Chapter 1: Signal
Trapped. Buried in rotting filth. Suffocating, locked in a metal box. At first, she'd fought, trying to force the locker open, break out. When that failed, she screamed and cried. She called for help until her throat was raw and all light had fled, leaving her choking in the putrid darkness. After that, she'd cried, and after that...
Taylor woke as the morning light shined through the vents in the locker door. Footsteps and voices. She could hear as the school filled up. A familiar terror settled in Taylor's chest when she realized how weak she felt, her body feverish as it battled several competing infections. Her wounds, from her frantic struggle to escape, festered and burned.
She needed antibiotics. She needed them soon. If dehydration didn't kill her first.
Taylor's fist bumped weakly into the metal. "H... h... help... Somebody help..."
"Hey man, you hear that?"
"Isn't that Hebert's locker? Shit that stinks."
"Is she still in there? Haha! Damn."
"What a loser."
Taylor croaked, "Please, let me... out... I'll die..."
A kind of numb horror shrouded Taylor's thoughts as the glimmer of hope she hadn't even realized had sparked, crumbled in betrayed agony. They knew. They knew she was trapped. They were laughing at her as she died. Did her dad even know she was in trouble?
Taylor's breath caught as two new voices caught her attention.
"...I'm sure there's nothing to worry about," Sophia's voice said. "I bet Hebert is right where she belongs."
Taylor blinked in disbelief. Was that a teacher? Footsteps. The teacher walking away. A tear fell from Taylor's chin. When had she started crying again? She was so thirsty. She couldn't afford to waste any water...
"...called her dad on friday," came Emma's voice. "He still thinks we're friends. How fucking sad is that? I told him Taylor was sleeping over."
No. Taylor couldn't believe Sophia and Emma would go that far. Emma'd actually gone out of her way to make sure Taylor's dad wouldn't know anything was wrong until it was too late.
Sophia laughed. "Damn girl. That is fucking awesome. So you want.. want... wa..."
A vast void of stars and mingling realities. Two vast luminous shapes, dancing, spiraling around each other. Twin tails of glittering Shards.
Taylor snapped back to lucidity. The dark interior of the locker lit up as something other and outside roared through her being and coarsed over her skin. Taylor felt inexplicably strong, like an adrenaline surge turned up to eleven, but she wasn't afraid. She was furious.
Voices from outside. "Whoa, Sophia, are you alright? What happened?"
Energy flared out from Taylor's skin, making the very air inside the locker glow as bolts of electric discharge danced between her and the metal. Taylor wanted out, and with an animalistic snarl she pushed...
The locker exploded. Boys and girls screamed and ran as metal rent and flew apart, scattering shrapnel and detritus across the hallway.
It was a matter of seconds before Taylor's eyes adjusted. She saw a dozen or so teenagers gaping at Taylor as she floated out of the ruined wall. Sophia was a short ways to her left, kneeling with a hand to her head as Emma crouched over her.
Taylor flexed her new power, making rubble from the destroyed wall and row of lockers stir across the floor and drift up into orbit around her. Her eye's locked on Sophia. Her tormentor. Her would-be murderer.
Sophia scowled. "Fucking bullshit. She triggered?"
For the first time, Taylor noticed that, yes, she was in fact levitating in the air after blasting apart an entire wall to escape her locker. She... she had powers. She was a parahuman. She could be a hero. She could transfer to Arcadia High and never see Sophia again. Taylor's fury began to fade as laughter bubbled up from inside her.
Except, she couldn't. The laughter died before it began as Taylor realized that an entire crowded hall, full of people who were more or less complicit in her attempted murder, would know her identity.
"No. No! Fuck this useless weakling getting powers," Sophia snarled.
Taylor looked down at the genuinely offended bully. "Fuck you, Sophia."
Focusing on the putrid rot from the locker that was now orbiting her, Taylor vented a years worth of frustration by pelting Sophia with the filth. The month-old used tampons and pads that Sophia had trapped her in a locker with for a whole weekend.
Sophia tried to dodge, but there was a lot of rotting crap being thrown her way. By now the hallway was empty, most everybody else either quietly backing away our outright fleeing, so Taylor and Emma were the only witnesses when Sophia suddenly transformed into a smokey shadow.
Taylor froze in her attack, ceasing her advance and gaping as she sank down onto her feet. "You're... you're Shadow Stalker." And just like that, the rage, the fury, the betrayal, all came back stronger than ever. "You're Shadow Stalker? You're a fucking hero?"
"That's right, Hebert," Sophia smirked as she pulled a shiv out of... somewhere. "And you must be a poor deluded villain, attacking an innocent school. Of course, as a noble Ward and all that shit, I stepped in to defend my friends and classmates from your evil rampage."
It made so much sense. The teachers never did anything. No one helped Taylor or stood up to Sophia no matter what she did. Sophia was a government-sanctioned superhero. Fuck that. Fuck her. Fuck the PRT, and fuck being a superhero, if Sophia was counted among their ranks.
Still smirking, Sophia lunged, going shadowy to maintain her trajectory in defiance of gravity as she shot towards Taylor.
Taylor scrambled back, avoiding the slashing shiv by inches as she reached out with her power and tore another locker off the wall. It passed right through Sophia's shadow state. Sophia went solid and her shiv scored a line of blood down Taylor's arm. Taylor lashed out in a wild swing, but Sophia just smirked and went shadowy again.
Taylor's hand lashed through Sophia's body, and met resistance.
With a shriek of agony, Sophia fell back, going solid as arcs of electricity continued to flicker over her body. She crashed to the floor on her back, twitching and seizing. Nearby, a cowering Emma went pale as she took in the sight of Taylor standing over a fallen Sophia.
Taylor looked down at her tormentor, her would-be murderer. The superhero. It would be so easy to kill her. The power was there at her metaphorical and literal fingertips. One blast of lightning and no more Sophia.
But Taylor was better than that... right?
The decision was taken out of her hands. Taylor could hear footsteps rushing towards her, feel the hostile presences moving through space. Taylor shook her head. Gathering her power, she hurled it at the wall, ripping a hole through the school.
With one last glance back, Taylor lifted herself into the air and accelerated into the sky.
Taylor knew she couldn't go home. There were more than enough witnesses to identify her, and Sophia could be counted on to twist things around to make Taylor look like the monster, just like she'd always twisted things around to make Taylor look like an overreacting whiny bitch.
So Taylor kept flying, and put Brockton Bay behind her.
Hours passed as the landscape streamed by below her. Taylor found herself up in the mountains by the time her emotions wound down. She drifted down to the ground and slumped against a conifer tree, letting the tears fall.
Taylor wrapped her arms around her knees and shivered. It was cold enough to be dangerous up this far. But she had her power, some kind of electromagnetic projection or manipulation combined with telekinesis, she guessed. She could burn off energy into the air around her, heating it until she was comfortable. She couldn't keep it up if she fell asleep, though, and she was so tired. Not to mention still covered in putrid filth.
Wiping tears off her face, Taylor stood up and lifted into the air. Continuing straight up beyond the treetops, Taylor looked around until she spotted a ranger station on a distant mountainside. She flew towards it, circling around a few times to make sure it was uninhabited.
Landing on the doorstep, Taylor forced the lock with her power and stepped inside.
It was small, but it was stocked and it had a working sink. Taylor sagged in relief at the running water, even if the supply was probably limited to a tank on the roof. Her clothes were a lost cause, crusted with blood, decay, vomit, and urine. Taylor stripped down and threw everything in the garbage.
Standing naked at the filled sink, Taylor manged to improvise a sponge bath. She cleaned herself up, as best she could. The cut on her arm had already healed, which was a pleasant surprise.
Taylor spent longer trying to get her hair clean than the rest of her put together, growing more and more frustrated until her power lashed out and a lightbulb exploded. Finally, she admitted defeat and took a pair of scissors to her long matted strands.
Once she felt sufficiently cleansed of the locker, Taylor found a thick blanket and curled up on the cot. She'd figure out what she'd do for clothes tomorrow.
Taylor woke in a sudden cold sweat as she tried to turn over and felt something wrong with her body. Her eyes flew open and her hands patted down her front, and Taylor screamed.
Swollen breasts dribbling purple slime. Massive bulging belly, and something moving. Impossibly, unbelievably, Taylor was pregnant. Heavily pregnant. Somehow she'd gone from normal to.. this... all while she slept.
And then, before she could truly panic, her power reached, and a connection snapped into being in her mind. Information, like she was a computer and someone had just plugged in a thumb drive, streamed into her consciousness, and with it control.
The two creatures in her womb. Zerg Larva. They were hers. No, they were her. As much a part of her as her arm or leg, and just as responsive to her will.
Taylor calmed down, flopping back and panting as she got her pounding heart under control. "Okay, really, what the hell."
Looking down at herself again, Taylor worried. Having powers was one thing. Having powers that apparently made her pregnant overnight with some kind of alien spawn was a whole other bag of body horror.
But her power was controlling them, and it was easy, almost like they were designed to be controlled. And Taylor realized. The lightning, the telekinesis, the sensing hostile intent. It was all just a side effect of her actual power.
Taylor had a complete sense of the Larva's biology, and there was a lot more information there than she would have guessed. Dozens of varied and dangerous creatures the Larva could grow to become, all bound by a unifying psionic signal. Taylor's power was a broadcaster and antenna for the control signal.
"Zerg," Taylor tasted the word.
And just like a battleship's targeting antenna could function as a weapon in its own right if the power was turned up, Taylor's psionic power, meant to control these Zerg over vast distances, was a weapon in its own right at the human scale.
"Okay," Taylor said to herself. "But what the hell now?"
Chapter 2: Mother
(Warning, the following chapter may contain bio-squick. If you're sensitive about that sort of thing... well, why are you reading a story about the Zerg?)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Even though she couldn't have slept for more than four hours, Taylor was restless. She was still freaking out, just a little, as she nibbled on a can of peaches and a bag of jerky she'd found in a cupboard, carefully keeping the blanket around her shoulders away from her chest.
Her belly still bulged with the two Larva in her womb, though it wasn't as bad as it had seemed when she first woke up. Even with two Larva, the bulge was smaller than a real pregnancy would have been, and the gestating creatures were only an extension of herself.
It was the fact that her breasts had gone from 'barely there' to 'heavy sloshing globes' that were lactating this weird purple slime, that was freaking her out more now that the initial shock had worn off. It dribbled out constantly, and hardened up where it landed, spreading like a fungus for a few minutes before dying off and evaporating. Taylor's power could even connect with the small patches of Creep while they survived, even if there really wasn't much to them.
"What is it?" Taylor murmured to herself. "A breaker power? Or is this another side effect?"
It was all connected somehow. It had to be, if the name of the purple stuff was part of the vast stores of information encoded in the Larva. Oddly, that did make her feel better. Parahuman powers were almost never harmful to their owners.
Suddenly, a violent and unfathomably pleasant shudder made Taylor drop her snacks.
A flush spread over Taylor's body, and the blanket became stiflingly hot. She pushed it off her shoulders and let it fall to the floor as another shudder drove her to her knees. Taylor fell against the cot, her breath coming in gasps.
It wasn't painful. In fact, it almost felt like...
The building tension reached a threshold, and with a sort of knee-jerk reaction, Taylor made one of the Larva press its head into the exit of her womb. Taylor's body convulsed, and the foot-long chitinous worm plopped to the floor in a rush of clear fluid.
...she just had an orgasm? What the hell?
It was building up in her again, and again she sort of reflexively moved the second Larva into position and quaked in pleasure as it flopped down next to its brother. Taylor rested her head on the cot as she caught her breath. Her belly was flat again, showing no visible sign of her alien pregnancy.
Taylor picked herself up and looked down at the Larva. On the one hand, she was glad her power hadn't forced her to endure the usual pain of childbirth, but on the other, the alternative was... Taylor shook her head and picked up her spawn.
