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Celestial Worm [Worm AU crossover]

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

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  1. Gindjurra

    Gindjurra Know what you're doing yet?

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    And maybe sooner than before thanks to this simulated conversation. A common thread between both magic systems and religions is that a true image of a thing -- especially of a god -- is that thing. So Chance might not consciously remember the imaginary conversation with Janesha, but I wouldn't rule out the possibility that it influences his search.

    If he is aware of the effect, he might take the time to give a lot more scrutiny to what would initially feel like just a hunch.
     
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  2. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Not gonna say this is true, but it's an interesting interpretation.
     
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  3. Threadmarks: Part Seven: Official Attention
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Celestial Worm

    Part Seven: Official Attention


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


    Emma

    “What happened?” asked Emma, after the door had swung shut behind the costumed girl. “Did she attack you? Are you hurt?” Bending over Sophia, she offered her hand.

    “I’m all right,” Sophia snapped, pushing the hand away. She shook her head, as if still dizzy from the hit. “She didn’t attack shit. I just tried to …” She paused and glanced at Madison, then hooked her head toward the door. “Get out there and stop anyone from coming in.”

    “But I want to hear what happened,” Madison objected. Her eyes moved from Sophia to Emma, silently appealing to the redhead.

    “Do what she says,” Emma replied, knowing that following Sophia’s lead was the only way forward at this stage. Madison knew of Sophia’s cape identity, but nobody else in the school except certain teachers did. Keeping things this way was a desirable state of affairs.

    Madison pouted adorably—Emma knew for a fact that the petite brunette actually practiced the expression in front of the mirror—but did as she was told. Which was smart of her, because Sophia didn’t look in the mood to take any kind of shit right then. After the door closed behind her, Sophia climbed to her feet and checked the other toilet stalls.

    "Sophia, what happened?" Emma stared at Sophia, not bothering to disguise her curiosity. “If she didn’t attack you …” Her voice trailed off as she tried and failed to envisage a scenario where Sophia attempted to attack the new girl and lost. Sophia was a cape. A Ward. She didn’t lose that easily. Or at all, really.

    Sophia scowled, then turned toward the stained mirror that lined the wall above the basins. Leaning in, she inspected her forehead closely. “I was just about to show the little cow who was boss when she pulled some judo shit and got hold of my arm instead. When I got loose, she hid in the cubicle so I wouldn’t kick her ass. So I figured I’d shadow-jump to the top of the cubicle and go solid as I went over. She’d be trapped in the cubicle with me, see?”

    “Right. So what happened then?” Emma had been privileged to see Sophia kicking ass on more than one occasion. Once again, her imagination wasn’t up to the task of this outcome not happening.

    “Nothing.” Sophia prodded the fresh lump on her forehead, as if she could make it go down with sheer willpower.

    Emma was hurt by the abrupt shut-down. Sophia was her best friend and they shared everything, especially when it came to Taylor. If this other girl was protecting Taylor, it was her duty as Sophia’s unofficial second-in-command to come up with a way to persuade the school that the interfering bitch had to go. “Soph, what happened to your head?”

    With an aggravated sigh, Sophia turned the glare on her. “I went to shadow-jump, and it didn’t happen, so I ran into the cubicle door. Happy now?” She held up her hand and concentrated on it. Emma watched, wondering what was going on, as nothing apparently happened.

    “What do you mean, it didn’t happen?” she asked, since Sophia didn’t seem willing to elaborate any farther. “You couldn’t jump?”

    “No.” Sophia’s tone was pure savagery. She tapped the side of her hand against the bench a few times and grew even angrier. “I mean, I couldn’t go to shadow. I mean, my powers aren’t working.” She clenched her fist and stared at it with such intensity that Emma half-expected her to spontaneously manifest a vision-based power on the spot. “I don’t know what that bitch-faced whore did to me, or how she did it, but I don’t have my powers anymore.”

    “Oh. Fuck.” Emma wasn’t even aware that she’d spoken aloud, as the ramifications of what Sophia was saying finally percolated through her brain. She didn’t swear all that often, but this seemed to fit the situation perfectly.

    “Yeah,” agreed Sophia. “Oh, fuck.”

    And then her phone rang.

    <><>​

    Director Emily Piggot
    PRT ENE


    Brockton Bay had apparently outgrown UFO sightings and was now specialising in flying-horse sightings. Ironically, the first of these had been posted online the day before from the Scottish Highlands. The image was blurred and streaked to an almost indecipherable degree, but if Emily squinted and turned her head just right, she could just about see the golden horse with the grey and blue wings. Still this would’ve been ignored and derided in equal parts except for what came next.

    The ones from Brockton Bay proper were a lot clearer. This was mainly because the first ones had been turned in as part of the report Armsmaster had given on the capture of the Merchants. According to him, the horse was called Cloudstrike, and its rider had given the name ‘Janesha of Mystal’. From the language in the report, Janesha had impressed the man considerably. He also had footage of the animal vanishing so fast even his highly efficient helmet camera only caught a blur. Which should’ve been patently ridiculous, but there it was.

    It had returned thirty-five minutes later, while the PRT was still involved in dealing with the wreckage of Squealer’s tank. Two teenage girls, one easily recognisable as Janesha by her costume, had appeared from nowhere, and Janesha had let out the Whistle.

    Emily hadn’t heard the Whistle, but everyone in the northern part of the city apparently had. As had everyone in Maine, eastern Canada, and most of Europe, if the reports were true. Not a single window had been broken and not a single eardrum had been blown out, while audio recordings had demonstrated a uniform volume from Portland, Maine to Paris, France. From all appearances, the black-costumed girl had used that impossible whistle to summon the flying horse (possibly a projection) from wherever it had been. She and her companion had then gotten on its back and flown off before officers could speak with them.

    Phone camera footage, much lower definition than Armsmaster’s but still adequate to the task, depicted what appeared to be the same winged horse flying along the Boardwalk, with the same two riders. One hoodie-wearing teenager was much the same as another, but the costume sported by the dark-skinned girl was both striking and unique, fitting the description of Janesha to a T.

    They’d been accosted by Glory Girl, then suddenly accelerated out of sight. PHO, with its army of tireless weirdness watchers, had reported on an unverified sighting of a flying horse in the air near Corcovado, in Rio de Janeiro. The fact that this sighting had taken place mere seconds after their disappearance from the Boardwalk, and that a golden streak had crossed the sky over Bermuda in that same timeframe, merely made Emily sigh and massage her temples with her fingertips. Fucking capes.

    And now, fresh across her desk, were yet more sightings. The only reason they had made it that far, and in fact the only reason she was paying more than cursory attention to any of this, was that the first one involved a couple of Dragon’s telescopes spotting the winged horse, with the same two passengers, coming in from outer space and buzzing the Simurgh, mere minutes previously. One still shot showed Janesha looking back over her shoulder, presumably at the Simurgh, and flipping her the bird. Another portrayed the Simurgh herself, a look of startled shock clearly visible on that normally impassive alabaster visage.

    What put the final nail in the coffin containing Emily’s desire to ignore any and all of this, was that the second sighting showed the horse touching down at Winslow High School just a short time later and letting off its passengers. Who had then walked inside while the horse took flight then vanished (which only strengthened Emily’s suspicion that it was a projection).

    Emily Piggot had nothing special against capes, if she ignored the very cogent desire to have them follow the law in every particular. But whoever the Master was behind the flying-horse projection—probably Janesha of Mystal, whatever or wherever ‘Mystal’ was—Winslow was possibly the last place they should’ve gone for their shenanigans. Janesha had the exact wrong skin colour to let her fit in around any Empire recruits on site, especially if she made it look as though she was there to ‘clean up’ the school. Even Shadow Stalker had never been quite that idiotic.

    Speaking of Shadow Stalker … She searched her inbox for any report from the Winslow Ward. None had shown up yet, which made her frown. She’d thought the girl was more on top of matters than this. Well, it’s been a while since I lit a fire under the ass of someone who’s going slower than they should.

    Picking up her phone, she hit speed-dial and waited. She wouldn’t be making the actual call herself, of course. She had people for that.

    <><>​

    Sophia

    Even as she clawed the phone out of her pocket, Sophia wondered how the PRT had heard so fast about her power loss. I only found out about it a few seconds ago. Did a precog tell them?

    Swiping to answer it, she held the phone to her ear. “Hello?” she said, as neutrally as she could manage.

    “Shadow Stalker, this is Deputy Director Renick.” The old man’s dry-as-dust tones sounded unworried. “Are you aware of the cape who arrived at Winslow today?”

    Sophia’s eyes went wide. They knew about the bitch, but not about the actual power theft. “Hell yes, I’m aware of her,” she spat. “She just cornered me in the bathroom and stole my fucking powers, is what she did!”

    There was a long pause. “Could you please repeat that?” asked Renick. “Include as much detail as you can.”

    “Okay, I saw her in the corridor,” Sophia said, improvising rapidly. “Black girl, black costume, long cape, yeah? She got rough with one of my friends, but I told her to back off. Then I went to the bathroom and she followed me in. Grabbed me by the arm, made me hit my head on the cubicle door, then left. And now I’ve got no fucking powers at all. I’ve been trying to go shadow and it’s just not working.”

    “As I understand matters, you shouldn’t be trying to use your powers at all while you’re at school.” Of all the fucking times for Renick to be on the ball. “How did you learn of their loss?”

    “I, uh, I was on my ass, on the floor,” Sophia said. “When I went to get up, I slipped because I was dizzy. I tried to go shadow so I wouldn’t fall on my ass again. But it didn’t work. That bitch stole my goddamn powers!”

    “Calm down,” Renick advised her. “We’ll contact your liaison, and get you released from school early. A vehicle will be sent to bring you to the PRT building, and we’ll put you through a full screening. It may well be an area effect, like Hatchet Face. Once you’re out of the area, you might be fine. Or there might be a duration involved. Did you try to use your powers before she made physical contact with you?”

    Sophia snorted. It was a good try at tripping her into a confession that she’d been using her powers illicitly, but she was wise to that bullshit. Besides, he had a point. She’d never heard of anyone who could steal powers by touch before. “No. Just afterward. But seriously, you need to get people to the school and arrest her right the hell now. That bitch is a goddamn psycho, the way she was going at my friends.”

    “That is very concerning.” Renick seemed to have picked up on the urgency of the matter. “Just so you know; she’s been observed to use other powers. Have you seen her exhibiting a Brute rating, a Mover rating or a Master projection ability?”

    That was a question she hadn’t been anticipating. “Uh, no. I didn’t see any projections or Movement ability. She might be pretty strong, though.” Also like Hatchet Face, she didn’t say. That was one cape she didn’t ever want to tangle with. But she was perfectly happy with throwing whatever-her-face-was to the PRT wolves.

    “Understood.” It sounded like Renick was typing. “Now, to avoid any misunderstandings, did this girl identify herself to you? Does the name Janesha of Mystal ring a bell?”

    “Nope, she didn’t say her name at all,” Sophia said. “But you won’t miss her. She’s the one who walks and talks like she owns the whole fucking school and she’s just letting the rest of us use it for the moment.”

    “That does more or less fit with Armsmaster’s assessment of the young lady,” Renick mused, more to himself than to her. “Very well. Go to the principal’s office and I’ll see about getting you released for the day. You need to be screened immediately to ensure that there are no other ill effects and to see if your powers are likely to return.”

    That was exactly what Sophia intended to do, but there was something else she needed to say. “Okay, I’m on my way, but one more thing.”

    “I’m listening.”

    Sophia took a deep breath, wanting this to come out exactly right. “She’s violent. You can’t give her a chance to react. And there’s this other bitch with her. Some skank called Taylor Hebert, egging her on. She needs to be dealt with too.”

    More typing. “Understood. We appreciate the heads-up. Do you have a description of this other girl? And how’s her last name spelled?” It sounded like Renick was buying this shit hook, line and sinker.

