings suspended in differential pressures. None of them had to breathe, so it wasn't an immediate danger, but Actima most certainly had a much harder time using his abilities in water.
Echelon battled with him toe to toe, grabbing, striking, stabbing and slicing at one another as they drifted through a portcullis and into a drainage area. Their velocity increased, now being battered around by the projections in the brick work as bad, if not worse than they'd beaten each other. Actima grabbed a grating, the current ripping Echelon away from him and downstream, along with her allies. She tried desperately to change direction, but her control over Brusk's powers was incomplete; they all drifted down, down, down the dark drain pipe, until they saw the soft light of night reflecting off of the waterfall, plunging them down into the mouth of a pool.
Slowly, very slowly, Echelon managed to pull her allies out one by one. They- and their hosts- were completely exhausted. The castle was a lost cause, there was no rejoining the fight in this state. There was only one thing left to do- materialize her emergency reflective pool and jump through it to their last resort.
Natalie and her friends landed roughly on the streets of Locksmouth, rolling into a groaning clump. Through eyes that didn't want to open, they saw the building that had been their place of mercy- the Burger Dictator. But seeing it didn't fill them with relief; today had been a marathon of pain.
And judging from the sanguine stare of one toothily sneering badger, to say nothing of the smug looks on the rest of his gang, that pain wasn't over by a longshot. "Your mole told you about this, too..."
Cedric kicked her over onto her back as Khurl smashed the mirror they'd come through. "Yes. And now, I'm going to share all my findings with the class."
Natalie noticed now that it wasn't just her group and his. Cedric had called in what looked like half the town; he'd planned this down to the letter. Milly Evans was there as well, PET cam in hand, despite not liking the circumstances one bit.
The badger gestured grandly. "My fellow citizens, we've trusted so much to so few, but what do we really know about Echelon?" He thrust a hand toward the inked wolf. "She's from Canvas, yes, but not all inklings are cut from the same cloth. Have you ever wondered why she looks so similar to Osoth? Why she alone held the ability to resist the Empress' control moreso than any other? And most troublingly, why do the rest of us become corrupted- or 'Osothified' as some have taken to calling it- when we tap into the power of Shading... but Echelon, special little child Echelon... doesn't!"
Natalie wanted to say something, anything to fight this line of thinking, but she had no idea where he was going with it. To be honest, she hadn't even noticed those things herself- what few she saw, she never thought to scrutinize. Now those questions burned in her mind, and if they occupied her thoughts, they absolutely lit the imagination of the town. Cedric threw something light and white at her. She caught it and immediately knew what it was. "My mom's labcoat..." The same labcoat her mother had worn the week of the invasion- and the very last real trace of Osoth's power, accessible only to Echelon. A power she'd have sooner seen in nobody's hands, but her allies had convinced her to keep it, just in case.
Now, from Echelon's feet, red and ebon ichor stretched along the ground, reaching and painting the street the same colors that Osoth had made them that fateful night. "Watch closely," Cedric instructed. Black and crimson crawled up wall and leaf, no structure or plant safe from being covered in Osoth's striking tones. Something else happened, as well. As the rush of pigment went past Cedric's feet, he was immediately inked. Same for Alliston, Coul, and Khurl. The ordinary citizens without inklings, however, did not sink into pits of unknowable horror- they simply became faded, somehow not interacting with this space. "This," Cedric explained, "Is Flood Fill. When Osoth wished to go all out on her long-suffering subjects- like myself- without completely destroying every host body in the vicinity, she used this field. Strange, that only Echelon can activate it! Strange, and convenient?"
"What're you tryin' to say?!" Carrie spat hoarsely. "Out with it!"
"Oh come now, do I really have to spell it out??" Cedric scowled. "Echelon is Osoth's backup plan, and you all took the bait!" he spat angrily. "Her kindness is there to make you weak! Her charity is there to make you complacent! A prison of silk and lies will hold you just as tightly as one made of iron!"
