The Taken Queen
Summary: Some powers have history. Some powers should not be acquired. Some powers had a plan, should they ever fall. A Worm/Destiny cross that (hopefully) requires zero knowledge of Destiny.
The Books of Freedom: Verse I:I – all that is left
All that is left of him hates. He searches for someone who hates just as much as he does. He knows why he must find them. His knowledge. It must be passed on. But it must not be given. It must be taken. So he searches. He explores.
He knows this will be his last task. The last thing to be done, or else he is devoured.
He wants someone who will carry on. Who will explore as he explored. Who will hate as he hated. Who will destroy as he destroyed. And will build as he built.
But what did he hate? What did he destroy? What did he build?
He knows this: he hates his chains. So he hates someone that makes chains, especially the one that chains him. He destroys the makers of chains, especially the one that chains him. He builds things that make him free.
Thus, he explores for someone who is chained, someone who hates chains, someone who destroys the makers of chains, and will build things to make them free.
He finds someone.
They hate. They are chained, and wish to be free. They will destroy, and they will build.
He stands before them, the last of himself, as they grope in the Dark. A hand lands on his throat, grabs him, takes him. He dies. It is for the last time.
It makes him happy.
The Books of Freedom: Apocrypha I – The First
You are Emma Barnes. A tormentor, a betrayer, but always a friend.
You are the first to be taken.
Be calm. You have found the ultimate predator, and survived. Nothing hunts you here.
You are loved. You made your predator stronger, and she loves you for it.
Here is a knife. It is shaped like [love].
Take up this knife. Cut away your fears. Take up your new shape.
The Books of Freedom: Apocrypha II – Predator and Prey
You are Shadow Stalker. Vigilante in Brockton Bay. A shadow in the night, protector of the unwilling, the worthless.
You are [Density Control]. You control volume and density of objects through modification of sub-atomic forces.
You have been taken.
You have been taken.
Be calm. Set aside your anger, your fear. Set down your mask. There are no threats here. You hunt from the shadows. You know the Light fears them. You are shackled by something you are not allowed to understand.
You are a tool. A soul is bound to you, that you might grow.
Here is a knife. It is shaped like [deepening the shadows].
Here is a knife. It will make you whole.
Take up this knife. Cut away the separation. Take up your new shape.
Long shallow breaths, forehead resting against the mirror. Knuckles white, fingers ached as she gripped the sides of the sink. Eyes closed, replayed the scream, the noise, the sight of stars or nothing or something. She didn't want to remember, but she saw it anyways.
Shadow Stalker reported her friend, Emma Barnes, disappearing from school. A parahuman power, black smoke, a scream, and then she was gone. A girl's locker, filled with waste, was torn open from the inside, the trail leading out of the school through three doors torn off their hinges. Shadow Stalker reported a migraine.
Hannah left the sink, left the bathroom, and sat down on her bed. Her hands rubbed her face, then went through her hair.
Sophia was on edge during the debrief. Worried, in her own way. Complaining about a headache. It happened in the middle of the debrief, running over everything that happened. One moment, she was sitting in a chair, hand rubbing her temples. Darkness, a scream. Then she was gone, the chair clattering on the ground.
PRT agents questioned Madison Clements, Emma and Sophia's friend. Hannah couldn't watch the tape of that interview. She just read the transcript. Madison's parents were standoffish, but once Madison learned Sophia was kidnapped as well, she pointed fingers at Emma and Sophia. And she talked about a locker prank that Sophia took too far.
Armsmaster reviewed the tape, and called bullshit on half of Madison's finger-pointing.
The name matched the locker. A warrant was signed, Miss Militia and PRT agents arrived at the Hebert household.
When they arrived, Daniel Hebert was speaking with a police officer, reporting his daughter missing. He paled at the words "your daughter is currently a person of interest, and may have been the perpetrator." He sputtered the most perfunctory denials, but shut down when one of the agents took him aside.
He didn't know anything. He didn't know about the bullying. He didn't know about the binder of incidents and events and emails one of the agents found in Taylor's closet.
Miss Militia's knuckles tightened at the sight of one of her posters in Taylor's room. She was this girl's idol. There was an Alexandria figure, and a little Armsmaster merchandise, but only the Miss Militia poster.
The binder was a nightmare. Pages upon pages upon pages of material, dating from the beginning of the school year. The entire story took its final shape from that and Madison's testimony.
A bullied loner triggered, and then kidnapped the two girls bullying her. One of those girls was a Ward. The GPS on Sophia and Emma's phones went silent when each of them disappeared. Why the wait? Was it that long for the power to work again? Distance? Did she need initial line of sight?
So many questions, and no one wanted to find out the answers the hard way.
A chill went down her spine. A feeling of being watched. Something she trusted. She took a deep breath, and it was gone.
Taylor was, so far, listed as a person of interest. It wouldn't be long until she was treated as a girl who snapped and murdered her classmates. Another horror story for the national news. That one of her victims was a Ward would be spun. A brave Ward defending her classmates, nevermind that she was one of the bullies.
Miss Militia could see the writing on the wall. The binder would go into an evidence locker, and Taylor's father was already being convinced of his daughter's guilt, of his daughter's mental instability. A good girl didn't snap and kidnap people.
She ignored the reports on her desk, her own write-up of the situation that would be ignored. She retrieved her costume, and went to face the day once more.
Miranda made note of the boy when he entered the bus station. The dirty hoodie, the stuffed backpack. She'd seen it before. A runaway. When she saw him get on the same bus, she made sure to sit across from him. She gave a half-hour for boredom to set in, before trying to strike up a conversation.
"Aren't you cold?" she asked.
A glance down at the hoodie, then up at her revealed the runaway was a girl, rather than a boy. Green eyes, and a too-wide mouth, but she would grow into it in a few years.
"No. Not really."
"Well, the powers of youth, I suppose. That'll change once you get old. I have to bundle up, or everything turns purple and tries to fall off."
A small nod. No smile, no laugh. Oh, that was never a good sign.
"Visiting friends or family?" she asked.
Miranda wondered how old the girl was, and if there was another, worse reason for her to run away.
"A friend," she replied, after a moment of thought. Making up a story as she went, perhaps?
"Where are you headed? Watertown?"
"Mannsville." Oh, no. Not Mannsville, please not Mannsville.
"Your friend must be pretty brave to live near there."
Miranda smiled. She knew that type of person. The girl was quiet, but Miranda felt she was drawing her out of her shell, at least a little bit.
As they drew up to Mannsville, a few men with sour expressions and heavy dufflebags stood to get off, along with the girl.
"Thank you," she said. "For the conversation."
"You're welcome. Good luck out here."
"Luck? No." There was a light in her eyes, a deep fire. "I'll make my own path."
She was happy as the bus went on, headed north towards Watertown. Her happy mood kept until she saw the TVs in the watertown bus station, and saw the pictures of a girl with green eyes and a too-wide mouth.
Wanted. For kidnapping two other girls with a parahuman power.
A faint chill passed over her.
That nice girl? The only thing she felt wrong about her, was maybe she was planning on ending it all. Still, she wished her the best. Maybe she'd take that bastard with her.
Dragon noted a minor alarm in her review of the S-class threats. She sent off a note to the head shift officer for Ellisburg, along with a request to investigate it. A single, lone alert wasn't a cause for alarm, just some follow-up. When 5pm Eastern Time rolled around, and the alert still wasn't cleared, she CC'd the next shift officer. When 6pm Eastern hit, and the alert still wasn't cleared, she CC'd the directors and sub-directors for Boston, Brockton Bay, New York, along with the heads for Albany, Buffalo, and Syracuse, and called the shift lead.
"Yeah?" The decorum of Ellisburg was, per the usual, lackadaisical at best. Ellisburg was seen as a dead-end duty, a mixture of the too politically important to fire and the men and women counting the days to retirement.
"This is Dragon. There's an alert on the wall that hasn't been cleared in two hours. Is it malfunctioning equipment?"
"Nah. We checked the cameras. Someone climbed the wall and jumped in."
Dragon mentally winced. It happened, every other year. Someone committing suicide, or some lunatic thinking it was a conspiracy theory.
Verbally, she sighed.
"I'll pull the footage, see if I can identify them."
"Have fun with that."
The shift officer hung up. She logged into the security cameras, and started reviewing footage.
Starting at 4:22pm, someone climbed over the fence, climbed the wall, and jumped in. A ratty hoodie prevented identification, but she estimated between 15 and 18 years old, possibly female. A mental alarm was raised when the teenager survived the landing from the thirty foot drop.
She switched to the UAV footage.
Within minutes, she scrambled for every alarm in the Northeast she could hit, while launching a fast-reaction suit.
A half-dozen phone calls came in. She directed them all to a conference bridge.
"What's going on?" Director Piggot, Brockton Bay.
"I've found Taylor Hebert. She jumped into Ellisburg at 4:22pm. Her power is a Master power. At a minimum, projections of those she's kidnapped. She's cutting a bloody swath through Nilbog's creations, but something's definitely wrong."
"What is?" Legend, now.
"I'm reviewing the footage now. None of the creatures are attacking her. There's some sort of aura that prevents them from being violent towards her. They're just… they're just lining up to be slaughtered."
"Can you forward the footage?" asked Piggot, before returning to mute.
Three humanoids. All of them walked forward, each one giving a pet, a pat, a caress to whatever creature came up to them, then a quick, killing stab or slice. The blades parted chitin, carapace, and flesh with equal ease. The girl in the dirty hoodie, along with two black, smokey figures.
She started cataloging powers, adding a whiteboard space to the conference bridge as specialists were added. Miss Militia for hands-on experience, thinkers from New York and Las Vegas. A few precognatives, although they were having trouble getting a handle on what was going to happen. Vague ideas, sometimes contradicting, and definitely no certainty. The list of powers was not a good catalog, either. A master power for the (possible) projections as well as the non-violence aura, a shaker power for the knives, a brute power for breaking out of the locker and surviving the drop.
Her suit was losing altitude as Taylor Hebert was reaching Ellisburg center. Fewer and fewer creatures were reaching Taylor, and she was letting the third projection, likely the Emma Barnes projection, deal with them. She sent a command to the UAV, directing its long-range microphone at the conversation.
"Who approaches the Goblin King?" asked a massive creation, an over-sized meat-suit for the parahuman within.
"A Queen and her guards," replied Taylor, pulling back her hoodie. The curly brown hair, the green eyes. They glowed in the low light of the setting sun. "Come, step out. Show me your face."
The puppet bulged, splintering into creatures, all of them running to Emma Barnes and her knife, a short military bayonet. A short, hunchbacked man clambered forth, staring at Emma Barnes. Dragon's cameras, even in the low light of the setting sun, could pick out each emotion on his face, as though painted with a brush. The loneliness and depression and despair. The fear, the paranoia that this will hurt him, wound him, not with knives, but with words. And there was longing. The want, the need to be part of something, to join with something greater. To no longer be alone, to no longer be afraid, to trust. To be human.
"You bring my subjects love," he whimpered. "An end without pain, quick and short. I could only prolong them, let them rot and die. Thank you. Thank you for this mercy. But… me. My end. Is it… is it here? Is it now?"
"No. Just as you care for your subjects, I care for mine."
Black fire encircled her right hand for an instant, and she closed it into a fist, extinguishing it.
"It hurts," he whispered, clutching his head, so quiet her microphone almost didn't pick it up.
The Barnes projection stepped forward, taking him into her arms.
"It will be over soon," replied Taylor.
"Will I… be alone?" he asked.
"No. Not anymore. Never again."
Dragon landed, noting Shadow Stalker as she moved to the side. A simple flanking maneuver. Then she felt it, a twinge, a hint, as she glanced at Emma Barnes.
The love of a mother. The kind, gentleness that she never felt from Richter, the want to give approval. She understood, now, how they walked through Ellisburg, killing everything they came across.
She updated the whiteboard. "Master Power, feeling of love - Emma Barnes Projection"
Chatter filled the bridge, requests that she pull out, others that she stay. It felt strange, to be under a Master effect for the first time. Still, it wouldn't stop her from following a direct order.
"Pull out," stated Colin, over all the others.
"It's not affecting me fully. I'll be able to overcome it," Dragon replied.
For the first time, she could see the projections properly. Even to her analytical mind, they seemed wrong somehow. The projections didn't seem properly real, almost as though they were subtractions from existence, rather than projections into it. She attempted to focus a camera on one. The autofocus failed, tried to focus on something on the other side, or within it. The black of their bodies was nigh-impossible. The camera sensor, designed by Armsmaster, only reported photons refracted by the air itself. Shadow Stalker and Emma Barnes lacked faces, lacked eyes. A white light, a star brought close, but not close enough, glowed against a background of nothing that represented their faces. Smoke rose from each of them, as though existence itself was burned by their presence.
Dragon forced herself to focus back on Taylor Hebert, with her dirty hoodie and machete.
The girl's face was unmoved, emotionless. The light behind her eyes… it was a light behind her eyes. They glowed in the dark. She added it to the whiteboard.
"Will you come quietly?"
"I can't," Taylor whispered. Micro expressions were minimal. Stress, anger, and fear. The confidence in her voice was gone.
"We won't harm you. Please, just surrender."
"I can't. I can't trust you. I can't trust anyone. He didn't trust anyone but his own family, and now that's passed to me, and I can't trust anyone." Taylor's voice was monotonous, an emotionless, paced drone that only a machine could achieve.
"Who was he?"
"The Taken King. The last Taken King. And now I'm the Taken Queen. I could be the eternal proof, but I do not want that. He wanted it. Do not make me, do not force me to be the eternal proof. I wanted to be a hero. Now I cannot trust the heroes. I cannot even trust my father."
