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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 Not too sore, are you?

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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

    Part Nine
     
    Last edited: Mar 14, 2019
  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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  11. Threadmarks: Part Nine: Surgical Info-Strike
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Celestial Worm


    Part Nine: Surgical Info-Strike


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


    The classroom was a little way down the corridor. Taylor walked ahead while Ms Parsons followed her, flanked by the PRT troopers. The few students they encountered gave them a wide berth; this was unsurprising, as the troopers didn’t look as though they gave a fuck, and that was without being able to see their faces.

    At the same time, she spread her power out, taking control of all the bugs that were naturally present in the school. Bug senses were crap, but she was able to move flies across to where she recalled Emma and Madison had been sitting. More bugs headed for Principal Blackwell’s office. It wasn’t that she thought the other PRT woman—Ms Bright, apparently—would do anything untoward, but she had a low opinion of the trustworthiness of basically all authority figures right now. She couldn’t really listen in on the conversation, but follow them? That, she could do.

    “Okay, here it is.” Reaching the door, she turned the handle. It refused to budge. She could’ve broken it with ease—being super-strong was something she decided she could definitely get used to—but she didn’t want to out herself quite so blatantly. Besides, there was no need. With the heel of her other hand, she smacked the door just above the lock, and it jarred free. She pushed the door open with just the slightest hint of a self-satisfied smirk. “Voila.”

    Ms Parsons spoke quietly to the troopers, who took up positions outside the door. Then she followed Taylor into the room, which was half-full of stacked desks and chairs, most of them damaged in some way. “That was neatly managed,” she observed blandly. “You’ve done this often?” There was no censure or judgement in her tone; it sounded more as though she was trying to get a read on Taylor.

    “Hardly.” Taylor chuckled, then wandered over to one of the few desks sitting loose in the room—half the lid was missing, which explained its presence—and perched her butt atop it. “This place gets mainly used for make-out sessions and getting high, things I’m not exactly in the habit of doing. Everyone knows how to open the door. I’ve just found it handy to hide in here from time to time.” She tried and failed to keep the bitterness from her voice. “They’ve never found me in here because despite all the rumours they spread about me, they don’t actually believe I’m a slut or a junkie. But I can’t use this as a regular hiding place because of the people who do want to shoot up or get close and personal with each other. I’d rather not be around in either situation.”

    “Hiding?” Ms Parsons found a chair that had its back missing, and carried it over to place in front of Taylor. Seated like that, she was forced to look up at Taylor, ceding a lot of the adult authority she’d brought into the room with her. This didn’t seem to bother her in the slightest. “From whom, and why? Who’s been spreading rumours about you?”

    Taylor snorted and shook her head. “Don’t even try that shit with me.” Part of her marvelled that she could so easily backchat a member of the PRT. Janesha’s giving me bad habits. Or maybe good ones. “You know damn well who I’m talking about. It’s why you came to Winslow. Shadow Stalker’s been tormenting the crap out of me in her civilian identity ever since she came to Winslow last year, aided and abetted by her friends. So when Janesha shows up and bothers to do a damn thing about it, what do you idiots do? You go after her, not after the actual perpetrators.” She shook her head in mock disbelief. “Jeez, it’s like you want to cover up the whole thing.”

    Ms Parson’s mouth twisted, as though she’d bitten into an orange and found it was a lemon. “I assure you, I have no intention of covering anything up. I just want to find out what happened to Shadow Stalker. Whatever you can tell me to clear things up will help a great deal.”

    Taylor was about to jump on how they only seemed to be concerned about what had happened to Shadow Stalker and not the things she’d done to earn it, when something else occurred to her. The way the woman spoke of the supposed hero, Taylor couldn’t tell if she knew of Stalker’s secret identity or not. Then again, even if she did, she’d hardly start the conversation with, ‘Okay, how much do you know about Sophia Hess, because keeping Shadow Stalker’s secret identity is of the utmost importance to us’. Taylor had to learn the ground rules before she opened her mouth about the specifics. “Before we start getting all chummy, how much do you actually know about Shadow Stalker?”

    The sour expression did not go away. “I am not intimately knowledgeable on Shadow Stalker. My job is to learn what you know.”

    And that was when Taylor’s self-preservation instincts kicked in. Either Ms Parsons knew who Shadow Stalker was and was lying about it, or she genuinely didn’t have a freakin’ clue. The latter made no sense. Why in the world would the PRT send someone in with no knowledge of the players involved, to interview her about what a cape does in their down time unmasked … unless …

    Taylor paused and let out a silent whistle. Could the PRT really be that underhanded? Time to find out. “If I asked you a hypothetical question, could I get a hypothetical answer?”

    Ms Parsons looked at her, puzzled. “If I can supply one, certainly.” Her expression quite plainly asked what’s this all about?

    “Okay, then.” Taylor thought carefully about her question. “Hypothetically, if a person discovered the identity of a Ward, then revealed it to someone who wasn’t supposed to know it, how much trouble would they get into?”

    “Legally, quite a bit.” Ms Parsons frowned. “A lot more if that Ward came to harm through being outed in that fashion, but just doing it is the equivalent of revealing the identity of a government agent in enemy territory. Why do you … oh.” The way the revelation lit up her face, Taylor knew she had her answer. Sneaky, sneaky bastards. “Oh, I see,” Ms Parsons said, raising her left hand to her lips thoughtfully.

    So do I. Taylor nodded. “That’s what I thought.” It was a subtle trap. Ms Parsons wasn’t cleared for Shadow Stalker’s secret identity, which meant she wasn’t supposed to know it. If Taylor had blurted it out, she would’ve been technically liable for outing Shadow Stalker, and the PRT would then have a legal hold over her. An argument could’ve been made for entrapment had that been the case, (after all, how was Taylor supposed to give details of what Sophia had done out of costume without naming her to the very organisation responsible for her) but the legal tidal wave the PRT could throw at her and her father would bury them deeper than Atlantis. Not that Janesha couldn’t deal with this, but Taylor was determined to not be forever having to ask her celestial friend to fix problems for her.

    Ms Parsons tilted her head to one side slightly. “So … do you know Shadow Stalker’s secret identity? What you said just now sounded as though you did.” Her tone never changed, but Taylor reminded herself that even though the woman probably hadn’t known she was being used as a dupe, she was still a serving member of the PRT.

    “Sure, I do … now.” Taylor kept her tone light and her eye contact with Ms Parsons direct. “I only found out today. In any case, it’s not like she’s got the Shadow Stalker identity to go back to.”

    That seemed to get all of Ms Parsons’ attention. The woman sat up straighter, her eyes hungry for information. “What do you mean by that, Taylor?” she asked, attempting to keep her tone casual. It might have worked too, if Taylor hadn’t received so much lip service in the last year from every man, woman, child and damned dog that crossed her path.

    Determined to stay on her agenda, rather than Ms Parsons’, Taylor redirected the conversation slightly. “She used her Ward status to get away with everything and thought this was the natural order of things. That was, until she ran into someone who looked at her bullying ways and decided to do something about them.”

    Ms Parson’s eyes narrowed. “You realise that if anyone else heard you say that, all they’d have to do is narrow down the list of students to the one who gets away with any wrongdoing and you’ll have outed her?”

    Knowing this was exactly what she’d already worked out as far as their end-game was concerned, Taylor laughed in her face. It wasn’t a pretty laugh. “Along with half a dozen of her best friends, you mean?” She shook her head. “I’ve been called names, shoved, tripped down stairs, had my locker broken into no less than four times, had my books stolen, my personal property ruined, and that’s not even counting the personal attacks that I’ve gotten in my school email accounts. Or the time I was locked in my locker. Not all of this was specifically Shadow Stalker, but she no doubt knew and approved. And nobody did a damned thing about it.”

    “I have trouble believing this of a Ward,” Ms Parsons stated. “But assuming it’s true, everyone gets called names at school. Everyone gets shoved. Everyone gets tripped. Are you sure this is something personal to you, and not teenagers being teenagers?”

    Anger erupted in Taylor’s gut. “Oh, you fucking cow,” she snarled, unable to believe she’d been so stupid as to think this woman would be any different from everyone else just because she happened to work for the PRT. Both infuriated and disgusted in equal measure with the entire affair, Taylor jumped down from the desk and stormed towards the door. “You know what? Fuck you and the high horse you fucking rode in on, and fuck the PRT that’s spent the last four months protecting that bitch!” Her mother would’ve been rolling over in her grave if she heard so much profanity spewing from her lips, but enough was enough! Maybe that was more of Janesha’s influence. Her friend certainly had no problem with profanity. “I’m done!”

    “Wait!” Ms Parsons’ hand snagged Taylor by the upper arm, and it took everything Taylor had not to remove it … by strictly inhuman force.

    Before anyone could say another word, there was a light knock at the door and one of the PRT soldiers poked his head in. “Is everything alright, Ms Parsons?” he asked after a sweeping movement of his helmet indicated he’d taken in the scene and was apparently satisfied that Ms Parsons had Taylor by the arm and not the other way around.

    Ms Parsons released Taylor and smiled at the guard. “Yes, thank you officer. Miss Hebert and I just had a … minor misunderstanding.” She stepped around in front of Taylor and looked down at her imploringly. “If I give you my word, no more judgements on my part, could we try that again? Please? I really do want to hear what you have to say.”

    Taylor glared at the woman, then slid her filthy look to the PRT officer now standing in the doorway behind her. Then back at the woman again. Everything about her demeanour said she genuinely meant what she said. “One more try,” Taylor conceded, holding up the pointer finger of her left hand. “But you call me a liar again after everything I’ve been through, and we’re going to have a serious problem.”

    The guard stiffened at the blatant threat, but Ms Parsons’ hand went out and she waved the man away. “It’s alright, officer. I have this.”

    “We’ll be right outside if you need us,” he replied briskly, then closed the door behind him.

    “So, from what you’ve said, Shadow Stalker at the very least participated in the destruction of your belongings and caused you physical harm,” she said, both to prove she’d been listening and to try and distract Taylor from the way her hand had ‘magically’ found its way to her shoulder and was in the process of guiding her back to where they’d been sitting.

    Neither was lost on Taylor.

    “Her last trick put me in hospital for a week,” Taylor agreed, sliding her butt across the broken desk once more. “That was the locker.”

    Ms Parsons straightened where she stood, becoming all business. “And you know it was Shadow Stalker?”

    Taylor nodded with absolute conviction. “I don’t know how much you know about the school lockers, but they’re about my height and width. When I opened my locker, it was over half-full of used sanitation products. It stank so badly that I started puking, right before I was pushed into the locker and the door was locked behind me. I was stuck like that for an hour and a half before someone cared enough to let me out. I could have died in there. I honestly thought I was going to.”

    Ms Parsons’ eyes widened in horror and her hand covered her mouth. “Oh, my. That’s awful, Taylor. I’m so sorry.”

    Okay … this was more how Taylor thought the PRT should be reacting. How any human being should be reacting … if they weren’t determined to defend the party line against all comers.

    “So, why do you think Shadow Stalker had anything to do with this terrible incident?”

    And there went the pin to her balloon of hope.

    Ms Parson’s must have seen the look on her face, because her hand immediately reached out and encompassed Taylor’s, squeezing it placatingly. “Easy, dear. You are the only one that has this information. I don’t. You need to tell me what you know, so that I can push this further up the chain of command. We can’t act on guesswork alone. If you think Shadow Stalker is behind this, I’m not discrediting you. I just need to know how you came to this conclusion, so that we can get there as well.”

    Taylor released a breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. “Okay. Fine. The reason why I know Shadow Stalker is up to her backside in this, is because somebody got all those used sanitation products into my locker without having them fall out in the meantime. Whoever did that either had to phase them in through the shut door, or teleport them in outright.”

    “I can follow that logic of that reasoning.” Ms Parsons nodded as she spoke and squeezed her hand again. “Now, I’m about to say something that you won’t want to hear, but I need you to tell me why we should discredit my alternate theory.”

    Taylor’s lips pinched together. “Okay,” she said, cautiously.

    “Your new friend … Janesha. Didn’t we just see her teleport out of the lunchroom?”

    Taylor hissed and went to pull away, but Ms Parsons held on to her hand.

    “Just tell me why it can’t be her.”

    Taylor eyed the woman. Once she got over her initial outrage, she could see Ms Parsons was sticking to her word of not casting judgement, and, from a neutral perspective, it was a semi-realistic question. “The reason it can’t be her…” —she sneered the words— “…is because she only turned up yesterday. Before yesterday, I’d never even heard of Janesha of Mystal. This attack happened two weeks ago. Janesha may have the power to do it, but she wasn’t here. She made friends with me after the incident.”

    Ms Parsons released her hand and held up both pointer fingers. “I’m going to continue playing Devil’s advocate here,” she said, giving Taylor another warning that whatever came next wouldn’t be pleasant.

    Taylor was so glad Janesha wasn’t here to hear her say that. If her cousin’s kids had the power to be the anti-Christs on some other ‘Earth’, chances were that Janesha was on a first name basis with the real Devil’s advocate. And it was probably something stupidly mundane like ‘Bob’ or ‘John’. She fought to keep her expression neutral, and could tell from the look on Ms Parsons’ face that she’d only partially succeeded.

    “What’s to stop Janesha from having done it two weeks ago, and befriended you now to have a second run at you?”

    “Yeahhh.” Taylor laid the sarcasm on with a trowel. “So Janesha comes to Winslow two weeks ago, nobody notices her or Cloudstrike, she shoves me in my locker, then sneaks away, lies low until now … and comes back just so she can make me feel better about myself, and have an excuse to de-power Shadow Stalker?” She shook her head. “If she was gonna do it, she would’ve done it back then. And without any sneaking around. That girl doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘discreet’. In fact, I think it’s a Mystallian swear word.”

    Ms Parsons chuckled drily. “I do see your point there.”

    “And here’s another thing,” Taylor went on. “I saw everyone who was standing around my locker just before I was shoved in. Shadow Stalker was there, along with her friends. Janesha wasn’t. If there’s one thing that’s dependable about Shadow Stalker, it’s that she loves getting physical. Pushes, shoves, trips, whatever. If she didn’t get to be the one to shove me in the locker, whoever did do it would’ve been in the one next door, because Shadow Stalker would’ve put them there for interfering with her fun.”

    “I see.” Ms Parsons nodded to acknowledge Taylor’s words. “All right, so once you found out Shadow Stalker’s secret identity, what was your reaction?”

    Taylor rolled her eyes. “What do you expect? It pissed me off. To find out that someone who’s supposed to be a superhero, a protector of people, was getting her jollies pushing me around to make herself feel big and tough … I wanted to punch her in the face, so bad.”

    “Did you do anything about it?” Ms Parsons’ voice was entirely reasonable. “I mean, I’d understand if you did. Anyone would.”

    “Well, no. How could I?” Taylor shrugged. “I haven’t seen her since before I got filled in on that little fact. And to be honest, I only found out after she lost her powers, so it wouldn’t have been fair.” A positively evil grin spread across her face at the reminder. “Fuck, I wish I could be there when she realises that she’s never getting ‘em back, ever.” I might ask Janesha for a favour, sometime soon …

    “That’s not very nice,” chided Ms Parsons. “You shouldn’t take pleasure in someone else’s misfortune.”

    “Are you fucking kidding me?” Taylor’s anger found its voice again. “After the pleasure that psycho bitch took in crafting my misfortune?”

    Ms Parsons held a hand and dipped her head slightly in acknowledgement. “So, do you know how she lost her powers?”

    Taylor shrugged, still more than a little irritated with Ms Parsons. “Probably because she pissed off Janesha. I have no idea of the mechanics of it, but Janesha made it sound pretty easy. For her, anyway. I’d be friggin’ amazed if anyone else figured out how to do it.”

    “And you say this loss is permanent?” Ms Parsons pursed her lips. “This is a serious situation if that’s the case. No matter what crimes Shadow Stalker has or has not committed, using Trump abilities on her like this without any sort of trial or representation is—”

    “Okay, let me stop you there,” Taylor interrupted. “There’s a few things you’re dead wrong about. First off, Janesha didn’t use Trump powers. She doesn’t have any powers at all. That’s why she’s not a cape per se. She just took Shadow Stalker’s powers away. Like you or I would take away a stick from a naughty kid to stop him from hitting other kids, and for much the same reason. Second, Janesha doesn’t consider the courts or even law enforcement to be worth her time to check in with, let alone let them dictate the way she does shit. Because let’s face it, they aren’t. She saw the situation, decided on a solution and implemented it within twenty-four hours, after your organisation dropped the ball on it for the last few months. Shadow Stalker’s never going to use her powers to hurt anyone ever again. Also, now that she’s powerless, she’s useless to the PRT, so she can now be punished for the crimes which she committed before and after joining the Wards. You don’t have to coddle that fucking sociopath anymore, just because the higher-ups decided she’s slightly more use to you in the Wards than in a cell. Win-win.” She gave Ms Parsons an artificially bright smile.

    With a certain amount of interest, she noted through her bugs that Emma and Madison were getting up and oh-so-casually wandering into the corridor that led to the classroom she and Ms Parsons were talking in. Ms Bright and Principal Blackwell were still discussing matters—quite vigorously, it seemed. She couldn’t make out words, but volume was something she could easily pick up.

    The PRT woman sighed and rubbed her index finger and thumb over her forehead. “There are so many things wrong with that statement, I don’t know where to begin.” Belying her words, she kept talking. “The only known way to remove powers is via other powers, and the only person who could permanently remove them also killed the victim.” Taylor didn’t have to be reminded; the terrifying cape known as Glaistig Uaine was the only person to have gone into the Birdcage of her own accord.

    “The only known way,” Taylor pointed out. “Test Shadow Stalker every way you know how. Janesha said she removed that bitch’s powers permanently, and I have faith in her.” To mean what she says, she amended silently. Not as a goddess. “She also says she’s not a cape, and I believe that too.” Because I know what she really is.

    “Well, be that as it may, your friend has drawn the attention of the PRT and the Protectorate,” Ms Parsons pointed out. “And as powerful as she undoubtedly is—however she says she came by that power—she is obliged to obey the law. I’m just giving you fair warning that if she keeps on the way she is, somebody at some point is going to step up to bring her to account. The more toes she steps on, the more powerful that somebody is going to be. Worse, if it’s a villain, they might not stop at just beating her down. Do you want to see that happen to her?” The look of concern on her face might even have been genuine.

    Taylor snorted. “If a villain comes after Janesha, all I’m gonna want is fair warning so I can get some popcorn ready. I missed her last supervillain curbstomp, and she owes me one.”

    The look on Ms Parsons’ face was akin to pain. “No,” she said with an actual wince. “You don’t understand. There’s always someone more powerful. She doesn’t want to draw that sort of attention to herself.”

    “Actually, you’re about one-quarter right,” Taylor said judiciously. “She doesn’t really give a shit about drawing attention. I mean, she’s not going all-out to get it, but she’s not going to back down from the spotlight. And I guess you’re right about there always being someone more powerful. That person’s name is Janesha of Mystal.”

    “Have it your way.” The look on Ms Parsons’ face told Taylor that the woman thought she was being an idiot. Taylor figured fair was fair; she thought Ms Parsons was being an idiot, too. The woman’s next question got her attention, though. “What can you tell me about Janesha of Mystal? What’s Mystal, anyway? Her team name?”

    Taylor rolled her tongue inside her cheek to stop herself from smirking. “Something … like that,” she conceded. A pantheon was technically a ‘team’, wasn’t it? “Janesha is … Janesha. She showed up yesterday on Cloudstrike. Met Dad, captured the Merchants for Armsmaster, and decided to fix a few problems. Congratulations, Shadow Stalker’s one of those problems she fixed.”

    Ironically enough, if the PRT troopers had not been standing outside the door, Emma and Madison probably wouldn’t have realised where she was. But Taylor saw them stop and duck back, which made it a dead giveaway. The motions of the bugs she had on them indicated that they were leaning around the corner to peek at the soldiers. Not for the first time, she wished she could interpret what the bugs heard as legitimate sounds, but all she heard was sibilant murmurs. Emma and Madison stayed where they were.

    “But you don’t know exactly how, or even whether she’s likely to do it again? Or why she’s in Brockton Bay?” Ms Parsons was still talking, but she seemed to be grasping at straws now.

    Taylor decided to let her inner smartass out for a spin. “To answer your questions in order: no, only if they piss her off, and because she wants to be here.”

    “And do you have any idea what she’s going to be doing now that she’s here?”

    “Well …” Taylor shrugged. “This afternoon, she’s going to be clearing up the Boat Graveyard for Dad. Apart from that, she’s got no real plans. She’s a one-day-at-a-time sort of person, you know?”

    That definitely shocked Ms Parsons. “The Boat Graveyard? Clearing it up? You’re serious?”

    Taylor spread her hands. “You asked.” Always someone more powerful, my ass.

    Ms Parsons seemed to come to a conclusion. “I see. Well, thank you for your assistance. Was there anything else you’d like to tell me before I go?”

    Taylor was starting to get a little bored with the shifts back and forth between ass-covering and honest investigation. Also, Ms Bright seemed to have wound up her discussion with Principal Blackwell, and was leaving her office. Now, I wonder where she’s going? “Not really,” she said out loud. It wasn’t as though the PRT could really do anything about Emma or Madison, after all.

    “Well, alright then.” Ms Parsons headed for the door. “If you think if anything else, come to the PRT building and ask for me by name.” She opened the door, then paused. “And please tell your friend to be careful.”

    “Sure, I’ll do that,” Taylor agreed, but the door was already closing behind Ms Parsons. “Or I would, if I thought it’d matter in the slightest,” she concluded to herself.

    She ‘watched’ Ms Parsons walk away with the two soldiers following her. At the same time, Emma and Madison darted down the corridor, toward the door of the room she was in. Across the school, Ms Bright did something with her phone. Emma reached the room and wrenched the door open, crowding in with Madison hot on her heels. Taylor barely took notice of this because a moment later, Ms Parsons pulled her phone out and fiddled with it. Hmmm … what’s going on here?

    “Okay, Taylor, out with it.” Emma marched across the room and stood right in front of her. “I want to know what kind of lies you were spinning to that woman.”

    Taylor smiled predatorily. All of a sudden, Emma was no longer so scary. Sophia had been utterly neutralised, and she herself was vastly more capable than she ever had been before. The two girls had no idea how badly outmatched they’d be in any physical contest. She knew how easily she’d be able to leave the room if she saw fit; hell, she could go out through the wall if she really wanted to. “Lies? No, Emma, you’re projecting yet again. I told no lies. Everything I said to her was the absolute truth.”

    “As if a weakling like you could bear to face the truth about anything,” sneered Emma. “We all know you lie. The school administration knows it, and the PRT will know it, as soon as I show up with my father and we find out what rumours you’ve been spreading about me. Your little friend won’t be back, you know. I’m betting she’s some lowlife cape that they arrested as soon as they got her back to the building.”

    Intrigued, Taylor tuned her out for a moment and observed as Ms Bright got closer and closer to the room. Huh. It looks like she’s coming here. I wonder … “How much?” Taylor countered, boldly.

    Emma blinked. “Excuse me?”

    “How much do you want to bet Janesha’s not going anywhere she doesn’t want to be? You see, that’s the joy of actually being at the top of the food-chain, though someone like you and Sophia will never know what that really feels like, and for that I feel sorry for you.” Twisting her lips to one side, she snorted on a chuckle and shook her head. “Nope. Sorry. Can’t even pretend to say that with a straight face. You three deserve each other, Emma.” She slid off the desk and moved as if to barge past them. “Enjoy the view from the bottom of the cesspit you’ve made of your lives.”

    Emma’s hand snatched Taylor by the arm and shoved her back into the desk. Since they had had an inbound audience en route, Taylor didn’t stop it. “You can’t talk to me like that!”

    Taylor shoved herself off the desk and straightened, knowing she was oozing the same confidence that Sophia usually did and loving every second of it. It was glorious! “Oh, I haven’t even started, Emma,” she said, keeping her voice low and level to avoid eavesdropping from outside. “You’re all fucked, especially now that your precious Sophia has been permanently stripped of her powers. How long do you think it’s going to take E88 and the ABB to figure out she’s no longer the arrogant bully she was yesterday?”

    “What are you babbling about now, Hebert?” Madison obviously wasn’t in the know, given the look of confusion on her face. “Emma, what's she talking about?”

    “Nothing.” Emma bit the word off. “Mads, go watch the corridor. Make sure nobody walks in on us.”

    “What?” Madison looked betrayed. “But I want to—”

    “Madison, stop screwing around and watch the corridor,” Emma said with some asperity.

    “Yeah, Madison, go watch the corridor like a good little bitch.” Taylor smirked at the look of anger on the petite girl's face. “Sucks to be relegated to the bottom of the heap, doesn’t it?”

    Madison stomped over and stood glaring up at Taylor. If she wasn't such an unbearable cow, Taylor might have almost called her act adorable. “You’re gonna regret talking to me like that,” she warned, quite obviously lacking the courage to retaliate physically to Taylor's jab. “Sophia’s gonna fuck you up so bad, and I'll watch every second and laugh.”

    “Word to the wise, Mads.” Taylor wasn’t quite sure what impulse had pushed her to use Emma’s nickname for Madison, but the flare of anger this elicited was pure gold. “Sophia’s never gonna have your back ever again. And when I give Blackwell the itemised list I’ve been keeping of every single prank you’ve pulled since September, how fast do you think Emma’s gonna kick your sorry ass to the curb, just to save herself?” Taylor winked and lowered her voice theatrically. “Pretty damn fast, if you ask me.”

    Clenching her fists, Madison stepped forward with murder in her eye. Taylor reached out with the middle three fingers of her left hand and rested them on Madison’s breastbone, just below the hollow of her throat. Before Madison could react to this, Taylor … pushed. Caught off balance and unprepared for the sheer force behind Taylor’s shove, Madison fell on her ass. “What the fuck?” she squawked.

    Stepping back, Taylor folded her arms and leaned her butt against the desk with a slight smile as Emma extended her hand to help Madison to her feet.

    “For fuck’s sake, Madison, go and watch the fucking door like you were told,” the redhead snapped. “I’ll take care of this.”

    “Yeah, Mads, go watch the door,” Taylor reiterated, flicking her fingers in a shooing motion to see if she could bait the shorter girl into coming at her again. Despite her earlier words, she’d never even begun to realise how much fun it was to be at the top of the pecking order. Almost as much fun, she suspected, as it would be to demonstrate to Emma and her friends where their place lay. Time for some good old-fashioned payback.

    Madison’s face turned a shade of red not far removed from the colour of Emma’s hair. She went to lunge at Taylor again, but Emma interposed her own body, physically blocking her from completing the movement. “Jesus fuck, Madison!” Emma shouted. “Stop letting her pull your goddamn chain! I said I’ll deal with this!”

    “Let me at her just once!” shrieked Madison, tears of rage spilling down her cheeks. “I’ll show her who’s a little bitch!” She tried to push past Emma again.

    The slap echoed through the room. Taylor raised her eyebrows, impressed despite herself. Madison, half-turned by the force of the blow, put her hand up to where the red mark was just forming on her cheek. Emma, for her part, lowered her hand. “Now, stop fucking around and watch the fucking door,” she hissed.

    Eyes wide, Madison stared at Emma. “You hit me!” she protested. “What the hell?”

    “Sophia would’ve punched your lights out by now if you’d pulled this shit with her,” Emma pointed out, steel in her tone. “If I’m gonna put Taylor in her place properly, I need someone to watch the door. But you’re not watching the fucking door. Why is that?” She raised her hand as if she were about to strike Madison again.

    The smaller girl flinched back from the implied threat. “You shouldn’t have hit me,” she whined, but she moved toward the door anyway. “You should be hitting Taylor, not me.”

    Taylor snorted in amusement and ran her tongue over her lips. If Emma went to hit her, she pondered, would she let Emma break her hand or would she allow it to push her back? Either way promised amusement. She’d had enough fun at Madison’s expense for the moment, she decided. And Ms Bright was still on her way. I’ll have to time this just right.

    She stayed silent while Madison sullenly opened the door and stepped outside. At her command, a small swarm of flies began to converge on the petite girl, buzzing idly by in gradually greater numbers. Madison didn’t seem to notice in the slightest. In fact, she was only paying the most cursory attention to the corridor as she muttered to herself. Taylor couldn’t make out what she was saying with her bugs, but it had to be something about how Emma had slapped her. It’d definitely made Taylor’s top ten for ‘favourite moments of the day’.

    “So,” she said as the door closed behind Madison. “Where were we? Oh, right. You say something vaguely hurtful, I ignore you, and then we start all over again. Except I’m not playing that game anymore. You want to know the difference between you and me?”

    Emma stared at her, apparently off-balance from the confrontation with Madison. “What?” she said at last. “That you’re a loser who’ll be going to jail the moment the PRT finds out that you incited some whacko cape to attack Sophia, and I’m not?”

