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Celestial Worm [Worm AU crossover] (COMPLETE)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Ack, Aug 17, 2018.

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  1. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    He had a gigantic body because of what happened on the way to this realm (they were attacked by a talot, and in the aftermath they decided to make themselves truly enormous, so as to be safe from further attacks).
    He's not doing it quite that way. When he became attuned to the realm of Earth Bet, he added physical laws to the celestial and mortal realms that basically allowed the shards to harbour powers, and to be connected to mortals. The shards are celestial constructs, and mortals gaining powers are basically getting second-hand celestial-based power. Constructs are already inferior to actual celestials, and the powers bestowed by a construct are less than the powers used by a construct (such as an Endbringer). This is why Endbringers stomp mortal capes, and Janesha stomped the Simurgh. There's a hierarchy of power there.

    Once connected to a crystal, the mortal has access to the powers, with whatever limitations have been programmed into them. Their range is (of course) far more than fifteen feet.
     
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  2. Gindjurra

    Gindjurra I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    So where does his body stop and the construct(s) begin? Shards are part of his body and collectively all the Shards makes up Scion. He spins off pieces of himself to grant powers, so when he does that, what happens? Do they stop being him, were they never him and were constructs instead?

    Entities in Worm are swarm intelligences, and the reason they grant powers is to refine their abilities. Why make constructs at all if they’re not part of his swarm?
     
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  3. Angel466

    Angel466 Getting out there.

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    Heya, Gindjurra.

    We have tweaked things a little from the original concept. Not far, but hopefully this will help explain. When a celest takes on mass, that becomes part of their body, and the range of their worship without establishment is 15 feet. A perfect example of this is the Egyptian god Ra's twin brother Apep. Apep is a huge, snake-like entity that is the size of the world in their realm. If he left Yaru and went to Asgard, a mortal who believed in him could be fifteen feet off any point of his body and still be within his range of fifteen feet.

    By contrast, a construct would be the sandcastle that god built in the sand. That construction is in no way part of the original. It was built by the original. If we as people ever built a real AI, no one would ever look at that robot's capability and go, "Wow, you're the arm of the scientist that built you, aren't you?" It's a separate entity, crafted by the original.

    What we've done in this story, is make out the shards, or the crystals are constructs, like AIs. All of them. Each construct has a vine that connects it to a human, making it a leech like-situation. In the case of Eden's, her shards were made, but she hadn't activated the vines because she was looking for her brother first and ran into Abbadon. Contessa and her crew have been using her essence to activate the shard links and connect them to a human through consumption of her remains. (Note this wouldn't work if she were dead, for celestial essence disappears altogether at that point. Something Contessa and her brothers knew, which is why they've kept her alive.

    In this story, Scion and his sister weren't after a swarm effect. They wanted to play superheroes and so they made a forest of shards to see what would happen.

    I hope this helps.
     
    Last edited: Oct 16, 2019
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  4. Fizzfaldt

    Fizzfaldt (Unverified Flying Book)

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    I believe this paragraph is missing a few words. Added in my best guesses on what you intended (in green):
     
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  5. Angel466

    Angel466 Getting out there.

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    Wow, wow and wow. Not one of Ack and my finer moments. :p Thanks for pointing that out.
     
  6. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Whoa. Dang.

    Need to fix.

    Thanks.

    EDIT: Fixed on all sites.
     
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2019
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  7. WaNoMatsuri

    WaNoMatsuri Know what you're doing yet?

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    Stranger alert! Activate Stranger protocols!
     
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  8. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Dang it.

    Fixed.
     
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  9. Threadmarks: Part Seventeen: Hard Derail
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Celestial Worm

    Part Seventeen: Hard Derail

    [A/N: This chapter commissioned by Fizzfaldt and co-written by Karen Buckeridge, author of Ties That Bind, and the sequel The Long Way Home (publishing in the new year).]


    Zion

    Sagun Hawthorn of Earlafaol, bastard son of Zeus and now the pre-eminent superhero and (technically) ruling god of the world known locally as Earth Bet, stirred in his self-imposed exile. In a mind that had been numbed by grief for more decades than he cared to admit, a new thought emerged. One that made him feel something other than debilitating emptiness.

    Why the fuck am I cowering in a hole like such a little fucking bitch?

    He knew why he'd hidden; Janesha of Mystal was a Nascerdios, and he'd learned firsthand that 'Nascerdios' meant 'celestial' and celestials as a whole wanted him dead. He hadn't really done it consciously. It was more of a knee-jerk reaction to her presence. He wasn't capable of much more than that consciously, but this new, aggressive thought was shaking the cobwebs loose. He was functioning again. And the longer he thought about that angry thought, the more he realised something very important: Nascerdios or not, Janesha of Mystal was not Agent Nascerdios who had booted him and Edeena off Earlafaol. In fact, Janesha was just a kid. The very notion that she could pose a credible threat to someone as powerful as him was patently ridiculous. And the FBI agent who had given them the heave-ho from Earlafaol was all the way back there, not here on Earth Bet. There was no question in his mind that he could handle a kid.

    So, what the hell was he doing lurking in this little sub-realm, and not out there showing Janesha of Mystal why he was the ruling power in the whole realm? This was his sandbox, goddamn it! His! He'd found it first! Those were his markings on the border, and he had more right than anything to be here! The celestial could just fuck off to wherever she came from!

    For the first time since losing Edeena, real anger stirred in his heart. He'd run and hidden from the mere threat of a fucking name, when he should've known he had nothing to fear from it. He'd been made to look like a coward!

    I am Zion. I am the Golden Man! Son of Zeus and master of this realm. I am the greatest superhero in the history of superheroes. And no kid is going to make me run and hide anymore.


    Reforming the Scion aspect, he opened a portal into Earth Bet proper and stepped through.

    Time to go and show a little bitch who's boss around here.

    <><>​

    Eidolon

    David sighed with aggravation as he stalked through the wreckage of the small town. Emergency services were starting to assess the damage, though small fires still burned here and there. The Fallen had been and gone yet again, leaving pain and suffering in their wake. One of the most irritating and worrying aspects of the group was the way even the unpowered members were able to evade Thinker oversight. That indicated a powerful Trump was at work, as if a bunch of Endbringer cultists needed to be more problematic than they already were.

    He didn't even want to think about how they were going to respond to the footage of Janesha of Mystal attacking the Simurgh in the upper atmosphere—on the back of that damned flying horse of hers no less. Who did she think she was, swooping in like that? An avenging Valkyrie? Everyone knew the Simurgh was not to be trifled with; though in fairness, the third Endbringer had been exhibiting some serious battle damage before they all disappeared. But what did that mean for the people of the world? There was no chance the girl could actually win, which meant when (not if) the Simurgh recovered, she was going to come back and take her rage out on the hapless population.

    At that moment, he wished he could get his hands on Janesha, if only to shake some much-needed sense into her. She needed to leave the hero work to the professionals! The PHO boards—already inclined to jump up and down at any mention of Janesha—were slowly but surely exploding at this latest exploit. Some claimed that she was as powerful as any member of the Triumvirate; a blatantly ridiculous claim. Next to Scion, the Triumvirate were the world's greatest superheroes. If they couldn't put an end to the Simurgh after years of trying, what chance did a teenager on a flying horse have?

    "You! Yeah, you, in the green! C'mere! I've got a bone to pick with you, you bonehead."

    The imperious voice stopped him in his tracks. He turned slowly to see Janesha of Mystal herself standing a few yards away, hands on her hips. The flying horse was nowhere to be seen, but a cape he'd never seen before, a tall girl wearing a vaguely bug-themed costume, stood at Janesha's shoulder. David glanced around; nobody else nearby was wearing green, but surely she wasn't addressing him. As Eidolon, he was literally world-famous! And right now, he couldn't help but stare at the impudent teen, gobsmacked. "Me?" he finally managed to say, pointing at himself for clarification.

    Janesha rolled her eyes. "No, duh. I was talking to your invisible twin brother, who's also wearing a stupid green cape. Yes, David. I'm talking to you." She snapped her fingers and pointed at the ground in front of her. "Get your ass over here! Now!"

    As much he was irritated by her tone and the way she stabbed the ground in front of her like he was an errand dog being brought to heel, the way she also snarkily dropped his secret identity got his undivided attention. He strode forward, almost instinctively throwing up a soundproof bubble of air around them. "Who the hell do you think you are?" he roared.

    Janesha sucked in a sharp breath and clenched her fists, but the bug cape grabbed her wrist with one hand and used the other to stroke Janesha's forearm calmingly. "Easy," the buzzing voice inside the suit said.

    Janesha turned to the girl, even as she brought her other hand up to point at him accusingly. "Have you forgotten what he's done? The millions upon millions of dead on this world, all because of him?" Her head then swung back to him. "And don't even try to activate the others, you piece of shit, because I've already destroyed one, and if I have to go through the rest of them to get back to this point, I'm gonna be seriously pissed off." The last part was said through gritted teeth.

    David was left reeling. "What are you even talking about?" he demanded. "How do you even know my name?"

    He could've sworn he almost caught sight of naked flames eating up the brown of Janesha's irises for a moment. But when he blinked, they were back to normal. "Same way I know every other aspect of your life, Dave. You can fool all these other people with your created history and your fake link to all the crystals, but you're dealing with one of your own now. So cut the crap." Her eyes suddenly widened and she covered her mouth with her free hand. "Oh, shit! That's why this realm's so small. It's a fucking nursery! Your dad's teaching you how to handle yourself," —her eyes slid across him critically— "And doing a sucky job of it."

    "My what?" David hadn't spoken to his father in years. Not since the three-star general had retired and moved to Florida, anyway.

    "Your dad. The golden dipshit I chased all over this mudball of a planet yesterday. Well, now that I know it's a nursery realm, I guess I can't get too mad at you for being an idiot. But things are gonna have to change before I go." She leaned forward and lowered her voice theatrically. "Don't worry. I won't tell anyone that you're a hybrid. I'll even let you keep pretending to be a superhero while you're here, because sooner or later you'll grow out of it. But in the meantime, I'm gonna have to insist that you change a few things in the way you operate."

    "Wait …" Most of the girl's ramblings made absolutely no sense to Eidolon, but the one thing he caught in all of that, he really wished he hadn't. "You think—you think Scion's…" he couldn't even bring himself to say it.

    "Your dad. Your father. Su padre. The guy who boinked your mom." Janesha poked him in the chest with her forefinger. "Why else do you think your power sits head and shoulders above…" Janesha's words died in her throat as she stared at her finger still touching Eidolon's chest. How she managed it, David didn't know, but one second she seemed to be in the midst of some kind of loopy monologue, and the next, everything about her iced over. When she lifted her eyes to his, it was all Davis could do to not stumble away in fear. "Oh, you mother-fucking fuckers," she snarled, her words dripping with frigid venom.

    The bug cape tightened her grip on Janesha's forearm. "Janesha, wait. What's wrong?"

    Janesha turned to her friend. "He's not a hybrid," she said.

    The bug cape tilted her head in surprise. "He's not?"

    Janesha shook her head, levelling a filthy glare at the international hero. "No," she snarled, and what was that other rumbling sound that seemed to accompany the word as it left her mouth. It was almost … dare he say it; unholy.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    Taylor was completely confused. Janesha had been so sure of the facts, but something had changed, and it had her friend madder than Taylor had ever seen her. Not that she hadn't been mad at the Simurgh, but this was a different kind of mad. With the Simurgh, everything had blown up at once. This was more like a timer had been triggered on a nuclear bomb, and Taylor didn't like what that meant for the world if she reached detonation.

    Taylor squeezed her friend's arm again and willed her to understand that she wanted a private conversation inside her imagination. With Eidolon right there, she didn't want to risk tapping the side of her head.

    Janesha must've somehow got the message though, because between one instant and the next, they were back in the comfort of her living room.

    "What's going on?" Taylor asked, immediately gathering both of her friend's hands in hers. "Talk to me, Janesha. You're scaring me."

    "I thought what happened to Uncle Chance was bad enough," she said, just as icily as she had outside in the real world. "But Scion and your people are fucking sick fucks."

    Your people. That set off Endbringer sirens in Taylor's mind. Whatever Janesha had seen inside Eidolon's mind had turned all the people of Earth Bet into Janesha's enemy, and Taylor and her dad were probably the only two people that stood between her and her people's way of dealing with problematic mortals.

    "So he's not the hybrid," she said, starting with something she knew for a fact.

    "No, he's just a cannibalistic fucker!"

    Taylor scrambled to process that piece of information. "Are you saying … he ate a piece of Scion?" That would at least explain why she'd thought Eidolon was Scion's son.

    Janesha shook her head. "No. If Scion let that happen he'd deserve whatever he got. No, the insidious bastard has set up a second celest for them to feast on, and Eidolon and his crew have been hacking into it and eating it for its divinity." She turned to stare at Taylor, every one of her facial features shifting into the kind of monster most horror films were filled with. Her eyes took on balls of flame. Her skin became dark and leathery. Her teeth sharpened and her hair turned into wiry threads that ended in sharp points. Was this what she looked like as a demon, and if so, what did the rest of her look like?

    Then Taylor focused on the important part. "Scion had a partner?"

    Janesha nodded. "And the two must've fallen out at some point, because he's been getting some of your people to think it would be a good idea to consume it like a beverage to gain its divine essence. That way, they could get …" —her fingers came up in air-quotes— "…powerful." Her hands dropped to her sides and the fire that filled her eyes expanded down to her cheekbones. "I'll fucking show them power …"

    "Janesha … Janesha! Wait, please-please-please-and-yes-I'm-begging-please! Wait!" She would get down on her knees if she had to, to prevent her friend from leaving. "If you kill everyone in my world, you'll have to kill me and dad too. Is that what you really want?"

    "Neither of you did this." Her head turned to the far wall that implied the outside world. "They did."

    "But not all of them did it either! You said it yourself! There's a lot of people on this world that didn't do anything of the sort, and they'd be horrified if they knew. Would you really kill us all for the actions of a few?" Just a week ago, she'd been the one curled in a ball on this very sofa, wondering what was the point of life, and here she was, begging her best friend for everyone's lives. It just went to show how much things changed in a week. "I know you're mad, and I know you have every right to be, but don't be mad at all of us." She dropped to her knees and wrapped her arms around her friend's waist, staring up at her pleadingly. "Please, please, don't do this. Please!"

    Janesha looked at a point over her head, her body shivering until her head began thrashing from side to side at an unnatural pace. How did I ever think of her as human?

    When she stilled, her features had returned to normal, although Taylor couldn't tell if the fire was out due to her eyes being clenched shut. Janesha's hands reached out and unerringly found Taylor's elbows, lifting the girl to her feet. She still didn't open her eyes, even when she let Taylor go and slid her arms around her friend's waist, holding her close. She bowed her head into Taylor's shoulder; not saying anything.

    Having the feeling that they'd dodged a world-ending bullet by the skin of their teeth, Taylor enclosed her friend's shoulders in a tight embrace, mirroring the way Janesha had her face pressed into her shoulder.

    The two held each other for a very long time.

    "I'm going to kill them," Janesha declared, shattering the peace they shared.

    Taylor pushed her friend to arm's length. "Which 'them' are we talking about, exactly?" We, because yes, Taylor was in this all the way. Someone needed to keep her friend on an even keel.

    "Anyone who willingly knew what they were doing when they drank those potions. Not the idiots who were tricked into it, although a big part of me still wants to eviscerate them for being so stupid as well. But at the very least, those who knowingly fed on Scion's companion are going down, in the worst way imaginable. And if Scion himself is behind this …" Leaving the sentence hanging, she shook her head.

    Taylor swallowed, knowing this was the best compromise she could hope for. "Did-did Eidolon …?"

    Janesha released her and stepped back, nodding. "Yeah, the depraved bastard knew all about it. He's even been getting booster shots to pump up his capabilities. That's why he's so powerful, and why he has control of the Endbringers. He swallowed the equivalent of their remote control."

    A whimsical thought crossed Taylor's mind. That might make it hard to change channels. But she ruthlessly crushed the notion. Save the world now; joke later.

    "Are you going to do it as soon as we get out of here?" Taylor could already see a million problems with that, all of which began and ended with the number of camera crews that her photographic memory had reminded her were in the vicinity out there. If Janesha did murder Eidolon in front of the world, she'd have a kill-order on her so fast it'd make their heads spin. They might even put one on her too, since she was with Janesha at the time of Eidolon's death. That would only have Janesha escalating once more, and if someone managed to take Taylor out, the celestial girl would have even less reason to hold back the next time.

    Fortunately, Janesha shook her head. "No," she said, though it sounded like the admission left a sour taste in her mouth. "I don't want to spend the next decade tearing this realm apart for where Eidolon and his cronies have hidden the other celestial. Right now, all he knows is he calls out "Doorway to", and a gateway of sorts opens between him and wherever he wants to be that he steps through. He hasn't got a clue where exactly it is, and as such, I can't realm-step to it. It's like being blindfolded in the car and turning up somewhere. I don't know where 'there' is, because he doesn't either."

    "So you need him alive to take you there his way." Wherever it was, it had to be away from the cameras. The news people would never have abandoned a story that big.

    Janesha nodded again. "He's got 'til then to make peace with whatever god he worships because, once we're with the other celest, he'll be meeting them soon enough to explain himself. I might even pin a letter of complaint to his soul before it leaves."

    "Could I put in a teensy request at this point?" Taylor asked, holding up one finger. She was rewarded with a tight smile and a tilt of one eyebrow for her to continue. "The second we get out of here, could you like, just stop him from doing whatever he does with the Endbringers? If he genuinely doesn't know he's controlling them, he might accidentally trigger all those other ones, and I meant what I said about not having my world torn apart if I can help it." With what she hoped was a joking grin, she added, "You know, since I'm partial to living here and all."

    Janesha crossed her eyes mockingly, then nodded. "Yeah, I can do that."

    "Then let's get out of here."

    <><>​

    Eidolon

    "Of course not! Scion is not my father!" David shouted; a phrase he'd never thought he would have to utter. "Why would you even think he was?"

    "Because you're the one controlling the Endbringers," the bug cape cut in, her voice on the verge of tears. "We followed their trail right to you." She then raised her free hand and tried to cover her mouth, as if forgetting there was a helmet in the way. "How could you?"

    "I'm not in control of the Endbringers! I fight them!"

    "Formulas," Janesha snarled, cutting back in. "That's how you justify your actions? You call them 'formulas', like they're something you whipped up in a …" —her eyes widened again— "… in a cauldron?"

    David's eyes widened behind his visor. He'd never made that connection before. How did she even know about the vials? Who is this girl? Why would she ever think Scion was my father? What's a hybrid, anyway? And what the fuck does she mean, she's going to 'let' me keep 'pretending' to be a superhero? He was beginning to regret not looking over the file he'd been sent about Janesha of Mystal after the Shadow Stalker incident. Right now, though, he had to plug this information leak and find out what she knew; and more importantly, how she knew it. I need to get both of them back to Cauldron, right now. The sound-cancelling field hardened into a force bubble. "You're coming with me right now, both of you," he snapped. Energy began to build up around his hands.

    "Turn that shit off!" Janesha roared, her voice filling with that vile rumbling he'd heard earlier. He obeyed immediately; not because he had to but because he knew he didn't need that much force to bring the two girls back to Cauldron, and the cameras in the area had already taken an interest in the actions of three heroes hidden behind a force field. He opened his mouth to say as much, but Janesha got in first. "Take us to your flesh garden."

    On second thought, it was probably a good idea to show them where the formulas were harvested from, in order to impress upon them the sheer gravity of the situation. "Alright. Maybe then you'll understand what we're doing and why," he replied, though a little voice in the back of his mind wondered how she'd known what they called the source of the vials.

    Raising his voice slightly, he said, "Doorway to the flesh garden." The Clairvoyant would hear his command, and Doormaker would create a portal that led straight there. It was how the system worked.

    <><>​

    Contessa, a minute or so earlier

    Having withdrawn from Scion, Fortuna nodded at Dorian to shut the connection. When he did, Clare of all people was right in her face. "Commander, the Mystallian bitch has tracked down Eidolon! They're talking!"

    Fighting the urge to throttle her subordinate for not mentioning the fiasco as soon as he became aware of it, Contessa immediately rolled her thoughts inward, giving herself as much time as she needed to process this new development. Okay, so they were talking. What did that mean to them? What exactly did Eidolon know? He knew that Scion was the enemy and that Cauldron was supposed to be the last line of defence against him. That fitted in with her narrative and there was nothing Janesha would react to. Problem: he knew where Cauldron was. Actually … no, he didn't. He knew how to reach out to her boys to get here. That wasn't the same thing, especially if she told Dorian to ignore him. Okay, still, not a problem.

    But he did know about the existence of Edeena. That, and what they were doing to her, was a fundamentally huge problem. Like any celestial, Janesha would lose her mind once she learned of the consumption. It had actually been the whole point: eating Edeena alive to get a reaction out of Scion. The dumb fuck just wasn't picking up on it quickly enough. Janesha might though. Especially if she saw that in Eidolon's memories.

    So what would it cost them if Janesha did destroy the world? Wouldn't that trigger Scion's rage in return, since she'd broken one of Scion's personal play-worlds? Hypothetically speaking, the two would probably fight it out in one of the other Earths, but Earth Bet was the only one where Scion had worshippers. If it went down, he'd go back to having base attunement while Janesha was a full blooded celestial. That fight wouldn't end the way Fortuna and the rest of Abaddon wanted. Scion not only had to win, but he had to be seen to win for the other Mystallians to react accordingly.

    So, no. No letting Janesha destroy the world … yet.

    But Eidolon was mortal, in a realm where she was attuned. What he did and didn't know was dependent on her whim. If she stopped Eidolon from knowing about Edeena, Janesha would know it was done from range by an attuned celestial, and the pièce de résistance to that plan was the silly little bitch still thought Scion was the only attuned celest in the realm.

    This could actually work.

    Returning to the physical realm, Fortuna turned to Dorian who stood at the ready nearby. "Do not link him to Edeena," she said, refusing to waste time with their familiar profanity. Dorian nodded once without comment, freeing her from the unnecessary burden of explaining herself further. She then slid her ring from her finger and pushed her will into the attuned realm. Eidolon will not remember anything about the celestial known as Edeena. While she had the power to embellish the command, she didn't want to spend too much time without the protection of her ring. Luck, as always, was on her side, but even her luck would run its course if Davin chose that moment to contact her.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    She couldn't see much of Eidolon's face under his visor, but his voice sounded puzzled. Ummm—Doorway to ..." but then he paused, and his frown intensified. "Uh—where was I going again?" he asked vaguely.

    "Oh, fuck me, not you too!" Janesha snarled, then, while waving a hand at Eidolon, she turned towards Taylor. "See? This is exactly what happened to you, only in your case, you were physically kneecapped."

    Eidolon looked between both of them in surprise. "This happened to you too?" This was more serious than he thought, if Scion had extended his power and was able to lash out at individuals like this. Eidolon rubbed the back of his neck. "No, I've got this! You wanted to go to see …" He frowned, struggling to find the name of a place he couldn't remember.

    Janesha snapped her fingers between them to garner his attention. "Hey," she said. "If you could remember where it was, do you have a means to teleport there yourself, without using an external force?"

    Eidolon snorted. The answer was that obvious. "Of course."

    "Then let's do that, and screw Scion."

    Taylor guessed that Janesha had fulfilled her part of the bargain, because suddenly Eidolon went from nearing a panic to his usual confident self. "Alright," he said, lifting a glowing hand over his head. "I hope neither one of you gets motion sickness."

    <><>​

    Contessa

    "Eidolon's setting up a portal of his own to get to Edeena," Clare warned.

    "Oh, how the fuck…?" exploded Fortuna. "I took the knowledge of how to get here away from him!"

    Clare shrugged, carefully. "The little Mystallian bitch just put the fucking memory back. She must've gone through his mind before you got to him."

    "Oh, that little whorebag's getting on my last fucking nerve." Fortuna tugged the ring off, and leaned back into her attunement. No matter how you try, you can't fucking teleport, period! Unlike boons, attunement commands went with the will of the creator, which meant vague commands like this with no named target were still individually specific. The construct connected to him was still able to teleport him, but the mortal had been stopped from achieving that objective.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    The glow around Eidolon's hand winked out and again Eidolon's mouth pinched in a tight line of confusion. A second later, Janesha started swearing up a storm. Taylor could guess the missing pieces, but wanted to hear them for herself. "It happened again, didn't it?" she asked, eyeing the other two carefully.

    "Yeah, the bastard's watching him like a hawk," Janesha cursed, her nostrils flaring in frustration.

    Taylor's eyes opened wide behind her goggles. So Scion just mind-bent Eidolon, twice in as many minutes! Holy fuck! I thought that sort of thing was only line of sight! As surreptitiously as she could, she began to use the bugs in the immediate vicinity to check on where the golden cape could be hiding. Try as she might, she couldn't locate him. "Uh—Janesha?"

    "Yeah?" To someone who didn't know the celestial girl as well as Taylor did, Janesha may have sounded entirely carefree. But there was an undercurrent of tension in her voice.

    "He's not here."

    The right side of Janesha's nose screwed up unpleasantly. "Yeah, I know. Bastard knows if he comes anywhere near me, I'll gut the prick."

    <><>​

    Janesha

    She couldn't pretend the whole picture had presented itself to her, but Janesha was starting to put the pieces together. Powers came from the crystalline forest in the celestial realm. The crystals were constructs, which begged the question of who had created them. At first, she'd thought Scion was the only player in all this; when it came to picking out the celestial in the room, he ticked a crapload of boxes. But before they were scrubbed, Eidolon had memories of drinking a foul-tasting concoction, which had resulted in him gaining powers. The concoction had come from a huge fleshy creature with odd growths on it; people drinking these concoctions gained powers.

    As much as Janesha didn't want to believe it, the conclusion was unavoidable. The 'flesh-garden' creature was celestial in nature, and they were literally ingesting parts of it to get access to its essence, which connected them to the crystal forest and the powers contained therein.

    She'd thought it was creepy when Yeshua's followers had chanted, "This is my body and this is my blood," at the only one of their rituals she'd ever attended; this was a million times worse. These mortals were actually eating and drinking parts of a celestial being. It wasn't making them divine, any more than being burned with Hellfire made someone a hellion, but it was linking them to pre-made construct-based powers. Against an actual celestial with training, even a hybrid, it would be like a child waving a plastic sword to take on a trained warrior armed with Mystallian steel; there would be no good end there. But against other mortals, construct-based powers were horrifically potent.

    For the most part, Janesha didn't give two flying fucks about what mortals did to each other. She did care about what they did to celestials. Specifically, what was being done to this one celestial, right here and right now. It was a travesty and a perversion of the natural order of things. And she was just the celestial to put an end to it.

    Of course, knowing who the celestial was, and why Scion hated them so much that he was secretly supporting this abomination was a question which probably needed to be addressed at some point. But right now, she had to get to where the celestial was and put a stop to the gross essence-harvesting.

    Okay, since Scion's being a dick, can I get us there? Theoretically, it was possible. She had gone through his memories already (replacing his recollection of the location of the Cauldron base had been child's play) but she still had her original problem. She still didn't know where there was, to realm-step to it.

    All right then; plan B it is.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    "Alright, enough."

    Janesha's voice cut through the sound of Eidolon muttering to himself as he traced arc after fruitless arc through the air. Taylor turned to look at the celestial girl, who was tapping her toe impatiently at the veteran superhero.

