A/N: Chap 48 review responses are in my forums as normal. And with this, I present the final chapter and epilogue of Quintessence. Thanks to all of you who read along with me. There will be a note at the end.
Chapter Forty-Nine: The Golden Man
Taylor saw that Charles Scapetti's helmet was cracked in half. She could see a trickle of blood on his face as he half-carried the one-legged Davis across the wreckage. He didn't look over his shoulder at where the golden man hung in the sky, glaring down at the Endbringers. Tso had another man over one shoulder, and half-carried Rad Callister with the other.
Only a handful of the rest of their 20-man squad followed. It not the Slaughterhouse Nine, then the brief fight against the Simurgh ravaged the JORD team. A stunned, shaken Panacea followed them.
Behind Taylor, Mujaji floated down with Flechette in her arms. "What's going on?"
Taylor turned to her cape team. "Horizon's gone. I don't think Scion is friendly. We need to get the team and Panacea evacuated."
Taylor had been selective on just how much she told her team. Insight knew everything, as did Dinah. Horizon knew enough; the rest of the team didn't. She could see how the idea of Scion as a hostile made the others tense in alarm.
Insight reached out and gripped Taylor's hand a moment before she jumped to Davis's other side and helped carry her to a waiting transport. "Everyone to the transport," Insight called.
Panacea lingered by Taylor. "You won't need me?"
"We'll need you alive and safe," Taylor said, before sending the other woman on her way.
Campanile stood with Mujaji and Flechette, staring down at Taylor as their PRT agents and Panacea left with Insight and Dragon. "Scion is hostile?" He made no move to evacuate, and neither did Mujaji or Flechette.
The many capes that gathered to fight the Simurgh gathered in confused clumps around the scoured wreckage of the destroyed town, unsure what was happening. Taylor made her way to Narwhal and Chevalier, and her own team followed. The two capes were talking in quiet, urgent tones.
Chevalier saw her first, his face hidden behind his knightly-inspired helm. "Do you know what the hell is going on?"
"Scion is hostile," Taylor said. The words sounded repetitious-strange sounds that tallied together to a terrible, horrifying meaning. She sounded much calmer than she felt. Around her, the Force thrummed with danger so strongly she could almost taste it.
Mujaji stepped to her side. "Q, are you shitting us? Scion's hostile?"
Unable to help herself, Taylor took her friend's hand. "He's always been," she said softly. "But I know how to save us."
Her voice must have caught, because Mujaji frowned intently at her. "Girl, what are you talking about?"
"I know how to stop Scion," Taylor said. "I know how to save the world." Turning, she hugged her friend tightly. Then Flechette. The other cape stiffened a little, like she did any time Taylor hugged her.
Finally, sensing her desire, Campanile knelt down so she could hug him as well. She then turned and left them, walking toward the golden glow.
Ahead, Scion was staring down at the unmoving Endbringers with a sneer. The glow around him seemed to be pulsing. With each pulse, the sense of danger grew stronger. All the noise of the chatter fell away. All Taylor heard was the noise of the wind in her ears, and the whisper of a long-dead master. For love.
Her feet dragged her forward. Her eyes stung and her heart yearned for her to go back; to run with Insight. She didn't; she continued forward toward the Zizzed-up superlaser. The Triumvirate members were floating nearby, perhaps a dozen feet above the ground, and were watching Scion in tense silence.
I don't want to die. I don't want to die. I don't want to die. The words echoed in her mind with each step. She moved under the three Triumvirate heroes until she stood just feet from the Simurgh. Being so close to such a terrible mechanism of destruction should have scared her. But she was already terrified of what came next.
"I don't want to die," she whispered aloud. "I don't want to die."
I don't want my family to die either. Even the sound of the wind faded from her ears.
"I love you," she whispered aloud. Her words echoed in her mind, drowning out the mantra of fear. She couldn't even say who she meant, only that it was true.
Her breathing evened. The Force surged through her like never before, and with a thought she rose into the sky. She thought she heard Alexandria say something, but it didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was Scion.
In the Force, his power was beyond description. What she saw was the smallest, weakest reflection, like a single beam of color from a prism instead of the sun itself. Gold eyes watched her from a perfectly sculpted face, a black beard bristling from his chin. His body looked like a god's, clad in a skin-tight white unitard that had old splatters of blood and dirt on it. He'd never changed it; never cared to.