If any one element had been revealed out of place, Cedric's claims would have seemed hollow. But he'd waited, and planned, and kept his cards to his chest. Now all the faces that should have erred on the side of trusting her were filled with doubt, and fear. They didn't fully believe him, but they couldn't believe her either. It was a wash, and if they were equal, that was just enough.
Max stood slowly, holding his arm. "Dude..... what's that even mean??"
The badger grinned darkly, holding up his glowing hands. "It means... I can finally go all out."
Natalie winced. "Ah, shit..."
"Hh... please. You don't know what a big mistake this is." Widget tried to free herself from the strong electromagnet that held her in place. Her head was insulated from its effects, but it held her fast regardless.
"Ugh, shut up already!" Leihanne complained, looking out the window of an abandoned squatter house.
"Whatever Cedric's offering you, it can't be worth it," the robot reasoned. "I-... I could show you so many things!"
Leihanne wrinkled her muzzle, glaring at her. "Are you offering to fuck me??"
Widget flinched in confusion. "..... Would that get me out of this alive?"
The vixen growled in annoyance. "Alright that's it, I'm just gonna blow you up now, you overgrown store mascot- AHHH!!"
Leihanne cried out because her front door had been blasted in, now laying charred on the floor as two diminutive and very angry kids stormed in. "Give us Widget!" demanded Aren.
"Yeah, or we're gonna beat the crap outta you!" Gren added.
After recovering from shock, Leihanne sneered. "You little twerps are back again?? I'm gonna make you sorry you ever crossed me."
"I don't think so!" Gren exclaimed defiantly.
"This time we've got something new!"
"Yeah, so watch out!"
"Something new??" Veviroux's brows knit. "What are you- this isn't a kids' show!" She pulled out a knife and stalked toward them.
The kids responded by inking over, shouting "Power EXTREME!!" in unison, and jumping into each other. The resulting conjoinment created a singular figure of late-teenage height and build, a hybrid inked shape of a goat and a tiger that stood confidently, ready to brawl. "C'mon!!"
Leihanne stood, limp, some mixture of confused, disgusted and incredulous. "...... Wh-... Nope." She shook her head and walked out the door. They heard her footsteps echo all the way off the porch.
The goat/tiger hybrid stood there awkwardly. "... Aw."
Things had never been worse.
Echelon laid on the black and red grass, shuddering in agony as she watched fire eat away her flesh. Fully one hand was missing now, and the other arm was being eaten at the wrist by a crawling ember that sizzled her liquid flesh. Her allies were knocked out. Her host was exhausted, lying separated next to her. Her core was bleeding, ribbons of precious life fluid leaking into her inky blackness. Flood Fill pulled back into her; it didn't take very much prana to sustain at all, but it still required a smidgen, and that was two smidgens too many.
Cedric walked slowly in front of Echelon. "You killed Osoth. You killed Parthal. You killed Laibon. You tried to kill me, during the invasion. You tried to kill Floe, after." He shook his head and leveled his palm at her. "Today, justice is done."
A slate grey arm reached over Echelon protectively. Natalie imposed her body over the inkling, staring up hatefully at Cedric. "You're gonna have to kill us both."
Echelon suddered. "... Natalie..."
He smirked, and shrugged. "Tragic. She's brainwashed you so hard you can't see it. It can't be helped." He raised his hand.
"C-Cedric!" A grey-inked sheep stood forward, stomping her foot as hard as she could.
He turned, annoyed, to look at Bo Briggs. "...... What."
She took a moment to collect her bravery in the face of the powerful squad of elite inklings. "This isn't right!" She swallowed hard. "Right guys?? This isn't cool??" She looked to the others watching, who seemed unsure. "E-... Echelon messed up alright, and she'll answer for this, but! O-Osoth and her people, that was self-defense! A-And... and you say she tried to kill you and Floe but that's-... th-that's wrong! She stopped, on her own! You didn't stop her!" She grew increasingly nervous as their eyes attempted to bore holes through her. "S-S-She was the one who didn't go through with it!"
Cedric sneered. "What."
