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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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    That is indeed a good question.

    The answer will not be until next chapter, or maybe the chapter after.
     
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  2. Diraniola

    Diraniola Not too sore, are you?

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    I just binged this entire thing, and after about 3 chapters I started really anticipating Lisa getting a good look at Janesha and immediately noping hard. Is there gonna be an undersiders encounter? From the timeline and Coil's fate they probably aren't a team but the characters are usually some of the best.
     
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  3. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Oh, they're a team. The team got formed back a ways, but they've never impacted the main storyline.

    The first time Lisa got a look at Janesha-as-a-goddess, she basically bluescreened and told the others not to mess with J&T in any way. Ever.

    In fact, she's since gone to Scion's chapel and prayed for a fix for her Thinker headaches, and got it.
     
  4. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Celestial Worm

    Part Twenty-Six: Incursion

    This chapter has been rewritten.
     
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2020
  5. Jade Isentry

    Jade Isentry Unshakable

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    Sounds like Janesha is going to have words for Danny. Being the all-knowing goddess she is, she'll know that he meant the best and was trying to do what he did for her own good, but she's still going to be pissed.

    Chance and Armina are certainly faced with a difficult puzzle here when it comes to handling this situation wisely and tactically. One of Janesha's priorities is going to be to keep Danny away from them, as the potential powerbase(s) he could supply are essentially the only advantage they could get right now unless they can find another Earth Bet mortal to worship and believe in them.

    Jenesha could easily keep new believers away from them as well though. Perhaps if they used Janesha's own trick against her and established link cords to some new believers? Honestly their best move might be to bloodlink back to Mystal and call for reinforcements.
     
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  6. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    They're going to try to handle this on the down-low. Needing more than two adults to corral one teenager who's gotten herself an ill-advised establishment? They'd never live it down.

    Likewise, the whole "don't trust some strange mortal's worship base" is very strong with them. It's been a touchy subject ever since Chance was made into a genie.

    Also, there's Scion to think about. He is established, and he would not take kindly to them messing with his mortals.
     
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  7. Jade Isentry

    Jade Isentry Unshakable

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    In that case, It looks like they are really screwed. I know they wouldn't do this, but it might be best then for them to not try to deestablish Janesha, but to say "You want to be an established goddess? Fine. Time for an accelerated education on that."

    After all, Janesha has so far actually been handling things fairly well. She's walking a thin line with a lot of potential to go horribly wrong, but she's managing it pretty shrewdly, all things considered. Maybe they'd be better off just keeping an eye on her to make sure things stay A-OK until she's in a better situation and has proven herself more thoroughly.

    It would take a miracle though to get them to adopt that idea.
     
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  8. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Yeah, and miracles don't tend to work on celestials. Especially benders.

    She's basically in the position of a rich kid who vanished from the family estate and has since been found living with a bunch of barely-human sewer dwellers, who have accepted her as their leader.

    There is no way they're not going to want to drag her home.
     
  9. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Celestial Worm

    Part Twenty-Seven: Mortal World, Celestial War

    This chapter has been rewritten.
     
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2020
  10. RoninSword

    RoninSword Sky God

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    Woohoo.
    Things are going to get spicy.
     
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  11. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    ... well, it's actually just winding up.
     
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  12. Kitty S. Lillian

    Kitty S. Lillian Transhuman

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    As luck would have it…
     
  13. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    You mean, as Luck would have it ... :D
     
  14. Kitty S. Lillian

    Kitty S. Lillian Transhuman

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    By Chance, I think he's got it!
     
  15. Jade Isentry

    Jade Isentry Unshakable

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    Gotta say, I really like Chance. He's a very reasonable, chill, and level-headed dude. Armina... less so. Still, I don't exactly dislike her. I get the feeling she could be a good friend as long as you always acknowledge her strength and treat her with respect and dignity.

    If this stunt of Chance and Danny's works, I suppose Janesha will have to go home until she grows up a bit more and/or graduates from goddess-girl university. Maybe then, thousands of years later, she'll return to earth bet to be it's proper supreme goddess in a more clever, wise, and less heavy-handed capacity. By then, Taylor and Danny would have grown old and died, but given that they believe in Mystalians, I suppose that that's where they would go for their afterlife. Annette too. Given that Danny has chosen to believe in Lord Chance, he would probably have a an interest and stakes in Earth Bet too.

    I'm seeing them all return sometime in the far future. Janesha, Chance, and all three of the now immortal Heberts, Scion/Sagun having kept their legend alive until they returned. Also with their now being a potential for Mystal and the realm of Earth Bet to be on friendly terms.

    All that said, there's still a problem: Janesha isn't established. That means that all those other believers that Chance just affected aren't affecting her. She's not linked to them, and not within 15 meters (or whatever that range was). ALL of Janesha's power and what defines her is coming from Taylor, so I'm not actually sure what advantage the Mystalian Adult Team has gained here. Unless it's just an attempt to give Janesha a concrete object lesson through example about how easy it will be for something to go wrong for her in her current situation.

    No wait... I see what he's done. Janesha's whole reason for loving where she is goes something like: "I have a whole world of mortal followers here who love me and worship me, and I'm drunk off of that high." Danny's argument was that she is wrong--they don't love her. She is just a celebrity in her day of popularity that they are infatuated with because she is throwing candy at them. Tomorrow, they will grow bored of her, or even worse, turn on her.

    Chance just made it happen. He hit her entire confidence, security, reasoning, and love for what she's experiencing where it hurts. He dumped her biggest fears on her that she thought were impossible, and is forcing her to face them. She was only going to learn what she was doing foolishly through experience, so he is making her go through that experience.

    Some of the best and most important lessons are sometimes the most painful.
     
    Last edited: Sep 25, 2020
  16. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Nice going.

    You pretty well hit the nail right on the head.

    There's another reason Chance cut off Janesha off from all her worshippers, though. If she was simply cut off from Taylor, she could realm-step to within 15 feet of another worshipper, get her powers back and start the whole kerfuffle all over again. Cutting them all off at once kneecaps that notion from the beginning.

    And Danny set it up so he could do it.

    Which is why, as a general rule, celestials don't tell mortals the rules. Because we will game that shit all day long.
     
  17. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Celestial Worm

    Part Twenty-Eight: Ending Up

    This chapter has been rewritten.
     
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2020
  18. Ocean Sailor

    Ocean Sailor Getting sticky.

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    And thus the tale comes to its natural end, neither too soon nor too late. Thank you, Ack, and congratulations on a job well done!
     
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  19. Kitty S. Lillian

    Kitty S. Lillian Transhuman

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    Congrats on finishing!
    Two typos this chapter I spotted:
    needs another ’ after «‘losing»
    I'd say "versed in"
     
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  20. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Thank you. I'll see to those immediately.
     
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  21. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    I have decided to take the last couple of chapters and significantly rewrite them. The epilogues may even get their own chapters.

    Watch this space.
     
  22. Death by Chains

    Death by Chains За родину и свободу!

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    I realise that this is a tad bit late, but erm, does Mystal’s language overlap with the Commonwealth dialect(s) of English? Because AFAIK, ‘sooky baby’ or variants thereof are peculiar to Australia and New Zealand — I mainly heard it from my Aussie father.

    Another Commonwealthism. As a Kiwi, I have to watch out for these when writing Americans, so again I have to wonder if this was a(nother) slip. “(To) do [someone]” or “being done for”, in the sense of the subject entity/entities suffering massive legal repercussions, is not a turn of phrase I’d write for an American. Though with it being my own native dialect’s turn of phrase, I’m honestly not sure what the ‘proper’ alternative would be.

    Then again, IIRC, Janesha is cheating and using a telepathic ‘translation convention’, so we could probably write off ‘slips’ like this as her ‘native Mystallian dialect’ bleeding through. ;)
     
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  23. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Well, her non-Mystallian parent is the celestial equivalent of a Pacific Islander, so she could've grown up around the celestial equivalent of New Zealand ...
     
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  24. Threadmarks: Part Twenty-Six: Incursion
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Celestial Worm

    Part Twenty-Six: Incursion

    [A/N: this chapter commissioned by Fizzfaldt and beta-read by the author of Ties That Bind and The Long Way Home, Karen Buckeridge.]
    [A/N 2: for other (non-Worm) Celestial Wars sidestories, see
    here and here.]

    [A/N 3: After due consideration of the critiques of this and following chapters, I have decided to undergo a major rewrite. This is the result.]



    Lady Armina, Mystallian Goddess of War

    Somewhere in the Unknown Realms


    “We need to talk.”

    Chance looked away, even as their mystallions blurred past dozens of galaxies in the Unknown Realms with every wingbeat. “I know.” They’d been travelling for half an hour now, in the direction Chance had pointed them, but Armina needed answers. In his typical bratty fashion, her little brother was being difficult.

    Armina dropped her voice to what anyone else would consider a pants-wetting growl, though to her family it was merely considered ‘getting ‘serious’. Of course, when she got serious, galaxies died. “Don’t make me force it out of you.”

    Chance let out an exasperated huff and turned back toward her. “Yes, there’s a mortal where we’re going who’s praying to me. And yes, I know how weird it’s going to be to have an establishment field in a realm that’s not Mystal; let alone the fact that one I’ve never been to yet has a mortal in residence who somehow believes in me. But I don’t see what the big deal is. We drop in, grab Janesha and realm-step out of there. Then we head home. The end.”

    Armina, who’d had to deal with a problematic establishment field with this particular brother once already, pinched her lips together and adamantly shook her head. “What exactly did the mortal say in his prayer, and how exactly did he say it? We have no idea what belief he holds about you.”

    “He didn’t say anything about me at all, really.” Chance reined Gambler to a halt, Gladiator slowing at the same time. “But if it’ll make you happy, here,” he said, holding out his hand to her.

    “Absolutely nothing about this whole situation makes me happy,” Armina grumbled, but she reached out anyway. Even though they were both ranged mind-benders, the ‘ranged’ aspect only worked if there was a generational gap between them. As siblings, they were reduced to touch contact. Their hands clasped and she swept into his mind.

    She knew why Chance offered her his hand voluntarily rather than irritate her into forcing the issue. Once she had a challenge to face, she had to win; it was encoded in her very essence.

    They convened inside his mind, where he created a comfortable half-ring sofa for them to relax on while he brought up the memory. With less irritation than he would’ve expected at the delay, she settled onto the sofa and took up the goblet of ambrosia she found at her side.

    “Okay, here we are,” he said briskly. Armina took a drink from the goblet then set it down, watching intently.

    The memory started to replay, with Chance watching Armina squash slugs. Then an impression intruded into his mind, of a mortal; middle-aged, skinny and balding, kneeling in prayer.

    “Lord Chance of Mystal, hear my prayer,” the mortal murmured. “You are the only one who can help us. Your niece is here, and she has become established. Please, come and save her and my daughter from one another. Lord Chance of Mystal, hear my prayer …

    “It’s just more of the same,” Chance said, freezing the memory. “He went through it about five or six times, repeating exactly the same thing. I’m not a Weaver like young Columbine, but you and I have enough kids to know the plea of a desperate parent when we hear it.”

    Armina rubbed her chin, deep in thought. “The ‘niece’ bit clearly means Janesha, unless we’ve had any other family members go missing in the Unknown Realms recently. So the little twit’s gone and gotten herself established; that’s going to get messy. But I’m not sure what the next bit means, exactly. Save her and his daughter from each other?”

    “Well, duh,” Chance said at once. “The daughter’s the one who’s worshipping her, and Janesha’s encouraging it. She’s got a case of Single Worshipper Syndrome, and we’re the ones who get to unravel it. Joy.

    Single Worshipper Syndrome wasn’t a commonplace occurrence, at least among Mystallians, due to the care that most of the adults took in raising their children to know the dangers of premature establishment. She’d heard of it happening now and again in other realms, and it always caused problems. It was almost as bad as letting a hybrid get loose in the realm, mainly because it also involved celestial powers coupled with a mortal soul.

    A celestial forming a close relationship with a mortal, instead of allowing them to worship him (or her) from afar, sometimes led to shenanigans such as the celestial taking his worshipper along with him as they travelled from one realm to the next, all the while retaining the fullness of his godly power. When the locals objected, the celest and the mortal could escape to the next realm, leaving irritated gods behind with no way to pursue and inflict retribution, and leading to inter-realm bitterness and bickering. Inevitably the smartass little godling’s mortal power source got squashed by a quick-thinking celestial, followed by the offending ex-god being ‘educated’ in the many reasons why one should not irritate other gods while one’s own powerbase was so fragile. This generally led to an entirely different type of inter-realm bitterness and bickering.

    Either way, it was a fucking stupid thing to do.

    The interesting thing was that this mortal, one Danny Hebert if Armina was reading Chance’s memory correctly, was fully cognisant of the danger and was praying for assistance in splitting up the pair. So, not only had Janesha become established, but she’d taken just one worshipper. For the mortal’s sake, Armina decided coldly, her granddaughter had better not have been made over into a wish-genie, or the man would not be getting his child back ever again.

    “So you’ll become established in that realm when you get within five metres of him.” She spoke bluntly; it was something they both knew. “With a powerbase you know nothing about.”

    “Which he says will let us separate his daughter from Janesha,” Chance argued.

    “He says,” repeated Armina sardonically. “When was the last time you decided to trust a celestial’s well-being to a mortal’s word for any reason?”

    “He’s really worried about his daughter,” Chance reminded her. “After what happened with Cora, I can kind of relate.”

    He had a point. Born in Mystal, the rebellious six-year-old Cora had been anointed by Chance in her father’s absence, and he saw her as his own daughter. When he’d found out what she’d gone through at the hands of her mother’s people, he hadn’t been happy either.

    “All we have to do is pull her five metres away from Janesha and the problem is solved,” Armina decided. She jabbed Chance in the chest with her armoured finger. “You’re not going anywhere near this mortal before I’ve ascertained what he has planned for you. Do you hear me?”

    The last thing any of them needed was to go through all that again.

    <><>​

    Annette

    The Next Day


    “Sweetheart, we need to talk.”

    Annette looked around at Danny’s quiet words, as they drove sedately through the Brockton Bay morning traffic. It was still a little way to the College, where she was going to be re-establishing her credentials while he caught up on paperwork at the Dockworkers’ Association.

    “That sounds ominous,” she said lightly, trying to defuse the sudden tension. “What’s up?”

    Danny took a deep breath. “Janesha and Taylor.”

    She looked at him, feeling worry for the first time. “What about them? Talk to me, Danny Hebert. What’s going on?”

    He clenched his hands on the wheel, his knuckles standing out white against the skin. Despite his tension, his voice was low and steady. “Have you been keeping up with what they’re doing?”

    “A lot of good work, is what I’ve heard,” she said. “Fixing the world and helping people.”

    “All of that is true,” he admitted. “There’s a lot they’ve done that really needed to be done. But they’ve started to go too far, too fast. They’re pushing governments around. Forcing elected officials to stand down. Yes, some of our own as well. No hearings, no presentations of evidence. Just booting them out the door with zero proof and zero chance to appeal.”

    “Well, good,” she said bluntly. “I’m guessing these aren’t the good guys. They’re the corrupt ones, yeah?”

    “The evidence definitely points that way,” he conceded. “And I’d be the first to cheer when a bad actor gets booted out. But she didn’t come in on a scene of total anarchy. We’ve got laws. We’ve got rules. She could’ve had them removed perfectly legally with all the evidence that Congress needs to make it stick, but she chose to do it this way.”

    “So they’re out, and people who’ll do their jobs properly are in.” Annette wanted to think she was having the last word of the matter, but she knew this wasn’t the case. “That’s the end of it. Right?”

    “I’d love for it to be, but I know people and I know politics.” He sighed in aggravation. “She stepped on a lot of toes doing it that way. Toes belonging to people who normally wouldn’t have cared. Well, now they care, a lot. So they’re going to push back against everything she’s doing, and she’ll push harder. But what scares me most of all is if she decides it’s too hard to do the normal way and just mind-bends everyone to do what they’re told. Because the moment she steps over that line, that bell can’t be unrung.”

    Annette shook her head. Despite her willingness to believe that Janesha was doing the right thing, this was starting to send a chill down her spine. “She wouldn’t, would she? Taylor’s with her, and she listens to Taylor.”

    “Gods influence their worshippers as much as the worshippers influence their gods,” Danny said sombrely. “It’s a two-way street, and Taylor and Janesha were already inclined to form a closed loop of opinion before Janesha became a Goddess. If Taylor got annoyed enough at someone and Janesha suggested mind-bending to fix the problem, Taylor might not say no.” He gave her a significant glance. “You’ve been there.”

    “Oh, god, yes,” sighed Annette. She’d seen it happen in Lustrum’s crew. Nobody knew who exactly had first decided it was a good idea to start attacking men, but the odds were, it hadn’t been one person’s idea. Several of Lustrum’s followers had probably egged each other on until they were willing to take that final step. If Janesha and Taylor encouraged one another in the same way, who knew where they’d end up. “So what are you going to do? Talk to them? Ground them?”

    He snorted at the second option she presented. “The only chance I had of getting through to them was through Taylor. But when I went to her, she shut me down. Wouldn’t listen to a word I had to say. As far as she and Janesha are concerned, they’ve got it all under control.”

    Annette gave him a glare. “You’ve got that look about you, Danny Hebert. It’s the look that says you did something and you don’t know if I’m going to yell at you for it or not.”

    “Are you sure you want to know?” he asked quietly. “You probably won’t like the answer.”

    “I don’t care.” Her voice was firm and no-nonsense. “If you don’t tell me, I’m going to yell at you anyway.”

    “Okay then yeah. I did something.” He took a deep breath. “I prayed.”

    “What, to Janesha?” She tilted her head. “To get her to back off?”

    “No.” He paused. “To Lord Chance. Janesha’s uncle. Their God of Luck. She said he was one of the gods most likely looking for her.”

    Her eyes widened and she stared at him. “You’re joking.” A moment went by. “You’re not joking. What will that do?”

    Danny grimaced. “Bring them here faster. But what happens then is up to you.”

    “Me?” Annette stared at him. “What do you mean, it’s up to me?”

    Danny thumped the steering wheel with the heel of his hand, “I don’t trust myself to be impartial in all this. I’ve got a plan to help them with a powerbase, but is that going too far or do I need to go that far, to see it through to the end?”

    “Well, that depends,” Annette said carefully. “What happens if you help them?”

    “They show up, take Janesha home.” Danny shrugged. “Taylor spends the next ten years pissed at me for going behind her back. Or, you know, thanks me for helping her see sense.”

