Chapter One: Salvation
On a mountaintop, the Dark God of Morning bore his pain like a badge of honor. Above him, the world grew dim as great clouds of soot and ash rose high into the stratosphere until finally cut off by the edges of the atmosphere itself. Even now, great stones fell upon the earth, one such rock striking him and immediately shattering.
He bore the impact stoically, even as his anguish drove him nearly mad.
His voice full of rage and pain, he called out into the aether, "Why? Why have you done this?" And then, ″I will destroy you all!″
This last was said in a howl, his voice rising above the storm, as if to reach beyond the clouds above to those Entities that lurked there. He could sense their satisfaction at his pain, and hatred touched him for the first time. He'd nurtured his children for so long, the spark of the divine he'd placed within them finally coming to fruition after these endless eons, only to lose them when they were close to growing into their potential.
It seemed but a moment ago when he had touched a series of tiny creatures whose dull minds seemed ill suited to any possibility of growth and development. But the spark he had placed there had, over time, slowly nurtured that intellect. Offshoots had diminished and ultimately perished, but the main line had remained true. As giants grew to roam the earth, they had stayed smaller, but with that size, cooperation and a sense of unity had bound them.
Along with that unity, intellect had slowly developed, and if it was a cold one, still it flourished. But warmth would have come, perhaps in a few dozen more millennia, or if not then, then in a hundred times that time frame. But it would have come in the end.
In the meantime, these children of his had erected a city, living in close proximity to one another, even as they used their sense of cooperation to hunt their larger, more individually dangerous cousins. Over time, as he had made contact with them, they had come to worship him. The power from that worship had grown, filling him with so much of the Divine that Balsagoth had overflowed with it.
Not that it was truly worship he sought. No, it was more to fill the gnawing loneliness of endless time alone that he had created his children, nurtured them, so that one day they could take their places next to him, making the long years ahead something to look forward to instead of something to fear.
Into this situation had come the Others, beings also brimming with the Divine, having arisen with the creation of the world, just as he had. At first, he'd welcomed them, these visitors from parallel realities, as they brought surcease to that loneliness that he had tried for so long to ease. On the surface, they seemed also to welcome knowledge of his existence.
For a time, they had danced around one another, Balsagoth and these others who so intrigued him. They had communicated ideas of friendship and alliance, learning and teaching in equal measure. But they turned out to not be friends or allies, sneaking behind his back to try to seduce his children from the Way. That they had failed mattered not.
Although it was that very lack of success that had led to this day. The Others had executed a plan whose culmination involved an immense rock from the outer depths of the solar system being lured off course, targeted upon those who were his. When the asteroid had impacted the world, it had been like a bolt of lightning racing down the very depths of his being. He had known what was happening, albeit too late to stop it.
The great burning crater stretched far across the peninsula and out into the waters of the gulf, immensely deep. The tiny handful of scattered sparks that remained had winked out even as Balsagoth sought them out, trying to preserve at least a handful. But it had been in vain as the last were extinguished long before he reached them, the heat and pressure far too great for mere mortal life to bear
Of course he knew what the next step would be. Gathering the terrible energies of a Child of the Elder Earth around him, Balsagoth prepared himself for battle. He'd never forged weapons of war or destruction, never seeing the necessity when he was the only one. Instead of a warrior, he had always been a shepherd. Now he longed for something with which to destroy his enemies rather than the simple staff he'd created in the Beginning. Still, Umrahnuha would have to suffice.
Taking his staff in hand, Balsagoth rose upon the winds of fate to do battle against his enemies. Today might mean his end, but that was something with which he could make peace with should he be able to take his enemies with him.
The terrible battle raged on for endless days, as prodigious powers were expended on both sides, making the earth beneath tremble. The clangor of was far louder and more intense than even the lingering traces of the great impact that had shattered the earth miles below. As creatures as old as the very universe that had spawned them waged war, they traveled across other worlds and realities, scourging them free of life. Death came to trillions and still the battle went on. Divine energies were released until the very walls of reality trembled. Until, at last, those energies began to dwindle as their wielders grew weary.
It was in that moment that the battle ceased, as the many overcame the one. It was a Pyrrhic victory as the cost had been too great. Despair rode the cosmic winds as beings in every reality wept for what had been lost. Every being but one.
Balsagoth shook the metaphysical chains of his prison. He felt bitter satisfaction that none of his foes would benefit from the cleansing of his world, or his own imprisonment. Their own peoples, so long hidden away, had perished during the Great Combat, as he pitted his own Divinity against theirs. The sheer number of worlds that had been devastated and depopulated rose into the tens of thousands, but he only regretted the loss of one.
After all, it was the Others who had sought him out. Who had invaded his world, attempting to seduce with words of friendship and welcome, even as they planned his demise. So he had destroyed them, ultimately reaching out and using the very fires of the stars themselves to scourge his foes' worlds clean of life as he attempted to to snatch a form of victory from defeat. Or perhaps all that he had accomplished was mere vengeance. Not that it mattered to the trillions who had died.
Because the Others would not perish immediately. No, they would continue to exist in a sense, if vastly diminished through their final use of Power to create the prison and bonds with which they had bound him. Their sacrifice to bind him would ultimately prove to be their undoing. Without worshipers, they would never grow stronger, or heal, and eventually would fade into nothingness, their stories lost to time.