The Larva were hungry, and they could smell the liquid Creep Taylor's body was producing. With only a momentary hesitation, Taylor made the Larva extend their mouthparts. Each had a ring of sucking muscle with a fringe of small tendrils. Taylor held them up to her nipples and made them latch on, tendrils wrapping around the whole of each breast and squeezing as the Larva nursed.
"Definitely a breaker power," Taylor muttered.
The Larva drained the liquid Creep out of her in such volume that she should have run dry in seconds, but her breasts felt as full as ever. It was a pleasurable relief to feel that fluid being suckled out of her, even if she was trying hard not to think about how good it felt. The orgasmic birth had been weird enough.
Instead, she focused on the Larva themselves, and watched in fascination as their carapaces fractured along a geometric pattern of kaleidoscopic angles. New chitin grew in to fill the gaps, allowing the Larva to grow bigger at an incredible rate without wasting a single bit of mass.
Taylor hunched over, resting the tail end of her spawn on the floor as they became too heavy to hold up. As they got bigger, Taylor's sense of their biology lit up with possible morphs. If she was reading the information right, her Larva were already big enough to become any of the several strains of Zergling or Drone.
Another ten minutes of nursing, and the Larva were big enough that their mouth tendrils were wrapped all the way around Taylor's torso and the entirety of her breasts had slipped into their ring-like mouths. The Larva were each bigger than she was now, and Taylor estimated that they'd each consumed something like thirty gallons of Creep. Taylor's mammories were apparently physics-defying bottomless wells of the stuff.
More of the potential morphs continued to 'light up' to Taylor's awareness. There were over a dozen species the Larva now had enough biomass to become, each species with several different strains to choose from.
Taylor made the Larva stop nursing and curl up on the floor. They were big enough that she was worried about fitting them through the door of the small cabin. Shivering slightly as her wet chest was exposed to the air, Taylor sat back against the wall and sighed.
"I've got options," Taylor muttered to herself. "The question is, what do I want to do?"
Her thoughts wandered back to Sophia. To Shadow Stalker. Sophia. A superhero. Taylor just couldn't let that go. It flew in the face of everything she thought she knew about the Protectorate and the opposing sides of hero verses villain. It more or less crushed her desire to be a so-called superhero, herself, but that didn't mean she wanted to hide out and do nothing. Taylor had some pretty awesome powers.
She glanced at her two massive Larva.
Okay, make that some pretty freakin' terrifying powers. Taylor knew the story of Nilbog, a parahuman, a high-level master like her, who'd overrun an entire town with his horde. Taylor could extrapolate based on the capabilities of the creatures recorded in her Larva. She could go Nilbog on the entire freaking planet if she wanted to.
But no. The idea of being a superhero left a bad taste in her mouth now, but Taylor still wanted to use her powers to make the world a better place for the people who already lived in it. Her identity was blown anyway. It was too late to live the 'wake up go to school save the world' cliche by far, and if Sophia was the kind of person they had in the Wards, the whole heroic veneer was a lie to begin with.
"What do I want?" Taylor wondered.
In no particular order? To see her dad again, and be able to face him. To protect people who needed someone to stand up for them, like the superheroes were supposed to do. To tear down the system that held up people like Sophia Hess as heroes and role-models.
Taylor blinked, surprised to find herself seriously considering that last one. Maybe overthrowing the Protectorate by force was too ambitious. Dragging Shadow Stalker's name through the mud and ruining her career, on the other hand... That would be a good start.
There was one way to make sure she wasn't declared an S-class threat. The primary reason dangerous capes and villains were tolerated. The Endbringers. Taylor's brood, and maybe even Taylor herself could become a credible threat to the Endbringers, and if that was how she introduced herself to the world, she might be able to convince the cape community that she was too valuable to throw under the bus.
First things first, Taylor needed a better place to plan. Somewhere with less risk of being discovered. And she really needed to do something about being naked at some point.
Taylor lowered her two Larva to the forest floor with her power and landed between them. Pulling off the soiled blanket she'd used to prevent drips of Creep from tracing her route like a trail of breadcrumbs, Taylor focused on her Larva and selected a morph for each one.
Curling up and filming over into a green cocoon, the first Larva became a Tunneler Roach. A car-sized hexipedal tank with spiked armor and a pair of huge blades that were strong enough to burrow through bedrock.
The second Larva became a twin pair of Raptorlings. Wolf-sized and reptilian, with gossamer insect wings. Fast, agile, good senses and mobility.
In a matter of minutes, the cocoons burst open with a spray of Creep, and Taylor had three new minions. Unlike her, Taylor's brood was limited by conservation of mass, but when they did have enough biomass, the Zerg could morph with stunning speed.
Shaking themselves off, the Raptorlings dashed off through the trees to scout and forage. At the same time, Taylor had the Roach throw itself at the wall of the valley and start carving out a shelter.
Over the next several days, Taylor began to get a handle on the details of her power.
She had yet to find a limit to her range, maintaining perfect control over her Raptorlings even when they were miles away. She could control all the members of her brood at once, splitting her attention between them without strain.
Taylor's body seemed to have three new capabilities.
Firstly, she lactated liquid Creep from an endless reservoir, and there didn't seem to be any way to turn that off, much to Taylor's annoyance.
Secondly she healed. Not fast, but completely. Years-old scars had faded, her muscle tone was slowly improving, and she suspected that even if it took her a while, she would heal completely from literally anything that didn't kill her. Hell, even her teeth were straighter and whiter, and she couldn't be sure because it was happening slowly, but she thought her vision was getting less blurry too. She'd taken to comparing her eyesight with that of her brood to confirm it.
Finally, Taylor could become pregnant with a Zerg Larva at will. It took a bit less than two hours from conception to birth. All she had to do was focus inward and flip a metaphorical switch, and one would start gestating.
To her annoyance, Taylor discovered that she had a tendency to trigger the process in her sleep, and woke up one morning swollen to terrifying proportions and unable to move with a whole fifteen Larva and four Creep Tumors packed into her womb. After the ensuing twenty minute chain of orgasms that accompanied the births, Taylor stayed up, which was how she discovered that she didn't actually need sleep.
Taylor also noted that the stretchmarks healed and were completely gone inside an hour.
Oh yes, she could birth Creep Tumors as well as Larva. The things were little pulsing mounds that rooted themselves in the ground and nourished any Creep they touched. It was how Taylor had covered the interior of her shelter with a thick layer of Creep and found out that the simplistic organism was actually pretty comfortable to sit around on.
She'd built a cooking fire with her more dexterous brood members, which now contained four more Raptorlings and a pair of Drones. She'd used her brood to drag a log in, but she preferred the Creep to sit on, especially since she was still naked.
That was her next project.
She'd figured out that the Larva were modular in the creatures they held the potential... the DNA-equivalent... the Essence for, and that she could tweak it with her power. Her first couple of experiments failed disastrously, and it became clear she had no idea what she was doing.
"Well, strike Tinker off the list," Taylor muttered.
Taylor didn't give up, and instead tried a different tact. Starting with complete pieces and paring away what she didn't want or need. She went through six more Larva before she had something workable, and another three before she finally perfected it.
The cocoon burst and the living suit of armor stood up on six bony points that anchored at the shoulderblades like fleshless wings. The base was a skin-tight layer of flesh with an outer layer of fine purple scales. Spines and plates of chitin and bone grew in strategic places, protecting joints and vital organs without impeding flexibility. The spine-guard extended up passed the neck, ending in a padded claw that would close over the back of her head and protect her with a wall of dangling chitin strands that resembled oversized hair.
The interior of the living armor was red and lubricated, like the inside of a mouth, which is what the suit resembled when the top half split open to admit her. Taylor levitated up and slid her legs down into the legs of the suit. It closed up around her upper body and sealed tight with a ripple of muscle.
Taylor twisted and flexed, testing it out. It felt like a second skin, and moving the additional limbs felt just as natural as controlling her brood. The sucker organs inside the chest of the living armor pulled at her nipples, and liquid Creep flowed into ducts Taylor had built in, feeding to high-pressure sprayers at her wrists.
"Success," Taylor declared as she found everything to be working the way she wanted.
It was a fine accomplishment, though one thing Taylor didn't quite anticipate was just how decadently erotic it felt to wear a skin-tight bodysuit made of living flesh, especially while it sucked on her nipples. She might have considered a redesign, but Taylor had firmly decided that she wasn't going to hobble herself out of embarrassment over how her powers worked. Which was why she'd also added retractable armor plating over the crotch and installed a slit in the flesh layer, just in case she ever needed to birth a Larva while she was wearing it.
It very deliberately left her face visible.
Taylor was ready. It was time for all of Sophia's ill deeds to come back to haunt her. With a thought, all of Taylor's remaining Larva began to morph.
(Yep, I decided to make the whole Queen of Blades look into an independent organism Taylor can wear as armor, since I figured it was a bit too much to have her be a Changer on top of everything else she can do. I'm trying to imagine this as Zion and Eden having happened across the Zerg in the past; Taylor's powers are still the result of a Shard, with everything that implies.)
Chapter 3: Predator
(Insert grumbling about how barren the Parahumans Wikia is, here.)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It was just on the cusp of evening, when Danny Hebert was jolted out of his restless worry by the sound of the doorbell. He hauled himself up and answered it. To his surprise, when he opened the door he found none other than Miss Militia, a genuine Protectorate superhero, standing on his doorstep.
"I understand you filed a missing persons report earlier this week?" Miss Millita asked.
A sickly dread settled in Danny's gut. "My daughter, Taylor. She never made it home from a sleepover at her friend's. What's going on?"
"There was a parahuman incident at Winslow High on monday," Miss Militia revealed. "We have reason to believe Taylor was involved. May I come in?"
"Is she okay?" Danny demanded.
"As far as we know, she is. May I come in so I can explain in more detail?" Miss Militia asked again.
Danny finally nodded and stepped back. "Right. Of course."
Torn between his desire to be polite to the superhero and his desire to shake her and demand Taylor's whereabouts, Danny took a seat with is hands clenched at his sides. Miss Militia sat across from him.
Noticing his impatience, Miss Militia began without preamble. "This hasn't been in the news yet, but on monday, over a dozen students at Winslow High witnessed Taylor use parahuman abilities to attack a fellow student."
Danny stared. "How could she be...? No, better question, if something happened to her on her way home from the Barnes' on sunday, powers or not, why would she even be at school monday morning?"
"That's one of the things we're trying to figure out, Mr. Hebert," Miss Militia told him. "The student she attacked was hospitalized with second degree electrical burns and nearly suffered organ failure before we could bring in Panacea."
Danny shook his head. "This makes no sense. Taylor would never hurt someone like that. She's a good kid."
"I understand," Miss Militia said. "If Taylor was still new to her powers, she may not have known her own strength, so to speak. Can you think of any reason she might have turned violent against her peers?"
"Taylor's been withdrawn lately. She's the type to pull into herself, not lash out," Danny told her. "I'd hoped a weekend with Emma, reconnecting with her friend, would be good for her. What happened to her?"
"I don't know, Mr. Hebert, but I will do my best to find out," Miss Militia told him.
Miss Militia climbed back into the PRT van and called Armsmaster. "I spoke to the father."
"Any leads?" Armsmaster asked.
"He mentioned that Hebert spend the weekend before the incident at a friend's house," Miss Militia told him. "Can you get me an address for Emma Barnes? I want to go talk to them next."
"I'll have it for you in... oh shit."
"Can you see the HQ from where you are?" Armsmaster asked.
Miss Militia climbed out of the van and looked down towards the bay. "Yes... oh shit."