    Annette nodded. “And if you don’t?”

    “They show up, Janesha pushes back, there’s a knock-down drag-out fight between celestials, I’m guessing two or three to one, Taylor maybe gets hurt or killed, the world might survive unless they decide to destroy it.”

    The chill was back in full force, up and down Annette’s spine. “You’re serious.”

    He raised his eyebrows. “If you’re thinking that celestials are nicer than that, they’re not. If they thought we were a threat, they would absolutely destroy Earth Bet.”

    “Then do it.” She put her hand on his arm. “When they show up, help them. I’ll be sorry to see Janesha go, but if the other alternatives are worse, that’s the way we have to play it.”

    He let out a gusty sigh. “Yeah. Thanks.”

    Leaning over, she kissed him on the cheek. “Anytime, sweetheart.”

    <><>​

    Taylor

    Perhaps it was merely an illusion, but Taylor thought Earth Bet looked a good deal more peaceful than it had the last time she’d looked at it from this altitude. Said altitude being somewhat above low earth orbit. She and Janesha were hovering near the planet’s latest satellite, which just happened to be composed of all the waste plastic that had been clogging up landfills, waterways, oceans and lifeforms, until Earth’s newest goddess decided to put it all in one place.

    Janesha had allowed her to feel the sensation of the microplastics being removed from her body, though she’d spared the rest of the world the same experience. It had been, in a word, weird. Looking at the multicoloured globe of plastic next to them, she shook her head. “It’s hard to believe just how far it had spread,” she said.

    Despite the total lack of any sort of air, her voice carried easily to Janesha’s ears. “I was shocked too, petal,” the teenage goddess said serenely. “But if there’s anything mortals know how to do, it’s taking destructive behaviour and applying it to excess. You’ve been producing plastics since the nineteen fifties but never started to recycle until the eighties. Only a small fraction of it has been burned or recycled; the vast majority of your plastic trash was dumped in landfills or allowed to wash out to sea. Out of sight, out of mind.”

    She gestured to another ball of matter, a little farther away, that they weren’t going to be doing anything with. Although Taylor’s mortal eyes couldn’t detect anything special about it, she knew that it was somewhat radioactive. As it should be, being the sum total of all nuclear waste that had been stored or abandoned on Earth Bet since mankind had begun dabbling in such materials. There was rather a lot of it.

    “Yeah,” sighed Taylor. “That should really be our motto, shouldn’t it?”

    The waste plastic sphere was significantly more than a mile across, and weighed more than five billion tons. If dropped in the ocean like the world’s biggest fishing float, the wave it produced would make Leviathan’s worst efforts look like a toddler splashing in the bathtub. Which merely begged the next question. “Okay, so what are we going to do with it?”

    “That’s something I was going to speak with you about.” Janesha held up one finger, a little above her head. Obediently, the globe moved sideways until it was resting on her fingertip, then began to spin almost idly. “There is enough plastic in this ball to gift every adult on Earth of driving age with a solar-powered vehicle, specifically suited to their needs. Even now, despite the upcoming plan to end pollution, internal combustion engines are once more belching soot and carbon monoxide and other noxious substances into the atmosphere. It’s almost as if they expect Me to just keep cleaning it up, now that I’ve done it once.”

    Taylor wasn’t quite sure how to address that, so she kept quiet. Janesha either cheated by using the cord connecting them or had gotten good at reading her expressions, because it didn’t take the celestial girl long to get it. “Oh, you have to be joking with Me!” Janesha burst out. “They actually expect this?”

    “Well, yeah.” Taylor shrugged. “One of those self-destructive behaviours you mentioned is laziness. There’s a significant portion of the population that’s willing to turn over any tedious job at all to the first person who offers to do it, then whines when they’re expected to pay for it to be done.” She paused, thinking about what she’d just said. “Well, I guess that bit’s greed. They get it for free once, they want it for free forever.”

    Janesha chuckled. “That, at least, is not specifically a human trait. The difference is, celests get everything for free. If We trade in anything, it’s favours and boons.”

    “Well, and divine miracles for us mortals,” Taylor said with a smirk. “Paid for by belief and prayers, maybe?”

    That got her a dirty look from Janesha. “You make Us sound downright mercenary. If and when you meet the rest of My family, I strongly suggest you keep that opinion to yourself. Being My high priest would not save you from retribution.”

    “Okay, I can do that.” Taylor reached up and let her fingers trail over the surface of the immense sphere currently rotating just above her head. “So, were you sold on the idea of plastic electric cars for everyone in the world, or was that just you thinking aloud?”

    “It was but one notion I was entertaining,” Janesha said. “Tell Me, what would happen if I chose to renew all mined-out natural resources?”

    That was a no-brainer. “They’d start mining them all over again.” Taylor waved her hand in a half-circle. “Wrecking the environment just as hard as the laws would allow them to. And if it was easier to get and use fossil fuels for power, they’d do that instead of going to clean energy.” Reaching up, she tapped the slowly revolving plastic globe. “And if you recycled that for bags and stuff, they’d start tossing them again.”

    “Despite the fact that I have provided them with an easily-followed plan to create clean energy and bring air and water pollution to near zero, all with their own efforts,” Janesha said, sounding more than a little frustrated.

    “People do what’s easy and familiar, not what’s right,” Taylor reminded her. “That effort they need to put into the plan? If their government merely backs it rather than actively enforcing it and they don’t have a personal vested interest in seeing it succeed, there are people who just won’t bother. People who, if they don’t get more out of it than everyone else, would rather see it all fail.”

    Lightning sparked in Janesha’s eyes and crackled along her arms. “I am strongly tempted to remake their minds to heed My commandments and treat their world more wisely.”

    Taylor frowned. “Um, maybe we shouldn’t?” she suggested diffidently.

    “And why ever not?” Janesha raised her eyebrows. “They are Our mortals. I am their Goddess. If anyone knows what is best for them, it is Myself.”

    Taylor figured she should be thinking of a good argument, and voiced the best one she could think of. “Uh, Dad wouldn’t like it?”

    Janesha cleared her throat in a regal fashion. “Petal, while I possess considerable respect for your father, and owe him My life, he knows little of the demands faced by We of the celestial realms. He is too enmeshed in the mortal world to be able to step back and understand the true issues at stake here. We alone see the big picture for what it is, and what must be done to see Our aims come to completion, for the good of all.”

    “Well, yeah.” Taylor couldn’t agree more with Janesha’s words. “I mean, if anyone knows what’s best for humanity, it’s you and me, right?”

    “Indeed.” Janesha surveyed the globe beneath them regally. “If they refuse to understand what is best for them, they will be made to understand.”

    “Actually, maybe it’s not that they’re refusing to understand so much as they can’t understand,” Taylor suggested. “We haven’t managed to implement the plan for universal education yet, which means the world’s population as a whole lacks crucial information, especially in matters like this. Worse, the people with the best education, who influence their countries the most, aren’t necessarily the smart ones. They’re the ones with the most money. And while I’m not saying every rich family is corrupt and grasping, it’s certainly a common factor.”

    Janesha nodded. “So I see. Intelligent does not mean educated, or vice versa. This explains a lot. Perhaps I should summon some of them and require them to give Me a good reason not to turn them all into small amphibians for a day out of sheer irritation.”

    “While that would be hilarious, it’s probably not the best idea in the world,” Taylor admitted. “We don’t need them traumatised, after all. Maybe instead of punishing them, you could make them smarter and give them the knowledge so they know to make the right decision?”

    Though Janesha was still visibly annoyed, the lightning ceased to crackle over her skin. “I have already replenished farmlands, all over the world. Minefields in Africa and elsewhere have been cleared. All struggling crops are now flourishing. Cattle and other domestic creatures are fat and healthy. As of last night, every single homeless person has a room to live in and a bed to sleep in. There are once-defunct businesses now bringing needed services to people, staffed by previously unemployed people. This is all due to Me.”

    “Well, yes,” Taylor agreed. “It’s not exactly a secret that you’ve done all that.”

    Janesha spread her hands. “Then how much more intelligent do Our mortals need to be? What extra knowledge need I instil in their minds, before they can comprehend that Mine is the only viable way forward? Or must I present them with a book of My Commandments and laws before they will pay attention?”

    “Well, that depends,” Taylor said cautiously. “What happens if they need to ask what a particular passage in your holy book actually means?”

    Janesha frowned. “It doesn’t work that way, petal. Unfortunately.”

    “I don’t … ah.” Light dawned. “If they believe in a specific interpretation, that’s what the truth is, yeah?”

    “Quite literally, yes.” Janesha smirked. “Did I ever tell you about Lord Uriel and the white-goods thing?”

    Taylor blinked. “I seem to remember that, yes. Some of your cousins playing a prank, as I recall.”

    “Exactly. It only worked when he was within five metres of the people who believed in that aspect of him, but while he was there, it applied. Overall, it’s majority rule. If a religious war breaks out and the only worshippers left are the ones that hold the view of a fire and brimstone god rather than peace and light, then you better believe there’ll be some fire and brimstone going down.”

    “So what happens when your attunement field finally catches up with the realm and all your other worshippers finally get to interact with you directly?” asked Taylor. “I mean, I see why you were telling us it’s better to be attuned first, so you could make sure they knew exactly who you were. We don’t want a hundred million worshippers each having a different idea of who and what you are.”

    “Worry not, petal,” Janesha assured her. “I thought of that. In broadcasting the knowledge of My ascension to divinity throughout the world, I passed on to the mortals of this realm your knowledge of Myself. They will come into My glory already knowing the truth.”

    “Ah, crap.” Instead of calming down, Taylor became more worried. “You built that cathedral right next to my house, and I haven’t even gone there once to tell your believers about you. You must think I’m a horrible high priestess.”

    “If I needed you to preach My word, you would be there already,” Janesha said with a serene smile. “Those who enter are filled with peace, and see visions of Me when they pray. Once We have brought this realm to rights, you will have time to preach My word, and bring more people into My light. Already, I have cathedrals assembling in cities around the world, where My followers may share in My peace and harmony.”

    “Well, okay, if you say so.” Taylor had faith that Janesha wasn’t lying to spare her feelings, so she felt a bit better about it. “I saw a lot of people going in and out of Sagun’s church, too. That’s got to be making him happy.”

    “It is only his due,” Janesha agreed. “He has a ready-made worshipper base, one that he did not even know he was cultivating over the last thirty years.”

    Taylor sighed. “Yeah.” She looked down at the Earth again. “We’re really making a difference, aren’t we?”

    “Well, what sort of a Goddess would I be if We did not?” Janesha’s laughter rang clearly in the vacuum of space. “Your world has been crying out for succour for years, and lo! I am here.”

    “Here you are, indeed.” Taylor rubbed her chin. “How about those world leaders? Any more trouble from them?”

    “None worth mentioning.” Janesha beamed serenely down at the imperceptibly rotating globe. “Each and every one is making full preparations to carry out the plans contained in the books. And to think; it only took one lesson to teach them who held the real power in this realm.”

    Taylor snorted. “Answer: not them. I’m glad they saw sense. Dad was all sorts of unhappy that we’d pushed matters that hard, but it looked like we were right and he was wrong.”

    <><>​

    Danny

    “So hey, what do you think about the Goddess?” asked Kurt as they passed each other by in the lunchroom. “Taylor’s her high priestess or something now, isn’t she?”

    “Yeah, she is.” Danny opened his lunchbox. “Not exactly the kind of after-school job I would’ve expected her to get, but there you have it.” He didn’t mention his disquiet with the situation, because he wanted to know his friend’s opinion.

    Kurt chuckled. “Ain’t that the truth.” He took a bite from his bologna sandwich, chewing thoughtfully.

    “So what do you think of what she’s been doing?” He knew he was cheating slightly as he hadn’t actually answered the question, but Kurt was one of his oldest friends, and Danny valued his input.

    “Well, it’s been impressive, that’s for sure.” Kurt smirked. “Never seen so many asshole Presidents and Prime Ministers and suchlike with their tails out of joint all at once.” He paused to take another bite.

    Danny knew Kurt too well to let that lie. “I hear a 'but' coming.”

    Once Kurt’s mouth was empty, he nodded. “Yeah. But.” He took a deep breath. “There’s a lot of folks, an' a lot of lobby groups, just had their agendas trampled all over. These folks can’t do anything against her personally, everyone knows that.”

    Danny nodded. He was absolutely aware of the rules for setting up a powerbase, and he had no doubt Taylor had leaned on them heavily when she started worshipping Janesha. The Goddess of Earth Bet was guaranteed to be impervious to mortal harm, and to be able to confer the same invulnerability to Taylor.

    “Which leaves something stupid,” he said quietly.

    Kurt nodded. “Yeah, that. Maybe blowing up her cathedral, or attacking her followers. I doubt she could be everywhere at once. People are gonna get hurt, an' probably more again when she finds out an' brings her own personal hammer of pain down on them.” He stretched and yawned. “You ask me, she’s doin' the right thing, but goin' about it all wrong.”

    “Yeah, you could be right there.” Danny nodded, his own internal misgivings crystallising into a certainty. Kurt was about as easygoing as a Dockworker could be. If he had concerns, then there were almost certainly concerns.

    They ate lunch together, talking idly about unrelated matters. The battered radio in the corner burbled a half-heard background counterpoint to their conversation with the occasional snippet of news, none of which made Danny any happier.

    When he finished, he nodded to Kurt and headed back to his office. He locked the door and got down on his knees. Closing his eyes, he clasped his hands together.

    He had no idea if this was even working, but he had to have faith that it was.

    Lord Chance of Mystal, hear my prayer ...

    <><>​

    Chance

    “Alright, where to now?” Armina gave Chance an irritated look. “You keep saying we’re almost there, but I’m not at all certain you know where 'there' is.”

    “I know we’re close by.” Chance tried not to let his sister’s tone rattle him. “The prayer came from this direction. She’s established, so there must be a realm somewhere around here.”

    “If there is, it’s not very large.” Armina sniffed. “What was the girl even thinking, to try to start her own realm, much less become established before she’s even attuned to it? Is she so terrified of the idea of returning home?”

    “I doubt that very much,” Chance said. “Besides, Columbine would’ve said something if Janesha was unhappy. Best case scenario, she’s flexing her muscle just to see what would happen. Worst case, she was backed into a corner and becoming established was the only way for her to survive.”

    “For that realm’s sake, it had better be the former,” grumbled Armina. “I swear, none of mine ever gave me one tenth as much trouble.”

    “Never?” Chance drawled in amusement. “At no stage was Barris ever caught spying on Columbine and her friends skinny-dipping in the forests outside Pandess? Nor did Llyr and Lillith ever get into a snit over Danika being established as the goddess of the stars? Not to mention …”

    “Oh, will you shut up!”

    “Just making a point. Kids will be kids. It’s literally in their job description to be immature.”

    Armina gave him side-eye. “So what’s your excuse?”

    “Me?” He spread his fingers on his chest, pretending to be offended. “I’m perfect in every way.”

    Armina shook her head in amused irritation. “At least this isn’t over a boy. As far as we know, anyway.”

    “No, Yasadan laid it out pretty plainly,” Chance reminded her. “She thought it was her familial duty to defend your deeds, and Thor got his furry panties in a wad. She probably just headed out there to cool off before realm-stepping home, then just kept on going because why not? It’s more or less what I did at her age.”

    “Now who’s full of shit, or do you need to be reminded what we were doing when you were her age?”

    Chance lost his happy-go-lucky expression for a moment. “Okay, what I would have liked to have been doing then.”

    “Mmm.” The noise was more a growl than anything else. None of them liked to be reminded of that time.. “I can’t fault her for that particular impulse. The execution, though, that’s another matter entirely.”

    “Yeah, well, I bet Thor will be regretting it once Yasadan gets through lambasting him.” Chance grinned. “Don’t blame her, either. Exiling the kid for something that wasn’t even her fault? Where does he—” He cut himself off in mid-sentence, as the words flooded into his mind.

    Lord Chance of Mystal, hear my prayer. You are the only one who can help us. Your niece is here, and she has become established. Please, come and save her and my daughter from one another. Lord Chance of Mystal …

    “Where does Thor what?” asked Armina.

    “Hah!” Chance exclaimed. “Got him!” He swung in the saddle and pointed back the way they’d come, and down slightly. “We overshot by about twenty thousand galaxies.”

    “You’ve got to be shitting me.” Her complaint notwithstanding, Armina guided Gladiator around to follow Chance on Gambler. “How small is this realm she’s hiding in, anyway?”

    “Won’t matter once we get our asses inside it.” He flicked his reins, a visible signal for what he was about to do. “Gambler … step.”

    <><>​



    Taylor paused, her expression turning suspicious. “What do you mean, none ‘worth mentioning’?”

    For an answer, Janesha gave an airy flick of her hand. “There may have been intense discussions of a nature intended to be utterly secret, behind closed doors, within secrecy fields, held in a language known only to the speakers … well, and to Me, of course.” She removed a glove just so that she could buff perfect nails on her sleeve. “Two of the discussions even removed themselves to another iteration of this world, through portals that I believe are illegal in every way. There was but one topic to the discussion; the removal of Myself as Goddess of this realm. The methods proposed were inventive and varied. Some even believed that cape powers could be used to carry this out.”

    “Well, that would be impressively futile,” Taylor decided. “What did you do?”

    “The two groups using portals … well, I shut down the portals. With them on the other side.” Janesha’s eyes twinkled. “Their reactions when they discovered this were … amusing. The rest of them found themselves hosting a divine visitation. Each and every one was willing to kill not just Myself but you, Danny and Annette, and the entire city if necessary. I will not stand for that.”

    Taylor’s eyebrows rose. She hadn’t known of this at all. “What did you do with them?”

    “I will admit, this was a dilemma,” the young goddess said. “My power did not cow them, so they could not be intimidated. Neither could I have simply mindbent them to My will; in the absence of Weaving, the emotions behind such a mindset would eventually filter through, leaving us with the same problem in a year or ten. And you dislike killing out of hand, so I could not erase them from existence.”

    Realising she was being strung along, Taylor gave her a dirty look. “C’mon, don’t leave me in suspense like this.”

    “Very well, if you insist.” Janesha rolled her eyes. “I placed them on the moon. There is food and water, and much time to think about how I could have put them somewhere without air. And, in time, when they have taken the time to consider matters, I will ask them if they wish to come home.”

    “What if they climb out of the bubble?” Taylor asked. “You know some of them are likely to try.”