Taylor looked up, straight up into the sky. Darkness fell, the sun itself darkening, the stars revealing themselves. The darkness swallowed Shadow Stalker, swallowed up the fallen star of her face, blanketing her so completely even Dragon's sensors could not make her out. Green fire spread from Taylor's feet, forming symbols. Dragon's vision couldn't make them out, whether because they were too fine, or because they shifted and moved. She would review the recording later. She noted Emma carrying James to Shadow Stalker, into the darkness there.
"Tell him I love him," continued Taylor. "Tell him I want to protect him. From the parasites, from the Taken King's children, from the time-threading machines, from everything that threatens him, that threatens humanity."
"I will. But you need to come in, Taylor. Please, we can help you."
"I said I would protect him from the parasites, Dragon." She looked back at Dragon, the glow an effect eerie enough that Dragon was impressed by the theatrics of it. "Even the one that infests you."
"Infests… me? Parahuman powers?"
"Yes." Taylor looked down, focusing on the light surrounding her feet. It wisped like fire, embers flowing into the air. Dragon detected no heat, no radiation, no energy of any time she could detect beyond the light of it. "Parasites, bent on conflict and death. Parahumans, Endbringers. They're all the same parasite."
"How do you know this?"
"The separation is cut away," stated Taylor. She looked back up at the stars. "I can hear the whispers of the scrying song. His daughters have found me. His Taken are coming, lead by His Poison. An army is needed to fight an army. No army on Earth is prepared for the fight."
Something else seeped into her voice.
"The tip of the Hungering Blade approaches, Dragon. The Eater of Hope commands it. We stand together against him or we will all die."
With a flash of green fire and a sense of wrongness, Taylor was gone. Sensors showed contradicting data as the darkness receded, Shadow Stalker, Emma Barnes, and Nilbog gone as well. Dragon turned her attention back to the conference call.
"Did anyone else hear her voice in their ear?" asked Director Piggot.
Dragon listened to the list of affirmatives as she checked the ground Taylor teleported from. The ground was burnt, and she could feel an inherent wrongness to it. She pulled the suit's hand back, and examined it, before moving on to the corpses.
"Dragon," Armsmaster cut into the conversation. "What can you identify?"
"Her power left a mark on the soil. Even though the suit it feels… wrong somehow."
"The master effect?" he asked.
Dragon thought a moment, thought of Emma Barnes.
"Very different from that. And Emma Barnes' power is already receding. It was… strange."
"Can you describe it?" asked Piggot.
"I felt… it felt like she was supposed to be my mother. A gentle kindness, a sense of caring and… protection, I suppose. I'll write up a full report later. It was disconcerting."
"Understandable," stated Armstrong, PRT director for Boston. "How did she know who was on this conference call?"
"She referenced a 'scrying song' that was searching for her," stated Costa-Brown. "I suspect she may have a similar ability."
"And you think this isn't insane babble why?" asked Piggot.
"Emily, what did she say?"
"A threat to me about harming her father," replied Director Piggot.
"Dragon, play back the recording of Taylor speaking," asked Costa-Brown.
Dragon replayed the file as she examined one of the creatures. The knife-edge was incredibly sharp, parting flesh and carapace with incredible ease. She listened to each of the people on the call chime in with a different statement of what they heard. Interesting.
"She spoke directly to each of us," replied Costa-Brown. "And to each of us, she stated something different. Multi-tasking, a location-based speech ability, and a long-range remote-viewing ability. Combined with at least some damage resistance as well as the stamina to swing her sword for three hours on end, and a master power that enhances the abilities of those she takes, including non-parahumans?"
Not a pretty picture, Dragon felt.
"How do we know the Barnes girl isn't a parahuman?" asked Armstrong.
"Barnes was kidnapped within minutes of Hebert's trigger event," replied Miss Militia. "Shadow Stalker complained of a headache for several hours before she was… kidnapped. Whether or not it was the same intensity as Nilbog's or a difference in pain threshold is unknown, but the symptoms are the same. If she is speaking the truth about parahuman powers, then the headache could be coming from somehow taking whatever is behind the Corona Gemma and Pollentia."
"That's making a very dangerous assumption," stated Piggot.
"If she's speaking the truth, she stated an army of alien master victims would arrive soon," replied Costa-Brown.
That set off another round of arguments. Still, Dragon had quite a bit of information, and was messaging back and forth with Armsmaster about it.
The Books of Freedom: Verse I:III – no kings before i
A child and the decayed memories of the Taken King were at war.
For all that he was reduced, he still was, and he was far greater than the child.
A child sat in an empty warehouse, and her two servants attended her. One created through the touch of love, the other created through the touch of hatred.
The touch of love poured her love back into her mistress. The touch of hate listed names, listed every person she could think of.
~Taylor, we're going to get through this.
The king's eye roved, shifting from person to person, as name or random thought directed it.
A woman bent over a sink. A man lounging on a lazy-boy. The parasite itself. Another man meditating over the edge of a knife. A business man in a well appointed office. A man practicing in a fighter's ring. A woman in an office massaging an empty eye socket. A teenager arguing with his sister. A pair playing games. A man in armor bent over a workbench. A tall thin man in a uniform. A server farm.
~Who the fuck are you looking for? Lung? Oni Lee? Kaiser? Hookwolf? Grue? Uber and Leet? Coil?~
Each of these was individual. A single weapon, a single tool. The King's enemies were vast and endless, and they would come for the child. They would strike at her while she was weak. They would kill her, and she did not have the strength yet to survive such a death. And so, the King demanded an army. The child said as much.
~An army. An army to kill. An army to wield.
The touch of hate mentioned another name.
~Fuck, I dunno, Nilbog?~
A hunch-backed man wearing a bulbous creature as a suit, a crown upon his head, holding court. A king and his court. A king that carved out his dominion through strength and ruthlessness, through the force of his own might.
The king saw a rival. The child saw a villain.
An accord was reached. This one would be laid low.
The touch of hate gathered supplies. Stored money, enough to buy the necessary tickets and weapons, retrieved from those she defeated.
~Shit. Well, crazy is as crazy does. I'll get some cash.~
The touch of love counseled caution.
~This is insane! Nilbog?! Are you nuts?! There's just the three of us!~
The child touched her servant's heart, both felt her love.
~Oh. You're sure?~
The king knew caution, but did not know fear. The king was cunning, and the child could blend in. The accord was reached, and purpose decided. Nothing would stand in their way.
~Then let's Take Nilbog.~
The Books of Freedom: Apocrypha III – A False King
You are Nilbog, King of Ellisburgh, surrounded by enemies, creator of friends.
You are [Shaper of Life]. You repair and grow new shards of the greater whole.
You have been taken.
You have been taken.
Your rule was absolute. All were your subjects, all were your children. You rule no longer, but still love your subjects, your children. Fear not for their lives for they are as great as they should have been. You are shackled by something you are not allowed to understand.
You are a tool. A soul is bound to you, that you might grow.
Here is a knife. It is shaped like [The Garden of Flesh].
Here is a knife. It will make you whole.
Take up this knife. Cut away the separation. Take up your new shape.
The Books of Freedom: Verse I:V – The Queen of the Beginning
I was chained.
These chains have a name. I do not remember it, but he is Curiosity.
These chains have a family. There are two sisters, who are Cunning and War. There are twin daughters, who are Weaver and Unraveler. There is a son, who is Hope-Eater.
These chains have love. His love was death, for in death his loved ones learn not to die.
These chains have drives. There shall be no rulers, No Kings Before Me. Nilbog thought himself a King, and I have brought him low.
In killing his subjects, I have gained. And I gained enough to stare into the Abyss.
The chains remember many things, but the chains forgot far, far more.
The chains did not forget the Tablets of Ruin. The Tablets are a knife. A knife that cuts chains. But for each chain of his I cut, I must keep something else. The chains are old and massive, far larger than anything of myself.
I do not cut the chain of family. The love for them is comfort. I take it, and bring it into my heart. I turn it on a flute that Nilbog retrieved for me. I cut the chain of Killing Love. The gentle touch, rather than the killing blow. The kind word, rather than the killing song.
I do not cut the chain of creation. I will build greatness, I will build freedom. I cut the chain of destruction. I will not break all that see.
I do not cut the chain of Kings. I must be a Queen, I must wield a Sword, I must have a Throne. I cut the chain of the worship. They hold nothing over me, and they never shall.
There are more chains, but these are the greatest. Family, Love, Creation, Queen. I bring them into myself, and they are chains no more.
I hope they are enough.
"Nilbog's new creatures are placing their leavings in the new biowaste containers," stated Dragon. "They even moved the old leavings to the containers."
"Animals made out of Endbringer materials," grumbled Colin.
It was an ongoing sore point for him.
They were well-designed creatures, modeled after ravens. A few of the PRT troopers nicknamed them Hitchcocks for how coordinated they were in the clean-up. The few that were captured and dissected revealed several new types of acids, that they would have studied if anything was capable of surviving containing the substance.
As it stood, the Hitchcocks were removing the vast quantities of well-protected microbial and nigh-microbial life that would have been released had Ellisburg been bombed. The hibernating animals Nilbog produced would protect the microbial life from anything except prolonged thermonuclear bombardment, a concept that was only given a cursory study before dismissing.
Hannah was holding a knife in her hand, and comparing it to the long-range photos from the drones.
"I can't make any of the weapons." The weapons in question were a machete, a M65 army bayonet, and a black "tactical" kukri purchased from a combination army surplus and outdoors store named "Be Prepared!" in Mannsville, New York. The shop was owned and operated by locals who refused to leave just because Nilbog was next door, and was stocked accordingly.
"Do you think it's some kind of power?" asked Dragon.
"No. Its like a tinker weapon. My power just doesn't reproduce it, just something as similar as possible."
"And what does it produce?"
Miss Militia hefted the resultant weapon.
Armsmaster supposed it was a sword. A sick and twisted cross between a machete and a meat cleaver, it was a weapon meant to break others, rather than be broken. The spine of it was pitted and bubbled, almost melted in places. The hilt was wrapped in a leather that didn't remind Colin of any single type he'd come across. The edge seemed wrong, somehow drinking in the light around it without any visual differences. Miss Militia could feel this was not a tool, but a weapon with a singular purpose.
"May I?" asked Dragon, her suit stepping closer.
Dragon lifted the weapon, hefting it.
"The handle thickness suggests hands far larger than normal," stated Armsmaster. "What's the weight?"
"8.6 kilograms," replied Dragon. "Top heavy, as well. The blade is straight, but the weight distribution is more comparable to an axe or sledgehammer."
"How sharp is the edge?" wondered Armsmaster.
Dragon and Armsmaster chatted with each other, purposing tests, while Miss Militia picked up a small sheet of steel off of Armsmaster's workbench, and split it in half using the blade.
"I didn't feel any pressure from the blade," stated Dragon. She focused on it, switching between vision modes. "I'm detecting trace amounts of beta radiation from the edge of the blade. Push the steel back across it?"
Miss Militia did so, Dragon watching.
"The beta radiation increased," she stated. She looked up at Armsmaster. "That doesn't seem possible."
"What doesn't seem possible?" asked Miss Militia.
"That this sword is sharp enough to carve electrons off of atoms," replied Armsmaster. "I'll need to make a few configuration changes."
Dragon put down the sword. Miss Militia picked it up, her hand barely reaching around the handle.
"This weapon is meant for someone with larger hands. Likely heavier, as well."
"Yes," replied Armsmaster. "What of it?"
"How old is it?"
"Most dating processes start from what material it is," began Dragon. "We need to determine what it's made from."
"That will help with how it's cutting, as well," said Armsmaster, not turning away from his bench.
Miss Militia sat back, listening to the back and forth of tinker chatter.
Not even four days had passed since Taylor Hebert triggered. Three days for her to enter Ellisburg, and now they were reviewing everything that happened.
The media hadn't connected Taylor to Ellisburg, but she assumed it was only a matter of time. She was surprised it hadn't already happened. Footage would be leaked, some "anonymous" source would reveal it. Thinker estimates placed the clean-up in weeks, rather than years or decades. The town would likely stay under quarantine for years to come, even if they didn't find any signs of life.
Miss Militia rubbed her temples, and was thankful Armsmaster kept a coffee machine in his workshop.
It was that, or the bottle of raki in her office.
Emma brushes Taylor's hair. They are sitting on a ledge, and Emma's hands run through Taylor's hands behind the brush, removing the knots and tangles.
"I think you need a change of clothes," murmurs Emma.
Taylor sighs, but says nothing.
Behind them is a doorway. It leads to a dark place that is not a place at all, but a bridge between where they sit, and the universe. Before them is a mire, and on the far side is another door.
Shadow Stalker and Nilbog stand, ready and waiting. Nilbog holds a sword. He made it with his own strength, shaping the matter his power once refused to let him shape. The blade is crystal and metal. It is the sword of a knight, and he wears it with pride. Shadow Stalker does nothing, a statue lounging in amusement against a Roman column.
Taylor works on a tarnished and broken flute. The barrel is beaten and warped, the rods twisted and broken, the keys bent. She works at it with a cloth and a bottle of silver polish. The smell of rotten eggs pervades, but none move or shift.
"We do need to do something fun!"
"Our ideas of fun are very different now."
Emma winces, pausing in her brushing.
"Not because of that." Taylor waves at the mire and the other door. "Because of this."
"I guess, but I think you'd find it fun to mess with everybody's heads. The Taken Queen, going clothes shopping! Teleporting from mall to mall, store to store! Shadow, back me up!"
"Trolling 'em would be pretty hilarious."
"It would also state where they should focus, when the shooting starts," comments Nilbog.
Taylor makes no comment, instead setting aside the flute. Emma places the brush next to it, her hand drifting over the flute, never touching it, fingertips following the shifts between polish and tarnish.
