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Interlude 15a: Fortuna

The three of them sat around a small table in a café in downtown Brockton Bay. The newly renamed Tirissëo studied her cautiously, wariness evident in every line of her face. Mairë, on the other hand, looked perfectly at ease and seemed entirely focused on her omelette.

Path to— Contessa winced at the sharp retort, the rejection, her half-formed thought aborting before she could finish framing it.

Mairë glanced her way casually. "Trouble in paradise?" she asked, sounding perfectly casual.

Contessa swallowed. Wetted her lips. "I made the ask," she said, grimacing at the broken English. She had never bothered to actually learn the language—her power had always carried her through her interactions with people in any language. "I wanted be able to speak with you."

Mairë folded her hands in her lap. Her head cocked momentarily as she studied Contessa. "You wanted to speak with me," she murmured thoughtfully. "You wanted to speak with me. Not Contessa—not the hybrid of woman and shard. You."

"Fortuna." The name slipped from her lips as easily as if it hadn't been almost two decades since she had last spoken it.

"Fortuna," Mairë echoed. Her dark eyes were piercing as they gazed into Fortuna's own. "Well. Here we are. I have some questions of my own… but you first. Why did you want to speak with me?"

"Wanted understand." Fortuna bit her tongue in frustration with her broken speech. "Wanted—clarity."

"Clarity on what, exactly?"

Fortuna bit her lip. …How do I tell this story clearly?

For a moment, the voice in her head was silent. Then, with an impression like a sigh, a course was charted before her. With a sigh of relief, she slipped back into the role.

"I was constantly seeking a way to create the most powerful parahuman possible, who would defend humanity from extinction," she said, her tongue easily folding the sounds into place with the help of her passenger—her shard. "One thing I was never able to predict was trigger events. So when, one day last January, the entire Path restructured, it wasn't unheard of. Similar things had happened before, such as when Lung and the Sleeper triggered. But never before on this scale.

"Until last January, I was constantly pushing the limits of every powerful cape on the planet, trying to force them all to get stronger. At the same time, I was trying to foment trigger events in as many ways as possible, in the hope that eventually someone would trigger with the power we needed. In January, I thought I had succeeded. The entire path suddenly converged—every step became centered on you. Keeping you isolated, keeping you struggling, keeping you off of Cauldron's radar as long as possible.

"It didn't occur to me to wonder whether I was making a mistake until July, when you suddenly became impossible for me to predict. Your second trigger. At first, I just assumed this meant you had gained a new echelon of power—Eidolon, the Endbringers, and Scion are all also impossible for me to predict.

"But then you started talking. About Elves, and Maia, and other things. I assumed that you were finding ways to frame your power, the way Myrddin does. Then you went to Yellowstone, and it became clear that there was more to this. I had been wrong. And that made Fortuna question what else I might have been wrong about."

Tirissëo frowned in sudden confusion. Mairë did not. She just watched Contessa carefully, a slight, thoughtful frown on her face, as she continued.

"So when she asked for clarification, I gave her the only path that might lead to an answer. I cut her off. This is the first Path I've given her in almost a week. I told her, quite simply, to ask you. Because I don't have the answers this time—you do."

Mairë nodded slowly, even as one of Tirissëo's eyebrows seemed liable to creep into her hairline. "I think I understand," she said. "What exactly did you both want clarified?"

Fortuna hesitated. Will my shard respond? After a moment, it did. "Fortuna wants to know whether you can save humanity," her voice said evenly, without inflection. "She has other things she wants to know, of course, but she hasn't been willing to speak them yet."

"And what do you want to know?"

"I have a few questions," said Contessa's shard. "I want to know what happened to your shard, out of curiosity more than anything else. I want to know the details of the changes your Ring-Bearers' shards are undergoing. More than anything else, I want to know what this means for the cycle, and for the future of my species."

Mairë nodded. "To answer your first question, then—my shard did not take my rejection well. I drove it off at sword-point. I might have done differently, had I known then what I do now, but I could never have allowed one of your kind to bind yourselves to me like that. It wouldn't have gone well for either of us. Especially when I was in as dark a place as I was after my second trigger.

"To your second question: my Rings of Power are forming a connection between the Song that comprises the human bearers and the Silence that forms their shards," Mairë continued. "It is the nature of Discord to be the bridge between the two opposing poles, and Ringlore is a branch of Melkor's old magic. Through the Rings, the parahuman can learn from the shard, and the shard can learn from the parahuman. Shaper has already begun to approximate human nature, and the others will follow. Even the damaged shards of the Daughter of Ungoliant that Cauldron killed are starting to pull themselves together with the help of their bearers' more flexible minds."

