-/ Chapter 13: Golden Eyes and Starry Skies \-
"Holy shit. How … supposed to treat her?"
"Scared of … bugs?"
"... saw ... those corpses she left, damn … scared of bugs."
"Besides, ... not a few."
The voices oscillated between too loud and incomprehensible gibberish that was on the edge of my hearing. It wasn't just the people nearby, I was hearing the cacophony of everything within my range. As a whole, it was too loud, each sharp sound a jagged knife shoved into my skull. My everything ached. From the tips of my toes to the raging torrent of pain I called a head. I wanted to sleep, to embrace the silent darkness. Instead, my mind swam, conjuring multi-limbed chitinous forms.
I grunted and rolled, my lesser forms surged around and mirrored my agitation. One of the voices screamed. I didn't care, I just wanted a comfortable position to help me get back to blissful unconsciousness. I could swear I heard a mournful lullaby sung by a symphony of gentle sound. Wanting nothing more, I let myself be caught in its current and swept into darkness.
My arm felt odd.
"Last time I checked, Aussies had better self-preservation instincts than this. Move outta the big cat's way!" Felix all but growled. The group of Australian soldiers scattered as they realized exactly what was behind them. For her part, Felix gave the service men and women a closed-lip smile and trotted past, taking care to balance her load.
The werecat was on all fours to accommodate the panel of wood one of the corpsmen had jury rigged onto a harness to allow Felix to carry loads of supplies at roughly hip level for the overworked medical staff. She entered the infirmary navigating more by her other senses than relying on her compromised sight. Spotting Panacea leaning against a wall and resting her eyes, Felix let out a meow, pitching it to sound as much like a typical house cat's as possible considering her size.
Amy raised a brow as she opened her eyes and took in the sight of the werecat. The healer's gaze lingered on the scabbed over ruin where Sara's left eye had been. "Drink and eat something. Then if it bothers you so much, I'll let you replace it."
A smile split the teen's face. She slid down the wall before retrieving a bottle of water and the glossy brown bag of an MRE, "Thanks."
Felix gave a slight nod and asked, "How bad is it?"
"It's gone. I know that. I mean the butcher's bill."
"Somewheres about seventy-five injured and fifteen fatalities so far. That's counting the two Khepri caught on landing, and not counting unpowered. Multitude was found a few minutes ago."
"So a generally good day?"
"Generally. Did you know almost seventy percent of the injuries occurred after Skitter made contact with Khepri? Everybody just rushed in like idiots, and for what? By the time they had visual on Khepri, she was already crystallized."
"What about Skitter? Did you see her yet?" Felix asked, worry clouding her voice.
Amy shook her head, the white plastic spoon in her mouth drawing Felix's gaze, "Nope. They told me it's not safe to get near her. She's in that tent they set up on the field. Medic's in there setting up some machines to monitor her, but no one can get near her without being attacked by her swarm. That's what happened to Fortitude."
"The guy reported down after the fighting ended?"
"I guess, we don't get casualty reports in here. It supposedly took Narwhal to collect Skitter."
"They should have called me, I'd have tried," Felix stated. She had climbed on a transport back to base with the injured, helping to keep as many as stable as possible during the ride. A serviceman collected several articles from her load before disappearing back into one of the curtained off areas.
"Felix, I had to treat Fortitude. The only reason he didn't die was because of his toughness," Amy responded, leaving the fact she thought Felix wouldn't have survived the encounter unsaid but obvious all the same.
Sara winced and found her paws interesting, "Maybe she wouldn't have attacked. I'm her friend."
Whatever would have come next was interrupted by an audible rumble of the werecat's stomach and she looked to the healer guiltily. Panacea for her part partially suppressed a smile and asked, "Hungry?"
"Yeah. But even after mouthwash and dunking my head in a water basin, I still have the taste of Whitechapel stuck in my mouth. Kinda puts me off food. Don't give me that look, she tasted like a smoke stack," the werecat complained.
"I don't even smoke." The statement made Felix's eyes widen to what would have been comical in size if not for the fact the action caused the scabbed over ruin of her lost eye to tear and bleed anew.
The werecat hissed at the pain prompting Whitechapel to grouse, "What? Am I not allowed to poke fun at the big, bad fur ball? Oh, damn. That looks bloody painful...Ignore the pun."
Despite her name, Whitechapel wore a black finely tailored suit that called to mind the finery worn by men of the Victorian era and flattered her figure. The suit was marred with a few tears and scuff marks, while the plain white opera mask she wore to hide her identity was cracked just over the left eye hole.
She had procured a water bottle from Felix's load and leaned against the wall, "You said you're Skitter's mate? Do you know what happened?"
"No," Felix answered as Amy reached out and petted the werecat as she started crafting a replacement eye from the bloody mess.
"Christ, seems like only two people know what really happened. Since one's an Endbringer, it looks like we've got to wait for Bugs to come to for a full explanation."