His body was nothing-just an avatar of sculpted flesh originally designed to facilitate communications with target species. She drifted closer until she felt the odd heat from his golden glow. She was as close to him as any human had ever been to Scion's avatar. With the Force surging, she spoke both verbally and mentally.
"I carry a part of you in me. An administration shard. It's powerful; I've trained it with all the knowledge of your last galaxy and all the power of the Force itseld. And I offer it back to you so you can be stronger."
Despite the Force; despite her determination, her eyes watered and her heart thud painfully as a golden hand reached out and touched the side of her head. She was going to die. She was going to die so that all those she loved would live. It was the best death she could have hoped for.
LET IT DIE WITH YOU.
Agony beyond human understanding ripped through her mind and body. Until, just as quickly, it was gone and Taylor was falling. Impossibly strong arms caught her and she blinked back tears and looked over Alexandria's shoulder just in time to see Behemoth's hand closing on Scion's body. A blast of golden light sent shards of the Endbringer's rocky flesh flying. The powerful avatar surged up with silent rage and struck Behemoth under the chin so powerfully the shockwave of the blow sent even Alexandria tumbling as she carried Taylor.
Around them, capes screamed in horror at the titanic exchange.
"What happened?" the heroine demanded.
"He rejected me," Taylor sobbed. She felt shame at her relief. Shame that she didn't die. "It's how the last galaxy shaped them! The Bendu masters shaped their own shards, and then sacrificed themselves to the Entities to shape them. But he must have known. He won't take my shard in!"
The air shook as Scion turned to attack Eidolon personally, only for Leviathan to slash at him. The air around the hero shimmered for a moment before a fourth and fifth endbringer appeared, each thirty-feet tall and defying description, to create a buffer between Scion and Eidolon.
Alexandria swooped down to the ground where Mujaji, Flechette and Campanile watched.
Nearby, Narwhal screamed over the thunderous fight. "What the hell's going on?"
"Scion is hostile!" Alexandria shouted back the obvious. "Eidolon controls the Endbringers, but Scion is hostile. Spread the word, we need every cape in the country who can fight to join us. Scion is beyond a Class S threat! The whole world is in danger! Every world is in danger!"
Even as Alexandrai said that, Scion ripped one of the new Endbringer's head off and used it as a club against Behemoth. More Endbringers appeared, attacking him. He lashed out with brilliant beams of golden light that did more damage against the Endbringer material than every cape combined had ever done since Behemoth first emerged decades before.
Alexandria herself leapt back into action. Mujaji stared in horror. "The fuck? What the fuck! Q, what the hell is going on? Why's the savior of kittens suddenly killing Endbringers? Why is he hostile all of the sudden?"
It made a horrible sense, though. His partner was gone, so what did he have to live for? But now that Eidolon wielded his own weapons against him?
"He hates us," Taylor said aloud. "He's going to kill the world. We have to fight him!"
"How?" Mujaji screamed. "He just fucking one-shot a fucking Endbringer! How the fuck are we supposed to fight that?"
Taylor took her friend's mask in her own. "We fight together. Take Flechette airborne. She's still our biggest gun. Campanile, I need you to keep me mobile."
"What will you be doing?" Campanile asked.
"Meditating. Helping. Hurry, go!"
The word was quickly spreading as more and more of the assembled capes began to prepare themselves for a battle beyond anything they expected. Campanile held Taylor like a baby as he expanded to his full thirty-feet, while Mujaji carried Flechette bridal style into the air.
In Campanile's massive arms, Taylor closed her eyes as she sank into the Force. She felt the lives of all the capes around, with more coming. She felt their fear at the terrible sight of new, terrifying Endbringers fighting Scion, and knew.
Scion is the enemy of the world, she broadcast through the Force. He will destroy every human in every dimension of earth until the whole race is extinct. If we don't stop him now, untold trillions die. Fight together!
It was not a compulsion. She could not command those around them. Instead, she shared what had to be done, and showed them all how to do it. She'd purposely used Battle Meditation before with JORD, but never like this. Still, the Force flowed, and the gathered capes responded. As more and more capes appeared, drawn by the call of the Triumvirate, they too fell into place.
