A Worm/God of War (2018) Fusion
By Darth Marrs
Part One: Odyssey
Chapter One: Natal Shore
The creaking of the old water heater woke Taylor five minutes before her alarm. It was her first day of high school.
She opened her eyes to see early morning light piercing through the old vinyl blinds of her window, illuminating the poster-print of Bouguereau's The Shepherdess. The poster was a gift from her mother on her eleventh birthday.
"She looks just like you, don't you think?" her mother said at the time with a fond smile when she bought it. "What a wonderful eye he had to capture a girl's soul on canvass."
At the time, Taylor was just glad her mother picked one of Bouguereau's paintings where the girl was clothed. She wasn't much of an art connoisseur, but the fact the man painted so many nearly photo-quality nudes of ridiculously attractive young woman made her think of him as the Hugh Heffner of the 19th Century.
Years later, though, she looked back on that visit to the Boston Museum of Fine Art with a fondness that would bring tears to her eyes if she let it. Because though the shepherdess in the painting looked like Taylor to her mother, a year after Annette Hebert's death, to Taylor it was her mother she saw in the painting.
She climbed out of her bed, letting the springs of her old mattress sing her progress like a set of rusty old muses, and walked barefoot across the rug until she stood next to her chest of drawers. This close, she could clearly make out the details of the print.
The painting showed a simple peasant shepherdess barefoot in a skirt, plaid top and a crook resting comfortably across her shoulders. Whatever else Taylor might have thought of Bouguereau, the painting had an almost photo-quality aspect to it. The girl's dimple was clear on her chin. Dark hair almost exactly like Taylor's framed an oval face with a long nose and large eyes. The girls' mouth was smaller than that Taylor's, but about the right size for her mother's.
The shepherdess neither smiled nor frowned; she simply stared out of the poster with a frank, open curiosity. If Taylor let her emotions rule over her rational mind, it felt almost as if her mother were staring back at her.
"I miss you so much," she whispered.
Her stomach cramped. The sudden pain felt like someone punched her in the gut. She bent over her chest of drawers, clutching her stomach with one hand while bracing herself against the chest with the other, and forced herself to take deep breaths while pushing out her stomach as far as she could. Distending her stomach helped sometimes.
This time seemed worse than her last cramp, though. When at last the pain passed, she found herself sweating and panting. It took her a long moment to catch her breath and to stand. Which is why she didn't realize her father was standing in the doorway, watching.
"Are you ill, child?"
"No! I'm fine."
Daniel Hebert filled the door frame like few other men could. She saw he was dressed for work in size 44 waist slacks that he had to special order from the Big and Tall outlet. His black tie did nothing to hide the outline of his undershirt, which was barely adequate to contain the thick, bristling black and gray hair that matted his chest and back. His sleeves were properly buttoned at his wrists. In all her life, she'd never seen him in anything but long-sleeve shirts, even when in pajamas or working up at the cabin.
He was clean shaven and completely bald, though she could see the nice felt fedora he always wore in his left hand. He studied her with those dark green piercing eyes of his. She always felt like he was trying to tell her something with his eyes, but she just wasn't smart enough to figure it out. And he was too damned stubborn to just come out and say it.
"Fine," he said. "Come eat. You need your strength for your first day of high school."
"I'm not really hungry, Dad."
"The food does not care. Come. Eat."
"Can I at least get dressed first?"
"If you think you can do so in less than an hour."
"I don't take that long!"
He stared at her, and this time she could figure out what his eyes were saying just fine.
Thirty minutes later, dressed for her first day of school in a new pair of jeans and a teal blouse she thought went well with her eyes, and a matching set of hair combs mother gave her to keep her curls out of her face, she found breakfast waiting for her. Like normal, her plate had three simple items on it—a single egg fried in real butter, a buttermilk biscuit she herself made the night before, and what her father called bacon, but which any normal person would call a boneless pork steak. Like always, he'd set the plate on the table across from where he sat drinking the black tar he called coffee and reading the newspaper.
Though they had lived through hundreds of such mornings, she still glanced at the seat between them. And this morning, just like every morning since Annette Hebert died, three intertwined twigs sat in a little glass vase at her space. Taylor knew what they were because they came from the garden she'd had to take care of after mom died. They were called Motherwort, Frigg's Grass and finally a stick of Thyme. Taylor thought them an odd combination because they weren't particularly attractive plants, even if the scent reminded her of her mother.
"Eat," her father said. His voice that morning seemed especially deep, eliciting an almost visceral response. Or perhaps it was just that her stomach was already hurting.
"Then I will take you to school," he added.
"You don't have to. I can take the bus."
He lowered the paper and stared at her. Taylor's gut cramped again, though thankfully not as bad as before. But what set it off this time was that her father looked sick. He looked much paler than normal, and he had dark, baggy rings under his eyes.
