The sedative gas had worked perfectly. Of course it had, she'd been the one to synthesise it, but it was still nice to have everything go right and Luna made sure that she was there to wake Alastor, sitting in a chair in front of him with her knife glittering in her hand. He woke quickly once she'd administered the antidote, though he went still when he saw her.
"Luna," he said, his voice a little harsher from the gas, "Is this where you kill me?"
Luna leaned back and laughed, taking a wicked delight in the way he paled when he saw her fangs.
"Why, Alastor," she said, "Would you like it to be?"
He was still as pale as milk, but he managed a smile.
"Well," he said, "I thought I'd made it clear that I'd like a life of plenty. But I always knew that trusting you was a risk."
"Trusting me was a risk?" Luna asked, too amused to be offended, "What about the risk I was taking? You could have sold me out at any time."
"Could have. Maybe should have. Didn't."
"No," Luna agreed, "You didn't. Have to admit, I'm curious why."
Alastor looked up at her, brow wrinkled in thought, and Luna heard the Warp whisper in the back of her skull. Let go, it whispered. You can look all you want, just let go. Stop resisting. Embrace the Immaterium.
Luna grimaced and forced the thought back. The Warp wasn't sentient, she knew, it was just magnifying the deepest corners of her thoughts. But the temptation was strong, nonetheless, the thought that she could look into Alastor's future, see if he could really be trusted. But then, even if she was as strong as Taylor – even if she was as strong as the Emperor himself – could she trust visions? No. They were fickle things at the best of times.
"I told you," Alastor said, "I couldn't stand my father, or my brothers. They're brutes. Or I suppose it's were, now?"
Luna smiled, closed mouth this time. No need to frighten the poor boy.
"Oh, not yet," she said, "Although Cynthia is champing at the bit to get to Father. Does that bother you, knowing she'll do terrible things to him?"
Alastor raised an eyebrow, his eyes almost emotionless.
"Not so long as I don't have to watch," he said, grunting as he sat up. "I confess," he continued, "I rather suspected I'd not wake up. You'd think it would be easier to slit my throat in my sleep, if you were going to kill me. But you like watching, don't you?"
A brave one, wasn't he? Luna liked that.
"Well, at the risk of sounding cliché," she said, "It's because it's personal. You get to really see the measure of a person, when you're twisting a knife in their heart. It gives it a kick. But you're right. If I was going to just kill you, I'd have done it already. So. Indulge me. Tell me, why don't you like your family? Daddy got that Catholic fondness for little boys? Brothers like to lock you in your room? C'mon, spill the beans. I won't tell anyone."
Alastor looked disgusted for a moment.
"Catholic fondness – that's sick. You should be ashamed of yourself. And no, none of that. Stephen just got drunk and beat the shit out of us on occasion, like any good Southern Father does, and ran his cult in the shittiest way possible. He's just a shit person, with shit ambitions, and I'm glad to see him gone."
Ah, Luna thought, there it was. The carefully hidden hatred.
"And my brothers? They're a pack of backstabbing, gutless weasels who only fight when they know they can win. At least Father's not a fucking coward! I've been keeping this family cell alive for the past half decade, and I'm not going to die with it."
Alastor looked up, his eyes blazing with emotion now.
"So if you're going to kill me, fucking do it. But otherwise? Your little Cult Imperial needs someone who knows what they're doing. And fuck it. It's not like I've got anything else to do."
For a moment, just a moment, Luna's control over her Swarm slipped, the weakness coming back, and the Warp flickered through. Just for a moment, but in that moment Luna Saw-
A grave, lonely, a bunch of flowers left on the stained stone, the name 'Alastor McVeay' barely visible-
A replica of Father, alcohol bottles spilled around him, fat and toothless in a stained vest-
Alastor, coated in stone, screaming defiance as a golden being raised a hand-
Alastor, in a dark long coat, one eye covered in a patch and fire flickering around his hands, the two headed Imperial Aquila emblazoned proudly on his chest-
Luna set her jaw and hunched forwards, fingers tightening painfully around the hilt of her knife. Her skull hammered, the Swarm buzzing louder and she drew in a harsh, heavy breath through her nose, forcing herself into the Now.
"You know what?" she said, her own voice echoing distantly in her ears, "I kinda like you, Alastor. Takes a lot of backbone to say that to me."
Luna's ears popped, her breath sounding loud in her throat as she returned fully to herself and turned a slowly widening grin onto Alastor, turning the futures she'd seen over in her head. Yes. Yes, they'd do. Or one of them would, at least, and that was all that mattered, wasn't it? She pushed her chair back and stood, the knife tucked away and a single hand held out.
"If you're serious about this," she said, "If you really want to stick with me, rather than taking the money and running – well, I've got a couple of things that I want to do. But first, you said that you'd kept the family cell alive for the last half decade. You're not the only McVeays, then?"
Alastor accepted her hand, letting her heave him to his feet with a single strong pull, and shrugged.
"No," he said, "The Fallen all operate in cells. It's how we – they, now – stay alive. I know where some of them are, at least."
Luna's grin only widened.
"Oh, Alastor," she said, her voice lowering to something that was almost a rumbling purr, "We're going to do some great things together."
"I feel like I should be terrified by that," Alastor said. Luna turned to him, her almost too-wide grin still there, pulling at the corners of her mouth. He didn't flinch away.
"Are you?" she asked. Alastor rolled his shoulders and rocked his head from side to side, loosening his neck.
"No," he admitted, "Feels pretty dumb. I just wanted to live a nice, easy life. But I'm kinda interested in what you're going to do next, now that you've taken out Father."
Luna stretched her arms, feeling muscle and tendon flex and pop, and beckoned to him.
"Well," she said, "Why not come along and find out?"
Alastor eyed her hand before letting out a deep sigh and stepping forwards, closer to her. One hand rubbed at his other arm, the faintest sign of discomfort, but when he spoke his tone was steady, if wary.
"Well, I know I said I would. But what about the rest of your guys? Don't think they'll be too happy to have a Fallen along, since half of them were kidnapped."
Luna grinned, her Swarm moving in the shadows. Alastor squinted at the movements, his brow furrowing in concern, but didn't make a move to defend himself yet.
"Well. Maybe they'll be a little cold to begin with, but you pretty much helped take down Father. And from all my research, you've never been into the rape side of it, so you aren't too far gone. Have to admit that I'm curious about that, too…"
Alastor's frown remained in place, crinkling his brow.
"Why?" he asked, slowly, as though tasting the words, "I…I just wasn't. Guess a man's gotta have morals some time, right? That was a step too far for me."
Luna watched him, the smile still playing around her lips.
"Murder, kidnapping, extortion, brainwashing, but sexual assault is too far? You really are a delight, aren't you?"
Alastor met her gaze levelly, shrugging.
"I didn't say I was a good person. Just that I wasn't that bad."
Luna jerked her head towards the door, starting to walk.
"No, you didn't. Come on, then. Might as well reintroduce you to the rest, if you're going to see this all the way through."
Alastor fell into step with her, following her out of the room and into the hallway. Their base, such as it was, had once been a hospital, not that large and long since superseded by the larger, more modern facilities in the wealthier parts of the city. It was abandoned now, stripped of all the medical equipment, but getting it back into serviceable conditions hadn't been too difficult and it had plenty of room.
"So what's the next step?" Alastor asked, "Now that you're pretty much the big dog around here? The PRT? The rest of the Fallen?"
"The PRT," Luna murmured, "They're weak, you know that. They couldn't deal with the Fallen. But working against them is going to draw too much attention, especially from…"
From Mother, Luna thought. She had a plan to perhaps even the odds on that, so long as it worked, but until that took place she would be painfully vulnerable. Mother, after all, was a viable threat to an Endbringer. Luna couldn't claim power like that.
"Especially from?" Alastor prompted and Luna turned a smile upon him. He didn't shudder under that broad, sharp expression, but she sensed that it was close.
"Well, you know that I'm a clone," she said, revealing the information casually – Alastor didn't so much as twitch, so he must have already known – "And I doubt that my Mother would just leave me to go about my business. No, better to avoid that if we can."
Assuming Taylor wasn't aware already, Luna thought. Hopefully she would underestimate Luna, deal with what remained of the Brockton Bay underworld before hunting her down. And if she didn't, then…then Luna had better get working on her plan. The two of them strode through a pair of double doors into their meeting room, a former operating theatre, and Cynthia straightened from her slouch against the wall.