    “Uh, yeah. Tall skinny white bitch, long black hair, wearing a hoodie. School shooter type, you know? Total loser, total loner. That’s H-E-B-E-R-T.” Sophia shared a vicious grin with Emma and pumped her fist in victory. I don’t lose. It was her mantra, and Janesha of Whorebagville was going to learn that.

    “Understood. Tell your friends to avoid her and go to the principal’s office. We’ll deal with matters from this end. If there was nothing else?”

    “Uh, nope. Nothing else.” Sophia hung up the call, then high-fived Emma. She still didn’t have her powers back—she checked again, and they were still gone—but she’d never heard of a cape stealing or nullifying someone’s powers permanently, at least without killing them. So things were looking up.

    “What happens now?” asked Emma. “What are you going to do?”

    “Well, I’m getting the day off school,” Sophia announced with some satisfaction. “They’re gonna see what’s going on with my powers at the PRT building. And while I’m there, I’m gonna sink that bitch’s ass all the way to bedrock. By the time I’m finished with her, they’re gonna fuckin’ Birdcage her.”

    “Can I come, too? I can back your story up.” Emma looked hopeful, but she wasn’t fooling Sophia. She just wanted the day off school too.

    Sophia grinned. “Nice try. Stay here in school, and if you run into Hebert once the PRT and Protectorate have carted off her bitch-ass friend, leave her something to remember me by, huh?” By which she meant, find her if you have to track her down all over the fucking school, and fuck her shit up good.

    Emma nodded, smiling nastily. “Sure. I can definitely do that.”

    “Excellent.” Sophia slapped her on the shoulder. “It’s good to have friends I can depend on.”

    <><>​

    Taylor

    Taylor wasn’t certain if there’d been a spare computer desk in Mrs Knott’s classroom before, but there was one now. She’d dumped her new backpack on the chair to indicate that it was taken and sat at the next desk over. Janesha didn’t appear for a few minutes, making Taylor wonder what was keeping her. Then she started to worry that she would miss whatever comeuppance her new friend had planned for Emma and the others. The one thing she didn’t worry about was that Emma or Sophia might somehow get the better of Janesha.

    Finally, Janesha entered the room and strolled down toward where Taylor was sitting. Reaching across, Taylor hefted the backpack off the chair, freeing it up. Everyone turned to look at the teenage celestial; not just because of her Mystallian uniform. Taylor had seen this once or twice before. Without appearing to be aware that she was doing it, Janesha seemed to become indefinably more real than anyone else in the room.

    Mrs Knott looked up from her paperwork. “Oh, hello,” she said uncertainly. “I don’t believe I know you?”

    Janesha smiled brilliantly. “I’m Janesha of Mystal. I just transferred in. Taylor was nice enough to invite me to sit with her.” Without missing a beat, she pulled out the chair that Taylor had reserved for her and sat down, flaring her cape to hang down the seat-back. Taylor knew her well enough by now to suspect that at least half of that move was shapeshifter bullshit, but from the outside it just looked like pure skill.

    “Oh.” Entirely unsurprisingly, Mrs Knott accepted Janesha’s statement at face value. Taylor decided with an internal smirk that the girl hadn’t even technically lied, though she was stretching the definition of ‘transferred in’ all the way to its maximum and a few light-years beyond. And there was absolutely no doubt in Taylor’s mind that Janesha had ‘helped’ Mrs Knott to come to the decision to accept her story. “All right, then. Taylor should be able to help you get up to speed in the class. Though, uh …” The teacher eyed Janesha’s garb with a certain amount of curiosity.

    “This is my family uniform,” Janesha informed her, pride evident in every word. “Wherever I go, I represent Mystal, so I wear the uniform.” Those were more than just words, Taylor decided. That was a rock-solid assurance that wherever any Mystallian went, there too went Mystal.

    Wow, I’m even starting to think like her. Taylor wasn’t totally certain if this was a good thing or a bad thing. Celestials could get away with that sort of attitude, because they could absolutely back it up. With mortals (and she’d never thought she would be thinking of herself in that context) it was a lot less certain. Of course, with Janesha in her corner, Taylor’s lot in life was looking rather better than it had a day or two ago.

    She couldn’t wait to find out what had happened in her absence. That something had happened, she was certain. What she didn’t know was exactly what. Had they tried to convince Janesha to walk away from Taylor? Or had Sophia just cut to the chase and attempted to beat her up? If the latter had happened, Taylor was beginning to regret not hanging around. The mental image of Janesha casually beating Sophia up demanded a comfortable chair and a decent supply of popcorn.

    Of course, now that Janesha was here, she didn't have to wait any longer. "What kept you?" she murmured.

    "Kicking ass. Taking names. Learning stuff. Turning a lie into the truth. Tell you about it later." Janesha seemed inordinately pleased with herself.

    That was not an answer. Taylor had just opened her mouth to point this out to Janesha, when Mrs Knott cleared her throat. "All right, everyone. Time to start. Who's got their homework from last night?" As everyone began to shuffle through their bags and produce the required thumb-drives, the teacher stepped around her desk. Coming down to where Taylor and Janesha sat, she placed a stack of papers on Taylor's desk.

    "These are the chapters that you missed," she said quietly. "I'm personally certain that you know most of this material already, so if you could start handing in the end-of-chapter tests by Monday, I'll let you catch up in your own time." She turned to the teenage celestial. "Janesha, wasn’t it?"

    This got her a nod and a confident smile. "Yes. Janesha of Mystal."

    “Thank you.” Mrs Knott returned the nod. “Where were you enrolled before you came to Winslow?”

    Taylor tensed slightly at the question, but Janesha never hesitated. “I was mainly home-schooled, out of state. But my tutors were very thorough. I’m sure I’ll be able to pick up where you are pretty quickly.”

    “Oh, good.” Mrs Knott indicated Taylor with a gesture. “If you have any problems, Taylor’s one of my best students. I’m sure she’ll be able to help you out, won’t you, Taylor?”

    “Sure thing, Mrs Knott.” Taylor tried to keep her tone polite. While she liked Mrs Knott—as much as she liked any of the teachers at Winslow, and a good deal more than she liked some of them—it was still a little irritating to be volunteered without being asked. On the other hand, Janesha was turning out to be an amazing friend, and Taylor wouldn’t begrudge her any help she needed. Not that Janesha needed it, if Taylor was right about the celestial girl’s mind-bending capabilities.

    “Thank you, Taylor.” Mrs Knott leaned closer and lowered her voice. “I just want to say, I’m very sorry about what happened to you. If you need any extra time, just let me know.”

    Too little, too late. Taylor tried to keep the bitterness out of her voice. “Yeah, thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.” None of the bullying had ever happened in Mrs Knott’s class, but that probably owed more to the fact that neither Emma nor her cronies shared that class with her than to any action by the teacher.

    From the momentary flash of distress that crossed her face, Mrs Knott had heard the undertones in Taylor’s voice. She chose not to say anything, limiting herself to a tight smile and an equally tight nod before she returned to the front of the room.

    Taylor hit the switch to boot her computer up before picking up the stack of papers and starting to riffle through them. She was three sheets in before Janesha leaned across slightly. “She doesn’t know, you know.”

    “What?” Taylor turned to look at the other girl. “What doesn’t she know?” Several options chased through her mind. It was entirely unlikely that Mrs Knott didn’t know about the fact that she was being bullied, or about her being locked in her locker. Was it supposed to be unusual that Mrs Knott didn’t know Emma, Sophia and Madison were the ringleaders of her bullying problem?

    “She didn’t know Sophia’s—” Janesha broke off. “Shit, I never told you that bit.” She eyed Taylor carefully. “Okay, look. I’ve got some drastic news for you. The kind that’s going to have you shouting … like a lot. Let me set up somewhere where you can scream the rafters down and no one will ever know.” She met Taylor’s eyes with steely focus. “I need to use my bending to put you there. You okay with that?”

    Taylor was instantly suspicious. “So what about Sophia?” This had to have something to do with why Janesha had stayed back with Emma and the others.

    “You heard the deal, Taylor. Give me permission, and you’ll find out. I won’t force you.”

    Taylor only hesitated for a moment. In the short time she’d known Janesha, the young celestial had earned her gratitude and her trust. If she had something so volatile for Taylor to know that it could only be traded in the privacy of a mind-bending link, then that was where they’d go. “Do it,” she said.

    In the next instant, Taylor found herself standing in a pure white space with her hand clasped in Janesha’s. The Mystallian’s cape flared dramatically in a non-existent breeze. “Okay,” she said cheerfully, dropping Taylor’s hand and cracking her knuckles. “Let’s give you a nice, safe space to be in while you hear what I’ve got to say.”

    “Safe space?” asked Taylor, not at all sure what was going on.

    “Sure,” Janesha said. A room faded into existence around them, details filling in until Taylor recognised the living room at home. She stamped her foot on the floor, feeling the solidity under her heel and hearing the familiar hollow thump. Turning to the window, she looked out at the street she knew so well. A car rolled past.

    “Holy crap.” Taylor moved over to the sofa and squeezed the armrest with her hand. It felt absolutely real. “Did you just step us home, or are we actually inside my mind right now?”

    “We call it internalising, but I think from memory your term for it is a lucid dream. Basically, we’re inside your imagination. You won’t find any details out of place. Unlike a regular dream, you’re experiencing exactly what you expect to experience in this room.” Janesha sat down on the sofa, leaning back with her arms spread on the backrest. “So, here’s the thing. Sophia had a double life. In the daytime, she was Sophia Hess, absolute bitch that made your life a living nightmare. At night, she was Shadow Stalker. Still an absolute bitch, but also a probationary Ward.”

    Taylor, halfway over to the TV, stopped dead and turned around. “Fucking what?” she snarled. “Are you … no, you’re not.” As the ramifications of those words fully sank in, Taylor shook her head. “You wouldn’t joke about shit like that. What the living goddamn fuck?” As Janesha had predicted, her voice rose dramatically. “How the fuck could that bitch be a superhero? She shut me in my fucking locker!”

    “Well, I don’t know all the details yet,” Janesha noted in a way that said but I soon will, “but that’s the gist of it. Apparently, all of Sophia’s teachers know that she’s supposed to be allowed to leave class whenever with no repercussions. Only a handful of them know that she’s actually a Ward and Mrs Knott isn’t one of them. In fact, she’s still in the dark about most of the bullying and has no idea why more isn’t being done about your locker thing. She tried asking questions when it happened, but she was told that it involved high-level school policy and it wasn’t her business.”

    Taylor blinked. “She actually tried to stand up for me?” It was a weird feeling, knowing that someone had been on her side all along, but hadn’t been able to act. Suddenly, she felt a bit more charitable toward the Computer Studies teacher.

    “Accent on ‘tried’,” Janesha said dryly. “And they sledged her for it. She persisted for a while, but then they started threatening her job if she didn’t learn when to butt out.” Janesha relaxed against the seat. “She’s like every other mortal on this mudball of a planet, petal. She’s got bills to pay and she didn’t want to lose her job, so she backed off.”

    “Oh.” It was a little disappointing that Mrs Knott hadn’t tried to do more, but Taylor supposed the teacher had a life of her own and hadn’t wanted to lose her job over the situation. “So what happens now?” Anger was still growing within her gut; a roiling heat that was all directed at one person. “And how soon can I punch Sophia in the face?”

    Janesha chuckled. “The real Sophia’s been dealt with already. Trust me. I hit that skank where she’ll feel it the most. Do you want to rant anymore? You can, if you like. We’ve got all the time in existence while we’re in here.”

    Taylor looked at her friend. “You really can just spend however long you want in someone’s head, and no real time passes.”

    One side of Janesha’s lips curled upwards wryly. “Yeah, petal. I really can.” She then pulled her arms off the chair and dropped them into her lap. “But remember, this is your imagination. It’s not real, in the physical sense. Like I said, it’s more like a lucid dream.”

    Taylor’s own lips began to twitch. “Can I dream about punching Sophia in the head?”

