"Enjoy yourself?" Luna asked, as soon as Taylor walked in. She got a shrug in response. Alastor, following on his self-appointed babysitting mission, was looking at Taylor's back like he'd had an epiphany, and possibly not a very pleasant one.

"Eh," Taylor said, "It was just like…a chore. Like crushing a bug. Not much satisfaction to be found. There were some moments, I guess."

"Personally, I like an easy victory," Luna lied. Taylor gave her a sceptical look that was probably well deserved, pulling her helmet and Luna's cloak off. She stretched and her wings flared behind her, free again. Luna grinned.

"Enjoying yourself?"

Taylor rolled her eyes, but then she laughed.

"They're a nuisance a lot of the time," she said, "But it feels weird being without them. Guess they really are part of me now, huh?"

Which was interesting. Luna could vaguely, vaguely remember a Psyker technique for generating wings – Blood Angel creation, she thought – and she'd been experimenting. But Taylor's weren't like that: they were just there, subconsciously formed. They were different. Despite being formed of pure crystallised energy, they really seemed like part of Taylor. Well, it was better than a halo or something. Taylor would have probably gone omnicidal if she'd been forced to walk around with a halo on most of the time.

"So," Taylor said, "Turns out you've pissed off the Fallen pretty good, because they're banding together to come over here and whack you. Leave you sleeping with the fishes. Pushing up daisies. Make you kick the bucket-"

"And various other death related euphemisms, right," Luna said, "How'd you find out?"

"Dragged it out of two of the survivors. Found a nice place to hang most of the bodies, by the way, up on a construction site. Very picturesque."

"Oh, I'm sure. So the Fallen want to kill me, what a surprise. Did you find anything actually, you know, useful?"

Taylor's grin was a little sharper edged than usual, reminiscent of Luna's own fang-crammed leer, and it stayed firmly in place as she took a seat on Luna's table, her wings stretching across the furniture.

"They want you dead," Taylor repeated, "And to do it they're coming into the city in force. The kind of force that could, oh I don't know, drive you out of a safehouse and rescue one of their comrades?"

Ah-ha. Now that had promise.

"Main concern is, do they know you're camping out here?" Taylor said, "I mean, we want them to break in and rescue their buddy. But having to completely abandon this place wouldn't be ideal."

Luna propped her chin on her hand, thinking about it.

"I don't think they know," she said, "There's not many of us here, and I've been a little bit careful. It's not that well hidden though. It's not as though this place is perfect…I could find somewhere else. But if it's the site of a battle the PRT might come looking."

And while there was a good chance that they'd find nothing even if they looked, Luna didn't want to take any chances with her Psyker plan. Psyker Awakening? She liked the sound of that more. Taylor nodded thoughtfully.

"You've clearly been experimenting on him," she said, "So we'll need to make it look good. There are whole apartment buildings abandoned around the city, we can set one of them up to look like a lab and make it obvious that you're there."

It had merit. She'd need to finish her work first, though. Taylor leaned back further, cupping her chin in a hand and thinking.

"I'll probably need to be somewhere else," she said, "To make sure that nobody sees us both. There's plenty for me to do elsewhere. Like Heartbreaker, unless you're desperate to kill him."

Luna shrugged.

"Not really. You should take a trip over to, uh, Ellisburg? Wherever Nilbog is set up. Take a wander round, scope the place out, see what the PRT defences around the place are like."

"It would be good to check out Nilbog's defences," Taylor mused, "So long as I'm careful. The Notice-Me-Not should be good enough…might even be fun. The risk, get the blood pumping."

"Right. Right. Also, I've been thinking that we might need to take a bit of a risk on something."

"Yeah?" Taylor said, leaning forwards. Luna nodded.

"Yeah. So, we're doing the whole Psyker project thing. But before anything else, the Psyker project needs a mass virus infection to retro-engineer Psyker genes into people. It works on the small scale, we've seen that, but covering the whole world? That's going to take time. And a virus like that? We can make it unable to mutate, but if a Bio-Tinker gets their hands on it…"

Taylor clicked a finger against the table, eyebrows drawing together as she thought.

"You're talking about Bonesaw."

"She's the most obvious danger, yeah. It's not like there's an abundance of Bio-Tinkers who're known for making plagues, though we should make sure. I'm not just thinking of the danger, though. She's all about plagues, so if we need a virus base to work on…"

"That's a dangerous thought."

"Most are," Luna said, smiling brightly, "Fortune favours the brave, as they say – and working with her only to kill her off? That's drama."

And the two of them did like drama. In fact, Luna might go so far as to say that it was one of their greatest weaknesses: the undying craving for theatre that lurked in them. Approaching the Nine could be dangerous – no, scratch that, it definitely would be dangerous – but was the payoff worthwhile?

"Don't be too hasty," Taylor said, "You're as immortal as I am. If they find out, going in unprepared is a good way to end up playing Isha to Bonesaw's Plaguefather. At least wait until I can back you up."

Luna noticed Alastor cock his head and frown at the second part, turning as though he couldn't quite hear. The middle part, she suspected: Alastor might know they were hard to kill, but a mention of Nurgle could provoke more curiosity than they wanted, and Taylor was more than capable of preventing him from hearing anything but 'wait until I can back you up'. She nodded, albeit reluctantly.

"I'll wait for you, of course," she said, "Besides, if it doesn't work out it'll be easier to deal with the Nine if we're both there."

Taylor's insouciant grin turned into a frown – Luna saw her tilt her head just a tiny bit, as though listening to something. The Emperor. Luna wondered if she could hear him, too, if she tried hard enough. Probably not unless he was actively reaching out. Luna wondered if anyone else had noticed how Taylor sometimes did that, or if it was something she only saw because she already knew.

"It would be easier to avoid dealing with them at all," Taylor said, "Sure, Bonesaw could advance the plan. Whatever. We can raid a bio weapons lab and get something just as easy, with far less chance of it having a trap. We should drop a bomb on the Nine and call it a day."

"I'd expected you'd relish the challenge," Luna idly commented. Taylor laughed.

"I like a challenge," she said, "But the Nine are fucking cockroaches. They've always escaped before, so let's not give them a chance."

There was a time for caution, but Luna thought Taylor was taking it too far. Sure, the Nine shouldn't be underestimated. But between the two of them? They could win that fight, easy, only the Siberian and maybe Crawler would be a real problem and the bragging rights? The Triumvirate had lost their fight when there'd been four of them, to win with two would be perfect propaganda if they ever needed it.

"We can take 'em," Luna said. Taylor didn't look convinced, but that was fine. All Luna needed to do was set the fight up, Taylor wouldn't abandon her against a villain group. Even if she didn't entirely believe that Taylor would stand with her against the Protectorate, she believed that.