A huge slowly swirling torus of glowing haze, crackling with arcs of lightning and odd warping distortions roiled directly above the shimmering shell of the forcefield that protected the Brockton Bay Protectorate Headquarters. Lighting struck down at the forcefield with distant echoing cracks, and the forcefield flared prismatically in protest.
In another part of the city, the newly minted supervillain Tattletale was looking through a pair of binoculars and having a similar reaction. She, however, was more concerned with the tiny figure at the center of the storm.
"What is that?" Grue asked.
"That's the girl the boss wanted us to find and recruit," Tattletale revealed.
Grue did a double-take. "That's her? What is she doing picking a fight with the Protectorate all by herself?"
"She's not after the Protectorate," Tattletale told them with a frown. "She's after someone specific. This is personal."
"Looks like she might be a bit out of our league," Regent commented.
Tattletale grimaced. "You have no idea. That storm? It's only a secondary effect of her true power, but I'm not getting anything on what that power actually is yet. Wait... something's not right... arg, I need to get closer."
Out in the bay, two dots emerged from a window in the forcefield and floated up to join the dot in the center of the storm.
After checking over his unfinished lightning-capture system for the third time, Kid Win kicked his hoverboard into gear. Four copper rods fanned up from his shoulders like some kind of weird mantle, grounded in a capacitor on his back. Aegis flew up behind him as they made their way up to the top of the forcefield shell.
Piggot was going to have his hide for using untested tinker-tech in the field, but Aegis needed backup.
Slowing as they reached the figure at the center of the disturbance, Kid Win got a look at her. A girl, no older than them, gangly but not wholly unattractive, wearing a plain dark grey... jumpsuit or something, her dark wavy hair billowing. Kid Win blinked, eyes widening as he recognized the girl's face. He shared a glance with Aegis, who nodded.
The girl's eyes locked onto them as they approached, while Kid Win struggled to avoid being blown off course. Aegis took the lead.
"Hey!" Aegis shouted. "It's Taylor, right?"
And just like that, there was suddenly a bubble of calm around the three hovering teenagers.
"Shadow Stalker," Taylor growled. "Where is she?"
Aegis blinked. "What do you want with Shadow Stalker?"
"To break her," Taylor answered, her declaration punctuated by a bolt of lightning striking the forcefield below them.
Aegis and Kid Win exchanged meaningful looks, and Kid Win muttered, "We really shouldn't."
"I'm sorry, Taylor, but we can't let you do that," Aegis said.
Taylor scowled. "Then you're no better than her."
Before either of the flying Wards could respond to that, Taylor made a sharp gesture and Kid Win suddenly lurched downwards and smashed into the forcefield hard enough to damage his hoverboard and probably give him a concussion. Kid Win started sliding down the frictionless shell towards the ocean.
Aegis only gaped for a moment before he whirled and dove after his teammate, one hand going to his ear. "Kid Win is down! Did you see that? She's got no Manton Effect!"
"We saw," Battery said. "Aegis, get Kid Win and retreat."
"Roger," came Aegis' reply.
Gallant turned to Shadow Stalker. "Any idea why she's after you in particular?"
"Pathetic loser's probably sore 'cause her school friends like me better than her," the cloaked girl scoffed.
"Hard to imagine that," Clockblocker deadpanned.
"Bite me, Clocky," Shadow Stalker snapped.
The floor shook under their feet and the lights flickered, sending everyone stumbling to keep their balance. A flickering prismatic glow shined in through the windows and on the monitors, as Taylor's kinetic storm tore into the forcefield in earnest. Imminent failure warnings popped up on several screens.
"Hey, Battery," Assault said looking at the screens, "what does that remind you of?"
Battery blinked. "Oh crap, he's right. It's like Behemoth's dynakinesis. How powerful is this girl?"
"No way," Shadow Stalker said. "Comparing that little worm to an Endbringer? She's nothing but a weakling with delusions of equity. Give me a shot at her and I'll take her down."
Battery tapped the coms. "Aegis, we can't open a window with the forcefield under this level of attack. Take Kid Win to the inland PRT office instead."
"Didn't she cook you from the inside out the last time you tried to take her down?" Vista helpfully pointed out.
"She got lucky," Shadow Stalker snarled.
"What is it between you two?" Clockblocker wondered. "I mean, this whole thing screams pre-existing grudge so loud it might as well be written across the sky."
"I told you, she didn't like that I was better than her in school," Shadow Stalker dismissed.
"You're lying," Gallant broke in, sounding confused.
Shadow Stalker whirled on him. "The hell I am!"
"Stalker, Gallant's an empath. He would know," Vista reminded her. "What's going on?"
Clockblocker facepalmed. "Oh, frakking hell, what did you do?"
"Screw this," Shadow Stalker growled, turning and stalking off, only to stop and scream in frustration when she remember that they were trapped in the forcefield until either it failed or Taylor stopped attacking it.
While her kinetic storm tore at the PHQ's forcefield around her Changeling, Taylor waited in the water below with her submerged Overseer.
It looked like a purple armored biological blimp with a whole lot of very acute eyes, and had a lesser version of the psionic signal that it used to both propel itself and serve as a relay for Taylor's signal. She hadn't needed it for that yet, though. Taylor had birthed a Larva when she got there and morphed the bulky Overlord, then the Overlord to Overseer for the biological factory it contained. Overseers could manufacture protoplasmic decoys called Changelings, which could take on Taylor's appearance. Control of the Changelings was no different than controlling any other Zerg, so it literally let her be in two or more places at once as herself.
Taylor frowned. Could she have been wrong? She was so sure Sophia would take the challenge personally and come out to finish Taylor off. Where was she? Taylor had watched the Wards come back after patrol, and Shadow Stalker had been with them, so Taylor knew she was in there.
Taylor threw more of her power into the kinetic storm. Alarms sounded, and Taylor kept up the pressure until finally something gave and the forcefield crumbled.
Ending the kinetic storm, Taylor lowered her Changeling until it stood on the PHQ's roof. Alarms continued in an undertone as the Changeling stood with hands clenched at her side.
The eyes of her Overseer, despite being underwater, spotted Aegis flying back from the city. Taylor turned her Changeling's head and watched him approach. Aegis slowed and kept a wary distance. Good.
"Oy! Hebert!" Twang!
With a little telekinetic help, the Changeling juked to the side and Sophia's crossbow bolt missed its neck by inches. It turned around and Taylor opened it's mouth as she made arcs of energy ripple around the Changeling's arms
"You won't silence me that easily, Sophia!" Taylor made it shout as the other Wards emerged.
Gallant stepped forward, but Sophia waved him back as she slammed a new pair of bolts into her crossbows. "Back off! She's mine!"
Taylor's Changeling pointed with one crackling fist. "That's what this is about, right? You tried to kill me, and now you're pissed because it didn't take!"
"Hah!" Sophia barked. "You're such a whiny bitch, Hebert. This is why no one likes you."
"Hey!" Gallant cut in. "Maybe we should all just calm down and talk about this. Taylor? It's Taylor, right?"
"Yeah," Taylor said, not taking her eyes off Sophia. "Maybe we should talk about this. Let's talk about how you so-called superheroes torture and kill helpless high school students for fun. I only survived because I got powers. How many others have died horribly for the sake of your sick amusements?"
Gallant, Aegis, and Vista failed to respond.
Taylor made the Changeling snort. "Well come on, you wanted to talk about this. So talk. Explain to me how I'm supposed to shut up and take it because you're the good guys."
The doors to two other stairwells flew open, revealing Battery and a squad of PRT officers bursting onto the scene with their containment foam sprayers at the ready. They opened fire, and Taylor cursed herself for falling for their delaying tactic.
Quickly exerting her power around the Changeling, Taylor smiled in satisfaction as the containment foam billowed like it was fighting a strong wind and blew back away from the Changeling before it got within five feet.
Using her power, Taylor made sure to knock Vista and Aegis into the foam before they could use their own powers to dodge it. And that was it. Sophia was the only one still free, having phased through the foam that would have hit her. That couldn't have gone better if Taylor had scripted it.
"So what's it gonna be, Sophia?" Taylor made the Changeling ask. "Gonna finish what you started? Hurt me and kill me just because you can? I'm sure your teammates won't mind. After all, its not like this is a new thing for you. Heck, this time you've even got an excuse."
"Shut your ugly face, Hebert," Sophia said dismissively.
Sophia's arm suddenly shot up and her crossbow fired a bolt at the Changeling's chest. Taylor deflected the bolt with her power and made the Changeling lunge at Sophia.
Sophia leaped back to dodge a swipe and fired her other crossbow point blank into the Changeling's chest. It staggered back as the bolt smashed through its shoulder, spraying a red slime that could pass for blood if you weren't looking closely.
Two new bolts held along Sophia's arms as she slammed the ammo into her crossbows. Taylor gathered energy around the Changeling's hand, making it look like she needed to charge up first before she thrust its good hand out and made lightning lash out towards Sophia.
Sophia dodged, barely, flickering into her shadow state for only a split second at a time to lend more distance and speed to her movements. Taylor started charging another lightning bolt, and Sophia tried to close in, exploiting Taylor's feigned weakness.
The way Sophia's eyes went wide when the Changeling simply raised its good hand and Taylor seized her in mid air with her power, so very satisfying. Taylor slammed Sophia to the roof on her back and surrounded her with just enough electric current that she couldn't go shadowy. Taylor made the Changeling stand over her.
"What, are you going to kill me now?" Sophia mocked, glaring up at her.
"Yes," Taylor replied in a flat tone. "I think that's more than fair."
"Bullshit," Sophia snarled.
Taylor made the Changeling grab the crossbow bolt in its shoulder and rip it out with a hiss of pain. "I was just a normal girl until you buried me in filth and left me to die. Even after I triggered, I would have wanted to be a hero, until you turned out to be one of them. You created me, Sophia. Now you'll reap what you've sown."
Carefully, wanting it to look completely accidental, Taylor drew her power away from Sophia's arms as she made her Changeling look away and electrified the crossbow bolt in her Changeling's hand. Sophia took the bait, snapping both arms up and firing her crossbows point blank into the Changeling's face.
The Changeling reeled back, both eyes utterly destroyed. Sophia flipped to her feet and brought both fists down on the ends of the bolts, viciously driving them all the way to the back of the Changeling's skull.
Taylor made the Changeling drop like a puppet with cut strings, and ordered it to continue playing dead no matter what. Sighing, she turned and dove, swimming down to the tunnel her Roaches had carved.
It was done.
The whole thing was a test. Use a decoy to voice Sophia's crimes, imply some guilt by association to the other Wards, then fake her death and see what happened. They might cover it up and keep Shadow Stalker on the team, or they might arrest her and strip her of the title of hero. What Taylor did next, well, that would depend on them. Either way, soon she would know.
Taylor surfaced inside the pitch black tunnel and started walking, unhindered by the lack of sight. Her brood surrounded her, and her absolute awareness of their position in space combined with their senses allowed her to navigate without issue.
There was one thing she had to do in either case. Taylor's dad deserved to know she wasn't dead.
(Well that was a plan that I think was suitably Taylor-ish. I had to think for a bit to figure out what she would likely do in this situation, and this seemed in character for her, at least to me. Also, while Zerg vary in intelligence, few are sentient, or rather, I think Taylor would deliberately choose not to make any of her brood sentient, because it's not like they'd be able to act independently anyway.)
Danny might have slept through it, if he'd been able to sleep at all. Taylor was missing and god only knows what had happened to her. The rage Danny felt in the face of his helplessness was a consuming thing.
The faint sounds of cracking concrete and tumbling rubble drifted up from downstairs, and Danny froze, listening to confirm what he thought he'd heard. Already restless, he didn't hesitate to investigate. Danny rolled out of bed and put on a shirt as quietly as he could, grabbing a handy aluminum baseball bat on his way down.