Balsagoth no longer fought his bonds. Instead, he would conserve his Divine might. He might be bound for millions of cycles, until such time as the tiny Spark that he had hidden upon the opposite side of the world flowered anew. It was the final part of a many tiered plan that he had executed even as he fought. Almost he touched Prophecy so that he might know if he were ultimately successful, but it the end, chose ignorance over the risk of guttering like a candle in the winds of time. The energy required to bridge such a gap was simply to great for him, reduced as he now was.
Instead, he rested, as stone by stone, the Others sealed his prison. Lambent eyes glowed with brooding satisfaction in a face seemingly carved from obsidian as he contemplated their demise and his own ultimate triumph. He would one day be free from this prison. Whether the world he emerged into would be worthy of him remained to be seen. Regardless, he would continue on, for tenacity was at the core of his being.
Ages passed. Untold millions of years. Continents changed, ocean levels rose and fell. Great sheets of ice covered the world, then receded over time. Species arose, lived, and died, swept away upon the sands of time. Many, many things changed, even as others remained the same.
In the fullness of time, a dominant species once more arose upon the Earth. More intelligent than any other that the Earth had nurtured in past eons, it flourished and rapidly spread all across the globe. Technologically savvy, it soon was harnessing the power of wind and water, then that of the vast lakes of fossil fuels that lurked within the world. Finally, it reached out for the power to split the atom and mastered this as well, even if only mostly.
After all, there was a spark of the divine within them. Although they did not know it, there existed within themselves something that was greater than that of the mere animals around them. Religions rose to answer the questions that they had about what happened to them after their physical bodies perished. No answers ever truly came, but the questions remained, as troubled minds sought in futility.
A short time later, the second greatest event in their short history happened to this species upon a green planet circling a small yellow star. They were discovered by two members of a species which had a long history of seeking answers. Unfortunately the questions they sought answers for were ones which would have far reaching consequences to the dominant species of this world. Consequences which would ultimately prove fatal if nothing else changed.
But in this, as in all things, fate, kismet, call it what you will, reached out skeletal fingers to stir the pot. One of the two members of the questioners perished upon contact, while the other fell into depression and pain. Still, parts of their plan to find answers were enacted and billions of shards of their very being were spread far and wide across the world.
One such shard brought forth powers of invention from a member of the dominant species. That inventor harnessed this power, and using it, reached out and tore asunder the walls of reality, touching another running on a parallel track and leaving a hole there. A gap bridging realities that no one else could close.
The inventor also, though he didn't know it, weakened the walls of a prison that had been crafted more than sixty-five million years before by a group of Entities who even the questioners might have avoided if they had know about them. But those Entities were long gone, the one for whom they'd crafted the prison weakened by the river of time.
The being known as Balsagoth might never have broken free if not for a human melded with the shard of what one might describe as an immense space whale, although that description fell far short of what they truly were. Still, he did break free.
It was a year that described as occurring two thousand and ten after the supposed birth of the savior of one of the dominant religious groups. It was a season when the northern hemisphere of the world was tilted away from its star, reducing solar radiation, and allowing snow to fall upon many parts of that same hemisphere. It was a day that fell just a few short of the one that celebrated the birth of that selfsame savior.
That was the day when the walls of a prison formed all those years before finally fell. Upon that day, Balsagoth was free.
And the world trembled.
Free! Free at last!
Balsagoth reveled in his freedom as he rose upon powerful hind legs and roared his defiance to the skies!
The sound echoed across the peaks of a vast mountain range that was far south of the former home of the beings who had once worshiped him.
But those beings were dust eons ago, and Balsagoth lived once more. He took in a lungful of bitterly cold air, savoring the taste of something untainted by the destruction of those who were his. Then turning immaterial, he rose like smoke into the skies to investigate this new world.
To begin, he traveled to that region that had been home to his deceased worshipers, but found nothing of familiarity there. The vast crater had filled in and the altered coastline left him feeling oddly shaken. He stopped for a moment to briefly mourn their passing before he moved on. They had been cold worshipers, but with the spark of the Divine within them, they might have one day grown into what he so desired. Still, to dwell upon their passing was a moot point. They were gone, the few descendants that still existed not containing even remnants of the Spark that he'd placed within them so long ago.
Discarding the past, he decided to survey this strange new future. Assuming his immaterial form again, Balsagoth rose into the air and began a slow spiral around the world, covering ground far faster than any material being as he surveyed what had happened in the eons while he had slept.
He touched the minds of both the sleeping and awake, and carefully tasted their dreams and memories. Over the next few hours, he took from them many of their languages as well as a sense of who and what they were, both the good and the bad. He watched their actions and accomplishments, what they wanted and what they hoped for, both for themselves and their children. Over time, he discovered that these humans, these beings who had arisen to dominant this world, riding the spark of the Divine he had placed within their ancestors so long ago, far more resembled what he'd yearned to create so long ago. Much more than their reptilian antecedents ever had.
Balsagoth truly believed that one day he would no longer dwell alone, but instead with his children, ascended from these primitive humans. But for that to happen, he would need to be patient and while he waited, grow strong.