Khepri was fast. You don't really appreciate it when you hear that she moves at Mach such and such when flying towards her chosen battlefield. Those are just numbers, an abstraction of sorts. But here? I saw through both the senses of my swarm and her presence within my network how she moved a mile from where she'd been sighted to my location in just a few scant seconds. When she arrived, she decelerated down to a slow drift almost instantaneously.
Khepri was a sight to behold as her six gossamer wings spread out behind her, glistening vibrant colors as they caught and reflected the city's light. The same number of arms poised in a manner that reminded me of that one multi-armed god from some eastern religion. Her body, encased in a chitin-like shell, was obviously feminine with its inhumanly narrow waist flaring out into a wide set of hips complimenting a modest bust. Her carapace was smooth with a reflective finish that revealed itself to be a deep green rather than the black it first appeared to be when it caught the city light. I couldn't help noting that her flight was not connected to her wings as they were not beating.
"Okay... Skitter. Not sure if you can hear me. I'm Medic. A medical tinker. I'm going to be setting up some stuff that'll let me diagnose your condition without prodding you. So yeah. No threat here. No need to swarm me. Fuck, that's a lot of bugs."
"You are shackled," were Khepri's first words to me. Khepri sounded like someone who had heard me use the swarm voice and imitated it until it became second nature. It was still a collection of insect sounds but there was a different texture and sound to it, like hearing two people speaking the same language with different accents. Her voice had a richer texture and wider range to it, something I couldn't help but envy her for.
"I said you didn't have to swarm me. Not a threat and all that. And that wasp is trying to to sting through the faceplate. And those too. Oh fuck. Oh fuck."
As easily as I heard her voice, I didn't really pay much attention to her words, instead I focused on my power. The Endbringer was the brightest, largest mind I ever connected with. Her psychic spark dwarfed everything I had encountered by an order of magnitude; even the most powerful parahumans I had controlled at the end of my previous life paled in comparison.
It felt odd that Khepri was in the web of my power. Not just in the sense that I could see her spark but that I could access her. I could see myself through her eyes as the almond-shaped compound eyes focused on me in a way a normal insect's could ever. I could even feel her biology like anything else that fell under my power.
"Come on Allan, you can do this. It's just a bunch of bugs. Bunch of bugs trying to kill you. Fuck. Focus. Focus, man, focus. Yeah that's it, focus on something that has nothing to do with bugs."
In that sense, Khepri was unusual for an Endbringer. Where the typical Endbringer was best described as an onion with layers of increasingly dense matter ending in its core, Khepri was more like a sandwich. Her exoskeleton was incredibly dense, while the light gray flesh under it was less so before ramping back up in density to form its skeleton. A further oddity, Khepri had organs that I could identify and were functional, yet, like the wings, seemed completely frivolous.
One thing I couldn't, at least immediately, do was control her. I sent an exploratory command to have her reposition her arms, and felt the same resistance I had encountered when I took control of her minions. Except, of course, this resistance was several orders of magnitude greater. Like trying to knock down a brick wall with a feather duster.
" Hip bone connected to the back bone. Back bone connected to the shoulder bone. Shoulder bone connected to the neck bone. "
Khepri's presence was ...familiar, like a sister or life long friend that you saw every day. Which was probably why I didn't react quickly when her presence surged into my network.
It wasn't a spoken word, more a conferred idea that echoed through my network from her spark. Instinctively I fought back, slapping metaphorical hands away as they groped for my swarm. Only the Endbringer's drones weren't as easy to maintain possession of. Of the nineteen I had caught, only eight remained under my sway. The others were still present, and I noticed more of their sparks forming within the network.
" Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around. Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around. Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around. "
Again my instincts guided me and I pushed against her presence, at her spark itself. The Endbringer in front of me rocked unsteadily before it seemed her ability to fly disappeared entirely. She crashed to the ground with enough force to kick up a cloud of debris and dust. The tiny bits of cement that pelted my body was enough to cause me to shield myself with my arms and swarm.
I felt her stand, almost wobbly, and as much as I wanted to ponder that, I was far more focused on the glimpses I'd received flashes of. Memory perhaps. I pushed again, deeper and harder. I heard an inhuman cry of surprise, pain, and terror. I grasped and -
"What the hell? This can't be right. ...Or... No, no. That doesn't work. But it's right there. And it's the only thing that makes even remote sense out of the data. Great...now how am I supposed to diagnose her?"
Pain exploded behind my eyes as they met a fluorescent lamp that'd been positioned over me. It was just one more thing that served to increase the disorientation I felt upon waking. I was somewhere else, that much was obvious in the fact that I neither felt Khepri, her minions, or a majority of the swarm I had with me at Capital Hill.
I focused through the throbbing migraine that resulted from overusing my power and tried to get a better sense of my surroundings. The feeling of fabric under my thousands of legs suggested a tent of some sort. It wasn't particularly large, maybe fifteen feet by fifteen feet, but it was of good quality and drab khaki color. My swarm also found various pieces of machinery arrayed around me that called to mind some sort of ad hoc mad scientist's lab. Finally there was a person in a plastic yellow suit with a massive cylindrical head cover of the same material. I'd seen the suit before, but with my headache it took me a while to connect it to images of the devastation left behind in Behemoth's wake. It was a hazmat suit.