"We probably can kill them in a fight," Taylor said, "But a bomb is just easier. And if any of them survive, then you can get your kicks afterwards."

"Curb-stomping someone who's already down isn't quite the same," Luna muttered. That said, if any members of the Nine were likely to survive being bombed it would be the Siberian and Crawler, and their heads would be quite the talking piece over her fireplace.

"Normally I'd agree, but in this case a win is a win. Look. I'm still waiting on Miss Militia to get me information, can you at least not do anything about the Nine until then?" Taylor asked. She frowned, snapping her fingers.

"Unless they turn up here, obviously. In that case call me and we'll see if we can really take them all out at the same time."

"Can't be tougher than Leviathan," Luna muttered, but she nodded. Taylor had a point, anyway, and the Nine were in Missouri last Luna heard. They weren't all that subtle about where they'd been.

"Don't say that," Taylor said, "I don't want to get a nasty surprise. Anyway. Yeah, the Fallen are coming for you, and I've gotta head back home to sort out some stuff, so…you know. Don't die?"

"I'll do my best," Luna said, "Put my cloak back first, though. Unless you've found a sense of style and want to keep it?"

Taylor laughed, patting Luna on the head as she hopped to her feet and walked past.

"Sure thing, kiddo."

"You're lucky I need you around," Luna said, fully aware that Taylor wasn't intimidated. She watched Taylor walk away, waiting until she was out of the room to glance back at Alastor.

"You look shaken," Luna said, "Was it really that bad?"

Alastor walked over and took a seat opposite her, shrugging.

"Not bad. I'm used to violence. Just…alright. We found the first guys, checked that they were there, broke in. All normal. She killed the first two before they even knew she was there, that's not quite as normal but I've seen you do things like that so, you know. But then she grabbed the last one, slammed him up against the wall. And I could feel her just…reach into his mind and peel out every secret he ever had."

"Ah," Luna said softly, "Yeah. I can see how that would be disturbing."

"I knew she was strong," Alastor continued, "So much stronger than I am. It's pretty clear. But seeing that guys mind just crumble away, flake off? Knowing that if she wanted to she could do that to me and there's nothing I could do to stop her? Yeah. A bit, uh…"


"I was going to say terrifying, but sure."

Luna leaned back, folding her arms and studying Alastor. There were faint stress lines around his eyes, probably the result of worrying how he and Cynthia could protect her from Taylor if they needed to. It was very sweet, really, but also very pointless.

"She won't hurt you, you know. Taylor. She's too soft."

"I don't think I'd call her soft. She killed six people and hung them up as a warning, boss."

"People she doesn't know," Luna reminded him, shaking her head, "People she doesn't care about. You'd know if she didn't like you: Taylor's not subtle."

"It must run in the family."

Luna laughed at that.

"Cheeky," she said, grinning at him, "Look. I get it, alright? Taylor's bullshit is nearly constant. The quips, the puns, the stupid jokes, her general…everything. I'm not gonna say she's harmless, she's definitely not, but you almost forget, right? And then…"

And then, Luna reflected, Taylor stopped with the dumbass action hero shit for five minutes and whatever was on the receiving end had a really bad time. Alastor shrugged.

"I don't think she's that bad," he said, "But yeah. It's a bit of a switch from the generally friendly hero to cracking someone's mind open like an egg."

"Ah," Luna murmured. Yeah, it was that – Alastor wasn't afraid of Taylor killing him, was he? He was afraid of what she might see in his mind. He was afraid of being rendered helpless as she tore through his memories. Even if Taylor wouldn't do it, fears weren't rational. All she could do was let Alastor work through it on his own. Maybe some training might help – he would never be strong enough to stop Taylor, but being able to at least resist a theoretical mental invasion could help. And it would be good to make sure that her closest Lieutenants were properly trained anyway, in the event she and Taylor needed help wrangling a Psyker humanity into line.

"Can we keep this to ourselves, though?" Alastor asked, "Not tell Taylor?"

"Ah," Luna said, pulling a face. Alastor studied her expression.


"Yeah," Luna said, drawing out the word, "She, uh, she definitely knows. So the whole reading minds thing? That's invasive. The empathy that's the predecessor? That's not something you'd notice. So that fear that you picked up? Taylor knows it's there."

She shrugged.

"She probably doesn't think anything of it. Fear's not an uncommon emotion."

"Still, I…is there a way to hide it? I asked her for, well, for some advice – on throwing fireballs, that sort of thing – but I get the impression her advice on that won't really be applicable."

Double dipping on mentorship, eh? Luna was proud of him.

"You might be surprised," she said, "But I can give you some advice. Might need more, actually…Taylor's empathy just came naturally to her, and evolved into mind reading, mind control, all that sort of stuff over time. You should pick it up. But there might be a way to speed it up…give me time to work it out?"

"You don't sound convinced."

Luna glanced up, meeting his eyes. He was smiling, but there was a concern in his gaze and she shook her head.

"I – look. I'll be honest with you. I can teach you telepathy. I can teach you most of the stuff Taylor knows – not all of it, but most. But what I can't do? I can't promise you that it'll save you, if you ever become her enemy. I know I'm dramatic about all that First Psyker stuff, ooh, scary Taylor. But you've felt her strength. You know it's real. If you ever decide to fight her?"

Luna just shook her head.

"Yeah, I got that impression," Alastor said. He went quiet for a moment and then raised both eyebrows at her.

"Mind control, huh?"

"Wondered if you'd catch that. Yeah, mind control. Taylor doesn't advertise it and I'd prefer you didn't either, but if you can break into someone's mind, well, making them do what you want is just a step away. It's hard to maintain for a long time, though. Easiest to make subtle changes."

"Subtle changes?" Alastor asked, sounding nervous. Luna shrugged.

"Sure. So – for example, Taylor was at this fancy gala thing, a while ago, had to talk in front of a bunch of people. She wants to make a good impression, right? So she sends her power out into the air, just the lightest touch, and that touch says: you trust me. You like me. You want to listen to what I say. Supernatural charisma. And, what do you know, they liked her. They trusted her. They wanted to listen to what I say. That's the sort of mind control she does."

"Not that I can't do the more forceful stuff as well," Taylor said, abruptly becoming present about a foot behind Luna, and Luna jolted in surprise. She didn't need to look to know that Taylor was smiling that broad, sharp smile as she walked around Luna.

"Technically you could call the whole Notice-Me-Not a very limited form of mind control," she continued, "I'd advise learning that if you can. Very useful. I'm working on more combat useful applications, though. When I faced Valefor, I was able to clear away the hostages by ordering them to run, laced with a touch of control. Worked out pretty well."

"None of this is really reassuring," Alastor said, tone dry. Luna wobbled a hand in the air.