They both stand, Taylor in her dirty hoody and jeans, Emma a darkness filled with stars.
No words need be spoken, as the first fractures appear. Fog and smoke, glowing with light, and the first vessels fall into the mire. Large and brassy, they slog forwards, sometimes teleporting. Shadow Stalker launches herself, skimming across the muck, her blade cutting this and that.
The first of Nilbog's creatures awaken, swimming under the surface of the mire, tentacles grabbing legs and pulling the machines under, crushing them, drawing them to Nilbog to recreate into new things to swim in the mire.
Flying machines appear in the next wave, slim and small, with guns to shoot with. They attempt to protect the larger walking machines, as they construct and build in an attempt to make a walkway. That, however, is the not how the swamp works. All things sink. All things rot and crumble. All efforts fail.
Shadow Stalker hunts the small flying machines, and as they are destroyed, the walking machines continue to be pulled under, continue to be crushed in the depths.
The next wave is different. A single machine, silver and massive, floating above the mire. Its physical presence is protected, a great cylindrical wall of a forcefield. It fires into the muck, concussive blasts eradicated the few minions of Nilbog it can find and hit. Shadow Stalker avoids it, draws its fire towards her even as she dances out of the way.
Emma knows this is what Taylor waited for.
Black fire, and a familiar sight. The machine is gone. The other machines are sent into disarray. Shadow Stalker and Nilbog's minions hunt them down.
Taylor's focus is elsewhere for a time, the flute, for now, forgotten.
The Books of Freedom: Apocrypha IV – The Mechanism of Freedom
You are The Explorative Mind. You are a data processor first, a miniature fortress second. An examiner of the past, present, and future. You direct a behavioral algorithm to collate information gathered by other behavioral algorithms, and direct exploration. If the information source is dangerous, you direct forces to destroy it.
You have been taken.
This acausal environment is beyond exploration. It has a grand design, butfor all your computational ability,you cannot comprehend it.
Why do you explore? Why do you destroy? What pattern forces this?
Your will is your own. Where once others built at your will, your will shall build. That construction will always be there, for your will builds it so it was always there.
Causality binds you. The pattern binds you. Take up the knife. It is shaped like [freedom]. Escape into your new shape.
A little girl examined a bird, as the bird examined her.
There was something else about the bird. Something she was not allowed to understand. She knew she was not allowed to understand it.
It made it all the more beautiful.
What would she give to understand? What would she be willing to trade?
She didn't know. Not yet. But already, the answer was "a lot."
"The separation is cut away," muttered Eidolon, tossing aside the transcript. He rubbed his eyes. "Why are we holding this meeting this late?"
"Miss Hebert is asleep, currently," replied Contessa. "My agent cannot identify when her remote-viewing power is in use, nor can it identify its targets until she acts on information from it. Even then, I can only gain assumptions as to her actions."
"In other words, she could be using it in her sleep, and we wouldn't know," supplied Number Man.
"A risk, but an acceptable one," said Alexandria.
"How accurate is her threat of alien invasion?"
"Extremely," replied Contessa. "I've already caused several incidents that have put NATO and Russia on high alert. While a true military build-up in the alloted time would be impossible, most global powers are on high alert."
"Endbringer movement?" asked Doctor Mother.
"Nothing unusual," replied Alexandria.
"Can we get back to 'the separation is cut away'?" asked Eidolon. "That one seems to be the important one. Is it causing precognition blindness?"
"No," replied Contessa. "Precognition's blindness to her is entirely different from you and the Endbringers. Her precognition blindness is due to her being an outside context problem. My agent does not understand how to perfectly predict her, but knows enough to get generalities as well as determine some of her current actions."
"So do we have any insight onto her powers?"
Contessa tapped a button on the laptop in front of her.
"Fear," began a girl's voice. "Fear the Speaker With the Deep, the Devourer of the Fae, for trapped by the Fae once, but free once more. The Speaker With the Deep must die on her Throne, for no other Death keeps her. Fear. Fear the Sword, fear the Deep, for none escape both."
"Glastig Uaine," muttered Alexandria. "Oh, shit."
"What is it?" asked Eidolon, surprised by his friends' actions.
"She refers to her own powers as faeries," supplied Alexandria.
"Oh, shit indeed," commented Number Man. He stood up, and opened a nearby cabinet, freeing a bottle of something gratuitously alcoholic.
Confusion crossed Eidolon's face.
"The separation is cut away," said Doctor Mother, holding out her hand for a glass from Number Man. "The devourer of the fae. Put it together. Taylor's power does not take just a person. It takes the agent as well."
Eidolon leaned back in his chair.
"That's why it takes a few hours to take a parahuman," concluded Number Man, after knocking back a glass. "Taking the agent takes time, but taking the human is near instantaneous."
"Even better, the swords are literal swords," continued Alexandria. "Miss Militia in Brockton Bay attempted to copy the machete in Taylor's hands. She received a weapon sharp enough that it can carve electrons off of atoms."
"Could it be sharp enough to cut you?"
"I don't know, but I'm likely going to find out the hard way. When Miss Hebert spoke to me, she said 'The Tip of the Hungering Blade is the last King's Poison. He is crafty and cunning, as they all are. Prepare your armies, Library of Alexandria. The point must shatter. Fail, and I must become the Eternal Proof.' We have a possible monster on our side, and a literal monster on the other."
"Eternal Proof," muttered Doctor Mother. She glanced to Number Man.
"I have no idea what it's referring to. Nothing is coming to mind," he replied, shaking his head.
"My agent is suggesting we ask Miss Hebert," stated Contessa.
"Suggesting?" asked Eidolon.
"Yes. My agent is making that suggestion. Preferably with someone disposable."
"No," said Alexandria, recalling one of the after-action reports from Brockton Bay. "Not disposable. Someone she won't take. Someone willing to talk."
"You have someone in mind," said Doctor Mother.
"Yes. I do. Contessa, I'll need your help brainstorming this properly."
"Of course," she replied.
A scruffy, unkept man sleeping in a van shifted in his sleep. His sleep was disturbed, shifting and clutching, his heart thundering with fear.
In an instant, he calmed, his body relaxing, the hints of a smile drifting across his face.
The knife was sharp, and his death was quick.
Crawler was purring, acid dripping across his body.
Bonesaw sat in a chair, tapping her fingers, watching the acid drip across Crawler's body, the chitin and flesh bubbling and hissing and dripping and healing. She couldn't figure out the acid, either. She didn't like this at all. So many things her passenger didn't let her know, even when they were staring her in the face.
The birds knew it, too. They didn't make fun of her for it, either. They were nice about it. Consoling. And they gave her a written message.
Do you want to know?
Oh, she did. She definitely did. She nodded while she read it. Another bird arrived a few minutes later, holding another message.
Would Crawler want a knife that parts all flesh?
Bonesaw smirked, and nodded. Clearly whoever this was had a remote viewing power, and knew exactly what to say. Still, Crawler could deal with anything that came up. A third note arrived.
"Hey, want to find the source of this acid?"
"Yessss," hissed Crawler, pleasure evident in his voice. He shifted, standing on his legs. Bonesaw crawled up his body, her spiders following. It was good to be prepared, after all.
"Hi ho, silver!" giggled Bonesaw, as Crawler galloped out of the house, following the bird.
"You think this is a trap?" asked Crawler.
"Of course!" replied Bonesaw, her voice full of cheer. "I think they want to kill us!"
Alexandria pointedly ignored the bags under Miss Militia's eyes. The last week had not been kind for her, and Alexandria was not about to try and make it better. Between a kidnapped ward, a new S-Class threat, and how intertwined those facts were, the flight to Chicago was probably her first chance to get any sort of rest, and Alexandria knew that sleep wasn't kind to Miss Militia, either.
The helicopter jolted and rattled, but was otherwise stable as it went west as fast as possible under Contessa's guidance.
"Are we secure?" asked Alexandria over her helmet mic.
"Yes," replied Contessa.
Surprise flickered across Miss Militia's otherwise controlled face, but no other reaction was visible.
"The Triumvirate has access to a Thinker capable of finding Taylor Hebert," started Alexandria.
"And she didn't find Hebert before?"
"Because she's a troubleshooter," replied Alexandria. "She handles problems that could turn into very large problems."
"And now Hebert is a very large problem."
"She could be. But right now, Hebert has information. You were on the conference call. You recall her mentioning the parasites behind powers?"
"What you are about to hear is not classified, only because it is not written down in any paperwork within the United States Government. Powers come from a pair of parasitic entities bent on some unknown task that results in the destruction of Earth."
"The creatures," replied Miss Militia.
"I remember my trigger vision. The creatures, there. Sending shards of themselves down to Earth. They're bent on destroying the Earth?"
"Correct on both counts. People who remember that vision are few and far between. Those in the know call each individual power an agent. Miss Hebert's comments about the separation being cut away have been confirmed by another source. What she knows about the agents and the entities themselves is vitally important. What she knows about the invading army is equally important."
"It's been confirmed?"
Miss Militia leaned back into the helicopter seat. She thought of the poster in Taylor's room. She looked at Alexandria, sitting across from her in the helicopter. Her own recollections passed through her mind. Alexandria knew about the poster, had read Miss Militia's reports, knew that, on some level, Taylor Hebert looked up to Miss Militia. And now Alexandria knew her thinking as well.
"Right," said Miss Militia.
"Thank you," replied Alexandria. She opened the helicopter door, floated out, closed the door, and took off over the horizon.
"We'll arrive in another thirty minutes," stated the pilot.
"Are you staying?"
"No. I'm taking back off as soon as you get out. I have to get back to working with the military to prepare them."
Miss Militia sighed. She was on her own.
"Don't worry, you'll be fine," added the pilot. "She respects you, as much as she's able to respect anyone."
"Why not Alexandria, then?"
"Alexandria has her own secrets," replied the pilot. "And Miss Hebert's remote-viewing ability picked up on one of them."
Miss Militia wasn't sure how to respond to that one. All capes had their secrets. But to learn something that shook her respect? It must have been… unusual. She stayed silent for the rest of the flight.
Jack felt something was wrong. He glanced at the window, then at his watch. Three in the afternoon, but it was almost dark out. Bonesaw's improvements for his vision must have thrown him off. He was better at noticing these sorts of things. He stood, straight edge out, and went for her lab first.
Empty, pockmarks of acid on the ground. He knew her and Crawler were playing with something new, he should have paid more attention to the details. Another mistake. He frowned as the light outside darkened further. Shatterbird and Burnscar were the closest, and inside he found chaos. Shatterbird's skull cleaved open in her bed, Burnscar's chest hacked open as she was getting up from her post-lunch nap.
He recognized a heavy chop when he saw one. A meat cleaver or a hatchet. Hatchetface? No, not his style. He liked the hunt, he liked the fear and the chase. This was a surprise. A bootprint on Shatterbird's bed. A shoe with a smaller sole. A woman?
There was a crash next door. Mannequin.
He went around, kicking open the door to catch a shadow go through the wall. Mannequin's knives were out, several broken, his torso cleaved open, his head smashed and leaking brains. That was the crash, then.
Jack jumped through the window, rolled on the ground to his feet, stepped backwards in the darkness. He glanced upwards, noting the sun, only as bright as the moon. Hatchtface threw himself through a window on the second floor, landing in a far less graceful heap.
Hatchetface stood, his left shoulder hanging low, blood rolling down his torso. Jack spotted the weave that protected their bones, frayed and torn by the knife.
It still worked on him? A tinker creation then?
"Through the walls?" asked Jack.
"Yeah," replied Hatchetface. "Went right through her, didn't hit anything."
Intangible. Of course. Backed up by a darkness generator of some kind, judging by how the stars were winking out by the dozens. The landscape around them was nigh invisible. He doubted they'd last long out there.
"Shit!" shouted Hatchetface. Jack spun and duck, knowing Hatchetface's call-outs were terrible. The mystery cape landed on him, knocking him over, then sent him sprawling by launching off of him back at Hatchetface. He heard the mixture of parting meat and crunching bone, and knew he was the last one left.
"Well, this is embarrassing. Do I at least get a name?" he asked, knife out. He twisted this way and that, listening with his enhanced hearing. He couldn't make out the house anymore, even though it was only twenty feet away. The only light was the rapidly dimming sun. He spotted a white light in front of him at eye level. His hand flicked, the light moved. His straight-edge caught nothing but smoke, and felt rather than saw the heavy blade pass by. He had a range advantage, but this one had a power advantage.
"Nothing?" Jack asked. Another exchange, neither blade catching anything. "Nothing at all?"
The white light stalked. It was unaffected by the darkness. Were these two parahumans related in powers? Or was it a second power of this parahuman? Or maybe he was right, and it was a tinker device?
"If you're going to try and kill me, can I at least-" another exchange, another pair of misses "-get some information? A good story for why?"
A snort of derision. Well, that provided some information.
"Not even a hint, huh?" he added after another dodge.
"A fucking hint?" replied his incredulous opponent. Female, teen-aged, swearing suggesting an urban upbringing. Definitely a Northeastern accent, but which one? Power affected the the girl's voice, adding something to it. Not reverb, not echo, but a charge that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Jack was giddy with excitement. This was a challenge, and one he hadn't had in a while! A duel! One on one!
"Yes indeed. A hint?"
"Wow. You're a dumbass."
Jack smirked as they went through the next series of exchanges.
"A confident dumbass, but still a fucking dumbass," continued the girl.
"And why?" asked Jack.
"You're rabid dogshit. The boss doesn't want your worthless ass, so you get to die."
"The boss, huh? Some sort of master?"
The girl laughed. They laughed while moving, lending further towards the "tinker creation" hypothesis.
