1. For prospective new members, a word of warning: don't use common names like Dennis, Simon, or Kenny if you decide to create an account. Spammers have used them all before you and gotten those names flagged in the anti-spam databases. Your account registration will be rejected because of it.
    Dismiss Notice
  2. Since it has happened MULTIPLE times now, I want to be very clear about this. You do not get to abandon an account and create a new one. You do not get to pass an account to someone else and create a new one. If you do so anyway, you will be banned for creating sockpuppets.
    Dismiss Notice
  3. If you wish to change your username, please ask via conversation to tehelgee instead of asking via my profile. I'd like to not clutter it up with such requests.
    Dismiss Notice
  4. Due to the actions of particularly persistent spammers and trolls, we will be banning disposable email addresses from today onward.
    Dismiss Notice

Celestial Worm [Worm AU crossover]

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

Tags:
Loading...
  1. Aluvartyo

    Aluvartyo Getting out there.

    Joined:
    Jul 30, 2018
    Messages:
    17
    Likes Received:
    83
    I gotta say while I'm enjoying the story I fucking can't stand the cultural arrogance of the celestials. Like while its spot on from a story perspective, and I'm not asking you to change anything cause it's a perfectly logical thing to happen to a society that develops like that....its just incredibly aggravating to read without wanting to just punch jenesha and her whole society in the face lol. At this point, for personal satisfaction I'm hoping for like an epilogue when this is over where jenesha gets her faced rubbed in the fact that she's not top of the food chain by whatever power is above the celestials. Like you know, just a proper humbling experience to properly establish the phrase "there is always a bigger fish"

    Anyway thanks for the excellent chapter, though I was a touch disappointed coil did not suffer longer :p Thus I'm holding out hope for a suitable ...permanent..punishment once janesha learns he tried to kidnap Taylor.
     
    JamesEye, Angel466 and Ack like this.
  2. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 2014
    Messages:
    6,605
    Likes Received:
    46,736
    You might notice that Janesha is actually changing her attitude. It's baby steps only, but she actually went to get mass from Death Valley rather than screw someone over by using their desk.

    Comment from Karen (author of Ties That Bind): "If you think Janesha is arrogant, you should meet her uncle Avis on a good day."

    Also, yes, Janesha will end up finding that there is a bigger fish.
     
  3. Gindjurra

    Gindjurra Not too sore, are you?

    Joined:
    Aug 21, 2016
    Messages:
    312
    Likes Received:
    1,142
    Plus, diamonds are so common that if they weren’t rationed out by a monopolistic cartel, they’d be worth less than quartz due to supply & demand. The cartel knows this, of course, and won’t pay anywhere near what the public thinks diamonds are worth. The cartel even sells so-called investment diamonds to pander to the public belief that diamonds are rare and precious, but if you pay attention to the deal, every investment diamond comes with a little certificate. If you lose the certificate but keep the diamond, you won’t be able to cash in the diamond — the certificate is effectively a non-interest bearing savings bond and the diamond is just a paperweight to keep it from blowing away.

    Diamonds evaporate in sunlight. Slowly, granted, but they do. It gets really noticeable with UV lasers though. Diamonds are forever is a bald-faced lie.

    They need to hear the name? I suspect that someone in the PRT who has not heard the name might react to the events in the bank by activating Master/Stranger quarantine on that account — after all, M/S protocols are designed to deal with celestial-type mind control powers being thrown around by capes, and the PRT is very, very good at spotting the patterns those sorts of things leave.
     
  4. Angel466

    Angel466 Getting out there.

    Joined:
    Oct 23, 2018
    Messages:
    14
    Likes Received:
    26
    Heya :)

    The diamond stuff, I will absolutely take your word for. I was basing my thoughts on diamond mining from different things I've gleaned over the years.

    With the name Nascerdios, it doesn't just have to be heard. It can be read, heard, or any other way communicated. In the main series of books, my main character has property in Rome which she's had for centuries under her name. Many times, the government would've tried to swoop it up as it hasn't been inhabited for at least three or four centuries, but as soon as they see the deeds and read the name "Nascerdios" the deeds get filed away under, "That's fine". The reason Janesha said he needs to "Hear" the name, is because of communications issues. They could have passed it to him on a note with the name on it, but that would look like a robbery from the outside. It would be easier just to say the name and bring the attunement conditioning into play that way.

    I hope that helps. :)
     
    Ack likes this.
  5. Aluvartyo

    Aluvartyo Getting out there.

    Joined:
    Jul 30, 2018
    Messages:
    17
    Likes Received:
    83
    So basically the Nascerdios name is a memetic infohazard of the highest order. However while it would work on normal earth, after having dealt with masters and similar mind melting hazards over the last 30 years I feel like the PRT would pick up on the discrepancies. Particularly in the case of Dragon. At least in this crossover I would think that some trouble arising from this would make a lot of sense. This was something that was applied forcibly to the planet, created by intent for a singular purpose with specific rules in mind, its not a rule of the universe. And was not at all intended for a population aware of the possibility that memetic infohazards could exist, nor was it likely to take into account an AI, which exists on a different level from a human.

    In the end you can apply this to your fan fiction however you please, though I think it would make for a realistic and interesting character conflict. Plus it sticks it to Janesha that she nor her family is perfect and immutable and that humans aren't all retarded apes, so that's also a plus :p
     
  6. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 2014
    Messages:
    6,605
    Likes Received:
    46,736
    Karen and I discussed this, and we came to the conclusion that Dragon would also be susceptible to this, because she's a (technically) mortal intelligence that came into existence on Earth Bet, within the reality in which the 'Nascerdios' impulse is embedded, and is capable of triggering with powers (which, incidentally, celestials can't. Mainly because they already have celestial powers).

    Note that this name is not just aimed at humans. Any alien races, any intelligences at all, that arise within a realm in which such a reality-wide command has been set up, all are susceptible to it. It doesn't care about specific arrangements of brainmeats; if you're a thinking being from within the realm, it applies to you. Because gods.

    The whole Master/Stranger situation would have to be carefully contrived in order to work like that. All you literally have to do is see or hear the name in any format; print on a page, words on a screen, spelled out syllable by syllable with a synthesizer, doesn't matter. Once your brain understands the word as a word, reality itself alters your perceptions and 'Nascerdios' becomes 'normal'.

    Nobody gets compelled to do anything that they wouldn't normally do with any normal human adult. Nor is anything being imposed on anyone. It's basically a key being used to unlock something that's already there.

    Most importantly, Master-Stranger deprogramming won't work. Because that's a mortal invention, designed to work on mortal brains, trying to undo a celestial modification of reality itself. Even powers won't do it (because they are based off celestial constructs, which stack up to a realm-wide rewriting of reality by an actual celestial like a hang-glider stacks up to a Boeing 747-400).

    And the funny side is, every time a Thinker gets a whiff of the name through whatever means, they immediately come on side with the Nascerdios aspect. They understand. It all makes sense to them.

    EDIT: The only way to not be affected by it is to not originate from within the realm. If you ducked over to Asgard and brought a mortal back from that realm, they wouldn't get why 'Nascerdios' gets the respect. A local wouldn't be able to explain why, and the Asgard mortal wouldn't be able to explain why not.
     
    Last edited: Jun 24, 2019
    Fizzfaldt and Angel466 like this.
  7. Extras: Celestial Hamster (one-shot)
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 2014
    Messages:
    6,605
    Likes Received:
    46,736
    Celestial Hamster


    A non-Worm Mystal one-shot.


    [A/N: This story beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]

    [A/N 2: This story is set after the point at which Mystal begins to catch up with Earlafaol, technology-wise.]

    [A/N 3: This story was inspired by a line out of The Long Way Home (sequel to Ties That Bind, soon to be published) noting that hamsters get more respect from celestials than mortals do.]


    Chance, the Mystallian God of Luck, was bored.

    Bored, bored, bored.

    Normally, he considered himself the luckiest god alive (because duh) but just that morning, his lovely wife Emi (Goddess of Love, Lust and Fertility, and living proof that the phrase ‘getting lucky’ was divinely inspired) had taken the kids off to visit her family. Someone’s birthday or something; he was hazy on the details. He’d chosen not to go, and now he was bored out of his celestial skull.

    He could cave and blood-link to Emi, but that would mean he’d made the wrong call. He never made the wrong call. Even outside Mystal, his innate good fortune invariably meant that whatever call he made was always the right call.

    But now he was bored.

    Realms damn it.

    With a gusty sigh, he raised his hand to make the gesture, but at the last moment he changed his mind. Fewer things were more stubborn than a Mystallian who’d decided to dig their heels in, and Chance’s luck allowed him to get away with being more stubborn than most. “Barris!” he called as he made the gesture.

    The blood-link opened, but when Barris appeared, he was holding his finger to his lips. Behind him, there was dense foliage. Barris held something that looked vaguely like a bow, only it seemed to have far too many strings to it, attached to pulleys. Maybe it was some kind of harp?

    “Sh!” admonished the Mystallian God of the Hunt in a harsh whisper. “I’ve been tracking this buck for three days now. If you distract me now …”

    “Is that a bow?” Chance interrupted his nephew, pointing at the weapon. “I hope so, because if it’s some sort of stringed instrument, Piper needs to have words with whatever musician crafted it.” He could just imagine the sort of words the God of Music would have for someone who designed something that misbegotten.

    Slowly, Barris facepalmed. “It’s a new type of bow,” he growled under his breath. “Cousin Col sent it from Earlafaol as a birthday present. I’m giving it a field test. Now will you go away!”

    At that moment, in the background, there was the sound of something crashing through the undergrowth, getting farther away by the second. Barris’ grip on the bow tightened until his knuckles showed white.

    “I think it’s getting away,” Chance offered helpfully.

    “Yes. I know it’s getting away,” snarled Barris. He gestured and the blood-link closed, leaving Chance staring at the wall.

    “Well, that was rude,” mused Chance. “He didn’t even ask me for help.” His luck, he knew, would make child’s play of locating Barris’ prey again. He was equally aware that Barris’ own powerbase would do much the same. Still, it was the thought that counted.

    And now he was bored again.

    Well, if Barris didn’t feel like talking, maybe the boy’s mother was feeling more sociable. It was always fun to challenge Mystal’s Goddess of War to a game of blindfolded chess. His luck versus her ability to never lose a contest always made it an interesting encounter. Chance went to the shelf and took down the ornately decorated chessboard, the one with the mismatched pieces. Every single piece had its own history. Not only had each one belonged to a different mortal master of the art, but each piece had once been used to make the winning move in a game against an equally skilled opponent. Chance knew; he’d been there, every time.

    It had taken him forever to acquire that last white pawn.

    “Armina!” he called, making the gesture once more.

    Nothing happened.

    “Oh, for the love of …” He scowled, the expression an unfamiliar one on his features. “Armina!” The gesture was repeated.

    Again, nothing happened.

    His own sister was declining his call. What was Mystal coming to? Am I losing my touch? Leaning into his luck, he reached out to another shelf and picked up the coin that just happened to be lying there. “Heads,” he decided. Wedging his thumb under it, he flipped it dexterously into the air. Over and over it spun, until it slapped into his palm. Looking down, he smiled superlatively. The profile of some long-dead mortal ruler looked back at him.

    Mortal.

    Of course.

    Sliding the chess set back onto the shelf, he discarded the coin. It was unimportant in the grand scheme of things. But it had shown him the way. If he wanted something to do, he had to go down to the mortal realm and find it. So be it.

    Of course, once he got back, Armina was going to need a good explanation for blowing him off. It better have been a really interesting war, or all her luck’s gonna be bad luck for about the next eon.

    <><>​

    Mystal’s Mortal Realm
    A City Not Unlike New York


    Perry Travis strolled down the street, a smile on his face. He paused by a trash can and brought his hand out of his hoodie pocket. The pathetic bundle of fur disappeared into the can, and he walked on. Nobody knew his secret, though the pet shops closer to where he lived were starting to suspect that something was up.

    There were only so many places he could buy a hamster in the city, but it couldn’t be helped. As much as he tried to draw things out, they only lasted so long. The little shit machines were so fragile. Still, it was fun to make them run to exhaustion and beyond on their little wheels; a squirt bottle was good for that. Or to chase them around the cage with a sharp pencil until they didn’t know where to run. The look of desperation in their beady little eyes was like cocaine or something for him. Not that he’d ever tried cocaine; he wasn’t stupid.

    He supposed some people would say he was a monster for what he did, but he had no time for bleeding-heart activists. At least he wasn’t doing it to people. As much as he’d like to do it to some. Like that stuck-up little cow Mandy Jenkins at the coffee shop. Always giving him mixed signals, smiling to his face and refusing every time he asked her for a date. But he had no idea how to even arrange something like that, so he was sticking with hamsters for the time being.

    He walked on up the block and pushed open the door to the pet shop. A bell above the door jingled.

    <><>​

    Chance

    Stepping down from the celestial realm, Chance appeared in an alleyway. Per his luck, there was nobody there to witness his arrival. The alley was even fairly clean. He checked his clothing over—a decade or three out of date, but with his luck it’d show up as being charmingly retro—and walked out onto the street. A pair of sunglasses completed his ensemble.

    Hands in pockets, he picked a direction at random and strolled along the pavement. Whatever his luck was directing him toward, it should happen soon. Do I get to mess with some mugger’s day? It seemed so … petty.

    And then a door opened with the jingle of a bell, and a chubby little man walked out. He held a small cage with a hamster inside. “Mandy,” he said as he passed by Chance. “I think I’ll call you Mandy.”

    On impulse, Chance dived into the man’s mind.

    Perry Travis.

    Likes to torture hamsters.

    Savours their terror and pain.

    It makes him feel like a god.

    His eyebrows raised, Chance watched the mortal walk away. Within the cage, the furry brown hamster sniffed at the bars. His mouth twisted; for all their short lives, mortals had an amazing talent for depravity and corruption.

    But on the other hand … this sort of thing was exactly what he needed. Mortal muggers were no challenge; he could leave them wondering which way was up with no effort at all. But a mortal who thought he was a god … this is going to be fun.

    Whistling a jaunty tune, he waited for that one moment when nobody was looking in his direction, and realm-stepped away.

    <><>​

    Mystal
    Celestial Realm
    City of Pandess


    “L-Lord Chance!” The flustered pet shop owner fluttered her hands as she came out from behind the counter. “I’m honoured to have you in my shop.” She gestured around at the menagerie which her shop featured. “We stock many strange and exotic creatures from all over the Known Realms. Which would you like?”

    Chance pinched his chin, enjoying the moment. Slowly, he paced along the row of enclosures. The pet shop owner followed him, rubbing her hands anxiously over each other.

    When he’d drawn it out as long as he figured he could, he turned to her. “So … do you have any hamsters?”

    “H-hamsters, Lord Chance?” Her voice rose to a squeak.

    “Hamsters.” He waved one hand in a come-on motion. “Little furry things. Like to run on wheels.”

    “Oh. Um.” She paused, then her expression cleared. “I don’t stock any, but my ten-year old niece keeps some …?”

    “Perfect,” he declared. “Ask her if she’ll loan me her prettiest one. It’s for a good cause.”

    The stunned look on her face, he decided, made this whole thing worth it. And he wasn’t even half done yet.

    <><>​

    Mortal Realm

    Chance realm-stepped into Perry Travis’ apartment. Travis was bending over an elaborate cage in the middle of his living room. Straightening up, he dusted off his hands. “Get comfortable, Mandy,” he said, then giggled in a thoroughly creepy manner. “I’ll be back—”

    Chance’s mind-bending stopped him in mid-stride and mid-word. Walking past him, the god of Luck leaned down over the cage. He easily manipulated the cage door and reached in. Trustingly, the mortal creature within stepped on to his hand. He lifted it out, then replaced it with the one he’d bought in the celestial pet shop. As Luck would have it, they were virtually identical. Closing the cage, he leaned down to put his lips next to the bars.

    “Don’t make it too quick,” he whispered.

    The hamster wriggled its nose.

    After one final modification to Travis’ mind, so that he wouldn’t notice the celestial intruder in his apartment, Chance settled down into the man’s favourite armchair. He didn’t intend to miss a moment of this.

    A moment later, Perry Travis began to move again. “—before you know it.”

    <><>​

    Perry Travis

    Perry came out of the kitchenette with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, then sat down beside the cage. Mandy was sniffing around her new surroundings, her little pink nose working nineteen to the dozen. She turned and looked at him, her bright little eyes disconcertingly intelligent.

    He knew very well that he had no idea how to tell male hamsters from female ones, but he’d already decided that this one was called Mandy, so she was obviously a ‘she’.

    “Well, don’t look at me,” he said. “There’s your hamster wheel. You’re a little pudgy. It must be all those extra blueberry muffins at lunch with your hamster friends. You could stand to lose a little weight.”

    It was highly unlikely that the hamster actually understood his words, so it was just pure luck that the little critter decided to climb on to the wheel and start running. He watched for a while, waiting for it to slow down, but it didn’t. The hamster wheel was turning at a good clip, and Mandy seemed to be settled in for the duration.

    The longer he watched, the more irritated he became. Mandy wasn’t supposed to be energetic. She was supposed to be lazy. Why else was he going to need to punish her?

    Travis leaned back in his chair and reached for his sandwich, then frowned. The plate it had been on was empty. Had he eaten it already?

    “Fine,” he muttered. “You want to run? Run faster.” Opening the hatch at the top of the cage, he reached in with his squirt bottle and gave Mandy a dose of cold water. Startled, she ran faster. “Hah!” he exulted, feeling in control of the situation again. “Want to be a smartass, you stupid little rodent? Who’s the boss? I’m the boss.”

    Bringing the bottle closer, he squirted her again. This time, she stopped running, and turned to look at him. Slowly and deliberately, she stepped off the wheel.

    “Who do you think you’re looking at?” Perry demanded. He aimed the bottle and went to direct another squirt at her, but before his fingers could squeeze the trigger, there was a flash of motion and the bottle was jerked out of his hand.

    Astonished, he stared at the bottle. It was lying in the bottom of the cage, the squirt mechanism torn off. As he watched, the last of the water drained out of it. Mandy was sitting up on her hindquarters, front paws folded before her. Watching him.

    “What the crap?” he demanded. His favourite pencil, carefully sharpened, lay on the table beside the cage. “You stupid little shit! You’re gonna pay for that!” Taking up the pencil, he reached into the cage again. One good jab with the sharp end would take the fight out of her.

    There was another flash of movement, and a scorched sensation from his fingers. Scarcely able to believe his eyes, he saw that Mandy now had the pencil. As he watched, she put it in her mouth and bit it cleanly in half with a distinct crunch. Discarding both halves, she dropped to all fours and began to advance menacingly toward him.

    “No,” he muttered. “No fucking way.” It should’ve been impossible for a hamster to be menacing, but there she was. The way her disconcertingly intelligent eyes were fixed on his gave him the absolute creeps.

    Pulling his hand out of the cage, he secured the top hatch with shaking fingers. Then he backed away a few steps. He’d stop feeding her and giving her water, he decided. When she was starving to death, she’d realise who was boss.

    Mandy reached the side of the cage and went up on her hind legs, front paws gripping the bars. He laughed harshly. “Not so smart now, huh? You’re stuck in there. You got nothing, you furry little shitbag!”

    There was a metallic noise. Perry stared at the hole that had been torn in the side of the cage, metal bars wrenched aside and in some cases snapped clean through. Mandy stepped through the resultant gap, her eyes still fixed on Perry’s. He began to back away. When he was a good ten feet away … she leaped.

    The impact was like being hit in the middle of the chest with a hurled baseball. Perry’s breath went out of him in one huge gust, and he staggered backward until he hit the wall. He stared down at the hamster clinging to his shirt with a horrified gaze.

    “What’s going on?” he demanded, his voice hitting a higher register than he would normally have imagined. “What are you?” Bringing up his hand, he tried to brush the malevolent little beast away. Once it was on the floor, he’d be able to stamp on it. He’d crushed hamsters to death like that before.

    Pain shot down his arm and he jerked his hand away, staring at his little finger, which was now somehow sticking out at right angles to the rest of his hand. Opening his mouth, he drew in his breath to scream, but the hamster scuttled up his shirt then leaped up to latch on to his nostrils. When it drew its head back, he was momentarily confused … then it headbutted him.

    Hard.

    He found himself lying on the floor with a ringing headache, with the hamster sitting a short distance away. As his head cleared, the hamster began to advance on him once more. Terrified beyond what he would’ve imagined possible an hour ago, he began to scrabble backward on his butt away from the horrifying little creature.

    It followed him, step by step. Perhaps it was his imagination, but he thought he could feel its tiny feet shaking the apartment. Stomp. Stomp stomp.

    Clambering to his feet, he grabbed the broom as the closest thing at hand. He turned and swung it two-handed at the beast. In the next moment, the broom had been torn from his hands and flung back to the other end of the apartment.

    The next thing to his hand was the iron his mother had gifted him with. He kept it on the counter in case she ever visited, but he’d rarely used it. Now, he picked it up and hurled it at the oncoming menace. The return throw nearly took his head off, before the iron crashed out through a window.

    He’d had enough. Turning, he made a dash for the front door of the apartment. Yanking it open, he plunged through and slammed it behind him. Not bothering to wait and see if the little murder-beast could actually gnaw its way through an inch of solid timber—mainly because he didn’t want to find out—he fled down the corridor to the stairs.

    Panting harshly, he took the steps two and three at a time. The door to the street was just ahead. He was almost safe. He—

    The solid weight smashed into the middle of his back. He was sent tumbling forward, rolling over and over down the stairs until he hit the door and crashed through it, ending up sprawled on the outside steps. Dazed, he lay there groaning, trying to figure out which way was up. Looking back toward the shattered door, he saw a little pink nose appear over the edge of the step.

    “No …” he groaned. “No … please … no …”

    The hamster jumped down a step and latched its teeth on to the bottom of his pants leg. It tugged. He felt himself shift a few inches. It tugged again, then leaped to a higher step.

    As it began to drag him back through the doorway, he screamed and screamed and screamed for help, but nobody seemed to be around …

    <><>​

    Pet Shop on the Mortal Realm

    Vincent Drysdale, pet shop owner, looked around with a puzzled air. He was sure he’d sold the hamster that had been in that cage, but now the hamster was back … oh, of course! He was thinking of that other hamster he’d sold that one time. This hamster had every right to be there.

    As he went over to refresh the cute little creature’s food and water, he thought he heard the bell over his shop door ring, but when he glanced that way, there was nobody to be seen.

    I must have been imagining things.

    <><>​

    Mystal

    “So then,” Chance said as the laughter died down, “she starts dragging him back up the stairs.

    “Damn,” said Armina, giving the little creature snuffling around in the middle of the table a look of respect. “I like it.”

    “Great, now you’ve done it,” groaned Barris theatrically. “Now Mom will be breeding two-meter war hamsters, and we’re all going to have to think of nice things to say about them.”

    Armina, still clad in her black plate armour but with her helmet on the table in front of her, raised an eyebrow. “Is that a challenge?”

    Chance smirked and leaned back in his chair as mother and son bickered.

    Now, this was more like it.


    The End
     
  8. Threadmarks: Part Thirteen: Lucky for Some
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 2014
    Messages:
    6,605
    Likes Received:
    46,736
    Celestial Worm

    Part Thirteen: Lucky for Some


    [A/N: this chapter commissioned by Fizzfaldt and beta-read by Karen Buckeridge, author of Ties That Bind.]
    [A/N 2: Rincewind, Ankh-Morpork and the Discworld series are the property of the estate of the late, and very great, Terry Pratchett. All hail Sir Pterry.]



    Foreword: On Prey

    On any world in any galaxy in any realm scattered around Creation, any creature which could be possibly designated as ‘prey’ will have sensory abilities that can detect the approach of predators before they actually make an appearance. (Anything that lacks this sensory capability quickly ceases to be known as ‘prey’ and instead takes on the descriptor of ‘extinct’.) The exact mechanism for this varies from world to world, sometimes from species to species. In every case, once the prey detects its oncoming doom, the following thought process (or its equivalent) takes place:

    Oh, shit. Something’s coming.

    Gotta go, gotta go, gotta go.

    Run faster. Faster is better.

    In fact, on one particularly weird world, described as being ‘at the far end of the probability curve’ (where some decidedly whimsical celests decided that flat worlds supported on giant tortoises via almost-as-giant elephants was the way to go), there exists (or has existed, or will exist) a certain wizard (or ‘wizzard’, according to his hat) who is (or was, or will be) an absolute (disc)world-class master at running away. In his calmer moments, he’s known to espouse the opinion that thinking about where one is running to is a waste of time, as the away aspect is much more important.

    But we won’t go into that, because Ankh-Morpork is a silly place.

    However, whether the prey in question is a freshman on the lookout for mischief-minded upperclassmen or a baby turtle taking its first dip in what amounts to an ocean full of teeth, it can be agreed upon that faster reflexes to augment the early-warning system is a really good idea. That holds true even if the nominal prey is something so powerful that ninety-nine percent of Creation would call it an apex predator.

    It; or rather, him. Once known as Sagun Hawthorn of Earth in the realm of Earlafaol, now (due to a poorly-heard whisper) as Scion, the most powerful being on Earth Bet, in the realm known informally as Training Ground. Not that the locals know that there’s a realm involved, or what it’s called, or even that their world was being used as a live-fire Hogan's Alley for centuries before Sagun made an appearance and reshaped it (and them) for his own needs. Or even that Sagun/Scion is literally a god being jerked around by other celestial beings from behind the scenes, some of whom are feeding parts of his (semi)dead sister to not-altogether-deserving mortals in order to grant them superhuman powers.

    To be honest, it’s almost embarrassing how little the mortals of Earth Bet actually know about anything.

    There just remains one final piece of information. Growing up in the realm of Earlafaol, Sagun had come to the realisation that he (along with his twin sister Edeena) was far more powerful than nearly everyone else on Earth. The word ‘nearly’ is very important here, as they found out when another celestial paid them a visit to tell them to keep their heads down. Agent Nascerdios, ostensibly of the FBI but far more significantly a celest of some power, ordered them in no uncertain terms to cease making waves. If they did not comply, she made it abundantly clear that she would force the issue. Terminally, if necessary.

    Given the choice to bend the knee or leave Earlafaol, Sagun and Edeena opted to leave. But their encounter with Agent Nascderdios had left a deep and abiding impression on them. So, years later, when Sagun’s celestial awareness informed him that there was a Nascerdios on Earth Bet and that she was specifically looking for him, he did not react like the (nearly) all-powerful being that he represented to the vast majority of the population.

    He reacted like prey.

    <><>​

    Scion

    Sagun barely knew why he was bothering any more. He'd come to this world and reshaped it in the image of Lady Col’s Earth, all so that he could live out his dream of not just being a superhero, but to be a hero of heroes. The problem was, Edeena was supposed to be there as well. Without his sister, eternity had become … lacklustre. There was no point to it.

    Still, he went through the motions, for want of something better to do. The ragged, angry man in England had shouted at him until he decided to go ahead with being a superhero anyway. He'd chosen not to cure the mortal’s various illnesses as he had with the sister of the first mortal he'd granted powers to; there was no sense in encouraging that sort of behaviour, after all. They might start thinking that he actually owed them something, and who knew where that would end?

    Raising his hand, he let his stilling field spread out, snuffing the fire where it intersected with the apartment building. Really, something like this was utterly trivial to his power. Even using his native shifting, he could’ve demolished the entire building and reconstructed it minus the fire damage in a fraction of the time. But being a superhero required that he do things the flashier, more time-consuming way. People needed to believe in him, after all, and what they didn’t see happening they couldn’t believe in.

    And then his head came up as new information impinged on his awareness. Back when he and Edeena had first set up the boundary, he’d made two slight variations to the realm’s rules. One, if anyone claimed the name Nascerdios, he wanted to know about it. And two, he wanted to know what they were doing so he could avoid them.

    Just an hour ago, someone in a city called Brockton Bay had called herself ‘Lady Janesha Nascerdios of Mystal’. Now … she was looking for him. Personally.

    The last time he’d encountered a Nascerdios, he’d been very bluntly informed that he was a hybrid, fathered on a mortal woman by the god Zeus himself, and his type were not welcomed by other celestials. Now there was another Nascerdios, on Earth Bet. Looking for him.

    Based on what the redheaded shifter had said, all Nascerdios were celestials and the likelihood was high that this celestial had decided he needed to die because of who and what he was. And if she thought she could beat him … she probably could.

    Even as space began to distort in the initial stages of someone realm-stepping into his vicinity, he stepped away himself. Let the building burn. It wasn’t his building, and the mortals could find somewhere else to live. He emerged over Paris, swooping low over the city.

    Just a few minutes later, he registered another realm-step. One that put the Nascerdios less than fifty feet away. He left immediately, randomly choosing the middle of Antarctica for his destination. How the fuck is she finding me?

    It had to be because she was a Nascerdios. He’d watched Agent Nascerdios smoke a cigarette in space as if it was the most natural thing in the world even though she said she hadn’t claimed the realm herself, so he assumed where real gods were concerned, anything was possible. Suddenly, he realised his life did mean something to him after all, and he was not going to let this intruder from Hell (hey, he didn't know for a fact she wasn't literally from Hell) kill him just because he was half mortal.

    With that thought in mind, he knew he had two choices. Fight or hide. And until he knew more about this Lady Janesha of Mystal, he needed to hide. Agent Nascerdios had shown him and his sister in no uncertain terms how woefully inadequate they were compared to her, and this one had the title of ‘Lady’, making her something more again.