    “If they wish to kill themselves, that is of no moment to Me.” Janesha’s voice was serene, as if they were not discussing human lives, stranded on the moon. “But I will not do it for them.”

    “And if more decide to take up where those guys left off?” asked Taylor. “Are you going to put them on the moon as well?”

    “What would you have Me do, petal?” Janesha spread her hands expressively. “These mortals have performed horrific acts in the past, to be certain, but each and every one was out of loyalty to their home country, and within the laws of that country. Only in planning My downfall have they gone wrong and now that I am forewarned, their worst measures will not so much as scratch My skin. Still, I cannot encourage this behaviour. Surely you agree that exile is more merciful than murder.”

    “Yes … no … argh!” Taylor ran her hands through her hair, somehow not dislodging the tiara on her forehead. “I’m not good at this sort of problem! No matter what we do, someone gets hurt!”

    “And yet, if We do nothing, everyone in this city is at risk,” Janesha pointed out. “Hard choices are a fact of life.”

    “You’ll have to mind-bend them.” Taylor kept her voice firm and steady. “It’s the only way.”

    “I already told you, petal, even if I removed all awareness of their need to destroy Me, the emotion would still colour their thoughts.” Janesha tilted her head. “Or do you have another solution?”

    Taylor shook her head. “No. You implant something over and above their current knowledge. The absolute certainty that no matter what they try, they will fail. If you forced them to internalise that knowledge, they’ll almost certainly start looking for a way to compromise rather than confront you directly.”

    “And if their masters refuse to accept this?” Janesha sounded intrigued rather than dubious.

    “Just keep going up the chain. All the way, if necessary.” Taylor shrugged. “We’re really good at deluding ourselves, but once we accept the status quo, it’s amazing how fast we can adapt to a new way of doing things. In the normal run of things, would you mind-bend the President if he tried to pull that shit on you?”

    “In a heartbeat,” Janesha agreed. “Your plan is acceptable. I will—”

    Abruptly, her expression changed. The serenity was overlaid by a taut grimness.

    “What?” asked Taylor. “What is it?”

    “They’re here,” whispered Janesha. “In the realm.”

    “What? Who? Who’s here?”

    Janesha’s voice was distant. Slowly, deliberately, she cracked her knuckles.

    “My family.”

    <><>​

    Danny

    “... from one another,” murmured Danny. He paused, then took a deep breath. Still nothing. I’ll try again tomorrow. Opening his eyes, he reached out for the corner of his desk to help himself to his feet.

    “This is the one that’s been praying to you?”

    He stumbled as the voice cut sharply through the still air of the office. Looking around, he almost fell back to his knees from the sheer surprise of seeing two imposing figures standing in the doorway to the back room on the opposite side to him. Conveniently, about twenty feet away. He’d never seen them before in his life, but he knew who they were.

    “Lady Armina!” he gasped, for the black-armoured woman could be none other. “Lord Chance! You came!” The gold-eyed man’s uniform was easily recognisable from the pattern of the one that Janesha had worn for most of her stay, while the same rearing-mystallion image was emblazoned on the chest of the heavy plate worn by the woman. At that moment, the relief that poured through him was almost palpable.

    He only managed one step toward them before Lady Armina—he was careful to refer to her title even in his thoughts—blurred toward him. Before he could react, he was driven up against the wall of the office, her gauntleted hand gripping the front of his shirt. His feet dangled inches from the floor as she held him there with no apparent effort. Fully aware of how strong celestials were from Janesha’s example, he didn’t even try to struggle. Fortunately, though her clenched fist was pressed against his throat, the durability of his body ensured that he was still able to breathe.

    “Where is Janesha?” demanded Lady Armina, her black eyes boring into his. “And … why can’t I read you?” She half-turned her head toward her brother, though Danny was fully aware she kept most of her attention on him. “Are you sure he’s not a celest? I can’t even detect his mind! And most mortals would have a broken bone or two by now.”

    Trying not to make it seem like a hostile move—even as tough as Janesha had made him, that would not help him against one of those enormous swords, he was sure—Danny held up his right hand and waggled it so she could see. Then he reached carefully across with his left and pulled the seclusion ring off.

    A moment later, he’d been dropped to the floor and the ring plucked from his grasp. Armina glared at the simple gold band, while keeping one heavy armoured hand on his shoulder. “What are you doing with a seclusion ring, mortal?” she demanded. “Where did you get it from?”

    “We both know you already have the answers you seek from me, Lady Armina,” he replied respectfully. Any thought of resentment at being treated so roughly was thoroughly tamped down as he reminded himself that these beings kicked planets into suns if they so wished. “She took it from another celestial, who tried to kill her, and gave it to me.”

    “And he’s got no idea who these other celestials were, aside from the fact that they were here long before Janesha arrived … oh, and they were opposing the other celestial in this realm, from behind the scenes.” Lord Chance said, proving Lady Armina wasn’t the only one rifling through his memories. He held out his hand, but still stayed outside the room. “Let me see it.”

    Without looking, Lady Armina flipped the ring back over her shoulder, where Lord Chance deftly caught it out of the air. “Well?” she asked, over her shoulder.

    Knowing he was being intentionally ignored, Danny still wanted to be heard. “Please. Janesha and Taylor don’t see how badly what they’re doing can go wrong, and they’re not listening to anyone. Your niece needs an adult in the room who can put their foot down and make her listen, and that’s not me.”

    His words may have fallen on deaf ears for all the reaction he got. Lady Armina maintained her grip on him and her attention on her little brother. “Chance?”

    The Mystallian God of Luck examined the ring so closely, Danny wouldn’t have been surprised if he could make out the molecular structure. “It’s not one of Strahan’s,” he said eventually. “I don’t know where this is from, but he didn’t make it.” He looked up and his eyes met Lady Armina’s. “Which means there’s another magic-capable celest out there somewhere.”

    <><>​

    Armina

    The look in Chance’s eyes said that he wanted to confer in private, so she nailed the mortal with a command to not move from that place. Then she crossed the room to where Chance stood and reached out for her brother’s hand.

    As before, they reconvened in Chance’s mind. In the space in front of them was the anomalous seclusion ring spinning gently in midair, and the layout of Danny’s memories as they pertained to Janesha. Armina had only glanced at them, but it was clear that Chance had gone over them in much more detail.

    “What do you mean, another magic-capable celest?” She folded her arms and looked closely at the ring. It looked just like every other seclusion ring to her, save the ones her nephew had made to special order.

    Chance sighed. “You saw. There were hostile celests here, in this realm, when Janesha arrived. I don’t know if any of them were the mage, but on balance I’m thinking not. For some reason, they came after Janesha and Taylor without even trying to talk first. I can’t believe how many times Janesha nearly got herself killed since she got here! I mean, did you see that talot?”

    “What talot?” Armina hadn’t done a deep-dive into Danny’s memories, because what happened a week or two ago was irrelevant to her. She went in to get what she needed. Where Janesha was now and how the little twit had managed to get herself established so that they could ‘un’-establish her.

    “This one,” Chance said, and replayed the memory of Janesha’s crash landing from Danny’s point of view.

    Armina scowled. “Yeah, right. I doubt this pitiful mudball has got anything that’ll surprise me … well, fuck.” She stared at the unfolding drama of a mortal taking on a talot with nothing more than a metal bar to protect Janesha. Mystal’s quintessential warrior, she may have been undefeated in battle, but she also knew when to back off. “Okay, perhaps I was wrong. Are you sure he’s a mortal? He’s a lot tougher than I remember them being, and facing off against even a baby talot requires a certain amount of balls.”

    “For the first part, that’s Janesha’s doing.” Chance isolated the part of Danny’s memory that showed the teenage celestial powering up first Taylor and then Danny. “As for the second part … well, that’s all him. He had to have known it was capable of ripping him to shreds, but he stood up to it anyway.” He dusted his hands off. “Anyway, you know this means she owes him for saving her life. When was the last time you heard of a mortal doing that for a celestial?”

    Armina grimaced, aware that once more her smartass little brother was correct. Mystal was a proud pantheon and as stiff-necked as they came, but they understood honour and obligation as well as anyone. If a member of another pantheon had saved Janesha’s life, they would have of course been grateful and treated the fellow celestial as an honoured guest. For a mortal to earn the same level of gratitude … it had been a long, long time since that had happened.

    Deciding to shelve the question until she had all the information, she turned back to the memories. “What about these other celestials? Where do they come in?”

    Rubbing his chin, Chance frowned. “From context, it looks like there were two other factions in this realm when Janesha fell into the middle of it. One was this Lord Scion, the god of superheroes.” He smirked when he said the word.

    “Really?” Armina shook her head in disgust. “Here we are, looking for one of our own who just happens to have become established, and you’re getting amused at what another god does as a hobby.”

    Chance rolled his eyes. “It was actually quite helpful in the beginning. Janesha managed to avoid being worshipped by anyone else simply by going around in her uniform and letting people assume it was her ‘costume’.” He cleared his throat, then continued. “Anyway. Lord Scion doesn’t seem to have been aligned with this other bunch, who were very much behind the scenes. The girl told her father about it after the fact, but she left out a lot of details. All we really know is that after she became established, Janesha killed two of them but the third got away. That one hasn’t shown up since, probably because he knows not to invade the realm of a full-blown goddess. I’ll say one thing about the mortal girl, she didn’t mess around when it came to giving Janesha her powerbase. She went the whole hog, with extra courses on the side.”

    They didn’t need the conference space anymore, so Armina dropped them out of it. “Well, it won’t matter,” she said, folding her arms. “Janesha’s not attuned yet, or anywhere near it. All we have to do is separate her from the mortal girl, mind-bend her not to worship my granddaughter anymore, and carry Janesha straight back to Mystal.”

    Chance blinked. “One … ah, two problems with that.”

    Armina gritted her teeth. “What. Problems?”

    “First …” Chance drew a deep breath. “She started a church. People are going into it and worshipping her.”

    “Not necessarily a deal-breaker.” So long as the new worshippers weren’t inside establishment range, they couldn’t influence Janesha. And she knew of various ways one could get rid of inconvenient followers. Mortals were easy to kill. “What’s the second problem?”

    Chance pointed and Armina turned, staring at the empty spot that had previously held one mind-bent Danny Hebert. “He’s gone."


    End of Part Twenty-Six
     
  25. Threadmarks: Part Twenty-Seven: Mortal World, Celestial War
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Celestial Worm

    Part Twenty-Seven: Mortal World, Celestial War

    [A/N: This chapter commissioned by Fizzfaldt and beta-read by the author of Ties That Bind and The Long Way Home, Karen Buckeridge.]
    [A/N 2: for other (non-Worm) Celestial Wars sidestories, see
    here and here.]

    [A/N 3: After due consideration of the numerous critiques of this chapter and Chapter 28, I have done some rewriting.]



    Taylor

    “Your family?” asked Taylor, caught partway between being thrilled to meet more celestials and worry at the tone of Janesha’s voice. “Where are they?”

    Janesha began to move her hands as though she were reeling in an invisible cord. “At your father’s place of work,” she snapped. “They are interrogating him regarding My actions.”

    A shock went through Taylor’s body, fear for her father overwhelming all other impulses. “Dad? How did they even find him? How did they know who he is? Can you save him?”

    “Of course I can save him, petal.” Janesha seemed to test the tension on the invisible line she held. “You forget, I’m directly connected to him, as I am to you.” She took in a breath and let it out between her teeth in an irritated hiss. “Just when I was getting this world in order, too.”

    “Why is it such a problem?” asked Taylor apprehensively. She’d gotten used to the idea of meeting celestials, but all the celestials she’d met had been friendly. For some reason, these two were apparently not. “They’re your family, right?”

    The rumble of an almost-growl in Janesha’s throat pointed out to her that she didn’t quite understand what was going on. “Yes, and they will presume that I am too young to be established, and wish to take this all away from Me, and remove Me from your world.”

    “What?” Taylor frowned. “That’s ridiculous. You’re doing a great job. People are happy, pollution is down, the world governments are falling into line, the Endbringers are gone, those other hostile celestials are dead or gone. How can they be unhappy with that?”

    “Because they’re old-fashioned and reactionary, and living by the standards of a billion eons ago, not today.” Janesha set herself and yanked, and suddenly Danny popped into view. A split second later, before he could fall, Janesha surrounded him with a cocoon of light.

    “Dad, are you okay?” Taylor swooped down and entered the cocoon, wrapping her father in a fervent hug. He’d been so much happier ever since Janesha had brought Annette back, and she didn’t want to see anything happen to him now that everything was good for once. It would especially devastate her mother.

    Taylor had spent hours chatting with Annette, opening up more and more as she filled her mother in on what had been going on since she’d died. Annette had seemed just as bemused by the extra attention as by the time skip, given that she hadn’t had to endure a year of knowing her family was dead. But the truly special time had been taken up with Danny and Annette reconnecting on all levels. There was no way she wanted to lose that.

    She looked her father over. He seemed a little stunned, but answered all the same. “I … yes, I think I’m fine. They didn’t hurt me. Though from the way they were talking, I think they mind-bent me.”

    Taylor glanced sideways at Janesha. While the teenage goddess was perfectly capable of mind-bending Danny to find out the information they needed to know, she’d given her word much earlier that she would not use her abilities on him without his consent, so somebody had to ask the question. “Who was it, Dad?”

    “Uncle Chance and Grandmother Armina,” Janesha said, pre-empting him. She caught Taylor's questioning look and raised an eyebrow. “Omniscience, petal. It has its uses.”

    “From the descriptions you’ve given us, it was definitely them,” Danny confirmed. “She asked me how I knew about you, then ordered me to stay where I was.”

    “But how did they get here so fast?” asked Taylor. “Janesha, you said they wouldn’t be here for a long time. And they zeroed in on Dad? What’s going on?”

    Danny drew a long breath and spoke the four words that changed everything. “I called them here.”

    “You ... what?” Taylor couldn’t have heard right. She knew she couldn’t have heard right. Why would Dad have done such a thing?

    Janesha, on the other hand, was under no such misapprehension. Lightning crackled in her eyes, in counterpoint to the thunder that boomed overhead from clouds that hadn’t been there ten seconds previously. “Danny … what have you done?”

    He stood as straight as he could while being supported in a cocoon of pure energy. “What I had to. What needed to be done.” Jaw firm, he stared the teenage goddess in the eye without flinching. “You and Taylor are out of control. There is nobody on Earth Bet who can tell you that you’re going too far, too fast. Not and make it stick, anyway. So, I called in somebody who at least has a better chance of doing that … all pun intended.”

    “But, Dad, you’ve got it all wrong,” Taylor protested. “Janesha will listen to advice. She’s done it before. All you had to do was talk to her. You didn’t have to bring other celests into it.”

    “Really.” Danny met her gaze. “I tried to talk to you, and you wouldn’t listen.You’re the sole arbiter of Janesha’s powerbase and thrall. How am I supposed to get through to her if I can’t make an impression on you?” His eyes flicked to Janesha. “Can you convince me without mind-bending me that you would have given my counsel the same weight you’ve been giving Taylor’s?” His voice was neither challenging nor mocking; merely matter of fact.

    Janesha stared back at him, her lips pulled so thin that they were nearly bloodless. Thunder boomed overhead, then lightning struck all around them in a cage, making the air sharp with ozone. Despite the noise and havoc all around them, her voice was as clear as a bell when she spoke.

    “I was making your world a better place, Danny Hebert. You had no right to do this.”

    I had every right.” His words were implacable. “You did not create this world. I was born here. You were not. You came in afterward and started messing with things you do not understand.”

    “Messing with things I don’t understand?” Her voice rose high with disbelief. “Were you any other mortal, you would already be dead for your apostasy, Danny Hebert! I am a goddess, born of gods and taught in the ways of doing this very thing! I know more about it than you ever will!” Energy began building up around her hands and body, crackling between her and the clouds. Random arcs of lightning started to strike high points on the terrain below.

    “Forgive me,” he said softly. “I misspoke.” He bowed his head, humbling himself before her.

    Taylor saw the energy begin to dissipate again as Janesha took in his words, the anger receding from her. “And well you should know it, Danny Hebert,” she said, her tone mollified. “I will not be—”

    “Forgive me once more, Lady Janesha,” Danny said, bringing his head up again. “I said I misspoke, not that I was wrong. Of course you’ve been trained in how to be a goddess to a world that is hungry for leadership, one which has developed with the full knowledge that a pantheon watches over them. That is not this world. We of Earth Bet have an independent bent. While we’re likely to accept the benefits of a generous goddess, we’re also likely to push back at the strictures that come with such a reign, because that’s who we are.”

    “I bring peace and prosperity to Earth Bet,” Janesha snapped. “That is My gift to the mortals of this realm. In return, they are to accept My eternal reign as their goddess, as Taylor has, and worship Me forevermore. That is the bargain, as it ever has been. Those ingrates who wish one without the other will accept My rule or accept the consequences, for I will not change Myself for them.”

    “And those who don’t want either one?” asked Danny, his voice becoming louder and louder. “What about those who just want you gone? Will you force your so-called bargain upon them as well? Will you mind-bend them to get your way if they keep opposing you?” The last words were a shout.

    “If I have to, yes!” Janesha’s eyes flared as she replied in kind.

    His voice was soft, all trace of anger gone, as he answered. “Then you have no idea what you’re doing. You’re letting your thrall control you, making it up as you’re going along. I’ve been doing this dance longer than you’ve been alive, and it isn’t ‘bargaining’ if you’re not giving the mortals a chance to say no. The word for that sort of negotiation is ‘extortion’ and it always ends badly.” He tilted his head and raised his eyebrows.

    “I will tell you again, Danny Hebert, have a care.” Janesha was angry now, but she was keeping her temper in check. “You hold a life debt on Me and thus I would never kill or even harm you, but even so you overstep the bounds of propriety. Should My relatives hear you speak to Me in such a manner, they are under no such compulsion to spare your life.”

    “I understand all that, Lady Janesha of Mystal,” Danny said, his voice almost irritatingly calm. “However with all the respect due to you and your station, please, prove me wrong. Be strong enough to walk away.”

    Taylor watched Janesha’s hands curl into fists, and understood where she was coming from. Few things were more annoying than an adult who kept an argument reasonable. It was even worse with the knowledge that her father had a temper problem and he was still keeping it together while Janesha was filling the air for a mile around with yard-wide crackling streamers of divinely generated electricity. It was a good thing they were far away from civilisation right then, or people would’ve been dying by the hundreds.