"It's not really supposed to be," she said, "But at least now you know!"

"I have to agree with Alastor, I don't think it'll really help," Taylor said, "Though I'm not sure what would. How do you convince someone that you aren't a danger to them, when you can do that?"

Nobody answered. Luna knew the answer – you didn't. All you could do was be trustworthy until it was enough to overcome the paranoia, and that wasn't something you could rush.

"Anyway, now that you've terrified Alastor with the implications of our powers," Taylor said, "I can't stay. And I probably won't be back for a while. Just got a phone call, Dragon wants to talk to me about my tech and I'll have to find time for a trip to Ellisburg. You can manage on your own?"

"Shouldn't be hard," Luna said. She'd need to finish off her brainwashing of the Fallen, but she had that in hand, and setting up his rescue would take time too. And, with Taylor gone, she could take time to look into contacting the Slaughterhouse Nine. She still thought that Bonesaw might be useful, and knowing where they were, who their current roster was, would be invaluable for killing them. What Taylor didn't know wouldn't hurt either of them.

"Great," Taylor said, "I've got some people to see about…some other, much nastier people? Yeah, I dunno. I've gotta talk to some people about Heartbreaker etcetera, you know."

"Bring me back something nice," Luna said, lifting a dismissive hand. Taylor scoffed, but she nodded to Alastor before dragging a hand through the air and stepping into the Warp as reality fractured around her fingers. Luna watched her go, watching the way the Warp flexed against reality as Taylor stepped through and let it solidify around her, watched the way the tear mended like flesh crawling back together. She could see the reflection of the Immaterium in Alastor's eyes.

"Be careful," she said, "You can see a lot in the Immaterium, but there can be danger in looking too deeply. It's easy to get lost. Nearly happened to Taylor, once."

Alastor probably wasn't going to go about looking into the future – for one, he didn't know it could be done. But the Immaterium could be beguiling anyway, and he didn't have an anchor to drag him back like Taylor. Alastor huffed out a breath.

"I couldn't even if I wanted to," he said, "I can barely conjure a fireball."

As though to demonstrate he shook his hand out, trickles of white-green flame running down his fingers. Luna watched, interested, noting that they were steadier than she'd seen before. Taylor's advice really must have helped him.

"Practice makes perfect, cliché though it is," Luna said, "Good luck."

Alastor nodded to her, slowly standing and ambling off with his eyes still fixed on his hand, flame intermittently bursting into life. She watched him thoughtfully, assessing the way the Warp coiled around him, before standing herself and going to look for Cynthia.

Luna found Cynthia in a large basement room that had been converted into a makeshift gym, punching at a sandbag with focused intensity. She watched for a minute, observing Cynthia's form and ferocity, before clearing her throat and walking in. Cynthia didn't seem surprised to see her.

"Luna," she said, "Done with Taylor?"

Cynthia launched a quick combination as she spoke and Luna watched in interest as fire boiled into being around her fists and forearms, multicoloured flames rippling harmlessly along her flesh and leaving scorch marks on the sandbag. That was new.

"For the moment," Luna said, "Having fun practicing?"

"For the moment," Cynthia echoed. She paused her assault, letting the fires go out, and lifted an arm.

"Fire comes easily. But what Alastor does? Turning his flesh to steel? I can barely manage for a second."

Luna leaned in, watching as Cynthia's forearm flickered, metal rippling over it for a fraction of an instant before skin returned, Cynthia grimacing.

"You know, Alastor asked Taylor about his powers. Seems to be working, you might want to talk to him about it."

Cynthia hmm-ed, turning back to her punching bag but not starting to hit again immediately. Instead she flipped through stances, shifting, as though she was trying to find the most comfortable. Luna guessed that it was because Cynthia was trying to separate herself from her Ward identity, exchanging kicks for punches. Probably not the most efficient, but Luna could see why she'd do it.

"So what brings you here, boss?" Cynthia said, "Looking for someone to bother, if Alastor's gone? Or checking on me?"

"Don't see why it can't be both. Alastor's been following Taylor around, he probably deserves a break from our bullshit."

"Or are you worried that his loyalties might be shifting?"

"Is it really shifted loyalties?" Luna wondered, walking over to the wall and leaning against it with crossed arms, "When Taylor and I want the same thing?"

It would make Alastor safer, even. Luna had told them before that if Taylor had killed her they should stick with Taylor, and if Alastor's loyalties had turned already it would speed that up. Hopefully it would never come up, though. Cynthia hmm-ed again, doubtfully this time.

"I could do with your input on something, though," Luna said, "Because Taylor doesn't agree with me on it. See, if we're going to spread out this whole Psyker thing, we need a retro-virus. I can probably engineer one given several months and proper equipment. I can see about stealing one from a research facility and altering it. Or I can go for a more direct option."

"You're talking about a Bio-Tinker."

"I am that. And there's a very obvious Bio-Tinker to go to, isn't there? You know much about the Slaughterhouse Nine, at the moment?"

Cynthia stopped mid punch, freezing almost comedically. Luna raised an eyebrow and didn't say anything, waiting for Cynthia to reset her stance.

"Enough to realise they're dangerous. But they aren't impossible to deal with: I know that the Fallen have made agreements with them before. The Nine can't be trusted to keep them, but so long as you're careful…I heard, before you rescued me, that a villain called Ravager had made a deal with the Nine to take out Mouse Protector. If you've got the right leverage and you're careful, you might be able to trade with them."

"Ravager, huh? I wonder what happened to her."

"From the sound of it, no-one's heard of her since," Cynthia said. Luna chuckled.

"Are you trying to persuade me away from meeting them, or just warn me?"

"I think," Cynthia said, not pausing in her punching, "If you really wanted someone to dissuade you from making any contact with the Nine, you'd be talking to Alastor."

Ah. How realistic Cynthia was.

"That's very true. So Ravager went missing after dealing with the Nine? Treacherous, aren't they? Well, there's a way to get around that. Carrot and stick. What can I offer as the carrot, though? You would think that, since I'm dealing with Bonesaw, the carrot should be for her. Hmm…I wonder if she'd be interested in Nilbog's brain."

Cynthia shuddered, the hard exterior cracking slightly. Luna nodded to herself.

"Yes, that should do. Some of the brain pieces I took from the Psyker test subjects as a taster, and for the piece de resistance…"

"It's not that I don't trust you, boss," Cynthia said, "But is it really smart to give Bonesaw, the mad scientist, access to the brain of someone who can create his own army? The Nine are bad enough already."

"You worry too much," Luna said, smiling. She wasn't quite confident enough to say it out loud, but she could promise the Nine whatever she wanted: they weren't going to live to collect. They'd been top dogs for a long time, that sort of thing bred overconfidence. Cynthia eyed her worriedly but didn't make any more argument.