    "What?" burst out Eidolon, the frustration clear in his voice. "I'm trying. But my portal power isn't working. It's like something's blocking me."

    "Not something. Someone." There was a rock-solid certainty in Janesha's voice. "And you're never going to break through it, so stop trying." She grabbed Taylor with one hand, and Eidolon with the other. "But you are coming along for the ride. I don't want to have to chase you down, after."

    Eidolon was well and truly rattled by now. "Are you saying you can get us to Cauldron base?"

    Taylor snorted. "She can get us to Alpha Centauri. Of course she can get us to Cauldron base."

    "It'll be a round-about way, but yeah, I can get us there." Taylor was certain she was saying that for her sake, rather than Eidolon's. That was confirmed when her friend squeezed her hand and took a step forward, hauling Eidolon along with her. Well used to this by now, Taylor also took a step. Eidolon, clearly unaware of what was going on, was caught entirely by surprise when their surroundings changed abruptly, to the crystalline forest with the glowing sky overhead. Like she had before, Taylor could see the cords that linked Eidolon to so many of the crystals (including the Endbringer ones), but she knew for a damned fact that he couldn't.

    "What the … hell?" Eidolon stared around wildly. "Where have you brought me? How did you bring me here? What is this place? Where is this place?"

    "Funny you should mention Hell, since it's about … five realms that way." Janesha curled her lip in disgust at the famous hero as she pointed off in a particular direction. "And if that's what you believe in, you're gonna be heading right where you deserve to be. Lord Belial and his boys will fuck you over in ways you haven't even imagined yet, and I wish I could be there to see it."

    Taylor squeezed Janesha's hand. "Is it really?" she asked, looking off in the direction with trepidation. She hadn't thought the real Hell was that close.

    Janesha looked at her friend and smiled. "Well, technically it's two realms that way, hook a left at Asgard, and then go three more realms that way, but yeah, it's about five realms away in total." Her hands moved as if she were giving Taylor directions to the corner store and not one of the more feared places in religious scripture. "Trust me, you won't miss it."

    Eidolon straightened up; something about his posture said that he was glaring at her and Janesha both. "Enough double-talk. I want an explanation of what's going on, and I want it now."

    Janesha turned her full attention to Eidolon, who gasped and fell to his knees. "̶̝͙͂W̷̜̥͌͌h̸̥̦͘ī̴̩c̷̪̤̄͝h̷̻̑͊ ̷͔́͠g̸̙̑͒o̷̜̫̊d̷̗̓̈ ̴͓̻̂d̴̡̥̓̅o̵͊̈ͅ ̴͖̂ÿ̸̤̗́ô̸̭͔ủ̶̫ ̷͉͊w̵̞͒̕o̷̳̊̀r̶͙͕̈́s̸̹̔h̴͓̍̄į̴͎͌̊p̶̭͚̿,̵̰͐͠ ̵̳̈l̵͓͐͠į̵̈́t̴̲͒̀t̵̺̳̐l̷̜̼͌ė̴̯́͜ ̵̙̺̈́ṃ̵̿o̶̜̅r̶̟̬̐̌t̶͙̂a̷̹̬̿l̷̮̮̍?̴̮̞̄"̵̳͊ she asked, in an infernal voice that was one hundred percent demonic. "̶̹̑͑B̸̭͘ę̵͋̈́c̶̠͚̒́a̴͚̽͘ǔ̴̻s̶̡͚͝ê̷͈̈́ ̶̫͖͂y̷̺͑̾ȯ̸̖̪u̶͎̮̍ ̶̹̃͗h̷̰̰̕͝ă̵̻̓v̵͓̀̆e̵̦͈̾ ̴͓̖̀j̸̛̙̍u̴̧̟̇s̴͎̗͌t̴̻͗̏ͅ ̶̩̥̅ò̵̢̕ú̴͍̎t̴̘̊l̶̲̯̃́ǐ̶̘̟v̴͍̀e̵͇͒d̴̙̱̒ ̶̨̳͐ÿ̴̺́͝o̷̯̮̒͐u̷̧̽͜r̸̰̬͆̓ ̵̳̤̿ǘ̸͎s̶̩̻̉̓ę̷͖͐͠f̷̣͘ǔ̴͓̃l̵̪̿̔ǹ̶͖̲̇e̵̗͒̎s̷͚̃š̶̨̗͐ ̷̳̮̐͠t̶͎̖̽ơ̶͓͛ ̴͎̺̆m̴͉̒ḛ̶͔́.̶̫́̇"̶̟͖͗ ̷̝̿

    Taylor had a hard time remembering that this was her friend, especially when she realised there was nothing stopping Janesha from drawing this out into the worst kind of torture session now that there were no witnesses. He'd certainly made her mad enough, if that head thrashing thing she'd done before was any indication. "Janesha, wait," she said, using her second hand to grip both sides of Janesha's wrist.

    Janesha paused and slid her gaze to Taylor without saying a word.

    "Don't drag it out," Taylor pleaded. "He might deserve it, but I'd never be able to look at you the same way again, if I knew you'd deliberately tortured him first."

    Janesha's chest expanded as she drew in an oversized breath, and when she released it, it exited her mouth in a stream of grey and white smoke. Taylor didn't blink until she was sure she saw her friend's head bob just a fraction. "Why don't you go and check out the back end of one of those larger crystals," Janesha said more normally, flicking her head towards the oversized constructs in the distance that would keep her well-hidden from what was about to happen. "I'll be with you in a minute."

    If Eidolon knew what was coming, he made no show of it. He simply stared blankly at the ground before him. It gave Taylor the chills to see that level of capitulation from someone she'd looked up to her whole life; but he'd done the unthinkable. There was no good reason for his actions. If she had to choose between the individuals who crossed the line, and the lives of everyone who'd done nothing wrong, this was the preferred option. Did that make her a killer too, because she wasn't trying to stop it? She looked at Janesha's face and knew there was no stopping it. Just like when a fire burned down a house; there was always a point when the firefighters stepped back and let it happen. This was one of those moments.

    "Okay."

    Taylor went behind the nearest crystal and, using it as a backrest, she slid to the ground with her knees drawn to her chest and her hands over her ears with her eyes clenched shut. She didn't want to hear it. She didn't want to see it. She didn't want any part of it to touch her any more than it already had.

    Which was why she nearly jumped out of her skin a minute or so later when a hand curled around her shoulder. Janesha was kneeling beside her, staring at her in concern. "It's okay," she said, rubbing the line between her shoulder and her neck and back again comfortingly. "He wasn't a good guy, petal. He was a liar, and a thief."

    Was. Past tense. "I just wish it didn't have to be you that did it," Taylor said, unwinding herself from her foetal position and wrapping her arms around Janesha's neck.

    Janesha returned the hug, allowing her friend to cry into her shoulder. "You once asked what the downside was to being in charge, petal. Now, you know." Unlike in her imagination, Janesha only gave her a few more seconds before helping her to her feet. "We need to keep going, sweetie," she said, her voice tinged with sympathy. "Unless you'd rather go home and be with your dad?"

    Taylor immediately shook her head. As much as she wanted to do just that, Janesha needed her more. Her friend's moral compass was only just starting to develop, and it certainly wasn't strong enough to withstand these sorts of challenges without her support. "I'm okay," she lied, finding her own centre of balance. "So what was plan B?" The sooner they moved on from this spot, the happier she'd be.

    Janesha looked around, and suddenly they were back in Taylor's lounge room once more.

    "A little warning would be nice," she groused, frowning at her friend.

    Janesha's hand went up in half-apology. "I know, but Scion's been listening in on us since we went looking for Eidolon and he kneecapped Eidolon at every turn. I don't want to tip my hand to him until I have to."

    Taylor sniffed and wiped her tears away with the back of her hand. "Okay, so what's the plan?"

    "Cauldron is still harvesting divinity from the other celestial, which means there's crystals around here that haven't been connected to your people yet. The only reason I can possibly think of as to why the celestial didn't just cut the constructs loose in the first place was because that celest wanted to micromanage the power allocations. Stupid, if you ask me, but that actually works in our favour. All we have to do is find a crystal that doesn't have a mortal outline inside. Those are the ones that are still connected to the celestial we're looking for."

    "And we can follow that, just like we followed the Endbringer ones to Eidolon."

    "Exactly. But when we go out there, you can't say anything about it out loud. Scion can't read your mind so long as you're connected to me, which means he'll be left guessing until it's too late."

    Taylor looked around the room. After everything that'd happened, it would've been so easy to just stay here and pretend it was a bad nightmare.

    "You alright, petal?"

    "I will be," Taylor said, nodding her head. "But in the meantime, let's do this."

    They returned to the real world, at which point Janesha turned and began looking over each of the crystal constructs. Taylor turned the other way and did likewise.

    It only took a few minutes of searching for Taylor to find what they were looking for. Over here! she thought, as loudly as she could. Janesha suddenly appeared at her side.

    "Nicely done, petal," she said, staring at the empty crystal. Her hand then reached out and her gloved fingers surrounded what Taylor now called the umbilical cord like a lifeline. Her other hand reached for Taylor. "Let's go say hello."

    Together they realm-stepped once more, coming out on a walkway that led directly on to … Taylor blinked. She'd thought the crystalline forest was weird enough, but when Janesha had called it the 'flesh garden', she hadn't been kidding. As wide as the room was (and it was huge!) the pink-grey grotesquery filled it from front to back as well. It looked like whatever it was had been trying to figure out how to grow a human being, but didn't quite have the hang of it. A thousand attempts had been made; arms, legs, hands, partial heads, and other body parts she didn't want to think about. It took all of two seconds for Taylor to realise the body parts were all the same, and they were all female. They all had piercing blue eyes, silver blonde hair and slender limbs. And they moved. The eyes blinked. The fingers and toes flexed like a sea of grass.

    "Holy fuuuuck!"

    The strangled whisper came from Janesha, and when Taylor looked, her friend had gone ghost white. Janesha then turned to Taylor, and for the first time, she saw genuine fear in her eyes. "This is next level messed up," she said.

    Taylor wasn't quite sure what aspect had her friend so upset. As a shape shifter, she could literally match this mass limb for limb, so it couldn't be the physical representation, gross as it was. It had to be the mind, or what was left of it after Cauldron had been eating it—her—alive. Janesha's grip on her hand tightened. "Stay right beside me," she said.

    <><>​

    Janesha

    Janesha's heart was getting ready to pound out of her chest. This form had not been chosen by choice. It was desperation. The mind inside was stripped bare, but the body had been kept alive, much like machines she'd seen in Earlafaol when the mortals there refused to acknowledge the loss of the soul. Never, ever, ever had she EVER thought she'd be looking at a celestial equivalent of that monstrosity.

    If Scion was capable of doing this to a celest, he was capable of anything, and he really did need to be put down in the worst possible way. It also meant she had to strengthen her ties with what mattered to her in this realm. Already the cord that connected her to Danny and Taylor was celestially strong, but it could never be strong enough. Things could be broken. People could be broken. By the Twin Notes of All Creation, that could just as easily be Taylor and Danny down there. Just the thought of it had her squeezing her friend's hand and turning to put eyes on her, just to be certain she was there. "Stay right beside me," she said, barely able to stop herself from making it a mental command. She didn't want to think about the smoking crater she'd make of this world if anything happened to either Taylor or Danny.

    Taylor squeezed her hand back. "We're here now," Taylor whispered. "You can fix it, right?"

    Janesha felt her eyes go wide. Some of it, maybe. As a superior shifter, she could take stock of all the different versions of the woman the celest had been and recreate a body for her that matched it by discarding all the excess mass, but then what? She wasn't a healer, and the mind was gone…

    Her mouth dropped into a wide O as the only solution became apparent to her. The only chance this celest had of any kind of recovery. But it would also mean the end of her vacation, and quite likely the end of this realm. Forever. Her eyes found Taylor again. "Petal, I'm not leaving you or your dad here," she said, meaning every word of it. Fuck the eradication of Earth Bet at my hands. The second my family gets here, this whole realm'll be a smoking crater from border to border. But she couldn't think about that. The mortals would be missed, but the life of the celestial being tortured took precedence. The best she could do at this point was to make sure both her friends had an exceptionally comfortable life in Mystal. Already, she applied tension to the cord that connected her to Danny and wrapped it several times around his waist in anticipation of heaving him to her when it became necessary. Either awake or asleep, her family were going to see that both these mortals had been claimed as hers explicitly, and as such they were hers. Mine. But the rest of the realm would burn. Just the thought of it and knowing how much that would upset her friends had tears welling in her eyes.

    "I'm so sorry, petal," she said, and before Taylor could stop her, she reached out her free hand and rolled it in a half-circle. "Columbine." She tensed as she spoke the name, fully expecting to see her Uncle Chance standing alongside her powerful cousin.

    <><>​

    Contessa

    "What do you mean, she's here?" Fortuna towered over the cringing Clare. "How the fuck can she be here?" She spun and pointed one accusing finger at Dorian. "Did you open that fucking doorway?"

    "What? No! Of course not!" Dorian blanched. "Why the living fuck would I do that?"

    "She fucking realm-stepped here!" babbled Clare. "She used the fucking cords of the realm-damned dark crystals for guidance and fucking realm-stepped here!"

    "Oh, for fuck's sake!" Fortuna resisted the urge to tear her hair out. She'd known the little Mystallian cow would be trouble from the moment she'd shown up, but this was getting ridiculous. Options … options … options … Just as she had before, Contessa internalised and began searching through her imagination for a workable solution.

    Collapsing the chamber wouldn't do anything useful, and would alert Janesha to the fact that she was being observed (if she didn't already know). Opening a volcano under the whole base would be likewise useless. Direct confrontation was right out; Nassites didn't do things that way. Strike from the shadows and fade away; that was their thing.

    "We're going to have to cut our losses here," she said crisply, returning to the real world. Taking a deep breath, she prepared to slide the seclusion ring from her finger.

    "She just bloodlinked to Earlafaol!"

    Clare's screeched warning came just in time; Fortuna snatched her fingers away from the ring as if it were poisoned. "Fuck!" she swore, swivelling to Dorian. "Out of the realm, now!"

    There was only one person in Earlafaol whom celestials all over the Known Reams reached out for help from, and she also happened to be the reason Abaddon had been in this realm-forsaken hole of a realm doing dry runs in the first place. They had to get as far away from the base as possible, because if she came here, she never, ever travelled alone. Her personal guards accompanied her everywhere. Even the farthest reaches of the realm would not be enough; they had to go over the border and leave the universe altogether.

    Dorian nodded, and opened a doorway. They tumbled through into a grimy alleyway, the doorway snapping shut behind them. Fortuna scrambled to her feet and looked around. At the mouth of the alley, people walked back and forth, apparently unaware of their presence. She took note of the clothing—rough-spun, crudely dyed—and altered her own apparel to match. Dorian and Clare were already doing the same.

    "Where are we?" she asked, leading the way to the entrance of the alleyway. Several of the passers-by had small knives on their belts, and she made sure to add one to her own, drawing mass from the ground to do so.

    "Feral mortal world just outside the realm border," Dorian said in an undertone. "They think the horse and cart is the height of technology, here. What do we do now?"

    Right now, they had to keep a supremely low profile. There was nothing else they could do. If Janesha went with her cousin to Earlafaol, it was all over for them. "Nothing." She pitched her voice to make sure he understood her perfectly. "We keep our fucking heads down until we're absolutely certain that 'faolian bitch's gone." Turning to Clare, she fixed her eyes on the grimy rag he'd put in place over his empty eye-sockets. "Talk to me."

    Clare licked his lips nervously. "Well …"

    <><>​

    Taylor

    "I'm so sorry, petal," Janesha wept, but before she could ask what she meant by that, her friend raised her hand and called out a name. "Columbine."

    Taylor scrambled to remember where she knew that name from, and why calling out to her would bring her friend to such a state. Was she an enemy? Was she dangerous? No—NO! She remembered! Lady Col was the one whose father was an overprotective jerk and who—who OMIGOD! She ruled that whole other Earth.

    Janesha still had her hand raised as that deduction fell into place, and a thin, perfectly manicured hand appeared entwined in it as if in a handshake. But then another hand of darker skin—somewhere between hers and Janesha's—slipped into Janesha's other hand and a very petite human woman with short brown hair and light brown eyes stepped into the room. She held herself well for someone so slight and the militant look in her eyes as she swept her gaze across everything, had Taylor swallowing hard. Surely this wasn't the Cousin Columbine that her friend said everyone loved because she was such a sweetheart. The shorter woman then looked back over her shoulder in the direction she'd come from and nodded once before stepping completely out of the way. A guard, Taylor realised. She has to be a guard.

    That thought was confirmed when the original well-manicured hand grew into an arm as more and more of her appeared on the walkway, until finally a tall woman who looked as if she'd just stepped off the cover of a magazine or a supermodel runway stood before them. Her ebony hair was glossy and reached almost to the floor with a soft wave through it. Like Taylor, her skin had the slightest dusting of pale ivory pigment. Her lips were bright red, her cheeks were high and shapely, and the strapless electric blue dress that rolled to the ground was exquisite. But the most eye-popping addition to her ensemble was the albino vervet monkey with the most delicate set of butterfly wings she had ever seen perched on the woman's left shoulder; holding the back of the woman's head for support. Like the guard, it too looked around as if making an intelligent observation of their surroundings.

    As gently as any mother, the stranger quickly wrapped Janesha up in a heartfelt hug. "Shhhh," she crooned, stroking Janesha's hair while Janesha blubbered against her throat like a child. "It is alright, sweetheart. I am here now. Everything is going to be fine."

    Janesha's arms snaked around the woman's waist. "I thought for sure Uncle Chance would be there with you," she babbled. "And that he'd see what was going on here and lose it … and …"

    The new-comer shushed her again and pressed those rich red lips into her hair in comfort, but something told Taylor that was being done more for her sake than Janesha's. "He definitely tried, sweetheart, but something told me to say no."

    Janesha sniffed and pulled away. "I knew it." She shook her head and tapped the side of her head. "Even in here, I knew he'd do that. It's why I didn't contact anyone, because I knew he'd …"

    The woman placed a silencing finger on Janesha's lips and smiled serenely. "You should not blame the family for being worried about you, especially when you are unestablished and outside the Known Realms. You know the rules…"

    "Until you're established in another pantheon, touch base with home at least once a day to let the family know where you are," Janesha parroted sulkily. "I know, I know."

    The woman chuckled lightly and lifted her eyes to meet Taylor's. They were black, with the finest flecks of bright gold in the irises. "Hello, Taylor. It is a pleasure to meet you, sweetheart." With one hand still across Janesha's shoulders, she reached out with the other towards Taylor as she spoke.

    The fact that she knew her name was the least surprising thing to Taylor. They were celestial. Knowing things they weren't told was literally in their DNA. But what was she supposed to do, now that this woman was talking to her. Like, seriously, what do you do? The woman was a goddess who ruled more galaxies than Taylor believed existed. Was she supposed to curtsey? Or shake her hand? Or slide across the ground like a snake? What?

    Columbine's smile reached all the way to her eyes, making the gold sparkle. Then she rolled her outstretched hand palm upwards. "Perhaps it would be easier if you called me Professor Nascerdios," she suggested.

    "You're a—a professor?" Could this get any weirder? Like really? Despite this, Taylor placed her hand on the woman's and watched as her fingers were enveloped.

    "Medicine," she said, without naming a specific branch. Probably because as a goddess, she was a professor in all of them and then some. "I took a break from it for a little while, but once it became apparent that having so many of my father's family visiting me at once had the women of my realm demanding their fair share of things from the men, I started up a medical college in Pennsylvania for them. I have been working in medicine one way or another ever since."

    "Professor Nascerdios," Taylor repeated, trying not to look too deeply into that explanation in case her brain decided to melt. "So can you like … help her?" Taylor gestured at the creature below them, no longer seeing her as an 'it'.

    The professor followed her hand, and immediately became all business. "Edeena," she said, her eyebrows arching sadly as she took in the grotesque form below. "What have they done to you, baby?"

    "You know her, cuz?" Janesha asked. At some point during their discussion, she must've done one of those stimulation wave things, because there was not a hair out of place, nor a hint of red around her eyes.

    "Oh, yes," Professor Nascerdios replied, stepping closer to the edge of the walkway. "Their father brought them to me when they were just infants to be raised. I even have an imprint of her mind from just before she left Earlafaol with her twin brother." She paused for a moment, then added, "But it seems her essence has been scattered and is currently residing in a variety of mortal hosts." She turned to both Janesha and Taylor and said, "You are going to have to give me a moment, ladies. Some of those using her essence are in non-survivable situations and that needs to be rectified before I extract her essence from them."

    "You can do that?" Taylor gasped.

    "I will right what was made wrong," Columbine answered. "Without any loss of life."

    Taylor looked at Janesha; who grinned like a loon and shrugged. "Cousin Col," she said, as if that explained everything.


    End of Part Seventeen
     
    Last edited: Dec 8, 2019
  10. Aluvartyo

    Aluvartyo Making the rounds.

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    Oh i like cousin Col, all the arrogance and power, tempered by experience and wisdom. You need to slow the f down and take notes janesha! Lol
     
  11. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Unlike Janesha, Cousin Col (and Chance, and Armina) are canon characters from the book(s). As of the first book, Col is kinda young (like, 4), but she'll grow out of it in the next few books in the series.

    By the time this fanfic rolls around, she's had literally millions of years of life experience.

    In case you're wondering about her branch in medicine, Taylor is essentially correct. She's basically got all of them. Including for creatures that never existed on Earth, except in legends.
     
    Last edited: Nov 19, 2019
  12. SMDVogrin

    SMDVogrin Making the rounds.

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    "Why do you have an MD in Nazghul physiology?"

    "Well, it was only 20 extra credits once I had my General Undead degree..."
     
    Aoinfinity, Ack and Angel466 like this.
  13. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    She can not only treat them, but the critters they ride too.

    If the concept of medicine can be applied to anything from any realm, she knows how to.
     
  14. Angel466

    Angel466 Getting out there.

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    A couple of hundred thousand years in medical school with a photographic memory and automatic instantaneous recall will kinda do that for you.
    ;)

    Columbine is one of the few who earned her knowledge the hard way and thus can take her skills with her wherever she goes. It's not a powerbase or innate ability.
     
    Last edited: Dec 2, 2019
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  15. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Learning under, it has to be said, an established deity of healing. Kind of the ultimate professional in the field.
     
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  16. Threadmarks: Part Eighteen: Cleanup
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Celestial Worm


    Part Eighteen: Cleanup


    [A/N: This chapter commissioned by Fizzfaldt and co-written by Karen Buckeridge, author of Ties That Bind and The Long Way Home (in production).]

    Taylor

    Although Janesha’s cousin Columbine was only the second celestial Taylor had ever met (if she didn’t count Scion, who she’d only seen on TV, and ‘Edeena’, who looked like nothing on Earth) she could already see some fundamental differences between them in terms of attitude. Janesha walked and talked like she owned everything; as if she were merely allowing the mortals to use the world for a while. (Which, given what Taylor knew about celestials, was more or less the unvarnished truth.) By contrast, apart from the butterfly-winged monkey on her shoulder and her supermodel looks, Professor Nascerdios could be someone Taylor passed on the street with nothing more than an envious glance at the stunning sweep of her hair. In fact, they both possessed flawless complexions and hairstyles, like they’d just stepped out of a beautician’s shop just moments before. She knew why that was, of course; stimulation waves were something she was now aware of. Still, it was monumentally unfair.

    The main thing that told her how special Professor Nascerdios was … was the fact that Janesha had collapsed sobbing into the supernaturally beautiful woman’s arms. This was Janesha, the most thoroughly self-contained person Taylor knew. Or rather, the most emotionally aloof person Taylor knew. Angry, she could do, and amusement. But she just didn’t do needy. Not until now, anyway. The few times she’d drawn comfort from Taylor’s presence were nothing compared to the blubbering mess she’d become now that her older cousin was here.

    Reluctantly, she allowed herself to think about the third aspect to the situation. Not half an hour previously, she’d been forced to beg on her knees for the welfare of Earth Bet. Had she not thrown her all into the effort, she had no doubt that the planet would now be a blasted ruin, all its people except for herself and her father dead. Everyone she’d ever met, snuffed out without even knowing why or how. And while there were some people she had little fellow-feeling for, there were countless more who simply didn’t deserve that sort of fate.

    Janesha had acceded to her heartfelt pleas, sparing Taylor’s world from the imminent threat of annihilation, not long before she’d lost patience with Eidolon and executed him outright. Recalling Janesha’s descriptions of Hell and the Damned, Taylor shuddered to think of the torments Eidolon would be suffering once he arrived there.

    But once Janesha had seen Edeena, all bets were off. She’d called on her family; from her words before she performed the blood-link, she fully expected Earth Bet to be destroyed by whoever showed up. The fact that Professor Nascerdios seemed to have no intentions in this regard didn’t actually change the point that Janesha had opened Earth Bet up to destruction a second time without giving Taylor anything like a direct warning.

    Her tears of relief were for you, sweetheart, the soft voice whispered through her mind, causing her to gasp. Ssshh, it hushed gently, in the same crooning manner that had comforted Janesha. I am not a mind reader, Taylor. I am a telepath who is exceptionally good at reading body language and the emotions behind it. For me to hear what you are thinking, you must think it while wanting me to hear it. The professor hadn’t moved from where she stood alongside Janesha. Not to blink. Not to twitch.

    She contacted you, believing it would be the end of my world. Taylor couldn’t help the resentment that bubbled to life inside of her.

    And it devastated her. As I said, sweetheart. Her tears were not for herself. They were in relief for you. To know that you would retain your beloved world and not hate her for having to do this.

    She could’ve
    told me.

    Do you believe that would have changed the outcome?

    We could’ve at least discussed it. I mean, I know celestials are special and all, but at the end of the day it’s just one life versus the billions of mortals on my world.


    There was a pregnant pause before the professor sent, You are an intelligent young lady, Taylor Hebert. Would you mind if I posed you a question?

    Taylor thought that had to be the weirdest thing ever. A goddess, who was powerful enough to make Janesha bawl like a baby and rule a universe in its entirety, was asking if it was alright to ask her a question. I guess ...

    If three children and their mother were in a single-car accident and only one team of paramedics came upon them, who do you think they would attempt to save first?


    Taylor gave the question some thought. The mother would want her kids saved.

    Yes, she would. But that was not the question I asked you, Taylor. Who would those paramedics put most of their endeavour into saving?

    The kids have their whole lives ahead of them, and the mother would want the kids to live. So I’d say the kids first, and the mother last.

    And you would be wrong, sweetheart. The paramedics would do everything they could to save the mother first because they would have no idea how many other children that mother may have elsewhere, whose lives depend on her. What if she had five other children at home? What if she were a foster mother with dozens of children depending on her. What if she was a surgeon who was meant to save dozens of people in the coming days? Because none of these factors are known, they will stabilise the children as best as they can until their colleagues arrive, but their primary focus will remain on the mother, even if it costs the lives of the three other children in the car.


    Taylor didn’t like what she was implying, though her point was loud and clear. Since Janesha didn’t know how many worlds (or galaxies) were tied to this damaged celestial, the loss of a single world to bring in the celestial equivalent of the paramedics was the only decision Janesha could make. Powerful beings make powerful decisions.

    Her eyes found her friend, who was staring back at her with both eyebrows arched upwards in concern.

    I thought you were seeing to the safety of the people who had her essence?