    <><>​

    Chance

    "Where did he go?" demanded Armina. "I ordered him to stay where he was. No mortal can withstand my commands, and there are no celestials in this realm who are more powerful at mind-bending than either of us!"

    “He didn’t go anywhere voluntarily," Chance said thoughtfully. He'd had his eyes on the mortal's face just as he vanished and a subjective five minutes of internalisation confirmed a very brief expression of surprise just before he winked out of existence. "He was moved away."

    Armina wasn't slow on the uptake. "You're saying Janesha has some sort of establishment power that lets her move mortals around like chess pieces."

    "I'm saying it was almost certainly her," Chance said. "How she actually did it, I'm still figuring out."

    "Well, no matter," Armina said briskly. "We've got everything we need. Let's go grab Janesha and head back to Mystal before this shit-show gets even more complicated."

    Chance nodded, and they exited the building to where Gambler and Gladiator awaited them. It said something for the wisdom of the local mortals that nobody was coming near the mystallions, although some appeared to be capturing images with small devices. Of course, even celestials steered clear of Armina’s coal-black armoured mount; especially given the strategically placed spikes, the glowing red eyes, and the equally red hooves.

    Moving in unison, they swung astride their respective mystallions and urged them skyward, then concentrated on the familial link to the only other Mystallian in the realm.

    She was in the same continent, but airborne. Immense amounts of energy crackled around her, scorching the ground below and arcing in all directions. As they neared the delinquent celestial, Chance gestured for Armina to slow down. “I wouldn’t go into that lightning,” he said. “Remember, her father’s Weather, and her mystallion’s called Cloudstrike. I wouldn’t be surprised if her lightning was supercharged past what even you or I could easily handle. Besides, with that armour, you and Gladiator would be one big lightning rod.”

    Armina slitted her eyes as she stared at where Janesha seemed to be arguing with the mortal they’d interrogated, with a teenaged mortal girl hovering nearby. Chance was almost impressed; the man was actually giving her some damn good reasons for folding up the tent and coming home, which was far different from the usual fare of cowering acquiescence.

    Armina was less so. “What’s going on with her?” she demanded. “I’m trying to mind-bend the mortal to stop worshipping her, or Janesha to come with us, and they’re not even looking in our direction.”

    “It’s the kid.” Chance indicated the teenage mortal, easily identifiable as ‘Taylor’ from Danny Hebert’s memories. “For some unknown reason, she’s decided to believe that Janesha’s a stronger mind-bender than anyone else.”

    What?” Armina stared at him. “How the hell does that even work? I’ve never heard of someone’s establishment making them immune to bending!”

    “That’s because other mortals don’t know about bending, or shifting for that matter,” Chance said. “If they don’t know about it, they can’t believe in it. And either Janesha’s shielding her too, or she’s wearing a seclusion ring.”

    “Well, that makes it simple enough.” Armina’s tone was dismissive. “The mortal’s the weak link. We kill her or get her more than five meters away from Janesha. Whichever’s easier.” She gestured to Chance. “You’re lucky enough to make it through that lightning. Grab her and get her away. Snap her neck if you have to. Once Janesha’s depowered, we can go home.”

    Chance’s instincts warned him that someone had just teleported to a spot behind them and they both turned fast, Armina bringing both swords out on the instant.

    “That’s not going to happen.” A golden-skinned bearded man hovered before them. He wore a white bodysuit, a black domino mask and an elaborate red cape. Arms folded, he scowled at them.

    “Okay, so who the hell are you?” Chance asked, not bothering to internalise. The figure before them was definitely celestial in nature. Nobody else had that level of chutzpah. And Chance had a definite respect for chutzpah.

    “I’m Scion,” the golden figure announced. “And yes, before you ask. I am attuned. I can see you trying to mind-bend me as well. It won’t work. Lady Janesha told my followers what to believe of me. Just in case any other celestials tried to invade my realm and murder us.”

    Armina sheathed one of her swords and stretched out her hand to Chance. In the next instant they were within Chance’s mind. “Again with these hostile celestials,” she growled. “I’m getting sick of hearing about them.”

    He folded his arms and rubbed his thumb against his lips, trying not to smile. “You’re aware that right now he considers us to be hostile celestials, yes?”

    The humour in his statement went right over her head. “Yes, but how do so many celests manage to converge on this one insignificant realm? What’s so special about it?”

    Chance smirked. “It’s just lucky, I guess.”

    She gave him a distinctly filthy look. “Fine. How do we deal with him?”

    Something occurred to him. “You know … I don’t think he knows who we are.”

    “Oh, I’m certain he’s got a very good idea,” she retorted. “If he knows Janesha, he knows we’re Mystallians.”

    “Ah,” he said. “True. But … he doesn’t know which Mystallians we are. For all he knows, there’s different factions. He did say he’s had to deal with hostile celestials in his realm before. Which doesn’t really help us right now. We have to try to convince him that we’re not hostile to him or his realm.” He eyed Armina and her accoutrements. “Which might be a little difficult. Just saying.”

    Armina folded her arms. “Too bad. What do you make of him?”

    “Well, for starters, he’s gotta know she’s too young to be the supreme goddess of a world. If we can convince him we’re here to help her …” He let the words trail off.

    “We’ll still have to deal with the consequences of her establishment,” she said, nodding in agreement with his suggestion. “It’s possible to beat established gods, but it helps if they don’t see you coming. With Scion, we’re on the back foot all the way. If we can convince him to at least sit the fight out, we have one big advantage when it comes to Janesha.”

    “Single Worshipper Syndrome,” he confirmed. “Remove the mortal from the equation, and Janesha’s ours.” He rubbed his chin. “I wonder if our boy Scion’s got any ambition to be the top dog? It’s got to be at least a little annoying to play second fiddle to a teenager.”

    “It would be good if you can find out,” Armina said.

    Chance tended to agree. It was an article of faith among Mystallians that every other pantheon in Creation could be manipulated into turning on each other. Putting a wedge between the local god of superheroes (which was possibly the most ridiculous concept Chance had ever encountered, short of the actual existence of superheroes) and the so-called supreme goddess was potentially their best bet for achieving a bloodless win here.

    Armina ended the internalisation, bringing them back to the real world. Wishing he had his powerbase to lean into, Chance went for broke anyway. “We’re not your enemy, Lord Scion of Earth Bet,” he said, projecting sincerity into every syllable. “And we’re not here to kill anyone.”

    Scion didn’t budge a centimeter. “That’s a lie, Lord Chance.” His eyes flared slightly, and Chance grunted as pain flared through his body. Armina barely twitched, but he knew she’d been equally afflicted. “You were just speaking about murdering Taylor. Even think that again and I’ll take both your heads off with one of her swords.”

    “I’d like to see you try.” Armina’s tone was low and deadly. For all that Chance was on her side, he was intimidated by her.

    “This is my realm, Lady Armina. Mine! Nobody comes to my realm and threatens to murder my friends,” Scion snapped back. “We’ve already had enough of that.”

    “A mortal—” scoffed Armina.

    “Armina! Stop!” shouted Chance. Shocked, she stared at him, but did as he said. He knew he’d pay for cutting her off later, but at least there would be a ‘later’. “Lord Scion, I am Lord Chance of Mystal. I’m Lady Janesha’s uncle and Armina here is her grandmother, We’re here to bring her home to Mystal.”

    Scion tilted his head slightly. “In case you missed the memo, she’s currently the Supreme Goddess here on Earth Bet. She’s more powerful than me, and I’ve been here a lot longer than her. Good luck ‘making’ her do anything she doesn’t want to do.”

    “She’s also sixteen,” Chance said bluntly. “I don’t know how old you are but in Mystal, we don’t allow the youngsters to become established until they’re attuned, and they’ve been educated in every single way it’s possible to screw up an establishment. She’s far too young for what she’s doing right now, and her lack of attunement merely makes it even more certain that when the rug gets pulled out from under her, she’ll go down hard.”

    “Oh, I don’t know.” Scion chuckled. “She’s kicking ass and taking names so far.”

    Chance did his best not to heave an audible sigh of aggravation. “Okay, you don’t want to hear my words?” He gestured toward where Danny Hebert was speaking. “Listen to your friend’s father. See what he has to say on the matter.”

    He shut up then, letting Scion turn his attention to the elder mortal. Armina gave him a disbelieving look that he easily translated as what the hell are you doing?

    In return, he gave her a wink and a nod. Trust me, I got this.

    And he hoped like hell he was correct.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    “The proof is simple, Danny Hebert of Earth Bet.” Janesha’s tone had moderated very slightly, but there was an edge to it that suggested she considered herself the winner of the argument before it was even over. “Your experience is with mortals, dealing with mortal matters. I have been tutored by the gods of Mystal themselves, as well as those of other realms. My life has been but a blink of an eye so far, this is true; but the amassed experience of those teaching Me how to do this very thing is so close to being infinite that no mere countable number would suffice. How many years did your teachers have between them?” She raised her chin, looking sharply satisfied with herself.

    Taylor felt a little sorry for her father; with the increased intelligence she had bestowed upon Janesha, he surely wouldn’t have an answer to that.

    “Oh, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that your teachers were insufficiently experienced, Lady Janesha. I’m sure they know everything there is to know about being an effective god.” Danny smiled. “But do you follow every single teaching of theirs without fail? Or do you ignore whichever ones you don’t want to follow?”

    Taylor could tell that Janesha’s pride, already celestial-sized, was pricked by Danny’s insinuation, and the teenage goddess answered without hesitation. “I was an exemplary student, and I followed every …” She trailed off, realising what the trap was just after stepping into it. Her eyes flared anew with lightning as she glared at Danny.

    “Every single one?” Danny completed, his voice soft. “Even the one that said not to become established for at least a few centuries?”

    “It is done now, Danny Hebert! Whatever I told you at the time of My arrival has no bearing on what is happening now.” Janesha pointed at the ground far below, now somewhat charred from lightning strikes. “When I arrived, your world was crying out for a goddess to cure their ills and show them a better way of life! I have done good, far more good in just a few short days than you have managed in all your time on the mortal plane! Your own daughter is My high priestess, and I have more followers all the time, from around the world!”

    Danny shook his head slowly. “And yet, you absolutely fail to see the trap you’ve locked yourself into, and you’ll keep failing to see it, even after it’s far too late. It will always be someone else’s fault, even when you keep making the same mistake over and over again.”

    “There is nothing I cannot perceive,” Janesha growled. “As supreme Goddess of this realm, I see all that I choose to see. You seek to sow doubt and division in My mind. The only trap lies in listening to your misleading words over Taylor’s counsel.”

    “If you say so,” Danny countered. “If you paid attention to mortal rulers, you would find that the wisest of them deliberately take on advisors with views differing to theirs, so they can be sure they are getting an honest opinion, not just what they want to hear.”

    There was a long silence. The energy surrounding them crackled and popped as Janesha chewed over Danny’s words. “Very well, Danny Hebert,” she said, clearly attempting to sound majestic and magnanimous. “What are your words of wisdom?”

    “There’s a phrase,” he said at once. “‘Honeymoon period’. It happens to everyone. Right now, everyone who’s asked you for anything loves you. You’re the new big thing on the scene. You are gonna skate it in. Your popularity’s going to grow in leaps and bounds. But then, it’ll level off. You’ll have fixed all the problems, saved all the people. Nobody will be hungry or thirsty or homeless. Everyone will have everything you’re willing to grant them. And that’s when the complaining will start.”

    Janesha snorted. “Nonsense! They will love Me for being their Goddess, for having lifted their world out of the common dross!”

    “Uh huh.” Danny nodded. “Even if everyone on Earth Bet chooses to ignore how heavy-handed you’re being right now, which is wishful thinking at best, this is just the beginning. A significant fraction of the population is small-minded as hell. As soon as it becomes clear that you’re not smiting the people they don’t like for being insufficiently faithful, or not giving them more than you’re giving everyone else, they’ll start asking what you’ve done for them recently. People are selfish like that.”

    “You’re wrong.” Janesha’s tone was absolutely assured. “You and Taylor aren’t like that. Annette isn’t like that.”

    Danny raised his eyebrows. “We aren’t representative of the general population. You went to Winslow, briefly. What do you think?” He took a deep breath. “There will be people who will hate you and deny your divinity because of your skin colour, or because you’re helping people they hate. Stories will start to spread about how you’re not really all that great, because if there’s anything we mortals love, it’s something to get properly indignant about. By the time you become attuned, there will be so many versions of you out there in the minds of the population, you’ll be changing costume and probably gender every time you cross the state line. And that’s in the regions where you’re actually acknowledged as a goddess. Get too close to a fanatical unbeliever, and he might switch your entire establishment field clean off.”

    “You still fail to understand what it is to be a Goddess, Danny Hebert.” Janesha’s tone was as rock-solid as it had been in the beginning. “In the warmth of My love, My mortals will grow and thrive and worship Me, as it was always fated. When I come to be attuned, all will be united in My praise.”

    He nodded, a sardonic smile on his face. “Ah, yes. United in your praise once you mind-bend them to be that way. Did nobody ever tell you that it’s cheating to stack the deck?”

    Janesha drew herself up, affronted. “Mind-bending will not be required. They will be educated in My divinity by Taylor and her subordinate priests and priestesses.”

    “Right up until they choose not to listen. How many unbelievers will you tolerate, how many dissenting voices, before you start forcing people to believe?”

    She stared at him, the aura of her power visibly flexing. Taylor could tell she wanted to answer, but there was no good reply to his question. She felt anger at her father growing in her chest. Why’s he asking such unfair questions?

    <><>​

    Chance

    “Damn it …” muttered Scion. “Okay, yeah, you can lose the smirk, Lord Chance. I’m new at the whole god thing, but even I can see he’s right. She’s ignoring everything he’s telling her, and she’s not taking mind-bending off the table. Why?”

    Chance was tempted to ask exactly where Scion was from that he didn’t know anything about being a god, but he suppressed the urge. For one thing, it would be rude as hell. “Thrall,” he said bluntly. “It locks you into believing that you are perfect as you are, and makes you hella resistant to giving up your powerbase for even the best reasons in Creation. When you get this sort of situation, with a celestial who’s not attuned and has one follower, there’s very few ways it can go right and a thousand ways it can go wrong.”

    “So this is actually bad for Taylor.” Thank the Twin Notes, Scion was finally coming around to their point of view!

    Discarding all artifice, Chance nodded earnestly. “Absolutely. She’s the pivot point between a world of mortals and the supreme goddess. For people who know how it works, or figure it out, she’s a target. Remove her, and Janesha loses all power. You can understand how we’d rather that not happen when we’re not here.”

    You were going to kill Taylor.” Scion glared at Armina.

    Chance gave his sister a warning look, and cleared his throat. “It’s one way to break the stalemate. The other is to get the worshipper more than five meters away from the celestial. That breaks the link.”

    “She’s family.” Armina, like any good soldier, was able to put aside her anger and focus on what was necessary at the time. “We only want what’s best for her. And what’s best for her right now is to be removed from that situation and taken back to Mystal until she gets over it.”

    “Family …” Scion bit his knuckle.

    Chance took a stab in the dark. It seemed the right thing to say. “Imagine Janesha was your sister, and you saw her in a toxic co-dependent relationship that you knew she was too young for. Wouldn’t you want to get her out of that, even if she said she was happy?”

    Fuck.” Scion hit his forehead a couple of times with the heel of his hand. “Okay. Fine. I’m not just going to hand her to you. She’s done me a couple of solid favours. But I am going to step aside and let her see and hear you. Give you a chance to talk her into coming back.”

    “Talking isn’t going to work.” Armina, bless her, was using her inside voice for once. “A god of rats and garbage will fight tooth and nail to preserve his wretched little establishment field. She’ll do the same. There will be battle.”

    “Fine.” Scion pointed at Armina, then at Chance. “If fighting happens, it happens. But you do not harm either Taylor or Danny. Not one hair on their heads. Is that absolutely understood?”

    A glowing golden field surrounded all three of them. Chance instinctively understood it to be a truth aura. “Absolutely,” he said sincerely. “I won’t hurt either mortal.”

    Armina grimaced. “Fine,” she grated. “I won’t do anything to hurt either one.”

    “And you won’t order your mystallions to do anything to them, either,” pressed Scion. “Also, if you try to bring in anyone else to dogpile her, or if Taylor or Danny are threatened in any way, I step in and end the fight. And everyone who’s not Janesha gets punted out of the realm. No Mystallian will ever be welcome back.”

    From the flicker in Armina’s eye, she’d been thinking about a plan to do one or more of those things, but of course she couldn’t admit it. Curtly, she nodded. “Gladiator won’t attack them,” she affirmed reluctantly.

    “Neither will Gambler,” Chance said readily enough. It wasn’t like they were going to get anywhere until they agreed to the terms set by the local god. Not being able to simply remove the mortal girl from consideration was going to kneecap their efforts considerably, but they were going to have to work with what they had.

    Scion nodded. “Then we have an agreement.”

    He dropped the veil.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    A slow, ironic clapping became audible, and all three looked around. The zone of continuous lightning had tightened to a sphere fifty yards across; just outside this radius, riding astride two more mystallions, were a pair of celestials, with Scion floating a little way back from them.

    It wasn’t hard to figure out who the celestials were; Janesha had named them earlier, after all. The man with the golden eyes and ready grin, still clapping, had to be Lord Chance. At his side, the woman in the midnight-black armour with two sword hilts protruding over her shoulders and a severe expression could only be Lady Armina.

    The Mystallian God of Luck and Goddess of War, come to Earth Bet. Even on a social visit, they would’ve been intimidating as hell. This wasn’t a social visit.

    Taylor tensed. Even with her absolute faith in Janesha’s power, she knew they were in for a fight. And though she and Janesha had the home court advantage, they were still going against a pair of celestials who were older than her universe. No matter how it came out, it wasn’t going to be pretty.

    “Lord Chance. Lady Armina.” Janesha’s voice could have frozen entire icebergs of pure oxygen out of the air. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” The surrounding lightning died away to nothing.

    “Janesha.” Chance spoke first, his voice the very epitome of reason. “You know why we’re here. To bring you home. Your parents are worried. Everyone’s worried. You’ve been refusing blood-links. This isn’t like you.”

    Janesha gestured to herself, then outward to indicate the entire realm. “I am home, Lord Chance. You may tell My parents to cease their worry. I am healthy and happy. I will be blood-linking to speak with them soon. But I have My own realm now, and I will not leave My people.” She looked past them to Scion. “What do you have to do with this?”

