For a long few seconds, I looked out over the plain, dumbstruck and not entirely sure what had happened. A giant divot had been carved into the ground, fairly shallow but incredibly wide, perfectly circular and smooth in a way something like a meteorite impact wouldn't have been. It was impossibly neat, less like an explosion or impact crater and more like everything in the intervening space had simply been quietly erased.
Including Scion and the Simulacrum. There was no sign of either of them — not chunks of flesh, not splatters of blood, not fragments of bone or even a scorch mark on the ground. They were just gone, as though they'd never been there in the first place.
Had he self-destructed? Committed suicide, as it were, taking one of my fakes with him? Was it well and truly over?
No, and I didn't even let myself hope it for more than a moment. Scion committing suicide was one of the very real possibilities we'd considered when the details of this plan had been hammered out, but it was so far outside the realm of the likely that we'd given it the equivalent of a snort and a toss into the trash can.
One hand found my ear and the device nestled there.
It said something about how used to the utterly fantastical I'd become that the idea of being able to communicate across alternate realities didn't really faze me, anymore. Dragon and Armsmaster had been the ones to puzzle that one out. Frankly, between the Longinus, the Yggdrasil Seeds, and Flechette's power, them coming up with some method of synchronizing communication devices to cross the barrier between worlds was probably inevitable. It was even less surprising when they'd managed something similar with less time in Khepri's version of Gold Morning.
The young girl who had started out two years ago fighting Lung likely would have laughed hysterically.
"I've lost track of Scion. He's gone and he took one of the Simulacra with him. Do you have eyes on him?"
"No, Dragon's working on recalibrating the Lens to figure out where he went."
"Dragon? Do you have anything?"
"Please wait. I am attempting to pinpoint his location as we speak."
Anxiously, I started pacing, chewing on my bottom lip. Impatience churned in my gut and set to fraying my temper.
The trick was to keep Scion off balance, to hammer at him as swiftly and mercilessly as possible without giving him time to really, truly think about what was happening and what he was feeling. That was the key to winning, to beating him down and dealing that final blow.
If he had time to retreat and sort himself out, then all of that might as well go out the window. If he stopped long enough to realize that he was acting and reacting like a human, then he might realize all he had to do was shut down the powers he was using to emulate human emotions and thought patterns. He might even realize he didn't have to fight us with his projected body at all and could simply bombard us from the safety of the reality he had sequestered the main bulk of his body in.
Either of those was catastrophic. Unlikely for exactly the reasons I had told Contessa and the Doctor about a year ago, but catastrophic if we hit the bad odds and either of those came to pass anyway.
Even if neither of those things happened, having him out of sight put us at a disadvantage, because it let him dictate the next move and set the pace. Even if he didn't calm down in the meantime, it put us on the back foot and made it all the harder to regain the momentum.
"I've located him," Dragon announced suddenly.
"An underdeveloped Earth," she answered. "No sign of human habitation, with the exception of a series of large, multi-storey compounds. Anomalies in the readings indicate some portion of the structure is host to higher dimensional distortions consistent with parahuman powers —"
I realized where he had gone immediately.
"Cauldron," I said. "He's going after Cauldron. That's their main base."
There were a couple of different reasons why he might have gone there, and in any other circumstances, maybe it could have been one of them that led him there. With things as they were, however, and where he'd been and what he'd been doing beforehand? There was only one reason why he'd be going to Cauldron.
"Eden is in the basement, on the lowest level," I went on. "He just saw three different fakes all mocked up to look like her, and now he's going to find the real thing — Door to Cauldron!"
This was bad. Not as bad as it could have been, but still bad. Showing him the real Eden was supposed to be a trump card, an ace up the sleeve to really hit him if or when the Simulacra started to lose impact. Seeing it now could set him off in all of the wrong ways, all of the worst ways.
But luck held, and a silvery pane of light drew itself in the air, folding inwards. It meant that things weren't in so bad a state that Cauldron had locked itself down, or worse, that Doormaker and the Clairvoyant had died and left me the only real access we had to alternate Earths. Having to mainline Khepri for the rest of the fight might have streamlined a few things for our plan, but now was also the absolute most dangerous time to have her in my head.