The Simurgh fired her tinker-tech weapon, firing from below Scion so that the beam didn't split the continental crust. Scion avoided it with contemptuous ease, only to be struck by the combined mass assault of over a hundred blaster capes. The attack didn't move him at all. He responded with a golden bloom that would have vaporized each of the attacking capes if not for a new Endbringer appearing. This one appeared to be a giant, mantis-shaped shadow that absorbed the glowing power before wrapping itself around the entity's avatar.
Scion ripped it apart easily, only for the most powerful brutes in the world to slam into him, led by Alexandria herself. They broke off almost immediately in time for the Simurgh to fire her weapon again. Once again Scion avoided it.
Flechette fired her gun from Mujaji's arms a quarter mile away. A tiny golden dot appeared Scion's shoulder. He jerked back, showing more reaction to her empowered slug than he did to Behemoth. Unfortunately, the reaction was rage. A massive blast of golden light pierced another of Eidolon's endbringers and headed right before Flechette.
Mujaji burst into a streak of lightning as she accelerated as best she could to avoid the beam. Scion's attack gouged the earth behind them, burning a swath a mile long and hundreds of feet deep.
The Simurgh took the opportunity to fire her weapon again. Scion grabbed the scaled down, severely damaged Behemoth and shoved him into the beam. The weapon was so unbelievably powerful that it shattered Behemoth's black, still-living skeleton. The energy released collapsed the earth below them and sent walls of heat and kinetic energy blasting out almost as powerful as a nuclear explosion. Every cape capable of generating shields did so.
Campanile turned and ran. Behind him, out of Taylor's sight, she felt almost half the capes in the theatre die instantly. The ground shook violently; only Campanile's huge size gave him the stability not to fall. He cried out in pain, but he kept holding Taylor protectively in the lee of his chest.
A wave of dust and debris obscured their vision before a massive wave of force thrust all the dust and debris to the ground. Taylor wasn't sure it was Eidolon using his own power, or the Simurgh's telekinesis, but it didn't matter anymore.
Campanile stumbled and fell, shrinking quickly as he did so. Taylor had no choice but to jump out of his arms. Doing so, she turned and saw with horror that his back had been terribly burned. So badly, she could see bits of bone where his shoulder blades should be.
"Force, I can't heal this fast enough!" she said. "Campanile! Are you awake?"
He didn't respond. She reached out desperately, and someone answered. Strider appeared with a harried grimace. He looked at her, then Campanile, and a second later the two men were both gone. Taylor stood alone in a field half a mile from the crater that was all that remained of Dunning, Nebraska.
Despite the destruction, the fight continued. From her distance, she saw how Scion lifted a hand and shattered the Simurgh's weapon. The Endbringer shot up into the sky with a terrific sonic boom to avoid the golden bloom of the entity's matter-destroying beam. Another Endbringer suddenly trapped Scion in a cylinder of energy.
Eidolon was using his new powers to buy time for the surviving capes to regroup. For all his power, though, Scion had more. The entity shattered the cylinder of light and then ripped the Endbringer which created it in half. The surviving blasters fired their various powers, but this time Scion anticipated the attack and negated the energy of the blow with his own attack. Desperately, Taylor sent a warning through the Force and scattered the flying capes, but once again she felt dozens dying in the Force.
Other capes were still arriving through their various means of transport. She sensed thoughts in dozens of languages, and various powers she'd never studied. Massive roots shot from the ground to grab Scion, only to burn instantly.
The sky flashed as streaks of lightning buffeted the golden man; he just shrugged the blow away.
Endbringers attacked in perfect time with each other and the army of capes around them, and each time Scion easily brushed the attacks aside. The sky ruptured with exotic powers, sheets of flame and beams of energy. Nebraska itself seemed to rumble as the ground split and flame and monsters rose up from its depths.
No matter the power; no matter the strength, Scion's golden glow never dimmed. Even when Flechette's weapon fired, he anticipated the projectile and moved faster than light to avoid it.
Taylor couldn't help but remember her visions of the lost galaxy; of worlds having to burn to destroy the entities, because nothing less than a planet-destroying weapon could hurt them. There was no power, nor weapon, that could hurt Scion without also destroying the world around them. The air seemed to boil around her despite the fight drifting away from her. The ground as far as she could see had been burned almost to glass.
