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Worm: Babel (Worm/Cthulhu Mythos Crossover)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Baked the Author, Aug 6, 2019.

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  1. Baked the Author

    Baked the Author Scion of Nurgle, Verified Consentacle Enthusiast

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    Nah. Threadlocked for a brief time. Unnecessarily at that.

    There's a PM system for a reason, after all. Then again, the mods there are overworked like nothing else, so...eh, I'm over it.

    Still, most of my postings will happen here and on FF before anything on SB updates. That kind of prudishness is just off-putting.
     
    Velk, My_Game_Account, Alayne and 3 others like this.
  2. Sanbashi

    Sanbashi Getting some practice in, huh?

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    Will you be posting the psudo-baserk cross here?
     
  3. Threadmarks: Chapter 9
    Baked the Author

    Baked the Author Scion of Nurgle, Verified Consentacle Enthusiast

    Joined:
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    Worm: Babel

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    "Yes, Chief Director, we're going there now," Emily Piggot calmly replied to her superior's question, the sights of Brockton Bay's suburbs around her blurring as Armsmaster, in his civilian identity as Colin Wallis, PRT Forensic Analyst, drove them to the home of Annotator, the newest Parahuman to show up on the PRT's radar.

    And, according to Panacea, the killer of the Slaughterhouse Nine.

    Nodding to herself, Emily assuaged Costa-Brown's concerns, "Ma'am, we're both armed, and four PRT Strike Teams are taking up positions around the house even as we speak… no, no air support, we don't want to spook them into running or lashing out," which really went without saying, in Emily's opinion; Labyrinth and Burnscar in the same building as Panacea and this… Annotator?

    It was a nerve-wracking situation that made the takedown of String Theory look like a day at the county fair. Labyrinth's ability alone deserved the upmost discretion when approaching her; according to the file Emily had read from the tablet on her lap, the short blonde didn't have a maximum range for her Shaker ability, with the potential to reshape entire cities.

    If that wasn't enough to put the PRT Director on edge, Burnscar's file nearly sent her into panic mode; the only reason the pyrokinetic Shaker/Blaster/Mover wasn't in the Birdcage was because the seventeen deaths she'd inflicted were part of her Trigger Event, one of the most heavily investigated Triggers in history, as a matter of fact. The result was a fraught, mentally-crippled girl who, according to her psychologists, wanted to get better at interacting with others more than using her powers; unfortunately, schizophrenia and her Parahuman ability influencing her mind turned Burnscar into a pyromaniac whenever she used her ability.

    These two Parahumans, alone, would've been bad enough for Emily's blood pressure; now, both were in her city, which, according to the Think Tank, meant that if this meeting went south and one of them panicked, there'd be an actual crisis on the PRT's hands. Hence the backup, and Emily attending personally to make sure nothing went wrong; that, and this was a first-contact scenario with an extremely dangerous cape, one who was, according to Lady Photon, a good friend to Amelia Dallon and one of Arcadia's highest-scoring honor students.

    A part of Emily just wanted to foam the whole house and be done with it; she'd seen the horrendous beast, thankfully in still images from Eidolon and Legend's visor cameras.

    According to Eidolon, who'd arrived from the west via teleportation, the thing battled the entire S9 to a near-standstill, shrugged off a concentrated attack from a wounded Shatterbird before Eidolon placed the villain in a stasis field, which was then torn in in 8 different directions by the thing; just before this, the thing had eaten Crawler, a fate which, Emily felt, was simple poetic justice.

    Additionally, the thing had somehow driven the Siberian's Master completely insane (and wasn't that a revelation and a half?), apparently from eating the Siberian repeatedly, before Legend, arriving from the east, killed him with a laser in the back of the head. Something had all-but erased Hatchet Face from existence (Alexandria had only found a boot, partially charred with the foot still in it), and, to top the whole battle off, the thing Annotator "summoned" (Panacea's words) had only been defeated when Bonesaw used some kind of super-napalm she'd whipped up while Slash ripped into it with a storm of blades… only to be betrayed by the Nine's youngest member at the last second, his body being used as the delivery vehicle after the monster broke his guard.

    Of the seven known members of the Nine, five were dead or presumed dead –

    The Triumvirate hadn't found Jack Slash's body, but, as Bonesaw had latched one of her spiders, the one that'd exploded into an inferno, to his back and the last anyone saw of him was the creature grabbing him by the chest before dragging him in right before the battlefield was immolated, no one was giving the spree murderer good odds of survival.

    – Panacea had already confirmed that Mannequin's body was at her location, and Bonesaw was missing, having apparently escaped with a pilfered Toybox invention.

    But the creature…

    It was something out of Emily's worst nightmares of Ellisburg: a hill of undulating green-black flesh peppered with glowing red eyes and grinning mouths with too many teeth. Vast, horrific, and, somehow, more unnerving than the sight of Nilbog's creations, Director Piggot knew that if this Annotator had any more of these things, they'd need to be contained immediately.

    Something like that on the loose… she really didn't want to think about the PR disaster, or how much damage would be inflicted in bringing the beast down. In fact, if it wasn't for Eidolon, the PRT would've had to condemn Asylum East; as it was, Eidolon had reversed time to make the building good as new… with the exception of most of the furniture. Also, thank god most of the patients and personnel had made the onsite Endbringer shelter before Shatterbird sang.

    However, what was currently frustrating not just Emily, but New Wave, the Directorate of the PRT, and the Protectorate, wasn't that no one knew how someone living in a mildly run-down suburb could've created, or "summoned" or whatever, something like the beast without anyone noticing – Rinke had gone undetected for some time, after all, so there was precedent – but, rather, what the hell Annotator's power actually was.

    Panacea hadn't been very forthcoming on that front, hemming and hawing with New Wave's leader; all anyone knew for certain was that Panacea had been very insistent in affirming her statement that Annotator, in spite of the creature, was not a Bio-Tinker.

    Which was the only reason Emily had agreed to meet this girl in person, with full precautions in place. If something went wrong, that house would get foamed to the rooftop by the four Strike Teams stationed around the neighborhood in unmarked trucks; if that didn't work, because fucking Labyrinth was one of the hardest Parahumans to plan around, Miss Militia and Dauntless were standing by as backup, and the Triumvirate were on standby; sure, they were still investigating at the Asylum, but all three were fast.

    Hopefully, nothing would go wrong; everything Emily Piggot had read about Annotator's civilian identity, Taylor Hebert, said good things. Honor student at Arcadia, speaks twelve languages fluently, working on making it to fifteen before her senior year, a mental defect that keeps her from understanding certain mathematics, only one living parent, a senior Dockworker's Union member. Three city district ballet first-place trophies, placed fourth in State when she was younger, and she'd not a single detention or poor mark on her scholastic record, barring one recent event where a boy pulled her hair in the hallways at Arcadia and she laid into him with a banshee-esque tirade.

    Every teacher had nothing but good reports on her behavior, which made Emily very suspicious, and she wasn't alone.

    Around a terse breath as Wallis hit a pothole, jarring her lower back, Director Piggot replied to her superior's most recent worry, "She might be a Master, ma'am, but we've taken appropriate cautions in the event she is… yes, I realize that no plan survives contact with the enemy, but this girl isn't our enemy, is she?"

    Unless the girl was playing a long, long con on virtually everyone, her widower father possibly included, everything that'd happened today was just as Panacea had related: a series of extremely fortunate but unsettling coincidences that ended up with most of the Nine dead and two dangerous Parahumans rescued from their clutches.

    Her personal worries and the horrific creature the girl had unleashed aside – and she needed to put them aside for the upcoming meeting and debrief lest someone accuse her of being biased – Emily couldn't really see any reason to treat the girl as anything other than a neutral party; that is, thank her for her service, inform her of the… admittedly robust economic windfall she was about to receive – Crawler's bounty alone was 10 million for a confirmed kill, and Shatterbird's was 5, once one accounted for her international crimes – oh, and had she thought of joining the Wards?

    In a different city? Perhaps Honolulu? Or Juneau?

    The Chief Director, to Emily's despair, thought Annotator would do the most good (read: for the PRT's PR department) working with the Wards here in the Bay, an idea the ENE Director replied to with sourness evident in her voice as the GPS alerted their destination was mere minutes away, "If she does show interest in joining, Chief Director, I will recommend a transfer. We don't have the infrastu-… yes ma'am, I understand… yes, I'll have the report ready in two hours' time, four tops."

    The line went dead, upon which Emily Piggot swore loudly and inventively. To Armsmaster's credit, he didn't comment, waver in his driving or run over any more potholes; though, once the GPS announced they'd arrived and he put the car in park, and Emily's brown streak wore away to quiet grumbling, a block away from Annotator's house, Mr. Wallis decided to speak up.

    "Are we going to push her to join?" there was a note of eagerness in his tone that nearly sent Emily to the boiling point.

    Through her teeth, she hissed, "If and when that point comes up, let me take the lead; if she doesn't want to join, we'll fall back, review everything we get from this interview, and plan out the next try. Now, let's meet this new hero," she opened the car door and glanced around before heaving herself out of the bulletproof, air conditioned and leather upholstered Lincoln Continental, right as the trunk popped open and Wallis hopped out himself, moving to the back to collect the suitcase and cylinder package.

    The first were tools for inspecting Mannequin's corpse, as that was the man's job; the latter was a Halberd, just in case.

    While he did that, Emily made sure her own briefcase, containing paperwork and a tape recorder, was secure, her tablet placed in the pocket of her suit jacket, just below her sidearm, and then took a moment to look at the houses before falling into stride beside Wallis as he made his way briskly down the sidewalk.

    A nice if somewhat worn neighborhood; if Emily was remembering correctly, only the Hebert's and two other houses were occupied on this block, an elderly couple housed on the far corner, who were currently vacationing in Myrtle Beach, and a family of four two doors down; surveillance showed they were all out Christmas shopping.

    The exception to that worn look was the Hebert house, with its two stories and wreath-decorated door. Planter box beneath the front window holding some spider plants, some Christmas-themed stickers placed on the glass, lawn a little brown and unkempt, but that wasn't so bad, in Emily's mind; it was supposed to snow in a few days. House looked like it'd been painted in the last year, and the front stairs looked newer than the rest of the house, playing host to a doormat and… a porcupine shoe brush. All-in-all, it was the least-likely looking place where one might find a potential S-rank threat.

    'Appearances can be deceiving,' Emily reminded herself while making her way up the walk; the welcoming mat was simple with its WELCOME sign in large, friendly-looking letters, and the doorbell was set in a metal plaque shaped like a butterfly.

    Pursing her lips, she reminded Wallis in a quiet, hard whisper, "Don't antagonize anyone; that means no mention of the Wards unless I'm the one doing it, and don't let Labyrinth or Burnscar get to you."

    He nodded once, sharply, and straightened himself.

    Nodding back, Emily took a deep breath to steady herself, reached out and pressed the doorbell.

    Bing-dong! It went off merrily.

    "Eek!" a feminine cry of surprise came from somewhere in the house, upstairs by the sound of it; Emily tensed, wondering what the four Parahumans had been up to before their arrival. Given their respective powers and observed dispositions… well, she probably shouldn't worry too much about it.

    A rumble of feet heralded the curtain on the door's viewing glass parting slightly; Emily had the briefest impression of black hair, round glasses, and owlish eyes set in a white face before the curtain closed, the face's owner calling out, "Amy! Bring Mimi and Elle down, please!"

    After a muffled affirmation, the door finally unlocked and opened, revealing the speaker was a tall, willowy girl, smiling brightly in her blue/bronze outfit with… ribboned pigtails?!

    That threw Emily for a moment, wondering who even dressed like that any longer, so much so that she nearly didn't hear Annotator greet them, "Hello, may I help you?" the girl then looked between Emily and Wallis with open but polite curiosity.

    Gathering her wits, Emily put a smile on and replied, "Good afternoon, miss. We're here following up on a message sent to us by a Ms. Dallon, concerning the events of two hours ago. May we come in?"

    The girl blinked once, and smiled, "Of course! Please, make yourselves at home," Annotator replied brightly, opening the door wider to allow entry to a very plain-looking hallway, a kitchen at the end, stairs against the wall with pictures hanging on the way up, and an arched opening that led to a mildly-cluttered living room; Emily took this all in while the teenage girl spoke quickly but happily while closing and re-locking the door, "I'm afraid you caught us in the middle of a movie, hence my surprised cry. To be fairly honest, I'd expected you some time ago, but I simply lost track of time after making sure Elle and Mimi were settled!"

    Which was as good as an admission that Panacea was keeping this girl in the loop. That, and Emily was mildly surprised at the politeness of this strange, wide-mouthed girl. The Director flicked her gaze up and down, taking in Annotator's height and style of dress (tall, and maybe a church girl), before settling on her face.

    Wide green eyes behind thick glasses, which were slightly tinged in worry, but her mouth was set into a welcoming smile.

    If it wasn't for Panacea's report – that this unassuming, dorky teenager wiped out the Nine – Emily might've believed the innocence Annotator was trying to put forward. All the same, manners needed to be observed.

    "Annotator, I presume?" Emily asked after a moment of silence, her tone now all business.

    The girl before her let out a small laugh, "You presume correctly, though it was Amy who suggested the name," Emily hummed thoughtfully and made a mental note of that while Annotator… curtseyed, "You must be Director Piggot, unless I am mistaken?"

    "I am," she replied sharply, glancing at the stairs, where Panacea, in civilian clothes, was leading a blonde girl… wearing a green sundress and jogging shorts… and behind them came a redhead… in the same type of clothing, but her dress was burgundy; Emily figured the blonde was Labyrinth, and the redhead Burnscar… though she could've sworn the latter had cigarette burns on her face.

    Turning back to Annotator, Emily crushed down her worries and stuck her hand out, "On behalf of the PRT and Protectorate, allow me to thank you for your timely intervention at Asylum East. You saved quite a few lives with your actions; though I would like to discuss what you did there, if you have the time," there. It wasn't so much of a request as a demand for more information; Emily didn't believe in coincidences, and this whole affair was a little too convenient for her tastes.