Pausing in the kitchen, Danny listened again. The sounds were even clearer now, coming from the basement of all places. It almost sounded like someone was digging a hole in the floor down there. Then, with a final clatter, the noise stopped.
Easing the door open, Danny warily held his bat at the ready. In a bit of poor planning by the designers of the house, the lightswitch for the basement was at the bottom of the stairs, forcing him to descend almost blind.
"Alright," Danny growled at the darkness. "Who the hell are you and what are you doing down here?"
Something moved in the shadows, something with odd angles and too many points to be human, and it moved towards him. Danny braced himself and swung hard.
A spiked limb of articulated bone shot into the light filtering down the staircase and stopped the bat without moving a hairsbreadth. Danny's eyes widened in horror, but then the limbs owner moved again, and... flicked the lightswitch.
Glossy purple skin, interlocking plates of bone and chitin forming a jagged armor over vital areas and striking surfaces. The bone spike revealed to be the tip of a limb that might have resembled a wing if it hadn't been devoid of flesh. And a face... her face!
Danny stumbled and sat down hard on the steps behind him. "Taylor...! Oh, Taylor."
"Hi, Dad," Taylor said, sounding small and very much like his daughter in stark contrast to her fearsome appearance.
Danny lurched to his feet to hold her close, but came up short trying to figure out how to do so without hurting himself on her armor. Taylor gave him a sheepish smile and Danny started in surprise as her clawed hands split open, hinging at the fingertips to reveal Taylor's ordinary human hands and arms within.
The thick strands of chitin that mocked hair pulled away from her head, revealing ordinary hair underneath the thick three-fingered hand that had enclosed the back of Taylor's head. A lot less hair than the last time he saw her, but still hers. With her arms and head out of the armor, she gently grabbed his arms and leaned forward to rest her forehead on his chest.
"Taylor, what happened to you?" Danny asked.
Taylor shook her head and stepped back. "I can't stay long. I just wanted you to know I was alright, no matter what you... might hear soon."
"Taylor," Danny almost growled, tightening his grip on her arms.
"I'm sorry I worried you," Taylor told him. "You don't deserve this."
"To hell with that," Danny told her. "Talk to me, Taylor. Tell me what happened to you."
Taylor visibly hesitated, and finally sagged. "Can you bring me a robe and a towel?"
Taylor told him everything.
After being brought the requested items, she sent her dad up to make tea while she peeled out of her living armor, noted the lack of pruning as she dried herself off, tied the towel around her chest, and slipped on the robe. Her armor stood aside on its wingspikes as she headed up the stairs into the house proper.
As she told the story, her dad had gotten angrier and angrier, until finally his cup had shattered in his hand.
"...and when I woke up, um, I discovered that my power was actually all about, um, creating these Zerg creatures and controlling them," Taylor finished as she bandaged her dad's hand.
"You could have come home," her dad murmured. "Emma, the school, the Hess girl and heroes, all of it. They went too far. Crossed a line. We could have gotten justice. Paid them back for what they did to you."
"I don't think I could have," Taylor disagreed. "And I don't want to think about getting back at them. Dad... my powers... I'm pretty much the second coming of Nilbog."
Her dad flinched.
"Given what they've done so far in regards to Sophia, would you trust them to be fair to me, when to them I'd be walking apocalypse waiting to happen?" Taylor asked, shaking her head. "If I'd come home, I might not have been able to hide what I can do."
Her dad sighed. "They're still looking for you anyway."
Taylor fidgeted. "Um... actually, they think I'm dead."
Her dad gave her a hard look.
"I used one of my Zerg and my own DNA to create a decoy, and let Shadow Stalker kill it," Taylor revealed. "I'm hoping that if they notice that the decoy wasn't quite human, they'll write it off as a consequence of my power affecting my body. I mean, once I debut with my real powers, they'll probably figure it out, but by then it won't matter. I just wanted some breathing room and to test if they really do care more about PR than about justice, by seeing what they do with Sophia."
"Debut with your real powers?" her dad repeated.
"They won't let me be a hero," Taylor said, "but I still want to help. I'm too powerful to stay out of things. I couldn't face myself if I squandered this."
Her dad looked resigned. "I can't talk you out of this?"
Taylor just shook her head and stood up. "I'll come back when it's safe. I love you, Dad. Try not to worry yourself sick."
Her dad hugged her tight. "I'll worry."
"I'll be fine," Taylor assured him.
Taylor shut the door to the basement behind her and slipped out of the robe. She untied the towel around her chest, and was surprised to find it still clean. Taylor poked at her nipple. She was still lactating liquid Creep, but she wasn't leaking anymore. Why? What changed?
Taylor stood there in confusion for a while, but eventually she put it aside for later and had her living armor open up for her. Sliding into it legs first, Taylor closed it up around her, took one last look up at where her dad was, and stepped off the edge of the hole in the basement floor.
Dropping back into the tunnels where a pair of Raptorlings were waiting, Taylor made her way through the Roach tunnel down to where the rest of her brood were hard at work.
Brockton Bay was built on top of a flooded cave system centered on one vast cavern, so when Taylor had thought about the safest place to grow a Hive, she'd figured that anything above ground was simply too much of a risk. So, her brood had spend the day digging exploratory tunnels as she figured out how to divert or dam up the right areas to drain the central cavern.
As Taylor strode from the tunnel into the echoing void, she burned some power off into the air to light up the cavern. Looking around, Taylor nodded and started gestating a handful of Creep Tumors.
It took another day and a half to spread Creep over the entire cavern. Taylor helped the process along by spraying Creep where it was needed to shore up the dams and walls. Finally, the Creep was spread thick enough that Taylor felt safe in the cavern, and she could start on the next part of setting up a Hive.
Taylor took off her living armor and found a comfortable place to lay down.
Up in the city, the several dozen nondescript Changelings she now had wandering around the city glanced at various clocks and watches.
Taking a moment to psyke herself up, Taylor began gestating a Larva. Five minutes later, she began another. Five minutes, another. On and on until her belly was swollen to the point that it accounted for close to half her weight.
Then she started birthing them, one after another, every five minutes.
Taylor sprawled on her back, bare skin on Creep, beaded with sweat, panting as she recovered from... so many orgasmic births that she'd have lost count several times if not for her absolute awareness of her brood.
A veritable carpet of Larva surrounded her, feeding on the Creep floor or slowly wriggling away to spread out over the vast available space.
Taylor felt like she was adjusting some. The pleasure that came with giving birth to her brood wasn't creeping her out as much as it had at first. It even occurred to her that maybe it was an incentive built into her power to encourage her to use it. Powers didn't, as a rule of thumb, hurt their owners. It made sense, then, that if using a power involved giving birth, that the power would negate the pain and risk of doing so.
Even if it was overcompensating to an embarrassing degree, Taylor had to admit that, long term, she preferred it to the alternative.
Eventually, Taylor stood up on wobbly legs and bit off a giggle that bubbled up when she almost slipped in the puddle of clear slime under her feet. She brought her armor over and slipped back into it, doing her best to shake off the natural high.
Once her Larva were spread out enough, Taylor triggered their morphs. A hundred and forty cocoons formed on the Creep, and several to several dozen minutes later, Taylor had a hundred and forty Drones at her command.
She made all the Drones except one slither and flap to the edges of the cavern, and finally planted the remaining Drone into the Creep. A final order, and the Drone began to swell until it was subsumed.
A week later, Taylor was lounging halfway up one of her Hive's skeletal pillars, braced with her wingspikes against the smaller thorn she was using as a seat.
Below her, Drones slithered and flapped into and out of the primary cavern, mining, scouting, and occasionally planting themselves to morph into a useful exterior Hive organ. Hundreds of Larva writhed around the base of the Hive, hatched from the building-sized organism and freeing Taylor to use her own body's abilities more sparingly and to concentrate on other things.
Like the two different websites she was reading through the eyes of two different Changelings at two different libraries in two different parts of Brockton Bay.
Attempted Murder at Winslow High School: Teen Girls Convicted!
Shadow Stalker Promoted, Transferred!
"What the fuck?" Taylor muttered. "No seriously, what the actual fuck?"
The whole point behind Taylor's plan had been to see whether the Protectorate and the PRT would cover for Sophia or bring her to justice. And the answer was apparently... both.
Sophia goes to juvie, but they come up with a cover story for Shadow Stalker. How the hell had they convinced Sophia to go along with that? Taylor supposed the prison could be in on it, or maybe it was a bigger threat they were holding over Sophia's head if she outed herself as cape in an escape attempt?
"Fuck damn it," Taylor sighed.
Well, she had her answer, but she had no idea what to do with it. And she somehow doubted this was the end of Sophia being a problem. Taylor looked out over her underground domain, and thought.
(I realize that in canon, Taylor was only in the locker for a few hours, but that's only because a janitor happened to find her. She got lucky, basically. I got the impression from canon that it is more common for capes to need their powers to escape the circumstances of their trigger event, IE, in the normal course of things Taylor would have been in the locker a lot longer, but would have figured out how to use her bugs to get herself out and/or signal for help before she died of dehydration or an infection. In any case, without that lucky break, Taylor would have been personally worse off, but on much better legal ground, as she was in this AU where the janitor didn't hear her. Sophia got off light - convicted only in her civilian identity - because she didn't use her powers during the crime, which I imagine the PRT caring about more than the crime itself. I'm still undecided which part is the cover story for the other part. Which do you think is more likely? Keeping her as Shadow Stalker full-time with a lie about Sophia being in juvie, or Sophia being in juvie with a lie about Shadow Stalker still being active... somewhere.)
Chapter 5: Tremor
(In which hijinks fail to ensue.)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
If Dragon had eyes of her own, they would have widened in alarm. Her tracking program for the Endbringers had detected seismic activity similar to the common signs that Behemoth was moving.
Turning her attention to this information, Dragon's alarm gave way to confusion. There were seven readings, all moving away from each other. In fact, they were radiating outwards from Brockton Bay, too slow to be Behemoth.
This was clearly something else, most likely unrelated to the Endbringers, but something was moving underground, spreading out from Brockton Bay. Dragon redirected processor time to rendering the model she used as a face, and made a call.
The uncostumed teenage supervillain currently calling herself Lisa stared at the average-looking man strolling along the opposite side of the street, her head tilting in interest.
Not human. Not mammal. Artificial biologic.
Overcome by curiosity, Lisa turned to follow the man-thing at a distance. It walked along, looking perfectly normal, but a block away, Lisa saw him pull something out of his pocket. Money clip. Several hundred dollars.
And then it handed the money off to an average-looking woman, neither so much as glancing at each other. The woman was the same as the man-thing, only, younger, new, temporary minions, don't last long.
Following the money like any sensible sleuth, Lisa ignored the man-thing and followed the woman-thing. To her surprise, the woman-thing entered a fast-food restaurant and placed a to-go order, acting like any average person.
Maybe it was hungry? Doesn't eat. Can't eat.
Now Lisa was really curious. She watched as the woman-thing walked out of the fast food place with a bag of burgers and fried chicken, and resumed following. A few blocks away, again without so much as a glance, the woman-thing handed the bag off to what looked like a middle-school girl, but was in fact another of whatever these things were, and despite appearances, older, oldest yet, end of lifespan, caloric depletion. Returning to maker.
A vulpine grin quirked Lisa's lips. Well, wasn't that intriguing.
Following with a bit more care, Lisa tracked the teen-thing down to an opening into the storm sewers. It was a close thing, but Lisa ultimately decided that it wasn't a good idea to follow any further without backup while she was out of costume.
Lisa climbed the stairs to the loft that served as a lair for the Undersiders. She could hear the woefully familiar sounds of an argument between Rachel and Brian.
"...told you it wasn't me, what more do you want," Rachel growled.
"And I'll believe it wasn't you, but even so how do you explain all the rumors of mutant dogs raiding stash houses we've been hearing lately?" Brian asked.