    “Janesha’s not a whacko or a cape,” Taylor corrected her. “And on her worst day, she’s still a thousand times more powerful than Shadow Stalker on her best day. If Shadow Stalker was ever getting her powers back, which she isn’t.”

    She had to be careful about her timing; just as Ms Bright came around the corner, the swarm of flies closed in on Madison. The petite girl turned from trying to listen in through the door to waving them off, flailing with both hands.

    “You’re dreaming,” spat Emma. “Power damper capes always have a range or a time limit or both. When Sophia gets her powers back, she’s gonna take down that bitch herself then I’ll take great pleasure in watching her kick your ass up and down the corridors of Winslow.”

    Taylor shook her head, a slow, lazy grin expanding across her face. “Like I said, there’s one major difference between us. You know someone you thought was strong. I know someone I know is strong. Even if she had her powers back, Sophia would never stand a chance. She’s pitiful in comparison. Just like you. I’m pretty sure they only put her in the Wards because they felt sorry for her.”

    Outside the door, Madison turned toward where Ms Bright was approaching. Taylor’s bugs noted that her mouth was opening, probably to call a warning. A fly down the throat triggered a bout of coughing that doubled her over. By the time she had recovered, Ms Bright was at the door and turning the handle.

    “Sophia’s a million times the cape your stupid fucking Janesha will ever be!” shouted Emma. “She’s strong! She’s powerful! The Wards are lucky to have Shadow Stalker!”

    Ms Bright stepped into the room. “Emma Barnes,” she said freezingly. For some reason, Taylor wasn’t at all surprised the woman knew Emma by name. “Did I just hear you outing Sophia Hess as a cape? As a Ward?”

    “Wow, it certainly sounded like that, didn’t it?” Taylor confirmed. “I’m totally shocked and surprised.”

    She’d done her best not to ham it up too much, but Ms Bright still shot her a suspicious glance. “What do you know of this?” the older woman asked abruptly. “Why are you in here talking to Emma?”

    Taylor shrugged. “Ask Emma. I’d just finished talking to Ms Parsons when Emma barged in and started yelling all sorts of stuff about Sophia. She knows Sophia and I don’t like each other very much.”

    Ms Bright’s eyes narrowed. “Do you know anything about what happened to Sophia today? Did you have anything to do with it?”

    Shrugging seemed to be the best way to convey her absolute lack of giving a fuck. “I wasn’t there, so … no. You’ll have to ask Janesha about that one.”

    “Well, you now know Sophia Hess is a cape.” Ms Bright’s lips tightened. “This ‘Janesha of Mystal’ seems to have done something to her powers. Do you know how she learned that Sophia was a cape? Did you tell her?”

    Taylor restrained the urge to roll her eyes. “I just told that other woman, Ms Parsons, all this stuff. No, I didn’t know Sophia was a cape until after I went to class. When I left Emma and Sophia were talking to Janesha …” She paused, almost theatrically sliding her eyes across to Emma. “Wait a minute. Did you and Sophia tell Janesha, after I left to try and intimidate her? Is that how it happened? Because I know I didn’t.”

    “What?” Emma looked from Taylor to the suddenly-intent expression of Ms Bright. “No! We didn’t do anything like that! We wouldn’t!”

    “Well, Janesha’s pretty new around here,” Taylor observed. “It’s not like there’s a whole lot of ways she could’ve figured it out so soon after meeting Sophia …” She let her voice trail off speculatively.

    To her satisfaction, Ms Bright took up the thread. “And you were shouting about it when I walked in.” She eyed Emma unfavourably. Taylor got the impression the woman was sizing up the redhead as someone to throw to the wolves in order to ensure her own continued survival in the PRT.

    “But I—” spluttered Emma, with manner of someone who’s fallen into the middle of a swarm of bees and knows that events are never going to end well. “I didn’t—!” She pointed at Taylor with a shaking finger. “She did it! I don’t know how she did it, but she did it!”

    Compared to her usual run of readily-believed accusations, this one fell remarkably flat. “Yeah, I’ve heard that one before, too,” Taylor drawled. “I didn’t do it then, either.” She turned to Ms Bright. “Do you know, she and Sophia had people spreading a rumour that I locked myself in my locker a couple of weeks ago? With the padlock on the outside? And some of them actually believed it, or pretended to, because it was those two saying it and me that it was about.”

    “Really.” Ms Bright’s gaze upon Emma became remarkably unfriendly. “Emma, I had you down as a reliable contact for Sophia. You were supposed to help me maintain her secret identity within the school. Now I find that not only were you assisting her in bullying someone else, but you’re blurting out her secret to all and sundry. I’m afraid that you’re going to need to come down to the PRT building for questioning at some point, to determine the full extent of your involvement in this debacle.”

    Something about the statement ran subtly false in Taylor’s ears. It almost sounded as though Ms Bright was covering her own ass by … ah ha. Taylor glanced again at Ms Bright, who was dividing her attention between Taylor and Emma. If she was just pissed at Emma, I wouldn’t even be registering on her radar right now. She’s trying to convince me that she had no idea what Sophia was up to … because, with or without Emma’s help, she’s directly responsible for Sophia in some way and she fell down on the job, big time.

    It sounded about right in her own head, especially when she turned her cynicism up to eleven. She wasn’t sure how it worked to have a PRT officer babysitting each of the Wards but given the presence of Ms Bright at Winslow, it was probably a thing.

    The problem was, she had no idea what to do with that knowledge. Simply stating what she knew would be highly unlikely to result in negative effects to her, but undermining the woman’s authority right now would reduce her ability to deal with Emma. And Taylor really, really wanted to see Emma suffer the consequences of her actions.

    Emma, for her part, seemed to have finally realised just how much harm she was doing to herself whenever she opened her mouth. Currently, she was staring in shock at Ms Bright.

    “I’d make sure your paperwork on it’s airtight,” Taylor added. “Her father’s a lawyer, after all.” She knew her gaze said something else altogether. I know what you did, and didn’t do. And now you know that I know. Don’t you dare go light on her.

    Ms Bright’s eyes narrowed slightly, but then she smiled without humour. “Divorce lawyer,” she pointed out, though her face read, Well, fuck. “Admittedly, we don’t actually have one of those on call, but we’ve got all the ones that actually matter.” Her attention shifted to Emma, and her lips tightened. Taylor got the impression that whatever chance Emma had of wriggling out of trouble had just decreased considerably. From the way Emma’s eyes widened, she’d gotten the same message.

    “Then I guess I’ll leave you to it,” Taylor said sauntering towards the door. “Places to go, friends to meet. You know how it is.” She paused in the open doorway and turned back, raising her eyebrows a little. “When would you like me to drop in to the PRT building for my statement on this incident?” Because I will be dropping in, and asking about how it was handled.

    Once again, she caught the lowering of Ms Bright’s eyelids to indicate that she understood her deeper meaning. “Any time in the next few days,” the PRT woman said. “Just mention my name.” It’ll get done.

    “Sure thing.” Taylor strolled out through the open door. Madison was nowhere to be seen … ah. The bugs she’d put on the girl located her in the cafeteria, sitting at a table with several other people. No doubt pretending she was never outside the door in the first place. Well, there’s nothing I can get her on right now, but she’ll keep. I’ve got all the time in the world. Of course, between Janesha’s presence and the amount of problems that both Emma and Sophia were suffering, Madison was probably going to keep a very low profile for quite some time. Not low enough, but she didn’t have to know that.

    Heading back down the corridor, Taylor re-entered the cafeteria. It wasn’t hard to spot Janesha; the celestial teen was seated alone at their table at the far end of the room, as if she were holding court and everyone within the sound of her voice was subject to her will. Given Taylor’s experience with her, this wasn’t entirely far from the truth of the matter.

    As Taylor started over toward her friend, someone stuck their foot out and tried to trip her. Emphasis on ‘tried’; when Taylor’s ankle came into contact with the offending appendage, she braced herself and swept her foot through the obstacle. This was something she never would’ve been able to do before Janesha gave her the strength and durability upgrade. As it was, the resultant shriek and thud of the girl falling off her seat turned a few heads. Taylor looked down at the girl sprawled on the floor; Julia somebody or other. One of Emma’s peripheral hangers-on, she tended to help Madison cause trouble for Taylor in World Affairs.

    “Careful where you stick your foot,” Taylor said with icy amusement. “I might’ve tripped.” Turning her back on Julia, she headed over to where Janesha was watching with a displeased look on her face.

    “You went easy on her,” she said without preamble as Taylor sat down. “The bitch tried to trip you. Why didn’t you smack her down hard instead of just humiliating her?”

    Taylor chuckled. “That sentence all by itself shows just how little you know about red-blooded American teenagers.” Discreetly thumbing over her shoulder at the girl in question, she added, “She’d rather have a hundred beat-downs than suffer the humiliation of everyone in the school knowing her as the girl who tried to trip me up and got knocked on her own ass instead.” Wanting to change the subject for more than one reason, Taylor glanced either side of her at the room of onlookers and added quietly, “Any chance we can get back that silencing bubble thing you had us under earlier?”

    Janesha sighed and rolled her eyes, but the sound around them suddenly cut out. Taylor grinned in appreciation and slid into a seat opposite her friend. “So how’d it go with Armsmaster and the PRT?”

    Janesha took the subject change with good grace. “It went,” she said. “Their Director tried to pull a remote meeting on me, but I yanked the plug on that shit so fast I think her head’s still spinning. If it’s not face to face, it’s not happening. But I had a good talk with Armsmaster in the meantime, and I think we’re on the same page. Though if their Director keeps trying that kind of crap, she’s gonna get on my last nerve sooner or later.”

    Taylor winced. Getting on Janesha’s nerves wasn’t exactly the recipe for enjoying a long and healthy life. Or at least, not one where the offender went to sleep the same species as they woke up. “Um … not to channel Dad here, but … if the PRT Director does get on your nerves again, can you maybe tell me before you do something drastic about it? I’d really hate for something unpleasant to happen to her because of a misunderstanding.”

    Janesha opened her mouth as if to deny this, but nothing came out. Probably because she realised Taylor knew what she was talking about. It seemed Janesha still had a problem with giving people the right to disagree with her without repercussion. “Fine,” the Mystallian sighed, scratching the flesh alongside her right eye. “When and if I can, I’ll explicitly tell you before I do anything to that woman.” Her hand then dropped and she gave Taylor a withering look. “Just don’t expect it to change anything.”

    Taylor grinned and clapped her hands together, ending them in a prayer position. “I guess I’ll just have to have faith that I can make a difference with you.”

    The double meaning of both her words and her actions wasn’t lost on Janesha, whose scowl darkened considerably. “Ha … fucking … ha.”

    But Taylor was in too good a mood to let Janesha detract from it. Dropping her hands to the table, she blurted out, “I got even with Emma.”

    That perked Janesha up and she sat back in her seat, cocking an eyebrow. “Do tell,” she said wryly.

    And for the next fifteen minutes, Taylor did just that, leaving out nothing.

    But, instead of celebrating her victory with her, Janesha’s dark scowl returned and she began slowly scanning the heads of those in the cafeteria.

    Realising she was searching for Madison, Taylor shifted her chair to block her friend’s view of the annoying brunette. “Now, now,” she chided, cheekily. “No fucking up my non-powered enemies before I do, Janesha. That’s just rude.”

    Janesha gave her a telling look, but then her lips twisted to one side and a glint of amusement entered her eyes. “You lot have way too many rules, you know that? Don’t do this. Don’t do that. No turning the Principal into a wading bird. No blowing the top three floors off the PRT building. How do you ever get stuff done?”

    Taylor paused. The image of Blackwell as a wading bird kind of fitted Taylor’s impression of her. The bad-tempered type, with a sharp beak. Was it wrong of her to kind of want to see that happen? Stop, she ordered herself. Bad Taylor. No asking the fledgling goddess to abuse her powers for your benefit.

    “We manage,” she replied, though to be honest she didn’t really think she’d been managing too well before Janesha came along. There were too many people who knew exactly what the rules were, and broke them all the time just to screw her over. “I’m sure you have your own rules. Things that you’re not allowed to do. Things that you’re obliged to do.”

    “Fewer than you’d think, actually.” Janesha leaned back in her chair. “In Mystal, family’s important. You back up the family, you back up the pantheon—which amounts to much the same thing—and you own your space. Other pantheons have gods that either prank or outright betray each other, sometimes for nothing more than shits and giggles. Pranks, we do all the time. Betrayal …” —she shook her head and made a negatory sound of disgust in the back of her throat— “… no. Never. We don’t really have any set of codified laws like you do. In all the known realms, there’s really only three real rules.” Her head cocked to one side and she amended, “Well, four if you count boons, though boons are more like a gentleman’s agreement between celests that can never be reneged on.” Something must have occurred to Janesha, for her eyes widened and she reached across the table, taking Taylor’s hands in hers. “Don’t ever, ever, ever offer an unspecified boon, Taylor. Not even to me. The price is always way too high. I’m deadly serious about that.”

    “How bad could it be?” Not that she was going to do it, but Taylor’s curiosity had been piqued. This was the first time Janesha had ever been that serious about anything.

    Releasing her hands, Janesha closed her right hand into a fist and opened it again. In the middle of her palm was a gorgeous pendant in the shape of a rearing Cloudstrike. “If I was to offer you this in exchange for a boon and you accepted it, you’d owe me a boon.”

    “Like money?”

    “Like whatever I want, whenever I want, however I wanted to word it. If you accepted this without narrowing down the specifics of what you had to do to get it, I could tell you this afternoon that I wanted you to stab your father to death while he slept tonight.” The look in her eyes was lethal. “And you’d either do it or die trying.”

    Taylor reared away from her friend’s gem-encrusted offering as if it was poison, shoving her hands behind her back. “Agreeing to a boon would make me do that?”

    Janesha nodded very seriously. “Not would, petal. But it could. That and more. I could say, ‘I want you to wipe out this whole city’, and with your control of bugs, there wouldn’t be a living thing left in Brockton Bay by tomorrow. It’s not the fact of accepting a boon, but what the boon-giver decides they want as payment. You have no say in how an unspecified boon will be collected, so long as you have the capacity to fulfil it. None at all. My cousin’s grandfather is a master at extracting unspecified boons from people with the smallest of costs to himself. The celests are wise to it, but mortals still fall for it every time.” Janesha allowed the pendant to disappear in a puff of smoke. “Some of them even do it for a warm meal or a safe place to sleep for a few hours.” She sat back and shook her head sadly. “I’ve lost count of the number of stories I’ve heard of mortal men selling their lives away for one night with the woman of their dreams. They never realise the price until it’s too late.”

    Taylor cleared her throat and stretched her neck uncomfortably. There was only so much doom and gloom she could handle at once. “You said there were three other rules?”

    Janesha nodded. “Though they’re more like … common sense guidelines. One: Don’t fuck with Chaos. Lord Belial will fuck your shit up before you even see him coming. Two: Don’t go near the Nexus. I’ve no idea what’s back there, but basically you’ll never be heard from again. And three: Don’t mess with Mystal. Like ever. Unlike everywhere else, we’re so packed with ranged benders and a few shifters that we could take out anyone dumb enough to come at us, even before we touched our powerbases.”

    Taylor nodded. “Oh, I definitely get that. You’re scary enough on your own. Even if I had all the power you’ve got right now, what you’ve told me about Mystal and Lord Avis would be enough to make me back the hell off. I like having my thoughts exactly where they are, thank you very much.” Not for the first time, she reflected that her personal definition of ‘terrifying’ had changed dramatically since meeting Janesha.

    “Which makes you smarter than most mortals and more than a few celests, to be honest.” Janesha smirked. “Of course, if they’re lucky, they learn their mistake before it’s too late. Or they don’t.” Her meaning was unmistakeable.

    “Yeah, I—” Taylor cut herself off as the bell rang to go back into class. “Oh hey, more schoolwork. Getting bored yet?”

    “Meh, if you can take it, I can take it. And who knows, Madison might try something on me.” Janesha’s tone was positively predatory. She slid her eyes sideways to Taylor. “And don’t even try to enforce ‘dibs’ if she pulls any shit like that.”

    Taylor rolled her eyes. “If she’s that stupid, you’re welcome to her.” Getting up, she brushed her jeans off. “But don’t worry, she’ll keep.”

    Janesha nodded. “True. Two down, one to go.”

    <><>​

    Shadow Stalker

    Sophia looked at the clock set into the wall of the chamber, then she went to the door and tried it. It didn’t open. “Hey!” she shouted, and rattled the door. “How long are you going to keep me in here? I need to go to the bathroom!” There were actually facilities within the room, but they were claustrophobically cramped. And besides, she wanted to get out of the testing room.

    The speaker over the door crackled as someone switched it on. “I’m sorry, but we’ve been given orders not to let you out.” The apologetic tone belonged to one of the techs who’d been conducting the tests, earlier.

    “What? Why?” she demanded. “I’m a Ward, not a goddamn prisoner!”

    There was a pause, then another voice came through the speaker. She recognised it immediately as Deputy Director Renick. “That’s actually … not entirely accurate. We have it under good authority that your powers will not be returning.”

    “What? No!” She hammered on the door with her fists. “Did that little skank Janesha tell you that? She’s a lying cow! And why the hell haven’t you arrested her? She assaulted me with parahuman powers!”

    “We’ve spoken to both Janesha and Taylor Hebert, separately. Their stories match up, and are at variance with yours.” His tone was dry as dust, but still managed to put a chill down her spine.

    Sophia gritted her teeth. “You let her talk? I told you, Hebert’s a Master—”

    “Both personnel who spoke to her have undergone testing for Master influence since returning to the PRT building, and come up negative,” Renick informed her imperturbably. “In addition, their personal recollections of the conversations match the recordings they took at the same time. For the time being, we’re going with the working theory that Janesha of Mystal has powers whereas Taylor Hebert does not.”

    “So you’re just gonna accept their word over mine, is that it?” Sophia didn’t have to work too hard to inject bitterness into her tone. “I’ve been a Ward since last year. Janesha’s a fucking showboater who literally arrived yesterday. I see how it is now.”

    “I don’t believe you do.” Renick’s tone held an edge of severity. “Armsmaster spoke at length with Janesha. Not only did his voice analysis software return a high degree of probability that her statements were true, but he stated that his ‘gut’ was telling him the same thing.”

    “And what’s that got to do with me?” demanded Sophia.

    “Apparently, both Janesha and Ms Hebert had quite a bit to say about you and Emma Barnes, and some bullying incidents at Winslow. We will be requesting the documentation of these incidents from Principal Blackwell. In the meantime, Armsmaster has been running some of your prior statements, including ones you made about Ms Hebert and Janesha herself, through his voice analysis software. You may be interested to know that he’s found a high degree of consistent lying, and that a semantic analysis of the lies happens to bear out the accounts given to us by Janesha and Ms Hebert.” If the content of his speech hadn’t been so devastating to her, she would’ve tuned out his dry recital. As it was she listened, horrified, to every word.

    “No, no, no!” she insisted, feeling the creeping doom at the back of her neck. “They’re lying! I’ve done nothing wrong! Get Armsmaster and his voice stress thingy in here! I’ll tell him myself!”

    “You’ll get your chance. But for now, sit tight. If it turns out that Janesha was indeed telling the truth, we will have preparations to make.”

    The speaker went silent then, leaving Sophia to her thoughts. She didn’t want to think about whatever ‘preparations’ he was talking about, but that didn’t help; her busy mind popped up a few possibilities all by itself. The main one was the most worrying; the original charge that had nearly landed her in juvey. If her powers were gone for good, that meant she was no longer a Ward. No longer in possession of a ‘get out of jail free’ card.

    Of course, that probably wasn’t the case, because shit like this didn’t happen to Sophia.

    There had to be another explanation. If only she could think of one …


    End of Part Nine

    Part Ten
     
    Last edited: May 22, 2019
  12. Paladin3030

    Paladin3030 Getting out there.

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    Poor Sophie & Emms look like they are finally reaping what they sowed ;) & Maddie trying to act like an attack dog when she isn't.o_O

    Well looks like the trio is truly fucked (and not in the good way either) now.:p
     
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  13. shiyochan

    shiyochan Getting out there.

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    Ah, Sophia. I do like it when karma bites her in the arse proportional to her misdeeds, and not the over the top revenge porn some fics devolve into. This seems to be hitting a pretty good balance as far as these things go.

    BTW, this is actually a pretty good way of getting attention on your friends book - I bought the eBook just after new years because the bits of lore we see in this crossover intrigued me.
     
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  14. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    That's awesome. I hope you enjoyed it.
     
  15. Threadmarks: Part Ten: A Deeper Perspective
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Celestial Worm

    Part Ten: A Deeper Perspective


    [A/N: this chapter commissioned by Fizzfaldt and beta-read by Karen Buckeridge, the author of Ties That Bind. For an explanation as to why it is a few days early, see A/N 4.


    A/N 2: The names Sagun and Edeena both mean ‘divine’. I am very pleased with this.]


    A/N 3: There are references within this chapter to events, people and places from the future of the Celestial Wars series. These are not spoilers precisely, merely things that will come up in later books.


    [A/N 4: Karen and I will be attending Gold Coast Supanova on April 13-14, at the Words on Paper (Ink) table (#58) in the Alley. We’ll be glad to chat with anyone who shows up.]





    Winslow High School

    3:31 PM

    Taylor


    Janesha looked at the closed door to the classroom, then at the remainder of the students in the room. Nobody seemed to be staring at her any more, probably because she wasn’t doing anything outrageous to draw attention, and sitting in the same room as a cape for an hour tended to dull the ‘wow’ factor. Most of them were talking quietly among themselves. Taylor was pretty sure there was a poker game going on in the back corner.

    She’d been thinking about Janesha’s status as a cape, mainly because of her argument with Ms Parsons, and had reluctantly come to the conclusion that she might’ve been a little off on her definitions. Janesha wasn’t a parahuman, that was for certain. In Taylor’s mind, she’d have had to be born human first. But, and this was the roadblock Taylor had run into, some definitions of ‘cape’ didn’t actually equate to ‘human with powers and a costume’. The most basic version of the term essentially went ‘if you’ve got powers above the capacity of a human and wear a costume, you’re a cape’. Under those circumstances, there was no requirement to be human or otherwise.

    Janesha had what anyone on Earth Bet would call a costume. She’d call it her uniform, because amongst her peers, it was technically so. But until another Mystallian showed up on Bet to compare it to, it was effectively a costume (and a pretty cool one, at that). The second part of the requirement—having powers—Janesha met in spades. If Taylor understood things correctly, it wasn’t so much that Janesha had powers, but that she was power.

    All celestials were that way; power made flesh. It was a conclusion Taylor had reached after Janesha had casually mentioned that death was not the same for celestials as for mortals. Upon suffering a mortal injury or disease, all celestials who could die either through a lack of established immortality or the presence of a specific powerbase thrall mandating their death either specifically or generally (Taylor thought that last one was kinda suicidal. Who would want to put in place an end date for their existence?) simply winked out of existence. Like vampires in the movies, only without the ash pile. Without a mortal soul to carry them over, their bodies vanished into nothingness.

    From what she could tell, the Asgardians had at some point attempted a work-around for this problem, but what they’d ended up with was something Taylor figured she could spend the rest of her life dissecting and still not make any sense of. They’d not only put it in their thrall that they could die (how dumb was that?), but then they went to the trouble of creating a catch-clause that kept their essence from disappearing when it happened.

    That in itself wasn’t the stupidest part. Asgard had a feasting hall called Valhalla. A glorious place where deceased mortal warriors went to party out the rest of time. But this was not where the Asgardian gods ended up. No, it was in their thrall that when the gods themselves happened to die, they went to Hel. What? Who came up with this insanity? If she going to be a goddess writing the playbook of how things were going to work, she’d be the one dying and going to Valhalla, not the mortals who worshipped her. Worse still, when they got to Hel, they became enslaved to the ruling goddess there (also named Hel, because screw originality). Fucking what?! An eternity of being a slave, and they seriously put their hands up for it? The more she learned about the ways of the celestials, the crazier some of them seemed to be. Taylor hadn’t even bothered to ask what happened to Asgardians if they died outside the reach of that thrall; though she suspected they simply vanished, like unestablished celestials did.

    “Is he coming back?” asked Janesha. Her question was not unexpected. As per his occasional habit, Mr Quinlan had shambled out of the classroom with twenty minutes to go and had not returned. This practice tended to confuse students new to the class.

    “Maybe,” Taylor replied with a shrug. “He does this occasionally. Once in a while he comes back. Usually, he doesn’t.” Some among the student body believed that Mr Quinlan had a drinking problem. Others maintained that he had no problem with it at all, and did it as much as possible.

    Janesha raised an eyebrow and snorted in surprise. “And nobody does anything about it?” She shook her head in disbelief. “Damn, if one of my tutors had ever been dumb enough to try that even once, him and his whole fucking family would have their minds ashed or be mentally turned into dung beetles by the time Mom was finished with them.”

    Taylor arched an ironic eyebrow. “You have seen Winslow, right?” Wait … did she just say the tutor’s whole family would suffer that fate with him? Wow. That was … kinda harsh.

    “Well, yeah, true.” Janesha chuckled, then crossed her eyes and stuck her tongue out. “From what I saw of that Blackwell bitch, she doesn’t give a shit either way. I’ve never seen a bunch of people so uninterested in actually doing their jobs.”

    “Mm-hmm.” Taylor was still listening, but she’d noticed a couple of guys whispering together across the room. She wouldn’t have cared, except they kept sneaking the occasional glance toward Janesha … and both of them had shaved heads. Oh, please tell me they aren’t planning to do something stupid to Janesha. If they were lucky, Janesha would only eviscerate them.

    “Well, I’m officially bored.” Janesha stood up abruptly, startling her out of her internal rhetoric. “And you sound bored too. So, what’s say we just get the fuck outta here? Unless you really want to stay?”

    Taylor couldn’t shake her head fast enough. “Nah, I’m all Winslowed out for today.” She got to her feet as well and began to shove her books into her bag. “Are we gonna be riding Cloudstrike to the Boat Graveyard?”

    Janesha stretched, working her spine back and forth. Taylor knew she was only doing it for effect, as she’d seen her cast stimulation waves to bring herself back to a state of physical perfection before. “It’s up to you, but if we take Cloudstrike, she’s not going to be happy with a trip that starts here and ends at the boat graveyard. Though with her temper, she’ll make short work of a few vessels which may be a good thing too.” Behind her, the Empire guys got up and began to wander in their direction.

    Taylor moved to intercept them. “Can I help you?” she asked bluntly. She didn’t know or care what their intentions were but if they made it to Janesha, it’d probably be the last thing they ever did as humans.

    “You shouldn’t be hanging with people like her,” the nearest one said, as if doing her a favour.

    This was such a backflip on how people normally said this sort of thing to other people about her, that Taylor had to swallow her smile. “What, capes?” she asked, deliberately misunderstanding his meaning.

    The reminder that Janesha was anything but unpowered brought a grimace to his face. “Don’t be a fuckin’ idiot,” he sneered. “She might be a cape, but you ain’t. Friends of people like that have been known to get hurt.”

    Taylor knew all of her teeth showed in the smile that worked its way across her face. “Was that a threat?” she asked, taking a half step towards the speaker. “Are you seriously threatening me?” When he failed to deny it, a snort of amusement escaped her lips. “My God, that’s probably about the stupidest thing you’ve ever done in your life. And yes, I’m including the lapse in judgement that led you to join the Empire Eighty-Eight.”

    Janesha came to stand alongside her with her arms folded in warning, but didn’t add her thoughts to the mix. Taylor got the impression it wasn’t because she couldn’t, but because she wanted Taylor to handle this herself. Still grinning like a shark, Taylor glanced at her powerful friend and winked. This was seriously too easy, and waaay too much fun.

    The speaker must have seen the wink, because a second later, he had a flick-knife in his hand, which he opened with a roll of his wrist. “You dumb, stupid cun…”

    Refusing to let him finish that sentence, Taylor got right up into his grille and shoved him hard. By getting between them and Janesha, she’d been trying to save their stupid, skinhead lives … and in a way she still was.

    Unprepared for the move and for the celestial-granted strength she put behind it, he flew back, flailing his arms wildly. He cannoned into his buddy and they both kept going, rolling over an unmanned desk before sprawling awkwardly to the floor. While they were still trying to untangle themselves from each other, she moved over to them and assessed them for damage. Nobody had been cut by the knife, for which she was mildly thankful. “Take a hint,” she said bluntly. “You idiots stay away from Janesha and me, or the next time I’ll let her deal with you.”

    Right on cue, Janesha clicked her tongue in mock irritation. Or it may have been real; Taylor couldn’t tell. “Taylor, what have I said about hogging all the terminally stupid assholes?” the Mystallian asked, shaking her head ever so slightly. “Don’t you know that guests are supposed to have first dibs?”

