As always, I hope you enjoy.
The inside of Somer's Rock was every bit as dingy as the outside. Taylor wished that she could be surprised, but she wasn't. The whole point of the place was to be a villain pub, after all- if it was nice then all sorts of people might want to go there. There was a single long table set out- Taylor could see the faint divots in the tablecloth where several smaller tables had been shoved together- and Tattletale sat at one end with Grue next to her. Taylor nodded to them both, walking just behind Armsmaster, although unlike him she paused to leave her staff by the door. It at least made a pretence of being unarmed. Anyone who was surprised when she could call the weapon to her…well, they would probably get what they deserved. Night, Fog and Rune were all already present, each standing stiffly behind a chair. Rune glared at Taylor as she saw her and Taylor grinned.
'Aww. She's trying so hard. You would think- I mean, how many times has she tried to take me on? After all this time, you'd think she would have learned to keep her scowls to herself.'
"Evidently she is a slow learner. Make sure the chair will hold your weight, we don't want to fall in front of everyone."
That was good advice, actually. Taylor leaned on the back of her chosen chair, being careful not to settle too much weight on it as she gently pressed down with her power, applying it evenly as a test. Better the chair give way now than when she was sitting on it. Idly Taylor wondered who was heaviest in full armour, herself or Armsmaster. She suspected it was her. They were about the same size but Armsmaster's speciality was small materials, and he didn't have her physical augmentations. She heard the chair creaking and raised an eyebrow at it, glancing down. It hadn't quite given way, but she'd still have to be careful. Maybe she could get away with just standing.
'What are the odds that someone actually tries to pull something?'
"The Empire have been outed, so they might not be inclined to play nice. I would be careful. The Protectorate needs to be more mindful of their PR, so they're unlikely to make the first move."
"Hmm. Possible, but I doubt she would gain enough from the resultant chaos to make the risk worthwhile."
'Applies for the Empire as well. What are they going to get out of a betrayal of the truce here? I guess it depends on what Piggot tries to negotiate for. If Kaiser and Purity think that they won't be able to get their kids back…'
"Grabbing them and fleeing could look like an attractive option. Agreed."
'But in that case, what's our best response? If we try to keep hold of Aster and Theo we could provoke an all-out battle in the streets. I don't think there'll be too many people about, but the risk of collateral damage…is it worthwhile?'
"Interesting question. Speaking from a purely pragmatic viewpoint, provoking an all-out battle could be the better answer. We can defeat the Empire entirely, and civilian casualties are secondary to the civilian deaths that could occur later as the Empire is destroyed piecemeal. In addition, the show of strength should serve as a warning to any other criminal elements looking to exploit the city, as well as a good PR opportunity."
'And less coldly pragmatically?'
"An exile can come back to haunt you, regardless of whether they go willingly or not. That said, it's a lot harder to make a martyr out of an exile when compared to a dead man. Ideally he would surrender. A trial and the revealing of his crimes would damage his reputation quite effectively, and he could spend his life in prison without being any sort of great symbol."
'Somehow I can't see that happening. So we've got Night, Fog, Rune, Kaiser and Purity. Most dangerous one there is Purity, since she's flying artillery, but Kaiser and Fog aren't far behind. If we get into a fight, best to take out Purity, Night and Fog first. But then there's also Menja or Fenja, whichever one didn't die. Krieg might be alive. Othala, Victor, Stormtiger, Cricket. We can take all of them on, but Victor will probably be playing sniper…Menja, I think it is, might be a nuisance.'
"The twins aren't as tough as Leviathan was."
'Sure, but we can't exactly hit them with the same sort of attack. It takes too long to charge up, and even if it didn't…'
"On a human target, the damage would most likely be fatal. Assuming a point of impact similar to Leviathan, there is a good chance that the targets own arm would shatter their ribcage before the telekinetic force even had a chance to."
'Not like we haven't crushed people before, although if Menja is at full size it'd make a real mess.'
"Let us hope that it doesn't come to that."
Taylor remained bent over her chair, her eyes locking onto Rune. She wondered if the other girl could feel the weight of her gaze. Probably not. She forced herself not to tilt her head as a faint crackle came through her vox transmitter and a voice sounded next to her ear.
"There we are," Dragon said, sounding pleased with herself, "I have to say your communications technology is unusual. I'd like to have a look at it sometime, if you don't mind."
'Unusual' was certainly one way to put it, Taylor thought dryly. The vox transmitters were somewhat crude compared to the sleeker options in this day and age, but they were also extremely reliable and difficult to put out of commission. A fairly average trade-off for the Imperium of Man. Fancy, high performance gear was nice, but something that worked almost all the time and could be maintained by an idiot was usually better. Interesting that Dragon had managed to tap into it, however. Taylor reached out a tendril of force and deactivated her vox broadcaster, allowing her to talk without her voice booming through the room.
"Does this mean we can gossip about Kaiser's haircut while he tries to negotiate?" Taylor asked teasingly. She could feel the irritation wafting off Armsmaster, although he didn't say anything. Dragon laughed brightly.
"Unfortunately most of your colleagues don't have the advantage of a full-face helmet," she said. Taylor rolled her eyes.
"Sounds like a them problem," she said, "What a shame. Do you have anything recording, by the way? I can already feel that this is going to be a real doozy of a meeting."
"I feel like you aren't treating this with the seriousness it requires," Armsmaster muttered, quietly enough that he must have barely moved his lips. Taylor beamed.
"Are you kidding me? Familial drama. Tense negotiations. The chance to pummel some Nazis, still riding the high of taking down the Butcher. I'm having the time of my life."
She cleared her throat, forcing herself to sober up.
"But there's another good reason to film it. What if we need to release the footage as part of a PR attack on the Empire? Could be useful."
"I liked it better when you were just a vigilante," Armsmaster mumbled, "But she's right. Dragon, my armour has a recorder. Can you activate it?"
"Already done," Dragon said cheerfully. The door, off to their left, opened and Taylor tilted her head as Kaiser stalked in. He was fully armoured, the man hidden inside the spiked plate, his stride stomping and purposeful, his mind undercut with apprehension. To the other side Taylor felt Tattletale's normal background level of smugness spike sharply, continuing to increase as Kaiser nodded brusquely to her. Taylor was confused, but only for a moment. Of course Tattletale was smug. Just a few months ago she'd been a small time villain with big time plans, and now she was overseeing the negotiations that could very possibly lead to the dissolution of her greatest rival. Of course she was smug.
"We might need to find a way to keep Tattletale on the leash," Taylor said, knowing that the other Protectorate members would be listening, "Much as I like her, she's quickly becoming the undisputed queen of crime in the Bay."
Taylor narrowed her eyes as light flooded the room, preceding Purity.
'When this is over, remind me to upgrade the helmet. Some sort of filter to improve visibility. Still need to work on a fully functioning HUD as well.'
"At some point, it's probably easier to build a whole new set rather than try to alter this one."
'Yeah, maybe. You think I could fit some mechadendrites into it, speed up my build time?'
"With the wings? Unlikely."
That was a shame, Taylor thought, but she needed to focus now. Kaiser and Purity had been followed by Myrddin, who took a place between the two of them. Purity was still shining brightly, her powers active, and Taylor didn't resist the urge to scowl.