I wanted to giggle at that realization, but suppressed it. First, because the sound wouldn't agree with my migraine and second, because there was a reason for wearing such a suit. I doubted that I was radioactive, if Khepri represented a threat in that regard it would have been noted somewhere. So the suit was being used as a stand in for something else. Considering the agitated state of my swarm, it wasn't a hard guess.
One of the new aspects of my power was that I could dive into the memories of my swarm. With stock bugs that wasn't really all that useful, their memories were short, but my modified stock included enhancements to their memory, mainly for the purposes of reviewing what they did when I wasn't present. Of my swarm, weaver wasps and widow weavers had the best memory so that they could remember complex orders that'd allow them to weave through the night without my supervision. When I dived into their memory, I almost cried. I had likely killed a hero.
Armsmaster watched as Skitter threw a weak uppercut into his copy's chin from four different angles including both the girl's and his own copy's. It was sloppy and practically screamed desperation. Given what he knew now, it was a bluff. Skitter was not much more than winded after the encounter and though it had been obvious that she had at least received a dislocated shoulder in the encounter, she'd barely been slowed down by his clone.
The mics, in both the copies and Skitter's own costume, picked up a loud 'thoo' sound followed by a wet noise. EBC Armsmaster fell like a puppet whose strings had been clipped and Dragon's alert sounded off. That had been a wrist-mounted dart launcher firing a 3.5mm shard of bone with enough force to travel through his copy's head and dent the inside of his helmet. He almost missed it, Skitter apologizing in what must have been quietest she could make her swarm 'speak'.
Colin made note of the weaknesses in his armor that had been exposed and started planning ways to shore up those vulnerabilities. Idly, he wondered if Skitter could have beaten his copy as easily in two weeks time when he projected to have the shielding device installed in his armor. With her showing today, he couldn't help feeling like she'd probably have been able to devise a counter to it. Perhaps in the form of a ramming attack by her mount. While Armsmaster wasn't one to believe the sort of nonsense Clockblocker spouted about the girl, he recognized her fighting skill and ability to improvise.
There was no denying that Skitter was powerful, even if first glance would make her seem otherwise. It was entirely possible that Skitter could win most battles through the brute strength approach, but from what they knew she rarely relied on the method instead displaying the versatility of her power set and an intelligence rarely seen in young capes. She sought out vulnerabilities in her opponents, whether it be limitations of a power, weaknesses of the body, or the mind, and ruthlessly and relentlessly attacked them.
In the case of Armsmaster's copy, she had opened up by targeting his control systems and exposing his lower face to her swarm. While his clone had switched to back up controls on the halberd itself and utilized many of the tactics Colin had envisioned using against a rogue Skitter, the girl was able to best him. At the moment, he couldn't come up with a way his copy could have defeated her, and considering what transpired later, that was a worrying notion.
There was a knock on the door. When the tinker looked up, he found Miss Militia entering. Absently, he noted the flag patterned scarf covering her lower face was tattered and sporting a bullet hole just to the left of her neck. "Armsmaster, Command's assembling for a debriefing. They want us to attend given our interactions with Skitter."
Colin nodded as he stopped the footage and stood up. The heroine was eyeing the collection of tinker-tech Colin had stripped from his copies, "Two sets for the price of one. Are you going to be able to use any of that?"
"Not the casings, but everything else," He answered curtly before heading out of the small room he'd been afforded at Harman. His second-in-command silently fell into step behind him.
Video was playing when Armsmaster walked into the appropriated conference room. A glance at the bank of monitors at one end of the narrow room showed Skitter's encounter with Khepri from several different angles, recorded by remote drones and the feed from the girl's own mounted camera. Around the large rectangular table was the Triumvirate, Chevalier, and Myrddin filling out the Protectorate's seats, Whitechapel representing the Kingsmen, Narwhal and Dragon for the Guild, and holographic representations of four of the PRT's directors. He noted Dragon's own holographic avatar, a European dragon which bore a striking similarity to artistic renderings of one Todd Lockwood, was seated on the table to Legend's left. The two seats on her opposite flank were empty.
As he took his seat next to his AI colleague, Skitter's 'voice' buzzed out from the screens, "I've found a collection of her unmodified drones. Definitely in one of the Capital buildings. They were smashing it up."
"Were?" The recording of Alexandria asked.
"Were. I have control now."
"There's more?" A voice Armsmaster recognized as Tattletale came through.
"Yeah, they resisted when I established control. It was brief but I've never felt anything like that. Biologically speaking, they are exactly what you'd expect. They generally follow the same design principles of arthropods with allowances made to necessity, dedicated lungs, secondary skeleton, and composed of some material that I've never seen before. I don't even have a reference point for that."
"How many do you have right now?" Eidolon asked.
"Nineteen," Skitter replied.
Khepri sighted, AK-2 south bound.
