Telling Rook whether he was fighting Chris or myself might give him an advantage. I opted to preserve anonymity.
Turning on the helmet’s speaker, I said, “The Nine don’t have any business here. Unless you want to fight, I’d suggest going home. The Heroes’ League is here and if you remember the last times you faced us, you’ll remember they didn’t go well.”
That came out a bit more aggressive than I normally went for—especially when you considered that I was facing Rook, four of his best evil bird impersonators and a host of rocket-fueled crowbots. At the same time, it sounded like something Grandpa might have said. It was nice to think some part of him might be here now—if only because I’d chosen to simulate his voice.
Rook hovered in the middle of his cloud of crowbots and minions, not coming closer for the moment. It was hard to read emotions on a guy covered in powered armor, but he seemed to freeze as I spoke.
If he did have a moment of fear or better, a moment in which he worried that Grandpa was still alive, it didn’t last long.
“I remember.” He raised his right arm in the air. “Coming back here to thank you for your assistance in my new research into prosthetics was one of the reasons I came back. Of course, I don’t owe everything to you. I owe some of it to the Abominators. I’m sure you’re aware of the artifacts here. Be aware that they’re not the only artifacts that we’ve collected.”
He’d changed his powered armor. The overall look was the same. It still made me think of crows—all black with wings, a face with a gray and yellow beak, and four limbs that ended in talons.
The appendage where his right hand would have been was different from the left. The one on the left was more or less hand-shaped, but with color and texture reminiscent of a bird’s foot. The one on the right was actually shaped like a bird’s foot—which made me think that whatever prosthetic was inside the armor might be shaped like that too.
“One more thing,” he twisted his right arm so that I could see the talons better. They shimmered in my suit’s HUD in much the same way Cassie’s sword did.
“I didn’t have Captain Commando’s sword long and I didn’t get to take it apart like I wanted to, but I did get to keep it around long enough. I think my version is just as good, but we’ll have to test it.”
He let the arm fall back to his side. “I can’t say I would have thought to make such an extreme change to my body, but you made it necessary. My friends thank you as well.”
In that moment, I noticed that the right hands of Rook’s followers weren’t hand-shaped either. It didn’t seem likely that he’d found four people who’d lost hands that were also willing to become henchmen.
On the other hand, if he hadn’t found people who’d lost hands, it meant he’d cut them off himself.
They must be fanatical nut jobs to be willing to put up with that—unless they’d been mind-controlled into becoming fanatical nut jobs. Then all they had to be were people.
Either way, it was messed up.
What made it worse was that their talons had the same shimmer, one that was shared by the beaks of the crowbots and maybe the bots’ clawed feet as well.
I tried to comfort myself with the fact that none of the claws appeared to be more than an inch long. They weren’t close to three feet long like Cassie’s sword.
In a similar situation, I’d make claws that extend or maybe ones that fire off like bullets.
There’s something to be said for taking problems to their logical solution, but not to solve problems for the person attempting to kill you.
On the other hand, what was I doing by talking to this guy right now? It took very little time to come up with the answer. I was keeping him away from everyone else so that less mobile people like Haley, Tara, and Vaughn wouldn’t be mobbed by crowbots with supersharp beaks.
Okay then, if it was my job to delay Rook, I’d better start delaying him.
Turning my head toward the group of Protection Force soldiers I’d been fighting, I said, “Aren’t you going to threaten him like you did me? He’s trespassing on Hardwick Industries airspace too. Didn’t you hear him talking about Abominator artifacts? He knows they’re here.”
The ragged line of Protection Force employees hadn’t been standing firm during my conversation with Rook. They’d been backing away.
“We’re withdrawing to better protect Hardwick Industries property.”
Two more of them flew out of the forest below to join the main group as they flew toward the buildings. There had been at least five who’d gone down to chase Haley and the others. They weren’t even trying to bring all their people back.
Increasing the volume on my helmet speaker, “You’re willing to fight superheroes but not someone who’s been outside the law for more than twenty years?”
They didn’t say anything.
Over the comm, Cassie said, “That’s going to hurt them. They look like a bunch of cowards, if not stooges in the service of the Nine. You know you’re still broadcasting, right?”
I checked the data strip on the bottom of my HUD. More than four million people were watching now. I hoped I hadn’t said anything stupid. Maybe I should kill the feed.
“Nice try,” Rook said. “That’s new. When we fought before I don’t think you’d have tried that. Trying to distract me, weren’t you? Or trying to bring them in on your side? Let’s see what else is different.”
He turned toward the bots and henchmen to his left. “Kill the ones in the forest.”