"Other than the Nine. What do you know about Ellisburg?"

"Ellisburg?" Cynthia asked, "Not that much. About as much as everyone else. There was a class around it, when I was in the Wards – lessons learned, communications and everything – but I missed most of it. Julian knows more about it."

"It's been a while since I chatted with Julian. Alright. Good talk, Cynthia."

"Good talk," Cynthia muttered, returning to her practice as Luna practically bounced out of the room. She spread her senses over the hospital, locating Julian and making her way over to him. He was, as she expected, clicking away at his laptop, a frown creasing his brows over his spectacles.

"Julian," she said happily. He looked up, blinking at her.

"Boss," he acknowledged. She took a seat opposite him, sprawling out, and grinned at him until he smiled back.

"Weapons sales are proceeding well," he informed her, "Alastor's contacts that aren't Fallen are very interested. We could make quite a lot of money on just a few sales."

"Wonderful. You do good work, Julian, have I told you that?"

His smile was slightly resigned, clearly aware that she was buttering him up. Not that she was being subtle about it, but it was nice to see that he had his wits about him.

"Is there something you need, boss?"

"There very much is. Ellisburg."

"Ellisburg?" Julian asked and Luna nodded.

"Taylor's going there to scout, so I wanted to know if there's anything to let her know. Cynthia said you knew something about it."

Julian looked down at his laptop, tapping at the keys, before nodding.

"Alright. You want the whole history lesson?"

Luna shrugged.

"I've got time."

"Ellisburg, then. It's a small town in the North-East, about five thousand residents. Pretty peaceful up until 2001, when a resident, Jamie Rinke, went on a crime spree. Immediately after this Ellisburg goes dark, no communications, no cars coming out, nothing. Capes go in, they go radio silent. PRT team goes in, they get attacked, Capes from Toronto who're supposed to be providing support rabbit halfway through. PRT Team gets eaten alive, probably literally, two known survivors."

"PRT puts the whole place on lockdown and leaves Nilbog to his little kingdom," Luna completed. Julian nodded.

"Right. You know Nilbog is Goblin spelled backwards?"

"Well I do now. Did he name himself, or?"

"PRT named him, I think. He's not had enough contact to spread the name if he gave it to himself. He's considered an S-Rank threat, up there with the Slaughterhouse Nine and Three Blasphemies, but he's not really done anything to earn it. He's got it for what he might do, not what he's done."

"Now that's the good life: get yourself a rep like that without doing much more than killing some PRT schlubs. You said there were two survivors?"

"There were, yes. Ah…I think they were PRT Lieutenant Emily Piggot and PRT Sergeant Thomas Calvert? Not sure if the ranks are right, but the names-"

Luna cut him off by laughing, short and harsh, and Julian peered at her through his spectacles, almost offended. She waved a hand.

"Sorry," she said, "Sorry. But those two survivors? Emily Piggot is the PRT Director in Brockton Bay, and she'd probably prefer to take a long walk off a short pier than discuss Ellisburg with Taylor."

Julian adjusted his spectacles, frowning.

"Hmm. Well, I had thought that would be the easiest approach. Hmm…Thomas Calvert is far more subtle, almost as though he is hiding. I can't tell you where he is at the moment."

Luna tapped a finger against her chin, thinking.

"Well, there's one way to deal with that," she said, pulling out her phone and putting Taylor's number in. There was a decent chance that Taylor was still in the Warp, depending on how quick she was going, but she might not be. The phone rang…and rang…and Taylor picked up. Luna put it on speaker.

"Finally," she said, not bothering to hide her irritation. Taylor's initial reply was drowned out by rushing wind before the noise abruptly went quiet.

"Luna, it's been like half an hour," Taylor said, "I know I'm good company, but this is bordering on desperate."

"Don't overrate yourself. Where are you? Sounds windy."

Taylor huffed a laugh.

"Wanted to test how quick I could fly and how long I can maintain it for. Turns out, the answer's 'pretty fast and pretty long'. The only risk is getting hit by a plane."

Julian squeaked, probably having assumed that Taylor was considerably lower. Taylor chuckled.

"Yeah, I'm surprised I have phone reception too. I've dropped down a bit, though. But I wonder if I could go higher…I wonder if I could breach the atmosphere entirely. Imagine that, floating in space, the silence…"

Taylor tailed off and Luna imagined her hovering just above the clouds, wings beating, head tilted upwards, her heart beating with the urge to try, to ascend from the cradle of humanity under her own power. Inexplicably her throat tightened with an emotion she couldn't quite name and she cleared her throat to rid herself of the blockage.

"So! Julian here – have you met Julian?"


"Oh. Well, this is Julian."

"You know I can't see him, right? I mean, uh, nice to meet you Julian."

"Oh, it's nice to meet you too! It's very nice of you to say that," Julian said, beaming. Luna strongly suspected that he'd been bullied as a child, poor boy. So eager to please.

"Julian's our resident tech expert – techspert? Anyway, I asked him to look over Ellisburg because I don't trust you to do it right," Luna said, ignoring Taylor's noise of fake affront, "And it turns out there are two survivors of the initial fuck-up in Ellisburg. Or there were. One, who got absolutely fucked up in the process, is Emily Piggot."

"Yeah, I don't think she'll give me a long talk about her darkest hour."

"Do people ever do that?"

"I mean, I assume so? Can't remember anyone ever giving me the privilege, though. So Piggot is a no. Who's the other survivor?"

"The other survivor, supposedly unharmed, was one Thomas Calvert. You ever heard of him?"

There was a long, long pause, followed by a hissing sigh.

"Fuck sake," Taylor said, elongating the first word in exasperation. Another brief silence, Luna glancing at Julian and seeing her confusion reflected in him.

"So, fun fact," Taylor said, "Thomas Calvert? That's Coil. The supervillain. And, it might just be that, you know, I got pretty pissed off with him after he unleashed Noelle and led to a bunch of psycho clones roaming Brockton. Anyway, he's definitely not available for interview. I don't even know what Tattletale did with his head."

Hmm. Well, how hard could it be to mutate that organ, what was it called, the Omophagea? Then again, Coil's brain would probably be too far gone to get any useful memories out of it, even if Taylor could bring herself to mutate correctly and then eat the rotting flesh. Tattletale had probably destroyed the head anyway.

"Well," Luna said, "Looks like you're going to be doing it the hard way."

Taylor sighed.

"Every time."