    Although she still hadn’t moved until then, the very corners of the professor’s lips lifted into a smile that was both warm and indulgent. I am also very good at multi-tasking.

    <><>​

    Washington, DC
    PRT Department 24


    Chief Director Rebecca Costa-Brown sat at her desk, performing the most basic (and perhaps most annoying) function of her job; dealing with paperwork. Despite occasional efforts to make things otherwise, she still required a physical inbox and outbox on her desk. Far too often for her liking, paper documents ended up in the former, to be scrutinised and (usually) signed, then placed in the latter.

    The only saving grace in the whole situation was the fact that she didn’t have to spend long minutes absorbing all the subtle details in any one document. One lightning-fast appraisal was all she required before making her decision. In the current case, the document had definitely needed the appraisal. She had already paused twice to pen in acerbic comments into the margin. This was not going to be signed until the idiot who’d drafted it learned to do basic fact-checking. With a barely contained sigh, she turned to the last page, then jerked her hand back at a sudden sting.

    What the hell was that? Disbelievingly, she stared at her fingertip, where a tiny red mark was showing. She touched her tongue to it and tasted blood. That’s a papercut. How can that be a papercut? She glared suspiciously at the document; it looked like paper and felt like paper, but that was no guarantee. Cautiously, she lifted the sheet and ripped it slightly. It had all the texture of tearing paper.

    All right, she told herself, trying to go through all the possibilities of what it could mean. She knew of literally no substance on Earth, able to mimic paper or otherwise, that could actually harm her. But now another thing was worrying her. She’d been trying to reason through the problem with her usual razor-sharp analysis, but the mental speed to which she was accustomed continued to elude her. It was like she was wading through mud from one conclusion to another.

    Fear began to worm itself into her brain. I just suffered a papercut, and I can’t think as fast as normal. What’s happening to me? Is someone mentally affecting me, making me think I’ve lost my powers? Well, that’s easy to check.

    Standing up, she stepped away from the desk and exerted her flight; just enough to levitate off the floor and assuage her worries.

    Nothing happened. The ceiling was getting no closer, and the floor still pressed up against the soles of her sensible shoes.

    Okay, I have to assume that either I’ve lost my powers or I’m suffering a persistent hallucination that’s making me think I’ve lost my powers. She tried to figure out who could’ve done such a thing but again, her mental faculties were moving slower than tar trickling downhill. This is officially a crisis. I need to talk to an expert. Heading over to the office door, she locked it, then returned to the desk and pressed her intercom button. “Do not disturb me for the next half-hour. I’m in conference.”

    “Yes, ma’am,” replied her secretary; a bright young up-and-coming agent. “Thirty minutes.”

    Confident now that nobody would barge into her office unexpectedly, she released the button and spoke out loud. “Doorway to Cauldron base.”

    No Doorway appeared. Her heart rate accelerated and she sagged against the desk. We’re under attack! We must be. They’ve nullified my powers, and neutralised Doormaker or Clairvoyant, or even both of them. How far does it spread? Is it Scion? Is he moving against us?

    At that moment, her phone rang.

    <><>​

    New York City
    Legend


    Everyone was out of the tenement building, according to the fire crews, but the flames were still leaping high into the air and embers were threatening all the structures around it. Legend hovered in midair, considering how to deal with the problem.

    The simplest solutions, he decided, were the most useful ones. Raising his hands, he sent out multiple beams of what the news called his ‘lasers’, though he was fully aware they were nothing of the sort. These circled around the building and struck from multiple angles, sucking the heat away from the hottest parts of the fire. Within seconds, the flames were dying away as their source fizzled to nothing. He circled the building, observing the effect of his power; or at least, he began to.

    I should land.

    It wasn’t a voice in his head, or even an overwhelming compulsion. He simply … wanted to land. Landing was a good idea. At the very least, he could regroup with the first responders just to make sure everything on the ground was going according to plan.

    Gliding in to the nearest tall building where he could still observe the tenement from, he touched down lightly on the roof. Raising his hand, he sent his power outward to complete the job …

    … that is, he sent his power outward …

    … sent …

    Why is my power not working? Frowning, he stared at his right hand, then tried with his left. The same result (or rather, lack of result) took place. Have I burned it out? He knew all too well how David’s powers were declining. It wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that his were, also. This could be problematic. Instinctively, he tried to take off, only to perform a little hop that barely lifted him an inch from the roof. The lighter-than-air sensation utterly failed to take hold.

    Feeling a little panicky now, he tried to force a transition to his energy state. Nothing happened.

    Something was very, very wrong. He knew what he had to do. But first, he had something else he had to do, something he’d made himself promise to do in a situation such as this. Fumbling his phone from its pouch on his belt, he hit ‘1’ on speed-dial.

    “Hello?”

    “Arthur,” he said, letting out a tiny sigh of relief. At least that part of his life was still normal. “Hey. I just wanted to touch base … and … make sure everything’s all right.”

    “Everything’s okay with me.” Arthur, with instincts honed from years of marriage, sounded slightly suspicious. “What’s wrong? You’re worried.”

    “It might be nothing, love,” Legend told him. “I’m just suffering a little powers problem at the moment and I always promised myself that if anything outside the norm happened, I’d touch base with home.” He sighed, feeling a little foolish for having frightened his husband. He stared at the fire that was close to putting itself out. “So, now that I have, I guess I just wanted you to know that I love you and if everything goes according to plan, I should be home later for dinner, okay?”

    “I’m making dumplings, with extra sour Sweet and Sour sauce. And there’s a Die Hard marathon on channel one-thirty-five tonight.”

    Legend’s favourite food, with Arthur’s favourite movie series. The simple domesticity of it made him smile wistfully. “Sounds good.”

    “Okay, then. I love you too. See you soon.”

    Legend ended the call, then dialled another number. It took one ring before the call went through.

    “Hello?” It was Rebecca’s voice, but not the Rebecca he knew. This one sounded near to panic. That wasn’t good at all.

    “It’s me,” he said. As he spoke, he tried absently to generate a power effect with his hand. Nothing happened. He was getting sick of nothing happening. “I have a distinct problem. Are you suffering the same problem?”

    “If you’re feeling absolutely powerless then yes, I’m suffering the same problem. I’ve also tried getting through to base, but the door won’t open.” She sounded severely rattled; in fact, this was the most fear he’d ever heard in her voice, and that included each and every Endbringer attack, as well as the time she’d lost an eye to the Siberian.

    Not that he blamed her; Cauldron’s combination of Doormaker and the Clairvoyant was a tremendous force multiplier, and the Triumvirate had come to rely implicitly on them, as well as Contessa’s insights. Stripped of those as well as his powers, he was just an ordinary person in far over his head.

    How far does this go? He looked helplessly around the New York skyline. What does it mean? “What do we do now?” he asked out loud.

    She was trying to sound like she was in control again, but the quaver in her voice said otherwise. “Our best bet is to sit tight and hope that C can get back in contact with us. I’ll keep trying that. You call David, and see if he’s suffering the same problem.”

    “I’ll do that.” With a sense of relief—it was something to do—he ended the call and hit speed-dial for Eidolon’s number.

    “We are unable to connect your call at this time. Please call back later.”

    He stared at the phone. What’s going on with that?

    <><>​

    Brockton Bay
    Assault


    Ethan had to pull up hard. As they often did to unwind after a long, and sometimes boring shift, he and his wife would cut loose by racing across Brockton Bay, to a point near home. The run had started just like any other, with a lot of trash-talk and taunts of ‘loser does the dishes for a week’. She’d caught him on the back foot by blurring off into the distance before he was fully ready, and he’d only just overtaken her in the last few seconds.

    Turning to look over his shoulder and gloat, he realised she had dropped out of her super-speed early and he had in fact, lost her.

    He cautiously retraced his steps, searching for the moment when she would leap out at him from behind something. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t done it before. But something in the back of his mind was telling him this was off. Way off.

    That thought was confirmed when he found her on her hands and knees with her head bowed, panting as if she couldn’t draw in oxygen fast enough. “Puppy!” he cried, and was at her side in a heartbeat. “What happened?”

    The look of sheer terror on her face as she lifted her eyes to his sent his own heart-rate skyrocketing. “I. Don’t. Know,” she panted, swallowing between words. “I ran. Out of power. Way before. I normally do.”

    Ethan could attest to this. Fully charged, she could keep her speed up for ninety seconds, and she’d been going for less than thirty. “Okay, breathe deeply, puppy. You know the drill. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. Clear your thoughts. Get your heart rate back under control.” He wasn’t mentioning his own pounding pulse, though when he followed his own advice to help her find her rhythm, it did help to bring it down.

    A few minutes later, she sat back on her haunches with her hands on her hips. “What was that all about?” she demanded, as if he had any clue.

    “Puppy, I was already three blocks ahead of you when I realised you’d dropped out of the race. What do you think happened?”

    Instead of answering, she held up a finger and closed her eyes. Tension built through her body just like it always did when she was banking power, but the lines on her costume failed to start glowing as they should have. Her eyes opened again. “It’s gone,” she said, staring at her hands which she clenched and unclenched into fists.

    It took a moment for Ethan to realise what she meant, and when he did, he swallowed hard. “Maybe … it’s taken a holiday?” he offered hesitantly. But that didn’t make sense. Why would her power be gone, when tapping his toe against a discarded soda can had it ricocheting down the street like an insane pinball. Had someone targeted her? And if so, who? How? And most importantly, why?

    He looked around and saw a nearby bench. “Honey, why don’t you sit on that bench, and get your breath back. I’ll put in a call to the PRT and get a van here to pick us up.”

    “I don’t want them to see me like this,” she said illogically. “Can you run home and get me some clothes? Maybe a good night’s sleep will fix whatever this is.”

    He shook his head, even as he took out his phone. “No way am I moving from your side. Whatever this is, we’re facing it together, and I’m not taking one step away from you until you’re in a safe place.”

    He watched her try to argue with his reasoning, but she couldn’t muster up the words. For the first time since he’d met her, her lips pinched apprehensively. Her right hand rubbed her left upper arm as she searched the area around them, and he realised she too, was looking for the mystery attacker to show him or herself, now that she was at her most vulnerable.

    He led her over to the bench and sat her down. Turning his phone on, he hit the speed-dial labelled PRETENTIOUS RANDOM TODDLERS. All the while, his eyes never stopped moving, scanning their surroundings for the slightest hint of danger. If anyone threatened his wife, the next soda can would go through them.

    “PRT console. Assault, you’re supposed to be off-duty. What’s the issue?” The duty officer’s voice was bored.

    “We have a Shadow Stalker situation,” he said tersely. “We need pickup at this location, stat. Do you copy?”

    All trace of boredom had left the man’s voice when he answered. “I copy Sierra-Sierra situation, Assault. Dispatching a van immediately. Also diverting backup to your location. Hold tight; the cavalry is on the way. Do not hang up. I say again, do not hang up.

    “Holding tight.” Assault replied. Sliding the phone, still on the line, back into his pouch, he put his hand on his wife’s shoulder. “Help is on the way, babe. We’ll get this sorted out. You’ll be back on your feet in no time.”

    Reaching up, she put her hand on his. “I hope so.”

    “I know so.” But as he scanned his surroundings for the tenth time, he wished he could feel as certain as he sounded.

    <><>​

    New York City
    Trickster


    “Okay,” Francis said, tapping an unlit cigarette on the table. He wanted to light it and take a deep puff, but the others all gave him dirty looks when he smoked inside, so he refrained for the moment. “It looks like we’re in the clear for the moment. The heat should die down in a week or so …”

    “And then we’re moving on, out of the city.” That was Luke, his broad features set in a determined scowl. “That last job was far too close. How the hell were we meant to know Legend was in the area? And we do not want him following us back to base.”

    “You mean, you don’t want him trying to capture Noelle and generating an evil twin, right?” Francis glared at him. “Say what you mean.”

    “He’s got a point,” Jess said. “It’s getting harder and harder to keep those things contained.”

    “I don’t see you stepping up to save the day when it happens,” Cody sniped from across the table. “Either of you.” His gaze cut from Jess to Marissa and back again. “It’s always me and Krouse and Luke doing all the heavy lifting.”

    “That’s not fair!” shouted Marissa, sounding near to tears. “You know how hot my suns get! One wrong move, and I’ll burn down a city block or two. We were just lucky I only set fire to one building, this time!”

    “And I take time to build my creatures,” Jess added, gripping the arms of her wheelchair and glowering at Cody in her turn. “So you can shove your ‘heavy lifting’ up your ass. Twice, even.”

    “Guys, guys, can we not fight?” Oliver said, returning from the front door with a couple of steaming pizza boxes in his hands. He headed through into the kitchen, where they kept the paper plates.

    A moment later, everything changed.

    Francis was still sitting on a chair, but it was a different chair. The table was different, the wallpaper was different, and even the shape of the room was different. From the kitchen, he heard a yelp of alarm from Oliver.

    He launched to his feet, searching the room for answers. While he was used to his surroundings shifting rapidly, he was usually the author of such changes. And the last time they’d been moved somewhere against their will …

    “Oh, shit,” Luke whispered, his face white. “She did it again, didn’t she?”

    Francis did not have to ask who Luke meant by ‘she’. The Simurgh had featured in their nightmares more than once over the years, and even now he suffered the occasional relapse, waking up sweating and shaking.

    “Francis!” Before the shift, Noelle had been upstairs in the main bedroom, but now her voice was coming from down the corridor. “You have to come see this!”

    He didn’t hesitate for a second. Whatever was going on, it had to be scary for Noelle. She was isolated enough as it was; right now, she needed him. He took off in the direction of her voice.

    “Be careful!” shouted Jess from behind him. “You know what happens if you touch her!”

    “Like I can forget!” Francis had undergone a very bad time the first time Noelle’s cloning ability had manifested itself. He’d learned the hard way that touching her led to disaster, no matter how careful they were. But he also knew that she knew the consequences of careless contact. Also, of all the reactions she’d had toward new developments in her condition, he’d never heard her express excitement before.

    Stopping at the doorway, he checked to make sure he wasn’t about to run headlong into her. By now, her lower body sported several large legs, and she’d become the size of a sofa. This was why she’d had the largest bedroom, although the bed had had to be demolished and moved out. Noelle tended to destroy them, so she usually slept on a mattress on the floor, with a sheet over her.

    It turned out to be a bedroom, but one that seemed oddly familiar. Noelle was standing at the window, the sheet wrapped around her lower body. There was something strange about that, too, but his head was too full of potential danger to follow any of these clues up.

    It took him a moment to parse the expression on her face. It was somewhere between ‘stunned’ and ‘giddy’ with a side-order of ‘delirious’. “What’s going on—” he began, before he saw something else. Specifically, her profile under the sheet she’d wrapped around herself. A profile that she hadn’t boasted for a year or more. “What the hell? You’re you again? How …?”

    “I don’t know.” Suddenly, she was in his arms, her cheek pressed warm against his. Automatically, he began to pull back; some reflexes were too strong to ignore. But no clones appeared. Even the subtle dragging effect of her power was absent. “I’m back to normal.” Her voice was soft in his ear. “I’m me. But that’s not all.”

    “What?” he asked, his senses reeling from the sensation of holding her again, after so long. “What’s going on?”

    “Don’t you recognize this room?” she asked.

    He blinked and looked around. And just like a kaleidoscope dropping into a familiar pattern, the picture clicked for him. Up until now, he’d been thinking ‘strange location we’ve been dropped into’ but familiar details were now impressing themselves on him. “Holy shit! Is this your bedroom?”

    It was, he realized. He was back in her parents’ apartment, in Madison. Not the Madison they’d fled from, but the Madison in Earth Aleph. As he stared around the room, more and more details jumped out at him. A lot of the posters and knick-knacks had been stored away, which was why he hadn’t twigged at first, but now the very shape of the room was impressing itself on his mind.

    Not taking his arm from around Noelle, he headed for the window. Outside was the familiar vista of Madison, Wisconsin. The one that had never suffered from the Simurgh attack. Behind him, he heard the others coming to the doorway.

    “Fuck!”

    “Stop her!”

    “Stop him!”

    He half-turned his head; Cody, Luke and Marissa stood there, staring in horror. They’d all seen what happened when he’d done this the last time; the running battle with the clones had half-destroyed the small town, and necessitated that they move far and fast to avoid the repercussions of their actions.

    “It’s all right,” Noelle said, not letting him go. “I’ve lost my powers. They’re gone.” Reaching down, she pulled the sheet up a little, and wiggled her bare foot. “My legs are normal again.”

    “But how?” asked Marissa, taking a step forward. “Powers don’t just vanish like that. Trust me, I’ve tried to make that happen.”

    “Uh … shit.” That was Cody. “I, uh, I think I’ve lost mine, too.”

    “Now that you mention it …” Luke sounded uncertain. “I haven’t got the vector lines in the back of my head anymore. I thought it was the excitement of the moment.”

    Everyone looked at Marissa. She shook her head and put her hands on her hips. “Well, don’t look at me. I’m not going to try to make a sun in here. What if I succeed?”

    Francis stared at her. She was standing next to Cody. They were close enough in size to swap with nobody getting hurt. He’d done this a thousand times before, or so it felt. With just a little concentration, he would feel the chime that signalled a viable link.

    No chime came. He pushed it harder. Still no chime. With a supreme effort, he threw his entire will into brute-forcing the swap.

    Nothing happened. Slowly, he let out the breath he hadn’t known he was holding. “I think you’ve lost your powers, too,” he said quietly. “I think we all have. How, I have no idea. I’m just gonna thank God for the miracle and take it as it is.”

    Jess showed up with Oliver behind her; the wheelchair-bound girl showed little scruple in the way she muscled her way through the pack. Her snort was full of her usual cynicism. “You’ve never been the religious type, Krouse.”

    “Maybe it’s time I started,” he said lightly, then gestured toward Oliver. “Check it out.”

    “What?” asked the pudgy guy, his appearance now reverted to the pre-idealised version they’d known before all this started. “Why are you all looking at me? And why is Francis hugging Noelle? And why aren’t we all drowning in clones by now?”

    “I’ll let you guys explain,” Francis decided. “In the loungeroom.” He waved them off, and headed across the room to the door. They didn’t argue as he pushed it closed and turned back to the love of his life. “You and me have got some serious catching up to do, little lady,” he said, with a predatory grin.

    Noelle gave a throaty chuckle and let the sheet slide to the floor. “Oh, do we ever.”

    <><>​

    Faultline’s Crew
    Faultline


    Running a nightclub was one thing. Running a nightclub while also managing a mercenary team of capes on the side was quite another. This was mildly complicated by the fact that she and her Crew had to keep a low profile in Brockton Bay, to reduce the chance that the local authorities would suddenly ‘notice’ that a bunch of villains were resident in Palanquin, Brockton Bay’s most happening night spot. So far they hadn’t, and Melanie was willing to help maintain that record by not giving them the slightest excuse to bust her.

    Which was why she kept the books (at least those belonging to the nightclub side of things) spotlessly clean, and paid her fair share of taxes when the time came. A few extra ‘taxes’ paid under the table to certain city councilmen assisted in keeping her name away from unfriendly official attention. Those transactions didn’t appear in any book that might see the light of day, but they were just as important as the other type, if not more so.

    She was elbow-deep in the financial aspects of the business when her office door was pushed open. Spitfire came in first, followed by a man Melanie had never met before. Medium height, a little on the heavy side, and almost completely bald. He was also wearing a coat that would’ve suited someone three sizes larger.

    “What the hell’s going on here?” she snapped. “Who is this man?”

    “Newter’s disappeared!” Spitfire sounded upset. “This is Gregor. He says he’s lost his powers.”

    “It is true.” Gregor, if it was him, held his hands out, palms up. “My slime no longer generates. I was hanging out with Newter and he took on a thoughtful expression. Then he climbed down off the wall. I thought he was getting a drink, but between one step and the next, he vanished.”

    “Well, shit.” Melanie ran her hands through her hair. Vanishing without a trace was not in Newter’s usual repertoire of tricks, but they had to cover all the bases. “Search the building, top to bottom. I’ll start checking out PHO, just in case someone managed to teleport him out for some reason. People who pull off a slick move like that, they nearly always end up bragging about it.”

    “Got it. Let’s go.” Spitfire left, taking Gregor with her.

    Melanie shook her head and closed down the accounting program, then she opened up PHO. Calling up the search bar, she typed in the keywords ‘vanish’, ‘Case 53’ and ‘Newter’ then hit Enter.

    A second later, a series of titles started scrolling over the search area. The top one caught her eye: Case 53s vanishing? She clicked on it, and began to read.

    After half a dozen posts with much the same content—Case 53s just popping out of existence, with no other pattern to it—she pushed back from the laptop and stared at the ceiling. Okay, what’s going on? Why didn’t Gregor vanish? Why did he just lose his powers?

    If she could figure that one out, she knew, she’d have a handle on what was going on.

    <><>​

    Somewhere in America
    Mama Mathers


    “Oh, shit.”

    Christine had only whispered the word, but Elijah looked around curiously anyway. “What’s the matter, Mama?”

    “Nothing,” she lied smoothly, all the while frantically trying to reconnect to her vast spider-web of contacts. Nothing happened. Not even Elijah, who was right there looking at her from behind his customary sunglasses, registered on her special senses. She couldn’t see through his eyes. She couldn’t see through anyone’s eyes but her own.

    Maybe it’s just the senses.

    Experimentally, she tried to turn off Elijah’s sight. He didn’t react to that, or to the illusion of Behemoth bursting from the earth in front of him.

    I’ve lost my powers. Oh, shit.

    This put her in an extremely dicey position. She had used her abilities liberally to attain and maintain her position of power within the Fallen. Nobody crossed her, because everyone who had a reason to do so was already affected by her power. Or they had been, up until about thirty seconds ago.

    But once they discovered that she was once more normal … things would change. And not for the better. People like the Fallen tended to be vindictive, once someone who had lorded it over them was brought to their knees. Even if she survived the experience, she would be relegated to being one of the breeders; not a person of influence and power.

    Fuck that.

    “I just remembered something I have to do,” she extemporised, getting to her feet. “I’ll be back shortly.”

    “All right, Mama.” Elijah turned back to watching the TV.

    She wasn’t sure why she’d made sure to always have a car that was fuelled and ready to go on hand. Perhaps it was her version of a ‘bug-out bag’ in case someone she couldn’t influence came to attack the compound. Dragon, for instance. A remote-controlled suit could crush her before the operator ever saw her.

    Whatever the reason, it suited her purposes admirably right now. She strolled over to the car, pulled the keys from her pocket, and got in. People were walking to and fro, some glancing curiously at her. She waved vaguely—don’t bother me now—and they hurriedly looked away. Starting the car, she put it in gear and drove away. Out of the compound.

    Away from the remains of her life.

    Okay, what the fuck do I do now?

    Her hands tightened on the wheel. I find out why I lost my powers, and I go and get them back.

    There was no other option, really. She’d had the world at her fingertips. She wanted it back.

    <><>​

    A Small Town in Oregon, Current Population Nine
    Slaughterhouse Nine
    Jack Slash


    “Well, this is different,” Jack mused. “How long has it been since they last sent the National Guard against us?”

    “Long enough that they forgot what we did to them last time?” suggested Crawler, laughing out of several of his mouths.

    Jack smiled and spun the knife in his hand, making the blade glitter in the weak sunlight. “Well, it’s about time we reminded them. Go, have fun. Hatchet Face, stay close by to keep any heroes honest. Everyone else, you know what to do.”

    “Make some explosions and fire, Crawls,” Burnscar called out.

    “You got it!” bellowed the pitch-black monstrosity over what passed for his shoulder.

    Winter sighed and checked the chamber on the assault rifle she carried. “First I stop their bullets, then I stop their hearts.” She sounded positively bored with the whole idea. This had been an ongoing problem since Crimson had gotten himself killed.

    “Leave some of ’em alive for me, huh?” Bonesaw was jiggling with excitement. “I haven’t had anyone to play with in ages.” She looked down from where she was riding on the Siberian’s shoulders. “And you can help!”

    Shatterbird, wearing an ornate flared creation of stained glass, snorted. “You got first pick of everyone in town. That was three days ago.”

    “Yeah, like I said. Ages.” Bonesaw looked over at Jack. “Can I have some, Mr Jack? Huh? Can I?”

    Jack smiled indulgently. “Of course, poppet. Anything your heart desires.”

    Shatterbird suddenly took off, accelerating upwards. “Time I showed these fools what true …” And then her words just stopped.

    The abrupt interruption had Jack looking upwards, and the concerned expression on her face as she surveyed the scene alarmed him. “What’s going on, Shatterbird?”

    “We need to retreat,” she declared, dropping only a few feet in the air so she didn’t have to shout. “I mean, like right now.”

    “What? Why?”

    “Now, Jack. Right now!” To prove the sincerity of her claim, Shatterbird twisted in mid-air and took off in the opposite direction to the National Guard contingent.

    Jack stared dumbfoundedly at Mannequin, who’d popped blades from his forearms and set them to spin. The gleaming metal humanoid carapace (for a given definition of ‘humanoid’) shrugged its shoulders elaborately.

    Still at a loss for words, Jack looked between the last spot in the sky where he’d seen Shatterbird, and the advancing troops. “If she doesn’t have a good reason for this, I’ll kill her myself,” he promised, pocketing one of his knives to free a hand. He then lifted his fingers to his lips and let out a piercing whistle, one he’d ensured every member of the Slaughterhouse Nine knew, even though he’d had never had to use it before now. The signal for retreat. In the distance, he saw Hatchet Face and Crawler turn to him, their faces mirroring his own astonishment.

    There was a thud beside him, and Bonesaw let out a yelp of pain. He looked around to see her climbing to her feet, rubbing her butt. “That hurt,” grumbled the pint-sized biotinker. “Where’d she go?”

    “I don’t know,” Jack said slowly. “Where did she go?” The presence of the Siberian was an integral part of his plan to confront the National Guard; without her, he and his poppet were horribly vulnerable.

    “Should we run?” suggested Burnscar. “I think we should run.”

    “I think so, too.”

    <><>​

    Shatterbird watched her team scramble for cover from a distant hilltop. She had no idea why she’d had the sudden impulse to fly away from danger, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that it was her defection which caused the first retreat that the Slaughterhouse Nine had ever pulled before engaging the enemy. Powerless, she stood in a ring of shards of glass that stubbornly refused to move an inch, no matter how furiously she hummed in the back of her throat.

    At that point, she knew she couldn’t return to the Nine. She literally had nothing to offer them until her powers returned. The best result would end up with them walking away from her; at worst, they would murder her and then walk away.

    Turning, she began to make her way down the other side of the hill. There was a four-lane highway nearby; perhaps she could hitch a ride.

    As she got down to the road, a white van pulled over. A bearded older man was behind the wheel, but he looked as shell-shocked as she felt. She didn’t bother asking questions; she just climbed in and gestured. We can go now.

    The van pulled out into traffic and headed off down the road.

    <><>​

    Boston
    Accord


    Slowly, Accord stood up from his desk. This didn’t serve to make him any more imposing, as he was only five feet tall at the best of times. “What do you mean, you’ve all lost your powers?” he demanded.

    Citrine swallowed, a nervous habit which he’d hoped to break her of. “Each of the Ambassadors that I’ve spoken with has reported that they don’t have powers anymore,” she reported crisply. “My powers are also no longer functional. I thought it best to bring this matter to your attention immediately.”