I dashed through the portal almost before it had finished forming and stepped through into…a hospital?
No, I realized as I looked around. Not a hospital. The lockers, the cabinets, the glass vials and the medical tools, all wrapped and sterile and waiting to be used, they gave the impression of one, but only that. In the most basic of ways, it might have looked like a trauma center or a primary care office, and it had looked that way to Khepri, too, when she first saw it.
But any more than a cursory inspection made it obvious it wasn't. To me especially, who faintly remembered this place through fragments of memory that weren't mine, I already knew where I was.
This was Cauldron, definitely, but —
"Why here?" I wondered aloud. Of all places Doormaker could have dropped me, why had he chosen here, of all places, instead of closer to Scion or right in front of the door to the flesh garden? Hell, why not just put me right in front of Eden so I could be there waiting for Scion?
My jaw worked. Something else at work? The Doctor or Contessa telling him where to put me? Or maybe this was just the safest spot available. "Tattletale, you still have me?"
"Coming in loud and clear."
There was that, at least. Good to know the transition hadn't disrupted our comms.
"Old gold and glowy is deeper in. He's… Well, rattling off a number is kinda pointless, because it's not like it'll mean anything, but he's got a big head start on you."
That was definitely bad. Especially since I'd been dropped here, I was going to have some catching up to do if I wanted any hope of reaching him before he found Eden.
"He didn't go for the Garden directly?"
"No. That's the strange part. He's just kinda…taking his time getting there."
Taking his time…
Last time, he'd been fascinated — and disturbed — by Cauldron's vials, the ones containing the stuff they carved off of Eden, mixed together and sold as powers-in-a-bottle, as well as the product of their less successful ones, the Case Fifty-threes. He'd spent crucial minutes distracted while he examined them, crucial minutes that had let Khepri and the others put some distance between them that had…not quite been enough to escape.
This time, it would hopefully be enough for me to catch up.
I took off down the hallway at speed. There was no need to explore, to discover what was hidden in these quaint, little offices, because it wasn't why I was here. I hooked a right at the intersection, and then raced down the stairs, jumping to the landing and using the rail to swing myself down the next flight.
I burst through the first set of double doors, easily thick enough to block mid-level Brutes, if they needed to, and kept going. A chorus of rumblings from the people being held in the cells below called out to me, but there was no time to talk and no time to ruminate and stew on their presence and what it all meant.
I could worry about rescuing them when this was all over. It wasn't like they were going to live if Scion won anyway.
Thankfully, there were no Irregulars here to kick up a fuss, this time. No riot for me to try and manage, no mob that could fuck everything up when there was just more important shit to worry about than petty revenge, no matter how well earned.
The next set of doors didn't open so easily.
I slammed into them with a metallic thud and was rebuffed so firmly that I stumbled backwards a few steps. Whoops and hollers came from the cells behind me, above, below, but I ignored them in favor of the door in front of me and cocked my fist back.
The field that protected me flared and glowed as I punched the doors, and the impact of my fist was both loud and powerful, denting the thick, reinforced metal, but not breaking through. They were probably built to defend against things that could hit a lot harder than I could with just my own base strength, even augmented as it was by my powers.
Any of my Heroic Spirits could have made it through without trouble. The idea of these doors blocking Herakles or King Arthur or Siegfried was just plain laughable. They would barely count as a roadblock.
There was no sense wasting an Install for this, though.
I pulled my fist back, concentrated all of my strength into my hand, focused my power behind it —
— and unleashed my god-killing blow with as much restraint as I could manage.
The doors couldn't resist an attack of that level; they were blown clear off their hinges, bent, dented, crumpled, and so mangled that they couldn't even really be called doors anymore. They landed somewhere inside the stairwell, taking out a chunk of the reinforced wall opposite them in the process.
There was no more time to waste on them. My feet carried me through the doorway, and I leapt over the railing, catching it with one hand so I could swing myself back around and turn my momentum downwards. I landed on the next floor in a crouch that would have shattered a good number of bones in a normal person's legs and probably a few in their chest.
I didn't spare the breath to thumb my comm line and ask how far ahead of me Scion still was. There wasn't anything to be gained from telling me exactly how urgent it was to make my way towards him as quickly as possible.