    Janesha threw her head back and laughed. Then she created a faux Sophia right in front of Taylor, complete with dirty scowl. “Have at it, petal. Kill her as many times as you like, as creatively as you like.”

    Taylor paused, her hand already drawn to shoulder-height in anticipation of the punch. “I never said I wanted to kill her …”

    Janesha waved her concerns away. “Then don’t. It’s entirely up to you.”

    For the next few minutes, Taylor enjoyed the entirely novel sensation of beating up on Sophia. The dream-construct of her bully, as imaginary as she knew it to be, looked and felt like the real thing, especially when Taylor’s knuckles came into contact and sent ‘Sophia’ flying across the room with a cry of pain. The construct attempted to defend herself but her return blows glanced harmlessly from Taylor’s skin, leaving her open to be decked again. Taylor obliged with relish.

    It wasn’t really a fight; more a one-sided slaughter. Which was the whole idea, she supposed. Knowing that she couldn’t help but win didn’t actually detract from the visceral satisfaction of the experience. She’d needed this for a very long time.

    The whole time this was going on, Janesha sat on the couch. She’d removed her left glove and was shaping her nails with a file she produced from nowhere.

    ‘Sophia’ threw a weak kick her way, and Taylor seized both her opportunity and the construct’s ankle. Spinning around in a circle with the wailing imaginary girl at arm’s length—Janesha ducked as ‘Sophia’ passed overhead—she let go. The construct flew across the room and smashed face-first through the TV and the wall behind, coming to rest with just her butt and legs protruding.

    Panting a little, more for effect than because she needed to, Taylor turned to where Janesha sat. “Okay, I’ve got it out of my system,” she declared. Glancing over her shoulder at the ruined TV and vanquished construct, she added, “For now, anyway.”

    Janesha smiled and rose to stand in front of her. “Then let’s get out of here.”

    Taylor was just about to put her hand in Janesha’s when something occurred to her. “Wait!” she said, pulling her hand away. “What did you do to Sophia?”

    Janesha’s grin turned predatory. “How about we put a pin in that until lunchtime? I’ve just realised how long we’ve been in here, and if we stay any longer you might forget where we’re at in the physical realm.” She tapped the side of her own head. “I can blend the two moments seamlessly within my memory. You can’t.”

    Taylor sighed. She wanted to know a lot more than Janesha had told her so far, but she had to accept that the other girl knew what she was talking about. “Okay, sure,” she conceded. “But we are coming back to this topic.”

    “Whenever you want,” agreed Janesha. In another moment, they were back in the computer class, as if they’d never left. Which, Taylor supposed, they hadn’t.

    She watched as Janesha glanced at one of the students toward the front of the class. The celestial then booted up her own computer and started to work on it, as if she’d been using one for months. If she can sample someone’s memories, I guess she really has.

    <><>​

    Director Emily Piggot
    PRT ENE


    The phone rang. Reflexively, Emily picked it up. “Piggot.”

    “Director …” It was Deputy Director Renick.

    She internally winced, with the certain knowledge of what the next four words were going to be. ‘We have a situation’. She’d lost count of the number of the ulcers she’d acquired which could be linked to that phrase. “Talk to me,” she ordered.

    “You need to come down to Testing.” Renick didn’t often sound rattled, but this was one of those few times. “It’s about Shadow Stalker.”

    It wasn’t what she’d thought it was going to be, but no part of that sounded good. Testing, by definition, involved close proximity with capes, never Emily’s favourite people. Worse, Shadow Stalker had almost literally been a loose cannon before her induction into the Wards. Only the Protectorate’s constant need for new recruits had allowed her to even consider allowing Hess to join on a probationary basis.

    Heaving herself to her feet, Emily grimaced as her calf muscles complained. “I’m on my way down.” Putting the phone down, she limped from her office.

    The elevator ride was short, but it allowed her to get her thoughts into order. Whatever Renick wanted her to see, it was something he didn’t want to talk to her over the phone about. On the upside, it wasn’t a dire emergency, or every siren in the building would’ve been blaring. Still, it was enough to make him request her personal presence. The Wards were his domain, and as far as she was concerned he was welcome to them. Which made his phone call all the more perplexing.

    She stepped from the elevator and headed along the corridor to Testing. Inside, she met Renick. “Okay, what’s this about?” she asked bluntly. “What’s Shadow Stalker done now?” In her mind, it was very simple. If the probationary Ward had broken her probation, her Wards membership would be stripped from her. But Renick knew this. So why had he called on her?

    Tall, spare, grey-haired before his time, he looked more like an undertaker than a PRT deputy director, but he knew his job backward and forwards, which his next words proved. “She’s lost her powers.”

    His words brought her up short like a slap in the face. “Explain.”

    For any cape to demonstrate the ability to nullify another cape’s powers was a game-changer. Powers were what made capes what they were. But no Trump she’d ever heard of with that ability had more than a temporary effect. For Stalker to lose her powers permanently was (as far as she knew) impossible. Yet Renick knew his job better than to make a claim like that on flimsy evidence.

    Renick nodded. “You called me earlier, about that new cape going to Winslow. Remember? Janesha of Mystal?”

    “Yes, of course.” The matter had slipped her mind after delegating the matter to Renick. As far as she’d been concerned, it was dealt with. “What happened when you contacted Shadow Stalker?”

    “This is where it gets problematic,” Renick confessed. “When I contacted her, she claimed that she and her friends had been harassed by the cape, who then did something to strip her of her powers. I had her report to the PRT building immediately, and we’ve been testing her for everything we can find. Only one anomaly has shown up so far.”

    Emily frowned. “What, apart from the fact that her powers are AWOL for the moment?” She was still coming to terms with that one fact. Anyone who could reliably remove cape powers at will would quickly become both notorious and famous, among certain members of the cape population and anti-cape factions respectively.

    “Yes, apart from that.” Renick paused for effect. When he spoke next, his tone was measured, as if he didn’t quite believe what he was saying himself. “You see, they did a routine MRI to check on her Corona Pollentia, to see if there were any problems with her gemma.”

    As far as Emily was aware, the number of power problems involving that part of the brain were minimal, mainly because anything getting in to damage it would probably kill the person involved. Still, Renick was leading up to something, and the inference was that Shadow Stalker was still alive. “And what did they find?”

    “Nothing.” Renick spread his hands. “And by that, I mean they didn’t find her Corona Pollentia, at all. It’s … gone.”

    “That’s impossible.” The words popped out of Emily’s mouth before she’d fully considered the facts of the case. The truth of the matter was that in a world of parahuman powers, ‘impossible’ usually meant ‘check back tomorrow’. And Renick was the last person she’d ever accuse of making unsubstantiated claims. She took a deep breath and looked him in the eye. “You’re certain about this.”

    “I had them run the MRI three times, and had two different doctors look at it,” he explained concisely. “They all agree. Her Corona’s just … gone. Like it never existed. There’s no injury or scar tissue, or even a void where it was. It simply isn’t there.”

    Emily pursed her lips. “Could she be an impostor? With enough resources, it shouldn’t be impossible to find a girl of Shadow Stalker’s body type and surgically modify her to be identical.” She wasn’t altogether sure what would be the end-goal of inserting a powerless version of Shadow Stalker into the PRT building, but it couldn’t be good.

    Again, Renick spread his hands. “DNA checks out. Internal bone breaks check out. Even her brain microstructures, apart from where her Corona should be, are identical to previous MRIs we’ve run on Shadow Stalker. Also, the personality is the same and she correctly repeated to me the salient points of the last time I spoke to her about her attitude.” His mouth quirked. “Along with a lot of swearing. She’s spitting mad, which also fits what we know of her. Unfortunately.”

    Emily nodded slowly. “So she claims to be the original Shadow Stalker, and that this … Janesha of Mystal somehow removed her powers? Does she have any knowledge of how it was done? Was it an easily recognisable Striker or Blaster ability?” She was slowly coming around to the idea, but she wanted to make sure she had all the facts in hand before going forward with this.

    “Not a Blaster ability, as far as she described matters.” Renick rubbed his chin. “She says Janesha grabbed her by the arm at one point, but there was no special power effect, then or later. She has a bruise on her forehead, which she says happened when Janesha smacked her head into a toilet stall door. She didn’t know her powers were gone until she tried to use them a few moments later. But she keeps demanding that Janesha be arrested, tried and either executed or Birdcaged. In addition, she claims there was another girl there, a non-cape, who was encouraging Janesha in her efforts.”

    “Well, if she’s correct that Janesha did remove her powers, we’re definitely going to have to talk to the young lady in question and her friend,” Emily noted. She wasn’t going to commit to anything more until she’d actually spoken with the cape in question, of course.

    “I thought so too,” agreed Renick. “I’ve given orders for troops to assemble near the school, awaiting your final dispositions. I’m thinking we ask Janesha to come in, and get the other girl’s statement on site if at all possible. We’ll make it a polite request initially, and escalate only if she chooses not to play ball.”

    Emily raised her eyebrows. “I’m presuming you’ve read the file we’ve started on her. Armsmaster was apparently very impressed by her actions in capturing the Merchants.” Renick would of course have read the file. He was meticulous like that. But it was always good to confirm.

    “Oh, yes.” Renick nodded. “With the Brute and Mover ratings she’s shown off, not to mention the way she modified Mush’s outer coating on the fly, I’m not at all sanguine that containment foam will work on her.” He frowned in concentration. “If she can remove powers by touch, we need to keep Strikers away from her. Normally, I’d bring in Assault to counter her Brute aspect, but that’s a no-show in this situation. Armsmaster, because they’ve already met, and Dauntless as a backup? Unless, of course, you were willing to authorise the use of the Wards in this situation?”

    Emily knew where he was going with this one. Vista and Clockblocker—god, she hated that name—had the potential to be a truly devastating duo, if they’d just practise more. Kid Win’s Tinkertech gave him Mover and Blaster abilities, and Triumph could also strike from range. But she shook her head. “No. She may be just a girl, but she’s too powerful to risk the Wards against. We’ll go with Armsmaster and Dauntless.”

    “Of course.” Renick tilted his head slightly. “And might I suggest one other thing?”

    “Suggest away.” Emily was always open to Renick’s input. She had the military experience, but he was better with people.

    “Shadow Stalker mentioned she had friends of her own there. It will probably be a good idea to get their statements on the matter, as well.”

    Emily’s eyebrows climbed toward her hairline. “Are you saying she let her friends in on her secret?” If it wasn’t one thing, she decided, it was another. Teenagers and their absolute lack of discretion when it came to secret material were irritating in the extreme.

    Renick shrugged. “The inference I’m getting is that at least one of her friends knew about it before she even joined the Wards. In any case, Shadow Stalker’s handler happens to be a Ms Kirsten Bright. She’s currently en route to the school, to talk to Principal Blackwell about the incident. I’m thinking her time might be more gainfully employed by speaking to Shadow Stalker’s friends.” Unspoken was the fact that Blackwell hadn’t yet contacted them, and thus probably knew as much about the situation as they did.

    “Hm.” That definitely made sense. If nothing else, it would be another data point to apply to the larger picture. “Make it so. You’ve got the names of her friends?”

    “As far as I’m aware, they’re in her file.” Renick gestured toward the elevator. “I’m going to need to get back to my office and double-check those names before I contact Ms Bright, though.”

    “You do that.” Emily gave him a questioning look. “Where’s Shadow Stalker? I’m going to talk to her.” It probably wouldn’t fix anything, but she needed to get her own read on the situation.

    “Examination room three, just down there.” Renick pointed out one particular door, then headed toward the elevator. Halfway down the corridor, he paused and turned. “Just by the way, be aware that she’s extremely agitated.”

    So, swearing up a storm. “Understood,” Emily said. She was entirely familiar with profanity and had a fair command of the art herself. It was unlikely that Stalker could shock her with bad language, and she had to hear the account from the girl herself.

    Heading over to the door, Emily used her all-access swipe card to gain entry. The door beeped as it unlocked, and she stepped into the observation room beyond. Immediately, she learned what Renick had meant by ‘extremely agitated’.