The plan he concocted was simple. He would choose a champion from among these humans, someone to represent him. Searching the tongues of humanity, Balsagoth discarded terms which did not apply. Neither a priest nor a paladin did he seek. Rather... ahh, there it was. Avatar. That was who he sought. An Avatar that would be his Divine representative, allowing him to gain a foothold in their cultures. Over time, that champion would draw worshipers to him until he rose unto heights of power that could only have been imagined in eons past.
First, though, he would need to decide what Gifts to give his champion. As greatly diminished as he was, he could not imbue them with too much of his power ere he perish. So he would need to choose wisely. That meant risking Prophecy. However, if he did not, he would doom himself to slowly fade away until he was less than a ghost.
For some time Balsagoth pondered plans. Gifts his Champion would need, and how they would use them. It was then that something impinged upon his consciousness. Something strange. Something Other. More alien than even the Entities all those years ago.
Rising into the air, he surveyed the world, marveling anew at the gift he'd been given of this new existence. That these humans that had arisen from that one small Spark all of those eons ago was fortuitous. They were wonderful and would be perfect for his plans in the days ahead.
But if they were, what then was that sense of wrongness he felt, like some poorly tuned instrument attempting to execute the grandest of rhapsodies? Something dwelt here that should not be and Balsagoth searched for it without surcease.
Now that he was seeking it, he found evidence of its existence scattered all around the world, fragments of something whose wrongness reeked of a subtle sense of rot, of the darkness of the void. All too many of these fragments were bonded with humans. Staring at one such creature, Balsagoth noted that the being, this... human, was overlaid by strangeness, their own brightness distorted as if viewed through smoked glass. The alien presence's tendrils touched all parts of the human's mind and body, affecting it in myriad ways, although he wasn't sure exactly of the method. Their existence was so repugnant to him that he would never accept one as a worshiper. No, they were all in ways the Lost.
However, as strange and alien as these pieces and their hosts were, they weren't the source, instead being mere symptoms of this disease. So he searched further and further afield.
It took more time and distance traveled to find it than he'd imagined, a full day and circling the world twice. The source proved to be elusive. But in the end, he tracked the source down to a golden figure flying over the largest of the bodies of water upon the world heading for a distant conflagration.
Its hideousness filled him with a sense of disgust, that so horrid a creature should even exist. For he could see past its surface appearance to the strands that connected it to a vaster Other that lay in another reality, hidden from the view of those who only saw by the wavelengths of visible light.
For a time, Balsagoth followed the Other at a distance, increasingly wary for it was every bit as powerful as it was horrifying, trying to discern its purpose. From those it encountered, he learned that it was known by the name Scion to the inhabitants of this world and that they believed it to be one of their own. To the humans, it was a hero and the mightiest of a group known as Parahumans. It was also faintly connected to every piece of itself that lay scattered over the world.
Now that he knew to look for them, he could feel just how many pieces of the thing were scattered all over the world. Pieces connected both to it, and to other realities where the greater bulk of those pieces dwelled. Present here were merely the connections that it used to infest its hosts. He soon learned exactly what kind of host these connections sought.
It was in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption upon a chain of islands in a vast ocean that Balsagoth saw a connection formed for the first time. He'd followed the Abomination, refusing to even think of it by the name these humans called it,, while it played at helping those who were injured. It wasn't long after that he spotted something that filled him with rage.
A human youth lay dying, pinned by a mass of plant matter that smoked and smoldered, injured and alone. As Balsagoth watched, he could feel the stealthy approach of one such piece. The connection seemed to consider the child, then like a predator, leaped upon it, and became one with it. The result healed the child, but what rose up was no longer human. Neither was it a member of the Abomination's own race, but rather some bastardized experiment.
He did not understand what was the Abomination's purpose for doing this. The results were clear, however. The child now possessed a strange affinity for thermal radiation, able to shape it in ways that the rest of humanity could not. There was also some form of mental manipulation going on, something that focused upon creating... conflict? Perhaps. Regardless, it was not a benefit to the species he had willed into being so long ago.
Almost, he drew Umrahnuha and slew it. His staff would account for such as this. But to do so would expose his presence to the Abomination. That one, he could not overcome. Perhaps when he was at the peak of his strength all those turns ago he could have defeated it. Perhaps. But now, he would be unable to stand against it.
Balsagoth returned to the one responsible for all of this, pondering the enigma of the Abomination. Slowly, he circled the other, while maintaining his distance, all the while probing for information. But it was a conundrum. Cloaked in shadows, its motivations hidden, he could not discern its true purpose. The only thing he could see were the trails descending through the dimensional barriers, as if only a piece of the creature were here. Not that he had the strength to follow those trails as he'd once had.
But neither could it sense him. Less than a ghost, Balsagoth rode the winds, paralleling Scion's flight, while still staying at a distance. He would need to figure out another path to victory. Something other than brute force.
As he considered the matter, brooding darkness twisting his features, an idea arose within him. Yes, that would work. That would work quite well. Now to find the Champion to represent him in the contest with the Abomination. Because contest it would now be, rather than the seduction he'd originally planned.