    Almost as if to prove the point, the pursuing celestial chose that moment to realm-step again. Knowing she’d appear in his vicinity, he stepped again, this time into one of the alternate versions of Earth. He’d reshaped this one into a pocket dimension that only he could enter (so he hoped) and stored the vast majority of his previous space-whale body in there. Re-merging with the body took only a moment, then he opened out all his senses, watching to see if the intruder would follow him here.

    Hours passed. Nothing happened. His initial terror began to fade. Who is she? What is Mystal? Why did she come here? It seemed a little bit of a stretch to come to a lonely realm in the middle of nowhere just to kill the hybrid in charge of it. None of this made the slightest bit of sense.

    Relaxing as much as he could, he left his senses on high alert while he fell into an uneasy sleep.

    <><>​

    Janesha stepped through to where the golden man had been putting out the fire in the apartment building. Fire, check. Apartment building, check. Scion, no. In fact, it seemed that Scion had only just left, from the way people were pointing and talking to each other.

    The trouble was, he hadn’t put out the damn fire. While normally she couldn’t bring herself to give a flying crap about a dwelling belonging to some insignificant mortal, the fact remained that they would be left homeless if someone didn’t do something about it.

    Fuck it. I can always catch up with him once I’ve fixed this.

    Cracking her knuckles, she strode up to the building, ignoring the shouts from bystanders and fire services to stay back. Once she had her hand on the structure of the building itself, she had two ways to deal with this fire. She could either tell it to stop being a little bitch and not be on fire anymore, or she could take the fire away from the building. Both were much of a muchness, but with the bad blood she’d caused with Piggot and how Taylor had specifically said “No” to turning her into a waddling bird, she decided to cultivate some local credence.

    At her command, the flames stopped leaping skyward and crawled down the wall to her, infusing themselves into her body. This didn’t bother her in the slightest; being descended from the Hellions meant she could endure Hellfire all day long. Compared to a flame that could turn the sun itself into a scorched cinder, a mere mortal blaze was nothing more than a gentle summer breeze to her.

    When she’d absorbed the last of the flames into her body (and reduced the temperature of the building’s structure to below ignition point and repaired all the damage she could detect, just to prove she could) she turned to the attentive crowd. Not only were there the obligatory news cameras, but at least half the people had their phones out and recording. Excellent. Get a load of this, Piglet.

    Taking a step away from the building, she raised her hand in the air and vented the flames from her body, blasting them skyward in a tremendous plume. It took longer than Janesha would’ve liked to disperse the heat. Fortunately for her, Janesha knew how social media worked. It was why Lady Col had them try and keep their celestial abilities down to a minimum whenever they visited her. With or without mortal belief, the mortals of her world always knew where someone of significance was.

    When the rumbling of the fire finally died away, she blew the last wisp of smoke from her fingertip, then dusted her hands off and put them on her hips.

    It took the crowd a few moments of stunned silence to recover, then they started to applaud. Smiling tightly, she dipped her head towards the crowd. Accolades were all well and good, but she had a celestial to hunt down and Danny would be pissed if she missed dinner. Random checks of the people applauding confirmed that they saw her as just another cape; a very powerful cape, to be sure, but still only a cape. Not one of them was even entertaining the idea that she might be a god, or considering the concept of worshipping her.

    Okay, maybe this stupid superhero idea has its good points. Anywhere else, I'd need an attunement and about a century of prep before it'd be safe to show myself like this. And even then, I'd probably end up as their goddess of fire. Yawn.

    "Okay, crisis over," she announced. “But, I’m going to need to borrow someone’s phone for a moment. I need to check on something.” Because of course she’d had her epiphany about Scion before she’d had the chance to actually buy a phone.

    It was almost amusing how they more or less fell over themselves in their eagerness to loan her their phones. Scratch that; it was definitely amusing. She took the first one and looked it over. Fortunately, it was already open, which meant she didn’t have to dive into the owner’s mind to learn the password.

    It took just a moment for her to set up a query into any sightings of the golden guy. Why did he just bolt like that? Is he that distractible? There weren’t any notifications about new emergencies that she could find. With a frown, she studied the internal workings of the phone, then altered her senses to receive and decode the incoming signal.

    When she handed the phone back, it was the next model up, because she believed in returning a boon for a boon. She also had a line on Scion’s current location. What’s he doing in Paris? The image that had just popped up showed him standing on top of the Arc de Triomphe, with no emergencies in sight.

    All right, then. With a jaunty wave to her admiring public, she realm-stepped away. Where it was still late afternoon in the middle of America, in Paris it was nearly midnight. She stepped back into the mortal realm and quickly had to adjust her eyesight for night-vision … only to find herself alone on top of the immense monolith.

    Oh, for fuck’s sake. What’s going on here? Did he suddenly notice something else he had to deal with?

    She reached out with her senses, looking for the signals she’d used before. It didn’t work this time, which both puzzled and irritated her. There were nearly as many cell-phones in the continental US as there were guns, and there were lots of guns. The rest of the civilised world had even more phones than guns. Surely someone, somewhere would be taking a picture of him if he was anywhere with a population and a signal. The trouble was, she was now unable to receive that signal.

    Fuck it. I need to brute-force this.

    Taking a deep breath, she realm-stepped back to the basement of Taylor’s house. Cloudstrike whinnied and tossed her head as Janesha saddled her up and formed the bridle around her head.

    “Ready to go exploring, girl?” Janesha swung astride the mystallion and shook the reins out. She laughed at Cloudstrike’s derisive snort. “Okay then, let’s go.” Cloudstrike flared her wings open, then she stepped.

    One brief transit through the celestial realm later, Janesha came out in midair. Leaning over to the side, she adjusted her eyes insect-like to give herself the widest field of view possible. Then she increased the magnification far beyond what physics would have deemed possible, had she not been a celestial. She applied the barest pressure of her heels against Cloudstrike’s ribs; with a flick of grey-blue wings, the mystallion shot forward. Faster than anyone’s eyes but hers could follow, she began the search.

    Twenty minutes later, she’d covered the vast majority of the earth’s surface. Cloudstrike was doing her best, but even she had to slow down just to avoid flying off the earth’s surface. Worse, flying any higher risked missing Scion under cloud cover, of which there was altogether too much.

    There was just one more continent to cover; she’d left it till last because there were no cities, no towns. There was virtually nothing there to generate an emergency worthy of Scion’s time. Which meant he wasn’t darting off to some crisis or other.

    That mother-fucking golden-skinned asshole is avoiding me. Why?

    Antarctica’s icy landscape rolled backward under Cloudstrike’s wing beats as they quartered the continent, faster than the mortal eye could see. It seemed forever before a golden form came into view, standing atop a ridge of the Transantarctic Mountains. Finally! Responding to her knee signals, Cloudstrike banked over and started her descent.

    And then Scion took a step forward and disappeared.

    Oh, for fuck’s sake!

    <><>​

    After an hour of searching, even Cloudstrike was starting to show signs of annoyance. They had covered the entire surface of the Earth twice over, even the ocean and the Arctic, for zero result. The world’s cloud cover was seriously disturbed (and a mid-Atlantic hurricane had been thoroughly dismantled) in the wake of their passing; she suspected mortal weather forecasters would’ve been cursing her name for some time to come, if they ever realised it was her.

    Either he’s hiding behind the moon, or he’s underground, or inside a building. Or he’s underground on the moon. Any of those meant that Janesha would be looking for him forever. He knew Earth Bet better than she did; she was a quick study, but she was far behind the eight-ball on this one.

    “Fine,” she muttered. “Go hide like a little bitch. I’ll catch up with you sooner or later, you chicken-shit prick.” It didn’t help her mood when she realised she was late by over half an hour for dinner, and would probably have to endure Danny’s lecture on the matter, just as she would if she were late for a meal back home. But in her mind, she was justified. All she’d wanted to do was talk to Scion. Now, she wanted to throttle him, and if Danny gave her the lecture, she probably would.

    With an irritated huff, she turned Cloudstrike’s head for home. Cloudstrike whinnied and shook her head violently, then pulled a loop combined with a sharp barrel roll.

    Janesha realised the problem immediately. “Oh, sorry, girl,” she said. “You thought we were actually going for a proper ride, and I kept you flying around one planet. Over and over again. My bad, babe. I got caught up in the hunt … Well, how about we go out for a quick spin now, and I’ll take you for a good long one later?”

    Cloudstrike snorted and pretended to make a bucking motion. Janesha laughed and patted the mystallion’s neck. “I know, I know. I promise, okay?”

    Mollified, Cloudstrike came to a hover then raised her head to look hopefully toward the sky. Janesha nodded and shook out the reins, giving the winged horse her head. Cloudstrike whinnied and brought her wings down in a beat that sent a sonic boom echoing across the ocean. Together, they shot upward, reaching space a fraction of a second later.

    As Janesha had said, they kept the ride relatively quick, not even venturing out of the local star cluster. Cloudstrike would definitely want to stretch her wings later, but with commitments back at Taylor and Danny’s, Janesha judged this would do her for now. Cruising back into the solar system, she swung in past Saturn to admire the sun glinting off the icy particles that made up the rings. She wasn’t quite sure where Lady Col had gotten her ideas for this realm, but some of the planets were quite artistic.

    “Okay, you’ve had your ride,” Janesha told Cloudstrike as they crossed the orbit of Jupiter and angled around to swing past Mars. She’d only ever met the Olympian god and his kin in passing, and she wondered what they thought about having planets named after them in realms that didn’t worship them anymore. Or if they even knew about it. “Are you okay to go back to your stable now? I’ll make some fresh hay for you.”

    The mystallion came to a hover over the blasted landscape of the dead world, and nickered forcefully. Janesha took that as agreement, as well as a reminder of the promise to take her for a good long flight later. “Sounds good to me,” she said.

    Wings barely moving, Cloudstrike took a single dainty step forward in midair. They passed through the celestial realm—Janesha belatedly looked around, but there was no sign of Scion there either—and reappeared in the basement stable.

    With an aggravated sigh, Janesha dismounted and removed Cloudstrike’s tack. She still had no idea why the golden-skinned celestial—there was no way the asshole could avoid her so completely without being one—was so determined to play keep-away, but she’d get him sooner or later.

    In the meantime, she’d had a big day. It would be nice to relax with Taylor and talk shit about Sophia and the others. She paused just long enough to carry out her promise to Cloudstrike, by filling her net with aromatic hay, before heading up the stairs to the kitchen.

    Danny was sitting at the kitchen table; he looked up as she entered the room and closed the basement door behind her. “Hi, Danny,” she said, then looked round the room for Taylor. “Where’s Taylor?”

    “What do you mean, where’s Taylor?” he asked, the tone of his voice betraying worry. “Isn’t she with you?”

    “No,” she said blankly. “I left her at the mall nearly three hours ago. Unless she’s still buying stuff, she should be home by now.”

    “Buying stuff?” He stared at her in a please make sense now manner. “Where would she get the money for buying stuff?”

    “Don’t worry,” Janesha said absently. “It’s all perfectly legal. I even opened up a legitimate bank account and everything.” She looked at the ceiling overhead. “You’re absolutely certain she’s not home already? Asleep upstairs, maybe?” Suddenly finding out that she was a millionaire had to be tiring, right?

    “She’s not.” Danny shook his head. “I checked. Why’d you leave her at the mall? I thought you were keeping her safe.”

    She bridled at the cutting words. “Danny Hebert, do not use that tone with me.” Folding her arms, she leaned her butt against the table. “Especially not with the afternoon I’ve had, chasing Scion all over the planet. Taylor’s one of the very few mortals that I actually care about. I’ve made her as safe as I can. They can’t injure her, break her bones or suffocate her. Physically, she’s invulnerable. So if she’s not home yet, it’s not because she’s hurt.”

    Danny paused, then shook his head. “I am not going to ask why you were chasing Scion around the world. This is more important. Taylor is more important.”

    He seemed to expect her to argue, but she nodded instead. “I totally agree. I can have words with that golden-skinned chickenshit any time. Right now, I need to go find Taylor and deal with whatever’s delaying her.” One possibility, however unlikely, crossed her mind. And if she’s been talking to a boy all this time, I’m gonna see if I can remember my dad’s shovel speech.

    <><>​

    Taylor
    Weymouth Mall
    One and a Half Hours Previously


    It was possible, Taylor conceded reluctantly, to have too much money. Before this point, she would not have accepted that statement, but now she felt the metaphorical weight of ten million dollars on her shoulders. I can literally buy anything in any shop in Brockton Bay. I could probably buy everything in every shop in Brockton Bay.

    The question was, what should she buy first? And more importantly, should she shop around to get the very best quality (as should be her responsibility, now that she could afford the best quality) or just go for the lowest price, as she’d always done in the past?

    The dilemma led to a weird kind of paralysis where she stood and looked around vaguely, knowing she could have anything (even though storage constraints mandated that she couldn’t have everything) but not knowing what part of ‘anything’ was the most important, right now.

    Wow, so much for my shopping spree.

    Picking a direction at random, she moved off through the mall. A jewellery store caught her eye, and she entered. The counter attendant looked up, registered her, then visibly discounted her as a customer of any substance. “Can I help you?” she asked, the surface politeness hiding an undercurrent of Go away and stop wasting my time.

    “Yeah,” Taylor said. “I want to buy my Dad a birthday present. What do you have in pocket watches?”

    “Our pocket watches are the very highest quality,” the lady said firmly. She may as well have been waving a sign saying And the highest prices. You can’t afford them on your best day.

    “Good.” Taylor was getting a little sick of this passive-aggressive bullshit. Just because she didn’t look like she belonged didn’t mean that she couldn’t buy stuff. “Show me the best you’ve got.”

    “I feel obliged to inform you that we do not do credit.” The counter attendant hadn’t moved.

    “Do I look like I want to do credit?” Taylor rolled her eyes. “I said, I want to buy a pocket watch. Show me what you have.”

    The woman actually glanced around, as if to see if there were any other store patrons she could pretend to go serve. There were none, so she looked back at Taylor. “You realise, I won’t be able to take them out of the case until I see proof of capability to purchase.”

    Taylor folded her arms. “Do you make everyone who walks in here jump through these hoops, or is it just me?” Normally, she would’ve accepted the woman’s implicit judgement and walked from the store, feeling less for the encounter. But having spent more than a little time in the company of an actual celestial being—and with ten million dollars in her purse, courtesy of the card she was carrying—her confidence had taken on quite a boost.

    “Miss, am I going to have to call security?” The woman had clearly decided to deal with Taylor as a problem by making her go away. From the look in her eye, she was willing to go so far as have Taylor ejected from the store, or even the mall.

    Taylor sighed. For all that she disliked it when Janesha used her bending, or even her raw celestial presence, to turn mortals to her will, she would’ve found something like that very handy right then. Lacking that, she fell back on the audacity of truth. “Why? For walking into your store and asking to buy something?” She took the card out of her purse and flourished it. “I guarantee you, I can buy anything you’ve got in the store out of the interest from this account.”

    “I find that very hard to believe.” The woman glared at her, in a polite and genteel manner. In the back of her eyes, though, Taylor thought she saw the faintest hint of doubt.

    “So let me prove it.” Taylor flicked the card back and forth challengingly and locked eyes with the woman. “Show me the best you’ve got, and I’ll buy it free and clear.”

    The doubt was showing through more clearly now, but the woman set her jaw. Turning away from Taylor, she went to a cabinet and unlocked it. The pocket watch she took out was gorgeous; it was silver with gold highlights, the face inscribed with intricately chased Roman numerals. If the sheer beauty of it hadn’t taken Taylor’s breath away, the price tag would have.

    “You can walk away now.” The woman’s voice was quiet. Carefully, she replaced the watch in the cabinet and relocked it. The key went back into her pocket, while her eyes tracked Taylor’s hands. “Because when you swipe that card and the funds fail to clear, I will call security.”

    Taylor rolled her eyes at the transparent attempt to intimidate her. “And when they do clear? Do I get to take my Dad’s birthday present, along with a signed receipt, and walk out of the store with it? Or are you just going to give me more attitude?”

    The woman’s lips tightened. She pressed buttons, entering the sale figure, then pointed at the swipe slot. “Go ahead. When it fails to clear, we can have you charged with fraud.”

    That didn’t sound quite right to Taylor, but she decided not to argue points of law with the woman. “I am so tempted to walk out of the store right now, just so I can buy the same watch elsewhere and come back to wave it in your face, and show you just how much commission you just lost.” She shook her head. “But it’s gonna be marginally more satisfying to see the look on your face when the funds clear.” She brandished the card, then swiped it through the slot. With one finger, she tapped in the PIN the bank had supplied to her.

    For one heart-stopping moment, nothing happened. The woman’s lips began to spread in a bitter smile of triumph. Then the machine beeped and a green light flashed.

    PURCHASE APPROVED.

    Taylor raised her eyebrows, trying (and failing) not to smirk at the look of utter astonishment on the woman’s face. “So, can I have my Dad’s birthday present now?” she asked, crossing her arms. “Or do I need to show you my birth certificate and passport too?”

    “That can’t be right,” the shop assistant said blankly. “There’s no way that can be right.”

    “The funds cleared.” Taylor shrugged. “What more can I say?” She gestured at the device, where the display still clearly read that her money was good. “So, one more time; I want my Dad’s watch. Right now, please.” She held out her hand and snapped her fingers.

    “Just give me a minute,” the woman said, turning away. But she didn’t go to the cabinet. Instead, she slipped behind the desk and picked up the phone there. She spoke a few terse phrases, then slipped her hand under the edge of the desk; Taylor heard a distinct click.

    “Wait … did you just set off a silent alarm?” Taylor stared at her. “I paid for it. The funds cleared. You saw it.”

    “With a card that is almost certainly stolen.” The shop assistant moved out from behind the desk, a superior expression on her face. “We’ve got the card details, now. The police will have them soon, and we’ll be finding out exactly who you lifted it from. You can run now, if you want. We’ve got your face, too. The details on that card will be all over the mall in the next ten minutes, so you may as well leave it here.”

    “Seriously?” Taylor was having trouble processing this. “Now you’re accusing me of theft? For buying something with my own money?” Janesha’s money, she amended silently. But still, it was legitimately acquired (for a very weird definition of ‘legitimate’) and to be accused of theft was positively annoying.

    “I very much doubt that card belongs to you.” The woman sneered at her. “Hand it over now, and the police will go easier on you.” She held out her hand expectantly.

    Taylor snorted and shook her head. “You have got to be fucking joking.” She held out her own hand in turn. “I’ve paid for that watch. I expect you to put it in my hand, or I’ll be having you charged with theft. For taking my money and keeping the watch.”

    “You’re a teenager,” the woman said dismissively. “You’re what, fifteen? A minor. There’s no way someone like you can afford something like that. Not wearing clothes like that.

    “Excuse me, miss.” The voice was that of a man, from behind Taylor. She half-turned her head to look. Two large men wearing security guard uniforms stood there, thumbs hooked in their belts. “We’re going to need you to come with us. What’s the situation, Janice?”

    “She paid for something with a stolen card,” the woman—Janice—said, indicating Taylor.

    “The card’s legitimate,” Taylor said firmly. “She’s just made a very bad assumption.”

    “Where’s this card now?” asked the guard on the left.

    “Do you have proof that it’s stolen?” said his colleague, at the same time.

    “She’s holding it in her hand,” Janice said triumphantly.

    “She’s got no proof,” Taylor said tiredly, rolling her eyes. “Because it’s a legitimate card.” She displayed it for the guards, careful not to let them get close enough to snatch it. “It’s mine. I know the PIN. I paid for a very expensive pocket watch with it, and this woman is refusing to hand over my legitimate purchase.”

    “There’s no name on it,” the guard on the right. “Why is that?”

    Finally, someone’s paying attention. “It’s a temporary card. The account only got opened today, and they haven’t gotten the permanent card to me yet.” Taylor raised her eyebrows. “And yet, I know the PIN, and—hey!” Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted the woman’s hand attempting to grab the card. She kept hold of it, then grabbed the woman’s wrist with her other hand. “That’s mine!” With the extra leverage, she plucked the card free of the woman’s grip.

    “Ow!” shouted the woman. “Let me go! You’re hurting me!”

    “Let her go!” commanded the guard on the left. He took a step forward.

    Taylor twisted the woman’s wrist and forced her to her knees, driving a strangled squeak of pain from her lungs. With the strength afforded her by Janesha’s celestial upgrade, it was almost too easy. “Sure. Just as soon as this one here hands over my Dad’s birthday present.”

    The guard on the left took a device from his belt; it had two metal prongs sticking out from it. “I said, let her go.” Taylor half-expected to see an electrical arc crackling between the contacts, but it seemed that was a Hollywood thing.

    “Fine.” Taylor let Janice’s wrist go. “Now make her give me my watch. The one that I paid for.”

    “Not so fast.” Taylor turned, as did the security guards. Two uniformed police officers had just entered the store. Neither one had their gun out, though hands were on weapons. “Taylor Hebert?”

    Taylor blinked. “Uh, yes. That’s me. What the hell have I done now?”

    “Come with us and we’ll clear this whole thing up.” One of the cops waved dismissively to the security guards. “Stand down, guys. We got this.”

    “I’m not leaving till I get my Dad’s birthday present!” shouted Taylor. “I paid for it, and it’s mine! Why won’t anyone listen to me?”

    The other cop read the scene in a glance, then turned a stern glare on Janice. “Has the watch been paid for?”

    “Well, yes, but…”

    “Then she’s right. You have no legal standing for keeping the goods from her once the transaction was processed. The watch no longer belongs to your store. Hand it over. Now.”

    “But—but … it’s a stolen card. It has to be!” blustered Janice.

    “Do you mind if I take a look at your card, Miss Hebert?” the second cop asked, politely.

    Since he hadn’t assumed anything, Taylor passed him the card without incident, to which he stepped away and pulled out his own phone. Looking at the card (which had nothing but the bank logo in the corner for identifying markers), he dialled a number and asked to speak to the manager. Seconds later, he spoke quietly, constantly looking at Taylor as if to confirm her appearance, and when he was done, he turned back to Janice and scowled, shaking his head. “The card’s hers, woman. You screwed up big-time. Hand over the damn watch before we arrest you for grand larceny and spitting on the sidewalk.”

    Shocked, staring from Taylor to the cops and back again, Janice turned to the cabinet and unlocked it. As she did so, Taylor reached out and tore off the receipt that had long since printed out. She held it up as Janice turned around with the watch. “When I come back here, you are gonna be out of a fucking job. And sign the receipt.”

    Chastened, Janice did as she was told. She bundled the (now signed) receipt with the watch in a small bag, and shoved it all into Taylor’s hands. “Now get out,” she spat.

    “Gladly,” Taylor retorted. “I was gonna buy something twice as expensive for me, but you just shat all over that idea.” She turned to the cops. “Thanks, guys. Do we still need to go somewhere, or has that been dealt with?”

    “Still gotta go to the station.” The cop on the left tilted his head toward Janice. “While we’re sorting out the other stuff, maybe you might want to swear out a criminal complaint against her.”

    “I just might.” Taylor tucked her card away in her purse. With the bag containing her watch firmly in her hand, she followed the police officers from the mall and climbed into the large van with police markings that was waiting at the curb.

    “I gotta say,” she began, then realised that the vehicle was already full of police officers. “Uh … what’s going on here?”

    Too late, the sliding door behind her slammed shut, then she became aware that several pistols were pointing at her.

    “What’s going on,” the cop who’d just been so nice to her sneered as he climbed into the driver’s seat, “is that you’re coming with us. To be honest, we expected to have to go grab you, but I’ve never been one to look a gift horse in the mouth.”

    Taylor had to take a few seconds to process this new information. “Wait … you’re not cops?”

    That got her a round of harsh laughter as the van engine started. “What makes you say that?” asked the guy sitting next to her.

    “Well, because you’re kidnapping me?” It seemed obvious to her.

    “What, just because we’re cops, we can’t pursue alternate revenue streams?” The guy pointed at the empty seat. “Sit down. Shut up. We were told to bring you in. The state you’re in depends entirely on you.”

    Okay, so I am being kidnapped. By cops, no less. This is different.

    Taylor obediently sat down. She could, of course, rip the entire side door off and escape, but this intrigued her. Someone wanted her kidnapped; someone who could either pay off a lot of cops or outfit an entire bunch of guys with really authentic-looking cop gear.

    In short, someone had gone to a great deal of trouble to get their hands on her. Someone who, if she wasn’t careful, might hurt innocent bystanders if they had to try again. She reminded herself of the modifications Janesha had made on her. I’m bulletproof and I can juggle this vehicle like a cardboard box. I also don’t have to breathe. There wasn’t a huge amount they could do to her, and a lot she could do to them, but as far as they were concerned, the opposite was true.

    “Um … so what’s going on here?” she asked. “Why me?”

    “You don’t ask questions,” growled the man sitting next to her. He took hold of her wrist and handcuffed it to the frame of the seat. Another man pulled a bag over her head. It was stuffy and smelled faintly of cologne, and cut out all light.

    “Okay,” she said, her voice muffled from inside the bag. They weren’t going to give her answers anyway; that much was clear. She settled back to try to enjoy the ride in relative comfort, keeping a tight grip on her possessions.

    While the bag cut out all sight and did a fair amount toward muffling her hearing, it did nothing to attenuate her control of her bugs. She had a clear picture of her surroundings, extending a couple of blocks in all directions, so no matter how the van changed direction—which it did far more often than it normally should have, given the route it was travelling—she knew where she was. The cop beside her had warned her to stay quiet, so she didn’t ask stupid questions like ‘where are we going’ or ‘what do you want with me’. She’d find out the answers to those questions, she figured, when she got where she was going.

    <><>​

    Coil

    Normally, in a situation like this, Thomas Calvert would have kept one timeline as a ‘safe’ line, where he did nothing. In the other, he would set up a risky situation, then drop whichever one came out with the least acceptable outcome. This was anything but a normal situation.

    Cauldron, via the person of Contessa, had specified that they wanted Taylor Hebert to be permanently separated from Janesha of Mystal. This, to Calvert, said they wanted her dead. Why they weren’t just doing the job themselves wasn’t obvious to him, but he had no particular squeamishness when it came to dead teenage girls.

    Calvert was no common assassin, of course. People usually didn’t call him in on contracts to make people dead. When they did hire his services, it was usually for something more elaborate. So Cauldron’s requirement puzzled him more than a little. Also, he definitely wanted to know more about Janesha Nascerdios of Mystal, who had been making serious waves around Brockton Bay and who had been seen in Taylor’s company more than once. Scuttlebutt in the PRT building, whispered around the water cooler but not even making it on to the PHO boards, was that Janesha could remove powers, something that had very definitely made Calvert’s radar. Setting up a multimillion-dollar bank account using a duffel full of gold bars was par for the course when it came to Nascerdios; the ability to casually remove superpowers was not.

    Taylor Hebert would die. His tame cops would work out a sequence of events between them that left them all in the clear, all the while delivering her to a location of Calvert’s choosing. Calvert would then wring every single secret out of her, using all the tricks and techniques he’d acquired over his PRT career, before disposing of her body in a location where it would be discovered, having suffered a ‘mugging gone wrong’. This sort of thing happened to teenage girls all the time, after all.

    Still, there was always room for caution. In the first timeline, she was being delivered to his main base of operations. The second had her being brought to an offsite backup base, where she would be interrogated over a closed-circuit TV channel, with men on site to provide the appropriate brutality.

    This wasn’t his first rodeo, after all.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    The bag was taken off Taylor’s head as heavy leather straps were fastened over her arms, securing her to the wooden chair she’d been shoved into. She knew where she was; an underground complex somewhere to the west and south of the Trainyards, one she hadn’t even known was there. It was composed of half a dozen rooms and housed twenty men, though it had room for maybe three times that number.

    Blinking, she pretended confusion as she looked around. “Okay,” she said. “What now? And careful with that package. I just paid good money for that.”

    The armoured mercenary holding her purse and the package containing the pocket watch shrugged and shoved them into pouches at his belt. Taylor marked him with a bug, then did the same to his compatriots. They might think she wasn’t going to live to reclaim her property; she had different ideas.

    Another mercenary answered her question. “What happens now is that the boss asks questions. You answer the questions. If he doesn’t like the answers, we hurt you till you give him answers he likes.”

    Taylor thought that over. “What if the only answer I’ve got is one he doesn’t like?”

    The armoured man snorted. “Then you’re shit out of luck, kid.”

    “Can I know who it is who’s going to be asking me questions?”

    “Sure. His name’s Coil.” He gestured at the large screen in front of them both, currently dark and silent. “No big secret. He’ll be talking to us through that.”

    “And afterward I get to go home?”

    “Yeah, kid. If you’re good, you get to go home.”

    That was the first lie he’d told. Everything else he’d said, he’d been a little tense, thinking over what he was saying. Saying she would be free to go home, he’d just flung the statement out there. He didn’t mean it, and he didn’t believe it. It was just something he was saying to keep her on side.

    She didn’t contradict him. Getting answers out of him would be easier if she didn’t call him on his lies.

    The screen flared to life. Imaged on it was an almost skeletally thin man, clad in a skintight costume that covered every inch of his visible form, which was from the mid-torso upward. It was a charcoal-black with a white stripe winding around it, culminating with what might have been a snake’s head overlaying the top of his own head. She could see why he called himself Coil.