    “Fuck you!” blurted the guy who’d had the knife. “Hookwolf’ll gut you, you n—”

    He broke off with a sound of ugly agony as Janesha stamped her booted heel into his crotch without a hint of remorse or effort: like crushing a bug she’d already forgotten about. Not being a hundred percent sure of the constraints of her own strength, Taylor didn’t want to try that stunt yet, but the way the guy stayed conscious enough to curl around the afflicted area made her realise Janesha knew exactly what she was doing. It didn’t stop her as a fellow human being from feeling some small measure of sympathy towards him. Nowhere near as much as every other guy in the room, if the way they all winced simultaneously and sidled away from Janesha was anything to go by.

    Still with her foot on his crotch, Janesha as she looked around challengingly. “Anyone else want to say something stupid before we go?” she asked, eyes roving around the room. “No? Good. Let’s get out of here, Taylor.”

    Without looking, Taylor reached out toward her. She felt the leather glove close over her hand, and stepped forward in time with Janesha. They stood in the forest of crystal columns, then stepped again to end up at the Docks.

    “Wow,” Taylor said, giggling a little shakily as reaction caught up with her. “That boy is never gonna have kids, not the way you groin-stomped him.” She put her hand to her chest, feeling her heart rate. Despite the fact that she was almost impervious to harm, it was still elevated. Some reflexes never went away.

    “Eh, he should get over it. Eventually.” With a wry grin, she added, “Better question is, will anyone notice his absence in the species gene pool?” Laughing at her own wit, Janesha tossed her hair. “Anyway, you started it by shoving the moron. Nice control, by the way. Pretty sure you didn’t want to have to explain putting him through the wall.”

    “Yeah, it might’ve been hard to explain away …” As it was the first time Taylor took in her surroundings, her jaw dropped. “Ho…whoa…Janesha, we’ve got company.” And boy, do we have company!

    The audience that had gathered was made up of several groups, the largest of which consisted of a crowd of burly individuals. She didn’t know all of the Dockworkers, but enough of the ones she did know were there to make the identification of that group easy. Her father, who’d been standing at the front of that crowd talking to Armsmaster, noticed them and started toward her. The armoured hero followed a few feet behind.

    The next group would’ve been easy to name, even if Armsmaster hadn’t been there. The gaudy costumes of the Protectorate and Wards stood out against the general decrepitude and decay of the dockside, with Dauntless, Kid Win and Aegis holding their positions in the sky above. Or at least, she was pretty sure that was who they were. The PRT soldiers accompanying the ground-bound capes in their dark armour and opaque faceplates were a grim counterpoint to the bright outfits of the parahuman heroes.

    Not that those were the only heroes on site. Standing near the Wards were Brandish, Flashbang, Manpower, Glory Girl and Panacea of New Wave. Lady Photon, Laserdream and Shielder shared the skies with the government heroes.

    Just as Taylor’s father got to them, Janesha turned her head as well, taking in the gathering. “These would be your Dockworkers?” the Mystallian surmised. Taylor wasn’t at all surprised at the conclusion; Janesha wasn’t stupid, and she had her mind bending to fall back on.

    “Yeah,” she said, before her father could respond. “Hey, Dad. I guess you spread the word?” She gave him a quick hug.

    “That’s right.” He ruffled her hair fondly. “I figured they’d earned front-row seats to whatever Janesha does here today. It affects them more than most.” He looked around at the other people on site. “Though I have no idea how they knew to be here.”

    Taylor turned and rested against her father’s lean form, while he kept a hand on her shoulder. “Well, Armsmaster might’ve visited Winslow today, and Janesha kind of told him what we were going to be doing.”

    “Correct, Miss Hebert,” Armsmaster said as he caught up with them. “Good afternoon, Miss Janesha. I felt it would be interesting and instructive for the Protectorate and Wards to observe you in action. If that’s okay with you, of course.” He paused, probably to deal with something that his fancy helmet HUD was showing him. “Though, if I’m not much mistaken, Winslow High has yet to finish classes today. How is it you’re here early?”

    Called it, Taylor mused to herself.

    Janesha rolled her eyes. “When the math teacher decides to walk out of class to go get drunk twenty minutes ahead of schedule, what am I supposed to do? Teach the class myself? Screw that. If the teacher can book, so can we.” She rubbed her nose as she took in the crowd. “Okay, I get it that the PRT, Protectorate and Wards are on site. But who told New Wave?”

    “Gallant,” Armsmaster said with an irritated sigh. “He and the younger members of New Wave are close.” But then his lips drew down in a frown. “Getting back to what you said earlier. Which teacher at Winslow is leaving class unattended to get drunk?”

    “Mr Quinlan,” Taylor cut in, not having the slightest regret for throwing the math teacher to the wolves. “He doesn’t do it every day, or even every other day, but he does it often enough that everyone knows.”

    Armsmaster shook his head, his lips pinching together tightly. “Expect some serious changes to be made at that school,” he said, almost in a promise. “As soon as we’re done here, I’ll be paying a personal visit to the Board of Education. That level of laxity and inefficiency is truly reprehensible.”

    “Knock yourself out,” Janesha said airily. “It’s your school, so it’s your education standards he’s turning to shit.” She cocked her head towards Danny. “If you brought all these dockworkers in, don’t you figure they deserve a front-row seat? The way it is now, most of them won’t be able to see a thing.” As if deciding for herself, she pushed between the armoured hero and Danny and kept going. “Hold that thought. I’ll be right back.”

    “Uh, okay,” Danny said, but Janesha was already on her way to the crowd. Taylor gave him a tiny shrug. Janesha hadn’t been asking for permission; she’d been telling him and Armsmaster how things were going to be. Because that’s what she does. Duh.

    “Everyone!” Janesha didn’t shout, but Taylor felt her voice in the same bone-deep way it had when Janesha whistled for Cloudstrike. “Quiet down and line up like you were sitting on a stadium!”

    Dockworkers were among the most contrary people in Brockton Bay. Taylor knew this like she knew that the sun came up in the east, and the ABB was made up of Asian gangsters. Who else would’ve hung around year after year, doggedly persisting as their livelihood slowly ebbed away? For a total stranger (even a cape) to give them orders without even an introduction should’ve sparked half a hundred arguments. Instead, they all shuffled silently into rough lines.

    Despite the fact that Janesha was not in their chain of command (except inasmuch as she’d inserted herself into it) the assembled heroes and PRT personnel also fell into line. Armsmaster watched this then turned to Taylor, opening his mouth to ask a question.

    “She’s very persuasive,” Taylor answered before he could voice his concern. “People tend to go with the flow around her.”

    “True,” agreed Armsmaster. “She is definitely a very strong-willed young lady. If she should ever choose to join the Wards …”

    “Yeah, nope.” Taylor cut that line of thought off before it could properly begin. “She’s never gonna be interested in the Wards. Besides, she’s good enough on her own.”

    “Also true,” conceded the armoured hero, then looked around. “I don’t see Cloudstrike anywhere.”

    “Janesha decided to leave her at home,” Taylor explained. “We’ll probably take her out for a flight later. She really likes to stretch her wings, and a short hop across town will just annoy her.”

    “Does this have anything to do with why the three of you were spotted re-entering the atmosphere this morning by one of Dragon’s satellites?” Armsmaster asked, and she could almost feel his eyebrow rising under that helmet in a silent, ‘Yeah, you know exactly what I’m talking about, and I know you know’ kind of way. “How far and fast can Cloudstrike fly, anyway?”

    Taylor snorted softly and shook her head. “You literally would not believe me if I told you.”

    While they’d been talking, Janesha had walked forward, up the side of the formation. She didn’t give any more orders, but the lines evened themselves out as if by magic. Danny looked at Taylor as if to say are you seeing this too?

    Taylor nodded in reply. It was a celestial thing, of course. She and Danny were both fully aware that the mortal world was actively eager to do the bidding of a celestial. It was also clear (to those in the know, of course) that the lines were evening out because Janesha was bending them into stepping forward or back as required. From the look on his face, her father had already realised this. If Taylor had to guess, he wasn’t totally thrilled that she was casually controlling his men and women like that, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. Janesha had shown the extent of her tolerance for their telling her what to do, and neither Taylor nor Danny wanted to push her in that regard.

    Sometimes, Taylor reflected, Janesha just came right out and demonstrated how horrifyingly powerful celestials could be, and how this translated to a lack of concern for the rights of any mortals that might be in their way. “I’m just glad she’s on our side.”

    Danny shook his head. “No. She’s letting us be on her side. And for that, I’m thankful.”

    Armsmaster looked at the both of them, but made no comment.

    Having reached the last row and straightened it out, Janesha raised her hands in front of her then clapped her palms together. As if in response, a two-foot-high concrete bench grew out of the ground behind the last row of Dockworkers. She clapped again, and a section of concrete rose under the entire back row, to make a concrete bench for the row in front. Walking back toward Taylor and Danny, she clapped her hands in a steady rhythm; each time, the benches at the rear rose another two feet, literally growing a stadium out of the solid ground.

    By the time she reached the last line, the people farther up the stadium were sitting down on their newly-made seats. Taylor could tell that the benches weren’t solid blocks, but instead flat slabs, given that she could see daylight behind them. From this, she surmised that instead of pulling in one block of solid mass from wherever, her friend had reshaped the concrete beneath them, lifting it in stages.

    “Nicely done,” Danny said as Janesha returned to them, ignoring the insane applause that erupted in the stands behind her. “But what was the clapping for?”

    “The rhythm gave them a chance to know when it was their turn to expect a seat,” she said with a cheeky grin. “It keeps people calm when they think they know what to expect.”

    Before he could respond, there was a streak of gold and white that resolved into Glory Girl hovering in front of Janesha. She reached out and tapped Janesha on the shoulder. “Tag,” she said, smugly. “Where’s your flying horse?”

    “Mystallion,” Taylor said in unison with Janesha, Danny echoing them half a second later.

    “Yeah, whatever.” Glory Girl looked around theatrically. “Where is it? I wanna rematch. And this time don’t teleport.”

    Janesha’s expression darkened and she took a step forward, then a step up, as if she were standing on the air. Face to face with Glory Girl, she spoke in a low, intense tone. “Check the footage that’s all over the globe by now, Glory Girl. We didn’t realm-step anywhere. We went in a very straight line to Rio and back, and you just couldn’t keep up. Accept that as a fact, because I have no desire to pander to your sore-loser complex until you finally realise this and give up. Now back off and let me work. I’ve got a job to do.”

    It may have been Taylor’s imagination, but she felt she heard something coming through Janesha’s voice partway through her speech to Glory Girl. From the way the teen hero turned and flew away without further argument, Glory Girl may have heard it too. Or maybe she just realised that it’s a bad idea to mess with Janesha. Two down, three hundred fifty thousand in this city alone to go.

    “All right then,” Janesha stated, slapping her hands together. Taylor noticed she seemed to do that a lot. “Is there anyone else who wants to bother me with extraneous crap? No? Good.” She headed toward the dockside where dozens of ships lay. Some were at anchor while others obviously rested on the harbour bed, waterlogged or altogether sunken. None were in great shape, after fifteen years or so of neglect and vandalism.

    It was nearly high tide, so the ocean level was only about six feet below the edge of the dock. Without pausing, Janesha strode up to the edge and jumped off. There was no splash, and in another few moments Taylor saw her strolling across the slowly heaving swells toward the nearest ship as though she were standing on solid ground. Taylor had just seen her (presumably) use her touch-shifting on air to make it act as though it were temporarily solid, so walking on water didn’t seem out of place. That was when another thought struck her, and she barely managed to hold back a facepalm. For someone who doesn’t want any worshippers, you’re seriously pushing your luck emulating the very guy you swear you don’t have any time for.

    When Janesha reached the ship, she put her hands to its hull. Taylor wasn’t sure what to expect; for all she knew, it was going to grow legs and walk out of the bay or collapse like a punctured balloon or turn into solid diamond. She’d long since learned not to think small when it came to Janesha and her capabilities. Which was why she wasn’t totally astonished when Janesha picked the whole damn ship up and held it over her head, leaving a hole in the water. Tossing it in the air, the celestial teen caught it one-handed as it came down bow-first. Water poured out of open hatchways and splashed into the hole that was left behind, accompanied by random trash and sealife that had been lying around on the deck of the ship, or occupying the interior. Walking back toward shore, Janesha didn’t seem particularly concerned by the fact that she was holding a fifty or sixty thousand ton ship over her head like a child’s toy. Minor issues such as the breaking strain of steel and the shifting centre of balance of the ship didn’t seem to bother her in the slightest. Taylor was pretty sure that the distant sound she could hear was the hundred and fifty or so spectators all whispering “Bullshit” at the same time.

    Well, she thought with a private grin. They came for a show. They got a show.

    <><>​

    Contessa

    Cauldron Base

    Some Other Earth

    It had been a trying few days. All Contessa wanted to do was sit back, relax and catch up with the news of the day. She settled into her favourite chair in her private quarters, in front of her favourite desk, the one with an eighty-five inch screen set up as a backstop. The coffee had been brewed to her liking and was (of course) perfect; tapping a key, she set the big news items scrolling through as she leaned back and sipped at the cup. A tablet rested on her thigh, ready to note down anything interesting.

    There were a few incidents that had happened the day before yesterday, and she paused the newsfeed as she took up the tablet. It only took a few moments to make the required reminders to look into them. If civilisation was to continue in such a way that the Golden Fucking Moron could eventually be eradicated, then she’d have to get rid of some of the more egregious threats. It was a delicate balancing act between necessity, her capabilities and her willingness to act.

    Restarting the feed, she got comfortable as something called ‘the Whistle’ popped up in the top right-hand corner of her screen. It was nothing to be worried about; probably just some new cape showing off their abilities. Happened all the time. And then the corresponding image filled the screen. Contessa, caught in mid-sip, inhaled half a cup of coffee and sprayed it all over the screen as she fell out of her chair.

    <><>​

    Dorian

    The first Dorian knew about it was when he heard the thump, then the hacking and coughing that followed. He hurried through from the quarters he shared with his brother to find Fortuna on her knees, the coffee cup off to the side in a growing pool of coffee, and tiny dribbles of the brown substance all over the desk screen. She was red in the face, with tears streaming down her cheeks.

    “Shit, Fortuna,” he said rushing to her side. “What happened to you?” With his team leader’s natural propensity for ensuring things went her way, he would never have expected to find her in this state.

    “Mystallian,” she rasped, pulling herself to her feet with only a little assistance from him and pointing wildly at the screen with her left hand. “There’s a fucking Mystallian on Earth Bet.”

    His eyes widened in horror. “You’re shitting me. You have to be shitting me.” His gaze lifted to the frozen image of a winged horse with two passengers soaring over Rio de Janeiro on the screen.

    If the flying equine wasn’t enough to convince him, the black of its rider’s garb with the accursed gold insignia on her cloak that marked her as a denizen of Mystal did. “Mother-fucker. You’re not shitting me.” Drawing the air into his lungs, he let out a tremendous bellow. “CLARE! GET YOUR SORRY ASS IN HERE!”

    It didn’t help Dorian’s rising temper that his brother chose to maintain the dumb-as-dogshit persona which he presented to the mortal members of Cauldron, shambling in from their shared quarters with an idiotic slack look on his face. The ash-pits that were his eye sockets stared blindly at Dorian. “Wha’ wrong?” he asked, in a sing-song voice that implied utter naivete.

    “There’s a fucking Mystallian in this sorry excuse for a fucking realm!” snapped Dorian. “That’s what’s happening!”

    The change in Clare’s stance and attitude would’ve been funny in any other circumstance. He straightened to his full height—a few centimetres taller than Dorian—and his eye sockets flared up with the flames common to his mother’s heritage, transforming the recesses from dead ash to live embers. “The fuck you say!” he snapped, crossing the room in two long strides. He took in the image on the coffee-stained screen and turned to Fortuna. “How the fuck did this happen? How many of them are there? Are we compromised?”

    Dorian was shorter than Clare but more physically powerful. With one hand, he took hold of the front of Clare’s tunic and slammed him into the wall behind the desk. Dust shimmered down from the ceiling. “How the fuck did it happen, brother? You’re the one who’s supposed to see all and hear all. Have you been looking up your own ass for the last thirty years, or just fucking spying on women in the fucking showers? How did even one Mystallian show up here without you being all over it?”

    Clare tried to push back, but didn’t have the body strength to do so. “Because for the last thirty years, brother, you and Fortuna have had me listening for one realm-damned fucking word night and day, week in and week out, just so I could tell you when someone wanted to go somewhere. ‘Doorway’ this and doorway that. Doorway here, doorway there.” Clare’s eye-flames were miniature infernos. “I’m fed up to the fuckin’ back teeth with it. But if I’m listening for ‘doorway’, I can’t be blamed for not searching for the fucking enemy.”

    “Well, now you’re doing both!” Dorian glanced over his shoulder at Fortuna. “What do we do, Fortuna? Revenge for the loss of our team is one thing, but if the Mystallians have found us …”

    “They haven’t found shit,” Clare declared with a snarl, causing Dorian to release a breath he hadn’t been aware he’d been holding. Despite the fist Dorian had tangled in Clare’s tunic, the psychic of their team tilted his head and rubbed his chin in thought. “Look at her, brother. She’s young and dumb, and not in the way I’ve been pretending to be.” He stabbed a finger at the screen. “I mean it, brother. Open your eyes and look! She’s interacting with the people around her on a personal level. No Mystallian worth their essence would lower themselves to that.”

    “A kid?” demanded Fortuna, shifting her attention between them and the screen. “Our plans are being fucked up by a realm-damned kid?”

    “Kid, adult, it doesn’t matter,” Clare went on. “If she’s here, the others won’t be far behind her! This threatens the Cause itself!”

    “Only if we reveal ourselves.”

    Dorian had always admired Fortuna’s calm under pressure, knowing how her mind had to be working at a thousand miles a second to take all this new information into consideration. He held Clare still, awaiting her final decision. As always, he wasn’t kept waiting long.

    “If we stick to our training and stay in the shadows, the Mystallians will never know why there are so many Earth replicas here. Only that there are. The Cause will remain intact.”

    Clare shook his head. “This threatens the Cause! I don’t want to go into the sin-bin for all eternity!” he said, still shaking his head. “We have to call it in…”

    Dorian hauled Clare away from the wall and slammed him into it again, driving him a good ten centimetres into the brickwork this time. More dust drifted down. “If Fortuna says no, it’s no. End of fucking discussion. We’re going to keep our heads down and wait for an opportunity to strike.” He leaned close, sliding his wrist under Clare’s chin against his windpipe. “And if you ever try to usurp Fortuna’s authority again, I will fuckin’ skin you alive. We might be all that’s left of Abaddon, but she’s still the team leader, and you will remember that.” He gave his brother a shove that cut off his air for a moment. “Got it?”

    Clare’s expression wasn’t happy, but Dorian hadn’t given him a choice in the matter, so he nodded. “Got it, brother. I’ll stay on top of this and let you know exactly how many there are and what they’re up to.”

    “Good.” Dorian released his brother with another shove and stalked back over to the large screen. What was it about this realm, he wondered, that drew unwanted visitors?

    <><>​

    Thirty Years Previously

    In Orbit

    “Abaddon, listen up!”

    Fortuna paused to eyeball the fifteen men and women of her strike team. She considered them all to be her brothers and sisters, no matter how many generations technically separated them. Each and every one of them shared the same never-sufficiently-realm-damned ancestor that they hated with every fibre of their being, and that hatred was what brought them out here to the ass-end of the Unknown Realms. It had taken a little time, but they’d managed to cobble together a realm that suited their training exercises perfectly.

    Abaddon’s target was the heart of Earlafaol itself; specifically the North American continent of the world called ‘Earth’ by its mortal residents. It was protected as few other targets in Creation were protected, but the Cause demanded that they devise a way to break through those impenetrable defences and retrieve the weapon they’d lost to Earlafaol’s mistress. Should be simple, right? Just sneak in and take him back. But nothing was ever that simple, which was why Fortuna and her team were out here, doing multiple dummy runs in a realm where they were entirely unlikely to be disturbed. Davin’s orders before they left home had been very clear. “Don’t come back until you succeed.” Their eldest brother was a straight shooter like that, and he had no problem backing up his orders with a lot of pain when you failed him. Not that Fortuna had anything against the sin-bin. It served its purpose and kept everyone in line. She was just grateful that her own innate ability kept her from screwing up that often. In fact, in all the eons she’d been alive, she could only count two instances where she’d been sentenced to the sin-bin, and those who’d caused her to fail suffered just as badly but for much longer once she got out.

    Her plan had been a simple one. She’d already set up a planet outwardly identical to Earlafaol’s ‘Earth’, then meddled with the local laws of physics until reality split and warped, not once, but dozens of times. The stupid little green and blue mudball had been duplicated so many times that they could try out one attack scheme after another for years without needing to reset the realm after each exercise. And after so many years of practice, they really were getting very close to succeeding. But Fortuna knew close wasn’t good enough. If the constructs they had standing in for the Pryde were not a patch on their true opponents, they couldn’t risk taking on the real Pryde until they could beat these things so easily it was a joke. And until they reached that point, they couldn’t go home. So they kept training.

    She gestured at the planet below. “Today we’ll be working with attack posture zeta-seventy-three. Rory, you, Clare and Valeria will come in hard from the north.” She looked up at the burly man with black eyes, short dark hair, and a full dark beard. He had his arms folded across his barrel-wide chest in concentration, absorbing everything she said. “As soon as you get that lake in sight, light it up. The more of their young you can take out before they realise we’re there, the more outraged they’ll be and the easier they’ll be to defeat.” Rory nodded and opened his arms to hold his hands about a foot apart. A string of lightning flowed between his palms and after focusing on it for a second or two, the intensity of it increased until all of their white cloaks lifted away from their armoured bodies despite the vacuum of space, along with any hair not hidden by their helmets. “Save it, brother. Now’s not the time to get cocky. If we can’t beat these fucking constructs with one hand tied behind our backs, we’re never going to get past the real mother-fucking Pryde.” The lightning show ended abruptly.

    Her eyes scanned the faces until she found who she was looking for next. “Tyrone; you, Logan, Mason and Mia will come in through the mountains to the west.” Her gaze burned into Tyrone. “I’m counting on you to destroy as much of that fucking mountainside as you can. Kill everything in your path, but avoid harming the naga nest. At the end of this, we need those fuckers alive, even if we have to round ‘em up and put their females in chains.” Tyrone nodded in understanding.

    “Oskar; you, Leon, Anna and Yuto come in from the south. Use the skins of the mortal mountaineers in those cabins here to get as close to the Prydelands as you can undetected, then hold your position until you hear the mountains shake. Once Tyrone’s crew start blasting, come in with every blade in your disposal.” Oskar pushed himself from all fours on to two feet and opened his rounded jaw like a hinge to expose row after row of razor sharp malleable teeth. When his forked tongue ran around his lips hungrily, it too had a serrated edge that was designed to remove flesh from skin without damaging the useful outer layer. “You’ll eat soon enough. Stay on point, or I’ll sin-bin you myself.” Oskar dropped back on to all fours and, like his brother before, nodded in understanding of the plan.

    “Nicky, Roxanne and I will come in from the east. We’ll be the most exposed, but the three of us should be able to dodge our way through most of the shit they throw at us.” She looked over her team again. “Remember people, we’re looking for maximum damage to get the Pryde’s attention, and it’s not going to last long. A minute or two at best before they get their shit together and swamp us.”

    Again, her eyes scanned those before her and landed on her trusted second in command. “Dorian, I need you to get a bead on Trysten. The second this all blows up, you need to get in, grab that traitorous little fucker, and get out with him as fast as you can. As soon as you’re clear, we’ll pull back. Any questions?”

    “Yeah.” Clare raised his hand, then pointed past Fortuna. “What’s that?”

    “What’s wha …” Turning, she saw what he’d indicated. Not twenty feet from them the very fabric of space-time was twisting and rupturing. Something was coming through from the celestial realm; something huge. And when it came through, it was even bigger than Fortuna had thought. Also, it was travelling far too fast. “Oh, fu—”

    Fortuna had no way of evading the thing, so she did exactly the same as every other member of Abaddon had been trained to do. When under attack, destroy their mind.

    Like the rest of her people, Fortuna was a ranged bender, though at this short a distance even a touch bender would’ve sufficed. Either way, once the connection was made, mental attacks by benders were near instantaneous and sixteen ranged attacks struck the continent sized, whale-like creature, lancing through what little it could put up for a defence, and utterly destroyed all capacity for thought.

    In hindsight, this was perhaps the worst move they could’ve made. Even as the ludicrously immense creature convulsed, its entire mental being obliterated, it was literally right on top of them with no chance for them to take even the one step necessary to realm-step out of its way. It may well have been on the point of slowing or stopping before all rational thought was destroyed, but that couldn’t happen now.

    The gigantic biological meteor smashed into Abaddon and drove them all headlong into the planet below. Carried along helplessly, with no time to devise a plan of escape, Fortuna saw the ground approaching fast.

    This is gonna hurt.

    <><>​

    Nineteen Years Previously

    The Realm of Earlafaol; Earth; North America; Prydelands

    Zeus hated feeling indebted to anyone. He was the ruler of his own realm, the supreme ruler of Olympus. People owed him debts. Often, for his assistance, he was able to extract boons from others to get those few things he was unable to accomplish for himself. It was good to be the one in charge.

    Only, he wasn’t in charge here. But the sting of not calling the shots was somewhat mitigated by the fact that the de facto ruler of the Prydelands (and thus the entire realm of Earlafaol) was not in the habit of holding anything over the heads of anyone who needed something from her. She gave without demanding the exchange of something of equal or greater value, which was an unheard of trait amongst the celestials. That, and the knowledge that the infants he held would be well treated despite their hybrid background, was the only reason he’d opened a bloodlink here in the first place. “So, you’ll take them?” he asked, focusing his attention on the answer to his question and not on the very formal library in which he stood.

    “Of course,” replied the woman with the long black hair that almost reached the ground and matching obsidian eyes standing opposite him. He knew that she got her looks from her father; by contrast, her mother was of his bloodline. She was almost as tall as him but she got her slender, almost dainty build from her mother. A warrior she wasn’t; unlike others in her family. However, she didn’t need to be physically impressive. She had others to do that for her, and they did it spectacularly well. The peregrine falcon (which he well knew was no falcon at all) that rode on her shoulder and cocked its head at him as if it knew his thoughts was but one example. “Thank you for bringing them to me. I will ensure they know of their heritage, once they are of an age to understand it.”

    A gesture from her brought a pair of servants forth to relieve him of the children. They’d been the result of a passing whim; a mortal woman of impressive beauty had caught his eye, and he’d indulged himself. She’d gotten pregnant by him, which was where things became problematic. Children of the gods tended to be venerated by the mortals around them, but were despised by the celestials. Hybrids, as a rule, didn’t live long. His own bastard offspring even less so, given Hera’s vengeful nature. Even as ruler of Olympus, he would not have been able to flout her will for long without spending every moment hovering over them. Normally, as in eons past, he would’ve simply shrugged and let nature take its course. But he’d liked their mother and in a moment of weakness, had promised to see to their well-being. Before Earlafaol, that would’ve been impossible. Now, it seemed, anything was possible.

    “Just so long as they don’t get it into their heads to come back to Olympus and try to overthrow me,” he said, only half-jokingly as he passed the sleeping bundles over to the two women. With his arms now free, he lifted his right hand and rolled it in a half circle that ended on his hip. “Hephaestus!” he called.

    The blood-link formed in an instant, the ugly features of his son filling the space between him and Lady Col. The smears of soot and dirt on Hephaestus’ face didn’t improve his appearance in the slightest, but Zeus didn’t care. The tremendous forge beneath the volcano turned out many useful items for the court of Olympus, after all.

    “Until our paths cross again, Lord Zeus,” the petite woman called through the image as Zeus reached for Hephaestus’ hand.

    “Your health, Lady Col,” he replied in farewell, then clasped the blacksmith’s calloused paw and stepped through the bloodlink. As it closed behind him, he let the tension sag out of him with a tiny sigh.

    “Father.” Hephaestus acknowledged him with a brief nod. “Do I need t’know what that wuz about?”

    “Not in the slightest,” Zeus replied, releasing his son’s hand. “And if your mother asks …”

    One of Hephaestus’ misshapen shoulders lifted in a half-shrug. “I wuz workin’ in me forge all day. Didn’t hear nuthin’, didn’t see nuthin’.”

    “Good boy.” Zeus clapped his son on the shoulder on the way out of the forge. The hard part was over. Now he just had to weather the storm of Hera’s anger.

    It wasn’t like he hadn’t done that a million times already.

    <><>​

    Eighteen Years Later

    The Realm of Earlafaol; Earth; North America; New York City

    The Apartment of Sagun and Edeena Hawthorn

    Racing Edeena up the fire escape, Sagun got to the window first. They’d left it locked, but he focused his will upon it and it obediently unlocked itself and slid open. Climbing in, he let out his pent-up emotions in a gust of laughter. Stepping aside to let Edeena follow him in, he pulled off his mask. Like the rest of his costume, it was a bright gold in colour. “Wow, what a rush!”