    “I see,” he said icily. “I am going to have to speak to Cauldron on this matter immediately. This is unconscionable.” For a moment, he considered pulling the pistol that resided under his desk and shooting her, but desisted because he didn’t want to have to deal with the mess on the carpet. “Return to your duties.”

    “Yes, sir.” Back ramrod straight, she left the room at a precise walk, the way he liked it. The door closed behind her.

    Sitting down again, he straightened his lapels. “I would speak with Doctor Mother,” he said out loud.

    Absolutely nothing happened.

    <><>​

    Director Piggot

    “It’s Janesha, isn’t it?” Emily glared at Armsmaster. “She’s behind this somehow.”

    “While it’s true that she’s responsible for our only other instance of power loss in recent days, I would hesitate to blame her for all of this,” Armsmaster replied carefully. “You will recall that she had ample reason for her actions on that occasion, and that I extracted a promise from her to speak to me before removing the powers from any other Protectorate-affiliated person. That hasn’t happened this time, and in my experience, she is meticulous about keeping her word.”

    Emily made a low growling noise in her throat. “Weld has vanished without trace from the Boston Wards, both Battery and Triumph have lost their powers, nobody has seen Eidolon for an hour or more, the entire Las Vegas Protectorate contingent has also lost their powers, and we have reports of Case Fifty-Threes vanishing right across the nation. Three-quarters of the inmates in the Philadelphia Parahuman Asylum have likewise disappeared into thin air. If this is the doing of Janesha of Mystal, I really, really want to know what’s going through her mind right now.”

    Armsmaster nodded seriously. “I do understand your concern, ma’am. When I see her next, I will be sure to raise the issue. If you will recall, she was the one who uncovered Coil and was in the process of capturing him when a third party blew his head off.”

    “I thought you said it was another parahuman, someone called Khepri, who was actually performing the capture.” Emily prided herself on recalling the important details of a case.

    “That’s correct, ma’am.” Armsmaster sounded a little embarrassed at being caught on the back foot. “I misspoke. I should have said that she was assisting in his capture.”

    “And this Khepri was the same person who accompanied her to take on the Simurgh? Who also hasn’t been seen in orbit since?”

    “That’s correct, ma’am.” Armsmaster lifted his chin. “My view is that the ongoing absence of the Simurgh is a hopeful sign, and is in no way connected to the other disappearances.”

    Emily frowned. “Wait, you’re saying that you think she could have actually beaten the Simurgh? How can a single cape, however capable, pull that off? God knows, the Triumvirate have tried often enough.”

    “What little imagery we have shows Janesha inflicting more damage on the Simurgh in just seconds than our forces have done in hours,” reported Armsmaster imperturbably. “We lost sight of the end of the battle because the Simurgh apparently retreated behind the Moon, with Janesha and Khepri in pursuit on Cloudstrike. Janesha and Khepri have been sighted since, appearing none the worse for wear. The Simurgh has not. It’s not incontrovertible truth that she’s been destroyed, but it is strong circumstantial evidence all the same. I’ll be asking her about that when I see her next as well.”

    <><>​

    Taylor

    It was very weird, watching Lady Columbine at work. One moment, she stood at ease as they appeared to be having a telepathic conversation, and the next she turned and stared down at the grotesque below. Taylor also looked over the edge, and saw pulses of something—she wasn’t sure what, exactly, but she figured she was seeing it through her link with Janesha—ripple across the vast bulk of the creature below and store themselves in the one mostly-humanoid body that stood out in the middle of the whole thing.

    Something occurred to her and she concentrated on a series of questions. Who are these people you’re pulling her essence from? Are they the ones who have been eating Edeena to gain powers? Are you taking their powers away from all of them?

    Lady Columbine (because this sure as hell wasn’t the work of a human professor) held her right hand over the walkway palm down and looked to her left where Taylor stood. The ripple movement along the monstrosity of a goddess below continued. “When a celestial bequeaths power, it is done because the celestial wishes to gift it,” she said. “It may not be a fair situation to those beneath them, but it is the reality. You yourself have been given such a gift, simply for being Janesha’s friend. Unlike you, those who have incapacitated Edeena and stolen her essence to force that power-gain had no right to do so, which is why I have now returned that essence to her. Aside from those whose power-theft have left their mortal bodies unable to support them, there were also quite a few individuals who did not belong on your world. Those I have returned to their place of origin, or as close as I can without rewriting the history of their home worlds. As I said, sweetheart. No one was harmed; however, I cannot promise that this will remain the case, once Edeena recovers. What was done here is highly offensive …”

    “That’s putting it fucking mildly,” Janesha growled, to which Lady Columbine jerked her head towards Janesha and raised one eyebrow reprimandingly. Janesha immediately threw her hands up and dipped her head in apology. “Sorry.”

    The albino vervet monkey on Lady Columbine’s shoulder chittered in what Taylor could’ve sworn was human amusement.

    “Oh, shut up, Bee,” Janesha groused. “No one asked you.”

    The vervet monkey laughed even harder.

    Taylor tried really hard to block out the byplay between Janesha and the monkey and stay on topic. “But what about the Case Fifty-Threes with amnesia? Will you undo that too?”

    Lady Columbine sighed regretfully. “Of the three primary powersets available to a celestial, the mind is the only one that is beyond my ability to control. So unfortunately, those with amnesia will remain with amnesia. Perhaps that will be a blessing, as they will not remember what happened to them.”

    Taylor couldn’t argue with that. She wouldn’t want to remember being one of those grotesque monsters. So she decided to change the subject. “Would you be offended if I asked you how old you are?”

    Columbine chuckled lightly. “As in all things, age is a relative concept, my dear. By celestial standards, I am still very young; however, in my youth, there was a time I was not unlike Janesha and thought I had the universe by the tail. That was when I first visited Earlafaol. The world we found back then was very green and full of reptilian life forms. It was quite beautiful. I did not know back then that our unmasked presence would make the mortal reality throw out their dominant life form along with the bathwater in an effort to replicate us. Many thousands of millennia later, once I had mastered my craft to my mentor’s satisfaction, I returned to claim Earlafaol as my own, and the realm completed its evolution into humanity.”

    The blithe statement smacked Taylor between the eyes. She did not doubt for even a second that Lady Columbine was telling the absolute truth. Her story was too unbelievable to be anything else. If Taylor was understanding things correctly, the slender young woman before her had literally been on Earth (an Earth, if not her particular Earth) as a teenager, just before the dinosaur-killing meteor had struck. And then she’d been in school for the better part of sixty million years, before returning to Earth to take up where she’d left off. Wow, and I thought my class periods went on forever.

    “Excuse me!” The voice was masculine and unknown to Taylor, and it came from the doorway behind them. “I’m going to have to ask exactly who you are and what you’re doing here. This is a restricted area.”

    The short female guard that had come across ahead of Lady Columbine had already stepped between them and the speaker. But unlike most petite fighters who took a side-on stance to make themselves more streamlined, this woman planted her feet shoulder-width apart with her knees slightly bent and her hands clenched into loose fists at her side like a pro-wrestler.

    On the other side of the petite guard stood a tall, fit man in a suit with blond hair and glasses, holding a clipboard as if it were a weapon, or perhaps a shield. Behind him was a black woman in her forties or fifties.

    Taylor wasn’t sure what to say or do, but Janesha was already on the move. “Well, well, well. This certainly saves me the trouble of hunting you pair down,” the teenage celestial said, moving past Taylor and the petite guard to get right into the face of the two newcomers. “Number Man and Doctor Mother. You would not believe how much I’ve been looking forward to this.” From the sound of her voice, Taylor could tell she’d lengthened her canines into fangs.

    “Uh, Janesha?” murmured Taylor, glad for once that her full-faced mask allowed her to speak without her lips visibly moving. Ventriloquism had never been her forte. “Who are these people, and why do you sound like you want to tear them limb from limb?”

    “Why? Because I do.” Janesha raised her voice. “Doctor Mother. What a stupid name. You’re neither a doctor nor a mother. You were the one who cut the pieces off Edeena and fed them to people, to infuse them with her essence, weren’t you?” Janesha’s tone was more accusatory than questioning, much as it had been with Eidolon.

    Taylor stared at what she could see of the black woman. She looked remarkably ordinary for someone who had assisted with the cannibalisation of a god. The expression on her face showed that she knew something bad was happening, but she clearly didn’t understand the sheer depth of the shit she’d fallen into from a great height.

    “I did what I had to do!” the woman called out; not defiantly, but resolutely. “Scion is more dangerous than anything else on Earth. We have to have some way to defend ourselves.”

    Janesha rolled her eyes. “Oh, puh-leeze. The talot I killed the first day I got here was more dangerous than him.”

    This information may have been old news to Taylor, but the way Lady Columbine stiffened and swung towards the young celestial, it was clear the situation had been more dire than the teen let on. “You fought a talot … alone?” the older celestial asked for confirmation, and suddenly Taylor felt the need to inspect the non-existent dirt around the soles of her boots.

    “It—it was just a baby … and—and I’m fine,” Janesha argued, realising her glib remark had backfired massively. “And it wasn’t as if I went and hunted it down on purpose. It ambushed me. I had to defend myself.”

    Lady Columbine pinched her lips together and shook her head ever so slowly in condemnation. “And you wonder why the elders prefer to keep a close eye on unestablished children. You could have been killed.”

    “But I wasn’t,” Janesha insisted.

    “But you could have been, Janesha, and no matter how it went down, it was sheer luck you were not. Talots are world breakers and divine hunters by nature …”

    “This was a baby, and it got distracted, so I got the drop on it. I’m fine, cousin. Honest.”

    The blond guy must have decided that this was the time to make a move. He lunged forward, reaching for Janesha with one hand; the other pulled a pistol from behind his back.

    In a blur of motion, he was intercepted by Lady Columbine’s bodyguard. One moment the petite guard was standing in the walkway between them, and the next she had the man face down on the walkway with his right arm wedged up between his shoulder blades on the other side of Janesha.

    “Your orders, milady?” asked the woman, as casually as if she were inquiring about the weather.

    “Rip his head off,” Janesha snarled, but Taylor could see (fortunately) that her friend wasn’t the ‘lady’ the guard deferred to.

    Lady Columbine looked over the pair and said, “He is not yours to harm, Dee. We are here for Edeena.”

    “He may not be hers to harm, but I’m the one that mortal moron was going to try and hold hostage,” Janesha argued, moving to stand over the prone parahuman with her fists clenched.

    “No one is disputing that, sweetheart. Though if you plan on following through with your current rage, I would appreciate it if you took him somewhere else first. Edeena has been through quite enough trauma for one century.”

    Janesha frowned, her eyes bouncing from Edeena to Lady Columbine in confusion. Her thumb rolled towards the mass below. “Why would she find the murder of a mortal to be traumatic, cuz? I mean Taylor, I can understand, since she’s one of them. But Edeena’s one of us …”

    “Janesha.”

    Wow. On top of everything else, Taylor decided Lady Columbine was definitely a parent. No one else could ever pull off a world of disapproval when saying someone’s name like that.

    The black woman took their distraction as an opportunity to turn and run, but Taylor wasn’t having any of that and quickly gave chase. She’d never been fitter in her life and as she burst through the doorway, she hooked her hand on the frame and swung to the left, gaining valuable time. The corridor she found herself in wasn’t very long, and up ahead she saw the woman duck around another corner and out of sight.

    Taylor charged after her. But just as she approached the corner, she heard a heartfelt scream of terror. Barely a second later, she collided heavily with Doctor Mother, who was now running back toward her. The older woman clung to her costume and ducked in behind her, babbling fluently in French. What little she could make out came more from her body language than her actual words, for the woman sank to the ground and ducked her head to make herself as small a target as possible.

    Cautiously, not releasing her grip on Doctor Mother in case the woman tried to run off again, Taylor took a half step towards the corner and peered past the bend. There was nothing there, just another long, white corridor.

    Nothing at all.

    After searching all four surfaces, Taylor shrugged dismissively and with a tightening grip on the woman’s upper arm, she forced Doctor Mother to her feet and walked her back to the others. Doctor Mother didn’t resist, but she did spend most of her time looking back over her shoulder at the corner. “Le griffon,” she muttered. “Le griffon.

    “Nicely done, petal,” Janesha said over her shoulder as Taylor arrived. The man with blond hair was now on his knees in front of Janesha, and just like Eidolon, he stared straight ahead at nothing.

    Score one to Lady Columbine, Taylor thought to herself, since the man was still here and alive.

    “And guess what? We’ve got an original member of the Slaughterhouse Nine, here. Best buds with Jack Slash himself. Everyone, meet Harbinger, also known as the Number Man, the super-powered accountant.”

    WHAT?” The Slaughterhouse Nine were somehow involved in this nightmare that could still get the world destroyed? Funnily enough, once her brain had a chance to process that, Taylor started to feel more comfortable with the situation. The Slaughterhouse Nine were extremely bad, and no one would hold the world responsible for what they did, would they?

    “I know, right?” Janesha went on, ignorant of her internal monologue. “His power is literally number-crunching. He’s also the doofus who thought he could take on Dee in hand to hand, which incidentally is going to be one of my go-to memories for a good laugh for a long time to come.”

    “Why would the Slaughterhouse Nine give other people powers?”

    “Oh, they didn’t. Harbinger left them when a better offer came along.”

    Taylor couldn’t tell if Janesha was embellishing the story or not, but when it came to the Slaughterhouse Nine, it didn’t matter. “So was he in on this?” asked Taylor pragmatically. “The whole cutting up Edeena while she was still alive and feeding her to people? Did he eat any of her?”

    “Yes to the first, no to the second,” Janesha answered. “He came in after they got started, but he was totally on board with all of it. He already had powers and had left the Nine by then. And he might not have started the process, but he kidnapped people and force-fed them vials, just to see what would happen. Innocent in all this, he ain’t.”

    “Oh,” Taylor grimaced. That certainly sounded more like a Slaughterhouse Nine member. She pushed Doctor Mother into the ground alongside Harbinger, who made it as far as scrambling to her knees before she took on that same placid, long distance stare of her comrade. “What about her? Is she former Slaughterhouse Nine too? Oh, and just in case this is anything important, while I was chasing her, she got a huge fright and came running back to me. All I can get out of her is the word ‘griffin’, which doesn’t make much sense. But when I looked, I didn’t see anything at all.”

    “Really?” Janesha glanced down at the black woman, then burst out laughing. “Oh, that’s just mean! I love it.” She looked to her left where Lady Columbine stood and added, “Don’t ever change, Bee. That was freakin’ beautiful.”

    The albino vervet monkey with the butterfly wings uttered a proud snicker that was very human-like. When Taylor gave it a suspicious glance, it straightened its shoulders in a stylised preen and blinked back at her innocently.

    Even without the butterfly wings, that would’ve been no normal vervet monkey, Taylor decided. It was far too smart for even its normally intelligent kin. But if it were a celestial version of ordinary monkeys … Taylor had no idea how smart they could get. She wasn’t about to lay any bets against it.

    By now, the mass had retracted to reveal a woman cushioned on all sides by what Taylor could only describe as giant flower petals. Her body was cocooned in the petals with one rolled against her head like a pillow. The perennial then started to grow towards them out of the mass until the large flowerhead was alongside the walkway, at which point it tilted itself and peeled back its petals to reveal a beautiful woman with long silver hair dressed in silver silk pyjamas.

    The moment the petals released their hold, the woman came to life with a gasp and lunged forward, only to be caught in a containing hug by Lady Columbine. “Sssshhh, sweetheart. It is alright. I have you …” Lady Columbine crooned, as the woman thrashed and screamed and cried all at once. It took some time for the woman to even think about calming down, and when she did, her eyes focused on her saviour and she went from fighting her to hugging her fiercely. “Lady Col,” she sobbed, inching her fingers closer together in a desperate bid for more contact.

    Lady Columbine supported her weight as she continued to stroke her hair and shoulders and whisper kind words of comfort while rocking from side to side as if Edeena were a child and not a fully formed adult.

    Taylor read a universe’s worth of hurt in Edeena; for despite her body being unmarred and healthy, she was walking wounded. And no wonder; no matter how whole she was now, having one’s very essence torn out and fed to strangers for thirty years had to leave some sort of scarring on the psyche.

    The look Janesha sent Taylor had the teen nodding in agreement. Yeah, this was definitely intense, but Lady Columbine seemed to take it all in her stride, leaving Taylor to wonder just how many times she’d been called on to put someone’s broken pieces back together again like this.

    It took several minutes for the sobbing to weaken into noiseless hiccups, but the moment Columbine shifted her weight, Edeena gasped and clung even more desperately to the woman she considered her rock. “It is alright, Edeena. I am not going anywhere. I just need you to answer one question honestly and then you can go back to sleep. Alright?”

    Tension still rippled through the woman’s arms. “I-I feel like I’m being torn apart…” she stammered, on the verge of sobbing once more.

    “I know,” Lady Columbine crooned. “Your essence has been at war with itself for a little while now, and it’s going to take time to bring it all back into a cohesive unit once more.”

    “My-my what? I-I don’t understand. Why can’t I remember …”

    “Perhaps that is for the best, for now.” As she spoke, Lady Columbine looked over Edeena’s head to Janesha. “In time, when you are ready, I will bring in someone who can slowly reintroduce you to the memories you are missing.” When Janesha nodded affirmatively, Lady Columbine smiled in gratitude and returned her focus to Edeena. “For now, all you need to know is your brother is here, and he is safe. Do you wish to stay here with him, sweetheart, or come home with me?”

    “I want to go home!” the woman’s wail filled the room as she buried herself further into Lady Columbine’s embrace. “I don’t like it here! I don’t even know where here is! I don’t understand any of this! The last thing I remember was you dropping us off after taking us out to dinner to celebrate my early graduation this afternoon!” Her voice escalated with each new word. “Why can’t I remember the rest?”

    “Sshhh, I know, baby. You are scared, and that is understandable. It is a very long story, and when you are feeling better, I give you my absolute word I will explain everything to you, in great detail. For now, I need you to trust me, sweetheart, and when you wake up, I will be right there beside you …” As she continued to speak, the tension drifted away from Edeena’s body until she sagged and finally collapsed in Lady Columbine’s arms. With only one arm supporting her weight, the powerful celest stroked her hair and kissed her brow. “There we go.”

    “Told you,” Janesha said, moving to Taylor’s side. “Cousin Col is good.” Her voice held a distinct level of satisfaction.

    Taylor nodded. “You did.” She glanced at Doctor Mother and Number Man, neither of whom had moved. Number Man’s pistol lay where it fell, as if it were no more dangerous than the clipboard nearby. Whatever Dee’s game was, Taylor had no idea. She was probably the celestial equivalent of a special-ops soldier, from the way she moved. No, that’s not terrifying at all. “So what happens now?”

    “Now,” Lady Columbine said, lifting the unconscious woman in her arms. “Edeena needs to be taken back to Earlafaol, but before I leave, I need to speak with her brother.” She looked down and to the left of the girls. “Orson, I could use your help in this matter, handsome.”

    A huge mountain of a man with short, golden brown hair appeared on the walkway to Taylor’s right. While Fenja and Menja could get taller, he was easily the largest unaltered person she had ever seen. At well over seven feet tall, he would’ve been even bigger than Manpower, with the matching build of a quarterback. The casual black t-shirt and jeans he wore hugged him in all the right places. Taylor wasn’t exactly sure where he’d come from, but she knew what he was; celestial, to the bone. She was starting to recognise the type.

    “Eechee,” he said, crossing his arm over his chest and bowing reverently.

    Lady Columbine smiled warmly at him. “Would you be a dear and take Edeena back to Earlafaol for me, please? I would like her to be set up in Trysten’s old room, though if you could have all the weaponry and magical components removed first, that would also be appreciated.” Instead of complying, Orson’s lips pinched together tightly and his brows merged into a dark frown to which Lady Columbine tilted her head ever so slightly and quickly added, “There are ninety-nine of your fellow pryde members, plus one of your own clutch-mates and my personal bodyguard remaining with me.” The look in her eyes was final when she said, “I will be fine, Orson.”

    “What does ‘Eechee’ mean?” Taylor whispered out of the corner of her mouth.

    “Boss, top dog, head kahuna, pryde leader … take your pick.”

    Orson’s chocolate brown eyes flicked to the girls, and Taylor got the distinct impression he was assessing them for potential danger.

    “Now you’re just clutching at straws, big guy,” Janesha chuckled, folding her arms in derision. Taylor did likewise, more as a show of unity between the two teens than any belief that she added anything to this situation.

    Orson eyed them once more, then huffed irritably in sufferance. “Very well, Eechee.” He came forward and slipped his arms alongside Columbine’s to relieve her of her burden. The transfer between the two was a simple enough, and once it was done, he swivelled to stand on Lady Columbine’s left.

    Taylor watched as Lady Columbine raised her hand (much as Janesha had) and said the name “Annette.” From Taylor’s point of view, nothing changed, but Lady Columbine’s lips parted into a fond smile. “I am sorry to wake you, sweetheart … yes, I am currently with Edeena. No, they have not returned to Earlafaol … yet, which is the reason for my blood-link. Orson will be accompanying Edeena home and seeing to her safety whilst I speak to Sagun. If you could rouse the staff and have them prepare Trysten’s old apartment for her, I will be along shortly.”

    As they spoke, Orson’s gaze narrowed and it slid to his right towards Lady Columbine. “Do not leave her side again until I get back, sister,” he warned, ever so darkly. “Or I’ll have your pelt for a rug on my sitting room floor.”

    “Thank you, sweetheart.” Apparently ignoring what Orson had said, Lady Columbine took the large man by the elbow and reached forward with her right hand. Another feminine hand with a short, well-manicured nail set slipped around Columbine’s wrist. Moments later, dozens of matching hands appeared all over Edeena’s body, each with their wrists vanishing into nothingness and aligned in the same direction. Every set of fingers burrowed between Orson and Edeena until the woman was lifted out of his arms. For a few seconds, she seemed to be floating on a series of levitating hands, but as she was carried away from Orson, more and more of her vanished until she was gone entirely.

    “I could still stay,” Orson suggested, as one of those levitating hands appeared around Orson’s left wrist. He was looking back at Columbine beseechingly. “What if you need me here?”

    Columbine’s smile was full of warmth as she squeezed his elbow indulgently. “Once you get back to the Prydelands, handsome, your poppa is going to be all over you to know where I went. It is too early in the morning to have him stirring the whole pryde into a battle frenzy when I will be back just as soon as I have spoken to Sagun. Of all your pryde-mates, you are one of the few who can stand your ground and reason with him when his emotions are overstimulated.”

    “If he doesn’t throw me out the nearest window first for leaving you behind,” he muttered under his breath, but then he dipped his head in farewell to Lady Columbine and took the step that had him vanishing from sight.

    As soon as he was gone, the vervet monkey made a deep raspberry sound at the empty space he’d previously filled, and was rewarded with a light but firm tap on her nose from Lady Columbine. “If you are not brave enough to say it to his face, do not be cowardly enough to ridicule him behind his back,” she said, reprimandingly.

    “Did they just go back to Earlafaol?” asked Taylor, once again out of the side of her mouth.

    “They sure did,” Janesha replied cheerfully, having none of the concern that Taylor did. “You should see the family compound there. It’s amazing. Even by our standards!”

    Just for a moment, Taylor felt the urge to ask if she could visit. Earth Aleph didn’t have nearly as many capes as Bet did, but they at least knew of parahuman powers. Earlafaol wasn’t just another alternate; it was the original. Everything she thought of as pre-cape history hadn’t happened on Bet or Aleph, but it had happened for real on Earlafaol. Where parahuman powers had never happened, and never would. No Endbringers. No Slaughterhouse Nine.

    “I could ask her if you could go over for a bit,” Janesha suggested, making Taylor wonder if she’d used mind-bending. “If you wanted to, I mean.”

    The impulse passed, and Taylor shook her head. “I’d either love it or hate it, or wonder why I even wanted to go. No matter what, I’d probably end up regretting it.”

    A bright golden light flashed in the middle of the huge chamber. When it faded, Scion was hovering there, staring around wildly. “Where is she?” he shouted. “Where is Edeena? What have you done with her?”

    As Taylor blinked away the last of the flash, she heard Janesha’s sigh.

    Oooh boy. Is he in trouble.”


    End of Part Eighteen
     
    Last edited: Jan 8, 2020
  17. Scopas

    Scopas Getting sticky.

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    Poor idiot demigod. He's just made himself culpable by finding Cauldron at the worst moment.
     
    Death by Chains, Ack and Angel466 like this.
  18. Threadmarks: Part Nineteen: Apocalypse Subverted
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Celestial Worm

    Part Nineteen: Apocalypse Subverted

    [A/N: This chapter commissioned by Fizzfaldt and co-written by Angel466.]


    Taylor barely had time to react, either to Scion's sudden appearance or to Janesha's off-hand comment, before a huge, armored monstrosity appeared at Scion's side in mid-air. Its three solid legs were braced as if it were on the ground and one of its four arms had Scion's hand at the wrist, twisted painfully. Another arm, full of tentacles, had his legs bound to its waist and a third had a massive lobster style pincer pressed on either side of Scion's throat. Huge, bat-like wings held the monstrosity in place with the smallest of movements, and on its shoulders was a rotating carapace. Like Scion, the entire being gleamed of gold.

    Scion's free hand reached for the pincer around his throat, only to be intercepted by a fourth, hollow looking tube of an arm that seemed to swallow his arm to the elbow. "Cease, or die," the monstrosity warned, in that same demonic voice Janesha had used on Eidolon.

    Scion's eyes widened and shot to where the golden creature hovered at his side; his chest swelled in panic.

    "Sagun, I need you to focus on me and calm down, handsome," Lady Columbine reiterated in a steady voice, waving the fingertips of her right hand to gain his attention. "Dee will release you, once you have done that for me."

    Sagun? wondered Taylor. Scion's real name is Sagun?

    Scion's focus snapped to Lady Columbine and recognition flashed across his features. "Lady Col?" he asked, somewhat hesitantly.

    Taylor turned her attention to the woman in charge, whose smile reached all the way to her eyes, causing the gold specks within to sparkle. "It is lovely to see you again, dear," she said sincerely. The vervet monkey on her shoulder rose to its full height, and while one hand still held the professor's head for balance, the other was fisted angrily. "Any chance you could come down here, so neither of us has to shout?"

    Scion pinched his lips and wriggled a little more, only to still and have the golden skin around his face go pale with realisation. "Wait … DEE?" he demanded, swivelling his head to look squarely at the colossal thing restraining him. "Seriously?"

    "You and me both," Janesha murmured, blinking up at them in shock.

    Taylor's eyes went to the spot on the walkway where the petite bodyguard had been standing between Number Man and Doctor Mother and found the space entirely empty. She then looked up at the massive armored monster that seemed to be restraining Scion with laughable ease. "Is that really Dee?" she whispered, through the corner of her mouth, thumbing to the empty space she'd held.

    "Uh-huh," Janesha replied. "I mean, I knew Dee was Hellion brute squad under that human facade, but this is the first time I've ever been this close to one in full battle-mode."

    "H-Hellion?" Taylor stuttered, the very word sending a body-wide shudder through her.

    Janesha's head bobbed. "Yeah. The brute squad is what the rest of us call the Highborn Hellion Guard. Very elite, and very, very, very scary mo-fos." She looked at Taylor. "Rumour has it, they can do to us what an Endbringer could do to you, if your people had no capes at all."