"Everybody knows who she is now," she complained, "She could at least stop giving me a migraine. I can lend her a domino mask if she's gonna be that anal about showing her face."
She didn't get a reply, although she didn't really expect one. Her next question, however, was a little more pertinent.
"So she's shiny, but does that indicate being in an altered state? Is she actually made of light right now, like Legend, or can I still hit her? Because if negotiations break down I really need to know that."
"Should we be worried about what you're planning?" Dragon asked, apparently translating for Armsmaster. Taylor squashed an instinct to shrug nonchalantly.
"Just that if things get nasty I'm going to punt Purity through the wall before I do anything else. Get her out of range, but I probably don't want to do that if it'll smear her whole body across the nearest solid surface."
"Probably?" Dragon asked.
"I don't want to rule anything out," Taylor said in reply, dragging her eyes across Purity and sizing her up. She felt the other presences enter the doorway- Director Piggot, Dauntless and the two Anders. She felt Aster brighten as she entered, probably at the sight of her parents, but Theo didn't. Rather, his emotions moved a notch further towards wariness. Taylor focused on Purity, tasting her emotions- happiness, apprehension, fear, anger. Volatile, but Taylor judged her less likely to make a move than Kaiser. There was no-one else in the bar, evacuated. Taylor wondered if Tattletale had anything to do with it.
"According to our records Purity is slightly tougher when using her powers, but not by that much," Dragon reported, "She's a, ah, a glass cannon is the phrase?"
"Yeah, I've heard that."
"Also, she's extremely fast. A little slower than Dauntless, although she hits a lot harder than he does."
Taylor considered that. She could move faster than that when going all out, although she'd need room. Her wings could become ethereal, but not when she was actively using them. If she needed to win the air battle, better to do it fast. But then, Purity's emotional state was very distinctive, now that Taylor was looking more closely. The anger had a distinctively protective feeling to it, focused on Aster Anders, fiery and almost spicy, if Taylor was going to ascribe it a taste. Assuming Aster wasn't threatened Purity might be less likely to fight than Kaiser. Kaiser was spiced with desperation, sharp and sour like a tongue-tingling lemon flavour.
"He can see his influence and power slipping away and he is afraid, angry. He is more likely to fight this than Purity."
'Still can't believe she's unironically calling herself Purity. What exactly is pure about genocide?'
The Emperor said nothing- a history of genocides enacted upon various alien species would make him something of a hypocrite in this case. But at least, Taylor thought, at least he didn't try to pretend that it was a moral act. It was for the domination of humanity. The Emperor didn't lie to himself about that truth, if he ever had. And Taylor…Taylor didn't like to think about the chance of following in his footsteps. If she didn't have to, that would be just perfect. If humanity could peacefully co-exist with any other alien species, and rise to galactic domination without driving other species to extinction? Taylor would be quite happy with that. And if they couldn't, then…then she'd cross that bridge when they reached it. But for the moment she had a negotiation to watch, and it promised to be an interesting one.
"Well then," Tattletale said, breaking the tense silence that had settled over them all, "Shall we begin?"
Kaiser shoved his chair back with the screech of legs on wooden flooring and sat down with force. Taylor couldn't see the glare he was directing towards everyone on the Hero side of the table, but she could imagine it.
"Yes," he said, sounding as though the words were forced from between clenched teeth, "Let's. I'm eager to have my kidnapped children returned."
"Kidnapped," Taylor said, still safely muted, "That's a good one. Does he think the Butcher would have taken them hostage? If I hadn't gotten that call from Theo his kiddies would be smeared all over the walls by now. Maybe I should-"
"Do not antagonise Kaiser," Armsmaster hissed. Taylor pouted.
"He's antagonising me," she muttered, "Just by fucking existing. Genocidal piece of shit."
"At least you're muted," Dragon said, still sounding amused. Taylor rolled her eyes.
"I get why we're negotiating," she said, "Doesn't mean I like it. Let's be real, Kaiser and Purity were up to something. That's why Theo and Aster were alone in the apartment when Butcher went after them. Kaiser's got some real fucking audacity to claim it was kidnapping."
"I take it you won't be involved in the negotiating then?" Dragon asked. Taylor laughed, harsh and humourless.
"Yeah, I doubt it."
"Yes," Director Piggot said, taking her own seat, "Let's begin."
Tattletale clapped her hands, still beaming.
"Wonderful," she exclaimed, grinning that toothy grin, "So, let's have Theo, Aster and Myrddin over here, so they're in the neutral zone. Nobody has any arguments with that, do they?"
The way Kaiser dipped his chin suggested that he might, but he didn't voice any objections as Theo and Aster made their way over. Taylor noted the way that Tattletale's smile dipped a fraction when she nodded to Theo, a flicker of grief colouring her thoughts.
"An old trauma, it seems. I wonder what secrets Tattletale is hiding?"
Taylor didn't reply, and she certainly didn't pry any further. Not that she really could, without making it obvious to Tattletale. Instead she took her own seat, concentrating enough that her wings passed through the wooden back of the chair. It creaked alarmingly as it settled, but didn't give way. That was a good start.
Kaiser sneered in her general direction- or at least that was the impression that Taylor got, given that his helmet hid his face.
"Bringing your dog along, Director? I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. Less an eagle and more a falcon, clinging to the arms of her falconer."
Taylor grinned, obscurely delighted by the insult. It was just so very Shakespearean- although Kaiser wasn't finished yet. His sneering snarl dropped to a more liquid rumble.
"One would almost think you didn't come here to negotiate in good faith, Director, bringing Circaetus along. She's not much good for anything other than a blunt instrument, is she?"
"Funny you should say that," Taylor said, flicking her vox to transmit so that its metallic growl rasped throughout the room, "Given that you brought Night, Fog and Rune. What, you fly out with Purity and let Night and Fog run rampant? And there's Rune, obviously, but I've never seen anyone look more like cannon fodder in my life."
Rune slapped her hand on the table and half-rose.
"I am not cannon fodder!"
Taylor gave her a glance and ostentatiously turned her helmet away.
"I'm sure the volkssturm said the same thing as they were fed into the Allied war machine. What are you even hoping to negotiate for, Kaiser? You haven't got much that we want."
Rune hissed like an angry cat, but Fog put a hand on her arm and pulled her back down. Fog's placid expression didn't change, and neither did his emotions. Taylor eyed him thoughtfully.
"Impolitic as Circaetus is," Piggot interrupted, "She makes a good point. What, exactly, are you hoping to achieve?"
Kaiser leaned back and folded his arms. Taylor wondered if it was calculated, an attempt to make himself look larger, more imposing.
"A pardon," he said, "And the Protectorate destroys all their information on us and provides protection. And in return, we retire from the Cape scene."
'Ah, I see we're starting with the impossible demands. Always good to get those out of the way early I guess.'
"I wonder if he's sweating under that armour. He has to know that Piggot isn't going to react well to this."
'She didn't react too badly to us issuing an ultimatum.'
"We have somewhat more leverage than Kaiser. Besides, we were already allies of convenience. Kaiser has never been anything but an enemy."
Taylor flipped her vox transmitter off.