In the days that followed, Balsagoth sought high and low for one who would be his Champion, his Avatar, to represent him in the great struggle against the invader. He needed certain qualities. First, they must be strong of will. But not so strong that they refused his counsel as he whispered subtlely in their dreams while they slept.
Second, they must be someone who considered things, not just someone who sprang into action based purely upon emotion. Not too cold, for that would not serve him here, but rather possessing a strong sense of self-control.
Third, they must understand subtlety, for therein lay the path to victory. Whether cruel or kind, violent or gentle, so long as they understood the nuance in all things, they could be led to victory.
Fourth, they must be young, for only in naivete of youth could hope and belief be twisted with lies and misdirection. Too old and they would refuse to believe, their mind descending into madness rather than worship. And make no bones about it, he sought worshipers who would return him to the pinnacle of his strength so that he could contest with the Abomination directly. But to get there, he needed to progress along a path that they broke.
Lastly, they needed to live in an environment conducive to his cause. One where hope and joy had been crushed under the boot of harsh necessity, but not completely eradicated. Such a place could be used as a lever into humanity's consciousness, bringing them to him as they sought what had been taken from them. A Champion there would be infinitely more effective than one where everyone lived lives of safety and ease.
All of those things and more Balsagoth found in a small city on the eastern coast of the large land mass the humans called North America. It, and much of the area surrounding it stretching all the way to the opposite, belonged to one of the most technologically savvy of the tribes that existed upon this world. One known as the United States.
The city was a combat zone for Parahuman strife as the Lost fought one another for rulership of the city. Here, there were suitable children aplenty. But it was one, a girl child who most intrigued him. Subtle and cruel, she had been forged by adversity into something that could suit his purpose. Here Prophecy served him well as he could feel her potential for greatness.
Standing invisible within her home, Balsagoth studied her, this being whose designation was Emma Barnes. Eyes hard and critical, he contemplated how he would put her to use. Aesthetically pleasing to these humans, he could see how she would draw others to her with both her appearance and force of personality. That would suit him, as charisma was one of the attributes he sought allowing her to influence others.
Determination and fortitude were others. Balsagoth watched, feeling disgruntled as the girl frittered away an entire day, doing nothing. Because he would need to study her carefully, he decided to stay nearby for the next few days to see if she would suit.
It was because of that that he discovered her relationship with one of the Lost. This girl, whose surface appearance was diametrically opposite Emma's, was alike in all the ways that mattered, sharing the same subtle cruelty. But she had been bonded with a piece of the Abomination, so she utterly useless to his plans.
That she was close to Emma, reduced the girl's utility for his purposes. However, before he dismissed her and sought another candidate entirely, Balsagoth decided to study her just a bit longer. In the end, it was how he found the One.
The next day, Balsagoth followed Emma to the structure whose purpose escaped him at first. Discovering that it was intended to facilitate learning amused him. He already understood humanity well enough to know that the distractions and social pressures of school made it ill suited for its intended purpose. He dismissed it all as unimportant. After all, what he sought to discover had little to do with how well the girl retained information and everything with how well she handled adversity, bouncing back from the cruel vagaries of destiny.
He watched as Emma interacted with those around her. A queen among her followers, they jostled to find favor with her. All but one, that is.
He found himself vaguely intrigued by the... mouse, yes that was right in this time. The mouse that scurried around the cats that stalked with Emma.
It took little effort to learn that the mouse's designation was Taylor Hebert, it being said in tones ranging from hushed whispers to piercing cries. The mouse ignored them all, as it did the insults heaped upon it. There was a quiet desperation there that drew Balsagoth, as he waited for the frail human's demise.
But this Taylor persevered, even as she was tripped and pushed, made unwelcome in ever more obvious ways. The cruelty of the various insults was lost upon Balsagoth, but he saw their effectiveness in the girl's hunched shoulders and aching sense of loss, even as she pretended studied indifference. When she finally escaped into one of the rooms presided over by an adult, he found himself amused by her lack of understanding of her role in the world.
After all, there were always those who were different from the rest of a herd, of a species. Those whom the others there singled out for isolation, and oftentimes destruction. This Taylor Hebert was one such ostracized being, albeit one who still fought her fate, railing against destruction.
The next day went similarly, as Emma and her coterie attempted again and again to drive the one that was different from their group. Again and again, the one known as Taylor Hebert resisted those attempts.
Almost, Balsagoth admired her. Such blind determination could be extremely useful if properly applied. However, in such a lost cause, he found himself unable to maintain any sense of respect for it as the foolish creature refused to recognize reality. After all, one could never succeed in winning against so many, especially led by such a charismatic leader.
Still, it was Taylor that he followed home that day, observing her interactions with the male human whose designation was 'Dad'. He read her dreams as she soared as a hero and defeated villains whose features resembled the trio that most tormented her. He continued to watch as she rose from her sleep and once again headed to face her adversaries.
Seeking a reading of the future, Balsagoth manipulated his own Divinity to touch Prophecy. Images assailed him and his teeth clenched. What was this girl that the future trembled at her coming? Should he eliminate her now and forestall the future he saw? Or should he subsume her and make her his own? Troubled, he drifted with the wind as the sands of time continued their relentless march.