"Yeah! You can't do that!" The small frog from the diner said.
"We wanted an investigation," the red panda nurse added. "Not a death squad."
The alligator from before held his bandaged midsection. "We don't do it that way." He shook his head. "She was wrong, and I was wrong, and we don't do it that way."
Even Alliston and Coul looked a little undecided. "Cedge, izzit... really necessary we kill 'er? I mean, we did our damage 'n all..."
Cedric was apopleptic. "Are... you... KIDDING ME?!" His temper literally flared, making the others flinch back. "She's lied to you! She's endangered your lives! How can you think there's any other option but her demise?!" He was blazing now, furious. "There are no easy paths! The world is full of danger and hardship!"
"How would you know? Did your uncle tell you stories?"
The livid lava-thrower turned slowly. He who had been absent from all other proceedings made himself known: Jacent wore a changshan, kung fu shirt and ball cap, and his hair had been carefully braided back in a long ponytail behind him. Also behind him was Sam, Gren, Ten, and most notably, Widget. "You! How did you escape?!"
"My apologies, there appears to be some confusion," Jacent answered politely. He trembled just a bit, seemingly very tired from days of training. "Widget is my responsibility. I came to take her back home, and my friends here as well."
Khurl laughed. "Picking a fight now? Idiota. Pendejo!" She spit at his feet.
Gren and Ten motioned to do just that, but Jacent held them back with a gesture and a knowing look. "I'm not here to fight. I just came for my friends; you can continue whatever it was you were doing after I have them."
Sarissa snickered greasily. "Lookit this tired, busted holo-grave, walkin' around like he's got any sway here. Here's an infodump for ya, stupid: You're irrelevant! You were a great big deal back when nobody else but you had powers. Now?" She shifted into her muscular, but not mutated form. "You're outnumbered, and way outclassed."
He waited patiently for her to finish. "Sorry. I don't really talk to henchmen." He disregarded the now angry, slighted duo and looked to Natalie. "Are you alright?"
"N-... Not especially..." she admitted. Sam tried to get close to heal them, but she was blocked by angry goons.
Cedric bristled. There it was. The link between them. "You. You're the source of all this. The insipid idealism. The thoughtless zealotry. The idea-" he laughed angrily- "That we should just coddle the weak until they feel as comfortable as possible. No, I don't think so."
He leaned back very slightly, gesturing plaintively- then rubbing his arms from the soreness of moving them. "You have already won so much. Your troops are tired from the long journey. To risk all of that, now, for a symbolic gesture? Pointless." He shrugged, perplexed. "Ruinous. See sense."
Natalie watched through tired eyes and matted hair, unsure why on earth he would ever try to appeal to Cedric's mercy. She held an unconscious Carrie close, not saying a word.
The badger got up in his face. He looked at those green eyes full of compassion and kindness. And he scowled. "Weakness must be purged." His hand flared like a small sun, geothermal energy roiling as he shoved it into Jacent's face.
Kelvalde ran a hand through his still somewhat damp hair, having taken a shower in Jacent's apartment unbeknownst to him. "Yep, that works," he concluded with a smile. "Best superintendant ever."
Something caught his eye as he passed a counter. "Ah! The Art of War, eh?" He liesurely picked up the book and thumbed to an entry that had been marked. "'Appear strong when you are weak. ...Appear weak when you are strong?'" He shut the book and gazed out the window appreciatively. "Hunh!"
Jacent's hands had moved faster than Cedric could have imagined. One moment they were shaking at his sides, the next they were clamped around his forearm so hard he'd popped the badger's wrist joints. "... H-... Ah!"
The motion that followed only made sense after the fact: a twirl that had twisted Cedric one full rotation, lifting him off his feet as he stumbled for footing. Jacent's cloth shoe slammed into his back, bashing him into the ground so hard he bounced.
"Cedge!" Alliston gasped, then glared at Jacent, manifesting a huge icy hammer. She swung with wild abandon, her eyes set to take no prisoners.