There was no way they could win.
Master, I failed you.
The sun bloomed directly in front of her. Taylor blinked back tears from the painful light and looked up at Scion. He stared down with empty golden eyes, though he had a sneer of contempt on his face. Without Mujaji or Alexandria to guide her, Taylor knew it was over. She was going to die, but she couldn't save those she loved.
Scion lifted his hand and golden light bloomed, only to cease just as quickly. His silent snarl of rage faded; his jaw hung open as he stared at some point behind Taylor.
Taylor scrambled away, tripping over a ridge of charred ground as clumsily as if she never had the Force. She saw immediately what captured Scion's attention.
A silver entity hung in the air before him.
The being was as perfect in her female form as Scion was in his male form. Perfectly silver, with long, blowing white hair and a sculpted body that would have made artists weep, she stared with a blank expression at Scion. Taylor opened her mind, but the power she felt from this new entity was just a fraction of that of Scion.
Everything stopped. The wind ceased to blow. Dust motes stood frozen in the air. Taylor's mind rang with the alien concept. Not a word, per say, but the concept of it. It felt as if a hundred thousand minds all thought their own version of the word, in their own context, and broadcast it with power enough to make Taylor's mind numb.
Scion's response was an order of magnitude more powerful.
The two avatars drifted together. Taylor scrambled away as the air around them shimmered. Windows through existence itself opened, revealing scintillating creatures beyond description. One was vastly larger than the other, which moved sluggishly. Taylor's numb mind throbbed as the two entities crashed together, just as the silver feminine avatar hugged the golden one.
Abruptly Taylor was in the air, so fast she barely had time to notice. Alexandria's costume was in tatters, and her helmet cracked badly enough that it barely stayed on her head. More concerning, her left leg ended at the knee. There was no blood, but she'd obviously taken a beating. Despite that, her arms held Taylor firmly.
"Tell me what you sense!" she said.
"A second entity," Taylor said. "It's the partner. Somehow, she's alive. But weak. She's...mating? Sharing? I don't understand it. How?"
"I don't know," Alexandria said. "I've lost contact with Cauldron."
Over Alexandria's shoulder, Taylor saw that the two entities had become consumed in a cloud of silver and gold light. But from the storm, Taylor felt a strange sensation. Familiar, and loving. A warning.
The cape obeyed without question. Still held in the woman's arms, Taylor looked down at the vambrace of her uniform. She touched it and saw it still worked. "Mujaji, you still with us?"
"Q? Thank God, you're alive!"
"You still have Flechette?"
"Yeah. Where's Campanile?"
"He was hurt, bad. Strider evacuated him. I need you both with me. Come fast!"
"Honing in on your signal."
She flew from the west, arriving in a burst of lightning with Flechette still in her arms. Both looked tattered from the fight. In the distance, Taylor saw the remaining Endbringers somehow trapped in a golden dome that held most of the other capes as well, including Eidolon.
"I don't know if the others are dead!" Mujaji said. "The dome can't be breached."
Alexandria made a point of lifting her amputated leg. "I noticed. Quintessence, what's the plan?"
"We wait. Please take us down."
They arrived on the blasted, blackened ground. Taylor walked over to Flechette, and to the other girl's alarm removed her helmet. "Lily, we're going to save the world. Will you trust me?"
The half-Japanese cape never seemed as comfortable around her as Taylor hoped. Worse, she knew exactly why. Lily was attracted to Taylor, but knew that the attraction was not reciprocal. It formed a barrier the two could not easily breach. Now, though? Now it was just the two of them. Taylor stepped behind the cape and placed her hands on the back of her head.
In the Force, she whispered, Dinah, I need you.
I'm here. Just like with Coil, the precognitive's power melded seamlessly with Taylor's from halfway across the country, as if she stood at Taylor's side.
"We need to wait," Taylor said, sure of herself as her power merged with Dinah's.
In the distance, the silver and gold cloud had condensed. The silver avatar writhed sensually against the gold, but that was just an illusion. Through the ruptures of space and time, Taylor saw the new entity coiling around the golden one, gorging on its shards without any resistance.
Until there was resistance. The golden avatar pushes the silver away. Beyond reality, the older entity shuddered and exploded with violent energy, blasting the silver Entity back. Where before the silver entity was but a fraction of the size of the gold, now it was equal or larger.