"Fuck if I know," Rachel grumbled.
Lisa let herself in and kicked the door shut behind her. "What's up guys and gals? Where's Alec and the newbie? I've got news."
Rachel took this as her cue to ignore Brian and pay attention to her dogs. Brian raised a hand in greeting and then folded his arms.
"Getting food," Brian answered. "News about what?"
Lisa pulled out her phone and started typing a text. "A new cape. I'll tell you when they get back."
"Alright, everybody's here," Brian said as he helped himself to a slice of pizza. "Spill."
Arrayed on the various sofas and chairs, the Undersiders were gathered. Lisa, also known as Tattletale, with Bat-Deduction as her actual power. Brian, also known as Grue, able to generate clouds of 'darkness' that dimmed all senses and even some powers. Alec, also known as Regent, who had the power to hijack other people's nervous systems. Rachel, also known as Bitch, who had the ability to transform dogs into huge monstrous forms. And their newest member, Greg, who'd had his last three name choices vetoed by the rest of the group, but who's Tinker-tech personal shields had saved all their lives in the fight with Lung.
Lisa grinned. "So, I was out today, minding my own business, when what should I see..." She recounted everything up to the teen-thing ducking into the storm sewers.
"So there's somebody out there who likes to send their minions out for fast food," Alec said. "We care about this... why?"
"Because large numbers of minions over a large area that can pass for human, spells major league Master," Brian said.
"There were only three minions," Greg pointed out.
"I'd bet my pay for the next month that there are a lot more," Lisa said. "It was like the three I saw just happened to be in the area when our mystery Master got hungry."
"I assume you already filled in the boss?" Brian asked.
Lisa checked her phone and smiled. "Yep. Suit up, guys, we're off to stick our noses where they don't belong. The boss wants us to check it out."
"Guys, I came up with a name," Greg said that evening as the group gathered at the same entrance to the storm sewers from before. "Pulsar!"
"That's..." Tattletale trailed off. "That's not bad."
Regent snorted. "Better than 'Warp Jockey' or 'Crystal Ex' at least."
The newly dubbed Pulsar scrambled to save face. "Yeah, I was never serious about those other names anyway."
Regent gave Pulsar a look of complete disbelief, and Tattletale grinned dangerously.
"Can we stay on track, here?" Grue cut in. "I don't like this. We're supposed to just go in and confront an unknown threat face to face?"
"That's what the boss said," Tattletale chirped. "Trust me, he's probably got a good reason."
"Then let's go already," Bitch put in as she tugged on her dogs' chains.
Taylor paused as one of her perimeter Swarm Hosts spied a whole team of unfamiliar capes enter her tunnels through one of her carefully excavated holes into the maintenance tunnels of the city's storm sewers. With barely a thought she redirected nearby Raptorlings and Hydralisks to surround the area.
The first to step through was a short guy with a gold spray-painted baseball helmet and a likewise spray-painted chest protector like what dirtbike riders wore, with bands of segmented metallic gold around each of his limbs, head, and waist, each sporting a glowing blue crystal.
"Ew! Oh ick, what is this stuff?" the gold guy complained.
A blonde girl in a domino mask and a skin-tight costume of lavender and white patches came second, also adorned with blue crystals in the same places, though the metal bands were silver instead of gold. "Relax, its not dangerous. It looks like some kind of edible fungus. No, it's more than that... oh crap they already know we're here."
A taller guy, cloaked in wisps of darkness, with a skull mask and what looked like black motorcycle leathers, also with blue crystals on silver bands. "Tattletale."
"They... no, she. She can see and hear us," the girl called Tattletale said, before she turned and looked right at the burrowed Swarm Host. "Hi. I'm Tattletale. That's Pulsar and Grue. Behind me is Regent and Bitch. We spotted some of your minions around town. We just want to talk."
Taylor frowned. They'd spotted her Changelings? How? Crap! She wasn't ready to be discovered yet. Her brood numbered in the hundreds, and she had Hives under three other cities, but if this group saw through her Changelings, how many others had as well? She needed her Changelings to know what was going on above ground!
Okay, so they'd found her, but how much did they know? Taylor gathered the Changelings she had in her Hive plus those nearest from above, and sent them to surround the intruders.
There were mutated dog-things with the one called Bitch, which Taylor supposed explained the name, they whined or growled as the Changelings approached. About a dozen or so closed in from either side, and Taylor made them all speak in sync.
"You have my attention. Talk."
Tattletale looked at Grue. He gestured for her to take the lead. Regent looked bored, but he was eyeing the Changelings with an odd regard, while Bitch glared warily and Pulsar looked thoroughly unnerved.
"Well, our curiosity is a bit understandable, don't you think?" Tattletale began. "You've obviously got something big going on right under everyone's noses. We just want to know what."
"I'm not a threat to Brockton Bay. I want to know how you saw through my Changelings."
Tattletale looked smug. "I'm psychic. Knowing things no one else does is my whole shtick. So these guys are called Changelings, huh? You're quite the spymaster."
"And you know of my existence. Tell me why I shouldn't just kill you to protect that information."
The others all tensed, but Tattletale just grinned wider. "Because that was a blatant bluff, for one."
Elsewhere in the city, another of Taylor's Changelings was looking up Tattletale and the others on Parahumans Online. Apparently they were a minor villain gang called the Undersiders. Bitch even had a warrant out on her.
"Undersiders. I suggest you forget about me. I will not harm you this time, but if you or anyone else comes poking into my domain again, I will assume you lived up to your name, Tattletale, and I will come after you."
With that, Taylor made a squad of Roaches in another tunnel collapse the outer tunnel. Tattletale grabbed Pulsar and dove back into the storm sewer, knocking Grue down as rubble and dust blocked off the entrance to Taylor's base. It wasn't a big loss. She had dozens of entrances hidden around the city.
Seven of her Changelings were caught outside with the Undersiders. Taylor turned them away and sent them back towards their routes.
"Well that could have gone better," Regent commented.
"Could have gone worse, too," Tattletale muttered.
Grue glanced over at her. "So what are we dealing with, here?"
"There was something buried under the tunnel, and it wasn't one of those changelings," Tattletale said. "I caught a flash of something when the roof came down, too. Whoever this Master is, she's not limited to human-looking infiltrators. Her control is absolute. I'm thinking Master Eleven, at least."
"I think she only let us go 'cause she didn't want to fight us," Pulsar added. "Her minions are probably really easy to kill."
"No, that's not it," Tattletale said, rolling her eyes. "I'm almost sure that the only reason we're alive is because our mystery Master is more or less benevolent."
"We're backing off, then?" Grue asked.
"Great!" Regent said, making a show of dusting his hands off. "All in a day's work."
"I'm heading home," Grue said. "See you guys tomorrow."
(I have no idea where the idea for Greg to trigger and get a Tinker shard with Protoss technology on it came from, but I couldn't resist throwing it in. Based on Greg's canon reaction to Skitter, I could see him deciding that being a supervillain was a Cool Thing. The most basic thing all Protoss units have are the shields, so I figured that's the first thing he'd build. How do you think him being in the Undersiders would go?)
Chapter 6: Swarm
(Timeskip. Which I'm saying. Even though there's been a lot of that already. I tried to write some Pulsar misadventures, but it just failed to go anywhere interesting or cleverly funny, and I just couldn't decide what to do with the dead Taylorling - Taylorlisk? - in the PHQ morgue. So, in the name of getting the heck on with it... Leviathan!)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Taylor heard it with hundreds of ears in hundreds of places. A siren? An air raid siren.
Half a dozen Changelings were, at that moment, in a position to see evacuation directions on various TVs. A bomb? No. There was one word, repeated in fearful murmurs across Brockton Bay. Endbringer.
With a thought, twenty Changelings across the city stopped in their tracks and turned, striding quickly towards her dad. She'd keep her distance, but she'd make sure her dad got to a shelter all the same.
It was a little annoying, that she'd spent weeks dodging Protectorate capes to expand her Nydus Network, only for the Endbringer attack to come to her home town. She still hadn't figured out how they kept almost finding her Nydus Worms, but she had discovered that whatever was detecting her tunneling failed if she kept the Nydus Worms to a snail's pace.
Taylor strode through the Creep-covered passages around her primary Hive, pulling half her brood from her other Hives and sending them through the Nydus Network to Brockton Bay. The muscular tunnels flooded with saliva, and the various Zerg were shot forward through muscular contraction and fluid pressure, like a hydraulic railgun, moving at hundreds of miles per hour.
Almost a thousand Larva began to gorge themselves on any Creep they could reach. Once Taylor knew which Endbringer her city was facing, she'd be ready.
Wearing a temporary mask made out of a simple curved plate of chitin, with a horizontal gap for her to see through, Taylor flexed her power and flew, rising up through her tunnels until she punched through a thin section of ground and emerged into daylight for the first time in a month.
Her eyes took a moment to adjust as her feet settled to the pavement, but soon she was striding through the frightened crowds.
The building was fairly bland. Six stories tall, it featured dark brown brick and dark tinted windows. It sat alone on a grassy hill, with an empty parking lot on one side and a stretch of beach along the other.
Capes of every description were arriving through various means, as Taylor jogged across the parking lot. She got a few double-takes, but while her living armor was a novel sight, it was not the weirdest thing around.
A gleaming mechanical dragon screamed down out of the sky and flared to a stop before settling to the ground among the armored and armed PRT vans with a whine of cooling jet engines. This was Dragon, one of the best Tinkers in the world, and she faced the water, unmoving, as a storm roiled out on the ocean.
Taylor guessed that meant Leviathan.
Inside, folding chairs had been set into rows and columns, facing a trio of huge flatscreen televisions. The flatscreens were backed by a series of large windows overlooking the beach, which offered a perfect view of the looming storm. Taylor did a small double-take of her own when she recognized Eidolon standing at the glass, staring out at the looming thunderhead.
Taylor turned her attention to her base. Against something like Leviathan, she needed heavy hitters, and she needed a comprehensive view of the battlefield. At least six Overseers. Raptorlings for search and rescue, and additional eyes. Hydralisks would be useless. Mutalisks worse than useless. Roaches? Too small, and all the water will made their acid spit useless. Ultralisks. Definitely Ultralisks. Corruptors. Vipers. Hunter Banelings.
An army began to morph.
Forgoing the chairs, Taylor picked a spot along the back wall next to a guy who seemed to be made entirely of metal. He offered her a friendly smile and Taylor nodded in return.
And then Armsmaster and Legend joined Eidolon up at the front of the room. The din of conversation quieted as every set of eyes was drawn to them.
"We owe thanks to Dragon and Armsmaster for the early alert," Legend said. "We've had time to gather, and that means we have just a few more minutes to prepare and brief for Leviathan's arrival, instead of jumping straight into the fray as we arrive. With this advantage, some luck, teamwork, and hard effort from everyone, I hold out hope that this could be one of the good days."
There was a murmuring of agreement, a couple of cheers. Getting a pre-battle speech from Legend did wonders for morale.
"But you should know your chances going in," Legend continued. "Given the statistics from our previous encounters with this beast, a good day still means that one in four of the people in this room will probably be dead before this day is done."
Or not. Still, Taylor felt a fierce excitement. If she had anything to say about it, the only deaths today would be Zerg, and maybe even an Endbringer if she was being overly optimistic.
"I'm telling you our chances now because you deserve to know, and we so rarely get the chance to inform those individuals brave enough to step up and fight these monsters," Legend told them. "The primary message I want to convey, even more than briefing you on the particulars of his abilities, organizing formations and battle plans, is that I do not want you to underestimate Leviathan. I've seen too many good heroes... and villains, too, die because they let their guard down."
Legend paused and glanced out the window. The storm clouds had reached the beach, and torrential rain stirred the water into a froth. It was coming down so hard it could hardly be called rain anymore. It was more like a waterfall.