    “Holy shit, yes!” Edeena burbled, pushing the window shut again. “Why we waited for so long to go out in costume, I have no idea!” In contrast to his costume, hers was all silver.

    “We rocked out there.” Sagun gestured to the curtains and they closed over the window. “Did you see the look on that mugger’s face?”

    “Or the cop, when we handed him over?” Edeena reached out and flicked on the light … then froze.

    Across the apartment, seated in Sagun’s favourite armchair, was a stranger. A woman in a business suit with short red hair and a jacket ostensibly hanging open to reveal a pair of holstered guns in a double shoulder holster. A badge was clipped to her belt. Sagun wasn’t close enough to read the inscription on it, but he knew one thing; no matter what it said, it was bad news for them.

    “Who are you?” he snapped, preparing to defend them with his power. In an instant, if he had to, he could cause the armchair to sprout tentacles and fasten the intruder in place. “What are you doing in our apartment?”

    “Well clearly I’m not waiting for a pizza,” the woman shot back with an indifferent sneer as she rose and buttoned her jacket. This didn’t seem to make her look any less dangerous. “I’m here for you two show-boating knuckleheads. As for who my name … I’m Agent Nascerdios of the FBI. But that’s just one of the many hats I wear.” The name-drop, she didn’t have to say, was to drive home to them exactly how screwed they were if she did want to make things official. Quite apart from the FBI, everyone knew of the Nascerdios family. Their wealth and power in the global scheme of things put them on par with God.

    “Okay …” Edeena said cautiously after a moment. “If you’re talking about other hats, that means you’re not here to arrest us. So, why are you here?” Sagun hadn’t thought that far ahead, but he realised that she was correct. Edeena always had been the smarter of the two.

    “Because you two idiots have caused a hell of a stir on the streets. In just a few hours people are whispering about the pair of masked crusaders who are taking on street crime using inhuman abilities.” She rolled her eyes. “Really? Goldstar and Silverbolt? Did you two clowns actually want anyone to take you seriously?”

    “Doesn’t it worry you that what they say might be true?” Sagun asked, lifting his chin in challenge. Nascerdios or not, he was certain his power gave him the upper hand.

    The woman looked at him as if he’d grown a second head (something he could actually do) and snorted dismissively. “Honey, the day I’m scared of the likes of you, is the day I march back into the Well of Hell and tell Belial and the every one of his sons what they can go do with themselves.”

    The two siblings looked at each other pensively; a move that was a move not lost on the armed woman. Sagun only had the vaguest idea of what she was talking about, but he was beginning to get the impression that they were in more trouble than they’d previously imagined. “Oh, so now you two morons start thinking with more than your egos,” the woman drawled, dropping her hands on to her hips. “A day late and a dollar short.”

    “Lady Col sent you, didn’t she?” Edeena asked, edging her way over to where her brother still sat on the lounge.

    A slow, almost mocking golf-clap followed her. “Close, but if my sister was involved, she’d still be making excuses for your sorry asses.” The clapping stopped and the woman’s hands found her hips again. “Newsflash. I don’t play by those rules. I’m more of a shock and awe kinda gal.”

    Sagun blinked. “Wait, you’re Lady Col’s sister?” He stared at her. If he ignored the red hair, there did seem to be a certain amount of family resemblance to the woman they’d called ‘Lady Col’ all their lives.

    “Oh, quick on the uptake, aren’cha?” Agent Nascerdios jeered.

    “So … what are you doing here?”

    The woman gestured at the window and by inference the street outside. “The little stunts you’ve been pulling all evening have got you pissing in a lot of people’s pools and no one’s happy about it. Do you really think it’s a coincidence that none of the mortals here have ever had any confirmation of the powers that really control the universe?”

    Sagun and Edeena looked at each other. “So, are we going to super hero prison or something?” he asked.

    The FBI agent closed her eyes and tapped two fingers into her forehead over her nose. “I am going to take every last one of those fucking comics of yours and jam them one by one up your fucking asses if I hear one more realm-damned comic book reference out of either one of you. I swear on the Twin Notes of all existence …”

    “Well, how else do you explain what we can do?” Edeena asked, earnestly. “We can change shape, and change the shape of others …!”

    The tapping against her forehead increased. “Now I know how Dad felt,” she murmured under her breath, shaking her head. She then dropped her hand to her side and fixed them with a ruthless glare. “It’s called shifting, you idiot, and you pair are a long way from the only ones that can do it. Okay?”

    “Can you?” challenged Sagun. They’d never met anyone else who could do what they could. What were the odds that this pushy government agent, or whatever she was, could really match them?

    With slowly dawning horror, he watched as she did just that. The empty coffee mug he’d left on the side table near his elbow folded downwards and changed into a white rectangular packet of Rothmans cigarettes. Hastily, he brought his own powers to bear. She won’t be so smug when I turn them right back. But concentrate as he might, his power just skidded over the cigarette packet. Agent Nascerdios watched him with a sardonic smirk, and he realised that she knew exactly what he was trying to do. She’d also known all along that he’d try to show her up, and she hadn’t said a word, just to drive it home to him that her power outmatched his.

    The cigarette packet opened without aid and a single cigarette pulled itself free and flew across the room into the woman’s outstretched hand. As if she’d done it a hundred times before, she placed the cigarette between her lips, then snapped her fingers to create a small fire from their tips and puffed the flame through the cigarette as if she was holding up a lighter. “You might say that,” she said, shaking out her fingers and breathing a stream of smoke into the ceiling.

    “They say smoking will kill you,” observed Edeena tentatively.

    “I’d like to see it try.” The woman flicked her eyebrows as if the idea amused her.

    Sagun didn’t find her funny at all. “So what happens now?”

    “Now, you two get brought up to speed on exactly what you are, and exactly why we’re all keeping our heads down for the foreseeable future.” She took another drag on her cigarette and breathed out the lungful of smoke without ever taking the cigarette from her lips. “No more molly-coddling you two twits.” She gestured to the empty seat beside Sagun. “Sit down,” she commanded of Edeena. She then hooked her foot under the coffee table and dragged it closer to them once Edeena had parked herself alongside her brother. “Okay, for starters, you two aren’t thinking big enough. Superhumans are for amateurs. You two have divinity flowing in your veins.”

    Sagun looked at Edeena again, waiting for her to interpret what that meant to them. The way Edeena’s eyes flared with realisation, he knew his academically inclined sister had heard something he’d missed. “What, like we’re gods?”

    “Hybrids, actually, but yeah. Your dad’s a god.” She took a third drag. “Pretty substantial one, too. Hung around a lot with my old man back in the day, and they’re still pretty tight. Have you two ever heard of Hercules?”

    “Son of Zeus. Greek mythology,” Edeena answered, parroting an encyclopedia. She was always more into that stuff. Sagun preferred his comics.

    “To you two, he has a different title.”

    “What, ‘dad’?’ Sagun jeered with a snort.

    “No, wise-ass. You two get to call him ‘brother’.”

    Edeena’s jaw just about fell into her lap. Sagun didn’t see what the big deal was. “Zeus is our father?” she screeched in excitement. She turned and shook Sagun’s arm. “The god Zeus is our father!”

    In Sagun’s eyes, that still didn’t outdo Superman or the Fantastic Four. But, since Edeena was happy, he decided not to burst her bubble just yet. “And what does that mean to us?”

    “Well, since he dumped your asses here, I’m guessing he wants nothing more to do with you.”

    Edeena’s bubbling enthusiasm collapsed like a balloon to a dart.

    “I’m guessing tact’s not in your repertoire either,” Sagun scowled, placing a comforting hand on his sister’s arm.

    The woman shrugged. “Depends on the situation. You two have pissed me off, so you’re not getting any slack outta me. Putting it simply, your bullshit antics are going to get us noticed, and we can’t have that. So you two have a choice to make.”

    “Here it comes,” Sagun whispered with deliberate volume and maybe an accompanying eyeroll.

    “Don’t push it,” the woman warned, twisting her lips to one side. An impressive feat since she still had the cigarette in her mouth. “No one’ll miss you if you were to suddenly vanish … one way or the other.”

    That sounded suspiciously like a threat to Sagun. For a moment, he wondered if it was deliberate, then decided that of course it was. “So what’s our choices?”

    “Stay here. Keep your heads down and your noses clean. Live a long, potentially eternal life doing only what the mortals around you can do.”

    Well, that seemed lame to Sagun. “What’s our other option?”

    “I take you to the edge of the realm. Show you how to realm-step … and boot your asses to the curb.” She pushed the rest of the cigarette in her mouth and chewed it up, making a show of swallowing it as effortlessly as a mouthful of water. “If you pick option two, there’s no coming back. The Pryde constantly patrol the borders, and they’ll kill anything celestial that tries to sneak in uninvited.”

    Sagun seized on the name. “And the Pryde are?”

    “Not to be fucked with.”

    Sagun looked at Edeena, who was still shell-shocked. “How long have we got to think about it?”

    The woman stretched out her arm and rolled her wrist to look at the watch that probably cost more than Sagun would make in a decade if the gold and diamond embellishments were anything to go by. “Well, Tron is opening in the Garden in a few minutes and I’ve been looking forward to seeing that. So I suppose I can give you till the end of the movie to make up your mind.” She rose to her feet and dusted her hands, as if she hadn’t just dumped the world on its ear for them. “Oh, and don’t try to run. If I have to hunt your sorry tails down, I will find you before dawn, and then you really won’t like what happens next.” She extended her jaw like something out of a horror movie, then grew a set of fangs that wouldn’t have looked out of place on an angler fish. Somehow, even with that insane dentition, she was able to talk normally. “Capisce?”

    “What if we contact Lady Col?” He was grasping at straws, but Lady Col had always looked out for them.

    The woman’s face returned to normal and she shrugged again. “The rules aren’t changing anytime soon, chuckles. If you stay, you keep your heads down just like the rest of us. If you want to try your luck out there, I’m the one to arrange that too.” As she made her way to the front door, she yanked it open and paused in the doorway. “I’ll let you know if the movie’s worth going to see, or if it’s total shit. In case you choose to stay.” And with that, she was gone.

    “Did that really just happen?” Sagun asked, looking at his sister with the hope that this was some demented dream.

    “Yeah,” Edeena answered, the first word she’d spoken since being told their father didn’t care for them. Sagun had always thought that was the case, which was why he buried himself in his comic books, even going as far as to pick up a job at the local comic store where he could get them at wholesale. Edeena was a totally different stripe of cat, mentally speaking. She’d always hung on to the belief that their father was just waiting in the shadows for her to prove herself, and once she had, he’d come swooping in like a white knight to carry her away. So she’d studied, and had studied hard. Sometimes he wondered which one of them had the wilder imagination.

    “What do you want to do?” They both asked the question at the same time, then laughed hollowly. “You first,” Sagun said, always the gentleman.

    “I don’t know,” Edeena replied. “I mean, is there any point to any of this, if it’s all meaningless?”

    Sagun decided to throw out a hypothetical. “What if we left?”

    “What?”

    “I’m serious. What if we left? If it’s a rule here that we have to conform to bullshit normality, what’s the point of being here? If we left, we could do anything. Be anything. We could be…we could be …” His eyes searched the many wall posters for suggestions. “We could be bigger than Galactus!”

    “But there’s going to be dangers out there too. Dangers we have no way of being prepared for …”

    Sagun slapped the box of sealed comics he had under the side table. One of dozens of boxes he had scattered all over the apartment. “If we can be anything, I’m pretty sure I’ve got that covered. There’s not much that hasn’t been explored in a comic somewhere, and I’ve pretty much read them all.” His eyes shone as the possibilities raced through his head.

    “But if we leave, we can never come back.”

    “So we’ll make another world just like Earth. Come on, Edeena! We can do anything!”

    “You’ve already made up your mind, haven’t you?”

    Sagun hadn’t wanted to admit it, but yeah, he had. “You think I want to spend the rest of eternity working at Forbidden Planet? When I can be …” He stood up and puffed his chest, his imagination running wild. “… The. Forbidden. Planet?”

    A cushion hit him in the side of the head, knocking him sideways and detracting from his moment of envisioned glory. “You’re such an idiot.”

    Sagun plopped into the couch, laughing. “I’ve got ninety minutes to convince you to come with me. I don’t think it’ll take that long.”

    <><>​

    Empty Space

    At the Edge of the Realm of Earlafaol

    Three Hours Later

    At any other time, Sagun would’ve called the view spectacular. Behind them, a mass of galaxies spread across the sky, too many to count. Before them, more galaxies. To the left and right, up and down, there was a noticeable divide. It wasn’t empty, but the points of light were significantly farther away. He could well believe he was standing on the border between two realms.

    “I still can’t believe you talked me into this,” grumbled Edeena.

    “I can,” Agent Nascerdios said dryly. Against all accepted laws of physics, she was smoking a cigarette in the vacuum of space. Sagun wasn’t quite sure where the smoke was going. “You two are joined at the hip. Where one goes, the other follows. I’ve seen it before. Seen it end in tragedy too, but it keeps happening.” She took the cigarette out of her mouth and ashed it, more for show than because she needed to. “You know how to realm-step now. The Known Realms are that way.” She gestured over an arc with her arm. “Don’t go there. You’ll be killed just for being what you are. Everywhere else, knock yourself out. Carve yourselves out a realm, set yourself up as lords over all, I don’t care. Just don’t come back to Earlafaol.”

    “Fine.” Sagun turned to Edeena and took her hand. “Let’s get out of this dump. We can do better on our own, anyway.”

    She took a deep breath. “Yeah. Let’s do this.”

    Together, they stepped up into the celestial realm, taking care to move away from Earlafaol. Down into the mortal realm. Up again. Down again. After the first step, Agent Nascerdios was no longer in sight, but nothing else seemed to change. Travelling this way, Sagun realised, was going to take them a very long time to get anywhere.

    “Wait a minute,” he said as they stepped up into the celestial realm once more. “We’re doing this wrong.”

    “Wrong?” asked Edeena. “After all the effort you went to, to convince me to come along, you’d better not be having second thoughts now.”

    “No, no,” he said, shaking his head for emphasis. “We’re walking when we could be flying.”

    “What, like this?” she asked, drawing on the ground beneath them for mass. A moment later, great silvery wings unfurled from her back. Experimentally, she flapped them a few times, lifting into the air.

    “Wow, I say ‘flight’ and you go straight to bird wings,” he said with a roll of his eyes. “I was thinking of something a bit more superheroic. More high-tech.”

    “Hawkman’s wings are high-tech,” she pointed out smugly.

    Loftily, he ignored her comment. Using his shifting, he drew on the ground beneath them as well. The construction that formed on his back was far different from her wings. It was streamlined, with fins and blast nozzles. To match the rest of his costume, it was a burnished gold in colour.

    “A jetpack,” she said with a snort. “How very comic book nerd of you.”

    “You’ll be laughing on the other side of your face when I leave you in my dust,” he said with a cocky smirk.

    “Oh, really,” she challenged. “You and what …”

    Grabbing the control handles, Sagun triggered the jetpack and blasted into the air. Distantly, he heard her yell “Hey!” behind him, but he didn’t care. He was laughing too hard.

    His jetpack let him stay ahead of her until it ran out of fuel; when he landed, she overtook him. It didn’t matter now. They were venturing into the Unknown Realms in style.

    Agent Nascerdios could suck it.

    <><>​

    Nearly Ten Months Later

    A high pitched roar shook the rock walls until large boulders crashed to the ground. Edeena was huddled in a ball with her hands over her head and it was all Sagun could do not to join her. But he wouldn’t let himself. It was his fault they were in this predicament, not because of anything they’d done, but because he’d talked his sister into coming with him. Stretching his arms over his head, he shifted his upper body into a thick blanket which he used to dampen the sound of the thing outside. There was little he could do about the way it pounded at the planet in frustration. They hadn’t been doing anything, except flying through space, when this thing had blindsided them. It was huge! Easily the size of Manhattan. Maybe even New York itself! With grey skin and more horns and teeth and pointy bits protruding from its hide, they were barely the size of a pea to it and should have been swallowed whole. And they would’ve been, if his knowledge of comic books and science fiction movies—thank you, Star Wars—hadn’t told him that the volcano-sized opening underneath them was in fact a massive mouth, with rows and rows of jagged teeth.

    He’d grabbed his sister’s arm, and they’d cut through into the mortal realm. But that rhino-shaped monstrosity followed them. They’d stepped to and from the realms in the hopes of losing it, but it kept coming, like it could sense their divinity and wanted it more than anything else in existence.

    Finally, Sagun hid them deep beneath the crust of a planet. Long ago, he’d learned what that FBI agent had been trying to tell them. That unlike the celestial realm, things weren’t actively trying to kill you in the mortal realm, and would even go out of their way to keep you alive. Hence this cave-like room that floated in the middle of what should have been the planet’s molten core. And the thing out there wasn’t happy that it couldn’t find them. It felt like the whole planet was shifting on its axis from its blows.

    Edeena sobbed with every blow, causing Sagun to regret ever bringing her out into this. Hadn’t the agent warned them? “I’ve seen this end in tragedy too,” she’d said. Suddenly, working the rest of eternity in the comic shop didn’t seem so bad.

    It’s gonna be alright, he mentally promised his sister, using his blanket half to hold her close.

    Three days was how long it took that monstrosity to give up and leave them alone. Three of the longest, most scary days of his life. Sagun filtered the cave to give them fresh air to breathe and food to eat, though Edeena hardly touched a bite.

    And then the beast left. Just to be on the safe side, Sagun kept them in the cave bubble for another week, but when the seventh day ticked over and the world hadn’t so much as hiccupped, he realm-stepped into the planet’s orbit to investigate.

    The world was a wreck. Floating high above, he could see where the beast had punched and gored holes in the crust that should have shattered the planet. It seemed only his and Edeena’s determination to survive had kept the fragile husk together. He hoped there hadn’t been any people living on the surface. If there had, there weren’t anymore. Oops. Well, not my fault. Not really.

    Three steps later had him back beside his sister. “It’s gone, baby,” he said, as she wrapped her arms around his neck and cried. He dropped his chin on to her head and cuddled her close. “And this whole planet’s gonna blow just as soon as we leave.”

    “How can we fight something like that?” she sobbed. “It’s too big!”

    Sagun looked at the molten core around them. “We just have to get bigger,” he declared. “This planet’s a goner anyway, so we’ll take its mass. We’ll be even bigger than Galactus. And then things like that won’t ever be able to touch us again. Nothing will ever be able to touch us again.” He pulled her face away from his chest and looked her in the eyes. “We’ll be the ones to splut it, not the other way around. ‘kay?”

    Still teary-eyed, Edeena nodded. “’kay.”

    Unfortunately, neither of them really understood how biology worked and they didn’t have an elder to teach them how to use their divinity to offset physical limitations. So by the time they’d subsumed a large portion of the planet, their human forms were a thing of the past. Edeena hadn’t liked that part of their evolution, but once Sagun showed her how they could create flesh puppets of themselves to act through (provided they kept the puppet tethered to them), she began to warm to the idea. The huge slug form was for travel. For safety. For protection. Like the armour of a tank or battle cruiser. It wasn’t the real them. She finally came around when he promised her that once they set themselves up in a realm (however one went about doing that), they could return to their former selves.

    Now gigantic, the two space whales set out once more, undulating through the cosmos together.

    <><>​

    A Month Later

    “Whoa,” breathed Sagun. His puppet avatar stood atop his whale-fin, next to where Edeena’s puppet stood atop hers. “Will you look at that.”

    Edeena tilted her head to one side. “How does that even work? One celestial realm, but there’s dozens of mortal realms, stacked together like the pages of a book. And they all kind of look like Earth.”

    “Answer: there’s a lot of weird shit out here in the Unknown Realm,” Sagun stated with absolute authority. “But this is perfect for us. I mean, check it out. We can set up superhero worlds in parallel, have crossover events, alternate universe doubles, absolutely everything we ever wanted to do. And we’ll be the absolute most kickass heroes in any universe we’re in. The Superman and Captain Mar-Vell of our universes. Other superheroes will be lining up to get autographs from us.”

    Edeena blinked. “Wow. That does sound … amazing.” She turned her beaming gaze on her brother. “But how are we going to give other people powers? It’s not like we can go out and invite other celestials here. From what that Agent Nascerdios said, they’d probably try to kill us.”

    “I’ve been thinking about that,” he replied. “You know how she showed us how to make constructs in the celestial realm before we left Earlafaol?”

    “She also said that would only work if we were ‘attuned’ to a place, and that takes time,” Edeena pointed out.

    “Yeah, yeah, I know,” he said impatiently. “But if we decided to get attuned to a small area … you know, just the local star cluster … then it would happen pretty quickly. Then all we’d have to do is put down constructs in the celestial realm and imbue them with powers that people could use to be superheroes with. Then we set it up so people get powers. Voila, our own superhero story for as long as we want to play with it.”

    “Well, we have to make sure that some of the powers are dark and creepy, otherwise we’ll have really boring supervillains,” Edeena mused. Then her eyes widened. “Hey. Maybe we could set it up so their state of mind has a say in how the power turns out.”

    “Ooh, I like it.” Sagun offered her a high-five. “And with multiple worlds to draw on, we can do doomsday events and everything. People from a dying world shot to a new one to become heroes, and all that stuff.”

    Edeena nodded. “Oh, heck yes.”

    Carefully, they marked out the boundaries for where they wanted their attunement to run to. Given how difficult Agent Nascerdios had said setting up a realm was, Sagun found it fairly easy. He just followed the boundary line that was already there.

    <><>​

    Four Weeks Later

    “Done.” Standing once more on the fin of his hovering space whale, Sagun dusted his hands off and admired their handiwork. The surface of the celestial realm below them was covered in crystals of all sizes. Some were linked to Sagun’s body and thus his celestial capabilities, while others were linked to Edeena. He’d had an absolute ball making up the most weird and wonderful powersets to give to people, and he seriously looked forward to seeing what the mortals did with them.

    “Holy shit, I think this is really going to work,” Edeena agreed. “So what do we do now?”

    “Well, we want to set up alternates,” Sagun said. “So we each go into a different world and set ourselves up in it. Once we’re sure we’re set up the way we want, we blood-link each other and compare what we’ve done. Then we can start giving out powers.”

    “Cool.” Edeena’s eyes sparkled, then the corner of her mouth crept up mischievously. “Though I have to wonder, what is that fuzz on your face?”

    “It’s a beard,” he replied with dignified affront. “If I’m going to be their most powerful hero, I need to look the part. A beard is mature. Manly.”

    She snorted. “More like a dead ferret stapled to your face.”

    “Hey! Don’t diss the beard!”

    “Make it look more like an actual beard and I won’t.”

    Fine.” He rolled his eyes, but his facial hair reshaped itself. “Better?”

    She put her hand over her mouth, but her eyes danced with mirth. “Now it’s a dead skunk.”

    He glowered at her, then tried again. “Okay, how’s this?”

    Opening her mouth, she paused. “Yeah … that’s actually much better.”

    “Good.” He thrust out his chin and deepened his voice. “Rejoice … for Sagun has arrived among you.”

    Half-turning her head, she gave him side-eye. “You’re just going to use your real name? Whatever happened to a mask and a secret identity?”

    He gestured; the costume vanished and his skin turned gold. “Who needs it? We’re gods now.”

    “Whoa, hey!” she shielded her eyes. “I did not need to see your junk!”

    “Sorry.” Pants were quickly added to his ensemble. “Anyway, let’s whale up and go pick a world each.”

    She shook her head pityingly. “‘Whale up.’ Sometimes I worry about you.” But she reabsorbed her avatar into the mass of her main body. Seconds later, he did the same. Flukes pushing strongly against nothingness, they swam forward and dived into the mortal realm, each to their own world.

    <><>​

    Three Days After the Impact

    Contessa

    The crater was vast, filled by a huge twitching mass of flesh. One small part of it, quite near the edge, was twitching more than normal. The twitching gave way to a minor upheaval, and then the sharp tip of a claw poked through and sliced across. Hands reached out of the gap and sawed through the surface layer to make the opening larger. Nearly a minute later, Fortuna dragged herself into the open air. Or rather, some of her.

    She was a mess. The toughest and strongest of her brethren, even with all of her self-shifting at her disposal, she had barely survived the impact. In fact, her body was simply gone from the waist down; an injury that would’ve killed any mortal. Determined not to lose by dying, she accepted the loss of her lower half, sealed the wounds shut, and kept going. All the while, swearing up a storm at how badly she would destroy whatever had the audacity to ambush her team.

    If her shifting had been more versatile, she would’ve been able to touch-shift the ground to become part of her body and thus become whole once more. But the only way for her to gain more mass was to eat it and the tremendous weight of flesh above her was too tough to bite into. So she had to crawl out, inch by agonizing inch.

    As soon as she was out from under the crushing mass, she swiftly reshaped her body to that of a child of that weight. Nine or ten years old, she gauged. Not that it mattered. Shifting her metabolism to that of a hummingbird meant in short order, she’d be back to her full height. She was about to do that, when she noticed the slug’s body was attempting to salvage something of itself. In the distance, she saw an avatar of sorts that it could pour all of its celestial energy into, just as she had done, before the final flicker of death took their light. “Oh, fuck no!” she snarled, extruding a claw from her hand once more. This thing was not going to live. No fucking way.

    Clambering across the misshapen flesh forest, she found its mind may be ash, but self-preservation of the body was still there and even now, it was forcing a superior shape-shift against her in self-defence. Her own body seized in fits and starts as it instinctively knew enough to keep her away from the vital seat of its consciousness. Not that it was going to stop her. Her team was dead and she’d be sent into the sin-bin for centuries for their loss. But she’d see this thing disappeared first.

    She was so intent on her new mission, that she failed to hear someone coming up behind her until she heard a woman’s voice in the language of the local worlds. She’d never bothered learning it, but now she turned her head until she saw the speaker—a dark-skinned woman—and went into the woman’s memories to see what she’d wanted her to hear. “Do you need help?” the replay asked, after she’d spent a few hours of learning her language.

    A sly, cruel smile worked its way across Fortuna’s face. The timing of the woman’s arrival was nothing short of brilliant, since the shape-shifting shithead couldn’t tag both of them at once. On top of that, the woman hadn’t noticed her hand had a huge claw sticking out of it. Once again, Fortuna fist pumped her innate ability that always found a way to look out for her … most of the time.

    Fortuna returned to the physical realm and immediately reshaped her hand, subtly redistributing mass so that she held a short-bladed knife. Feigning ignorance of her language in the beginning, Fortuna used a combination of gestures and incoherent grunts to convince the woman to assist her.

    With both hands on the knife, the blade plunged home, right where Fortuna’s innate luck told her to strike. Without a mind to rebuild from, leaving the blade embedded in the avatar prevented the abomination from interfering with things, but didn’t quite kill her. Given how determined she’d been to end it, she cocked her head to one side thoughtfully. Her innate ability had only incapacitated it? Why? Dead was the objective. Not incapacitated. Unless keeping it alive served a future purpose.

    Fortuna hadn’t lived this long by not trusting her innate ability. So for now, it would live. For now. Looking once again at her ‘saviour’, Fortuna dove back into the woman’s mind, wanting to know where she came from. That was when she noticed that the female had stumbled through a portal from another one of the worlds. Through the eyes of a celest, Fortuna wanted to facepalm. The mortal world had sensed the imminent death of multiple celestials and opened portals to try and save them. Not where they would be useful … like right in front of where they were all falling ...!

    Despite being deep inside the woman’s mind, Fortuna closed her eyes and breathed out a frustrated sigh. She could see the intent of the woman, even though nothing had been said yet about what would happen now. The woman saw her as a young child. The child she portrayed. And she wanted her to come back with her, feeling this would forever haunt her or some nonsense.

    She thought about her options. If she contacted Davin, she’d be sent to the sin-bin. Her innate luck had made the death strike against the celest an incapacitating one. And now this woman wanted her to go to her home world. The sin-bin was always going to be in her future. Failure wasn’t tolerated, and this whole mission was now a categorical failure. But her innate ability was nudging her in a different direction. As always, when the odds were stacked in favour of her innate ability, she followed her instincts.

    Returning again to the physical realm, Fortuna gave the woman what she hoped was an innocent smile as she held her hand out. The realms only knew how long it’d been since she was a fucking kid.


    <><>​

    One Day Later

    The heavy pulse of an incoming blood-link against the inside of her brain drew Fortuna out of her deep sleep. She had no idea who was trying to contact her, but if it was Davin, she needed to answer now. Sitting up in bed, she cast a stimulation wave and recreated her armour complete with helmet before accepting the call. “Yes?”

    The image that formed before her was as welcome as it was unexpected. Dorian! Sturdy, dependable Dorian! The brother and trusted second in command that she never thought she’d ever lay eyes on again, stood with the landscape of the flesh garden behind him. In view of the link, with Dorian’s hand on his shoulder, was Clare. “Fortuna!” Dorian burst out. “You’re alive! You’re …” He blinked, his eyes dropping the length of her tiny body and back again. “… a kid?”