"Odds on Piggot lunging across the table and trying to throttle Kaiser? Feel like there's a decent chance. Although Purity doesn't look too happy to be sitting next to her ex."
"According to some testimony Purity was attempting to become a hero, or at least a hero-aligned vigilante," Dragon supplied, "Although she wasn't doing an especially good job of it."
"Claiming to have gotten over your racism rings hollow when you're only breaking up Asian and African-American gangs."
Taylor hummed, deep in her throat.
"Mm. You don't say? Still, closer to what you'd call a hero than Kaiser, I guess, so there might be an angle there. And in theory she'd be a decent counter to Night and Fog. If it comes to it, of course."
"Oh, of course," Dragon agreed, "If it comes to it."
Taylor was fairly sure that she could hear Armsmaster's blood pressure creeping higher and higher.
"Ridiculous," Piggot said in reply to Kaiser, "All of the Empire capes surrender, you maybe get shortened sentences from plea deals and your children are fostered with good families."
Purity started up from her seat, her glow brightening in outrage, and Taylor perked up in a way that she knew full well was visible. A moment of breathless tenseness, teetering on the edge of combat before Kaiser laid a hand on Purity's arm and she receded into her seat, the rush of fury subsiding slightly. Taylor relaxed, leaning back and smirking.
"And you chided me for bringing Circaetus," Piggot sniped. Kaiser made a noise that was probably a dismissive sniff, one gauntleted hand waving nonchalantly.
"A mothers instinct to protect her children. Not that you would know about that, Director."
"Tattletale is probably adoring this. It's like a soap opera," Taylor commented.
"Just Tattletale?" Armsmaster muttered. Dragon laughed, light and airy.
"You do seem to be enjoying yourself, Circaetus."
"I'm having the most fun I've had since, I don't know, a couple of hours ago when I face-palmed the Butcher through a wall. This is amazing. I wish I had popcorn."
Armsmaster made a noise that wasn't audible, but that his sensitive mic picked up as a growl. Taylor didn't turn her head to look at him, but she did make the effort to turn her enthusiasm down a notch. She wasn't supposed to be looking for a fight, she reminded herself, even if the prospect of an aerial skirmish with Purity was certainly enticing.
"Actually, she could prove a genuine challenge. Assuming that her attacks are made of light as they're supposed to be, our usual defence might be completely ineffective."
Taylor took a moment to consider that. It was true, actually. In terms of functionality, her usual defence consisted of weaving her power through the air and thickening it into a shield. Light might well pass straight through.
'Light doesn't really work like that though. If they're just concussive blasts I'm pretty sure we've got her number.'
"A heavy risk to take. Her blasts can level buildings, can they not? Our armour won't hold up long under a barrage like that."
'Hmm. We could try for an Iron Halo imitation, displacing all of her attacks through the Warp. That's a lot of power to be throwing down the drain, though. We'll burn out pretty quickly.'
"This is why the Iron Halo is technology, not something Librarians like to use. We could use it to quickly gain ground and stay close, where any large blast will have a risk of hitting her. I'm certain that we can outlast her in a brawl."
'We're wearing power armour. It'd take a real heavy hitter to outlast us in a brawl. You think I can pull off some kind of aerial powerbomb on Kaiser?'
"Would it stop you if I said no?"
'You know me too well.'
"Now that the posturing's mostly over," Piggot said to Kaiser as Taylor tuned back in- she hoped she hadn't missed much, although she'd only been inattentive for a few seconds- "Shall we get on with the actual negotiations?"
Kaiser straightened in his seat, clearly done with his theatrics. Or done with most of them, at least.
"Yes, let's. Shall we start with the non-negotiables?"
Piggot leaned forwards, more imposing than Taylor would have expected from someone of her stature. Then again, maybe it wasn't a surprise.
"The Empire ceases to exist after today," Piggot said, "No ifs or buts. You and your people attacked a police station. You've been a plague on this city. When the day is over, you announce that the Empire Eighty-Eight is done and disbanded."
Kaiser reclined in his seat, making a show of thinking it over. Taylor studied his mentality, his emotions. He didn't seem all that broken up about it. Oh, he'd almost certainly miss the power, but he undoubtedly had plenty of cash stashed away and he was a powerful combatant in his own right. If he had to dissolve the Empire and leave Brockton Bay, there was nothing really stopping him from setting it up again in another city.
'You would think that neo-Nazis would be less resilient. It's not like they've ever done anything good. Even the originals were only living the high life for, what, a year or two?'
"Even that was a lie. The Nazi economy was functionally a wartime economy, it was predicated upon capturing and looting the wealth and industries of other nations. They were running short of oil by the time they launched Operation Barbarossa."
'So much for glorious forward thinking. Then again, when do neo-Nazis stop being actual Nazis and become sparkling fascists? It's not like Kaiser really believes all that race war bullshit.'
"Very well, Director. A truly righteous cause cannot be killed so easily, but I will make this concession to your pride. In return, my people and I will be allowed to leave. Freely."
"Not on the table. A couple, maybe, but not all."
Kaiser folded his arms across his chest.
"Are you asking me to give up my people- my loyal knights- to you, Director? You know this is something I cannot do."
"And we both know that's a lie, Kaiser."
Piggot curled her lips in a sneer, chewing it over.
"Fine. Yourself and Purity. No amnesty, but we'll give you a head start."
"What if I was willing to turn myself in?" Purity asked. Her voice was quiet, almost subdued, but she didn't react as Kaiser twisted to look at her. Piggot raised her hands, fingers spread.
"We would consider a…probationary period. Possibly avoid jail time."
Purity nodded, but Kaiser swept a hand through the air.
"We have no agreement yet," he said, just a hint of snap coming into his tone. Taylor crushed a yawn, keeping her arms folded across her chest to give an appearance of bored nonchalance. Negotiations like this were the worst, she thought. She hated being a bystander.
Taylor eyed the table and wondered if she could get away with propping her boots up on it. The main problem, as she saw it, was that it would require her to tilt her chair back, thereby putting a lot more weight on two legs of the chair. And that was probably a broken chair waiting to happen.
'Is the disrespect I'd be showing to Kaiser worth it?' she wondered. Kaiser was arguing with Piggot, making a show of refusing to sacrifice his 'warriors' for himself. Rune practically fell over herself to assure him that she would make any sacrifice for him, and he put a hand on her shoulder in a fatherly manner, as though overwhelmed by her support. Rune flushed deeply and Taylor rolled her eyes. She caught just a flicker of a thought from Purity- same Max as ever- and perked up slightly. Purity had folded her hands across her chest, chin dipped down, and her thoughts seethed with paranoia and resentment. Taylor reached out a delicate psychic touch and poked at a thought, paper soft, so gently that even most Psykers wouldn't have noticed it. Just a touch, inflaming the thought that had raced across Purity's thoughts- he would sacrifice you to take the children. Taylor smiled.
"Fine," Piggot said, leaning on the table, "You release all the information you have on money laundering by Medhall. You announce that the Empire is disbanded, and your…'loyal knights' will get a head start. But you don't get to just walk away."
Kaiser planted a flat hand on the table. Taylor eyed him, tasting the sharp tartness of his rising aggravation.