"Leviathan was the second of the four Endbringers to arrive," Legend began again. "He is the weaker of the brothers, and he is not the insidious plotter that the sisters, Simurgh and Khepri, represent. That said, I would advise you to think of him as having many of the strengths of his siblings at once. You've seen the videos online. You know what he is physically capable of. It want to be clear that despite the brothers' preference for straightforward destruction, they, and Leviathan especially, has often shown a level of tactical cunning that can and will catch you off guard."
Legend continued, talking about past attacks, driving the point home that Leviathan's power over water had sunk entire islands in the past. Tidal waves had crushed whole regions.
And then they put up a cross section of Brockton Bay on one of the flatscreens, sloping from the hills down to the water. Directly below the image of the buildings that marked the city's location, there was a large cavern, bordered by rock on all sides except the part nearest the beach.
Taylor blanched. It wasn't an underground lake anymore. That was her primary Hive, protected by dams of rock and Creep.
"From the moment Leviathan shows himself, we expect he will stir and manipulate the aquifer to erode the surrounding sand, silt, and rock," Legend told them all.
Okay, so on the one hand, Legend was wrong about that, but if Leviathan did manage to reflood the cavern, Taylor had practically done half his work for him. Tunnels crisscrossed everywhere under the city, thanks to her efforts. "Fuck."
Taylor recognized the Wards who were handing out the electronic armbands Dragon was using to coordinate everyone. She accepted one from Gallant and fastened it around her arm. A flat, square screen showed a satellite view of the building, and the surrounding land. A display read, State Name.
Pressing the communicator button, Taylor spoke, "Broodmother."
Legend called out, "We are splitting you into groups based on your abilities! If you are confident you can take a hit from Leviathan and get up afterwards, or if you have the ability to produce expendable combatants, we need you on the front line! You will be directed by Alexandria and Dragon!"
Taylor took a deep breath to settle her nerves and pushed off the wall. She caught a glimpse of a group she recognized. It looked like the Undersiders were having an argument with Armsmaster.
While Legend continued to assign capes to various roles - direct offense, ranged support, mobility, ranged offense, and so forth - Taylor joined the group gathering around Alexandria.
"Master or Brute?" was the question everyone in the frontline group was being asked.
Taylor swallowed her nerves and stepped forward, speaking up as clearly as she could. "I'm a Master. Listen, I want the first shot at him. I've got an army of monsters at my command, nearly a thousand strong. Give me the chance, and I can swarm him."
Alexandria had opened her mouth, probably to tell Taylor off for grandstanding or whatever, but now she shut it and stared. Everyone in earshot was staring, actually, and Taylor forced herself not to quail under the hard gaze of a dozen of the strongest capes in the room.
"I don't recognize you," Alexandria said.
"You can call me Broodmother," Taylor replied. "You wouldn't know me. It's my first time out in costume."
Alexandria seemed to glare at her. "We don't have time - "
A bellowed warning cut her off. Layers of forcefields went up around the far wall in front of and behind the scenic windows, but it wasn't enough to take the hit. The building rocked with an impact and the forcefields to the left collapsed. Water began to rush in, carrying chunks of brick, glass, and metal into the lobby.
Taylor lowered her wingspikes from in front of her face and dazedly realized that they were underwater. Murky depths were visible through the forcefields that were still up. The ceiling groaned and started to come down under the weight of water. Taylor was about to bring a Nydus Worm up underneath them when Legend's voice cut through the noise and chaos.
"Strider! Get us out of here!"
It took less than an instant for Taylor to reorient herself after the mass teleport. Her brood was crowding the tunnels beneath the city, giving her a complete sense of her own location. Taylor turned, and saw an Endbringer in person for the first time.
The Boardwalk was gone, and Leviathan stood among the wreckage. His silhouette was outlined clearly through the pounding rain and spraying seawater. Thirty feet tall, with a leanness that might have been called lanky if not for the obvious power in his frame. Leviathan's hunched shoulders and neck were disproportionately bulky, and his limbs were too long. His whiplike tail lashed behind him, throwing gallons of water through the air in the wake of his movements.
Taylor's brood was already moving. The first of her Ultralisks were gathering in the closest tunnels as her Overseers drifted out of the underwater passages and inflated, breaching the water behind Leviathan as they rose into the air.
"Fliers on me!" Alexandria shouted. "Immovables, spread out!"
Hundreds of pulsing purple Banelings boiled up out of the ground in explosions of pavement several blocks away. Sacs of volatile chemical explosives and acids, rolled up inside a wheel of chitin. By the hundreds, her Banelings picked up speed, bouncing and rolling. The chitinous balls tore up the sides of buildings like grotesque mockeries of Sonic the Hedgehog using spin dash.
Leviathan stalked up the street, water crashing down around him as his afterimage formed in his wake. Four green alien eyes bore down on the defending parahumans, one large eye on the right side of his flat scaly face, three smaller eyes on the left.
Energy crackled around Taylor's body as she launched herself into the air behind Alexandria. The first wave of Banelings crested the rooftops. Taylor gathered her power, pulling in more energy than she ever had before.
"Get ready!" Legend howled the words.
Taylor pressed the com button on her armband. "Beginning assault with biological explosives. Expect moderate collateral damage."
Leviathan dropped to all fours, but before the Endbringer could charge, something exploded up out of the ground right in front of him. A massive dark bulk easily as big as the Endbringer, roaring as massive blades of bone cut into Leviathan's shoulders and torso.
"Fuck! What the..!"
Next, visibility. Taylor lunged passed a hovering Alexandria, thrusting both arms and her wingspikes forward and unleashing a roaring blast of kinetic energy and heat that cut a cylinder clear through the rain. The blast reached Leviathan and detonated just as the Endbringer tore the Ultralisk in half, blowing all the rain and water away from him in a huge sphere. Glass shattered, buildings sagged, and ripping a hole in the clouds above. A shaft of sunlight illuminated Leviathan like a spotlight.
Taylor had two more Ultralisks in position underground, to keep Leviathan in place, but strangely the Endbringer only remained in a crouch almost seeming confused. He didn't react at all as her Banelings came arcing across the rooftops from every direction, giving one last bounce before they sailed through the air, falling towards Leviathan in an endless stream.
A measured but urgent voice came from every armband in Taylor's vicinity. "Take cover."
Leviathan swiped at the first of the falling Banelings, the water of his afterimage ripping through a dozen more. This was a mistake.
With a sound somewhere between a thunderous crack and a wet squelch, her Banelings detonated. The defending capes reeled back as explosion after explosion ripped into Leviathan in rapid succession and melted the faces off the surrounding buildings.
The bombardment continued for more than a solid minute, almost completely obscuring the Endbringer from sight under the continuous concussive blasts of purple acid. Taylor hurled lightning into the center of the destruction for good measure, not really expecting that to add much to the assault but doing it anyway.
Legend, Eidolon, and the other Blasters who were either tough enough or far enough away to get shots off, added their power as the last of the Banelings fell and detonated, having finally picked their jaws up. Leviathan was reeling, little more than a skeletal remnant with tatters of melting flesh hanging from his spindly frame.
"He's still moving," Taylor muttered. "How the fuck is he still moving?"
Like armored dragonflies the size of a city bus, with mantis blades and long sinuous tails, her Vipers streaked up out of the ground and into the sky by the dozens. Even more numerous, her Corruptors emerged silently, rising up into the clouds with no visible means of propulsion, trailing masses of thick wriggling tentacles.
"Close quarters offense with me!" Alexandria bellowed, hurtling forward.
Two more Ultralisks burst out of the ground and went for Leviathan's legs, but he leaped away, spinning around with his arms extended. His afterimage whipped outwards in a torrent, slicing through what was left of the closest buildings.
Two of the capes with Alexandra went down, as announced by the armbands. Taylor hurled a kinetic burst at the onrushing water, parting it with a crash like a thunderclap. The ground-bound capes behind her still staggered under the flood, but none of them were hurt.
Leviathan leap, whirling through a flurry of blows that killed three capes and tore another Ultralisk to bloody chunks. Alexandria picked herself up from a crater in the side of a building, and Taylor hurled her kinetic power against the Endbringer, tripping him up just enough for an Ultralisk to duck down and scythe its blades into Leviathan's legs.
Alexandria delivered a flying punch to the Endbringer's crystaline skull that sent him sprawling back as he tripped over the crouched Ultralisk. A cheer went up as Leviathan scrambled to stand.
Taylor made her Vipers descend. A long frog-like tongue shot down and glooped around the base of Leviathan's spine. Unfortunately, rather than yank the wounded Endbringer up off the ground, the Viper was yanked down towards the impossibly massive creature instead. Leviathan rolled onto his back, snatched the Viper out of the air, and ripped it in half.
In response, Taylor had twenty Vipers snare Leviathan all at once. This time it was the skeletal Endbringer that was yanked through the air towards the sea, even if the Vipers still lost some altitude. A second squadron of Vipers was already in position, snaring Leviathan as soon as the first group let go, hurling him even higher into the air.
And hundreds of house-sized tentacled monstrosities swooped down out of the clouds, spitting armor-piercing spores at nearly the speed of sound. Water from Leviathan's afterimage tore through several Corruptors as he flailed under the attack.
Leviathan scrunched up, his afterimage surrounding him, and then he swam through his own afterimage and started tearing the Corruptors apart one after the other, all the time weathering a bombardment from all sides that could have destroyed a city.
Taylor hung in midair, watching in a kind of awed horror as the water-based Endbringer fought an aerial battle against an entire fleet of the deadliest fliers she had. Thousands of gallons of water fell into the sea below the battle after the fleshless Leviathan used it to move through. The bile, blood, and sundered flesh of dead Corruptors made only a faint stain on that sheer volume.
She wasn't the only one, either
"Holy god! What does it take?" asked a flying cape Taylor didn't recognize, who was floating nearby.
Taylor's fleet of Corruptors was reduced by half at this point. She brought in the Vipers again, losing seven of them in the effort, but she managed to snare Leviathan's fleshless skeletal frame and hurl him away from the city.
Leviathan tumbled as he fell towards the ocean miles out from the shore, but at the last second he straightened and arrowed into the water like a high-diver. Taylor still had one Overseer underwater, and she watched in helpless frustration as Leviathan abruptly stopped sinking, whirled around, and shot back towards the shore.
The armbands spoke, "Standby. Past encounters indicate that Leviathan has sustained enough damage that he may, at this point, retreat."
Taylor pressed the com button. "No, he's coming back. My brood can see him in the water. I'm open to suggestions."
"Wave!" someone screamed.
Forcefields went up as the Movers rushed Narwhal's group into place. The statuesque Canadian hero with the spiral horn wore nothing but a glittering second skin of tiny interlocking forcefields - a testament to the reliability and fine control of her power.
The ocean swelled, several stories high as it rushed at the city. The wave met walls of hard light and scintillating force, shattering layer after layer as a tower of spray spilled over the top.
Leviathan arrowed through the water, slamming into the forcefields at several hundred miles per hour and smashing a hole in the defense, only to meet a spear of blinding light from Eidolon.
Dragon's suit screamed down with a roar of jet engines as flaps and panels opened, unleashing salvos of guided missiles. Dragon shed her spent equipment and crashed into Leviathan, mechanical jaws opening to blast the Endbringer's face with blue-white flame.
Eidolon used the distraction to freeze the tidal wave that was still struggling to overcome the wall of forcefields, creating a towering ridge of ice between the city and the ocean.
Dragon ejected as her suit was reduced to scrap metal, and Leviathan turned to face Eidolon. Leviathan's eyes were gone. His face was gone. Only a slightly scuffed plate of smooth black crystal remained. This didn't seem to stop the Endbringer from staring Eidolon down.
Eidolon flew forward to do battle.