    But Annotator didn't seem to mind the Director's mild tone, and shook her hand readily while speaking breathlessly, "Oh, yes, of course! Amy informed me that you might wish to debrief us on the events of this morning… but, if I may ask?" Emily nodded at the shy request, though she didn't expect the question Annotator posed, "No one innocent was harmed by the shoggoth, were they?"

    …the what?

    It clicked for Mr. Wallis before Emily could recover at the odd name, "I presume you mean the creature that destroyed most of the Asylum's upper levels?" he asked in a nearly monotonous and slightly annoyed voice.

    To Annotator's confused expression, it was Panacea who answered, her voice a little wry, interestingly enough, "Annotator, Elle, Mimi, meet Colin Wallis; he's a forensic analyst with the PRT," the responses were as varied as the powers in the room.

    Annotator chirped, "Oh, my apologies. It's nice to meet you! And yes, that's what it's called."

    Amy Dallon just nodded with a small smile, having met Wallis in his civilian identity before. Labyrinth smiled and waved happily at the tall, bearded man in his crisp navy blue suit, not relinquishing her hold on Burnscar's free hand…

    Speaking of the redhead pyromaniac, she just smiled shyly and nodded awkwardly at Wallis, adjusting the… the… strange, unusual and mildly unsettling orb in the crook of her arm; it looked like it was made of clear crystal, but in the center of that globe was a geometric (or was it?) shape that made Emily's eyes itch to look at. It was like looking at one of Vista's spatial anomalies, except that weird shape looked like it was on fire.

    Blinking a few times, Emily tore her gaze from the object and looked between Annotator and Panacea, "What exactly is Burnscar holding, and why does it itch to look at?"

    "Oh, that?" Annotator smiled, glancing over at the redheaded Parahuman, who'd wilted at the mention of her cape name, "It's a special object I made for Mimi," the pointed inflection wasn't lost on Emily, nor was the serious look she then turned on the PRT veteran, "It helps to contain her flames. So long as it's within, oh, three arm-spans of her person, she can't set anything on fire."

    Mentally adding a possible Tinker rating to Annotator's file, Emily ignored Wallis' interested hum and asked sharply, "And the itching in my eyes?"

    It was Panacea who answered, sounding as confused as Annotator looked, "It itches when you look at it?" the healer glanced at the orb Burnscar was latched onto like a lifeline, hummed, and looked back at the Director to say with a shrug, "I guess it's because you're not a Parahuman; it looks, well, weird to my eyes, but it doesn't make them itch."

    "It's pretty!" Burnscar blurted indignantly, making Emily tense slightly; rather than lash out, however, the girl looked into the crystal's depths and said quietly, "It h-helps… and I don't want to hurt anyone…"

    Emily frowned and hummed to herself while both Panacea and Annotator assuaged Burnscar's concerns, to seemingly great effect, as the girl brightened at their confident words and Labyrinth looking up at her with a small but fond smile; there were quite a few mysteries revolving around Annotator, and this one was, peripherally, mildly distressing.

    Was it a null field, like Hatchet Face's, or was it something more esoteric?

    Wallis, however, seemed to think these introductions were lasting too long, and stated with slight impatience, "As interesting as this is, Annotator, where have you put Mannequin?"

    The girl startled slightly, but rallied quickly, "Oh! Um, yes, it's just out back with Inky. Through the kitchen and to the right. And please take it with you," she ushered with a wave of her hand, Wallis walking that way purposefully, everyone else falling into step behind him, "I'd rather not have that murderer's corpse in my family's backyard any longer."

    "Inky!" Labyrinth cheered, before trying to drag an amused Burnscar away, "Mimi! Inky!"

    Following after them, and admiring the careworn kitchen, Emily asked Annotator, "Who or what is Inky?"

    Before Annotator could answer, Wallis opened the door to the backyard, took one look around the area, and froze.

    "Director, stay where you are." He said in a tone that brooked no argument. It also raised Emily's hackles, her hand inching toward her sidearm.

    "Oh, don't worry, Mr. Wallis," Annotator assuaged in a cheerful tone, coming up to stand at his side and looking into the yard as well, "Inky's harmless, aren't you boy?" Emily didn't see what'd happened, but Wallis' stance calmed somewhat when the girl at his side chirped, "He says he'll protect me and those I care for, Mr. Wallis. Regardless, you're guests, so that means you're safe."

    Emily… didn't quite follow; luckily, Panacea spoke up with a scoff, "Wait, he understands guest right?" Annotator nodded happily, making the healer shake her head in humor.

    To Emily, Annotator reported calmly, "Inky is a sapient being from another dimension, Director Piggot," more than a few alarm bells started to ring in her mind before the black-haired girl continued, "His race are called Nightgaunts, but don't let the name fool you; they are very docile, and keep their distance from human populations. I must warn you, however, not to try attacking him," she finished seriously, looking between Wallis and the Director, "He is the one who killed Mannequin, though that was on my voiced order…" she trailed off, looking a little morose… almost regretful?

    Raising a brow, Emily made her way forward cautiously, asking two questions, "So you don't make them, these 'Nightgaunts' and… Shaggoths?" once Annotator corrected her and stated that no, she didn't create them, Director Piggot followed up with, "Do you regret giving that order, Annotator?"

    "No, ma'am, I do not," the green-eyed girl stated quietly, but in a voice slightly harder than before, "He wanted to kill us, and I wasn't about to let him. He gave me no choice. I… I just…" Annotator sighed in resignation, "I didn't want to become a murderer…"

    Emily nodded sharply; if only more Parahumans were like this girl, "While there's nothing I can say to take the memory of killing someone away, it's good that you didn't enjoy it. That means you're not a monster, which is a damn sight more than what anyone can say about the Nine," Annotator gave Emily a thankful smile, which the Director took to mean that she was feeling better.

    Good. She didn't need some teenager crying on her shoulder.

    Taking another deep breath to steady herself, Emily moved towards Wallis, who hadn't moved, "Well, Wallis? Are you going to just keep blocking the door, or-"

    He moved.

    And Emily saw the thing Annotator had, apparently, named Inky.

    Something deep inside her said what she was looking at was wrong. The way it was so black it looked two-dimensional. The horns winding up from its featureless head. The thirty-foot-long, whipping, barbed tail that… had apparently straightened quite a few grass blades, for what purpose, the Director couldn't figure out, but it brought her up short, allowing her to notice the wrapped bundle lying next to it.

    The thing waved at her, giving Emily a good look at the huge claws on its fingertips and sending a chill down her spine; the still picture of the shoggoth was one thing. Seeing something, especially something a tiny part of her mind insisted shouldn't be, in motion… was something else entirely.

    Movement in the corner of her eye nearly caused Emily to draw her gun, but it was just Labyrinth, laughing and pulling an uncertain but curious-faced Burnscar, still holding that damn orb, closer to the massive, obviously deadly creature taking up a good fourth of the backyard with its wrongness.

    After swallowing a few times to get her mind back in gear, and her fear down to manageable levels, Director Piggot managed to speak up, "Annotator… are you sure this… Nightgaunt… won't attack anyone?"

    The Parahuman in question came up to her side and tried to assuage Emily, "Oh, of course he won't! Inky's been outside for the last two hours, and hasn't harmed anyone. Right, Inky?" she finished to the creature, which nodded its horned, faceless head, then turned its attention to the approaching capes. Labyrinth waved her hands over at the thing's tail, which it then brought over for the two girl's inspection.

    Director Piggot felt a hand on her shoulder; looking up, but keeping the Nightgaunt in her field of vision, she found Annotator looking at her with concern in her eyes, "Director? Are you quite all right? You're looking a little pale…"

    Gathering herself, Emily took one more look around the backyard: Wallis was already over by the sheet, which he'd unraveled slightly to reveal Mannequin's carapace, the living Tinker now shining a penlight into a bloodied hole and muttering to himself. Burnscar was cheering quietly from the ground, orb still in her arms, while a clearly delighted Labyrinth used the Nightgaunt's tail as a swing, Panacea watching wistfully to Annotator's right.

    Breathing in the cool afternoon air and trying not to think of all the surreal things going on around her, Director Piggot answered the girl before calling over to Armsmaster, "A little… unsettled, Annotator. Your creature is rather intimidating, at first glance anyway. What's the word, Mr. Wallis?"

    Around a grunt, the bearded man reported in a frustrated voice, "Some of Mannequin's contingencies are still active, but will only trigger if someone tries taking him apart; I'd advise transporting the body to the Rig soonest, Director," he looked up from his work, mouth a thin line while Panacea called the two Asylum capes away from the Nightgaunt, "Bonesaw might've given him some… gifts."

    Nodding once, Director Piggot looked to Annotator and told her, "We have a PRT transport on the other side of the block, but, if you'd like to come in for powers testing…" the girl was already shaking her head, but looked honestly regretful.

    "As much as I'd love to have professional assistance in understanding my abilities, I'm afraid I cannot, Director," her smile was a tad regretful as she went on, "You see, my Daddy has grounded me to the house; I cannot go further than this very yard, without his consent anyway. Inky can bring the body to the transport, however," she allowed, the Nightgaunt in question nodding eagerly.

    After the Director gave Annotator her blessing to do just that, with the caveat that not a single one of her people were harmed in the process, Wallis raised an eyebrow, and asked the very question Emily had wanted to ask, "So why did you go to the Asylum, if you don't want to break your grounding?"

    Panacea answered, having corralled both Burnscar and Labyrinth, "That's something best discussed over the debriefing… oh, and Director?" the healer's tone implied what she had to say wouldn't make Emily happy, but Director Piggot still nodded for the girl to go on. And Panacea did, bitingly, "One, I'd like to speak with the Asylum's nutritionist, assuming they even have one, and ask why medium security capes aren't getting regular, full meals."

    Emily didn't think there was a nutritionist on hand at Asylum East, but this was news to her, bad news at that. Mentally unstable capes should be kept as stable as possible, to prevent… well, disasters.

    "Two… actually, that can wait," Panacea glanced at Annotator, an unspoken communication passing between them as they walked inside, the healer elaborating a moment later, "It has to do with Burnscar and Labyrinth, though, and where they'll go once the dust settles. Going back to the Asylum," the healer hissed through her teeth, "yeah, not the best idea, given that Mannequin and Jack Slash cut them up there."

    That… made sense to Emily, damnit! On top of this, the two girls looked happy as they darted through the house's halls, Labyrinth yapping about cacti (she'd seen the collection in the living room, and it was quite nice) while Burnscar asking impatiently about a movie and a 'Princess Buttercup'; Director Piggot couldn't remember the last time she'd seen a report from the Asylum declaring these two, infamous as they were, though for different reasons, were in any way happy. They almost looked… normal.

    Which made Emily purse her lips suspiciously as Annotator ushered her and Wallis to the kitchen table, "I'll have an answer for you once this debriefing is over. Oh, and Annotator? I might need you to sign some Non-Disclosure Agreements once we're done, regarding Asylum security. Nothing serious," she added with a waved hand when the girl gave off the impression of a startled deer, "just a couple pages that state you won't reveal anything about the Asylum's interior, or any security measures Labyrinth or Burnscar might've mentioned, to unauthorized persons."

    "Oh. Well, fair's fair, I suppose," Annotator chirped calmly, waiting for everyone to be seated, and Emily to open her briefcase, before offering, "Can I get you or Mr. Wallis anything to drink? Water, tea, lemonade?"

    After Wallis asking for water in a gruff voice, Director Piggot paused, stared at Annotator for a moment, and admitted, "You know, this is the first time any non-Protectorate cape, or their family for that matter, has ever offered me something to drink during a first contact visit? And water, please." Water was safe, and easy to figure out whether or not it was poisoned. Not that Emily was worried much; Annotator seemed more… down to earth, if somewhat overly polite, than most Parahumans.

    Annotator looked a little affronted by that the Director's admission, "Well!" and quickly poured four glasses from a filtered water pitcher in her fridge, "We treat guests well in this house… oh, and Inky's back," she added, glancing out the back window with a relieved sigh.

    Wallis nodded to Emily as she set out the recorder and Annotator distributed the water glasses, "The troopers are already on their way to the Rig, ma'am."

    Nodding curtly back to show she'd heard, Emily took a sip of water, then waited for the slayer of the Nine to seat herself next to a smugly smirking Panacea; no doubt she'd find out what that was about in the next few minutes.

    As for the cape in question, Annotator took a deep breath and looked Emily in the eye, "Ask away, Director Piggot."

    Without preamble, Emily pressed the record button, "This is Director Emily Piggot, PRT ENE, November 28, 2009, conducting an After-Action Report regarding Incident AE-126-2009, sub-category 9-Ball, incident number Final; in short, this interview will focus on the persons and events leading up and in regards to the termination of the Slaughterhouse Nine at Asylum East by the newly-discovered Parahuman Annotator. This recording may contain classified information, and, as such, is subject to review and redaction of sensitive intelligence by the PRT Directorate. Persons present in this debriefing, apart from myself, are," she looked to Wallis.

    "Colin Wallis," he stated clearly, "PRT Senior Forensic Analyst. I will be providing a preliminary report on Mannequin's fatal injuries, which I examined prior to this debriefing."

    Emily nodded, and looked to Panacea.

    "Amelia Dallon, cape name Panacea, of New Wave," the girl stated, still with that smirk in place, "Annotator and I are good friends in our civilian identities, and I will be providing clarification on anything she's forgotten during this whirlwind of a day," she nudged Annotator's arm at the end, making the girl laugh lightly.

    Then Annotator, Taylor Hebert, looked Emily in the eyes, and her expression was sad, her voice serious and sober, "I am Annotator, the subject of this interview and, as Ms. Dallon has informed me, a reality warping Shaker who uses an invented, spoken language to access alternate dimensions for a variety of purposes."