    “Don’t fucking remind me,” grumbled Fortuna. The woman, whom she’d nicknamed ‘Mother’ because Fortuna had no memories of her real mother, had insisted on caring for her, not simply casting her off once they got back to her world. If she was to re-age herself to adulthood, she’d have to get rid of the woman, and she had no desire to throw away a useful mortal tool just yet. Besides, on sifting through the memories of the celestial she’d killed, she had acquired one important fact.

    There was another one. Here. On the world that ‘Mother’ called home.

    ‘Mother’ was out at the moment, so Fortuna grasped Dorian’s hand with her left and flicked the fingertips of her right hand at Clare. Without a word, Clare took her hand and in a single step, went from the crash site to standing alongside his sister and field commander. Dorian quickly followed suit. Both stared at the unexpected palatial surroundings.

    “Okay, I’m impressed,” Dorian said. “Where are we?”

    “‘Earth’ number four,” Clare answered, his psychic abilities already filling him in.

    “Okay,” Dorian accepted the fact easily. “And how in the realms did you end up here?”

    “Long story,” Fortuna said. “Mortal allies can be useful, especially as fronts in a new world. How did you two survive?”

    “We nearly didn’t,” Dorian said. “Took us this long to wake up and crawl out.”

    “Were there any other survivors?” Both Dorian and Clare shook their heads. “Fuck.”

    Breathing heavily, Clare dragged his lips between his teeth so hard he broke the skin. “So, do we go home and face the music?” It seemed her brothers had worked out their future as quickly as she had, and none of them were looking forward to it.

    Fortuna shook her head. “Not yet. We’ve still got a job to do.”

    “What job?” asked Clare. “There’s no way we can mount a serious attack on the Prydelands and hope to beat it with only three of us.”

    “I didn’t say it was for the Cause.” Fortuna put a snap into her voice. “This is revenge. Our brothers and sisters lie dead under that thing and it’s got a partner. Here. The arrogant little fucker is on this planet … OUR planet, and he’s arranging matters to his satisfaction like he owns the place! Well, no, on all fronts. It’s ours! His partner fucked us up, so now we’re going to fuck him so hard up the ass he’ll never fucking land.”

    “And how are we going to do that?” asked Dorian, leaning forward slightly. The light of battle in his eye made it clear he really wanted to know. Revenge after all, was at the core of the Cause.

    Fortuna smiled. “Well, you see, he wants to make a world of superheroes.” To save time, she pushed them both into Clare’s mind and started a slide-show to explain what she’d learned in the last twenty-four hours. It was as inexplicable to them as it had been to her, but it was a handle on the intruding celestial and thus they were on board with it.

    “And how does this help us?” asked Clare, once she was done.

    “The fucker has altered physics to make it easy to get super-powers,” Fortuna explained. “Back on the last world, there were people who’d mutated into monsters, probably from inhaling tiny particles of the celest that crashed. If we cut the bitch up and feed her to people, people we choose …”

    Dorian got it first. “They get powers and we get to stick it to the motherfucker,” he exclaimed. “Desecrating his bitch and feeding her piece by piece to the dumb-ass fucking mortals here.” He shook his head in amazement. “Fuck me, that’s brutal. I fuckin’ love it.”

    Clare grinned wide, the flames in his eye-sockets flaring brightly. “Fuck, yeah. Count me in.”

    “Wait,” Dorian said. “How do we explain me and Clare to your mortal minions?”

    Fortuna shrugged. The answer was delightfully easy. “I’ll just say you’re the first two I tried it on.”

    “Fuck yes,” Clare said. “Let’s do this thing.”

    Fortuna reached around her neck and undid a thin chain from under her armour. Her brothers did likewise. Each of them produced a gold ring that hung on the chain over their hearts. “This’ll probably cost us another few decades in the sin-bin,” Clare warned, eyeing the simple piece of gold that would completely cut them off from everyone back home and each other.

    “Fuck it,” both Dorian and Fortuna replied simultaneously, and then all three slipped the seclusion ring on to their finger.

    <><>​

    Eighteen Months Later

    Sagun sighed in satisfaction. He’d adjusted the world to suit his needs. It was primed for the emergence of super-powers. All he needed now was to check in with Edeena and they could go with Operation Super-Powers. Flourishing his hand to create a blood-link, he proclaimed, “Edeena!”

    There was no answer.

    “Edeena!” he repeated, gesturing to open a blood-link. Again, silence.

    “Edeena!” A third time, nothing happened.

    He realm-stepped then, into the celestial realm and then into the next world over. Again, he tried to blood-link to her. It should work anywhere, but maybe things worked differently here.

    There was still no answer.

    From world to world he stepped, calling out for her ever more desperately. When he came to the end of the chain, he started back again. This time, he searched each world carefully, randomly interrogating the natives to see if they’d heard of a brilliant silver lady with magnificent powers.

    None of them had.

    His search was fruitless; at one point, he flew over a carefully camouflaged dome set in the desert without even noticing it. He pushed himself ever more harshly, searching every world for a third time, then scouring the boundaries of the realm in case she was somewhere out in space.

    She wasn’t.

    In fact, Edeena was nowhere to be found.

    On the world he designated Earth Bet, he came to a hover over the Atlantic Ocean. Sadness radiated from him, because never would he cease grieving for his lost sister, the only person he considered kin. With nothing else to do, he carried out his part of the plan to award powers to people in honour of her memory, though his heart wasn’t in it anymore. He was numb with grief.

    It wasn’t until much, much later that he learned some of the powers were connecting from the dulled crystals that Edeena had put into place.

    <><>​

    Present Day

    Fortuna

    “So what are we going to do about the Mystallian cow?” asked Dorian. “Do we kill her?”

    “Yes! Oh, yes. We sooo could,” Clare insisted, rubbing his hands together in delight.

    Fortuna shook her head. She was over the coughing fit by now. “No. Even the fucking Triumvirate wouldn’t be able to get the better of her if she saw them coming.”

    “I’m not talking about the pawns! We could do it! Three on one! Dogpile the bitch!” When Fortuna shook her head, Clare’s brow arched upwards and his shoulders slumped. “Whhhhyyyy?” he whined.

    Dorian slapped him in the back of the head, hard enough to force Clare forward two steps and almost drive him to his knees. It saved Fortuna the trouble.

    “Right now, it’s only one. If the others know she’s here, they’re going to expect regular reports, and if they don’t get them, they’re going to come looking to find out why. I’m not giving up on Scion that easily. We’re finally starting to get everything to the point where we can start turning his creations against him, and I’m not going to blow it and the Cause just because you want to murder one of the Mystallian kids and bring the wrath of everything down around our ears.” Her smile grew dangerous. “No, I think we can use this situation to our benefit.”

    “How?” Dorian asked. He wasn’t asking in doubt of her, but clarification.

    “Because how delicious would it be if the Mystallian cow got pointed at Scion, and we got to watch that shit go down in living colour?”

    Dorian tapped his lips. “Both our enemies fighting each other for our enjoyment? I can think of worse things to do on a Sunday afternoon.”

    “We’re still going to have to plan this carefully,” Fortuna said, drumming her fingers against her hip. “Scion is aware of us, but so long as we’re wearing our seclusion rings, he hasn’t been able to find us. But if he gets a chance to talk to the brat, they could both turn on us. We need to keep them apart until we’ve got them stirred up to the point that neither one has any interest in talking.”

    “Scion’s built himself a decent powerbase here,” Dorian reminded her. “There’s every chance he could beat her.”

    “In which case, he’s gonna wish he was dead by the time the Mystallians were finished with him. He’s a hybrid, and if he manages to kill one of them, they’re gonna make what’s gonna happen to us look like amateur hour.”

    Clare stiffened and cocked his head. “Alexandria wants a doorway to Cauldron.”

    Fortuna nodded, dropping her weight into her chair and lifting her tablet back into her lap as if she’d been reading it all along. Clare dowsed the fire in his eyes and allowed his shoulders to slump. His head rocked to one side and a thin train of drool formed at the corner of his lips. After all this time, he’d perfected the act. Dorian waited for Clare’s mask to be finalised before he created the doorway that brought Alexandria to them.

    “Have you heard about the new cape?” she demanded, only to stop when she realised all three of them were in Fortuna’s private office and coffee had been spilled everywhere. “Is everything alright?”

    Clare giggled as if Alexandria had said a funny joke and Dorian took him by the elbow, guiding him out of the room. Contessa looked up at the powerful cape and smiled. “Everything is just fine.”


    <><>​

    Taylor

    It had only taken Janesha three hours from start to finish. As she reshaped the last ship into a solid steel block, the water under her feet began to part. The seabed was revealed, along with all the trash that had been dropped there over the decades and quite a few bits of debris from the ships themselves.

    “Well?” she called out. “What are you waiting for? You can’t expect me to do all the work myself, can you?”

    With a roar of laughter, the Dockworkers surged forward off the stands. The superheroes were only a little slower off the mark, heading down into the now-exposed harbour floor to wrestle the larger items out of the mud. Taylor went to join them, but Danny put his hand on her arm.

    “Not today,” he advised her quietly. “We don’t want to show what we can do just yet.”

    “Why not?” she asked. “I’m as strong as anyone here and you know it.”

    “Knowing it is different from needing to use it.” He folded his arms. “The time will come.”

    Taylor snorted and folded her arms as well. “Not quickly enough.”

    “One day at a time, kiddo. One day at a time.”


    End of Part Ten

    Part Eleven
     
    Last edited: May 22, 2019
  16. RichardWhereat

    RichardWhereat The Dawn Will Cum

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    So, Fortuna is an evil bitch in this one?
     
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  17. Ember Nova

    Ember Nova Your first time is always over so quickly, isn't it?

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    this has got to be the most sympathetic Scion/Eden I've ever read. their still dicks tho.
     
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  18. RoninSword

    RoninSword Sky God

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    It makes you wonder why this version of Scion goes around saving people sadly. Canon Scion was bound by his human emulation shards, so he was an idiot.
     
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  19. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Doing exactly the same as she was in canon, except this time she's got an excuse. Mortals just don't matter to her, except as stepping stones.

    Fixed that for you :p

    Because he's had his heart ripped out by Edeena's disappearance/presumed death. He's trying to carry out his dream of being a superhero, but he literally can't be bothered putting pants on any more.
     
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  20. Angel466

    Angel466 Getting out there.

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    Very, very, very, VERY absolutely YES! To rise in the ranks of where she comes from, being categorically evil to win is mandatory. Dorian (Door Maker) as her second in command is not far behind her. Clare (Clairvoyant) has the same mindset, but not their drive or long term conniving.

    Ironically, the other members of Cauldron (like Alexandria) see Door Maker and Clairvoyant as tools to get a job done. To them, Clairvoyant is too mentally damaged to communicate with, and Door Maker stays with Clairvoyant because he needs to be on hand to make Doorways for Cauldron. (Because he's a good little tool like that). The irony of that is exactly what these guys are like, and they will spend EONS getting themselves into the best possible position to screw you over if it suits their agenda.
     
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  21. Threadmarks: Part Eleven: Clearing the Air
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Celestial Worm


    Part Eleven: Clearing the Air


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

    [A/N 2: For anyone in or around North Queensland, Karen and I will be exhibiting at Magneticon in Townsville on 1-2 June. Come and chat!]


    The last one up on to the dockside was a grinning Manpower, covered in mud to the waist (and liberally daubed with it elsewhere) and hefting half a car of all things on one shoulder. The half-car was incredibly rusted, with no sign of what had happened to the other half.

    “Wonder what happened with that?” mused Taylor as the seven-foot man climbed the concrete steps. “A boat I can understand, but a car?”

    “With the way your cape battles play out,” Janesha said, as if she herself hadn’t been tossing around ships just a little while before, “and your utter lack of touch and ranged shifters, I’m personally surprised the city’s still standing.” She glanced at the bay, and the tentacle of water that had fed itself down inside her boot dissolved and spread out into a puddle. At the same time, the water that had been held back came flooding in to crash against the dockside.

    “I suppose you have a point,” Danny conceded. “They do tend to be hard on cars. Especially where Brutes are concerned.” Taylor knew the topic was a running joke on some parts of the PHO boards, especially the list of “Cars Most Likely To Be Used In a Cape Fight”. For some reason, the 1968 Cadillac was at the top of the list, and the Ford Pinto was in the “will explode before it leaves your hands” category at the bottom.

    “What passes for Brutes here, anyway,” Janesha observed in an amused tone of voice. “I’ve told you about my Uncle Griffith, haven’t I?”

    Taylor lowered her voice. “The guy who plays soccer with whole planets?” She waited for Janesha’s nod. “Yeah, that sort of thing tends to stick in the mind.” She raised an eyebrow at her friend. “You do realise that bringing your family into this is kind of cheating, right? From what you’ve told me, the least of your people has the potential to hilariously outclass even the most powerful cape we’ve got.”

    “Well, of course.” Janesha’s tone was now matter of fact. “But I fail to see how it’s cheating.”

    “Because it’s not even a contest,” Taylor explained carefully. “Comparing Griffith to our Brutes is basically like comparing you to … um, your uncle Avis. Or Belial. You wouldn’t think it was fair if one of them challenged you to a contest in something they were specialised in, would you?”

    Janesha snorted. “There’s a big difference between challenging someone and comparing them. Would you accuse Alexandria of cheating just because she can bench-press any normal human under the table? Or, to drop it down another tier, if you found an African tribe in the middle of nowhere who held an annual ‘swimming across the river’ competition, and their record stood at two hours to swim half a kilometre. Would you consider it cheating if you looked at that and said, “Damn, I could beat that with one arm tied behind my back, and you really wouldn’t want to get an Olympian in here.” Something about what she’d just said brought out a deep chuckle, and she swiftly added, “Either kind.”

    Taylor didn’t quite follow her joke, because she was too busy processing what her friend had said. From what she understood, celestials of the noble families were brought up with the understanding that they would become established one day, thus taking their place within the pantheon of their realm. Becoming gods. This was part of Janesha’s outlook; when celestials outclassed everyone else, competing with mortals and winning wasn’t cheating. It was the natural order of things.

    “No one would seriously bother with a real challenge to someone of lesser capability. It’s just not worth their time,” Janesha declared in the end. But then her eyes shifted to the gathered heroes, and Taylor realised Glory Girl was the one receiving the dirty look. “Unless, of course, that somebody needs to be taught a lesson on where they sit in the grand scheme of things.” Taylor suddenly remembered the race Cloudstrike had undertaken with the caped hero, such as it was.

    But that made Taylor’s point all the more valid. “But what if she doesn’t know how one sided it is?”

    Janesha chuckled darkly. “She does, now.” She laughed again and shook her head. “Look, normally, we don’t care if they know what we are. Because by then, we’re established and they automatically know who and what we are. Unestablished, it’s slightly different. We tend to play from behind the scenes, so mortals don’t get the chance to build up a belief base about us.” She smirked. “That’s why we’re not usually allowed to go off and play on mortal worlds unsupervised until we get established.”

    “So how much trouble are you likely to be in, once your family shows up?” Danny waved at the surrounding situation, with the superheroes and Dockworkers having the thick, clinging mud hosed off them amid much hilarity. “A low profile, this is not.”

    Janesha shrugged. “Eh, I’ll probably get yelled at, but so long as no one definitively believes I’m a celestial, I shouldn’t get into too much trouble for this.” Her cheeky grin returned. “Now, blowing off my mother for two weeks and tricking her into thinking I’m still in Asgard …” She let the words drift off, though she made the veins and cords in her neck stand out to signify the impending danger.

    Danny shook his head and snorted. “As well you should be. I’d kill you, if you were mine and pulled that.” He shot Taylor a sharp look and added, “It’d be like you skipping the country for two weeks after convincing me you were at summer camp.”

    Taylor could well appreciate the level of trouble that would bring her, so she decided to change the subject. “What sort of goddess do you think you’ll be?” Not only was it a more comfortable line of discussion, but she was genuinely curious about that. Janesha was incredibly powerful by any stretch of the imagination, to the point that it would take no effort at all to see her as a goddess. Stop right there, she told herself sternly. She’s Janesha. Not a goddess. Just my friend.

    “Weather, most likely.” Janesha looked pensively at the sky. “I always know what sort of weather we’re going to have. That’s my innate talent. Gods don’t always get powerbases in line with their talents, but it does make things a lot easier.”

    “Whether or not it’ll rain, you mean?” Taylor couldn’t resist the hoary old pun.

    Janesha gave her a dirty look. “When I’m goddess of the weather, jokes like that will be declared a mortal sin. Just you wait and see.”

    “How about songs?” asked Danny, a grin quirking the corner of his mouth. “If someone sang a song about the weather, would that count as prayer?”

    Janesha stared at him as if he’d grown a second head. “Really? You two have some very strange ideas about divinity if you even think that might work,” she observed. “And it’s making me wonder if it’s a mortal thing or an Earth Bet thing.”

    “That should be easy to figure out.” Taylor spread her hands. “How do your mortals back in Mystal see things?”

    Janesha blinked. “No clue. It’s not like I’ve ever asked any of them.”

    Danny tilted his head. “So, we’re the first mortals you’ve taken the time to get to know.” It wasn’t a question. “That’s kind of sad.”

    “Well, I’m not supposed to associate too closely with mortals until I get established. If I say or do the wrong thing before then, I could screw everything up for myself for all eternity.” Janesha frowned. “Why is it sad?”

    “Because when you get your powerbase and become a goddess, you’ll have absolute power over billions of people,” Danny explained. “But if you hadn’t met us, you would never have taken the time to learn the mortal point of view. And speaking from my own experience? You can’t be an effective leader, ruler, whatever, if you don’t know what it’s like for the guy on the bottom of the heap.”

    “That’s crap,” Janesha said at once. “I don’t know what it’s like in other realms, but we’ve never had a problem with our worshippers in Mystal. They love us.”

    Danny raised an eyebrow, and Taylor could almost hear his thoughts. ‘Do they get a choice?’ But instead, he went on with, “I will admit, it’s probably hard to totally screw up being a god when you’ve got all that power, but there’s a lot of leeway between just getting by and actually being the best you can.”

    “Trust me. Every member of our pantheon knows exactly what they’re about and what they’re doing,” Janesha argued.

    “So, nobody screwed up getting their powerbase?” prompted Taylor. “Like that uncle you told me about; Blagden?”

    “And I also told you how that happened, remember? He revealed his divinity to mortals before he was established. But now that it’s a done deal, yes, he’s all over everything to do with his powerbase, just like everyone else.”

    “Danny! Taylor!” The voice belonged to Kurt, a Dockworker and old friend of Taylor’s father. He approached the group of three and shook Danny’s hand vigorously. He was dripping wet, with a few stubborn mud stains on his clothing to show what he’d been up to. His boots, Taylor figured, must be full of water from the way he was squelching when he walked. “That was the most fun I’ve had in years.” He turned his attention to Janesha. “And you’re the young lady responsible for all this? I’m very pleased to meet you. Kurt Gainsborough.”

    “You’re welcome.” Janesha took his proffered hand and shook it. In the next moment, all the water puffed away from him in a cloud of steam, and the mud stains drifted away as dust on the wind. “Janesha of Mystal.”

    “Whoa!” Kurt let out a surprised laugh as he looked down at his now-dry clothing. A couple of experimental steps evinced a total lack of squelching. “That’s amazing. Though I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised after what you did with the Graveyard.” He looked at the neatly stacked steel blocks, off to the side out of the way. “This will really bring the Dockworkers back into the black, once we start cashing that lot in.”

    “Yeah.” Danny’s voice held deep satisfaction. “Maybe I can even get the Mayor’s office to underwrite the ferry now.”

    “Pfft.” Kurt rolled his eyes. “Good buddy, we’ve known each other for I don’t know how many years, now? You know I’ve got faith in you to do the impossible. How you persuaded Janesha here to do what she did today, I can’t even begin to imagine. But even I don’t think that’s ever gonna happen.”

    Taylor saw the glint in Janesha’s eye and the slight squaring of her shoulders at that. She didn’t need Mystallian mind bending abilities to tell that the young celestial had just gone into ‘challenge accepted’ mode.

    “How about we stick with one miracle at a time?” she suggested, looking at her father but aiming the words at Janesha. “I’m sure after Mayor Christner sees what’s been achieved today, he’ll be more likely to come around on the ferry thing. No need to back him into a corner and force the issue just yet.”

    Kurt looked at her appraisingly. “That’s actually a very mature viewpoint to take,” he conceded. “And to be honest, it might just work out that way. The Mayor isn’t here right now, but I did spot some of his people lurking around before.” He took a deep breath. “Of course, you know Roy, Danny. If he can’t spin it to look like his idea or at least get some political capital out of it, he’s a lot less likely to put his weight behind it.”

    Danny grimaced. “I liked him better before he was a career politician. When he was just another city councilman, he was a lot more sympathetic to my ideas.”

    “Back before he sold his soul to the devil?” Kurt gave a short bark of laughter.

    “Why the fuck would you be laughing about that?” Janesha was horrified.

    “Figure of speech,” Taylor quickly interceded, before Kurt could ask the obvious question. “You know, ha-ha? It’s not like he’s actually sold his soul to the devil.”

    Janesha looked Kurt in the eye and shook her head. “That ain’t funny where I come from. Not even a little bit. Only a fool enters into one of those deals, and it always bites them in the ass. Always.”

    Kurt looked at Danny. “Is she for real?”

    Danny sighed. “For the most part. Where she comes from, there’s a … a cape that’s capable of fulfilling deals like that. And once you die, you become his. Some say for the rest of eternity. Much like Glaistig Uaine.”

    “Fuck me!” Kurt swore, covering his mouth. He then looked at Janesha, his eyes just as wide in horror as hers had been, then dropped his hand. “Sorry, darlin’. We don’t have anyone like that here, so it’s a running joke. Roy didn’t really sell his soul. At least, not to our knowledge.”

    “I still wouldn’t be invoking him if I were you. He tends to sniff it out, and if enough people say it, he could very well turn up here and start making offers.”

    Kurt breathed out heavily. “Good to know. We have enough troublemakers here as it is, without adding someone like that to the mix.”

    “Sometimes I think politicians should only ever be elected for one term,” Danny grumbled. “That way, they aren’t stuck trying to please everybody and his dog to try to get re-elected, as opposed to doing the right thing.”

    Kurt frowned. “While I can’t disagree with your logic, there’s almost certainly a loophole somewhere in your idea that opens up the gate to much worse concepts.”

    “As interesting as all this sounds,” Janesha declared in the tone of voice that said I’m bored to crap, “I’m not quite finished here.” She turned to Danny. “Don’t you need the machinery refurbished as well, in order to make the docks work again?”

    Without waiting for an answer, she headed off in the direction of the closest crane. Patched with rust here and there from years of exposure to salt air with no maintenance, it was almost certainly riddled with less visible damage.

    “Oops, gotta go,” Taylor said hurriedly. “Nice seeing you, Kurt. Say hi to Lacey for me.” As she dashed after Janesha, she saw the other girl stop then casually wave a hand toward the ad hoc stadium seats. With a deep grinding noise (which Taylor very strongly suspected was deliberate on Janesha’s part) the seats began to retract once more into the ground. This didn’t surprise Taylor in the slightest; after all, the seats were no longer needed. And if there was one thing she knew about Janesha, it was that the girl had a distinct flair for the dramatic.

    <><>​

    Armsmaster

    Colin watched the teenage pair approach the base of the crane. His mouth bore a faint smile in anticipation of something just as impressive as the clearing of the Boat Graveyard. Janesha’s casual manipulation of solid concrete to create the stands had definitely gotten his attention. When she started pulling entire ships out of the ocean by hand before reshaping them into cubes of metal, he’d just sat there, trying to get his head around the sheer power involved. That was Eidolon-level capability, right there.

    “What do you think they’re doing?” muttered Assault. “Is she going to make the machinery into modern art, or turn it into a giant mecha?”

    Given Janesha’s previous feats, Colin wouldn’t have ruled out the possibility of either thing happening. The probability, however, was something else altogether. “Neither,” he said, just as quietly. “She’s fixing the docks for Hebert, not destroying them. At the moment, that wreck of a crane would have difficulty lifting me up, let alone tonnes and tonnes of steel.”

    A minute or so later, Janesha reached the crane and placed one of her hands on one of the gigantic metal struts that kept it stable. After a few second of inactivity, the entire crane began to alter in appearance. A brand-new paint job in black and gold spread over the whole thing, making it look more like a science-fiction prop than a dockside crane. Underneath the paint job, however, Colin could see that the rust was gone, and the machinery gleamed as though it had just been installed in place.

    It took Assault a few more seconds to react. “Wait … did she just …”

    Colin nodded. “It looks like it. I’d have to examine it to be sure, but I’m pretty sure she just repaired the whole thing with a touch.”

    “Well, I was actually gonna refer to the bitchin’ paint job she did on it,” the other hero retorted. “But if she changed it structurally, is that even street legal?”

    “I’d have to check the regulations,” admitted Colin. “But if it isn’t, I suspect she’ll be able to fix that just as easily.” Deep down, the admiration and respect he felt for the girl were at war with the envy he wanted to feel. The ability to maintain and repair complicated machinery in the time it took to draw a deep breath would make his job so much easier. But of course, entertaining such emotions about the teenage newcomer would be unworthy of him. She had her powers and he had his, and it was up to both of them to make the most of what they had.

    He watched her move on to the next crane, the Hebert girl strolling alongside, and nodded to himself. They’d gotten off on the wrong foot when he first met the cape, but he’d quickly figured out the real situation and changed his attitude. Janesha of Mystal, he’d realised, was going to make her mark on Brockton Bay whether he chose to stand in her way or not. So, it was better all told to stand back and afford her the respect to which she was due.

    After all, if heroes didn’t have each other’s backs, where would the world be?

    <><>​

    Cauldron Base

    Contessa

    “Son of a fucking bitch.”

    The words, softly spoken, barely reached Fortuna’s ears. She turned at once and eyeballed Clare sitting at the small table covered with Duplo blocks, colouring pencils and paper. How her brother had maintained the façade of a drooling idiot for so many years was a testament to their training, but now he seemed to be dropping the act with ever increasing frequency. Especially when the ‘ash’ of his eyes ignited with each expletive, and he straightened in the chair to stare at nothing just past where Fortuna sat. “Motherfucking brainless dumbass fucking fucker!”

    Once again, they were alone, and she thanked her innate ability for looking out for them once more.

    “What?” Dorian demanded, half a heartbeat before Fortuna could. Her second in command had been sitting at Clare’s side, reading a book on mortal warfare that had apparently lasted centuries as their go-to manual. Some of it he’d ridiculed, but other points did actually have merit when he showed them to her. “Clare, report!”

    As if someone had flicked a switch in Clare’s head, the psychic of Abaddon became all business. He turned to Fortuna as his commanding officer and said, “That little Mystallian cow has just flat-out admitted that she skipped out on her family. As far as her family is concerned, she’s still in Asgard! They’ve got no fucking idea she’s in this realm! Shit, they’ve got no idea that this realm even fucking exists! Can we kill her now?”

    Dorian looked to Fortuna. After working as her second in command for so long, he knew better than to make any assumptions once Fortuna had already binned them. But his eyes spoke volumes. They practically begged for permission.

    Fortuna held up her hand and turned her thoughts inwards. Inside her imagination, she recreated every scene that had led up to this moment. The loss of Abaddon. The surprise stab that kept the female hybrid alive instead of killing her. The existence of the other hybrid from Earlafaol. And now, the arrival of an unestablished Mystallian. A very killable Mystallian.

    And suddenly, everything her innate ability had been trying to tell her was now becoming clear.

    “No,” she stated, once she returned to the physical realm.

    “What?” Clare stared at her, his expression one of betrayal. “But she’s right there! All she’s got around her are mortals! There’s nobody watching her fucking back! She’s not even established! We’ll never get a better chance!”

    Fortuna slid her eyes to Dorian, who took Clare by the back of the head and slammed him face first into table, breaking both his nose and the table on impact. Fortuna nodded her approval. He’d already been warned once. Next time, she’d have his arm ripped off. Literally. As a psychic, he didn’t need both arms to be useful to the Cause. “We aren’t going to be the ones to kill her, because if we play our cards right, we not only won’t go into the sin-bin when we go home, we’ll be fucking promoted.”

    Dorian and a bloodied Clare looked at each other. “I must confess, I don’t get what you mean either,” Dorian admitted.

    In the past, he would’ve kept his mouth shut and asked her for clarification in private, but as he could never be without Clare and it was only the three of them left, Fortuna understood his breach of protocol. “How did Scion and his bitch get to live to adulthood without a celest killing them for even existing?” she asked instead.

    “Dey lif’d in Ear’afaol,” Clare replied, holding his nose in position and attempting to talk around the breakage. It would take about an hour for the damage to heal entirely, but in that time, Clare could reflect on his actions and hopefully learn from them. They lived in Earlafaol.