    “Good afternoon, Miss Hebert,” purred the gaunt man. “My name is Coil, and I have some questions for you today. How well you answer them will determine how well my men treat you.”

    And how soon I bust out of this chair and come looking for you, Taylor decided. “Wh-what do you want from me?” she asked, pretending fear.

    That was the cue for him to steeple his fingers together and look at her over them. “I want to know everything there is about Janesha Nascerdios of Mystal,” he intoned. “What you know, what you think you know, what she likes and dislikes. What her motivations are. In other words, I want to know what it is that makes her tick. Can you oblige?”

    <><>​

    Coil

    In the timeline where the Hebert girl was being held in his base, he had the men asking her about herself, to provide a baseline for the questioning. Where she was being held off-site, on the other hand, he began asking her about Janesha of Mystal.

    She answered questions about herself reasonably promptly. This was a tried and true interrogation technique; if the subject can be induced to begin answering questions, it is easier to keep them answering questions, even when said questions start getting more sensitive. Her middle name was Anne; her mother had died in a car accident when she was thirteen; her best friend was the aforementioned Janesha of Mystal; her favourite school subject was Computer Studies. All extremely innocuous.

    About Janesha, she was somewhat more guarded. The first subject they queried was the origin of the term ‘Mystal’. From the title she’d given herself, it seemed to be her place of origin, but no amount of research had turned up any evidence of a nation or even a wealthy family of that name. Taylor claimed adamantly that she didn’t know where it was, leading Calvert to surmise that the name was actually the title of an obscure superhero team. Presenting the Hebert girl with that supposition elicited a certain amount of amusement and agreement.

    From there, he moved on to Janesha’s powers; specifically, her limits and possible weaknesses. Taylor waxed lyrical over Janesha’s matter-shaping powers, going into some detail over what the strange cape had achieved with them. Calvert would have liked to poke holes in her story, but he actually had footage of what had happened at the Boat Graveyard that afternoon. Watching the girl juggle seventy-thousand-ton ships while standing on water made his stomach cramp, especially when the ships obligingly folded themselves into cubes for easier storage.

    Someone of that power level has no good reason for being in Brockton Bay. What is she doing here, and how soon is she leaving?

    When he posed that very question to Taylor, she shrugged as best she could. “She’s doing what she wants, and she’ll be leaving when she feels like it,” was her answer.

    He preferred not to think too hard about the line of questioning regarding the winged horse, or ‘mystallion’ as Taylor was quick to describe it. According to her, it was a member of a distinct species rather than a unique creature. He flat-out refused to believe her fanciful description of how fast it travelled, or even that it was able to leave atmosphere. That it had travelled to Rio in a matter of seconds, he could grasp; Mover abilities, after all, were a known concept. But to take a jaunt out among the stars, watching the very heavenly bodies jump aside to allow them passage … that was where he drew the line. Perhaps it was travelling so fast that she couldn’t breathe properly, and oxygen starvation caused hallucinations? It was the only real explanation.

    Where he hit a brick wall, however, was when he had his men press her on Janesha’s weak points. Some instinct had him ask the gentle questions of the version of Taylor in his home base, while his men became much more stringent with the other Taylor. There was no specific reason for him to do so, but he did it that way anyway.

    It didn’t take very long before he was very happy for that decision.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    She stared defiantly back at the mercenary. So far, it had been more or less like a game. Janesha would figure out where she was sooner or later, and she wanted to string these morons out long enough that they were horrifically surprised when the celestial girl busted in on them.

    The trouble was, she’d been in their hands for more than an hour by now, and Janesha still hadn’t shown up. It was getting boring. Also, they were starting to ask questions she didn’t want to answer. Lying was definitely an option, but each time she tried it, she was caught out immediately.

    “Incorrect, Miss Hebert.” She couldn’t see Coil’s face, but she was sure his smug expression matched Emma at her worst. “Janesha’s weakness is not cold iron. Nor is it custard pudding. I see we’re going to have to work on our trust issues.”

    Pithily, she told him exactly what he could do with his trust issues, and where he could insert them. She couldn’t see his face, but she hoped he was annoyed with her. It was actually a pretty good insult for one made up on the fly.

    “I see. Mr Brooks. Kindly break Miss Hebert’s little finger. Left hand, if you will.”

    Taylor raised her eyebrows as Brooks approached her. “This is a really bad idea. Janesha is a Nascerdios, she’s really rich, and she’ll be seriously pissed that you tried to hurt me.”

    Just for a moment, it seemed that Brooks hesitated, then he reached out for her left hand. She responded by curling her hand into a fist. With the power to crush diamonds in that fist, there was no way he was going to open her hand. He tried anyway, for at least a minute.

    “Well, get on with it.” Coil was not the most patient.

    “Sorry, sir. I can’t get her hand open.”

    “Hit her, you idiot. Just don’t knock her out. Rattle her head a little.”

    Obediently, Brooks backhanded Taylor across the face. Taylor let her head rock back under the impact, but showed no other reaction. Brooks tried again, harder. Again, Taylor went with it. On the third time, Brooks threw a full-blooded punch at Taylor’s jaw. In response, Taylor tensed every muscle in her chest and neck, and held her head absolutely still. When the blow hit, she didn’t move even a fraction of an inch. The crackle of breaking bones was clearly audible, along with Brooks’s muffled scream as he cradled his hand.

    “Report! Mr Brooks! What happened?”

    “I think I broke my hand … sir,” gritted Brooks. “Her jaw’s like rock.”

    Rock, hah. My jaw’s considerably harder than that.

    The screen went off at this time, and Brooks staggered from the room. Taylor heard the door click behind him. A few moments later, a yellowish gas began to curl in through wall vents. Taylor felt her vacuum adaptations kick in automatically. Her eyes stung, until the nictitating membranes Janesha had installed swept across them to protect the delicate surfaces. Her clothing started looking older and more tattered, so she guessed the gas had an acidic factor as well as being poisonous in nature. Fortunately, it didn’t fall apart altogether, for which she was grateful.

    After a few minutes, she got bored with sitting in a yellow fog, so she snapped the restraints and stood up. Heading over to the door, she pushed it open; metal screeched and rivets ricocheted from the wall. The yellow gas curled out with her, forcing the mercenaries back from the doorway. They held rifles, which they raised in a menacing fashion.

    <><>​

    Coil

    Calvert watched through the CCTV cameras as they opened fire. The bullets damaged her clothing slightly, but did no damage at all to her. Even the vaunted undermount lasers—for which he had paid a fortune—did nothing but scorch holes in her clothing, which irritated her but did nothing more.

    She stalked through the base on what seemed to be a random path, until he finally realised that she was following one specific mercenary, by the name of Travis. Literally ignoring what the others were doing, even when they threw tear-gas grenades—not to mention actual grenades—she followed the man implacably, unstoppably. Locked and sealed blast doors slowed her down right up until she forced a gap between door and frame, then with strength he’d only ever seen in footage of Alexandria, she wrenched the obstacle aside and continued her hunt.

    Finally, she cornered the man. Out of ammunition, terrified out of his mind, he launched an attack on her with a combat knife. Some Brutes (because surely that was what she was) were vulnerable on the inside, so Calvert was cheered when he managed to lodge the blade inside her mouth.

    She bit it off, and spat the piece to one side. When he attacked her, she’d gotten a grip on his equipment belt; now, she hit him with an untrained palm strike that nonetheless snapped the belt and sent him flying across the room into the wall. He lay there, disarmed and unable to get up, staring at her. She ignored him and rifled through his belt, retrieving her purse and the package from the jewellery store.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    “Thanks for looking after this,” she told the idiot who’d attacked her, shoving her purse in her pocket and opening the package to make sure the watch was still okay. “That acid fog shit might’ve damaged it, and then I really would’ve been pissed.”

    When she turned around, the mercenaries in the doorway shrank back under her gaze. Rifles were pointed, but nobody was stupid enough to open fire. Nothing they’d used on her had worked, anyway. Janesha, you’re amazing.

    “Okay,” she said. “This has been fun, but I’ve still got to get my dad’s watch engraved. Which way’s the exit, or do I have to make my own?”

    One of the mercenaries pointed wordlessly, and she started in that direction. As she headed up the stairs, two more armoured men appeared at the top of the steps. She shook her head. “Seriously? Come on, guys. This public display stuff’s not usually my thing, but do you really think Janesha is the only cape in our friendship?” There was a long pause. They looked at each other, then stood aside. She rolled her eyes. “Thank you.”

    <><>​

    Coil

    Calvert watched impotently as she reached the outer door to the base and kicked it off its frame. Then she stepped through the now-open portal and left his line of sight.

    The base was a wreck. The mercenaries had burned through most of their ammunition just trying to slow down Taylor Hebert, and in turn she’d done tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage to the base. It was just a good thing that all this had happened in the offsite facility rather than his main base. With a shudder, he dropped the timeline where the version of her in this base had just casually torn through the restraints and was pushing the door open. He didn’t need that sort of damage in his main facility.

    Dropping his elbows to the desk, he put his face in his hands. Cauldron had given him one job, and he’d utterly failed to do it.

    Worse, he’d pissed off Taylor Hebert (who was apparently an Alexandria-class cape, and he had no idea where that had come from) and by proxy Janesha Nascerdios, a girl who was richer than God and who could demonstrably walk on water and reshape matter to her heart’s content. And the Hebert girl knew who’d had her kidnapped. If either one of them had a vindictive bone in her body, he was screwed beyond belief.

    What the fuck do I do now?

    <><>​

    Janesha

    The mall was closed by now, but she figured maybe she could go and ‘ask’ to see the security footage, and see what had happened to Taylor. Then she had a better idea. Having Cloudstrike fly straight up, she reached an altitude of around fifty thousand feet, and looked down at Brockton Bay. Her enhanced sight picked out every single person in the open … including a lone figure, walking eastward through a semi-abandoned section of town.

    “Down, Cloudstrike,” she directed her mount. The mystallion obeyed, dropping like a stone. Ten miles went by in an instant, then Cloudstrike flared her wings, landing with the lightness of a feather.

    Taylor looked up. “Oh, hey,” she said. “What kept you?”

    “Oh, this and that. Mainly, the fact that Scion’s a cowardly chickenshit who doesn’t want to talk to me. But what happened to you?”

    Taylor trudged over to Cloudstrike and patted her muzzle. “Hey, girl,” she said. Cloudstrike nickered and rubbed the side of her face against Taylor’s chest. Taylor raised her tired gaze to Janesha’s. “I’ve been finding out how much easier you make life for me. And how many idiots there are in this city who think a teenage girl is just a teenage girl.”

    Janesha raised her eyebrows. This sounded like some story.


    End of Part Thirteen
     
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2019
  9. RoninSword

    RoninSword Sky God

    Joined:
    Jan 24, 2015
    Messages:
    1,010
    Likes Received:
    1,135
    I'm always cheered when Discworld is used as a reference to show how strange reality gets somewhere.
     
  10. Kitty S. Lillian

    Kitty S. Lillian Transhuman

    Joined:
    May 20, 2018
    Messages:
    156
    Likes Received:
    204
    Coil has erred.
    It comprised half a dozen rooms
    The whole comprises the parts, direct object, no preposition.

    I am curious if Celests can just be assholes and offer people the privilege of continuing to breathe in exchange for unspecified boon, and thereby more-or-less freely extract them from mortals.
     
    Gindjurra, Ack and Angel466 like this.
  11. Angel466

    Angel466 Getting out there.

    Joined:
    Oct 23, 2018
    Messages:
    14
    Likes Received:
    26
    That would be where the possessive nature of the ruling pantheon would come into play. There would be no need for the pantheon to go to such extremes to extract an unspecified boon from a mortal they already have absolute mastery over - mind and body. And if an outsider tried that, they would get it, but it would come to the attention of the ruling pantheon that an outsider had messed with one of their believers, and then that celest has a whole lot more to worry about than an unspecified boon.

    I hope that helps. :)
     
    Gindjurra, Kitty S. Lillian and Ack like this.
  12. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 2014
    Messages:
    6,605
    Likes Received:
    46,736
    Adjusted text to "it was composed of"
     
    Kitty S. Lillian likes this.
  13. Kitty S. Lillian

    Kitty S. Lillian Transhuman

    Joined:
    May 20, 2018
    Messages:
    156
    Likes Received:
    204
    Quite a lot. It rules it out in all day-to-day life for them, but not in this story…except Janesha neither wants to draw attention to herself nor knows that there appears to be nobody upstairs here.

    The power available to them does seem to make there be almost no reason for a Celest to ever do so, but, again, Janesha deciding to behave means she might need a loophole later. Though I rather doubt she'd pay so little when she's got matter-shaping.
     
    Ack and Angel466 like this.
  14. JamesEye

    JamesEye Making the rounds.

    Joined:
    Jun 2, 2018
    Messages:
    39
    Likes Received:
    130
    So contessa is aiming to kill Janesha? I’m surprised Scon isn’t like canon, I was hoping for a super outside context situation where Janesha was realities away from home with no way back and could beat Scion fairly easily. But now she’s going to die or something? Thanks for writing this though it’s really fun.
     
    Angel466 and Ack like this.
  15. Angel466

    Angel466 Getting out there.

    Joined:
    Oct 23, 2018
    Messages:
    14
    Likes Received:
    26
    hehe - noooo, she's aiming for Scion to kill her. :D Not to say he will - he has to come out of hiding first. ;) The problem with celests is it's really hard to isolate them from family when bloodlinks are their natural birthright. Then, it's literally one step and they're home. But, in this case, Janesha doesn't want to go home. Yes, she knows her family will be worried about her, and yes, her head is going to blow up in painful headaches very soon if she doesn't start answering them, but she's a teenager who's having fun, and they can't stay mad at her forever, right?
     
    JamesEye and Ack like this.
  16. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 2014
    Messages:
    6,605
    Likes Received:
    46,736
    Also, to clarify:
    Contessa and the others want Janesha dead. They just don't want to be in the firing line when Janesha's family inevitably locates Earth Bet and finds out that she was murdered here. So they're not going to do the deed themselves, and they're not going to tell Scion outright to kill her. Once any mindbender got hold of Scion, that trail would lead straight back to them. So they're doing their best to act through cutouts, which can themselves be eliminated when and if it's necessary to wipe their fingerprints off the murder weapon (so to speak).

    It's kind of their modus operandi.
     
    Angel466 and JamesEye like this.
  17. JamesEye

    JamesEye Making the rounds.

    Joined:
    Jun 2, 2018
    Messages:
    39
    Likes Received:
    130
    Thanks for answering my questions. I hope Scion and Janesha if they fight it’s not to the death. I always hate those fights that could end with one reasonable conversation. Will we find out why Contessa and her ilk want Janesha dead? Or have you already written that and I’ve just forgotten over the months since I read the first chapters haha.

    I also have to say I would like this story a lot less if I hadn’t not been reading worm fics for a few months. I usually got sick of the Insert Taylor into a group and she’ll make friends and she’ll be the best for them or the opposite where everything shits on Taylor. Right now though it’s a fun story ;~). I also recently read a story about Taylor being cute and speaking old timely 1910 style English and being generally adorable, her power of course is to summon lovecraftian monsters haha! Makes friends with Panacea and two more people needing help in the latest chapter. That story is actually why I came searching fics like yours again.

    Thanks for writing.
     
    Ack and Angel466 like this.
  18. Angel466

    Angel466 Getting out there.

    Joined:
    Oct 23, 2018
    Messages:
    14
    Likes Received:
    26
    I'm glad you're enjoying it.

    In one of the other chapters (I can't remember which one without going back over them myself), It was said that Contessa and her brothers would be going to the 'sin-bin' when they returned home, for not only failing to find a way to secure the weapon from Earlafaol, but losing valuable soldiers in the process. Over time, they learned Scion and Eden were hybrids, and accepted their fate back home, but not without making Scion pay in the worst possible way first. Contessa's innate ability is Luck, so when it pointed her to stay, she didn't argue with it. Then, Janesha came along. The enemy. After having a momentary panic attack, Contessa and her siblings regrouped, because she realised this was exactly what her luck was trying to tell her. Hybrids are killed on sight in my book. No take backs. They're too dangerous to be allowed to live. Lady Col has made a sanctuary for them in her realm, and more or less told all the other gods "Deal With It". But, if a hybrid who had grown up with Lady Col, killed an unestablished Mystallian kid, things would blow up between Lady Col and the Mystallians and destroy the accord that they share, which is waaay more valuable to their cause then just the loss of a few soldiers. Which means, if they play their cards right, not only will Scion be dead, but their prison sentence for failure will be turned into a hero's welcome home.
     
    Lord Greyscale and Ack like this.
  19. Threadmarks: Part Fourteen: Eclectic Boogaloo
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 2014
    Messages:
    6,605
    Likes Received:
    46,736
    Celestial Worm

    Part Fourteen: Eclectic Boogaloo


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


    Hebert Household

    Taylor

    “ … so once I got out of there, I started walking west,” Taylor concluded. “Janesha dropped in about ten minutes later and we came home.”

    Danny shook his head wonderingly. “Did they try to follow you?”

    Taylor snorted. “They’d already learned that was a bad idea in the base. When I throw things, it seems I throw them really hard.

    Janesha cracked her knuckles. “So where is this place? We need to go back and explain to them exactly why they don’t kidnap my besties. Like, ever. And by ‘explain’, I mean ‘pull down their stupid base around their ears and mindscrape the survivors into a drooling puddle’.”

    Mindscraping didn’t sound like fun to Taylor. She suspected it was even worse than it sounded. “I know where it is, but Coil wasn’t actually on site at the time. I’m pretty sure he’s got another base. This was just a secondary.” She shook her head. “Supervillains. How does someone get to build even one secret base under Brockton Bay, anyway, much less two?”

    “What part of mindscraping did you not get?” Janesha smirked. “If even one of those guys has ever been to the other base, or even better, has seen his boss with his stupid mask off, I’ll see what they’ve seen. Then we go say hi to Coil and deliver him to the PRT. In a flat-pack envelope, for preference.”

    “I would much prefer that we keep the mindscraping to a minimum,” Taylor’s father said firmly. “Not that I don’t want to exact bloody vengeance against the people who kidnapped Taylor and tried to kill her, but messing with peoples’ minds will still draw a lot of attention.”

    Janesha wrinkled her nose. “Stupid pretend-Simurgh. I should totally go up there and smack the shit out of her until she stops fucking around with you mortals. Then go and do the same to Leviathan and Behemoth.”

    Danny raised his eyebrows. “Okay, not to doubt you in any way … I mean, you’ve done some pretty amazing stuff since you got here. Shit, I saw you walk on water and juggle container ships. The entire hero population of Brockton Bay saw you do that.”

    “And every single one called bullshit,” added Taylor with a smirk.

    “Trust me, they’ve got no idea how far celestial bullshit can go,” Janesha assured them, then looked at Danny narrowly. “You were saying something about not doubting me, but I heard a ‘but’ in there. Mind finishing that sentence?”

    Danny nodded. “But … the Endbringers have been terrorising the world since before Taylor was born. Thousands of capes have fought them. Hundreds of capes have died fighting them. Not one Endbringer has been killed. The most that’s happened in return is that they’ve been driven off. And you can’t even really call it a victory, in most cases. Cities have been levelled, or they’ve had to be quarantined. Entire islands have been sunk. Are you absolutely certain you’re up to dealing with something like that? Sure, you’re more powerful than any ten capes I could name, but they’ve proven they’re capable of taking on hundreds of capes at a time.” His voice held nothing but honest concern.

    “If it was anyone but either of you two asking that question, Danny Hebert, I would consider turning them into a newt.” Janesha’s tone was deadly serious. “A small, ugly newt with a habit of licking its own butt. Nobody asks a Mystallian if they’re sure they’re capable of doing something. If we weren’t sure, we wouldn’t say it. The very last thing we want is some mortal doubting us, or infecting other mortals with that doubt.”

    “But what if you think you can handle it, but then find out you can’t?” Danny asked, not to be cruel, but in genuine curiosity.

    “Then you own the mistake,” Taylor answered, before Janesha could. “I gotta confess, when you first started trash-talking the Simurgh yesterday, I didn’t realise you were serious about it.”

    Janesha cracked her knuckles again and grinned evilly. “Petal, that pretender out there is one of three things. She’s either a cape, a construct or a celest. If it’s a cape, she’s done. If she’s a construct, she’s just as done. Constructs are … well … constructs are built by celests, and as such, they don’t get our power upgrades with establishment. Even if she’s a celest, I’m one of the top tiers when it comes to standard power. In fact, the only thing I have to worry about is whether or not she’s an established celest. Everything else, I can pretty much handle.”

    “What makes you think she’s established?”

    Janesha curled her lip. “Because, contrary to his wimpy shit personality, it looks like Scion’s casting himself in the role of a saviour god, while the Endbringers are presenting themselves as a scourge of humanity. If that’s the case, they might very well be the rest of his pantheon, and if they are, my friend is gonna be sooooo pissed.”

    Taylor rolled her eyes. “So, how do we find out which she is? I mean, what are you going to do if she is … uhh … an established celest? Does that mean you won’t be going after her?”

    “Oh, I’ll be going after her all right,” Janesha said firmly. “Even if I have to bring in reinforcements myself. She’s impersonating my friend, and that shit don’t fly. But it wouldn’t hurt to check things out a little more, given what’ll happen to me exactly two seconds after she’s been dealt with.” She paused with a wry grimace, and Taylor realised the reinforcements she’d bring in would be her family, who would then land on her for not going home. But, as if to break that train of thought, Janesha clapped her hands together and brightened, “But either way, that’s for another day. We’ve still got another pest to take care of first. Your friend and mine, Coil.”

    “Wait a minute,” objected Danny, as Janesha went to take Taylor’s hand, probably to realm step away. “You’re not going after anymore supervillains tonight. House rules.”

    “What?” Janesha stared at him, along with Taylor. “What house rules are these?”

    My house rules.” Danny stared right back. “My new ones. Rule one: One supervillain incident a day, tops, in this house. Taylor’s already used up that one by being kidnapped from the mall by Coil, and my heart won’t take a second confrontation so soon. The pair of you can leave retaliation plans till tomorrow.”

    “But what if he leaves town tonight?” objected Janesha. “He might get away.”

    “Honestly, I don’t care. You’re more than capable of tracking him down tomorrow, if you need to. Tonight, we’re all having dinner and then we’re all having a shower and going to bed, like a normal family. The end.”

    Janesha looked as though she couldn’t believe she was being grounded by a mortal. “You’re yanking my chain now, right?”

    Well, well, Taylor thought to herself. Look who was listening to the kids at school today. She was almost certain that saying didn’t originate in Mystal.

    Danny didn’t back down. “I wish I were. But we’ve all had enough excitement for one day, and at the very least, we could use a good night’s sleep before we make our next move. You two have school tomorrow, for God’s sake!”

    Janesha growled, and Taylor didn’t think it was because of the restriction. “You can always hunt him down tomorrow while I go to school,” Taylor suggested, trying to smooth things over between them. “No one says you have to come with me …”

    Janesha huffed and looked from one to the other and back again. “Fine,” she huffed. “I’ll go after him in the morning then. He messed with me and my friends twice, and he’s not getting a third swipe at you.”

    “I’d really rather you went to school …” Danny’s interjection died off and turned into a drawn-out sigh as Taylor shook her head behind Janesha’s back. “But technically I suppose you don’t have to if you don’t want to. It’s not as if you’re going to graduate and get a job here.”

    Janesha huffed again, this time in derision.

    “So, we’re all going to eat, have a shower and go to bed, right?” The question was aimed more at Janesha than Taylor, who everyone knew would do as she was told.

    Janesha lifted her chin to scratch her throat and rolled her eyes to the side to stare at him. “I already said I would, Danny, and I’m not in the habit of repeating myself.”

    “I’m pleased to hear that.” Taylor had never known her father could pull off snark like this before, especially in such a bland tone of voice. “So, would you like a slice of cold lasagne for dinner, or something more fancy?”

    Yet another dig - this time at their tardiness. Taylor didn’t think either of them was at fault for that.

    “You just have to keep pushing, don’t you, Danny?” Janesha sneered, which meant she didn’t think so either. At his smug eyebrow wiggle, she twisted her lips to avoid smirking and said, “Fine, I’ll fix us something better, but only because I want to eat, too.” But as she turned and went back into the kitchen, she muttered under her breath, “Not my fault Scion had me running all over the fucking planet …”

    Taylor grinned at her father and followed her friend into the kitchen.

    <><>​

    Coil

    “Going somewhere?”

    Calvert didn’t look around as the sardonic voice sounded from the region of his open bedroom door. His suitcase was nearly full, and his bug-out bag lay on the floor next to his bed. Silently, he cursed himself for not simply grabbing the bag and leaving, but he knew quite well that this would have done him no good at all. Contessa would’ve found him no matter where he ran.

    “I’ve just kidnapped and tried to kill a teenage girl,” he stated tiredly. “The friend of arguably the most powerful cape in Brockton Bay. I failed to kill said teenager because she’s only one step short of an Alexandria package herself.” For the first time, he turned to glare at her. “Which you could have warned me about!”

    “Why would I do your job for you?” Contessa asked carelessly. “You should’ve done your research before you snatched her up.” Leaning against the doorframe, she inspected her fingernails. “So how are you going to remedy this blunder?” Implicit in her question was the fact that he didn’t have the option of walking away.

    “Well, given that nothing I’ve got will so much as scratch the Hebert girl, I’m not entirely certain,” Calvert said, trying not to sound as irritated as he felt. Smart-mouthing a member of Cauldron was never a good career move. “Do you have any suggestions on where I could start?”

    Contessa rested her elbow on her arm, and rubbed her lips with her thumb. “I wasn’t made aware of the fact that the Hebert girl had been given an upgrade.” She tilted her head forward and to the side as if to give something over her shoulder a dirty look. Whoever it was meant for, Coil was glad it was in the opposite direction of him.

    WHen Contessa turned back to him, her expression was as neutral as ever. “Fortunately, it’s a problem I can easily deal with. By the time you get back to her, she won’t be so … durable.”

    Calvert felt his brows raising. When he’d purchased his powers from Cauldron, he hadn’t been able to meet the full price up front, so they’d required him to pay it off over several years. To forestall any inclination to use his powers to skip out on the debt, he’d been warned that failure to keep up with payments could result in the revocation of his powers, and he’d still owe for the balance.

    Which meant that the concept of Cauldron being able to remove powers wasn’t totally foreign to him, but the next question was something he had never really considered. Can they just take anyone’s powers away? He wasn’t sure what it meant that Contessa was revealing this specific aspect to him now.

    However, he was still himself, and he was fully aware that he had managed to piss off a very powerful cape. “And Janesha?” he asked. “Do you have any tips on how to deal with her and live after the fact?”

    “Just one,” she said, and looked him in the eyes. He recoiled from the sheer power radiating from her gaze. “If she can see you, she can read every thought you have. Every memory you’ve ever had. She can strip you to the bone, mentally speaking, and you’d never know it.” She paused, meaningfully. “And that goes for your men. Anyone who’s ever seen your face, no matter how loyal they are, she’d know what you look like. And any of your men at that secondary base who know where your primary one is, she can find out from them. Just so you know.”

    Turning, she left the room. Her shoes clacked on the floor once, twice, three times, then fell silent. He knew she was gone, back to wherever Cauldron held sway. That she would carry out her promise, he had no doubt. Of course, that didn’t do anything to deal with Janesha, and her warning about the girl’s powers hadn’t helped to allay his nerves in the slightest.

    Mind reader? What is she, the Simurgh’s little sister?

    To be honest, given her stupidly ridiculous range of powers, he wouldn’t have been at all surprised if Contessa had told him that Janesha Nascerdios was indeed linked somehow to the Endbringers. With that in mind, he split the world into two timelines. In one line, he continued to pack the suitcase; in the other, he left the house again. Getting back into his base would be a long and intricate process, but maintaining absolute security regarding his secret identity suddenly seemed a lot more important than it had been up till now.

    Once there, he would revisit his plans to separate Taylor Hebert from Lady Janesha Nascerdios of Mystal. At the same time, he had some loose ends to deal with.

    <><>​

    Cauldron Base

    Fortuna

    “Well, that should deal with that.” Contessa quickly slid her seclusion ring back on, and sighed at the loss of her power. It had taken only the slightest effort of leaning into her attunement to remove the celestial improvement from Taylor Hebert. She had made it an ongoing effect, so no matter how many times Janesha bitchface Nascerdios of cocksucking Mystal upgraded her mortal toy, it would always revert. “Let’s see her protect the little bug now.”

    “I still can’t believe she actually fucking upgraded a mortal like that.” Dorian leaned on the doorframe with his arms crossed, shaking his head. “I mean, who even fucking cares about one mortal? Other mortals don’t care about other mortals.”

    “Who can understand anything a fucking Mystallian does?” Clare wandered into the room. “Not me, that’s for fuckin’ sure. At least the mortals are fairly set in their ways. All they think about for the most part is food and fucking, and sometimes not even food.”