"He's joining, then?" she said, her eyes lingering on Alastor. Luna nodded, waving a hand affably.
"He seems interested," she said, "I take it that the rest are still alive?"
Cynthia's lip curled, but she nodded sharply.
"Alive and unspoiled," she quoted, "As you ordered. But I was promised…"
"You were promised Stephen McVeay," Luna completed, "And you'll have him. What about their prisoners?"
"Andrew is dealing with them," Cynthia said, but her tone was distant and hungry and she was leaning forwards, towards the doors. Luna knew better than to try to keep her on a leash: Cynthia's cold nature hid a spark of genuine madness, perhaps worse than Luna's own. She hadn't chosen to take Alastor on out of whimsy – she needed a Lieutenant she could trust to keep their head. And speaking of keeping heads…
"Do what you want to Stephen's body, but save the head," Luna told Cynthia, "I want it intact for something. I don't care what else you do to him. Just keep the head."
Cynthia grinned, a flicker of madness showing in her eyes, and Luna smiled gently. From the corner of her eye she watched Alastor: his expression barely flickered, barely twitched. Either he was one of the best actors she'd ever seen or he really didn't care about Father. Either way, good enough for her. For the moment, at least.
"That'll be all, then. Have fun," she murmured and Cynthia stalked away, almost vibrating with excitement.
"I wouldn't want to be your Father," Luna commented. Alastor snorted mockingly.
"Sensible of you," he grunted, "Though he was never a shining example of manhood. What do you want his head for – another spike? A present for Mama Mathers?"
Luna toyed with both those ideas, humming to herself.
"A spike, eventually. But before that, something more important. He was a Parahuman, wasn't he?"
She turned, seeing Alastor nod slowly, his expression shaded with bemusement.
"Yes, of course. What about it?"
Luna considered. What about it, indeed? Was it wise to reveal a potential weakness? Then again, she had bested Alastor without much use of her Swam before – she barely used them in combat now, too reliant on their hum to drown out the Realm of Souls – and she was confident that she could do it again.
"I suppose it's not a secret that I'm losing my powers," she said, just as casual as her clone reveal, and this time she could savour the way Alastor choked in surprise.
"Mm. If it's anything like my Mother…every Parahuman has anomalous brain mutations. I need to check mine, and to do that I need something to compare them to. Of course, I could drag one of you into an MRI scan, but…"
"That's why you want the head," Alastor murmured, "But what about when your powers are gone? What then?"
"Why? Are you rethinking your choice?"
Alastor didn't meet her eyes, but his expression remained neutral, as it had settled after his initial shock.
"If I was, I'd hardly tell you," he observed, "But you didn't answer. What then? What will you do when you're powerless?"
"Powerless," Luna said, still smiling, "Funny thing to say. I suppose that this is where we get into the interesting parts of being Parahuman, isn't it?"
Alastor backed away a step, concern splashed across his face, and Luna made the effort to corral her broad, sharp grin.
"Interesting?" he asked. His voice cracked a little, but Luna ignored that.
"Mm. See…I suppose the place to start is my Mother, Circaetus."
Alastor drew in a breath.
Luna tilted her head.
"That's a new one. You've heard of her?"
"The Families were buzzing with her name. Rumour has it that she drove off Leviathan all but alone, and she's still getting stronger. There was talk of assassination, even."
He narrowed his eyes at her, measuring, considering, and then laughed suddenly.
"Ah. Things start to make a little more sense, now. Your mother? Not, say, your donor?"
Luna felt her lips curl into a ghoulish smile.
"I prefer Mother. Walk with me, Alastor, no point in standing around in the corridors."
Alastor fell into step with her as she set off, walking down the corridors. She knew what she wanted – there was a cellar room, down below, dark and quiet where she kept all of her more exotic experiments. It was where the sedative gas had been synthesised, it was where she experimented on arms and armour similar to the ones Taylor had created and it was where, when the idea that could solve her power issues had come to her, she'd begun preparations. It wouldn't be perfect, of course, nothing ever was, but it could be good enough.
"Mother," she said, "Isn't technically a Parahuman. I know this much. She Triggered, oh yes, but something went…wrong."
There was a line to be walked here. She needed to tell enough to draw him in, not enough that he would think it a fairy tale. But there were some things she could prove, and in a little while…in a little while she'd be able to prove a lot more.
"Mother's power is unusual," Luna continued, Alastor remaining silent and allowing her to talk, "Because of the way it manifests. You might have seen the rumours that she's a power copier, or something like that. She was probably pleased by them, but they aren't true."
"They aren't true," Alastor echoed, "So what is true?"
Luna wondered if he was really interested, or if he was just humouring her. Perhaps, having learned of her impending vulnerability, he'd try and overthrow her? But then he'd have to escape her freshly converted faithful, assuming he could defeat her. He'd lost once already, after all, and she'd barely used her powers against him.
"This is the truth of Taylor Hebert, aka Circaetus," Luna said, spacing the words to give them a deliberate weight, "Her powers are very simple. She can reach out, into a…another dimension, perhaps, that lays atop this one. It's a dimension of pure energy, and she can draw it into herself, shape it and use it as she wills. And she uses it to bend reality itself."
Silence. Luna wondered if, perhaps, she'd been too hasty, and Alastor cleared his throat.
Luna waved an impatient hand.
"Is it really any different from what all you other Parahumans do? You think there's a reasonable explanation for Alexandria's flight, Legend turning into lasers, your ability to absorb whatever you touch? Alright, let me re-phrase. She takes this energy, channels it through herself and affects the world thus. You've seen the basic parts, fireballs and lightning and telekinesis, but there's so much more than that."
"Alright," Alastor said, hands raised, "Alright. I'll believe you on that. But what relevance does it have, exactly?"
Luna smiled to herself at the curiosity that he couldn't quite hide, lingering in his voice. Yes, nearly a misstep – but not quite, and that was well enough.
"Circaetus mostly uses her abilities outwardly," she continued, "But that doesn't mean she can't do other things with them. She has biokinetic powers, as well: she's used them to heal others. But more importantly, she can use them on herself."
Luna rapped her knuckles against her breastbone, still smiling.
"I'm sure you noticed, when we fought, that I'm a little harder when punched than normal."
"Yes," Alastor murmured, "As though you were wearing armour. How, exactly?"
Luna waved a hand.
"Taylor – Mother – fairly quickly realised that even if her powers are more potent, it never helps to have a second option. That's where the physical enhancements come in…faster reflexes, stronger muscles. The 'armour', as you called it, is a modification to my ribcage that makes it more like plates, and reinforced bones. But none of that's as important as the last thing."
Luna chewed over the next words, Alastor turning her head to her with the slightest frown.
"Have you ever wondered," she said, "What would happen if someone meddled with the human brain? You can reduce someone's effective intelligence by damaging the brain. What if you did the opposite?"
"Are you saying – are you suggesting that Circaetus artificially increased her intelligence? And – and that you've inherited it?"
"Knew you'd get the hint. Oh, yes. Everything Taylor can build I can build as well, because that's not Tinkertech. That's just cleverness."
"You'll forgive me if I wait until I see it," Alastor interrupted. Luna let him do so, not especially bothered.
"And you will see it," she promised, "And maybe then you'll believe. Taylor is limited by her own mercy and her own power. Why build lasers, when you can crush all before you with the power of your mind? But without that luxury I…well, I'll have to get creative."
She wasn't telling the whole truth, of course. The memories she'd inherited from the Emperor weren't as accurate, or as numerous, and unlike Taylor she didn't have the option of asking the Emperor himself. But that was fine. She wouldn't reach the pinnacle of her options yet. And there was the other thing, the more important thing. After all, she could bend the Warp to her will, if it was open to her. She just couldn't reach through the veil. But there were ways to bypass that.
It wouldn't be pleasant – well, not for the Fallen at least. But if she could get it right…she thought that the theory was sound. She was a Psyker, technically. She had the correct genes, as the Primarchs had, and she'd used the Warp before. There was something blocking her, she just needed to…break through, as it were. Luna's theory, at the moment, was that if she could physically access the Warp she could burn the shard of the Parasite from her head and unlock her true strength.
And then, if it wasn't done with exquisite care, Taylor would hunt her down and tear her soul from her screaming body. Luna had very little doubt of that. And, if it were just her, maybe she'd take the risk, maybe she'd see if she could rise to the challenge. But she had other things, important things, and she needed to see them done before she tested herself against her Mother once more. She considered telling Alastor about it, but…no. She trusted him to an extent, but no further than that, and she was aware that the entire Psyker…thing…would probably seem ridiculous to someone who hadn't experienced it. No, better to wait and show him later, when she had the power.