    “And do you think they’re the only two Lady Col’s been hiding?”

    “Well, no,” conceded Dorian slowly. “But … the other hybrids aren’t here, so … what does it matter?”

    Fortuna had no idea why Dorian wasn’t connecting the dots. “Because the Mystallian brat is unestablished. She’s killable. Sooner or later, the elders of Mystal are going to come looking for their little runaway, and when they get here and learn Scion, a hybrid from Earlafaol was the one who killed her …”

    “They’re going to want the heads of every other hybrid Earlafaol’s hiding,” Dorian concluded as the light finally dawned.

    “’n La’y Col ain’ gonna ’and ‘em over eiver…” Clare added. And Lady Col ain’t gonna hand them other either.

    “Exactly,” Fortuna’s smile was venomous.

    “It ge’s be’er,” Clare said with a matching smile, though his didn’t quite pan out because of the blood pouring down his face. “With the vam’ly she rul’d out as uncles, ’er lin’age is eiv’r Armina o’ War, Tal o’ Destruction, ‘r Amaro o’ Death. Giv’n she said ‘er inna’e abili’y’s wea’ver, my money’s on War.” It gets better. With the family she ruled out as uncles, her lineage is either Armina of War, Tal of Destruction, or Amaro of Death. Given she said her innate ability’s weather, my money’s on War.

    “Fucking beautiful!” Fortuna clapped her hands together in delight. “Mystal is going to want the blood of every last motherfucking hybrid hiding on Earlafaol, and there’s no way in fuck I can see Lady Col handing them over without a fight. And when Mystal tries to force the issue, Armina will be leading the charge and the agreement Mystal has with Earlafaol will be out the window!”

    “Earlafaol is fucked.” Dorian sounded positively gleeful at the idea.

    “Bu’ da Pryde’s still pre’y damn terr’fyin’,” Clare reminded him. But the Pryde’s still pretty damn terrifying.

    “So’s Armina when she’s pissed,” Fortuna pointed out. “Look, it comes down to this. It doesn’t matter who wins. The alliance between them will be over and we can waltz right in and take the weapon without having to raise a hand. As I said, provided we play this right, any outcome is going to advance the cause by fucking eons.

    “So, how do we do it, commander?”

    Fortuna eyed them both. “That’s exactly what we need to figure out.”

    <><>​

    Taylor

    “ … and done.” Janesha took her hand away from the last piece of machinery—a gigantic travelling overhead hoist—and dusted her palms off. Taylor was pretty sure the gesture was just for show, especially given Janesha’s shifting capabilities.

    “Nice.” Taylor took a moment to admire the black and gold colour scheme. Unless she was much mistaken, the newly-reborn Lord’s Port dockside had the most eye catching palette on the east coast. Janesha had stopped short of actually incorporating the Mystallian sigil into the design, though Taylor suspected it had been a near thing.

    “Thanks.” Janesha took the praise as her due.

    Taylor was about to ask how Janesha had known how to fix the crane, but then realised Kurt was in the celestial’s line of sight, and he’d once driven those things for a living. She didn’t want to start another round of arguments over indiscriminate use of mind bending—mainly because she’d already seen how those turned out—so she went on to another, semi-related subject. “Uh, you do shifting by touch and not range, right?”

    “So?” Janesha looked at her as if wondering why she was asking a question with such an obvious answer.

    “Well,” said Taylor. “I was just curious how you made the stadium pull back into the ground. You were nowhere near it.”

    Janesha smirked. “That’s easy. The stadium was still part of the concrete slab we were standing on. You remember when I raised it up, how I stopped and clapped every couple of steps? Nobody noticed me stopping, because everyone was paying attention to me clapping.”

    “But you said that was to give them warning that you were raising the stadium,” Taylor pointed out.

    “And I wasn’t lying about that, but the stopping part was the crucial bit, as it allowed me to make a hole in the sole of my boot and grow a rubber tipped thorn down to touch the concrete slab. People would’ve seen it if I’d kept walking. And when I pulled it back down …”

    “… you stopped and looked at it, implying it was ranged, not touch.” Taylor shook her head in wonder. “You did it right in front of me, and I never realised.”

    “Celestials never show all their cards if they don’t have to,” Janesha stated, as if passing on a profound truth. “You never know if someone’s watching who might have a reason to want to pull you down. By implying you can hit above your tier, it makes others think twice about trying anything. Cousin Cora taught me that. And how to do the open-sole trick.” She held up her gloved hand. “We do the same thing with our fingertips, when we have to. No one notices it’s not the glove.”

    “Trust me, not making yourself appear weak is something I understand perfectly,” Taylor reminded her. “Or had you forgotten the situation I was before you got here?”

    “See, that’s something I don’t really get.” Janesha hummed pensively for a moment. “Being a dick to get a laugh, I understand. Doing shit like they were doing to you, over and over without any good reason, I can see it happening if it’s part of a thrall. But being dicks like that to you for as long as they did, for no appreciable gain? Not even making you pay ‘protection’ so they’d leave you alone? They’re mortals, not gods. They don’t have something pushing them to do that. If they didn’t like you, why not just walk away?”

    Taylor shook her head. “Believe me, if I knew, I’d tell you,” she said bitterly. “You’re not asking any questions I didn’t ask myself a million times.” She tilted her head. “Wait a minute. You spent time with them. Why didn’t you mind bend them and find out?”

    Janesha made a rude noise with her lips. “Because I didn’t care about ‘why’ until now. I was just having fun fucking their lives up for screwing with you.”

    “Well, I can’t deny you’ve succeeded in doing that,” Taylor conceded. “Though I really, really want to be there when you tell Sophia that her powers are never, ever coming back.” She wondered exactly what consequences Ms Bright was going to bring down on Emma for ‘outing’ Sophia at the top of her voice.

    Then she pondered Madison’s state of mind; the petite brunette had to be wondering when it would be her turn. Soon, she promised silently. It wasn’t that she was vindictive—well, mostly not that. There was some maxim she’d read once upon a time, about leaving an enemy able to strike from behind. Given that she was pretty well impervious to regular harm by now, taking Madison off the board would mainly be a symbolic act … but one that was very important to her. Also, she admitted to herself, satisfying as hell.

    “I’ll see what I can do,” Janesha said airily. “In the meantime, what else is there to do around here?”

    Celestials, Taylor decided, set an entirely new bar when it came to being easily bored. Janesha had just performed something that was barely short of an act of God (both literally and figuratively) and instead of I’m tired, let’s go home her attitude was what can we go do now? A bored teenager was one thing; a bored celestial teenager was quite another. Both had the potential to result in property damage. It was just that in the latter case, the property damage would probably be visible from Mars.

    Fortunately, the conversation had given Taylor an idea. “Let’s go talk to Armsmaster,” she suggested. “I want to ask him about Emma.”

    Janesha raised an eyebrow but didn’t argue. “Really? What could he tell you about her that we don’t already know?” Raising her hand, she began to tick off points. “Shallow, disloyal, thinks way too much of her looks, has no idea when she’s out of her depth …”

    “ … why she did what she did,” Taylor said, heading toward the armoured hero. From what she could tell, the Protectorate capes had stayed back to keep the rest of the crowd from mobbing Janesha while the celestial girl was fixing the machinery.

    “I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know that. Or even that she screwed you over,” Janesha pointed out.

    “I know, but he will know if she’s in PRT custody or not. If I’m right, Sophia’s handler will want to make an example of her to take the heat off herself, and I’m hoping he’s okay with telling you where she is. Then we’ll go there and ask her why she was such a bitch.” It seemed logical to Taylor.

    “And by that you mean, you want me to mind bend it out of her.” Janesha had a way of getting to the point.

    Taylor refused to be daunted. “If that’s what it takes, sure.” She glanced at Janesha. “I mean, if you’re okay with that.”

    Janesha made a rude noise with her lips. “I’d be happy with turning her into a red-haired hamster with just enough self-awareness that she remembers who and what she used to be, but if all you want to do is interrogate her, that’s fine by me.”

    Taylor took a deep breath to get past the lurch of horror in her chest. The idea of anyone, even Emma, living on in the body of a hamster while knowing that they’d once been human, and having no way to return to that state … it sent chills right through her body. “Have you ever … done that?” she asked faintly.

    “What, turned someone into a hamster?” Janesha paused and considered. “Maybe once, when my Uncle Barris, the sick fuck, tried spying on me in the changing rooms when he and I were the only ones in there. I figured if he wanted to be a slimy, disgusting leech so bad, I’d help him along.”

    This story was new, and it snared Taylor’s undivided attention. “What happened next?”

    “The family figured out something was up when he didn’t turn up for meals and wouldn’t answer anyone’s bloodlinks. Missing the meals is a big no-no in Mystal unless someone knows where you are. The only reason I got into trouble for my part in it, was because when we were all asked if we knew where he was, I lied my ass off and said I didn’t have a clue, forgetting my Aunt Clarise was in the room.” She looked at Taylor and grimaced. “Don’t ever try that in front of an established Goddess of Truth. Aunt Clarise may not be a bender, but she has ranged shifting through the ass and knows how to use it. I’ve never felt pain like it and she didn’t move from her seat at the head of the room. She just looked at me and every cell in my whole fucking body was on fire.”

    “What happened to your dirty uncle?”

    That was when Janesha chortled evilly. “He was made whole, and then grandmother Armina went into his head to see what happened from his side of things.” The chortle turned to a maniacal laugh that had the teen wrapping her arms around her waist and twisting in delight. “Let’s just say, War was pissed, and none of us heard from Uncle Barris for weeks.”

    “Well, that was kinda justified, but please don’t do it to any of us poor mortals.”

    “Petal, regardless of who it’s done to, if a celestial does it, that’s usually the definition of ‘justified’,” Janesha explained. “We want it to happen, so it happens. What other justification do we need?” She held up her two index fingers and brought them together to illustrate her point.

    Taylor rubbed her forehead. “Just between you and me, I get the impression that the rights of the individual don’t actually mean much to you.”

    “Individuals don’t usually matter to us,” Janesha conceded. “You and your dad are my two exceptions, of course. But … okay, it’s like this. Suppose you’re eating a bowl of rice. One or two grains fall on the floor, you couldn’t care less. But if someone tried to steal the whole bowl, you’d care a whole lot. That’s basically how it is between gods and mortals.”

    “I’m not exactly okay with the fact that either the rice gets eaten or it’s discarded on the floor,” Taylor remarked with a grimace.

    “Don’t get technical, petal,” huffed Janesha. “You know what I meant.”

    “Yeah,” Taylor agreed, but she still didn’t like it.

    “Okay, fiiiine. I won’t turn anyone into a hamster, no matter how much they deserve it. Happy now?”

    “I guess.” Taylor raised her hand to get Armsmaster’s attention, which served to change the subject. “Excuse me, Armsmaster. Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

    “Certainly,” he replied. “Though, excuse me for a second. I have to say, Janesha, your workmanship is superb. It would save so much time if I were able to repair my equipment simply by touching it.”

    Janesha smirked at him. “Thanks, but Taylor’s still got that question to ask.”

    Before the conversation could be derailed any more, Taylor jumped in. “Yeah, uh, I was just wondering if the PRT was still talking to Emma Barnes, or if she’s been let go already.”

    From Armsmaster’s pause, he hadn’t expected that question. “I honestly don’t know,” he replied. “I’m familiar with the name—I’ve kept current with your case—but I’d have to check.”

    “That would be appreciated.” Janesha’s tone was only a shade away from being a direct order. “Taylor wants to ask her a few questions, and we can’t do that if we don’t know where she is.”

    Armsmaster frowned slightly. “Even if I was to find out, you have to know you won’t be allowed to join in on the questioning.”

    “I wasn’t planning on asking her anything while she was in custody. But once she leaves, I have every intention of asking her why she was such a bitch to my friend.”

    Armsmaster stiffened and stared down at Janesha. “Is asking with words all you intend on doing?” he asked, and Taylor was under no illusion that he had his lie detector thingie up and running for Janesha’s answer.

    “I won’t lay a finger on her. Scout’s honour.”

    For a moment, she thought Armsmaster was going to refuse Janesha’s semi-request, but then the Protectorate hero nodded slightly. “I’ll check for you.” He turned away and spoke under his breath.

    “You know that only works if you’re a girl scout, right?” Taylor murmured, just loudly enough for Janesha to hear. The only reply she got was a self-satisfied smirk. For a moment, she wondered if Janesha had used her mind-bending on Armsmaster again, or if her previous orders to him were still in effect. The answer, she decided, was ‘yes’. Either way, Janesha had gotten what she wanted. This was more or less par for the course when it came to a celestial being among mortals.

    “She’s just leaving the PRT building,” Armsmaster reported, turning back toward them. “Her father apparently showed up with a lawyer, so they’ve released her back into his custody, pending further investigation.”

    “Cool, thanks.” Janesha shot him a beaming smile. “Me and Taylor have gotta go now. Bye.” She took hold of Taylor’s hand. By now, Taylor knew what to expect, and as Janesha took a step forward into that weird crystal world, Taylor was right there beside her.

    They stepped back into the real world in the lobby of the PRT building. Not a moment too soon either. As Taylor looked around to get her bearings, the sliding doors opened and Alan Barnes stepped out of the building, closely followed by Emma. Taylor didn’t recognise the third person with them, but she figured he must be the lawyer Armsmaster had mentioned. He had the look, right down to the briefcase he carried.

    “Oh, hey, there’s the bitch of the hour.” Janesha’s grasp of subtlety, as ever, was close to non-existent. “Daddy’s money get you out of trouble yet again? Word to the wise, red. Once you grow up, that shit won’t fly forever. One day, you’re gonna put your foot one step too far, and shit’s gonna go down that he won’t be able to make go away.”

    “Excuse me, who the hell are you?” demanded Emma’s father, stepping in between Janesha and his daughter. “Move away before I have you arrested for harassment.”

    “Mr Barnes,” began Taylor. “I just want to ask Emma—”

    “Miss Barnes is not answering questions from anyone without a court order,” the lawyer put in, interposing himself in front of Taylor. Even now, he held his briefcase like a shield in front of him. “If you do not step back, you can be charged with assault.”

    “But I—” Taylor looked toward Mr Barnes, trying to convey an appeal with her eyes.

    “Taylor, I don’t know what’s gotten into you,” he replied. “Bringing a cape to school to bully Emma and force her to say things against her will? I thought you were her friend.”

    Taylor’s mouth dropped open at the sheer audacity of what he was saying. No doubt Emma had put it into his head, but surely he had to see how idiotic it sounded. “But … I didn’t … I … wait, Emma’s saying I stopped being her friend? That’s stupid! She—”

    Suddenly, the lawyer was shoved aside, and Alan Barnes was in her face. “Not … one … more … word,” he hissed. “Emma was questioned by the PRT because of what you …”

    Janesha pulled Taylor back and took her place. “Back off, bozo,” she snarled, with a depth of tone that didn’t belong this side of Hell. Fearing the change of depth meant another of those mental commands had been issued, Taylor nudged her friend between the shoulder blades in warning, even as Alan Barnes stumbled backwards in terror. In just a few seconds, he seemed to recover himself, but he was nowhere near as confident as he had been.

    “Your lies are on her permanent record!” he insisted, though the statement was uttered behind the lawyer, whom both Emma and her father were using as a shield. “You stay away from us, and stop spreading stories about her, unless you want to end up on the wrong side of a defamation lawsuit. Do you understand?”

    “Get your daughter to stop doing them, and then Taylor won’t have to stop reporting it. That’s the way it’s really going to work … Alan.”

    He squared his shoulders and glared at the girl. “If you’re this ‘Janesha of Mystal’ that Emma’s been talking about, I have to warn you that you’re playing a dangerous game. You might think that because you’re a cape you’re above the law, but that’s the farthest thing from the truth.”

    Images of Janesha spinning a thirty-thousand tonne ship on her fingertip (the chorus of “BULLSHIT!” had scared off every seagull in a hundred-yard radius) came back to Taylor, underlining the futility of any kind of blowback. Alan Barnes had clearly not seen the footage (that there would be footage, Taylor was certain) and as such, he frowned when Janesha laughed in his face. “Honestly, I don’t give one-gazillionth of a percent of a shit about what you think you could do to me. But I do know this.” She sobered just as quickly. “You will not threaten Taylor or her dad with the law, ever again. Do you understand me?”

    Taylor noticed Janesha hadn’t included herself in that ban, probably because she just didn’t see the law as a threat. And who am I to tell her she’s wrong? Alan Barnes took another two steps backward before regaining his equilibrium. “I never planned on suing Danny. He’s been my friend for more years than either one of you have been alive.” Scowling, he looked to where Taylor stood behind Janesha and huffed. “Which, I suppose means I shouldn’t go after his daughter either.” He turned to the side to include Emma in his next statement. “Just stay away from each other from now on, okay?”

    Poor Emma looked as if she’d swallowed a watermelon. “B-But Daddy …”

    “No buts, pumpkin. You stay away from her, and she’ll stay away from you. And then this all goes away.”

    Don’t bet on it, Taylor thought, but wisely kept that snarky comment to herself.

    Janesha nodded. “Good. Now we’re got that straightened out, me and Taylor have got better places to be. Basically, anywhere but here.” Janesha stepped away from trio and took Taylor by the hand. The other was raised in a fingertip wave. “Toodles.”

    “But I want to—” Taylor’s protest was cut off as Janesha pulled them both through a realm-step. They came out in the living room of Taylor and Danny’s house, where Janesha let go of Taylor’s hand and flopped back on to the sofa. “ —ask Emma some questions,” Taylor finished. “Janesha, seriously? Why’d you pull me away so quickly?”

    “Because unless you wanted me to make it obvious I was messing with her head in a place that has more cameras than Fort Knox, she wasn’t going to give you any answers just by asking. And because neither of you are benders, I can’t take you into her imagination with me. Failing all of that, there’s no way she’d have answered you honestly. She’d have ducked and weaved and hidden behind her father and that lawyer, just like he did.” Stretching back in the lounge, she hooked her hands behind her head and grinned. “Besides, I already got all the answers you wanted. While you and Alan were having your little chat, she and I were having ours.”

    “You went into her mind?” It was still hard for Taylor to get her head around. “I didn’t even see you do it.”

    “Come on, petal, get with the program. You know it’s an instantaneous thing.” Janesha sat up and patted the sofa beside her. “Sit down. I’ll set up a room in your imagination where you can interrogate her as long as you want. Hell, you can even beat her up like you did with Sophia.” A grin quirked one corner of her mouth upward. “Whatever it takes to help you get past the little skank. I promise you, her answers will be absolutely on the money.”

    “Oh. Okay.” Taylor sat down and made herself comfortable. “So, what do I have to do?”

    “Nothing. I’m in the driver’s seat.” As Janesha leaned back again, the front door opened and Emma walked into the house.

    Taylor blinked. “Wait—Emma? How did you get here so quickly? The PRT building’s miles away, and I thought the door was …” She trailed off as she realised what was going on. “Oh, wow. We’re already in my imagination, aren’t we? I didn’t even notice the transition.”

    Janesha winked. “Gotcha. I did it halfway through you asking what you had to do.” She snapped her fingers (more for effect than from need, Taylor was sure), and a plain wooden chair appeared on the rug in front of them. ‘Emma’ crossed the room and sat down on it, facing them. Taylor couldn’t get over how like the real Emma she was, except that she wasn’t reacting to anything. She was just looking at them. “So, go ahead. Ask.”

    Taylor took a deep breath. “Emma. Why are you being such a bitch to me?”

    The simulacrum of her ex-best friend frowned. “I don’t really think I’m being that much of a bitch to you.” She held up both hands, palm up, as if comparing the weight of two objects. “We started doing it because I was in a really bad place, and Sophia was telling me I had to be strong. And one part of it was that you were getting back on your feet after your mom died, which meant you were strong. But on the other hand, you still weren’t all the way there, which meant you weren’t strong enough yet.”

    “Wait.” Taylor held up a hand, and ‘Emma’ stopped talking. “What’s Sophia got to do with all this? What happened to you? Is this about when you stopped taking my calls?”

    “Yes.” ‘Emma’ seemed to take a breath. “Me and Dad were driving, and we got trapped in an alley by some ABB. They dragged me out of the car and cut some of my hair off and were making me eat it. Then they were going to make me decide whether I wanted to lose an eye or both ears or have my face cut up some other way. Sophia was there, as Shadow Stalker. When I fought back, she jumped in and kicked the shit out of them. But afterward I fell apart. I wouldn’t leave the house for days. When I went back to the place it happened, Sophia was there. She started talking to me about how strong I was. I didn’t feel strong at all, but I decided to fake it until I made it.”

    Taylor shook her head, shocked by these revelations. “Geez … Emma, you could have spoken to me about it. You know I would’ve been there for you.”

    “I know,” ‘Emma’ agreed. “But I didn’t want your pity. I wanted to prove I was as strong as Sophia said I was. And, in the beginning, I suppose I wanted you to be strong, too. So, we started pushing you down, to make you prove you were strong enough to be friends with me and Sophia.” She frowned again. “I think Sophia’s got something against you. I’ve occasionally thought it was time to let up, but she keeps telling me to push you down harder, so you can show your true strength.”

    “So why don’t you just step back and leave me alone?” demanded Taylor. “Surely you’ve pushed me down enough!”

    “Because somewhere along the line it turned into something easy and fun that made me feel better about myself. It makes me feel strong.” ‘Emma’ made the admission without blinking an eye. “I see you as weak now, and I congratulate myself for not letting your weakness infect my friendship with Sophia. I suppose once I might’ve let you go your own way, but now it’s just too much fun. It’s a real challenge sometimes, thinking up new ways to make you react. I mean, it’s not like we can pull off something like the locker twice in a row.”

    Taylor stared. “So … that’s it?” she asked. “That’s the entire reason you’ve been fucking up my whole life for the past year? Because it was fun?”

    ‘Emma’ shrugged. “What can I tell you? I’m a shallow, insecure, spoiled, overprivileged bitch who didn’t know true friendship when it was staring me in the face, and I’ve replaced you with people who’d backstab me in a heartbeat to save their own hides.” She chuckled. “Though I’m pretty sure Madison’s got a secret crush on Sophia. Sophia would absolutely kick her ass if she ever found out.”

    Slowly, Taylor turned to Janesha. “Are you putting words in her mouth?”

    “Nope, not me.” Janesha shook her head. “After I went into Emma’s head, I got a thorough understanding of her reasons and motivations. I even watched that ambush scene she’s referring to. Then I went over into her imagination and spent a few hours interrogating the shit out of her.” She looked at Taylor and added, “Don’t ask how creatively. Let’s just say I lost my temper a few times and my dad’s hellish ancestors would be super proud. If I’d let her remember any of it, what’s left of her intellect would’ve been dripping out of her ears along with a thin trail of blood.”

    “Graphic,” Taylor said, blanching slightly.

    Janesha shrugged. “I didn’t start it, petal. Initially, I set us up in a private room in the school just to see what she’d do if we met under civilised circumstances. Crazy bitch set the pace by literally jumping me and trying to claw my eyes out for stealing Sophia’s powers. And since that was the road she wanted to take,”—Janesha held up her fingers and through the gloves she grew some wickedly evil talons—“We danced.”

    “And what is this?” Taylor asked, waving at her former friend’s image.

    The talons retracted into Janesha’s glove and she turned her attention to the girl seated before them. “This is a culmination of all that information in the form of Emma Barnes, without any of her usual filters. This version is saying exactly what the real Emma knows and thinks; even the stuff she’d never admit out loud in a million years. My only stipulation was to nix any aggression on her part.” She rolled her hand at Emma. “And this is the end result.”

    “Wow, holy fuck.” Taylor rubbed her hands over her face. “Whatever I thought this was about, that wasn’t it.”

    She was a little surprised with herself that she wasn’t yelling and screaming and ranting the place down or punching ‘Emma’ into orbit. Which, given that this was her imagination, she could actually do. Her self-control, she decided, was due to the thing Janesha had done to her to take away the immediacy of her painful memories. She was able to face up to them, and to the proximate cause of them, without losing control altogether.

    “So, you got any more questions?”

    “No, I don’t think … wait.” Taylor raised her hand to stop Janesha from erasing the scene. “Emma. What was the look on Sophia’s face like when she realised she’d actually lost her powers?”

    ‘Emma’ shook her head slowly. “Oh, man. She was so goddamn pissed. I’ve never heard anyone swear so much since that friend of your dad’s dropped a chair on his foot at the Dockworkers barbecue you and I snuck into that one time.” The TV flared to life, showing Sophia in the bathroom in what Taylor guessed was soon after Janesha left. The depowered cape’s curses came thick and fast, filling the room and Taylor had to admit that ‘Emma’ was spot on with her judgement. Sophia certainly could swear with the best of them. And yes, the look on her face was pure gold.

    Slowly, she stood up from the sofa. “Emma,” she said softly. “I know you aren’t you, but I don’t really care right now. I’ve wanted to do this for the last six months.” She took a step closer. “I understand you’ve been through some serious shit, but there’s no excuse in the world for taking it all out on me. Especially when I would’ve helped you through it without thinking twice.” Stopping in front of the image of her once-best-friend, she clenched her fist and drew it back. “So, from the bottom of my heart, fuck you.”

    Swinging her fist in a huge looping uppercut, she felt the jar as it impacted with the underside of the image’s jaw. In real life, she knew, Emma’s head might’ve exploded from the force behind the blow. Instead, just as she wanted, ‘Emma’ was sent rocketing upward, smashing through the ceiling and the roof beyond, dwindling into the sky beyond until there was nothing left to be seen. Just like the cartoons she’d loved as a kid. Maybe that’s why she’d done it—to enjoy the strike but keep it firmly in the category of ‘unrealistic’.

    “Nice punch.” Janesha joined her below the Emma-shaped skylight, shading her eyes and looking upward. “Want to go again, or are we done here?”

    “We’re done here.” Taylor sighed sadly. “I got my answers. I just don’t get why it’s not making me feel any better.”

    “Because, like a lot of people, you’re confusing answers with solutions.” Abruptly, they were both sitting on the sofa again, and the hole in the ceiling was gone. Janesha shrugged. “Usually, you can’t begin to craft a solution without getting answers first.”

    Taylor looked across at her friend. It was moments of insight like this that reminded her they were on two very different wavelengths sometimes. “Oh. Right.” She popped back to her feet again, knowing they’d spent no physical time while in her imagination, but still feeling as if they’d spent too much time away from reality. “Okay, so I got my answers. The rest I’ll figure out in my own time.” She turned to Janesha. “What did you want to do?”

    Janesha’s return grin would’ve sent shivers down a shark’s back. “I understand you have other supervillains apart from the Merchants in this city. I’m wondering if the PRT would object if we went and paid them a visit.” Tough shit if they do, her tone promised.

    “Sure, we could do that.” Taylor smirked. “Or … we could go shopping in the mall.”

    Janesha’s eyebrows shot into her fringe. “Actual shopping?”

    Taylor nodded. “In actual shops. A place where everything you could ever want is in one place, and you walk down the aisles picking what you like. I’ve only ever window shopped before now.”

    “Shopping for windows doesn’t sound like much fun.”

    “It means to look without buying. But with your ability to make things, we could go to a bank and set you up with gold bullion. So long as what you’re creating is the real deal, I see no difference between you creating whatever gold you need for cash, and some random person finding a million-dollar lump of it in the ground.” But just as quickly as she’d spoken, Taylor’s plan derailed itself and she let out a huff of defeat. “Never mind. There’s no way you’ll get a bank account without ID, and I doubt you have a driver’s licence in that uniform anywhere.”

    “Maybe not, but we might not have to,” Janesha said, thoughtfully.

    Taylor had her doubts. “Dad’ll have a fit if you walk in with a bank account when he knows you don’t have any ID on you to get it the legal way.”

    “True, but this place is creepily similar to my cousin’s realm. If this is a replication of her realm, her base rules might still be in play even here.”

    Taylor’s eye twitched. Whenever Janesha said something like that, more weirdness was on the way. “What do you mean?”

    Janesha stood up beside her. “My full name is Lady Janesha Nascerdios. Can you think of any reason why I shouldn’t enter the Empire Eighty-Eight?” She waved a hand suggestively at the dark skin of her face.

    Taylor thought it was the most pointless question she’d ever heard. “Apart from them being a pack of racist assholes that you could do better than, why should I … holy fuck!” She leaned away from Janesha, both hands covering her mouth as she realised what had naturally come to mind. “You said you wouldn’t fuck with my head anymore!”

    Janesha held up a hand. “Calm down, petal. I didn’t touch your mind. I promise. It’s a realm-wide conditioning that was put in place long before your species ever evolved. Celestials often visit Earlafaol, but to avoid awkward questions, Lady Col put a last name in place that made all mortals not question anything from appearance to background to wealth of the person claiming the surname. With that name, females have entered previously male dominated fields. Race or shape was no longer a problem either. Backgrounds don’t matter. Length of life doesn’t matter. Lady Col has owned property for over a thousand years under her Nascerdios name, and no one’s batted an eye. Daily actions are still very much gauged, though. If a winged demon turned up, they could pass as a Nascerdios if they walked through the crowd. But as soon as they used their wings to fly, or attempted to eat someone, the name wouldn’t save them. Do you see the difference?”