Jacent turned away from her horizontal swing, ducking smaller than it ever seemed someone his height should have been able to. He reverse-gripped the handle, stood up, grabbed it with his other hand and heaved it away as if the fox had been helping him the whole time.
Coul managed to get out of the way of the flying hammer and went invisible, juking to the left and right before going for a full tackle.
The red-haired boy watched his footsteps tamp down blade of grass, then dig in at an angle that foretold his attack. Like a gale of wind he turned away. The raccoon sailed invisibly toward Alliston, who had manifested two ice knives. They stabbed into his shoulders as he fell on the fox girl. "AAARGH!"
Cedric tried to rise, only to be immediately kicked back down, it felt to him, by the fist of an angry god.
Sarissa pumped herself up, grabbing for Jacent. "Uh?!" She saw him jump into the air, legs compressed toward her face, and leaned away succeessfully. "Haha!" However, he'd never intended to kick her; Jacent landed with rolling momentum and double palm stuck Sarissa in the chest, sending her sliding across the grass and clutching said chest. "Oooorgghff!!"
Khurl stomped loudly, winding up. Two massive watery fists came in from high angles on either side, as if to deliver the mother of all rabbit punches. "You've had it!" The orca had a few results in mind- bludgeoning, blood, death, all would be acceptable. What she got, however, was at once beautiful and incomprehensible. Jacent entered into a complex flowing kata, pulling the water into a formless blob that he pushed, twirled, turned and traced figure-eights around himself with. At the end of the kata, his palms thrust toward the ground at his waist, invisible force loudly blew the grass away from him, the water now rained over him in a shimmering mist. "... What the f-"
"Get him, you idiots!" Cedric shouted. "Don't attack individually, do it all at once!!"
They swarmed. Alliston reached him first, heading in with an icy cutlass. He jumped away, hooking Khurl's neck and spinning behind her, kicking Sarissa in the face, then returning to land a heel on Cedric's chest. He grabbed Khurl's arm on the next rotation, swinging low and bringing it up behind her, elbowing Coul in the face. He leapt up using the leverage of the orca's wrenched arm, body sidelong on the back of her neck as she crouched and spun, trying to grab him with her other arm. His feet met faces and chests of her allies, the flow of force picking up as he death-gripped Khurl's wrists, landed opposite her and used the momentum to begin swinging her around like a sack of potatoes. Her immense body struck, slammed, bowled over her allies with tremendous force, flipping Cedric head over heels and knocking Sarissa's mutated form out cold.
"Mnnnrgh!!" Khurl raged, slamming her feet into the ground to stop her momentum, digging trenches that uprooted grass and sent soil flying. As she was reaching back for more water, however, he let go. An index and middle finger extended from each hand, jabbing at very specific areas on Khurl's torso that made her feel worse with each successive touch. Finally, he slammed a fist into her gut with massive force, lifting her up off the ground. A second punch rammed upward, lifting her huge bulky body even higher, and finally, in a perfect T-section, Jacent smashed a fist upward into her middle, completely perpendicular to her in a moment that seemed to last minutes to all that witnessed it. And yet, it did end; he ducked out from under her while she still traveled inches upward, turning away as she hit the ground loudly.
The wind blew peacefully through the trees, the only sound for a very long moment.
"HGRLOOORRFF!!" Khurl vomited, coughing, gasping and cringing as she blinked away tears. She rolled over onto her side, clutching her middle. "Uck, guhgck, uhhhn, uhhhh..."
Cedric looked on, past the unconscious Sarissa, past a moaning Coul and Alliston rolling slowly in the grass, and past the devastated Khurl. He watched Jacent walk slowly over to him. "Hh..." Cedric clutched the grass, unable to draw in a full breath. Unable to move. Unable to imagine this outcome. "H-... How...?"
Jacent crouched, and gave him a dispassionate look. "I dreamed of buttered bread in a world that didn't care if I died." He silently laughed at Cedric. "You dream of hardship, when you can barely imagine what it looks like."