    Contessa crossed the room before the other two members of Abbadon could react. Her hand closed around Clare’s throat, and she slammed him against the wall. “If you’d been paying less attention to the ‘food and fucking’ side of things and more attention to Taylor fucking Hebert, maybe I wouldn’t have been left swinging dickless in front of the Calvert mortal. I need to be on top of shit like that. I want to know before the mortals know! Not! After!” As she ranted, she pulled his throat forward to knock him off-balance, then rammed her knee into his ribs with enough force to lift him completely off the ground, then punched him into the floor while he was still airborne. She’d have done a lot more if neither of them had been wearing their seclusion rings. Frustrated by his continual failure, she ignored the way he tried to stand again and kicked him in the ribs, this time hard enough to send him sailing into the far wall under her wide screen monitor. He didn’t hit her monitor, because it was hers and she was innately lucky like that. “Am I fucking making myself totally fucking clear to you?” As she screamed out the last sentence, Clare bounced off the wall and fell in a heap on the floor. If he didn’t understand now how serious she was, her next trick would involve his arm and an industrial meat grinder. Dorian was acting as his keeper, so her psychic didn’t need either one to do his job, and retards were always having accidents. Besides, he’d grow them back … eventually.

    “Y-yes, sister,” Clare managed to spit out, along with a mouthful of blood.

    All at once, the hairs on the back of Contessa’s neck rose, just as Clare’s flame filled gaze jerked towards the closed door. Both knew what their innate abilities were trying to tell them, and while Clare dampened down his fire and rolled his shoulders into a meek pose, Contessa jerked her head at Dorian, who was already moving towards their prone brother.

    “You really have to be more careful,” Dorian began as he slid one hand under Clare’s arm, just as the door slid open and Doctor Mother’s head popped in.

    Wearing gloves as she did, any damage Contessa took as a result of punching her brother was already well on its way to being healed and Doctor Mother would never know about it. She released a breath that put her back into her icy persona.

    “Is everything alright?” the mortal woman asked, her face alight with concern for the fallen man.

    “Clare just tripped over his own feet,” Dorian answered, as Clare giggled stupidly at their visitor through a mixture of blood and drool.

    Doctor Mother’s gaze narrowed. “You don’t take that much damage to a face from just falling ov…” her sentence was cut off mid-word, and knowing she hadn’t done anything to intercede, Contessa swung her eyes to her brothers ...

    … and found Clare’s right hand free of his ring. By the time he’d pushed it back onto his finger, his head was tilted to the side and he’d started giggling again. Doctor Mother’s apparent concern for him evaporated and she shook her head at his foolishness. “Your brother’s right, Clare. You really should be more careful,” she said, dismissing the worry that had previously been all-consuming.

    “Did you want something?’ Contessa asked, pleased that her brother had been at least that much on the ball.

    The dark skinned woman blinked, as if to collect her thoughts. “Oh, right. Yes. Alexandria wants a meeting. Legend and Eidolon are showing up as well. It’s about this new cape in Brockton Bay.”

    Fortuna pretended to think. “Oh. Yes, I think I’ve heard something about her. Janowitz or Jashena or something, wasn’t it?” She saw out of the corner of her eye the way Clare’s lips twitched in amusement, but as it blended in with his cover, Contessa knew no one would notice the slip.

    “Janesha. Janesha of Mystal.” Doctor Mother shook her head wonderingly. “Not only is she a Nascerdios, but from the power level she’s showing, she may well rival any member of the Triumvirate. Alexandria wants to work on strategies for if she turns out to be a villain.”

    It sounded like a good idea; or rather, any kind of planning which treated Janesha like a potential enemy sounded like a good idea. Of course, Legend would counsel on the side of a softy-softly approach, while Eidolon would probably feel threatened due to the sheer range of abilities exhibited by the Mystallian. None of the fools had any idea what they were truly dealing with.

    But all in all, it sounded like a good opportunity to spread disinformation and shape the perception of the Triumvirate the way she wanted. The only trouble was, she didn’t dare take off her seclusion ring and simply implant the knowledge straight into their heads. Every instance of doing that risked being contacted from home, which meant she’d have to talk them around to her way of thinking. That, unfortunately, could take half the night.

    Fortuna was nothing if not patient. She had trained her whole life to fixate on objectives and no amount of time was a problem for her when it came to getting everything just right for a devastating strike. Especially not half a night. “I’ll be there,” she said.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    The Next Morning

    “Ow, what the hell?”

    Taylor stood on one foot and rubbed her shin, staring at the chair she’d bumped into on the way past. The sudden pain, as negligible as it was, had caught her by surprise.

    Since meeting Janesha, the worst sensation she’d undergone had amounted to solid taps from the guns belonging to Coil’s mercenaries. Even the purple lasers they’d shot her with hadn’t so much as blistered her skin. Not even interstellar space had bothered her. And now, she was pretty sure a bruise was coming up.

    “What is it, petal?” Janesha swung around the doorframe from the basement, entering the living room with a flourish. On her hands, Taylor smelled the aromatic fragrance of the hay that Cloudstrike enjoyed so much.

    Taylor pointed at her shin accusingly. “You never said the powers you gave me came with a use-by date. I hit my leg on the chair just now and it hurt like hell.”

    “Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Janesha shook her head. “Celestial alterations don’t come with a use-by date. They’re good until I say they’re not good. Are you sure they’re gone?”

    “My shin is gonna be bruised.” Taylor pulled up her jeans leg to show the red mark. “If I was as tough as I was last night, that chair shouldn’t have been able to do that.”

    “Huh. Okay. What about your other powers? The bug thing?”

    Taylor blinked. “Oh, uh, they’re still there. Same as normal.” To illustrate the point, she had three flies orbit Janesha then buzz away.

    “Okay, that narrows things down a lot.” Janesha held out her hand. “Mind if I take a look?”

    “Sure, go right ahead.” Taylor sat down in the chair and stuck her leg out. Most of the pain had subsided, but a dull ache remained.

    Leaning down, Janesha put her hand on Taylor’s kneecap, and frowned. “What the fuck? You’re normal again. How in the name of the Twin Notes did that oooooooooohhhh-hohh-hohh -oooohh…” Janesha made the noise and straightened a little as if the possibility had only just occurred to her and she didn’t like it at all. “Why, that mother-fucking golden skinned, chicken-shit scumbag,” she swore, even as Taylor felt the rest of the ache vanish. Janesha’s nostrils flared and the blood drained from around her lips, making her more than a little terrifying. “Oh, now it’s fucking personal! And if he’s taking swipes at you like this from the shadows, I’m gonna need to check on Danny too.”

    “Who?” Taylor asked, trying desperately to keep up. “Who’s come after me?”

    Janesha refocused on her friend. “Who else? I go after that golden skinned bastard last night, and this morning you wake up without powers. My people don’t believe in coincidences unless my Uncle Chance is behind them.”

    Taylor blinked. “Wait … Scion? Are you talking about Scion?” Taylor felt herself begin to panic. “Scion is taking a personal interest in hurting me?” That last sentence came out as a squeak.

    Janesha’s gaze slitted dangerously, even as she squeezed Taylor’s forearm. The motion gave Taylor a deep sense of security and she immediately felt better. “He only outdoes me when you’re outside my range, petal, and that’s only if he wants to. Trust me, when you’re with me, that yellow shithead isn’t going to do crap to you.”

    “Don’t you mean gold?”

    “Yellow,” Janesha emphasised, stabbing the chair arm that Taylor sat on with one finger. “That gutless wonder who hides wherever and takes potshots from the shadows doesn’t deserve to be gold.”

    “B-But if you need to keep me in your line of sight to counter him, how will that work?”

    “Ever gone fishing, petal?”

    Taylor was confused; Janesha changed subjects faster than a thesaurus index. “W-What?”

    The Mystallian was already hauling her into the kitchen, clearly looking for something. In exasperation, she turned to Taylor and said, “I need mass. About a kilo or two’s worth.”

    “Kilo?” Taylor asked.

    Janesha groaned, and rubbed her hand against her forehead. “Two to four pounds,” she snapped irritably. “I swear to the realms, it would be so much easier if cousin Columbine just took control of her mortals and smacked them into a uniform system of measurement that matched ours.” She shook her head, her eyes darting around the room. “Fuck it. I’ll just take it out of the freakin’ table…”

    “The trash!” Taylor immediately suggested, not certain if Janesha was joking or not about the table. It wasn’t something she could risk, given the mood her friend was in. Thankfully, with everything that had happened last night, she’d forgotten to take the trash out and it was still sitting in the bin beside the back door. Mass for the taking. She ran forward and removed the lid from the bin, then took the handles of the nearly filled bag liner and lifted it out for Janesha to see. “Will this work?”

    Janesha nodded and waved her back. Taking the handles from Taylor, she shifted the mass into a crude looking spool of black, woolen thread about half the thickness of her little finger. “Here,” she said, handing Taylor one end of the thread.

    The moment Taylor took it, the thread slipped through her fingers and travelled along her arm and down her body to her left foot. Somehow, the clothing opened and closed around the thread’s motion. Taylor went and sat down on a kitchen chair, then kicked her left leg up on to her knee. The thread was nowhere to be seen, but then she noticed it lay across the floor to her other foot. Lifting it an inch or two off the ground, she saw the thread and followed it back to the spool still in Janesha’s hands. “Seriously?” she asked, as she dropped both feet to the floor in annoyance at her friend’s ridiculous plan. “You’re tethering me to you?”

    “More than that,” Janesha admitted with a grin. “The thread will travel almost instantly to whatever the lowest point is within your body and drop straight to the ground. The weight of the thread will keep it grounded under you and stop anyone else from tripping over it.”

    “They’re still going to trip over it,” Taylor argued.

    “They won’t once I give it the thickness of a hair. Starting with a black thread that thick was for your benefit, so you could see what I was doing. Observe.”

    As Taylor did just that, the thread thinned until it vanished from her sight. “The bastard’s not getting you a third time, petal. You’re mine.”

    Taylor wasn’t sure how she felt about such a possessive statement coming from the junior goddess, but didn’t think now was the time to mention it. “And how far away from you can I be before this thing yanks me off my feet?” she asked, focusing hard on the shoe that she knew had the thread, even though she couldn’t see it. A light sweep of her fingers couldn’t find it either, and then it dawned on her why. Her foot was no longer the closest point to the ground. Her other foot now was. And if she lifted both feet and tried to feel for it, her fingers would then become the lowest points. She would literally never be able to touch the thread, ever.

    When she looked back at her friend, Janesha’s hands were free of the spool. Almost instinctively, Taylor’s eyes went to the girl’s black boots, to which Janesha nodded without answering. “It’s not a secondary thing anymore,” she explained. “The thread has been added to my body mass and is now infused with my divinity. It’s me, in every sense of the word. And if a certain dip-shitted celestial tries to cut it, believe me, I’m gonna notice.”

    “Are you going to do it to Dad, too?”

    Janesha huffed and looked to the doorway that led into the lounge. “I want to, but he’s already at work. Scion’s definitely going to notice a celestial thread that long.”

    Taylor frowned, trying to think of a way around the problem. “Can’t you give it the same freaky ability that the power threads in the celestial realm have? They’re able to stretch all over the world and then some. Not only that, but it’d be like we’re hiding a book in a library.”

    Janesha’s eyes widened and the left side of her mouth curled into an appreciative smile. Then she hooked her arm around Taylor’s neck in a stranglehold and gave her a playful noogie. “That’s fucking brilliant!” she declared, as Taylor squirmed and fought for her freedom. “I can keep you both tethered to me, and by putting in a fake crystal in the celestial realm, it’ll look like all three of us have ‘powers’. Why didn’t I think of that before?”

    “Maybe because hiding in plain sight isn’t really your style?” Taylor suggested dryly, after she managed to pull her head free.

    Instead of being insulted, Janesha lifted her chin and grinned proudly. “Damn right, and it never will be. But just this once, and to fuck with that chicken-gutted yellow-skinned bastard, I’ll do it to keep you safe.” She tilted her head to one side and the other, cracking her neck. “Fucking thinks he can use his attunement to negate your powers, does he?”

    Enlightenment burst over Taylor. “Oh, so that’s what he did.” It barely struck her as weird anymore that she knew enough about celestial capabilities to understand what Janesha was talking about. “I thought he used one of his, you know, regular Scion powers to somehow negate my abilities. But it was a celestial thing.”

    Janesha rolled her eyes. “Pfft, no. Unless the local mortals have taken to believing he can actually remove powers, he has to use his attunement to pull that crap. Basically, by telling reality that it’s no longer possible for you to be so tough and shit.”

    Taylor gestured at her feet. “And you can beat that with a thread?”

    “Well, yeah.” Janesha prodded Taylor’s shoulder with her finger. “I’ve just changed you back, and his attunement isn’t doing jack to it, so I’d say at a rough guess he’s not even a touch shifter naturally. So long as my thread’s in contact with you, I’ve got him trumped.”

    “Oh. Huh.” It still messed with Taylor’s head that Janesha could make such a massive change to her physiology without her even knowing about it. Then again, she figured she could really do without long drawn-out transformation scenes. Those looked painful.

    Then the other implication came to her. “Wait. You’re saying that Scion is weaker than you? Like, by a lot?”

    Janesha huffed and tilted her hand. “Okay, two things to deal with here. First, there’s no difference between ‘a little’ and ‘a lot’ when it comes to comparing the power level of two celestials. Either you beat them or they beat you. Second, in terms of raw power, it looks like my shifting shits all over his but he’s got attunement and probably even establishment here, so in this realm he can pull any ability out of his ass that the mortals believe he can do. Same goes for bending, otherwise the bastard would’ve stood still, let me come up to him, then made me forget all about wanting to talk to him. Instead, he ran and hid like a chickenshit.”

    This was probably the hardest thing for Taylor to fit her head around. Scion had literally been the most powerful being on Earth Bet for as long as she’d been alive. He’d been fighting Endbringers for longer than that. ‘Cowardly’ was not a word that anyone, anywhere, associated with him. But here was Janesha, who only wanted to talk to him, and he was running away from her? What was with that? “Are you sure he was running away from you, specifically? Maybe he had places to go and cats to save from trees?”

    “Once, maybe.” Janesha folded her arms. “But he left an apartment building to burn, then went to Paris. Soon as I got there, he stepped away again. This time, I found him in the middle of Antarctica. And after that, fuck knows where he went. Outer space, underground, wherever it is, I can’t find him. If someone runs away three times, it’s because they don’t want to talk to you. Which is what’s got me puzzled. I don’t even know the guy, I’ve certainly never met him before and none of my family has ever mentioned having a run-in with him. So why’s he so shit-scared of me?”

    Taylor smirked. “Don’t look at me. I’m a mortal of knowledge, not a god of knowledge.”

    Janesha started laughing so hard she had to sit down. “Fuck … me,” she wheezed. “That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard in years. I am so gonna have to steal that one and tell Uncle Culkin, once I get back home.”

    Taylor leaned back in the chair and grinned. Sharing a room with a celestial had its odd moments (and its really odd moments) but there were fun bits, too. She didn’t even mind when Janesha leaned across and ruffled her hair fondly. “Okay, so I’m just gonna go and check on your dad then set up that fake crystal thing. Shouldn’t be more than five minutes. You good here till then?”

    Taylor rolled her eyes. “A girl gets kidnapped just once, and even manages to free herself before the cavalry arrives, and suddenly I can’t be left alone for more than ten seconds at a time?”

    Now you sound like a Mystallian,” Janesha laughed flicking her fingers in congratulation.

    “Just go. I’ll be fine.” Taylor shooed her friend with both hands, smirking at the way the dark-skinned teenager poked her tongue out right as she took a step forward and vanished from her view. Thanks to her association with Janesha, Taylor was no longer surprised or even impressed by the act of realm-stepping. It was just another thing that celestials did.

    Standing up from the chair, she yawned and stretched, then decided to make a sandwich.

    <><>​

    Fortuna

    “Hey, guess what.”

    Fortuna turned, coffee cup in hand. She wasn’t a morning person at the best of times and spending half the night talking to fools who were beneath her grated on her last nerve. As such, when Clare and Dorian came in, both were wearing shit-eating grins that were way too intelligent to be part of Clare’s cover, she put the coffee mug down to free her hands and backhanded both of them at the same time in a double swing of her arms. Both took the blows without question, though one of Dorian’s eyebrows rose in surprise. Contessa addressed him first. “You let him break cover like that again, and you’re in as much shit as he is, understood?”

    Dorian’s eyes swivelled to their brother accusingly, who had his mask of stupidity back in place. They could sort that out later. “What’d you want?”

    “To tell you that you did it,” Dorian replied, speaking for their brother who wasn’t about to let his facade slip again. At Contessa’s impatient frown, he quickly went on. “When you took away the mortal’s abilities, Janesha blamed Scion. She thinks he’s the one trying to attack her through the mortal. She pissed as hell at him, and with the right push we can take it to hating his guts with a passion. You fuckin’ did it.”

    Now it was Contessa’s turn to smile, though she raised her hand to hide her whole mouth behind her palm. She should’ve known her innate ability had something up its sleeve. “Excellent,” she said moments later, dropping her hand to her side only once the desire to smile had passed. “Where is Scion? We need to keep this friction going.”

    “Still hiding in his little pocket dimension,” Dorian answered, suddenly all business. “To be honest, I don’t get that one. Up until now, he’s been the biggest glory hound in existence. Unless … do you think he’s already run into Mystallians before coming here and knows to go into hiding?”

    Contessa shook her head in denial. “Not a chance. He’d be dead already if he ran into any of them away from Earlafaol.”

    “Maybe he ran into them before he left Earlafaol?” At Contessa’s dark frown, he added with a shrug, “Hey, I’m just spitballing ideas here. He knew to run, but he didn’t learn that here. If he didn’t run into a Mystallian after he left Earlafaol, logic says he has to have hit them before. And whoever it was has clearly left a lasting impression if he’s bolting from a stupid kid.”

    Contessa couldn’t argue with his logic, though this would’ve been a lot easier if Scion had kept his chest-beating superior attitude going. Mystallians hated that. Not the superiority itself, but the thought that anyone was superior to them. Now they were going to have to make shit up and hopefully draw the bastard out.

    Annoyed and looking for someone to vent at, Contessa threw another punch at Clare, though this time he maintained his cover and dropped to the ground with a pathetic whimper. His arms encased his head and he curled into a foetal position, looking for all the world like a terrified child instead of the seasoned warrior he was. She leaned in close, so that only the two of them would hear her next words. “Whatever happens to us when we get home, you’re going in the sin-bin for an extra six months for your constant run of failures. From this moment on, you will do nothing, but focus on the mission. Nod if you understand.”

    Only the smallest, smallest thinning of his lips right before he silently jerked his head once gave any hint of his understanding. Right now, he was so entrenched in his cover she doubted if the arrival of the entire Mystallian pantheon could break him of it. Which was good. It was how they operated and they needed to get back to their roots.

    Just as she was about to dismiss them, Clare froze, then said in a quiet, deadpan whisper out of the corner of his mouth, “You’re not going to like what Janesha’s just gone and done, sister.”

    Contessa and Dorian looked at each other. “Report,” her second in command ordered.

    “If we thought she was stupid just empowering her favourite mortals, now she’s gone and tethered herself to one.”

    Her eyebrows rose. “Well, that’s fucking new.”

    Dorian frowned. “Wasn’t that other mortal supposed to be killing one of them?”

    Contessa shrugged. “We can’t break the tether without breaking cover. He’s on his own.”

    Which was the simple truth. Mortals were expendable, and there were always more where those came from.

    <><>​

    Coil

    In the one timeline, Calvert had finished packing and notified his superiors at the PRT that he was going to be taking a leave of absence. What he didn’t tell them was that he intended to leave within twelve hours, rather than giving them the two weeks’ notice that regulations required. Easier to beg forgiveness, after all.

    The other timeline had him in costume at his base, dealing with matters. Creep was the only one of his men who could possibly identify him, so he’d had the man shot. Likewise, he’d called up the records of each of his men at the secondary base, and each of the ones who’d spent time at the primary base was singled out by the others and executed. The bodies would have to be disposed of, but that was what the Bay was for. He had no idea how many sets of human remains now resided on the sea floor off the Boardwalk, but more than a few of them had been deposited there by him or his men.

    Now that that was dealt with, he was listening in as his men closed on the Hebert house. Danny Hebert was already at the Dockworkers’ Association and would be until early in the evening, if his previous habits were anything to go by. Infrared imagery—normally this would be useless in the daytime, but tinkertech ignored things like that—showed two people in the house. One of these was Taylor Hebert, while the other was almost certainly Janesha of Mystal. In the basement, and Calvert had no fucking idea how it had gotten there, was that impossible winged horse.

    His men were on hold at the moment. There was no way they were going to prevail against a cape who could toss around thousands of tons of steel like papier mache. But then, one of the images vanished.

    “Sir, this is Red One.” That was the team leader. “Joker Mike has left the building. Green light?”

    He tensed, leaning forward to stare more closely at the screen. She was nowhere to be seen. Had she spotted the men? Was he about to undergo yet another fiasco?

    “All units, report in,” he said into the microphone.

    One by one, they sounded off. Nobody was missing.

    “Green light,” he said clearly. “I say again, green light.”

    All he had for a visual feed was the tinkertech camera in the car. It was left behind as his men piled out, pulling balaclavas over their heads to conceal their identities. This was going to be a quick in-and-out raid. Smash their way into the house, shoot her until she fell down, then break off and make a bolt for it. A single sniper would be cleaner but those took too much trouble to set up, especially if the target wasn’t a public figure with a known itinerary. He also wanted them well away before Janesha returned.

    He watched as his men converged on the house, moving with the assured teamwork that had won them so many battles before. With his capabilities, he’d ensured that they never entered a losing fight, so they were confident and eager for action. Some might have been less than enthusiastic about what amounted to murdering a child, but those were the ones he’d tasked with hanging back and guarding the getaway vehicles. Besides, he’d spread enough disinformation about why the other men had died that they were half-convinced she was responsible.

    Over their headsets, he heard the harsh breathing as they prepared to assault the building. Doors were kicked in, and his men swarmed inside. The harsh rattle of gunfire filled his ears. She was in a crossfire; there was no way they could miss.

    He couldn’t see properly once the gunfire started, of course. Too many heat sources. Then someone yelled, “Cease fire!” The shots petered out.

    “Red One, Red One.” Calvert spoke clearly and concisely. “Verify that target has been eliminated.”

    “Red One, roger. Target is down. Approaching target now. Uh … “

    “Say situation, Red One.” Calvert was getting a very bad feeling about this.

    “Fall back, fall back. Target is unharmed. I say again, target is unharmed. Fall back!”

    Calvert blinked. Unharmed? But she said …

    “Abort abort abort,” he snapped over the radio. “I say again, abort abort abort. Simurgh conditions are now in place. Do you copy, Red One?”

    Red One’s breathing was once more harsh, but this time Calvert was almost certain this was from fear and not exertion. “Red One copies Simurgh conditions.” His voice was as crisp as ever. “Aborting mission now.”

    ‘Simurgh conditions’ meant that nobody was to be left behind alive. Anyone too wounded to keep up would be shot without mercy. The last thing Calvert wanted was for Taylor Hebert to capture one of his men alive for Janesha to casually uncover every last secret he held.

    The feed from the tinkertech camera showed the groups of men breaking away from the house and fleeing along their designated exfiltration routes. Behind them, a skinny figure emerged from the house. She shouted something, but the microphones were just too far away.

    Calvert flipped up a clear plastic cover on his desk, and poised his thumb over the row of large red buttons underneath. Unbeknownst to his men, each vehicle was loaded with plastic explosive. If Hebert captured even one car, it could be disastrous for him. Fortunately, he was well acquainted with the need for making hard decisions. All it required was one press of his thumb, and the car in question would become a flaming ball of debris. Anyone inside would be pulped, then burned to a crisp.

    There was no way any of this shit was getting back to him.

    <><>​

    In the Celestial Realm

    Janesha

    “There, that should do it.”

    Janesha put the finishing touches on the fake crystal, making sure it would radiate the same odd lighting as all of its neighbours. She’d made it as tall as herself, larger than some but definitely smaller than others. Once it had been constructed, she’d attached the line she’d run from herself to Taylor to it, then she pulled another line from it. Once attached to Danny, the second line would allow Janesha to maintain his relative invulnerability, no matter what attunement bullshit Scion tried to pull.

    Taking a step forward, she vanished from the celestial realm and reappeared in the Dock Workers’ Association parking lot. Workers performed double-takes as she strode up to the building and pushed the door open, but nobody tried to stop her. Probably because they’d been part of the audience yesterday and seen her little show; also, possibly because they realised she was a friend of Danny Hebert’s.

    “Uh, hello.” The receptionist, clearly a long-time fixture of the place, stared as though she were a star-struck teen. “I, uh, can I help you?”

    Janesha guessed that they didn’t get many capes through the place. “Sure,” she said. “I need to see Danny Hebert. Is he in?” She could’ve easily have looked into the woman’s mind for the information, but Taylor’s influence was all too pervasive.

    “Uh, yes.” The woman pointed down the hallway. “The office on the end. Can I ask … uh …”

    Ignoring the rest of what the woman had to say—politeness to mortals was one thing, but there was a limit to her tolerance—Janesha turned and strode down the hallway. As she came up to the office, she noted the title HEAD OF HIRING on it. Favouring it with a single knock, she turned the handle and went in without breaking stride.

    “I said I wasn’t to be—oh, hello, Janesha.” As Danny looked up, his tone went from irritated to receptive in just a few words. “What’s up?”

    Janesha pushed the door shut with her heel and came over to the desk. “What’s up is that your homegrown Superman knockoff has decided to neutralise Taylor’s modifications with his attunement to this realm. I came over to see if he’s done the same with you, and to give you a fix if he had.”

    Danny came to his feet, alarm flaring in his eyes. “Taylor? Is she all right?”

    Janesha’s hand shot out. “She’s fine. It’s sorted.” Her hand fell to her side and she wrinkled her nose. “I swear, I never had one tenth the trouble with mortals back home that I do here. I had to pull some tricky shit to make sure we always stayed connected, which allows me to maintain your upgrades.” She reached across the desk and tapped his wrist with her forefinger. “And that lowlife mother-fucker has cancelled yours as well. Oooh, what I’m going to do when I get my hands on that sneaky little shit.”

    “Huh.” Danny looked down at himself. “I hadn’t noticed.”

    “Good thing, too.” Janesha strolled around the desk. “Hold still.” Gripping the end of the cord between her forefinger and thumb, she touched it to his shoulder. His shirt parted briefly to allow it through, then the connection was made. Through her own cord, she re-established the upgrades. As a mortal, Danny may have been irritating from time to time, but her respect and liking for him had only grown in the last few days. There might have been a teensy hint of possessiveness in play too, but hey, that was to be expected around her kind.

    “What did you just do?” asked Danny curiously, as his shirt repaired itself. He couldn’t see the cord, as it was only visible in wavelengths that his merely mortal eyes would never be capable of registering. It connected him to the fake crystal junction in the celestial realm, which then connected through to Janesha.

    “I made an end run around that attuned asshole.” Janesha smirked. “There’s more than one way to skin a talot. And trust me, when I do catch up with him, and I will, I’m gonna make him regret even thinking about fucking with me through you two.”

    Belatedly, Danny must have realised who she was talking about. “Scion?” he asked. “Are you saying Scion cancelled the powers you gave us?”

    “Yeah, Danny, Scion pulled that shit.” Janesha huffed irritably. “Don’t look so shocked. That piss-ant yellow asshole wouldn’t stand still long enough for me to talk to him, which tells me he’s got a guilty conscience about something. And now he’s trying to send me a message saying that he can cancel my protection on you if I don’t back off? Well, screw him. You’re mine and I’m protecting you anyway.”

    “So are you going to go looking for him again?” Danny seemed determined to state the obvious.

    “Well, duh.” She paused, reconsidering her answer. “But not right this second. Nobody threatens me or mine and just walks away. I will have words with him about what the fuck he thinks he’s doing with you and the other mortals on this world, and if I don’t like the answers, he’s not gonna like what I do next.”

    “Okay, so if you’re not going after him, what will you be doing? Right now, I mean.” He paused. “Going to school with Taylor, or heading off on your own?”

    “Actually, seeing that nobody at school is likely to be bothering Taylor today, I was gonna take Cloudstrike for a nice long ride.” Janesha smirked. “She’s starting to get restless, and when mystallions get restless, they tend to break shit. Including whatever buildings they’re stabled in.” She tilted her head. “You know, you haven’t been up on her yet. I could take you along for an hour or so.”

    “Hm.” Danny smiled. “The way Taylor waxed lyrical about it, I’m actually tempted. But I’ve got responsibilities, which suddenly got a lot wider.” He gestured at the wall, and by inference the busy office beyond. “Since you and the other capes cleared the Boat Graveyard, we’ve had all sorts of calls coming in asking about the port facilities. This, right here, is the opening up of a massive opportunity for Brockton Bay, and it’s all due to you. So I’m going to have to call a rain check on that, but thanks for the offer. And say hi to Cloudstrike for me.”

    Janesha nodded. “I’ll do that, Danny. And just between you and me, I’m glad it’s you managing this situation. If I’m gonna do something nice for someone, I’d prefer that it get handled right, not half-assed.” Hand raised in a wave, she realm-stepped back to the Hebert household.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    Leaning back on the sofa, watching TV and eating her sandwich, Taylor waved as Janesha appeared in the middle of the living room. “Oh, hey,” she said, the words a little muffled. “How’d it go?”

    “Went off without a hitch.” Janesha plopped on to the sofa beside her. “He cancelled the protections on your dad too, but I renewed them and made the celestial connection. It’s all above-board and automatic now, with the bonus that if I do have to do something in a hurry to save your lives or something, I’ve got constant contact with you.”