It was two more revolutions of the world that found Balsagoth floating high above the earth, feeling strangely indecisive. It wasn't an easy decision to choose his champion, but neither should it be this difficult. Emma Barnes was a good choice, able to accomplish much, especially were he to eliminate both her greatest opposition and greatest distraction now. But upon further consideration, he dismissed her utterly, his thoughts returning to a different girl entirely.
Deciding to take another look at the Abomination while he considered his choice, Balsagoth traveled thousands of miles in an instant. There he stared down upon the Abomination as it stopped a localized weather phenomena known as a tornado.
Deliberately circling the foul creature, he felt his disgust and hatred grow. Following an inward spiral, Balsagoth watched as it gestured and moved. Soon he revolved slowly around it just out of arm's touch, wanting to strike out at it. Then he stopped, cursing himself for his foolishness.
He was no match for the Abomination. Perhaps in the future he would be able to drive it forth, but for now, he had to stay away until he grew much, much stronger. At least the creature didn't know of his own existence, now would he until it was too late, he thought in satisfaction.
Turning to move away, Balsagoth found himself motionless. Turning to face his foe, he met alien eyes, seeing the awareness of his presence there, studying him, as if to weigh the threat that he represented.
How had the Abomination detected him? Was it because he had grown careless and come too close? Or had his hatred and contempt been so intense that it pierced the veil of reality and impinged upon its consciousness? Regardless, it knew he was here now and he was unable to escape its grasp.
Slowly, golden light seemed to emanate from within the figure, reaching out towards Balsagoth. He didn't know what this strange power was, only having observed it once before, but felt that it likely spelled his doom.
Lifting Umrahnuha, Balsagoth used the guttering remnants of Divine Might to strike out at the Abomination as the staff easily parted the golden light. The Fires of Creation tore deeply into the Abomination's breast as he twisted those energies back and forth, sawing the horror nearly in half. An agonizing scream erupted from the other as it was forced into a confrontation with its place in existence, while the golden light vanished. As did the strange effect that had frozen Balsagoth in place.
Racing away, the Dark God of Mourning exulted. He had struck a blow against the Abomination and injured it. The power he had used would linger and fester within its consciousness.. Balsagoth wasn't sure that even if he had been at the peak of his power, he could have slain the creature, but it had surely been weakened.
Unfortunately, it had not been weakened enough. Even now, he could feel it pursuing him, torrents of golden light pouring from within its form. He would have but a short time until it overtook him and he likely perished.
Should he save his strength for the battle, or try to aid these humans who were the children he had so long awaited? Indecisiveness faded as Balsagoth made a decision, deciding to entrust these humans with the future of the world
He would Gift his champion with Healing to allow them to help other as well as themselves. To strengthen their martial abilities, he would give them the Gift of Lightning, able to call down torrents of energy from empty skies. But they would need so much more than just these two minor abilities.
Balsagoth contemplated gifts of Strength or Speed, Endurance or Flight, but none seemed enough. His Champion would soon perish in this strange, violent world if all they had was only such limited abilities. No, he would need to give them more, something greater than all of these.
So Balsagoth pulled a Spark of the Divine from with him and held it in one scaled hand. There in his hand, he could feel its radiance and beauty beating against him, even as he grew significantly weaker. Bringing it to this lips, Balsagoth whispered one word, "Grace." Feeling it take hold in the spark, he bound it to the shaft of Umrahnuha, and cast the staff into the void.
It would find the Champion he had chosen. Once the staff rested in their hands, they would be imbued with Grace, Healing, and Lightning, while the Spark of Divinity within them would slowly expand and grow the more they strove against the chains that Destiny would try to place upon them. Eventually, they would rise to battle even the Abomination with a more or less even chance of succeeding.
Feeling his enemy's presence at his back, Balsagoth spun to confront the Abomination. He drew a different weapon stolen from those Others so long ago and prepared to do battle. At his shoulder, Fate glowered, and he knew he would not survive this battle, weakened as he was far past his ability to sustain himself. So be it.
Beating bat-like wings as ebony as his body, Balsagoth moved to once again battle for his world.
In a simple house on a working class street in a small city on the eastern coast of one of the larger landmasses of the world, a girl slept in a bed, soft and warm. Around her lay the mementos of time past, each precious in some way, photos and other scraps representing memories. Within the girl, lay dreams as myriad and scattered as the items around her room.
For one moment, the girl dreamed of being Alexandria, a hero far above all others. In another, she was popular, surrounded by a flock of friends who loved her. In yet another, she was wife and mother, with children of her own and a husband who loved her dearly.
It was towards this bedroom that an object of power plummeted, guided by Divinity and Will from a being long dead. It had traveled from the far side of reality at a velocity that its inhabitants would have found mindbogglingly. Now the object had found its new master and arrived in a blaze of light as it plunged into the floor by the girl's bed.
There it lay quiescent as the girl slept on, ready to be discovered upon the morrow.
Taylor slowly opened her eyes, blinking against the light inside of her room. Had she overslept? Then her mind cleared and she remembered that school had ended three days before, on the seventeenth of December. She would not need to go back until Monday, January third, giving her just over two weeks at home. Two weeks away from the bullying.