The videos paused. "Who was that?" Director Tagg asked. "And what is she hearing in that mess of noise to clue her in to the fact that Skitter ran into something new?"
"Her name is Tattletale. She's a villainous thinker of unknown power operating in Brockton Bay with the Undersiders." Armsmaster stated. He already had his own theories of exactly what the thinker's power was, but he didn't feel the need to inform others of that.
"Skitter actually requested her for her dispatch officer during the fight." Alexandria broke in, her tone conveyed how strange she thought the fact was. "We'll be getting her take on things in a few moments."
"We need intelligence assets like no one's business, so of course she'd be villain," the militant Director huffed.
Tattletale sat in the infirmary in a cheap folding chair between the beds of her male teammates. Excluding herself and Moira who had stayed away from the actual battle, everyone in her team was injured in some capacity. Grue had several fractured ribs and his back broken in two different places; Regent's arm was pretty much a write off at this point. Bitch was the least injured, just a lot of minor wounds and a broken nose. She had been shooed outside when it became apparent that the hound master wasn't going to go anywhere without her dogs.
Luckily, Tattletale knew her teammates would see at least some attention from the healers. Miss Militia had promised as much. Grue had made a good impression on the heroine and Regent had saved her life several times in the later stages of the battle. Bitch had even won them some brownie points among the heroes by helping to turn the tide of their battle and then willingly following Armsmaster's orders.
Even without the assurances of the flag-bearing cape, Tattletale knew her team would get patched up. She could easily barter the information she'd gained about Skitter and Khepri. Alexandria especially seemed to be chomping at the bit to sit her down and pump her for information. Lisa wanted to chalk it up to Alexandria's well recorded dislike for the Endbringer and her making the most powerful capes sit on the sidelines, but her gut told her that it was actually information on Skitter she was more interested in.
"What you said before. About Skitter," Grue started. His voice didn't sound as intimidating as he usually made it while in costume. Part of that was that he wasn't generating his darkness in any notable quantity, the other was that he wasn't wearing his helmet. In its place, he wore a full face mask of gray fabric that'd been given to him by one of the nurses to replace the damaged helmet.
"I think you're right," he admitted. Brian had been less than pleased when Lisa had told them the bare minimum she'd uncovered about the bug-controller. That they were only going to be able to operate as long as she let them. He had admitted that he held her in a certain regard for helping ensure all of his teammates came away from the encounter at the armory relatively uninjured. He hadn't quite believed Lisa when she told him that Skitter had taken a shotgun blast for her, though. Thankfully, Skitter had released an edited video of the raid on PHO. She wasn't sure her credibility could take many hits with the team as it was.
While Lisa wanted to ask Brian what had changed his mind, further discussion was put on hold when she heard approaching footsteps. The curtain was pushed out of the way and Amy Dallon walked in. She paused, scanning the three villains. Tattletale didn't need her powers to know what was going on in that head of hers. Words came out her mouth at almost their own accord, "Grue got hurt helping Kid Win, broken back. Regent helped Miss Militia stop her own clone, that was well after he got his injury."
Panacea nodded, "And Hellhound? I was told she was injured too."
"Nothing as bad as them, and she's behind you."
Indeed, when Panacea whirled around she found herself face to bloody face with the hound master who was cradling a ball of fluffy fur in her arms. Panacea barely restrained a wince at the sight of the girl's face. The healer was reaching for her when Rachel pushed past the healer and deposited the puppy into arms of her team's leader before turning to head out.
"I'm supposed to heal you," Panacea stated as she stepped into the cape's way.
Bitch glared at her for a moment before relenting with a subdued, nasal, "Okay."
Lisa stood up as Rachel's nose made wet cracking sounds as the healer went to work, "Guess I get to go sit at the big kids table."
A shrill, unearthly scream issued from the monitor banks. The speakers auto-adjusted to compensate, or more likely Dragon adjusted them for the sake of her flesh and blood companions. It was the first time such a sound had been recorded and likely one of the things that would be discussed. While Khepri was far more vocal than any other Endbringer, the only similar sounds recorded had been a few grunts and moans. Even when she'd lost limbs, she had never made a sound quite as primal or loud as that shriek.
Armsmaster recalled how, more than a mile away, he had heard it over the din of combat and saw the windows shake. He recalled how the copy of himself he'd been dueling with had staggered at the same moment. Before he could take advantage though, the clone had leapt into a manic frenzy that had thrown the halberd-wielding hero on the defensive.
Such actions were repeated across the battlefield. Everything that Khepri controlled lashed out with manic fury. Two of Dragon's transports, each with their bays full of capes from the assault force, were brought down as they came within two miles of Khepri's location. Under Command's orders, Dragon deployed her combat suits, usually held in reserve to play heavily armed escort for only the hottest of emergency extractions.
Armsmaster remembered his copy suddenly disengaging to avoid a salvo of laser blasts as one of Dragon's battle suits landed atop the nearby apartment complex. It preceded one of her transports which landed near the wreckage of the Range Rover and provided suppressive fire with its limited weaponry as the injured of their group were evacuated.