    “I saw them arrive, and trailed them here,” Scion replied. “They would’ve attacked Taylor to remove her, but I put a stop to that. I figured that you could fight your own battles, so here we are.”

    Janesha nodded. “I thank you, Lord Scion. I’ll take it from here.” She switched her attention to Armina and Chance. “You were saying, My Lord and Lady?”

    At some unseen signal, Gladiator moved up alongside Gambler, then a few yards closer (Taylor had been filled in on the mystallions’ names quite some time ago). Armina’s voice was harsh and angry. “Don’t be a fool, child. You’re barely a newborn, and you expect to be able to handle the stresses of establishment? How are you going to keep your public image stable without attunement?. Mind-bending will only get you so far.”

    Janesha raised her chin defiantly. “I am succeeding so far. In fact, I’m thriving. The ranks of My followers are growing, day by day.”

    “That comes with a cost as well,” challenged Armina. “How will you handle it when your first religious war breaks out? Which side will you take, or will you risk alienating both sides?” She spread her hands. “This, child, is why it’s the height of hubris to become established in a realm before you are attuned. What happens if your high priestess dies before this happens? You must take on another high priest. And without attunement, you cannot guarantee that they will see you in the same way. What if you fell among those who saw you only as a means to grant them miracles or wishes?”

    “But I did not,” Janesha argued. “Taylor is My high priestess, and she is powerful enough in her own right to avoid that worry. Nobody will replace her, at My side or in My heart.”

    “There are always unexpected events,” Armina said. “You cannot foresee them because they are unforeseeable.”

    “You would be surprised what I can foresee—” Janesha began, then cut off as Chance came lancing in, Gambler’s wings driving the mystallion and his rider faster than Taylor had seen Cloudstrike go. He’d clearly picked his time for when Janesha was distracted by Armina’s words, and he came by Taylor before she even registered his presence. Only afterward, looking back over her visual images, would she be able to realise what had happened.

    “Hello, sweetling,” he murmured as his arm went around her waist and he kept on riding. Or rather, he said the beginning of the phrase as he got to her, and finished it by realm-stepping halfway across the galaxy. “I’m told you can survive this. No hard feelings—whoa!”

    The exclamation came about as he tossed her away from him. An instant later, she dissolved into a human-shaped mass of celestial murder-hornets, each one with a stinger an inch long, loaded with venom that would make even a god curl up into a whimpering ball. Taylor didn’t know how she knew this, but figured Janesha had just given her the power on the fly.

    In the next instant, she was at Janesha’s side once more, reforming into human shape.

    “Are you well, petal?” asked the teenaged goddess.

    “I’m fine,” Taylor replied, glaring at Chance as he reappeared. “But Mr Handsy over there needs to learn about boundaries.”

    “Anything?” asked Chance of Armina, ignoring Taylor’s snark.

    “Nothing,” Armina snarled. “Are you sure you took her out of range?”

    “Does halfway across the local galaxy work for you?” Chance looked at them, then squinted. “Oh. Oh, now I see. Clever, clever girl. Well done.” He began clapping again.

    “What’s she done?” Armina gave him a dirty look. “Don’t applaud them!”

    “Look more closely.” Chance gestured at Janesha. “She’s used shifting to create tethers through the celestial realm that lets her stay in direct physical contact with father and daughter both, and pull them back to her when necessary. I’m guessing it was to protect them from the hostile celestials.”

    “Yes.” Janesha directed her words toward him. “All the hostile celestials.” Her meaning was clear: you as well. Then she looked at Danny. “But after your betrayal, Danny Hebert, you are no longer under My direct protection. Go home; be safe with Annette. That much you have earned.” She gestured and Danny vanished, the energy cocoon that had been holding him dissipating.

    Scion, behind the Mystallians, cleared his throat. “Just so we’re clear? He’s still under my protection, as is his wife. Harm any member of Taylor’s family and I eject you both from the realm, forever.”

    “Yes, thank you, we got that.” Chance rubbed his chin, looking at Janesha and Taylor. “Any ideas, sis? We’ve got to get them apart long enough for you to sever the cord.”

    “Well, don’t tell them our strategy where they can hear us!” Armina snapped.

    He rolled his eyes. “It’s not like they couldn’t figure it out. We’ve got to hit them with something that they can’t beat even if they know about it. Because I’m willing to bet my niece is at least as sneaky as me, and is running internalisations where she’s asking both of us what we’re likely to do.”

    Taylor didn’t bother lowering her voice as she spoke to Janesha. “Um, you’re the supreme goddess here. I know you’re more powerful than both of them put together. Why don’t you kick both of them out of the realm? Because I know you want to.”

    “I could, petal, but it would not do any good,” Janesha replied. “As much as I hate to admit it, Grandmother Armina has a point. My lack of attunement makes it harder for Me to maintain certain effects. We must defeat them convincingly, together, here and now. Only then will they accept that I am worthy to rule My own realm.”

    “You know …” Chance said thoughtfully. “I could do that other thing ...”

    “Absolutely not!” Armina said. “I forbid it! It’s far too risky. I will best Janesha in single combat.” Drawing a dagger from a sheath at her waist, she passed it to him. “If you see the opportunity, sever the cord.”

    “Do you have any idea what the ‘other thing’ is?” asked Taylor.

    “It is a mystery to Me,” Janesha admitted. “And I dislike mysteries. Still, we must focus on the task at hand.” She spread her wings and lifted from the saddle. “Taylor, stay close. Cloudstrike, fall back. I don’t want Gladiator harming you, even by accident.”

    Cloudstrike let out an unhappy snort, but did as she was told. Taylor figured it was probably the smart thing to do; while Armina’s warmount wouldn’t target Cloudstrike directly, the younger mystallion might easily get hurt from an encounter with one of the many spikes, spurs and other gouging implements attached to Gladiator’s armour.

    “The wings are different,” Armina said, addressing Janesha directly. She reached back and drew a claymore, the metal scraping ominously from the scabbard. “But they will not help you. Neither will anything else. Surrender now, for you face the personification of War, and I never lose.”

    Janesha folded her hand, and a blade of light, brighter than the sun, sprang into view. Taylor heard the snap-hiss and tried not to smirk. Across from her, Chance was openly chuckling; he must have seen the movie as well at some point.

    “With all due respect, Grandmother Armina, you are the personification of War in Mystal,” Janesha observed coolly. “I am the goddess of War, here.”

    “Of a planet of mortals? How long have they even had war?” scoffed Armina. “An eon? Less?”

    “Eight thousand years, more or less,” Janesha admitted. “But hear this. In all of those eight thousand years, barely one has gone by where there has not been war somewhere on the planet. And I have the knowledge and understanding of conflict in all its myriad forms, in every way it has been fought and theorised, for those eight thousand years.”

    “A mere drop in the bucket,” sneered Armina. “You are a child, playing with toy swords. Cease your pretensions. You are nothing to me.”

    “No, Grandmother Armina,” breathed Janesha. “Here, you are nothing to Me.”

    In the next instant, by some mutual signal, they launched at each other. Taylor darted forward so that she would stay within fifteen feet of Janesha, even as the Mystallian steel and lightsaber clashed. A tremendous flurry of sparks sprayed across the sky, then Gladiator whirled in midair and attempted to plant one enormous armoured rear hoof against Taylor’s solar plexus.

    Almost instantly, she figured out Armina’s plan; the kick, using the flat of the hoof rather than the wicked spur, would drive her backward without harming her, allowing Armina to slice the cord and depower Janesha. She reacted as fast as she could, dissolving into the cloud of hornets once more and swarming around the battling pair. “Nicely done but no cookie,” she buzzed in Armina’s face.

    As tempted as she was to sting the Mystallian woman for her attempt, caution held her back; if Armina killed her in reaction, it would depower Janesha and allow Armina to take her back with them when Scion kicked them out. To the Mystallians, it would be a win-win situation. I’m not going to just hand the battle to them.

    “Oh, yeah, forgot to say she could do that!” called out Chance.

    “It might’ve come in handy at some point!” Armina yelled back. She sent a series of lightning-fast cuts and slices at Janesha, more sparks flaring as the deadly blade glanced off the humming energy weapon. One blow got through, but glanced off the red-and-gold articulated armour that formed around Janesha’s left arm and shoulder.

    In return, Janesha straightened her arm at Armina with her palm out; there was a brief rising tone, then a titanic blast of power hammered Armina clear off Gladiator and sent her flailing into the middle distance. The armoured mystallion whinnied then sheered off and rocketed after his mistress, catching up to her in an instant.

    “Every way war has been thought of, huh?” asked Chance derisively. “Never seen that one before.”

    “Fiction is still theory. And mortals believe in this fiction, otherwise it wouldn’t have worked.” Janesha’s tone was serene. “This fight is as much Taylor’s as mine.”

    That was an interesting revelation to Taylor. She wasn’t sure if the real Thor would be as bothered by a repulsor blast as he had been in the Aleph movie, and she certainly didn’t want to find out. But her belief had been enough to make it work, this time.

    “She’ll be back in a moment,” Chance advised Janesha. “And she’s gonna be pissed. You sure you want to keep pushing her buttons?”

    “If she keeps coming at Me, I’ll keep fighting back. Because this is My realm.” Janesha raised her hand, the lightsaber winking out of existence. Her armour melted away to become her godly apparel once more. “But it is time I stepped it up a notch. Three.”

    Taylor would have frowned if she had anything to frown with. Three what?

    Chance tilted his head, just as Janesha said, “Two.”

    He got it, a moment before Taylor did, but it was too late.

    Janesha said, “One.”

    Armina, on Gladiator, vanished from sight.

    A tremendous streamer of electricity connected ground and sky.

    An instant later, Armina reappeared, in the middle of the streamer.

    Lightning surged up from the ground and down from the clouds at the same time, meeting in the middle, which was where Armina still held her sword.

    The concussion was apocalyptic. Armina screamed as celestially generated lightning ignored the grounding effect of her armour and coursed through her muscles and bones. Taylor, tossed by the shockwave, did her best to cling to Janesha’s armour and clothing and ride out the blast.

    The Armina that emerged from the double lightning strike was a little scorched and smoking slightly, but apart from that she looked nothing but extremely pissed. The tip of her claymore was glowing red, as were her eyes.

    They came together again, in the middle of an extremely directed thunderstorm, where nothing happened to Taylor’s composite bug body and everything happened to Armina. Even so, the older Mystallian’s sword blows came raining down on Janesha like a high-speed triphammer. The intensity of her gaze told the story; she would not give up until Janesha submitted, no matter what happened to her.

    Janesha, initially reluctant to strike back at her grandmother, grew visibly more comfortable with the idea as the fight continued. Drawing on the power Taylor granted her, she threw punches so hard they broke the sound barrier but barely dented the black metal armour. Taylor watched as she exhibited more and more esoteric abilities, healing the cuts and bruises Armina dealt to her and returning the attacks with interest.

    For minute after minute they hammered on each other, neither one willing to give an inch. Janesha was easily the more powerful, but Armina was her superior in skill and guile. Any attack that threatened to disable the Mystallian Goddess of War altogether, she slipped aside from, as she’d been doing for billions of eons.

    “You can’t win, you know,” she snarled as their blades locked together, their faces mere inches apart. “I will win. I always win.”

    “You always win in Mystal,” taunted Janesha. “This is My realm. You are far from home. I can outlast you. Even if I have to wait for Grandfather Mahpee to come and drag you back to Mystal because he misses you.”

    They pulled apart, then came together again with a bone-crunching impact. The very shockwaves of their battle were disarranging the terrain far below them, but they were beyond caring as they smashed blows at one another that would have killed an unprotected mortal from sheer proximity. Only Taylor was immune, weaving between swings to keep her insectoid mass within fifteen feet of Janesha.

    Only Taylor noticed when Chance disappeared. And by then it was too late.

    <><>​

    Danny

    The Hebert Household


    Annette clung to Danny. “But can we be certain she’ll be okay?”

    “As certain as we can be,” he assured her. “Scion told them in no uncertain terms that targeting any of us means he’d stop the fight and kick them out. And he can make it stick. So Taylor’s going to be fine. I just …” He shook his head. “Lady Armina scared the living crap out of me, and she barely even cared about my existence. She’s actually angry at Janesha. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t stand up to that, even if I wanted to.”

    “And that makes you wiser than most celestials, Danny Hebert.” Chance stepped into the expanded living room from the spacious entrance hall.

    “What the—” Danny turned, putting Annette behind him. “Why are you here? What do you want?”

    Chance raised his eyebrows. “That depends, Danny Hebert. You prayed to me. What did you have in mind, calling me to Earth Bet? What do you believe of me?”

    “Can’t you just tell?” Danny gestured toward his head, his voice bitter. “You and Lady Armina didn’t have much compunction in going into my head and giving me orders, did you? What’s stopping you now?”

    “It’s less easy than you’d think,” Chance admitted after a moment. “I can see the outline, but not the explicit details. But you called me here for a reason. I believe you think you can end this stalemate and allow us to take Janesha home. I’m willing to give you the opportunity to prove it.”

    Deliberately, he moved toward Danny, passing the fifteen-foot mark before coming to a halt. “Oh,” he said. “Oh. I see.”

    “Lord Chance of Mystal,” Danny said deliberately. “Hear my prayer. I believe in you. Save my daughter.

    Power flooded into Chance, and he knew what he could now do, what Danny Hebert had just made possible. And for the first time in his very long life, he actually felt respect for a mortal.

    He had just seconds, he knew, before Janesha figured out what he was about to do. So he did it. Reaching out with his brand-new establishment field, he touched the mind of every single one of her worshippers. Every one. Upon them, he impressed one simple thought.

    Huh. She's just a superhero, after all.


    End of Part Twenty-Seven
     
  26. Threadmarks: Part Twenty-Eight: Ending Up
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Celestial Worm

    Part Twenty-Eight: Ending Up

    [A/N: This chapter commissioned by Fizzfaldt and beta-read by the author of Ties That Bind and The Long Way Home, Karen Buckeridge.]

    [A/N 2: for other (non-Worm) Celestial Wars sidestories, see
    here and here.]

    [A/N 3: Following numerous critiques of the original ending, I've rewritten this chapter extensively.]



    Armina, Mystallian Goddess of War

    Armina pulled Gladiator around in a turn so tight she could hear the tendons in his wings creaking under the strain. He could take it, of course. In many ways, Mystallians and their mystallions were closer to one another than other celestials were to one another, and knew each other’s limits. Which was a good thing, because Janesha was being an absolutely stubborn little shit who refused to go down.

    One small part of her mind crowed with pride over the fact that Janesha was definitely her flesh and blood, while the rest of her was getting more and more aggravated with her own inability to gain a decisive advantage over her granddaughter and end the fight. Already, the girl had lasted longer in this battle than anyone other than Chance ever had with anything other than a simple spar. Worst of all, she was doing it without attunement or a large powerbase. Just one mortal; that was all.

    Of course, Janesha had arranged matters so the sole mortal who was her entire worshipper base could not be mindbent, pulled away from her or even easily harmed. In return, the little smartass mortal had bestowed upon Janesha the sum total of the warrior ethos of this mortal world, which Armina had to admit, Janesha had actually been making use of. The wings were an interesting touch as well, though they’d have to go before she took Janesha back to Mystal. Avis would not be pleased to see angel wings on anyone but Heshbon and her brood.

    She aimed another swing at Janesha; with her knees, she communicated to Gladiator the command to perform a loop and nail her with his rear hooves as soon as the girl deflected the sword blow (as she knew Janesha would). Currently her granddaughter was wielding a double-ended energy blade that left coloured traceries through the air, and was nearly powerful enough to slice Mystallian steel.

    Nearly.

    Around came her sword, but instead of deflecting it as she had the last three times, Janesha backwinged just far enough to evade the blow. Then she brought her wings together in a stunning CRACK that sent Armima and Gladiator tumbling backward through the air much harder than she should have normally. It was a cute little trick, but that was all it was; a trick. Spinning her blade one-handed, Armina dug her heels into Gladiator’s sides. Fully in tune with his mistress’s wishes, the silver mystallion in black armour whinnied a challenge and bored into the attack once more.

    And then, everything changed. Armina wasn’t quite sure what had happened (well, she knew it had to be something Chance had pulled, but beyond that, she had no idea) but Janesha’s wings vanished along with the sword, and the mortal girl snapped back into her ordinary form. They both began to fall, even as Cloudstrike swooped in to catch her mistress. Eyes wild, Janesha stared all around herself, then focused on Taylor. “Believe!” she shrieked.

    An instant later, while Armina was still working out what was happening, the chime associated with bloodlinks sounded in her mind. She let it come through, turning her head so that she could maintain line of sight on her errant granddaughter, who was just beginning to reach for Taylor.

    The bloodlink formed; Chance, standing next to Danny Hebert. Doing the one thing she’d warned him against doing.

    Immediately, she reached her hand out and grabbed Chance’s, pulling him into an internalisation. He was her only backup on this mission and if there was one thing the Mystallian goddess of War never did, it was leave a man behind. Also, the last thing she wanted to do was face off against another Mystallian under the thrall of another mortal. What was it about this realm, anyway?

    They reformed in a three-dimensional diorama of the battle between Janesha and Armina, updated to show both teenage celest and teenage mortal plummeting from the sky. Also, off to the side, the golden form of Scion just starting his run to pluck the mortal girl out of danger.

    “Well, that was fun,” Chance said with his trademark smartass grin. “You’re welcome, by the way.”

    “I had her,” snapped Armina, irritated at her little brother snatching victory from her grasp. “What did you do?”

    “You didn’t have nearly as much of an edge over her as you thought,” Chance noted, buffing his nails on his sleeve. “Taylor’s made her mildly prescient. She would’ve seen even your best shot coming.” He held up his hands disarmingly at her growl. “Hey, no matter what skills she gave Janesha, she couldn’t beat yours, but … I’m also reasonably sure she gave the kid the best approximation of your skills that she could. And basically gave her the power that she couldn’t lose a battle.” He rubbed his chin. “I’m thinking that may have been their undoing, actually.”

    Armina leaned against a pillar that had emerged from the floor just for this purpose. “Explain.”

    “Gladly.” Chance’s grin would’ve lit up the room. “If Taylor also saw discussions and arguments as battles, it means that no matter what reasonable suggestions her father put forth for them to slow down, he would never get his point across. Janesha would always ‘win’. Which, because he couldn’t get through to either of them, drove him to pray to me.”

    “Hmm.” Armina frowned. “Very well. So, the main reason we’re in here. What in all the realms do you think you’re pulling, letting him put a powerbase on you? After I specifically told you not to!”