Contessa blinked twice at all of the names and proper nouns, none of which she recognized. Her power seemed to, however, and gently offered her a path of understanding by way of explanation.

"Humans can heal mental wounds in a way your kind can't," Mairë continued. "The human Ring-Bearers are helping to close the gaps in the abilities of their shards." She spread her hands. "At least, that's my best guess, based on what Shaper has told me. You may want to seek them out for a shard's perspective.

"Finally, your cycle and your species. I don't fully understand what you were hoping to accomplish originally, but I doubt it will work as you intended. I believe that Dagor Dagorath is imminent—perhaps not within a year, a decade, or even a century, but we are coming upon the end of time. No plans made before that will have any place afterwards, whoever wins. Either we will win, in which case the renewed world will be so different that our old concerns will no longer be in consideration—or you will win, in which case there will be no world left in which to carry out plans."

Fortuna felt her power pull back as Mairë finished speaking, and let out a thin breath. Tirissëo, she saw, was staring at Mairë, an expression on her face between awe and fear. For herself, the inhuman cape looked serene as ever. "And—my questions?" Fortuna asked hesitantly.

"Can I save humanity?" Mairë extended her hands to her sides. "I don't know. I haven't been tested against the Children of the Spider yet. The most dangerous of them I ever encountered in person was the young Shelob, back when she was barely more than an ordinary spider. A lot has changed since then. I intend to try. I expect to succeed. I doubt Eru Ilúvatar would have sent me back here only to fail—I have faith that I, we, will succeed."

Fortuna had to admit to herself that this was a lot more confidence than anyone had possessed before. "Good," she said. Path to—

The sudden headache was stern, like a mother's disapproval, and she winced at the sharp pain. Mairë looked amused. "You don't have to ask the question," she said. "As far as I'm concerned, you can work things out between yourselves, and go back to Cauldron, and continue as you have been. That would be the easier course. I think you know where the other road leads."

Fortuna swallowed. She felt her shard's patient oversight, like a prickle in the back of her brain. She took a deep breath and asked. "Was it all worth it?" she asked in a small voice. "Everything we did—was it right?"

Mairë smiled. It was a sad expression. "I believe," she said quietly, "that we live in a universe with a just God. I believe that he is omnipotent and omniscient. I believe that, while evil does linger, and bad things do happen, that in the end there is only one righteous path. I believe that doing evil, in the end, can never lead to a good outcome. The ends cannot justify the means, because the end cannot be separated from the means—and if the end justifies the means, then cruelty can be rewarded, and we no longer live in a just universe.

"I cannot prove these things. I believe them, and I have reasons to believe them. But I can't prove the existence of Ilúvatar to you. I can't share with you my memory of the last thing He said to Melkor before the War of Wrath. So you're free not to believe. You're free to go on not believing. But if you choose to believe, then I think your question answers itself.

For a moment, Fortuna stared into Mairë's gentle, dark eyes. Then she lowered her face into her hands. Her power flowed back, encircling her mind like an embrace. "I want to help," said Contessa, both shard and woman unified, voice muffled by her palms. "I want to do something. But if you're right, then everything I've done to help has only made things worse. And I don't know how to do things differently."

"Do you want to try?"

Contessa looked up, and wasn't at all surprised to see a glittering Ring in Mairë's hand. On some level, even without a path to guide her, she had half hoped and half expected the conversation would end this way. "Yes," she said. "Yes, I want to try. Both of us do."

Fortuna had spent thirty years desperately trying to fight back the tide, because she had believed that no help would come if she did not make it. Here was someone offering a chance to have faith that things could—would—be better. A cynical part of her wondered if it was weakness on her part, to buy into that faith. But the part of her that was still Fortuna, that was still the little girl who had woken up terrified on a stormy night nearly three decades ago, remembered a kindly woman reading to her in a building with a massive cross on one wall:

Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.

Mairë placed the Ring of Power on the table between them. Its band glittered gold and set within it was a stone of turquoise. "This is Hyarmenya," she said. "The Ring of the South. If what you seek is certainty, the South Wind will give you the reminder you need to keep the faith. If the universe seems cold, then let the South Wind keep you warm."

Contessa picked up the Ring. She held it in her palm for a moment, feeling the weight, and slipped it onto her finger.

It was as though she had a dozen of her power all speaking in her head, and then the connection thinned as she grew accustomed to it. Several minds reached out to her in curiosity, and her power answered her half-formed questions before she finished asking. That was Dennis/Clockblocker/Stasis, who bore Silmaya, this was Amy/Panacea and that was Shaper, who wore Nenya together superimposed on the hands of two bodies.

Her power guided her gently as she politely pulled back from the network, gently extricating herself and returning to her body.