To Taylor's amusement, every map sold in the state around Ellisburg marked the town with an extremely large x, surrounded by a jagged circle to indicate the PRT Quarantine defences. Just in case someone decided to go there, she supposed. She said goodbye to the clerk in the small gas station that she'd stopped to buy a map at and walked out into the night, wondering what he thought about her. Confusion, probably: even for the redheaded man she was currently wearing an illusion of as a disguise, walking out of the night into a lonely gas station and out again was unusual.

Maybe she'd become an urban legend. Taylor grinned at the thought as she pulled her Notice-Me-Not around her, spreading her wings and returning to the skies. It was a cool night, clouds gathering overhead, and Taylor took the extra effort to speed up, intent on breaking above the clouds. It was dark, but up there – in the cold, clear air – she would make better time, and be above any rain. Harder to tell where she was, but she could dip back down when needed.

"I wonder how good their air defences are. Nilbog's forces seem to have a lack of flyers."

'If they've got no flyers, though, how've they prevented the government from bombing the shit out of the place? It's a Podunk little town, no way it has armoured bunkers.'

"Conventional bombing would require clearing it afterwards, they're probably afraid that survivors would destroy the following forces. And using a nuclear weapon on your own country is…particularly poor optics."

'I guess it would make people nervous. Besides, Scion destroyed a lot of nukes when he turned up: government probably don't want to draw his attention to any rebuilt stockpiles. Same reason why they don't write off whatever town the Slaughterhouse Nine have attacked recently and hit it with a nuke.'

"Plus Bonesaw and whatever plague she may have brewing, ready to unleash when she dies. Nilbog has some similarities to her, I wonder if…"

Taylor caught a flicker of memory from the Emperor, a green and blue planet turning to a stomach churning brown-red as the Life-Eater Virus was deployed, and grimaced.

'I don't think anyone here could create something like the Life-Eater Virus, but I take your point. Let's not risk it.'

"It would be an unfortunate end to our campaign against the Parasite."

'Yeah, I don't think we want to prevent humanity from being harmed by the Parasite like that. Besides, it wouldn't need to be quite as bad to collapse society.'

"Luna would probably suggest that collapsing society would make it easier to recreate in our image."

Instead of answering that Taylor flipped over so she was flying on her back, looking up into the night sky. The stars blazed overhead, up here in the inky dark, and Taylor again wondered how it would feel, diverting her thoughts by force of will. It was cold here, in the thin air, but she imagined it was nothing compared to the crushing isolation of space.

'I once heard someone say that space is only an hour's drive away, if only you could go straight up. I think it was supposed to be a joke.'

"The final frontier of man. It has an allure all its own, I suppose. From experience, there are reasons to expand. It's a lot harder to wipe out a species that occupies more than one world."

Taylor narrowed her eyes, still gazing upwards, and wondered if the Simurgh was floating up there, in space, looking down on her. She resolutely ignored the small part of her that suggested how the religions of the world would have a field day when the two of them fought, especially if it was up here: two angels, duelling on the edge of Heaven? That'd set them off.

"What would you bet on a round of new holy wars being sparked?"

'I like to have faith in them, ironically.'

The Parasite was up there too, somewhere. Probably not quite there, so to speak: there was a distinct lack of any sightings of a monstrous crystal studded beast, so Taylor suspected there was some sort of metaphysical chicanery going on. It was something she'd have to investigate, but later. Taylor wanted to be strong enough to have a fair chance of defeating the Parasite before she went looking for its lair.

"Caution? In my successor? It's more likely than you think."

'Why are you like this?' Taylor asked, but she was smiling as she tilted back and dropped down, through the thick and clinging fog of the clouds and back into the dim darkness beneath. She wasn't far from Ellisburg now, by her estimation, and they were out in the boonies: there was no way she'd miss the PRT Quarantine Zone.

'What do you think it'll look like? I'm betting trenches, barbed wire and searchlights.'

"Very Great War of you. Concrete bunkers and walls, topped with razor wire. Machine gun nests. Maze structures to create kill zones, and burned area between the defences and the town."

'Nothing says 'stay away from me' like overlapping fields of fire. I wonder if the PRT or military is manning the Zone? I know the PRT were the ones to declare the quarantine, but they're mostly trained in non-lethal. You'd think the military would be brought in.'

"You would think so. I don't know how close the nearest military base is. And there are Parahumans too, remember: I wonder how they choose them?"

'You would hope they'd ask the best suited to rotate through, but I get the feeling that's not the case.'

Taylor flipped over and scanned the horizon, seeing the white glow of multiple high-powered lights, and banked towards it. She wrapped her power more tightly around her, feeding the Notice-Me-Not a little more so that it would work on anything. Normally she was invisible to the naked eye and hard to notice on camera: like this she was a ghost, even machines dismissing her presence. It was harder to maintain, but she had power to spare.

'Are those anti-air missile batteries?' she remarked as she flew closer, 'I'd think those are overkill. I mean, Nilbog doesn't have any fliers right? And a human sized target that's, you know, human body temperature is going to be pretty hard to track.'

"I would expect it depends on how advanced the tracking systems are. But yes, flak cannons have some things to recommend them against a large number of relatively low-flying soft targets: I doubt any of Nilbog's creatures could fly as high as we can, if he even has fliers. Other targets, however…"

'What, like someone trying to break Nilbog out? I guess there's a risk of that, you're right.'

"Or to prevent someone from doing something like we are now. After all, who knows what resources Nilbog has built up? If someone wanted to damage the United States as a country, causing Nilbog's forces to overrun the Quarantine Site and escape into the wider country could do it."

'Easier ways to do that, I think, but I take your point.'

Taylor shifted her wings, banking downwards. She narrowed her eyes, squinting to bring the ground into focus: still so high up she could barely make out details, but she could see most of it. The town, squatting dark and abandoned in the centre of the bright ring of lights. An enormous concrete wall just as she'd imagined: sixty feet tall, perhaps, thick and tall with coils of barbed wire strung across the top and the base, lying unspooled like spilled intestines. Excessively tall, in her opinion, but maybe the PRT thought it was better safe than sorry. A river ran through the walls, an obvious weakpoint, a building that presumably contained filtration systems as massive as the walls built at the intersection of wall and river.

Ironic, really. The structures keeping the town contained were larger than any in the town itself by far. A second ring, this one a tall fence, surrounded the walls: to keep any curious members of the public out, probably. Taylor couldn't see a gate in the walls, other than the massive riverside structure: all the security, concentrated in one place. To keep the world out…and the monsters in.

Taylor flew over without a second of hesitation, unseen to any eyes. The town beyond looked like something out of a picture book, all bright paints and wooden structures, fixed ramshackle to the original buildings. Whimsical, if you liked that sort of thing: Taylor couldn't say she appreciated the aesthetic.

She could feel the minds in the town, crawling like ants. Like termites infesting a house, swarming masses of simple minds, like spider legs crawling across her skin.