Accusing, enraged. Taylor trembled and wept as Scion's rage burned through her mind and body. The silver responded.
Taylor knew. At that moment, as if all the realities of existence opened before her, she knew. The Force merged her and Dinah's joined precognition with Lily's trajectory power. The cape touched the slug within the chamber of her weapon and empowered it. She didn't aim at Scion, but rather at a point between the two avatars.
Her trigger finger pulled; the empowered slug shot out from the barrel of her weapon.
Scion's attention was on the entity that betrayed him. Though it had feasted on his form, he remained more powerful. His avatar surged forward, consumed by the need to destroy his betrayer. Beyond reality, his true form did the same.
The empowered, unstoppable slug struck the back of the golden avatar's head. A tiny dot of gold appeared right at the base of his spine. The avatar went perfectly still, paralyzed. Beyond reality, the Entity spasmed so violently the world it rested upon cracked. Scion wasn't dead-Taylor knew it lived. But she also knew, somehow, that the point she'd wounded was the nexus of the entity's avatar-that point that connected the two through the dimensions. Damaging it harmed both.
And in that moment Silver struck. Her avatar once against hugged Scion, while beyond reality her own true form began writhing again over the paralyzed, larger form. Taylor cried out in pain as she felt planets crack and suns die in dimensions far from theirs, torn apart by the violence of one entity consuming the other.
"What's happening?" Alexandria demanded.
Taylor's knees buckled. It was Mujaji who caught her. The cape had removed her helmet and stared down at Taylor in alarm.
"It's…" She couldn't find words.
She didn't have time to. Silver light shone over them. Alexandria burst backward. Lily stumbled behind Mujaji, but Mujaji refused to leave Taylor's side. The perfect, beautiful silver avatar floated to the ground, shrinking and changing.
Taylor's eyes stung. Though it hurt, she forced herself back to her feet as she stared down at Yuki's perfect, porcelain face. "How?"
"I dreamed your dream," Yuki said. Only, it wasn't Yuki. Her voice was just one in a chorus of millions. "Contessa came to me. She knew you couldn't shape Scion. He knew what you were."
"The other was dead."
"Injured," Yuki said softly. "But I could heal her. You taught me how, remember? I healed her with the Force, and she took my shard to heal the rest. And we took Contessa's shard to restore our vision. We're together, now. We know what to do."
Taylor's knees buckled again. "God. Yuki, you…"
"We understand so much more," Yuki whispered. Her eyes had a silver glow, even though her body looked completely normal. Her smile looked wondrous. "We see so much. This world is so small. It's better this way, we think. There are still two others out there like him. Other worlds in danger. We have a mission. Now we can protect you forever, Taylor."
She knelt down and took Taylor's face in her hands. Her skin felt hard as diamond and gold as ice as she pulled Taylor forward. She delivered a kiss, but her lips did not bend against Taylor's. It felt like kissing granite.
Yuki frowned sadly. "Not the heroic last kiss we hoped for," she said. "It doesn't hurt like we were afraid. Isn't that odd? I'm never going to see you again. You'll die and pass to dust and it will be a blink of the eye to us. But we still love you. We remember that much. Good-bye."
Her form shimmered back into silver. She glanced into the distance, and with a lazy wave of her hand the golden dome that captured the endbringers and capes blinked out of existence.
And then so did Yuki herself.
Taylor collapsed to the ground in a heap, too numb to cry, as the enormity of what just happened settled in.
"Is it over?" Mujaji asked.
"Yes," Alexandria said. "God, I think it's actually over."
Epilogue: Beer and a Burger
On the television, the worried BBC report detailed the latest aggressions of the Chinese Union Imperial and their expansion across the South China Sea. The talking heads were predicting an armed conflict within months.
Most of the people in the beach-front bar didn't care. A handful of tourists sat drinking rum as the sun boiled the horizon. In their midst, taking full advantage of the lower legal drinking age, Taylor sat nursing a glass of aged, spiced rum while working slowly on a burger.
The food of Stinny's Fry and Grill wasn't the best. But it was right on the beach, and the owner didn't care that her eyes were pitch-black. She wore an easily-removed, rainbow-colored skirt over her black one-piece bathing suit as she ate.