While he wrestled with his opponent, Dragon's battle suit fired a beam of exotic particles that scrambled Colin's sensors into the distance, reportedly gutting her own copy as it lifted off to join the fray. But for every victory, there was also loss; within five minutes, the injured and dead on their side had exceeded all but the first few encounters with Khepri. Dragon's notifications seemed to come continuously. What had been an orderly tactical battle moments before had devolved into a chaotic mess and, as far as they could tell, Skitter hadn't even lifted a finger to do it.
The videos paused just in time for the occupants to hear a knock at the door. The person on the other side opened it and stepped through a fraction of a second later, without waiting for a response. Tattletale strolled over to sit at the head of the table, monitors at her back. She leaned forward to rest both of her elbows on the table, a mischievous grin crossed her features a moment before she spoke, "So that's what they sound like when they're scared. I hope I didn't keep you waiting."
Myrddin chuckled. The others were having none of it and Director Armstrong, with a tone and posture that made it obvious it wasn't a request, said, "Tattletale, we'd like your report on the battle between Khepri and Skitter."
"Correction, you want me to tell you all their dirty, little secrets." Armsmaster took a deep breath to keep from lashing out at the teenage villain.
Alexandria cleared her throat, "If you could please get on with it. We'd hate to keep your team waiting for you."
Tattletale's eyes narrowed at Alexandria for a second, then darted around the room to look at the circle of frowning faces. Her small grin grew. "Why don't you tell me what you're going over right now?"
"Skitter's encounter with Khepri. We're unsure what caused the Endbringer to scream."
"Skitter actually told you in a roundabout way. Dragon, can you play Skitter's previous comment?" Tattletale asked, only sparing the tinker a sidelong glance. Most of her attention was focused on Alexandria.
Instead of verbally answering, the AI played the requested line of dialogue. Skitter's inhuman voice came out the speakers, sounding just as impossibly small as it had the first time. "I feel her."
"Not see her, but feels her. Before that she mentioned feeling resistance when she took over some of Khepri's minions. It's my belief that everything that came after is only half the story, the other half, the more important half, occurred within their minds. Khepri screamed because Skitter was attacking something she's never had to defend before, and likely wasn't prepared to defend either; her mind."
"You expect us to believe that?" Tagg asked, looking to other members of the meeting for support. Alexandria broke eye contact with Tattletale to exchange a look with Tagg. Others started muttering under their breath at each other. Of the directors, only Piggot seemed willing to take Tattletale at her word on this. Armsmaster understood why, Tattletale took a great deal of pride in being smarter than everyone else and that relied on her information being correct.
"Of course. After all, the other Endbringers and their mirrors generally challenge their opposites using their powers. Behemoth and Dynamo their dynakinesis, Leviathan and Surge their hydrokinesis, and the Simurgh and Oracle their telekinesis," Tattletale said, shrugging as she leaned back in her chair. Armsmaster wondered if she'd chosen her seat to force everyone to look in her direction to be able to see the video screens. If nothing else, it certainly worked on making her the center of attention. He had to admire her audacity, no matter how much it irritated him. Not many people would walk into a meeting of some of the most powerful people in the world and look completely at ease.
"But Skitter and Khepri aren't telepaths," Chevalier said, doubt clear in his voice.
Tattletale shook her head at Chevalier's comment, "How do you think they control their minions? They sure as hell don't use whistles, hand signals, and strong words. And it's not like we didn't know Skitter was a potent telepath, just look at how Network's power backfired when he tried to connect her. I'd wager that backfire was for his protection."
"Speaking of Skitter's abilities, I'd like to ask about something she made in the middle of the battle." Dragon said. Her holographic avatar nodded towards the screens. "Here, I'll show you."
When the video resumed, Skitter was buzzing around on Atlas evading energy beams fired from the palms of Khepri's soldiers. At the same time, Skitter turned her collection of Khepri's unmodified soldiers on the stock the Endbringer controlled, attacking with claw, fist, and biological beam attacks. The girl was obviously commandeering more of the soldiers even during the frenzied battle as some would turn on their brethren at seeming random.
Khepri herself entered the fray shortly after, emanating an inhuman battle cry. Compared to the earlier shriek, this one sounded angry rather than pained and wasn't nearly as loud. The twelve-foot-tall Endbringer bowled over the soldiers Skitter tried to block her with, and the girl's swarm was even less useful. Skitter, however, stood her ground until the last second when Atlas juked to the side. Unfortunately, it wasn't fast enough to completely avoid the rush. The girl let out a very human cry of pain as the Endbringer's claw separated her right arm from her body at the shoulder and sent her tumbling from the saddle.
"You bleed and suffer for those who will never accept you," Khepri stated as the mirror cape regained her feet. If the Endbringer had more to say, it was likely dropped when Skitter's personal swarm condensed into a replacement limb. The chitin-covered limb didn't exactly match the one that'd been sheared away by the Endbringer's claws. From the elbow down it was significantly different, thicker to the point that the hand disappeared in a massive armored cuff with only the digits sticking out. It was for all intents and purposes as slimmed down version of the limbs of the Endbringer's minions.