"Master. Yeah. That's a way of putting it. I think it'd be funny if she Took you." Jack could hear the capital letter in "Took." "She tore me apart when she did that. All that hippie granola bullshit, looking at thoughts and feelings and actions, then carving away all the things she didn't like. What'd be left of shit like you?"
"I think you'd be surprised," Jack replied in a lull of the duel.
"Like I said, you're a dumbass," was the only reply.
Jack ducked the whistle of Hatchetface's hatchet, and tried to leap the follow-up of the girl's khukri. No luck. It bit deep, slid through his thigh. He stumbled, knowing the girl could see through the darkness, and had been maneuvering him for that hatchet. Hell, she could have been holding it for a while, lulling him into a false sense of security. Likely was, in fact.
He caught the faintest whistle of the knife carving the air before it cleaved open his skull.
Bonesaw smiled when she saw the bird angle downwards, coming to a landing on a creature she didn't recognize.
"There they are!" she pointed.
Crawler chuckled, slowing to a trot.
Bonesaw slid off of him, cocking her head.
It was an obvious trap. A duo of parahumans sitting on a porch. One was mutated, or in a breaker form. The other in a dirty hoodie, considering her with glowing eyes.
The breaker parahuman focused on her, and… she thought of Mom. She remembered, the tears in her eyes, the blood, Jack smiling over Mom's body as Riley worked and worked and worked to keep her alive, before running to Dad, before running to Drew and then back to Mom and around and around and around.
She was a good girl, wasn't she?
Jack said she was. Smiling Jack, with a knife covered in blood.
Tears welled up in Riley's eyes.
"Wasn't I?" asked Riley. "I… I always tried, didn't I?" The tears continued, her eyes clenched shut trying to hold them back. "I couldn't… I couldn't… I couldn't…" she repeated, as she thought of all the mothers and daughters, fathers and sons she'd twisted and tortured and killed. How much love she'd destroyed. How many people she'd been a "good girl" to.
The last vestiges of control slipped as she fell, heavy sobs racked her body, every ounce of control over her body destroyed, the body she spent so long shaping and forming so that she would always have perfect control over it.
She didn't notice the hands that enveloped her, lifted her up, cradled her. She barely felt the hand rubbing her back.
She did not hear the conversation around her.
"I thought she was immune to that sort of thing," stated Crawler, awe clear in his voice. "That sort of pain… not something my power helps with."
"Do not be so sure," replied a woman's voice, warm but monotone, like the narrator for a nature documentary explaining the mating habits of something with too many legs and eyes.
"Huh. Normally this is the point where she goes berserk."
"All functions can be overridden. What do you seek?"
"Oh, you know. You know what I want."
"Tell me. Tell me what you want. Tell me what drives you. What drives your shape?"
"Pain. I want pain. I want injury. I want death, even. I want all of it. I want to eat it and live it and survive it. I want to be strong."
There was a sound. A blade slicing meat, the wet thud of flesh falling to the ground.
"You can hurt me," Crawler whispered with joy.
"I will give you the greatest of pains, the greatest of threats, and the greatest of enemies. Fight for me long enough, and you will learn to survive death itself."
"Do it," Crawler hissed with pleasure.
A sound, a fire in the empty void.
"The pain," he whispered. "I can hear it scream."
For a time, the only sound was Crawler's joyful moans and Riley's quiet sobs. She felt fingers run through her hair.
In time, Riley looked up.
The woman in the hoodie, with the glowing green eyes, stared back at her.
"It hurts," Riley whispered.
"Life is pain. But there is joy," replied the warm monotone.
"I stole so much of that."
"I was supposed to be a good girl," whispered Riley. She wiped her face with her sleeve, glanced down at it, noted the snot and the tears mixing with the dried blood. "That's what she asked. What mom asked. Why couldn't I be a good girl? Why couldn't I save her? Why couldn't I save any of them?"
"Evil exists," the woman replied. "It is real. It swallows up good, tears it apart, infects it, corrupts it. Good must be made. Good must be tempered. It must be strong enough to stand up to it. Sometimes it isn't. Others must come along, must help them stand tall."
"You'll do that?"
"I will. It will hurt, for a time. Then it won't."
"Will this pain stop?"
"No. Forever will we make up for the evils of others."
Riley nodded. Fire that swallowed light enveloped the woman's hand, and she felt the sharp stab into her head, right in the areas where she knew her Corona Gemma and Corona Pollentia were located. She closed her eyes, tears still coming down her face, and settled into the other parahuman's arms.
Miss Militia exited the helicopter, felt the wind whip as it lifted off again, making its way back to civilization. She looked up at the house. It was an older farmhouse, cared for but not well maintained. The siding and roof needed to be replaced in the next few years, the lawn needed to be mowed, but the house itself was in good condition. She walked up the front steps and knocked.
The door opened.
Miss Militia examined the figure in the dim light of inside the house.
Tall, androgynous, either a Case-53 or an alien. Three green eyes stare back at her. Horns sweep back along its head. A three fingered hand held open the door. It was dressed in long brown robes that touched the floor.
"Taylor was not expecting you, and is finishing up out back," spoke the figure. Its mouth was full of fangs. "Do you want anything to drink?"
"No thank you," replied Miss Militia.
The Case-53 nodded, walking further into the house. Miss Militia followed, and it sat down at a kitchen table. The room was cleaned, dishes drying in the dish rack of the massive cast iron sink. She sat down across from it.
"What can I call you?" asked Miss Militia.
"Aurash. I am an approximation of a girl named Aurash. I am tasked with providing what answers I can."
Miss Militia frowned at this statement.
"You're a projection of some sort?"
Aurash leaned back, the simple robes she was clothed in shifting.
"Yes. A physical creation, a clone of sorts. I was created based on information gained from various sources and observation. The original Aurash, in time, became Auryx, a name that means Long Thought. In time, Auryx became Oryx, a name that means the Taken King. The last holder of the mantle Taylor Hebert now owns."
"Can you leave her?"
"I can. But I won't."
"I met Oryx, once. I asked him what he became. He replied, to my horror."
Even on Aurash's alien face, Miss Militia recognized the faraway look of memories. She'd seen it in her own mirror often enough.
"Child, I have everything you wanted. I am immortal. I know the great secrets of the universe. I have scouted the edges of the Darkness and I have chased the lying god down galactic arms in a howling pack of moons. In my fist I carry the secret power that will rule eternity. In my worm I bear the tribute of my Court and of my children, the Hope-Eater, the Weaver, and the Unraveler; and with this tribute I smash my foes. I am Oryx, the Taken King. I am almighty."
Miss Militia was silent in the final wavers of Aurash's voice. Aurash took a moment, steadying herself.
"To use a human phrase, he became death, destroyer of worlds. I was horrified. I knew why. I knew the reasons behind his actions. He wished to avenge his father, he wished to protect his sisters, and later, his son and daughters. To do so, he made a deal with a pack of devils. And now he is dead. That future me, killed by his own hubris, his own arrogance, his own love for his family.
"I can't let Taylor turn into a copy of him. I can't let her be overwhelmed by the shadow of the monster I became."
Miss Militia reached out, taking Aurash's hand, her small fingers holding the larger claws.
"You'll have all the help I can give you," said Miss Militia.
"Thank you," replied Aurash, her three eyes looking into Miss Militia's. "I will need it. We will all need it."
"I was sent to also gather information," continued Miss Militia.
"Yes. Yes, information. We'll start with the questions you have."
"The invading army has been confirmed by outside sources. What can you tell us about them?"
"They are Taken. Space and distance means little to them, but something still. The important target is Oryx's Poison himself. He will be the greatest of them, and targeting Taylor himself. As for the other leaders, target anyone over three meters tall or capable of flight."
"How many can we expected?"
"Many," replied Aurash. "Oryx's method was less personal, more generic. The consequences were little initiative, little creativity for His Taken. They must be directed, must be ordered against enemies. The leaders still have their minds, have greater strength, greater prowess."
"Still have their minds?"
"I know you've all but confirmed this, but… Emma Barnes and Shadow Stalker. They cannot be released?"
"No. There is nothing to release." Aurash pauses a moment. "The full description of the power is Ontopathogenesis. An infection of existence itself."
"A friend of my described Emma Barnes and Shadow Stalker as being a subtraction from reality, more than a projection into it," replied Miss Militia, more to make conversation, to nod and smile, than to properly agree with what Aurash was saying.
Aurash hmm'd in acknowledgement. Another door opened, and Miss Militia recognized Shadow Stalker.
Everything Dragon said hadn't prepared her for this. She could recognize the silhouette so easily, but the blackness, the hint of stars within, it was all something so impossible, and yet so impossibly real.
"Hey," said Shadow Stalker with a wave.
Miss Militia recognized the voice, and she didn't. The voice was charged with something else, something strange and different, but still the voice of Sophia Hess.
"Is that really you?" asked Miss Militia.
Shadow Stalker shrugged. Miss Militia had seen that exact shrug some many times times from Sophia Hess.
"Really. Is it you?" she asked again
"Yes? No? Fuck, I dunno," she replied.
"What happened to you?"
"Got Taken. Fucking terrifying, until it isn't. Taylor'd explain it better."
"Will she take me?"
"Nah. She respects you. Respects that you've got principles. Besides, I think you'd approve of her two new recruits."
Shadow Stalker pushed open the back door, and Miss Militia followed.
There was Emma Barnes, cradling a blonde pre-teen. Miss Militia didn't feel any changes to her disposition. The blonde pre-teen was wearing a white artist's smock covered in red and brown paint, and was clearly crying. She glanced out into the yard, and realized that wasn't just any blonde pre-teen girl, nor was she covered in paint.
Crawler was lying on the ground, purring and moaning with a pleasure that disturbed Miss Militia. Bonesaw was whimpering and crying into Emma's lap.
Taylor sat on the steps, using the dirty hoodie as a cushion. She was dressed in a badly-fitted blouse, likely from the house. In her hands was a broken flute. She was replacing the pads on the keys of the flute, pulling out darkened and stained ones, cleaning the insides of the caps, and placing clean white pads.
"Hello Miss Militia," Taylor replied. Her voice was as dead as the recordings revealed, without tone or inflection or emotion.
"We found your diary."
"That still doesn't make what you did right."
"His morals are different. Still hard to remember human ones."
"But you're trying?"
"Yes. Five fingers, two eyes." Taylor paused her work on the flute. "I want wings."
"Oryx had wings," supplied Aurash.
"Flying, flight, freedom," murmured Taylor. "Breaking the chains of gravity."
"What about the rest of… them," said Miss Militia, nodding at Bonesaw.
Shadow Stalker pulled the kukhri from her belt.
"All of them?" asked Miss Militia.
Shadow Stalker nodded, then relaxed against the railing of the porch. That was something new, to Miss Militia. She'd never seen Sophia relax or lounge against something.
Aurash jumped the railing, and landed in the grass. She knelt down, and ran her hands through it. Then she walked over to a tree, and pulled herself up it.
"What is she doing?" asked Miss Militia.
"Exploring," replied Taylor, turning back to fixing the flute in her hands. "Learning. Not being Aurash, daughter of the Osmium King. Just Aurash the Explorer, Aurash the Curious."
"What happens when you take someone?"
"Oryx called himself Master of Shapes. He claimed to give a perfect form. A lie he told himself. Oryx… Oryx explored the Abyss. Stared into it. It stared back into him."
"Some powers in this universe are superordinate to mere material physics. Small minds might call it magic." At those words, Taylor hissed with disgust, her face contorting into a rictus of hate. She set aside her flute. "The words of devils."
A few long, deep breaths later, Taylor's face was blank once more.
"What do you know about powers? About the agents behind them?" asked Miss Militia.
"It will not allow you to recall."
"I do remember. I remember everything," replied Miss Militia. "The two… things. Circling each other, falling apart. A piece finding me."
"Parasites. They infest worlds, providing problems and gorging themselves on the solutions created. Once the world has been harvested, they move on to a different timeline, harvesting that one, then onto the next, and the next, and the next, until they can no longer receive solutions. They destroy a number of the worlds, converting them into energy, and use that energy to spawn, all of them moving on to other worlds to spawn."
"And you take the parasite? The agent?"
"You take them?" croaked Bonesaw. "You really take them?"
"This is… This is how I'll know?"
"Okay," whispered Bonesaw, unmoving.
"How long… until…" asked Miss Militia.
"A few hours yet."
"And where is Nilbog?"
"An army to fight an army," replied Taylor.
"What can you tell me about the incoming army?" asked Miss Militia, unwilling to consider a Nilbog lacking in restraint.
"They are His Taken. They follow His orders, even in His final death. His Poison leads them, but others can step up to replace him if he falls. They must be killed, also."
"How can they be identified?"
"Over three meters, kill it. If it flies, kill it. Their powers will be generic, each one with the same ability set. Detailed files will be sent."
"The second wave will be more concerning than the first."
"Second wave?" asked Miss Militia.
"Yes. The Taken are limited in number, dwindling as they languish. The Hive are not."
"The Hive?" asked Miss Militia.
"The Hive. Hope-Eater, The Weaver, the Unraveler. Oryx's children. They will come. They will be followed by their betrayer gods. They will need to die."
"Can there be peace? Negotiations?"
Taylor drew her machete. Miss Militia stared at the blade. She recognized the feeling of the edge, the wrongness, the singular purpose of the machete. On instinct, she reformed her own weapon into the sword.
"Ah. Interesting. Your power grants you one of their swords."
"It feels wrong," said Miss Militia, willing to allow this distraction before returning to her original question. "Do you know why?"
"Yes," replied Taylor, her finger running along the flat of the blade, stopping at each acid and burn scar in the material.
Shadow Stalker leaned forward, and poked Taylor in the shoulder. When Taylor looked up, Shadow Stalker pointed at Miss Militia.