    "Who are you people?" Doctor Mother asked, lacking the accusatory tone she'd held earlier. Taylor was surprised she could talk at all. "How do you know Scion? Are you one of them?"

    Lady Columbine turned her head ever so slightly towards Doctor Mother. "Who I am depends entirely upon who you ask," she answered obscurely. "If you were to ask my students at the HMS, they would tell you I am Professor Nascerdios, Dean of Medical Education. To Master Geb of Yaru, I am his almahamiy. My pryde calls me Eechee. I am 'Mother' to my children, and 'Cousin Col' to young Janesha here. It is all a matter of individual perspective."

    Whether it was the lyrical way she spoke, or the time she took to say her piece, Scion must have calmed down, for both he and Dee drifted back to the catwalk, where Dee instantly became the petite guard once more. The change was so incredibly rapid, Taylor found that even her enhanced memory failed to capture any aspect of the transition between one form and the other. Scion jerked his arms free of the woman and backed away to the rail, rubbing his wrists with both hands. "Where's my sister?" he asked, searching the faces of everyone before him.

    "Edeena is back in Earlafaol," Lady Columbine answered. Scion immediately dropped his hands and stiffened, but when Lady Columbine raised her own for silence, he held his tongue. "She will be fine, Sagun. On that, you have my absolute word. I plan on nursing her back to health myself, just as soon as I return."

    His eyes searched them all once more, before he seemed to accept that. "I lost contact with her years ago. What happened to her?"

    Lady Columbine sighed sadly. "At some point, something happened to cause her essence to fracture, and I have only just now brought all the parts of her back together. She needs time to recover."

    Sagun blinked. "Essence?"

    "The source of the power you wield when you take command of a realm and craft constructs is called your essence," Lady Columbine said patiently.

    "How the hell does he not know that?" Janesha snarled, incredulously. Lady Columbine's finger shot up in warning and with a frustrated growl, Janesha quietened down.

    "In your sister's case, her essence was partially scattered, which may explain why you lost contact with her. Once she has made an adequate recovery, I will see to it that she reaches out to re-establish contact with you." For a few seconds, an uncomfortable silence fell over the room, but then Lady Columbine twisted her face high and to the right, gesturing to her exposed cheek. "Forgetting something, Sagun?"

    Scion looked at her hand, then her face. Then he dropped his chin to his chest in a snort and shook his head. Still looking down, he wiped the front and back of his hands clean on his bodysuit and stepped forward into Lady Columbine's space. Holding her by the elbows, he pressed his lips to the cheek in question, then wrapped his arms around her waist in a tight hug, pushing his throat against her right shoulder. "I missed you, Lady Col," he murmured over her shoulder.

    Lady Columbine slipped her arms over his shoulders and returned the embrace. "I missed you too, handsome."

    And she held him until he relaxed completely in her arms, at which point, he pulled away to look at her. "Edeena's really going to be okay, though, right?" he asked, for clarification.

    Lady Columbine nodded. "It will take time, but yes, she will recover." She retracted her right hand and stroked the left side of his face, her nails sliding effortlessly through his beard. "This certainly makes you look dashing."

    Sagun chuckled and pulled away from her touch. "Edeena said my first effort at a beard looked like someone had stapled a dead ferret to my face."

    Janesha snorted in amusement, and even Taylor was hard pressed to keep from laughing. This version of Scion was so far removed from the morbid images she'd seen on TV that she was having a hard time remembering they were one and the same.

    "Given how quickly you have managed to create a pocket realm for yourself, I was going to suggest you abandon this first attempt and return to Earlafaol with me. Your presence alone would do wonders for your twin's recovery." Her eyes swept down the length of him before returning to his face. "But unfortunately, I see that is no longer a viable option for you." Her lips pinched a little, as if in pain or regret as she tucked his fringe behind his right ear. "You always were so ambitious, Sagun. Just like your father."

    "I wouldn't know," Scion griped, bitterly. "Seeing how he threw me and Edeena away like garbage the first chance he got."

    Lady Columbine lowered her hand to his shoulder and squeezed. "It was not as straightforward as that, and you know it. He had an affair, and his wife would have killed both you and your sister in a very horrible way, had she learned of your existence. He brought you to me to keep you safe."

    A disgusted look swept over Scion's features and his hands went to his hips as he looked at the ceiling over her head. His lips pinched together, though the way they flexed and twitched, it was clear he had plenty to say to the contrary that he didn't want to voice.

    Lady Columbine laid her hand against his cheek, dusting his cheekbone with her thumb. "Do not allow yourself to be defined by the actions of others, Sagun. You are so much better than that."

    Unwilling to listen in on a conversation that definitely wasn't meant for her, Taylor slid her hand into Janesha's and tugged her a few steps away.

    "You okay, petal?" Janesha asked.

    "Lady Columbine talked to me in here when she was bringing Edeena back together again." As she spoke, Taylor tapped her forehead. "Not all the way in, the way you do though …"

    Janesha nodded, as if she already knew what Taylor was going to say. "Yeah, she's a lot of things, but she's not a bender like we are. I mean, she should be, being my cousin from the bending side of things and all, but for whatever reason, she isn't. There's a thousand theories going around as to why, but it doesn't change the bottom line."

    That wasn't really what Taylor wanted to talk about. "She said you were crying because of me."

    Janesha huffed and scowled at Lady Columbine, who arched an eyebrow without ever breaking her conversation with Sagun.

    But Taylor didn't want her to brush the matter aside. "Don't do that," she said, taking her friend's hand in both of hers. "I was really angry with you for throwing Earth Bet to the wolves when you found out about Edeena. But she made me understand you didn't have a choice. That, as always, there's a bigger picture to consider."

    "I was ready to yank you and Danny to me, if Uncle Chance or one of the others came through with Cousin Col. You may have hated me afterwards, but I was going to make it very clear to them that you were mine and I wasn't willing to lose you."

    "I'm glad you didn't have to."

    "Me too."

    "Is this a private conversation, or can any old friend join in?" A light, melodic voice asked from the far side of them. Taylor and Janesha both turned towards the newcomer, and shock of shocks … it was yet another gorgeous woman. Her skin was as white as her clothing and her eyes were a rich pink. Her hair fell around her shoulders in perfect waves, and dressed as she was in a short, A-line skirt and peep-toe pumps, she had legs that supermodels would've killed for.

    Janesha held her hand up with a deep chuckle, causing the woman to mimic the swipe that had their hands colliding in a mid-air forwards and backwards greeting. "Bee, this is my friend Taylor. Taylor, this is Bee, Lady Columbine's companion."

    "Call me Bee or Bianca, darlin'," drawled Bee. "And I just had to come over and shake your hand before we left." She held her hand out to do just that.

    "Uh—why?" Taylor asked, though she took the woman's hand and enjoyed a brief, firm handshake.

    The smirk on Bee's face was a work of art as she tilted her head towards Janesha. "Anyone who can get a Mystallian's head out of their backside long enough to appreciate the mortals for something other than a power source is worth shaking the hand of."

    "Bite me, bitch," Janesha snarked, with an over-the-top frown and matching jaw thrust. It lasted for all of a second. "Besides, aren't you supposed to have your ass glued to Cousin Col over there, or risk 'being turned into a floor rug'?"

    Bee rolled her eyes and huffed, the move not quite the blatant raspberry from before. "Please. I don't take my orders from that overgrown parakeet. I'm medical. He's military. And we're clutch-mates. He can huff and puff 'til the other eight levels of Hell freezes over, for all I care. He's not the boss of me."

    "You might think differently when he's got you in a headlock with a fistful of talons poking out the other side of your ribs."

    Bianca shrugged nonchalantly. "He has to catch me first."

    "Wait … you were the vervet monkey?" Taylor asked, glancing back at Lady Columbine and finding her left shoulder free of the albino creature. The way these celestial creatures moved around and changed shape, she was wondering if they should be wearing bells or something. She'd already decided to not try to decipher the majority of what they were saying until she got Janesha alone.

    "And anythin' else I feel like bein', at the time I feel like bein' it, sugar," Bee confirmed cheerfully. "The vervet monkey's one of my favorites, though. Anyone who knows enough to recognize that 'faolian monkeys shouldn't have wings will stay well clear, and the rest never see it coming." She chuckled in reminiscence, then paused and looked mischievously at Janesha. "And what makes you think I've got the monopoly on a future ass-kicking, anyway? At least I've only got my egg-headed brother to deal with. You've clearly forgotten just how many people are gunning for you, Chicken Little."

    "No, I haven't. I'm just choosing to not think about it," Janesha argued, curling her top lip and screwing up her nose. "That's future me's problem."

    Bianca's laugh deepened and she shook her head incredulously. "Yeah, let me know how works for you, darlin'. You won't be sittin' down for at least a year, and that's if your old man's the one who gets to you first."

    Janesha's eyes widened in surprise. "Wait … Dad's looking for me too?"

    Bianca's eyes also widened, though hers were in a more condescending 'duh' way. "One thing I'll give you, ratbag, you certainly know how to stir-up the Known Realms. Asgard's in trouble because you were a minor left to their care and they didn't see to your well-being."

    "But Aunt Yasadan knew I left…"

    "I'm not talking about the Mystallians. Your father is blaming your disappearance wholly and solely on the Asgardians and he's already gone to blows with Thor over what happened; given they're next-realm neighbors. Your older brothers and sisters on his side are fanning out across the Unknown Realms in an effort to pick up any hint of your trail, but I don't think they'll be the ones to find you first. Not when your Uncle Barris and Uncle Chance have joined forces with Armina to have the realm's luckiest man-hunt…"

    "Fuck me!" Janesha swore heatedly under her breath, raking her fingers through her hair and clutching the back of her neck in frustration. "I am sooo fucking screwed!"

    If Lady Columbine heard her whispered curse, she made no show of it.

    Bianca huffed once more. "Why does this surprise you? I was a lot older than you when I took a two-month unauthorized sabbatical from the Pryde, and Poppa still drop-kicked me into my own orbit when he finally found me working under a different name in an unlicensed clinic in downtown New York."

    "The Eechen's as scary as the brute squad when he's pissed."

    Bianca snorted again. "Give me the brute squad any day, sugar. Poppa could eat them for breakfast all day long."

    Taylor watched the interaction between them as much as she listened to it. The most surreal moment of all was when she realized if she closed her eyes, the entire conversation was practically … normal. They could've just as easily been her neighbors down the street, if she swapped out the word 'realm' for more realistic terms like next-door and next suburb over. Of course, her neighbors weren't actually serious when they talked of kicking someone into orbit or eating someone for breakfast, (something she couldn't say was the case here) but other than that, the rest of the word choices were all too familiar to her.

    Janesha breathed out long and hard, then pressed her lips together and sucked them through her teeth. "Well, it's too late now," she said, dropping her hands to her sides and throwing her right shoulder up in a half-shrug. "Might as well party hard and enjoy the ride while it lasts."

    "And you should also know; your grandmother hit up the Pryde for some tefsla."

    Janesha's eyebrows shot straight up into her hairline and her mouth fell open in horror.

    Bianca immediately held up a hand with her fingers stretched wide, patting the air between them. "Easy, Janesha. To my knowledge, Poppa refused. But your grandmother's a very resourceful woman when she sets her mind to something and with Chance in tow, she'll probably find some way of getting it before she arrives here anyway."

    Janesha's eyes scrunched together before she covered them with one hand. "Holy fucking hell," he murmured into her palm, scratching her nails across her brows as if to stave off a headache.

    "Wha—wha—what's tefsla?" Taylor asked, immediately growing concerned for her friend.

    Bianca eyed Taylor, then looked across to Janesha and tilted her head sympathetically.

    The Mystallian teen grimaced once more, then licked her parched lips and said, "It's the one thing that can block our ability to shift, petal. If she's after tefsla, she wants to make sure that whatever she has in mind for me … hurts … for a long time to come."

    Bianca closed her eyes and nodded in agreement. "The downside to having a powerful family, is that they are powerful when you come into their crosshairs." Then she opened her eyes and smirked, patting the doomed teenager on the shoulder. "It's been nice knowing you, darlin'."

    "Bite me," Janesha repeated, with none of her earlier vigor.

    Lady Columbine cleared her throat politely. "Excuse me," she said when they turned their attention to her. "Bianca and I will be leaving shortly, but before we go, Sagun wanted to ask you something, Janesha."

    Taylor had to wonder why Lady Columbine felt it necessary to act as intermediary between a grown man and a teenager, especially one as powerful as Scion—Sagun. It wasn't as if asking his own question was beyond him … unless he thought he had a better chance of getting a truthful answer if Lady Columbine bore witness to it.

    A stimulation wave rolled over Janesha, fixing her hair and straightening her uniform. "Sure," she said, so chirpily that Taylor knew it had to be fake. "What'd you want to know?"

    Scion looked at each of them before settling his gaze on Janesha. "Lady Col says that you can see into minds, the way I can alter bodies…"

    "I can do both, actually."

    "Janesha," Lady Columbine warned, when Scion's eyes widened, and he glanced apprehensively at his former guardian.

    Janesha shrugged irreverently. "Just stating a fact."

    "Then allow me to add another fact your collection. You will not be changing his shape, young lady, as he is descended from the Hellion Highborn."

    It was Janesha's turn to look poleaxed. "Oh."

    Even Taylor understood that reference. They were the ones that ordered around those things like Dee. Ranged shapeshifters, the way Janesha was a ranged mind-bender.

    "So, what did you want to ask?" Janesha rested a loose fist on her hip as she spoke.

    "I want to know what happened to my sister. All of it. Lady Col says she only just arrived, so she doesn't know, but she said you have the means to help me find out."

    There were more teeth in Janesha's grin than there strictly should have been. "Oh, I can definitely help you there." She mimed cracking her knuckles; the gentle pressure of her hand setting off firecracker detonations that had Taylor mentally snorting in amusement. "Buckle up, Sparky. You're going for a quick trip down my memory lane."

    Taylor wasn't entirely sure what happened (though she could guess), but from one second to the next, Scion went from a ball of nervous confusion, to one that was absolutely bristling with rage. His eyes went to the spot on the walkway where Doctor Mother and the Number Man both knelt. Power coursed through his body, lifting him off the ground. "HOW DARE YOU?" he bellowed, each syllable like a crack of thunder that shook the walkway.

    Lady Columbine closed her eyes and twisted her head to one side away from Scion, her nostrils flaring slightly.

    Apparently pleased with herself, Janesha stepped to one side and gave an imperious wave at the condemned pair. "They're all yours, Sagun. Have at 'em."

    A single flash of light later, Scion and the two human prisoners were gone, leaving Taylor and the celestials alone on the walkway.

    "Well, that certainly … escalated more quickly than I had hoped," Lady Columbine said, blinking heavily twice and clearing her throat before she shifted her focus to the two teens. Janesha in particular. "But now that Sagun has gone, I too have a request of you, sweetheart."

    Janesha glanced at Bianca to see if she had any idea where this was going, and when the albino woman hitched a shoulder and shook her head, the teen looked back to Lady Columbine. "Okay …?" she said cautiously.

    "Sagun is young. In truth, he is far too young and inexperienced to be established, but it has been done now and nothing short of hunting down and murdering all of his believers will change that. Had you not been in this realm, no one from the Known Realms would have ever visited here by choice. This is his realm. At just a few hundred worlds, it is beyond tiny, but it suits his needs. By contrast, Mystal and Rangi-Tuarea both have the power to destroy him and his realm in a heartbeat if anything happens to you."

    "So basically, you want me to stay safe, and don't give either side of my family a reason to kill him."

    "Exactly."

    Janesha's tongue hovered over the bump of her top lip. "You know … the best way to ensure that would be if you stayed too …"

    Taylor was no mind-bender, but she didn't have to be one in order to translate Janesha's intent. With the amount of sheer familial disapproval that was now looming on the metaphorical horizon, the teenage celestial wanted the one person who wasn't being judgmental in the matter in her corner to deflect at least part of that shitstorm.

    Lady Columbine seemed to likewise correctly interpret Janesha's words, if the gentle smile that crossed her lips was any indication. "When you chose this path, you knew there would be consequences."

    "But I didn't think grandmother Armina would be bringing tefsla to the table …!"

    "Did you not think she would counter your ability to shapeshift around a physical punishment? This is no longer just about you, Janesha. The elders plan on using you as an object lesson for every other unestablished child in the realm, including those yet to come."

    Janesha's ready confidence wilted. "How in the Twin Notes is that fair?"

    "It is not about being fair, sweetheart. It is about ensuring the safety of everyone your age. And if doubling down on you prevents anyone else from ever trying it, then they will have achieved their objective."

    Janesha locked her fingers together and held them flat against the back of her head. She looked at the ceiling overhead and bit her bottom lip, and Taylor could see she was fighting back tears. "This is so not fair," she argued. "I just wanted to take a few weeks to myself to blow off some steam."

    "And in the process, you ran headlong into a talot."

    "A baby talot … which I killed."

    "With mortal intervention. You had a lot of luck on your side there, sweetheart, and luck is not something to be relied on unless you are someone like Uncle Chance." As if realizing this conversation would go nowhere fast, Lady Columbine reached out and gripped the teen's shoulder. "Whether you believe that or not, Edeena has been through a terrible ordeal not entirely of her own making, and I really do need to get back to tend to her."

    Janesha dropped her arms in defeat, tacitly acknowledging the point. "Yeah, I know. She was a mess."

    Lady Columbine moved her hand to tenderly massage the side of Janesha's throat. "If you truly believe my presence will make any difference at all to what is about to befall you, the offer to return to Earlafaol with us is still open."

    This time, the celestial teen seemed to consider it for a few seconds, but then she looked at Taylor and shook her head. "No, I can't. Something weird is going on here, and if I leave now, I'll probably never get back. I don't want to leave my friends without making sure they'll be alright."

    Lady Columbine smiled in understanding, then she leaned forward and pressed her lips against Janesha's forehead. "As you wish, my dear. Should you require my counsel at any time, do not hesitate to call out. I am only ever a blood-link away."

    "Thank you, Cousin Col." Just as Scion had done, Janesha kissed Lady Columbine on the cheek and wrapped her arms around her waist to hug her close. "I really, really appreciate it."

    Columbine chuckled indulgently as she returned the embrace. "Anytime, sweetheart. Just … promise me you will avoid any other talots in the foreseeable future, alright?" She kissed Janesha hair once more, then pulled away when the teen nodded. "Come along, Bianca. It is time we were on our way."

    Between one step and the next, Bianca became the vervet monkey that took to the air with two beats of her delicate butterfly wings. She hovered behind Janesha's head just long enough to thoroughly muss the girl's perfect hair, then banked towards Lady Columbine, chittering in delight. Her wings bounced as she landed on the professor's left shoulder, using Lady Columbine's head for balance.

    Janesha muttered blackly under her breath as she cast another stimulation wave to rectify the mess that would've taken Taylor at least an hour to sort out. Because celestials sucked like that.

    "It was lovely to meet you, Taylor," the professor said, holding her hand out to the mortal teen.

    Taylor stared at the hand, still shocked that someone like the professor would want to make physical contact with the pariah of Winslow. "L-L-Likewise," she stammered, taking the hand but not applying much pressure.

    Lady Columbine lay her other hand over the top of Taylor's, encompassing it. "I truly wish you and your father all of my best. Very few celestials manage to form true friendships with mortals. I believe it is a good habit to get into." While Taylor was still goggling over the sheer sincerity in those words, Columbine broke contact and made a brief gesture in the air. "Annette."

    That was the second time she'd used that name.

    Hearing her mother's name pulled painfully on Taylor's heartstrings, even though she knew intellectually the number of 'Annette's in existence had to be astronomical. It helped though, that she couldn't see the woman on the other end of the bloodlink. Being able to imagine that her mother was perhaps alive in some way on some other Earth brought a little comfort to her.

    While Lady Columbine reached out and grasped the disembodied hand, Bee rose to her full height and waved cheerfully at them. The professor also waved with her free hand and stepped forward.

    Between one instant and the next, she vanished altogether from mortal ken.

    Silence fell over the vast echoing room. Taylor blinked a couple of times, trying to convince herself that she wasn't imagining things. "That really happened, didn't it?" she asked out loud. "We're not in some mental construct, playing out a what-if?"

    "You have no idea how much I really, really, really wish we were," Janesha said, squatting almost to the floor with her head bowed. She dragged her fingers through her hair then clenched her right fist and slammed it through the heavy-gauge metal and concrete walkway up to the elbow. "I can't believe they're going to use me as an example to the others. That's so fucking bullshit." She heaved her hand free, sending chips of concrete flying, then let out a frustrated huff and rose to her feet, turning to fully face Taylor. "So, that buttload of unfair crap aside, what did you think of Cousin Columbine?"

    Taylor got the feeling that the question was double-edged and, given the hole Janesha had punched into the walkway, she knew to choose her words carefully; not that she had any problem with gushing over the strange visit. "On a scale of one to ten?" She shook her head wonderingly. "About fifty million. I can see why you look up to her."

    "Tolja, didn't I?" Janesha grinned, albeit weakly. "She's absolutely the only person who could've come in and fixed this situation without calling in the rest of the family." Her chuckle seemed to pick up her spirits. "And, of course she was the one who raised Sagun and his sister. Because who else would?"

    "Having met her," Taylor said quietly, "I can't imagine a better mother figure for anyone." She looked around at the vast echoing room. "So, did you want to explore?"

    "Nah." Janesha tapped herself on the side of the head. "Already got everything I need about this place from Doctor Mother and the Numbers Man." She waved her hand at the room around them. "This whole place is set up like a giant prison, where the prisoners were force-fed vials of Edeena's essence. Those that turned into what you called Case Fifty-Threes either got their memories wiped and dumped out in the world, or never left at all."

    "So, those ones are still here?"

    Janesha shook her head. "Lady Col said she put all the Case Fifty-Threes back where they came from, remember? That included the ones being kept here. This place is a ghost town now." She shrugged. "Wanna get outta here and go back to Brockton Bay?"

    "Sure," Taylor said, and took Janesha by the hand. Preparing to step forward with her, she watched with interest as Janesha laid her hand on the rail and concentrated slightly. "What're you doing?"

    As Janesha took her hand away from the rail, there was a far distant rumbling, and a slight shift in the air. "There are more people connected to Cauldron than just Doctor Mother and Harbinger, but those two were the only ones here when we showed up. I mean, sure, they could've been hiding, I suppose. It's not like I'm attuned here or anything. But Cousin Col's empathy would've dinged them about one second after she got the lay of the land. If they come back, I don't want them being able to use the place." The rumbling was louder now, and there was a palpable vibration through the floor.

    "So, you set the place up to collapse?" It wasn't a hard guess to make. Taylor grinned. Alarms were now wailing. Cracks ran up the wall, and the walkway they were on lurched sideways. Janesha didn't seem to notice; her hand steadied Taylor.

    "I set the place up to collapse from the outside in." The celestial girl grinned right back. They took a step forward, just as the ceiling began to crumble.

    They stepped out of the celestial realm into Taylor's living room. Taylor put her hands on her knees and concentrated on just breathing for a moment, then pulled her helmet off and tossed it onto the sofa. Then she flopped down onto the cushions herself. "Whoa …" she sighed.

    "Hey, what are you wimping out about now?" asked Janesha with a bemused smirk. "You're acting like you've never met another celestial before."

    "Today's been a lot of firsts," Taylor told her flatly. "Seeing a guy's head get blown off. Watching you beat the living crap out of the Simurgh. That thing with Eidolon. Cauldron base. Scion. Your cousin Columbine. You'll excuse me if I take a minute to destress, okay? Is that alright with you?"

    Chuckling out loud, probably at the sheer amount of snark in Taylor's voice, Janesha began to voice a reply, but was interrupted when footsteps sounded on the stairs. They both turned to look.

    Danny appeared a moment later from the entrance hall. "Oh, good," he said. "It is you. I was beginning to wonder what you were up to … Taylor, what are you wearing?"

    Taylor looked down at herself, realizing for the first time that she was still wearing the costume Janesha had crafted for her. "Oh, uh … call me Khepri, I guess," she said. "If I'm gonna be helping Janesha out and stuff, I mean."

    "From which I presume you didn't go to school today." Danny folded his arms and tapped his foot meaningfully.

    "Cut her some slack, Danny," Janesha replied, also folding her arms. "If it wasn't for her, there wouldn't be an Earth Bet left to go to school on, and I'm guessing of the two, that's more important to you."

    "Maybe just a bit," Danny admitted, dropping his arms to his sides. "So how did she manage that?"

    "It started with a PRT villain named Coil, and from there we worked our way to the top."

    "A PRT villain?" Danny baulked.

    Janesha nodded. "Mmm-hmmm. Operating right under their noses. And I could tell from the way he danced around me that he was getting help from somewhere, so we worked our way right up the food chain until we uncovered a shitload of behind-the-scenes crap that I doubt very few people even know. And Taylor was right there in the thick of it with me, covering my back."

    Danny grimaced and looked at Taylor. "So, that was you two beating hell out of the Simurgh, earlier? I thought it was, but I couldn't be sure. The footage was more than a little blurry."

    "Know of any other winged mystallions the color of dawn?" Janesha quipped.

    "I don't know of any other mystallions period," Danny shot back in return.

    "Well, we ran that bitch to ground on the other side of the moon and ended her. From her, we worked our way to which hero was secretly controlling them, and from him …"

    "A HERO WAS CONTROLLING THE END-BRINGERS?!" Danny couldn't have shouted that any louder if he tried.

    "And you don't want to know which one that was, dad. Trust me. Ignorance is a whole lot easier to live with." Taylor cut her hand through the air in a gesture of finality.

    "But you fought the Simurgh?" Danny seemed to have trouble getting past that point. He looked at Janesha. "You took Taylor to fight the Simurgh? What were you thinking?"

    "Check the tone, Danny-boy. I was thinking that we'd go and get rid of her before her and her bastard siblings could cause any more trouble on Earth Bet."

    "Her siblings?"

    "The end-bringers are all interconnected as a single cluster or family of constructs," Taylor answered, laying her head back against the headrest of the couch. "And there was a whole lot more than three of them waiting in the wings to step up." She cracked an eye in Janesha's direction. "What were there? Twenty-ish?"

    "Twenty total, including the three that had already been activated."

    Danny's face paled and staggered to his left to slide down the opposite end of the couch to where Taylor sat. "Twenty Endbringers … controlled by a hero," he repeated.

    "You should've seen Taylor, Danny. She went toe-to-toe with that white-skinned cow, and she's standing here to talk about it. And the fake Simurgh ain't."

    "I didn't do jack shit to her," Taylor protested, getting up from the sofa. "I was only ever a distraction at best."

    "Oh, bullshit." Janesha reached across and mussed Taylor's hair playfully. She turned her attention to Danny. "Twice, that feathered fake tried to make a run for it, and Taylor showed me exactly where she'd disappeared to. We were a team. And I'm not just saying this, but we made a realm-damned good team." She twisted back to Janesha. "You tracked down Coil, we wrecked the Simurgh's whole day … and you even impressed Bee and Cousin Col. Bee's from the pryde, girl. I don't think you get how big that is. Pantheons barely get a second glance from them, and Bee went out of her way to shake your hand."

    "Only because I made you care about mortals …"

    Danny looked from one to the other like a spectator at a tennis match. "Cousin Col? Is that the Lady Columbine you've told us about? The celestial who runs that other Earth?"