"You think you can just demand I stay here?"
"You left two children alone while you went out to pursue criminal activities. CPS isn't going to let that lie. You're lucky that I could talk them down from removing Theo and Aster completely, because two domestic terrorists are not considered fit parents!"
Piggot was getting angry too, Taylor thought.
She was briefly tempted to reach out to the future, but decided not to. There were too many factors in play, too many chances for things to go wrong. It would eat up too much power, and maybe too much attention. She didn't want to react to something that might not happen and start a fight, after all.
"Domestic terrorists?" Purity demanded, "You took my child! My children!"
'That was a hasty correction. Didn't Theo say something about Purity being better than Kaiser, but not by much?'
"I believe so. At least she cares, even if it's just a little. They might be better off away from their parents, though."
Taylor abandoned her plan of putting her boots up on the table, sensing that something was about to happen. Armsmaster seemed to sense it too, shifting in such a way that he could more easily reach the collapsible halberd on his back. Across the table Kaiser laid both his hands flat, tilting his head down as though to protect his throat, and Rune stiffened noticeable. Director Piggot ignored the tension in the air, turning her head to Purity.
"You attacked a police station! You should be thanking God that no-one died, because-"
Purity half stood, flaring brighter.
"My children had been taken, I needed to get them back! And Max said-"
"Oh, blaming everything on Kaiser?" Piggot asked, sneering. Taylor spared a moment to glance at Tattletale, half expecting her to be clinging to a bucket of popcorn, and was slightly alarmed to see that Tattletale was looking around, leaning close to Grue and clearly looking for an exit.
"If you hadn't allowed our information to released-" Kaiser snarled, speaking over Purity. Taylor narrowed her eyes.
'Weird that Kaiser is so confrontational, actually. He must know that he's outgunned.'
"Hmm. I wonder if…Taylor. Reach out, to the surrounding areas."
'What? Why?' Taylor asked, although she was already focusing.
"Because if I were Kaiser, I would wear a wire and have my most loyal combatants waiting to extract me. Menja is still alive. If Kaiser made a distress call, how long would it take her to reach full size and destroy the building?"
Taylor let her awareness expand, but focused most of her will on Kaiser, trying to tell if he was wearing a wire, some kind of communication gear. His armour made it impossible to tell without nearly crushing him and she grimaced, returning to trying to find any of the Empire. She drew in a breath as she found one.
"I've found one of the Empire Capes, not far away. Menja."
Armsmaster was leaning over the table as well, too far forwards to reply, but Taylor suspected that he had some sort of system in place to contact Dragon without speaking.
"Can you tell what she's doing?" Dragon asked.
Taylor squinted, as though she could actually see something.
"Just hanging around, I think. Maybe she's waiting to make an extraction. I'd be tempted, if I were Kaiser."
Kaiser shot to his feet in a sudden movement and Taylor cut herself off, tensing. If a fight started she knew exactly what she was going to do. Flip the table, punch Kaiser through a wall, fling herself at Purity and use her greater weight and strength to beat her unconscious before she could gain range. Blood pulsed in her ears, her heartbeat speeding with anticipation.
"Coil was the one to release that information," Kaiser barked, jabbing a finger at Piggot, "I know because I received a taunting email about it, just before the release! And he told me that he got the information from the PRT!"
Piggot seemed dumbstruck for a moment. Taylor saw the thought forming in her mind, to admit that Coil had been a PRT traitor, before Piggot crushed it down.
'Yeah, that wouldn't have helped much.'
Negotiations were starting to break down, Taylor could see that. And then Kaiser whirled on her.
"And you," he spat, pointing at her. Taylor tilted her head and jutted her chin out, combining her usual quizzical body-language with definite defiance. She supposed it gave the impression of a challenging demand. An aggressive 'What?' movement.
"Me?" she asked, putting a dose of sneer into her voice. Kaiser leaned closer.
"You," he rasped, "You upset everything. If you hadn't killed Coil- don't lie to me, we all know who it was!"
Taylor planted her hands on the table, her heart singing with the closeness of the fight, a bloodthirsty grin settling onto her lips.
"You're accusing me?" she demanded, somehow keeping the glee out of her tone. Kaiser clenched his fist in the air.
"You killed Coil, and his death led to my Empire being exposed! I have lost everything because you're a murderous, vicious child!"
Taylor laughed aloud, mockery lacing her tone.
"And you aren't? You inherited the Empire from your racist scumbag Daddy and you've drifted along since then. Just another underachieving KKK knock-off, aren't you?"
Kaiser made a noise of pure frustration. In her earpiece, Armsmaster mimicked it.
"Don't antagonise him, Circ-"
"I do what I do for the greater good," Kaiser snapped, "For my children!"
"Pretend to the moral high ground all you like, Kaiser," Taylor said, her smile vanishing as he mentioned his children, "But while you were off playing domestic terrorist, I was saving your children from the Butcher. If I hadn't made friends with Theo one night you were off being a fucking criminal, the Butcher would have smeared them all over a wall."
Kaiser slammed a hand on the table.
"You dare accuse me-"
Taylor scoffed and flung her arms wide, standing.
"Don't give me that shit, Kaiser! My Dad isn't perfect, but at least he's there for me! Your kids nearly died! The only reason they lived was because your son Triggered to protect his sister, and he only needed to do that was because you weren't there! Because you cared so much about your gang power that you couldn't just be a normal, shitty rich businessman!"
Purity snapped her head to Taylor at that. She was on her feet as well, and Piggot shifted closer to Armsmaster.
"Theo Triggered?" she demanded, spinning to look at Kaiser, "You told me they were safe! You promised me, Max!"
"Not now, Kayden," Kaiser hissed, pointing his finger at Taylor again. Purity bristled visibly and Taylor felt the woman's anger grow, stretching towards boiling point. Kaiser continued to point at Taylor, accusatory.
"Theo Triggered?" Kaiser said, his tone thickening with disbelief, "After all that I've tried to provoke it, this was what made it happen?"
Taylor had barely begun to digest that damning statement before Kaiser- probably from a mixture of frustration and bafflement, Taylor would later suppose- said something very, very stupid.
"If I'd known all it would take to make him less useless was a threat to Aster, I would have faked one years ago."
The temperature plummeted. Purity, already on her feet and fuming, turned her head to Kaiser so quickly that Taylor was surprised she didn't have whiplash.
"What did you say?" she whispered, her voice a strangled hiss. Kaiser went still, in the manner of a man who knew that he'd just fucked up.
"What did you say," Purity bulldozed on, "ABOUT MY DAUGHTER?"
Light burst into being. Kaiser slammed his hand down, steel blossoming. Taylor kicked the table over and flung herself at Piggot.
"Menja, extract!" Kaiser bellowed, and everything went to shit.
Taylor hit Piggot as everyone scattered, grabbing the Director around the shoulders and using her momentum to flip them both to the ground. A dangerous manoeuvre- undoubtedly dangerous, Taylor's armoured bulk was entirely capable of crushing someone if she landed wrong- but she cushioned the fall with her powers and brought them both safely down. Something cracked and splintered, Kaiser yelled incoherently and Taylor pushed herself up just in time to see Purity blow Kaiser's hastily raised barrier to smithereens. Shards of metal whirled through the air, razor-edged and lethal and Taylor stuck out a hand, called a wall of force into being to protect Tattletale and Grue as they dragged Theo and Aster down. A storm of shards rained across Taylor's chest and face and she let out a noise of aggravation as they ricocheted from her armour.