The thick floor beneath my feet thudded as I rushed down the corridor, but again, the doors at the end barred my way and kept me from moving forward. A grunt slipped past my lips.
All this was doing was slowing me down and giving Scion more time to get ahead of me. Why hadn't Doormaker put me somewhere closer to where I needed to be, so that I didn't have to go through all of this shit?
My fist came up and I prepared myself to knock this set of doors down, too.
But a hand found my shoulder, and I whirled around, fist swinging out more in startled reflex than conscious thought. It was caught effortlessly by a hand gloved in black.
A hand, it turned out, that was attached to an arm and a body, clad in a costume I recognized with a symbol emblazoned across its chest that every little girl in America had memorized and doodled at least once. Her cold, stony eyes were faintly visible through the tinted visor of her mask.
And there, floating behind her, was Eidolon, too, swathed in his signature green cloak and glowing mask.
"Your plan failed," she noted flatly, no accusation or recrimination, only simple fact. She let go of my hand as though I hadn't almost hit her with enough force to shatter a man's skull.
I grunted again, resisting the urge to rub my knuckles where they'd struck her hardened flesh. Petty, maybe, but I wasn't about to show even that minor weakness in front of her. "More like worked a little too well. He's here to find the Garden."
Her eyes widened a little. "The Counterpart?" she asked. "He knows it's here?"
"How?" asked Eidolon.
"He's got a power like Contessa's," I said. "Not the same, but similar enough. He could have found her anytime he wanted to, if he'd decided he wanted to. He just didn't think to look, before."
"And he's decided to look now?"
"The whole plan was to hammer at him with lifelike dolls mocked up to look like his counterpart's projection. The half-finished one in the center of the Garden, the thing Contessa stabbed when she killed it. Now that he's seen the fakes we made, he's come looking for the real thing."
"And he didn't go straight for it?"
"He's distracted," I answered. "The capes you've got locked up here, the Case Fifty-threes further down, the vials you've still got in stock — they were enough to grab his attention. Maybe it's even just because they're made from his counterpart and they're giving off false positives when he asks one of his powers to lead him to her."
Something that had just occurred to me right now, actually. If he asked his version of Contessa's power for the path that would lead him to Eden, would it lead him directly to the Garden, or would it lead him on a merry chase through Cauldron and each of the capes who had taken a vial containing the fragments of her, blended and mixed into a slurry that granted powers? Maybe it had just led him to the largest collection of her parts, and by coincidence, that also happened to be not only the place where her corpse was rotting, but where so many capes were locked up who had been made from her remains.
That may be why he hadn't gone directly to the Garden in Khepri's timeline, too.
"Eventually," I went on, "he's going to figure out what all of you have been doing here, and he'll destroy all of the vials in the building at once." I looked Alexandria directly in the eye. "And then he'll find what's left of her, and probably bring this whole place down on our heads."
Her lips drew tight.
"We have no time to waste, then," she noted grimly.
My arm swept impatiently at the closed doors.
"Of course." She turned back to her companion. "Eidolon."
Eidolon gave a curt nod. "Yes."
Then, he looked to the floor beneath us between his feet, head swiveling, searching, as though he could see through the concrete and steel and rock like it was clear glass. A Thinker power, I realized, one that probably let him do exactly that, picked for exactly this situation. So, this was what being on the opposite side of a completely bullshit powerset felt like.
"He's three floors down," Eidolon announced. "Slow, distracted, but he's starting to pick up speed. At the rate he's going, we have plenty of time before he reaches an access point for the panic room in the column."
Alexandria nodded back. "Then we follow and keep our distance. Fighting him in here puts us at risk of freeing a number of dangerous capes in the process, and fighting on two or more fronts at the same time as fighting Scion is an untenable situation."
You wouldn't have to worry about that at all if you hadn't locked those people up in the first place.
This wasn't the time to air dirty laundry, though. Alexandria and Cauldron were already well aware of what I thought of their methods and means, and it wouldn't accomplish anything to snipe at them now.
Instead, I voiced my agreement with a simple, "Right."
Eidolon floated forward and gestured, and something in the doors clicked and whirred. A moment later, the locks disengaged and we rushed through, Alexandria taking point.