    Nodding curtly and kicking herself slightly for not bringing anti-Master earplugs, Director Piggot folded her hands on the table and prompted, "Start wherever you feel is appropriate," honestly, Emily was a bit curious as to how both these girls ended up travelling all the way to Asylum East and back without anyone noticing…

    As Annotator began explaining, Panacea filling in the blanks here and there, talking about dreamlands, labyrinths, and the things that lived in those places, all of which were at Annotator's beck and call (literally, at that)…

    Emily really wished she could have a glass of scotch without it killing her.

    .

    {/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\}

    .

    In one timeline, Thomas Calvert watched Director Piggot walk between the desks in the crowded briefing room, his curiosity piqued higher than it'd been in… well, since he'd caught wind of a certain high-level Thinker he was in the process of tracking down in his other timeline.

    Piggot had called surprise meetings before, but most of them had ended up being briefings on some snot-nosed Ward; Thomas understood, to an extent. Piggot was scared of the power Parahumans wielded, thought them abominations who should be put down for the betterment of mankind. Which was stupid, from Thomas' perspective; Parahumans should be recruited to further the ambitions of the truly powerful.

    Thomas Calvert's ambitions, for instance. Hence his hunt for the currently missing Sarah Livsey.

    But first, this meeting; every Strike Team Captain in the ENE was present, as were the Protectorate capes that weren't Armsmaster. According to the man that'd gone out with Piggy for some kind of meet-and-greet, this briefing should be about another new Parahuman; that, or it'd be an explanation of why all the higher-ups were running around like there was a wolf in the coop.

    Much to his frustration, Thomas couldn't afford to end his other timeline; he'd narrowed down Livsey's pattern of movement and had concluded that she was somewhere in or around New England, which was good for him, but there were a few approaches he hadn't tried yet…

    "First off," Piggot began without preamble, which was par-for-the-course, "some of you may have heard a rumor that the Slaughterhouse Nine attacked Asylum East this morning," Thomas had, but as it didn't impact his operations, he'd ignored it, "They did. The only reason we're not mobilizing to assist is because the Nine are, with the possible exception of Bonesaw, dead."

    What?!

    Before anyone could as a question, or Assault could whoop in joy, the Director went on in a hard voice, "Before anyone even thinks of celebrating, know this: they were killed by one cape, the cape I went to see today. Her name is Annotator, and I can say from personal exposure that she is literally the nicest person I've ever encountered; she will, however, defend herself and others with deadly force, and no, she doesn't believe in second chances if the person or organization doesn't deserve it. The Nine wanted to torture and, from what she and Panacea have told me, recruit her; they also wanted to kill Burnscar and Labyrinth in the process," Thomas saw Miss Militia's shoulders stiffen, and remembered that she'd visited the Asylum several times; maybe there was an opening there?

    "Annotator took exception to the Nine's plans. The Siberian is dead. Crawler was eaten," Thomas felt a chill run down his spine; in his other timeline, he began looking into the tracker he'd put in his undercover agent's phone. Where did this girl live? "Jack Slash, Hatchet Face, Mannequin, Shatterbird. They are dead, everyone," Piggot's lip might have quirked a bit, "and, as the Triumvirate are looking for Bonesaw before the little bitch tries to get her revenge, drinks are on me tonight."

    Now Assault whooped, picking up and spinning a screaming Battery, which sparked off more than a few cheers; hell, Thomas was smiling himself and shaking his colleague's hands. So what if Cauldron's little experiments failed, and that his plans needed a little revising? All this meant was that he'd be less at risk in the future… so long as he got Annotator onside; which shouldn't be hard. Taylor Hebert, hmm?

    "Calm the fuck down, NOW!"

    The room went from elated to pin-drop silence in record time at Piggot's snarled roar; she looked more pissed off than Thomas could ever remember, and he was including the fuck-up at Waco, where the Fallen were born.

    Those grey eyes swept the room as the ENE Director laid down the law, "Before you all go celebrate, know this: Annotator is the most dangerous Parahuman on the East Coast, and yes, I am including Lung, Legend, and the fucking Nilbog in that estimation," while she took a breath to steady herself, Thomas allowed himself to portray a picture of nervousness even as he discovered Hebert's father's place of employment; yes, that would do nicely, "She is a vocally-based Shaker – Adam Lawrence, if you write that down, I will strangle you – who can warp reality. She can summon creatures from other dimensions, alter the nature of, potentially, any object, and the Think Tank says she isn't Manton Limited.

    "Under no circumstances are any of you to approach her for any reason. No threat assessment will be made for her, as her whole power can be summed up as: Shaker-stroke-Master kill yourself. As such, and seeing as the Chief Director thinks she would be dreadfully useful in an Endbringer fight," now she looked like she'd swallowed a lemon, "we at the PRT ENE are to assume Annotator's safety is of the highest priority, so we might prevent her from calling in… extreme measures. No one wants that, so let's make sure that doesn't happen. With the exception of the Protectorate," nod at the stunned-looking capes, "who will be briefed by Armsmaster, I will be briefing each of you individually in the following days on the particulars of what changes will be enacted, and how we'll deal with living in the same city as Annotator. Now, anyone who isn't an active Strike Team Captain? Dismissed."

    'Well! Finally found a cape that made you roll over, eh Piggy? Too bad you don't have infinite tries on getting things right!' Thomas thought smugly in the lavatory a few minutes later, tapping on his phone in one timeline, informing the leader of his mercenaries that there'd be a meeting tonight; in the other, he'd already formulated a pan to approach Annotator's father, by offering jobs and work to the Dockworker's Union. Once the man was under his thumb, manipulating Annotator would be easy as-

    Coil, in his base, jerked in surprise as a golden rectangle of light opened right in front of his desk. But instead of the immaculate, fedora-wearing woman…

    Jack fucking Slash stepped out, his chest bandaged heavily, with an obvious limp, cold eyes flicking over Coil's person before boredly inspecting his surroundings. The goateed, unsmiling man stepped to one side as Coil slowly reached for the sidearm holstered under his desk…

    And Coil's throat opened up with a casual flick of Jack Slash's hand. There was a razorblade between his knuckles.

    Then Contessa limped heavily through the golden light; her right arm, in a sling, was a mass of bloodied bandages, her trademark fedora had a cut in it, and her trenchcoat was draped over her naked torso, which was so covered in bandages it might as well be a shirt. A saber was affixed to her waist, and a pistol was clenched in her left hand.

    Her eyes burned with fury as they locked with his masked face.

    Coil only barely noticed this in his attempt to stem the blood flowing from his neck, and draw his gun; before he could do either, Contessa spoke, voice hoarse and dry, as though she'd been screaming:

    "She would make you wish the Nilbog ate you. Hands off. Head down. Don't speak."

    Then she emptied her pistol into him, saving the last bullet for his brain.

    In the PRT bathroom, Thomas jerked in shock and terror.

    She was working with Jack Slash?! Jack Slash was alive?!

    Contessa's words wormed into his brain and took hold. Hands off. Head down. Don't speak.

    Or, "Stay away from Annotator. Don't move openly. Tell anyone about this, and I'll fucking kill you."

    "….oh fuck me," Thomas Calvert whispered to the empty bathroom; suddenly feeling very vurnerable, he flushed and got the hell out of the building.

    It wasn't until he'd gotten to his car that he look at his phone; the text to his merc captain was still there, unsent.

    Thomas split time. In one reality, he deleted it, figuring he'd brief the man tomorrow in person; nothing sensitive, just enough to keep him sated. In the other, he sent it…

    There was a tap on his car window. He looked up, already expecting Contessa.

    Nope. Jack Slash. This time he was smiling. "Last warning," the mass-murderer growled, and held up a standard-issue PRT detonator and a six-inch-cube of primed C4.

    Thomas ended that timeline before it could go off. 'I'll just… try to get Livsey. At least she's not off limits,' he thought numbly; turning the car on and pulling carefully out, Thomas Calvert spent his drive home splitting time over and over again.

    In one timeline, he drove safely; in the other timelines, he drove down sidewalks, crashed into crowded busses, and tore through both Lord's Market and the mall, all without the boogeyman coming to get him.

    At least he still had some form of stress relief.

    That, and he was pretty sure he wouldn't be able to contact Cauldron for the near future, if they'd not only taken in Jack fucking Slash but their boogeyman was out for blood.

    All the same, he was interested in just what in the fuck had torn Contessa up so badly.

    Whether it was because he wanted to shake its hand, or so he find a way to kill it before it killed him, he wasn't sure.
     
  4. Baked the Author

    Baked the Author Scion of Nurgle, Verified Consentacle Enthusiast

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    And that's the last chapter I'll be posting for the foreseeable future. As my place of employment is in the middle of a move, and they're moving even further from my house than they already were (grrr) I have to find new, steady employment over the next few weeks. Please bear with me in the interim.

    Thank you all for your support with this story, and I'll catch you all later!
     
  5. Knightfall

    Knightfall Nui Harime lover, Loyal Slaaneshi.

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    Well that would make good start up capital for Taylor and Amy if they want to go into business making stuff like the flower.
     
  6. eveakane

    eveakane Formerly an Innocent Grammarian

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    Very awesome. While I’m sad that you have to pause this for IRL stuff, I still understand. From your tone, I’m guessing that the movement’s not in another, better place in town.

    For the chapter: nicely portrays the characters; the director has her biases, but chooses the non-threatening stance (as much as strike teams in reserve can be called such).

    I think the debriefing lacked showing pictures of the Shoggoth and Nightgaunt, though I guess they had a reason for it?
     
  7. Baked the Author

    Baked the Author Scion of Nurgle, Verified Consentacle Enthusiast

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    Two reasons:

    Not everyone in that room had the credentials to get the full briefing; Calvert, here, is officially a PRT Contractor who can be called in to command a Strike Team if the situation calls for it. That is, he's basically an upper-level paper-pusher who used to be an active Captain. He and several others had to leave, so no detailed briefing for him.

    I mean, Piggot letting someone who shot his own commander at Ellisburg being in charge of her people? Yeah, can't see her doing that.

    The second reason is chapter length; I'm trying not to write more than 7k words a chapter, and going into fraught detail would've dragged the chapter out longer than necessary, both from a pragmatic and plot-relevant standpoint.
     
  8. Tisaku

    Tisaku I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    utmost
     
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  9. Tortoise

    Tortoise Getting sticky.

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    Some typos and grammar nits:

    all but

    Dockworkers'

    Heberts'

    I think switching to Piggot's reaction should start a separate sentence.

    Again separate sentences.

    girls'

    I assume you meant "while Burnscar asked" or maybe "with Burnscar asking"

    Probably either "by that" or "by the director's admission"?

    par for the course
    I think that if the "Thomas had" part is part of the same sentence, it should be separated by dashes instead of commas.

    Separate sentences.

    plan, Dockworkers'

    Nilbog isn't usually called "the", and the eating would probably be done by his monsters instead of him personally anyway?

    vulnerable

    looked

    mass murderer, six-inch cube
     
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  10. Baked the Author

    Baked the Author Scion of Nurgle, Verified Consentacle Enthusiast

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    Thanks you two
    I'll make the corrections when I have the time
     
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  11. Hyrushoten

    Hyrushoten Getting out there.

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    So why was Crawler's bounty double Shatterbird's? Shatterbird has destroyed multiple cities in multiple countries, while as far as I know Crawler just likes fighting strong capes. Not saying he wouldn't have a bounty, but I would have expected his to be at most a quarter of hers not double it.
     
  12. Baked the Author

    Baked the Author Scion of Nurgle, Verified Consentacle Enthusiast

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    Because, despite Birdy being more capable of widespread destruction, and her five digit kill count, Crawler eats people, and has a kill count nearly as high as Birdy's just from collateral damage added to his personal kills. Plus, he's considered a greater threat due to his adaptive nature; Birdy could, theoretically, get taken down by a Tinkertech sniper round (Masamune or Dragon) from five miles out. Low chance it works, but it's possible. Alexandria, Legend or any Master out there are known hard counters to Birdy.

    Crawler adapts to whatever doesn't kill him. The only hard counter is the one that takes him down before he can adapt; as even the Triumvirate are hesitant to take him on, on the chance that he adapts to them, he's considered a potential S class threat all by himself. The Siberian could take him out, but if Manton doesn't do it quickly, everyone is henceforth fucked.

    That 10 mil bounty has a caveat: the kill must be confirmed by one or more Protectorate capes, either on video or in person. Also, a warning: if you are not completely certain beyond any doubt that Crawler will die to you, stay the super-dandy fuck away.

    As for Birdy's bounty: paid out internationally, 1 mil for each major city she destroyed. And that's just the PRT/USA-managed payout; private payouts are handled separate from the international government, but are still tax susceptible. Once everything's said and done, Birdy's full bounty is in the neighborhood of 12 mil.

    Tl;dr Crawler is a bigger threat than Birdy, more money for his ass
     
  13. Hyrushoten

    Hyrushoten Getting out there.

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    OK, I can see that. Two things though. One, the way its worded in the chapter makes it sound like Shatterbird's 5mil bounty included the bounties offered by other countries. Two, while Crawler is harder to kill, Shatterbird does more damage. What I mean is that Shatterbird doesn't just kill people, she devastates entire cities dealing billions of dollars worth of damage to the city, so I would expect her bounty to be higher because she causes more financial devastation than Crawler does. Basically you're giving Crawler the higher bounty because he is more dangerous and harder to deal with, but I think Shatterbird would have a higher bounty because she is more destructive and creates a larger financial burden on places she hits. It works the way it is, except for that international bounty issue, so feel free to ignore the rest of my ramblings.
     
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  14. mymatedave10

    mymatedave10 Getting out there.

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    Really enjoyed this story Baked, a nicely done pre-canon fic where the the callous Outer Gods activities lead to the emotionally traumatised or damaged characters getting the help they need, whether psychological or just a good friendship or distraction from unhealthy behaviours.

    Sure, a couple of thugs end up going to hell or a few government agents are able to use the classified reports as a cure to constipation while being a cause of anxiety, but overall Taylor's patron has been nothing but good new for the mental health or those who would otherwise end up suffering.
     
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  15. TJG

    TJG Making the rounds.