"Circaetus, clear the room!" Armsmaster bellowed. Taylor rolled her neck, raised her hands, and half the building was torn away under the blow of an enormous sword as Menja reached the building.
"Oh good," Taylor said, "Kaiju fight."
"Stop quipping and evacuate!" Dragon shouted in her ear and Taylor laughed.
"No need to shout," she rebuked, "This is just getting good."
Taylor clenched her fist, hearing Kaiser yell at Menja to kill her. Menja stabbed down, both hands on the hilt of her massive sword, and Taylor swung her fist to the side. It took more juice than she was happy with, but the wedge of force that weaved through the air and thickened it into a barrier was enough that the sword glanced off it, skating down and sinking into the ground. Menja yelled in alarm, almost losing her balance, and Taylor was about to swing her other hand around and deliver a knockout blow when a beam of light pierced the air and hit Menja in the face. She went down with a bellowing yell and Purity swept past, raining lasers. Taylor didn't spare a moment to gawp, instead grabbing Piggot by the arm and yanking her in a short trip through the Warp, landing next to Tattletale.
"Whose side is Purity on anyway?" she demanded.
"Pretty sure it's her own. Maybe you guys, if she thinks she'll get away with it. Thanks for the save earlier, by the way," Tattletale said, wriggling across to press herself almost against Taylor. She was fairly blatantly using Taylor as a shield, but Taylor let it pass without comment since Grue had Aster tucked under one leather-clad arm and Theo hunched behind him.
"We need to clear the room," Taylor said, "I can't go big if everyone's still crammed in here."
She glanced at the back wall, sizing it up. Tattletale coughed on a cloud of dust that rolled over them, waving her hand. Taylor peered over the table that Grue had kicked over, just in time to see Fog blur and lose his shape, turning from the man in old fashioned dress to an amorphous cloud.
"Ah. Not great," Taylor commented. Piggot hissed.
"Get us out of here!"
Taylor felt her grin returning.
"Sure thing, Director," she said, clenching her fist and letting power curl around her arm, "One exit, coming up."
Taylor swung her fist and blew down most of the front wall before Fog had even begun to fill the room, thick dust billowing outwards after the shower of wood and brick, shredding itself across the road.
"Go!" Taylor barked, launching herself to her feet and shoving Piggot and Tattletale. They both ran for the exit and Taylor half turned, waving to Grue.
"Grue! Go with them!"
Grue bolted, but Theo slowed just enough to crash into Taylor.
"Circaetus- please. Purity, Kayden, she's- she's not that bad. Aster is…"
"If she sees sense, she'll get a fair shake. Can't promise any more than that. Now go!"
Taylor shoved Theo in the direction of the gaping hole and followed him, shooting a glance over her shoulder. Purity was still raining attacks down on Kaiser and Menja, the two of them having now drawn together to form a defence with Menja's shield and walls of sprouting blades from Kaiser. She couldn't see Rune, but Fog was staying on one side of the room and Taylor could feel Fog, hidden in the mess. Armsmaster was circling around, attempting to reach the brawl between Purity and Kaiser, Assault was retreating towards Piggot and Myrddin had vanished. Taylor snatched up her staff as she sprinted past it, taking it with her.
"The negotiations were definitely short," she quoted. Dragon clicked her tongue, ignoring the reference.
"Protectorate reinforcements are inbound but I don't know if they'll get there before Empire reinforcements do. Assume Empire capes are on their way."
"Mm, yeah. So we've got Rune, Night, Fog, Menja, Purity and Kaiser here. Krieg got downed by Leviathan and so did Hookwolf. So that's Stormtiger, Cricket, Othala, Crusader and Victor left?"
"Krieg could have survived, don't dismiss him," Dragon said, although she didn't sound convinced. Taylor dipped her shoulder and crashed through the wall as it drooped dangerously, running into the street as the upper floor gave way and toppled messily onto itself.
"Well, that sounds like fun. I've got a few scores to settle among that crowd."
Taylor's smile fell as she remembered that she needed to get Piggot and the children away, a pout briefly taking its place.
"Shame that I'm playing babysitter. Oh well. Come on, we'd better get out of here."
Taylor felt something flying at them and tilted her head to the side, letting it get closer before she turned and slapped it out of the air with a lashing tendril of force. The chunk of rock exploded into dust and shards that she redirected away from her little group with a flap of her wings.
"Rune," she said, "That was rude."
'And it's stopping us from retreating.'
"That is a poor excuse. You could easily fend off Rune while retreating."
'Yeah, but do I want to? Nah. Besides, how are we supposed to retreat? Slowly walk away? Maybe I should ask, actually.'
Taylor switched off her vox broadcaster with a thought, speaking to Dragon alone.
"Dragon. Need some exfiltration for Piggot and the Anders kids. And maybe Tattletale, although I'm pretty sure that she'll have her own way out. You got something for me?"
Behind Rune, Taylor saw Myrddin send Menja staggering with a blast and whistled approvingly.
"Whoo," she said, her broadcaster back on so Rune could hear, "Myrddin's mopping the floor with Miss Mountain. Which means, Rune honey, that you've got all my attention."
Taylor spread her arms, grin spreading wide under her helmet, lightning crackling across her wings and arcing across her chest.
"And luckily, I'm in the mood to indulge you. So what do you say, Rune? Shall we find out who the best telekinetic really is?"
"I see where Luna gets it from," Tattletale whispered, just loud enough that Taylor could hear, and just quiet enough that Taylor could ignore it. Rune backed away, panic flashing over her expression.
'Finally, she shows some sense.'
"A shame that it's entirely too late."
Taylor lifted her hand and gestured lazily, threateningly. The building fell more, sliding down, brick and wood and plaster cascading down and cutting off Rune's retreat. Taylor felt some figures move, not far away, and start a quick advance.
'They're trying to catch us off guard. That's sweet.'
"Unfortunate for them. An open trap is easily turned."
'Mm, I do enjoy a little irony.'
"Don't run away," Taylor said aloud, "The fun's only just starting."
Rune had her back to the wall. Taylor spared a moment to wonder what she looked like, advancing on Rune in full armour. Maybe she should get a cape. The Dark Angels might be angsty, but they did have fashion- although she would have to make sure that it would come loose easily. And maybe it would clash with her wings. And maybe she should focus on her actual target- and then Rune smiled. Taylor stopped her advance, cocking her head.
"Something funny?" she asked, twirling her staff in her hand. Rune grinned more widely, a crazed look entering her eyes.
"Yeah," she said, "You're still too confident."
Taylor felt the three lurking Empire capes speed up and smiled herself.
'All at the same time. How does the rhyme go? Ashes, ashes, they all fall down…'
Cricket's cry split the air, bubbling and prying and Taylor staggered, dropping her staff. It was a good stagger, dramatic and stumbling, half turning, her hands rising towards her head as the sound wrapped around her. It was, in her opinion, a very good show.