    Taylor shook her head with a smile. “Only you. Only you could take something like that and turn it into a positive.”

    “Hey, he started it.” A dangerous glint came into Janesha’s eye. “But if he tries pulling that shit again, I will finish it.”

    “I don’t doubt it for a second.” The sandwich finished, Taylor sat up. “So, what are your plans? Are you still going after Coil? I know I told dad that I’d go to school, but let’s be honest. I don’t think Blackwell will be totally broken up if I don’t show today.” She snorted. “She’s already got me down as a ‘disruptive influence’.”

    Janesha raised an eyebrow. “You know, your dad’s going to blame me for your sudden switch to the dark side, since I’m already playing hooky with my family?”

    Taylor looked at her friend, then knotted her fingers into a double fist and rested them against her throat, batting her eyelashes playfully.

    “I am too young to be dealing with that shit!” Janesha laughed, tossing a cushion at her friend hard enough to knock her off her feet. “Cut it out.”

    “C’mon, Janesha. You already said you were going to take Cloudstrike out for a long ride first, and sooner or later you’re going to leave. You’ve gotta let me have as many rides as I can to remember you by. And then I can watch what you do to Coil. It was me he tried to kill, remember?”

    “I did plan on smacking Coil so hard his grandchildren will suffer a concussion,” she admitted. “And I suppose it was you that he screwed over.”

    “So, I get to go?”

    Janesha scratched the back of her neck thoughtfully. “You know, how badly do you really want to finish school anyway?”

    Taylor’s gaze slitted suspiciously. She knew enough to know she probably wasn’t going to like what came next. “Do I have to do one of those unspecified boon thingies?”

    Janesha dropped her hand and shook her head. “No, not at all. It’s just … you know how I can go into people’s heads and look at memories after the event?”

    “Yeah?”

    Janesha sighed. “The truth is, I can do a lot more than that. People suffer amnesia all the time, but sometimes, it’s a bender stealing their knowledge. And not just stealing it, but handing it over to someone else.”

    “What, like Victor of the Empire?”

    Janesha scrunched up her nose. “Victor …” She held her hands about four inches apart. Then she opened the space to as wide as her hands could go. “... me.”

    Taylor suddenly realised what Janesha was offering her. “Not just no, but hell no! In fact, never offer it again!” she practically shouted the last sentence, mortified that her friend was actually suggesting that she could take someone else’s hard earned knowledge and just give it to her. “Ever, ever!”

    “Okay, okay,” Janesha said, waving her anger aside. “It was just a thought. Sheesh.”

    “A really, really, really bad thought. My god! If dad had’ve heard that …”

    “Calm down, petal. It’s why I didn’t offer it in front of him. Like you said, I’m not staying here forever, and if you miss too much school hanging out with me, then your future’s gonna suffer for it.”

    Taylor tried to calm down by at least attempting to see it from Janesha’s point of view. Unlike everyone else in the world, she mattered to Janesha. So when she found herself at an impasse, Janesha wanted to step up and fix it for her. That part was a really sweet offer. But the bit she couldn’t get past was how little people still mattered to Janesha. She really didn’t care about them, or about how hard they had to work to get where they were. To just take that from them because she could was ... wrong. Sooo wrong. “Just don’t ever offer it again. I mean it. Not to me. Not to anyone. I’ll take one of those unspecified boon thingies, if I have to, to stop you.”

    Janesha’s eyes widened in surprise. “Do you want me to erase the last two minutes of conversation? I can if you want. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

    Taylor had never been so tempted to take her friend up on her offer, but in the end, she shook her head. “No,” she finally said. “My memories are mine, and I want to keep them. Just … promise me you won’t ever offer anyone that again.”

    Janesha looked torn. “How about from here?” she offered in compromise. “You can’t ask me to say I’ll never do it again, petal. Once I leave here and go home, it’s an entirely different ballgame back there, and you know it.” She licked her lips, her brow creasing into a frown. “I’ll never lie to you, petal. Not even when you want me to.”

    Taylor knew that. “Okay, fine. I won’t do the boon thing, and I won’t even ask you to promise me you won’t. Just tell me you won’t. That’ll be enough for me.”

    Janesha relaxed and nodded. “I won’t switch out knowledge while I’m here in Earth Bet, unless you or Danny ask me to.”

    “Janesha …”

    “No, that’s fair,” Janesha insisted. “It’s too hard to backpedal if, for whatever reason, something happens in the future that puts us in a position where we need it. Having one small out that puts you in control is the best I’m willing to offer.” She raked her fingers through her hair and rubbed the base of her neck. “And I cannot even begin to describe the amount of shit I’m going to wear when my family finds out I handed control of anything over to a mortal. But that’s exactly how much you’ve come to mean to me, petal.”

    Taylor didn’t know what to think. On one hand, she was so flattered to have such a loyal friend, but on the other, her disinterest in the rights of everyone else was downright terrifying.

    Perhaps she was looking at it the wrong way. She had presented her powerful friend with a problem, and expected Janesha to find a solution that met her moral standard. But what if she took Janesha out of the equation altogether? Owned her own space.

    It was worth a try.

    “I’m not going to school today,” she declared. “I’m already weeks ahead of my classmates, despite all the time I was in hospital, and after everything that’s happened, I’m entitled to a little me time, dammit.”

    Janesha grinned and opened her arms to her. “You absolutely are, petal,” she said, wrapping her up in a tight hug. “You’re entitled to anything you want.” Wonderingly, she shook her head. “I can’t believe I was actually thinking of a mortal’s future, even yours. That’s like the weirdest thing ever.”

    “Yeah, yeah, because you’ll live forever and I’ll be dead in a century or two,” snarked Taylor. “You don’t need to rub it in.”

    Janesha shook her head. “No, it’s not that. Celestials don’t think of individual mortals’ futures, because by the time we get around to putting things in motion to help them, that mortal’s usually long dead. But I actually care about you and your dad, and how you’ll do once I leave. How in Hell did this happen?”

    Taylor considered her answer. Snark didn’t seem to fit the occasion, and saying ‘because you’re more human than you think’ might be mistaken for snark. So she hugged the other girl again. “I don’t know, and I don’t care,” she said. “I’m just glad you’re here and that you’re our friend.”

    Janesha returned the hug. “I’m glad I’m here, too. I mean, my family is gonna be giving me shit about this for the next millennium, but it’ll still be worth it.”

    Taylor smirked and let Janesha go. “So, what’s the plan?”

    “Well, for one thing, I need you to show me where the base is.”

    Taylor tilted her head. “I’m pretty sure I told you it looked and felt like a secondary base. From the background of his CCTV footage, he was in a similar base, but my bugs couldn’t find him anywhere.”

    “So we’ll ask the guys we do find there, where to find the main base.” Janesha grinned evilly as she smacked her fist into her palm. “I’ll make sure they’re falling all over themselves to tell us what they know.”

    “If there’s even anyone there anymore.” Taylor had been thinking about this. “Coil has got to know that I’m your friend. There’s no way he can know you can read minds, but he’s probably decided to abandon the base altogether in case I come back with you as backup. Because if the footage of you cleaning up the Boat Graveyard hasn’t already made it to every villain gang in the city, I would be absolutely stunned and shocked.”

    Janesha wrinkled her nose. “I hate it when you use common sense and logic. Okay, fine. How do we find him?”

    Taylor grinned. “Oh, I might have an idea or two.”

    <><>​

    Coil

    There was no future for Thomas Calvert in Brockton Bay any more. In fact, he was starting to wonder if there was a future for him anywhere. Contessa had assured him that Taylor Hebert was no longer invulnerable, but the girl had then shrugged off massed assault-rifle fire like so many raindrops. Then she’d pursued the nearest group of soldiers, and leaped through one of the vehicles, snagging one of his mercenaries on the way. Calvert had blown the vehicle, but it was too late. She had a survivor. Twenty minutes after that, he’d had to drop that timeline when Janesha, along with Taylor and Danny, had broken into his main base and proceeded to lay waste to it.

    He was being thrown to the wolves by Cauldron. There was no other explanation for it. They’d set him up, and now they were going to let him take the entire fall. He blessed the fact that he’d never dropped the ‘getting ready to run away’ timeline and was in fact prepped to run right now. All of his bank accounts had been shifted to different numbered accounts in case someone tried to follow him that way and he was on the way out the door, right now.

    It was time to shake the dust of Brockton Bay off his shoes forever.

    <><>​

    Janesha

    “Okay, petal, work your magic.”

    It was odd, Janesha, mused, to be associating with a mortal who was capable of things she couldn’t automatically do, by virtue of being a celestial. She knew quite well it was due to the crystalline constructs that Scion had planted in the celestial realm, but who in their right mind would come up with bug control as a power to give to a mortal who wasn’t their high priest? Empowering mortals was strictly a thing to give the high priests authority over the other believers, and to give them something to focus their belief on. “I believe in my god and he gave me this in return” was a powerful message, after all. So why just give any old schmoe powers beyond those of mortal man? The superhero concept just didn’t make sense to her at all.

    “You got it.” Taylor, riding behind Janesha, leaned out and peered down toward the ground. “Can we go a little lower?”

    “Sure.” Janesha gave the knee signal. Cloudstrike, her wings extended in a glide, turned her head and gave the celestial teen a look as if to say, we’re almost on the ground as it is. Are you kidding?

    “Go on, girl. Do it,” murmured Janesha. “I’ll make it up to you in a bit.” With an irritated snort, Cloudstrike lost fifteen metres of altitude. She should by right have been satisfied with the hour-long ride Janesha and Taylor had taken her on—this time, Taylor had taken a camera and gotten some pretty nice photos—but now she was all charged up and wanted to go everywhere at top speed. Then again, that was Cloudstrike more or less all the time.

    “Okay, I’ve got a good read of the ground now.” Taylor took a deep breath. “I just don’t know how slow we’re going to have to go for me to register and notice bugs significantly below ground.”

    “Oh, that bit I’ve got covered.” Janesha threw a smirk over her shoulder. “I’ll go through your memory, then head over to your imagination where we can look it over in a more understandable format. You good with that?”

    At Taylor’s nod, Janesha’s smirk broadened. “Hold on. This might get a little jerky.”

    This wasn’t the way Janesha had foreseen spending her morning, but after Taylor had posited using her power to detect significant numbers of bugs underground, it seemed the most effective move. Zipping back and forth across the city, moving over after each pass just far enough that they didn’t miss any significant area of land, was going to be more tedious than time-consuming. She was pretty sure she’d have to take Cloudstrike out for another ride after this, to apologise for the absolutely petty use they were making of her flying capability.

    Across the city. Back again. And again. And again. The buildings blurred in her mind, but that didn’t matter. In her memory, where it mattered, the images would all be razor-sharp.

    Cloudstrike was travelling much faster than the speed of sound, so Janesha considerately made sure they wouldn’t be bombarding the city with multiple overlapping sonic booms. Not that she particularly cared about the city or their windows—as low and fast as Cloudstrike was flying, those would be gone—but because Taylor cared. And because it didn’t overly matter to her one way or the other, she made that little extra effort to be nice to the mortals.

    They were well into the foothills before Janesha twitched the reins. “Whoa up, girl. We’re done.” She shaded her eyes to look at the distant glint of the ocean. “Took less time than I thought, too. You are good.” Leaning forward, she slapped the mystallion on the side of the neck and scratched behind her ears.

    Cloudstrike tossed her head and nickered proudly. Of course she was good, Janesha translated. She was a mystallion. Nothing mortal—and few things celestial—would be able to keep up with her.

    “That’s it? Wow, that didn’t take long.” When Janesha looked around, Taylor was a little windblown. “I hope you can get the information you need.”

    Janesha grinned. “Whenever you’re ready, petal.”

    Taylor nodded. “Let’s do this.”

    <><>​

    Taylor

    Barely had the words escaped her lips than she was standing in a darkened room next to Janesha. The room was large and circular, and it contained a glowing circular blob in the middle. As she watched in fascination, strips started colouring themselves in, about four inches wide at a time. Leaning down toward the first strip, she saw the Boardwalk. Even the pedestrians were represented, as tiny as they were, so clearly that she could make out what they were holding in their hands. Straightening up, she watched as the strips flickered into existence, building more and more of the city out of nothing.

    “I’m impressed,” she said. “I didn’t think I saw everything this sharply.”

    “You didn’t.” Janesha smirked. “I’m adding my memories to yours. Besides, we’ve both seen the city from the air before. Most of this is stuff we already know.” She gestured toward the the map as it finished filling itself in. “No, what we’re looking for is in your memories of where the bugs were.”

    The map faded a little, then a constellation of tiny stars sprang up across Brockton Bay. The vast majority were white, but a significant fraction were red. Frowning, Taylor looked more closely. “White is above-ground?” she guessed. It certainly seemed that way.

    “Got it in one.” Janesha clapped her hands, and the white stars winked out. The red remained. There were quite a few, though, scattered across the city. “Okay, now to eliminate other areas. Where do you find bugs underground when they’re not in a supervillain’s base?”

    “Huh.” Taylor frowned. “Sewers and storm drains?” She pointed at where lines of red dots connected in networks across the city.

    “Good one.” Janesha gestured, and the storm drains disappeared. She pointed at a section of map where a tall building stood. “There’s significant underground space under that one. Think it could be what we’re looking for?”

    Taylor looked more closely, then shook her head. “Ah, no. That’s not it. That’s the Medhall building. Besides, those sub-basements go down, not outward.”

    “Okay, then.” Janesha dispelled the Medhall basements from the image, then pointed toward the northern part of the city, where the Trainyards were. “Is that where he was keeping you?”

    “Yup. I doubt there’s anyone there, though. After all, he’s gotta know how powerful you are. And I was ripping doors off their hinges. Secure, the place ain’t.”

    Janesha snickered. “Nice. Okay … we have a few more larger collections of bugs. What about there, there and there?” She pointed.

    “Ah.” Taylor rubbed her chin, then indicated one. “That’s an Endbringer shelter. I had a drill there once. That’s one, too. And that one … that one … that one … wait a minute.”

    Eyes coming alert with sharp interest, Janesha leaned forward. “What is it?”

    Taylor pointed at one particular congregation of red sparks, showing several rooms on different levels. “I don’t know what that one is. It’s not an official Endbringer shelter. We have to study the maps, just to make sure we know where our nearest one is.”

    Janesha cracked her knuckles and grinned evilly. “Gotcha.”


    End of Part Fourteen
     
    Last edited: Aug 14, 2019
  20. Aluvartyo

    Aluvartyo Getting out there.

    Joined:
    Jul 30, 2018
    Messages:
    17
    Likes Received:
    83
    Gahhhh the cliff is high and makes me cryyyyy.

    Also, why hasnt janesha discovered the fact that this earth has overlapping realities and suspect something hinky is going on? Didnt the uneducated half god duo figure that out in like a second?
     
    Ack and Angel466 like this.
  21. Angel466

    Angel466 Getting out there.

    Joined:
    Oct 23, 2018
    Messages:
    14
    Likes Received:
    26
    Janesha is blaming Scion for the hinkiness, whereas Scion knew when he and his sister arrived that it was already in place, without knowing why (which is what made it hinky)

    With a celest in residence, anything is possible. Scion and Eden thought they'd hit a brand new, untouched realm ... which begged the question why was it so weird?
     
    Last edited: Aug 14, 2019
    Ack likes this.
  22. Threadmarks: Part Fifteen: Dead End
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 2014
    Messages:
    6,605
    Likes Received:
    46,736
    Celestial Worm

    Part Fifteen: Dead End

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


    Coil

    The last thing Calvert wanted his minions to know was where he was going, or that he was even going anywhere. He certainly didn’t want them to know that he’d just cut all payments to their accounts. At his side was a briefcase containing a laptop, hard drives and the other paraphernalia he would need to rebuild his organisation at a time and place of his choosing.

    Typing a few final commands into his computer setup, he split time.

    In one timeline, he took up the briefcase, exited his office and moved along the catwalk toward the garage exit. Fortunately, he’d dropped the timeline where he’d executed Creep, so he gave orders for the man to come with him. This was absolutely normal behaviour for him, and he did his best to play the part.

    In the other, he clicked the mouse on a particular point of his computer screen, and heard the door lock engage. Moving with controlled haste, he stripped out of his costume and donned casual clothing, including a jacket loose enough to hide a shoulder holster containing a silenced nine millimetre Glock. Taking up the briefcase, he went to the wall where a large framed plan of the base held pride of place. Pressing one side about halfway down elicited a click, then the entire frame swivelled aside to reveal a passage beyond. After he stepped through, it swung shut behind him.

    Nobody could know where he’d gone. He decided that the iteration of him with Creep would change in the van as per normal and have Creep drive him halfway home. Then he’d order the man to pull into a quiet side-street where he’d discreetly shoot him, then take over driving. Once he was well out of town, he’d roll the body out of the van and keep going.

    For the other one, he kept an SUV in a lockup garage, just half a block from his bolt-hole. The man who came by once a week to turn the engine over and make sure it was in running order had no idea of the true identity of his employer, or that the vehicle was about to disappear.

    Either way, the computer system back in the base had been set up to detonate the base self-destruct in exactly fifteen minutes. It wasn’t as though he was ever going to be using it again, and the death and destruction would go a long way toward distracting the police and PRT from paying attention to one innocuous vehicle driving sedately out of town.

    As the version of him still in the base reached the vehicle garage and opened the back of the van to climb in, the other one climbed a ladder and carefully pushed a manhole aside to scan the street above.

    The plan was proceeding apace.

    <><>​

    Janesha

    Dropping back into reality on the back of a flying mystallion wasn’t exactly unusual for Janesha, and she turned Cloudstrike’s head toward the base they’d located. “Okay,” she said. “Time to go kill two birds with one stone.” It was something that had just occurred to her, and she was kicking herself for not tumbling to it earlier.

    “What do you mean, two birds with one stone?” Taylor clearly hadn’t thought matters all the way through. Of course, she also didn’t have Janesha’s ability to spend a virtual week going over every last potential aspect of a situation.

    “Coil’s obviously a chosen one of Scion,” Janesha explained. She’d put a bit of thought into it, and this was the only way it made sense. “That’s a local version of someone on their way to being a high priest. He’s been chosen, and now he has to prove himself before he gets the ultimate package. That’ll be why he’s not still gold and stinky, and why Scion took took down your protection after Coil failed to kill you the first time, and why he hasn’t tried since. Scion wants his chosen one to succeed, so he warned him not to try until you were killable. On an up note, that also means once I start going toe to toe with Coil, Scion’ll probably show up in person.” She cracked her knuckles. “I just wish I’d known this before I spent all that time chasing that yellow streak of shit all over the fucking planet. This way, he comes to me.

    “But if Scion’s an established and attuned god in this realm, can’t he basically do anything he wants to us, and we’ve got no way to stop him? Why wouldn’t he just stand off and take us out from range?”

    Taylor, it seemed, had been listening to her lessons. But she hadn’t been listening hard enough.

    “Because if he could’ve taken me out, he’d have done that already,” she answered. “Whatever way he’s got his powerbase setup, it’s still clearly inferior to me. We don’t run from things we can beat, petal, and there’s no such thing as being ‘almost’ able to beat someone. You’re either gonna win or you’re gonna lose. And from the way Scion’s hiding under the covers like a little bitch, he figures he can’t win against me even with his establishment field.

    “But Coil’s an asset of his, so when I start dragging every last memory out of him, Scion’s gonna have to either show up and get his ass tied in a neat bow knot, or let his chosen one suffer. Oh, and by the way? Gods know every last thing that gets inflicted on their chosen ones, including all the pain and humiliation they might suffer. It’s sort of a reflection on them, you might say. No celestial who wants to keep his worshippers will let that happen to a chosen one. Especially when there’s plenty of witnesses. If that happens, and word spreads, mortal belief in you can take a massive hit.”

    When Taylor spoke, she sounded dubious. “Um, I’m not a regular churchgoer, but—”

    Trust a mortal to come up with that counter-argument. Janesha let out an aggravated sigh. “Two things, before you go any further. Firstly, do you seriously think the Almighty would let his only son be killed, if it wasn’t already part of his big plan? That guy’s an even bigger control freak than Uncle Avis, and trust me, that’s saying a lot. Yeshua’s treatment by Heaven’s mortals was planned by his father, the Almighty. There were prophecies up the yin-yang for about a thousand years before. And then he pulled the ‘return to life’ schtick to nail the whole thing down for the mortals. Gets ’em every time. And secondly, like I said, Yeshua wasn’t a chosen one. He was, and still is, the Almighty’s son.”

    “I wasn’t actually going to mention him,” Taylor said. “I just remember hearing about those saints and martyrs, who had a crapload of things happen to them. And then there was Job, who the devil—Lucifer, I’m guessing, from what you’ve told me—kept talking the Almighty into tormenting more, just to prove his faith wouldn’t break? I mean, what’s that all about?”

    “Take that up with him when you die,” Janesha said. “Most of the time, no one ever understands why another pantheon does some of the shit they do. They just do it. Ask me why Mystal does what it does, ‘cause that I can answer.”

    “Oh. Okay.” Apparently deciding to take Janesha at her word, Taylor leaned over and looked down at the ground below. “So, how do we find Coil now?”

    “We’ve got a couple of choices,” Janesha decided. “He’s got to be aware we’re on his ass after trying to kill you so if he’s got half a brain, he’ll be thinking about pulling up stakes and leaving town. We know where his home base is, so we can either sit on top of him and wait for him to stick his head out, or we can go in and flush him out.”

    “Which means that if he’s decided to turtle up, we’ll catch him at home,” Taylor added. “But what if he’s already gone?” She waved her arm over the expanse of Brockton Bay. “He could be anywhere. I mean, he might not even live on base, and once he’s away from there, he could be anyone.

    “Not so,” Janesha countered. “The bits and pieces we’ve got so far give us a reasonable description; tall and skinny, with a weird snake costume.” She shook her head. “I swear, you guys and your superhero stories.”

    “That’s the thing, though.” Taylor wasn’t letting it go. “Out of costume, he could be any tall, skinny guy we see on the street.” She didn’t point out that her own father also fitted that description, though Janesha knew they could rule him out. She’d been through his mind pretty thoroughly, after all.

    Janesha shook her head. “That’s it, then. We’re going in. If he’s in there, we’ll catch him. And if he’s done a runner, the sooner we find out where he might be going, the better.”

    “Sounds good to me,” Taylor agreed. “Are we going in through the roof, or looking for a door?”

    “Doors?” Janesha snorted. “Where we’re going, we don’t need doors.” With a smirk—some Earlafaol movies were more entertaining than they had any right to be—she nudged Cloudstrike with her knee. The mystallion obediently swooped down and around. There was a half-completed office building almost directly over the site of the base, so she aimed for that. It made for a good landmark.

    “Wait!” called out Taylor, just as Cloudstrike’s hooves were coming down for a landing. The mystallion beat her wings twice, then touched down gently on the rough ground.

    “What?” asked Janesha, turning to look at her mortal friend. “Not getting second thoughts now, are we?” As far as she was concerned, second thoughts happened to other people.

    “No, I thought I just saw someone climbing out of a manhole, over that way,” Taylor said, pointing back along the way they’d come. “I didn’t get a really good look at him, but let’s be honest, how many people just climb out of manholes these days?”

    The question was so obviously rhetorical that Janesha didn’t even bother trying to answer it. “Hup, Cloudstrike!” she called. With a snort, the mystallion brought her wings down in a thunderclap of air that blew a huge cloud of dust across the construction site and launched them skyward once more.

    As Cloudstrike wheeled across the sky on a return path, Janesha dipped into her own memories, trying to figure out if she’d seen what Taylor was talking about. They’d glided over several streets in a row, with seventeen manholes that she could count in her field of view. But no matter how she examined them in her own mind, she couldn’t see anyone climbing out of them.

    “You mind if I have a quick look at your memories?” she asked, turning her head so that Taylor was in her field of view. “I just need to see which one you’re talking about.”

    “Oh, sure.” Taylor chuckled. “This’ll make it a lot easier than trying to say—”

    Permission achieved, Janesha went into her memories without further delay. It was the work of a moment to pick out the snapshot of memory that Taylor’s enhanced brain had taken. Well, it’s a good thing I fixed her eyes when I did. If Janesha hadn’t been given her the visual and neural improvements, the memory would’ve been blurred and distorted, but this was sharp as a tack. And while the still picture was useful, from there she was able to trace back to the original experience, clear and sharp; a tall, skinny man climbing out of a manhole, as Taylor had said. She’d half-turned her head by instinct to get a better look, but by that time they’d been past him and over into the next street.

    Stepping over into Taylor’s imagination, Janesha pulled Taylor herself in as well.

    “—over there, no, that way …” Taylor trailed off and looked around the projection room Janesha had set up. “Ah, We’re in my mind again, aren’t we?” She didn’t even seem surprised anymore.

    “Yup.” Janesha grinned and shoulder-bumped her best mortal friend. “And you’ve got the goods. Check it out.” Up on the screen popped an image of the man Taylor had seen. A baseball cap shaded his features, but it was easy to see that he was definitely on the lanky side, wearing a jacket over casual clothing. He was in the process of climbing up out of a manhole, as the tenth-of-a-second footage showed.

    “Damn, you did good work on my eyes,” Taylor exclaimed. “Oh, and this is definitely him. No two ways about it.”

    “Well, the snapshot capability you chose also helped a lot,” Janesha agreed. “Not that I’m doubting you on purpose, but how can you be so certain now that you’ve seen him?” To herself, she snorted in amusement. At the end of the day, what did she care if they killed a few wrong mortals before finding the right one? Because Taylor would care. And so would Danny. She sighed to herself. Life had been so much easier before she came to Earth Bet, when she did what she wanted and didn’t give a shit .

    Taylor pointed at the screen. “There was a non-zero chance that he was a city worker of some sort. Manholes are there for a reason, you know. But if he’d been down there on official business, he would’ve been wearing a hard-hat. No hard-hat means no good reason for being down there.”

    “ … huh.” Janesha shook her head as she stared at the image. “I would’ve looked straight at that for a thousand years and not figured that one out.” She put her arm around Taylor’s shoulders for a side-hug. “”Nice going.”

    “Thanks.” Taylor peered at the image intently. “So what are we gonna do now?”

    “Simple. We find him and we explain to him in words of one syllable or less how it’s a really, really bad idea to piss us off.” Janesha grinned and let Taylor go so she could crack her knuckles. “And when the golden dipshit shows up, I’ll be asking him some stringent questions along those lines, too.”

    <><>​

    Coil

    In the one timeline, Calvert hurried along the street to the lockup garage. He thought he’d seen a white flicker in the sky just as he was climbing out of the manhole, which meant that the clock was running down faster than he’d previously expected. I didn’t move a moment too soon.


    In the other timeline, he got into civilian clothing and climbed forward to the front of the van. “Drive,” he told Creep.

    “Where to?” asked his minion.

    “I’ll give you directions.”

    As the van started off up the ramp out of the undercover parking lot, he brushed his hand against the pistol riding on his right hip under the jacket. Creep was useful, right up until he wasn’t. As soon as he could be sure he’d gotten away, he would dispose of the man. Janesha Nascerdios of Mystal was good; there was no disputing that, but he’d never heard of anyone anywhere who could read the thoughts of a dead man. Even Cranial needed a living brain, or so he understood.


    Back in the first timeline, he reached the lockup garage in question. It had a combination keypad, because keys could so easily be lost or stolen. With iron discipline, he forced himself to enter the code correctly the first time, because he wasn’t at all sure he had time for a second try. The lock clicked and the door opened, and he slipped inside.

    Janesha was on his trail in this timeline but not the other; that was clear. A lesser man would have dropped this timeline and followed the other one, but he never discarded an asset until absolutely necessary. Until he’d disposed of Creep and was out of town, he would not consider himself in the clear. And if he could manage to escape in both timelines, all the better.

    <><>​

    Contessa

    “I need ideas.” Fortuna paced back and forth in her office. “The little Mystallian shit’s not letting this go. Right now, Scion’s too scared of her to poke his head out, but if she locates him and gets a ranged bending attack in on him, he’s fucked. She’ll know everything about why he’s here, and about the loss of the other one.”

    “Uh, why’s that such a bad thing, I mean apart from the fact that he won’t be killing her?” asked Clare, hastily tacking on the addendum as her glare in his direction became more intense. “It’s not like he knows anything about us, right?”

    Fortuna lunged across the room and smashed him against the wall with her hand around his throat. “If I have to explain to you one more time about not questioning my decisions, I will rip out your fucking tongue,” she hissed. “Scion killing her is what we need to happen. If they end up on good terms, or with her in charge, it’ll be a lot harder to kill her anonymously. If he kills her, Earlafaol’s defenses will be a lot easier to fuck over. The only way we get out of this on top, is if Scion. Kills. Janesha.” She emphasised her words by slamming him against the wall with each syllable. “So stop asking stupid fucking questions and give me some answers instead. How do we bait Scion into killing Janesha?”

    “Make him angry, I guess.” That was Dorian. “Make him angry at Janesha. Make him think Janesha did something to him, personally.” He paused, his eyes widening. “What if we made him think Janesha was somehow responsible for killing his sister?”

    “Why would he believe that?” Clare’s voice, now that Fortuna had released his throat, was full of derision. “That happened thirty years ago. Janesha wasn’t here, then. She wasn’t even fucking born then.”