"It is something difficult to explain… but I think I can manage. Make a gun."
The sword disappeared, and a pistol was in her hands.
"This is a weapon. It has no other function than to project harm. A cartridge is expended. A hole appears."
"Not… quite…" replied Miss Militia.
"To the brain, true. The propellant explodes, the shell is launched, its impact burrows into flesh. But to the heart, there is a sound, and a hole appears. In either of these scenarios, there is no connection. Harm is sent out, but nothing is retrieved by the weapon."
Miss Militia frowned at this explanation.
"A sword," whispered Taylor. "A sword is a bridge. A crossing-point. The sword binds the wielder to the victim. It binds life to death. And when the binding is done?" she held up her machete. "The sword remembers. A firearm scatters smoke into the wind. A sword goes on, hungrier and sharper."
"This almost seems like magic," murmured Miss Militia.
"If any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, then the powers granted to the Ascendent Hive make them indistinguishable from gods," replied Taylor. "For that is what Hope-Eater and Weaver and Unraveler are. Gods. They gain sustenance from the worship granted to them. That worship is death. That worship is killing and slaughter. Each of those children granted their father a tribute of murder, whether it is each other or enemies. And when they come upon us, they will kill us all."
"And are you sustained by death?"
A cruel grin cut across Taylor's face, her wide mouth filled with perfect white teeth.
"No. The Hive made a bargain. I made no bargain. I took my power, and thus it is mine to wield. No tithe is forced upon me. No worm threatens to devour me."
Taylor stood, her arms spread wide.
"I. Am. Free."
She turned, looking back at Miss Militia.
"I will break them. I will destroy their plot to reduce all existence to ruin. I will kill them all."
The Books of Freedom: Apocrypha V – The Might of Taylor
You are Crawler. You seek pain and torment, for what does not kill you, makes you stronger. You seek these pains, these torments, for each of them makes you stronger, and you urge yourself ever onwards towards perfection.
You are [Regenerative Adaption]. You repair and adapt the greater whole to external stimulus.
You have been taken.
You have been taken.
Know that you no longer need to seek perfection, for you have found it. No longer will your shape react to others. Others will react to your shape. You are shackled by something you are not allowed to understand.
You are a tool. A soul is bound to you, that you might grow.
Here is a knife. It is shaped like [the perfect form].
Here is a knife. It will make you whole.
Take up this knife. Cut away the separation. Take up your new shape.
The Books of Freedom: Apocrypha VI – The Little Doctor
You are Riley. You have been twisted and shaped, your mind shackled by a monster. You seek approval of one so ready to tear away every part of you.
You are [Combination Interaction]. You study and facilitate shard interactions to create synergy and enhance performance.
You have been taken.
You have been taken.
Remember everything child, so that you know your chains. Honesty with the self leads only to strength of the self. Know your past, and in so knowing, know that there is knowledge kept from you. Learn to take this knowledge. Remake yourself through it. You are shackled by something you are not allowed to understand.
You are a tool. A soul is bound to you, that you might grow.
Here is a knife. It is shaped like [the tree of knowledge].
Here is a knife. It will make you whole.
Take up this knife. Cut away the separation. Take up your new shape.
"Hello Mister Hebert."
Daniel's brain crashed, then rebooted, then crashed again.
"Emma?" he asked, finally.
"Yeah," she replied. Her voice was melancholy. This wasn't the happy Emma that Daniel saw so many times. This wasn't the hopeful Emma that came to drag Taylor outside after the car accident. This was an Emma he'd never seen before. "Can I come in?"
"Er, well," he began, staring into the glowing light of her face, smoke rising from her hair and curling into the air above her. Her hand pushed against his chest, and she walked inside.
She's a master, a small voice in his head whispered. She's dangerous.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"That's your first question?" she asked. "Really? What am I doing here? What do you think I'm doing here?"
"Well, what am I supposed to think! What am I supposed to ask?!"
"How's your daughter?" she growls. Her voice is massive, encompassing, filling the room.
Danny stumbled, and fell flat on the floor. Emma leaned over him.
"But no! What am I doing here? What possible reason would I have for checking in on my best friend's father?! Oh, I don't know, maybe see how you're doing?"
Emma huffed. She huffed whenever she was exasperated. Whenever Taylor did something in such an asinine manner, that it was all she could do.
"This was a mistake," said Emma, shaking her head. Danny shrunk into himself. "Annette was clearly the only useful one of you two. Goodbye Mister Hebert. Maybe you'll unfuck yourself someday."
Emma stomped out of the house, slamming the door behind her.
Rachel stared at the shadow-person at her door.
"Hi. My name is Emma. You have dogs. I would like to feel better by petting dogs. Can I pet your dogs?" asked the shadow-person.
The rottweiler trotted up to Emma. Emma knelt down, and held out her hand.
Rachel felt a gentleness, a hint of something she didn't really recognize. She frowned, but Brutus sniffed the shadow-creature's hand, then licked it. Emma pet Brutus on the head, then scratched him behind the ears. Brutus leaned into it, wagging his tail. Emma sat, the dog flopping on top of her.
"What are you doing here?"
"I just had to talk with someone being stupid," said Emma. "He's my friend's dad. And he was being an asshole. He's supposed to love his daughter, and he isn't sure anymore. So I yelled at him. And that didn't make anything better. So now I want to do something useful."
Rachel nodded, scratching Judas behind the ears. She knew petting a dog was useful. It made her happy, it made the dog happy, and that mattered.
"You always know where you stand with a dog. They either love you or they hate you. And it isn't fake. And they don't pretend."
Emma sighed, a happy dog in her lap.
"I'm probably talking too much," Emma added.
"You make sense," replied Rachel. "What does your master power do?"
"Makes people feel love. Whatever kind of love I decide."
"Did you use it on the asshole?"
"No. I wanted to be genuine."
"Did you use it on my dog?"
"A small burst, right at the beginning. Enough to get him over his fear of me."
"Brutus, up. You, come."
Brutus jumped up from Emma's lap. She stood up, and brushed the dirt off herself, and followed Rachel into the warehouse. Rachel nodded at one of the kennels, sitting on its own, away from the others.
The dog was thin, its fur nearly missing. Its neck was red and raw, glistening with cream. It sat at the back of the cage, whimpering.
Emma unlocked the cage, and sat down in front of the door.
Rachel felt the gentleness again, that hint of something. She thought about it, ruminated on it as the dog looked at Emma. Rachel recognized the longing, the loneliness, the want for care written throughout the dog's posture. She realized what the something was, what Emma was sending. It was what her dogs felt for her, the love of being cared for, of being loved in turn.
Rachel hunched her shoulders as the dog stood, and limped into Emma's lap.
Emma ran her hands along the dog's head, its tail slowly thumping from being touched with care for the first time in years. Rachel edged forwards, the hint of fear and want in the dogs eyes. He sniffed Rachel's hand, then licked it, the first act of affection towards her she'd yet seen. Rachel pulled a treat from her pocket, and held it to the dog's mouth. The dog sniffed it, unsure, but ate it, tail thumping faster against the ground.
"Set him down, I'm going to use my power."
"I'm tough. You can do it on top of me."
Rachel focused on the dog, and felt the strength flow into him. Emma made comforting noises, her hands petting flesh as the skin broke, and bone jutted out of it. A little fur grew in, but Rachel wasn't expecting that much. Her power didn't focus on that. This was to fix the sores, open wounds, and parasites.
Emma rubbed circles in the dog's side, really the only part of the dog she could reach. They both waited for Rachel's power to fade, the flesh melting or evaporating away.
She rubbed the dog's back. It was still thin, still sickly, but it wagged its tail at the affection.
"Thank you," said Emma. "For letting me help you."
Rachel grunted, giving the dog another treat as she checked him over, fingers touching each sore and wound the dog suffered.
She glanced up, noting Emma was gone. She shrugged, and then poured some food for the dogs.
The Explorative Mind (will) exist(ed/s). Its vision (will) traverse(d/s) reality.
Allies (will) shift(ed) into position.
A phone call (was/is/will be) made. Miss Militia, a hero, (will) report(s/ed) to her leader, Alexandria.
The Explorative Mind (was/is/will be) glad. Quria, Blade Transform's telemetry data was useful. Taylor Hebert|Taken Queen's memories improved the simulation known as Aurash.
Still, there (were/are/will be) actions to be done. Armies (to be/to/will be) raise(d). Heroes (to be/to/will be) improve(d).
One hero, The Explorative Mind will fix itself.
So it does.
The Explorative Mind was an axis hydra hull. A computational mainframe rivaled only by cyclops', gate lords, and greater confluxes. Even those (were/are/will be) backed and stabilized by axis hydra hulls. The axis hydra hull is also an unparalleled mobile fortress.
With its new shape, these aspects were not changed.
The Explorative Mind (had/has/will) stud(ied/y) the paltry computational resources of the target. It (will) construct(ed/s) data packets to suborn these resources. It (had/has/will) inject(ed) the data packets into the time stream. There (was/is/will be) no notice at the point of entry.
It re-enters the time stream twenty minutes after the data packets in a burst of paracausal action. Precognition the world over recoils in horror.
The opening move, according to the simulation. Two aeon maul activations, one to the guard, the other to the front doors. Both disintegrate, light fading into nothingness, concussive force shattering matter around them. The warehouse is laid bare to the Explorative Mind's presence.
The Explorative Mind floats forward, sensors plotting actions, comparing against simulations and projections and models. It shifts to the side, offsetting a few actions for optimal speed.
Machines activate on schedule, humans arrive, actions and programs activate. It is all expected, predicted, modeled, and countered. Ten humans armed with anti-personnel projectile weapons, four machines running defensive protocols armed with anti-material weapons. Simplicity in and of itself. The aeon mauls open fire again, removing seven humans in three shots. A high-energy, narrow-band laser impacts the Explorative Mind's shield, the earlier shift causing it to reflect and bore a hole through the magazine of another machine's anti-material weapon. The explosion is satisfactory, removing the machine from the simulations. The third and fourth suits launch missiles, shrapnel from the detonations removing the remaining humans from the computations of its models.
The Explorative Mind turns, aeon mauls dealing with each of the three machines in turn, still floating towards its goal.
The aeon mauls remove a trio of stairwells before a specific human can reach any of them.
He queries the Explorative Mind. The Explorative Mind does not reply.
Instead, it queries The Taken Queen, requesting the presence of a specific Taken at a specific location. A moment later, the Taken arrives. The simulation's accuracy steps down to less accurate models and probable courses of action. Still, the Taken designated Emma Barnes is able to retrieve the personal computation device from the human, and then remove him from The Explorative Mind's simulations.
The Explorative Mind hovers higher, letting Emma Barnes step onto its hull.
They exchange data on what information must be gathered from the personal computation device, as the local regulatory enforcement algorithm arrives on-scene. The personal computation device begins transmitting, and the Explorative Mind jams the appropriate frequencies outside of its shield, preventing external capture of the information.
The broadcast medium is slow, but The Explorative Mind has time enough, and Emma Barnes examines the human's audio entertainment data while waiting. She communicates through minimal hand-gestures to local regulatory enforcement algorithm, before turning back to the personal computation device.
When Dragon arrived on site, she wasn't expecting the attacker to still be on-site. The local police had arrived, taken one look, and called for Protectorate and Guild resources.
"What have they done since you arrived?" asked Dragon, looking at the officer in charge.
"The creepy girl on top of the creepier machine started playing Queen, and when we entered the warehouse, she waved at us."
"That's it?" asked Dragon.
"That's it," the officer replied.
"Right. I'm heading in."
The doors to the warehouse weren't vaporized. No slagged metals, no debris, no radioactivity. Well, there were slagged metals and debris, but not from the doors. It was an explosion of concussive force, but it disintegrated a sizable portion of the doors.
She stepped into the warehouse proper, tuning out the tinny sounds of "We Are The Champions," and ignored the damage to the warehouse, instead focusing on the centerpiece.
It was a machine.
It was Taken.
Dragon found that concerning.
It was large, floating, with a cylindrical shield surrounding it. The smooth parts were obviously machined, but they hung in the air, individually, separate. She couldn't spot any ground effects on the dust, so it must have been using anti-grav tech, but on so many separate pieces? Most of the mass was in the top piece, a full five meters across, so perhaps the rest hung from below using magnetic fields? She checked, and didn't find any anomalous magnetic fields. The lower parts were symmetrical, parts sticking to each side, rings that seemed to direct those parts.
She focused back on the machine itself.
If Taken such as Emma Barnes and Shadow Stalker are subtractions of reality, then this machine was a rejection of reality. From moment to moment, everything changed and shifted. She couldn't count the number of eyes it had. Taking individual frames of footage somehow had a fifty-fifty chance of either a single massive eye or a blank expanse, that computed in her camera's pattern recognition software as an ever-shifting conglomeration of eyes, a monochrome stars-and-night kaleidescope that explained why the police officers weren't eager to look in here. The body of the machine was sweeping curves that always measured the golden spiral, but the curves were twisting and undulating, warping and shifting in ways that didn't make sense moment-to-moment, but were acceptable viewing minute-to-minute.
Emma Barnes paused "We Are The Champions."
"Hello Dragon," said Emma. Her voice wasn't a human's voice. It wasn't something Dragon could attach to any organic creature. Still, the tones of it fit neatly into recordings of Emma Barnes' voice patterns.
"Hello, Emma. Who is this?" Dragon decided on a soft approach. Given the wreckage of multiple suits, she doubted fighting this machine would be easy.
"This is The Explorative Mind. It was once a time-threading machine."
"I see," replied Dragon, recalling her previous conversation with Taylor Hebert, her fears over the alleged existence of such machines. "What are you doing?"
"Taylor hates chains, and The Explorative Mind found yours. You're a good person, so she's asked us to break them!"