"So, you're losing your powers but not your mind," Alastor summed up, "And you can give us technology that'll let us hold our own against the PRT and Protectorate? Can't say I'm opposed to that."
"Maybe not the whole Protectorate," Luna mused, "Bringing down Legend or Alexandria will be more difficult than you might think. But for most of them? Yes, I can equip you. Now. The Fallen cells."
"The Fallen cells," Alastor said, still keeping pace with her, "What do you want to know?"
"Start from the beginning. Cells: why?"
Alastor sighed – Luna glanced to the side to see that he was thoughtfully curling his fingers through his short goatee.
"Why is any terrorist group decentralised? The PRT would quite like to see us – them – wiped out, working on cells prevents any one attack from endangering them all."
A thin smile graced his face.
"Of course, that was under the assumption that the more important members who might know more wouldn't be taken alive. A shame that Fathers indoctrination skills fell short of his general bastardry."
"Unfortunate indeed," Luna murmured, "So there are three families, right? Who's the strongest?"
Alastor shrugged, rubbing his fingers together.
"The Mathers are usually considered the strongest," he said, although he sounded irritated to have to admit it, "They like the Simurgh the most. They were the ones who kidnapped the Wards, although the other two families do some kidnapping as well. They're led by Mama Mathers, and her base is…somewhere around Kansas City."
"That's a way away," Luna muttered, "What's her power? I take it that she's got one, yeah?"
"Oh, absolutely. The Simurgh comparison is pretty accurate here – Mama has some kind of…anti-Thinker power. I can't be completely certain here, you understand, since nobody is, but Father let me know everything he could."
"Because you were the smartest person he had on call and he wanted to take her out?" Luna guessed. Alastor clicked his fingers at her.
"Got it in one. So, Mathers. Her power allows her to cause hallucinations in anyone who can observe her. And when I say 'observe', I really mean it. You can see her, even through a camera, she can make you see things. You can smell her, you smell things. You hear her, she can make you hear things. No actual way of telling if it's true, but I'm pretty sure touch and taste count as well. This makes her pretty hard to plan around, obviously."
"Obviously," Luna echoed. Yes, she could see how it would be hard. How could you be sure that you'd hit the right one? How could you know that you were even aiming in the right direction? Sounded like the best option was just firebombing her whole general area, but then again…would Mather's power extend to the Warp? Parahuman powers interacted oddly with Psyker abilities, probably because the Parasite was a soulless xeno that couldn't even begin to understand the glory of Humanity Unfettered, but it would be a risk to take. No. Better to track her down some more oblique way and dip into the Imperiums arsenal of mass destruction.
"Most well known member of the Mathers is probably Valefor," Alastor continued, "Although the smirking bastard went rogue a while ago. Last I heard he was heading to Brockton Bay."
Luna swallowed an inappropriate laugh. A cultist of the Simurgh, making his way to Mother? Luna wished her all the joy of the hunt. But there were others, as well.
"Obviously you've encountered and eliminated the leadership of the McVeays," Alastor said, and Luna felt a thrum of amusement at the cold way he referred to his own family, "Although if you've got some time to spare I have someone I'd like to find. And then the third branch are the Crowley's, who are a bunch of pig-fuckers."
"Oh? Do elaborate."
"The Crowleys," Alastor said, "Are like all the worst parts of my father rammed into a single group of stupid assholes. They aren't like the Mather's or the McVeays: both of those families were Christian isolationist types. The Crowleys started as some edgy kids before the Crowley family took over – Albert, Vince, Jake and Sabrina. They're all pricks. These are the loudest bunch: they go out and start barfights, they hunt down Case 53s, they're real redneck stereotypes. Albert got briefly exiled for murder before coming back and killing his successors to take over. Vince and Sabrina are the least annoying, since they actually try to work with the other families, and Jake is stuck in a never-ending midlife crisis. He's forty if he's a day and all four of his wives are barely out of their teens."
"Jealous?" Luna asked, glancing at him. Alastor looked disgusted.
"Jealous? Hell no. I like my women to know what they're doing, kiddie-diddling ain't my calling. But if you want to deal with 'em next, I wouldn't say no."
Good to know, Luna thought, tucking the thought away. And if the Crowleys were isolated, moving against them could be easier than going out and looking for a compound in the backwoods of America. There was probably one every couple of miles, even assuming she could find a way to bypass Mather's power.
Maybe indoctrination, Luna thought. Indoctrinate someone to the point that they'd set off a bomb vest as soon as they came under Mather's sway. A big enough boom and, well, the problem with illusions was always wide area attacks, wasn't it? But that would keep. She turned one last corner, descended a flight of stairs and halted before a set of double doors, barred and locked. Alastor waited behind her, patient but watchful.
"Not the most secure," he commented. Luna shrugged as she fished a key from an inside pocket of her coat, fitting it into the lock and twisting.
"No," she agreed, "But it'll do for now."
She strolled in, kicking at a generator on the ground. It buzzed into life, snarling briefly as it started, and floodlights that she'd jury-rigged blazed whitely, spot-lighting the middle of the large storage room. Luna glanced over her shoulder and saw Alastor squinting, distracted. Good. The sigils she'd painstakingly carved into the walls weren't particularly obvious, but she'd still prefer not to have to explain them. How could she, anyway? Runes of warding and hiding and strengthening, wards that would hide this place from Taylor. Hide Luna from Taylor, or so she hoped. Tearing open a path to the Warp would always be risky, but at least in here it would be channelled, contained. Safe, as much as it ever could be.
"You know," Alastor said, "We could do with some funding, if we're going to try to build something. We can take the cash the Fallen have built up, but a steady supply could help too."
"What're you thinking?" Luna asked, walking over to the nearest workbench and gently caressing the rifle on it. Alastor pointed.
"Those, actually. Gun-running is always profitable, if risky. Doesn't even have to be in the country, either. Sure there're gangs, but there's revolutions in South America, Africa, even Europe who'd pay a pretty penny for good quality weapons and armour. Problem is that they need maintenance."
Luna cocked her head, thinking. She was a little reluctant to put a lot of high-grade weapons into the world, at least at the moment, purely because it would inevitably sap away her advantage. That said, it wouldn't be too difficult to build a slightly downgraded version of the Lasrifle and Laspistol for mass-production, so long as they could get somewhere safe.
"From the way you say it, I expect that you have contacts?"
"Plenty," he said, "The Fallen are well armed, after all, and we couldn't exactly swagger into a gunshop. You want me to start looking into it?"
"Please," she said, reaching across the table and picking up one of her first pieces, a pistol. She turned to Alastor pressing it into his hands.
"Here. So you know what we're dealing with. We'll have to build some lower quality ones, keep our edge, but if you need to know how it works…"
"I'll get on it, as well as drawing up a list of the Fallen cells that I know of."
He paused, looking up at the ceiling – Luna's sensitive ears caught the fading whisper of a scream and a faint smile curled the edges of her lips. Cynthia, so enthusiastic.
For a moment – just a moment, when Luna turned her gaze back to Alastor – she wondered if he'd take the chance. If he'd lift the gun she'd given him and try to use it on her. Betray her, as he had the Fallen. Luna met his eyes, letting just a sliver of her amusement show through, and Alastor smiled back after a heartbeat.
"I'll deal with it," he repeated, "I take it that I can make deals without coming back to you?"
Luna considered that, scratching at her chin before shrugging. She'd be busy, anyway, and the Cult Imperial that she was building would need to stand alone at some point. Besides, she thought she had a good read on Alastor by now: for all his protestations of wanting a life of plenty, of luxury, of ease and indolence he was a man in search of a cause. He was a lost soul, seeking something that he could truly devote his life to, Luna thought, and giving him it would give her a lieutenant who was sane, stable and ruthlessly competent. Father had been a fool, to turn Alastor against him. Luna didn't intend to make the same mistake.
"Sure," she said, "Don't cheat me too badly and I won't look to closely. Oh, and Alastor…"
He blinked, adjusting his grip on the weapon as Luna leaned in slightly, locking eyes with him.
"This is your second chance," she said, "Your chance to be something great. Do it right, and there's a place among my most trusted for you."
"And if I do it wrong?" Alastor asked, showing that sharp flash of defiance that was so endearing. Luna smiled.