    The observation room was relatively narrow, though this was exacerbated by banks of touch-screens. On the other side of the broad window, Shadow Stalker paced back and forth in what had to be the examination room, wearing basic coveralls and a black domino mask. In the middle of the room was an examination chair, which looked like a dentist’s chair that had been redesigned by a committee of Tinkers. Which was basically what it was.

    “—don’t fucking care about ‘proper chain of command’ bullshit! Either let me out of this fucking room so I can go and tell the Director what the fuck’s going on, or get Renick back in here so I can tell him to fucking go do it!”

    Stepping forward, Emily located the microphone and leaned in toward it. Pressing the switch, she cleared her throat. “Shadow Stalker. This is Director Piggot. Calm down and report.”

    The teenager stopped in mid-rant and swung toward the window. “Director! Thank fuck you’re here!” Which was, Emily reflected, a phrase Shadow Stalker had probably never dreamed she would utter. “Have you arrested that Janesha bitch yet?”

    “Not yet,” Emily hedged. “The Deputy Director is giving the orders to have her brought in as we speak. Is she really as dangerous as you say?” Her eyes searched Shadow Stalker’s body language. She wasn’t great with people in general, but most officers learned to pick out a goldbricker a mile away.

    “Dangerous?” shouted Shadow Stalker. “She’s a fucking psycho! She started making all these crazy threats against my friends, and I told her to fuck off or else. She backed off, but then she followed me into the bathroom. I told her to back off again. Next thing I know, she’s grabbed me by the arm and smashed my head into the bathroom stall door. When my friends came in, she bolted. She was making all kinds of creepy threats. Seriously, that bitch needs to be put down or Birdcaged.”

    Emily frowned. She was getting mixed messages from Shadow Stalker’s rant. A large part of it was legitimate anger, but some of it sounded a little contrived, as if Stalker was trying to make herself sound angry over something. The trouble was, she couldn’t quite figure out which parts of Sophia’s spiel were genuine and which were fake.

    “Birdcaged?” she asked, almost amused. “How do you figure she rates that?” There were a number of ways capes could get themselves committed to the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center. A prerequisite, which Janesha actually qualified for, was to be too hard to contain in any normal prison. Between her Mover rating, her Brute rating, and her Striker-based matter-alteration ability, she would break free of any normal incarceration in a matter of minutes. If Emily was following Shadow Stalker’s logic, maliciously depowering a Ward was an act heinous enough to have Janesha tried and convicted to the worst hellhole on the face of the planet.

    “You’re the fucking Director!” shouted Shadow Stalker. “You fucking do the math! I’m a Ward, and she fucked my powers up totally! That’s the same as basically fucking killing me! Are you gonna let that bitch get away with just walking up and taking me out of the lineup? And what about her fucking friend? If Hebert hadn’t been egging her on, none of this shit would’ve happened! She needs to go to prison too! Shit, maybe she’s a Master, and that’s why the bitch did what she did! Birdcage ‘em both, just to be fucking sure!”

    Emily tuned out Shadow Stalker’s rant, turning away from the window while she worked her way through the implications. She’d been right on the money where it came to Shadow Stalker’s thought processes, but the question now remained: was the girl correct? Or was she acting on a grudge to hurt someone who didn’t deserve it?

    The first sighting of Cloudstrike and Janesha had been at the Docks, near the Boat Graveyard, and the only other person reported on site was an adult man, not a teenage girl. That was one strike against this ‘Taylor Hebert’ being a Master.

    On the other hand …

    Turning back to the console, she pressed the microphone button again. “Shadow Stalker, had you ever met Janesha of Mystal before today?”

    “No. First time I ever saw the bitch in my life. Fucking cow—”

    “Next question. How well do you know this ‘Taylor Hebert’ girl?”

    This time, Shadow Stalker didn’t answer immediately, leading Emily to decide that the girl’s reply was being tailored for her ears—in other words, a lie.

    “Not real good. She’s one of those loser loners. Nobody likes her. She talks a lot of shit about being picked on, but nobody really wants anything to do with her.”

    Which, if Emily’s reading on the subject was accurate, presented a good chance of triggering as a Master of some sort. But there was still the fact that Shadow Stalker had taken care to only present negative details. Emily considered that for a moment, then made a carefully-crafted statement of her own.

    “Well then, I suppose I should have the Hebert girl brought in for questioning as well. See if she can’t shed any light on the situation.”

    “Fuck, no!” Shadow Stalker’s eyes widened behind her mask. “Don’t let the skinny cow talk! She’ll Master you, too! Or she’ll order that Janesha bitch to go S-class on your asses!” The Ward—or rather, ex-Ward, if her power loss was indeed permanent—ran at the window and slapped her hand on to it, about three feet to Emily’s left. Nothing happened, of course. “You’ve got to listen to me!” Desperation was palpable in her voice. “Don’t let her talk!”

    Leaving the microphone button unpressed, Emily said, “I’ll take that under advisement.” She turned to the techs. “Keep her under observation for any sign of her powers returning. Make sure she gets whatever she needs to be comfortable. But she doesn’t leave this testing area until I give the order. Is that understood?”

    One of the techs nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

    “Good.” Emily turned and left. The interview with Shadow Stalker had raised some questions in her mind. She had preparations to make.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    “So what did you want to know?”

    Janesha pulled out a seat opposite Taylor’s and sat down. They were in the cafeteria, of course. Taylor didn’t even consider the possibility that her celestial friend would allow anyone to scare them away from the eating area. But she had questions to ask, and while nobody was sitting all that close to them, people were still staring at Janesha and she still didn’t want to be overheard.

    “Uh, can you do something to make sure nobody can hear us?” she whispered quietly. She didn’t know how that might be achieved, but she figured Janesha could whip up something to serve the purpose.

    “Sure,” agreed the other girl. A moment later, all incoming sound cut out. “I mean, I don’t care one way or the other if they overhear things, but if it matters to you, it’s not a problem.”

    “Thanks.” Even though she knew nobody could eavesdrop, she leaned in slightly and lowered her voice. “What did you do to Sophia?” She’d been thinking about this, and she thought she had an answer. “Did you take her powers away or something?”

    Janesha’s initial smirk died on her face. “Sonova—!” Then she glowered at Taylor. “Lucky guess.”

    “Well, there was that thing when you said that crystal place had everything to do with powers,” Taylor replied, trying not to feel too smug. It wasn’t easy. “And then there was the way you kept saying Sophia ‘had’ powers, not ‘has’ powers.” Her own smirk grew at Janesha’s chagrined expression. “Hey, if you’re gonna give me clues then leave me hanging, I am gonna figure shit out.”

    “Smartass,” grumbled Janesha, and poked her tongue out at Taylor. “But yeah, you’re right. I’ve taken three capes through that realm, and all three of you had ropes. So when Sophia tried to beat me up in the bathroom, I pulled her into the celestial realm and figured out how to disengage the rope without killing her. Took a bit of work, but I managed it. She’s as powerless as that piece of fish on your plate. Or at least, I think it’s fish.”

    “Yeah, I can never tell.” Taylor dragged the conversation back to the previous topic. “So you can just de-power anyone?” She stared at Janesha, hoping that this wasn’t some kind of obscure joke on the celestial’s part.

    “Sure.” Janesha looked her in the eye. “She was my guinea pig, before I offered it to you. If you truly don’t want your powers, I can make that happen.”

    Whoa, okay. That was as direct as it got. The question was, did Taylor really want to get rid of her powers?

    As far as she could tell, she had absolute and automatic control over all the bugs within a two-block radius. She could tell where they were, and if she let the signals through, she could pick up vague sensory impressions. And of course, she could control them to do anything she wanted.

    If I keep these powers, will I be able to use them responsibly, or will I end up treating bugs as callously as celestials treat mortals? She recalled the arguments she and her father had had with Janesha on the subject. Celestials didn’t even accept the existence of a concept requiring them to treat any specific mortals with respect or consideration.

    Now, looking at the bugs she was controlling once more, she had the sinking feeling that she knew what it was like to be on the celestial side of matters, and she didn’t like it. No matter how she concentrated on the link, she couldn’t begin to feel whatever it was bugs used for emotions or motivations. She had no way of knowing if they’d be happy under her dominion, or even if they were capable of feeling happy. Every time she pulled them away from whatever they were doing to perform her bidding, she’d be throwing what passed for their lives into total chaos, and after a while she wouldn’t even care.

    I don’t want to be an uncaring god, even for bugs. Raising her eyes to Janesha’s, she nodded. “Okay. I want my powers gone.”

    “Alrighty then, but not right here. I need room to move.” Janesha eyed the food on their plates. “Did you want to eat first, or pass?”

    Taylor poked her fish with a fork. It oozed slightly. “Well, it’s good to see that Winslow is keeping to its usual high standards of cuisine.”

    “Oh, good,” Janesha replied with a smirk. “You guys use sarcasm as well. I was beginning to think it went straight over your heads.”

    “What?”

    “Nothing,” Janesha grinned mischievously. “Look, what would you like the food to be?”

    The temptation was too great. “That braised pork with truffles thing you made last night. That was amazing.” Taylor could still remember the melting sensation of the food on her tongue. If that was the way celestials ate all the time, no wonder they were scornful of ordinary mortal food.

    “Done.” Janesha reached across the table. A moment later, she pulled it back, as fragrant steam wafted up from Janesha’s plate. “Enjoy.”

    As she took up the first forkful, Taylor couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to be able to reshape the world around her to suit her every whim. It had to be as convenient as fuck. She could only wonder if Janesha did anything behind the scenes for shits and giggles, that she never noticed. Or rather, what Janesha did behind the scenes—period.

    “Oh, hey.” Janesha’s voice was casual. “Do superheroes usually come into schools on a regular basis?”

    Taylor turned her head and saw what she was talking about. Armsmaster, accompanied by two PRT troopers and a woman in a suit, had just entered the cafeteria and were was walking in their direction. “Not usually, no. This is probably about Sophia. Just saying.”

    Janesha grinned. “Then I guess I’d better take the sonic shield down, so we can hear what they have to say.” As Janesha said this, the conversations around them abruptly became audible. “Let me handle this.”

    “Sure, okay.” Taylor had already made that decision. She felt decidedly unprepared to deal with Armsmaster right now, or at any time.

    The Protectorate hero strode up to the table and stopped a couple of yards away. “Good afternoon, Janesha,” he said politely. “Did you resolve the problem with the missing property?”

    “Oh, yeah,” Janesha replied. “Thanks for asking. So, what brings you to Winslow?” Inwardly, Taylor marvelled at how she could pull off lines like that and actually sound like she meant them.

    “Actually,” Armsmaster seemed a little ill at ease. “I’ve been given orders to ask you to accompany me back to the PRT building to help clear up a certain matter.”

    Janesha shrugged. “No worries. Got anything against me finishing lunch first?”

    Armsmaster hesitated very slightly, then nodded. “No, but don’t take too long.” Moving another step closer to the table, he looked at their food for the first time. Taylor heard him sniff inside his helmet. “What is that? It smells delicious.”

    “It is,” Taylor couldn’t resist putting in. “Braised pork with truffles.”

    “That can’t have been served in this cafeteria,” Armsmaster stated flatly.

    “Never said it was,” Janesha replied with a flick of her eyebrows before going back to her meal.

    Taylor couldn’t hide her grin at Armsmaster’s evident confusion. “Would you like to try some?” she asked, some small part of her going squee at the thought of making small-talk with Armsmaster, of all people. But only a small part; hanging out with a celestial had kind of raised the bar for her sense of wonder.

    His hesitation spoke volumes to her. She could tell he actually wanted to take her up on the offer. “No thank you, miss,” he said eventually, reluctantly. “I’m on duty.”

    There was more to it, she was sure. No matter how polite he was being, his job was still to ask Janesha to come in to the PRT building so they could talk to her about Sophia’s powers—or current lack thereof. There were probably rules against accepting food from the subject of such queries, just in case.