Skitter said something, what exactly was still up for debate, as the Endbringer staggered and screeched as if it'd been struck. Her minions turned on her, gouging her carapace with blasts of yellow energy. Skitter proved the similarities in the new limb weren't just cosmetic when a vibrant burst of energy erupted from her palm and lit up the night.
The video paused again. Feed three provided a particularly nice shot of the green-yellow glow of the beam punching through Khepri's carapace and into her chest. Dragon was the first to speak, "I am interested in this arm Skitter created. It bears a striking similarity to those of Khepri's soldiers, but the beam emitted is several gigajoules more powerful than those fired by the Endbringer's minions. That it is purely biological in nature is especially interesting."
"I'm more interested in her ability to create the limb in the first place. The primer we got spoke about her being a bio-manipulator, but this is orders of magnitude greater than what I expected," Director Wilkins, head of the PRT's New York branch, said.
"Skitter has demonstrated the ability to disperse her body into a swarm of insects and back again with particular speed. My recording of the feat is attached to her file. #21B, I believe. After discovering the presence of a particularly large insect that only appears when she's in such a state, I hypothesized that Skitter's trigger event turned her into this bug and she creates the body we are more familiar with from the swarm she controls," Armsmaster replied.
"Skitter has mentioned living with her father, so it's reasonable to assume that she can resume a very human form or that her dad is aware of her parahuman nature," Miss Militia added. Armsmaster nodded towards Miss Militia to lend his support to her statement.
"Regardless," Armsmaster continued, "she's able to perform this transformation quickly enough to use it to dodge attacks, so the construction of a replacement limb isn't beyond what we expected she'd be capable of. Thanks to information the girl provided, we do know that these quick transformations are strenuous and overuse can trigger migraines like those associated with many powers."
He noticed Tattletale looked sympathetic at that. Thinkers were one of the groups most likely to suffer from overuse migraines. He made a quick note that her power may have a usage limit; it'd be useful to know once they were back in Brockton Bay.
"Why not use it to evade the attack?" Director Tagg asked pointedly.
"I don't think she could," Tattletale said inserting herself back into the conversation. "At the same time she was controlling Atlas, her enormous swarm of bugs, and the soldiers she captured. She was battling Khepri psychically and assisting the advancing reinforcements by attacking the new copies that fell in her range, too. It's entirely possible that her transformation would require too much of her attention or reduce her mental capacity, providing Khepri with an advantage."
"Ah, yes, that brings up the next question on Skitter. Just what on God's green Earth is Atlas," Director Wilkins paused, "besides an abomination?"
Tattletale laughed. Grinning, she answered the question, "Atlas is... one of Skitter's creations. I'm sure the PRT has files about his physical make up and the way she utilizes him primarily as a mount so I'm not going to bother going over that stuff. He's a scavenger. My teammate Bitch, Hellhound to you, found Atlas happily munching on an arm when she was rounding up all the dogs affected by her clone."
Armsmaster barely concealed his concern at a thing Atlas' size being a scavenger. Director Tagg, however had no such reservations, "Wait, that thing was eating people?"
"An arm. Bitch told me she saw it prodding bodies and only tried to eat that one dismembered limb. I think that Skitter has it primarily as a carrion feeder, but programmed it to not consume humans. Likely by identifying the shape, and thus the aversion didn't cover dismembered corpses."
"Well that's reassuring," Whitechapel commented, her sarcasm somehow only enhanced through her British accent.
"Atlas also followed Bitch's commands, when she ordered the big lug to drop the limb he did. When she whistled for her dogs to leave, he followed her."
"He'll just follow anyone's commands?" Legend demanded. Tattletale shook her head.
"No, I believe him following Bitch had as much to do with the smell of her dogs as it did her commands. Last I saw him, he was scarfing down on the flesh and bone Bitch's dogs slough off as her power ebbs away. He is programmed to follow commands, but there's a hierarchy involved. Skitter's orders are absolute, but in her absence it'd listen to people she's programmed it to and generally ignore the rest. Since she's obviously not informed you of it, I'm betting she added Bitch to the hierarchy to ensure he'd have someone to listen to if she didn't make it out alive. Even then, I had Bitch try to give him aggressive orders, specifically to ram a tree, and he ignored her. So there's likely limits on what the various tiers in the hierarchy can order him to do."
The teenager pulled her feet up to rest on the table. Armsmaster reined in his temper for the dozenth time. The girl was a master at getting under people's skin and he refused to give her the satisfaction. He cut into the conversation.
"What about the wrist launcher? We saw it for the first time today and there's no question that it's lethal." Armsmaster kept his voice even and as 'no nonsense' as possible. He hoped the girl would follow his lead.
Tagg sat forward and tapped his index finger against the table in front of his hologram. "I'd like to hear more about the insects she used to literally skin EBC Cricket down to the bone as well."