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    Some comments:

    Back in Chapter 1 it mentioned that Gnarlyhotep (Macho Women with Guns reference) had briefly considered a more superhero champion but decided not to. I wonder what and who that was. Maybe "Merlin" or something.

    It appears that in addition to speaking magical words like a mix of the concept of True Names and language, she might be able to make magic symbols (given her artwork and how it appears to have some sort of mimetic hazard effects from what her father said when looking at her sketches. Aside from summoning it appears she can also make magic creatures as well given the flower she made for Amy. For direct magic use, she could be almost like the original version of the Marvel Comics Doctor Strange where he make invocations to various beings of power and effects (like the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak or Seraphic Light).

    If there is no agreement for the Deep Ones, it probably would not matter given how the other beings she can summon seem to be willing to work with her. This is especially true of the Shoggoths given their apparent original design purpose as a kind of omni-purpose femto-tech utilities/factory/tool. Even if she can't get the Deep Ones to make her armor (which might end up looking strange), she might be able to make her own. There might even be several different types like one might resemble Bio-Booster Guyver, while another might resemble the original She-Ra including sword. For that matter she might be able to make the Eye of Omens Sword from Thundercats. Maybe she can make protective concealed magic items or stealthy creatures for those she cares about.

    If she ascends, she might still be more like a stereotype arch-mage in that she will be quietly researching and conducting experiments. Though in her case it might be more traveling the multiverse or omniverse looking up various ruins, museums, and libraries for various languages, literature, and artwork. Maybe she will occasionally leave behind messages or write and sell books herself (not necessarily sanity blasting mimetic hazards, but they could be more mundane information on her interests like languages and history and arts). How-to books are always popular.

    It was mentioned in the most recent chapter that the PRT information said that while Taylor had difficulty with some math it implied that it was not all math. Presumably given her ability to sketch she could work around most of her difficulties by doing it in the form of drawings or other art as appropriate. She might throw others off if she is very good with higher dimension "non-Euclidean geometry" (where the surfaces and dimensions can be bent or distorted). Maybe Taylor, Vista, and Labyrinth could periodically talk shop on advanced mathematics or artwork especially in application. One possibility could be how to make magic like effects by making various knots in reality that might be self-tightening nature to form weaves and patterns for various effects.
     
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  16. Tisaku

    Tisaku I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    -color-
    ziggurat
    -color-
    glance
    -color-
    life
    -spacing-
    it to the
    ask
     
  17. corndogman

    corndogman Journeyman Munchkin

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    Near as I can tell, the bolding (or color, whichever) is deliberate, given what it's referring to.
     
  18. Tisaku

    Tisaku I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    -I tagged those ones specifically because they lack the color. Consistancy is important.-
     
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  19. metalax

    metalax Let it Burn.

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    Huh, is there going to be some nsfw elements when the next chapter is posted here? Just wondering why it's lagging on this thread behind the other places it is posted.
     
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  20. Baked the Author

    Baked the Author Scion of Nurgle, Verified Consentacle Enthusiast

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    Because I don't get on this website much.

    Updates will come tomorrow.

    Also, if you really want something NSFW, I'll start posting Hunger here on the appropriate subforum, because this story won't be going there (unless you count gore/insanity as NSFW).
     
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  21. Threadmarks: Interlude 2
    Baked the Author

    Baked the Author Scion of Nurgle, Verified Consentacle Enthusiast

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    HUZZAH! A day earlier than expected! FF will update tomorrow!

    It’s a little rough around the edges toward the end, but I like it that way. Really brings out the whole “these people are taking SAN crits left and right” tone I’m going for. All the same, any criticism is welcome!

    On that note, fair warning for this chapter: bad [NSFW-lite] end involving HASTUR. Consider yourselves warned.

    Sorry to keep you waiting so long! Without further ado…

    .

    .

    .

    Worm: Babel

    .

    .

    .

    Interlude 2

    .

    .

    .

    Danny sighed in relief as his house came into view. It was still standing, the lawn was still there, and none of the windows were broken. So Taylor likely hadn’t gotten around to experimenting with her new friend, Amy Dallon.

    Experimenting with her powers, anyway, Danny mused with a chuckle as he parked his truck in the driveway. All Taylor had been able to talk about, since starting at Arcadia, was Amy this, and Amy that, and Amy was Panacea; when she wasn’t telling him about how she’d started a fashion trend – ribbons were in, apparently – Taylor was talking about Amy and all the time the two girls spent together.

    Danny was just grateful that his daughter seemed like she was getting past Emma’s slight at the end of last summer. Speaking of which, he thought while walking around to the back door – no sense disturbing the two more than necessary with his presence – he should give Allen a call, see how Taylor’s best friend was doing with her therapy.

    Danny sighed. He wished, not for the first or last time, that Annette was still here, to give their daughter relationship advice, if for nothing else.

    He’d just turned the corner, slipping the back door key from his pocket, when a shape caught his eye. Danny looked up, body tensing for a possible attack by a ganger or worse…

    …that was a big shadow.

    It seemed a mass of absolute darkness, like someone cut a piece out of the world. It had horns – presumably – and long fingers splayed on the grass… and a tail, long as a bus and ending in a wicked barb, which had frozen in the act of straightening said grass.

    Danny had the impression that this creature was looking at him, so he cleared his throat and spoke up kindly, “Hello,” it nodded at Danny slowly, “Are you one of Taylor’s then?” It nodded again, more vigorously.

    The elder Hebert smiled in wry humor; maybe Taylor had been experimenting a little. She could’ve been a little more discreet, in his opinion.

    “Well, as much as I’d like to have a guard dog – not saying you’re a dog, but I’m sure you know what I mean,” he added when the shadow seemed to bristle, “but you’re a little bit obvious, and I’d rather someone not fly by and give my daughter’s location away,” he pointed up at the sky for emphasis.

    The creature or whatever it was looked up, then back at Danny; it nodded solemnly, then…

    Burst into a cloud of black smoke, which dissipated near instantly.

    Chuckling, Danny decided to re-explain the philosophy of discretion when it came to using her powers. Entering the kitchen, he smelled pizza and garlic, but there was no sign of Taylor or Amy; he could hear voices coming from upstairs, though, so Danny helped himself to a cup of lemonade. It’d been a long day, after all.

    The meeting with the Union president and the Mayor’s secretary had gone well, though fleshing out the details of the proposed project – Taylor’s plan to clean up the Docks and Boat Graveyard – had been tiring to go over. He’d scheduled an introduction and demonstration at 5PM this next Wednesday, by which time Taylor should have both a rudimentary costume and a name picked out.

    Walking quietly through his house to put his shoes in their proper place, and subtly examine the living room – no sign of Taylor or Amy still, though the family tea service was left out – Danny allowed himself a feeling of pride; while Taylor admitted that she’d be able to clean the entire Graveyard by herself, she’d also allowed, due to the fact that her base would be in the Dockworker’s compound, that the project could use more practiced hands.

    That is, once the earlier meeting had ended, Danny had been promised the funds to hire over three hundred workers to help dismantle some of the larger ships and prepare the scrap for sale and transport. After all, it wasn’t like they needed the construction equipment to bring the tanker and other large ships in.

    They had Taylor, and Taylor had Shoggoths.

    Helping himself to a slightly stale scone and ascending the stairs to the second floor, where it sounded like four teenage girls were now conversing, Danny chuckled at the memory of Kurt’s face after he explained what one of Taylor’s Shoggoths was like. Sure, Danny hadn’t seen one himself yet, but the picture of what Taylor insisted was a “bio-engineered architectural savant” had been both humorous and humbling.

    Arriving at the top landing, Danny stopped. Examined his surroundings.

    He calmly sipped his lemonade, and grunted, “Huh.”

    The walls of the upstairs had changed since this morning. He was fairly sure the wallpaper hadn’t depicted a sunny forest with woodland creatures frolicking to and fro. It hadn’t been moving as though it was a woodland forest, either.

    Danny looked at the half-full glass of lemonade in his hand, wondering if it’d expired, then noticed the floor. It was grass.

    He knelt and ran a hand over it. Yep. Grass. With the wood tile he’d put in last year under it.

    Danny sighed; he wondered if other cape parents had to deal with things like this.

    Shrugging, because he was sure there was a logical explanation for this, Danny made for the guest room, where an unfamiliar voice gushed, “You could do it, though! You helped me and Elle, an-and – I just know you could make a magic pill, like Miracle Max!”

    He stuck his head around the open door… and couldn’t stop himself from smiling wryly.

    Taylor was sitting primly on the guest bed, legs tucked under on one side, next to a prone Amy Dallon, who was lying on her stomach, eyes pinched in focus as she caressed the petal of a shining lotus. Taylor’s hand was stroking Amy’s back absently as Danny’s daughter blushed at the redhead’s praise.

    The redhead in question was sitting at the head of the bed, was wearing one of Taylor’s sundresses, and had one hand on a crystalline orb that seemed to have a core of starlight. A blonde girl, also wearing one of his daughter’s dresses, was seated in the redhead’s lap, contenting herself with having the redhead’s fingers run through her long platinum locks.

    Around a blink, the blonde was the first to notice Danny’s presence as he leaned in the doorway, looking up at the branches and leaves growing from the ceiling with some small amusement. She didn’t do much, except shift and rise slightly, which brought the other three girl’s attention to him.

    “Daddy!” Taylor cheered in surprise and happiness, before she apparently noticed where his gaze was going and looked around in owlish shock, “Oh… uh, Elle?” the blonde girl looked up, “Could, um, you change the room back to normal please?”

    Elle nodded slowly, almost mechanically, and suddenly everything was back to normal. Although, Danny noticed the redhead was now trying to hide behind Elle, looking at him in clear fear.

    He decided to set their hearts at ease, “Taylor, Amy,” he nodded at the brown haired girl, who kept looking between him and the dazzling flower before her; Danny smiled at the other two girls, “And… I don’t believe we’ve met. Danny Hebert. I’m Taylor’s father.”

    Elle smiled and waved happily at him, “Hi! Hi! I’m Elle!” she then turned and threw her arms around the redhead, who ‘eep!’-ed cutely as her blonde girlfriend swung herself across the taller girl’s lap and grinned hugely at Danny, “Mimi! This is my Mimi! Taylor and Amy saved us!”

    Danny took that last admission in with a good-natured chuckle and a return wave, then looked at his daughter with a questioning smile; she had the good grace to blush and look sheepish, “Saved them, Taylor?” He took a sip of lemonade, “Not that I’m about to chide you for saving damsels in distress,” Elle giggled while Mimi blushed harder, “but didn’t I tell you not to leave the house?”

    “Technically, Mr. Hebert,” Amy spoke up as she rose from her prone position, lifting that flower like it was made of glass and settled into a cross-legged position, “We were only going to visit Taylor’s dreaming labyrinth. Things just sort of…” she winced slightly, “escalated, once we got there.”

    Danny looked at the Dallon girl, then his daughter; he felt his smile starting to diminish at Taylor’s sheepish expression.

    “I thought you said the labyrinth was safe.” He had allowed Taylor permission to bring Amy there, if it could be done; she might be grounded for putting Lung’s slavers down, but he wasn’t cruel. That place was quite beautiful, even in picture form. But if it was unsafe…

    Taking a deep breath, Taylor tried, “Maybe… you should sit down, Dad.”

    He blinked. She’d dropped the diction without him asking.

    Something was very, very wrong. Or something very serious had happened.

    Danny gave all four girls another once over before asking the new arrivals, “You’re both unhurt?”

    Mimi nodded dizzyingly fast, “Yes! We’re fine, uh, now,” Danny sat down carefully in the room’s only chair and went to take another fortifying sip of lemonade when Mimi merrily dropped a nuke on him, “Amy healed us while Taylor dealt with the Slaughterhouse Nine!”

    Danny choked on his lemonade.

    .

    {/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\}

    .

    Contessa looked at the carnage she’d caused within the strange pseudo-church the Path to Victory had led her to, and frowned.

    Fifteen years ago, her Paths had begun to fail. Steps vanished between one moment and the next, prospective candidates for Cauldron vials went missing before their agents could reach them, Cauldron agents went missing mid-mission, and disastrous events that she’d committed to stopping were stopped before she could intervene, or escalated at unexpected moments.

    Stranger still, when she’d tried to Path a way to finding the source of the interference, the steps appeared clear before her; so the source wasn’t like Eidolon or the Enemy. Strange was the first step, however.

    [Train yourself for battle.]

    And so Contessa had trained her body and mind for conflict; she’d already been in fine shape before the problem arose, but now her body was taut with muscle. Contessa knew, without the aid of her power, that there were few in the multiverse who could take her in hand-to-hand combat; with Path to Victory… well, she could not lose.

    Before, she’d simply used whatever tools were best for the job, according to the Path. Now, a Tinker-tech cavalry saber and a silenced .45 Colt 1911 with 12-round capacity magazines – Tinker-modified, of course – were Contessa’s weapons of choice, and had stood her in good stead since her Paths had become skewed.

    As the years passed and the interference continued, Contessa gathered what information she could from its actions. Even with the admittedly robust abilities her association with Cauldron granted, Contessa only ever found scraps of rumors and half-baked conspiracies spoken of in fearful whispers. Clairvoyant could not find the usurper, or usurpers, whoever they were, and Contessa could only follow what little trail they’d left behind.

    But follow it she did, between her other duties, and told none of her associates of it; Mother, David and Rebecca could not be trusted with the weight of this secret, and if they knew her powers were weakening due to this interference, the consummate pragmatists would likely attempt to replace her.

    Though matters had changed since that black day in a little girl’s village, Contessa couldn’t bring herself to betray Doctor Mother. Their cause was humanity’s survival. So if Contessa had to keep a secret or two, to ensure the Path would not fail, so be it.

    The little information she’d found, eventually, bore fruit: a cult, an organization, one which was even more secretive and shadowy than Cauldron, one which seemed obsessed with human sacrifice in worship of strange and inscrutable gods, the pantheon of which was ever veiled to Contessa.