"I trust that you won't," she said mildly, turning away. Another risk, but sometimes those had to be taken – and it paid off, because she heard Alastor hum in agreement and make his way out of the room, back up into the hospital proper. Luna nodded to herself. Yes, she'd chosen well with him – but now she had other things to do. She plucked a chisel from the table and strolled over to the doors, closing and locking them before turning her attention to the walls. This needed to be done, she told herself, her Swarm wavering for just a moment. A flash of pain that wasn't hers raced through her body, a million fingers plucking at her nerves and Luna gritted her teeth, her knuckles whitening around the chisel before her Swarm came back to her and drowned the Warp in the endless buzzing. Soon, she thought. Soon. Her time was running out.
"I should have done it in Brockton," she said to herself, hammering the chisel home with the flat of her hand, "When the Warp was strong around me. It would have been a risk, but I could have spared time. Instead of killing Emma, maybe."
Yes, looking back that might have been better. After all, what had Emma's death really accomplished? Nothing. Driving a knife through the stupid bitch's heart had been satisfying, but did it really matter to Taylor? Did it even really matter to Luna herself? Petty gratification – and Luna wasn't above petty gratification, nobody could say that, but when it got in the way of the greater good of Humanity…Luna grumbled to herself, forcing herself to concentrate instead on her work. She fell into the rhythm, letting her mind be lulled by her Swarm until a fist hammered hard on the doors. She jerked back to herself, barely wrenching the chisel away before it scored a harsh line through the rune she was carving, and sucked in a deep breath. That had been close, she thought as she set the chisel down and strode over to the doors, unlocking them and pulling them open.
Covered in blood and grinning widely, Cynthia held up a head in one hand. Luna blinked, reaching out to take Father's head from her, holding it in both hands and looking it in the dead eyes.
"Hallowed be thy name," Cynthia said, still grinning. Luna barked a brief laugh, tilting the damn thing as blood leaked slowly from the savaged neck.
"Our Father," she murmured, not finishing the rest, "I doubt he's in heaven, Cynthia."
"The way he was screaming for God, he might have genuinely repented of his sins," she said, satiated by the violence she had inflicted, and Luna smiled cruelly.
"Mm. Well, there is that. Luckily Alastor isn't here…or did you chase him down, as well?"
Cynthia shrugged broadly, the jagged-edged knife in her hand glinting through its thick coating of gore.
"Thought about it," she admitted, "But he's with us now, isn't he? No point rubbing it in his face. You've sent him somewhere, haven't you?"
Luna shrugged, still turning the head in her hands.
"Gave him a prototype laser pistol and sent him out to test it, look for clients," she said absently, "He suggested it'd be a good idea to look into the arms market and it sounded fine to me."
"Arms dealing," Cynthia mused, "Yeah, I can see that. What about everything else, though? The Protectorate, the PRT?"
Luna looked up from the head, locking eyes with Cynthia.
"What about them?" she asked, "They're weak. They've always been weak, and they're even weaker here! They couldn't even bring down the Fallen, what will they do to us? No, Cynthia. This city is ours. We just have to make it so."
Cynthia's smile was slow and broad, the blood streaking her face making it animalistic, dangerous, and Luna felt her pulse speed with the promise of violence.
"The other Fallen?" Cynthia asked, low and hungry. Luna smirked in answer.
"Oh," she murmured, "Just like Father's cell. They can join us, or they can die. We've got Alastor as an example now, so long as he comes back, so…"
Cynthia gazed at her through narrowed eyes, the bloodthirst briefly suppressed in favour of the sharp woman who Luna had recruited.
"Join us," she echoed softly, "So long as they behaved themselves. No rapists."
"No rapists," Luna agreed quietly, "We'll still need object lessons."
She glanced over her shoulder, at the mess in her workshop. She had the head, she had herself, all she needed was an MRI scanner or equivalent. She had most of the parts here, she just needed a few more. And then…and then, she'd see.
"Alas, poor Yorick," Luna mused, looking back at the head, "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophies."
Cynthia looked politely baffled and almost staggered as Luna shoved the head into her hands.
"Put that in a fridge," Luna ordered, "And clean yourself up. Make sure nobody's hanging around outside looking for us, and feed and water the prisoners. I'm going out."
"Out," Cynthia repeated, "Out where?"
Luna gave her a grin, sharp-toothed and broad, that must have looked positively ghoulish.
"Cynthia, my lovely Lieutenant," she said, "I'm going shopping."
It was dark when Alastor finally returned, and Luna was well done with her task. She sat at a table, toying restlessly with a knife and glaring down at the scored plastic. Plastic. Cold and sterile, she thought.
"I'm back," Alastor called, strolling in with a confident stride, "Just as I promised."
Luna looked up, pulling a faint smile onto her face.
"You are back, indeed," she said, "How did it go?"
She didn't ask if he'd betrayed her, going to the Protectorate or the other Fallen. She'd thought of putting an insect on him, but her control was too sloppy, slipping through her fingers at the least provocation. It was too much of a risk. Alastor pulled out a chair, scraping the legs across the hard tiles, and sat down, plunking the pistol he'd borrowed onto the table. Luna glanced at it and then looked up at him.
"Oh, better than well," he said, "Excellent. I got some footage of the pistol and sent it over to some contacts: they're interested. It'll take a few weeks before we really get into business with them, but they know me and they trust me, as much as anything else. Also…"
"Also," Alastor continued, "While I was checking a bolthole for cash I made contact with another Fallen cell. One of the less zealous ones, too, based a couple of miles outside the city. If you're looking for recruits, I dare say that they'll do nicely. I took the liberty of arranging a meet, with the excuse that Father's and the other True Sons are all missing and we need to talk about the future of the McVeays."
Luna smiled, her brief dark mood scattered by the good news. Taken the liberty, eh? Alastor was a sly one, but if he could be trusted in this – and Luna thought that he could be, she thought that she was reading him right – then it could be perfect. Yes, he'd have earned his place among her Lieutenants in that case.
"Superb," she murmured, "Very well done."
Alastor affected a half bow in his seat before leaning forwards, propping his elbows on the table.
"So," he said, "Anything happen? Father's dead, I take it?"
Luna inclined her head.
"Very," she said, "Very."
She glanced to the side, thinking, before deciding to continue. She gestured at the scatter of papers in front of her, sliding them over to him.
"I visited another hospital and…acquired…enough parts to build what is, essentially, an MRI," she said, glossing over how she'd acquired them, "And we've done a couple of scans. This one, here, is Cynthia. This one's Andrew, and this one's your Father's head."
Alastor peered down at the black and white images, a frown wrinkling his brow.
"Alright. What am I looking at?"
Luna half-smiled, not showing her teeth, and reached forwards.
"You see that, there and these? Those are the Corona Pollentia and Corona Genma, which all Parahumans allegedly have. They're supposed to be the source of Parahuman powers, and given these scans…"
"They're all pretty similar, shape and size," Alastor murmured, "Or enough to be recognisable."
"Entirely so," Luna agreed, untucking another scan image from under her arm and passing it over, "And this one?"
Alastor's eyes roved over the image, narrowing.
"I prefer atrophied," Luna mused, "But yes. It is, isn't it? And in case it's not obvious, that one there is mine."
Alastor looked up sharply, his narrowed eyes narrowing further and his lips pursing.
"Atrophied? But if the theory is right-"
"Yes, it explains why I'm losing my powers," Luna said, still nonchalant, "I can't say why, exactly, but it seems too much of a coincidence that it would be melting away while my powers decline. Given the comparative sizes and estimated timeline since I was born, Andrew suspects that I've maybe two or three weeks before my powers fail more often than they function."
And wasn't that a damned nuisance, Luna thought. She'd wanted to delay as long as possible, make absolutely sure that everything was in place before she took the risk on awakening her Psyker abilities. But now she'd need to hurry up, because the weaker her powers became the stronger the Warp madness would become, and the less able to actually help herself she'd be. So, she needed to make haste.
It would still require a certain degree of caution, of course. The Ruinous Powers had no foothold in this universe, and Luna didn't intend to be the one to provide one, so certain numbers should be avoided. The Four Powers were strong, strong enough that their reality might still have an echo here: perhaps eight times eight symbols, drawn in blood, would be more potent at the risk of drawing the attention of the Hound. No. No, the Hound, Crow, Eagle and Serpent could remain far, far away, and Luna would be pleased about it.