Tattletale's grin disappeared momentarily. "Actually, you've seen both before. She's very careful about the lethality of her takedowns. The wrist launcher only does appreciable damage when she fires it at full strength like she did today, usually it's much weaker and whisper quiet. She used the bugs, thorn flies according to her posts on PHO, to attack the guy that hit me with a cinderblock during the raid on Monday."
"The raid she's referring to is available online. Skitter provided my team with time critical intel on an Empire Eighty-Eight arms depot. As I lead the raid on that facility, she lead an assault with Tattletale's Undersiders on another of their depots," Armsmaster directed to the others.
"She works with a group of villains?" Director Wilkins cut in, looking uncomfortable.
"It was an alliance of convenience. We were already going to raid the place ourselves. And yes, she's worked with Bitch before, but it was another example of the same. I think she views the world through a pragmatic lens while holding fast to her convictions and ideals," Tattletale explained.
Armsmaster had to admit he was grateful for the thinker's attempt to quickly assuage the others' worries. Not because he was concerned about which way Skitter would fall if push came to shove, but because he had questions of his own. "I take it these 'thorn flies' are how she breaks open windows and such? I've done extensive research into how many regular insects it would take to break through single and double pane windows; it wouldn't be possible without some sort of synthesized insect. The wrist launcher is most likely intended for when her opponents are able to hard counter her swarms, correct?"
The villain gave a nod to confirm both of Armsmaster's suspicions. Tagg sat back again, writing something in his notes. She snapped her fingers. "Oh! And I'm pretty sure the launcher can be used to deliver the same venoms she uses in her claws. I think that's its intended use."
Tattletale's interjection caused Director Wilkins to choke on his sip of coffee. Armsmaster twitched when he noticed coffee splatters being projected by the hologram device. Director Piggot was quick to step in, "That's good to know."
She turned towards the room as a whole. "We're aware that Skitter uses poisons and venoms. She routinely brings them by our labs to have them tested as well as having Panacea clear them. They're fairly safe and Skitter has antidotes and epipens with her at all times."
That wasn't entirely true. They knew she carried antidotes and that her claws were venomous because she'd told Aegis about it and asked him to pass the information along. Tuesday she had caught a PRT agent in the field and asked him to deliver a package for testing. The satchel ended up containing eight spiders with color coded carapaces, a bundle of cloth, and flash drive that included a description of each spider's venom. One had been a benzodiazepine-based tranquilizer and the others were variants of a paralytic venom that was based loosely on that of a wasp. Piggot shared his belief that the tranquilizer was someone else's work she was appropriating while the paralytic was something she was trying to develop on her own.
Eidolon stepped in to ask his own question. "Skitter was able to control Khepri's unshaped minions and telepathically attack Khepri. Which means that Khepri, at least partially, is connected to Skitter's master power. Could Skitter eventually control her?"
The entire room went quiet. It wasn't hard to guess why. While having an Endbringer working alongside them producing expendable capes would be a game changer when fighting the other Endbringers, it would be under Skitter's control, not theirs. Unless they had some way to control Skitter, it would always be viewed as a Sword of Damocles. Tattletale's eyes were darting about and her grin gone.
"I'm unsure," she admitted. "Is there the possibility that she may be able to? I think so. Could she? I think that's a question of how powerful Skitter and Khepri's wills are. If Skitter can overcome the Endbringer's resistance, then I'd expect she'd be able to control her."
The thinker's words were followed by silence and more than a few thoughtful expressions. Colin knew that regardless the PRT was not going to allow Skitter to remain independent. Piggot thankfully had put her foot down on the aggressiveness that they would use to pull her into the fold. This was not a time to be antagonizing the insect-themed cape.
Tattletale's grin returned, "One last thing you should be aware of. I'm not sure exactly what, but this entire time Skitter has been holding back. Even with all the capes she took down and the fight with the Endbringer herself, Skitter was still holding something in reserve."
"Shit. Gotta figure out a way to scan deeper. She could be dying," the man in the yellow hazmat suit said as he worked at the console of one of the machines he'd assembled around me. "The bugs are less aggressive now at least, but that's not necessarily a good thing. She could be fading. If only I knew what was wrong."
"I've got three fractured ribs, one completely broken. Three more fractures in my left wrist and forearm, additional fractures in my right ankle. Two missing teeth, internal bleeding, and several pulled muscles and torn tendons. Oh, and I'm missing my right arm."
The tinker jumped and almost fell on his rear in surprise. I felt a bit guilty, especially as I failed to suppress a painful chuckle. I shouldn't have used the entire swarm to speak at least. He regained his composure quickly, and stated the obvious, "You're awake."
"For the moment at least. Feels like I kissed a freight train," I answered as I swept the swarm away from us to both give him space and comfort and allow him and myself to see my body. I was of course still encased in Skitter's regalia, but it had obviously seen better days. At several points, the spider silk sheath had been torn or punctured and was leaking a mixture of hemolymph and blood. The hemolymph was from the costume, the blood from me. Thankfully, I had considered the possibility of such injuries before, and the suit's hemolymph was actually a coagulant, so there wasn't really all that much blood, just enough to tint the clear fluid a pinkish color.