Not that it had been that bad of late. Even Sophia, the most physically overt of her bullies seemed to be easing up on her, while Emma and Madison had barely done more than insult her of late. It was a hopeful sign, indicating that her determination had finally outlasted that of the people who had done their best for the last year and a half to make her life miserable.
Vaguely, Taylor could hear her dad moving around downstairs. He was probably making breakfast before heading to work. Unfortunately, he wasn't going to be getting any extra time off for Christmas since it fell on a Saturday this year. Instead, Danny Hebert would work all the way up until noon on Christmas Eve to try to find work for the men he represented in the Dockworkers Union.
Sometimes, Taylor felt the futility of the work that her dad had dedicated his life to. She felt doubts, on more than one occasion, that her dad would ever make a difference. Instead, he was more like Don Quixote, tilting at imaginary monsters who turned out only to be windmills in reality. Her dad's adversaries weren't actually imaginary, but he had no more chance of defeating them than a man who could not distinguish reality from fantasy.
Sighing, Taylor sat up in bed and swung her feet over the edge. Getting to her feet, she stretched, yawning hugely. She grabbed her glasses off the bedside table and put them on, then headed towards the door. Hopefully, Dad had made something other than oatmeal this morning, she thought. It would be nice to have bacon and eggs, or even French toast for once-
″Ouch! Owie owie ouch!″
Taylor slammed into the floor just a couple of feet away from her door, having tripped over something on the floor. Air whooshed from her lungs, and she lay there a moment, stunned, her knee throbbing from the impact. What the hell, she wondered, her thoughts worked furiously. What had she just tripped over?
Slowly, she rolled over onto her back and sat up, rubbing her knee where she'd banged it against something. Looking back over past her feet, she froze at the sight that greeted her. A staff lay embedded into the floor just in front of her bed, directly in her path to her bedroom door.
To her inexperienced eyes, it looked like something straight out of the book she'd read the evening before. The staff's shaft was a flat black in color, looking as if it somehow swallowed most of the light that touched it, while scattering the rest. Strange crimson runes or glyphs ran along its entire visible length, winding round and round, seeming to glow faintly in the dim light of her bedroom. The staff was more than five inches thick, and more than five feet of its total length rose from the floor, making her wonder at the amount hidden.
Sitting atop the staff was a long, slender crystal, nine inches long and just over a third of that thick, one that appeared to be both clear and occluded at the same time, pulsing with a pale inner light. It's jagged facets were held in the jaws of some strange beast, all ferocious teeth and wide agape jaws. The beast's eyes, chips of a similar material, seemed to stare back into Taylor's, feeling eerily aware.
Where had the staff come from? How had it ended up buried in the floor of her bedroom? What was it made of? These were all questions for which Taylor didn't have even the beginnings of answers.
The staff's heroic proportions were clearly suited for someone a great deal larger than Taylor. She would barely be able to hold it, and her fingers would certainly not close around its girth. As it was, it was nearly as tall as she was, and there was no knowing how much was buried from view, likely protruding out into the room below. Since that room was the living room, she was surprised that her dad hadn't noticed it hanging down from the ceiling when he got up to make breakfast.
Taylor had banged her knee and caught her foot on it, somehow missing seeing something that big in the dim light of her bedroom. To be honest, she didn't know whether to be more embarrassed or frightened at what had happened. After all, something like this appearing in front of a person wasn't normal. She should probably tell her dad about it right away.
Taylor startled at a knock on her bedroom door. "Taylor, are you up? I made breakfast. I'm going to head to work now."
Scrambling to her feet, Taylor pulled open the door to her room to reveal the startled face of her dad. Thinning grey hair framed a pale, tired face, but the smile that stretched the corners of his mouth made laughter lines appear by his eyes. All in all, it was the face of someone who had been knocked down by life, but who refused to acknowledge that he'd been beaten, getting up as many times as he needed to.
Taylor lunged into her dad's arms after a backwards glance behind her at the staff. Hugging him desperately, she waited for him to comment about what was sticking up from her floor. Instead, he hugged her back, then asked, "Something wrong, kiddo? You seem kind of down."
How did he not see the staff, Taylor wondered? It was huge! The failure left her desperately searching for something innocuous to say. What came out was, "I saw a big bug!"
Pushing her out to arm's length, Danny made a show of peering into her room. After a moment, in a voice full of humor, he said, "Well, I don't see one now. Why don't you go down and have some breakfast. I mostly cleaned up already, but if you wouldn't mind washing your plate and what's left?"
Taylor nodded jerkily. "I'll do it. Thanks, Dad."
Leaning in to give her a quick kiss on the forehead, Danny said, "You're welcome, kiddo. See you later."
Taylor watched as her dad headed downstairs then she heard the back door open and close. With one last wide-eyed look back into her room, she headed downstairs to eat breakfast. If she were going crazy, she might as well to do so on a full stomach, she decided.
Half an hour later, her stomach full and the dishes washed and put away, Taylor crept back up the stairs towards her room. She fully expected the staff to be gone, just a vestige of an active imagination. After all, she had stayed up late reading The Sword of Shannara the night before. Maybe she had been sleepwalking when she ran into the staff and it was only a vestige of a dream.