Still, the risk was probably minimal. Without the effect of the War in Heaven the Immaterium was quiet and the Ruinous Powers should be unable to affect them even if they somehow became aware of this universe that had never known their touch. She just needed to make sure that everything was in a row, all her ducks lined up, before she took the shot and moved on to the next phase of her plan.
"I take it that you've got some way to deal with this," Alastor said, "Because no matter what you say there's a good chance the Fallen won't follow someone who's lost their powers. Even someone like you."
Luna shifted in her seat, eyes drawn inexorably to the direction of Brockton Bay. To where she could feel Taylor, even now, shining in the Warp.
"Yes," she said, "Have just a little faith, Alastor. And wait just a little longer."
What was it that Taylor had said, just before driving a stake through her heart and leaving her dead on the ground? Oh. Yes. 'I won't let you be my Horus'. Well…hardly a Horus, now. But there had been plenty of other Primarchs, hadn't there? She just needed to avoid making their mistakes.
The rain had finally stopped. Taylor wasn't sure if it was a good thing or not, considering that she might be facing down Lung soon, but in the end she assumed it probably didn't matter. If Lung got ramped up the rain wouldn't be enough to prevent him from starting a significant fire, in all likelihood.
Something buzzed faintly off to her left, a tiny drone bobbing against the wind. Taylor didn't glance at it – the noise would have been too quiet for someone with normal human hearing to pick up. She wasn't sure who had built the drone: Dragon, Armsmaster, Chariot before Leviathan had squashed him like a bug, some other Tinker who'd sold it to the Protectorate, but that didn't really matter. She knew what it was for. It was for tracking her, to try to locate Tattletale's base.
Taylor couldn't help but be amused. It was sneaky of them, really – she knew that Armsmaster was in control of it – and she was taking the opportunity to irritate him by generally lounging around. Could be a fun bit of evasion, escaping it, but she was just waiting at the moment. Even better, now that supplies were flowing fairly regularly the contents of the PRT HQ were less well protected.
Taylor, being who she was, had immediately filched a carton of chocolate milk and a sandwich from the supplies. Well, it was supposed to be chocolate milk – that was what the carton said. It tasted…well, not that much like chocolate, but Taylor guessed there weren't many choices. She took another drink and rolled the chalky liquid around her mouth, looking contemplatively at the carton.
'You know…you're from Anatolia, right?'
'From several thousand years ago?'
'Are…are you lactose intolerant?'
The Emperor sighed.
"I was, for a while," he admitted, "But by the time Rome had risen and I was living there as a minor aristocrat I had become a proficient enough Biomancer that I could copy the relevant genes and insert them into my genetic code. Not that I knew those terms, then, but it was possible. I suppose that was the start of my fondness for gene-manipulation."
'So if we felt like it, we could un-lactose tolerant someone?'
"I hate that description more than words can describe, but yes. We could indeed make someone lactose intolerant."
'Hmm…didn't Tattletale mention that Panacea had threatened all sorts of unsavoury things? I wonder if she's capable of something like that.'
"More importantly, I wonder if we could directly counteract her powers if she used them on us."
Taylor took a bite of her sandwich, chewing contemplatively…and also because it was hard going even for her. Those dental improvements were getting a workout now, that was for sure. Steak and cheese sandwich, right. More like rock and... slightly rubberier rock.
'You think that's going to happen? Even if she jumped at us, we could slap her away with a thought.'
"Yes, and it is that easy until you are distracted and she lays hands on you. We both know that you are mutually antagonistic. She cannot stand you, and you…"
'Yeah yeah, I know.'
Taylor took another bite of the rubbery abomination pretending to be a sandwich, refusing to look at it. To look at it would mean attempting to understand the contents, and that way lay insanity.
'We can't exactly test it, though. I wonder if she's taken a look at Kaiser, yet. That was some decent work we did. Maybe we should check on him.'
"Check on Kaiser, or check on Theo?"
'Is there a difference?'
Taylor swallowed her last bite with only a little hesitation, washing it down with the last of the milk. She wasn't full, exactly, but her hunger was at least assuaged for the moment. She really needed to eat more, to keep her augments improving apace, but it was difficult to find the time and the food without making a spectacle of herself. She crumpled the carton in her fist, letting the Warp reach through her and consume it in a burst of white-purple fire before she stood, dusting herself off. The wind gusted against her, setting her coat flapping, the breeze heavy with rain as it brushed against her skin. She sighed.
"Rain again," she said aloud, peering at the horizon, "It's a good thing Leviathan attacked already. Otherwise I'd think this was an omen."
The drone didn't move, but she felt like she could sense Armsmaster's consternation as she turned and strolled back into the HQ. They had a secure ward for injured prisoners, she knew, and she headed there without missing a beat. She did really want to see how Theo was doing, and – well, she'd be lying if she said she wasn't interested in Kaiser's condition.
The secure ward was quiet, all but empty: a pair of PRT Troopers were watching Kaiser, but the man himself was sedated on a bed. Taylor nodded to them, standing an arms-length away from the bed and inspecting Kaiser. He was heavily bandaged and, from what she could see, his spine was still severed. She crushed a grimace at the thought – not regret for doing it to him, but for losing control of the situation enough that it had happened.
"Do you know where Theo Anders is?" Taylor asked the Troopers, turning away from Kaiser. One of them shook her head.
"Sorry, Miss. He visits every day, but it's not regular. We've just been told to keep an eye on Kaiser."
Taylor nodded and thanked them, turning away and walking out of the ward. She was surprised to have been let in so easily, but then again maybe it wasn't too amazing – after all, it wasn't as though she was much of a risk. Or, probably more pertinently, that the PRT could really stop her from killing Kaiser if she wanted to. She'd have to ask someone else about Theo, she thought, and was just wondering who to ask when a door slammed open and a voice cut across her thoughts like a rusty saw.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Panacea demanded, eyes blazing with anger. Taylor lifted an eyebrow and offered a languid shrug that she already knew would infuriate Amy.
"Just visiting. Inspecting the fruits of my labour, as it were. Why, what's it to you?"
So yes, maybe Taylor found Panacea annoying enough to provoke her. But, really, Amy had no reason to be such a bitch and Taylor wasn't going to take her lip lying down. She'd had plenty of that from Emma and Madison before the Emperor.
Panacea bristled, because of course she did. Sometimes Taylor wondered how the same family could contain both Glory Girl, who was largely easy-going, and Panacea, who was a bitch at the best of times and snapped at every bit of bait dangled before her. It was a mystery – oh. Wait. Wasn't Panacea adopted, or something? Taylor had to admit that she didn't really care enough to remember.
"The fruits of your labour?" Panacea snapped, "Disappointed that he didn't die? I wouldn't be surprised if you were just here to finish him off."
Taylor responded in the way she knew would absolutely enrage Panacea: she laughed.
"Finish him off?" she asked, grinning and taking a step closer to Panacea, "Who do you think I am?"
Taylor jabbed her finger at Panacea, not quite making contact, her smile falling away.
"If I wanted that wretched man dead, I wouldn't have bothered healing him," she said, "In fact…it wouldn't have even come up. You know where I speared him?"
Taylor moved a single step more, looming over Panacea and pressing her finger into the other girls abdomen, the faintest of touches on the cloth. Panacea didn't flinch, meeting Taylor's eyes with that expression of judgmental disgust that pressed a wick of flame to the tar-slick of anger that blackened Taylor's soul.
"Right there, Pan-Pan. Right through the fucking guts. All I would have needed to do is wrench up-"
Taylor's finger moved as she spoke, tracing the path that her spear would have taken.
"-and Kaiser's insides would have spilled all over his outsides. You think his ribcage would have stopped my glaive, where his armour didn't? He'd have died in seconds. But he didn't, did he? Because I chose to leave him alive."
"I'm sure that helps you sleep at night," Panacea said, swatting Taylor's hand away, "Knowing that you only disabled a man instead of bloodily killing him. Oh, yes, I should apologise, you're not a mindless brute – you prefer to leave people alive to suffer!"
Taylor forced down her temper – not without effort, but losing control here would ruin any semblance of moral superiority that she had. No, this was a battle to win with words, not fists. She laughed again, instead, revelling in the way Panacea glared.