Her eyes opened again. She had not even noticed them closing. She wondered, blinking in the light, if this was how a colorblind person would feel if Shaper had suddenly given them access to all of the colors of ordinary human vision. It wasn't that the world had changed—it was that the person beholding it had. Her power coiled around her like a living thing, more now than ever before, with a vibrancy it had always hitherto lacked.

Receiving a Ring of Power had not been the plan exactly, but it had been a hope. Privately, Fortuna had wondered if that alone would be enough to disqualify her, but it seemed as though the act of reaching out and sincerely asking for advice—for help—carried moral weight, even if one could guess at the form that help would take.

Contessa blinked and focused on Mairë. "Thank you." she said, both Fortuna and her power's voices in accord. "I will wear it well, Mairë. Cauldron will change course. No more kidnappings, manufactured triggers, and no more tolerating villains we think we can use. What we can fix, we will."

Mairë nodded slowly. "I believe you. But please, call me Taylor." Then she cocked her head. "Now—I assume there was more you came to discuss."

Contessa felt the grim weight of reality settle in her belly again, cold and certain. "Unfortunately, yes," she said. We are running out of time."

Mairë's—Taylor's—face set. "Explain."

"We have, perhaps, two more months before another Endbringer attacks," said Contessa. "I assume you intend to be there to fight it?"

"Of course."

"He is not easy to predict, but what little our Thinkers can glean suggests that Scion will be there as well."

A muscle jumped in Taylor's jaw. "Ah."

"At this point, we're guessing," Contessa admitted, "but I think it's safe to assume he will recognize you, unless you take active steps to disguise yourself from him."

"Even that wouldn't be guaranteed to succeed," Taylor said. "I'm at my apex, now—an Ainu ascendant. The fact that he hasn't noticed me yet is incredible. If we're on the same battlefield? There's no way he misses it."

"And when he does," Contessa said, "what do you think he will do? I ask this because I genuinely don't know. None of our Thinkers, myself included, have been able to…"

She trailed off, because her power was restarting old simulations, and was finding new clarity where before the future had been muddy and dull.

"He will attack," Contessa said, staring into a future only she could see. "I don't know whether it's out of rage, or hate, or some perverse duty, but he will not suffer you to exist."

"I represent the culmination of a prophecy that foretells his extinction," Taylor said. She almost sounded sad. "He can't let that be. He doesn't understand how."

Contessa nodded. "Cauldron is currently making their final preparations for evacuation of as many people as possible to alternate earths," she said. "As well as for the rapid deployment of as many parahumans as possible to combat Scion when he begins his rampage. Now, all that remains… is you."

"What will I do with the last months before the beginning of the end of the world?"

"Precisely."

Taylor drummed her fingers on the table for a moment before looking to Tirissëo, whose face was ashen, but whose features were set with determination. "Hey, Sophia," she said, tone paradoxically casual. "Wanna take a road trip?"

"What?" Tirissëo—Sophia—blinked.

"We're going to need everyone working together to minimize the chaos when Scion attacks," Taylor said. "The way I see it, there are still a few agents of chaos out there who will do their best to fight us on that. People who won't help, or will actively hinder, our efforts to save lives." She glanced at Contessa. "People who Cauldron hasn't been able to take out already, for one reason or another."

Contessa nodded slowly. "There are several marauding S- and A-class threats which have ways to counter me or other agents of Cauldron," she agreed slowly. "Some, we tacitly allowed to exist, but others we simply had no way to deal with. The Sleeper, the Blasphemies, the Slaughterhouse Nine."

"If they remain as they are, free agents with no agenda but their own and that of their Shards, they'll make things even worse when the storm comes," Taylor said. She reached out and took Sophia's hand on the table. "I know it may remind you of what I did to Nilbog," she said quietly, "but—Sophia, would you join me for this?"

"Wandering around, taking out the worst villains all over the world?" Sophia asked. A slow smile spread across her face. "Wouldn't miss it for anything, Taylor."

"I will send you a list of the threats which, by our estimation, will cause the most problems in the coming months," said Contessa, standing. Her power murmured in her ear—a proactive suggestion, for the first time in all their partnership. She guessed it would not be the last. "In the meantime, if I may suggest a first target?"

Taylor looked up at her. "We're listening."

"The Butcher and the Teeth, in Boston, have the potential to be calamitous in the event of a pitched battle. In such close quarters, the connective shard could bind to dozens of parahumans in moments, sowing discord and madness."

"And it's not far to travel for a first stop," Taylor observed. "What do you say, Sophia? Up for a trip to Boston?"

Sophia grinned. "You take me to the nicest places."