"Revolting," the Emperor said, "Perhaps we should forgo Luna's plan to draw them out and simply burn the town to ashes. It is blighted. If we are killing them anyway, what difference does the method make?"

True enough. True enough. And yet, Luna had a point about the appearance of it, the myth that it would create, mattering more than the action. Taylor kept her power tight around her, controlled, and tilted back, spreading her wings to brake. She was just scouting.

She landed on one of the middle size buildings, staying away from the largest and any large clusters of minds, her boots thudding softly as she dropped the last few inches. The uncertain moonlight peeking briefly through the clouds gleamed on her white armour, a shine only she could see. Taylor pulled her coat slightly tighter around her, sighing: the wooden structure that gave the building the impression of a crooked witches tower creaked in the breeze, as though echoing her sigh.

'Alright. First scouting run, so we'll keep it easy. We just need an overview of the town, maybe where Nilbog is, and an idea of what his forces look like.'

"It would be good to get an idea of how his creatures operate, too. What are their weaknesses? How many are there? How are they controlled, do they have free will and defer to Nilbog or are they puppets slaved to his will?"

'The last one might be hard to work out without risking him learning, but we'll see. Numbers, we can do. And I want to get a look at Nilbog himself, if possible.'

Taylor closed her eyes, spreading out her senses. Hard to say for certain, feeling the minds below, but she got the sense that they weren't puppets: they weren't human, that was for certain, but they seemed to be, well, sapient. The Emperor shared a memory with her, the Warp-sense of an Eldar mind, an Ork mind, the minds of so many other species he'd seen over the millennia and Taylor nodded.

'Not human, but not animal. Alive but artificial.'

"An abomination."

'A little strongly worded, but you're probably right.'

Taylor made the leap between two buildings, landing softly with a flare of her wings. Ellisburg had been reshaped into a madman's kingdom, a faerie realm that twisted and coiled and seethed with its hidden residents. A defence in itself, perhaps: any conventional assault would have to negotiate this baffling maze while under constant assault. With that thought in mind she beat her wings, launching herself into the air and scanning her surroundings, looking down to what had once been a main road. There were shapes walking along it, tall and lanky with long arms and long legs, spears grasped in their hands. Taylor hovered fifteen feet above one of them, studying it.

'A guard?'

Like a funhouse mirror reflection of a human, Taylor thought, something almost fae in appearance. It patrolled untiringly, feet treading on the uneven surface with confidence.

'Much as I like spears, they're a little outdated. You would think, if this is the sort of force Nilbog has access to, the military would have wiped him out by now. What's he going to do against a couple of helicopter gunships hovering overhead and raking anything that comes into the open? There must be something else holding the PRT back.'

"A disease? It's my understanding that he isn't that sort of Tinker, assuming he is a Tinker, but perhaps it just never came up. If he does have some potent microorganism in his blood it will be difficult to detect."

'You'd think all his creatures would have it in that case. We need a proper look, but not this one. We grab this one, the others'll notice it going missing.'

"Agreed. We should look for one more isolated, there must be some in this place."

Taylor flew slowly over the town, keen eyes scanning below. The lights were still dim, more torches than electric, but they were enough for her to see the revelry below – and even if she couldn't see it, she could feel it in the simple emotions of the swarming creatures. Goblins, she'd heard them called once.

'If Nilbog looks like David Bowie I will be very upset.'

"As will I – this town is more fortress than labyrinth, despite the inane construction."

Taylor rolled her eyes, drifting lower to get a better look. If she closed her eyes and just listened to the noise it could almost be a normal town, celebrating. She eyed the scattered creatures, no two quite alike, most of them twisted mockeries of the human form, and curled a lip. Most of them were clustered together, but there had to be some loners…some who she could snatch up without being remarked upon. The Emperor nudged her attention to one of the taller ones, like the probably guards she'd seen earlier, walking into a house. The house was empty, she could feel: perfect. Ghost-quiet she shifted her wings, gliding across in silence and squeezing through a window. It was homey inside, rough-hewn wooden floorboards and bashed together table and chairs made out of the same material. The Emperor's disgust at such a being mimicking humanity in such a way coiled sickly at the back of her throat, but she pushed it down. Taylor did find the mockery of a human settlement disgusting, but her hatred wasn't as visceral as the Emperor's.

She wondered if that made her willingness to slaughter them wholesale less terrible, or more.

"A bowl on the table. Break it, to get its attention. And then…the stairs. A broken neck will look normal, innocent. And the noise outside will cover any noise we make long enough to examine the body."

Taylor glanced around the room, seeing the bowl he had been talking about, and walked over to it. It had been made with clumsy care, she saw, misshapen and rough clay daubed with bright paints. She almost regretted reaching out and tipping it off the edge of the table. It landed with a terrific crash, shards exploding everywhere as the hardened clay burst apart, rapping against her greaves and scattering across the floorboards. Feet pounded in the stairway, a hoarse noise of alarm sounding as the resident raced to see what had caused the noise. Taylor stepped back, against the wall, and waited.

"I wonder how much of the design is Nilbog himself, and how much is the Parasite shard?" the Emperor wondered, "I suppose it perhaps fits into an older imagining of a faerie, but look at it. It's more horrific than whimsical. It could be a result of insufficient skill, I suppose. The skin looks so thin I'm surprised it can withstand the wind."

'Most of them seem to wear some kind of clothes. But I guess it might be like Noelle: she did a poor job of replicating us, but it was more than enough in the moment. Nilbog might be the same, only he's stayed here for almost two decades.'

Luna would probably have something smarmy to say about not embracing the ambitions of world conquest, but the Emperor didn't bother. Taylor was, in a small way, grateful. She watched the creature look around until it saw the shattered bowl. It clucked and chirped in consternation, brushing the shards awkwardly into a pile. Apparently satisfied for the moment it turned away, shambling back to the staircase, and Taylor sent out a thin tendril of force. It lifted a foot, taking the first step, and as it was descending Taylor wrapped that tendril around its neck and wrenched hard.

The creature went tumbling, crashing down the steep steps, smashing into the concrete with awful force, and at the bottom it landed hard, head first. Taylor could hear the terrible crack of breaking bone from her position at the top of the stairs, felt its life flutter away like a freshly born butterfly.

'Poor thing.'

"Mercy is a weakness when it comes to creatures such as these."

'It's hardly mercy to acknowledge a life snuffed out.'

"We'll see. Just remember – they may be innocent now, but they devoured the population of this entire town without remorse. If unleashed on the world they will do exactly the same, they are innocent in the same way that a swarm of locusts is innocent."

'I think killing this one is a fairly good indicator that I'm not going to suddenly decide I should spare them, Luna.'