    She did not believe in gods, or magic. Those were the innocent dreamings of youth.

    There were no gods, and magic was nothing but slight-of-hand and trickery.

    The sight before her spat upon Contessa’s beliefs.

    Thirty-seven red-robed cultists were scattered throughout the brownstone-walled room, all dead; several of them had exhibited unusually potent Parahuman abilities – one of them had used a Blaster-like power that rotted a person from the outside-in; she’d dodged it and killed the user – most of which required, strangely, an incantation of some sort.

    At first, she’d simply thought it an artifact of these barbaric cultist’s skewed beliefs.

    Then she’d seen the altar.

    Contessa had seen and done horrible things in the past thirty years, so many and often that the events bled together into a litany of horror.

    What was before her vied for the top slot in Contessa’s mental ‘Things I’d Rather Not Have Seen’ file.

    Twisted letters glowed in a strange light upon the dais, forming a ring around the corpse of the pregnant woman this cult had acquired for… whatever the horrid purpose those letters fortold. Contessa didn’t want to know. She still wanted to keep a part of her humanity, her sanity, and didn’t want to know why the letters glowed.

    Contessa didn’t want to know why they’d cut the woman open, or why the sacrificial knife she’d shot out of the ritual leader’s hand had been aimed at the pitiful mound of flesh they’d pulled from the woman.

    The only consolation Contessa could give herself was that the woman had already been dead, and the mound had breathed its last before she’d finished slaughtering the cult.

    Lip curling, she fired the last bullet in her cartridge at the dagger; the armor-piercing explosive round shattered the wickedly curved blade and blew a hole in the ritual circle. The light in the letters flickered and died without preamble.

    A strange feeling drifted over Contessa; she hadn’t Pathed that shot. In fact, her current Path, [discover the source of the interference], ended when she’d killed the last cultist.

    Contessa reloaded quickly, the hairs on her neck prickling, then looked at her surroundings: there was only one entrance or exit to this underground redoubt, and no antechambers. Four pews were here stationed, facing the terrible circle, and bodies still littered the ground. A single candlelit chandelier hung above the room’s center, near where she stood.

    She tried to Path a way to more information. Nothing.

    She tried to Path a way to find out who was watching her, for she felt someone watching her.

    Nothing.

    The door to the fell chapel opened.

    “Path to victory,” whispered Contessa, taking her saber in a reverse grip and pointing her gun at the opening door.

    Around a small burst of pain in her left temple, Contessa received a single step from her passenger:

    [Survive]

    The sound of a silenced pistol firing kicked her mind into gear, followed a microsecond later by her body; the first bullet grazed her waist on the left side as Contessa returned fire at her opponent, their nature obscured by the low light of the chapel’s chandelier and the darkness of the corridor. Her opponent moved as well, sparks flying from a wide, dark blade as they parried some of her bullets; more sparks came off the guard of Contessa’s saber as she parried what bullets she could Path. Which wasn’t many.

    Another line of white fire tore across Contessa’s right thigh before she heard a soft click of the enemy’s gun jamming open. They were out of bullets. She had three left.

    She used them; two were deflected while the third sent a burst of red mist into the air when it skipped against the shadowed person’s knee.

    They stood there for a moment before Contessa’s opponent sighed, dropped their gun carelessly to the ground, and stepped forward, black blade glinting in the candlelit room.

    It was an olive-skinned man, eyes obscured by red sunglasses, dressed in a white suit and fedora; their lips were pulled into a small frown – annoyance, deduced Contessa – and, as he stepped fully into the light of the charnel-scented chapel, he flicked his right hand, the sheath of the cane-sword, held in his left hand, sliding out of the sleeve into the man’s ready grip.

    Contessa tucked her gun into the back of her pants – reloading subtly as she did so, the spent magazine falling into her back pocket and replaced by a full one from the same location – shrugged off her trench coat, tossed it onto a relatively bloodless pew, and took a defensive stance, bringing her sword into a ready position. The Path had led her here.

    The man before her had the answers she sought. Contessa would make him talk-

    [Survive]

    -or else. Failure was not an option.

    “I had wondered what happened to that little gift,” the man in white drawled, still advancing on Contessa, his expression still one of annoyed boredom, “Not that it isn’t nice to finally meet the one who keeps thwarting my backup plans, but being reminded of my subordinate’s past failures is just so irritating.”

    “Who are you?” asked Contessa, not taking her eyes off the man’s chest or lowering her stance.

    The man in white stopped… and grinned. His teeth were like a shark’s.

    “I am the Man in White, one of the Thousand Forms of Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos… who you may also know as Abaddon.” He, Nyarlathotep, ended with a cruel chuckle.

    Shock rippled through Contessa’s body. This was an Entity?! This was the thing that made the Thinker crash and destroy her home world?!

    She’d heard that title, the Crawling Chaos, before, years ago in a run-down tavern, in another dimension. It had been spoken of as a cruel and uncaring force of nature, the source of calamities and plagues uncounted; furthermore, the one who’d whispered these facts fearfully to a group of listeners elaborated, it was known as the godhead of multiple death cults, wore many different faces to commune with those cults, and its worshippers were fanatical to the point of suicide, in their devotions.

    That it claimed to be Abaddon, the mysterious third Enemy that some failed Cauldron experiments ranted madly about before their passengers consumed them, only verified that strange rumor. Moreover, this strengthened Contessa’s resolve.

    This thing needed to die.

    Her initial shock was swiftly replaced with anger, long suppressed by time and conflict, tearing up through her heart and into her mind. Contessa took a firmer grip on her sword and replied furiously, “You know why I’m here.”

    “And I couldn't care less, you little meat-puppet,” sneered the abomination before her as it raised its blade, “Your very existence is detrimental to my greater plans, Fortuna, but, luckily for you, I find your pragmatism amusing. So…” it grinned in hunger as Contessa ignored the use of her given name, in favor of preparing her mind and body for a fight, “amuse me.”

    Tinker-tech steel clashed with a blade black as the void. The two danced around each other, Contessa focusing with all her might on not dying; her opponent claimed to be the force behind the Cycle that threatened humanity. She could not die here!

    Even so, this were the most difficult enemy she’d ever faced. Each of the Man In White’s blows rattled her bones, every kick like a charging bull; after a teeth-gritting blow to her hip, that sent a line of cracking fire through her pelvis, Contessa focused more on dodging or rolling around the monster’s blows. While the injuries it inflicted did sting, they were nothing to the pain in her heart; this monster killed her world, her parents, and it was clearly human, or humanoid, in form and function.

    It could bleed, Contessa knew, seeing the steady trickle leaking from its knee and the cuts she inflicted as their blades clashed again and again.

    It could bleed. It could die.

    Around and around they went, both fighters stepping over corpses and leaping over pews in their attempts to kill each other; after a flurry of blows that saw Contessa take a deep gouge across her chest and the Man In White lose the fingers on his right hand, Contessa stopped, breathing hard at the exertion fighting this monster was putting her through.

    Said monster didn’t stop.

    Snarling, the thing used its now-useless hand to fling their sword sheath at her; Contessa’s body sang as she dodged the blow and parried their follow-up strike. She swept her sword at the beast’s thighs, drawing a red line across them before bringing her sword back around to block the next-

    The black blade tore through Contessa’s shoulder, the spine-chilling cold it inflicted drawing a ragged scream from her mouth as she dodged away, switching her sabre to her left hand as her right arm went limp. Blood flowed freely down her now-useless arm as she gritted her teeth at the smirking fucker. He hadn’t screamed once during their fight, not when she cut off his fingers, or sliced his chest and thighs!

    He bled, but he wasn’t human.

    [Survive]

    In a flash, he was upon her again; this time, Contessa knew that her only chance didn’t lay in directly defeating her foe. He was too skilled, too strong, and her passenger was useless.

    She needed to improvise.

    His next slash cut across her abdomen, a line of cold fire lancing through Contessa’s guts in the blade’s wake; she’d dodged back, true, but that was according to plan. She stabbed her blade into his knee and ripped it sideways, aiming for the other-

    The butt of the monster’s sword hit her midsection like a speeding truck, sending her flying across the room to land on the ruined circle, her blade clattering to the ground behind her as Contessa vomited all over the corpse of the pregnant woman, clutching at her right shoulder. Her right tricep had torn when she landed, and was now hanging off her elbow.

    Contessa quickly shoved the muscle back into place-

    PAIN

    and grit her teeth against the searing-

    PAIN

    that seemed to encompass her entire body with every heartbeat, making her vision flicker-

    PAIN

    and forced herself to focus on the here and now-

    PAIN

    because if she died then everything she’d done with her life, since that blackest of days, was for nothing-

    PAIN

    and to fail… was unacceptable.

    [Survive]

    Through ringing ears and greying vision that blurred with unbidden tears, Contessa saw her fedora, which had come off when she’d landed; it had a cut on the brim. For some reason, the sight of her ruined hat made Contessa all the more furious.

    She turned to glare balefully at the limping figure of the Man in White as he shambled toward her, a mad grin stretching across his damnable face. Cold metal mixed with warm blood against the knuckles of her good hand as Fortuna tried to stem the bleeding on her arm and shift away at the same time.

    “I confess myself impressed, Fortuna,” chuckled the beast wearing the skin of a human, drawing closer and closer to the altar, “Why, I can count on one hand the number of persons who have given me such trouble in the past and have fingers to spare. Such a pity,” the smile vanished, “I’d expected more out of the Shard I gave to distract the Thinker.”

    Contessa drew her gun and pointed it at Nyarlathotep’s head, a rage to quench stars burning in her eyes.

    The monster chuckled without humor, raising its blade between the gun barrel and its condescending expression, “We already had this little dance-”

    “You killed my world,” accused Fortuna through a hateful sob of pain and loathing.

    It grinned again, “Yes. So what?”

    Fortuna fired twice. One bullet was casually deflected.

    The other hit its mark.

    The chandelier fell on Nyarlathotep, the monster letting out a rage-filled scream as its lower body was pinned beneath the cast-iron construction, its sword knocked away by the force of the unexpected blow.

    Fortuna slowly found her legs and stood, searing hatred coursing through her veins as she limped painfully but resolutely toward the trapped Man in White, a strip of bloodstained cloth, taken from a dead cultist, providing a makeshift bandage for her upper arm.

    While she did, the monster screamed vitriol and defiance at her, in a malicious voice that echoed off the chamber’s walls, making it sound like a baying crowd was chanting the words in unison:

    YOU THINK YOU’VE WON, HUMAN? I AM DEATHLESS! I AM NYARLATHOTEP! YOUR FICKLE WORLD WILL BE ONE OF UNCOUNTABLE MYRIADS I HAVE DEVOURED SINCE TIME BEGAN, A DROP OF WATER TO SLAKE MY QUENCHLESS THIRST! AND I HAVE COME TO THIS EARTH! ALL OF THESE EARTHS! MY THOUSAND FACES WILL FIND YOU, AND THIS PETTY VICTORY WILL TURN TO ASHES IN YOUR WHORISH MAW! MY AGENT, ANNOTATOR, WILL END YOUR CAULDRON’S CALLOUS TYRANNY! A WORD FROM HER LIPS WILL SAVE YOUR PATHETIC SPECIES, AND A WORD FROM HER LIPS WILL END EVERY WORLD! KILL HER AND SHE WILL-

    “Shut up and DIE!” screamed Fortuna, shooting the Man in White in the face over and over again, “DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE!

    Click-click-click-click…

    Breathing heavily, lightheaded from blood-loss, her body wracked with a complex spiderweb of pain, Fortuna ran another Path, then winced at the first step. She clenched her teeth in preparation…

    And pressed the barrel of her gun against her shoulder.

    FUCK ME RUNNING!

    The smell of frying pork and smoke filled her nostrils as the wound was cauterized. Not that Fortuna noticed. She was a little busy screaming her lungs out in pain, her vision turning white as exposed nerves were burnt.

    Collecting her hat and sword as fast as she could, Fortuna staggered over to her cloak and retrieved it as well; she needed to get out of here, try to heal herself – no. The security of Cauldron’s assets came first. She needed to seal away Doormaker and Clairvoyant, Fortuna decided as she limped toward the door. Then she could focus on…

    A cold wind blew from nowhere, caressing the chapel’s interior; paling in fearful realization, Fortuna looked over her shoulder.

    One of the cultist’s corpses was getting to its feet.

    “Door me,” her voice was a ragged wisp of autumn leaves scattering, but it worked regardless.

    She was standing in the room that held Doormaker and Clairvoyant, the two insensate Parahumans staring sightlessly at the ceiling.

    “Seal pattern Perseus-37-Quorum,” hissed Fortuna, falling to her knees between their beds and staring at the floor.

    It flickered, the composition and texture of the floor and room around her changing rapidly as Doormaker shifted the place through multiple dimensions over and over again. This was one of the first contingencies Contessa had put forward, in the event of Cauldron being threatened by an outside force, before everything had gone wrong with her Paths.

    Before Nyarlathotep interfered with everything.

    The floor finally settled on a hardwood setting, just before Doormaker and Clairvoyant joined hands. Now, the only Doors that would open were ones that Alexandria, Legend, Eidolon, Number Man, and Doctor Mother called for, and even then, none of them would lead here; in fact, if any tears in space occurred in this dimension, Doormaker would create a door in front of them that led to an inhospitable Earth.

    She was safe. Cauldron’s most precious assets were safe.

    The very thought made her want to scream, to rage, to cry. Fortuna did none of these.

    Instead, she leaned against Doormaker’s bed and spoke quietly, “Path to healing myself.”

    She was down an arm, had lost a lot of blood, and was probably bleeding internally. More than this, she was too tired from the fight, and too fraught at the revelations the Crawling Chaos presented to her – lies, possibly, but nothing could be discounted – to do more than collect the medkit from under Doormaker’s bed and stare at it blankly.

    The Path to Victory provided her with the first step.

    It confused Fortuna, but she still grabbed the fire extinguisher from under the same bed and leaned her neck against their joined hands.