    Chance cleared his throat, and nodded apologetically. “Hear me out, sis. Yes, I accept there was a potential for danger there. But here is a mortal who specifically forced himself to believe in me as a saviour, not for himself but for his little girl. A man who had never believed much before, even when his wife was alive. If anyone, he would’ve been one of YHWH’s. But he saw Janesha as a goddess, then was still able to believe in me, which he still does, strongly enough to give me a solid powerbase.”

    Armina sighed. “So once we’ve got this sorted out and Janesha’s back in Mystal, we’re going to have to come back and pry you away instead?”

    “Oh, no,” Chance said at once. “Once we’ve got Janesha secured, he wants me to leave. That’s the beauty of it. The thrall includes my marching orders. I literally can’t stay past a certain point, even if I wanted to.”

    Armina blinked. “That’s … not usual. In fact, that’s nearly realm-damned impossible. He’s kicking you out of the realm?”

    Chance snorted with laughter. “I know, right? That’s gotta be a first.”

    “Well, first or not, we’ve still got to deal with the here and now.” Armina pointed at Janesha’s falling, flailing form. “How’d you manage that?”

    Chance shrugged. “Turns out one of the powers Danny gave me was to be able to take anyone who’s ever even heard of Janesha, and make them believe one simple thing. That she’s a superhero, not a goddess.” He held up his finger as she began to speak. “That includes Taylor, very specifically. Despite the fact that she’s wearing a ring of seclusion.”

    “That fits with what I saw.” Armina walked around the diorama, indicating Janesha and Taylor. “Janesha’s wings have gone, she’s not glowing anymore, and the little mortal shit is a girl again, not a bunch of bugs.” Absently, she pulled off one armoured gauntlet and started to slap her other hand with it. “What’s her next move, and why is she still moving and speaking? Shouldn’t she have collapsed into a coma already?” It was a solid fact; gods invested so much of themselves into their powerbases that being cut off from them sent the celest into a near-instant coma that they had to be nursed through. No one could withstand it, which made her wonder what was going on here.

    Chance frowned. “Well, technically, yeah. I gotta admit, I haven’t figured that part out yet. Possibly because she can see Taylor right there, or even sense her through that tether.”

    Armina gritted her teeth. She hated shifter shenanigans. Mind-bending was much more honest and up-front. That, and physical combat. She knew where she was with that. “That’s what’s keeping her up and moving, isn’t it?”

    “It definitely looks like it,” Chance agreed. “It‘s how she pulled Danny Hebert to her. So long as that link exists, she’s gotta have some sort of hope she can regain her power. And she’s right; if she can manipulate Taylor’s body to pop that ring off, she can mindbend the girl into believing in her again, and we’re back to square one.”

    Armina drew air in through her teeth. “And If I harm the mortal, we go to war with Scion.”

    She wasn’t as sanguine about her chances of beating the golden-skinned god in his own realm and taking Janesha with them. No matter how silly his powerbase sounded, he was attuned, established and clearly more experienced than Janesha. She’d heard of someone losing a fight with a God of Clowns, and he’d been forced to wear clown makeup and a red rubber nose for a year and a day. That wasn’t going to happen here.

    Chance shrugged. “So don’t harm her. If you cut the cord, the threat’s gone."

    “Got it.” Taking a deep breath, she ended the internalisation and the bloodlink.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    Afterward, Taylor would have trouble determining the exact sequence of events; the only thing that would help her out was the image-capture trick Janesha had given to her visual memory. But the interval between ‘winning’ and ‘losing' was only a few seconds, and by the time she realised they were losing, they’d already lost.

    When Chance realm-stepped away from the battle, that was the first indicator of trouble. There was nothing she could actually do about this; Armina knew about the connecting cord, and if Taylor ventured one foot too far from Janesha, that razor-edged sword would sever it as easily as Taylor herself could snip a cotton thread.

    Still, she didn’t know how he could cause problems. Scion had laid down the law. If Chance or Armina messed with Taylor’s family, the Mystallians would be booted from Earth Bet with no option to return. Apart from coming at them from above or below while Janesha was distracted by Armina, Taylor wasn’t sure how he could change the outcome of the fight.

    And a fight it was; not a curbstomp, and not a one-sided massacre. Janesha, buoyed by Taylor’s faith in her, met Armina’s every attack and threw it back. If she didn’t quite give as good as she took, that was excusable; in Taylor’s eyes, it was still good enough. From the pissed-off look on Armina’s face, she hadn’t had to push this hard for quite some time, especially not with someone of Janesha’s relative inexperience.

    Janesha could win. Taylor knew it. She would win. She was the goddess here. Chance and Armina were tourists. As Janesha herself had put it, in Mystal they were unbeatable in their respective fields, but this wasn’t Mystal.

    And then, just after Janesha delivered a wing-clap that knocked Armina away and gave her a much-needed respite, something happened. A passing thought occurred to her.

    Huh. She’s just a superhero, after all.

    Before she could dismiss it, the notion took hold, winding its way throughout her conscious mind and impressing itself over the core beliefs she had established about Janesha. Some small part of her saw it as foreign, but she could no more dispute its power than she could reach back to yesterday and change a single thing.

    Huh. She’s just a superhero, after all.

    It felt like hours had passed while her deepest convictions were being steadily rewritten, but this all happened in less than a blink of an eye. Her surety that Janesha knew exactly how to fix the world, even if she had to mind-bend some people to get it right, melted away. Replacing it was a different certainty; Janesha was a good person and a powerful person, but deep down she was really only human, and humans made mistakes like everyone else.

    She liked Janesha, but even as a superhero and Taylor’s best friend, she didn’t have any more license to flout laws and alter governmental policy than any other hero did. Taylor wasn’t quite sure how she’d gotten the idea that Janesha was a goddess, but she suspected her dad was going to be ribbing her about it over the dinner table for quite some time. The most embarrassing thing was that only a second ago, she’d been cheering on Janesha as a goddess, but the more she thought about it, there was no way it could be true. Superheroes couldn’t just become gods because someone believed that they were.

    Which made it even more puzzling when her body suddenly reverted back to human from a swarm of murder-hornets. When she tried to catch herself in mid-air, she belatedly discovered that the flight ability that Janesha had bestowed upon her (because Trump powers were so very handy) had worn off as well. As she began to fall, she looked around to see if Janesha could catch her, but saw that her friend was also suddenly subject to gravity. The gorgeous angelic wings Janesha had been using to fly had mysteriously vanished at the same time as Taylor’s extra powers.

    She decided to worry about the power loss later. She was pretty sure she was still tough enough to land safely even from this height, but unless she missed her guess, it was going to be a non-issue, because Sagun was coming to catch her. Just as she went to call out to him to save Janesha first, she saw Cloudstrike swooping after the black-clad teenager. From what she recalled of Cloudstrike’s intelligence and flight capabilities, Janesha was going to be fine.

    Just then, Janesha looked directly at her and screamed, “Believe!” It seemed to be an entreaty of some kind, but Taylor wasn’t sure what it was supposed to achieve. She didn’t have too much time to think about it, because Armina was back, sword raised and barrelling in on Gladiator like a steam-train.

    Oh, crap. We lose. Taylor flinched at the sight of the huge black mystallion bearing down on her and Janesha. Just as her friend reached out toward her and grasped something Taylor couldn’t see, Armina swept by with Gladiator angled over; one wing up and one wing down. With a tearing sound that Taylor could only think of as tortured air, the razor-sharp leading edge of Gladiator’s left wing sliced between the two of them in an instant.

    All Taylor felt was a mild tug. Too late, she realised that Armina had severed the cord connecting her to Janesha. For Janesha, the effect was much more dramatic; looking over at her friend, Taylor realised to her concern that she was unconscious. “Janesha!” she called out. “Are you okay? Janesha!”

    “I got you.” The voice was familiar; Sagun. Catching up with her, he wrapped his arms around her then shifted into a bridal carry. “Don’t worry about Janesha; Cloudstrike’s on the job.” And indeed, when the mystallion came up again, she’d managed to drape the unconscious celestial girl over her saddle as if she did this every day. Taylor would’ve felt more reassured about it if Janesha had been awake for the experience.

    Wings beating steadily, Cloudstrike looked toward Taylor until Armina guided Gladiator between the two of them, herding the golden mystallion away from her.

    “Keep your mortal away from my granddaughter,” Armina commanded of Sagun, without looking at either one of them. “I have no quarrel with either of you, provided she comes no closer.”

    “But Janesha’s hurt or something,” protested Taylor, reaching out toward her friend. “I’ve got all the skills of the best surgeon on Earth. I can help her.”

    “Lord Scion! Remember our agreement!” Armina and Gladiator very deliberately situated themselves between Sagun and Cloudstrike, and Armina’s piercing gaze fell on Sagun. Sagun’s arms tightened protectively around Taylor, and if anything he backed away a few feet with her.

    Gambler appeared then out of nowhere; or rather, he realm-stepped in, with Chance on his back and—surprising Taylor—her father behind the Mystallian lord. Danny’s expression seemed to be wavering between fear and exultation. She knew how he felt. There was a kind of high-five between Chance and Armina, then Chance turned to where Sagun held Taylor.

    “What agreement?” asked Taylor in bewilderment. “What’s going on? What happened to her?” Things were moving too fast. Tears ran freely down her face.The powers she’d been bestowed from Bonesaw told her that Janesha was uninjured, physically at least. There seemed to be no particular reason that she was unconscious, and it scared Taylor.

    “It’s alright, sweet pea. Lord Scion made an agreement with us that he would not interfere in the battle between Lady Armina and Lady Janesha, so long as you and your family were not targeted,” Chance explained. “As for Janesha, she’s asleep because she lost her powerbase. Surely she warned you of this. She seems to have told you everything else about being a celestial.” A little snark crept into his voice at the end.

    Taylor seemed to recall something of that sort, but her mind was whirling so much that she had trouble making sense of it all. “But … she’s not a goddess,” she managed. “She’s just a superhero.” She wondered why they were going over that old story again.

    Chance nodded understandingly. “And that’s what you need to keep believing, sweet pea. Yes, Janesha was a superhero. She had a power source which ceased to work for her, and now she’s in a healing sleep. We’re going to take her back to Mystal and assist her to recover. She will be okay. That’s an absolute promise on my part.”

    Somehow, his words of assurance made her feel much better. “Thanks,” she said. “I appreciate it.” She took a deep breath. “When can she come back?”

    “Not for quite some time, I’m afraid.” Chance’s voice was firm and reassuring, and Taylor believed him implicitly. “We have to make sure there’s no underlying damage. Right now, it’s a waiting game.”

    Taylor nodded. “Thank you.” She glanced around, relieved that Chance was being so considerate, especially since they’d won the fight. “Uh … everything she’s done here … will it be undone because she’s lost her powers?”

    “Not unless she made it dependent on her powers,” Chance said. “Lord Scion will be able to answer that question better than I can.” He looked around at Danny. “I’ll just land so I can drop you off before we head back to Mystal.”

    The landscape below had been ravaged by the overspill from Janesha’s powers, but Sagun gestured and a tabletop-smooth area of greenery flattened out neatly. Gladiator and Gambler landed under direction from their riders, and Cloudstrike a moment later at another whistle from Armina. Chance swung his leg over Gambler’s neck and dismounted nimbly, while Danny clambered down with somewhat less aplomb. “Come with me a moment, Danny Hebert,” the god of Luck said; it was halfway between a command and a request.

    As Danny stood by and watched Chance lift Janesha down from Cloudstrike’s back, Sagun alighted and let Taylor down on her feet. “Are you okay?” he asked quietly.

    “Yeah, I’m okay. It was pretty hectic, but nothing touched me. Janesha did all the fighting.” Taylor lowered her eyes. “I just hope she’s going to be okay.”

    “She will.” Chance spoke over his shoulder as he got Janesha settled in his arms. Armina stood between Taylor and the mystallions; her sword was sheathed once more, but Taylor knew damn well that she was specifically making sure Taylor didn’t get any closer. “We have the best healer in all the Realms to call on if necessary.”

    “If that’s Lady Columbine then, yeah, I’m well versed in her abilities,” Sagun said. “She’s taking care of my sister right now.”

    “Alright then.” It was Chance, holding Janesha in the same manner Sagun had carried Taylor. He stood back about twenty feet away, with Danny at his side. “It's time to get her back to Mystal. I’m thinking, to avoid powerbase withdrawal bullshit and to get her into care immediately, I might just bloodlink straight back to Mystal. You’ll be okay bringing the mystallions back?” From the chirpy tone of his voice, he didn’t really care if she was okay with it or not.

    “You’re just going to bloodlink back.” Armina’s tone was flat.

    “Yup.”

    “And leave me to take the long way home.”

    “Looks like it.” His eyes twinkled.

    “You realise, I will take this out on you when I get back.”

    He shrugged. “Eh. Tomorrow will take care of me.” His right hand sketched a wave. “Farewell, Taylor. Thank you for being Janesha’s friend.”

    She took half a step forward. "Can I-can I say goodbye before you take her away?"

    Armina's hand didn’t seem to move, but now there was a sword in it. Taylor stopped. I’ll take that as a no.

    "Probably not, sweet pea," Chance said with a hint of sympathy.

    Taylor felt her throat choke up all over again. “Okay. Um … when she gets better, can you thank her for being my friend, please?"

    “I’ll do that.” He turned his attention to Danny. “And thank you, Danny Hebert. I can genuinely say knowing you has been a unique experience.”

    “Uh huh.” Danny raised his eyebrows. “Trust me, Lord Chance, the feeling is mutual.”

    “I’m sure.” With his trademark smirk, Chance made a small gesture. “Emi.” Taylor saw nothing at first, then a slender hand reached out of nowhere and took his. He stepped into nothing, he and his unconscious burden vanishing from sight in less than a second.

    Bloodlinking, Taylor decided, was weird.

    Sagun folded his arms and gave Armina a hard look. "So, what happens now, Lady Armina? Will you and yours ever come back here?"

    Armina's return stare was equally uncompromising. "Not if I've got anything to say about it, Lord Scion. Your mortals possess uniquely dangerous knowledge, which might yet turn around and bite you when you least expect it. Were it up to me, I would return with an army and scour this realm of all life, just to ensure that this never happens again. But it is not up to me. According to the treaty between my brother and Danny Hebert, I am to leave this realm in peace. I will honour that agreement. Make sure I never have reason to revisit it."

    Without waiting for an answer, she gathered Gambler’s and Cloudstrike’s reins and swung into Gladiator’s saddle. Both Cloudstrike and Gambler left off cropping the grass and raised their heads, nickering expectantly.

    “Bye, Cloudstrike,” Taylor said softly, tears welling in her eyes. She barely made it through the second syllable before all three mystallions swept their wings down at the same time, and vanished from her sight.

    A moment later, she was engulfed in a hug from her father. “Are you alright?” he asked urgently. “What happened after Janesha sent me away?”

    Taylor stumbled on her words, wanting to hate him for calling in the Mystallian gods but not quite able to process anything emotionally right about then. “Uh, Janesha and Armina fought for a bit, then Chance went away and Janesha lost her powers and I couldn’t fly or bug-shift anymore, and then Janesha was knocked out and Cloudstrike caught her. What about you? Are you okay?”

    Danny nodded. “I’m fine. Your mom’s fine. We’re all fine.” He sighed. “I was worried for you. You know that, don’t you?”

    “Yeah. I got it.” Taylor shook her head. “I just wish I knew why we lost all of a sudden. I mean, Janesha was holding her own, and then she just ran out of everything at once. Why did her powers pick right then to quit?”

    Her father shared a glance with Sagun, then cleared his throat. “Let’s … well, let’s wait until we get home until we talk about that, okay?”

    She didn’t feel like arguing about it. With Janesha gone, it was like a part of her had been abruptly excised. “Okay,” she mumbled. Looking at the edge of the artificial plateau, she sighed. “I don’t even know where we are, or how long it’s going to take to walk home from here.”

    Sagun snorted softly. "Hello? God of superheroes, here." He snapped his fingers. "And now that you are both mine once more, I bestow upon you both … flight."

    "Or you could realm-step us both home," Taylor pointed out. She still wasn't over the fight and Janesha's sudden collapse, but she was starting to work her way through it.

    "Or I could do that, too." Sagun put his hands on their shoulders. "You know how it goes …"

    "... step," Taylor said, as Sagun and her father echoed the word. They stepped into the celestial realm, then out into their living room.

    “Oh,” said Annette, getting up from the sofa. “You’re back. Is everything okay? What happened?”

    Taylor took a deep breath, feeling it catch at the back of her throat. Tears welled in her eyes. “Janesha’s gone,” she said. It hurt to say, but she knew she had to face it. “Armina beat her, and they all went back to Mystal. Chance said it might be a long time before she gets back here, if ever.”

    “Oh, honey.” Annette hugged her closely. “I’m so sorry. I know how much she meant to you.”

    “Thanks, Mom.” Taylor swiped her tears away. “I’ve got to be the best hero I can even though she’s not here. It’s what she’d want.”

    Danny nodded to Sagun. "Thanks for everything. I appreciate it." He held out his hand.

    "You're welcome." Sagun shook his hand, then grunted as Taylor suddenly hugged him. "Okay, not complaining, but what's this in aid of?"

    "For protecting Mom and Dad," Taylor said. "Armina really, really wanted to win."

    "You're not wrong," he agreed. "So, this might be a little sudden, but my priests are all kind of volunteers and they mean well but they're pretty hit and miss …" He paused, looking at Taylor expectantly.

    It took her a moment to get it. "Wait, what again now? You want me to be your high priestess?"

    He shrugged. "Well, if you want to be. For someone who was thrown in at the deep end, you did a damn fine job with Janesha."

    "Well, you know she was only ever really a superhero," Taylor pointed out. "So it's not like I was a real high priestess."

    Danny and Sagun glanced at each other. "Maybe you should think about it anyway," her father suggested diffidently. "I think you'd do a good job."

    Taylor pursed her lips to one side as she eyed the golden-skinned man. "Okay, I'll think about it, but you're gonna have to broaden your scope a little."

    "... I'm listening," Sagun said cautiously.

    "The problems Janesha was addressing. They're real, and they need fixing." Taylor prodded Sagun in the chest. "Now that she's gone, you're going to have to step up."

    Danny cleared his throat. "I'm on board with that, on the condition that we all three sit down and work out a plan of action that doesn't involve bulldozing the world's governments into compliance. A little nudging, sure, but we have to at least give them the impression that they've got a choice, and that they're making the right one of their own accord."