    Dorian casually backhanded him to the floor. “We know that, but Scion’s an idiot. He’s fucking clueless.” His words were more for Fortuna than Clare. “It’s not like we have to tell him the fucking truth about anything.”

    Fortuna nodded slowly. “That might work. Maybe. But we’ve got to be absolutely fucking careful about it. Whoever tells him about it, it can’t be us. Because when he kills that little shit, and the Mystallians arrive and kill him for it, you can be certain they’ll go through his mind to find out why. And the very fucking last thing we need is for them to find our smiling faces behind it all.”

    Clare shrugged as he climbed to his feet. His fingertips brushed his throat then fell away again without actually massaging it. Showing any kind of weakness automatically made any of them a target to those further up the food chain, and none of them went there if they could possibly help it. “Sure, I guess. So who are we gonna use for our patsy?”

    That was indeed the question of the millennium. It was a good thing Fortuna had a way to get an answer. Glaring at Dorian and Clare indiscriminately, she hissed, “Find someone.”

    And in the meantime, she decided, she’d see what her luck could throw up.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    Janesha brought Cloudstrike to a hover above the street. Taylor and Janesha both peered down at the now-closed manhole, as if it could tell them its secrets. Taylor didn’t bother saying I’m sure this is the right one out loud, because they’d both spent the last fifteen virtual minutes making totally certain of that fact. The problem was, there was no sign that anyone had even climbed out of it, much less where they were now. While there were people on the street, none of them matched the appearance of Coil in plain clothes.

    She watched Janesha flicking her gaze from one person to the next, and she knew without asking that the celestial teen was perusing their recent memories to see if any of them had spotted their quarry. Part of her wanted to protest over the invasion of privacy, but she repressed the impulse to say something. Coil had abducted her and done his best to kill her; the sooner they could locate him, the sooner Janesha could get her answers. Starting with ‘what the fuck were you thinking?’.

    “This way,” Janesha said, nudging the mystallion with her knees. “That guy over there saw him walking this way pretty quickly.” Obediently, Cloudstrike flew down the street while the girls searched the sidewalk on either side to no effect.

    “He can’t have gone far,” Taylor said, trying not to voice the frustration at having him right there and having missed him yet again. “The guy see which way he went?”

    “No.” Janesha’s tone exhibited the annoyance Taylor felt. “They brushed past each other when he came out of a bookshop.” She pointed at a row of shop-fronts, specifically Callighan’s Bookstore. “That one, actually. So wherever he is, it’s somewhere past that point.”

    “Which means he’s on the move or he’s hiding. Either way, he can’t have gone more than a block.” Taylor brought up her awareness of all the bugs in the vicinity. “I’m going to look for him. Just keep going this way, at about walking pace.”

    Janesha wrinkled her nose. “Cloudstrike isn’t a car that crawls along the street just because you want her to. If we’re only going at walking speed, we might as well get off and walk ourselves. We’ve got a better chance of spotting him this way.” At some signal from her, the mystallion came in for a landing. Ignoring the stares and photos being taken of them, the two got off, then stood back as Cloudstrike took off in a hurricane of wind.

    “Sorry, you’re right.” Taylor felt bad for forgetting that the gorgeous celestial creature was a thinking being, with her own likes and dislikes. This didn’t prevent her from gathering a swarm that began to investigate every building in the vicinity, focusing on the ones ahead of them. Overhead, Cloudstrike wheeled and dived in the sunlight, quite obviously enjoying the chance to just play.

    “She’ll probably demand more ear-scratches from you tonight,” Janesha observed. “Finding anything?”

    “Not yet,” admitted Taylor. “There’s a lot to sift through, though. I just hope he doesn’t have a Changer rating because if he does, we’ll be here all day while he could be on his way out of town and we’d never notice him. And we still don’t know what Scion’s given him to use as his chosen one.”

    Janesha smirked. “I hope he thinks it’ll be good enough to go up against me. I really do.”

    “You’re mean.” Taylor shot Janesha a sideways glance, then she grinned in return. “I fully approve. Coil sent men to kidnap me, then he tried to kill me when that went bad. Then he got Scion to drop my protections so he could have another try, but you screwed that up for him. I’m not sure what Coil’s got against me, except that I survived his first attempt at murdering me, but he could be endangering basically everyone around me so we need to stop him.”

    This got a shrug from Janesha. “He messed with me and mine, and tried to steal my gold, so I just want to kick his ass.” Taylor couldn’t argue with that.

    They strolled on down the street, while all around them her swarm busily catalogued everyone within her range. Bug senses were still crap, but she could tell a lot from touch. There were a few tall men, and a few skinny ones, but none that were quite as tall or skinny as Coil.

    Where is he?

    <><>​

    Coil

    Calvert sat in the driver’s seat of the SUV within the lock-up garage, barely daring to breathe in case the ridiculously overpowered pair of girls walking past on the street outside somehow detected his presence. On his phone, he could see the output of the security camera above the roller-door of the garage, which included a good view of both Janesha Nascerdios and Taylor Hebert.

    In his other hand was the ignition key to the vehicle; despite the muggy, stale air inside the car, he dared not crack a window in case she heard his heartbeat or something equally stupid. So he sat there with sweat trickling down his forehead and into his eyes—partly from the humidity and partly from the tension—and he waited. And waited.


    In the other timeline, the van pulled farther and farther away from the base. Fifteen minutes was his deadline; there was no way they’d get far enough away that Creep would not know something was up when the destruct charges blew. So when the time on his watch ticked down to fourteen minutes, he knew it was time. “Over there,” he directed Creep. “Pull into that side street.”


    With one minute to go, Calvert decided it was a good idea to move on the second timeline as well. Hitting the remote on the dash, he watched the roller-door begin to rumble upward. At the same time, he put the key in the ignition and turned it. The engine caught immediately, and he cranked the air-conditioning up high. Chilly air began flushing through the car, drying his sweat almost immediately. Putting the SUV into gear, he rolled it forward as the roller-door got high enough to drive under.


    Creep pulled the van to a halt. “Okay, what now?” he asked.

    “Just a minute,” Calvert said, then pulled the pistol from the holster at his waist. The trouble was, his elbow was up against the door frame, and he was going to have to aim across his body to get Creep. The other trouble was, by the time he got his weapon out, Creep had one drawn as well.

    “Sir, I really thought better of you.” Creep’s tone was polite but reproachful. The big man had levered himself around in his seat and while he held his pistol in his left hand, it didn’t seem to be affecting his aim. “But I know what people thinks of me, so I goes armed most places. An’ when it seemed you was just drivin’ around, lookin’ for the right place for a quiet spot of murder, that’s when I started thinkin’ really hard.”

    “This—” Calvert cut himself off. This isn’t what it looks like. Of course it was what it looked like. “We can still part on good terms. Just get out and walk—”

    The base must have blown several seconds earlier; the truck jolted, then the long rolling booom swept overhead. Creep’s eyes widened. “You fucker! You blew—”

    If he was to have any chance to get Creep, it was now, while the mercenary was distracted. Calvert went for it, jerking his pistol into line and firing as fast as he could.

    Unfortunately, he wasn’t quite fast enough.


    Grimacing, Calvert shut down that timeline. He’d gotten Creep several times, but the mercenary had retaliated in kind. Without immediate medical care, both would have died in short order. Recognising mortal wounds was not a skill many managed to acquire, but he was adept at it by now. It was irritating as hell that the man had been that much on the ball, but he had hired him as a mercenary, as well as for his other proclivities. Mercenaries who were stupid didn’t last long.

    It was getting unreasonably chilly in the cabin of the SUV, now that the air conditioning had chased the last of the muggy air out. Shutting it down, he buzzed the window down and rested his elbow on the sill, breathing appreciatively of the fresh air that blasted into the vehicle. That was the air of freedom, of new beginnings. He wasn’t sure where he’d set up again, just so long as it was far, far away from Brockton Bay, Janesha Nascerdios of Mystal … and Taylor Hebert.

    If he never saw her again, it would be way too soon.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    “Okay, where the hell did he go?”

    Janesha growled the words as they circled over the area on Cloudstrike’s back once more. Ten minutes of walking had convinced them that he’d somehow managed to go to ground, or perhaps he’d doubled back on them. Janesha had whistled Cloudstrike down to them, and now they were looking from the air.

    Or maybe he’s a cape after all, thought Taylor gloomily. Maybe he’s a Mover, and he’s already drinking mai tais in Hawaii, or champagne on top of the Eiffel Tower.

    “I have absolutely no idea,” she replied to Janesha’s (admittedly rhetorical) question. “I should’ve tagged him the second I saw him, but I didn’t think of it. I just don’t get how he got around us. I’m sure my bugs found everyone in the area, and nobody fit his body type.”

    “Maybe Scion got to him first, and moved him somewhere else before we could get to him.” Janesha sounded irritated at the possibility. “Which would make sense, but I didn’t think goldilocks actually had that much going on upstairs. I think—”

    Whatever she thought went by the wayside as a long rolling booom rolled across them, causing Cloudstrike to gain a few dozen yards in altitude and turn toward whatever had made the noise. Unlike an ordinary horse, she didn’t shy. Mystallions, she mused, were as hard-headed and determined as their riders.

    “What was that?” Taylor would’ve been the first to admit that she’d been taken by surprise.

    “It came from where the base was,” Janesha reported tightly. “Do you often have large explosions in your city?”

    “Not as a rule,” Taylor replied, tightening her grip as Janesha sent Cloudstrike arrowing toward the plume of dust and smoke that was even now climbing skyward above the site of the base. “Not that big, anyway. The Empire Eighty-Eight and ABB used to leave car bombs in each others’ territory, but ... “

    She trailed off as her eyes fell on a dark blue SUV that had stopped at a set of traffic lights, just ahead and below. “Janesha, go into my mind, quick!”

    To her credit, no time seemed to pass before they were seated on the lounge in Taylor’s living room. “Okay, we’re in your imagination,” Janesha observed. “What’s up? What did you see?”

    “I didn’t want to miss it this time,” Taylor said. “There’s a blue SUV at the lights just below us. I want to go back through my memories and figure out exactly where I’ve seen it before. Because I know I have, recently. I just don’t know where.”

    Janesha’s lips curved in a smile of appreciation. “Petal, you never cease to amaze.” She didn’t even flicker before the TV vanished and the entire wall became a screen. “Vision only, or the bug senses as well?”

    “Everything.” Taylor leaned forward. “Start at the point we got off Cloudstrike and started walking. Put the SUV at the lights beside the rest of it.”

    The screen split again, and the image of the blue vehicle popped into view. Then the other imagery started rolling. Taylor found that the three-dimensional mapping that the bugs were capable of was even more impressive when it was outside her own head. Building after building was filled in, along with the people inside them. Each time she determined they weren’t Coil’s body type, she tagged and discarded them.

    And then, as they came level with a graffiti-covered rusty roller-door, the bugs began to outline a vehicle inside the space within. There were no people in the garage with the vehicle, but the doors were closed and the windows rolled up. The bugs covered the exterior well enough to get a good read on its dimensions before Taylor moved on yet again.

    Janesha froze the wire-frame image and rotated it to compare with the blue SUV. They matched as perfectly as the resolution allowed. “It could be,” she breathed. “It really could be.”

    “Oh, one more thing.” Taylor pointed at the screen. “The bug senses. They have trouble seeing details, but color’s something most bugs can see.”

    “Let’s see.” Next to each bug, a circle popped on to the screen, showing what it had seen while perching on the vehicle. One after the other, the circles filled in with varying shades of blue. Janesha bared her teeth and pumped her fist. “Fuckin’ got him.”

    Taylor concentrated and pulled out the image of the SUV to fill the screen. “Okay, so how do you want to play this?”

    Janesha waved her hand carelessly. “We swoop down until I get a look at him. He pulls over, all nice and obedient, and hands himself over to us. Then I drill out every last memory of what shit he’s pulled, and find out what the fuck’s going through his head.”

    “Yeah, that could work.” Taylor rubbed her chin. “Can I offer a minor revision?”

    “Revision?” Janesha stared at her, eyebrows raised. “I don’t do ‘revisions’.”

    “Yeah, but if we do it this way ... “ Taylor explained for a few moments.

    Janesha grinned. “Okay, I admit it. That sounds like a lot more fun. We’ll do it your way.”

    <><>​

    Contessa

    “Contessa!” Dorian called, his hand hooked under Clare’s arm as the bigger man half carried, half dragged his drooling brother into the room.

    Contessa cleared her screens and turned her full attention to her open doorway, just as Dorian hit the door closer to separate them from the rest of Cauldron.

    As soon as he did, Clare lifted his chin and sanity returned to his features. “The little Mystallian shit’s about to intercept Coil! It’s all going sideways!”

    The break in his character was a minor transgression; without witnesses, she could give it a pass. Contessa looked from one to the other and back again. “And that matters to us, why?” she asked, for it had been in her own plan to finish off Coil at their next meeting, and if Janesha was going to do it for her, so much the better.

    “Commander, he’s seen your face! He knows about Cauldron! You know she’ll come looking for you for answers!”

    In that instant, Fortuna knew she’d screwed up. It was true that Coil knew nothing of her as a celestial. But that had nothing to do with her being a founding member of Cauldron, which he did know of. And as irritating as he was, Clare was dead right about Janesha not being willing to let things go. The little shit would push and prod and undermine her secret organisation on Earth Bet.

    “Fuck it,” she said with a grimace. “Find me the biggest sniper rifle you can. Dorian, put me on a nearby rooftop. We’re cleaning this shit up now.”

    There was no banter, no backchat. Even reduced to just three people, Abaddon was still a team that got the objective done. The flames flared brightly in Clare’s eye-sockets as he sought the weapon that Fortuna wanted. Turning, he communicated wordlessly with Dorian, who opened a portal in midair, reached inside, and pulled out a monstrous rifle; more than two metres long, it looked as though it could bring down a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Or a low-flying aircraft.

    Fortuna took the rifle as Dorian created another portal, and she stepped through. The rooftop beyond was flat and empty of people. Twenty floors below, and about a mile away, a mystallion swooped down toward a dark blue SUV just now pulling away from a set of traffic lights.

    Settling down on the rooftop, she sighted in on the target. You ain’t getting shit, bitch.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    “Ready, petal?”

    Crouched precariously on the saddle with her hands on Janesha’s shoulders, Taylor called out, “Ready!”

    Had it not been for the improvements Janesha made to her body and mind, and her deep and abiding anger against Coil, she would not have suggested this. Hell, she wouldn’t even have considered this. But she’d made the suggestion, and Janesha had agreed too quickly for her to have second thoughts. So now she was committed. And if she was honest with herself, she was quite looking forward to this. The opportunity to pull an honest-to-goodness badass move did not come along every day, after all.

    Cloudstrike swooped lower and Taylor judged the distance. She didn’t know how wind resistance would affect her body, so she was going to jump a little farther forward than she would normally have done, if performing this over a static target. Not that she’d ever considered doing this over any kind of target, static or otherwise. It was just another sign of how weird her life had gotten since she met Janesha.

    “I’m jumping on three!” she called.

    “Right!” Janesha gave her a thumb’s up.

    “One!”

    “One!” echoed the celestial girl.

    “Two!”

    Again, Janesha repeated the word.

    “Three!” And before she could tell herself no, don’t do it, this is a stupid idea, she launched herself off the auxiliary saddle, into midair. Directly toward the roof of Coil’s SUV.

    Arms at her sides and legs held straight, she realised that she’d jumped too hard, that she was going to land on the hood. Belatedly, she spread her limbs wide. The wind tore at her, but that was nothing. All around Coil’s vehicle, cars were slowing or swerving as drivers noticed her (or Cloudstrike). Shit, I hope he doesn’t realise what’s happening.

    She slammed into the roof of the vehicle with tremendous force, driving a huge dent into it. The SUV swerved but she’d already latched on to it, her fingertips gouging handholds in the yielding metal. Seconds later, a series of gunshots rang out. A hole was punched through the roof three inches to the left of her head, then she felt three impacts to her torso. It was like someone had jabbed her with a blunt stick. Janesha, I love you. Now for act two.

    Kneeling up on the roof as the SUV began to accelerate, she let go of her left-side hand-hold. She could figure out his strategy; speed up, then hit the brakes. Even with the strength to bend metal in her hands, she would not be able to maintain her grip. Once she was off the vehicle, he would be able to outrun her. Or so he thought. Had he forgotten about Cloudstrike, or was he simply panicking and trying anything and everything?

    Still, he was definitely doing over the speed limit, and was a danger to everyone else on the road. Taking a firm grip on the top of the passenger-side door frame, she reached over and ripped the door clean off its hinges. Then she took hold of the door frame and swung in through the gap.

    <><>​

    Coil

    Calvert stared at Taylor Hebert, pointing the smoking pistol in her general direction. He’d split time repeatedly since the impact on the roof of the SUV, and none of it had done a damn bit of difference. Shooting; not shooting. Speeding up; slowing down. Swerving to get rid of her; driving straight.

    The second-last thing that went through his mind was I just can’t fucking win.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    “Put the gun down and stop the car,” she said firmly. “I’m not gonna tell you twice.” Reaching out, she grabbed the firearm. It went off again; the bullet pinged off her shoulder, and she was showered with blood and brains.

    Shit! She had no idea what was going on, and blood was all over her face and in her eyes. Even as she wiped them clear, the SUV swerved with a dead foot on the accelerator and a dead hand on the steering wheel. It was too late to grab the wheel, and far too late to reach across and turn the ignition off. As the SUV bounced off the curb and began to roll over, she grabbed for what handholds she could, acutely conscious of the fact that she’d just ripped the damn door off.

    And then she was tumbling over and over in what had shortly before been a pristine off-road vehicle and was now rapidly becoming an undriveable wreck. In between impacts, she tried to figure out what had happened to Coil. His gun had gone off and … what? Ricocheted from her shoulder, and blown his own brains out? Didn’t that sort of thing only happen in the weirder cape comics and convoluted conspiracy theories? And seriously, unless that last bullet had been way overpowered, she was pretty sure that people’s heads didn’t fly apart from a single, ricocheted pistol shot.

    After rolling over at least half a dozen times—Coil had been going way too fast for safety—the SUV skidded to a halt. Somewhere along the way, the engine had stalled out, but Taylor’s ears were still ringing from the multiple impacts of the vehicle on the roadway. And of course, she was covered in blood. She had to go on faith that none of it was hers. Sitting up on the underside of the roof of the vehicle, she bumped her head on the passenger seat, then tried again to wipe her eyes and face clear. It didn’t help that Coil was hanging upside down, tangled in his seat belt; more specifically, he didn’t have much of a head left.

    “Wow, fuck.” She looked down at herself, and shuddered. Up until this point, ‘covered with blood’ had always been a figure of speech. Even inside the locker, she hadn’t been so thoroughly drenched in the contents as she was now. In fact, thanks to Coil’s recent and very messy death, the interior of the SUV looked like several people had come to a bad end in there. Vaguely, she recalled a line from Shakespeare regarding ‘who knew how much blood he had in him’. Right then, she knew exactly what that meant.

    “Taylor, are you alright? What happened?” Janesha’s voice sounded tinny in her ears. Taylor looked around to see the celestial girl standing alongside the SUV, with Cloudstrike standing off the road out of the way behind her.

    “I’m fine,” she said, enunciating carefully. Crawling out of the SUV, she clambered to her feet, still feeling a little unsteady. “Coil’s dead.”

    Really?” Janesha looked a little disappointed. “I mean, I get it you had dibs, but you could’ve given me a chance to go through his memories.” She tilted her head, taking in Taylor’s current state of disarray. “What the hell did you do to him, anyway? Punch his head off?”

    I can do that? was Taylor’s first thought, but it was quickly followed by a determined headshake. “Wasn’t me.” Taylor went around the car until she could lean over and examine the driver’s side of the windshield. There was a large starred hole in it. “I thought at first that he tried to shoot me and it bounced back and killed him, but whatever hit him in the head did a lot more damage than that. I’m thinking a sniper rifle or some kind of Tinkertech.”

    Janesha frowned. “Or maybe he was on the outs with his god, so Scion just disintegrated his head. Gods can get pretty unforgiving when their chosen ones fail them. The retirement plans leave a lot to be desired.” She shook her head. “I can’t believe I’m even concerned about that sort of thing right now.”

    “I’m not an expert on how gods do things, but I’m pretty sure that Scion wouldn’t need to leave a bullet hole in order to disintegrate Coil’s head.” Taylor shook her own head in bemusement. That wasn’t a sentence she’d ever thought she would say. “I’d say someone sniped him.” She raised her head and shaded her eyes, then pointed. “Off in that direction, somewhere.” There were some tall buildings, but the tallest looked more than half a mile away.

    “Realms damn it.” Janesha shook her head, then looked around. “Who would’ve sniped him? And where’s Scion got to? He should be here to deal with this shit. What sort of a stupid fucking kind of lame-ass god does he think he is?”

    “I’m not even going to try to guess at that one,” Taylor decided. “Next problem: there’s a dead man in that car with most of his head spread around the inside of said car, I’m covered in his blood, and the cops are probably on the way.” She tilted her head as the sound of sirens became audible to her. “Scratch that. Definitely on the way.”

    “Where’s the problem?” Janesha shrugged. “We just leave.”

    Taylor sighed. “Leaving the scene of a crime, especially a murder, is a crime in and of itself. I’m sure you can make certain nothing gets to me, but it’ll be tedious and annoying. Besides, I’m pretty sure I left fingerprints basically everywhere, including on the door I ripped off.”

    “Your dad was pretty adamant about not letting it get known that you’ve been enhanced,” Janesha reminded her diffidently. “Me, I can’t see the problem. You and your dad are effectively capes anyway. What are they gonna do, point guns at you?”

    Closing her eyes, Taylor massaged her forehead with fingers and thumb. “Not helping.” She took a deep breath and looked at Janesha. “Can you change my clothing into a basic costume and mask? Make it so the blood’s soaked into that rather than what I’m wearing.” A plan was building itself in her head, but she had several steps to take before it would be complete.

    “Sure.” Janesha shrugged. “Any particular colour scheme you want?”

    “Black and gold, I guess.” Taylor considered that for a moment. “Make it look at least sort of heroic.”

    “Sure, but I’m not giving you Mystal’s crest.” Janesha gave her a serious look. “If my family ever heard I gave a mortal that crest without you actually being a chosen one, the phrase ‘Hell to pay’ would be literal.”

    Taylor briefly considered the stories Janesha had told her about the ruling family of Mystal. Not one of them sounded like anyone she wanted to even risk getting vaguely on the wrong side of. Especially when divine displeasure meant they might obliterate whole galaxies to ensure the impudent mortals in question never pulled that shit again. “Yeah, nope. I’m good with that.”

    By the time the police arrived, sirens blaring and lights flashing, Taylor was wearing a brand-new costume; though from the minor damage and bloodstains, it looked like it had gone through the wringer, along with its owner. Gold-tinted goggles gave her eyes a slightly bug-like air, and the black bodysuit—form-fitting without being skin-tight—had a golden bug outline on the front. A gold-coloured compartment behind her shoulders had detail on it that made it look like wing casings.

    “Police!” called out one officer as they took cover behind their cars. “Hands behind your heads and down on the ground!”

    “We’re the good guys!” Taylor shouted back. “There’s a dead guy in there, but we didn’t do it! We wanted to take him alive for questioning, but someone else took him out first!”

    There was a pause, then the cop called out again. “Is that why you’re covered in blood? Are you hurt?”

    “No,” Janesha answered for her. “We’re fine.” She turned to Taylor. “Did you end up getting those phones Armsmaster wanted us to get yesterday afternoon?”

    Taylor shook her head.

    “Shit.” She fished out the card Armsmaster had given her and flashed it at the nearest police officer. “Here. Make yourself useful and call Armsmaster on his personal mobile, and let him know you’ve got Lady Janesha of Mystal in your crosshairs.” With a wry snicker, she glanced back at Taylor and said, “How much do you want to bet he’s going to figure out a way to be here in seconds, rather than minutes to beat any other cape?” as the cop came forward and gingerly took the card. He then retreated to his squad car.

    “No bet,” Taylor smirked. She held her hands out to her sides and said in a louder voice for the police, “I’m not hurt. I was in the car, trying to take him into custody, and his head basically exploded.”

    “Who is he, and why were you trying to take him into custody? And for that matter, who are you?” asked the officer who had first given the order for them to get on the ground.

    “The dead man is Coil,” Janesha replied bluntly. “I’m sure you’ve heard of him. I’m pretty sure that answers the second question.” She gestured at Taylor. “And this is Khepri. We go back a ways.”

    Once it became clear that Taylor’s debut as a cape was essentially inevitable, they’d spent half an hour in her imagination going over designs and names, before they settled on that one. The scarab motif was definitely in keeping with her bug powers, while the colour scheme made it easier for people to accept that they had a connection somewhere. Taylor had queried her use of the name of a god Janesha knew, but the celestial teen had snorted with amusement and waved her concerns away.

    “I’ve met him a few times, and he’s pretty chill as gods go,” she said. “You don’t see Thor personally showing up and smacking down those guys who wrote him into a comic book, right? Just so long as you don’t, you know, start making the name look bad, he wouldn’t care even if he knew. If anything, he’d probably find it cool that you’re putting his name out there.”

    It wasn’t even really a lie that Janesha and Taylor went back ‘a ways’. As Janesha had pointed out, this was the absolute longest she’d ever associated with a mortal without using said mortal for her own purposes then discarding them.

    The announcement that the corpse in the vehicle belonged to a supervillain changed things up hard. The cops started putting up a perimeter, and didn’t even seem to consider revisiting the idea of taking Taylor or Janesha into custody.

    Armsmaster showed up next, approximately one minute and thirty seconds after Janesha’s announcement regarding Coil. Taylor didn’t even want to think about how many traffic laws he’d nominally broken to get there in that interval. She doubted that he could break the sound barrier on that bike (at least, without direct assistance from a celestial) but he was definitely capable of covering a lot of ground very quickly.

    Bringing the motorcycle to a screeching sideways halt, he stepped off it and continued toward the perimeter. The police—wisely, as it turned out—stepped aside and allowed him through the perimeter without so much as a murmur. He strode up to where Janesha and Taylor stood, affording the former a nod of greeting, then turning his helmet toward Taylor.

    “You’re Khepri,” he stated flatly.

    “That’s me,” Taylor agreed.

    “What’s your connection to Janesha of Mystal?”

    “Hey,” interceded Janesha. “Don’t talk about me like I’m not here.”

    “My apologies,” he said at once. “Lady Janesha, do you vouch for Khepri?”

    Janesha smirked and nodded. “I do. You should trust her word like you do mine.”

    “I’ll take that under advisement.” He seemed to divide his attention between them. “So, just to clarify, you’re saying Coil’s in that car, and he’s dead.”

    “If he’s not,” Taylor observed dryly, “he’s doing a really good impression of a corpse. Someone blew his head clean off.” She indicated the now-dried bloodstains on her costume. “This is all him.”

    Armsmaster looked her up and down, but she got the impression that he was scanning and measuring the bloodstains, rather than looking at her as a person. All the same, she was suddenly glad she’d made sure the costume wasn’t skin-tight. Janesha may have made improvements to her body, but there were some things that should not happen.

    “I see,” he said. “If you will wait here for a moment?”

    Without actually giving them time to answer, he moved around to the driver’s side of the car and crouched down to look inside. Taylor watched as he reached in through the open window, and teased something out of the dead man’s pocket with surprising delicacy, given the fact that he was wearing powered gauntlets.

    “Are you supposed to even be doing that?” she asked dubiously. “I mean, forensics …”

    “I’m recording the information in real time for later examination, Khepri,” he replied. “It’s already obvious to me that he’s dead, as you informed me, and based on the sizeable hole that’s been punched out the back door, my guess is the cause of death was a high-powered rifle round that came in through the windshield before spraying the contents of his head around inside the car.” He paused. “You were in the car at the time?”

    “Yes,” she said, restraining the urge to snap at him. It seemed a remarkably insensitive way of referring to the death of a human being, even such an unpleasant one as Coil. “There’ll be a pistol in there, somewhere. I tried to grab it off him and he shot me with it, just about the same time as he got his head … removed.”

    That got his attention. His helmet came around and he focused on her. “Are you wounded? Do you require paramedics?”

    Without saying a word, Taylor bent down and picked up a sizeable rock from the gutter. After showing it to Armsmaster, she crushed it into powder and allowed it to fall to the ground, all without saying a word. Her dad had told her how effective a display that had been when Cloudstrike did it to him at their first meeting.

    “I see.” He stood up and opened the wallet he had obtained from Coil’s body. “Let’s see now ... “ Carefully, he took out a laminated card. “No. this has to be a mistake.”

    “What?” Janesha jerked her chin up. “Going after this asshole was no mistake. Not our fault he got his head splattered.”

    Taylor shot her a dirty look. It seemed her way of referring to violent death wasn’t much better than his.

    “I’m sorry, Lady Janesha, but this information is classified.” Armsmaster turned away, and appeared to be subvocalizing inside his helmet.

    Turning to Janesha, Taylor spread her hands. “What do you think that means?”

    Abruptly, the sounds around them quieted. Taylor recognised the signs of a noise damper. Janesha smirked. “I could find out, petal, but that would mean going into his mind. Your call.”

    Taylor grimaced. She hated the idea of invading his privacy, but Coil had tried to kill her. If anyone deserves to know what’s going on, I do. “Okay, but just this once. And nothing private to him alone.”