"Wow, you don't look good, dad," she said. "Maybe you should call in."
"If I am ill, it is because I worry myself sick that my daughter does not eat her breakfast," he said.
"Right. I'm sure that's it."
"Sarcasm does not become you."
"It always worked for mother."
"She had many, many more years to work on it," he pointed out in that infuriatingly calm, even tone. "I am driving you to school."
So…that was that. She ate, placing her fried egg on the slab of Chernobyl-sized bacon, and then that in the biscuit. She tried to bite back a smile when she saw he'd already buttered the biscuit and added just a touch of honey.
The thing about her dad was that he didn't talk much, and when he did he had a strange formality she'd never heard in anyone else. One of his workers, Kurt, told her one time that her father could say more with a grunt than the Dockworker's Association president, Mr. Ellis, could say in an hour. The men of the DWA pretty much did whatever her father asked. The women…
Taylor could understand their discomfort. She knew her dad had complaints filed against him because of just being so menacing. While many of the male workers of the DWA responded instinctively to him, she knew that many of the women of the DWA felt downright uncomfortable around him. The complaints never went anywhere, though, because he never actually did anything wrong. If anything, he fiercely fought to ensure all the members of the Association, regardless of gender, had good work opportunities. Thank God for Kurt's wife Lacy, who acted as his executive assistant and the go-between for him with the other women of the DWA.
But though he didn't say much, he demanded a lot, and was about as warm as a cinder-block in a freezer. Despite all that, she had no doubt he loved her because of what he did. He never said the words, ever. But when she went to school and saw how other fathers treated their kids, she knew without a doubt that he loved her. How many dads made sure to put butter and honey on their kid's biscuits, or tuck them in every night reading to her fantastic stories from the legends of ancient Greece, Norway or Egypt? How many father's daughter their kids how to fight?
He always listened. No matter what. More than anything else, in a city that felt like it was falling apart, in a world that was collapsing, he made her feel safe.
She finished up her breakfast before quickly and efficiently cleaning both hers and her father's plate. The rule in the house was that whoever cooked, the other did the dishes. Since most of what he cooked consisted of various meats and stews, she found herself cooking often just to satisfy her cravings for baked foods and actual flavor.
The satchel with her school supplies sat on a hook by the front door. She pulled on a sweater against the slight morning chill and threw the bag over her shoulder before stepping out of the door. Behind her, Dad didn't put on his fedora until after he stepped outside and closed the door.
She was three steps across the front porch and stood on the most recently replaced board on their front porch, when she cried out in alarm. "Our trees! Dad, what happened?"
Rushing down the steps, she came to the nearest of the nine birch trees that surrounded the house. The white bark was peeling where the trunk had split, and the branches had only a few sad leaves on them.
"Do you think someone did this?"
Under the morning light, her dad looked positively deathly now, pale and tired as he placed a hand on the trees.
"Your mother planted these when we first moved in," he whispered. He rarely spoke about her. Like everything, he told Taylor all she needed to know about how much he loved her Mom with the twigs at the table.
Now, something caught in his deep voice—something raw that Taylor instinctively shied away from. The emotions she sensed from him were too deep—too strong for her to get too close to, for fear of being crushed by them.
"Are you…are you okay?"
He dropped his hand from the ruined tree and took a step back.
"Things change. Time passes. It is the way of things." Like so much, he seemed to be trying to tell her something more than just the words he used. After a long moment, though, he shook his head. "We will talk more later. Come, it is an important day for you."
They climbed into the tan-colored 1988 Ford F-150 that was the only vehicle she'd ever seen him drive. He maintained it lovingly, and she could recite every component in her sleep for all the weekend mornings she'd helped him keep the old beast running. She had to move the floor pad to cover up the hole in the floor from the road salt. Despite its age and appearance, the engine roared to life with a comforting familiarity and in moments they were driving south toward downtown, and her high school.
She glanced out the window as they passed the bus stop. She saw Emma there, standing with her new friend Sophia and a couple of other girls to go to Winslow. She started to raise her hand to wave when Emma caught her eyes, but her former friend just sniffed and looked away.
When she'd first broached the idea of turning down the slot at Arcadia to be with Emma, Dad's answer was, "No."
It wasn't the 'no' he used when she begged for a candy bar or a soda—things he never permitted in the house but would occasionally let her indulge in when they were out. It wasn't the 'no' he used that time she asked to quit band after mother died.
The "no" he used conveyed not just an absolute negation of her request, but also a quiet but firm disappointment that she would hamper her own education just to be with a friend. After all, her dad was the definite example of the term Laconic. He didn't say much, but when he did, he used his words with the effectiveness of a rapier.