When the newcomer arrived, a few of the barflies noticed. She was tall for a woman-as tall as Taylor was. She actually had a similar build in her own bathing suit. What set her apart was the clearly prosthetic leg and the scarred, glass eye. She walked without a limp to the bar.
"You have Glendullen?" Rebecca Costa-Brown, now openly known as Alexandria, asked.
"For the lovely lady? I have a whole bottle."
Stinny would have flirted with a rock if it looked like it had tits. Rebecca placed two fifties on the bar, and a mostly full bottle of 15-year aged whiskey and a glass took their place. She poured a shot and downed it like water. "How's your vacation going?"
"It was going fine," Taylor said. "Didn't you retire?"
"I did." Another shot. The alcohol had almost no impact on her, Taylor knew. The older cape drank for the taste and the brief burn.
"The President asked a favor. It came with a pardon. It seemed like the best option."
The fallout from Scion's death, and Eidolon's new control of the eight surviving endbringers (out of twenty one, Taylor was horrified to find out) rocked the world. More importantly, because of the nature of Alexandria's power, she could not be healed. There was no hiding the fact she'd lost her leg, either in her cape persona, or her civilian one.
So almost as soon as the battle was over, Alexandria flew to Washington, D.C., and debriefed the President of everything she had ever done, as Alexandria, as Chief Director Costa-Brown of the PRT, and as an agent of Cauldron. She resigned, and let him know she would accept any prosecution he decided to pursue.
Taylor went to the Bahamas.
"So, no charges then?"
"No. Not for any of us. The rest of Cauldron didn't survive. When your friend ascended, she harvested all the shards in the facility and destroyed it."
Rebecca didn't particularly sound upset over the loss. Taylor sipped her rum and took a bite of her burger as the older woman downed another shot.
"So, what's next?"
"Our intelligence believes China is going to begin military action within the next month," the woman said. "They're targeting everything from Japan to Australia. They'll be deploying both mundane and Yang-Ban forces. World War Three. And as of this morning, I'm the general in charge of the United States Parahuman Militia. I want you on board as one of my commanders."
"You remember I'm only seventeen, right?"
Rebecca snorted. "I remember you commanded a force of almost twelve hundred capes in the fight against Scion. You were commanding me, Legend and Eidolon at the end. Power can go a long way to making up any of the inadequacies of age. And age or not, you are very wise, Taylor. Wise. Kind. Smart. Just the type of person I need."
"How long do I have to think about it?"
"Until the first shots are fired." She downed another shot-the bottle was gone. She stood, then placed a hand on her shoulder. "How are you holding up?"
Taylor laughed bitterly. "My ex-girlfriend ascended to godhood. All things considered? I'm doing okay."
A compassionate squeeze of her hand was Alexandria's response. She looked out over the beech, grinning as she saw something Taylor couldn't see. "Enjoy these days, Taylor. Enjoy this time. We're warriors, you and me. But the true warriors are those who enjoy what peace they're offered."
With that, she lifted off the floor entirely and quietly flew out of the bar.
Such was the nature of Stinny's that no one cared. Moments later, a broad-shouldered, slim-waisted man with a thick coat of black hair on his chest that covered up a decade of scars sat down beside her. "Was that fucking Alexandria?" Charles Scapetti said.
"Maybe. She wanted to offer me a commission in the army."
Scapetti snorted. "You're just a kid."
Taylor flicked a nearby olive at his head. "You were seventeen when you signed up."
"Yeah. I was just a snot-nosed kid. But you're a kid now."
She held up her glass. "I'm old enough to buy you a beer and burger."
"Yeah. Here, maybe."
Grinning, she leaned over and kissed the man who had twelve years on her. "I notice no one made you come."
Scapetti scoffed. "'Course not. Never turn down a free beer and burger. Never."
He reached up and wrapped her shoulder in a hug, kissed the top of her head, then waived for Stinny. "Corona and a burger, my man. And another round for the lady."
Stinny laughed. "On her?"
"'Course. She's the rich one. I'm just the boy toy."
Taylor flicked another olive at his face.
All things considered? Yeah, she was doing okay.
A/N: I will have one final review response and final thoughts in a few days. And yes, for those who asked, there will be a sequel to this story once I've done posting Theogony. It's hard to walk away from a Force-master Taylor as a character.