Then again, maybe not. The staff was still embedded into the floor of her bedroom, looking impossibly fantastic and intimidating. Should she try to pull it out? Or was she better off leaving it there and calling the PRT, the Parahuman Response Team, and telling them all about it?
Unfortunately, if she turned out to be the only one who could see and interact with the thing, that might not work out so well. The PHO Boards were full of threads on people who had gone to the PRT insisting that they had some form of Parahuman power, only for it to turn out to exist only in their imaginations. It had likely bred a healthy sense of skepticism on the PRT's part when dealing with potential Parahumans.
No, Taylor didn't want anyone thinking she was crazy. Maybe the best way to prevent that was to at least do as much investigation herself as possible before calling in the authorities. She ignored the tiny voice in the back of her mind that seemed to be saying that it was actually because she wanted to be to be special more than anything else in the world.
Moving forward carefully, Taylor eventually stood directly next to the staff. With an outstretched index finger, she poked at the thick shaft. Once. Twice. Three times.
Nothing happened. It hadn't felt any different from any other item she handled in her daily life. No electric shocks had hit her. It wasn't blazing hot or icy cold. It hadn't broadcast a telepathic message into her head. Neither had she lifted into the air to soar, imbued with the power of flight. Instead, Taylor, and the staff in front of her, both stood exactly where they had a moment before, her on the floor, the staff in front of her embedded into it.
Taylor was beginning to think that maybe the thing was an extreme sort of practical joke from her dad. If so, he was likely lurking somewhere downstairs, only pretending to have driven off to work. Well, she thought, if she was going to go along with the joke, she might as well try to pull the staff from her bedroom's floor.
Reaching out with both hands, Taylor wrapped them around the thick shaft of the staff about halfway down from the crystal atop it. Tugging on it, she realized that it was really stuck. Then she pulled as hard as she possibly could, and it came out of the floor in a rush, almost hitting the ceiling it was so large. That was when the feeling hit her.
That was a sense of percussion, thunder without sound, blowing outward from her, and stirring the contents of her room like a stiff breeze. An intense shock followed, ripping through her body. To Taylor, it felt almost like what she imagined touching a live wire might feel as every muscle in her body locked up into a rictus. Falling sideways onto the floor, just missing the edge of her bed, she lay there with the staff pressed against her chest, somehow the crystal atop now resting against her cheek.
Taylor couldn't breath! It was almost as if the air had grown too gelatinous to draw in, far thicker and more vicious than water. It refused to enter her throat and fill her lungs, clinging to her tongue like tar. Her arms and legs refused to aid her, muscles locked up in a rictus. She couldn't even make a single sound as air also refused to leave her aching lungs.
Oddly enough, despite everything that was going on, Taylor felt no sense of panic. Somewhere deep inside, she knew the sense of calm was a false, knew that she should be trying to shriek her lungs out. But terror and dread had no hold upon her mind. Instead, Taylor was focused upon another far more disturbing sensation creeping through her body.
It started at her toes, then slowly spread through her entire body. It being a sensation of slowly being taken apart and put back together again. Her muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments were all, one by one, being changed. When the sensation reached her head, Taylor lost her senses one by one, first going blind and deaf, then going numb before finally losing her sense of taste and smell.
Again, it was incredibly disturbing, which was likely why her mind had been taken over and artificially calmed. Taylor lay there, completely divorced from all reaction to sensation, as one by one, each of her senses began functioning once more. First, glaring light bloomed before her eyes. Next, she heard sounds, a cacophony of noise and sensation filling her ears. Taylor felt her other senses return one by one, touch allowing her to feel every weave of the clothing covering her body, taste filling her mouth with saliva despite the metallic flavors within, while her nose registered far too many scents to differentiate them all.
Taylor continued to lay there, her muscles finally going quiescent. Then, almost as if it were an afterthought, she remembered how to breath again and she dragged in a huge lungful of air.
Suddenly free, she tossed aside the staff and scurried backwards on hands and knees, sobbing and gasping. The world was blurry and she desperately pulled her glasses off to try to see past them, stunned as the world around her resolved instantly into razor sharpness. Sheer wonderment filled Taylor as she stared at the staff she'd tossed aside, every last detail of the item now visible to her eyesight.
Her new vision was far far better than merely perfect. She could see every last detail of the staff, its straight black length shod in a paler metal on one end, while the other end hosted the beast's head, likely made from the same metal, its agape jaws holding the crystal. Dust flecks danced in the air in the space between it had her, looking almost like floating boulders when she focused her attention upon them.
Taylor became aware of the cacophony that had filled her ears earlier now slowly muting to a level that was bearable. But again, as with her sight, she could hear things she'd never imagined before. Down the street, the Barstows were arguing about money, while across the street on the backside of that block, a barking dog was chasing a hissing cat, their footfalls pattering through Taylor's ears. So many other stimuli danced through her senses, each telling a different story, that it was almost overwhelming.
When had her floor gotten so filthy, she wondered? Hadn't she just swept it the day before? Her hands, which had been resting upon the floor, recoiled as she felt the textures of hundreds of pieces of dirt and debris upon them. Frowning fastidiously, Taylor looked down to see the mess on the floor of her room. Then a moment later, she could smell it, musty and dusty and so much else.