    "And how long's that going to take?" Taylor scrunched up her face. "Years? Decades?"

    "As long as it takes," Danny said steadily. "You can't rush this sort of thing. Better to take a little longer than stir up people who'll go around sabotaging it the moment your back's turned. Something like this needs to be self-sustaining and long lasting."

    Sagun nodded. "I like the way your father thinks. We'll take our time and do it right. And we'll address the problems that people are facing right now, at the same time. What do you say, Taylor?"

    Taylor nodded. "I say you've got yourself a high priestess."

    “Ahem.” Annette spoke the word rather than actually clearing her throat. “Lord Scion, I’m no superhero so I can’t begin to tell you your business, but I do have a concern.”

    Sagun rolled his eyes. “Mrs Hebert, call me Sagun. If I’m going to be on first-name terms with your daughter, then I won’t be treating you or Danny any differently. But what’s your problem?”

    “Taylor.” Annette reached out and gathered Taylor to herself. “She’s fifteen. She needs to take the time to unwind and destress from what’s just happened to her. A lot’s happened in a short time. Then we have to think about sending her to school—a good school, not that hellhole that she was in before—so she can finish her education before she takes up such a high-responsibility job as high priestess to an actual God.”

    “Mom!” Taylor wriggled free and glared at her. “I’m not a kid anymore! I can be totally responsible!”

    Sadly, Danny shook his head. “Sorry, Taylor. Janesha was too young to be a goddess. Right now, you’re too young to be a high priestess. You were both aiming too high, without the knowledge base to really understand the deeper aspects of what you were trying to fix. As a result, your fixes would’ve required tweak after tweak, until they were more patch than fix. I’ve seen it happen before on much less complex systems, and they failed catastrophically on more than one occasion.”

    “No, you’ve got it wrong.” Taylor shook her head. “Janesha wasn’t a goddess. She just said she was.”

    Danny looked at Sagun. “Do you want me to tell her, or should I?”

    Sagun sighed. “I’ll have to remove the block first. Taylor, you might want to sit down.”

    “Is this what we talked about, that time in the car?” asked Annette. She took Danny’s hand.

    “Yeah, it is.” Danny looked acutely unhappy. “Do it.”

    “Do what?” demanded Taylor. “What are you three talking over my head for? What block? Can someone make some damn sense for once?”

    Suddenly, she felt the weirdest sensation, as though something had liquefied and drained away in her head. And then she knew. The pervading knowledge, the certainty that Janesha was not a goddess, was gone. In its place was the personal awareness that if she worshipped the celestial teen, Janesha would become a goddess once more. Once she got within fifteen feet of Taylor, of course.

    The paradigm shift was profound. Staggering slightly, she dropped into an armchair and sat with her hands pressing on either side of her head. “Holy shit,” she mumbled. “Holy fucking crap. What happened? How did that get in my head? Is that how they beat Janesha? I thought the tiara blocked all mind-bending.”

    Sagun went to speak, but Danny waved him away. “I got this.” He knelt down beside Taylor’s chair and looked her in the eye. “It got in your head because of me,” he confessed. “I gave Lord Chance the power to do it. You and Janesha … together, you were too powerful, too unstable. The only way out that didn’t involve inviting the destruction of the entire realm was … well, to kneecap Janesha’s powerbase before it got that far. Remove your belief from the situation, and they could take her and go home. Where she needs to be, right now.”

    Taylor stared at him, unable to believe what he was saying. “You did that? You did it? How could you? How could you do that to me? To her? I thought you liked her!” It was like learning all over again that he’d called the gods in, but worse.

    “I did like her!” Danny protested. “She was a good friend to you, when she wasn’t being a goddess! But once you gave her that power, it went to her head! To both of your heads! You stopped hearing ‘no’ and started hearing ‘well, maybe’!”

    “We were fixing things!” screamed Taylor, anger welling up in her. A swarm of bugs sprang up, buzzing in circles around the room.

    Sagun gestured, and the bugs vanished. “You were exiling people on the Moon and into other dimensions,” he said quietly. “Without benefit of trial or appeal. You made Janesha into a Goddess of Justice, among other things, then you promptly ignored that aspect of her powerbase, which allowed her to ignore it. Is being locked up without a chance to defend yourself, no matter what you’ve done, truly justice? Where does free will come in if you’re ordered to perform an action then mind-bent into doing it anyway after you refuse to do it the first time? How are those the actions of anything but a tyrant?”

    “Janesha wasn’t a tyrant.” Taylor shook her head definitively. “She liked people too much. She liked Earth Bet too much. She just wanted to make everyone healthy and happy and safe and comfortable.”

    “Which is to her credit, and yours,” Annette said firmly, kneeling on the other side of the armchair. “From what I’m told, when she first got here, her view of us—of mortals—was basically that we were disposable toys. Some were more interesting than others, but none of us were important in the long run. You changed that. You made her care. But she fell into the trap that many, many of us ordinary mortals have also fallen into.”

    “Trap?” asked Taylor dully. “What trap?” By now, she was curled up on the chair, half-turned away from Danny. The posture was deliberate; no matter whether he was justified in what he’d done, she was still pissed as hell at him for going behind her back like that. Even if it was with good intentions in mind.

    “Believing that her vision of how the world should be was more important than everyone else’s, everywhere. Believing that because her way was more right than anyone else’s, she was justified in using any means in doing things that way.” Annette smoothed some stray hairs away from Taylor’s face. “She only had you to draw on, and if I’m understanding celestial-mortal relationships properly, you were being subconsciously influenced by her to agree with the way she wanted to do things. So it was a self-reinforcing cycle.”

    Stubbornly, Taylor shook her head. “I don’t believe that. Janesha wasn’t like that. She’s not manipulative. Not like everyone else around here.”

    Sagun took a deep breath. “Taylor, can I offer an option? A way to see what’s truth and what’s manipulation? I give you my word, I’m not going to try to push you one way or the other.”

    Still ignoring her father, she looked at the golden-skinned celestial. Of all of them, he was the one who’d treated her most like an adult. In fact, he’d just offered her a spot as his high priestess. He might not be on my side as such, but at least he’s not trying to con me out of anything. “Okay, go ahead, but I reserve the right to be not convinced.” She tapped the tiara. “And if you were going to try mind-bending, that won’t work.”

    “That’s fair. I can’t mind-bend for crap anyway. My bloodline doesn’t support it. But being able to mediate disputes is a superpower that enough people believe in that I can do … this.” He snapped his fingers.

    In the next instant, Taylor gasped. Her mind was absolutely clear for what felt like the first time ever, free of nagging doubts and lack of assurance. Her father’s actions were laid out like a map, with his intentions and motivations beside them. So were Janesha’s, Sagun’s and what she’d seen of the Mystallian gods. She poked and prodded at what she saw, trying to find any hint of insincerity or inconsistency, and came up short.

    “Janesha wasn’t deliberately brainwashing me.” She said it almost defiantly. “She wanted the best for me and Earth Bet, just like you do.”

    “Of course she did,” Annette said. “But wanting something doesn’t automatically confer the best way of getting there.”

    That was so much a truism that Taylor didn’t bother answering. She turned to her father, who was still kneeling by the chair. “I’m still mad at you, by the way. You treated me like a kid. I’m not a kid.”

    Danny shrugged. “Fine. I won’t treat you like a kid.” He stood up and headed into the kitchen.

    Frowning, Taylor looked at Sagun then at Annette. “What’s with that? Where’s he going?”

    Annette raised her eyebrows. “He’s treating you like an adult. There’s no more to be said and he can’t force you to see his point of view, so he’s walking away from the situation. This way, you get a chance to figure out what’s going on without spending all your attention on refuting his point of view because you’re angry at the way he resolved things.”

    “I’m not doing that!” Taylor paused, not wanting to sound shrill. “I’m not doing that … am I?” She looked from her mother to Sagun and back. Neither one of them answered her, and in that she got her answer. “Okay, fine. Suppose I am doing that. What’s going on that I’m missing?”

    Annette looked her in the eye. “There was no viable way for Janesha to remain on Earth Bet. That’s the truth that you’re refusing to accept.”

    Taylor’s reaction was almost instinctive. “You’re wrong! We could’ve won! Janesha could’ve kicked both their butts and told them to piss off, especially if Sagun had been helping instead of standing back cheerleading!” She glared at the bearded celestial. “I thought you were on our side. How come you didn’t help us?”

    “Because I spoke with them first,” Sagun said. “Chance suggested that I listen to your father’s arguments. They made sense. Not enough to turn me against you—I was only nineteen myself when I first arrived here, after all—but enough to put me on the fence. I decided to make it a fair contest, that the Mystallians couldn’t use you against Janesha or your family against you. But even then, your father saw the bigger picture where I totally missed it.”

    Somehow, Taylor knew she was going to regret asking the question. “Bigger picture? That the Mystallians weren’t allowed to lose because they’d have hurt feelings or something?”

    “Oh, honey.” Still kneeling by the chair, Annette gathered her in a hug. “He never cared about their feelings. He cared about the world.” She rested her forehead gently against Taylor’s, just below the tiara. “If you’d won the battle, we would’ve lost the war. By throwing the battle, he made sure we won the war. We survived.

    “No.” Taylor shook her head. “No. Sagun—”

    “I’m good,” Sagun said. “I’m really good. But if they’d come back with a dozen others, just as powerful, no holds barred, all looking for blood and not caring who got splattered? You’d die, I’d die, Earth Bet would die. We’d lose.” He held out his hand, and a holographic representation formed, depicting a planet exploding in slow motion, repeated over and over. “Every world in the chain would be obliterated. The only survivor would be Janesha. And they’d probably mind-bend her into forgetting this ever happened. That Earth Bet, Aleph, any of them, ever existed. For all intents and purposes, we would never have been.” He looked down and away. “There’d just be Edeena, on Earlafaol, wondering whatever happened to me.”

    Taylor clenched her fists. “But Janesha had a right—”

    “No. She didn’t.” Sagun shook his head. “She was a minor on Mystal, just as you are here. She was a runaway. They weren’t dragging her back to an abusive situation. They were taking her home, where she’ll keep getting the education that a young celestial should be getting. The education that she needs to do the job properly, once she gets her establishment field the second time around.”

    “Okay, now you’re making me feel like the bad guy.” Taylor dug her fingers into her hair. “If I hadn’t worshipped her, she would’ve been free to go back when they showed up. I basically kidnapped her and held her against her will.”

    Annette snorted with amusement. “In a manner of speaking. But you were as much a victim of the powerbase and the thrall as she was. The real bad guys were the celestials who attacked you that time.” She turned her attention to the god in the room. “Did you ever find out who they were or what they wanted?”

    “No, which is irritating.” Sagun shook his head. “As far as I can tell, they were messing with me since I got here. They were certainly the ones who attacked Edeena and cut her up. But why they did all that, just to screw us both over, I have no idea.” He clenched his fists. “If I see them again, though, I’ll be sure to ask after I kick their asses nine ways from Sunday.”

    “Good.” Annette stood up and brushed her knees off. “Feeling better, honey?”

    “A bit,” Taylor admitted. She got up from the chair and faced Sagun. “I appreciate the offer to be your high priestess, and if it’s still open once I finish high school, I’ll definitely take you up on it. But right now I’m feeling a little less than adequate for the task. Is that okay with you?”

    “Absolutely,” declared the golden-skinned god. “The offer’s open as long as you want it to be. Take all the time you need. In the meantime, I’ll be dropping in occasionally if I need pointers on how to fix the world.” He held out his hand. “See you around, Taylor.”

    “See you around.” She shook his hand. “And thanks. For everything.”

    “You’re welcome. And you too, Annette.” He touched his forehead with two fingers, then vanished in a muted flare of golden light.

    Annette sighed. “Well, that’s that. I think we’ve earned a quiet family night in, don’t you?”

    Taylor hugged her close. “So long as Dad keeps his distance.”

    “You won’t feel like that forever.”

    “We’ll see.”



    End of Part Twenty-Eight

    Epilogues to Follow
     
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2020
  27. Threadmarks: Epilogue One: Taylor
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Celestial Worm

    Epilogue One: Taylor

    [A/N: this chapter commissioned by Fizzfaldt and beta-read by the author of Ties That Bind and The Long Way Home, Karen Buckeridge.]
    [A/N 2: for other (non-Worm) Celestial Wars sidestories, see
    here and here.]


    2023 (Twelve Years Later)

    "... and that's it." Sagun closed the leather-bound tome and made it vanish into a pocket dimension. "We're done here. Every plan has been implemented, every government is in compliance. And whaddaya know, it only took a bit more than a decade."

    Taylor, wearing the high-priestess garb she’d been sporting for the last nine and a half years, grinned from alongside him as they observed Earth Bet from high orbit. "With only the occasional break to rescue a cat from a tree."

    "Hey, I have a soft spot for cats in trees," Sagun protested. "I know what it feels to find myself in a situation I don't want to be in, and no way to get out of it without help."

    "Been there, done that.” Taylor rubbed her upper arms and shuddered, then looked for a way to change the topic. “So how's Edeena doing, anyway?"

    "She’s getting better.” Sagun smiled. “We bloodlink every day. While she still has bad days, they’re getting fewer and fewer. She still doesn't want to visit, for reasons I can absolutely understand, but it’s always good to see her face and hear her voice. She’s really pleased with our progress here, too. And of course, there’s everyone else we’ve got to thank."

    Taylor rolled her eyes, but smirked anyway. Sagun had been getting more and more excited about finalising the Plan over the last few weeks. She figured it was only fair to let him have his moment. “Yeah, yeah, rub it in. Go on, tell me how much Dad helped.”

    Sagun gave her a serious look. “You know he did. Some of the advice he's given me over the years was just what I needed. And you know you’re going to have to let go of that grudge sometime. He did what he thought was best for you at the time.”

    “Hey, I’m civil to him,” she protested. “I know he thought he had a good reason for doing it. I’m just pissed off that he totally took away my agency in the process.”

    “And your new best friend,” he reminded her. “Or is that the main reason you’re still unhappy with him? That we haven’t heard from her in all this time?”

    She grimaced. “Maybe? I mean, has she totally forgotten about me? Was our friendship like me getting attached to one of my bugs or something, just a few weeks and it’s over?” If she was being honest with herself, Sagun may have just hit the nail on the head. It was never about Dad. Well, mostly.

    “No.” He shook his head. “We both know she’s not like that. Maybe they’re not letting her contact us in case you’ve still got a worship thing going on for her.”

    “Well, no.” She snorted. “I like her and I admire her, but I’m your high priestess, not hers. I don’t care where she’s a goddess of, just so long as I can find out if she’s okay or not.”

    “Well, there is something I can try,” he said. “No promises.” He took a deep breath, ignoring the fact that they were both standing—and conversing—in what was effectively hard vacuum. “I’m Zeus’s bastard, which means I have access via bloodlink to the Olympian pantheon.”

    “But you’re also a hybrid, which means they’ll want to kill you on sight.” She shook her head. “Not a great move. Just saying.”

    “Normally, no.” He grinned. “However, I’ve had Edeena asking Lady Columbine questions on my behalf. Turns out that Chance’s daughter Emmalyn, their Goddess of Festivities, had a fling with Dionysis once upon a time. She had a kid called Yitzak, who ended up as Mystal’s god of the drink.”

    “So the goddess of Festivities hooked up with the god of Booze at a party and got pregnant.” Taylor rolled her eyes. “Why am I not surprised.”

    “Trust me, nobody was astonished at that revelation.” Sagun raised a finger. “But it does mean that I’ve got a direct line into Mystal.”

    “Let’s just hope you can make sense of what he’s saying.” Taylor snorted. “From what I’ve read of Dionysis, he was absolutely plastered ninety percent of the time.”

    “Yeah, well, apparently it’s the other way around with Yitzak.” Sagun shrugged. “Alcohol doesn’t affect him unless he wants it to. He’s always exactly as drunk as he wants to be, and so is anyone around him.” Poising his hand, he looked at Taylor. “Did you want me to make the call now?”

    Taylor felt her breath catch in her throat. “Could you?” Her heartbeat threatened to hammer out of control.

    In lieu of replying, Sagun made a waving gesture. “Yitzak,” he intoned. With his other hand, he clasped Taylor’s.

    She found out why a second later, when the image formed in front of Sagun. A tall, well-built celestial in the Mystallian uniform looked back at them; she fancied she could see a little of Chance’s features in his cheekbones and jawline, though that may have been wishful thinking.

    “Ah, so you’re Sagun,” the Mystallian said, his eyes narrowing with interest. “Lady Columbine notified me that you might be calling on me. Is there something I can help you with?”

    “Actually, yes, Lord Yitzak,” Sagun said smoothly. “Lady Janesha visited my realm about ten years ago, and accidentally ended up being established for a few days. I was wondering if I could ask you for news of her. She’s Lady Armina’s granddaughter, if that helps.”

    “Oh yeah, I know about her.” Yitzak nodded. “Poor kid, I'm pretty sure she’s still in a coma. Lady Col’s taking good care of her though, so she’ll get through it eventually.”

    Taylor gasped. She’d had no idea. “Does it normally take so long to get over this sort of thing?”

    She realised a moment later that she’d asked the question out loud, and that Yitzak could hear her. He frowned at her interjection but answered anyway. “Well, yeah. I’ve heard of bad cases being laid out for centuries, but she had a fairly light dose and the actual establishment wasn’t really traumatic, so she should be over it in another ten or twenty years, easy.”

    Even with all the powers Sagun had granted her over the last nine years, Taylor had never been a precog. But right then, she knew the answer to the next question she was going to ask. “So, let me guess. It’s Lady Columbine who’s caring for her?”

    “Well, who else?” He paused and peered at her. “Who are you, exactly?”

    “She’s with me, Lord Yitzak, Thank you for your assistance.” Sagun shut down the bloodlink and sighed. “Have you ever had a day where you realise that you’ve just outsmarted yourself?”

    “Occasionally,” Taylor said with a smirk. “I have to admit, I didn’t see that one coming.”

    He ran his hand over his face. "Here I thought I was being so clever, making sure I had a back-channel into Mystal, when I didn't even need it." He gave her a dirty look. "It's not that funny."

    "Well, it would be if I felt like laughing," Taylor said, sobering. "So …" She didn't want to say it out loud.

    "So do you think we should link through now, or give it awhile?" He rubbed his beard. "I don’t see why not. Edeena will still be awake, if I recall her schedule correctly." Raising his hand, he made the gesture again. "Edeena."