Especially given that her reinforced helmet and the slight touch of power she wrapped around herself all but completely negated the effect.
Cricket came bounding forwards, rushing at Taylor with kama raised. She leaped at Taylor, one kama raised as though to plunge it between Taylor's helmet and shoulder-plate- not a bad idea, really, since Taylor's armour was relatively crude and the armouring there was thin. It was almost a shame that Taylor had to stop acting. Taylor dropped her hands from her head, stepping into Cricket and grabbing her downwards swinging wrist, arresting the fall of the kama. Taylor heard the other kama screech off her thigh-plate and saw Cricket's eyes widen in horrified recognition an instant before Taylor's other fist planted itself solidly in Cricket's midsection.
Taylor flicked her hand open as Cricket bent over the blow, blasting her back towards Stormtiger. Her right hand followed the motion, fingers curling and gripping and a whip of lightning snaked out, cracking the air as it wrapped around Alabaster, his spasming causing him to drop his knife before he reached Grue. Taylor pulled and snapped her whip, reinforcing it with a tendril of power and flinging Alabaster in the same direction as Cricket. At the same time she gestured with her left hand, a clicking motion conjuring a roiling fireball that struck Stormtiger's oncoming attack and detonated it in a swirling, expanding ball of white and purple flame.
"Cricket, Stormtiger and Alabaster," Taylor said, her vox broadcaster booming but still getting the amusement in her tone across, "Like The Three Stooges, only your shtick is racism rather than comedy."
Taylor paused, raised her hands in a broad shrug.
"Well, it's pretty funny that you think you can take me on. But I don't think it's intentional, right guys?"
None of them said anything. Alabaster rose to his feet, Cricket slowly mimicking him although she was still hunched defensively. Taylor was surprised that she wasn't on her hands and knees, puking her guts up. Tougher than she looked, that was for certain. Taylor spared a second to check that Piggot, the Anders and the two Undersiders present had retreated, smiling in satisfaction when she saw that they had. Good. She could focus now.
"So," Taylor said, "We've played this game before, but I'm willing to play again. I'm afraid that this is gonna be the last tango in Brockton, though."
Cricket finally straightened. Taylor checked on Rune, who had pressed herself into a gap in the rubble and was watching with a pale face. Taylor didn't doubt that she'd attack if she got the chance, but otherwise…Rune wasn't a coward, but she had to know that she was outmatched. Stormtiger, Cricket and Alabaster weren't cowards either. And more, they didn't care about being outmatched. What was it Hookwolf had said, about warriors? Taylor couldn't remember. Not that it mattered anyway.
"Come on, then," Taylor said, "Let's finish what we've started."
Alabaster moved first, charging across the open space with Cricket close behind, and Taylor felt a strange melancholy settle over her, muffling her earlier near manic giddiness. She didn't like any of her opponents, almost despised them in fact, but there was something sad in knowing that she could crush them with barely an effort. Something bittersweet about growing stronger, outgrowing the streets of her home.
"Focus," the Emperor chided softly, and Taylor pushed her meandering thoughts away in favour of the fight.
Alabaster came in first, sprinting at her with a bloodthirsty grin on his face and a long knife in his hand. Taylor rolled her shoulders, mentally pinned Cricket's location in her mind, and went to meet him. She stayed on the ground out of something like nostalgia, leading with her left arm. Alabaster's blade scraped uselessly along her forearm before her fist crashed into his chest, the slightest extra addition of power flinging him back as Taylor called her staff into her hand, grabbing it by the middle and twisting to block Cricket's blows. Stormtiger hurled three claws of solidified air at her as he closed it and she threw out a hand, a wall of force and air meeting them and detonating them harmlessly. A sudden thought crossed her mind, a flicker of panic and she swept her staff around, a wall of energy projecting from it and shoving Cricket and Alabaster back, a sweep of her wings carrying her in front of Director Piggot.
Victor, as far as she remembered, had taken a blow during the Leviathan event, but he usually relied on Othala's granted invulnerability. He could be crouching somewhere, on a rooftop, out of the currently limited range of her senses. The Emperor had known snipers who could make a shot over several kilometres with ease, and putting a bullet into Piggot seemed like something Kaiser would keep as a last 'fuck you'.
"Playing defensive?" Stormtiger asked, his tone genuinely confused, "That's not like you, Circaetus. And that's not what I want! I want to see the woman who faced down Leviathan!"
"Yeah, and let your buddy Victor shoot up everyone behind me?" Taylor asked caustically, spreading her wings to provide more coverage. They might not stop an armour piercing rifle round, but they would deflect it. Stormtiger tilted his head before he made a noise of understanding.
"Victor? Oh. Oh, you don't need to worry about him. He's gone."
Stormtiger shook his head.
"When we were outed," he said, and Taylor took a moment to appreciate the weirdness of a fairly civil conversation in the middle of a battle, "He took off. Him and Othala. He picked up forgery skills somewhere, made them new identities. Guess they'll rock up in some shitty little town in the foothills and take over the local KKK chapter and live happily ever after."
Taylor pointed her staff at him, gestured.
"You don't sound too impressed," she observed. Stormtiger turned his head and spat onto the ground.
"Me and Cricket," he said, "We were pit fighters, back in the day. S'where we met Hookwolf. And if there's one thing you learn in the pit, it's that there ain't no such thing as a convenient happy ending. Well…I guess Hookwolf got one. Going out in the middle of battle, fast and sudden. That's the way to die."
Taylor hefted her staff in her hand, almost contemplatively.
"If you're looking for a glorious death, you won't find it here."
Stormtiger laughed, harsh and guttural.
"I know. You're not going to kill me, not in front of witnesses. But that ain't what I want. I want to go down fighting the biggest, baddest thing in Brockton. I want my last fight to be the hardest. I want you to hit me with everything you have!"
Stormtiger advanced as he spoke, Cricket and Alabaster fanning out to flank Taylor. She didn't look at them, but she addressed them nonetheless.
"I guess you two feel the same way?"
"Oh, hell yeah," Alabaster said- Taylor didn't need to look at him to imagine his grin, ghoulish on his paper white skin. Cricket made a slightly strangled noise, but Taylor could feel her agreement. She closed her eyes and sighed.
Taylor slammed her staff down, butt into the ground, and a shockwave emanated from it, forwards and outwards and the three Empire Capes were swatted from their feet, flung to the ground. Taylor let the Warp surge through her, mist frosting from the filter of her helmet as she breathed out, embers dripping from the ends of her wings as she lifted and spread her hands.
"If it is defeat you want," she said, her voice booming through the vox, "Then defeat I shall give you."
A thousand whispers echoed her words, whispers only she could hear, and Taylor smiled.
"Come on then!" Stormtiger roared, punching his fists forwards and sending six drills of air arcing towards her. Taylor swept her wings back, whipping forwards and over the drills before she cut her wings and dropped, directly towards Stormtiger. She felt the rush of air as he threw himself back, landed heavily, Cricket and Alabaster rushing from her right and Taylor whipped her staff, a trailing tendril of force smacking Alabaster in the chest and sending him skipping across the ground before she turned on Cricket.