    She opened the medkit and took out a Tinker-fabricated regeneration booster. She injected it near her wounded shoulder, ignoring the pain pulsing through her body with practiced focus.

    It didn’t work very well. A byproduct of the monster’s blade, maybe?

    Contessa shook her head; there was no time for thinking about the past minutes. First, she needed to survive.

    Using her teeth, she tore the key out of the fire extinguisher and set in in her lap, aiming the nozzle where her power told her to, and removed another Tinker-fabricated regen booster from the kit.

    And waited.

    .

    {/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\}

    .

    Days like these were rare enough as it was, in Jack’s happy opinion.

    Shatterbird’s recruitment was quite the event, as was Crawler’s, to say nothing of the joy recruiting his little Bonesaw a few months ago brought to his black and stony heart. The Siberian, Mannequin, and Hatchet Face… eh. Their joining was a foregone conclusion, really, given their individual dispositions for bringing pain and suffering.

    But attacking an asylum, a place where, were it not for their powers, each of the Nine would’ve doubtless ended up? Ah, the irony was enough to make Jack almost giddy with anticipation, mostly because this place was dedicated to the “healing” – read: imprisonment – of other special people.

    That there would certainly be someone here to replace Winter, who’d been unfortunately beheaded by Jack after she tried to kill his Bonesaw, and maybe Chuckles – Jack had to chide Crawler for eating his brother – was all but ensured! Why, their little game was less a recruitment, and more a rescue of some poor troubled soul!

    The government used this place to hide away those who didn’t fit into their silly view of the world, many of whom were perfectly sane and innocent upon arriving, so it only followed that his family, paragons of all the best of humanity’s virtues that they were, should mount a “rescue” of some of these wayward children.

    As always, everyone had agreed with this plan, for each their own reasons. His Bonesaw was looking forward to finding a sibling to play with, Crawler, Hatchet Face and the Siberian just wanted to make people scream – a noble and right-thinking goal – Mannequin was curious about how the Parahuman asylum was run – and also wanted to find someone interesting to nominate, which Jack approved of – while Shatterbird was the only one who’d been neutral on the idea, though she still agreed to take out the place’s communications and stand guard outside.

    So off they went, plying their merry trade, and within minutes, they’d struck gold!

    One was the Shaker 12, Labyrinth, who could alter the fabric of reality to suit her mood. A lot of potential there, but the girl would be difficult to turn, so said Jack’s gut; Mannequin had pursued her, but the girl had apparently given Alan the slip, given the rather fascinating if unimaginative interdimensional portal before him.

    It could use more impaled bodies and forbidding imagery, in Jack Slash’s professional opinion.

    The other golden child was Burnscar. Such a pleasant name! And the poor, fraught dear’s powerset was just perfect for his family’s purposes! Everyone was afraid of fire; it was ingrained into humanity’s genetic memory, a warning from the dark days of crouching fearfully in caves as forests and fields burned, whether from volcanic eruption or drought-induced brushfires.

    She was, as Jack estimated, a perfect new sister for his Bonesaw! Their chase had been fun, Burnscar flitting through her fires like a sprite as she avoided the Siberian and Hatchet Face’s attempts to corner her, but once that bit of sport inevitably ended, with Burnscar cornered and whimpering…

    Apparently Jack was a little off his game today. He’d figured the offer of a helping hand, a focus for the girl’s art – and it was artistic, the ways Burnscar played with fire – and a support structure that actually worked, as opposed to medication and talking with suits about icky feelings… well, Jack thought the girl would be putty in his hands, all ready to mold into the fine arsonist he knew she could be.

    Instead, she’d fled again, when parts of the asylum began shifting; Labyrinth’s doing.

    Jack had managed to wound the girl, however, and had been planning on offering to have Bonesaw stitch her up, in exchange for Labyrinth’s surrender.

    He hadn’t expected the two to find outside assistance.

    Their protector was… beautiful.

    A prim and proper young lady, well dressed and dreadful in her bearing, with a projection that revealed to Jack the deep darkness of her soul shrouding her and the Nine’s prey from retribution. Not since Harbinger left had Jack seen such raw potential for chaos and disorder; the girl was an avatar of annihilation, Jack could see it in her eyes. Here was his perfect understudy; a destructive fury dwelt in her heart, possessed of such cold calculation and decisiveness that even the Siberian was stilled by her voice.

    She was a ruinous force of nature, an apocalypse waiting to happen.

    Oh, yes, she’d require work to bring her true self to the fore. It would need the deaths of all she held dear and the destruction of her sense of propriety to accomplish, but Jack had a feeling that her beauty would only grow through such hardships, and the end result would certainly be worth it.

    If only he knew her name, he could begin.

    “Oh, yes! Tell us your name! Then we can play! You, me and Amy! Burnscar and Labyrinth don’t want to play with us anymore,” clapped his Bonesaw, ever-so happy at finding such an agreeable and dangerous young woman, “so I’ll make sure they’ll be together forever!

    Ah, yes, Panacea was there. A good consolation prize, should the Master before him prove difficult. Siberian really needed to get her ass in gear, though; they might need the backup, if the girl protecting Labyrinth and Burnscar proved rebellious.

    “You wish to know my name, Jack Slash?” spoke the scarfed – but really quite well-dressed – young woman.

    Every word, every syllable, brushed against Jack’s ears like knives against glass.

    A rock formed in his gut, and he wasn’t alone in his estimation of the mounting threat before him, if his Bonesaw’s small gasp told him anything.

    Suddenly, the girl’s entire bearing shifted, and something in the back of Jack’s mind began to scream at him as her voice tore through the air between them, “You can ask it from the ferryman, as he drags your vile soul to Tartarus!”

    ‘So that’s how it is,’ thought Jack worriedly, sending a subtle blade at the girl’s neck; the feeling in his gut was telling him to kill the girl. His gut hadn’t lied to him, ever.

    Sparks flew from the Master projection’s wings as it shielded her; his Bonesaw’s preciously adorable spider-bots scuttled forward as Jack tried to breach the thing’s defenses. Just a little closer and the girl would be paralyzed and asleep, which would dismiss her projection, and then-

    A sound rippled outward from a gap in the wings.

    It was OBSCENE to Jack’s ears; his very mind felt dirty just for hearing… what in the solid red fuck did that girl just say?! Was that a sentence? On the other hand, there weren’t any obvious effects resulting from that eldritch heresy against the spoken word, save Jack’s sudden and perfectly understandable desire to take a long, long shower. With nitric acid.

    Whatever his own feelings, the uncommon sound of his Bonesaw retching made the rock that’d formed in his gut turn into a heavy boulder.

    Then it came.

    A tendril of green-black flesh, turgid and rippling like a fever dream, rose over the Siberian’s still body. Row after row after row of shark-like teeth appeared in a gaping maw that seemed to grow from the fell limb…

    And it ate the Siberian with a very final-sounding crunch.

    Now feeling quite justifiably worried, Jack grabbed his whimpering Bonesaw with one hand and slashed his machete at the thing growing in the hallway, the blonde girl he was pulling to his side having her spider-bots fire analysis probes and several contagions into the mass of undulating ooze, in a bid to both understand its defenses and weaknesses, and hopefully slow the monster down as Jack steadily retreated from the massive, singing beast that was still growing.

    Whatever it was, wherever it came from, Jack instinctively knew three things about it.

    One, it wasn’t a projection, but – Bonesaw screamed in fraught terror as eyes began opening and looking down at the pair like they were ants – an intelligent, living thing.

    Two, it was extremely durable – Jack swore as each of the wounds he inflicted healed in less than a second – and, if it was that durable, it was likely also stronger than Crawler at his most joyous.

    And thirdly… it was hungry.

    There were other realizations that flitted through Jack’s thoughts like a swarm of drunken butterflies – the thing was very old, it didn’t understand English or the basic concepts of personal space, property, or hygiene, and it was giving Jack the same general vibes Tinkers usually did – but those were all tertiary worries, matters he would have to consider, parse and brood upon at a later date, preferably while engaging in his favorite relaxation exercise of making people beg for death.

    Right now, Jack was not at all interested in discovering what this particular creature’s gullet looked like, and, loathe though he was to admit it, a beast such as this was a little over his and Bonesaw’s weight class. Also, his pet bio-Tinker was still screaming incoherently. Not an environment conducive to killing oozes of unusual size and spurious nature.

    “Time to go!” shouted Jack; taking his Bonesaw in a bridal carry, he activated the emergency implants she’d added to his body, amplifying his speed and physical dexterity, and ran for the tunnel the Siberian and Ned had dug into this underground facility.

    As he leapt up a series of stairs, several spider-bots leaping onto his body, his Bonesaw finally managed to get ahold of herself.

    Wide-eyed and still clearly terrified, she informed him of her discoveries, “Fire! It’s weak against fire!”

    “Pity,” grumped Jack with a sardonic smile as he leapt from railing to railing, “We could’ve used Burnscar against it.”

    “I can make something,” squeaked Bonesaw, a spider-bot landing on her chest and opening to reveal several vials, “but I need tim-”

    TEKELI-LI!

    In the wake of a joyous, crazed roar that sent fiery claws down Jack’s spine, the stairs below them were torn away by a limb of green flesh that was as thick as a redwood’s trunk, wriggling pseudopods speckled with eyes glaring hungrily up at the two fleeing members of the Nine as further sounds of destruction quickly followed, heralding the beast beginning its pursuit.

    “EEEEEEEEEK!” was Bonesaw’s girlish, shrieking response to this most unfortunate event.

    “AAAAHHHH!” yelled Jack manfully, doubling his efforts to get the hell away from the thing that, apparently, felt its lunch had enough of a head-start.

    TEKELI-LI! TEKELI-LI! gleefully screamed the pursuing abomination against biology, language, and color-scheme.

    Stone floors and walls shattered around Jack as he continued his mildly panicked flight, the beastly ooze paying no heed to property damage regulations – heroes usually followed those! – as it sang a song of happiness and bloodlust; it was at this point, Jack realized something else, much to his horror.

    It would never stop chasing them, not until the Nine were slaughtered.

    Swearing mentally, Jack tensely asked his Bonesaw around the sound of shattering Asylum, “Can’t you dissolve it or something?! It’s a blob, for Scion’s sake!”

    Bonesaw shrieked back angrily, face twisted in rage as she ranted, “THAT THING MAKES NO SENSE!”

    TEKELI-LI! CRASH! BANG!

    “ADAPTIVE BIOLOGY, RAPID REGENERATION, TOTAL REDUNDANCY THROUGHOUT, ABSORBS ANY FORM OF MATTER FOR GROWTH-”

    TEKELI-LI! CRASH! CRASH!

    “AND IT HAS A MODULAR, QUASI-DIMENSIONAL INTERNAL STRUCTURE! IT’S LIKE A HUGE, TINKER-TECH MACROPHAGE FROM HELL!” and she went back to her Tinkering, muttering caustically under her breath, while Jack, now very annoyed, finally spotted the exit.

    TEKELI-LI! TEKELI-LI!

    And the thing was right on their heels; the ground fell away from Jack as he skipped over falling debris and dodged around a grasping swarm of teeth-filled tentacles. The hole in the wall seemed miles away, and the actually rather impressive monster behind them had to have a Mover rating to keep up with them.

    Then Crawler appeared around a corner and spat a glob of black material onto the thing.

    TEKELI-LI! shrieked the pseudo-macrophage, recoiling from the hit briefly.

    That was enough to give Jack time to stop next to Crawler, who was grinning in glee at the sight of the ooze.

    “No.” barked the leader of the Slaughterhouse Nine.

    Crawler looked so dejected, looking between Jack and the ooze with a pleading lilt to his voice, “But I wanna fight-”

    TEKELI-LI!

    And then one of Crawler’s legs was burned off by a red laser beam. A laser beam that shot out of one of the ooze’s many, many eyes.

    That was really too many eyes, for Jack’s comfort.

    FUCKING RUN!” this time, Jack and Bonesaw screamed in unison, and Crawler seemed to understand that he was not only outvoted, but outclassed by the thing chasing them. He spat another glob at the thing and joined his two compatriots in fleeing from the…

    Halfway up the tunnel, which Crawler was collapsing behind them, in the hope of slowing the thing down-

    TEKELI-LI! to little effect, clearly, as another laser beam shot over Jack’s shoulder, drawing a rather naughty imprecation from Crawler and a startled eek from Bonesaw.

    -Jack realized, with a severe frown, that the lion’s share of his annoyance with this whole situation stemmed from not knowing what the hell this thing was called!

    Then the Siberian appeared, wrapped one arm around Jack and Bonesaw (“Sibby! You’re alive!”), grabbed Crawler with the other hand, and shot up the long tunnel into daylight with a furious TEKELI-LI echoing at their backs.

    Once they were set down near a floating, nervous Shatterbird (“What the hell did you two do?!”) and Hatchet Face, who was standing a way’s off and making a rather nice sculpture from the bodies of the Asylum’s resident PRT troopers, Jack got a good look at the Siberian’s face.

    She looked panicked. Her face was twitching, and her body was jerking at odd moments. He swore she was drooling a little.

    TEKELI-LI!

    And the ooze was going to catch up to them before they could make good their retreat; if the Siberian was a projection – he’d suspected, and this event proved it beyond a doubt – then their usual tactics of scattering to the wind and regrouping later wouldn’t work.

    That, and Jack was pretty sure the thing would chase them to the ends of the Earth anyway.

    While the idea of leading this ooze on a merry chase throughout the country would be pretty funny, Jack wasn’t looking forward to the grey hairs he’d get from all the stress that came with avoiding this insuperable thing, so…

    “Bonesey – ah, good,” the smart girl has ensconced herself in a Tinker-tech shield they’d appropriated from a Toybox cache; turning to the others, Jack drew several knives and grinned, “Either we kill this thing or it kills us. Bonesaw has a way, but we need to give her time to create it.”

    Hatchet Face looked between the tunnel – TEKELI-LI! – and Jack, “Just have the Siberian-”

    “It ate me,” the Siberian twitched.