    “Oh, well,” Janesha said around a mouthful of her own meal. “Your loss.”

    Taylor would’ve started eating again as well, but a sudden spasm of anger caused her hands to clench around her knife and fork. As satisfying as it had been to find out that Janesha had permanently ruined Sophia’s ‘superhero’ career, she was still pissed that the Protectorate had let Sophia pretend to be a superhero for so long without any realistic oversight.

    “Is everything okay, miss?” asked Armsmaster.

    She breathed deeply, running through her mind’s eye the numerous times she’d punched Sophia across the room within Janesha’s internalisation. At some point, she wanted to do it again, for real, just once. But for now, she’d have to be happy with that. Slowly, she loosened her grip on the plastic cutlery and built a smile on her face for Armsmaster. “I’ll be fine. Nothing you can help me with, anyway.”

    Janesha finished the last of her portion of braised pork and dropped her knife and fork on the plate. “Well, I’m done. I’ll see you when I get back.” She patted Taylor on the shoulder with a grin. “Don’t get in too much trouble while I’m gone.”

    Taylor echoed the grin. She was now super-strong, bulletproof and vacuum-proof, if she understood things correctly. There wasn’t anything or anyone in the school that could even touch her now. “Hey, what could go wrong?”

    That got her a snort from Janesha. “By the Twin Notes, don’t ever say that. Even Uncle Chance doesn’t say that.” She turned to the Protectorate hero. “So, just out of curiosity, how are we getting to the PRT building?”

    Armsmaster inclined his head toward the PRT troopers. “They brought a van. It’s quite comfortable in the back, or so I’m told.”

    Janesha scrunched her face to one side. “Tell you what. You know that little park across the road from the building? The one with the little gazebo in the middle that’s got the hidden cameras that you use to spy on people walking past?”

    Armsmaster froze, ever so slightly. “I know of the park, yes,” he said cautiously.

    “Good. I’ll wait for you there. Don’t take long.” Janesha stepped forward and vanished.

    Taylor had to chuckle at the expression of confusion on the face of the woman in the suit. The rest of the PRT/Protectorate contingent probably looked just as confused, but she could only see Armsmaster’s mouth. As one, they turned to look at her.

    “Hey,” she said, spreading her hands. “Janesha’s gonna Janesha.”

    At that moment, she kind of regretted not being invited along for the interview with the PRT. If they were so befuddled by such a brief interaction with the celestial girl, it would be highly entertaining to watch how they dealt with Janesha being Janesha, full steam ahead ... or failed to deal with her.

    Oh, to be a fly on the wall.


    End of Part Seven

    Part Eight
     
    Last edited: Feb 8, 2019
  4. Threadmarks: Part Eight: Confrontation with Authority
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Celestial Worm

    Part Eight: Confrontation with Authority


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


    Taylor

    “Good day, Ms Hebert.” Armsmaster stepped away from Taylor, then paused by the woman in the suit. Taylor didn’t hear what he said, but the woman’s eyes snapped around to her as a result. Then he turned back to Taylor. “Ms Parsons will be staying to talk to you about what’s been going on, if that’s all right?”

    The question was obviously tacked on as an afterthought, but Taylor nodded. “I guess so,” she agreed. She looked Ms Parsons over; middle-aged, brownish hair cut in a shoulder length bob, expressionless face. “I reserve my right to walk away at any time, though.”

    “That’s fair,” agreed Ms Parsons. Her voice wasn’t quite motherly, but she met Taylor’s eye squarely. “This is entirely a voluntary conversation. We just need to know what you want to tell us. Whatever you say is up to you.”

    Taylor stood up and looked around at the people in the rest of the cafeteria. Every other conversation had ceased, and the entire population of the cafeteria was watching and listening avidly. Even the serving ladies were standing with ladles poised over the containers of watery mashed potatoes. More than one phone was being held up, recording the conversation. “Yeah, but whatever we say, I think we need to find a more private location. Unless you really want to share it with everyone on PHO?”

    “Privacy would definitely be preferable,” Ms Parsons said dryly. “Perhaps we should go and ask your principal for the use of a conference room.” Half-turning toward Armsmaster, she raised one eyebrow in a silent query.

    “Principal Blackwell is currently in a meeting with Ms Bright,” Armsmaster replied. Taylor wasn’t sure who ‘Ms Bright’ was, but Ms Parsons didn’t seem confused by the name. “Perhaps you should ask one of the teachers instead.”

    “Never mind,” Taylor interrupted. “I know which classrooms are always empty. This isn’t going to take long, is it?” She figured five minutes was all she’d need to pin back Ms Parson’s ears about Emma’s group in general and Sophia in particular. And of course, Janesha was likely to be giving them chapter and verse at the PRT building. Even her short association with the celestial teenager had taught Taylor that Janesha loved sticking it to self-important mortals.

    “That should be acceptable. Troopers Camden and Wilson will stay with you, and make sure you are not disturbed.” Armsmaster nodded toward Ms Parsons, then turned and strode away. Both of the PRT troopers remained, looking to the business-suited woman for direction.

    “Well, let’s not waste time, shall we?” Ms Parsons dusted her hands off briskly. “Ms Hebert, you said you know where we can have some privacy?”

    “Sure.” Taylor already had a place in mind. It was a classroom that was being used mainly for storage these days. So long as nobody was actually making out or doing a drug deal in there, she was pretty sure there wouldn’t be a hassle with using it. And even if there was, the troopers would make short work of any problems that arose, and prevent anyone from walking in on them thereafter.

    As they left the cafeteria, a question occurred to Taylor. “So why two guards? I’m not exactly that dangerous, am I?” She knew she was, of course, but that was nothing the PRT needed to know about. At the far end of the hallway, she saw Armsmaster just turning the corner, with two more PRT troopers marching in his wake. Huh, they really came out in force.

    “We couldn’t be sure,” Ms Parsons replied evasively. “The Director decided to err on the side of caution.” Notably, she didn’t explain what they couldn’t be sure about. “Now where’s this room?”

    <><>​

    Kirsten Bright

    PRT Handler for Shadow Stalker

    “So … you’re pulling Sophia Hess from Winslow?” Principal Blackwell’s expression twitched slightly. Kirsten did not consider herself an expert on body language, but her best guess placed Blackwell’s demeanour at somewhere between ‘upset’ and ‘panicked’. “But … I did what you said. I worded the reports the way you advised me to.”

    “It’s not my idea, believe me.” Kirsten hadn’t thought much of Blackwell’s attitude when they first met and she still didn’t like the woman, but they’d had a good thing going. “It’s just … there’s a situational crisis going on, and she’s better off outside the school system until we can get to the bottom of it.” Ninety percent of which was pure bullshit, but the few parts that Blackwell could actually challenge had the benefit of being true. Shadow Stalker losing her powers was a potential crisis, and a depowered Stalker was better off outside Winslow than inside with the ABB and Empire—especially the Empire—recruits.

    “Is it the locker? It’s the locker, isn’t it?” Blackwell’s expression was the very picture of badly-hidden desperation. “Why couldn’t you have kept her on a tighter leash?” The look she shot Kirsten was akin to that of a cornered rat.

    “There’s no proof she was ever involved in the locker incident, or any other criminal activity in Winslow,” Kirsten reminded her. “Is there?” Her sharp gaze prodded Blackwell. “Just out of curiosity, how’s the victim going?”

    “No, Sophia Hess was not implicated in that incident.” Blackwell tilted her head and frowned slightly. “The Hebert girl returned to school today, actually. She came into my office this morning with that cape friend of hers, asking for school supplies, of all things.”

    Kirsten’s attention was immediately piqued. “And did you give them to her?” The principal of a school the size of Winslow, no matter how slack, had to have her own duties to perform. Surely supplying students with school supplies wasn’t part of that. “And how did you sidestep official attention so neatly?”

    “Well, of course.” Blackwell shrugged. “All before the first period bell, too.” She seemed oddly proud of that assertion. “I managed to sidetrack the police with gang activity reports until the majority of the mess was cleaned up. They think it was a lot less problematic than it was. We were fortunate in that the girl came out fighting. I was able to produce evidence of the injuries she caused our janitorial staff when her father raised the possibility of a lawsuit. Mainly scratches and bruises, but that was enough to make him accept the settlement rather than risk a countersuit. Not that they would’ve followed through, but he didn’t have to know that.”

    “Nicely done.” Kirsten tilted her head in acknowledgement. Again, she was reminded of why she didn’t like Blackwell. The woman was a weasel in a pantsuit, but she was a weasel whose goals had aligned well with Kirsten’s up till now, so likes and dislikes were irrelevant. She’d done her bit to keep Sophia Hess off the official radar, and Kirsten appreciated that. Of course, with the sudden and inexplicable loss of Hess’ powers, it seemed that events were derailing their careful preparations. Not that Blackwell was cleared to know about this.

    “So …” Blackwell leaned forward slightly. “About the Wards remuneration. That’s still going to be ongoing, right?” A twitch of her eyes betrayed heightened nerves.

    And now we come to the crux of the matter. Kirsten would have bet a significant amount of her savings that Blackwell had already budgeted—or even spent—the annual payout that Winslow got from the PRT for attending to Shadow Stalker’s educational qualifications. Or at least the next six months’ worth of it.

    This was where it was more convenient that she didn’t actually like Blackwell. “Well, actually … no.” If she’d been feeling guilty about it, she may have looked away at this point, but she wasn’t so she didn’t. “We’re suspending that for the moment. We will inform you of the situation once the way forward is clear.”

    Blackwell blinked rapidly. “But … but … I did what you told me!” Her expression was now somewhere between accusing and pleading. She had the look of someone from under whom the rug has been abruptly pulled.

    “I’m sorry.” Kirsten wasn’t, not really, except for any problems inherent in her own situation. “It’s totally out of my hands. This is more of a courtesy on our part.” Some small part of her was enjoying the sight of Blackwell squirming. Maybe if you’d kept her on a tighter leash, none of this would’ve happened. Because whoever’s fault this all was, it certainly wasn’t hers.

    “Do you have any idea when she might return?” It seemed that Blackwell was grasping at straws. Not that she blamed the woman; not knowing the facts of the case, it was easy to come up with wrong assumptions.

    Kirsten stood up. “Assume for the moment that she won’t be returning. Plan accordingly. That’s the best I can give you.” Her voice was crisp and businesslike as she did her best to conceal the schadenfreude she felt for Blackwell at that moment. Of course, her ‘best’ was not something Blackwell was likely to appreciate as such. But for Kirsten Bright, this was no longer her problem.

    On the other hand, if Shadow Stalker was now indeed powerless, Kirsten’s stint as her handler was over and done with. Gone was the cushy job that she’d so carefully maintained. She wasn’t sure where Piggot would assign her next, but it was too much to hope for that she’d get another probationary Ward in short order. Still, so long as both she and Blackwell kept their heads and nothing of the true nature of Sophia Hess’ less than savoury activities came to light, their only problems would involve adjusting to the new state of affairs. The people in Internal Affairs were reputed to have zero sense of humour and near-Thinker levels of perception where it came to sniffing out malfeasance, and Kirsten intended to never draw their attention.

    “I see. Thank you.” Blackwell stood up and shook Kirsten’s hand. The gesture was sharp and perfunctory at best. “I appreciate you letting me know what’s going on.” From her tone, Kirsten could tell that she meant the exact opposite. But again, it wasn’t really her problem now, was it?

    Turning, she left Blackwell’s office, closing the door behind her. She nodded to the secretary on the way out, then checked her messages. Apparently she now had to go and interview Emma Barnes and Madison Clements, Sophia Hess’ friends of record. This was actually not a bad idea; if they had more of an idea of what had happened to Shadow Stalker, she could make better plans. And at the same time, she could reinforce the stricture to say not a word of the entire affair to anyone. This wouldn’t be hard; nobody wanted to go to juvenile detention, after all.