"You're such a child, Amy. Kaiser – if he was awake, Kaiser would be thanking me on bended knee! You think they'll send a cripple to the Birdcage? Oh, no, that's cruel and unusual. But if I'd healed him completely, if he was whole in body, what do you think would happen then? How long do you think it would be before his mangled and broken body was found in his cell, with the swastika painted on the wall in Nazi blood? I give it a month, maybe two if he's careful. Instead he'll go to a normal prison, maybe even get over his fucking ego and leave his stupid fucking ideology behind, and one day he'll get out and he'll come to me and he'll say thank you. But go on, Panacea. Go in. Heal all his ills, and condemn him!"
Panacea slapped her. In hindsight, Taylor should have expected it. In the moment her temper flared, hotter than ever.
"You sanctimonious bitch!" she snarled, but Panacea cut her off.
"You fucking sicken me," she snarled back, her voice rising to nearly a shout, "You know that? You're so fucking smug all the time, like you always know better! How did that go for Browbeat, huh? How did that go when your clone killed him? How did it go for Emma Barnes, when your clone went after her, specifically, and carved her fucking heart out?"
Taylor stuttered, no biting comeback for the moment, and Panacea seized the chance to continue her tirade, a finger jabbing hard at Taylor's breastplate.
"You want to know why you get some much leeway, hero? It's because of her! Armsmaster can say what he wants about mental illnesses, we all know that those clones were just their original with the shine taken off! We all know that they were just the original, willing to do whatever they wanted! You don't get treated with kid gloves because you're a great person, Taylor, you get treated gently because we all know that beneath the quips and the sneers and the jokes you're a monster!"
Taylor shook herself, opened her mouth, but Panacea wasn't done yet.
"I've tried to give you a chance, because Vicky believes in you. But all you've ever done is harm people and strut around like you're God's gift to the world, like everyone should bow before you! Your clone is off putting heads on spikes and building her own criminal empire, but you'd rather stay here! Is it because you're afraid, hero? Too afraid to face the real you, because it's nothing but another bloody Villain?"
"Enough!" Taylor barked, her wings flaring widely. Panacea staggered back but her eyes blazed with a feverish light, burning with vindication.
"Yes," she snarled, "Go on! Prove how strong you are, strike me down! Show everyone who Taylor Hebert is at heart!"
It would be easy. It would be so easy. Panacea was just human, fragile and breakable and Taylor could shatter her ribcage and tear out her heart without ever turning to her Psyker powers and…and…and she didn't. Her fingers dug into her palm even through her gauntlets as she clenched her fist, her jaw ached with the effort of staying still and she drew in a long, slow breath through her nose, no longer smiling.
"Just another Villain, eh?" Taylor said, fixing her eyes on Panacea, "Funny, that. The thing about consorting with villains, with people like Tattletale, is that they talk. And Tattletale's had some interesting things to say."
Panacea stared at her and Taylor felt the girls mind skip a beat, uncomprehending before a flash of fear chased through her.
Taylor spoke over her, uncaring.
"Oh, she told me how you threatened her at the Central Bank. Damaging her thyroid gland to make her obese? Giving her cancer? Two very different things, but fascinating. Fascinating that your first choice was thyroid damage."
Panacea stepped away, paling, and Taylor prowled after her, a smirk licking at the corners of her mouth.
"I'm interested, though, what cancer did you intend? Something quietly fatal, hard to treat? Or something more in line with the other, something disfiguring? Face cancer, breast cancer, something to ruin Tattletale's looks…ah. How very cruel of you."
"Be quiet!" Panacea blustered but she'd paled and Taylor was smiling now, satisfaction curling warm in her stomach.
"And why stop there? After all, a few pushes to the genes and…how hard would it be to induce Huntingdon's disease, let Tattletale think she's gotten away with it only to be struck down thirty, forty years into the future? A little damage to the liver, so that it fails a little later? Cataracts. Crohn's disease. You've got so many options, you can't tell me you haven't thought of them?"
Panacea's mouth said that she hadn't, but her mind showed it for a lie and Taylor laughed.
"Oh, you have. You have. I now I have to wonder what else you've lied about? Perhaps you've been lying about being able to affect brains…I've always wondered about that, it would be a very strange instance of Manton limits, wouldn't it? How hard could it be to shift the brain chemistry just enough, to cause depression or early onset Alzheimer's?"
Panacea was as white as paper and Taylor tilted her head, a thought striking her.
"Oh. Is that why you hate me so much, Panacea? Because I'm not afraid of myself like you are?"
"You…" Panacea said, weakly. Taylor had her trapped against a wall, looming close, making eye contact and Taylor saw Panacea's eyes widen before she lashed out, a hand slicing towards Taylor's cheek. Taylor caught it this time, her gauntlet wrapping around the fingers and squeezing, just hard enough to remind Panacea of the differences in their strength. Taylor leaned in closer, holding Panacea's gaze, before speaking again.
"Oh, maybe I'm a monster," she said, "Maybe you're right. But even if I am…at least I have the luxury of knowing that I'd make my kills clean. Can you say the same, Amy?"
Taylor let her go and stepped quickly back as a soft gasp sounded behind them, throwing a nonchalant glance over her shoulder to see Rosary with one hand lifted to her mouth. Panacea slumped against the wall, bent over, but she'd been lucky: Rosary had only just entered, in time to see Taylor looming over Panacea with one hand gripped tight. A good thing Taylor had mostly kept her voice down, maybe. Outing Panacea's darkest fantasies had the potential to go very wrong, even if part of Taylor was tempted to make a pre-emptive strike.
"Maybe you should think more carefully on what you say from now on," Taylor said instead, flicking a hand at the door to the secure ward, "And remember what I said before you decide to give the nazi his legs back."
She left Panacea there, collapsed against the wall, and strode away. Rosary skittered to the side as Taylor swept past, her wings drawing in only just enough that they didn't knock the Haven cape over. Taylor didn't expect Rosary to follow her, but the cape surprised her, although she had to hurry to keep up with Taylor's long strides.
"Is there something you want?" Taylor asked, glancing at Rosary. The woman was still hurrying along – Taylor hadn't slowed her pace to accommodate her – but she was doing an admirable job of keeping up and she only sounded a little out of breath.
"Yes," Rosary said, "Actually. A lot of Haven have been excited to meet you, although Armsmaster told me that you don't follow the true religion."
Oh boy. This was going to be…yeah, Taylor couldn't see this going well. But Armsmaster had asked her to try, hadn't he? She slowed and then stopped, turning.
"I don't follow any religion," she said, the curtness somewhat cutting into her attempt to be cordial, "What of it?"
Rosary stopped herself, tucking her hands into the wide sleeves of her costume as she faced Taylor.
"Members of Haven were present at Leviathan's attack here," she said, "And they all spoke of the Red Angel. You saved several of them, in fact."
That bloody title again – pun unintended. Taylor hated it, hated the way it brought up memories that weren't quite her own, memories of screaming rage and all-swallowing despair and lakes of gore. She squashed the grimace before it could escape – they didn't know. They weren't mockingly bringing up Angron.
That didn't mean that it didn't sting, though.
"I saved a lot of people that day. What's your point?"
Rosary spread her hands in a calming gesture, revealing her hands again. Taylor folded her wings and leaned back against the wall, waiting.
"There were a number of people who…found their faith renewed, seeing an angel before them. Some of them took it as a message."
Taylor's lip curled.
"A message," she said sardonically, "A sign from god?
Taylor felt irritation glitter in Rosary's mind, but she didn't show it.
"Some of my brethren believe so," she said equably, "I admit I'm not as sure. After all, there is only one God, and his Son."
And how many religions, Taylor sardonically thought, had said that or something similar throughout history? Still.
"So they asked you to see if I'm one of you, so to speak," she said, "And you're no doubt very disappointed."
"Your appearance," Rosary said softly, "Some have taken it as a sign that the end times are nearly here. An Angel, sent to shepherd the faithful…but that is not the case. Merely a coincidence, or a mockery?"
Taylor tilted her head at the last words, wondering if she imagined the sudden harshness in Rosary's tone, the steel beneath silk. She shrugged it away.
"Coincidence," she said dryly, "Hard to place wings anywhere else, really. Besides, weren't Biblical Angels far from human?"
Rosary inclined her head.
"Yes, indeed. I still must ask, though, would you not reconsider? Would you not see the light and join hands with the truly faithful, save as many as you can before the judgement of the Lord falls upon this sinful world?"
The absolute balls of Rosary, to casually ask something like that. Taylor was almost impressed. After all, what response could one have to an offer like that, almost a demand that she convert? Rosary continued.