"Temper, temper," the Emperor said. Taylor rolled her eyes, sitting down at the top of the stairs and keeping her eyes on the body. If all the goblins were interlinked, she could expect at least one or two to come rushing in. Given that they were so close outside, if nothing had arrived in five minutes she'd consider it decent evidence that they weren't some sort of hive mind.

'What else could there be? We just don't know enough about Nilbog, thanks to the initial response fucking it all up. How do you get ambushed by a bunch of skinny monsters with spears and wiped out when you have guns?'

"I once heard of an Astartes who was killed by a primitive alien with a spear. A purely wooden one, if I remember rightly."

'Don't take this the wrong way, but what the fuck? How? How did it get through the armour? How did it get through the skin? How the shit did it do anything against the augments, was the Marine stupid?'

"It was during the Great Crusade. Some of the Legionaries had grown rather overconfident, unfortunately."

'You don't say.'

Taylor tapped a gauntleted finger against her thigh plate as she waited, eyes narrowing on the corpse. It might be time for some new armour, she reflected, maybe a new field set that wasn't quite as bright as this one. Luna had those clawed gauntlets, but Taylor didn't think she'd indulge. Tearing flesh was all very well, but it was just so messy. Actual weapons were a lot more effective.

'I think it's been long enough, right?'

"Almost five minutes, yes. I can't feel any sort of connection, and there's been no alarm. Either Nilbog's creatures die in accidents enough that he doesn't care, or there is no connection."

Well, good enough for her. Taylor pattered down the stairs, keeping her senses open for any ambush, and crouched over the fallen creature.

'Should have brought a vial or a syringe or something, to take a blood sample.'

"We can always come back if we need a second opinion on our findings."

Taylor nodded in agreement, laying her hand on the goblin's chest and letting her power flow through it. Perhaps it was the mad scientist in her, but she couldn't help cataloguing all the places where it could be improved, turned into a really effective shock trooper. A habit. Threads of her power tugged at bone, scraped at nerves, slithered through flesh as she assessed the goblin. Hard to say without a baseline for what it should be like, but…

'Well, I'm not sure what malnourishment looks like in a nightmare creature forged by an unnatural flesh-twisting power, but…'

Taylor pressed a finger against the thin skin, her digit breaking through thin skin and flimsy muscle with a revolting squelch, only stopping against the bone of the ribcage. Even that flexed slightly, far more than human bone would have.

'…I suspect it might look like that.'

"It makes sense. It seems to be primarily a carnivore, and what meat would it consume in here? No birds, not even insects. Only its kin. And cannibalism is energy inefficient."

'Yeah, they've gotta be getting meat from somewhere else. Relying on cannibalism is going to wipe the whole lot out in the end, even if they aren't affected by prions or other diseases. Brain seems healthy, though. A bit small. Underdeveloped.'

"About as intelligent as a small child I'd say, or a Great Ape. Not human. At least we can be assured that if Nilbog perishes there won't be some great general among the masses to lead his vengeful hordes."

The Emperor was feeling wordy today, apparently.

'Yeah, yeah, we both know you're in favour of Luna's plan. I never doubted our ability to destroy them, though. It's the repercussions that concern me."

Taylor pulled her finger out of the chest, studying the blood that coated it. She rubbed her fingers together thoughtfully, focusing more on the fluid, on what might be within.

'I wonder where these come from. It'd be good to check it out. Hmm…the blood isn't healthy, exactly, but I can't find any dormant viruses that'd wreak havoc if Nilbog died. Nothing out of the ordinary.'

"Yes, it seems as though Nilbog doesn't work on such a small scale. Hmm…there must be something, to dissuade the PRT and the military."

'Maybe they just don't care. This town is tiny, and Nilbog is contained. Finding the funding to launch an attack that might go wrong might not look appealing.'

"While I don't doubt they could be so short-sighted, I would like to think that they realise the use of preventing any issue by eliminating the threat rather than waiting until the debt comes due."

'You've got more faith in them than I do.'

"Someone has to."

Taylor straightened to her feet, wiping her hands against the increasingly tattered skirts of her coat before making her way through the house and out into the town. The revelry continued around her as she drifted over gardens of mismatched flowers, swathes of riotous colour splayed over green grass without rhyme or reason. The grass…the earth.

'I wonder.'

A scatter of creatures ran past, heading for the house she'd just left with clear intent: Taylor extended her awareness towards them and got the impression of orders received, that something had happened and to find out what. Interesting.

"A one-way link, perhaps? Fascinating. He knew the goblin was dead, but had to give orders from his throne. Not that it will matter to Luna's plan."

'No, I suppose not.'

"When you thought of the earth, you thought of something. What revelation did you have, Taylor?"

'Nilbog's creations. How small do they go? We've seen large things and we've seen child-sized, but not any smaller. So diseases, parasites, who knows what else, can he even create them?'

There was, unfortunately, only one way to find out. To go into the home of the beast itself, to beard the dragon in its lair. Well, not that she hadn't expected it. Taylor debated taking to the skies again to try and track down Nilbog, but halted when she noticed the band of goblins walking past, bearing the one she'd killed like a funeral party.

'Hmm. Take me to your leader?'

"Or to a funeral ceremony."

'We can leave if it looks like we're intruding on some death rites. C'mon.'

Taylor trailed behind them as they marched through the streets, watched by creature after creature after creature. Hunger was thick in the air, thick and gritty, almost salty to Taylor's mind-taste, but none of the creatures made a move to devour the dead. Something held them back, and it only made Taylor more certain that they were heading towards Nilbog.

"Your Notice-Me-Not is not infallible," the Emperor reminded her, "Someone with enough will could see through it. If Nilbog is one of those few, what then?"

What then? Then Taylor would leave, because she needed the plan to go off properly if she was going to make this whole thing work. If Nilbog spotted her, well, she'd get to practice her aerial dodging. Especially if there were any flying creatures around. All she needed was to gain height fast, get to the cloud level, and then? Taylor was fairly sure that she could go supersonic, if she really tried. She wondered how loud the sound of a single person breaking the sound barrier would be: might be hard to control, though. But as an escape, there'd be very few people capable of catching her.

The little procession marched on.

'Order, even here. Although there's something more than the hunger in some of them. Something like…'

Something like jealousy, green and acid like the sharpest of limes, sour on her tongue. Taylor wrinkled her nose.

'I suppose they might be glad to be rid of this wretched existence. But it doesn't feel like that, not quite. More like a jealousy of something to come?'

"For all we know the choicest cuts are saved for the King, and they wish they could partake in the feast. I wonder what it would taste like? I doubt these creatures are capable of fine kitchen work, so clumsily jointed and thrown on a fire. Charred and gamey?"

'I'm a little concerned that you're considering it.'