    Taylor rubbed at her temples. “I can kind of understand the concept, but how do you even make something like that happen without mindbending everyone on the planet?”

    Janesha sighed and sat back down on the sofa. “Okay, class is in session. Celestials one-oh-one. You know how power-bases and thralls work, right?” The look on Taylor’s face prompted her to amend the question. “I mean, the principle behind it.”

    “I know what happens when you get a power base and how you can’t fight against a thrall, yeah,” Taylor conceded.

    “Good.” Janesha spread her hands. “Well, when you set up a realm, if you know what you’re doing, you can institute a thrall for the whole realm that will affect everyone in a pre-determined group in a particular way. In Chaos for instance, Lord Belial’s realm, there are the Damned. Anyone who ends up there as one of the Damned has certain strictures on them at all times. They can’t escape, they can’t fight back, they lose all hope and even the lowliest Hellion can easily push them around.” She raised an eyebrow. “My Uncle Avis once spent a couple of years in Hell as one of the Damned. Long story; tell you later. Now, you’d think that one of the most powerful ranged benders in Creation, dropped in among a bunch of Hellions with no bending ability whatsoever, should’ve had the lot of them marching to his tune in about ten minutes flat, right?”

    Taylor didn’t rise to the bait. “I’m guessing that didn’t happen.”

    “Fucking right it didn’t. The moment Belial named him one of the Damned and got him into Hell, it was all over. He was lower than the lowest. Using his mind-bending would’ve meant resisting what they were doing to him, so he couldn’t do it. Got it?”

    “Got it.” It sounded horrifying. Reality itself making them unable to fight back, even if they wanted to? Screw that.

    “Good. Now, in Earlafaol, my cousin’s conditioning has put a similar thing in place, though with a very different effect. If a celestial declares themselves Nascerdios, mortals around them lose all critical judgement about what they’re doing, unless what they’re doing is blatantly impossible or illegal.”

    Something occurred to Taylor. “What happens if a mortal decides to pass themselves off as a Nascerdios? Tap into some of that fame and fortune?”

    Janesha snorted. “Sorry, petal. Mortals just plain don’t have the chops for that. Not only does the thrall prevent mortals from even seriously considering it, but you have to be a celest to make it work. It’s like everyone’s got computers, but we’re the only ones with an internet connection to the right website.”

    “Right. Okay, that’s weird as fuck, but it kinda makes sense.” Taylor frowned. “So, you’re saying there’s a real connection between your cousin’s realm, and ours?”

    Janesha nodded. “I wasn’t sure before, but now we’ve established that both realms have the same conditioning, hell yeah, I’m sure of it. If this was all just one big coincidence, that conditioning wouldn’t be here. And that’s going to make my life here a whole lot easier.”

    “But you’ve been telling everyone you’re Janesha of Mystal.”

    Janesha shrugged. “And for the sake of official paperwork, I’ll be Janesha Nascerdios of Mystal. I won’t change the way I introduce myself to anyone, but the second my paperwork from the bank lands in the PRT’s network, everything should smooth itself out.” Her grin grew as she locked her fingers together and cracked her knuckles. “And unlike Earlafaol, this place has capes, which means it’s game on for everything I can do, baby.”

    Taylor tried to make sense of what Janesha was saying. “So, if I’m understanding things correctly, we just need to go to the bank with a duffle bag full of gold or diamonds or both, fill out the paperwork, and they should automatically give you an account and accept what you want to deposit into it as a normal transaction?”

    “Yup.”

    Slowly, Taylor shook her head. “That’s nuts.”

    “Nope.” Janesha grinned. “That’s Nascerdios.”

    Taylor stuck out her tongue at her.


    End of Part Eleven

    Part Twelve
     
    Last edited: Jun 23, 2019
  22. Gindjurra

    Gindjurra Not too sore, are you?

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    Given parahuman powers are essentially a grant of celestial power, I’m wondering if a cape could claim to be named Nascerdios — normal mortals need not apply, but capes aren’t normal mortals.

    Even if the cape does count as a mortal for thrall purposes though, their powers are absolutely celestial — so what if the powers were used to communicate the name? Taylor spelling out “I am Skitter Nascerdios” in bugs for example, or Jack Slash using his Broadcast Shard to tell someone his real name is Nascerdios?
     
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  23. Angel466

    Angel466 Getting out there.

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    Hideho!

    Just to clarify the difference between mortals with celestial constructs attached to them, and celestials themselves is the way in which attunement works. Attunement happens after a border is established, and then the god sits in the middle of that realm until his essence or power permeates the mortal realm. Once that is achieved, whatever they want, they get. If they want everyone to be right-handed - they are right-handed. If they want everyone to look human - they look human. In this instance, the original celestial who created Earlafaol put a realm-wide conditioning in place, where nothing mortal would ever touch the Nascerdios name. At that point, it became impossible for anything mortal to even conceive of it. Even mortals with celestial additions are still mortals at the end of the day and fall subject to her conditioning. Their only way to avoid it is to leave the realm, and wait for it to wear off.

    Abbadon created a realm that mirrored Earlafaol perfectly because it's easier to create a photocopy than build everything one aspect at a time, neither realising nor caring about the attunement conditions which they replicated in Earth Bet.

    It isn't like Thor's hammer in the MCU, where anyone who is worthy can lift it. Any mortal falls under the sway of the conditioning, and any Celestial has the ability to access it for their own purposes.

    In the case of Edeena and Sagun, they knew of the reputation of Nascerdios, but didn't realise the influence was realm-wide conditioning. (Because as celests - even hybrids, they were excluded from mortal conditioning). So they saw Agent Nascerdios as a very powerful family name - but not why. Any more than anyone else goes into the whole, "Well, how did Batman's family make its money?" They just did.

    I hope that helps.
     
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  24. Gindjurra

    Gindjurra Not too sore, are you?

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    Presumably using Wayne Industries, which is a major manufacturing company going back at least a century.

    But that’s not how Worm powers work. The powers are entirely in the Shard which is literally a cell in the body of the celestial hybrid in question. The human has what amounts to an organic quantum entanglement communicator in their brain that lets data flow both ways, and gives the Shard a locator beacon to use its power on the mortal host or those the host designates.

    If Taylor were to ask Queen Administrator to spell out “I am Skitter Nascerdios” in bugs — which is how she moves those bugs every time she uses ‘her’ powers — then it’s not a mortal using the name, it’s no different than a celestial using their fingertip to write the same thing in the dirt.
     
  25. Angel466

    Angel466 Getting out there.

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    As a construct, the shard is able to ignore the conditioning. If the shard was what was walking around, talking and doing everything, it could ignore the conditioning. Unfortunately, the shard is just one tiny thing that's implanted in a mortal. The mortal does not become celestial, just because it is touched by divinity. The mortal is still in the driver's seat, and the mortal is still tied to the influence of "You will not use the Nascerdios name". So it never even occurs to them to do so. The shard could spell it out, if Taylor had the ability to ask. But the conditioning is preventing her from asking it.

    I just realised, you might be mistaking a hybrid for what the capes of Worm are. A hybrid isn't a mortal that's touched by divinity. It is a child born of both a celest and a mortal. They possess both the essence of a god, and the soul of a mortal. (The latter is what really gets them the kill order, as far as other celestials are concerned - but that's more into the book than this).

    The batman reference was more a matter of, "The family has juice. The end."
     
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  26. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Yeah, it is.

    Levels of power:

    Established god in his own realm (Scion)
    ^^
    Unestablished celestial (Janesha)
    ^^
    Unestablished celestial/mortal hybrid
    ^^
    Independent construct created by a celestial (angels, Endbringers)
    ^^
    ---- dividing line as to what is actually counted as a celestial ----
    ^^
    Mortal with celestial-granted construct powers (Worm parahuman)
    ^^
    Vanilla mortal

    Everyone from independent constructs on up can take advantage of this because they have celestial blood flowing through their veins. Without that, no matter what celestial constructs you're attached to, you're still mortal, and you just don't have that connection.
     
    Last edited: May 22, 2019
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  27. Gindjurra

    Gindjurra Not too sore, are you?

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    Yeah, but it’s not the human who is using the powers. They’re asking the Shard to do it on an unconscious level, and the Shard IS Scion’s body. If a Shard isn’t celestial, then Scion cannot be either.

    No, I’m not mistaking a parahuman ‘for’ anything. I am ‘mistaking’ a thing that is just as much a part of Scion’s body as your index finger is a part of your body for a part of Scion’s body.
     
  28. Kitty S. Lillian

    Kitty S. Lillian Transhuman

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    Typo roundup--brief because Ack has good writing and/or betas.
    whose
    Never seen that spelling before. I'm familiar with capisce and capiche. But that one doesn't seem to have made the cut.
    hadn't liked
    (multiple places) Isn't that usually spelled Abaddon? Is this intentional?
    Earlafaol
     
  29. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Okay, let's clear something up here.

    As mortals, no human can 1) seriously consider trying to tap into a realm-wide celestial power base, or 2) succeed. Using powers or not. It just isn't going to happen. Because they're mortals.

    Because being touched by celestial power falls far short of the amount of celestial essence required to actually tap into a celestials-only power base.

    Likewise, no non-celestial cape will ever achieve a power base or a thrall on Earth Bet. Because to do that, you need to be celestial in nature, not just be waving a little bit of celestial-granted power around.

    Also, just pointing this out? Angel466 is the author of the book in question. This is specifically Word of God (in more ways than one).

    Okay, will look and fix.
     
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  30. Threadmarks: Part Twelve: Golden Revelations
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Celestial Worm

    Part Twelve: Golden Revelations

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


    “This still feels very weird.” Taylor eyed the duffel bag that Janesha had slung over her shoulder. “And I’m not even counting the fact that you’re carrying more gold in that bag than your weight and mine combined, several times over.”

    “And I’m not even breaking a sweat?” Janesha made an off-hand gesture as they strolled down the street. “Petal, I’m pretty sure I told you about how even the commoners of my people can bench a few dozen tons. This here’s nothing.”

    “Well, that and the straps should’ve ripped clean off that bag when you picked it up,” Taylor pointed out.

    “Only if I let them.” Janesha smirked. “Maybe you forgot. Matter is my bitch.”

    Taylor shook her head. “I hadn’t forgotten. I’m just saying that it’s kind of overkill to create something so heavy to take into the bank. I’m pretty sure even Kurt wouldn’t be able to move that thing without a forklift. Why didn’t you just make a backpack full of diamonds? Surely they’d be a lot lighter.”

    Janesha snorted. “Yeah, but then we’d have to go through a diamond exchange and each diamond has its own unique markers based on the geography it came from. I could replicate that easily enough, but that would detract from the value of the diamonds that actually came from that place. Unlike that stuff, gold is gold, is gold.”

    Taylor looked across at her and blinked slowly.

    “What?”

    “Well, look at you, caring about other people’s financial situations. Anyone’d think you were human.”

    Janesha crossed her eyes and poked out her tongue. “Bite your tongue. You’re just a bad influence.”

    “Or maybe the best kind.”

    The corners of Janesha’s lips quirked. “Maybe.”

    They walked for another minute or two, when something Janesha said about the diamond exchange triggered a distant memory in Taylor. “Doesn’t gold have to go through a specialist as well?”

    Janesha nodded. “Yeah, but to save time, I want the gold dealer to come to us at the bank. Trust me, one call from the manager about how much we have and who we are, and they’ll come running.”

    “Who you are, you mean,” Taylor corrected, knowing damn well the only attention she ever got from authorities was the wrong kind.

    “Petal, we’re both getting cards to this account, so it’s as much yours as mine.”

    Taylor skidded to a halt. “What?” It was one thing to accompany Janesha to the bank and watch her open a multi-million-dollar account, and another entirely to have unfettered access to those funds.

    Janesha paused as well and turned back to her. “What?” she repeated, as if she hadn’t just offered Taylor enough money to buy and sell a small country.

    “I can’t take a card to all of that!” she hissed shaking her head. Well, not that she couldn’t, but her father would have a fit.

    “Why not?” Janesha didn’t seem offended by the refusal. It was as if she was genuinely baffled by it.

    “Well, it’s not mine for starters.”

    Janesha’s brow creased into a deep frown, but then, as if a lightbulb had gone off in her mind, her eyes widened and she shook her head in denial. “Oh, hang on. No. I’m not trading it for a boon. It’s a genuine gift on my part.”

    “But it’s too much,” Taylor argued.

    “What makes it too much?” Janesha countered. “The effort I put into getting it? Or the effort it’s taking us to carry it to the bank? That’s all we’ve done. Putting a different number in front of a heap of zeroes on a bank account to us is no different to not having a different number at the front to you. If we run out, we’ll get more. It’s no big deal.” Lowering her voice, Janesha stepped to her friend’s side and said, “If there wasn’t already a pantheon in charge over here, I’d be making this entire fucking world kneel to you, just for being my friend.” She gestured at the backpack. “So, trust me when I say this is truly nothing.”

    That perspective was certainly eye-opening.

    “Besides,” Janesha went on, as if she’d never been interrupted. “Like most of my dad’s kind, I prefer gold over diamonds anyway. There’s something to be said about the shifting properties of gold.”

    “What shifting properties?”

    “It starts out hard, but the second you apply heat, it melts into a liquid, ready to become another shape. And then a minute or two later away from the heat, it’s rock hard again. Like all demonic stock, that ability to adapt to its environment seriously appeals to the shifter in me.”

    Taylor could sort of understand her logic. “Whereas diamonds don’t change.”

    “Not easily, and not without rendering them worthless. To me, they’re just sparkly clear-white rocks with no shifting potential at all. Big deal.” With her free hand, Janesha rubbed her chin. “I mean, there’s a reason more of us have powerbases and thralls linked to gold in some way than diamonds. Think about the legends: golden apples, the Midas touch, the golden fleece and so on. And because we love it, you do too.”

    “I never thought of it like that,” admitted Taylor. “But surely it goes the other way too, doesn’t it? I mean, there’s a lot more crossover between mortals and celestials than anyone really understands, isn’t there?”

    “No!” Janesha snapped, way too quickly to be anything other than a defensive stance. When Taylor raised an eyebrow, Janesha screwed up her nose. “I mean, maybe a little bit, but not enough to matter.”

    “But don’t the mortals dictate your powerbases?”

    “Technically, but that’s not the same thing.”

    “Oh, come on, Janesha. You can’t be that delusional.” When her friend continued to scowl, Taylor shouldered her half a step sideways to try and lighten the mood. “Don’t be like that. It’s not a bad thing …”

    “Are you kidding? It’s a horrible thing. To think that mortals influence us like … like…”

    “Like the way you influence us?”

    Janesha’ scowl darkened as though she’d just bitten into a cosmically sour lemon. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

    “Says who?”

    “Says …ummm … ” Janesha paused and frowned thoughtfully. “It’s just the way it is,” she insisted, waving her free hand dismissively.

    “Cop out,” Taylor said in a sing-song voice.

    “Bite me,” Janesha shot back in the same tone as she stepped out towards the bank.

    Taylor chuckled and caught up with her friend in three long steps. “Seriously though. What’s wrong with thinking we can influence each other?”

    “You don’t live long enough to have a decent grasp on things. I’m sorry, petal, but you just don’t. Going back to that ant analogy, would you like it if individual bugs influenced your choices in the human world?”

    “But we’re not ants …”

    “Taylor, I sit at a table with cousins and siblings that are tens of thousands of years old, and we’re all still treated like kids by the elders. It’s not that I’m picking on you. It’s just that when you only live such a short life, it’s difficult for us to value what you can offer. I’m learning how to while I’m here, but I’m also trying to explain why I’m having such a hard time of it.”

    “But you’re only sixteen too, aren’t you?”

    Janesha nodded.

    “And do you think you have nothing to offer?”

    Janesha sighed. “Nothing they’ll listen to, yet.”

    Taylor pounced on the opening. “But what do you think about what you can offer? If you really believe you can offer nothing, why’d you bother standing up to Thor at all?”

    “Because I’m Mystallian, and that asshole pissed me off.”

    “And I’m human, and I want to matter too.”

    Janesha put the bag on the ground and turned to face Taylor squarely. “You matter to me,” she said, placing both hands on Taylor’s shoulders to convey that sincerity.

    Taylor felt her lips curl upwards and the two hugged in the middle of the sidewalk.

    Over Janesha’s shoulder, Taylor caught sight of a large male adult stoop as he walked past Janesha’s duffle in an attempt to sweep it up and keep going. He made it as far as the give in the fabric before he was yanked to a standstill.

    Somehow, Janesha must have also known about the attempted robbery, for she pulled away from Taylor and turned; her smile both predatory and full of amusement. “You all right there, sport?” she asked. Hastily, the guy let go of the bag and ran off, disappearing into the crowd.

    “Oh, my god! Holy shit, that was great!” Taylor laughed until tears ran down her face. “We should leave a bag on the street, just to see how many people try to do that!”

    “I can if you want.”

    Still laughing, Taylor shook her head. “Nah. People will open it and empty it in the blink of an eye. But still, that was brilliant.” She took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. “Oh, I can’t wait to tell dad about it.”

    Janesha grinned and threw an arm over Taylor’s shoulders, then led her to where the bag was and swept it up in much the same manner as the thief had tried. Taylor hooked her arm over her friend’s far shoulder as well, having grown used to the strange looks they garnered from those around them.

    “Promise me you won’t bite my head off,” Taylor said, as the pair slid apart until their arms were locked at the elbow.

    “Literally or figuratively?’ Janesha asked, with a cocky flick of her eyebrows.

    Taylor blew a raspberry at her friend. “You told me about how your Uncle Chance got ambushed by your mortals and how he ended up as a genie for them for a little while.”

    “This again?” Janesha groaned, and Taylor patted her forearm.

    “Hear me out. How does everyone know about things like that, but can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the influence goes both ways?”

    “Because if we admit it, we then have to give their individual existences credence,” Janesha replied. “And every time we talk about this, it upsets you. Why do you keep bringing it up?”

    “Because I want to see if I can change your view of it. I don’t care about the rest of your family. They can be as stuck up and horrible as they like. But you’re my friend, and it kills me to think you see us all as nothing more than a means to an end. Your eternal power depends on what we think of you, and you think it’s okay to treat us like dirt every chance you get.” Taylor looked at her askance. “That’s not right.”

    “But you also impose our thralls on us.” Janesha slid her eyes to her right where Taylor walked at her side. “If an established celest dies, it’s specifically because some bunch of mortals who’ve never met him decided that it would be cool if this god died in a particularly weird or fucked-up way. Because you’ll never see a thrall setting a god up to die peacefully in bed after a long and fulfilling life. It’s usually painful and quite often humiliating. And the worst thing is, the god knows it’s gonna happen. Everyone around them knows it’s gonna happen. And the god is perfectly fine with it.”

    “So, what you’re saying is that when you become established, mortals give you stuff and they take stuff away, and you hate it because you can’t get angry about what they’re taking away.” It suddenly occurred to Taylor that she no longer heard the sound of traffic or anything else around her. At some point Janesha had covered them in her sound-proof bubble to keep their conversation about celestial matters private. A good idea, and she was going to have to watch that.

    “I don’t want to fight with you, Taylor.”

    “I don’t want to fight with you, either. I just want you to open your eyes and see what it is you’ve been brainwashed into believing.” Taylor scooted past her and turned into her path. Both hands went up to stop her. “Please.”

    Janesha pulled up short, then closed her eyes and pinched her lips into a tight line. When she opened them again, there was a strange glint to them. “Don’t beg, Taylor. Not to me. I don’t like it.”

    Taylor frowned. “I wasn’t …”

    “What do you think ‘please’ at the end of a request is?”

    “Some would say it’s manners.”

    “And others would call it begging. I don’t want you to beg me for anything. Not you.”

    Taylor ran her tongue over her lips. She had to pick her battles with Janesha and making her celestial friend see the truth of their twisted ideology was her first priority. “Just, consider what I said, Janesha, okay? Really consider it. That’s all I’m asking.”

    Janesha let out a light huff. “Fine. I’ll consider it.” She lifted her eyes over Taylor’s head and said, “We’re here.”

    Taylor turned, not realising she had jumped on to the first step of the bank to get in front of Janesha. Accepting they were at their destination, she dropped her hands and moved to Janesha’s side as the pair made their way up the stone steps.

    “Now remember, they need to hear the name ‘Nascerdios’ before it takes effect,” Janesha said.

    “So, let you do the talking?”

    “Let me do the talking.”

    The glass doors hissed open in front of them. Taylor quirked a grin. “You know, I wouldn’t miss this for the world. If it was anyone but you told me what was about to happen, I’d call them nuts.”

    They crossed the threshold into the bank. Taylor looked around with interest, then stepped back as an intimidating bank guard approached them. Janesha in turn, moved forward and gave the guy a bright smile. “Hi. Is your manager about? I’d like to open an account.”

    The guard looked the two over but returned his attention to the caped individual. “I’m sorry, but the manager is a very busy man. Accounts can be opened over there at the enquiries desk, provided you have the right identification and an adult to authorise the account.” The way he said the latter, he knew damned well they didn’t.

    Janesha’s grin turned sly. “Sure thing, slick,” she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “And when I do, you’ll then have to explain to your boss how you made a Nascerdios go to the enquiries counter to open a multi-million-dollar account because you didn’t think I was worth his time.”

    The guard blanched and stumbled backwards half a step. As Janesha had said, he didn’t doubt a word of their legitimacy once the name Nascerdios was mentioned. “Please, please … ahhh – wait here … Miss Nascerdios …”

    Unlike outside, Janesha said nothing about the way he pleaded with her to stay where she was while he stepped away to talk into the radio on his shoulder. After a few clipped words, Taylor noticed on the other side of the bank, another guard surging up the stairs two and three at a time, pushing his way through the staff in his haste to get to the upper floors.

    So, this was what it was like to be important. Nice.

    Less than a minute or two later, Janesha and Taylor were ushered into a private room where a man in a pristine business suit danced and fawned all over them as if Janesha was the president himself. He apologised profusely for his fool of a guard and even offered to fire him if that would make Janesha feel better for any inconvenience she may have felt. Janesha seemed bored with the whole ass-kissing affair, but when the guard’s job was threatened, she looked at Taylor to see if she had an opinion.

    Taylor couldn’t shake her head fast enough. “Leave him alone. He didn’t do anything wrong.”

    The manager barely glanced at Taylor, before returning his full attention to Janesha. His rude brush-off had Janesha’s bored expression morphing instantly into a vicious snarl and she launched herself to the front of her seat. “You ever fucking dismiss her like that again, and you and I are going to have a very serious fucking problem. When she speaks, you listen to her as if she’s one of my realm-damned family.” She pressed a single finger into the table between them. “You understand me, sunshine?”

    The manager’s eyes widened in horror. “Y-Y-Yes … of course, Miss Nascerdios. My deepest, deepest apology.” He broke eye contact with Janesha to look up at Taylor. “The guard will of course continue his employment here, just as you requested.” He looked between the two. “Is that satisfactory?”

    Janesha pinched her lips again and sat back in her chair, but whatever she was thinking, she kept to herself. Taylor made a mental note to ask her later.

    The manager took their silence as a general reprieve. He mopped his brow with a handkerchief which he produced from his pocket and went back to the business at hand. “So … what do you wish to make as your initial deposit, Miss Nascerdios?”

    Janesha unzipped the bag, allowing the glint of gold to shine through. “One and a half tonnes of gold bullion in two-pound bars, as a starting deposit.”

    “Miss Nascerdios, I’m afraid we don’t have the facilities to exchange gold bullion for a deposit … h-however I’m certain we can work something out,” he hastily added, as Janesha quirked a disapproving eyebrow.

    “My friend and I would like to go shopping as soon as we’re done here. What would you suggest?”

    Taylor watched the manager’s eyes dart as ideas came to him and were just as quickly dismissed. “I could have someone from the GBI flown in to assess the gold if you were seeking extreme expediency …”

    “And in the meantime?” Janesha speak: Not quick enough.

    “Errm … it would be ... my pleasure to have the bank advance you a temporary balance of ten million until the figures are finalised later this afternoon. The GBI will of course, take their fees and the cost of the flight out of the deposit …”

    “Of course.”

    As they spoke, a light knock on the door had the manager jumping to his feet. “Ahh—thank you, Miss Evans,” he said, taking something through the gap in the door. Around their bodies, Taylor noticed someone’s shoulder. Sending her bugs to investigate, she found that an armed guard now stood on either side of the opening. The manager returned to the table and scrawled his signature and the figure of ten million on various points of the paperwork. “This top one is our acknowledgement of your deposit being entrusted to us,” he said, holding his gold pen out for Janesha to take.

    Janesha took the pen and signed her name at the indicated spot.

    “And this one acknowledges the temporary advance of ten million to be repaid upon completion of the gold evaluation …”

    Taylor’s mind swam with the figures they were tossing out as casually as confetti. Millions of dollars. Millions and millions of dollars. Janesha signed her name to each piece of paper like a pro.

    “Taylor.”

    Taylor blinked, uncertain of when she’d zoned out.

    Janesha held the pen out to her. “Here, petal. You need to sign these accounts too.”

    “Oh .. ahh—right…” she stammered, stumbling forward.

    The manager looked between the two of them curiously, but if he had anything to say about the unusual arrangement, he knew better than to voice it.

    <><>​

    Taylor shook her head as they exited the private office. Janesha was flicking her new bank card back and forth between her fingers like a world-class card shark, causing Taylor to look down at the simple piece of plastic she had clutched in her own right hand. The card that could, with a single swipe and pin entry, buy her almost literally anything she’d ever wanted. These ones didn’t have their names embossed on them, though. Those were being rushed into production and would be in Brockton Bay from the bank’s head office by first thing in the morning. These were the temporary ones that would do until then. “I saw it, I was part of it, and I still can’t believe it.” She flicked her eyes sideways at her friend. “And you promise no bending was involved?”

    “None whatsoever,” Janesha assured her. “Cousin Col set everything up like a gazillion years ago. She didn’t want any of her mort—her people getting killed because they accidentally disrespected or stole from the … uh—powerful beings that came to visit her. And since this is a perfect replica of her home realm, acceptance of the Nascerdios name is embedded in the reality here too.” She made the card disappear from one hand and reappear in the other, then jerked her head towards the office they’d just left. “That level of grovelling was how that guy personally felt about having a billionaire as a customer, and being Nascerdios took care of the ‘you can’t have your own account without an adult’ and the ‘where did you get the gold from’ parts. I promise, I didn’t do anything but supply the deposit.” She held the card up and flicked her eyebrows again. “So, shall we go shopping?”

    Taylor snorted. “Sure, but we’re gonna have to work pretty hard to top the look on that manager’s face when you unzipped that duffel to show them that yes, it really was full of gold bars.” She looked around as her bugs registered a bunch of SUVs pulling up at the curb outside the bank. “Um … before we go shopping, I think you’re about to have a new experience.”

    “Really?” Janesha looked at her curiously. "What sort of new experience?"

    The side doors of the SUVs crashed open, and the armed men Taylor had detected inside surged out. Each of them was clad from head to toe in what appeared to be some sort of body armour, including helmets with closed faceplates. What they carried in their hands could only have been assault rifles; Taylor wasn't overly familiar with guns, but she could tell this much.

    “I’m thinking … bank robbery,” she said, lifting her chin towards the armed men now massing on the pavement outside. For the moment, they were out of sight of anyone not near the doors, but that looked like it would change very shortly.

    Janesha glanced toward the doors, then at Taylor. “Do you mind if I use your eyes for a moment?”

    Taylor shrugged. “Be my guest.”

    Even though she knew Janesha’s mental scan of her memories would take no time at all, Taylor still somehow expected to feel something when it happened. She didn’t, of course, and an instant later, Janesha rolled her eyes. “How is this any different from when the Merchants thought they could conscript me yesterday?” she growled.

    Taylor looked around the bank. “There’s a lot of innocent bystanders that you have to take into account, for starters.”

    Janesha glanced around the crowded room and huffed out a breath of frustration, as if she hadn’t really thought about that part. And to be honest, she probably hadn’t. “A little coincidental, don’t you think, that within half an hour of making our deposit, dipshits one to twelve rock up to steal it?”

    Right on cue, the armed men stormed up the front steps of the Brockton Bay Central Bank and burst in through the doors. “Everybody on the floor!” shouted one of them. A brilliant purple beam lanced out from his assault rifle and bisected a security camera. “This is a holdup!”

    “‘Coincidental’ isn't the word you’re looking for,” Taylor observed as everyone around them dived to the ground. “A coincidence is when you're wearing the same blouse as the person next to you in class. This is—”

    Down on the floor!” screamed one of the armed men. He and five of his compatriots were aiming their guns at Janesha and Taylor. More specifically, Janesha had five guns on her while Taylor had one. “Even if you're bulletproof, girl, I'm betting your friend isn't!”