"Whether the work of the Devil or of the Lord, the Endbringers inflict terrible damage every time they attack. You drove off Leviathan, but the Beast cannot be denied forever. Only the power of the Lord can do so. Repent of your sins, embrace the forgiveness and love of God, and become his Red Angel in truth. I implore you – take this chance. Save humanity."
Taylor laughed. Rosary blinked, her certainty cracking in the face of Taylor's amusement, anger not quite flaring yet. Taylor tilted her head back, still laughing, cutting herself off with a snap as her jaws clicked shut.
"Save humanity?" she said, shaking her head, "Enslave them, you mean."
Rosary took a step back from Taylor's suddenly harder tone, uncertainty flashing through her mind.
"Enslave!" Taylor repeated, louder, an arm sweeping through the air in a broad, slashing gesture, "What else would you call it? Everything Humanity is, everything we could become, happily given away to a shadow of a dream!"
"A shadow of a dream?" Rosary repeated. Taylor bared her teeth.
"That's all gods are, Rosary. They're nothing real, nothing substantial. Just a hope that somewhere out there there's something to shelter you, something to hide behind or appease. Every achievement Humanity has ever accomplished, given away, credit handed to something that doesn't exist. Every atrocity we have ever committed, handing off responsibility by saying it was the will of some creature, hiding far away! If there is a deity out there it's not a lord or a king. It's a leech, stealing from Humanity, and we will never reach our full potential until we cast it into the forgotten mists of history."
Rosary stared at her, unblinking, before her voice came, soft and shaking, from the darkness of her hood. She was trying to sound kind, concerned, but she was rattled, Taylor could tell. Not her belief, that might be unshakeable, but Taylor's vehemence had startled her.
"I am sorry, my dear," Rosary said, "That you feel you cannot trust in faith. That you have suffered so that you cannot believe."
Taylor cut her off with another laugh, this one almost manic. She didn't understand. They never understood.
"Believe me," Taylor said, "I wish I could believe. I wish that there was something out there, something with the benevolence to help Humanity and the power to do so. But there isn't. When I Triggered, when I caught a glimpse of the endless void, there was no wise old man. No four-armed lord. No feathered serpent. No lady wreathed in light. Just the universe, and Humanity alone in it."
Taylor lifted a fist, clenching it tightly.
"No god lifted us up," she continued, "Humanity dragged itself out of the primordial muck alone! No god built the pyramids, no god brought Rome to the peak of power, no god harnessed electricity and showed us the path to the future! No, there is only us, only Humanity! The universe is out there, waiting for us to rise up and take it – and it will. Be. Us. Humanity alone shall take our place as masters of all we survey, and we shall give no false praise to shadows in dreams."
Rosary stared at her, eyes wide. Taylor spread her hands, her grin spreading across her face.
"Oh, ever since my Trigger I've had no illusions," she said, her voice low and whispering, "Out there, in the dark, there's no divine power. There's no guiding light. There's just the void, and the stares of uncountable stars. The meek will inherit the Earth, you say? They can have it. The strong will have the rest."
She waved a hand, backing away from Rosary.
"Believe what you want, Miss Rosary. But I still know…out there, there's no salvation waiting. We'll have to find that ourselves."
One final step back, and the Warp enfolded her in its endless embrace.
Taylor landed in her lair, without grace. Her boots thudded into concrete and she relished the shock of it up her legs, the impact. She glanced around, turning her head slowly enough to properly survey her workshop: while she had better equipment at the PRT HQ, there was something about her own workshop, a place only she knew about, that reassured her. Reassured her enough, at least, that she kept her more delicate projects here. The microfusion cells, of course, and the bare bones of her Volkite pistol, but more importantly anything that relied heavily on runes and, well, magic. No point in getting too many questions asked.
'Well, that was a thing. At least we got away from Armsmaster's little drone, right? And it wasn't as though we burned any important bridges.'
"Panacea was hardly a friend, admittedly. We did not speak to Theo, though."
Taylor grunted agreement, shaking her head.
'Yeah. He'll have to wait, unfortunately-'
Her phone going off broke the silence and Taylor plucked it from her pocket, the ringtone already telling her who it was. Finally, she thought.
"Finally," she said, "I've been waiting for hours."
"Well, that happens when you make friends with meddling Heroes," Tattletale replied, "I'm not on speaker. You're alone?"
Taylor made a faint 'eh' noise before replying, electing to elaborate a little.
"Got into a bit of an argument with Panacea and then Rosary tried to recruit me. You would think they'd learn not to assume every person with wings is part of their nuthouse, given the Simurgh, but apparently not."
A thoughtful hum from Panacea before she replied.
"An argument with Panacea, hmm? I'm surprised they don't put a minder on the pair of you."
Taylor huffed out a laugh, short and quick.
"Maybe they think she'll finally get over herself,", she said, "She's supposed to be almost an adult, now. If she can be trusted with patients then she can act like a grown-up."
Tattletale didn't reply immediately – Taylor wondered if a comment about the pot calling the kettle black was incoming before Tattletale eventually spoke.
"I think she's jealous," she said quietly. Taylor needed a moment to process that, blinking and letting it sink in before she shook her head, choosing arrogance.
"I can see why she'd be jealous," she said, "I mean, there's a lot of things for her to be jealous of. My physical superiority. The wit. The phenomenal powers. The dazzling charisma-"
"Yes, yes, you are certainly fabulous," Tattletale said, sounding amused, "But if I had to pick something she'll be jealous of, it's the fact that you have biological manipulation powers similar to her but have hidden them well enough to avoid the deluge of letters and emails asking for plastic surgery that she gets."
Taylor barked a laugh, tilting her head away from the phone to avoid deafening Tattletale.
"Oh, yes," Tattletale said, her tone rich with amusement, "From what I can tell they're constant. A nip and tuck here, breast enlargement there, a flood of penis enlargement requests…to be honest I don't know why she doesn't set aside a day for it. Plastic surgeons aren't protected by anti-Parahuman laws and she could make a fortune, even if she only does eight hours a week."
"Is this a way of suggesting that I should consider it?" Taylor asked, getting a laugh in response.
'That makes me wonder, actually,'
'Was there really any need for the Astartes to be, you know, hung? Wouldn't it have been more efficient to have them be essentially eunuchs?'
She could feel the way the Emperor winced at the suggestion.
"Firstly," he said, "I am a cruel man, but not that cruel. I wouldn't do something like that to my grandchildren. Besides, testosterone was still an important hormone for them – I sometimes think that bringing their sexuality down to human average or slightly below was one of my greatest achievements. In addition there is the morale factor. Release is important."
'Did they even know what they were for? They were almost all recruited prior to puberty, weren't they?'
The Emperor hummed thoughtfully.
"Many, yes, but far from all. While just before puberty has the best acceptance rate even adult males have a roughly forty percent success rate, and with the proper care and the presence of a Biomancer that rises to something more like seventy percent, with barely ten percent actually dying or being crippled. When I was first recruiting on Terra many of the Legions came from experienced and loyal units of the Imperial Army and many of Russ' companions, for example, successfully underwent the process. Success rate is only really important when there is a particular shortage of geneseed, which wasn't much of an issue for Legions other than the Emperor's Children, for a while."
Taylor hummed at that. She had already discussed with him changes to the Astartes process, in order to make it suitable for both female and male subjects: the population of Earth wasn't large enough to sustain a force if the only viable recruitment pool was pre-pubescent boys. But if every man, woman and child could potentially be augmented? Then the manpower issues were greatly reduced, if not eliminated. Something to consider, at least, even if the odds the Emperor had just given were unlikely – they relied upon some the most advanced technology available to the Imperium before Horus' rebellion and a Biomancer of supreme skill both being present. But that was getting side-tracked.
"Yes," Tattletale said dryly, "If you ever get tired of the cape game and decide to retire you should open up the most effective plastic surgery in the world. I'm sure you'd be a hit. Now…"
"Now," Tattletale confirmed, "Can we meet? We've a few things to go over. I'm at the place you killed Coil. Don't take too long."
Taylor rolled her eyes, hanging up before stepping once more into the Warp. It was a short trip, easy, although it gave her a little time to think. Maybe, she thought, she should be more suspicious. Maybe there was a chance that this could be a trap. But really, could it? Apart from the friendship that Taylor liked to think she had with Tattletale, what would be the point of backstabbing her? Even if Tattletale could pull it off, what would she gain? No, Taylor doubted it could be an ambush.