"So am I, actually. I've eaten some terrible meals in my time, but rarely indulged in cannibalism."

'The fuck do you mean rarely?'

"When you are hungry enough – or, to be fair, chemically impaired enough – a lot of things start to look appealing. The concern is when you aren't starving to death and start considering your fellows delectable."

'Yeah, yeah, that way lies Slaanesh. They'd have a field day in here.'

"Yes, although the decay of the town would probably please Nurgle as well. It's good that only I came through."

So far as they knew, Taylor reflected grimly. But the Emperor was probably correct: if the Ruinous Powers had pursued, she would have felt them in the Warp. Almost certainly. Taylor forced down the freshly gnawing paranoia for another day, walking after the goblin troop into the largest building in the town, sculpted into a caricature of a fairytale castle.

'Well, I guess this isn't unusual. If you had an entire town to yourself, why wouldn't you build yourself a palace?'

"The décor isn't to my taste, but I agree with your point."

Taylor had plenty of opinions on the Emperor's taste, most of them fairly unimpressed, but the sheer gaudiness of the colours splashed incoherently over the castle walls far outstripped the tackiness of his fondness for gold and skulls. The place looked like it had been decorated via someone chugging four cans of paint and then puking it everywhere.

Given the creatures she'd seen, that might not be so out there as a suggestion. Revolting. Taylor cringed away from the wall, following the goblins through the halls formed from breaking down internal wall after internal wall: sort of impressive how they'd made so much space without fatally compromising the structure, actually. They walked through a courtyard, where two trees had been planted in such a way that, given time, they would form an arch and into what Taylor could only describe as a throne room. She stepped past two guards: they were the same long-limbed, scrawny type as the one she'd killed, but they were broader, more muscular. Healthier. One of their heads turned in her direction as though sensing her presence and Taylor went still, a hand going to the hilt of her sword.

Kill them, a little voice in her said, kill them. Kill the guards, kill the bearers of the dead, kill the King. The King is dead. Long live the Empress.

Taylor didn't listen, and the guard turned away after a second or two of blank staring. Close one, and not just because she'd almost been noticed. That was the problem with the Warp: it could just be inconsistent sometimes. It could have been that this one had sharper senses, stronger will, more loyalty to the King it protected: there were a lot of reasons. But it hadn't really noticed her, nothing more than it would a breeze. Fortunate for it, really, because it was close enough that she'd need to kill it to escape. She walked on, breathing out a soft sigh.

"Now that is remarkably hideous."

It really, really was. 'It', in this case, was the corpulent monstrosity lolling upon a ragged throne, dressed in a ragged imitation of courtly garb. A faerie prince, she thought morbidly, sprawling bloated and obese, leering cloth mask under tattered cloth crown hiding any expression. The bearers of the dead approached the thing, bowing obsequiously, and Taylor narrowed her eyes.

'That's not Nilbog.'

Oh, she didn't doubt it was made in his image – but there was no soul in it. Barely any mind. If it moved, it was because it was being moved and Taylor tightened her focus, followed the path of thoughts streaming into its simple head and found the mind hidden beneath the throne, jagged with madness, eaten through by decay. Nilbog, the true Nilbog, reeked of madness. Funny, how isolation could break a man: surrounded by his sycophantic creations, it was no wonder Nilbog had lost his mind.

'Hmm, surrounded by sycophantic creations. Something about that sounds familiar.'

"Why do you think I valued Malcador so much?"

"Oh, little one," the fake Nilbog said, voice full of real sorrow, "What has happened to you?"

They bore the dead creature forwards, into the hands of its puppet king, and Taylor heard it weep. Nilbog really did love it, she could taste the sickly-sweet love and sorrow, and Taylor found it strangely voyeuristic, to watch this grief. She didn't feel guilt, exactly, but it was humanising Nilbog more than she would have liked.

"Go," the puppet said softly, "Leave me with him."

The guards left. Taylor remained, watching as Nilbog himself climbed out from under the throne. He was a small man, potbellied and hunched over, dressed in the same costume as his bloated double, and Taylor wondered, for a moment, why she shouldn't kill him now. She knew why: she needed to be prepared to put down his creatures. It would be better to wait, to prepare properly. But still, the temptation lingered. Taylor drew closer as Nilbog bent over his dead creation, wondering what he was doing. She'd assumed, as a Bio-Tinker, than Nilbog would have machines or something, but she'd seen nothing. Maybe – maybe she'd assumed wrong. And that was only looking more and more likely as a fleshy…a fleshy bag spilled from Nilbog's hands, wrapping around the corpse and pulsing. Taylor watched, repelled and fascinated, as the bag throbbed, drawing back into Nilbog with the corpse vanishing, his hunch growing more severe.

'He's not a Bio-Tinker at all. He's biokinetic.'

"Perhaps we should have waited to review the PRT files, after all."

Well, maybe. Taylor watched, slightly sickened, as that fleshy bag – the Emperor helpfully supplied that it looked mostly like a placenta, which made sense but also was pretty weird – spilled out again, flexing and twisting, growing until it tore open and a copy of the creature she'd killed spilled forth in a wash of vile-smelling fluid. Taylor grimaced.

"Cloning is so much cleaner," the Emperor agreed. The freshly spawned monster knelt, head bowed, and Nilbog placed a hand on its head.

Taylor walked away, having seen enough. She left the castle, suddenly sick of this place – of the smell of rot and despair that filled the air, of the stagnation, of the desperation. She spread her wings and took to the sky, and she didn't stop until she was above the clouds, pulling her helmet off to take in deep breaths of thin, clean air, exorcising her soul. She hovered there for minutes, wings slowly beating to keep her in place, breathing. Breathing. A sigh, from the very bottom of her lungs.

"I wonder what caused his Trigger," Taylor said, allowing herself to speak aloud in the cold night air, allowing herself to think on the moment of emotion she'd left behind, "Left him a lonely ruler of his empty kingdom."

The Emperor scoffed.

"Does it matter? Do you pity him, Taylor?"

Taylor smiled, sad and gentle.

"Of course I do. You saw him, what he's become. Hiding, quivering away from the world, driven mad by his self-imposed isolation. What else is that, but pitiable?"

"As pitiable as a rabid dog."

Sometimes, the Emperor could belabour a point. Not that Taylor begrudged him: Nilbog deserved no mercy, and neither did his creations. The innocents in Ellisburg were almost two decades dead, consumed by a ravening horde of monsters from the night. But still…she could still pity. More for herself, than for Nilbog. A reminder that, at heart, she was still human.

She hoped she'd never forget.

Next update in May, if the schedule holds. As ever, I hope you enjoyed, reviews are appreciated and, of course, I'll see you in the next chapter.