"You said your plan worked too well," she said as we went. Lucky bitch didn't have to pace her breathing as she flew the way I did as I ran. "Does that mean you intended to bring Scion here at some point from the beginning?"
"Yes," I answered shortly.
When we reached the next set of doors, I elaborated while Eidolon unlocked them. "If at all possible, I wanted to only use my Simulacra. Hit it home like that. But it was always very likely that showing him the real thing would be necessary to make it work. I didn't plan on leading him on a merry chase through the whole complex, though. I was going to lead him directly to the Garden, bypass the rest of the place."
"I see," she said, face unreadable behind her mask. "A razor's edge."
"But one guaranteed to work, if we do it right."
The doors clicked and unlocked, and our conversation died as we started back up. At the rate we were going, we had to be catching up, even if there were still two floors between us and him.
Bare inches before my feet landed at the base of the stairs, the entire place shuddered and shook, and I stumbled as I tried to keep myself from tripping and falling flat on my face. Alexandria and Eidolon didn't have that trouble, since they were flying, but even they reflexively reached out to steady themselves on the nearby walls.
"What was that?"
Alexandria turned to her partner. "Eidolon?"
Eidolon's head swung again, swiveling, as he looked through the floors to find Scion again. When he did, he stiffened, body tense. "He's going straight through the wall."
My eyes went wide.
"Like the Irregulars did in Khepri's timeline," I mumbled.
Alexandria's head snapped back towards me, and I could tell she wanted to ask me to explain, but I could also see the moment when she decided it wasn't important enough to waste time with it.
"We need to get down there," she declared instead, "now."
Eidolon's head lowered, and for a moment, he didn't respond. He was selecting another power, I realized, one that would let us get down there faster. What he had in mind, if he could even get specific enough, I didn't have any idea.
Then, after a long, tense thirty seconds or so, he reached out and laid a hand on both my and Alexandria's shoulders, and slowly, we all sank through the floor. My stomach did funny things as I watched the concrete rise up my chest like waves on the beach, and then, for a terrifying few seconds, I couldn't see anything at all.
It was…strange, going through the floor. Hard to describe. If I had to liken it to one, specific thing, I would have said it reminded me of walking through thick mud after a long, heavy rain, but even that didn't quite manage to capture the sensation.
It took longer than I thought before we arrived at the next floor. Whether that was because of just how thick the floors were, what they were made of, or just because Eidolon hadn't had enough time to charge up this particular power, I didn't know at all. It could have been some combination of all three.
We didn't stop to take in the sights on the next floor. Instead, Eidolon kept his hands on our shoulders and we kept going, sinking through to the floor below it. It was a little easier, this time, now that I knew what to expect, but still a little unsettling to be totally deaf and blind for the handful of seconds it took to get through.
The stairwell we arrived in wasn't as pristine as the ones before it. How Scion had gotten through the doors above without blasting them off their hinges, I didn't know, but he hadn't bothered being subtle or taking care when he blew the hole in this wall. He hadn't bothered being precise, either, because the edges weren't smooth and perfectly circular, but jagged, angry, and glowing red, even still, as they flickered with motes of golden light.
Eidolon let go of our shoulders, and I took that moment to slip the Crown of Concealment out of my belt and slide it onto my head. Alexandria's eyes narrowed for a second, and then she made a slight noise of understanding.
"The crown is what makes you invisible to Thinkers," she noted.
I didn't answer. It didn't matter whether she knew either way, but I wasn't going to just confirm it for her that easily.
"We need to keep moving," was what I said instead.
Alexandria didn't acknowledge my deflection; she just turned and flew into the hole. Eidolon glanced at me for a moment, as though asking how I planned to follow when I couldn't fly, and then he took off after her.
After a few seconds of consideration, I nodded to myself and reached into the vast halls of legend.
An instant later, I was Medea, and I ticked another off my tally. Twenty-seven Installs, if none of them were used too intensely, was what two years of training and practice had earned me. The number dropped to nine, if I was using my strongest in a moderately intense fight and deployed their Noble Phantasms two times or less, with some wiggle room for those who had constantly active Noble Phantasms or those whose Noble Phantasms were especially cheap.