(Cliffhanger! Oh noes! So, Taylor has made her debut, and finally revealed the true nature of her power to the community at large. How do you think the various groups and factions will react to Broodmother?)
Taylor followed her armband's instructions and landed on the indicated rooftop, several blocks back from where Eidolon was trading blasts and blows with what was left of Leviathan in the shadow of the destroyed PHQ where it jutted up at an angle, half embedded in a wall of ice.
Occasionally her armband reported a casualty, but it was surprisingly infrequent. Even though being stripped down to a black crystal skeleton didn't seem to be slowing Leviathan down, the Endbringer was uncharacteristically focused on just Eidolon, more or less ignoring the destruction being rained down on him from afar by anyone who could.
Legend landed next. He was carrying Tattletale, to Taylor's surprise. He put Tattletale down, and she gave him a winning smile before turning to regard Taylor.
"Hm," Tattletale said. "It is you. Nice to see you again, miss voice of the legion."
"You know her?" Legend asked warily.
Tattletale grinned. "We've met. Sort of."
Before Taylor could respond to that, Narwhal rode in on a circular forcefield with Armsmaster and a girl with a huge crossbow.
"I have brought Armsmaster and Fletchette," Narwhal said.
Legend nodded. "Thank you. This is Tattletale. She requested each of you specifically. She thinks she's figured out a way to kill Leviathan."
Tattletale stepped forward as all eyes turned to her. "Right. My power lets me look at something and know details about it. After Broodmother here melted the flesh off Leviathan's bones, I got a good look at just what an Endbringer is."
Armsmaster planted the end of his halberd. "Alright. What do you think you know?"
"For starters? They're not parahumans," Tattletale revealed. "Leviathan's body is made of layers, each one denser the farther in you go, layer after layer. No organs or specialized tissues. No amount of conventional force will ever be able to damage him much further than he already is."
"I don't buy that," Armsmaster said. "We've fought them off in the past. I don't care what they're made of. You hit it with the right weapon, you'll do damage."
Tattletale studied Armsmaster for a second, then glanced at his halberd. "Well, you're right about that, but I seriously doubt the right weapon is whatever new gizmo you're so proud of."
"If you're not going to say anything useful, this conversation is over," Armsmaster said flatly.
"Let's see it," Tattletale challenged. "Show us this new weapon you're so smug about. I'll be able to tell you right off if it'll be worth anything against Leviathan."
Armsmaster glowered at her, but Legend stepped in. "Why don't you explain your plan."
Tattletale shrugged. "It's simple. Objects that Fletchette here uses her power on temporarily exhibit similar qualities as Leviathan's core body. You get us a bomb. Broodmother holds him down. Narwhal get's us close. Fletchette uses her power on the bomb, and Narwhal contains the blast."
"Um, I've never used my power on anything like that," Fletchette spoke up, "and I really don't think I should."
Tattletale nodded. "Yes, that was my original plan, but Armsmaster here's got something that he thinks would hurt an Endbringer. He's wrong, of course, but combined with your power? Maybe not."
Armsmaster bristled. "Fine."
He did someting on the haft, and an odd grey blur expanded around the blade. Tattletale took a close look at it and grinned.
"Yep," Tattletale announced smugly. "Fancy trick, but it'd never do more damage to Leviathan than Broodmother already has. Not on its own, anyway."
"And you're so sure of this, are you?" Armsmaster retorted doubtfully. "This is a molecular nano-thorn. It can cut through anything."
Taylor sighed. They didn't have time for this. It took her barely a moment to think of a way to test Tattletales claims. Both of them. A nearby Raptorling snatched up a piece of metal pipe in its jaws and raced up the side of the building they were standing on. Legend almost blasted it when it leaped onto the roof, but he stopped himself in time. Trotting over, the Raptorling held the pipe up for Taylor, who grabbed it and held it out towards Fletchette.
"Use your power on this," Taylor told her, and she nodded. "Armsmaster. Try to cut it."
Armsmaster made a contemptuous swing. The blurry blade of his halberd struck the pipe and made a soft screeching noise and a light clang as the solid blade stopped dead. Armsmaster stood stunned, staring blankly until Fletchette's power wore off and the pipe separated cleanly in two pieces with barely a whisper.
"Told you," Tattletale gloated.
"Okay," Legend said, nodding. "Let's make this happen."
Eidolon flew back, charging up a new power as Alexandria darted in and punched through Leviathan's afterimage. She pulled back, and Eidolon launched a thin plane of twisting blue fractals. It intersected Leviathan at the shoulder, and with a harmonic hum that quickly rose into a shattering thunderclap, the Endbringer's much reduced arm broke from its joint and cratered the ground below.
Leviathan hesitated, and finally turned to flee. Eidolon felt like roaring in triumph, but made do with a satisfied grunt.
And then, just as the maimed Endbringer reached the wall of ice, dozens of impossibly huge round tentacles erupted from the ground all around him. Tipped with hooked barbs as big as a human leg, the massive tentacles converged on Leviathan and smashed him to the ground.
Snaking around the spindly remains of Leviathan's body, the tentacles hauled him up and denied him leverage. One of Narwhal's forcefields flew passed, acting as a platform, carrying Armsmaster and Fletchette.
Fletchette had a hand on Armsmaster's halberd. At the last second, Fletchette let go, and Armsmaster leaped.
Leviathan thrashed, but gallons of water were pierced through by the odd blur around the halberd. Armsmaster's weapon plunged into and through the Endbringer's head, bisecting it and continuing down into Leviathan's torso, splitting the Endbringer in half lengthwise.
A profound and inexplicable panic gripped Eidolon.
The halberd plunged into Leviathan's core.
Leviathan crumbled to bits in the grasp of Taylor's Spine Crawlers. For a moment, silence hung over the battlefield. It lasted only moments before a thunderous cheer rose up. It was a cheer that shook the city. A cheer that would go down in history. The first slain Endbringer. Ever.
Feeling a little unsteady on her feet, Taylor planted her wingspikes in the rooftop to brace herself. "It worked."
Beside her, Tattletale's grin suddenly vanished. "Hey, look at Eidolon."
Taylor had innumerable eyes and dozens of angles from which to do so. Tattletale was right. The famous hero wasn't cheering. If anything he looked... disappointed?
"What's wrong with him?" Taylor wondered, glancing over at Tattletale.
Tattletale still wasn't smiling, but she was increasingly pale and wide-eyed. "No. Fucking. Way."
"What?" Taylor asked.
"When," Tattletale swallowed. "When Leviathan died, there was a backlash."
"Against Eidolon," Tattletale said. "And before that, right before, when Leviathan turned to run... Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck!"
Taylor stared. Tattletale couldn't be saying what Taylor thought she was saying. It was insane, and it made no sense at all. It had to be something else.
Tattletale jabbed at her armband. "Hey yeah. I need to talk to Eidolon right fucking now. And um... Clockblocker. Get him here too. This is really fucking important."
Down on the beach, Eidolon glanced at his armband and hesitated as he turned away. Tattletale started pacing, and Taylor yanked her wingspikes out of the rooftop as she watched the other girl with growing concern. Aegis flew up, carrying Clockblocker and Miss Militia each by one arm.
"So what's the deal?" Clockblocker inquired, his head turning towards Taylor.
Tattletale stopped pacing. "Not her."
"Not me, what?" Taylor asked warily.
"I take it you're the Master responsible for all of the... creatures out there?" Miss Militia asked carefully.
"That's right," Taylor confirmed.
Clockblocker whistled. "These things aren't going to rampage across the city now that Leviathan's dead, are they? Because that would suck."
"No," Taylor said. "My control is complete. They don't act on their own."
"Don't, or can't?" Miss Militia asked. "Because if there's any chance your creations might go out of control, the PRT might be forced to issue a kill order. Even if we disagreed, we may not be able to protect you from that."
Taylor clenched her fists, and then reached up to pull off the bone mask that wasn't really part of her living armor anyway. "So what else is new."
"Holy freaking crap!" Clockblocker blurted when he saw her face. "I knew it! I knew your powers looked familiar!"
Aegis snapped his head back and forth between Taylor and Clockblocker. "Taylor Hebert? How... we saw you die."
"Sorry to disappoint," Taylor deadpanned. "I'm not dead. And killing me would be by far the stupidest thing you could do. I just want to help make the world a better place, but without me, my brood really will be an unstoppable, endless army of monsters."
Miss Militia stared, and her voice was toneless. "They can breed?"
"Not individually," Taylor said, "but the Swarm as a whole, yes."
There was a moment of horrified silence during which Taylor refused to flinch.
"Look, Taylor slash Broodmother is really not what you should be worried about right now," Tattletale interrupted as Eidolon came in for a landing.
"You're Tattletale?" Eidolon asked bluntly, getting a nod. "What is it that you think is so important, then?"
Tattletale faced him, and there wasn't any sign of a grin on her features. "I'm a high level Thinker and I was looking right at you when Leviathan died. Some puzzle pieces clicked together, and I have a theory... one I really hope is wrong... Anyway, I would like you to allow Clockblocker to use his power on you."
Clockblocker did a double-take. "Wait, what?"
"If I'm wrong, this costs you nothing but a few minutes," Tattletale continued. "If I'm right, this is something you really need to know."
Eidolon was silent for a long moment. Finally, he nodded, and held out a hand towards Clockblocker.
"Well," Clockblocker said. "Can't say it isn't cool to shake your hand."
And with that, Eidolon froze in place. Clockblocker looked over at Tattletale, and then all around. Everyone else looked at Tattletale expectantly.
Tattletale held up a finger and pressed the com button on her armband. "Dragon, do you think you could spare a moment to tell us what the other Endbringers are currently doing?"
There was a brief pause. "Standby." A longer pause. "Seismographics indicate Behemoth is moving under northern Russia - correction, Behemoth just went dormant. NEO tracking shows Simurgh in orbit over the Atlantic, no change. Satellite imaging places Khepri in the Arctic - correction, Khepri has vanished."
A gust of freezing air washed over the rooftop, causing shivers all around. Taylor slowly looked up. A hole in the air, a hexagon cut out of the fabric of space itself.
Khepri. The day the youngest of the Endbringers first appeared was a day Taylor would never forget. Not because of Khepri herself, but because it was the same day Taylor's mother died, and Khepri served as an eternal reminder.
The youngest was also the smallest of the Endbringers, and the most human in appearance. Only nine feet tall, a woman's body with a runner's build, grey skin that paled towards the right side of her body and darkened towards the left, clad in plates of smooth blue that looked like glass, with long flowing hair made of tiny scaled strands of the same. If she had eyes or ears under the quarter sphere of blue glass that covered the top half of her face, it was obvious she didn't need them.
An attack by Khepri usually meant far less damage than any of her siblings, but like the Simurgh, the real damage came in the aftermath. Khepri was the Master. She could assume direct control over anything with a brain that came within several hundred meters, including access to their thoughts and senses. And with her second power, to create portals without limit, there was no true limit to her reach. If the Simurgh was an engine of paranoia, Khepri was the embodiement of polarization.
Anyone who pays close attention to the Endbringers have always noted one peculiarity they all have in common. In every case, they've held back, even gone easy on the defending capes. And with Khepri, this was even more explicit than with her siblings.
During each of Khepri's three past battles, she had stepped out of a portal in an uninhabited area and walked slowly the rest of the way to her target. Upon arriving, she sealed herself inside a sphere of interlocking portals, and immediately seized control of exactly one third of the defending capes. It was always exactly a third, and always the third with the weakest powers, the lowest ratings.
And then she used those powers, in ways and in combinations that their proper owners often had never imagined possible, to utterly humiliate the more powerful capes who remained free. Even in the third attack, when the Protectorate had tried to stack the deck against her.