Taylor's staff left her hand, moving under her power to block the right kama, her left hand grabbing Cricket's right wrist before her free fist ploughed into Cricket's stomach. Cricket bent over- she really did vomit that time- and Taylor stepped away from the stream, throwing Cricket aside. Alabaster leaped at her with a hoarse yell and Taylor ensnared him in a web of invisible tendrils, launched him into the attack Stormtiger had hurled her way and teleported. She came out of the Warp swinging, her right fist hammering into Stormtiger's arm as he raised a guard, her knee hitting him in the thigh and Taylor grabbed his wrist and forced lightning through him. Stormtiger arched his back, screaming, sparks showering, wavering fingers of purple-white Warp lightning flickering around his form before Taylor let him drop and turned again. Cricket, charging, arms wide and ready to swing, mouth open in a silent warcry and Taylor caught her in a thousand tendrils and turned, putting all the weight of her body into her elbow. It caught Cricket right on the hinge of her jaw and Taylor heard bone break, felt Cricket's mind fall unconscious and she took a single step away from Stormtiger as Cricket crumpled.
"One down. I gotta say, breaking her jaw wasn't quite as satisfying the second time. Getting gauche."
Alabaster, as annoying as ever, sprinted at her again. He had his gun drawn and firing and Taylor let the bullets hit her, ricocheting from her armour without harming her. Alabaster screamed, turning his sprint into a charge.
"Language," Taylor chided, and snapped her fingers. The fireball left her hand and hit Alabaster before he could even begin to dodge, the reek of burning flesh sickening the air as the unnatural flame wrapped around him, his scream bubbling and choking. Taylor snapped her hand to put the flame out, stepping through the lingering smoke and grabbing him by the collar, hefting him and throwing him with a snap of her wings that spun her around to give her momentum. Already healed, Alabaster slammed into the wall of Somers Rock and collapsed to the ground. Taylor beckoned, her powers pulling at the rubble, and it fell down. Not enough to crush but more than enough to pin Alabaster and Taylor tuned out his yells as she turned back to Stormtiger.
Stormtiger coughed, planting a fist on the ground before he forced himself to stand. He was hunched, twisted in on himself, and Taylor hovered in the air and watched him grit his teeth, force the tremors from his limbs and lift his head. She didn't attack: she let him recover. He was her enemy, but he was a warrior. He deserved this, she reasoned.
Still, she kept a sliver of attention on Rune. Rune was pressed against the wall, Taylor could taste her panic, but panic reactions were fight or flight. Rune could still choose fight. Stormtiger regained his feet, spitting out a thick wad of blood and nodding.
"Barely even pushed you," he said, chuckling harshly, "That's the good shit. That's what I want. When I've lost, I don't want any doubt over who deserved it."
He lifted his hands, fists curling loosely. The air began to twist and howl around his fingers, winds sharpened to cutting edges, and Taylor landed. Stormtiger fixed his gaze on her, Taylor feeling his determination rising to fever pitch.
"Fight me!" he bellowed, and charged. Three bounding steps, his left hand punching out and Taylor flicked a hand, a tear to the Warp opening and swallowing the air drills, his right hand lancing out as he reached her, aiming for her throat and Taylor caught his wrist, too fast for normal human reactions. Stormtiger was still howling his defiant warcry when Taylor twisted his arm up, the drills spiralling uselessly off, and wrapped the fingers of her other hand around his jaw and neck.
"Goodbye, Stormtiger," she said, and lightning surged. She let Stormtiger collapse, the shock of electricity blacking him out almost immediately, and turned to Rune.
"And then there was one."
Taylor could see Rune trembling on the edge of flight, anger and fear warring in her soul. A heartbeat, two, and Taylor saw anger win out, Rune's fear consumed by her rage and she reached behind her, back, fingers pressing against the largest chunk of wall left. It slowly lifted into the air and Taylor nodded.
"Good," she said softly, the vox broadcaster draining it of most of the approval, "Better to go out swinging."
Rune was straining, pushing her powers to the limit to throw the massive chunk of wall. Taylor checked Piggot's location- she'd retreated to the other side of the street with the Ander's and the Undersiders, nice and safe- and turned her full attention back to Rune.
"Why don't you," Rune bellowed, "GO TO HELL!"
The wall hurtled at Taylor, rotating slowly through the air, and Taylor lifted her hand. Tendrils of invisible power snaked out from her fingers, the air shimmering a fraction as they wrapped around the projectile, slowing it. Taylor could have stopped it entirely, but…well. She was showing off, wasn't she? Taylor clenched her fist, the tendrils tightening in a sudden, convulsive motion. Rock and wood and plaster pulverised, the dust and small fragments raining around Taylor and glancing off her armour before she dispelled the cloud with a much smaller push. She met Rune's eyes, savouring the horror and disbelief she saw there as Rune swayed on her feet.
Taylor flicked her hand and a lance of power swatted Rune into a wall, sending her sliding to the ground in a defeated heap.
"You just aren't as big a fish as you thought, Rune."
Taylor squinted up, seeing Menja stagger back under a rain of attacks, and held out her hand. Her staff lifted from the ground, sliding towards her.
"I guess the question now is," she said, louder now, "Where exactly is the biggest fish?"
Her staff landed in her hand and the ruined front of Somers Rock exploded as line after line of metal spears erupted from the ground, rushing towards her. Taylor narrowed her eyes and slashed her staff around, tracing a wall of force that met the spikes halfway, crushing and blunting them. A portion of spikes in the middle of the wall fell and Kaiser stalked through, his armour battered but his shoulders squared. Taylor planted the butt of her staff on the ground and spread her wings.
"Kaiser. Surprised you didn't run the moment you got free of Purity."
Kaiser let out a harsh, humourless laugh. Behind him Menja slammed into a building, slumping under a rain of attacks from Myrddin and Purity, her raised shield beginning to falter.
"Who am I going to run to?" Kaiser asked, halting his advance and spreading his hands wide. He shook his head, continuing to speak even as he rolled his shoulders and flexed his fingers.
"Hookwolf and Fenja died fighting Leviathan. Krieg didn't survive his injuries. Crusader, Othala and Victor fled when we were outed. Night and Fog are more loyal to Gesellschaft than to me. Purity has turned against me, and my other loyal warriors are here, fallen by your hand."
Kaiser laughed again, bitter and sour.
"All that my father built and bequeathed to me, fallen and ruined. Fallen and ruined in no small part to you, Circaetus. I was right when I invited you to join me. You are an eagle of victory indeed. But, Circaetus… I have nowhere to run. And I am no coward."
Taylor let power flow down her staff, runes glowing softly as a shimmering, translucent glaive-head formed at the top, and inclined her head.
"Look at it this way, Kaiser. Your Reich might be a failure, but it lasted longer than the original ever managed."
Kaiser laughed, short and sharp, before he gestured and a ring of steel burst from the ground and rushed towards Taylor.
Taylor flared her wings and planted her staff on the ground, a bubble of force expanding outwards and halting the steel. A single step into the Warp and a single step out of it and Taylor slammed her armoured fist into Kaiser's jaw, sending him staggering. Her staff left behind she flourished her right hand, a thousand threads of crackling lightning bursting from her wrist, her palm, her fingers and knotting together, twisting into a single whip that she snapped at Kaiser. It wrapped around his arm and he snarled in pain, not enough electricity to really injure him but enough that he twitched convulsively and Taylor used it to wrench him back to her.