    Once more the link formed, to show a woman with long platinum-blonde hair, so slender as to be waif-like, kneeling beside a garden bed. The flowers were almost impossibly brilliant in colour, though Taylor thought she spotted a weed in one of the beds behind the woman. She decided after a moment that she'd been seeing things, because the rest of the garden was immaculately tended.

    "Hello, Sagun!" Edeena stood up with a brilliant smile. "Do you like Lady Columbine’s flowers? I was just admiring them. They're beautiful, aren't they? Oh, is this your high priestess? Hello! Taylor, isn’t it?"

    “Yeah, hi, that’s me.” Taylor essayed a wave. “It’s nice to meet you properly at last. Sagun tells me you’re getting better all the time.”

    “Uh huh.” Edeena nodded vigorously. “And all the guards are really nice. If I need Lady Columbine, they take me to her straight away.” She tilted her head. “But we spoke earlier today, didn’t we, Sagun? What’s up? Or did you just want to introduce Taylor to me?”

    “It’s nothing serious,” Sagun assured his sister. “We were just wondering if you knew of another patient of Lady Col’s. A girl called Janesha. She would’ve come in not long after you did.”

    “Oh, yes.” Edeena’s eyes dropped. “She’s still here. Lady Col says she’s getting better, but it’s going to be a little while. Sometimes I sit and read to her. She seems to like that.”

    “Oh.” Taylor leaned in to Sagun for comfort, and he put his arm around her shoulders. “So, um … would you be able to tell Sagun when she wakes up? If you could, please?”

    “I can totally do that. Any friend of Sagun’s is a friend of mine. It was really nice to meet you, Taylor.” She gave her brother a suspicious glance. “Is Sagun treating you alright?”

    Taylor mustered a weak smile. “Yeah. He’s a good boss. We actually finished our main plan for fixing the world today. Now we’re going to start expanding into the solar system.”

    Edeena beamed. “Well, good for you!” She lifted her head a moment later, at some unheard sound. “Oh, that’s the dinner gong. I’ll talk to you later, okay? Don’t let Sagun push you around or I’ll have to come and rough him up for you!”

    Sagun snorted. “You’re welcome to try.”

    “Bye!” Taylor called, just before the bloodlink closed. Then she closed her eyes for a moment, enjoying the comforting warmth of Sagun’s arm around her shoulders.

    “Well, she’s getting better,” he ventured after a moment. “That’s good, right?”

    “Yeah, but the fact that she needs to get better isn’t.” She heaved a sigh. “Can you take me home? I think I need to have a long talk with Dad.”

    “Yeah, probably a good idea.” He gestured, and a portal opened. “Edeena looks happy, don’t you think?”

    “Yeah,” Taylor agreed. “Yeah, she does.” They stepped through the portal and disappeared.



    End of Epilogue One
     
  28. Threadmarks: Epilogue Two: Janesha
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Celestial Worm

    Epilogue Two: Janesha

    [A/N: this chapter commissioned by Fizzfaldt and beta-read by the author of Ties That Bind and The Long Way Home, Karen Buckeridge.]
    [A/N 2: for other (non-Worm) Celestial Wars sidestories, see
    here and here.]


    Fifteen Years Later



    “Ugh,” groaned Janesha. “Why does my everything hurt?”

    “Because you have not consciously moved your body in twenty-seven years,” Columbine said gently, helping her sit up. Edeena stood to the side where Janesha could reach out for support, but giving her a chance to stand upright by herself first. Even though she was tempted, she refrained, determined to own this and move forward.

    Taking a deep breath (and when was the last time she'd done that?), Janesha tensed and prepared to lever herself to her feet, aches and pains be damned. Then she paused. "Why in all the realms am I doing this the hard way?" she demanded.

    "That is a question only you can answer, sweetheart," Columbine answered with a gentle smile. "Shifting is quite within your capability."

    "Realm-damned right it is," Janesha retorted and sent a stimulation wave throughout her entire body, resetting everything to optimum function in an instant. Then she stood up smoothly and stretched, enjoying the sensation. For all of two seconds.

    “Strike one,” Columbine said, holding up one finger.

    Realising what she meant, Janesha’s eyes widened and she turned to face her cousin. "Oh, uh, I didn't mean to swear," she said. "That was my bad. I won't do it again." She knew of some relatives who had been sentenced to 'profanity jail', unable to voice any kind of rude language for a month, for swearing too much around Columbine. Nobody came back for a second try.

    "You have two strikes left, sweetheart. You are now on notice for your first offense.” Columbine smiled and just like that, the issue was dealt with. "Did you wish to bloodlink back to Mystal immediately, or stay for a while? You are very welcome to do either."

    "Where's Cloudstrike?" Janesha asked immediately.

    "She is back in Mystal with the rest of the herd," Columbine said. "She misses you, of course, but your cousins have been spending time with her and taking her for regular rides."

    A pang went through Janesha's heart. Twenty-seven years was a mere pittance to a celestial, but for a mystallion awaiting her rider's return, it would be forever. "First thing I do when I get back," she promised herself out loud. Then she gasped, her eyes going wide. "Taylor! Earth Bet! Did Armina—are they—"

    "They're both still there," Edeena assured her with a smile. "Sagun bloodlinks me on a daily basis. They wanted to know as soon as you woke up. I think Taylor misses you, too."

    "Can you bloodlink with him right now?" Janesha didn't want Taylor worrying any longer than she had to—realms, she has to be over forty by now! That's half her life, just gone!—and she also had questions about exactly how Armina had removed her establishment so easily. A little embarrassed, she turned to her host. "I didn't mean to just ignore you like that."

    "It is entirely understandable," Columbine said graciously. "I would indeed advise you to get your bloodlinks over and done with in good time, because the moment I pass on word to Mystal and Rangi-Taurea of your recovery, there will be several people competing for your attention. Your father, so that he can yell at you and ground you. Your mother, so that she can yell at you and ground you. And your grandmother …" She trailed off.

    Janesha nodded. "So that she can yell at me and ground me … into dust. Yeah, I kinda see the pattern." But she was happier than she normally would've been. Yes, being yelled at and grounded by three of her elders was going to rate among the least favourite experiences of her life, but Taylor was alive and Earth Bet hadn't been obliterated by vengeful gods. "Thanks for the heads-up, Cousin Col."

    "You are welcome." Columbine smiled, then looked back at Edeena. “I, of course, will be incredibly busy for the next … say, two hours. I suggest you make the most of my absence.” Implicit was the understanding that her family would know if she tried to stall for too long, and of course the fact that she wanted to get back to Cloudstrike as soon as possible. Nobody knows how to brush her down like I do.

    She didn't even bother asking why Cloudstrike hadn't been brought out to Earlafaol for when she woke up. It was incredibly difficult for the flying mounts to travel through a bloodlink, and Lady Col preferred that none of her family knew exactly where in the Unknown Realms her home realm was situated. Besides, giving Janesha access to a mystallion in the Unknown Realms was what had started this whole mess in the first place.

    With a polite nod to both Janesha and Edeena, Columbine removed herself from the room, with Bianca and Dee close behind.

    Immediately, Janesha hugged Edeena. "Thank you for sitting with me. I remember you being here, from time to time."

    "It was all my pleasure," Edeena said, returning the hug. "Lady Columbine said it was good for the both of us, so I didn't have any problem at all. Did you want me to bloodlink to Sagun now?"

    "Oh, totally." Janesha stepped back from the older woman, so that she could perform the link.

    Edeena kept hold of Janesha's hand and gestured with the other. "Sagun," she said clearly.

    The link formed immediately, showing Sagun holding out his hands and projecting some sort of power from them. A brilliant blue sky above a distant cityscape was visible behind him.

    "Excuse me one moment," he said absently. "Dealing with a tsunami. And … done. So what's …" For the first time, he appeared to notice that Janesha was in frame as well. "Whoa! Janesha! You're awake!" A broad smile split his bearded face. "When did this happen?"

    "About five minutes ago." Janesha couldn't keep the silly grin off her face. "It's good to see you again, Lord Scion."

    "Pfft, call me Sagun." He laughed delightedly. "Oh, wow. Taylor's gonna be so thrilled. She's been counting the days."

    "Oh, uh, what's she been doing with her life since I, um, left?" Somehow, Janesha had trouble visualising Taylor as a middle aged housewife.

    “Well, just now she’s been calming the population while I took care of business, but I’ve told her you’re up so she’ll be here in a moment.” Sagun shook his head. “How are you feeling? Is everything alright with you? When are they going to let you visit?”

    “I’m fine … wait.” Janesha tilted her head. “Calming the population? She’s there with you right now?”

    “Well, yeah, where else would my high priestess be?” Sagun reached off to the side, out of range of the bloodlink. “Check it out, Taylor. Janesha’s back.”

    In the next moment, Taylor came into view. Her outfit wasn’t quite as formal as the high-priestess robes Janesha had given her, but it was still definitely along the same lines. Her hand clasped with Sagun’s, she smiled through the bloodlink at Janesha and Edeena. “Janesha, how are you? You look amazing!” Her eyes were dancing with excitement and she couldn’t keep a smile off her face. Far from looking old, as Janesha had feared, she simply looked … grown up. As Janesha herself was. Her eyes were clear and her long curly black hair bore no tinge of grey.

    “... you too, petal.” As she spoke the familiar nickname, Janesha felt an odd jolt behind her sternum. You were my high priestess! It wasn’t betrayal, exactly, but she couldn’t help but feel a little let down. “So, you went straight from one high priestess position to another, huh?”

    “‘Petal’. Wow, that takes me back.” Taylor laughed light-heartedly. “No, Sagun made the offer but Mom made me finish high school first. I took college courses in civics so I understood the underlying dynamics, too. We finished what you started, by the way. Took us a couple of years to get some traction, but once the holdouts saw the strides the compliant nations were making, they voted the asshole politicians out and fell into line.”

    “... oh. Right. Good for you.” So they’d even done it the way Danny Hebert had wanted it done, and it had worked. Janesha nodded, forcing her smile to look natural. Everything I tried to do, they did it better. “Do they … do they even remember me?”

    “As a goddess?” Sagun shook his head. “No. But there’s a statue, of you and Cloudstrike, outside the United Nations building.”

    “And don’t forget the feature films, the TV show and the Saturday morning cartoon,” Taylor added with a mischievous grin. “‘Janesha’ was the third most popular girl’s name in the continental United States for about four or five years running. Just saying.”

    A statue was actually kind of cool, but … “Wait, Feature films? As in, more than one? And a TV show, and a cartoon? All of that, in twenty-seven years?”

    “Oh, yeah.” Taylor nodded. “The first one came out just a couple of years after you left, and the second one …” She tilted her head in recollection.

    “Year before last,” Sagun supplied. “The TV show was good at first, but the second season lagged, and the third season really didn’t work at all. They had to wrap it up with an ass-pull reveal that you were really an alien princess, going back to your people. Which I suppose isn’t too far off the mark.” He waggled his hand. “In a manner of speaking. And the cartoon … oh, good grief, the cartoon.”

    “Why, what was wrong with the cartoon?” asked Janesha suspiciously.

    Taylor smirked. “They de-aged you to about eight years old, and had you going on wacky adventures with younger versions of the Wards and Protectorate. Li’l Armsy had the biggest crush on your character. It was hilarious.

    Janesha really wasn’t sure how to take that. Celestials were not supposed to be figures of fun. Unless their establishment field dictated that, of course. Now I know how Uncle Avis felt. “At least tell me the films were okay.”

    Sagun rubbed his chin. “They were … good,” he decided, then glanced sideways at Taylor. “Would you say ‘good’?”

    She nodded. “‘Good’ works for me. They didn’t have a lot of the background details, for obvious reasons, but they didn’t mischaracterise you beyond a few verbal tics that Sagun and I didn’t feel like correcting them on. For the most part, they got you down pretty well.”

    “The fight with the Simurgh was a lot more dramatic, of course,” Sagun said. “Taylor wasn’t involved, and it went all the way down to the wire. You had a great one-liner when you finally punched her out. “‘Sing this one off’, or something like that.”

    “The TV show was a spin-off of the first one, and you know how that turned out,” Taylor added. “The second one was a remake, and they went deeper into your character and background. Added some totally fictitious elements, but kept your core concept valid. Though this time around you apparently rescued Cloudstrike from some unscrupulous bio-Tinker’s lab.” She shrugged. “I thought it wasn’t terrible, for something that was made up from whole cloth.”

    Janesha shook her head. “Well, one thing’s for certain. Even if I was allowed to come visit before I’m finished being grounded, I’d never be able to get an establishment there again. My image there’s so fractured, it would take me a thousand years just to get everyone believing the same thing about me all at once.”

    “Well, you’re still totally welcome to visit anyway,” Taylor said without hesitation.

    “It totally sucks that you had to go through the withdrawal coma then get grounded on top of that,” Sagun added. “So how long do you think you’re gonna be grounded for?”

    “I have no idea.” Janesha sighed. “Considering how many people are mad at me for running off like that and refusing bloodlinks, anywhere from five hundred to fifteen hundred years.” She looked sadly at the girl who was still her best mortal friend. “Sorry, petal.” I’m gonna miss her.

    “What are you sorry for?” asked Taylor. “It’s not like it’s your fault or anything … well, yeah, yeah, I know. It kinda is. Shut up.” She elbowed Sagun in the ribs.

    “What? I didn’t say anything.” The smirk on his features said otherwise, though.

    “You were gonna. I heard you do your ‘well, actually’ inhale.” Taylor rolled her eyes. “Don’t worry, Janesha. This big golden lunk couldn’t find his well-toned ass with both hands and an atlas unless I was there to hold the atlas, so I’m gonna be around for awhile yet..”

    “Hey!” objected Sagun. “I resemble that remark!”

    Taylor pretended to ignore the interjection. “So whenever you want to drop by, I’ll be here.”

    Janesha tilted her head. “... so how long have you two been a couple?”

    “What?” Taylor looked startled. “A couple? Us?” She looked around at Sagun. “We’re not a couple, are we?”

    He looked just as bemused. “Not the last time I checked. No, we aren’t a couple, Janesha. She’s my high priestess. That’s as far as it goes.”

    “Could’ve fooled me.” Janesha looked from one to the other. “You two are finishing each other’s sentences, did you know that? You’re more comfortable with each other than some happily married couples that I know of.”

    Sagun cleared his throat. “Well, I do like Taylor a lot, but there’s the whole dipping the pen in the company inkwell thing, you know? I don’t want it to get awkward.”

    “What, more awkward than having people think we’re a couple when we’re not?” Taylor raised her eyebrows. “I’ve been wondering why Mom and Dad smirk whenever I say I’m going out to meet up with you.”

    “Well, whatever you decide, just make sure nothing comes out of it,” Janesha said seriously. “You know how pure-blood celestials think about hybrids.”

    “What, even inside their own realm?” asked Sagun. “Not bothering anyone outside it?”

    “Even then,” Janesha insisted. “If anyone in the Known Realms heard that a celestial-mortal couple in the Unknown Realms was getting it on and having hybrid kids, there would be a crusade the likes of which you’ve never seen before. They’d swarm the Unknown Realms until they found you, then they’d kill off every hybrid they saw, and burn your realm down to the bedrock just to make sure it won’t happen again.”

    “Wait, didn’t you say Lady Columbine had hybrids in her realm?” asked Taylor.

    “Yeah, but they never get to leave.” Janesha shook her head. “Her power level is off the scales, and then there’s her army at her back. Nobody wants to mess with those bad boys.”

    “Just out of curiosity, what do you personally think of hybrids?” asked Sagun. “I mean, would you recognise one if you met one?”

    “Only if I knew their parentage,” admitted Janesha. “Showing off divine powers outside their own realm would be a big indicator, too. But … well, after getting to know Taylor, I can empathise with mortals a lot more now, so if you did end up having hybrid kids and I found out, I wouldn’t rat you out. But I would put guards up around your borders, to make sure you all stayed put. The threat would have to be contained. If so much as one got out, I’d have to alert Mystal. It’s my duty to the Known Realms.”

    Taylor laughed. “Well, there’s no danger of that happening right now. So let’s not even go there.”

    “Oh, good.” Janesha felt a surge of relief. “So, I guess I’ll see you when they finally unground me.”

    Sagun nodded. “We’ll be looking forward to it. See you tomorrow, Edeena.”

    “See you, Sagun. See you, Taylor.” Edeena waved, and cut the bloodlink.

    “Well, that was interesting,” Janesha said thoughtfully. “They really seem to be doing well.”

    “Yeah, Sagun’s happy.” Edeena smiled. “They’ve got a couple of lunar colonies and one on Mars, and they’re talking about terraforming Venus. Hey, did you want to go swimming in the lake? The hatchlings will be down there, and they’re so silly.”

    Janesha considered that, the issues of Earth Bet discarded for the moment. Swimming with true gryps hatchlings? Who even got to do that? “I’m in,” she decided.

    “Woo! Last one in’s a—hey, no realm-stepping!”

    <><>​

    Taylor

    “Well, that was interesting.” Taylor looked around at Sagun. “Do you think she knows?”

    “That I’m a hybrid?” He shook his head. “No. She would’ve been even more direct than she was already.” He paused awkwardly. “So, do you, uh …”

    “Do I what?” She frowned for a moment, then light dawned. “Oh. Oh! Do I like you like you?”

    “Well, yeah, um …” The golden tone of his cheeks darkened. “I didn’t want to say anything before, because you weren’t saying anything and I didn’t think it was the sort of thing I could just bring up. I mean, it’s the ultimate ‘dating the boss’ scenario, and we both know how that kind of thing goes. Besides, I’m like seventy-five, and—”

    She put her finger up to cover his lips and he shut up. “Hush. I’m forty-two. Neither one of us looks our age. And yes, I do like you like that. I’ve just been waiting for you to say something.”

    Sagun looked into her eyes for the longest time. His lips parted. “Something,” he whispered.

    “Right, of course.” Taylor rolled her eyes. “What else should I expect from a comic book nerd?” She took him by the hand, lacing her fingers through his. “Well, we’ve got all the time in the world. Let’s take it one step at a time and figure this out.”

    “That works for me,” he agreed. “So, uh, what if we—”

    “Have kids?” Taylor glanced over her shoulder at where the bloodlink had been. “What the Known Realms don’t know won’t hurt us. Let’s go home.”

    “Right.” Sagun opened a portal, and they stepped through.



    End of Epilogue Two



    End of Celestial Worm

    Hope you enjoyed the read!
     
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