    Of course, finding those two could be a pain. Opening the PRT messaging app, she fired off a text asking if there were any other PRT personnel in the school, and did they have any idea of the location of Emma Barnes and Madison Clements. Just to make things absolutely clear, she included file photos of the pair.

    For a Hail Mary pass, it panned out in spades. Barely a minute later, she got a ping back from one of the PRT’s counsellors, Mary Parsons. Just leaving. Saw them going into this classroom. It even included a floor number and a door number. Kirsten knew the school layout fairly well, and for those parts of it she didn’t know, she had a map on her phone. It would take her only a few minutes to get there. Well, something’s going right today.

    <><>​

    Janesha

    Janesha arrived at the gazebo with her second step down from the celestial realm. As such, she looked out at the PRT building across the road, watching the people who came and went for a few seconds. In those seconds, she identified most of them as general staff, if their lame-ass surface thoughts were anything to go by. Which meant it got old really fast. She sat on the seat in the middle of the gazebo and braced her upper body on her elbows on either side with her ankles crossed out in front of her. That got a bit boring too.

    After a little while, she began to wonder what the time was. Some people in Mystal wore a single golden bead of light attached to the cuff of their glove. This bead worked its way around the cuff, and its location represented where in the day Mystal sat. Even if Janesha was prone to wearing the timepiece, knowing what time it was in Mystal wouldn’t help her.

    She was about to send a mental command to one of the mortals to look at their timepieces (not all of them wore watches. In fact, it was usually only the older generation who seemed to) when she noticed an even older way of keeping time. A sundial had been placed unobtrusively to one side of the gazebo she sat in.

    Getting up, she strolled over to examine it. After a basic examination, she decided that if it was accurate, she still had a good ten minutes before Armsmaster was due to arrive. Well, she decided, lacing her fingers together and stretching her arms over her head, if he’s going to take that long, I might as well go and get something else to eat. In Mystal, each meal consisted of several courses, so the thought of having half a plate of braised pork and truffles barely scratched the surface on her hunger. But where to go … where to go ….

    And then she had it. If this was the same as her cousin’s pet world, there was only one place to get the best pizza ever. And with that, she took another step and vanished.

    A minute or so later, she returned with a deep sided pizza box and a two-litre bottle of Coca-Cola which she placed on the gazebo seat and sat down beside it. Mystal never did go in for the fizzy drinks of Earlafaol, but with her touch shifting, she didn’t have to care. There was something about the metal stripping beverage that really connected with Janesha’s demonic half.

    By the time Armsmaster turned up at the park, Janesha was down to her second last piece of pizza and about a fifth of her Coke left. She lifted it to her lips, just as he dismounted from his motorcycle and made his way towards her. “Hey Armsmaster,” she called cheerily, casting him a one-handed wave of acknowledgement. “Still on your high horse about eating on duty?” She nudged the box down the seat towards him. “I’ve got one piece left with your name on it, if you want it.”

    Armsmaster almost smiled. “I appreciate the offer but no thank you,” he replied formally. “If it’s all the same to you, shall we go inside? The Director is quite anxious to clear this matter up.” By which he meant, the Director was pissed off as hell, and wanted some kind of rational answer as to what was going on here. Based on Armsmaster’s memories, Janesha wondered when the woman had last had her health checked. She wasn’t in the best of shape to begin with, and that wasn’t a good colour to go when shouting.

    Oh, well. Not my monkeys, not my circus. “Sure,” she said, finishing up the slice she was eating. She then closed the box, placed the lid on her Coke and stood up with both in one hand. “I’ll finish this during the interview. No sense wasting a great pizza.”

    She saw his helmet dip as he scanned the lid of the box. “Sforno,” he said, reading the name out loud. “I don’t recall that one. Where is it?”

    Janesha let herself smile. “You should get out more often, Armsmaster. Then you’d recognise the name of the best pizza joint in the world.” Unlike the countless establishments that made that claim so often it became cliché, this was the literal truth. Sforno had been voted the best pizza in Rome by Parlafood and its subsidiaries two years in a row. The fact that she’d gone over and taken the ‘ready to serve’ pizza and the two-litre coke for herself and left again without letting anyone know she was there was one of the many perks of being the daughter of the gods.

    The PRT building was set up to look as impressive as fuck to mortals, but Janesha had seen waaay better. Her cousins of Construction were responsible for the design of Pandess and Crohen, and those two cities were where the Courts of Life and Death resided. Still, she admired the decor as they went through to the elevator; for something that had been laboriously hand-constructed by mortals, it wasn’t too bad at all.

    The ride up in the elevator took an impressively short time. Janesha thought she detected shenanigans in the local physics field, possibly caused by celestial-granted abilities. When Armsmaster stepped out, she was right alongside him, making sure that he was not one finger-width ahead of her. He was her escort, certainly, but there was no way in hell she was going to let it seem she was walking behind him on purpose. This was Earth Bet, not the Well of Hell.

    Side by side, they marched down the corridor in silence. It seemed Armsmaster preferred it that way so Janesha, who ordinarily liked to chat, decided to humour him. Besides, she was certain there’d be ample opportunity for her to talk in the not too distant future.

    PRT guards flanking the doorway to an otherwise unassuming conference room was what gave her the first clue. A sideways glance at Armsmaster’s surface thoughts confirmed it. “In here, please,” he said, a few seconds later.

    “Sure.” Janesha let Armsmaster open the door and usher her inside. Neither the guards nor the hero himself showed any anticipation of a surprise attack, so she strolled on in.

    No attack eventuated; it was a very normal, very boring conference room with a long table and a large wall-screen at one end. Unfortunately, Janesha took one look at the wall-screen and frowned. Well, this ain’t gonna fly, she mentally declared, noticing the way they had positioned a comfortable-looking chair at the other end of the table facing the screen. At the very least, whoever’s image appeared on that screen would be a dozen times bigger than normal and tower over her, implying they had the superior position. Not only that, but Mystallians didn’t waste their breath on people who were too … “cautious” to meet them face to face. If someone didn’t want to be present during a conversation, then that someone didn’t get to be in the conversation, period.

    She placed the coke and pizza on the table where she’d be sitting, then turned to Armsmaster and gestured at the screen. “Let me guess,” she said with a sneer. “You think we’re going to be having this conversation with your Director Piggot over that thing, right?” She didn’t bother hiding the distaste in her voice.

    The screen blinked to life, showing a high-definition view of Director Piggot. “You are,” the Director affirmed, her voice emanating from hidden speakers. “Do you have a problem with this?” Although Janesha couldn’t mind-bend her, the attitude was plain; if Janesha had a problem, Piggot didn’t actually much care.

    Guess again, you arrogant shit. Janesha mentally countered her opening statement first and foremost, but then realised the woman had been stupid enough to ask a rhetorical question. “Actually, since you asked so nicely, yeah I do.” Janesha’s tone was deliberately challenging as she walked the length of the table and placed her hand on the edge of the screen. “I don’t speak to anyone if it’s not face to face.” She gestured to the armoured hero. “Armsmaster’s here, so I’ll talk to him.” She moved on to the two PRT guards in the doorway. “Those two are here, so I’ll talk to them. But I don’t do conversations through screens like this. If you want to have the conversation Armsmaster says you’re so chewing at the bit to have, you’d better turn the screen off and come down here. Otherwise, no dice.”

    The screen stayed lit up. “That’s unacceptable,” the Director said firmly. “You are a new cape in the city with powerful capabilities and unknown allegiances. Protocol states

    “Fuck your protocols,” Janesha retorted, and turned the screen into an elaborate painting within a gold-leaf frame, portraying Thor being hit in the face with a snowball. “These are my protocols, and they supersede yours by a billion to one.” She took her hand off the painting’s frame and looked over at Armsmaster. “As I said, I’ll talk to you. I’ll even talk to your Director face to face...” She thumbed at the screen over her shoulder. “…but that was never gonna work for me.”

    Armsmaster didn’t seem to be listening. He pointed at the painting which had taken the place of the screen. “Janesha, I … that…” He then seemed to get his thoughts aligned, for he suddenly focused on her and said in a raised voice, “Janesha, that cost a hundred thousand dollars! I don’t know how you do things where you come from, but here you don’t just walk in as a guest and casually destroy your hosts’ equipment!”

    “I didn’t destroy anything, you clown, and as soon as we’re done here, I’ll put it all back, just to show you there’s no hard feelings. Here, I’ll show you.”

    Janesha put her hand on the frame of the painting and changed it back again, making sure to get all the fiddly little electronic bits back exactly where they’d been before. As soon as she’d finished, it lit up again, revealing Director Piggot holding a phone to her ear.

    “-sten to me carefully,” the Director said. “I need you toShe paused, her eyes focusing on the screen once more. “You! What did you do? No, not you.”

    “One more time,” Janesha said, cutting her off while holding up one finger to emphasise the point. “Speak to Armsmaster or come down here in person. You don’t get to talk to me through a machine.” Without waiting for an answer, Janesha turned the screen back into a painting. She then strolled down the length of the table, using one hand to swivel the chair around until it faced Armsmaster. Seating herself as regally as if she were Aunt Clarise herself, she flared her cape over the back of the chair, then crossed one leg over the other. In the back of her mind was the temptation to flick her boots up on to the table but decided for now to show a little bit of decorum. For now. “Well, I’m here. Since your director seems to have had a change of heart about talking to me, what would you like to know?”

    It seemed to take Armsmaster a few seconds to gather his thoughts. In the interim, she rummaged through his memories for any insights she’d missed about the visit by the PRT and Protectorate to Winslow. Interestingly enough, she’d only seen half the forces that had been sent; two more PRT guards had been waiting in the hallway, and Dauntless had been flying above the school to act as backup. Chosen, no doubt, because he could fly and strike at range.

    Even four PRT troopers had seemed to be an odd number to her. An overabundance of force if she turned out to be friendly, and far too few if she was hostile. But then she stumbled on an interesting fact. Sophia had apparently claimed Taylor was using mind-bending on her (or ‘Mastering’ her, as they called it), so two of the guards had been there to subdue Taylor in the case of things going sideways. That was worth half an hour of internalisation so she could roll around on the ground, laughing at the sheer absurdity of the concept.

    Armsmaster cleared his throat. “Janesha, what happened between you and Sophia Hess in the bathrooms at Winslow?”

    “I went into the bathrooms,” Janesha said bluntly. “And Sophia followed me in. She thought she could corner me and bully me into submission or something just as fucking brainless. To be honest, I don’t particularly care what her thought processes were at the time. When she called me a little queef and told me to grovel and kiss the toe of her boot or else she would kick my ass, I got really mad and grabbed her.”

    “What happened next?” he asked, genuinely interested.

    “I realised if I put her through the wall before she could phase through it, I’d probably kill her. So I let her go and went into the toilet stall and shut the door. She completely flipped out and started swearing and carrying on about me supposedly shutting the door in her face. The next thing I know, the door punched inward where the idiot tried to ram it, and she fell flat on her ass. Her two cohorts came in, so I came out, washed my hands and walked out. The end.”

    All of which was true. The removal of Sophia’s powers had taken place on the celestial realm, which was in no way within the bathrooms at Winslow. Janesha was fully aware that she was being a smartass, but it was up to Armsmaster to ask the right questions.

    The set of Armsmaster’s lips told Janesha his cute little truth-telling device was reporting that she was not lying to him. Still, he tried again. “Did you use your powers to influence her to follow you into the bathrooms or hit her face on the toilet stall from the outside?”

    “I didn’t make her do shit, sunshine. If I had to guess, I’d say she followed me into the bathrooms because she figured I was a threat to her little dominance games over Taylor Hebert,” Janesha said firmly. “You are aware of these, right? She and her two little friends have been responsible for all the shit that’s happened to Taylor over the last eighteen months at school, including being locked in her own locker, just a couple of weeks ago.” She looked at Armsmaster’s pursed lips and rolled her eyes. “Oh, what a shocker. Stalker didn’t report that to you lot either. What is wrong with you people? Criminals all over the world would be doing backflips of joy if the cops started waiting for them to report their own wrong doings.”