    "Yeah, Dad." Taylor nodded firmly. "Janesha called her in for a … uh, a problem. She fixed it." She shook her head. "She's amazing. Like, you can totally tell she's a goddess, but she's also really well-grounded at the same time. And you'll never guess what else." She paused for a beat, then burst out, "Scion's her adopted kid! His real name is Sagun!"

    There was a long moment of silence, then Danny leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and rubbed his face with both hands. "Pretty sure I saw a Star Trek episode that covered this once…" he murmured into his palms, then dropped his arms forward to clasp his hands together in front of his knees. "And here I thought I was long past being surprised." He shook his head again. "Now I can see why you're so shell-shocked, Taylor. Son of a bitch." From the unnaturally calm tone of his voice, Taylor could tell he was trying hard not to overreact, though the wild look around his eyes betrayed his true feelings.

    "Oh, trust me, that's about one percent of the weird shit I learned today," Taylor assured him. "I mean—"

    The phone rang, making her jump. Danny turned and clambered to his feet. "I'll get it, though it's probably the PRT, looking for you, Janesha. They've been blowing up my phone for the last half an hour or so."

    Taylor shared a glance with Janesha. "I wonder how much havoc we caused today?" she murmured.

    The celestial teenager snorted. "I couldn't give a rat's ass, to be honest. Every one of those scumbag thieves deserved everything they got. More if anything. Cousin Col took the nice way out when she stripped them of their powers. No one else would've been that generous—me included."

    Taylor climbed to her feet and stretched. "Well, it certainly won't be for me, so I think I might go up and get out of this outfit before anyone else turns up and points it out." Grabbing her helmet, Taylor headed upstairs to change out of her costume. That's another first for the day, she mused as she entered the room she shared with Janesha. Having an actual superhero costume to wear. It was just lucky that Janesha had been able to repair it after her throwdown with the Simurgh, or her dad might really have gone off the rails when he saw the moondust and the outward damage.

    When she came back downstairs, Janesha was leaning her hip against the kitchen table, talking on the phone. "For the third and last time, you dumb-ass fuck-knuckle," the teenage celest snarled testily into the receiver. "I took away Shadow Stalker's powers, and that's it. No one else's." She paused for a moment, probably to hear whatever was said on the other end of the phone. "I don't give a flying fuck if you believe me or not!" she roared.

    When she noticed Taylor, Janesha gave her a quick chin-lift to acknowledge her arrival then returned her attention back to the person on the other end of the phone call. "Oh, for Mystal's sake. Put Armsmaster on the line. He's actually got a brain, and he uses it on occasion." There was a pause. "You fucking what? Him? Okay, that's it! This call is done!"

    She hung up the phone, and Taylor got the sudden impression that she was being very careful not to break it or the cradle. "For fuck's sake!" she snarled, clenching her fists and making bone claws erupt from her knuckles briefly, before she retracted them again. "Petal, I know I said I wouldn't go killing mortals for no good reason, but that self-important asshole has just jumped up and down on my last fucking nerve."

    "What, Director Piggot?" asked Taylor. "I thought you and her had come to an agreement. She didn't bother you, and you didn't turn her into a newt."

    "Not her! Some other fuckwit by the name of Tagg. Apparently, Alexandria's being a big sooky baby now that she's lost the powers she stole, so the bitch has sicc'd her top headhunter on me as a "Special Investigator" to try and force me to confess." She blew out a deep raspberry as Danny came in from the living room. "By the Twin Notes of all creation, Ǐ̺͓̠́ ̢͇̦͇͚̥ͯŕ̮e̥̠̣͓͌̑ͮͥ̈ͣ̏a͚̻̤̟̼͕̱͒͞l̺̣̘͓̑͑ͭ̑̾͋͑l̵̹̿̓ͦ̾y̗͚͚̺͓͖̿̋̌̐ ͇̯͖͋̽̒̌͋ẖ͇̘̬̮͚̬̌͆̓̏̿̌o̲̫̘ͮ̿ͪp̳̰̪ȇ̹͔̲͈̩̤̈̇́̊ͬ̾͞ ͚̳̱̻͈̱ͣh̸̭̞̼̮̘͖͌ẽ͔̦̗̖̰̣̖ͬ ̶̣̮̭̠̪̓̊́ͫ͊t͇͖͙r̺̙ͯͭͤ͢ï͉̫͇̱e͚̘̰̍̕s̪͆͢.̬̖̰̐̏ͅ"

    "Confess what, exactly?" asked Danny, unable to stop himself from trembling; probably because this was the first time he'd heard Janesha's demonic voice. Taylor was starting to get used to it. "The Coil thing? Or the Simurgh fight?" He looked from one teenager to the other. "I can't really see either one of those warranting a high-level PRT investigator." Silence fell for a moment, then he sighed. Slowly, he rubbed his thumb and forefinger over his forehead. "Okay, what else have you two done?"

    Janesha crossed her arms. "As I just said to that Tagg guy, the only powers I took away were Shadow Stalker's, and that was because of what she did to Taylor."

    "Don't remind me," Danny growled, sliding a hand across Taylor's shoulders protectively.

    "So anyway, as I said before, we followed the breadcrumb trail all the way to the top and found another celestial had been taken prisoner and was being tortured." Janesha pointed at herself. "I'm a celest, but I'm no healer. Cousin Col is the best healer I know of outside of an establishment field, and so I brought her in to help put the pieces of the broken celestial back together again. Which she did."

    "Dad, they were eating her alive to gain powers!" Taylor blurted. The image of the beautiful woman with silver hair so utterly broken in Lady Col's arms was something that would give her nightmares for a long time to come. "Carving her up like a slab of meat! They even called her a flesh garden!"

    "Hey! Hey, hey, hey," Danny crooned, wrapping her up in a tight hug. "It's okay. It's okay." He looked over Taylor's head at Janesha and asked, "It is okay now, though—isn't it?"

    "Physically, yeah. Cousin Col took back all the stolen pieces and reintegrated them with Edeena, then sent her back to Earlafaol where she'll be monitoring her recovery."

    "And Edeena is …?"

    "Scion's twin sister," Taylor revealed.

    "And that boy is peee-isssed," Janesha laughed again. A very unholy laugh. "I'd have asked for front row seats, but next time I cross paths with him, I'm gonna check out for myself what he did when he left the Cauldron base." She rubbed her hands together gleefully. "If he's even got the tiniest smidge of the Highborn Hellion Lords' taste for brutality, it should be a glorious watch."

    "Janesha, you know I don't like it when you talk like this," Danny said with a frown. "I can't stop you from doing it, but you don't have to revel in it in front of us."

    Janesha straightened with a sigh. "You didn't see what they did to her, Danny. But alright, I'll keep my murder-fantasy to myself." She rolled her thumb towards the phone. "Anyway, Tagg thinks I took away all those stolen powers and wants to bully me into making a confession."

    "And what were you saying about Armsmaster?" Taylor asked, resting her head against her father's shoulder both for comfort and support.

    "Tagg stuck him in Master/Stranger protocols. My guess, because Armsmaster wouldn't break the law and join Tagg in trying to arrest me without cause. So, the question is, do I go and bust Armsmaster out, or go and make Tagg's dick-headed skull implode first and then bust Armsmaster out?"

    It was Danny's turn to sigh and shake his head. "Maybe I could offer an option three?" he suggested.

    "I'm listening," Janesha said warily. "Not making any promises, mind you."

    Danny nodded. "That's fair. How about this: instead of stomping on down to the PRT building and declaring war on them, how about we go down there peacefully and talk to them? You know, communicate? Negotiate, even?"

    Taylor was reminded that her father was indeed a savvy negotiator; indeed, he was one of the reasons the Dockworkers still had an Association in Brockton Bay. She couldn't blame him in the least for wanting to shift the playing field in his favour. And to be honest, it didn't sound like a bad idea.

    "Talk?" Janesha sounded dubious in the extreme. "To people like that? You do know we're not gonna get anywhere with them if they decide not to listen, right?"

    Danny spread his hands. "We can only try. And if we don't try, we'll never know if it would've worked or not."

    "I still think you're wasting your time, but you're the one on a limited time frame. I've got forever." Janesha cracked her knuckles and rolled her shoulders. Taylor bit her tongue to avoid reminding her friend of what lay in her near future, and as such, Janesha continued, "Let's go see if you can talk basic comprehension into a shithead. That'll be a miracle worthy of a full-on celest."

    Taylor chuckled out loud while Danny smirked. "Wouldn't be the first time. I'll just get the car keys."

    "Car keys?" Janesha sneered. "Where we're going, we don't need … car keys."

    Danny raised an eyebrow. "Cloudstrike's good, but I think she might object to three riders at once."

    Taylor took the opportunity to answer. "You've never realm-stepped, have you?"

    Danny glanced at his daughter. "Uh, no. Is it hard?"

    "Nope." Taylor took his hand. "We hold hands and step forward together. First we go to a weird place full of crystals, then the next step takes us wherever Janesha says we're going."

    "Okay." Danny shook his head wonderingly. "This actually explains how you were getting around so fast. I guess I thought Cloudstrike was doing extra duty." He took Janesha's hand. "Ready when you are, I suppose."

    "And … go," Janesha and Taylor both stepped out at the same time, guiding Danny to take the same forward movement into the celestial realm. The look of surprise on his face was somewhat amusing to Taylor, but by the time he had his mouth open to say something, they were standing on the pavement in front of the PRT building.

    "Whoa," he said. "Damn. That was … what was that place?"

    "The celestial realm," Taylor said cheerfully. "Those crystals? They're where powers come from. Cool, huh?"

    "That's … one word I'd use, definitely." He shook his head. "But sightseeing wasn't the point of this trip." He let go of Taylor's and Janesha's hands and looked up at the frontage of the PRT building. "Let's go see if we can use common sense and communication to sort all this out."

    As they walked in through the front doors, Taylor exchanged a cynical glance with Janesha. She'd believe that, she decided, when she saw it.

    End of Part Nineteen
     
    Last edited: Jan 29, 2020
  19. JamesEye

    JamesEye Know what you're doing yet?

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    Lol Tagg. He can always be counted on to try and fuck things up.
     
  20. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Well, let's just say RCB is not thrilled at the moment.
     
  21. Necrovore

    Necrovore Know what you're doing yet?

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    Let's be at least a little fair to Tagg, We have no way of knowing just what RCB has told Tagg about the situation. It is entirely possible he has been intentionally missinformed about certain aspects to ensure that he over reacts and that the resulting clash gives her an excuse to bring more tools to the table to find out what is going on. While Fanon Tag would be chomping at the bit, Canon Tag can potentially be reasoned with...or at least mentally broken if it is explained that so many capes lost their powers because they did not naturally trigger and were all the product of eating an injured god, and that a fully established god of another realm stopped by to pick up the pieces to let the first god recover, oh and the brother of the injured god is now very pissed at the group responsible so don't be surprised if Scion is seen taking vengence on people...
     
  22. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Unfortunately, Tagg will be operating on the information he was given.
     
    Death by Chains likes this.
  23. Jade Isentry

    Jade Isentry Unshakable

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    It's nice to see Armsmaster deserving and getting a compliment for a change.
     
    Ack and Angel466 like this.
  24. Threadmarks: Part Twenty: Tracking Down Problems
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Celestial Worm
    Part Twenty: Tracking Down Problems

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

    Taylor

    The guards couldn’t have been expecting them. Or rather, they shouldn’t have been expecting them. But one stepped forward. “Janesha of Mystal?” he asked, the helmet only muffling his tone slightly.

    “The one and only,” Janesha replied cockily. “Where’s Tagg? He’s got his dick in a twist about a few inconsequential matters, and I’m here to set the record straight.”

    “Really, Janesha,” Danny griped, and Taylor knew it was about her friend’s choice (or lack thereof) of language.

    “Colonel Tagg is a busy man.” The guard made the statement as if saying the sky is blue or water is wet. “You’re going to have to make an appointment.”

    “He’s the one been blowing up Danny’s phone here trying to make an appointment with me, so I figured I’d save him the time and make it now.” She flicked a hand dismissively. “But if that doesn’t work for him, he can stay ignorant for all I …” She turned to leave, but Danny caught her by the shoulder, and squeezed.

    “Just ... let me try something before we go,” he suggested firmly.

    Janesha ground her teeth and scowled darkly at the guards. “Fine,” she said, turning back around. “This was your dumb idea anyway.”

    Danny stepped forward towards the guard who had spoken before. “Son, do you know who I am?”

    “Hebert. Danny Hebert.” The way the guard said it, he was repeating something he’d learned by rote.

    “That’s right.” Danny smiled, showing just a few teeth. “I’ve been involved in union business since before you were a twinkle in your daddy’s eye, and I know bullshit power plays. That’s exactly what this is. If Tagg wanted us to make an appointment, he wouldn’t have been calling me every five minutes for the past half hour. He’s the one who wants to talk to us, and you need to let us go up there right now to give him that opportunity.”

    The guard moved back half a step and half-raised his containment foam sprayer. “If you attempt to force your way into the building—”

    “Fuck this.” Janesha threw her hands through the crook of Taylor and Danny’s elbows and snapped, “Step.”

    At her urging, they stepped forward with her, into the crystalline domain of the celestial realm. When they stepped a second time, they were in a well-appointed office. Behind a large desk sat a rangy man in a military uniform with short-cut hair, going grey over the temples, and a tightly-groomed moustache. He had a phone in hand, but the conversation cut off mid-word as they appeared out of nowhere before him.

    Hiii,” Janesha said. “Janesha of Mystal. You wanted to see me. Here I am.”

    Tagg slapped a button on his desk, and an alarm began to sound. “Guards!” he bellowed. “Guards!” Apparently believing that the best defense was a good offense, he leaped up from his chair and drew a pistol from a holster at his waist.

    Taylor was actually pretty impressed; for someone who’d been taken totally by surprise, his reactions were commendably rapid.

    Janesha sighed and stepped backwards towards the door. As boots pounded in the corridor outside, she reached out and laid a hand on the solid wood. A moment later, it became an expanse of riveted steel plate, stretching from one side of the doorframe to the other. The dull thudding from the other side indicated how thick it was.

    “On your knees, hands on your heads, or I’ll shoot!” Tagg held the pistol in both hands, but his grip was firm and the barrel was steady.

    “Knock yourself out, dickhead. It’d make my day if you bled out and died from a ricochet.”

    “Janesha, please,” Danny said, once more attempting to take the lead.

    Janesha closed her eyes and ran a tight burst of air through her lips in a blend of a raspberry and a tch. “Fine,” she growled, unhappily. She looked back at Tagg. “Put the gun down before you hurt yourself.”

    Taylor watched as Tagg laid the pistol on the desk, as if deciding that he didn’t need it after all. Glaring at each of them in turn, but reserving most of his ire for Janesha, he took a deep breath. “Do you have any idea how much trouble you are all in right now?”

    “Oh, I got the memo,” Janesha said, assuringly. “Most of it’s outright fuckin’ bullshit, but rest assured I got the freakin’ memo.”

    Danny arched an eyebrow, but Janesha shook his query aside. “I’ll fill you in later, dad,” Taylor whispered.

    “Good, so unless you want me to pull out the big guns like the Triumvirate and the Birdcage, I suggest you park it right now, little girl, and start answering a whole lot of questions.” Tagg pointed to the chair opposite his.

    “Wait, wait.” Taylor tried to de-escalate matters as Janesha’s chest swelled with rage. “Just in case you hadn’t heard, this is Lady Janesha Nascerdios of Mystal.” It had smoothed things over before, so it was worth trying again, wasn’t it?

    “I already knew that.” Tagg was no less hostile than before. “She’s still broken the law. As have all of you, by invading my office and keeping me prisoner here. And you will answer for it.”

    “If that’s the deep shit you think I’m in, you’re a kiddy toddler in a wading pool,” Janesha said, rolling her eyes. “If you didn’t want to see us, you shouldn’t have blown up Danny’s phone. But you did, so here we are. And now you want to back-pedal and say we’re invading your office? Make up your realms-damned mind, Tagg.”

    Breathing in heavily through his nostrils, Tagg looked at each of them in turn once more. “Very well. Return my door to its natural state and we’ll say no more about it.”

    Taylor knew damn well that the second Janesha turned that door back to normal, the room would be filled with PRT guards. Nevertheless, she’d seen Janesha and Scion … Sagun socialising like they were old friends, so hopefully Janesha knew what she was doing when she said,

    “See? Reason and rationality are their own reward. You only had to ask.”

    “Janesha,” Danny warned, clearly having the same thought process as Taylor.

    “Chill, Danny. It’s okay. I’m gonna give Tagg’s door a bit of an upgrade.”

    The second the door was reverted to timber, the sound of the handle rattling furiously from the other side filled the room. Then it stopped and was replaced by the heavy whoomphs of people attempting to kick and shoulder it in. Janesha chuckled at their efforts. “The door’s still openable with your key, Tagg, but without it, not even Behemoth has the strength to break it down. You’re welcome.”

    That was confirmed when a moment later, a loud thump from outside indicated that the kicker had probably fallen on his ass; Taylor suppressed a snicker.

    Janesha turned away from the door, then crossed the room to Tagg’s desk and slapped her hand on it, silencing the alarm. “That was beginning to annoy me.” Dropping her weight into a chair, she lifted her feet and crossed them at the ankle on the corner of the desk. “So, what did you wanna know?” she asked, slumping back in the chair to keep Tagg in view.

    Tagg glared down at her. “Get your god-damned feet off my desk!”

    Janesha arched her head backwards and continued to look at him. The longer they stared at each other, the softer Janesha’s expression came until she was batting her eyelashes at him. “Lemme hear it …” she said, her grin stretching practically to her ears.

    Taylor wondered what was going on. Tagg was turning every colour of red in the spectrum and he leaned forward heavily on his knuckles, swearing furiously under his breath.

    His reaction had Janesha grinning all the more. “C’mon, Taggy. It’s entirely up to you. You know what you have to say. How bad do you want them down?”

    Tagg dragged his nails across the desktop and fisted them, his lips pinched so tightly together they were almost bloodless. “Please,” he finally spat. It was so low and so filled with poison that Taylor wondered how the veneer had remained intact on the desk.

    “There you go,” Janesha dropped her feet to the floor and sat up properly. Her expression became all business. “Now that the tit-for-tat bullshit powerplay is behind us, what exactly do you want to know?”

    Tagg continued to glare at her. “How did you remove Shadow Stalker’s powers?”

    “With style and panache,” Janesha replied without missing a beat. “Next question?”

    He made an impatient gesture. “No, what power did you use to do that? Can you do it to capes at range?”

    “Ah, now I see what you’re getting at.” Janesha assumed a beatific expression. “No, I couldn’t do everyone at once, even if I wanted to. One on one, when I choose to, I can invoke the power inherent in me as Lady Janesha Nascerdios of Mystal and reach out and unscrew a power from any one person’s head. But they have to be right in front of me.”

    “There is no power inherent in just having a name.” Taylor suspected Tagg was grinding his teeth, but he was pretty good at hiding it.

    “Sure there is … or would you prefer to be called Private Tagg?” From the gleam in her eye, Janesha was enjoying the hell out of this. “Or Prisoner Tagg? Think you’d get anywhere near as many salutes that way?”

    “They are in no way the same thing!”

    “True,” Janesha agreed, as if deciding to throw him a bone. “You can only get pretend power by assuming your name and title. We get the real thing. Anyway, that’s how it’s done.”

    “You said ‘we’. Who else is capable of removing powers like you can?”

    “Sagun, for starters.”

    That had Tagg back in his chair, swivelling to face his computer. “And what’s this Sagun’s last name? Nascerdios?”

    Janesha opened her mouth to answer, then frowned thoughtfully and turned to look back at Taylor. “I don’t think Sagun ever told us his last name, did he, petal?”

    Taylor went over her perfect memories as well, and shook her head. “I think he was in too big a hurry to torture and murder anyone affiliated with Cauldron.”

    Janesha rasberried again. “That boy’s just gettin’ warmed up. Two’s a nice start, but wait’ll he gets his hands on the rest of ’em. Can’t say I blame him though.”

    “No, me either,” Taylor agreed. Not that she’d ever had a sibling, let alone a twin, but she could imagine how homicidal she’d go if she had one and what happened to Edeena happened to them.

    “I read the file on Shadow Stalker and your young friend here. Be that as it may, why did you remove the powers of so many people today? Surely not all of them were bullying her.” Tagg had gone from dismissive to derisive. “I doubt any of them even knew her. Even the ones in the local Protectorate and Wards, apart from Shadow Stalker.” His eyes flicked to Taylor. “Have you ever even met Gallant, Battery or Triumph?”

    “They probably didn’t know Edeena either,” Janesha cut in, which was just as well. Taylor hadn’t realised how many of the essence thieves were heroes from her hometown. “But that didn’t stop them from chomping down on her like she was an all-you-can-eat buffet.”

    Excuse me?”

    “You heard me. Not one of those bastards was born with their powers. Every one of them was bought and paid for, and you tell me what happens to stolen merchandise once the authorities find out about it? Instead of blubbering about the repossession and sending you in to dog my ass, they should count their lucky stars they’re not being done for being in possession of her essence. The penalty for that one’s normally death all day long.” Looking sideways at Danny, she added, “And I’m not just talking about the specific thief here, either. Black holes are usually involved.”

    Taylor saw her father turn an ugly shade of white as he swallowed. The idea gave her a queasy feeling as well.

    Janesha refocused on Tagg. “So, I called in the nicest person I knew to deal with this, and she decided since those with the stolen powers didn’t know the whole story, they got to live. As did everyone else on this rock you call home, who had absolutely nothing to do with it.” She looked back at Tagg. “Again, you’re welcome, by the way.”

    Tagg stared at her for so long, Taylor began to wonder if he was still alive in there.

    “You don’t seriously expect me to believe that, do you?” he finally demanded.

    “I don’t give a flying …”

    “What exactly do you want from us, Colonel Tagg?” Danny asked, sliding his hand over Janesha’s shoulder, more for Tagg’s sake than hers.

    “I want the truth.”

    Janesha grinned suddenly. When she spoke next, it was in the gravelly tones of a well-known actor. “You can’t handle the truth!” It was a perfect imitation of the line from that movie.

    Taylor started to laugh. She honestly couldn’t help herself. Her father must have thought it was funny too, even if he managed to swallow his amusement and clear his throat a few times.

    “Be that as it may,” Tagg growled, clearly getting the reference, but showing no sign of humour. “I need the name of the person you called in. There is a process, and she circumvented it when she unilaterally decided the fate of American citizens...”

    “Oh, put a sock in it, Tagg.” Janesha cut him off briskly. “You’re never going to get your hands on her, and trust me, you’re better off not trying.” This time, she looked at Taylor. “Cousin Col's dad aside, her maternal grandfather, who dotes on her like you wouldn’t believe, is the absolute ruler of where Dee comes from,” she said, alluding to exactly how screwed Earth Bet, and a whole lot of other places would be if that particular individual took a personal interest in the place.

    Taylor didn’t need it spelled out any further than that. “Yeah, l-l-let’s-let’s not do that, thanks,” she said, suddenly feeling sick at the mere thought of it. Hell on Earth. True Hell on Earth. Oh, no thank you.

    “Cousin Columbine is soooo above your paygrade, there aren’t enough zeros in the world to cover that paycheck,” Janesha went on, returning her attention to Tagg.

    “Columbine Nascerdios, I assume?”

    Janesha laughed. “You’re persistent, I’ll give you that, Tagg. Suit yourself, I don’t care. She went home to …”

    “I care!” Taylor shouted out, stepping forward to lean on the table, her eyes fixed on her friend. “You promised you wouldn’t destroy our world …”

    Janesha patted her friend's hand. “Relax, petal. She’s not here. This is just a copy of her world, remember? Tweedledum here can look till the other eight levels of Hell freeze over. He won’t find her.”

    Taylor relaxed and looked back at Tagg, who had his teeth gritted so tightly he was going to have a stroke if he didn’t calm down soon. Perhaps that was what Janesha was pushing for. Taylor certainly couldn’t rule it out.

    “And it’s Lady Columbine Nascerdios to you, Tagg. You call her anything else and I’ll rip your throat out and make an artwork out of your internals.”

    That for Tagg, seemed the last straw, and he went once more for his weapon sitting on the table. “I’ve heard just about enough … What the hell?

    The reason for the outburst was easy to see. Between one second and the next, without even a burst of light to announce his entrance, Scion had appeared in the office. The gold skinned hero looked around the room, and when his eyes settled on Janesha his relief was palpable. “Janesha, do you have anyone else?” he asked plaintively. “Those two barely knew anything at all.

    Janesha banged her fists into the arms of her chair as she shot to her feet and rounded on him. “You killed them already? What the hell, Sagun? You only had them an hour! Didn’t anyone ever teach you how to torture someone properly?”

    “I guess I missed the course on advanced hellish Interrogation Techniques 101,” Scion snapped. “Sue me.” It was then that he took a good look around the room, and when he did, his gaze narrowed dangerously at Tagg. “Any particular reason you’re waving a gun at these good people?”

    Tagg looked down at the gun and quickly placed it back on the table.

    Scion's gaze shifted back to Janesha. “I really want the rest of those names …” he growled.

    “Then you’re gonna have to calm down and make these ones count. There aren’t too many left, you know.”

    Scion twisted his lips to one side and looked out the window, away from Janesha. The same way he had when he hadn’t liked what Lady Col was telling him.

    “I mean it,” Janesha emphasised, but then she relaxed and added with a shrug, “But, I suppose I can’t ride your ass too hard, since I might’ve lost it at Eidolon too.” With a wry grin, her thumb swung to Taylor and she added, “Though in my defense, she was the one who wanted me to make it quick.”

    Both the adult human men gasped at what she implied, and Taylor had never felt more like a bug under a microscope than she did at that moment. Her father’s stare was especially blistering.

    Suddenly, the carpet between her boots was the most interesting thing in the room.

    So, of course, Scion drew even more attention to her by saying, “Hey, you were on the walkway.”

    As Taylor looked up, the golden skinned hero/godling was pointing straight at her, more as an acknowledgement than an accusation.

    “Wow, so much for wearing a mask,” Taylor snarked. But then she remembered who she was talking to and nodded meekly.

    “Heh, a mask isn’t going to do much to hide someone’s identity from me … whoa, hold the phone.” Scion’s whole demeanour changed as he walked around behind Janesha with his eyes fixed on Taylor. “Niiiice,” he drawled, circling her the way a cattlemen circles livestock. His attention swung back to Janesha. “You gave them Namor upgrades.”

    Janesha tched. “If you say so, nerd-boy.”

    But Scion wasn’t done. He did the same appraising circle of Danny. “No, I’m serious. This is nice work. But how come you didn’t give them flight?”

    “Because they didn’t ask for it … and what makes you think I answer to you anyway? Cheeky prick!”

    Scion swivelled on his heel to face Janesha squarely. “For starters, last time I checked, this is my realm. Mine. And everything in it; also mine.” He flicked a finger to encompass Taylor and Danny. “Including them.”

    Janesha clenched her fists and threw them into her hips. “And did I, or did I not just get your sister the help she needs, calling in Cousin Col? Hmmm? What’s the control of two mort…er…people in the face of that?”

    Scion appeared to lose his bluster. “Yeah, that’s fair,” he said, after a moment of mulling it over. “You can have those two. Just don’t take anyone else.”

    Janesha grinned like a kid on Christmas morning and did a little one legged victory wiggle on the spot. Then she sobered and said, “You can keep the rest of ’em, Sagun. I just wanted these two.”