    Taylor frowned. While she and Janesha had nothing to physically fear from the men, there were other worries at play here. First, her father didn’t want her outing herself, and she didn’t want to disappoint him. Second, even if the men hit with every shot, bullets might still ricochet off her or Janesha and strike one of the bank patrons. It would be horribly ironic if she ended up being the cause of an innocent bystander being hurt when she’d just warned Janesha about it.

    But she’d spent the last year and more taking far too much shit from Emma, Sophia, Madison and all their friends to just meekly lie down now. And she had a new weapon to use. “You’re really going to steal Nascerdios gold?” she asked boldly.

    The man who’d yelled at her before stepped forward, raising his rifle to butt-stroke her to the ground, but froze solid at the last two words.

    “What was that?” he asked, cautiously lowering his weapon to his side.

    Bingo, Taylor decided with vicious satisfaction. “This is Lady Janesha Nascerdios of Mystal,” she said. “The gold you came here to steal belongs to her.”

    Janesha’s eyes glittered dangerously and a wry smile crept across her face. Folding her arms in confirmation of the claim, she eyed the armed men as one might regard a puppy that’s just tracked mud through the house and is now begging for a treat. “You really want to go there?”

    “Shit.” The guy stepped back. “Nascerdios?” He looked hard at Janesha, then back over his shoulder at his associates. “I didn’t sign on to steal from the Nascerdios.”

    Despite the fact (that Taylor was absolutely certain of) the men had never even heard of the name Nascerdios before this moment in time, all of them nodded in agreement. Most of them muttered ‘fuck that’ or some variation on the theme. Even the bank patrons, lying flat as they were, looked up at the would-be robbers as if they were insane for even suggesting it.

    It was just one more example of bullshit celestial reality-warping. And Taylor had once thought capes were bad for that sort of thing.

    “Uh, I gotta call this in,” the apparent leader of the bank robbers declared hesitantly, then found his backbone again. “Nobody move.” He headed off to an empty corner near the doors, reaching up under the edge of his helmet to press a switch, or so Taylor guessed.

    <><>​

    Coil

    Thomas Calvert leaned back in his chair, fingers steepled together. Hearing about the surprise influx of gold from his contact in the bank had caught him on the back foot, but he’d assembled a team of his burliest mercenaries and sent them on their way. In the other timeline, of course, he’d thanked the woman for her service and then done nothing at all with the information. There was always the chance this was a trap, after all.

    The plan was simple; storm the bank before they had a chance to move the gold into the vault, then ferry it out into the four SUVs and make a getaway before the superheroes had a chance to arrive. With the current price of gold as it was, one-point-something tons of the stuff would make a very welcome addition to his war chest.

    The radio crackled, interrupting his musings. He frowned; the only reason they’d be calling him mid-mission would be if there was an unexpected snag. Unexpected snags were always problematic, mainly because they were unexpected. He pressed the button to activate his microphone. “Coil here. What’s the problem?”

    “Sir, the gold you sent us for is Nascerdios gold.”

    Stunned, Calvert sat back heavily in his chair. Then he got mad. Oh, for fuck’s sake! What the hell are the Nascerdios even doing in Brockton Bay? “So much for a simple snatch and grab,” he muttered under his breath, his mind racing to create a fallback position. Like all missions, he could drop this whole timeline if worse came to … wait. “Is the Nascerdios in question still there?” he asked, as a new and audacious plan outlined itself before him. Nobody stole anything Nascerdios-owned; that was a given. Their belongings were utterly sacrosanct unless willingly handed over. The operative word being ‘willingly’.

    “Yes, sir, but she’s a cape, and a pretty confident one. Did you want to speak to her?”

    “No.” Calvert sat forward, leaning in toward the microphone. “You will. And this is what you’ll say to her.”

    <><>​

    Brockton Bay Central Bank

    The helmeted guy turned around and came back toward the group. “Guys, we aren’t stealing from the Nascerdios,” he said, in the same tone of voice he might have used to explain that water was wet and the sky was blue. There were nods of agreement from all concerned. It was, after all, a self-evident truth.

    Except for Taylor. For her, it was all a bit odd. Part of her brain was busy agreeing with the fact that no one questioned the appearance or the background of the Nascerdios and no one ever took the possessions of the Nascerdios by force. (The latter she assumed came down to how possessive the celestials were of their stuff. For beings that could create—or have created—literally anything they wanted, they apparently tended to go more than a little batshit crazy when their stuff was touched). But another, more rational part of her brain, watched the scene from the outside and realised she was agreeing blindly to these restrictions despite how bizarre they were.

    Either way, it seemed that the men had been stymied in their robbery attempt. “So, you’ll be fucking off then?” she asked brightly. Having a celestial as her best friend was all kinds of awesome.

    “Nope.” The guy walked right up to her and grabbed her arm, then shoved the barrel of his gun into her ribs. Then he turned both of them towards Janesha. “If you don’t give us the gold, I’m gonna spray her guts all over the floor. And if that still doesn’t convince you, my guys are gonna open up on the crowd in here. So unless you want a massacre in here, Miss Nascerdios, you will freely give us that gold.”

    Taylor tensed. Technically, it wasn’t a bad plan. While stealing the property of a member of the Nascerdios family was anathema to any mortal, coercing one to hand over the property via threats to a third party was entirely acceptable. For a given definition of ‘acceptable’, of course. The fundamental aspect they’d neglected to factor in was that they were now dealing with the celestial in person. The one person on the planet who could tell Scion to go to Hell, and possibly even make it happen.

    Taylor had no desire to be responsible for Janesha’s assets being stolen by a bunch of over-armed and under-scrupled thugs. It didn’t matter if Janesha could create more gold at will; it was the principle of the thing.

    Realising what she’d just thought, Taylor licked her lips and snorted. How was that any different from the possessiveness of the celestials that she’d mocked not ten seconds earlier? She began to realise, the celestials didn’t care about what was taken … it was the principle that someone else had had the audacity to take it. But what are we gonna do about it?

    According to Janesha, she was as tough and strong as Alexandria herself (unless there was someone tougher or stronger out there). That being the case, between them they should be able to mop these guys up in less time than it took to say, ‘bad move, assholes’. But once more, the mental image of her father cautioning her against outing herself played in her mind’s eye, and if Janesha didn’t get them all really quickly, it was possible that some of the bystanders could be injured.

    With a widening of her eyes, she shot Janesha a querying look that all but begged, Can we clean these guys’ clocks? Can we … can we … can we?

    At first, she wasn’t sure if her friend had gotten the message, but then Janesha’s gaze firmed up and ever so slightly, she shook her head.

    Fine. Hiding her disappointment, Taylor relaxed in the bank robber’s grip, anticipating Janesha’s lead. If her friend had a plan, she didn’t want to mess it up. She watched Janesha’s eyes carefully.

    “Well, alrighty then,” Janesha purred ominously. “I guess I’ll be going to get my stuff. But you’d better not hurt anyone out here while I’m gone, especially my friend.” She pointed down the corridor of offices they’d just come from. “It’s in there.”

    Taylor’s eyes flared in shock. “Janesha, you can’t…!” She surged against the robber, pushing the guy back half a step.

    Janesha held up her hand, bringing Taylor to a halt. “It’ll be okay, Taylor. Chill.”

    Apparently, the back and forth was enough by-play between the friends to convince the leader of their sincerity. He nodded towards his companions. “Four, Five, go with her,” he ordered. “Make sure she brings back the duffel bag full of gold that she carried in here, and nothing else.”

    “Sure.”

    “Yo.”

    Two of the men broke off from the group and strode after Janesha. Despite the fact that each man was a good foot taller than her and outweighed her several times over, she still managed to give the impression that they were under her command rather than a hostile escort.

    Now, what are you up to? If celests as a whole hated their stuff being taken, Taylor could only assume that went doubly so for the denizens of Hell and any of their descendants. Taylor had half an idea as she watched them walk down the long corridor of offices, but she knew she would have to wait and see to be sure. Her eyes slid to the guard who was threatening her with the gun. Whatever Janesha had in mind, this was going to be epic.

    <><>​

    Janesha

    “This way, dipshits.” Boots ringing on the marble floor, Janesha led the way with her cloak flaring out behind her. She pushed her way into the second office—one room past where the manager remained hidden with the real gold. Despite his fawning nature, Janesa couldn’t really blame the guy for not wanting to die.

    Passing through the second doorway, Janesha reached out and administered a subtle change to the makeup of the doorframe, so that when the door closed behind the two men, it stuck and bonded to the frame. The only way to open it from that moment on would be with power tools or via celestial shifting capability.

    Coming to a halt, she turned on the spot to confront the two men. “And this is as far as you idiots go.”

    “What the fuck do you mean?” demanded the one on the right. “We don’t come back with that gold, your little friend gets splattered all over the wall.”

    Or at least, he meant to say that. He got as far as ‘Wha—’ before she finished bending his partner and turned her gaze on him. Thereafter, they both stood still and silent. Only the subtle movements of their breathing betrayed the fact that they were indeed alive.

    “Stay,” she murmured to both of them, and realm-stepped away.

    Mass was everywhere. She could have claimed the office furniture, or a chunk of the floor to create what she needed, but Taylor really was becoming a bad influence, because she decided instead to go somewhere where mass wouldn’t be missed. Like … the sands of Death Valley.

    Arriving two steps later, she turned in a tight circle, to confirm her surroundings, and found not ten yards away, half a dozen men on mountain bikes staring at her. Oh, for fuck’s sake! Suppressing the impulse to just wipe away their memory of her—Taylor wouldn’t like it—she gave them a pinched smile and a fingertip wave and stepped back into the celestial realm.

    What are the odds? she grumbled to herself as she stepped back to the mortal realm some three miles away. The mortals rave about how dangerous this place is. So when I go looking for a quiet place to gather mass, what do I run into? Mortal thrillseekers. I will never understand these idiots.

    Just as she had when she explained to Taylor how she and Emma had danced, Janesha flexed her fingers and pierced the tips of her gloves with her demonic talons, then bent down and shoved her fingers into the hot, dry soil. A few seconds later, she straightened up with a freshly-made boulder in her hands. By the time she’d shifted the boulder into a replica of her missing duffle bag, the sands of the surrounding area had filled the hole so that only the smallest crease in the surface indicated anything had been done. That was why Death Valley and other deserts around the world were her new go-to spots for mass gathering. For a third step, she could always go to the moon, but too many holes up there had already been done by others like her and the rock was beginning to resemble Swiss cheese (another ‘faolian delicacy she’d grown to like after visiting her cousin).

    Three steps later, she was back in the room with Tweedle-Dumb and Tweedle-Dumber. “Hello boys. Miss me?” she asked their frozen forms. “No? Good.”

    <><>​

    Taylor

    “Here you go.” Janesha strode into the room, the two men trailing her. Boots clacking heavily, she stomped up to the leader and put the duffel down at his feet. A dull metallic clinking was audible from within. “One and a half tons. All yours. Now kindly take it and fuck off.”

    Without speaking, the armoured man gestured with a flick of his head for one of his men to come forward and check her claims

    “You don’t trust me?” Janesha asked, placing a hand over her heart as if she were truly crushed.

    The leader grunted at her and tightened his grip on Taylor. The goon on his knees unzipped the bag and held up a golden bar for them all to see. It gleamed softly in the fluorescent lighting.

    “Good,” the leader said with a nod, causing the guy to drop the bar back into the bag and zip it up again. He then flicked the barrel of the gun to Janesha. “Now, you carry it outside and put it into one of our cars, and no funny business. We’re on a tight time schedule here.”

    Taylor fully expected Janesha to refuse, or at least do something that thwarted the bad guys. But instead, the celestial girl scooped up the duffle’s handles and hefted it up on to one shoulder. “Well, if you’re too much of a wimp to do your own heavy lifting, I guess I’ll have to do it for you.”

    And with that, she strolled out through the front doors, followed by the armed men. What the hell? Taylor followed them to the doors, where from the safety of cover she watched Janesha approach one of the SUVs. What are you doing! Leaning in with one hand on the door-frame, Janesha tossed the bag inside. It landed with a huge crunch that forced the vehicle to drop hard on to its suspension. Stepping away, she folded her arms across her chest and flicked her head mockingly at the SUVs as if to say, ‘Are you still here?’ at the robbers.

    Not needing any other invitation, the men swarmed into the other three vehicles. All four SUVs then roared off down the road, the one with the gold noticeably wallowing and lagging behind the pack. Janesha dusted her hands off and climbed the steps again, looking rather satisfied with herself.

    Taylor stepped out from behind the doors. “So, uh, I guess we tear these up then?” she asked dubiously, lifting her card for Janesha to see.

    “Pfft, no.” Janesha flipped hers into the air, then caught it between two fingers. “That wasn’t our gold they took away.”

    Relief on a multitude of levels coursed through Taylor, putting a wide grin on her face. “I didn’t think you were leading them into the right office.” As she started down the stairs with Janesha beside her, she tilted her head. “So, what did you do? Make more gold? Isn’t that, you know, rewarding them for trying to rob Janesha Nascerdios, by giving them what they wanted anyway?”

    Janesha laughed out loud. “Petal, when the hell did you hear me say I was giving them gold?”

    “But it can’t have been gold painted bars. That goon that checked them would’ve known the difference, wouldn’t he?”

    “Yeah, if he’d ever held gold before, that guy would’ve figured it out, since lead’s basically half the weight of gold. I couldn’t take the chance. So what I gave them looked like gold and had the heft of gold …” She trailed off, her eyebrows wiggling up and down and her grin full of mischief.

    “But wasn’t.” Taylor spread her hands. “Okay, so what was it?”

    <><>​

    Coil

    Thomas Calvert watched the monitors as the four SUVs rolled down the ramp into the underground garage. His men had filled him in on the events at the bank, so he’d had them take a roundabout path through the city to throw off any potential traces. Part way through the evasion routine, they’d stopped in an out-of-the-way location and evened out the load of the gold bars across all four cars.

    Police chatter was absolutely normal across all bands, and the PRT had no special operations running. He was sure as he could be that this wasn’t a sting, but still he kept his second timeline running. He watched as they came to a halt and the men climbed out. There were hand trucks available, and the men started loading the gold bars on to them.

    Ten of them, each sagging under the weight of three hundred pounds of gold, were wheeled into the base, along creaking catwalks toward Calvert’s office. He was no more capable of assaying gold than the rest of his men, but he just wanted to hold one of the bars in his hand.

    The hand-trucks rolled to a halt and he stepped forward to inspect their burden. Selecting one bar at random, he took it up and held it to the light to admire it. It was heavy in his hand and he turned it over to reveal a stamp showing a rearing horse with wings. A moment’s thought recalled that Janesha Nascerdios of Mystal—and wasn’t that a pretentious title—wore the same sigil on the back of her cloak. Where she’d gotten it from, what mint produced it with that stamp, he had no idea. Still, it was gold. There were many, many shady characters who were just fine with gold as a medium of exchange. Melting it down to re-cast wasn’t even difficult.

    Replacing the bar, he gestured to the men. “Take it to the storage vault. You did well today.”

    “Sir,” replied their leader. He started moving forward again and Calvert turned away to head back to his office. Almost as an afterthought, he dropped the timeline and re-split it. He was intending to pull an all-nighter, to find out all he could about Janesha of Mystal. At the same time, he wanted to get a good night’s sleep.

    Two steps onward, he heard one of the other men. “Sir? What’s happening to the gold?”

    A chill ran down his back as he stopped and turned. Curling up from the hand-trucks was a faint golden haze; as he watched, it thickened. The mercenary who’d spoken stumbled out of the cloud, clawing at the faceplate of his helmet. Falling to his knees as it opened, he vomited copiously across the catwalk.

    An instant later, the stench reached Calvert’s nostrils. It was the worst thing he’d ever smelled, and that included every nightmare-inducing experience he recalled from Ellisburg. It grabbed his sinuses and plated the back of his skull with them. Stumbling away, he almost made it to his office before he threw up.

    As uniquely unpleasant as it was to throw up inside a one-piece costume, things actually got worse from there. The smell didn’t go away. It didn’t get any less horrific. If anything, it became even more inconceivably unbearable.

    Coughing, choking, spluttering, fully aware of the horrible things squelching around his ankles, Calvert stumbled up out of the base along with his mercenaries. Golden vapours wafted after them, at least until one of the men slammed the door and locked it firmly.

    They kept moving, away from the door, seeking clean air. The smell didn’t go away. Wiping tears from his eyes through his costume wasn’t easy, but Calvert finally managed to clear his vision long enough to ascertain that the golden haze he was seeing wasn’t airborne. It was impregnated into his costume, and layered on to the armour and helmets of his men.

    And the smell. Just. Did. Not. Go. Away.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    By the time Janesha finished her tale, sirens were wailing in the distance and Taylor had had to sit down on the steps until she finished laughing. Red-faced, with tears running down her cheeks, Taylor finally straightened up, leaning on the stair rail. “I-I’d say I c-can’t believe y-you did that,” she gasped, still hiccupping with hilarity. “B-but I know you.”

    Doing her best to look innocent and failing miserably, Janesha buffed the nails of her right hand against her doublet. “A stinky-ass present for stinky-ass bank robbers,” she explained.

    “So how did you manage to make it do all that?” asked Taylor, genuinely curious now. “I mean, gold is gold and thioacetone is thioacetone. How did you make one thing act like the other?”

    “Hold that thought, petal.” Janesha held up her hand as cars and bikes came to a screeching halt at the curb in front of them.

    Police piled out of the vehicles and aimed guns over the hoods of the cars. “Hands where we can see them!” someone ordered through a bullhorn.

    “Stand down!” a voice commanded from above. A figure clad in classical Greek armour flew in and landed on the step beside Taylor and Janesha. Taylor knew who he was, of course.

    “Janesha of Mystal is one of the good guys,” Dauntless continued.

    “And it was her gold they were trying to steal,” Taylor added, still lying on the steps with tears streaming down her face. “Oh, what I wouldn’t give to see the looks on their faces when they open that bag again.”

    Dauntless looked between the two. “What did you do?” he asked, his lips already curling in delight even though he hadn’t heard the story. Just the expectation of it seemed to be enough for him.

    “Well, you know how I shifted all those wrecks into chunks of steel on the dock this afternoon …”

    <><>​

    Ten Minutes Later

    Janesha had needed to repeat the story a third time for Armsmaster, who barrelled through the crowd and made his way up the stairs. By that time, Dauntless had joined Taylor on the stairs, his Arclance lying on the steps beside him, and even some of the police and PRT seemed to have a hard time containing their amusement.

    Only Armsmaster maintained his stoic expression, if the thin line his lips took on was anything to go by. “Just so that my paperwork is all in order, how can you be so sure your effect will target the right individuals and not innocent bystanders?”

    “Because I set it up so that it will turn into a highly offensive gas only once it encounters the person who ordered my gold to be stolen. Not any of his or her dipshit lackeys. You’ve seen the sort of stuff I can do, Armsmaster. Do you really think this is outside my capability? When people like Bakuda can make DNA-keyed bombs at will?”

    “And what exactly will happen once it does come in contact with that person? How far will this stink-bomb you’ve created spread?”

    Janesha shrugged. “I have no idea how soon it’s going to trigger, because I don’t know when those assholes’ boss is going to take the time to gloat over his ill-gotten gains. It won’t bother us anyway, because I’ve put a one hundred metre range on the dispersal point. It won’t spread past that, but anyone inside that range will be covered in it. Their clothing, skin and hair end up gold-coloured, and they just keep on stinking, even when they move out of the hundred-metre radius.”

    Dauntless snorted with amusement. “So basically, whoever these guys are, they’re gonna end up looking like Scion. Only a lot smellier. Should be easy to round them up, wouldn’t you think, Armsmaster?”

    “Like who again?” Janesha turned and stared down at Dauntless.

    “Scion. You know—big guy. Gold. Top of the heap, super-wise. He … what?” he asked, as Janesha’s expression went surprisingly blank. Taylor found herself wondering the same thing.

    Janesha shook her head. “Nothing. If that’s all, guys, Taylor and I have a tonne of retail therapy to catch up on. I think it’s fair to say we earned it after this afternoon at the docks, wouldn’t you?”

    “Janesha!” Armsmaster called, as the teenagers made their way to the bottom of the stairs.

    The celestial girl turned to him. “Yeah?”

    He followed her down the stairs. “Do either of you have a phone or communications device?”

    Janesha looked at Taylor, who shook her head. Janesha then looked back at Armsmaster, who was in the process of looking skyward, probably for patience. “I didn’t think so,” he said, when he looked back at them again. “But you really need to get one. Especially you, Janesha. A lot of this could’ve been avoided if you were the one to call it in.”

    Janesha shrugged. “We can add it to our shopping spree.”

    “Do that, and once you have, swing by the Protectorate building. We’ll hook you up with certain numbers so you can call this sort of stuff in directly to us.” His head twisted to the left and back again. “I’ll give you my direct number as well, just in case you need me on the scene.”

    Janesha nodded, her face unreadable. “Appreciate that. And since no one was actually robbed, we’ll be on our way.” She went to step away, then paused and turned back. “When I do bring a phone in, you’ll let the PRT know it’ll be a really bad idea to try and use my phone for any kind of tracking, right?”

    Armsmaster’s mouth opened and he shook his head. “No … I mean, yes, of course. I wasn’t planning on using it for that.”

    Janesha grinned as if all her Christmases came at one. “Sweet. Catch you around, Armsmaster.”

    As the teens walked away, Taylor waited until they were clear of the authorities before turning on Janesha. “What was that all about?”

    “Armsmaster being Armsmaster. He can’t help himself. He sees me as his personal piece of glory, and anytime I get up to something without asking him to help out, he feels slighted. The direct number was so that he could be first on the scene.”

    “Are you going to do it?”

    Janesha looked back in the direction they’d come. “I don’t know. It makes him feel special to think he’s got an in with me, so I probably will.” She saw Taylor grinning at her. She frowned and added, “What?”

    “Not a damned thing,” Taylor said, sliding her hand through Janesha’s arm. “But why that blank look when Dauntless mentioned Scion?”

    Janesha’s expression darkened instantly. “Because all this time I’ve been trying to figure out who’s in charge over here, and it’s been staring me in the fucking face!”

    “Wait, you think it’s Scion?”

    “Golden glowing body and sitting at the top of the powered food chain? Hell, yeah, he’s at least one of them.”

    “Wow.” Taylor blinked, her worldview shifting yet again. She’d seen images of Scion on TV and in magazines since she was old enough to recognise him; her parents had made sure she only saw the post-bodysuit era images, of course. Scion has golden skin and hair. She didn’t even think it was unusual anymore. “So … Scion’s a celestial? A god?”

    “Yeah.” A grimace crossed Janesha’s face. “The trouble with having goddamn capes all over the place? I have trouble sifting out the potential celests from the powerful capes. Of course, Scion’s head and fucking shoulders above the rest of them and he glows with a golden light. I should’ve seen this the moment I set foot in this fucking realm.”

    “So you think any other superheroes are celestials?” Taylor was still coming to terms with the idea that Scion was a celestial … a god. That the ‘most powerful cape in the world’ was that way because … well, he had godly powers. That they’d had a literal god flying around, rescuing cats from trees and people from burning buildings, for nearly thirty years.

    Janesha made a throwaway gesture. “Jury’s still out on that. I haven’t seen anyone who jumps out at me.” She paused. “Yet.”

    “So what are you gonna do about it?” asked Taylor. “Stay out of sight? I mean, is he likely to think you’re trespassing in his realm and get pissed at you?”

    “Fuck, no.” Janesha shook her head. “I’m gonna go have a talk with the asshole and find out what his game is and why this place looks so much like Cousin Col’s. Then I’m going to ask him why he’s treating you mortals so shittily.”

    Taylor sighed. Why did I even suspect you might act differently? Mystallians have gotta be Mystallian. “So, when are you planning on having a chat with the most powerful cape in the world, anyway?”

    Janesha looked around. They were passing by an electronics store. TVs in the window showed breaking news. A golden figure in a pure white bodysuit was hovering in front of a burning building. “How about now?” She glanced at Taylor. “Sorry about our shopping trip, but you can still go ahead and shop for both of us, yeah?”

    “I guess.” Taylor shrugged. “Go. Chat. Have fun. Let me know if me and Dad have to set another place for dinner.”

    Startled, Janesha laughed. “Yeah. I’ll do that.” Looking at the TVs, she studied the background. Taking a step forward, she vanished.

    “And Janesha’s gotta Janesha.” Taylor chuckled and shook her head. Then she looked down at the card in her hand. The card with ten million dollars backing it up. She smiled.

    Times like this, she decided, deserved some retail therapy.

    <><>​

    Cauldron Base

    “Fortuna! Fortuna!” Clare ran through the base that was luckily empty of everyone but the three celestials. “We’ve got a fucking situation!”

    Dorian was hot on his heels though Clare, being slightly taller and more wiry, had the advantage of speed over his more robust brother. With a flying dive, Dorian was able to capture the psychic of their team with a throttle hold around the neck that dragged him to the ground … just outside Contessa’s quarters. Contessa’s door opened as Dorian was about to lay a fist into his brother’s face. “Situation?” she asked; a titch of her teeth and tongue all the indication she needed for Dorian to let him go. “What kind of fucking situation?”

    Dorian immediately released Clare and kicked him towards their commander.

    “It’s the little Mystallian whore!” babbled Clare, scrambling to his feet. “She wants to talk to Scion!”

    Dorian and Fortuna stared at each other in horror. It wasn’t certain which of them spoke first. “Fuck.”

    Fortuna kept talking. “Okay. There’s no fucking way we can let this happen. We need Scion to murder her, not fucking talk to her.” She held up a finger. “Neither of you fuckups move a fucking muscle. I need to figure out a way to prevent this clusterfuck from getting any more fucked up and get back on fucking track.” A moment later, her expression cleared. “Clare. Coil. What’s his attitude toward the Mystallian bitch?”

    Clare snorted. “Pissed as fuck, to be honest. The little slut just honey-trapped him with shifter gold.” Briefly, he outlined the current situation.

    “Fucking perfect. Okay, Door me to Coil. Let’s get this party started.”

    <><>​

    Coil

    It didn’t matter that his sinuses were clogged up; the all-pervading stench continued to assault them anyway. At least he’d managed to borrow a knife from one of his mercenaries so that he could cut a hole for his mouth. He hadn’t thrown up in the last thirty seconds, but that didn’t promise anything for the future.

    His first move had to be to get away from the base. The spreading miasma, as horrific as it was, would no doubt draw official attention. But there was a problem. The armour of his mercenaries was uniformly coated with a golden film, as was (when they took their helmets off) their skin. It took only a moment for him to slice a hole in the part of his costume that covered the back of his left hand. Beneath … his skin was now a uniform golden sheen. Water from a canteen (also taken from a mercenary) didn’t wash it off.

    He had no fucking idea how he was going to deal with this shit, but Janesha Nascerdios of Mystal was going to die.

    <><>​

    Contessa

    The instant the Door opened, Fortuna smelt the astoundingly powerful odour. Behind her, she heard Clare and Dorian gagging, but she had a job to do. She stepped through into what turned out to be an underground garage populated by staggering, stumbling golden-hued figures. Behind her, the Door closed. She’d already turned off her senses of smell and taste by this time and she knew that if her idiot brothers had any sense, they’d have done exactly the same thing.

    Coil, or what was left of him, was leaning up against a concrete pillar, throwing up bile. Fortuna surreptitiously slid the seclusion ring from her finger. While this opened up her bending ability, she hadn’t done it for this reason. Removing the ring also gave her access to her attunement of the realm, which allowed her to transcend normal celestial capabilities by a long way. In this case, she told the golden stinking fog to go away, the effect spreading out from her and encompassing Coil and his men before continuing onward into his base. Her goal achieved, she slid the ring back on before Davin (or anyone else from home) had the chance to try blood-linking to her. If she and the others were to have any chance of escaping the sin-bin, they had to finish this shit before reporting in.

    By the time she reached Coil, he once more possessed his natural skin tone and mostly inoffensive body odour. She didn’t do anything about the evidence of his stomach upset; that was his problem to deal with.

    “Coil,” she said flatly. “This makes yet another favour you owe us.” Using her innate luck, she positioned herself so that only he could see and hear her. Wiping his men’s minds would be entirely possible, but it would also involve removing the ring again, and she didn’t want to push her luck with home too far.

    “So it seems.” His voice was rough from vomiting. “And you wouldn’t be here, if you didn’t need something from me.” It wasn’t a question.

    Fortuna’s smile was colder than liquid helium and sharper than a monomolecular dagger. “We want you to kidnap Taylor Hebert. Kill her if you have to. Just get her away from Janesha of Mystal and keep her there.”

    Coil’s answering smile turned equally nasty. “That will be my genuine pleasure.”


    End of Part Twelve

    Part Thirteen
     
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2019
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