"No running away," she said, "Not this time!"
Kaiser stumbled into her and she closed her free hand around his face, hooked a boot behind his leg and threw him to the ground. Kaiser hit hard, metal crashing on asphalt and Taylor brought her boot up, stomping hard down. Kaiser rolled out of the way and a spike of metal formed where he had been, in the path of her foot, and Taylor diverted a tiny portion of the power flowing through her to reinforce her armour, smashing the spike to shards and cracking the ground beneath. She turned as Kaiser rolled away, pushing himself to his feet and staggering back as he turned to face her again.
"That was good," Taylor said conversationally, "Very tricky. I can see why you've lasted this long."
Almost on a whim she twisted the power flowing through her, shaped it in her limbs and felt them change slightly, becoming more like steel than flesh. Probably not a useful trick given her armour, but the extra weight might help beat Kaiser down. Kaiser shook his head as though trying to shake off the damage he'd taken, his chin tilting down in defiance. Kaiser squared his shoulders, facing her, and Taylor shortened the length of the whip of lightning still crackling along her arm with a thought, letting it wrap more closely around her forearm. Kaiser's armour conducted well enough and fitted loosely enough that it negated most of the shock, she thought. She needed to get close and put more lightning through him if she wanted to shock him into immobility. Kaiser gestured with his left hand and a line of spears broke from the ground, lancing towards her and Taylor gestured, crushed them with a wall of force. A diversion, of course, and Kaiser was lunging at her with an axe in hand, swinging it towards her head. Taylor stepped into the swing, caught it on her forearm and barely felt the impact through her armour and steely flesh and Taylor slid her arm against Kaiser's to grip his forearm, slipped her right hand past his left to grab his shoulder and smashed her helmeted forehead against his. Kaiser reeled back, struggling in her grip and Taylor headbutted again, ceramite crashing against steel, Kaiser's crown of blades bent and broken and Taylor hauled him in, drove a knee into his armoured stomach and Kaiser shouted something, blades forming on his armour where she grabbed it. Taylor let him go and beat her wings hard, taking to the air, cracking her hand so that the whip lashed out and caught Kaiser across the shoulder. He stumbled back, his arm going limp, and Taylor beat her wings again and lunged in again.
"No!" Kaiser screamed, slamming both hands into the ground. Taylor went airborne again, avoiding the thicket of metal that grew from the ground beneath her, and flourished her left hand, a second whip of lightning flaring into being to match the one coiled around her right forearm. She soared higher as Kaiser's attack followed her, higher, higher and the Warp opened before her. She blew into the Warp, back out again, landing behind Kaiser, dropping to one knee. He turned, a hand rising, and Taylor cracked her whip. It extended from her hand, more like a living thing than a lightning bolt and twisted around his wrist, the second whip doing the same as his other hand lifted and Taylor grinned.
Power surged in her blood and bone, flowing down her arms and down the whips and Kaiser arced his back, screaming, sparks and flickering tongues of lightning spraying from his armour as warp-born lightning surged through him. He twisted back, muscles spasming, nerves misfiring and fell. Taylor flicked her arms as though shaking off water, the whips dispersing into flickering streamers that faded into the air and stood.
"It was a good fight," she told him as he struggled to stand, writhing on the ground, "But it was never yours to win."
An enormous crash caught Taylor's attention and she turned away, taking a step towards the still ongoing fight against Menja, but Menja was falling and Purity had her hands raised, floating towards the ground in a conciliatory manner. Taylor let out a long breath, calling her staff back into her hand from its position among the ring of steel and let go of the Warp just a fraction. She was just about to wind down completely, just about to relax, when she felt movement behind her.
Taylor felt Kaiser lunging to his feet, his will briefly overcoming the effects of the lightning. Of course she did- how could she not? He was well within her area of control. She turned, her staff dropping low, spear-like, head flaring with ethereal light as a long, slender blade formed from her will and her power and Kaiser flung himself at her, a jagged shard of metal in his right hand, raised to stab at her and Taylor knew that it wouldn't get through her armour, knew that it wouldn't harm her, but she had nearly bled to death once before. She wasn't minded to take risks anymore. A thought, a breath of power, her staff flaring brighter than ever and the Warp-forged blade, shimmering and ethereal, punched through Kaiser's armour, through his lower intestine, slicing his spinal cord just above his pelvis. Taylor put a hand to his chest, pushed him back as his legs crumpled under him, and heard the wet, squelching pop as her blade pulled free of his guts. Kaiser hit the ground with a clanking thud, hands reaching to the wound.
Taylor stepped towards Kaiser as Theo rushed past her, falling to his knees next to his father. Kaiser clutched at his stomach, blood pooling bright scarlet, hot and fresh as it poured from the wound. The roiling energy of Taylor's blade could cauterise, but as Kaiser had fallen the blade had dragged up before Taylor had pulled it out: too many blood vessels had been ruptured to stay sealed. Taylor knew, as surely as she knew anything, that it would be a deadly wound without action. Kaiser would bleed out well before help arrived, a painful and grisly way to go. If it had just been Kaiser and Taylor she would have done him the mercy of taking his head off. With the audience she had, that wasn't a choice.
'We can save him.'
"But should we? Would he save you?"
And wasn't that just a cutting question. Of course Kaiser wouldn't save Taylor, were he in this situation. He'd leave her to die and think nothing of it. She was supposed to be the bigger person. She was supposed to be the hero. But…should she? Taylor stood, frozen, undecided, and Theo looked up at her. There was panic writ clear across his face, his hands trying futilely to staunch the river of blood, and Taylor made a choice.
"I can save him," she said, feeling her voice come out almost distantly, looking down at Theo, "If that's what you want."
For a second she saw Theo's face twist, as though he couldn't answer her, and she wondered. But then his face hardened, a grimness settling over his features, and he nodded.
"Please. Circaetus, he- he's not very good at it, but he's still my Dad."
Taylor sighed, kneeling and placing one hand on Kaiser's stomach, on the armour. A thousand-thousand tendrils of power uncoiled from her fingers, worming their invisible, unreal way into flesh and bone and blood and Taylor looked down at Kaiser, realising that he was still conscious.
"Every day for the rest of your life," she told him, "You had better say your thanks that your son is a better person than either you or I."
And then, before Kaiser could choke out some no-doubt scathing response, Taylor pulled at the threads of his being and the man passed out from the agony of healing.
Before I get a dozen reviews about it, Taylor isn't going to heal Kaiser's spine. She has a whole escalating list of arguments ready, starting with 'Nerve damage is harder to heal than you think' and proceeding up to 'I didn't swear any Hippocratic Oath and maybe this will make him try to be an actual decent human being'.
The hardest part of this chapter was remembering which of Menja and Fenja died a few chapters ago. Next chapter is probably going to be a Luna Interlude, maybe a very short Cauldron interlude, since there's an actual arc I have planned for that, but we'll see how it goes.
As ever, reviews are appreciated, I hope you enjoyed and I'll see you all in the next chapter.