    Scion looked at Danny and Taylor curiously, as if trying to figure out why they were so important to her. Without a word, he held out his hand to Danny, who shook it somewhat nervously.

    “I-I’m D-Danny Hebert, sir,” Danny stammered.

    “Sir, huh. I like the sound of that,” the golden man said, bobbing his head to himself. “Sagun Hawthorne.”

    “JUST HOLD ON ONE MOMENT!” Tagg’s bellow shook the office.

    Everyone turned to look at him.

    Janesha quirked an eyebrow upward, but it was Scion who snapped, “What?”

    Tagg had his hands clenched again, and Taylor thought he wanted to pull his hair out by the roots. “What in God’s name is going on here? What is Scion doing in my office? Talking? This is Scion, right? What’s a Namor upgrade? And what was that about Eidolon being dead? Who killed him?” He drew a deep shuddering breath. “WHO ARE ALL YOU PEOPLE?”

    Predictably, Janesha took point. “It started with a dirty PRT commander, who led me to Eidolon. Eidolon was secretly controlling the Endbringers to attack your world just to make himself look good, so I killed him. In doing so I neutralised the Endbringers. That Simurgh bitch was personal, so I ripped the fake cow to pieces and stomped her out of existence. Again, you’re welcome for that, too. As for why Sagun’s here …” she turned to the man in question. “It’s because … Sagun?”

    Scion—Sagun—whatever—scowled. “I want those names.” He then glanced at Tagg and added, “Scion’s just a name people gave me because I didn’t speak up properly when I talked to that one reporter that time. Depression is a bitch like that, and I couldn’t be bothered correcting everyone. My real name’s Sagun.” He took a second, as if to remember what order the questions had been in. “And a Namor upgrade is—”

    “Never mind what a goddamn Namor upgrade is,” Tagg interrupted, his eyes fixed on Janesha. “You … executed … Eidolon? Did you get any proof of what he was supposed to have done? Did you inform the relevant authorities? Did you do anything except take the law into your own hands?”

    There was a blur of motion, and suddenly Sagun was standing in front of Tagg, the desk lying in two splintered heaps to the left and right. He reached out and picked Tagg up by the front of his shirt, effortlessly lifting him until his feet dangled above the floor. While Tagg ineffectually struggled and batted at the glowing golden hand, Sagun moved forward until Tagg encountered the window. Without even a gesture on Sagun’s part, the window vanished into vapour, and the golden man held Tagg out the window, over a hundred feet of empty air.

    “Listen to me, little man.” Sagun was no longer chatty and friendly. His expression was intense to the point that it was frightening, and Taylor wasn’t even the person who was being dangled out the window. “Do I have your full attention?”

    Tagg choked a little and clawed at Sagun’s hand. Predictably, this had zero effect, which was a good thing for the PRT colonel. If he somehow forced Sagun to let him go, what did he think was going to happen next? Taylor wondered absently.

    Finally, he seemed to wise up. Still clinging to Sagun’s wrist, he nodded feebly. Sagun tilted his head, and brought him back until the toes of his immaculately shined shoes were just able to get a grip on the window ledge. “Are you going to listen to me?” asked the golden man. “Because I really, really hate repeating myself.”

    His hands wrapped around Sagun’s wrist, Tagg nodded again. “Yes,” he rasped. “I’m listening.”

    “Good.” Sagun fixed Tagg with a glare even more intense than before. “Janesha does not answer to your puny authority. Eidolon committed many crimes against my people and yours. Crimes that if fairly reported would have seen him tried and convicted to death by any reasonable authority. Janesha found these crimes out and, lest he hurt one more person, she dealt with him swiftly and humanely. So yes, she took the law into her own hands. That was because she was the only person qualified to do so, at that place and time. No court in America could have been trusted to do anything but try to find reasons to acquit him for his crimes; I’m certain of that. She’s above all that, she took it into account … and she did what she had to do. Is that understood?”

    For a long, long moment, Tagg met Sagun’s eyes in an attempt at defiance, then finally the human yielded. “Yes,” he muttered. “It’s understood.” He took a deep breath, seeming to gain strength through it. “But what did he do that was so terrible? And what did you mean by ‘my people’?”

    “What part of he was controlling the Endbringers did you not understand?”

    “I … I just find it really hard to believe.” Tagg spread one hand in a helpless gesture. “I mean, he’s … he was … Eidolon. You may as well expect Alexandria to be committing a crime as well.”

    “And that would be the next name on that list you were looking for, big guy,” Janesha said cheerfully, as Sagun brought Tagg back into the office and dropped him unceremoniously on his feet.

    The golden man swung to face her. “Alexandria,” he repeated disbelievingly.

    Janesha nodded. “She’s also the head of the PRT, which I’m pretty sure is against even their rules. Rebecca Costa-Brown? So, you’ll find her up in the PRT headquarters in Washington DC.”

    Tagg’s head also snapped around to stare at her. “You have to be joking,” he whispered. “The Director is …”

    “… tall, statuesque, icy, gorgeous, with long black hair and a permanent tan,” Danny completed. “Interestingly enough, that description also fits Alexandria perfectly. Now, I know they’ve been seen together in public appearances together, but body doubles are a thing.” He shrugged. “I would never have picked it either, but I trust Janesha utterly with things like that.”

    Janesha buffed her nails on her tunic, then admired them. “Thank you, Danny,” she said warmly. “That means a lot to me, coming from you.” She switched her attention to Tagg. “I found out from a waste of space calling herself Doctor Mother, and confirmed it with the world’s first and only super-powered accountant. The other ones you want are called Contessa, Doormaker and Clairvoyant. There was one other person involved in that group, but I’m not putting him on the list, because those other douchebags hid what they were really doing from him. Seems he was the ethical one of the group, and if he found out what they were doing, he’d have brought the whole organisation down around their ears, or died trying. That gets him the pass.”

    “Alexandria, Contessa, Doormaker and Clairvoyant,” he repeated, memorising the names.

    “That’s right,” Janesha told him. She turned her attention to Tagg. “So yeah, all those people who lost their powers, should be damned grateful they’re still alive. Because they shouldn’t be. Fruit of the poisonous tree and all that jazz.”

    “That’s for an evidence chain.”

    “The shoe still fits,” Janesha countered.

    Sagun lifted himself into the air. “I trust I’ve made my point adequately,” he stated, his entire body beginning to glow, which apparently meant he was ready to leave. “Anyone who wants to mess with Lady Janesha, or her friends, will have me to contend with. Is that perfectly understood, or would you like me to explain matters more thoroughly? Perhaps in orbit around Jupiter?”

    “Try on Titan,” Taylor offered. “The oceans are nice, if a bit monochrome.” She’d dabbled her toes in the freezing liquid the one time she and Janesha had visited, but declined to go for a swim. There was a difference between 'perfectly harmless' and 'perfectly comfortable', and even with her upgrades, she considered three hundred below zero to be pushing the envelope a little.

    “I’ve got the point,” Tagg said hastily, straightening his collar. “If I do not leave Janesha of Mystal and her friends alone, you will return. I understand. But you do realise, I’m going to have to follow up on your allegations about Chief Director Costa-Brown,” he said. “And when she asks, I’m going to have to tell her who made those allegations about her.”

    “The whistleblower laws …” began Danny.

    “She won’t live long enough for that …” Sagun cut in.

    Janesha slapped the edge of the table. “What did I tell you about taking your time, you big oaf?”

    Sagun smirked at her. “I have three others.” He looked from Danny to Taylor. “Be well.” With as little fanfare as he’d arrived, he vanished again.

    “Umm … D-Did he just say he was going to murder my commanding officer?” demanded Tagg, recovering quickly.

    “Oh, shut the fuck up,” Janesha told him scornfully. “She’s almost as big a criminal as Eidolon was. And according to Harbinger, she made sure the Triumvirate left the Nine alone, on the off-chance that they might come in useful someday. Which reminds me.” She hummed thoughtfully, rubbing at her chin. “Do you guys really need to go home right this second?”

    “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here,” Danny advised her. “Remember the reason we came here in the first place?”

    “Yeah. I do.” Janesha fixed Tagg with a steely glare. “You have Armsmaster in Master/Stranger quarantine for the crime of not agreeing to rush straight out and arrest me when you ordered him to. Correct?”

    “I had valid grounds for taking you into custody,” Tagg from between gritted teeth. “If you had any respect for the rule of law, you would be giving yourself up, right now.”

    “If you had any respect for the rule of law, you'd be following due process and arranging for an arrest warrant,” Danny remarked. “Don’t those things really count when it comes to parahumans anymore? Or is it just the teenage ones?”

    “No, your first guess was the correct one, Danny.” Janesha wrinkled her nose at Tagg. “When it comes to parahumans and the law, the PRT has a whole toolbox full of exceptions they can pull out of their collective asses to get the result they want. ‘For the purpose of public order and safety’ is a very wide umbrella when it has to be. Plus quite a few that basically boil down to ‘because we want to make an example of someone’. Like that singer, Canary? The trial hasn’t even started yet and it’s already an open secret in some parts of the PRT that it’s a done deal; her feathered ass is going in the Birdcage.” She rolled her eyes. “And don’t get me started on their spin on Kill Orders.”

    Danny raised an eyebrow. “I’m just going to say, Janesha, you don’t strike me as being all that squeamish about people being summarily executed.”

    She blew a small raspberry. “I don’t. But everyone where I come from knows the score. Mess up, annoy the people in power, and you’ll get landed on by a ton of trouble, up to and including death. The bit that’s pissing me of is how for the last few millennia you’ve been fighting and clawing and dying to establish a rule of law that’s supposed to apply to everyone, top to bottom, without fear or favour. Everyone’s supposed to get the chance to defend themselves and nobody’s supposed to be shafted too badly. But this prick and his entire organisation have set it up so if any parahuman puts a foot out of line, absolutely anything can be done to them in the name of public safety, or just because these dickheads feel like it. Like Cousin Cora would say, that’s not fair.”

    “Parahumans can be far more dangerous than ordinary humans if they go out of control.” Tagg’s voice was low and deadly. “We have to instil what laws we can in order to make them think twice before lashing out at those around them.”

    “Yeah, like the Birdcage, which has no appeal process, so they’ll fight ten times as hard not to be sentenced there,” jeered Janesha. “And did you idiots even think the mechanism of Kill Orders through, or did you just scribble something down and knock off for the day? Anyone can kill someone with a Kill Order, and they’re guaranteed to be able to claim the reward without being arrested for their own crimes. So, we might have some psycho who blows away a dozen false positives before nuking a small town just to get the right guy. He shows up with the proof that the Kill Order recipient is dead. By your rules, you can’t arrest him for outright murdering twenty thousand people just to make one guy dead. And you have to pay him the reward.”

    “He would then earn a Kill Order of his own for his crimes—”

    “And if he made up a masked identity to claim the reward, because he’s not stupid? Which he then changes out for another masked identity, to go after the next Kill Order?” Janesha shook her head. “You’re encouraging mass murder by masked killers, to prevent more potential mass murder by masked killers. How is this in the least bit a workable plan?”

    From the lemon-sucking expression on Tagg’s face, he would dearly have loved to throw a rebuttal into Janesha’s face, but he didn’t seem to have one at that moment.

    “Okay, I think you’ve torn down his worldview enough for the moment,” Danny suggested. “Back to Armsmaster?”

    “Yeah, Armsmaster.” Janesha was still facing Tagg. “Since Armsmaster hasn’t been Mastered, I’d appreciate it if you let him go about his business.”

    Tagg twisted his lip and glowered at Janesha. “As if I’m going to take your word on who’s been Mastered and who hasn’t been.”

    Janesha sighed. “Give me your phone,” she ordered.

    Without demur, Tagg handed it over.

    Holding it up, Janesha asked, “Is this your phone?”

    “Of course it is!” snapped Tagg.

    “Did I steal it from you?”

    “No. I gave it to you.”

    “Why?”

    Tagg frowned. “Because you asked me to.”

    “Told you to,” Janesha corrected him. “Why would you, a ranking PRT officer with a phone presumably stuffed full of secrets, hand said phone over to a teenage cape whom you don’t trust one inch? What possible reason could you have for doing so?”

    “I decided it couldn’t hurt,” Tagg declared. “There’s no way you can guess the password, so it’s safe to humour you just this once.”

    “Miranda seven one zero four one six, with the ‘I’ in Miranda replaced by a one,” Janesha recited without missing a beat. “Your oldest daughter’s name and your wife’s birthday plus one day, one month and one year.” As she spoke, she tapped it into the phone. “Huh. The PRT logo as a homepage screen. You’re really serious about them.”

    Tagg went red and white by turns. “Give me that back right now!” he snapped, lunging at Janesha.

    “Sure.” Janesha handed it over again. “Now, the point of this little charade is that if I had Mastered you into releasing Armsmaster from Master/Stranger quarantine at any time, you’d have done it without question. But I didn’t. I’m giving you the choice to do the right thing.”

    His chest swelling, Tagg gritted his teeth. “I would not have—”

    Give the order for Armsmaster to be released from Master/Stranger quarantine,” Janesha commanded.

    “Certainly,” Tagg said at once. Holding his phone to his ear, he said, “Give me Master/Stranger holding. Immediately.”

    Stop.”

    Tagg paused.

    “Why are you releasing Armsmaster from Master/Stranger holding?”

    “Because you’ve convinced me that he’s not under Master influence,” Tagg said at once.

    Janesha let out a tiny sigh. “Fine. Keep going.”

    As Tagg spoke on the phone, Janesha turned to Taylor and Danny. “I tried,” she said quietly. “I really tried. There’s no reasoning with the man.”

    “What was that bit with his phone?” asked Danny.

    “Normally, people can rationalise away a Bender command as something they thought of themselves,” Janesha reminded him. “I thought with the Master protocols the PRT has, he’d maybe recognise the signs of being Mastered in himself. But mortal brains just can’t analyse celestial influence. He kept on editing it out and forcing his brain to come up with reasonable excuses. I could’ve made him put a video of him dancing the can-can on PHO and he would’ve had an explanation for doing it.”

    Taylor smirked. “So tempting to ask you to do just that …”

    “... but we’re not going to encourage you to abuse your powers,” Danny finished firmly. “Reversing his sanction on Armsmaster, I’m good with, because even though he’s an overbearing, officious ass, I still don’t want to see him turned into something unfortunate because he pushed you too far. Humiliating him for no actual purpose, I’m not good with. And in any case, the moment he reviews the footage from his security cameras, he’s going to be twisting himself in knots trying to figure out exactly why he did those things.”

    “Meh,” Janesha said, dismissively.

    Tagg ended the call and turned back to Janesha. “I’ve given the order,” he said. “Armsmaster will be cleared from Master/Stranger quarantine in fifteen minutes.”

    “Good.” Janesha nodded. “Do you have any idea where we might find the Slaughterhouse Nine? I was thinking I might pay them a visit.”

    “The Oregon National Guard clashed with them … barely half an hour ago,” Tagg said, checking his watch. “Unusually for them, they fled instead of attacking. The National Guard commander wasn’t sure why.”

    “I think I know why,” Taylor said. When the other three looked at her inquisitively, she shrugged. “Isn’t it obvious? That was about the time Lady Columbine was pulling the powers back into Edeena. If the Nine had one or more members with Cauldron powers, suddenly losing that firepower would shake them badly.”

    “Hah, yeah, that fits.” Janesha grinned and offered Taylor a high-five. “Oregon, huh? I wonder …”

    “What are you thinking?” asked Danny.

    “I’m thinking that it would be a lot easier to cover the ground with Cloudstrike, but she can only take two riders at most.” Janesha twisted her lips to the side. “So we’ll drop you home, go find the bad guys, then come get you when it’s time to kick some ass.”

    Tagg cleared his throat. When Taylor looked around, he had an uncomfortable expression on his face.

    “Yeah, what is it now?” asked Janesha. “Gonna tell me I’m not cleared to go mop up some unrepentant scum that should’ve been atomised twenty years ago?”

    “Not … precisely.” Tagg grimaced. “Even if they’ve been reduced by the power losses, the Nine have a reputation for making it very expensive to attack them. I know you’re both capes. Miss Janesha, but …”

    “Lady Janesha.”

    Tagg paused. “Lady Janesha, I’ve seen how powerful you are. I would still be remiss in my duties if I failed to urge you to reconsider your decision, or at least be very careful in how you go about it.”

    “Huh.” Janesha tilted her head to one side as she looked at Tagg. “Careful there. You might have me thinking you’re a worthwhile human being after all.” She tapped her foot on the floor; Taylor saw her screw the toe down slightly, as though she were grinding out a cigarette butt. Behind Tagg, the pieces of the desk flowed together then rebuilt itself, the computer sitting in the middle and the papers all stacked to one side. “You’re totally welcome.”

    Tagg looked around, startled. Before he had a chance to speak, Janesha grabbed Taylor with one hand and Danny with the other. Used to this move by now, Taylor stepped forward with her. Danny was quick off the mark, and did the same on the other side. They went up into the celestial realm, and came out in Danny’s living room.

    “So now I wait?” asked Danny, raising one eyebrow. “While my daughter and her altogether-too-powerful best friend go and locate Jack Slash?”

    Janesha smirked. “Just powerful enough, Danny Hebert. If you want ridiculous levels of celestial power, you’ve gotta look higher up the pecking order than me. But yeah, that’s about right.”

    “You sure you still want in on this, Dad?” Taylor put her arm around her father. “You don’t have to come along if you don’t want to.”

    He snorted. “You have to be kidding. I’ve got the same modifications as you, don’t I? You got to go fight the Simurgh. Give me the chance to face off against at least one terrifying monster before we’re done, all right?”

    Janesha put her hand on his arm. “You’ve already done that, Danny. Remember?” She nodded to where the tiny statuette of the talot sat on the bookshelf. “Talots are far more dangerous than construct monsters or empowered humans. You have nothing to prove to either of us.”

    This time, he let out an aggravated sigh. “I’m not trying to prove a damn thing. I just want to get my licks in before it’s all over. I want the chance to fight something when I’ve got a chance of beating it, instead of just annoying and distracting it.”

    Surprising Taylor, Janesha laughed out loud. “Danny Hebert, sometimes you can be so infuriatingly human that I want to scream. But sometimes you’re so Mystallian you may as well have been born there. Certainly we’ll come and get you once we find them.”

    <><>​

    To say that Jack Slash was unhappy would be to perpetrate a massive understatement. He was, by turns, nervous and furious. Scared; never. Any chance of him simply feeling fear had long since been burned away by his long career in delivering fear (sometimes quite briefly) to others. He had gotten used to being the one who danced between the raindrops, who came out on top, who always out-guessed the most dangerous of foes.

    But he really, really, really did want to know what had happened to the absent members of the Nine. Shatterbird, not so much. She was, when he came down to it, a one-trick pony, and her one trick had begun to grate on him. But the Siberian had been so very useful. Not only as an instrument of inflicting fear (at which she was almost as good as him) but also keeping his Bonesaw calm and happy, and of course ensuring that any rude attempts at ending his life were futile.

    So where had she gone? Who had so adroitly removed her (and Shatterbird) from the board and yet failed to capitalise on their sudden advantage? He hadn’t spotted any capes or even Tinkertech being wielded by the National Guard forces. A frown crossed his face as he recalled Shatterbird’s warning to retreat. What did she see? What did she know? How did she know?

    It was a puzzle, a mystery, a conundrum for the ages.

    He hated puzzles.

    “Mr. Jack?” He looked down at Bonesaw. She appeared just a little lost. Having her adopted mother-figure vanish from under her might have that effect, he supposed.

    “What is it, poppet?” He put on his best ‘careless Jack’ attitude. Never let them see you sweat.

    “Where’s Siberian?” That was little kids for you. No beating about the bush. Just straight-up ask the difficult questions. He was just glad that she knew enough about human anatomy and biology to make giving her the Talk unnecessary, not to mention redundant. Some things were too horrible for even a ruthless supervillain to face.

    “Well, just between you and me, I’m not entirely certain.” He smiled at her, injecting all his dash and verve and vigour into it. “But just so you know, I got along just fine long before she joined the Nine, and until she decides to show up again, we’ll get along just fine without her. ’Cause we’re tough and smart, right?”

    Just for a moment, she gave him a look that was entirely too grown-up for his liking, then it morphed into a guileless smile. “Sure we are, Mr Jack!”

    As she skipped away to join Burnscar on the other side of their makeshift campsite, he sent a suspicious gaze at her back. It didn’t feel like she was planning anything against him, but he didn’t like even the level of deception he’d just seen.

    Then he totally forgot about her, because something flickered at the corner of his sight. He looked around, but there was nothing there. Fortunately for his mental equilibrium, Hatchet Face and Burnscar were also looking at the sky. “Did you see that?” he called out. Without even thinking about it, he took a knife into each hand.

    “Just a blur in the sky,” Burnscar said. “Didn’t see anything else.”

    “Fast moving, straight line—shit, there it goes again!” Hatchet Face pointed, but by the time his arm straightened, there was nothing to see.

    Jack was impressed. Whatever it was had an airspeed so fast it should be leaving sonic booms, but it wasn’t.

    “What is it?” asked Burnscar. “Whatever it is, it’s fast.

    “Trouble,” Jack said automatically. It was a safe bet; when you made your living as an S-class threat, anything new and unusual in the area was by definition trouble.

    The thing whipped overhead one more time, so fast that he didn’t even have time to bring up his knife to project a cutting-field into the air ahead of it. It was so fast that he started to blink, and it appeared and was gone before he had time to finish the action.

    Lifting up both knives, he projected their fields upward so that if the thing overflew them again, it would possibly encounter his blades.

    But it didn’t come over again. Instead, something else happened.

    “Hey! You!” It was a strange voice, coming from the treeline. He whipped around. Three people stood there; two teenage girls and a tall, skinny adult. The girls were costumed, but the guy was in civvies.

    The girl in black with the fluttering cloak folded her arms. “Yeah, you. Jack Slash. I want a word.



    End of Part Twenty
     
    Last edited: Feb 28, 2020
  25. Kitty S. Lillian

    Kitty S. Lillian Transhuman

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    I see Tagg's being Tagg…which is to say, your writing once again is immersive and feeling real.
    A couple things bug me:
    subject-verb disagreement
    sets foot out of line,
    but I suppose that "steps foot" is gaining traction nowadays. :(
     
    Death by Chains and Ack like this.
  26. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Ugh, dammit.
    Will fix.
     
  27. Threadmarks: Part Twenty-One: There's Always Another Mess
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Celestial Worm

    Part Twenty-One: There’s Always Another Mess

    [A/N: This chapter commissioned by Fizzfaldt and beta-read by Karen Buckeridge, author of Ties That Bind (re-releasing soon in second edition) and The Long Way Home (out soon).]

    Jack Slash

    “Words with me? Really? You’re pretty bold for two teenage girls and an accountant, facing the Nine.” Jack was barely aware of the words he was speaking. They were just for colour, intended only to keep his opponent distracted while he figured out his next move. He hadn’t survived so long as leader of the Nine by jumping feet-first into fights with unknown capes. What the guy actually was, he didn’t know, but he was skinny and had glasses, so ‘accountant’ was Jack’s best guess.

    A major part of his strategy was to research his chosen enemies ahead of time, and plan according to their weaknesses. He didn’t know these three, which was a problem. A bigger problem was that they had clearly sought out his team in his hour of weakness, which meant that they were very confident, very good or very lucky … or some combination of all three, which he didn’t like in the slightest.

    Yet another problem was that when he was going face to face with capes (a situation he actually tended to avoid as needlessly risky) he could usually go with his gut on how to deal with them. Somehow, he always knew just the right thing to say to put them off-balance, and of course he was a past master of anticipating how they were going to try to take him down. He’d had enough experience with the Nine from the very beginning, so actual heroic capes were a walk in the park.

    Except … his extemporaneous speech was over, and he still hadn’t gleaned any insights on how to deal with them. Their stances weren’t giving him clues about what powers they were about to unleash, or which way he should jump to avoid them. Their lack of weapons and the dark-skinned girl’s costume said that they were capes; or at least, she was.

    “Nine, huh?” the dark-skinned girl smirked, poking her tongue against her cheek as her eyes made a point of stopping on each of the remaining Nine. “Your maths that shit?”

    The girl in the bug suit snorted, and even the accountant pinched his lips to hide the grin.

    The loss of Siberian and Shatterbird still stung, but fortunately, even with this temporary setback, he had a solution to his problem.

    Overwhelming force.

    “Burnscar.” That was all he needed to say. Anticipating his need, she created a wall of flame that raced away across the ground, arcing around in a circle that penned in the three intruders. Flames began to crackle as the forest caught light behind them, but that wasn’t his problem. The two girls and the man didn’t seem particularly bothered by their predicament, which irritated him more than a little. He liked his opponents to be scared. Fear rattled most people, causing them to make mistakes, which he could then capitalise upon.

    No matter. It was time to send his next big hitters into the fray. “Hatchet Face, Mannequin. All yours.” Combining the stereotypical Brute capability with the ability to nullify powers, the brutal cape was perfect for taking down unknown factors, simply by making them irrelevant and then hacking them to pieces. By contrast, Mannequin could tank most hits, and shred any non-Brute opponent, even ones he hadn’t specifically modified his armour to deal with.

    Surreptitiously, Jack let a knife slide down his sleeve into his hand. Cheating was one thing (which he could say that they’d done, by turning up so unexpectedly) but he wasn’t against stacking the deck a little. As the hulking cape and the white-armoured Tinker stepped through the wall of flame and headed for their prospective victims, Jack brought the knife up and flicked his power into action. He didn’t seriously expect to do any real harm to them, but he’d take any win that he could get.

    As he’d half-expected, the knife didn’t do anything, but that didn’t matter. With a confident grin on his face, he folded his arms, waiting for Hatchet Face and Mannequin to either finish the job or for the capes to flee from them.

    A frown crossed his face as the girl in the bug-themed outfit turned to her black-costumed counterpart. A few words were exchanged, then the slender teenager started forward to meet Hatchet Face with a determined step. The massive cape, grinning savagely, raised the axe he habitually carried and brought it down in a brutal arc. There was no way she could survive this; whatever powers she was depending on to withstand the blow would have been cancelled by Hatchet Face’s proximity, and it would be purely impossible for her to—

    She caught it.

    Jack knew how strong Hatchet Face was. The man could pick up a car if he so wished. He’d brought the axe down in a vicious sweep, powerful enough to drive through the girl’s skull and continue all the way until she was cloven in half. But she’d raised one slim hand and—with no apparent effort—caught the handle of the axe. Stopped it dead. Veins bulged in Hatchet Face’s neck as he tried to force it downward, but he may as well have been trying to shove Mount Rushmore aside.

    Even as Jack’s jaw dropped and his brain tried its hardest to re-evaluate its knowledge to fit what he’d just seen, the girl took one step forward and punched Hatchet Face. Ordinarily, this was a move almost guaranteed to result in a broken hand, especially given the lack of expertise obvious in the blow. If she’d ever spent any time fighting, Jack would’ve been most astonished. But not as astonished as he was when Hatchet Face flew backward from the blow, going airborne right across the clearing, until he hit the trunk of a tree some fifteen feet above the ground. There was a crack that didn’t sound good for Hatchet Face’s survival prospects, then he flopped to the ground and lay still.

    Mannequin activated the spinning blades on one arm, and sent the other out to snag the dark-skinned girl. Jack could see his reasoning; the girls, in costume, were the dangerous ones. But in a surprising blur of motion, she grabbed Mannequin’s arm and started pulling, hard.