    Janesha rolled her eyes. “You mortals are so squeamish.” She didn’t appear to do anything, but Armsmaster’s voice began to sound in the silence that surrounded them.

    “Director, there’s something you should know.”

    “It’s always something I should know, and it’s always something I didn’t want to know.” Director Emily Piggot let out a gusty sigh. “Fine. My phone’s currently ringing off the hook about that damn explosion, but I can give you a few minutes. What is it?”

    “I was en route to the site of the explosion myself when I was diverted to a reported fatality on the southbound highway. I’m at the scene now. The victim was identified as Coil by Lady Janesha of Mystal, but his driver’s license IDs him as one Thomas Calvert. And he has a PRT identity card.”

    There was a pause on the line, so long that Taylor thought Janesha had ceased listening in. Then Piggot spoke again.

    “I know Commander Calvert. You’re saying he’s Coil? Or was Coil? And do you think there’s some connection between this and the explosion?”

    “I haven’t gotten enough data to even begin to form a hypothesis about that, but I tend to believe Lady Janesha when she says Calvert was Coil. As we both know, supervillains have often been associated with hidden bases and high explosives. One more thing: he was sniped with a heavy calibre rifle, through the windshield, from at least half a mile away, while in civilian clothing, and while Lady Janesha and her associate were trying to apprehend him.”

    “So some third party definitely wanted him dead. Do you have anything more? Such as what led them to believe he was Coil, or who the third party might be?”

    “I have yet to form any theories in that regard, ma’am. I just thought I’d bring you up to speed before you were blindsided by it from another source.”

    “Thank you. I think. Good work. I await your final report.”

    The call ended with a definitive click, and Taylor stared at Janesha. “What the hell? Coil was working for the PRT? What does that even mean?”

    Janesha swore long and loud before levelling her angry gaze at her friend. “It means that my own realm-damned boon with Armsmaster would’ve kicked my ass, even if we’d taken him alive.”

    Taylor frowned. “I don’t get it. You had a boon with Armsmaster?”

    “Yeah, it was after the Shadow Stalker thing. From his side, it was an unspecified boon. From mine, it was very specific. I agreed to turn over any PRT affiliated criminals to him in exchange for whatever the fuck I wanted from him. I didn’t think I’d be the one to freakin’ regret it!” She glared at the SUV, and by extension at the corpse within. “Why can’t these idiots stay on the side they’re supposed to be on?”

    There was no way Taylor could answer that one. “So now we’re at a dead end. Where do we go from here?”

    Janesha shrugged irritably. “Not sure. Gonna have to find some other way to bait that asshole out, now. And when I do, I’m gonna make him pay for jerking me all over the landscape.”

    Just going by the look on Janesha’s face, Taylor felt a sudden surge of pity for Scion.


    End of Part Fifteen
     
    Last edited: Sep 12, 2019
  23. Threadmarks: Part Sixteen: Playing Chicken
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 2014
    Messages:
    6,605
    Likes Received:
    46,736
    Celestial Worm

    Part Sixteen: Playing Chicken


    [A/N: This chapter commissioned by Fizzfaldt and co-written with Karen Buckeridge, author of Ties That Bind and the (soon to be published) sequel The Long Way Home.]

    Taylor

    Something occurred to Taylor. “Wait a second. What if Coil wasn’t the Chosen one of Scion after all?”

    Janesha paused and twisted her head towards her friend, arching an eyebrow in a blend of query and ridicule. “What?”

    Being put on the spot like this, Taylor wasn’t as confident as she’d been two seconds earlier. Nevertheless, she pushed on. “Well, what if there was someone else who was the Chosen one, but Coil was that person’s protege?” Taylor waved one hand over the top of the other. “Our history is littered with religious zealots who didn’t actually answer to the priest in charge, but a secretive sub-group of priests. What if it’s that sub-group who decided Coil was too much of a liability, and didn’t want their bosses finding out about it? So that person pops in, takes out Coil, and Scion is completely oblivious to everything?” For Taylor, that made more sense. She’d spent her whole life believing Scion was the good guy, and it was really hard to accept he could be responsible for all the woes of the world, even if they had come after Scion first appeared.

    “I guess it’s possible.” Janesha tapped her finger on her lips. “And if the lower priest prayed directly to Scion and Scion didn’t ask questions because he’s an idiot, I suppose I could see Scion crafting a minor ‘miracle’ that explains how that headless prick got out of my stink-trap.”

    “What if the priest did it himself without praying to Scion in the first place?”

    Janesha snorted in an unflattering way. “Petal, are you seriously suggesting that any amount of mortal influence is going to undo shifting done by me?” She shook her head. “It doesn’t work that way. We’re top tier, and only one of our own could undo what we do. Certainly nothing mortal.”

    Taylor knew when to quit. Janesha had a hard-on for Scion’s hide, and nothing this side of Hell was going to deter her from it. “Fair point.” She shaded her eyes and stared in the direction the shot had come from. “Maybe if we looked at where the sniper fired from, we could work out who the actual Chosen one is.”

    “Hm. Did you see where the shot came from?” asked Janesha looking around and taking in the area around them. “Because I didn’t.”

    “Give me a second.” Taylor went back through the snapshots her brain had taken over the last fifteen minutes. There was one where she was in midair over Coil’s vehicle, then one where she landed. Tearing the door off the car. Swinging inside. Grabbing for the gun … “Wait.”

    “Got something?” Janesha perked up.

    “I think so.” Taylor isolated that snapshot and focused on the bit where she’d seen a flash from the top of a building out of the corner of her eye. Zooming in, she identified the building and pointed at it. “That one, right there. Second tall one, to the left.”

    Janesha turned in that direction, then with a wide grin she slapped her friend in the shoulder. “Nice.”

    “What’s nice?” Armsmaster asked, having seen the two conferring to one side and not taking his attention far from the pair. Once Taylor had pointed, she guessed he’d figured out what they were doing and wanted in on it.

    “Just triangulating where the sniper came from,” Taylor answered. It still blew her mind that she was talking so casually to Armsmaster of all people like he was one of her friends at school. “Pretty sure I’ve got a bead on it.”

    “So, we’re just going to head over there and see what we can find on the sniper,” Janesha ended.

    “Uh … no, you’re not,” Armsmaster stated, his voice brimming with authority.

    Janesha stilled and her head swiveled ever so coldly towards him. “What?” The word may have technically had a question attached to it, but the iciness that coated it possessed more of a ‘You might want to reword that while you still can’ vibe to it.

    Armsmaster pulled himself up to his full height, towering over the girls. “I can’t allow you to mess with a crime scene, Janesha, even if it’s with the best of intentions. There’s a process – a chain of evidence that must be adhered to, so that when we catch the murderer, the charges will stick. If you touch anything before us, the whole case could be thrown out for tampering.”

    Taylor knew exactly how much (precisely none) Janesha cared for due process, and it was written all over her indignant face. She also knew if she didn’t get in the middle of this immediately, Janesha would take matters into her own hands. “What if we promise not to touch a thing?” she asked, sliding across in front of Janesha, for Armsmaster was so focused on the Mystallian he’d probably forgotten Khepri was even there. Putting her in his direct line of sight forced him to acknowledge her. “We can even stay off the roof, so there won’t be any contamination of evidence.”

    Armsmaster’s jaw ground from side to side and Taylor realised she was losing control of the situation.

    That was when an idea came to her. “How good is the recording device in your helmet?”

    That had Armsmaster’s head snapping towards her. “Excuse me?” he asked, in much the same way Janesha had of him.

    Taylor held up her hand and waved away his temper, finding it a little disturbing. “I don’t mean exactly. That’s probably classified. But are you able to zoom in and watch what we do if we fly over the roof of that building? If we stay within your line of sight, and you keep watching us, you can see we won’t be touching anything.”

    Armsmaster looked back at Janesha. “Do I have your word you won’t attempt to land?”

    “Sure,” Janesha replied, flippantly.

    “Janesha,” Armsmaster growled, and Taylor could practically feel his eyebrows merging into an angry line under that helmet.

    “I give you my word I won’t touch the roof until you get there,” the Mystallian replied. “Happy?”

    “Not particularly,” Armsmaster admitted. “But I’ll take you at your word. And anything you find; you come back here and tell me about it.”

    Janesha laughed as if he’d gone insane and shook her head. “That wasn’t part of the deal. You figure your stuff out, and we’ll do the same. I’ve got a few questions I want to ask the prick that pulled the trigger too, you know.” And with that, she whirled on her heel and headed for Cloudstrike, taking up the mystallion’s bridle. “Coming, Khepri?”

    Taylor wasn’t about to be left behind. “Later, Armsmaster!” she said with a wave, rushing over to join Janesha.

    Seconds later, the pair were airborne and circling over the building in question. “Remember, we have to stay in line of sight of Armsmaster, and the assassination took place on this side of the roof, so we shouldn’t have any hassle doing that,” Taylor shouted over the wind.

    As they hovered over the west side of the building, Taylor couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. No tripods, no shooting mat, not even an expended cartridge case gleaming in the sunlight. It didn’t look like a crime scene at all. The only thing she was sure of was that the flash had come from this point, and that an instant later Coil’s head had ceased to be a single contiguous item.

    Glancing at Janesha, she saw that her friend was tilting her head slightly, as if she could hear something just outside the normal audible range. Taylor listened carefully but heard nothing. “Have you got something?” she asked.

    “Not a damned thing. I can’t believe we’ve hit another fucking dead-end!”

    That was when another idea came to Taylor. A ludicrously ridiculous idea, that just wouldn’t go away now that it had made itself known. “Janesha, any chance you can land us on that other rooftop over there. I want to run something past you that sounds crazy, and my crazy benchmark has been moved to almost non-existent.”

    Janesha looked over her shoulder with a strange expression on her face. “Sure,” she said, and brought Cloudstrike in for a landing on a building three away from the crime scene, just to keep Armsmaster happy. Taylor dropped to the ground and waited for Janesha to join her. “So, what’s on your mind?” the celestial girl asked.

    Taylor held up both fingers in a ‘wait’ motion. “Hear me out,” she insisted. “Scion’s been here for about thirty years, right?”

    “Which one of lives here, to be answering that question?” Janesha mused.

    “Okay, fine. He’s been here for thirty years. That wasn’t meant to be a question. The questioning part is, how readily do your kind … you know … have kids?”

    That had Janesha taking half a step backwards. “You think he punched his V-card here?” she asked, incredulously. “With a mortal?”

    Taylor was sure she was missing something. “Firstly, ewww. And secondly, no! Geez, why would you even say such a thing?”

    “Because that’s how it works with us,” she answered. “The first time we sleep around, the odds of having a kid are really high. After that, it’s maybe one every other hundred billion years. If that.” She shrugged. “Unless having kids is part of an establishment field – in which case all bets are off.”

    It was hard enough for Taylor to picture Scion having sex as it was, without picturing him doing so as a virgin. “What if he does have a kid here, hypothetically speaking? A hybrid, I think you called them. How would that fit into your theory?”

    Janesha grimaced. “Too fucking well,” she admitted, rubbing the back of her gloved hand against her mouth. “If Scion had a hybrid, he’d be in all sorts of trouble with the known realms and the kid would be as good as dead. Most celests value their own hides over their hybrid kids which explains why Scion took off as soon as he saw me. He knew the game was up.”

    “And if that’s the case, what if the hybrid pulled the trigger, because he or she hasn’t figured out what it means to possess divinity yet?”

    “That does make a twisted sort of sense,” Janesha admitted. “But that still doesn’t explain the need for a gun. Hybrids are like all celestials, and we’re attuned to the realm we’re born in. I’m still attuned to Mystal. If he or she was born here, their will alone commands the realm and they could’ve simply said to reality, “Coil doesn’t exist anymore,” and the mortal ceases to exist.”

    “Could a hybrid have a Chosen one?” asked Taylor. “Or do you have to be established for that to happen?”

    “Hybrids can have worshippers just like any other celestial, but that by definition makes them established. The thing is, mortals give us power and we wield it. Hybrids who believe in themselves establish themselves out to fifteen feet. They literally power themselves. Anywhere. Can you not see how dangerous that is?”

    Not really, but Taylor didn’t want to be the one to say that. “So, if this working theory is right, we’re not chasing one celestial, but two.”

    “And hybrids are usually smart enough to stay on the down-low. In my cousin’s realm, they’ve literally been doing it for centuries, with nobody there being any the wiser. Coil’s death makes a lot more sense that way, instead of him being the protege of an actual Chosen one. And to be honest, some gods have a habit of screwing their worshippers. Sort of like with mortal rock bands and their groupies.” She rolled her eyes. “Lord Zeus does it almost on a daily basis, the dirty bastard. Pisses Lady Hera off no end.”

    “I have no doubt.” Taylor figured at some point she’d get used to hearing gods from myth and legend referred to as casually as someone’s next-door neighbor, but it would take a little time yet. “So, are we going home now?” She worded the question casually. While she was okay with going home, she’d be equally happy to accompany them for a ride out across the cosmos, courtesy of Cloudstrike and Janesha telling mere mortal physics to go cry in the corner.

    “No.” Janesha turned her face skyward, but instead of giving Cloudstrike her head, she reformed her eyes so that they spread right across her face in a series of insectoid prisms. “Since Scion doesn’t want to play ball, and whoever shot Coil’s also keeping their head down, I might as well take all my frustrations out on a certain name-stealing bitch that’s too stupid to know when to hide.”

    Taylor blinked, connecting the dots very rapidly indeed. “What? You’re going after the Simurgh?”

    “Hell yeah. I need to punch something, like yesterday, and everything else on this world is too fucking fragile for an all-out celestial smack-down.” Janesha spoke absently as she scanned the skies. “I’ll understand if you want to sit this one out, petal. It’s going to get ugly.”

    “Why? Can’t you just mind-whammy it like you do everything else?”

    Janesha’s right eyebrow shot toward her hairline. “Did you not hear what I just said? I need to punch something, and not just once, but repeatedly. Preferably something that will at least give me a bit of a challenge to make winning that smack-down more satisfying. If I wanted to punch inanimate objects, I’d go and punch a few of Saturn’s satellites into a different orbit, but that won’t help.”

    “So, you want to be hit a few times.”

    “I need a fight,” the celestial agreed. She smacked her loose fist into the palm of her other hand. “I need to vent.”

    No way. No way in hell was Taylor missing this. “Can you keep me safe from her scream?”

    “Sure,” Janesha replied. “You’re tethered to me, petal. If her scream is some sort of bending, it’ll bounce straight off you.”

    “Good. Then I’m coming with you.” Taylor fought down a chill at the idea of coming face to face with one of the most viscerally terrifying creatures in the world. “You won’t face her alone.”

    Janesha patted the shoulder of the mystallion standing beside them. “If I even thought about leaving this overgrown pain-in-the-ass behind, I’d have a fight on my hands that’d be a whole different calibre of conflict,” she promised, ruffling Cloudstrike’s mane playfully. Cloudstrike lifted her head and whinnied affirmatively.

    Which brought up another point for Taylor. “Is Cloudstrike immune to mind bending?”


    <><>​

    Janesha

    Janesha paused, knowing Taylor had pinpointed a problem Janesha hadn’t thought of. Mystallions weren’t immune to bending any more than anything else, but when they ever had to go into battle, the mystallions were all issued with seclusion rings built into their bridles. Gladiator, grandmother Armina’s mystallion, never took his off. The big problem with that obvious solution, she didn’t have any seclusion rings with her, and her vacation would be over the second she tried to reach her magical cousin for one of the specialized constructs.

    Could she tether herself to Cloudstrike like she had Taylor? Sure, if she wanted to be bitten by her winged friend for the rest of eternity. Mystallions were as proud as their riders, and any attempt to modify them was met with the most aggressive resistance imaginable. Even those like Cloudstrike, who had shifters as their riders, had made that point very clear very early in their partnership.

    So how do I get around this? When nothing came to her, she did what all benders did. She turned her thoughts inward and brought up an armor-clad simulacrum of the best warrior their pantheon had to offer. Her great grandmother, Armina. Before this version of her grandmother could explode over her recent activities, Janesha modified the image so that Armina both knew of her choices and, more importantly, was fine with it. “Okay, so what do I do now?” she asked, cutting right to the chase, Mystal style. “I don’t want her getting hurt, but I don’t want to leave her behind either.”

    “If you want a fight, you only need to come home,” her grandmother growled, clenching one armored hand into a tight fist while the other rested on her hip. “You’re already in more trouble than you can possibly handle.”

    Janesha knew that, but it wasn’t the point. “I want this fight,” she insisted. “I want one I have more than a hope of winning.”

    Armina folded her arms. “Trust me, you have no hope of winning against what’s coming your way when you get home, young lady.”

    Janesha looked off to the side and rubbed the back of her neck with one hand. “Yeah, well … I can win this one.” She looked back at her grandmother. “I mean, I could grow wings and go after this fake bitch myself, but Cloudstrike will be pissed if I left her behind. Since I don’t have access to seclusion rings, how do I keep her safe?”

    “You could drug her.”

    True, but not what she was after. “I want her with me. She needs to vent as much as I do.”

    “Does this Simurgh know you’re coming?”

    Janesha shrugged. “The mortals think she has some level of precognition, but Cloudstrike and I caught her by surprise when we flew past her a couple of days ago.”

    Her grandmother nodded thoughtfully. “So, it’s a mortal-based precog.”

    Janesha nodded. “That’s my guess.”

    “If you were able to make line of sight on this Simurgh before she saw you coming, you could apply a mental command for her not to use bending.”

    Janesha had no doubt that if the real Armina were here instead of this imaginary version, there would be war strategies so intricate that it would take a master strategist a decade to process what she worked out in a heartbeat. But as this was just a rehash of her own knowledge applied to her grandmother’s point of view, she was limited to the basics.

    “Is this Simurgh capable of physical combat?”

    The question was too simple, even for an imaginary Armina. The very fact that she was itching for a fight made the answer obvious. Which meant she was missing something basic. Almost too hesitant to answer, Janesha hunched one shoulder and murmured, “Maybe.”

    In the next second, her ears were ringing from the slap Armina had delivered to the back of her head. It was gentle, or as gentle as her great-grandmother ever did, though the metal gauntlet didn’t help with softening the impact. “You’re riding an unprotected mystallion into a known celestial battle?” Her voice crackled with the level of command that was used to maneuver hundreds of billions of troops on any given battlefield, and Janesha knew she’d screwed up. Thankfully, this was all in her mind, so she had time to fix it. “Do you think Gladiator is constantly armored for war because it’s a fucking fashion statement?”

    “I’ll fix it,” she insisted. “I’ll armor her up.”

    “See that you do,” Armina responded. As if to remind her of the correct look for a mystallion going to war, Armina created an image of Gladiator. “Miss nothing,” she said, pointing at the spiked plate mail battle armor. Every part of it is relevant, if only to put the fear of Mystal into your enemy.”

    Janesha nodded, looking over every inch of black armor. Each piece was intricately crafted, made to work with the rest in a way that protected the mystallion it was fitted on to, without hampering their movements. Spikes protruded from the chanfron, the front facing shin guards above the hooves and rear facing hind legs. The centre of peytral plate was the all too familiar sigil of the pantheon. Even the reins were a heavy chain, where the sides of every link were honed into a blade edge. This wasn’t for Armina’s use. Releasing the reins gave the war-mystallion the opportunity to control the unusual flail from the bit between his teeth. The leading edges of his wings were equally armored with razor-sharp bands of black Mystallian steel, designed to carve through the enemy.

    Janesha wasn’t sure if Cloudstrike was up for this level of equipment, but she figured her friend would adapt quickly enough. As annoyed as she might have found the added weight, it’d be nothing compared to when Armina went through her memories and saw the image of herself telling Janesha to miss no aspect of the armor, only to have Janesha deliberately omit a few pieces anyway. Cloudstrike would just have to deal with it or stay behind.

    “Thanks, Gran.”

    Janesha had hoped to wrap this up before the lectures began, but even this imaginary version of her grandmother had to get a barb in. “You know I am going to kick your ass through your teeth so many times not even your shifting is going to be able to remember which end does what,” the Mystallian goddess of War stated with a frown, as both hands returned to her hips.

    “Love you too, Gran. Bye!” And with that, the image winked out of existence. Janesha let out a heavy breath, taking a moment to wish how much she’d love to be able to do that to the real one when the time came. But she was already in so deep, there was nothing else for it but to get what she wanted out of the situation first.

    With another deep, revitalizing breath, she turned away from her imagination and returned to the physical realm. Okay, then. Time to go to war.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    “ … I mean, she probably is and all,” Taylor continued.

    “No, she isn’t, but I have a plan.” Janesha climbed back on to Cloudstrike and held her hand out for Taylor. “Are you coming?”

    “Hell, yeah,” Taylor slid her hand into Janesha’s, and with a combination of haul and jump, she was settled in the second saddle behind her friend.

    “Here we go, then. First things first. We need mass.” She urged Cloudstrike into the air and took her out towards the ocean. “Get ready to get wet, old friend,” Janesha said, and suddenly, all three were diving into the saltwater.

    They were only underwater for a few seconds before they broke the surface and were airborne once more. Taylor coughed and wiped the saltwater from her goggles. When her vision cleared, she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. “What happened to Cloudstrike?” she demanded, for even where she sat, it was as if he had undergone some level of transformation. He no longer looked like the adorable winged horse that Taylor and every other teenaged girl in the world would’ve given their eye-teeth for. Spiky, black plate mail armor covered almost every inch of her except the feathers of her wings. Even then, the wings were interlaced with dark, flexible strips of metal to allow full maneuverability in flight. They looked kind of razor-sharp, too.

    “Wow. Damn. I did not expect that,” she admitted. “How strong is that armor?”

    “Mystallian steel,” Janesha crowed with pride. The answer was given in the same way someone might say the sky is blue. It was an indisputable fact. “Nothing that fake-angel wannabe will be able to get through, that’s for sure.”

    “Okay, you’ve covered your bases.” Taylor braced herself, both physically and mentally. “Let’s go kick the crap out of the Simurgh.”

    That’s the spirit.” Janesha laughed out loud. “I think it’s a good thing you and your dad are just mortals. If you were full-blooded celestials, you’d be giving the rest of us a real run for our money.” She shook out the reins. “Hey-yah! Let’s go hunting, girl!”

    That had apparently been what the mystallion had been waiting for. Raising her wings, she brought them down with a thunderclap that echoed across the ocean. Before the sound had a chance to die down, they were already in the upper atmosphere.

    As the Earth rolled under them, Taylor took a moment to think about what they were doing. “What’s to stop her from pre-emptively attacking us, before you tell her not to hurt Cloudstrike?”

    “Because she doesn’t see me coming.” Janesha shot a grin over her shoulder at Taylor. “I went back over my memory of the time we buzzed her, and she was shocked and stunned that we’d gotten that close to her. She’s supposed to be able to see stuff before it happens. Either she doesn’t see me or she doesn’t register me as a threat. That’s going to be her first big mistake.” Raising her hand, she pointed. “Aaaand … there she is. Sorted. Whatever we do from here in, it’s physical only.”

    Taylor shaded her eyes, peering into the distance, but even with the improved eyesight Janesha had given her, she could see nothing. “Where is she?”

    “Just inside the atmosphere,” Janesha answered, pointing both to the front and the left of where they flew. As Cloudstrike banked into the turn, Taylor finally made out the tiny white dot on the horizon, brightly illuminated by the sun. They closed with the third Endbringer at frankly horrifying speeds, the Simurgh went from the far distance to right there in just a few seconds. At that moment, she seemed to be observing Belgium, though Taylor couldn’t see the expression on her face.

    On the first pass, Cloudstrike didn’t even slow down; one armour-clad wingtip, extended outward, clipped the until-then oblivious Endbringer. Confirming Taylor’s impression of exactly how sharp the leading edge of the armour was, it neatly snipped a minor wing free to begin its long spiral toward Earth. Taylor got a fleeting impression—captured forever by her photographic memory—of widening grey eyes and a shocked expression, before Cloudstrike pulled into a tight loop. “Hey, bitch!” Janesha howled in delight. “I’m baaaaaack!”

    In less time than it took Taylor to even think about it, they’d completed the loop, pulling more Gs than Taylor wanted to contemplate as the Earth spun crazily overhead, and were flashing back into the attack. This time, Janesha got up with her feet on the saddle. “Take the reins!” she called out, handing the chain straps back to Taylor.

    “Wait, what?” Taylor clutched at the reins, thankful for the armor that protected her from the bladed edges she could see gleaming in the bright light. Never in ten billion years had she thought she might ever be holding the reins of such a magnificent creature. “What are you doing?”

    “What does it look like I’m doing?” Crouching on the saddle with her cape fluttering free, Janesha poised herself with her eyes fixed on the Simurgh, who did not seem at all thrilled with the situation. “I’m going old -school on this bitch.”

    Holy shit, she’s going hand to hand with the Simurgh! Taylor had seen Janesha literally walk on water and juggle container ships, but that was nothing compared to this. And then there was no more time to think about it; Cloudstrike swept past the Simurgh, who dodged the slashing wingtip, but did not manage to evade Janesha herself. With a wild yell of “Mystal!”, the celestial girl launched herself from the saddle, arms outstretched, on a collision course with the Endbringer.

    As Taylor tugged gently on the reins to pull Cloudstrike back around toward the fight, she had her head craned over her shoulder to watch, so she saw the collision in all its glory. She had no idea how fast they’d been travelling when Janesha made her attack, but when the impact occurred, it drove the Simurgh sideways in a cloud of white feathers.

    Looking even more surprised and terrified than before, the Endbringer began to lash out at her assailant with both hands and all the wings she could bring to bear. Almost immediately, Taylor heard a high-pitched shrilling in the back of her head, and she began to feel a little weird.

    Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck. Oh. fuck. It’s her song. She’s singing. How’s it getting me when Janesha said she’d blocked it? It didn’t matter. The bottom line was she had.

    With one hand wrapped around the Simurgh’s neck, Janesha reared back and smashed a headbutt into the centre of the alabaster-white face, driving the Endbringer’s head back. The singing abruptly ceased. “Don’t even try that shit with my friends!” shouted the celestial girl, driving a sledgehammer-blow punch into the body of her chosen opponent. More feathers flew as she shattered another small wing. Taylor was a little dubious as to how she was hearing her friend in the near-vacuum of low earth orbit, but she was willing to go with ‘celestial bullshit’.

    As Cloudstrike circled the ongoing conflict, Taylor watched with her heart in her mouth. Janesha was good at what she did. Scratch that; she was very good at what she did. But there was a fundamental difference between casually fucking Coil over and taking on an Endbringer in hand to hand combat with minimal backup. Even Alexandria didn’t do this. Or perhaps she did, but it never lasted for long.

    Abruptly, the Simurgh vanished from where Janesha was mauling her, and reappeared right next to where Taylor sat astride Cloudstrike. She looked a little the worse for wear, and the expression on her face wasn’t the usual impassive gaze she gave the world. Right now, she looked pissed. It didn’t help that her nose was bent sideways from Janesha’s headbutt.

    Taylor barely had time to react as the Simurgh reached for her. Whatever the Endbringer intended; throw her at Janesha, tear her in two, or maybe teleport away with her, Taylor never found out, for Cloudstrike’s reflexes were up to the situation. The mystallion snorted and swatted the Simurgh sideways with one massively armour-clad wing, then pivoted in mid-flight and unloaded a double kick with both her rear hooves. Not only did the hooves collide with the Endbringer’s chest, but two large spikes on the back of her shin guards pierced her chest cavity and travelled upwards with the same blow. Cloudstrike suddenly snorted and her rear legs jerked and scissored, tearing through feathered flesh in their wake in their need to be freed. Watching this, Taylor had to conclude she wasn’t used to whatever these auxiliary weapons were.

    Finally she was free, and looking back, Taylor saw not only the huge gouges from the spikes, but also two perfectly formed hoofprints in the wing covering that part of her body. Janesha was still on Simurgh’s upper body. “Good girl, Cloudstrike!” she crowed, then went straight back on the attack. “How many times do I have to tell you,” she grunted as she took hold of another wing and braced herself, “you don’t fuck with my friends!” The wing tore free and she tossed it aside, then slid down for what would’ve been a more important wing on the Endbringer’s torso. The Simurgh grabbed her cape and tried to yank her away; Janesha made the cloth stretch, then grabbed the offending arm and broke it off at the shoulder. Looking at the arm, then at the monster she was attacking, Janesha shrugged and began to beat on the Simurgh with her own arm.

    Taylor wasn’t totally surprised when the Simurgh vanished once more. It seemed the Endbringer could learn; this time, she didn’t try to attack Taylor. Not only that, but this time she was able to dislodge Janesha before disappearing. Her teenaged friend started to plummet.

    It was nothing for Cloudstrike to get underneath her, and somehow (Taylor didn’t rule out anything where her friend and the legendary creature were concerned) they both knew what the other was doing, for Janesha righted herself and Cloudstrike timed things perfectly, putting Janesha back in the saddle as if she’d fallen a few inches instead of half a football field.

    “Mother-fucker!” the Mystallian swore, her head twisting in all directions for the missing creature. “Her too! This is REALLY getting fucking old!”

    As her friend ranted, Taylor went back through her snapshots for any indication of which way she went. “That way, I think,” she said, pointing out past Janesha’s shoulder. “She looked in that direction just before she teleported.”