    “Nothing was reported to us,” Armsmaster admitted after an awkward silence. “Are you certain she struck her face on the toilet door after you had gone into the stall? She claims you made her do it.”

    I could have, Janesha mused inwardly. But you don’t need to know that. “Pfft,” she snorted, with another roll of her eyes. “You saw what I did to that tank. Do you think there’d be anything left of her head if I deliberately wanted to hurt her? I stopped, so that I wouldn’t. You should thank me for showing greater restraint then you’ve obviously instilled in your Wards.” She cocked an eyebrow at him and smiled venomously.

    If Armsmaster’s lips had been set before, now they were compressed so hard they were virtually invisible. “How long have you known the truth about Sophia Hess?” he asked, apparently trying for an oblique angle.

    “That she’s Shadow Stalker?” Janesha tossed the name out carelessly. “Since … some time yesterday, as I recall. Mind you, I only found out that she’s a bitch and a bully last night, so I didn’t really care until then.”

    “Who told you?” Armsmaster’s voice was tense. “Outing someone’s secret identity is a very serious situation, especially where it comes to a Ward. Was it your friend? Taylor Hebert?”

    “Nah.” Janesha flipped open the pizza box and took out the last slice. It was still warm, but she added a smidgen more heat, just to bring it up to optimal consuming status. “She had no clue about that. But once she told me all about the bullying that was going on at her expense, I started poking around. She told me how Sophia and her bitch friends were making her life Hell and how everyone was breaking their collective necks to cover it up. She didn’t know the reason was because Stalker was one of yours. Like I said, I found out that little gem myself, after poking around for a bit. Nobody told me.” She took a bite, savouring the sauces and spices that had been loaded on to the food.

    Armsmaster took a step toward Janesha but restrained himself from looming over her. “Did you remove Shadow Stalker’s powers?”

    Janesha chewed and swallowed the bite of pizza, then looked directly at where she knew his eyes could be found under his visor. “She didn’t deserve them anyway.” Deciding that she’d given all the answer she needed, she took another bite of pizza. With her other hand, she popped the top off the bottle of Coke. All this talking was making her thirsty.

    “That’s not an answer.” Armsmaster sounded irritated. Janesha was pretty sure that the Wards were a bunch of teenagers. She decided that Armsmaster must not interact with them very much if talking to her pissed him off so badly. “Shadow Stalker no longer has any powers. Is this your doing?”

    “You’re saying that like it’s a bad thing.” Janesha washed the pizza down with a mouthful of Coke, then leaned back in the chair and looked up at Armsmaster. “Instead of getting all bent out of shape about that, try this one on for size. If a villain punches out another villain and leaves him for the police, does that make him a hero, or still a villain?”

    “A villain,” Armsmaster replied, with a touch of reluctance. “But—”

    “Not finished.” Janesha raised a finger. “And if a villain is coerced by the hero to help him bring another villain to justice, does that make him a villain or a hero?”

    “He’s still a villain.” Now Armsmaster sounded impatient. “But—”

    Again Janesha overrode him. “How about if a villain is rescued from jail by a hero to solve a crime? Once it’s over, should he go back to jail to finish his sentence?”

    “Yes, but—”

    “Last one.” This time, Janesha had to raise her whole hand. “Suppose a person with powers commits crimes in their civilian identity while pretending to be a hero in their cape identity. Hero or villain?”

    Armsmaster took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. “Villain, of course. Yes, I get your point. But simple schoolyard hazing—”

    The last four words ignited a fury in Janesha’s heart, one that propelled her to her feet so fast that Armsmaster took a step back. “Simple schoolyard hazing!” she bellowed, so loudly the newly formed artwork rattled against the wall. “Do you consider locking a girl in a locker filled with a month’s worth of used women’s sanitation products an act of SIMPLE SCHOOLYARD HAZING?”

    Armsmaster’s hands went up in a placating manner. “Calm down, Janesha. I didn’t know …”

    “And whose fucking fault is that?” Janesha waved an arm at the building all around them. “You give people like her probation, and then you don’t even have the realm-damned decency to the rest of society to have them monitored properly. Stalker is a villain, and everything that happened to Taylor was because of you and the Protectorate and the PRT covering for that bullying bitch, and I said enough.”

    Realising how angry she’d become and how fragile everything around her was, Janesha took a step back, breathing heavily as she got her heart rate back to normal. Dust drifted down from the ceiling, and the remains of her Coke foamed gently out of the mouth of the bottle and slid down on to the table. Distantly, she thought she heard an alarm going off. She was going to have to watch that.

    “So noted,” Armsmaster said, sounding rather subdued. “You said Shadow Stalker worked with two other teenagers in the school. Would you mind telling me their names?”

    “If you were doing your job properly, I wouldn’t have to, would I?”

    “I fully agree, but that isn’t going to change the circumstances now. All we can do is move forward from here and try to fix things.”

    Janesha took several deep breaths, refusing to speak again until the red haze that had encroached on her vision had slipped back into nothing. “Fine,” she said, with a slight bob of her head. “Emma Barnes and Madison Clements, with the direct aid and assistance of Sophia Hess. Your Ward. Your fault. Your mess.”

    “Can it be reversed?” asked Armsmaster. “Can you give Shadow Stalker her powers back?” He seemed to have gotten over the mild stunning effect of her shout.

    “Can I?” Janesha considered the concept. First she’d have to take Sophia back to the celestial realm, then locate the crystalline outcrop embodying the shadow power, then figure out how to make it generate a rope back to Sophia … “Theoretically, I suppose I could, but in that skank’s case, absolutely not! Why would I even try? Like I said, she doesn’t deserve them. What she does deserve is to go straight back to whatever punishment you guys had lined up for her before she got into the Wards.”

    Armsmaster nodded distractedly. “I’ll take that under advisement. How, exactly, did you remove her powers?”

    At this, Janesha chuckled cruelly. “Not in any way you’re going to be able to replicate, I assure you. And yes, that’s all the explanation you’re going to get on the matter. I know you probably won’t believe this, but that’s more than most get in their whole lifetimes, so don’t waste both our times pushing for more.” She popped the last bit of the pizza slice in her mouth, but gave up on the Coke as a lost cause. “You got any questions that aren’t about Shadow Stalker? Because I’m done talking about that bitch.”

    “I have one more about her,” Armsmaster said, almost apologetically. “It’s the last one, I promise.” He even seemed to mean it.

    Janesha decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. “Shoot.” If it was a question she didn’t want to answer, she could always tell him to shove it up his ass.

    “Why her?” he asked. “Why Shadow Stalker? I happen to know you encountered at least three criminal parahumans yesterday, when the Merchants attacked. Why did you wait until today, and why did you target Shadow Stalker specifically?” It was obvious that he would have been much happier with any of the Merchant capes being her target. Or even happier if she hadn’t removed anyone’s powers.

    “Because yesterday those ass-clowns didn’t piss me off by hurting my friends and demanding I grovel to them.” Just the memory of Sophia demanding that a Mystallian crawl at her feet had the teen shuddering and humming a psychotic tune as she strove to get her temper back under control. When she opened her eyes again, she breathed out deeply and skewered Armsmaster with a deadly look. “As you can see, that’s what put it over the edge.” Even the gods don’t expect Mystallians to grovel, she wanted to add, but kept to herself.

    When he opened his mind to ask more, Janesha waggled her finger between them. “Ah-ah. That’s it. Nothing more about Shadow Stalker.”

    Armsmaster nodded. “All right, then. More general questions. What are your intentions to do with Brockton Bay?”

    Which, in Janesha’s view, was a fair question, all things considered. They were worried about how badly she could fuck up their little slice of ‘paradise’. Of course, if they ever learned the full answer to that, their worry would probably turn into a global panic. She relaxed a little, happier to be on a more neutral subject. “Whatever I decide they are. Today, I was making sure Sophia and her cohorts got what was coming to them. Either this afternoon or tomorrow, depending on Danny’s schedule, I’m going to clean up the boat graveyard for him and get it back into working order. After that …” she shrugged as if she hadn’t thought that far ahead. Because, well, she hadn’t.

    “Cleaning up the boat graveyard,” Armsmaster repeated.

    Janesha shrugged again. “That’s my plans so far. Anything else?”

    “You know … projects of that size … require clearance …”

    Janesha snorted. “Not a chance, pal. What I do, I do because I choose to do it. Because I want to do it. And nobody I might need to run it past is here to stop me.”

    Armsmaster’s lips twisted, unimpressed. “What about your power removal ability? Can it be done on any cape, or do there need to be special circumstances involved?”

    She snorted. “Hell yes, there needs to be special circumstances. If I don’t want it to happen, it’s not gonna happen.” Before he could speak, she went on. “You and I both know the PRT would give their back teeth for a cape who can remove powers flawlessly without killing the parahuman in question. Especially if they could keep it quiet.” She’d read as much in his surface thoughts. “But a couple of things you need to know about me. One: I’m not gonna be joining the Wards. And Two: I’m not for hire. You literally can’t afford to pay me to do anything. And if I see someone else who desperately needs to find out what it’s like to have no powers, they are going to have that experience.”

    "Well, until you start using your power to neutralise the abilities of Protectorate-affiliated capes—other Protectorate-affiliated capes," he amended in response to the way her right eyebrow rose sardonically, "we don't legally have a reason or an excuse to prevent you from doing so. Though it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that they might attempt a civil suit against you for assault with a Trump power, loss of income and so forth. There are precedents in the system for such cases, and some of the people I suspect you might take exception to have quite a lot of money to spare ..." He trailed off. "But you aren't at all concerned about being sued, are you?"

    Janesha grinned, letting her teeth lengthen and sharpen just enough to make Armsmaster feel a little uneasy in her presence. "If they want to send a lawyer against me, I'll bury him," she promised. "Figuratively, of course." She'd spent enough time with her father’s side of the family that the idea of a mortal lawyer having any sort of edge over her was laughable. "And if they send a cape lawyer against me, I'll remove his powers then bury him."

    Armsmaster was obviously learning, given that he didn't contradict her version of how events would go. "As I said, we'd have no legal cause to intervene in cases like that. But if any other Protectorate affiliates catch your attention, I'd take it as a personal favour if you'd give me a heads-up and a chance to pull them into line using less ... stringent means."

    Oddly enough, he flinched just a few seconds later. Janesha saw his lips barely moving, as if he were counting silently in his head. Sliding back into his thoughts, she realised he was carrying on a subvocalised conversation with Director Piggot.

    It seemed that Piggot was objecting to the entirely reasonable and rational request Armsmaster had made of Janesha. Terms like 'jurisdiction' and 'chain of command' and 'complete newcomer to the city' were sprinkled liberally throughout the Director's tirade. The problem was, Janesha couldn't offer a rebuttal without revealing that she was aware of both sides of the conversation.

    Or rather, it would've been a problem if she allowed it to become one. "Tell Director Piggot that it's rude to talk about someone behind her back," she said as she stood up. "Also that if she wants to talk about jurisdiction, there's nobody in the country with more jurisdiction over this sort of shit than me. And that includes the Chief Director. If you think of any more questions, you know where to find me."

    With that, she realm-stepped away from the PRT building, up into the celestial realm then back down to Winslow. Ignoring the sudden upsurge in noise that resulted from her reappearance—seriously, had these people never seen one of their capes teleport before?—she settled down to wait for Taylor.

    About thirty seconds later, she remembered the wall-screen. Or rather, the fact that it was still an oil painting. “Shit!” she swore, snapping her fingers as she rose to her feet. Not that it was a huge problem—more an inconvenience. Two realm-steps later, she was back in the PRT conference room. “… good news,” Armsmaster said before he noticed her. “Christ!” he blurted, once he had.

    Janesha felt amusement mingled with mild irritation. She’d forgotten how much attention that jack-ass got on Earlafaol and (apparently) its variants. It seemed, the more he ignored the place, the more they invoked his name. Kind of sad, really.