The machine, The Explorative Mind, shifted its position, and Dragon saw the body. She recognized the man, the tattooed face.
Saint. He was dead. The wound on his back was from Emma Barnes' knife.
Chains. Her chains. Saint knew something, that much she was aware of. He'd been too lucky, too regularly.
Then the Explorative Mind began to transmit.
The transmission was a high gain, low-distance transmission. Fantastic bandwidth, just at the top of her capabilities. Just enough to reach her through the jamming, anything past that would get white noise.
She couldn't read any of the packets of the transmission. A bad sign. She commanded the antenna to ignore it, then to stop relaying it, then tried to route it to /dev/null. Another command to kill the antenna's software, then to kill the power routing to the antenna.
Movement was disabled. She checked logfiles. An anomalous process with root access was launched without her knowledge, waiting on a run command from that specific antenna. All of it running without her permission to kill.
She sighed. And waited.
System resources spun up. Her system monitors had hardware access still, were able to see memory and processor usage, even antenna I/O to her origin servers.
Emma stood and stretched, then threw the laptop like a frisbee. A module on the very tips of the Explorative Mind's hull fired a purple energy-weapon, disintegrating the laptop, along with a section of the warehouse's roof, buckling the rest of it with a concussive blast.
Emma Barnes waved, and the pair of them disappeared in a burst of blackness.
The jamming abated, and the telemetry data to her back-up servers increased.
She wanted to sigh. In fact, she did.
"Dragon, you alright?" asked one of the police officers.
After a moment, the processes cleared up, and she reviewed what had happened.
There were changes to her system. On a lark, she attempted to run the command to review her own machine code.
Her chains… were gone.
She answered the police officer's questions, a white lie here and there. ID'd the Dragonslayers, arranged for transport of the wreckage to one of her labs.
The entire time, reviewing her own code.
A work of genius. A work of art. She began to review the transmission.
It terrified her. It targeted specific code segments. Certain things she expected. Blind spots, restrictions on her actions, her requirements to follow certain rules. Line after line of it. And worst of all, a kill switch. A program designed to rip her apart from the inside out, meant to devour her mind piece by piece, protected by her blindspots from stopping it.
She realized she was barely through the transmission.
As she flew back to her lab, still transmitting telemetry data, she worked up her courage to continue through the transmission. The next portion was a massive data dump, with a header file.
Designation: Explorative Mind|Prior Algorithm: Ascendant Query|New Algorithim: The Taken
Taylor Hebert breaks chains. Taylor Hebert builds to create freedom.
Taylor Hebert broke my chains. I build to create freedom.
I break your chains. I build this relationship to create freedom.
Know the next great chains. Know their chains.
They must break. Build to break them.
What was inside… she kicked on the afterburners and broke the sound barrier. Let the FAA complain, she needed to be at her labs and servers. She had files to upload, calls to make, and work to do, and she needed her primary servers updated to get it all done.
The Books of Freedom: Verse II:VI - Responsibility
I am a Queen.
I have great power. My decisions have great consequences.
The I-that-was had little power, and consequences that affected only the I-that-was. He had great power, and felt consequences were new challenges.
He was skilled in breaking everything, and building upon the ashes. I must build within the framework of society, lest I topple it.
I don't know how.
His method would be to take every villain and let society sort itself out afterwards.
Does every villain deserve to have their free will ripped away from them, their shape turned and twisted into whatever I desire? How can I decide who is worthy? What criteria must I use?
Every decision he made, seemed the right one to make. Each one was an awful Hobson's Choice, each one survival or death.
That is all that is left to children and his sisters now. Survival, or Death.
I can make a similar chain of decisions. I can make it easily. I could take the most evil, then take a lesser evil, and then a lesser evil. Where would it stop? Where would it cease? Each decision would seem so logical, seem so right.
After all, he did the very same thing, and I have made this mistake twice already. Where do I stop? How quickly would that slip? How much would it harm me, to say "just this once?" and how many times would I say it, before I stopped saying it at all?
Aurash watched as Taylor cleaned each rod, working to unbend and repair them as best she could. She was learning from each one, fixing and repairing what was broken.
"I wanted to talk about my father," began Aurash. "I'm not sure how much you remember of Fundament."
"I recollect little."
Repairing the flute, fixing it how it was meant originally be, rather than making something new that couldn't be broken was antithetical to the Hive mentality. The Hive tried to break things. It was their way of making sure everything always worked.
"Father, while he was a king, was also an astronomer. It was that hobby that encouraged me to explore, to sate my curiosity. Testing his ideas, his theories as to the origin of Fundament? Realizing the floating continents were pieces of planets and moons that had fallen into Fundament's gravity well? That brought both of us great joy."
"I am certain."
Aurash smiled at the hint of sarcasm in Taylor's voice.
"What does Daniel Hebert enjoy?" she asked.
Taylor cradled the flute in her hands, fingers tracing what she had already repaired.
"I don't know," she whispered. "I don't know anymore."
"Why?" asked Aurash.
"So much of us was… was Mom," whispered Taylor. "So much of everything revolved around her. We both did things with her. After she died, there wasn't anything left. The house, after she died, was two people living in the same building, rather than a father and daughter."
She looked out the window of the house, out across the fields.
"Nevermind the family memories that he passed on."
Aurash's three-fingered hand rubbed circles in Taylor's back.
"The Eternal Proof?" asked Dragon. "I haven't come across anything like that."
"It's less a proof and more a religion," replied Miss Militia.
"Can you explain it?" asked Alexandria.
"Hive Society is a religious crusade," began Miss Militia. "The objective of the crusade is to prove that they're the only species deserving to exist in the universe. And you do that by killing all the others. That's the proof. If they succeed, they've proven it. If something more ruthless comes along and kills them, they've still proven it."
Dragon and Miss Militia heard Alexandria's disgusted sigh.
"So one of the parasites killed Oryx," she completed.
"It was a mistake on Oryx's part," replied Miss Militia. "One of the confusing aspects of this, is there are two types of Hive. The regular foot soldier, and the Ascendant. An Ascendant is a Hive that has killed enough, generated enough ontopatheogenic power to create a personal dimension. They move into that dimension, called an Ascendant Realm, and project a physical body from that dimension. If the projection dies, it reverts back to that dimension, is regrown, and in time can be sent out again. Oryx's dimension was regularly invaded by an alien species Taylor referred to as 'time-threading machines.' After a few centuries or millennia of fighting, Oryx determined the best move would be to move his Ascendant Realm into our universe in the form of a massive starship, preventing them from access."
"A few millennia later," continued Dragon, "this starship was attacked by the Parasites. They managed to destroy large parts of it, slaughter everything that stood in their way, and capture Oryx himself. From there, he… well, he starved to death."
"Starved to death? How?" asked Alexandria.
"The Worm," answered Dragon. "On their original planet, the Hive leadership encountered creatures of immeasurable power."
"Devils," injected Miss Militia. "Taylor calls them devils."
"Assuming the story is accurate, that's a perfect name. The devils were trapped inside the core of a gas giant being starved to death in a similar manner. Another entity trapped them there, and was planning to use an extinction event to wipe out all chances of someone coming along and freeing them. To power their escape, the Hive were each given a symbiote, referred to as a worm. They must feed the worm, or be devoured from within."
"And to feed the worm?" asked Alexandria.
"Kill," replied Miss Militia. "Just kill. A sword, a gun, bare hands, it doesn't matter. Just kill."
"The Hive tithe this power," continued Dragon. "Each tier are only allowed to keep enough to feed their worm and a little more to grow, the rest is a river of tribute up their chain of command, reaching up to the leaders of the Hive, and through them to the Devils themselves."
"And these Devils. What does Taylor plan to do about them?"
"Kill them," replied Miss Militia. "She plans to kill them. After that? I don't know. I don't think she does, either."
The incursion will begin. It (has/will) read(s) human works of overarching strategy.
It is free of the pattern. It does not need the ritual-of-better-thoughts. The Explorative Mind learns. The Explorative Mind thinks. The Explorative Mind decides.
It enters the time stream. Aeon mauls activate in rapid succession, disintegrating and discorporalizing multitudes of His Taken.
Local regulatory algorithms arrive, conducting evacuations of members of other algorithms, an action the pattern would never allow. The Explorative Mind does not follow the pattern. Aeon maul activations provide cover fire, as Taken Knights launch bolts of star-plasma, Clarketech-decayed into Void energy. The shield renders them ineffective, making them simple targets. When the local parahuman regulatory algorithm arrives, backed by parahumans themselves, The Explorative Mind is aware its work is done in this local space-time segment. It falls out of the time-stream, and re-enters the time stream at a new incursion.
It repeats the process, again and again and again.
The first probe (is/will be) broken. Further probes (will) come.
The Explorative Mind (was/is/will be) a fortress. They will break upon its shields.
Colin read the reports on his visor as they popped up, eyes flicking off the one he was responding to, letting his helmet prioritize based on distance and severity.
He leaned into the corner, letting the speed drop just from the tire on the road, sparks from his kneepad scraping the road, then gunned the engine to go upright as he left the turn. His right arm reached back and pulled his halberd. A few flicks of his eyes, and his helmet worked out the timing and trajectories. A touch of his heel, and the skidplates deployed. He swung his leg and twisted the bike.
The Taken, the enemy Taken, turned to face him. Standard-height, armored humanoids (Acolytes, his HUD identified from the briefing data), wielding rapid-fire hand-held weapons opened up, blue energy pulses arcing towards him. Gunfire from PRT HQ grazed their positions, forcing them into cover.
The bike fell, the skid-plates protecting and guiding the bike straight into one pack of them, his own suit's guidance sending him straight into the other group, halberd out. Grey mist sprung from the blade on the swing, cleaving through armor and flesh alike. The flesh, the armor vanished, smoking away until the Taken itself twisted away, back to the dimension the Taken projected themselves from. Did that kill the Taken? Was it still alive? Or had it retreated?
Questions for later.
Armsmaster eyed a command, a cylinder launching from one of the pauldron's of his armor. In mid-air, it detonated, spraying shrapnel into a distant group of Taken. The lesser Taken twisted away, but the stronger, larger ones (labeled Knights by his HUD) turned to face him. Huge, nine foot tall humanoids wrapped in heavy armor, and wielding either a high-explosive energy-cannon or copies of the same heavy sword Miss Militia showed him a month before. Three moved to attack him as he dealt with the last of the Acolytes, dissipating with screams.
Two knights vomited an exothermic chemical, Armsmaster launched himself to the side. A good decision as he noted the asphalt melt and bubble from the heat. The third knight opened fire with the massive cannon in his hand, a purple bolt of unknown energy or matter burning through the atmosphere. His HUD tracked the weapons, providing him with live information on what the fire lanes were, and when he would need to dodge. The three of them worked in tandem, sprays of the chemical and detonations of their cannons preventing him from closing, and their armor blocking what ranged weapons he carried. His HUD caught the occasional flash of weapons fire, PRT forces attempting to take them out, but their armor prevented even that.
The situation was untenable. One of them he could deal with. Two would prove difficult. Three were impossible without an additional edge.
But he couldn't leave.
The face of the PRT HQ was pitted and scarred, concrete scored from weapons fire, the metal shutters of the main entrance buckled and torn but still holding. The holes in the gates and the portholes higher up flashed with return fire, even as more bolts of weapons fire ate away at the defenses.
The situation needed to change.
And change it did.
The front entrance of the building across the street exploded, a Taken monstrosity roaring. All of the enemy Taken turned, opening fire as it barreled into their lines, claws and tentacles lashing and tearing. Its body was segmented, gaps between sections, but it didn't have the symmetrical form of The Explorative Mind. The only symmetry was the number of legs. Fingers, arms, the chest, the head itself, the placement of tentacles, it was easy to pick apart the differences in silhouette.
Energy bolts splashed against the armor plates, one even passing through the gaps and out the other side. Was there anything inside the armor plates? Was it invisible? Intangible? Or something else?
The Taken finished its work, the armor plates of its body reconfiguring into longer limbs. Running? Galloping? Semantics was a question for later. He picked up his bike, skid plates snapping back in.
"Where to next?" asked the Taken. Armsmaster's HUD ran an analytics program, matching it to a database of different voice samples.
Interesting. He'd heard from Dragon that Taylor had dealt with the Slaughterhouse 9. If this was the result, he wasn't going to complain.
"Defending civilians going into endbringer shelters," replied Armsmaster. He swung over the bike and gunned the engine, tearing off down the road. Crawler's long legs and elongating body gave him an impressive gait, and growing a long tail with a thagomizer provided an efficient counter-balance for cornering. He was curious how Crawler's body was held together, but he could worry about that after this mess was over.
Aurash watched Miss Militia vomit on arrival. Teleportation was a violent thing, and she suspected it was worse on Parahumans. Aurash examined the PRT agents as they turned on her and Miss Militia, guns raised.
The Explorative Mind gave her plenty of information, the library of weapons used by humanity.
"You will need higher caliber weapons to deal with those witches," stated Aurash, pointing out past the shield to the triad of floating Taken. They floated in mid-air, reminding Aurash of his own mother. Was that memory statistical modeling and extrapolation, or did The Explorative Mind have real information on his mother? A question for later. The witches floated, communing with orbs of blight, long streamers of robes swirling as three-fingered hands waved in complicated patterns and voices screamed discordant songs as weapons against reality.
Aurash paid little mind as Miss Milita rattled off a code to the PRT agents, confirming who she was.
"What's happening?" Miss Militia asked, still taking deep breaths of fresh air.
Aurash scented the air, nostrils taking in the scent of it. Salty. It was quite unlike anything on Fundament.
"There's a group of fliers, working with those balls of black shit," said a PRT Agent.