Besides, she liked to live dangerously.
"Quick enough for you?" she asked, stepping from the Warp and back into reality, her boots tapping against the ground. Tattletale, comfortable in a large chair, smiled up at her.
"Just about," she said, "Take a seat."
Taylor didn't glance around, projecting an aura of confidence, but she still made a quick sweep of the room with her other senses. A small group outside the door but no-one within and she sank lazily into the chair, sweeping her coat aside just enough that it wouldn't encumber her, a moment of focus shifting her wings to an ethereal state to allow them to pass through the chair back. Tattletale planted her elbows on Coils' former desk, interlacing her fingers.
"So," she said, "I know I was talking about Lung, but I've got a couple of other things to talk about first."
Taylor shuffled in her seat, making herself comfortable, and spread her hands.
"I'm all ears," she said, content to wait for the moment. Besides, Tattletale often had something interesting to say. Tattletale smiled.
"Knew you'd say that. Alright, firstly: the Fallen. From what I hear your clone is at war with the McVeay branch, over in Wichita, and it's not going well for them. There's two other branches, Mathers and Crowleys, but who knows what they'll do. More important, there's two here in the city: Valefor and Eligos."
"Yeah, Haven mentioned them," Taylor murmured, "Seemed like there was some bad blood there. Maybe it's just the usual heresy thing, I dunno. But Valefor and Eligos, what're we looking at from them?"
Tattletale unlaced her fingers, tapping a nail against the desk.
"Eligos is aerokinetic," she said, "Think Stormtiger and I don't think you're far off. He's dangerous, but probably not so much to you. Valefor, on the other hand…Valefor's a Master, and a strong one. It's hard to tell exactly how his powers work, but it mostly comes down to the same thing. He activates them by making eye contact, or by looking at you, or by looking at you while you're looking at him – hard to tell exactly – and it puts you into a stunned state. Once you're in this state he can apply hypnotic suggestions, like brainwashing, and he's smart – he's dangerous. If you can…well. If you can give him the Coil treatment, you'll get no protest from me. He might not be on the level of Heartbreaker, but I don't want someone like that in my city."
'Brainwashing, huh? That's interesting. Wonder if it would work on us.'
"Hard to say, specifically. It's entirely possible that it would work on you and then I could immediately snap you out of it. It's possible that it would lead to a clash of wills and this Valefor would burn his mind out trying to dominate us. It's hard to speculate accurately without seeing it in action."
"You want Valefor dead. Done. If I see him, I'll do my best. Next?"
Taylor thought she saw Tattletale relax a fraction, some weight lifting off her shoulders, but didn't comment. Tattletale nodded, almost to herself, and shrugged.
"Next. Yeah. So this isn't as urgent, but I thought it was interesting, and I know you like to hear about these things. Besides, if I'm going to investigate it, then…well, something tells me that I might need backup. You remember the Travellers?"
Taylor didn't bother to repress her shudder, remembering Noelle and the mess she'd made. Yeah, she remembered the Travellers. She nodded shortly and Tattletale sighed.
"The Travellers were being paid by Coil. I think I told you that, before? Either way, I dug into it a little more. There were some files on Coils computer, records, investigations, conversations. Whatever, it all comes down to the same thing: the Travellers didn't Trigger naturally."
Taylor straightened in her seat, waiting, and Tattletale licked her lips, clearly trying to think her way through her next words.
"It was something that Trickster told Coil," she said, "They're native to Earth Aleph, and they were somehow dragged here during a Simurgh attack. On their way out they found a case, with vials in, so they split them up."
Taylor coughed in surprise.
"I'm sorry, they…they just split them up? Injected them?"
A smile flashed across Tattletale's face.
"Drank them, I think. But yeah, they threw self-preservation to the side and downed them, and they all got superpowers. Except…except for one of them. One of them split his vial with Noelle. She got powers, he got nothing. I've been trying to track him down, but no luck so far."
Powers, Taylor thought, artificial powers. She'd heard that before, but to have it directly confirmed…someone was meddling. The Parasite, however it passed powers down, didn't give them in vials. So who was doing this?
"Taylor," the Emperor said abruptly, "We must investigate this. Someone who can give out powers like this must know more about the Parasite. If we are to defeat it efficiently, we must know more. We must find them."
"Do you know anything about the vials?" Taylor asked. Tattletale bit her lip, a frown wrinkling her brow.
"I…there was a file, more heavily encrypted, that mentioned a group called Cauldron. Nothing else."
A chill ran up Taylor's spine, something skittering and many-legged. Cauldron. What had Alexandria thought – that she might make a good member of Cauldron? If Alexandria was involved…
"I've heard that term before," Taylor said, choosing her words carefully, "I think I heard Alexandria mention it, just after the Leviathan attack."
Tattletale frowned deeper, shaking her head. Taylor suspected that she knew that Taylor was at least bending the truth, but she didn't say anything about it. Taylor thought back, to her Trigger, trying to work out what was niggling at her.
"I…why would one of the Triumvirate be involved? If she is, then…this could get nasty quickly."
Tattletale bent forwards and grimaced and Taylor felt the pain that was spiking through the other woman's head, pulsing in her brain, and leaned across the table. A hand laid gently atop Tattletale's, a pulse of power threading through her and soothing the pain away. Tattletale opened her eyes, smiling faintly at Taylor before taking her hand back and straightening.
"It's probably not just Alexandria," she said, "But there's no evidence. I'll keep investigating, just quietly. And you…"
"I'll investigate," Taylor agreed, "A lot more loudly. Selling powers…where do they get them?"
Taylor leaned back in her chair, still thinking, and then she blinked.
"Oh," she whispered. Tattletale perked up, eyes narrowing.
"You've thought of something?"
Taylor had thought of something – or, more accurately, remembered something. She nodded.
"Do you remember your Trigger?" she asked, "Not what caused it. The actual…a sort of vision, when you Triggered."
Tattletale squinted, frowning, then shook her head.
"No," she said softly, "I know that – I can tell that there was one. But I passed out. You remember?"
Oh, Taylor remembered. She remembered the two creatures, circling above, two hideous xeno monsters reaching out to her. Two. But there was only one Parasite leeching from the world. Where was the second?
"Yes," Taylor said, "But I – I need some time, to look into things."
She thought Tattletale might protest, but after a few seconds of thought the other woman nodded, inclining her head.
"Yes, alright. For the moment, might best to keep things close to our chests, right? Just let me know if you find out anything important."
"Will do. Now. Anything else, or can we get on to Lung?"
Tattletale nodded slowly.
"Lung, right. Well, I've pretty much narrowed down his location: his usual apartment building got an Endbringer right through it, so he's been moving often. That said, he's mostly been staying at one of his brothels, so-"
A hammering at the door cut Tattletale off and Taylor spun around in her chair as it was flung open.
"Li – Tattletale," Grue panted, staggering into the room in the manner of a man just ending a run, "You've gotta see this."
"See what?" Taylor asked, noticing Grue blanch just a little as he saw her. He shook it off, waving a hand at Tattletale.
"The news, it's on the news," he said. Tattletale flipped a remote over to him and he pressed a button, a slim tv sliding from the wall and turning on. The picture flickered and resolved itself and Taylor felt her heart sink into her boots as Grue waved at it. Fire, fire burned across the image, encircling a huddled crowd of men and women – the Docks, Taylor dimly realised, with Lung right in the middle. He was standing oddly, a little stiff, his voice slightly monotone but still clear.
"Circaetus," he said, "Come out! Come out and face the Dragon, or see these ones burn!"
Tattletale lurched to her feet as Taylor rose, blood already surging hot.
"Circaetus, don't, Valefor must have-"
"Doesn't matter," Taylor said, cutting her off and gesturing to a man, stuck in the crowd, "Just look."
Tattletale followed the line of her fingers and Taylor saw her pale, her mouth opening. Taylor didn't hear what she said, already stepping into the Warp. Even if she had waited, she didn't know if she would have heard what Tattletale said over the hammering of blood in her temples.
'Hold on, Dad. I'm on my way.'
I have no idea how I decided that Panacea and Taylor absolutely despise each other, but it's too late to back down now.
Other than that, I don't think there's really that much to say here...things are proceeding apace, as it were, and the plot is more or less progressing. Next update will be April, I think - we'll say the 14th, and hope to land a little earlier? Either way, as always, I hope you enjoyed, reviews are welcome and, of course, I'll see you in the next chapter.