    She knew damn well that Armsmaster hadn’t mistaken her for Yeshua, but decided to play along for shits and giggles anyway. "No,” she drawled with a wave of her finger, as if to a young child. “Not Ye-shu-a. Ja-ne-sha." To her secret glee, she saw the armoured hero’s lips tighten briefly. "We look nothing alike, man, even if our names do sound a bit the same."

    Armsmaster blinked in bewilderment. “What?”

    Wow, way to not even recognise the lord you just invoked. What a waste of a good joke. With a roll of her eyes, she abandoned that topic. "Never mind.” She thumbed at the portrait and added, “Forgot to fix that.”

    Turning, she put her hand on the frame of the painting. For a hasty composition, she thought it’d turned out pretty well. The look of shock on the God of Blunder’s face as the snowball splattered across his forehead was definitely worth the effort. But now it had to go back to the way it had been. For a second time, she exerted her touch-shifting and reverted the painting to a wall-screen. Immediately Piggot’s face filled the screen. The woman launched to her feet and began screaming words of her earlier tirade, to which Janesha sneered in response and muted the audio before the silly bitch said something she wouldn’t live to regret. She turned to Armsmaster. “Anyway, that’s all I was popping back in for.” She raised her left hand and rolled her fingers in farewell. “Later, Armsmaster.”

    “Wait!” blurted Armsmaster. “Were you serious about tipping us off about corrupt capes?”

    She paused mid-step. “That was your request, not mine.”

    He patted the air between them. “Okay. Fair enough. Could I get your word that if any Protectorate affiliated capes make their way into the crosshairs of your power-removal, that you’ll give me the chance to deal with them first … our way?”

    She turned to face him fully. “Depends,” she replied. “Were you serious about granting me a boon if I did?”

    When given the chance to retract a boon offering, most usually did. Boons were one of the few things that could not be reneged upon once the deal was in place, even if that deal was between gods. Whatever the person who was owed the boon wanted, the other had no choice but to comply with; even a first-born child for a blood sacrifice.

    Which was why Janesha almost fell over when Armsmaster nodded immediately. "Well, yes. I'm definitely serious about that. I'd much rather give someone the chance to come clean and maybe get back on the straight and narrow than just unilaterally take away their powers."

    She gave him a very serious nod. "Very well. You have yourself a deal, Armsmaster. See you around." She took a step forward and vanished into the celestial realm. This time around, when she reappeared in the Winslow cafeteria, there was much less fuss about it. Good. They can learn.

    Taylor still wasn’t back, so to pass the time (and because it amused her) she started going through the memories of everyone she could see, one at a time. Every time she found a memory of Emma Barnes, she watered it down. She couldn't make them dislike Emma—that wasn't her celestial gift—but she could definitely dull their memories of the redhead until she was a barely remembered acquaintance.

    Let's see her get them to gang up on anyone now.

    <><>​

    Armsmaster

    A Few Moments Earlier

    "Also that if she wants to talk about jurisdiction, there's nobody in the country with more jurisdiction over this sort of shit than me. And that includes the Chief Director. If you think of any more questions, you know where to find me." And with that, Janesha simply stepped forward and vanished, just as she had in the school cafeteria.

    “What just happened?”

    Colin looked around the conference room. Apart from him and the guards, it was empty of people. Just to make sure, he leaned over carefully and scanned the underside of the table. She wasn’t under there, either. The doors were firmly closed. He sighed. “It appears she used her Mover ability and teleported away. Possibly back to Winslow, but I have no immediate way to verify that.”

    “God damn it. I hate it when they do that. Did she repair the screen? It's still not showing up on my system.”

    "No, she didn't," Colin admitted. It was hard for him to say, because he had a certain amount of fellow-feeling for the flamboyant young cape, and he'd expected better of her.

    "Typical," she muttered, leaving him to wonder if she'd meant him to hear her comment. "As soon as things stop going the way they like, they skip out."

    As Colin didn’t recall any time when a cape had teleported away from Piggot (or anyone else for that matter) to escape a tongue-lashing, he decided she meant using their powers to avoid a losing confrontation in general. “It can be annoying, yes,” he agreed. “The next question is, how do we move forward from here, knowing what we do about her?”

    There was a pause at the other end. “She’s young and arrogant and apparently quite powerful. And she either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that once news gets out about a power remover, all hell will break loose.” Piggot took a deep breath. “We have to avoid that at all costs.”

    “There is one bit of good news,” he said, then jumped as Janesha reappeared in the room. "Christ!"

    The girl tutted and waved her finger at him. "No, not Ye-shu-a. Ja-ne-sha." She sounded the names out slowly, as if to an idiot. "We look nothing alike, man, even if our names do sound a bit the same."

    Confused, Colin blinked. "What?"

    Janesha huffed and rolled her eyes. "Never mind.” She flicked her thumb towards the oil painting which Colin deduced was a rendition of someone else who had annoyed the teenager at some point, if the childish snowball to the face was anything to go by. “Forgot to fix that.” The girl put her hand on the frame of the painting and seemed to concentrate. Within seconds, it had become the wall-screen once more, complete with Director Piggot having a coronary. The ranting only lasted a second or two before the room fell into deathly silence. The same could not be said for his helmet … unfortunately. “Anyway, that’s all I was popping back in for. Later, Armsmaster.”

    “Wait!” blurted Colin, not wanting to lose this one opportunity to get her at least partially on side with the Protectorate. “Were you serious about tipping us off about corrupt capes?” If she could actually do what she said, it would be a game-changer for the PRT and Protectorate both.

    At least Janesha paused and was still in the room. “That was your request, not mine.”

    Knowing he had to move fast, Colin patted the air to placate her. After all, it had worked well enough the last time. “Okay. Fair enough. Could I get your word that if any Protectorate affiliated capes make their way into the crosshairs of your power-removal, that you’ll give me the chance to deal with them first … our way?”

    She turned to face him fully. “Depends,” she replied, looking thoughtful. “Were you serious about granting me a boon if I did?”

    He took all of two seconds to consider that question. While her wording was a little archaic, he had no problem with owing her a favour.

    "Well, yes. I'm definitely serious about that. I'd much rather give someone the chance to come clean and maybe get back on the straight and narrow than just unilaterally take away their powers." And of course, catching corrupt superheroes couldn't hurt his standing in the Protectorate. That incentive alone was enough to agree to any favour he might end up owing the girl.

    Her eyebrows went up in surprise, but then she smiled and dipped her head towards him in a very somber manner. "Very well. You have yourself a deal, Armsmaster. See you around." And before he could say anything else, she took a step towards him and vanished once more.

    "-ou hear me? Armsmaster!" Director Piggot's voice suddenly cut across the room.

    Colin turned toward the screen. "I can hear you now, yes. How much of that did you catch?"

    “All of it.” Piggot sounded severely aggravated. “What did I tell you about making unofficial arrangements with her? You have no idea whether she’ll even come through with any of that.”

    Personally, he thought she was going overboard with the caution. “It’s not like I’m going to need to bring anything to the table before she tips us off again. And if she tries to get me to do something illegal—which I highly doubt, by the way—I can simply tell her that as a law enforcement official, I can’t do that. I mean, it’s just a favour. Capes owe each other all the time. It’s not like I signed my name in blood or something.”

    “Hmm.” While Piggot didn’t exactly look satisfied with that, the sucking-on-a-lemon expression eased off somewhat. “I still don’t think it was a wise move. But done is done. What do you think the chances of a gang getting her on side are likely to be?”

    Colin rubbed his chin in thought. “Well, she indicated that she can’t be bribed or hired, which means the gangs can’t simply throw money at her until she joins their side. And with the scope of the powers she’s exhibited, coercing her to join is likely to be a no-show.”

    “Or a disaster of unmitigated proportions, if a fight breaks out and she’s too stubborn to just retreat. Or worse, she decides that the aims of any of the gangs are what she believes, too.”

    "I can't see her joining a gang," he said twisting his lips to one side. "From what I've seen of her, she wouldn't accept orders from anyone she didn't see as a superior, and she sees damn few people as being superior to her. Add in whatever Thinker power she used to overhear our conversation, and it's doubtful they'd be able to pull the wool over her eyes in any meaningful way." He paused, wondering if Janesha had ‘overheard’ what they’d been saying just as she showed up this time, and if this was why she’d bailed so quickly.

    "There may be something in what you say," the Director conceded. "But it still leaves the possibility that she might join a gang with the intent of taking over, and the leadership objecting strongly. That's got a good chance of killing innocents, especially if she can't use her power nullification in a combat scenario."

    "I somehow doubt that she'd even be considered for membership in any of the current gangs," Colin mused. "The Empire and the ABB are right out, for obvious reasons. The leadership of the Merchants is currently in custody. And according to her she has no need for money, so Faultline's Crew is out as well."

    "Unless, of course, she's in it for the thrills," warned Piggot. "She shows more than one sign of it."

    "Only superficially," Colin argued. "Yes, she refuses to back down over anything. Yes, she does everything as flashily as possible, up to and including wearing her costume when doing absolutely mundane things. But I get the impression that she simply doesn't believe she should restrain herself. She's absolutely convinced of her own capability, and she doesn't see the need to take a step back. In that, she actually reminds me a lot of Glory Girl.”

    “Who is, might I remind you, not the best role model any cape could aspire to. I’m fully aware of the nickname she carries in certain quarters.” The Director’s voice was dry.

    “I don’t think anyone’s unaware of it except possibly Glory Girl herself,” Colin noted. ‘Collateral Damage Barbie’ was not a name anyone would want to acquire, but there it was. “However, there are certain differences between the way Glory Girl operates and how Janesha does things. Janesha came close to killing Mush yesterday, but that was due to a pure misunderstanding over the nature of Mush’s powers. If you’d seen the way she juggled that tank and dropped Skidmark more or less into my lap, you’d be less worried about her wrecking half the city by accident.”

    “Well, unfortunately, I'm unable to view that particular footage,” Piggot replied sharply. “The recording chip died, remember? However, per your verbal report, she does seem to use her powers with more precision than the Dallon girl. Tell me, what impressions have you made of her intentions?”

    This was something Colin had been thinking about very seriously. “I’ve never caught her in a lie. My software says exactly the same thing. So when she says she’s going to clear the Boat Graveyard, I tend to believe her.”

    Piggot’s expression seemed to get even sourer at that. He wasn’t sure if it was at the potential of the teenage cape being able to carry out her boast, or not being able to carry it out. “We’ll see.”

    Whichever way it came out, Colin decided, the next few days were likely to be interesting.


    [Afternote: Please be aware that the poor opinion held by Mystallians toward the denizens of Heaven is not shared by the author and beta-reader of this fic. It’s purely a Mystallian thing.]


    End of Part Eight
     
  5. Cailin

    Cailin Our Lady of Escalation

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    Jesus Christ she is an arrogant little brat.
     
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  6. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    It's not arrogance if she can back it up :p

    In any case, you could call her arrogant and she'd shrug and accept it. Call her a liar or a coward, and she'd go ballistic (as in: a ballistic meteor, heading for your hometown).
     
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  7. Cailin

    Cailin Our Lady of Escalation

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    From what I've seen I can't even tell if she is a coward because so far she hasn't faced anything even resembling hardship. She loves to boast and brag and throw her weight around in situations that don't have any consequences.

    Janesha is an interesting character, just not a very likeable or relatable one. Reminds me of MCU Thor before Odin banished him to Midgard.
     
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  8. WaNoMatsuri

    WaNoMatsuri Making the rounds.

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    It's 'Janesha'.
    :)
    Nice chapter, thanks.
     
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  9. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Such as telling Thor off for stealing glory in his own mead hall? That kind of 'no consequence'?
     
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  10. Cailin

    Cailin Our Lady of Escalation

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    Hmmm. I didn't remember this part, probably due to my Taylor focus. I like it. I'd enjoy seeing more of that. And of course more Taylor, but that goes without saying for me =D

    My word choice was very intentional =p
     
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