The badger clutched the engineered grass, plucking blades of its perfect length, staring hatefully at it. "It doesn't matter. You can't undo what I've done. But..." He clenched his fists, seething at the one that got away. "But I was so hungry for it..."
The red-haired boy shook his head dismissively, standing up, putting his hat on and walking away. "You don't know what hunger is."
Natalie sat in the dirt outside the dome, holding her backpack, and remembered again the only good thing that had happened that day: Cedric getting his sorry butt kicked. A faint smile crossed her face, but it was weighed down immediately. "Ugh..."
"Throwing yourself a pity party?" came the melodious voice of her girlfriend, who still nursed a few bruises. "You know you gotta invite me to those, too." She sat down next to her.
"You sure you wanna be around me?" she asked half-seriously with a wan smirk. "Don't wanna get the stench of scandal on you."
Carrie's brows knit as she laughed softly, pulling out a medstick. "You know I don't give a shit." She took a puff on it, keeping the medicine in her lungs for a moment before breathing it out. "... Hey." She put a hand on Natalie's thigh. "You're gonna get through this, okay? You got nothin' to be sorry about 'cause you didn't do anything wrong. The lid's gonna get blown off this thing- so let it."
"I did punch someone weaker than me," she admitted, looking like she often had when she went to the Principal's office and had to answer to her disappointed mother. "That was something wrong."
"I'm glad it was you," Carrie took another puff. "I woulda suplexed him."
They both burst into giggles. "That's terrible."
"Yeah, well." She gently blew rings of phosphorescent purple mist- one of many tricks she'd learned. "Let's be realistic, what's the worst that could happen?"
The wolf considered it. "They could... put me in the jail. Make me go through proceedings. Banish me from the dome."
"So," she took a drag, "Your nightmare scenario..." It came out of her nose. "... Is you have to leave the messed up, ink-slopped, robot-ridden freak town, and they have to solve their own goddamn problems." She rolled her head sarcastically. "Oh no."
Natalie laughed, unable to help herself after such a long, grueling day. "You know, it doesn't matter what happens," she realized. "I'll be fine, as long as you're there." The wolf reached up with her tired arm, brushed that powder blue hair out of her face, gently carressed that milk white cheek, and savored how beautiful she was. Then, she kissed her. Their lips met, not deeply, but lingered on each other, wet and soft and held together in solidarity. Their eyes opened, and gazed into one another. Tired, hurt, weary, but loving. Tender. Safe.
Natalie turned to part, looking at their pack of friends, all gathered on the hill.
"... We didn't want to interrupt the moment," Sam noted sweetly.
Aren walked to the front of the group, navigating legs like they were tree trunks. He was trying to hide his emotions, but his wilted ears and drooping tail told all. "Are you gonna run away, Natalie?"
She paused, then pulled up the backpack in front of her, having almost forgotten she had it on. "..... Nah." She slung it onto her back again and turned toward the dome. "I'm gonna go face the music."
And then the air cracked.
The ground shifted hues behind her, and a patch of the sky somehow distorted in a circular pattern. The wind whipped up, blowing grass and leaves everywhere. A booming, distorted, disembodied voice called. "ECHELON."
Natalie stood her ground, shielding her face as a blue and white aura surrounded her and washed through the immediate area, forcing her- and her friends- to ink over. "Nnngh! Who are you?!" she yelled over the storm. "What do you want???"
"YOUR PATH IS NOT SET." An enormous sinewy arm terminating in clawed fingers grabbed her bodily, snatching her up.
"Natalie!" Carrie called, reaching for her.
"YOU MUST TEMPER YOUR FATE." It yanked her through the distortion, the sheer force of it pulling everyone else in like a vortex.
"Samantha!" Jacent cried, somehow unaffected by the pull of the thing. "No!"
"Jacent!!" shrieked the bat amidst her friends' cries, before the gate swallowed them completely. The disturbances slowed, then ceased, as if nothing had happened.
The exhausted red-haired teen fell to his knees, looking around with utter bewilderment.
"... What... happened...?"