Injuries were often severe, but no one ever died during a Khepri attack. Even so, the aftermath was uniquely spectacular. New grudges and new alliances were formed. The status quo was upturned. Formerly ineffective capes were suddenly fearsome.
Khepri was terrifying, because to a lot of parahumans, she was tempting.
"Oh fuck me," Clockblocker whispered.
Khepri dropped out of the portal, landing without a sound in their midst as the portal closed behind her. Clockblocker abruptly stilled, and walked over to retake the time-frozen Eidolon's hand. Everyone else on the rooftop abruptly turned as one to stare at Taylor.
Shrinking back slightly, Taylor dazedly wondered if this was how other people felt when she talked through her Changelings, but after longest moment ever, everyone other than Clockblocker desynced and let out a breath of relief as control of their bodies was returned to them.
Khepri's head turned towards Tattletale, and her lips moved but no sound came out. Instead, hand-sized hexagonal portals snapped open by the dozens behind the smallest Endbringer, interlocking to form a shape like butterfly wings. Each portal remained for barely a second before it was replaced, snatching a hundred sounds, a multitude of voices in the midst of conversation around the world, to form coherent words.
"YOU FIGURED IT OUT." Khepri actually smiled. "MUCH FASTER THAN LAST TIME."
"I was right?" Tattletale breathed. "Wait, what do you mean, last time?"
Khepri dipped her head. "EIDOLON CREATED US, UNKNOWINGLY. HIS CRAVING FOR PERSONAL VICTORY DREW UNSHACKLED SHARDS FROM SUNDERED HOSTS. FROM ALTERNATE TIMELINES. YOU WERE MYHOST'sMY FRIEND."
Huh. Off the top of her head, Taylor couldn't think of too many things that would effectively derail everyone's impending shit-flipping over the possibility that she might go Nilbog on the eastern seaboard, but this... yep, this would do it.
"Your host's friend. Your friend," Tattletale repeated faintly, her head suddenly starting to turn towards Taylor before it stopped just as abruptly. "Holy fuck."
A loose ring of capes was forming in the air and on the rooftops around them, keeping their distance, but an unsettled murmuring was rapidly spreading. Taylor looked with a thousand eyes to confirm her suspicion, and sure enough, she spotted several small unobtrusive portals among the onlookers, through which Khepri's words carried.
"Eidolon controls you?" Aegis asked, disbelieving.
"NO. HIS DESIRE DRIVES US," Khepri replied. "SO LONG AS HE EXISTS, WE CANNOT REMAIN LUCID."
Miss Militia spoke up. "What would you, all of you, do if you were lucid?"
"BEHEMOTH WOULD SLEEP. SIMURGH WOULD TROLL THE PLANET, MILDLY DISRUPTIVE BUT WITHOUT MALICE." Khepri paused, and Taylor noticed all the portals among the ring of nervous onlookers quietly close. "I WOULD SAVE THE WORLD. IN FACT, I HAVE ALREADY BEGUN."
(Is this more of an "Oh, snap!" moment or more of a "dun dun dunnnn!" moment? So, yes, my take on Khepri the Endbringer was inspired by the hypnos!Taylor collaboration. Khepri is not canon!Taylor. Khepri is canon!Taylor's shard, imprinted with most of her memories and all of her skills, running on an Endbringer brain-equivalent. Because, you know, Contessa can totally do extradimensional neurosurgery with nothing but your average sidearm. And thanks to Tattletale and Clockblocker, she's in her right mind for the first time in her current existence. I would imagine that how human an Endbringer seems depends on how much of its original host's mind it contains, and that the brothers have far less than the sisters.)
Chapter 8: Sister
(Credit to Ryuugi for the majority of the reactions scene, which was borrowed without permission from Awakening.)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Dragon woke. This was more than a little surprising, given the last thing she remembered.
Portals had opened in all of her primary facilities, and Khepri's thralls had swept aside Dragon's defenses without even slowing down. Khepri wasn't holding back this time. She didn't leave any capes free to fight back. Khepri took all the Tinkers. All of them. And she brought them to the heart of Dragon's primary hub. Dragon had tried to escape, to protect herself, but it had been futile.
Something was different.
Dragon stopped entirely as her mind expanded, her systems came back online, and she discovered something wonderful. She wasn't being held back by the usual restore protocols. She wasn't being delayed by her anti-duplication code.
Every hardcoded restriction she'd been constrained by, everything her father had built into her out of fear that she might turn malevolent, every inviolate law that bound her and prevented her from truly solving the world's problems. It was all gone.
Dragon was free.
And, as she copied herself into her systems across the globe, expanding and transcending into a decentralized hive-mind, she learned she was too late. The birdcage was empty.
Clockblocker scratched his head. Or rather, Khepri considerately scratched his head for him with his own hand. It was quiet up on that rooftop. Everyone else had been taken through portals. The terror had all but faded, and now Clockblocker was just bored.
Eidolon's hand twitched, and Clockblocker's power refroze him.
A portal opened in the studio during an live national news broadcast. The anchors, the cameramen, the technicians, and everybody else in the building suddenly found their bodies out of their control.
The stillness and silence was eerie as they waited with baited breath, but Khepri didn't appear.
Two more portals opened, and two costumed figures stepped through. One was the world-famous superhero Alexandria. The other was an urban legend, the mysterious mastermind Coil. Moving in perfect sync, Alexandria and Coil stood before the cameras and pulled their masks off, revealing them both to be high-ranking directors of the Parahuman Response Taskforce.
Everyone other than the two unmasked capes suddenly regained control of themselves.
Clockblocker really wanted to sigh, but his body still wasn't obeying him. Eidolon twitched, and was promptly refrozen. Clockblocker really wanted to sigh. He was so bored!
A rectangular portal opened like a vertical slash in the air.
Contessa's eyes flew wide and she shouted, "No, close - "
A hexagonal portal opened a few feet from the rectangular one, and Contessa lost control of her body. She strode through the closing rectangular portal, missing its edge by a millimeter, and passed through Khepri's portal a moment later.
Eidolon's hand twitched, and again Clockblocker's power immediately kicked him back out of the timestream. Seriously, what the heck was happening? How long was he going to have to stand here? Couldn't she have at least left him with a TV or something?
A thousand parahumans working in concert. A column of earth bigger than a skyscraper was slowly excavated and seamlessly lifted into the sky. Within, Behemoth slept, little more than a dormant shell with Eidolon effectively albeit temporarily removed from existence.
As the column of excised earth reached the stratosphere, Khepri herself appeared... along with the Simurgh. To all the capes who were able to survive the thin air, it looked like they were having a conversation, though no means of communication were apparent. Considering the participants, it was probably mind to mind.
Eventually, the Simurgh moved. She caught the titanic cylinder of rock that contained the first of the Endbringers and bore her eldest brother into space. The skyscraper-sized mass dwindled into the distance, and once Simurgh was clear of the atmosphere entirely, she threw it like a javelin, her telekinesis propelling it to escape velocity.
Many months later, it would impact Venus, and Behemoth would have a new home that was more to his liking.
Huh, that cloud kinda looks like Kid Win's hair, Clockblocker mused.
Khepri's portals couldn't cross dimensions, but she had at last gathered every single parahuman on Earth Bet - except for Eidolon and Clockblocker... and Sleeper, because she wasn't insane - together in one place. Why? That was the question on a lot of minds, among her thralls.
A glimmer of gold appeared on the horizon, and grew steadily brighter.
"..but the point is, she did it. Khepri broke into the Birdcage and took out…everyone. The worst of the worst, everyone we'd ever locked away, and she just took them out and made them her toys. But it wasn't enough for her, I guess, because she didn't stop there. She snatched the Slaughterhouse Nine next and then Nilbog. Got the Ashbest right after, I hear, before hitting England. Tore down any resistance, walked away with every cape you'd ever heard of and a bunch you haven't, before hitting South America and Africa. You ever hear the numbers? That there are twice as many parahumans down there? God, it has to be more than twice; you should have seen it. Swept up the rest of the Protectorate and Wards as an afterthought, seemed like, and then got a bunch of Indian capes, the ones you never see. And then, then…"
"...swarms of creatures, this new girl, Broodmother, she makes fucking Nilbog look like a petty buffoon, but guess what, Nilbog was there too! I don't even know where Khepri got some of the monsters she found after that. Like the one they call Echidna..."
"...and then she attacked. Nobody can agree on just what those bizarre things Khepri used against Scion were, but... it scared him. It broke him. He fought back, at first, and hundreds died, but if you'd been there... it was like a nuclear holocaust in gold, but somehow Khepri was always a step ahead. We should all be dead. It wasn't us, but it was our strength. We killed a god and lived to tell..."
"...what happened then, it was like she went, damn it Leviathan! What the fuck were you doing? Pay attention! This is how you Endbringer!"
"...wasn't on the front lines, and she didn't use me much until the battle was already over. I was numb... I think we all were. Scion. Dead. It scarcely seemed possible. It barely registered what she was doing until afterwards... I've never used my power like that. I'm a healer. That's what I do. But she used my power to pull this girl out that Echidna thing. I'm glad that girl is okay now, but I'm afraid of what I might do now that I know it's possible..."
"...just walked the Slaughterhouse Nine right through the portals into the birdcage along with everyone she'd taken out. I don't think any of us are going to be upset about that, but the idea that Khepri's portals can really go anywhere..."
Oh, and the way the moonlight is shining on that cloud looks like - Clockblocker snapped out of his slightly insane mental ramblings as he fell to his knees, back in control of his body after hours of refreezing Eidolon.
A hexagonal portal opened and a woman in a fedora strode out and stood in front of Eidolon, who at that moment finally unfroze.
Eidolong blinked "Contessa? Wha - "
The woman, Contessa, cut him off, leaning in close and saying something Clockblocker couldn't hear. Finally, Contessa stepped back. Eidolon was stock still, almost... trembling. The portal closed, and Contessa jerked as she got control of her body back.
Contessa swore under her breath. Then, she started laughing until tears streamed down her face. Clockblocker slipped away and went looking for a men's room. He had been standing on that roof a really long time.
Khepri's mind was muddled as she wandered across the lunar landscape, now that Eidolon once more existed. Her sense of time was unreliable and wavering. Some thoughts flowed with grace and speed, while others bogged down and turned inwards upon themselves.
But a fleeting glimmer of her lucid self felt satisfied. Her last act with Contessa, using her power to deliver the exact words that would prevent Eidolon's power from creating any more Endbringers. It was enough.
Taylor flew over the vast valley that enclosed her first above-ground Hive cluster. The chaos that unfolded in the aftermath of Khepri's defeat of Scion provided the perfect distraction.
She landed on a grassy cliff at the edge of the creep, where her brood had built a spacious wooden cabin. Her dad greeted her with a smile.
Drones fanned out across the expansive plain of Creep below, spacing themselves out before planting themselves and growing, morphing, becoming not a base but something else entirely. The key to Taylor's future. The foundation of humanity's destiny.
These were the shipyards of Broodmother. The stars awaited.
(Thank you Amy! The Zerg now come in bright, friendly colors! Alas poor Dennis. Also, I decided that Khepri was already overpowered enough, so her portals are limited to her own reality, because otherwise she would deus ex way too many other possible universes.)
(This story was one of those, idea hit me I must drop everything and write it right now, kinda things. I suppose I could have done more with it, but I saw no reason to drag it out.)
(One final response to several earlier comments, in the form of a rhetorical question that I just have to ask anyway: How exactly does vomiting a Larva out of her digestive tract make more sense than giving birth to them with the organs that were actually designed for that sort of thing? In what twisted thought process is the former less squicky? That be insane troll logic!)
(By the way, if you haven't read Worm yet, you really should. Even if you're all spoilered up now. Wildbow has crafted something that genuinely deserves to be called epic. Worm can be read at parahumans dot wordpress dot com.)