Or maybe a broadsword. Yeah, more like a broadsword. He didn't pierce you with his wit. Instead, he bludgeoned you with one or two words laden with heavy meaning until you understood. Agreement didn't matter, just that you understood.
And she understood that she was going to go to Arcadia because it was the only school in the city that offered the Advanced Placement courses that allowed her to get college credit at the end of the year, if she did good enough on her AP exams. And that was important because mother had said so, before. That was the end of it. Period.
In retrospect, after Emma's bitter rejection of her last month, she found herself grateful.
The truck slowed with barely a squeak of the brake pads they'd replaced two weeks ago. Ahead, other traffic slowed to a crawl. She could see a field of charred rubble where Mandy's BBQ Hut used to stand. Beside her, Dad grunted. She didn't particular enjoy BBQ, but she knew he sometimes ate there for his lunch.
"It was on the news last night," she said. "Cape fight. The Empire 88 and the Protectorate fought. I heard that Armsmaster almost captured Hookwolf, though."
"Almost is no different than not at all," he noted darkly. "The Protectorate is worse than useless. They give false hope while the world burns. Why would men bother to act when so-called heroes claim the right instead?"
Dad's contempt for the Protectorate was one of the sure ways to get more than a sentence out of him. He wasn't the only one. She supposed it was different for him and those of his generation. He came from a time before superheroes and supervillains, before monsters destroyed cities and whole countries.
Dad came from a time when the world still had hope. Taylor, though, was born into a world with Endbringers who destroyed whole cities and parahumans whose casual fights ruined lives on a daily basis. It was hard for her to see hope for the future when a different city died at the hands of unstoppable monsters every few months.
They got past the crime scene and continued toward Arcadia.
Though most other things about Brockton Bay were old and falling apart (the newest skyscraper in the city was built in the early '90s), Arcadia High School gleamed with new paint and new construction. The football stadium could seat 30,000 people and served as the site for the state championship game.
The school had an Olympic-sized swimming pool with a real swim team. They had every extracurricular activity one could ask for and an award-winning band with brand new instruments, some from donations from various corporations around the city.
And, somewhere among its 3,000 students, it also played host to several teenaged superheroes who participated in the Protectorate's Ward Program.
Of course, she could not share her intense desire to meet the teenaged hero Aegis with her dad. For one, the Wards were an extension of the Protectorate and therefore below contempt as far as he was concerned. More importantly, Aegis was a boy. He was a muscular boy whose abs were visible through his costume, but a boy regardless.
She was fairly certain Dad would kill any boy who even looked at her. Which definitely put a damper on any dating possibilities. The one boy she had any interest in back in Middle School ran screaming from her when she mentioned she needed a buddy for their band trip.
Danny Hebert evidently had a reputation.
Speaking of, she watched through the truck window with interest as Dad fell in with the other parents in a long line of cars dropping their kids off. Everyone looked so happy to be there, talking to each other like they were long-time friends. She even recognized a few faces from her Middle School. The city allocated fifty spots to each Middle School in the city to attend Arcadia. Half were needs-based, and half were academic.
Taylor qualified on both accounts. The Hebert family was not rich. They were comfortable—she always had good clothes to wear and food to eat. But they had no computer, nor cell phones. They did not have cable TV. What they had, her father maintained. But once she looked past the surge of jealousy whenever she thought of new phones or computers, she realized they had what they needed.
Something about his voice made her turn and study his face. He stared back at her intently, looking somehow even more pale than earlier.
"Are you sure you're okay, Dad?"
"I am fine," he said. "But…a day I did not wish to see is coming quickly. Tonight, I will take you to Josie's. And we will talk."
Josie's was a local diner who specialized in New England home fare. Their corn chowder was the only thing she'd ever tasted that approached what her mother could cook. It was also a rare treat. She could count on one hand the number of times they ate out since mother died.
"Okay." She gave him a worried smile. "That sounds good."
"I will pick you up after school," he assured her.
She took his hand. It felt like iron, thick with callouses and muscles. It dwarfed her own. And yet his fingers closed around hers gently. He smiled at her, a special expression she rarely saw but always cherished. She couldn't help but beam back, lean over, and his kiss his cheek.
"I'll see you in a few hours!"
She fell in with other kids drawn to the front entrance of the school by the ringing of the bell. Only, it wasn't a bell. It was music—they were playing the Beatles to announce school was starting.
The metal detectors inside the front doors were a lot fancier than what they had at her Middle School. They hung from the ceiling in a single round bar the thickness of a softball, showering down a shimmering currant of blue light that the students simply walked through.
She felt it tingle against her skin. She frowned when it painted what looked like a series of rune tattoos across her wrists that disappeared as soon as she was through.
"Huh, must be Tinker-tech," she muttered.