Pushing the likes of Karna, Gawain, and Achilles to their utmost would bring it down to three.
Being entirely honest, I still wanted to preserve as many Installs as I could. However, Medea was a generally cost effective option with exceptional versatility. She wouldn't do much to Scion, but she would have a much easier time on defense in exchange.
Plus, I thought wryly as I floated into the hole, she could fly.
I held up a hand, and a quickly incanted spell conjured a little ball of light that lit up the tunnel. With my little light to show the way, I followed behind Eidolon and Alexandria.
The whole place shook again. When I came out of the other end of the tunnel in the expansive room at the center of the steel column, a stony-faced Alexandria greeted me by looking off at the other end, floating over a mound of debris from Scion's entrance. There was a faint golden glow in the distance.
"He's through the vault door," she announced grimly. "The only thing left between him and the Counterpart is —"
"Vial storage," I concluded.
It was already too late to stop him. No, it was too late the instant he arrived at Cauldron, because there was virtually nothing that would stop him from inevitably finding Eden at the bottom. Even the Case Fifty-threes and the vials were just side roads that meandered on the path to his ultimate destination.
There was no point in trying to pull him away. There never had been. Then, the best option… We couldn't control when he found Eden. We couldn't meaningfully control how she was presented to him. We couldn't control his reaction.
What we could do was force a confrontation right on top of her. Attack him in a place where any stray shot would do nothing except more damage to his counterpart. Did he have enough sentiment to care? I didn't know for sure. He'd destroyed her remains himself last time, after all. But I was willing to bet that he would care a lot more about us doing it than him, especially if he'd been trying to give a proper burial to his companion after Cauldron had spent thirty years desecrating her corpse.
Was he that human? Khepri hadn't thought about it at the time, but it made more sense the more I turned the idea over in my head.
"There's no time," Alexandria announced, like we weren't all thinking it, and then she took off. Eidolon and I chased after her, through the massive vault door that had been blown open with what looked to have been almost no effort at all.
Scion awaited in the next room alone, the room lined along each wall with vials, now nearly all of them empty. He didn't even look at us as we came in; he kept staring down at a pair of vials in his hands, brow furrowed and mouth drawn into a tight line.
Eidolon started forward, ready to fight, but I put my hand on his arm and pulled him back. He whirled to face me, his entire body tensed and radiating anger.
"Not here," I whispered to him. Scion might not have even noticed if I shouted. "Too cramped, not enough space. He's going to the Garden anyway. Let's fight him there, amongst the remains of his counterpart."
"Force him into a position where any attack he dodges will do more damage to her corpse," Alexandria noted, picking up on my train of thought.
"He won't care," Eidolon huffed.
Alexandria cast a look at Scion, her mouth drawing into a thoughtful line. "I'm beginning to think he just might." She turned back to me. "We'll go with that idea. If nothing else, it'll give us more room to maneuver."
Off again, she flew, slowly and carefully floating past Scion. Eidolon and I followed, but there really wasn't any need to be so cautious, it seemed. Scion had discarded the first pair of vials and was going through more, examining them, all of them empty. I didn't know what would happen once he found one that was full — was that what had set him off the last time?
We made it down the next floor unmolested, with only one more room standing between us and the deepest level that held the Garden. Unexpectedly, though, with how deserted the rest of the place had been, someone else was already waiting in front of us.
"You're still here?" Alexandria asked.
Alone but for the whir of the machine behind her stood the Doctor.
— o.0.O.O.0.o —
With his Sonic Screwdriver. Which is about as much as I know about Doctor Who, actually.
More setup, this chapter. Next will get into the fighting again, and we're trotting towards the climax of the arc and the fight.
Also, some light shed on Taylor's limitations. Two years to push herself really does result in some massive gains.
Special thanks to all my Patrons who have stayed with me this far, through all the rocky moments and dry stretches. You guys are the best.
If you want to support me and my writing, you can do so here:
P a treon . com (slash) James_D_Fawkes
ko-fi . com (slash) jamesdfawkes
Or if you want to commission something from me, check out my Deviant Art page to see my rates.
As always, read, review, and enjoy.