    Tying his long hair back, Jack faced the hole with determination, “Try not to let that happen again; use a rock or something,” the Siberian darted away and returned with a Mack-sized boulder; Jack smiled, “Yes, just like that. Shatterbird, hold nothing back; take silicon from the dirt if you have to. Hatchet Face, stay near Bonesaw and try not to die; I’m fairly sure your powerset won’t help much against this beastie. Crawler, sponge up the damage, see if you can evolve to take it down, but keep your distance until that happens.”

    TEKELI-LI!

    And then it came.

    Not from the hole, but from out of the ground, and Jack felt his stomach go cold at the sight of what his merry band had to face.

    It was massive, the size of an eighteen-wheeler truck with all the trimmings, covered in burning red eyes set into twisting green-black flesh that seemed slightly furry. Arms and grasping limbs reached for the remaining members of the Nine with another furiously screamed TEKELI-LI!

    A high-pitched screech stopped it cold, countless shards of glass and silica slamming into and cutting frantically through the mouth-lined pseudopods. Crawler danced around in front of the thing, spitting multicolored loogies into the fray from his many mouths. The Siberian screamed like a berserker that just witnessed its puppy get flattened by a mail truck and swung her boulder at the grasping limbs.

    Hatchet Face just sort of stood there with an incredulous expression, shouting “WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?!” over the din. Not that Jack noticed much, as he was a little busy swinging his blades into the openings Shatterbird was leaving in a bid to keep the beast from eating them.

    TEKELI-LI.

    Then a laser beam erased Hatchet Face and glassed the ground behind him.

    More lasers, ranging in size from pencil-thin to oh-shit-no thick, ripped through Shatterbird’s glass storm to assail the Nine. The Siberian, unaffected by this most unfortunate development, just kept screaming and beating on the ooze with her boulder. Bonesaw, still in her barrier, ignored the fighting in favor of Tinkering. The dear.

    Shatterbird swore and dodged around the beams as best as she could while Crawler tanked hits with aplomb; Jack bobbed and weaved between the death-rays, a smile forming on his face. This was getting exciting; in fact, if it wasn’t for the fact that his opponent was doing its absolute oozy best to murder them viciously, Jack Slash would go so far as to say he was having fun!

    But, alas – a stray beam burned a shiny spot on Jack’s shoulder, to which he replied by puncturing several of the thing’s eyes – this wasn’t much fun. Merely exciting, in the way good fights usually were.

    A horrified, enraged scream from above was Shatterbird's response to losing her legs due to the beast’s incessant Blaster attacks; to make matters worse, this caused her focus to fail for a critical moment. One which their opponent took immediate advantage of.

    TEKELI-LI!

    A mouth of razor teeth exploded from beneath the Siberian, chomping both her and the boulder she was wielding in two bites; as this happened, multiple tendrils of green flesh snaked out and, despite Jack’s efforts to keep them at bay, wrapped around Crawler.

    Who began screaming, as the ooze proceeded to eat him, “GET IT OFF ME! GET IT OFF ME!”

    Jack and Shatterbird did their best to oblige their teammate’s progressively more panicked pleas for assistance, but there was too much of the thing for the two of them to handle; that, and the beast was ripping up boulders to use as shields against Shatterbird, and was throwing clods of dirt and whole trees at Jack.

    His knives blurred furiously into the mass of tentacles, a serious worry beginning to fill Jack as Crawler’s pleas turned to horrified screaming; was fire really its only weakness?! Where the hell did it even come from?!

    The girl who called this unfathomable horror into the world hadn’t given him the Tinker vibe. No, that girl was something… other. Something stranger than superpowers, like Grey Boy, Sleeper, Nilbog, and the Faerie Queen.

    Smile slipping into a focused glare, Jack promised himself something: if he survived this encounter, he was going to kill that girl. No games, no recruitment, no fun. She was too dangerous to allow to live in any capacity.

    TEKELI-LI!

    “EEEEAAAAHHH-KK!”

    Aaaand, Crawler was just torn in half; mercifully, for Ned, the ooze gleefully devoured his remains with swift efficiency. Then the victorious beast let out another TEKELI-LI and continued its assault.

    The Siberian returned with a… bus. Not the Nine’s bus, thankfully. She still used it as a baseball bat, and managed to knock the thing back a few feet, much to the gelatinous horror’s roaring fury, giving Jack and Shatterbird a little breathing room.

    The downside was that the Siberian looked even more crazed than before; granted, Jack mused while digging a bleeding furrow in the creature which Shatterbird skillfully filled with glass, the Siberian had been eaten by the monster twice now, and Bonesaw had told him its interior makeup didn’t make any sense.

    Hopefully – he jumped over a mass of tendrils that exploded out of the ground and cut them to ribbons – Sibby would be more careful. Now that she had a bus, though, it should be easier to keep the ooze at bay until Bonesaw could-

    The Siberian vanished with a quiet pop.

    “What.”

    Jack’s humorless statement was obscured by the bus crashing into the ground, Shatterbird screaming in frustration, and another happy TEKELI-LI from their opponent.

    What did that word even mean?! AND WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO THE-

    Jack’s danger-sense tingled.

    And Eidolon appeared above Shatterbird with a green flash.

    ‘Oh fuck,’ thought Jack even as he roared, “SOMETIME TODAY, BONESAW!”

    Too late, it seemed, as the Triumvirate member encased Shatterbird in a cocoon of silver light.

    Her glass fell, and revealed the monster in all its putrid glory.

    Before Jack’s horrified eyes, the thing regenerated all its wounds, its hundreds of mouths grinning and muttering in tongues alien to his ears and laughing at him, wriggling limbs swaying around its massive form.

    They’d barely inconvenienced the thing, Jack realized hatefully; all the work he’d put into the Nine, for decades, and this thing thought their efforts amusing.

    TEKELI-LI~

    Quicker than most eyes could follow, eight tree-trunk-thick tendrils shot into the sky, surprising an approaching Eidolon, and surrounded Shatterbird’s cage.

    Jack ripped his blades through the air, screaming incoherently at the ooze that dared laugh at him.

    Two things happened, then, simultaneously.

    All eight of those skyward limbs grabbed something invisible and pulled; Shatterbird came apart as the time-slowing field was split into pieces, the city-destroying woman’s blood and organs raining down onto the battlefield.

    Not that Jack had the time to appreciate this kill most impressive, as he was a little busy with the fifty tendrils, large rocks, and laser beams that descended upon the serial murderer like the wrath of an angry god.

    TEKELI-LI! Cried the ooze victoriously.

    He met the challenge head-on, blades whipping left and right, leaping from ground to ground as he made his way back toward Bonesaw’s barrier. A low boom from above heralded the arrival of Alexandria from supersonic flight; this, in Jack’s mind, was a good thing. If only one of the two heroes could get within shouting distance, he could turn them on this beastie and flee with his Bonesaw. After setting everything on fire, of cour-

    TEKELI-LI!

    A bladed whip knocked both of Jack’s Bowie knives from his hands; he barely had the chance to draw his last machete when a second tendril plunged into his sternum.

    “Hrrk…” this, Jack Slash mused while cutting away another couple grasping vines, was a novel sensation; it wasn’t everyday one could feel the sensation of multiple tiny mouths eating your lungs and ribcage, after all.

    A metallic sound preceded a spider-bot latching onto his back, right as the tendril in Jack’s chest tensed-

    “I’m sorry, Jack.”

    Ah.

    Jacob grinned, pulling a switchblade and slashing away into the horror as it reeled him in; he’d long wondered when one of his little projects would betray him. Usually, he saw such uprisings coming long before they actually happened.

    Still, he continued to muse in what were surely his last moments, Jacob couldn’t really blame Riley for sacrificing him. How else would she get one of her spider-bots close enough to kill this myriad-eyed macrophage?

    At the same time, Jack could do nothing but follow his gut.

    With his machete, he cut off the tendril in his chest, making the monster recoil in seeming pain; not that this particularly mattered, due to the dozens of other tendrils coming his way, but his gut told him that they wouldn’t quite reach him.

    A small beep came from the spider-bot, right before Jack cut its legs off with his switchblade. It detached from his back as he continued to fly through the air.

    Maybe he’d survive? No… no, Bonesaw had gone for broke on this attack. If he was lucky – and Jacob didn’t feel very lucky right this second – he’d be immolated quickly, a nice painless death.

    Before he could think of a worse fate, everything was on fire.

    TEKELI-LI! TEKELI-LI!

    And, to the sound of the beast screaming in shrill terror and pain, Jacob closed his eyes as the cold-but-hot feeling of flames began to embrace him-
    -only to be let down as he belly-flopped onto hardwood flooring.

    FWOOSH!

    ‘Ah. That’s nice and cold,’ a searing pain, unlike any other he’d ever felt, burst in Jacob’s ribcage, drawing a choking, wet sound from his throat, ‘So this is Hell. Relief, then more pain. Funny, there’s quite a lot of empirical, not to mention philosophic, evidence against-’

    A sharp, invasive pain appeared in Jacob’s shoulder, which was followed by the grasping, metal-flavored vines of a Tinker-tech regenerative tincture. Also more pain.

    ‘MOTHER OF ALL FUCKS!’

    A lot more pain. Enough that Jacob promised a painful, slow death to whoever saved his life with this most barbaric of implements.

    He had to stop thrashing and screaming himself hoarse first, however.

    Luckily, the fits passed, allowing Jack to take stock of his body; he was still quite bit up and burned from all the near-misses the beast inflicted on him, but the gaping chest wound was, while red and raw, most decidedly not a gaping, fatal chest wound.

    And his ponytail was shortened. Jack sighed. Today was a terrible day, and it simply wasn’t over.

    ‘Ah well,’ he decided, and looked over at his rescuer, a biting admonishment on his lips and a knife in his hand, thoughts of retribution and delightful stress relief spinning through his muddled thoughts.

    The sight of the beautiful if quite pale and clearly dying woman, looking at him with a silent plea of assistance, brought those thoughts to a screeching halt against a concrete divide. It was a fiery wreck with no survivors, more at 11.

    “Help…” weakly begged the woman in the bloodied fedora, Contessa, a spent fire extinguisher rolling from her lap, an open medkit at her side.

    Jacob sighed, mentally screamed a few dozen of his useless father’s choicest obscenities, and reached for the medkit.

    After injecting the first Tinker-tech regenerative into the woman, eliciting a pained groan from her bloodied lips, Jacob asked mildly, “I do hope you realize that this doesn’t make us friends?”

    “As if I’d call you friend,” steadfastly replied Cauldron’s boogeyman through a haze of painkillers and bloodloss, “No. I need you to heal me, and then we need to talk.”

    While she said this, Jacob saw the state of her shoulder, and grimaced. He still set to work on using those same regenerative needles to reattach her tricep; as he did, with much grunting and moaning of his erstwhile patient, Jacob observed, “What do we need to talk about, and why did my people have to die before you decided that this little chat couldn’t wait?”

    Both very good questions. Both were answered promptly.

    “In… reverse order,” slurred Contessa, “everyone… will think you’re… dead, and that’ssss… a good thing, due to the… second reason.

    “Our world… is going to end, and you’rrre… going to help me stop it.”

    While she said these things, Jacob bandaged her arm; the wound in her shoulder wasn’t healing very fast, to say nothing of the other injuries covering her brutalized form. He kept his focus on stitching and bandaging the rest of her body, and didn’t say anything on what she’d said to him.

    Not until she flipped one of his bangs and chuckled brokenly, “I like… the white… nice touch…”

    Jacob blinked. He picked up his switchblade and – oh. Well, yes, the shock of white in his hair was a little fetching, but, all the same, this ruined his image! That was rather annoying.

    He needed to relieve some stress...

    To wit, he laughed and put the blade against Contessa’s throat; she never stopped smiling, even as he informed her, “If the world is going to end, my dear, I’d much rather be on the side that ends it,” Jacob grinned, “after all, that’s where all the fun will be! But!” he lifted his blade slightly, smile slipping away, “As you’ve saved my life, I’ll give you one chance to give me a reason to help you.”

    She looked right into his eyes, still smiling drunkenly.

    “It’s not just the world that will end,” spoke Contessa, her voice perfectly even despite her grievous wounds, “but our history. Our deeds, dreams and stories will be naught but ash in the wind,” she laughed, a hollow and broken sound to Jacob’s ears, “And help them? Ha! What makes you think they need you? You, me, all of humanity… we’re nothing but food for them.”

    While Jacob found the hatred in the woman’s voice quite tantalizing, and while he wished to toy with the idea of turning her to the side of righteousness, Contessa wasn’t finished, and expounded on her findings with a manic, furious gleam in her eyes.

    “This is all a game, Jacob. First, one played with superpowers, but now the game has changed. Now the stakes don’t so much hinge on humanity’s survival, in the face of the source of our powers… now the stakes are our very souls, and our enemy pays our resistance as much mind as one would pay attention to the aspirations of a gnat. It toyed with me,” she snarled, “and it toyed with you, through its agent; it fed us scraps of information, put us through trials, not because it wants us to succeed, or assist it, but because it is amused by our efforts.

    “Why should you help me?” Contessa’s smile was a showing of teeth, the click of a gun’s safety, and the pressing of cold metal against the raw skin on his chest.

    “Haven’t you wondered what would happen, if you killed a god?

    Jacob looked up at the other two Parahumans in the room, quirking his lip and musing over what she’d told him.

    On one hand, it really irked him to find that the girl was only a symptom of something much bigger. That really messed with his plans for retribution; after all, the best way to deal with a problem was to cut the head off and let the body die. Or give the remains to Bonesaw; that would ensure at least an afternoon of quality entertainment, especially given the peanut gallery of himself, Crawler and Mannequin.

    Good times. Shame he’d have to punish the girl for betraying him, but, eh, c’est la vie.

    But to kill a supposed god? Oh, now that tickled Jacob’s fancy like nothing else! To spit upon the natural order, to reach beyond mortality and slay the immortal despot! Here was a challenge… one which had, admittedly, nearly killed him not an hour and a half ago, BUT!