It would make sense. The head of the City's Protectorate team was Armsmaster, a man whose superpower wasn't strength or speed, but rather the ability to make impossible technology. If the Wards attended the school, it just made sense for him to donate tinker-tech to keep them safe.
"Freshman assembly in the auditorium on the North Hall!"
Taylor saw several of the school staff holding signs instructing the Freshmen to go to the auditorium. She fell in with all the other freshmen and wondered if any of them were Wards. She even made a game of it, watching various kids and trying to guess what Ward they might be. Most of the Wards were boys—the only girl was not in high school yet.
Her eighth-grade band performed in this hall for their final performance and she remembered the auditorium being huge. Coming from the other side made it look smaller. The freshmen all trooped to the front seats, directed by several staff members. She ended up sitting between a stringy carrot top whose name she didn't get, and an average-looking blonde who took one look at Taylor's big box-store-brand blouse and sniffed dismissively.
Okay, not a friend prospect there.
Principal Adeline Howell, Ph.D. walked onto the stage. She wore a sharp, slimming pinstripe pantsuit with a coral blouse that brought out the highlights in her blonde hair.
She was a good speaker, Taylor thought. She didn't have any verbal tics or tells and made a good effort to maintain eye contact to all the incoming Freshmen as she told them about the school and the journey they were just beginning and to never ask other students if they were Wards.
At which point the carrot-top beside her leaned over. "Hey, you a Ward?"
She turned and saw him grinning, like it was the funniest thing in the world. He wasn't even a bad-looking boy, really, if you could get past that unfortunate pasty-pale complexion and the Jackson Pollock-like splatter of freckles across his face.
And yet, as her stomach cramped even worse than that morning, she saw something behind his eyes she couldn't explain. It felt like she was looking directly through his pupils into his brain, and there saw a long, writhing, misty tentacle wrapped around his soul.
"Are you okay?" He wasn't grinning any more. "Seriously, you look like you might be sick."
"Cramps," she blurted out. The blonde beside her sniffed again, this time with open contempt and disgust.
The poor boy's ears turned red. "Uh, do you need to go to the nurse or something?"
She shook her head while fighting not to hyperventilate. On stage, the principal finished her speech and dismissed the students to their homerooms.
Taylor was on her feet and almost running past the haughty blonde in her desperation to get away from whatever she saw in the redhead boy's eyes.
Fortunately, she knew where the first-floor restrooms were from Summer Band Camp. She ran there now, desperate to find a stall. She moved past a couple of girls talking in the middle of the clean, sparkling restroom until she reached the far stall.
She barely got the door closed before the cramp hit again, if anything even worse than before. As hard as she tried to stay quiet, she couldn't help the agonized gasp as she folded over, holding her stomach with both arms while sitting on the toilet.
"Hey, Frosh, you okay in there?" a girl asked from outside.
"I'm…I'm fine," Taylor managed to gasp. "Just a stomach ache."
Only, it wasn't just a stomach ache. What felt like someone punching her suddenly escalated to a stabbing pain. The intensity of it shocked her so bad she lost her control, not just of her voice, but of her body, collapsing to the tiled floor.
"Holy fuck," someone said outside the stall. "Go get my sister, and someone call the nurse down here. Hey, you in there, I'm coming in."
Taylor tried to tell her not to; that she'd be fine. The pain wouldn't let her. She couldn't draw in the air to make the words. She barely had the energy to stare in confusion when the door pulled out, bending the metal latch like it was butter. The door swung open to reveal a vision of teenaged beauty, with long, luscious blonde hair that had just the right amount of curl to frame a perfectly proportioned oval of a face like the frame of one of Bouguereau's paintings.
"Holy shit, are you okay?"
The girl knelt down toward Taylor, but as she did so the pain increased exponentially, shooting up into the base of Taylor's skull like a blade of ice cutting up her spinal column. It was the most excruciating agony she had ever experienced, and it seemed to be getting worse the closer the beautiful blonde came.
Taylor blinked back her tears and saw, behind this beautiful girl's stereotypically blue eyes, the same horrifying, wispy tentacle as the red-head boy, wrapped around her soul. Worse, even as she stared, the mist seemed to move out of the girl's eyes like ghostly hands reaching right toward Taylor!
Even as she tried scrambling away from the girl within the tight confines of the stall, the wispy hands multiplied into an army of outstretched limbs, grasping at Taylor's mind and whispering to her to love the blonde, to worship and obey her.
The icy, stabbing pain in her stomach and the base of her skull somehow shot down the lengths of her limbs, burning around her wrists and ankles. She looked down, choking back tears, as the runes appears at her wrists again. Only this time they took on a sinister blue-green glow that fucking hurt!
"What is your…?" The blonde looked confused and worried.
Taylor screamed in horror and agony, and then the world exploded.
Regular posting will begin every Saturday morning once Quintessence is finished.