    “C’mere, you!” she snarled. Chain rattled as she gave it one last haul that ended in a clang as she yanked the entire winding mechanism out of his shoulder. “Fuck! You weren’t supposed to break!”

    “Language,” The accountant chipped.

    The girl paused and turned away from Mannequin as if he meant nothing to her to give the accountant what Jack assumed was a look of disgust. At the very least, he was certainly wearing one. Who the fuck said, ‘Language’ anymore?

    Still shaking her head when it became apparent the accountant wasn’t backing off, the teenager in black ran back towards Mannequin, and with a leap that defied logic, she was eye level with the Tinker, upper-cutting him under the jaw hard enough to make his ‘head’ fly off.

    On the downward arc of her jump, she hooked her hands inside Mannequin’s torso armour. It all happened so fast Jack’s eyes could barely keep up with the action. Mannequin still had one arm which he brought around in an attempt to fillet her with the spinning blades. They were entangled in the girl’s cape as effectively as any deliberate restraint, all without taking any damage.

    Then, as gravity pulled her to the ground, she ripped the two halves of Mannequin’s armour apart, and smashed them back together once her feet were on the ground. The white armour shattered, causing the Tinker’s brain and other vital organs to fall to the ground. Bereft of his life support system, Jack knew, he would die in moments.

    This was rapidly becoming an untenable situation. “Crawler!” shouted Jack, then grabbed Bonesaw’s hand. Gathering in Burnscar by eye, he indicated the far treeline. “Set everything on fire,” he ordered. “We need cover, now.”

    Even as Crawler charged the two girls with a roar, Jack turned … and came face to face with the tall skinny accountant. Burnscar sent a wash of flame over the guy but he stepped forward without seeming to notice it. As the flames receded, several of Bonesaw’s spider-bots came out of nowhere and swarmed up the guy’s legs, jabbing him with their mechanical injectors.

    He ignored everything.

    “Just for the record,” he said almost mildly as he grabbed a spider-bot and crushed its body effortlessly in one hand, “I’m not an accountant. I’m the head of hiring for the Dockworkers’ Association. Not that I expect you to understand the difference.”

    Jack Slash swung his blade back and forth, back and forth, ignoring the fact that he was shredding Bonesaw’s other spider-bots. Bonesaw sent darts loaded with the most potent neurotoxins Jack had ever heard of flying into the skinny guy’s exposed skin. Burnscar held out both hands and sent a concentrated blast of flame into his face.

    None of it made a damned bit of difference.

    The ground began to shake. Briefly turning his head, Jack saw the girl in the black costume and cape holding Crawler by one leg and repeatedly beating him against the ground. The other girl was strolling in their direction, twirling Hatchet Face’s axe idly in one hand. “Need a hand, Dad?” she called out.

    ‘Dad?’….ahhhh. Now he understood the ‘language’ swipe, although that wasn’t exactly a priority right now.

    “No, I got this.” ‘Dad’ almost casually reached out and shoved both Bonesaw and Burnscar, sending them sprawling to the ground. “I don’t like hitting women,” he said conversationally. “The girls can deal with those two. You, on the other hand …”

    Jack broke the paralysis that had briefly afflicted his limbs, occasioned by the sight of his team being utterly disassembled before his eyes. He tried to dart backward, out of reach of the man who could apparently ignore fire and being injected with all sorts of poisons and diseases. If he could make it to the treeline, the burgeoning forest fire could provide him with cover—

    “Uh, uh.” He’d taken his eye off the bug-girl behind him, and now she shoved him forward, back toward her father. “Dad wasn’t finished with you yet.”

    Just as he tried to twist away, Jack felt his wrist being seized by the older man. The grip was like iron, far more powerful than anyone he’d ever tussled with before. Talking had always worked before, so he tried again. “You know, we could always discuss this like reasonable people—MOTHERFUCKER!”

    The reason for the outburst was because the man had squeezed, and Jack felt several (undoubtedly important) bones in his wrist go crunch in a way that didn’t sound (or feel) entirely healthy. In fact, it hurt like a sonovabitch. Still, in the extremity of his pain, he liked to think he was a fighter. The knife was still in his other hand, and he stabbed forward with it, up and under the ribcage.

    Where it stopped, cold. Indenting the cloth, indenting the skin, but not going anywhere.

    Before he could try again, perhaps for the eyes, that wrist was also taken captive. “We’re not going to talk, Jack.” Despite being a weedy accountant type with a weak chin and receding hair, the man had the coldest eyes Jack had ever seen. “You’re just going to die. Do you know why you’re going to die?”

    “Boredom, if we’re laying odds,” the dark-skinned girl suggested in the black costume and cape as she strolled over. “I know that’s what I’m about to die of, just watching it anyway. Come on, Danny. I’ll take over if it bothers you too much…”

    The man called Danny drew in a deep breath, then released it in a sigh of exasperation. “I’m fine, thank you, Janesha. And I will do this my way, because I’ve earned it. Understood?”

    Janesha held both hands in a carefree surrender. He turned his attention back to Jack. “Brockton Bay. You showed up there, in the nineties. You killed people. Remember?”

    Jack blinked, taken aback by the abrupt change in subject. “Uh … not really? Listen, if you think I remember everything I did over the course of one week, twenty years ago—”

    “He really doesn’t,” the caped girl broke in. “It’s all one big blur to him. Except the fact that Marquis defied him. He’s still pissed about that.”

    Danny’s eyes went to the sky for a moment and his next breath was a short huff. “Thank you, Janesha.” He then glared at Jack. “When you came to town, you killed friends of mine. It’s not the only reason I’m doing this now, you sonovabitch, but it’s a good one.”

    “Yeah, you and every other—” Jack began to jeer, but Danny didn’t seem to be listening anymore. Letting go Jack’s wrists, he grabbed him by the shoulder with his left hand, then pulled his right hand back and speared it forward. Jack felt his breastbone splinter, following by the unique sensation of Danny’s hand closing around his heart and yanking it out of his chest. Indescribable pain followed.

    Fortunately (for a very specific definition of the word) it didn’t last long.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    “Really?” Janesha raised an eyebrow at Danny, who was wiping his hand clean—or relatively so—on his shirt. Jack Slash’s heart lay a foot or so away from the man’s supine body, the sturdy muscle crushed and pulped by the force that had been needed to hold on to it.

    The look of surprise on the serial killer’s face was gratifyingly astonished. He had to have known he would come to a violent end sooner or later, but having his heart torn out probably wasn’t high on his list.

    “What?” asked Danny. “He was a mass murderer. What’s your problem?”

    Janesha stalked closer. “My problem, Danny Hebert, is that you’ve been riding my ass from day one about respecting life and all that bullshit, and then you do this? That’s it. From now on, you don’t get to judge me.”

    “What?” Danny stared at her. “That’s totally different! The Nine had a Kill Order. I could’ve ripped his head off in the lobby of the PRT building, and the only problem they’d have would be with the mess I made. Killing them is literally a public service. It’s definitely not illegal.”

    “Pfft, do I look like I care about local mortal rules?” Janesha folded her arms. “Admit it, you’re a hypocrite. I’m not allowed to kill, but you are? Puh-leeze.”

    From the way he was grinding his teeth, Danny was getting irritated. “Did I have a problem with you killing Mannequin and Crawler? No. I still don’t. In this one instance, killing is not only acceptable but preferable.”

    “Like I said …”

    “I’M NOT BEING A HYPOCRITE!”

    “Dad … Dad … Janesha … Chill!” Taylor raced between them and held her arms out to keep them apart. “I mean it! Chill!”

    For the longest time, both stared at each other. It must’ve killed her father to be the one to finally break that glaring contest, when he realised Janesha could literally keep that pose for centuries. Instead, he looked at where Bonesaw and Burnscar lay on the ground unmoving, and frowned. “I didn’t think I pushed them that hard.”

    “You didn’t.” Janesha looked down at the girl and the young woman pensively. “I went into their minds with every intention of turning them into … fruit?”

    “Vegetables,” Taylor corrected, without even thinking about it.

    “Yeah, vegetables. And anyway, I saw … stuff. So I didn’t kill them immediately.”

    “Stuff?” asked Taylor. “That’s not very informative.”

    Janesha crossed her eyes and poked her tongue out at Taylor and it took everything Taylor had not to grin in victory. “Burnscar’s the way she is because she’s got a cross-wiring with her emotions. The more she uses her flame, the more she wants to use her flame and the less empathy she has. Bonesaw … well, Bonesaw was six when Jack Slash got hold of her. Relatively fresh trigger, emotionally vulnerable. Him and the rest of the Nine killed her parents and brother and dog in front of her a dozen times until she couldn’t handle it anymore, and gave up. Slash used that as a way to convince her that she was actually a killer like him, and he’s been reinforcing that mindset ever since.”

    Taylor thought that through. “So … if you take away their powers, Burnscar wouldn’t even want to kill people anymore? And you’re saying Bonesaw is more a victim than a monster?”

    “Oh, she’s a monster all right.” Janesha passed off the question with a flip of her hand. “Where I come from, that’s not exactly a deal-breaker. But she was made into a monster, instead of choosing to be one. There’s a big difference, right there.”

    “So, what are you saying, exactly?” Taylor looked at Bonesaw, then Burnscar. “You’re going to take away their powers and … what, fix what’s wrong in their heads?”

    Janesha shook her head. “No. Several reasons. First, all I’d be able to do is adjust their memories to whatever I wanted them to be, and to tell them what to believe. That actually fixes a lot less than you’d think. It doesn’t even touch their emotions. Suppose a man loves a woman with all his heart. If I removed every memory he had of that woman, when he met her that emotion would still find a way to express itself. Bonesaw’s so fucked in the head by Jack’s manipulation that if I just made her forget everything, she’d still be fucked in the head but now she wouldn’t know why. No, this needs a Weaver to fix.”

    Danny raised his eyebrows. “Lady Columbine? Won’t she be busy helping Edeena?”

    “Yeah. She will be.” Janesha smiled fondly. “She’s always busy, but she’s always willing to make time. Cousin Col’s pretty amazing like that.”

    Taylor didn’t know if Janesha should be so confident. “But will she be willing to make time to help two mortals who have killed so many people?”

    “Remember who I said her maternal grandfather was?”

    “You didn’t.”

    “Well, I definitely mentioned her kids by designation. Remember what they were called, and connect the dots.”

    Taylor frowned, going over the various memories. And then the title came to her with all the finesse of a trainwreck. “You called them antichrists.”

    “Her grandfather is the devil himself?” If she hadn’t had Danny’s attention already, she had it now.

    “The real one,” Janesha confirmed. “Supreme ruler of all Hell. Her uncle on that side is literally the archangel of vengeance who would skin you alive if you’ve ever done anything to deserve payback from anyone. And he’s one of the nicest ones.”

    Danny frowned. “I understand all that, but I’m not sure why you’re bringing it up now.”

    “Lord Belial’s main purpose is to ensure endless torment for every mortal soul that ends up in Hell,” Janesha explained patiently. “Cousin Col doesn’t care. She loves him unconditionally, just as she does Lord Uriel. Whatever atrocities Bonesaw and Burnscar have perpetrated since they got their powers, it’s nothing compared to what either one of those can do if they decide it has to be done.”

    “Ah.” Danny blinked. “I see. That puts everything neatly into perspective.”

    “It does, doesn’t it?” Janesha bent and picked Bonesaw up. “I’ll be back in a second. I just need to take them into the celestial realm so I can detach—”

    That was when Taylor got an idea. Like many great ideas, and quite a few really bad ones, it came to her in a flash of inspiration. “Wait a second, Janesha. Quick question.”

    On the verge of stepping, Janesha stopped and looked at her. “Shoot.”

    “Can you tell if her powers made her psychotic or if it was Jack?” It might be a great idea, but Taylor wasn’t going to be stupid about it.

    Janesha frowned and looked down at the girl in her arms. “As far as I can see, it was all Jack. Why?”

    This was the tipping point, the big reveal. “When you take the powers away from her, can you give them to someone else? Like me?”

    Both Danny and Janesha stared at her for a moment, then Janesha raised an eyebrow. “I thought you didn’t like having powers, petal.”

    Taylor folded her arms. “I don’t like the way I got them, and they never solved any of my problems, and I’m really not sure I like playing god over any bugs that happen to be in my area, but being able to control bugs isn’t going to do me any good if someone’s hurt or dying near me. With her power, I could help people a lot more than I can now.”

    “Huh.” Janesha nodded slowly. “You never cease to amaze me.”

    “Wait just a moment,” Danny interjected. “Is this even safe? Can Taylor take having two sets of powers attached to her?”

    “Safe as I can make it,” Janesha assured him, then turned back to Taylor. “Yeah, sure, I can plug them into your head once I disconnect them from little miss murder munchkin here.” She grinned mischievously. “Did you want the other one’s power as well, while we’re at it?”

    Taylor snorted. “If I recall, you told me that it was her flame powers that screwed her up. That’s a hard pass on that one.”

    “Suit yourself.” Janesha indicated Burnscar’s unconscious body. “If you’re coming along for the ride, make yourself useful and grab her for me, will you?”

    “Definitely.” It was the work of a moment to drape the limp supervillain over her shoulder, then Taylor stepped up alongside Janesha. “Ready when you are.”

    Janesha nodded, taking her hand. “And … step.” Taylor took the pace alongside her, wondering when she’d gotten used to the transition into the crystalline landscape.

    “All right, I’ve never attached powers to anyone, so I’ll do Burnscar first and get that out of the way.” Dumping Bonesaw unceremoniously on the ground, Janesha went to where Taylor was holding the pyrokinetic. Taking hold of the shining cord where it attached to Burnscar’s head, she concentrated and twisted her wrist oddly. The cord came free, and Janesha let it go to whip away between the crystals.

    “That’s done. Now for the fun one.” Going over to Bonesaw, Janesha knelt next to her and detached her cord as well. However, this one she did not release. “Come over here, petal.”

    Trepidation building in her, despite the fact that she’d asked for this, Taylor went to where Janesha was waiting. The end of the cord held a weird shimmery effect that Taylor had trouble focusing on. “Do I want to know why that’s the way it is?”

    “I’m not entirely certain I could explain it to you in terms that you could understand. Hold still.” Leaning forward, Janesha pressed the end of the cord against Taylor’s head, and

    tw

    is

    ted

    it into place.

    From Taylor’s point of view, it was a very weird experience. It felt like she’d been experiencing double vision, which had suddenly snapped into perfect focus. Or maybe she'd been living life with one eye, and had now been granted a second one. Either way, she had a whole new perspective on things.

    "How's it feel?" asked Janesha.

    "Freaky." A few bugs had ridden along with her into the celestial realm, and even her control over them felt weird, as the feedback she got from each bug became much more detailed. This extended to what they were looking at, including other bugs. Or herself. She looked down at the two supervillains, now safely depowered, and blinked as more information suggested itself to her. Then she looked at Janesha; for about half a second, her new power struggled to define Janesha in biological terms before it did the equivalent of saying, ‘Haha, nope,’ and reverted back to ordinary vision for her.

    “Freaky good or freaky bad? If this is a problem for you, I’ll take it out again.” Janesha looked critically at Taylor. “It doesn’t seem to be making your head explode or anything. Are you feeling any more psychotic than normal?”

    “No, not psychotic.” Taylor shook her head. “Or at least, I don’t think so. But I’m a whole lot more aware of biology than I was before. I’m pretty sure I can make bugs do surgery on each other now. Actual surgery, rather than just ripping each other apart.”

    Janesha raised an eyebrow slightly and smirked. “Well, whatever amuses you, petal. Let’s get back to your dad, and then I’ve gotta contact Sagun.”

    “Sagun? Why?” Taylor picked up Burnscar and slung the unconscious ex-supervillain over her shoulder. “I thought you and him had sorted things out as far as me and Dad were concerned.” It still sounded weird to be talking about the celestial she’d always known as Scion in this way, like he was just another person. It was even weirder that she’d met the guy and he’d acted like just another person.

    “I’ve just got to make sure he’s okay with us handing these two over to Cousin Col.” With Bonesaw in her arms, Janesha took Taylor’s hand. “And … step.” As they emerged into the sunlit clearing where the Nine had met their end, she kept talking. “Killing off these morons was one thing, but taking mortals out of Earth Bet and sending them on to Earlafaol is something we actually have to notify him about. I doubt he’ll get pissy, but there are courtesies we have to observe.”

    “That took longer than I expected,” Danny said as he got up from the rock he’d been sitting on. “Complications?”

    “No, we just took our time.” Taylor dropped Burnscar on the ground. “Holy shit, Dad, your posture’s for crap. Why didn’t you tell me about the neck pains?”

    “Neck pains?” Danny had barely enough time to ask the question. “What neck pa—whoa!”

    In the time he’d taken to ask the question, she came up to him and spun him around. Grabbing hold of his shoulders, she leaped lightly into the air, jammed her knee into his back between his shoulder-blades, and pulled. There was a solid crunch, then she let him go and dropped to the ground again.

    “Those neck pains,” she explained as she headed back to Burnscar.

    “Huh,” muttered Danny as he ran his hand over his neck. “I’d had that for so long I totally forgot it was there. Thanks. Uh … how did you know to do that?”

    “Bonesaw's power, duh.” Taylor grinned at him, then turned back to Janesha. “If Sagun did get pissy … what would happen then?”

    “Well, for starters, he’d probably tell me to get the fuck out of his realm. He’s already relinquished you two to me, so you’d have to come with.” Janesha grimaced. “And there’s not a whole lot of options for places to go that my family wouldn’t zero in on me shortly thereafter.”

    “Sagun … oh, right. Scion.” Danny looked from Taylor to Janesha. “Could he force the issue if you decided not to go? I mean, we both know it won’t get that far, but I’m a little curious.”

    “You’re damn right he could force the issue.” Janesha snorted. “I might have ranged mindbending over him, but he’s got attunement and establishment on his side, which means he’s got all the powers people believe he’s got.”

    “Which is a lot,” agreed Danny.

    “A whole fuckton.” Janesha twisted her lips. “But he doesn’t need to confront me over it. Even if he didn’t feel like tapping into his attunement and having the whole world turn against me, all he has to do is get in touch with my family, and tell them exactly where I am. There’s a few different branches of the family with ties to the Olympians. One bloodlink later, and I’d have all the elders standing around me faster than a planned intervention, and a lot less pleasant. So I’m not gonna go there.”

    “Okay, how do we locate him to get permission?” Danny raised his eyebrows. “As I recall, the last time you went looking for him, it didn’t turn out as expected.”

    “Yeah, well, then he kept running away from me, for what reason I have no idea, but now? He’s got the rest of Cauldron to locate and ask questions of, which means he won’t be doing his usual public heroics.” Janesha glanced at the girl in her arms and stood her on her feet; Bonesaw just stayed standing there. She blew out a breath in frustration. “I’ve never been in this situation before. It’s annoying the fuck out of me.”

    “How about we take them back home, instead of hanging about here?” suggested Taylor. “Dad could do with a shower, and I’m pretty sure I need one too.”

    Janesha nodded. “Yeah, okay.”

    <><>​

    Danny

    Half an hour later, Danny was sitting in the armchair while Janesha shared the sofa with the two ex-supervillains. They were still in what he privately called ‘zombie mode’, under Janesha’s direct control. He knew they were in no way dangerous, but that didn’t stop them from being creepy as hell. Which was why he was only watching TV with half his attention, the other half taken up with the young woman and the girl on his sofa.

    Upstairs, Taylor had apparently finished her shower because the water stopped running. Then there were footsteps along the corridor to the top of the stairs. “Hey, Janesha!”

    “What?” Janesha called out in reply.

    “You’re a shifter, yeah? You can make stuff?”

    “Sure. What do you want made?”

    “Can you make a bird or something that can find Sagun for you?”

    Janesha’s eyes opened wide. “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” she muttered, then raised her voice. “Taylor, you’re a genius. I can definitely do that.”

    By the time Taylor came down from upstairs, Janesha had gone outside and gotten a rock from the failing garden. In her hands was now a tiny silver bird, with a wingspan maybe three inches across. “Okay, testing.” She held up her hand with the bird perching on it. “Begin message. General Tagg makes other mortals look bad. End message.”

    A second or so passed, then the bird opened its tiny beak. ”General Tagg makes other mortals look bad.”

    “Perfect.” Janesha looked pleased with herself. “Resetting … okay. Recording message.” Stretching her arm out, she plucked the remote from Danny’s chair arm and put the sound on mute. “Begin message. Greetings to Sagun from Janesha of Mystal. Just so you know, we’ve ended the Slaughterhouse Nine and killed everyone but Bonesaw and Burnscar. I’ve depowered both of those, but they need extensive therapy, so I was hoping you would be okay with me sending them over to Cousin Col. I just wanted to check with you before I went through with it. End message.”

    Danny watched as the tiny construct fluttered up from Janesha’s finger, flew in a tight circle, then vanished in a straight line toward what he judged to be the south. In doing so, it passed clear through the wall without leaving a mark.

    “Wow. I didn’t expect something that quick,” Taylor said, going into the kitchen and bringing a chair out. “Going through walls is kind of cheaty, but why not. How’s it actually going to find him?”

    Janesha stretched her arms out with her fingers interlaced, and cracked her knuckles. “He’s the only other celestial in this realm. I told it to ignore me and find a celestial aura. When he gets it, he can either come find me or send it back with a message of his own.” She looked quite pleased with herself.

    “Which reminds me,” Taylor said, looking suddenly pensive. She turned the chair around and sat on it backwards, resting her arms across the top of the back. “Sagun’s not the one who mindwiped Eidolon, is he?”

    That got her a frown from Janesha. “Well, no, I guess not. For the longest time, I thought he was, but if he’s from Highborn Hellion stock he probably doesn’t even have any bender blood in him.” She paused, and her frown deepened. “Shit. Now I see what you’re getting at. If it wasn’t him … who was it?”

    “Would any members of your family be more interested in trolling you than making you come home?” asked Danny practically. “You know, prankster types?”

    “Well, my cousin Nuncio is a prankster type, and I can see him pulling this sort of crap on me, except for the stuff that happened to Edeena. Nobody I know would be onboard with that shit. Which means it’s not one of us.” Janesha pulled on her lower lip. “The weird thing is, when Cousin Col was in Earth Bet, she didn’t mention any other celests in the realm.”

    “Would she have even noticed them?” Taylor sounded a little dubious. “I mean, is it line of sight like the other abilities?”

    “Pfft, nope,” chuckled Janesha. “Cousin Col’s the first Weaver, and by far the most powerful. She can feel emotions all the way out to the boundary of a realm. If anyone had a vested interest in stopping us from finding out about them—say, by mindwiping Eidolon—then she would’ve found them in a heartbeat, and probably sent someone after them to fetch ’em back. That didn’t happen, so whoever it was wasn’t in the realm at the time. Which only makes it weirder.”

    “Shit!” exclaimed Taylor. “When we got depowered! I bet it was the other celest, not Sagun! He never had a reason to do it, and Eidolon wasn’t the hybrid we thought he was!”

    “And I’d bet a large amount of money they were behind whoever blew Coil’s head off when you were going after him,” Danny added. “All the crap that’s been happening behind the scenes, that wasn’t bad luck. That was someone else playing to their own agenda. I’ve seen it far too many times before.”

    “Should we warn him?” Taylor looked worried. “If he’s not the bad guy, what if the bad guy comes after him?”

    Janesha nodded. “Couldn’t hurt.”

    <><>​

    Sagun

    Floating cross-legged in midair, the golden man frowned. Alexandria, otherwise known as Chief Director Rebecca Costa-Brown, had known little more than Doctor Mother and the Number Man. He had taken the time to leave a construct in her office, a physical double of her that would ‘die’ of a simulated heart attack in several hours’ time, so that the mortals of this world would not hinder him in his search. But look as he might, no group of mortals matched the descriptions of Contessa, the Clairvoyant and Doormaker.

    So he’d decided to do something else until a clue popped up. Specifically, catch up on his reading. He’d been out of the loop for nearly thirty years. Thirty years worth of comic back issues to read!

    It had been almost child’s play to locate a comic store which still held copies going back to when he’d first come to Earth Bet. And now, as the store ebbed and flowed with more customers than the shop had seen in years, he floated in midair with comics suspended around him, their pages turning of their own accord. It occurred to him that Earlafaol comic book companies probably had a far greater output than what he was reading right now, and that alone almost convinced him to seek out Lady Janesha and ask her to contact Lady Columbine on the instant … but no. I have a job to do, and I can’t do it from there. These will have to do for me right now.

    Just as he was getting into the latest multi-issue arc, a flash of silver caught his eye. Turning his head and slowing his personal time rate, he saw that a small silver bird had come in through the wall of the shop, arrowing its way directly toward him, moving faster than any avian had a right to. As he looked more closely, he saw that its wings were not moving.

    Just for a moment, Sagun suspected an attack of sorts. But his combat sense immediately informed him that there was no danger inherent in the bird-shaped construct, so he relaxed. It flew around his head once, then landed on his shoulder.

    “So what are you?” he wondered. “Why are you here?”

    As if it had heard him—and maybe it had—it answered his question, in a way.

    Opening its beak, it spoke in familiar tones. “Greetings to Sagun from Janesha of Mystal," it said. “Just so you know, we’ve ended the Slaughterhouse Nine and killed everyone but Bonesaw and Burnscar. I’ve depowered both of those, but they need extensive therapy, so I was hoping you would be okay with me sending them over to Cousin Col. I just wanted to check with you before I went through with it."

    He pursed his lips. He kinda wanted to get mad over the destruction of the Nine, but really, they’d just been a bunch of derivative villains anyway. The only way they could’ve been any more edgelord Nineties would be if he’d had them wearing pouches everywhere and carrying unfeasibly large guns. And he was feeling too good about Edeena being okay (even if she was there and he was here) to be upset with Janesha.

    Putting his hand on the bird, he figured out how to erase the message and replace it with one of his own. “Sure,” he said idly. “But just those two.” A tap of his finger on the bird’s head sent it flying northward again, passing through the wall of the shop once more.

    He didn’t even care that phone cameras all around were clicking almost nonstop as he turned back toward his array of comics. That, of course, was when the golden bird came through the wall.

    Okay, what does she want now? he wondered. She can’t have any more mortals. It’s the principle of the thing.

    The bird landed on his shoulder, and its beak opened. This time, Janesha sounded somewhat more flustered. “If you haven’t caught up with Contessa, Doormaker or the Clairvoyant now, it’s probably because one or more of them is a celestial. Dunno where from, but there’s a ranged mindbender involved. Just thought you should know.”

    The comic books fell to the floor. Unmindful of the store owner’s pained cry, Sagun extended his legs down until he was standing. He stared at the golden bird. Alexandria had said it was Contessa’s idea to feed bits of Edeena to everyone. Up until now, he'd taken it as a bloodthirsty idea from a stupid mortal. Now ...

    “Fucking WHAT?”



    End of Part Twenty-One
     
    Last edited: Apr 11, 2020
  28. EJH

    EJH Know what you're doing yet?

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    ...not enough room on the check for all the zeroes.
     
  29. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    For the footage of Scion reading comics, then swearing?

    Yeah, probably not.
     
    Pyro Hawk, Gindjurra and Angel466 like this.
  30. Gindjurra

    Gindjurra I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    At this rate, Taylor is going to have quite the rep for figuring stuff out, across multiple pantheons.
     
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