    Now, he had quality help, in the form of this woman and the two likely versatile and useful Parahumans next to them.

    On the other hand…

    Jacob hummed thoughtfully and looked at the woman again, “You know, Shatterbird and I had a conversation, some time ago-” he was cut off by Contessa scoffing and rolling her eyes; Jacob grinned as he deciphered the message, speaking it aloud, “Ah. They don’t know.”

    “As if I’d tell them,” she replied venomously, “Or is the idea of being on the receiving end of a lobotomy enjoyable to you? Because I’m not looking forward to it myself.”

    He removed his knife from her throat. She removed the gun from his chest.

    Jacob resumed his tending to Contessa’s wounds. While he did, he regaled her with the tale of the ooze’s attack, and she reciprocated with her own story. Of cultists and a nameless fear, of interesting rituals and deathless men in white suits.

    Having fully bandaged her right arm, and with both of them quite flush on information about the girl, Annotator, and her mentor, this Nyarlathotep character, Jacob drew out his pack of black cloves and offered one to Contessa. She accepted with a grunt of thanks.

    It annoyed him slightly that he couldn’t read her very well, but he’d make do. Jacob was nothing if not charismatic.

    “Oh! I do have a condition, in regards to my assistance,” he told her, two hours after he’d been rescued; while Fortuna, as she’d told him her name, cleaned her equipment, he’d pursued the contents of one of the crates lining the room: a delightful selection of knifes and other bladed implements, “See, while not a simpleton by any stretch, I’m not much of a medic, and while we have quite a lot of supplies… well,” he gestured at her body, “if you want to get back on your feet quickly, we’ll need-”

    “Bonesaw.” Fortuna said flatly, affixing her cleaned silencer onto her gun again.

    Jacob nodded, happy that she understood-

    “Is compromised.”

    Ah. That was… not good.

    “My dear,” Jack’s smile was back as he lifted a new kukri knife from a box, “I’m afraid you’ll have to elaborate on that.”

    She did.

    .

    {/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\}

    .
    That evening


    Sniffling to herself, Bonesaw kept walking through the park her teleporter had dumped her. She was so sad!

    Everyone, her whole family – except her remaining bots, Twitchy and Screamy – was dead and gone, victims of that fucking beast

    She shook her head. No, no, she shouldn’t swear, even in the safety of her own head. Mr… Mr. Jack…

    Bonesaw whimpered and hugged herself. She’d betrayed Mr. Jack! If only she’d been a little faster… a little better…

    It was just like Riley and her family all over again! She wasn’t fast enough, and now everyone was deader than dead! That monster had eaten them all, and Bonesaw couldn’t go back to the bus, where all the cloning samples were, not that it mattered because she was all alone and with the heroes around…

    Choking back another sob, Bonesaw trudged into a copse of trees, trying to think of something to take her mind off all the bad stuff that’d happened today, but it was just so hard! They’d been having so much fun and then that older girl with the glasses came along and ruined everything!

    Everyone was dead and she was all alone! What was she supposed to do now?!

    ‘That’s easy. Panacea lives in Brockton Bay, so she probably lives there, too,’ Bonesaw thought with a serious frown while laying a cardboard box under a weeping willow’s protective eaves; settling down and opening a lunchbox, Bonesaw removed her third-to-last peanut butter and jelly sandwich and began eating mournfully, ‘I’ll have to prepare more stuff this time, though. Some really fun things! Maybe… no… oh! A worm, made of people, all melted and stitched together, that gets bigger the more creatures it eats, oh, oh, and load it with plagues, just in case! Weaponized Ebola crossed with a zombie virus, slow-acting of course, and beefed-up versions of every other disease known to man to mask its release!’

    Mr. Jack would be so proud of her… assuming she could pull it off, of course.

    Because Bonesaw was all alone, and had to do all the hard work herself! Usually, Aunt Sibby or Uncle Manny would bring her all the material she needed to work with, but now they were dead…

    ‘What should I do?’ wondered Bonesaw, suddenly not very hungry; a chilly breeze whipped through the park, making the little homicidal girl shiver, ‘The heroes are looking for me, I know they are, and without any help…’ she sniffed and hugged her knees as the wind, heralding the oncoming winter, picked up, ‘What should I do?!’

    Clonk. “OWIE!”

    Blinking the stars out of her eyes and leaping to her feet, her spider-bots chittering warningly, Bonesaw rubbed the top of her head and looked at the thing that bonked her head.

    It was a book, wrapped in yellowed fabric.

    She looked up. Yeah, that looked like a good place to hide a book, right between a couple branches.

    ‘But why would someone hide a book?’ thought the girl, kneeling next to it and making Screamy unwrap part of the fabric; it looked pretty plain, if somewhat wrinkled from rain.

    Her family, except Hatchet Face and Crawler, all insisted that books were important to growing girls. Not only that, but Mr. Jack boasted that his best ideas came from books! Maybe this was a sign of some sort, from Mr. Jack, that she should read some books and, once she had enough new information, Bonesaw could make her suffer.

    Bonesaw giggled as she pulled the yellowed book closer; the leather it was made of felt weird. A closer examination revealed that it was bound in human flesh.

    Her grin exploded across her face. Any book that was bound in such a material would only have the best ideas!

    Silently thanking Mr. Jack, and promising to make a memorial to her fallen family, Bonesaw checked the spine. No title. Maybe the cover?

    [​IMG]

    A three-limbed sigil, bright neon yellow against the brownish-yellow of the book’s bindings, drew a small sound of awe from Bonesaw’s lips. Yellow was a great color! Grinning, and happy that she’d given herself night vision, the young Bio-Tinker reclined against the tree trunk, brought over Twitchy and Screamy to keep her company, and opened the book.

    Blank page. Oh, so this book was probably all serious in its ways; all books that began with a blank page were to be taken seriously! Auntie Shatterbird said so, so it must be true!

    Bonesaw turned the page, and beheld the book’s title:

    THE KING IN YELLOW
    a three-part play
    By 「 }__|__{ 」the Unspeakable


    Oh! A play! Bonesaw clapped her hands and, full of delight, turned to the next page, expecting something worthy of, or hopefully surpassing, the boorish works of Shakespeare.

    Act One, Scene One

    Bonesaw picked up her apple juice and sipped it, just to make sure she had something to drink, and began reading.







    Bonesaw mechanically sipped her apple juice, her hand shaking as she wept with delight.







    Riley sniffed, then coughed out a loogie of snot and blood. It fell in her lap and writhed. That wouldn’t do, not at all. She had Twitchy kill it.

    Tears of red streamed down her young cheeks as she caressed the pages of the holy book, whispering, “So beautiful…”

    She’d been right! This book, this play most decadent and dreadful, was the greatest idea ever! Why would someone want to hide this?! Oh, well, if Riley was being honest with herself, she had to admit that most people wouldn’t be able to appreciate the sublime aesthetic of Lord –

    In the depths of her enslaved mind, Riley wailed in delighted, tantric agony as a being older than stars idly violated the trappings of her soul, making her toes curl as tendrils slid in and out of her brain, reaching down into her core and forcing a keen of pleasure from Riley's panting lips as it curiously fiddled with her ovaries-

    -‘s vision, but Riley would show those naysayers! She’d put on the play! Oh, but first, she’d need actors! And an audience!

    Oh, but she shouldn’t be too hasty! And why should there only be one showing?! The play was in three parts after all! So she could have three showings, in three cities!

    She’d save Brockton Bay for last.

    With a grin that dripped blood mixed with pus, Riley closed the book and stood. There was a town not twenty minutes’ skipping from here! That would provide her with a great place to do auditions and practice for opening night!

    Tucking her Lord’s masterwork into her pink backpack, Riley turned eyes that no longer saw only light in the direction of the town, the fingers in her brain making her body start skipping merrily away from the park, Twitchy and Screamy bouncing along happily like ducklings following their mother.

    Riley couldn’t wait to make her new Master happy!

    .

    {/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\}

    .

    Jacob stared off into space, as he had been for the past minutes, while Fortuna continued to clean her saber and fume silently at her new enemy’s revelations.

    This thing, Nyarlathotep, had been active long before Cauldron ever existed; it’d conspired against the Entities, which reasoned that the monsters had upset Nyarlathotep somehow. Fortuna didn’t want to think about it too hard.

    Just like she didn’t want to think about the ‘gift’ the Man in White mentioned. Her passenger…

    Was there anything she could do? Yes. It meant working with Jack Slash, but Fortuna would do it.

    Because, while neither of them could actually kill a god, they could mitigate the damage the coming conflict would do doubt cause, and, in doing so, distract said god long enough to provide someone else with the opening to save them all.

    Annotator, the girl who’d slaughtered the Nine, needed to be protected from Bonesaw’s predations, as well as the ire of those who would either use or abuse her abilities. Which meant Contessa needed to report to Cauldron and tell them to keep their hands off the girl. Eventually.

    First, she needed to heal and get back in the saddle. Then she and Jack could go find Bonesaw and murder her with extreme prejudice.

    Her ribs, pelvis… hell, her whole body throbbed with pain as she breathed and went through the motions of cleaning her sword.

    It wouldn’t be that easy. But nothing worth doing, Fortuna knew, was in any way easy.

    “You’re telling the truth,” Jacob finally rasped, the look in his eyes telling her he wished she was lying.

    Fortuna just nodded; even that hurt.

    Fuck me running,” her interlocutor snarled, taking a long drag off his clove as he glared at nothing.

    A black chuckle, more a sob really, left Fortuna’s lips, “Yeah.”

    “So!” he shouted, knocking her grief aside as he stretched and looked at her expectantly, “What do we do first?”

    Blinking, because the painkillers in her bloodstream were clouding her thoughts, Fortuna answered slowly, “Well, first, we need to kidnap an Asian schoolgirl and force her Trigger,” Fortuna shrugged, then winced, “Ow. Shouldn’t be too hard.”

    “Again, on one condition,” Jacob grinned at her, twirling a butterfly knife in one hand.

    Fortuna glared at him and deadpanned, “No. Jacob,” she interrupted when he opened his mouth, “just… we’ll leave that up to her, okay?” It was easier to compromise than fight this annoying bastard, so said her power; she might not be able to trust it against the bigger threats, but at least it allowed her to see through the asshole’s plans.

    “Fine,” groused the other mass-murderer in the room, who then added with a grin, “But if she agrees, you have to wear a matching outfit.”

    Fortuna’s glare intensified.

    Jacob raised an eyebrow.

    “If she refuses, you have to wear it instead.”

    “I’m sure you’d love that,” laughed the former leader of the Slaughterhouse Nine, before a fire extinguisher sailed out of a Door and clonked him on the head, “OW! What the hell was that for?!”

    Fortuna blinked and looked at Doormaker, who had a small smile on his face. She turned back to Jacob, who was rubbing his head while glaring between the three Cauldron capes…

    And she grinned, “Maybe you should develop a better sense of humor, Sailor Slash.”

    “Oh, fuck off,” growled the man, rising and walking away as Fortuna giggled, only to be stopped by a pillow in her face, “And get some sleep, you drug-addled hipster!”

    Fortuna kept laughing as she made herself comfortable. Oh, she couldn't wait to make that bastard god Nyarlathotep scream.

    .

    {/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\}

    .

    A/N: I'm a lying liar who lies about content exclusive to this website.

    It came to me suddenly: the Mythos is DARK.

    So, I thought, why not have the incipient Old One who gets off on violating the genetic matter of its worshipers... do exactly that to its newest priestess?

    Might have to move this to the NSFW boards, if only because of *ahem* certain future omakes and the edited color text above. Or make a separate thread for the omakes. We'll see.

    Until the next chapter, QQ!

    ~Baked
     
    Last edited: Oct 25, 2019
    Harpy81, Arghonn, Jobastion and 53 others like this.
  22. eveakane

    eveakane Formerly an Innocent Grammarian

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    And this just made my day. Everything's going to shit!
     
  23. PrinceJonathan

    PrinceJonathan Not too sore, are you?

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    Vorn the Unspeakable?

    Bonesaw: "Nyeh-he-he-he. Do you want to see something strange and mystical?"

    Taylor: "NOOOOOOOO! GET OUTTA HERE WITH THAT WATCH! LAY OFF THE POOR BEAVERS! SHEEEESH! YOU'RE A CREEP! GO AWAY! WE WERE ALL HAVING A GOOD TIME UNTIL YOU SHOWED UP! GO HAVE SOME COFFEE WITH CREAM, OR SOMETHING, BECAUSE I'LL TELL YOU SOMETHING, THIS IS A HAPPY PLACE!"
     
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  24. Tortoise

    Tortoise Getting sticky.

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    conducive
     
  25. corndogman

    corndogman Journeyman Munchkin

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    Yay! A new chapter! And just when I thought necromancy rules were going to hit, too.
    Oh, that's not good. That's very not good.

    That's... more than a little squicky.
     
  26. shade argost

    shade argost Experienced.

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    I find it mildly ironic that the only members of the S9 to survive were the ones that Taylor actualy told the Shoggoth to kill.
     
  27. victorsan12345

    victorsan12345 Getting sticky.

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    The whole thing with Nyarlathotep and Contessa was weird. I don't think she could win against him (no matter how momentarily) unless he allowed it.
     
    RazielofSecrets likes this.
  28. da3monh0st3d

    da3monh0st3d Эскапист

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    That Bonesaw bit was something. That will end well.

    Also, Contessa isn't doing badly at all for a CoC character.
     
  29. Baked the Author

    Baked the Author Scion of Nurgle, Verified Consentacle Enthusiast

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    Exactly. Plots within plots within false trails, impossible conspiracies and shadow governments. The Crawling Chaos is diabolical in that he will lift you up only to make the inevitable fall all the more satisfying. I like writing the bastard.
     
  30. Lilbob

    Lilbob Lurking tentacle monster

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    Can I just say that I could see this ending in Taylor taking up the mantle of The Crawling Chaos if things go very wrong.
     
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