What the fuck was happening to her? What... Like a bolt of lightning, realization filled her. She, Taylor Hebert, was a Parahuman! By touching the staff, something... had happened! Now, she had powers. Powers! She would never be ordinary again.
Fears fading like frost under the touch of the sun, Taylor Hebert effortlessly rose to her feet. She felt strong and graceful, her mind and senses so alert that the world around her seemed like an open book. Feeling a sense of wonderment, she looked down at the staff that lay on the floor in front of her. That was when she realized it had changed.
Whereas before the staff had been been more than eight feet tall and far thicker than her upper arm, now it was barely five. Its shaft was perhaps two and a half inches in diameter now, seemingly sized for her. Even the beast's head and crystal had shrunk and together only added about six inches to the staff's total length. The crystal still radiated the strange pulsing light, and it took only a moment for Taylor to realize the frequency of the light was in tune with the beating of her own heart.
Carefully, she approached the staff, still feeling a bit wary. After all, the last time she had touched it, it had done something to her. Something that had sharpened her senses to the point of overwhelming her. At the same time, Taylor could feel the presence of other strange sensations within her own mind. So clearly handling the thing was not without its risks.
But Taylor refused to give in to her fear, trusting that what had happened was more beneficial than not. Bending down, she slid her fingers around the staff's shaft, easily lifting it from the floor. It's lightness surprised her. It was no heavier than if it were made of foam, yet somehow felt more solid than steel. The dichotomy puzzled her for a moment, then it fell away from her, lost on the wind.
That was weird, she thought. Taylor focused her attention back on the object in her hands. Handling the staff carefully, she realized that its main shaft wasn't metal like she had thought. It felt almost like wood, though not from any tree with which she was familiar. There also appeared to be no grain in the ebony material. Still, there was a warmth against her skin that no metal would ever possess.
The bottom of the staff was shod in a silvery metal that felt as cool to the touch as the other material felt warm. Running her fingers along it, for a moment the strangest sensation filled Taylor, as if she were living more than one life at once. Shuddering, she moved her hands back up.
Turning the staff sideways, Taylor tried to puzzle out the runes that ran along it. They certainly weren't in English, she thought. Then, something touched her, as if a door were opening in her mind. Filled with a sensation curiously like dread, she whispered, "Umrahnuha."
A shiver ran down her spine as she realized that she could understand the strange language which made up the runes. Apparently the staff's name was Umrahnuha. The closest approximation of the meaning of the word in English was a sense of the inevitable. Perhaps that something was destined.
Staring down at the staff, Taylor asked, "Is that your name? Umrahnuha? Destiny? Okay, that's it. Maybe I'm going crazy because now I'm talking to a stick."
Taylor shook her head in derision for talking aloud to an inanimate object, but then she felt something, a sense of... self-awareness, perhaps, coming from the object in her hands. No words were exchanged, but there was a clear sensation of agreement from the staff. From Umrahnuha.
Feeling a little shell-shocked, Taylor muttered, "Fine, then. You're Umrahnuha, the Staff of Destiny. Why are you here?"
Unfortunately, the staff failed to answer her question.
Moving to stand in front of a mirror, Taylor saw a familiar figure in the reflection there. For all that had just happened to her, she should have been taller, more filled out, and utterly beautiful. Instead, the plain wide-mouthed face that Taylor saw every morning in the mirror stared back at her. Worse, her new vision dissected her features like a scalpel, showing just how average she really was.
It was probably best, she decided bravely. It would be hard enough to hide the fact that her vision had improved so dramatically, as well as her other senses. The last thing she needed was to become some paragon, her appearance one of radiant beauty. Still, she felt what might well be other abilities lurking inside of herself. A feeling that sent a flutter down her spine.
If she did turn out to have more than just some physical changes in herself, what should she do with them? The thought of using those abilities to go out and fight other Parahumans vaguely excited her. At the same time, Taylor followed the cape scene close enough to know that solo heroes, especially those who fought the gangs here in Brockton Bay, rarely lasted long.
In the last two years, Darklight, Nimrod, Haunt, Baron Strauss, Keepsake, and Covenant had all burst upon the scene, been talked up on PHO for their exploits, and just as quickly ceased their heroic activities for one reason or another. Three of the six vigilante heroes had died, while the other three had simply vanished, either moving away or changing their name and joining one of the established gangs or the Protectorate. For example, it had been speculated that Keepsake, one of those two survivors, had joined Empire 88 and taken a new name, Rune. It wasn't a fate that Taylor would ever want for herself. And the risk would always be there, unless she chose to join the Wards.
Still, the thought that she might be able to do something other than be a whipping boy for Emma and the others made Taylor want to at least consider trying out the hero thing. Not the Wards, though, as just the thought of yet more teenage angst and drama made her feel vaguely ill. But, instead, on her own, at least for a while.
From the staff in her hand, there was a faint sense of ambivalence, as if becoming a hero was an ambition that was unworthy of it. Still, it wasn't a no. Feeling almost as if she were praying, Taylor quietly said, ″I'll try to be a hero and help as many people as I possibly can. Even if I don't succeed, I'll do my very best. I swear I will.″
Upon those words, a dark god's laughter floated upon the winds...