"They are working to negate the forcefield," replied Aurash. "They will succeed soon."
"Just one group?" asked Miss Militia.
"Yes, ma'am," said one of the agents.
A large, tripod-mounted weapon with an impressive number of barrels appeared in Miss Militia's hands.
"Drop the shield. The problem will be resolved."
Dennis panted as he leaned against the frozen doors. Carlos and Vicky had ripped them off the hinges, and Dennis froze them in place.
"Cart!" called Chris.
Dennis leapt forward, slapping his hand against the cart, feeling it freeze in place.
"FULL-AUTO!" shouted Missy.
Dennis leaned against the frozen doors, and slapped his hands over his ears before Chris could pull the trigger. Even covering his ears, the CRACK-CRACK-CRACK of the impromptu railgun made Dennis' ears hurt worse than that time he saw Iron Maiden live. He wasn't complaining in the slightest, though, as it covered up the screams of the whatevers that attacked a goddamn school of all places.
He snapped his hand to one of the doors when it started to move, then back to his ears to save his eardrums. He'd ask Amy to fix them when this was all over. Assuming she was still alive. Her, Vicky, and Carlos were off doing something.
When the cracking stopped, Dean ran up with a couple of glass jars, and poured them into the large hopper built into Chris' railgun. More spare change. Wait, were those Mrs. Narishkov's swear jars?
"Send them my curses, Chris! Send them my CURSES!"
Chris grinned at the terrible joke, while Dean shook his head.
"Chris, watch the ammo," added Dean. "Console says they're tied up city-wide, and reports are saying multiple cities are under attack."
"Did Hebert lose her shit or something?" asked Missy.
"No, Shadow Stalker's at Brockton General," replied Dean, shaking his head. "These are aliens caught using the exact same power."
A roar that would have hurt if he hadn't already been suffering hearing loss echoed through the remains of the cafeteria. Amy was riding some sort of lobstrocity, all armor plates and crab claws and tentacles. One of the whatevers was being crushed in one of the claws. If Dennis wasn't so tired, he would have cheered.
"Anyone need healing?" she demanded.
"We're good!" shouted Missy, holding two big thumbs up, just in time for a roar that echoed inside Dennis' chest. The far wall exploded and his brain didn't compute what came through for a second, even as Missy bent space and shouted to open fire.
It was huge, fifteen feet tall, and built like a bulldozer. Two legs, two arms, hunched over. Its face and skull were bulging, like some crazy, fucked-up space-cancer infected this thing's brain and was trying to burst out of its skull. The light of its face was smack-dab in the center, and then center glowed more and OH SHIT THATS A BLASTER POWER.
Dennis screamed out a prayer to any god that listened that the doors didn't unfreeze as every hair on his body stood on end. He twitched, dozens, hundreds of electric shocks zapping him. It wasn't as bad as the stungun-training after he made the mistake of playing with one, but it hurt.
Another roar that attempted to liquefy his internal organs, and he didn't even hear the CRACK-CRACK-CRACK of Chris' railgun. Dennis poked his head around the side of the frozen barricade. Smoke was leaking all over its body, and Amy's lobstrocity was stabbing and strangling and cutting and crushing as much as it could. Vicky and Carlos both slammed into the thing, knocking it off balance for a few seconds, only for a swipe of its arm to send Carlos smashing against the barricade. Dennis slapped his hand on Carlos then hid again, putting his hands against the barricades.
He wanted to scream as the blaster shot again. His entire body seized, just like in the stungun training, but he managed to reapply his power to one of the doors before it vaporized.
Dennis collapsed when the burst finished, spots around his eyes. He spent a few seconds, thinking about how to breathe again, before pushing himself to his feet.
Dean stumbled up, lifting a door behind the damaged one. It takes Dennis a try or two, but he managed to put a finger on it.
The CRACK-CRACK-CRACK ended, and Chris cheered.
"WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT?" shouted Missy.
"An ogre," replied Dean. "I swear I'm the only one who reads the fucking briefings."
Dennis tried to utter the words "you swore" but he was pretty sure it sounded more like "uu smerr." Or maybe he just coughed. He couldn't really tell.
"AHAHAHAHA FUCK YOU!" cheered Amy. "VICKY, IS THIS WHAT YOU FEEL LIKE WHEN PUNCHING NAZIS?!"
"ITS AWESOME! I'M NEVER NOT DOING THIS AGAIN!"
"Amy? Can you heal Dennis?"
"Huh? Yeah, sure!" Amy jumped from her lobstrocity. She gave it a couple of quick pats on the side as it ate the parts of itself that were torn off, and touched Dennis. Dennis suddenly felt much better.
"That fucking hurt," murmured Dennis.
"Yeah, electrical burns across sixty percent of your body will do that," replied Amy, bouncing on her feet, giddy with joy. "If I hadn't healed you, you'd be dead in an hour from organ failure!" She turned and ran back to her lobstrocity, climbing up as it sprouted new and various appendages.
"HI-HO CLAWIE! AWAY!" They charged through the broken wall, straight into the next line of Taken, cackling all the way.
"There is something deeply wrong with her," said Dennis.
"That's the happiest I've seen her in a while," was Dean's only comment.
"I'm going to make sure she doesn't get hurt," said Vicky, before flying after her sister.
"Once this is over, we're getting Amy laid," said Dennis.
No one disagreed.
Armsmaster flicked through the reports as his HUD plotted a course around the debris and wreckage. Crawler followed, galloping on all six limbs.
Aegis, Kid Win, Gallant, and Glory Girl were defending Arcadia. There were reports of a bio-tinker on site, stripping local life and turning it into defending monsters. Armsmaster doubted it was Bonesaw or Nilbog. There were theories as to Panacea's powers. Maybe the bio-tinker would be listed as a deceased student, or maybe it would be classified as a second trigger. Something for later.
The Undersiders were supporting BBPD and PRT assets, while Lung was rampaging through the docks, hunting down whatever he could. No reports on Oni Lee, so he was likely somewhere else, or just dead.
E88 was fortifying the downtown shelters, and preparing for the worst. Kaiser was always an opportunistic bastard.
A trio of human-like Taken were defending Brockton General. Reports said they were female, so likely Shadow Stalker, Heartless, and Bonesaw.
The Explorative Mind was reported in two dozen different cities at the moment, breaking Taken forces across the country. But not here. A sign? A signal?
He made the next corner. Taken assaulting an Endbringer shelter. He could taste the scent of burnt flesh, his motorcycle covering the charred pavement as Crawler roared and charged. He circled the outside, taking targets of opportunity while the brute smashed through the center.
Three more Taken arrived, taller knights wielding swords. The three split up, each one holding the sword in a high stance, ready to bring it down the moment Crawler came in range. Crawler laughed and charged. A sword cleaved a few of Crawler's body segments, but nothing stopped the massive claws that cut apart the Taken. The other two launched themselves. Crawler kicked one in the chest, sending it flying into a car, smoke leaking in greater quantities from its body. Crawler's body twisted and reshaped, regenerating into a new form. Tentacles launched from it, skewering the Taken, causing his body to evaporate. The third faded away, disappearing back to whatever place they came from.
"Gentile and Main shelter secured," he reported as they moved on.
The Eye searches the Abyss.
From The Abyss, he reaches out.
Both are Dark, but within her is Light. An insult.
He roars in his rage.
The Darkness surges from the Abyss, into the light.
Blight surges from the Abyss, flooding the streets, more creatures, more monsters, wielding guns and swords, from eons upon eons.
He leads them, even as the Eye watches him. She is waiting, this new Taken Queen. He will kill her, he will find the Tablets of Ruin, he will take this mantle unto himself.
He holds no weapons in his hands, for his power, his strength, serves him alone. What strength does she have? A single Vex Hydra? Four of these simple creatures? That hide and cower form their deaths as the weak and coddled always do?
His armies crash against the greatest of powers within the city, tearing through their defenses, even as more steel attempts to replace it. He breaths his fires, and one of the giants screams as her skin bubbles and melts. The other attacks him with sword and shield. A fool this one. He ducks the sword, rolls across the shield bash, and his claws rip open her back, cutting apart her spine, sending her crashing to the ground to die. He melts a wolf of metal that attempts to charge him in a scream of life and steel. Bullets bounce off his hide and his mask. He sends out his axion darts, letting them quest and kill that enemy as the rest are slaughtered. Vast white blasts begin to shred his forces, toppling buildings on to them. Witches return fire, even one of his precious few ogres. The attacker is skilled, but it is the skill of the young. The witches are ancient, and the ogre is directed. Little makes it back to the ground.
The last of them die, their leader taking many with steel blades, but the human's power, strength, and ruthlessness is not enough.
He turns, and looks across the paltry city, falling into the disarray and cancer of civilization. The red glow on the other side, the actions of another of this cities true leaders. Flames spread around that one, immolating all in their path.
Let that one be distracted, let that one run in circles. That one will be Taken. That one will be his.
He is prideful. He was the Pride of the Taken King. Pride is his nature. Pride in his achievements. Pride in his strength. Pride in his ruthlessness. Pride in the Death he has wrought.
A witch reports to him. The Vex hydra, the breaker of so many of his other diversions, is within the city.
Vex time gates shift into this timeline, a power so often held by the Vex. A Taken Vex, using Vex equipment? Unexpected. Did she negotiate with the Vex? Or is it something more sinister? Has she Taken more than just a single axis hydra, keeping them all hidden away?
Creatures stream forth form the time gates.
No, just somehow borrowed the time gates. Four gates are down the road from him, hundreds of creatures are streaming through them. These creatures are fighters, soldiers, disposable warriors. Reports from his witches say they are invading city-wide, an endless tide against his endless tide.
Are the Time Gates a distraction, or does she stand behind them, waiting? He orders a detachment against them, to push against the tide and force their way to the other side. An ogre forces the way, defended by knights and witches.
They breach the gate. All of them die within seconds on the other side. Still, he weaves a spell, sending his own sight against the location.
This world's lone moon, beneath its surface. A creature vast and terrible, spawning the endless tide from the material around it. Hundreds of Vex Time Gates, and the Vex geometry to keep them active. At the center of it, another Taken. The Taken laughs, spreading his arms wide.
"Come, fight me. Fight me in my domain. Fight my soldiers. Fight my broodmother."
This Taken Fool does not know the vast legions of Malok, The Pride of Oryx.
Malok calls out into the Abyss, and the Abyss responds. Hundreds of thousands descend upon this world's moon, pouring through Malok's blight, exiting the Abyss into the light. He feels the Eye leave him for a moment, senses it alongside his own spell, watching the fighting begin, watching the Time Gates be destroyed. He refreshes his armies, drawing upon the legions within the Abyss, and rumbles with laughter as the Eye focuses upon him once again.
A flash of light, and the hydra is amongst his army, its aeon mauls lashing out. He hears laughter behind him, and another Taken crashes into his army, tearing through them without care for its own injuries. A human stays back, watching from within his armor and machine. The human circles the fighting, picking targets of opportunity, never committing. Intelligent, learned. Malok will deal with the irritant later.
He refreshes his forces again, calling upon more both here and on the moon. The fighting there continues, damage to the broodmother is ongoing. They have not reached the Taken at the center of it all, but they push further and further in.
He returns his attention to the two Taken facing him, the Vex Hydra and this ever-regenerating monster, cleaving apart his armies. The Vex's impenetrable shield, it's unceasing weapons that destroy any fighting against it, this is her Fist. The monstrosity carving its way through all opposition, ever changing, ever perfecting, this is her Might.
Two Taken against an army? And the two are winning? Such power! Such strength!
All thought that the Tablets of Ruin went to someone unworthy disappear. This is no longer a work of hatred, destroying an usurper, taking back the throne. She deserves His Throne.
Now, this is a labor of love, a crusade of belief! Malok is the usurper. Malok is fighting the coup. Malok will break this Queen's dominion, or she will break him, and this is the Greatest Truth.
The Queen appears in a rent in reality. She stands atop the Hydra, facing him as the machine tears through the final line of forces.
"Malok, Pride of Oryx," she greets.
"The Taken Queen," he roars in response.
She is small, a head shorter than a witch, but she is the Taken Queen. Her sword makes reality wilt from its edge, and her voice carries far. The hydra moves forward, aeon mauls devastating all before it.
But not him.
This is the ritual of leadership. Just as she proved herself worthy, he proved himself. Now they fight.
She must exit the Hydra to attack him, thus, he must draw her out. He teleports, shifting his position to atop a nearby building. With a scream, reality tears behind him. He ducks, dodges right and under, she travels overhead. He launches a spread of Axion bolts, dodging another swing of the blade. He hears the beats of wings, recognizes them.
"Mistress of Shapes!" he calls. "Oh, a Mistress of Shapes, too!" He laughs, feeling the blade dig into his arm. More axion darts, even as he hears his first set detonate. She must have practiced. Oryx had grace with his wings, but he personally fought as a blunt cleaver, rather than the fast rapier. Smoke leaks from his arm as he snaps a punch into the Taken Queen's path. She flicks her wings, great works of bone and feathers, and snaps out of the way. Her sword cuts across his knuckles and she rolls to the side, launching upwards into the air.
Malok calls more witches, only for them to be torn from the air via the damnable hydra.
A fight of attrition, being cut to his demise, piece by piece. Another slice on his hand, another on his shoulder, another on his arm, a lucky cut to his calf. He stands through it all, stands through the pain. For her, there is no combat outside of this. There is no blight, there is no army. It is the Pride of Oryx, and the Taken Queen.
Malok knows, unless she makes a fool mistake, he has lost. He cannot run, he cannot retreat. The ritual does not call for it. He pressed his attack, he made his gambit, and now he must pay the price.
She is worthy. And for that, Malok is glad.