    Janesha stared at her incredulously. “Petal, I am seriously wondering why I didn’t take on a mortal sidekick long before now.” She twitched the reins, and Cloudstrike came around to the heading Taylor had indicated, then they blurred into forward speed. “Any celest would’ve been telling me how they could do it better, and probably getting in my way. You just sit back and watch and gather all the information I need. We make an awesome team.”

    Taylor blushed a little at the praise. “I know I can’t do what you can do, so I do my best.” Apart from her near heart-attack when the pissed off Simurgh was right there in front of her, she found she was enjoying this immensely. And the impact of Cloudstrike’s hooves (maybe not those spike things – they were a bit much) against the Endbringer had been so damn satisfying.

    Actually … talking about that.
    She began flicking through the snapshots of the fight once more, frowning slightly. Although Janesha had by far been getting the better of it, the Endbringer was living up to the legendary durability that all three monsters were known for. The celestial girl had dealt out a tremendous amount of damage to it, but it didn’t seem to be in any way impaired. Except, of course, for the fact that it was now lacking an arm. How can we actually beat it?

    There you are, you bitch! Cloudstrike, hyah!” At Janesha’s shout, Taylor felt the mystallion quicken her pace, catching up with the fleeing Simurgh. Trailing the odd feather, the Endbringer veered wildly from one side to the other, apparently trying to throw off pursuit. Cloudstrike flicked her pinions out and cut the corners smoothly, coming closer to the prey with every wingbeat.

    “Isn’t the Simurgh supposed to be a telekinetic as well?” asked Taylor, still flicking through images. There was something there, if she could just pin it down …

    “That’s physical, and I trump it all day long,” Janesha shouted over her shoulder. “Cloudstrike’s armor has shielding for that shit, and you’re still connected to me.” Gathering her feet under her on the saddle and brandishing the snapped-off arm, she grinned tightly back at Taylor. “Time to go wreck her day, again.”

    This time, the Simurgh was watching them, or at least facing them, as she flew backward at a rate that should have been frankly impossible under any version of normal physics. Of course, Taylor was fully aware that ‘normal physics’ was not a phrase that applied to capes in general, much less Endbringers. And of course, Janesha routinely ignored what she called ‘mortal physics’ for shits and giggles on an hourly basis. Of everyone involved in this particular battle, Taylor was the one most beholden to the natural laws of Earth Bet, and even then, she got the impression she was merely waving to them across the room while they sulked in the corner.

    The Simurgh’s watchfulness did her no good at all when Janesha impacted her again, hard. Taylor fancied she could feel the crunching thud from where she sat astride Cloudstrike’s secondary saddle. Still using the snapped-off arm as a weapon, Janesha set about beating the living shit out of the Endbringer once more. Yet more feathers flew as Janesha used the oddly-placed wings as grab-holds to swing around from one side of her oversized opponent to the other, before ripping them free altogether. The Simurgh tried her best to pin Janesha down, but she couldn’t seem to react fast enough. All the while, Janesha was punching and kicking her, literally knocking chunks away from her mass.

    The breaking point for the Endbringer seemed to come when Janesha finally managed to brace herself with her legs and swing a truly effective punch. Her fist hit the Simurgh on the point of the jaw and sheared off not only the jaw but the front half of the Simurgh’s head, to drift away into space. For a third time, the Endbringer vanished from her grip. Taylor checked all around to ensure this wasn’t a last-minute ambush, but the Simurgh was nowhere in sight. Repeating the earlier move, Janesha was once again in the saddle.

    “Which way’d she go now?” Janesha asked, not even bothering with looking for herself.

    “Give me a second.” Taylor went into her store of snapshots. Just before Janesha had hit the Simurgh with that impressive uppercut, the Endbringer hadn’t been staring in any particular direction. She went back through the series, capturing a number of shots of the Simurgh’s face, none of which looked in the least bit happy. Nothing stood out, so she worked forward, to the point where Janesha had hit the monster and taken her face off, then on a hunch kept going.

    For a moment she thought there was nothing to be seen. But then, right at the top of her vision range, she saw a tiny star that hadn’t been in the previous snapshot. She went on to the next one. The star wasn’t there … but there was another, almost invisible. She turned and looked up. About halfway to the zenith, directly in line with the direction of the fake ‘stars’ … was the Moon. She pointed. “There.”

    Janesha raised her eyebrows. “There? The Moon? Are you sure?”

    Taylor nodded. “When she first appeared, she came around from the far side of the Moon. Maybe she’s gone back there. It’s the closest thing she’s got to a hiding place, I guess.”

    “With you at my back, petal, that bitch ain’t got nowhere to hide.” Janesha pulled a stimulation wave, renewing her battered uniform and appearance until they were pristine once more. “Oh, in case you were wondering, her scream isn’t bending based. It’s actually a microscopic alteration of your brain with her TK. Or at least, it was, until I reinforced my ownership of you and told that cow what she could go and do with herself.”

    “Wait—your ownership of me?” Taylor really didn’t like the sound of that.

    Janesha waved the matter aside. “Anyone who has to go after you, has to get through me first. I didn’t mean ownership ownership. More as a ‘this human is mine, and I will fuck you up If you touch what’s mine’.”

    Taylor wasn’t sure how that was supposed to be any better. “I don’t like the idea of being owned by anyone.”

    “Protected by me, then. How’s that?”

    With a slow scratch to the back of her head, Taylor decided she could live with that compromise—barely. “Don’t ever say you own me again, Janesha. I don’t care if you really do, just don’t ever say it again. I mean ever, ever.” She put her hand on her friend’s shoulder and tugged, forcing Janesha to look back at her. “It’ll be the immediate end of our friendship if you do.” Janesha raised a flared hand which Taylor took as a Mystallian apology. “So, are we done here?” The sooner Taylor could put that slip behind her, the happier she’d be.

    Janesha snorted. “Fuck, no! I’m gonna finish the job. From what I understand, no matter how badly you hurt these things, they get better. Well, I’m not going to give her the chance to come back and screw with you and Danny while I’m not around.” She turned back to Taylor. “Unless you really want to go home? I can drop you off, if you want ….”

    Taylor genuinely considered doing just that. But in the end, it came down to one irrefutable fact: their world would be better off without the Simurgh. Even if they had a fight and Janesha left tomorrow, one fewer Endbringer in the world was worth a little irritation. “I’m still in,” Taylor said. “I’ve been with you this far. I’m not backing out now.” She looked up toward their destination. “I mean, helping you fight the Simurgh on the far side of the Moon wasn’t exactly what I expected to be doing today, but hey, let’s go do that thing.”

    “Damn right,” agreed Janesha. “And just by the way, I was right about her. She’s only a construct. Absolute death on mortals who haven’t been celestially boosted, but no contest for an actual celest.” Nudging Cloudstrike’s ribs with her heels, she shook the reins out. “Let’s go, girl.”

    The previous times Taylor had gone off-planet with Janesha, ironically enough, they’d been moving a lot faster; the Moon had whipped by in an eyeblink. Now that they were actually going there, she had time to watch Earth’s satellite expanding like a moon-landing documentary set to fast-forward. Seconds after leaving atmosphere, they went from ‘approaching’ the Moon to ‘flying over’ the rugged landscape.

    “Come out, come out, wherever you are, you feathered freaking nuisance …” murmured Janesha. She’d made over her eyes again, probably so she could scan the terrain over the full one-hundred-eighty-degree sweep in front of them.

    “Maybe we should go a little higher,” Taylor suggested. “It’ll make it easier to spot her.”

    “Good idea.” Janesha signalled Cloudstrike somehow and the mystallion began a long climbing turn. “You know, this is the first time I’ve ever had to go looking for something that was actually trying to hide from me. Apart from Scion, that is. I’m too young to go on a talot-hunt with the others.”

    “Yeah, but—” Taylor’s rebuttal was cut short when a boulder the size of an RV came flying up from the surface of the Moon, on a direct collision course with them. “Shit!”

    With a snort of alarm, Cloudstrike angled one wing and side-slipped out of the way; just in time to collide with a second rock which had been thrown using the first one as cover. The impact was considerable; the chunk of moon rock shattered into ten thousand pieces as it smashed into Cloudstrike’s armor, but Taylor was still thrown clear of the mystallion. As she spun over and over with no way to correct her motion, she tried to keep sight of Janesha but failed. It didn’t help that her friend was wearing all black with just a few gold highlights. She couldn’t even tell if Cloudstrike was injured or just woozy from the impact. Hadn’t Janesha implied that the armour she’d given the mystallion was unbreakable?

    In any case, here she was, falling toward the Moon, and the only power she had apart from the ones allowing her to survive the situation … was bug control. And she was a quarter of a million miles away from the only bugs in the realm of Earth Bet.

    Well, crap.

    As she fell, still spinning over and over, she made out the figure below. Far from her pristine alabaster form, the Simurgh was looking not unlike a chew-toy belonging to a family of over-aggressive pit bulls. Half her head was missing, along with one arm and most of her auxiliary wings, plus a large number of feathers and random chunks of her torso. She was also a dull grey in color, not pure white, almost as if ….

    Holy shit. She covered herself in moon dust so she could hide better. It had definitely worked, especially when she’d thrown two rocks at them in a row without being spotted. But Janesha had said her and Cloudstrike were a blindspot to her. That the Simurgh couldn’t use her precog to get a bead on them. How did the Simurgh throw the rock so precisely?

    Wait a minute.

    Shit.


    It was all so clear now.

    Me. The realization was a sinking one. I’ve got celestial constructs keeping me alive, but I’m human. I’m mortal. The Simurgh can precog me. She can predict where I’m going to be. And she can throw rocks.

    I brought this on. I got Cloudstrike hurt. It’s all my fault.


    Still tumbling over and over, Taylor fell toward the lunar surface. “Janesha!” she called or tried to call. But nothing happened; at some point after leaving the celestial girl’s presence, the air surrounding her had given way to vacuum. When she opened her mouth, the air inside her lungs also escaped in a rush. She could feel pressure inside her digestive system attempting to escape through one orifice or the other, but the sheer durability of her improved body reduced it to a mild discomfort that she was easily able to repress.

    Landing on the moon was a lot softer than she’d expected. She bounced, skidded, and then rolled to a stop. When she jumped to her feet—bouncing a few inches from the surface in the process—she was also covered in moondust, which she brushed off as best she could. This costume was going to need a serious dry-cleaning once she got back to Earth.

    If she got back to Earth.

    She squashed that line of thought ruthlessly. She herself was still alive, so Janesha was fine. Janesha was a celestial. Scion was demonstrably afraid of Janesha. Cloudstrike was a mystallion, and she’d been given unbreakable armor, so she’d be fine too. Janesha would get her out of this, and they’d laugh about it afterward. But like the Simurgh herself, Taylor was one tiny dot on a very large satellite. Fortunately, due to her link with Janesha, she’d be worrying about food and water long before she had any problems with the lack of air pressure and oxygen around her. And in fact, she’d heard stories about water being located on the lunar north pole when Sphere was first surveying to build his moonbase. I wonder how long it would take me to get there. I wonder which way it is.

    Her woolgathering was interrupted by a sudden and dire reminder that there was a danger on the Moon with her that involved neither suffocation, decompression, starvation nor thirst; this came in the form of a boulder hurtling at her head. She barely had enough time to brace herself and throw up one arm in front of her head before the flying chunk of lunar rock slammed into her. This one didn’t shatter, but it did send her bowling hundreds of feet across the stark terrain.

    For a second time, she got to her feet. Once more, she was covered in moondust, and now her costume was torn from elbow to wrist where she’d tried to block the boulder. She dusted off her hands and wiped her goggles clear, just in time to see the Simurgh coming for her. The Endbringer still had no face, which made her both unsettling and terrifying, even though silvery flesh and black bones were slowly growing back into place.

    Taylor dodged out of the way and grabbed up a baseball-sized rock of her own, but the Simurgh flickered into being right in front of her and lashed out an oversized hand around her throat. Being fifteen feet tall meant that she could put her hand all the way around Taylor’s throat, with room to spare. Even as her feet were lifted off the ground, Taylor wasn’t about to let the Simurgh try to strangle her, so she threw the rock which the Simurgh dodged, then grabbed the oversized fingers and thumb and heaved with everything she had.

    She got the impression that the Endbringer before her really, really wanted to have two hands to do the job, but her other arm was somewhere else, and the new one was taking its time growing in. With a certain amount of delighted shock, she also realized that she was actually able to prise apart the Simurgh’s fingers. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t quick, but by exerting all the force at her disposal, she could counteract the Simurgh’s strength. Though irritatingly enough, the Endbringer’s fingers didn’t seem vulnerable to being broken or even snapped off, as Janesha had done with the thing’s entire arm. I should’ve known she was cheating with shifting.

    Before she could figure out how to counterattack—the Simurgh’s arm was longer than Taylor’s entire body, and the Endbringer could fly and teleport into the bargain—one large wing came around to batter her, throwing her backward on to her ass. For all that the Moon only had one-sixth gravity, she seemed to be spending a lot of time on the ground.

    Rolling to her feet, she saw the Simurgh coming in at her, flying about five feet above the lunar landscape, hand outstretched in a claw. The harsh sun glinted off the dust-covered monster’s nails as they reached out for Taylor’s eyes. She wasn’t going for a stranglehold this time. As far as Taylor could tell, she was looking to rip Taylor’s eyes out, or maybe even drive her fingers into Taylor’s brain.

    Oh, sh

    In the most dramatic entrance Taylor had ever seen, Janesha realm-stepped out of nowhere and dropped directly on to the Simurgh’s back with both booted heels, driving the Endbringer face-down into the lunar rock. The shockwave of that impact knocked Taylor fifty feet back, despite the fact that there was no air on the Moon. Climbing to her feet yet again, she stared as Janesha hoisted the struggling Simurgh out of the substantial crater they’d created, holding her with fingers driven into the pale-white skin on either side of the slender neck.

    Janesha’s eyes met hers, and Taylor hastily tapped the side of her head. She hoped her meaning was clear. Come into my mind.

    A moment later, they were kicking back in Taylor’s living room, with the Simurgh hog-tied in front of them.

    “Are you and Cloudstrike okay?” asked Taylor anxiously. “That rock hit us pretty hard.”

    “We’re fine,” Janesha replied, her worried expression relaxing. “Don’t scare me like that. I thought I’d missed something.”

    “So where is she?”

    “She’s hovering overhead, just waiting for me to call her down. Turns out she’s not too fond of wearing Gladiator’s armor and has decided to sit the fight out rather than be stuck wearing it. I told her she had to keep it on until the Simurgh was taken care of, so she’s up there sulking.”

    Taylor chuckled, picturing Cloudstrike muttering curses under her breath.

    Janesha wasn’t anywhere near as happy. Her lips were pinched into a thin line as she raked her eyes Taylor’s disheveled appearance. “I am going to rip the heart right out of that fucking bitch and eat it in front of her!” she snarled, swiveling her gaze to look over her shoulder even as each of her teeth sharpened carnivorously.

    “Hey, hey. I’m fine,” Taylor insisted, forcibly getting in front of her friend. It wasn’t hard to remember Janesha had blood ties to Hell when she talked like this, and Taylor didn’t like it. “Seriously. Kill the Simurgh by all means, but don’t just do it just because she roughed me up. If you go in mad, you’ll make mistakes.” Taylor had read that somewhere, and it sounded right. “Keep a clear head, for both our sakes.” She tapped a nail against her friend’s sharpened teeth, adding, “And lose those. They’re seriously creeping me out.”

    Janesha ran her tongue across her teeth, and in its wake they were back to square and level. “Happy?”

    Taylor knew she had to lighten the mood before she let Janesha go back outside to face the Simurgh. At the very least, people might be watching from the planet’s surface, and it wouldn’t look good if Janesha lost it and somehow turned into a psycho, flesh eating demon, which was exactly what it would look like.

    With a wry grin, she said, “Absolutely. Now at least, I won’t have to walk all the way home by myself. In case you hadn’t noticed, Brockton Bay is a freakin’ long way from the moon.”

    Just as she’d hoped, Janesha fought a losing battle against a smirk that twisted her lips upwards. “There’s my best friend,” Taylor declared, throwing her arms over Janesha’s shoulders and pulling her into a hug. “Now on to the other reason I wanted to talk to you before you went to town on the Simurgh. She has a few invulnerabilities I don’t know if you know about or not. The first one being, I don’t think she has a heart. At least, not in her chest.” When Janesha cocked an eyebrow, she went on to explain. “The torso is the most targeted spot on an Endbringer by the heroes, and it’s never done a thing. But I’ve been going through the footage of your fight, and I think I’ve seen something. Can you bring up that screen thing again?”

    “You do realize this is your imagination, right? You don’t need me to make you anything in here. But alright, just to move things along …” The tv in the corner of the room expanded to take in the entire living room wall. “Go for it.”

    Taylor took a deep breath. “This right upper wing is different,” she said, pulling up still images from her memories from the last half-hour. “Every time you’ve attacked her and come close to hitting that wing, she pulls it aside and hides it behind others.” She fell silent then, letting the progression of images talk for itself.

    Leaning forward with slightly parted lips, Janesha studied the pictures. Slowly, she shook her head. “Petal, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. You’re a stone-cold wonder. This is exactly what I needed to finish this without taking things to the next level. I could’ve been knocking bits off her from now until Uncle Chance comes to find me, and I still probably wouldn’t have located her weak spot like this.”

    Taylor blushed and smiled. “Hey, I’m just the spectator here,” she said in an attempt at modesty. “You’re the one who’s got her on the run.”

    Janesha rolled her eyes. “As if. This is a team effort.” Playfully, she mussed Taylor’s hair. Moondust drifted on to the sofa.

    “Hey, watch it.” Taylor batted her hand aside with a giggle that belied her words. “Go kick her ass.”

    “You got it.”

    Abruptly, they were back on the lunar surface. The Simurgh tried to stand, but Janesha’s grip was inexorable. Reaching out, the celestial girl took hold of the wing that the Endbringer had been holding back out of harm’s way. Frantically, the Simurgh began to struggle, to the point that she was tearing her body free of Janesha’s grip by ripping holes in her own neck. But it was too late; Janesha had the pinion in her hand.

    With a sudden ripping motion, the celestial girl tore the wing away from the Endbringer’s back and the fifteen-foot-tall body collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut. went limp and unresponsive. Blowing out a raspberry of disappointment, Janesha tossed the corpse, causing it to skid across the surface of the moon and come to an eventual stop. “Well, that was anticlimactic,” she sneered, tossing the remaining limb over her shoulder and heading across the terrain towards Taylor. “If I wanted it to be over that fast, I wouldn’t just gone for her consciousness and be done with it.”

    “What were you hoping for?”

    Janesha shrugged. “I dunno. Something more substantial, I guess. I’m used to constructs being more … durable than this.” She flicked the limb forward for them both to look at. “What sort of a souvenir should I turn this one into?” she asked. “An itty-bitty diamond replica with…hey!” The wing suddenly started to flail in a desperate attempt to get free of Janesha. “Oh, no you fucking don’t, bitch!” Janesha tore the wing in half; one side kept flailing, while the other stopped moving. Frowning with concentration, she whittled it down until she was holding what had once been the wing joint and was now a featureless sphere about four inches across. “Now, this is more like it,” she said, spinning the orb on one finger like a basketball pro. It suddenly darted upward, but Janesha snagged it with lightning-fast reflexes. “Come back here, you.”

    “Okay, I’ll bite.” Taylor stared at the ball. “What is that thing?”

    “Like I said, it’s the seat of her consciousness and where she regenerates from. And it’ll be where the energy rope is attached to. Ready to check it out?”

    “Sure.”

    Janesha whistled to Cloudstrike, who came in for a landing. At least, that was what it had looked like in the beginning, until she whacked the side of her armored head against Armina’s shoulder in disgust. “Alright, alright, you absolute pain-in-the-ass!” Janesha scowled, pushing her winged friend to arm’s length. With her free hand holding the flail/reins, all the extra mass that made up the mystallion armor broke into dust which Cloudstrike was able to discharge with an enthusiastic all-over body shake. “It was for your own good,” Janesha insisted, which earned her another not-so-gentle nudge in the shoulder. “Push me one more time and you’re on Brockton Bay’s lawn rations for a week,” Janesha warned, jerking the now normal reins for emphasis. Cloudstrike looked away, nickering violently under her breath.

    Taylor tried not to laugh at their antics but failed miserably. “I’m sorry,” she promised, as both turned to her.

    Janesha tossed the reins over Cloudstrike’s head and stepped back, giving the mystallion her head. “You might as well go for a long ride and get your shitty mood out of your system, Cloudstrike. Taylor and I are going to be realm-stepping all over the place, tracing this bitch back to her source.”

    It took all of a heartbeat for the mystallion to be out of sight, at which point Janesha held her free hand out to Taylor. “Let’s go.”

    They all stepped through at the same moment into the surreal landscape of crystals large and small, most of them glowing with an inner radiance. She saw the two glowing cords flowing from her own forehead and it took her a moment to remember one would be her power, and the other would be the faux crystal Janesha had set up to keep them all connected. That would also explain the two cords from Janesha’s head too, if the other went to a ‘crystal’ before going off to Taylor’s father.

    But the ball of crystal in Janesha’s hand had a thread of its own, which led off to a part of the crystal forest they hadn’t visited yet.

    Janesha glanced at Taylor with a smirk on her face. “Shall we go and find whoever’s running these suckers? With luck, it’ll lead all the way back to where Scion’s hiding.”

    Taylor could understand why that would appeal to her friend, but her hunch went elsewhere. Too many ‘mortal’ things were in play. “I still think it’s a hybrid playing god.”

    Janesha started to wind the cord around the crystal ball, using the motion to rip off any feathery growths that were starting to reappear. “Let’s go, then.”

    <><>​

    Contessa

    Fortuna eyed Clare closely. “Okay, they’re both doing something else, right?”

    There was nobody else present except Dorian, so the team seer nodded alertly. “Yes. They’re in the celestial realm right now, backtracking the Simurgh. They’re not paying any attention to the mortal realm, or to the pocket realm that Scion’s hidden his main body in.”

    “Good. Dorian, when I give the signal, open a doorway to Scion’s pocket realm.” She put her fingers to her seclusion ring and pulled it almost to the tip of her finger, but not quite freeing herself of its protection.

    Clare’s eye-sockets flared brightly with flame to show his shock. Dorian also coughed and held up his hand. “This is in no way me attempting to second-guess you, commander,” he said, frowning in confusion. “But what exactly do you plan to do, that won’t leave your presence all over his mind for the Mystallians to follow up on?”

    Fortuna gritted her teeth. As badly as she wanted to smack both her subordinates into next week, Dorian was correct. Nassites didn’t stick their heads up without having a thousand ways to cover their tracks, and this was no exception. Any of the elders of Mystal could discover their handiwork.

    “Because Scion’s pulled the rabbit-hole in on himself and doesn’t show any signs of coming out before the heat death of the Known Realms, so we have to coax him out. Scion’s fully established here. There’s no reason why he should lose to the Mystallian cow, especially if we help him from the shadows. But he’s not going to do shit so long as he believes she can beat him. Which means, I need to put the kinds of innate questions that any celestial worth their mettle would ask themselves in this situation. Why am I hiding from her? Once I put that thought in his head, his own ego and establishment field should take care of the rest, and when he finally comes out swinging and wins, it’ll be a simple command extraction and everything inside his head will look perfectly legitimate thought process.”

    “So you’re not going to implant the idea that she killed his sister?”

    “No – the time discrepancies will have the Mystallians asking too many questions. Like I’ve always said, when in doubt, KISS it.” Keep it simple, stupid.

    Dorian nodded, happier with this new plan than the uncertainties of the old one. “Say the word, commander.”

    “Now!” Contessa barked, yanking the ring off her finger. The portal opened, showing the enormous misshapen body Scion had retreated into. Which she now had line of sight on. Alright, big boy – time to get you nice and stirred up.


    <><>​

    Taylor

    “Well, this is different.”

    Taylor looked at her friend, then at the arrangement of cords that Janesha was referring to. “I’d say something about ‘well, duh’, but I have to agree. Even without being an expert on this sort of thing, this looks way different to basically everything else here.”

    There were several very good reasons for the statement. Just like the cord that led off from the sphere, there seemed to be no less than nineteen others of the same thickness all connected to the same crystal. But even that wasn’t the weirdest part. This was in a part of the crystal forest where the standing crystals didn’t emit their own light, which Taylor found even more creepy than normal. Worse, part of that crystal’s surface was covered by a cord like hers. There were so many, it looked like electrified hair was coming off the crystal.

    “Okay, not Scion,” Janesha declared.

    “What makes you so sure?” She really didn’t want it to be Scion, but it was nice to hear her friend say it.

    “If these were really connected to that golden freak, he’d have been all over me when I was plucking this bitch like a chicken. Just like I was when the Simurgh drop-kicked you across the moon’s surface.” Looking down at the ball in her hand, her lip curled in repulsion. “Which reminds me …” She closed her fingers, crushing the sphere to dust. The cord leading to the crystal winked out, and a moment later so did the cord leading from the crystal to the knot. “One down … lots to go.”

    It was then that Taylor realised what her friend was implying. ‘Wait—wait—wait-a-minute! Are you saying all those thick cords are Endbringers?”

    Janesha nodded. “Direct lines to working constructs. Why?”

    Taylor pointed at the crystal in horror. “That’s a hell of a lot more than three!”

    “I guess the others haven’t made their appearance yet.”

    Taylor had a hard time keeping herself upright. The more her thoughts bounced around the possibility that each of these thicker cables was an umbilical cord to an Endbringer, the harder it became, until her legs folded under her and she sat down on the ground with a heavy bump. “Hey! Are you okay?” Janesha was suddenly in front of her, holding her shoulders. “Shit, Taylor. Talk to me. What’s wrong?”

    “There has to be at least twenty Endbringer cables there!”

    Janesha looked over her shoulder briefly. “Yeah. So?”

    “Just three have almost destroyed my world, and all of those are still just waiting to come out?”

    “Breathe, Taylor. It’s going to be okay. We’re going to go find the hybrid and explain to him why he’s not going to release any more for shits and giggles, okay? There’s not going to be any more Endbringers to destroy your world. I’ll break all their spheres before I leave, if I have to.”

    “And what’s stopping him from making more?” Taylor asked, almost in defeat. “You’re not going to be here forever.”

    “I know, but I’ll get into his head, and I’ll make him play nice. I won’t let him do this to you, okay, petal? You’ll be fine, and your world ’ll be fine. We’re gonna track him down, and we’re gonna make him stop. Okay?”

    Taylor breathed through the lightheadedness until her thought began to crystallise once more. “Yeah," she said, bobbing her head, even as Janesha slid her hands under her arms and lifted her to her feet. “We can do this. Wherever or whoever the hybrid is, you have to be more powerful than him, right?”

    “Exactly,” Janesha replied, dusting her off, if only to give her more time to recover. “Now, let’s go pay the sick shit a visit.”



    End of Part Sixteen
     
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2019 at 9:52 AM
    1oldman, Pyro Hawk, Rentoba and 8 others like this.
  24. Akuma-Heika

    Akuma-Heika The Devil Exists Within

    Joined:
    Nov 7, 2016
    Messages:
    5,733
    Likes Received:
    7,882
    Technically, the woes existed beforehand. They were only exasperated (although looking at the history of Aleph, you might say they were restrained in some aspects). I loved the use of woes :D

    I need to reread this. Thanks for the update Ack!
     
    Angel466 and Ack like this.
  25. RichardWhereat

    RichardWhereat The Dawn Will Cum

    Joined:
    Oct 1, 2016
    Messages:
    1,176
    Likes Received:
    4,474
    Poor David.
     
    Ack and Angel466 like this.
  26. SlickRCBD

    SlickRCBD Making the rounds.

    Joined:
    Nov 29, 2017
    Messages:
    25
    Likes Received:
    51
    I'm sensing a theme here of miscommunication and lack of communication and how if these people would just talk instead of jumping to conclusions and acting on those erroneous conclusions a lot of problems could be solved.
    That said, the conversation with Eidolon should be interesting.
     
    Ack and Angel466 like this.
  27. Angel466

    Angel466 Getting out there.

    Joined:
    Oct 23, 2018
    Messages:
    14
    Likes Received:
    26
    It's what usually happens when assumptions are made with an added superior attitude of "I know boats".

    When people think they know all the answers, they seldom do.

    Add to the mix that these are teenagers who loathe to ask anything of anyone anyway, and it's going to take a little while for a clearer head to get all the facts together and go, "Hang on ..."
     
    Ack likes this.
  28. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 2014
    Messages:
    6,605
    Likes Received:
    46,736
    It's almost as if you've had teenagers of your own to deal with ....
     
    Angel466 likes this.
  29. Angel466

    Angel466 Getting out there.

    Joined:
    Oct 23, 2018
    Messages:
    14
    Likes Received:
    26
    :p A couple. :p
     
    Ack likes this.
  30. Gindjurra

    Gindjurra Not too sore, are you?

    Joined:
    Aug 21, 2016
    Messages:
    312
    Likes Received:
    1,142
    While it doesn’t explain why he reshaped his body into a ginormous swarm intelligence, that line there neatly describes how parahuman powers work, I think.

    Hybrids have an establishment field within 15 feet of their body, but his has a greater surface area than a planet. And then he folds space to stick a figurative fingertip into a human brain. That human then is an extension of his body, and fifteen feet is plenty to create physics effects in.
     
    Angel466 and Ack like this.
Loading...