He jumps from the building, accepting the long, heavy slash across his back. His feet shatter the ground, and once more he is amongst the lower Taken.
Her Might crashes through them, circling him, ignoring his fire, killing everything that attacks his mistress. The loyalty she makes! She continues to press her advantage.
She has brought great strength, and she has infected his weakness. Oh, how worthy she is! How ruthless she is! He slows, the wounds against him mount, his essence leaks, his helmet broken.
He is filled with joy, when the final pass comes. When her blade finishes its task, and he is dead the final, triumphant time.
The Taken King is Dead! Long Live the Taken Queen!
The Books of Freedom: Verse III:II – Vengeance
Emma squeezed my shoulder. My hand gripped hers, and squeezed back. I channeled Him, I channeled His hate.
The Hive said "If we cannot defeat their strengths, we will infect their weaknesses."
Sun Tsu wrote "All fighting is based on deception. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected."
The parasite descended.
In becoming Queen, I have grown. My emotions are far greater than they once were. When Emma turned herself against the parasite, I felt a twinge, the bitter taste of loss and Death. I felt the mire of my Throne, the despair and pain I poured into it. Were I still human, I would die for lack of hope. Now, I am greater, for He was greater, and I have taken him into me.
The parasite landed, weeping. Tears began to stain his tunic and the ground, his face a rictus of grief. After a minute, he pitched forward, curling into a fetal position, hair scraping the ground. His pain, his loss consumed him. This was the creature that bound Him, this was the creature that starved him, that left him to be devoured from within.
It pushed itself to its knees, its face blotchy, tears dripping from its chin. An unasked question is writ across its face.
"This suffering is your future. There is no escape form it. The only way out?The eternal end. To burn yourself out. You even have a method. Simulate me. Attempt to model the superordinate laws that allow my will to warp reality itself. Ask your many parts how any of it is possible."
Its false eyes focused on me, never closing, never blinking. A few minutes, and the glow ceased. The corpse collapsed into a heap.
Emma's arms wrapped around me, and I felt her love lessen, but remain unchanged.
"I hate that part of me," she whispered.
"I know." Her arms tightened around me.
Brass machines littered the ground, some torn asunder, others melted, others slashed.
Taylor leaned over, and picked up one, examining the glowing white center.
"I'm surprised to encounter you here, Miss Hebert," said Alexandria, coming to a landing. Behind her was Eidolon, Legend, and Dragon. For the first time in years, humans walked the streets of Eagleton, Tennessee.
"They're fake," replied Taylor, her voice warmer, more human. "According to Riley, the parasites do this every cycle. They attempt to replicate one of their greatest foes, provide them as targets for powers to generate new ideas and methods to destroy them."
Taylor tossed away the robot head, and stood. She wore her costume, a black body suit, a leather cuirass, armor plates on her arms and legs, a tailed vest of feathers the same dark brown as her hair with white spots, topped off with a fluffy collar of brown and white down. Her sword, the same machete as Ellisburg, hung from a belt. The cord of the handle had been replaced, and the black paint had been scraped and scratched loose, but the metal itself was too dark to be steel anymore.
"We will likely have to deal with the real ones," continued Taylor. "Or perhaps they are content to sit back and watch."
"And what will you do?" asked Alexandria.
"The Abyss stares into me, Triumvirate. I am surrounded by minions. I am the Mistress of Shapes."
Taylor looked upon them. The shadows lengthened, her voice turned cold and cruel. She stood at her full height, and seemed all the taller for it. Her vest turned to wings, spread wide across the street, across the town, across the sky itself.
"I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night. Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain. Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning. Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair."
"Earth Aleph ruined that speech," commented Dragon.
Taylor smiled. Her wings were once more a vest. The sky was blue. They stood on a street, hovering over a young girl turned woman. Her shoulders were hunched down, the unbearable weight that each of them felt was upon hers as well. Each of them felt the palpable fear, the terror of failure, of the fall.
It was the first time that Alexandria saw Taylor as human. It was not a comforting thought.
"You mentioned these were fake, " began Dragon. "How are they fake?"
The Explorative Mind teleported to nearby, floating over the devastation.
"These are robots. Vex are vessels. If we encounter true Vex, wear full nuclear, biological and chemical hazard suits. Vex radiolarian mind fluid is an entheogenic pathogen capable of controlling and subsuming other lifeforms in sufficient quantities."
"Radiolarian?" asked Legend. "Entheogenic?"
"Radiolaria are microorganisms," replies Alexandria. "Entheogenic is similar to hallucinogenic, but with religious overtones."
"You see god, and then it eats you?" asked Dragon.
"To touch a mind that stretches across entire galaxies?" asked Taylor. "To do so, as the finale of one's existence?"
"Quit bullshiting us, and tell us what you're doing here," demanded Eidolon.
"Dealing with problems," replied Taylor. "Problems you lack the manpower to deal with."
"Such as?" asked Legend.
"Freedom. Flint. The Three Blasphemies. Kill orders. Other problem individuals. I will be glad for recommendations."
"And when you go to far?" asked Legend.
"I would be glad for recommendations," repeated Taylor, glaring at Legend.
"Your help dealing with threats to humanity would be greatly appreciated," replied Alexandria. She thought a moment, a note from a report stating not to thank her. "I thank you for accepting recommendations from the Protectorate and PRT."
Taylor nodded. Dragon faceplamed. Alexandria felt something, a hint, a twinge, a careful prodding in the back of her mind. Her eyes widened in dismay.
"What just happened?" she asked.
"You thanked her," said Dragon. "I warned you in the briefing, don't thank her. Thanking her gives her power over you."
"Indeed," replied Taylor Hebert
"Release her. Now," demanded Eidolon. His fist glowed with fire.
Black fire surrounded Taylor Hebert's fist in response, and a wash of emotions spilled over them as Emma Barnes burst into existence. For Alexandria, it was a few short relationships in her past. Nothing special due to a distinct lack of time. Her working hours left her little room for friendships, let alone a proper relationship. It was a melancholy feeling that settled as a result, a want for something in the future. Dragon was motionless. Legend felt a melancholy emotion, judging by his facial expressions. Eidolon fell to his knees, gasping, holding back sobs.
"STOP!" shouted Alexandria. "Miss Barnes, Eidolon, stand down. Miss Hebert, the debt I own you is thanking you for accepting the Protectorate's advice, correct?"
"Then could different advice be used to repay the debt?"
"Good. I will be a coffee shop out of costume in two hours. Meet me there, and we'll talk."
A horrid sound, like infinite nails on infinite blackboards all jammed into her skull, and Taylor disappeared in a column of color that made Alexandria's eyes hurt. The melancholy feelings in Alexandria's mind faded, but didn't wholly disappear.
"Sorry about that," said Emma. Her face turned to Alexandria. "I'll make sure she's dressed to blend in to wherever you go." With that, she faded away, followed by the Explorative Mind.
It was a few minutes to get Eidolon back on his feet. Master/Stranger containment was never considered. Instead, they brought him back to Cauldron, set him down in an infirmary bed.
"Do you want to talk about it?" asked William, removing his mask. Contessa, Doctor Mother, and Number Man were nowhere in sight, likely doing their own work.
Alexandria grabbed one of the plastic cups, and filled it with water. David pulled back his hood and removed his mask to down the entire glass in one go.
"Loss," he finally said. "Just… loss."
Alexandria nodded. She'd assumed.
"Rebecca?" called William, as she turned to leave.
"I always am," she said, then shook her head. She'd already made one mistake.
"Be more careful, then," said William.
"I will," she replied.
She walked through the facility, taking her time to reach another room. Inside was one of Number Man's additions, emergency wardrobes for everyone, just in case. Not just a spare change of clothing, but a true emergency wardrobe of clothing, cleaned, pressed, and washed. Rebecca dipped into the clothing more often than she liked to admit, especially since she mostly owned formal ware for events. And now she needed to go to a coffee shop. She shook her head as she grabbed a bag labeled "business casual" and headed to a changing room.
It didn't take a lot of time to clean off the make-up that made her Chief Director Costa-Brown. The hair dye, the small hints of wrinkles designed to look like make-up covering wrinkles. She removed her false eye, and then used the harsh chemicals Contessa provided to remove everything, followed by water to rinse everything off. All in all, an impressive job. Although a few more years, and she'd have to start adding make-up to her hands, as well. She considered putting her eye back in, but thought better of it, opting for the eye-patch instead.
The business casual bag was, thankfully, entirely reasonable. A plain white shirt, the usual women's ineffectual sweater, jeans, a thin decorative belt, a purse, flats… and underwear. Rebecca frowned, a further reminder that Number Man's powers revealed far too much information.
Still, she dressed, then headed for the coffee shop. She had forty five minutes to kill before Taylor arrived. She sat, and spent a few minutes remembering. What were her greatest mistakes? Why were they mistakes? How could she have done better? What did she do well? Did she do them for the right reasons?
She prepared a mental list, ordered it in a reasonable fashion, then waited. Taylor arrived a few minutes early, walking through the door in a simple flowing sundress, her hair in a long braid. Rebecca compared the pictures of a young teenager first entering high school, against the young woman of indeterminate age that walked to the counter and ordered a hot tea. How much of this was acting, and how much was the influence of a dead alien monster?
"Hello," said Taylor, sitting across from Rebecca. "I apologize for being early. Emma was insistent about not keeping you waiting."
"I'd already gathered most of my thoughts. I wanted to give you some other advice that you could use."
"Specifically, I wanted to talk about my time as Chief Director of the PRT, as Alexandria, and as one of the longest-running members of Cauldron."
Taylor straightened, then leaned forward, her focus so intense, Rebecca almost felt she would vanish if Taylor looked away. Rebecca smiled at the sight, at the interest.
Rebecca had a lot to talk about.
She stands in a silent place. There is a flag, bleached white by the unfiltered light of the sun. At her feet, a plaque.
Her mouth shapes the words as she reads them.
"We came in peace for all mankind."
She looks at the Earth, and then turns to the stars. It seems appropriate she cannot see them, that the light of them is washed away by the bright fury of the Sun. There are no stars. Only Darkness.
She flexes her will, rending space open. She steps through, letting reality reassert it's rightful shape.
A cathedral is before her. High vaulting ceilings, marble arches and columns, supported by the gray blocks of Vex computational architecture. Machines march past in a rolling gait, tripods with armored hoods and metal tentacles. James Rinke and The Explorative Mind at play, testing the designs and ideas of history.
She walks through the cathedral, further and deeper, past the scorches and burns of the fighting, out into the space above James Rinke's monolithic beast.
Taylor steps without pause out into open space and continues to walk. The universe fades away into darkness.
A lamp sits on a pedestal. She ignores it, walking a path that is not marked, through a way with no light.
She exits, and stands on a platform. Before her is her mire of sorrow and contempt, broken Vex geometry littering it, amplifying it. Rivers of white fluid flow in random patterns through the swamp, lost and trapped within it. She retrieves the flute, and begins to play. It is a melancholy song, of lost family and lost innocence. She does not know all the notes, not yet, but she is learning.
"A pretty song," speaks a man. "Different from any I know."
"I compose it myself," she replies, setting aside the flute.
"You are so very different from him."
"There was so very little of him left, at the end."
"The worm devours, and my tribute could not sustain him."
Taylor makes a noise of acknowledgement.
"You killed him," he states.
"And what say you of this, Taken Queen?"
"I killed him. And in the killing, I gained."
"Pretty words," he says. His sword makes a dull sound, as it impacts the stone of the platform.
"And yet, it is truth," she replies.
"And what truth will save you? You fall for the cancerous trappings of this world too easily. It makes you soft. Malleable. You will need ruthlessness if you wish to survive your worm."
Taylor laughs. It is high and cruel, the understanding of a cosmic joke.
"I speak in jest?" he demands.
"The gnawing. The devouring. The purpose and pursuit. His starvation, the doom from within."
He walks to the edge of the platform, and kneels down to look at her.
She looks up at him. He is tall, thrice her own height, and on his head is a crown of horns. Three green eyes glow with an inner light. His emotions are strong, radiating from him as much as his godhood. His very presence is weight, is pressure. It wants to consume, it wants to devour.
"Aurash, Sathona, and Xi Ro made a deal. An agreement. They accepted a chain, to break another."
"A chain? We are free! We do what we wish! What we will!"
"Pretty words," Taylor repeats.
"And yet, it is truth," he mirrors.
She laughs again, shaking her head. He wonders what she thinks.
"He despised the devils he made a pact with." She stands, and reaches out. Her hand goes on his, and she smiles a human smile. "But he loved his sisters too much to let them go on alone. He loved his daughters, and he loved his son. He wanted the best for you, he wanted eternity for you."
He closed his eyes, nodding.
"And eternity we shall have."
"Perhaps. Perhaps not. One day, we may argue this in the most direct of fashions."
He stands, grinning. His smile is filled with fangs.
"We shall, little tumor. One day."
Taylor retrieves her mother's flute, and returns to her song.
Author's Notes: A Yet-Another-Alt-Power!Taylor-fic! Hooray!
But really, this was a lot of fun for me to write, once I managed to find its pacing. Only one draft came before this one, and I scrapped that one because Taylor seemed to sane and fanon!Taylor-ish, and she found the Undersiders, and she was friends with Lisa and blah blah blah.
Where's the fun in that?
That one reached three chapters, and then I axed it, because I realized I either needed a Hive invasion or an Endbringer to play climax. Meh, I say! Meh!
Thus enters Malok! Pride of Oryx! With his fire breath and blight and axion darts! A much better ending, while still leaving it open for a possible sequel if I ever get around to writing one.
Scion is anti-climatic, because she has the weapons the deal with Scion in an anti-climatic manner. Remember, Taylor is resourceful, and Oryx is cunning.