"Before you ask, yes, I know I have two arms. The replacement isn't human and more to the point it's little more than a fancy prosthesis. Can you heal me?"
"I... no. I can patch you up, take care of at least some of your injuries, but the big ones are outside of my current capabilities. I can call another healer in to do what I can not."
I barely managed to nod in reply before I was adrift in unconsciousness.
A friendship betrayed. A family shattered by loss. Hopelessness. Despair. Comrades and foes. Distrust in higher power. The golden man crying. Betrayal of trust. Corruption. Innocence lost. Duty. Responsibility. Alliances. Rescue. Fate. Goal. Purpose.
Ideas and concepts filtered through my mind followed by vague memories and ideals as I dove deeper into Khepri. There was no doubt but plenty of fear. Instinctively, I knew I could submerge myself further into her consciousness, but as alien as her mind was, I felt I would not come out of it unscathed. How much of Taylor, or even Skitter, would remain intact?
Visions, or more likely memories, opened up before me. I saw through Khepri's eyes as she all but tortured a cape who thought himself above the rules his peers followed when engaging her. She twisted his arm, the one linked to the hand that dared strike her until it was torn, not just from the socket, but the body proper. He screamed in pain and fury. He moved to throw himself into a desperate attack, but Khepri's senses were too sharp for her to not notice. One of my-her arms reached out catching the fist and with little effort crushed it in her grip as the Endbringer's other limbs grasped him. Her sixth arm put its fist through his skull with enough force to send the majority of the cape's brain matter exploding out the back.
I walked out of a building, a residence that reminded me of home. One of the students was gasping for breath, blood caked her features. Her spark shone brightly to my-Khepri's eyes and the Endbringer could tell that her shard was ready to bud. The Endbringer made a show of looking around, turning her head even though it was unnecessary with her senses. Three wounded shard-bearers were nearby, the soldiers that had mimicked them lay around the only one left standing.
The Endbringer's mandibles twitched as the student raised her weapon defiantly and took an unsteady step to place herself between the Endbringer and the wounded. The girl's gritty determination to protect her allies despite life threatening injuries triggered an odd array of feelings within the Endbringer; satisfaction, delight, and approval. The Endbringer fluttered its wings in joy before ascending into the sky.
Khepri was fighting a team of capes. I recognized a slightly younger Gui Nakamura and Armsmaster in the mix alongside two villains I couldn't recall the names of. Khepri, however, knew that they were bitter enemies. One was Armsmaster's rival in all but name and the other had cost Iron Claw the life of a loved one. Despite that, the four capes were working in unison keeping Khepri on the back foot as she warded or weathered blows. They were doing damage to the Endbringer, chipping away at the protective exoskeleton and occasionally catching her in a place the platting wasn't present. Already she'd lost one hand at the wrist and a few fingers, there were craters decorating the plates from Nakamura, while a litany of scars attested to the others' capability. Despite this, Khepri was happy. Her soul was practically singing as she danced with her four partners. Of the five of them, she was the only one out of sync with the nonexistent tune.
Skitter was a mess. That was the first thing that ran through Amy Dallon's mind as she looked over her friend. The girl had passed out again shortly after telling Medic her list of injuries. Normally, Amy would ask for permission to heal someone for legal purposes, but if half of what she told Medic was true, Amy couldn't afford to wait. She dug her fingers into the bleeding wounds on Skitter's right side and at first only sensed her costume. As much as she wanted to ooh and aah over the living organism the bug controller had fashioned into her body suit, she needed to stabilize Skitter.
Pushing her fingers deeper into the wounds, she encountered half sealed gashes in the girl's actual flesh. Another push and the girl's biology opened up within her mind. Everything she had listed; fractured bones, torn ligaments and over stressed muscle, internal bleeding, everything. It was all there and more. Her mind was shielded. The corona pollentia and gemma were so well shielded they were almost invisible to Amy's power. Maybe if there wasn't so much activity there, they would be completely invisible. She'd seen this before in only one other person, a girl who had all the same physical characteristics that Skitter masked with her biological costume. Skitter was someone she went to school with. Taylor Hebert.
"Shit," Panacea stated. Taylor Herbert, who's biology had been strange enough that she had told Vicky about it that night. She'd made her sister swear not to tell anyone, especially Dean. She recalled how Vicky had all but threatened Taylor when she'd learned that the girl was aware of a few of the Wards' identities. And how Taylor had reacted to the threat. Her words had held venom. Knowing what she did now, Panacea wondered just how bad it would have gone if things turned hostile.
"What's wrong?" Medic asked.
"Uh. Do we have her original arm?" Panacea asked, hoping that she could cover what she just learned.
"Yeah. One of the grunts picked it up as an afterthought. Something about how she might want it as a trophy. Bit macabre if you ask me. I put it on ice, it's in the chest to your left."
"Good. The one in its place isn't even human, it's pretty much a prosthesis that's been clamped over the wound and anchored into her costume. I'd like some privacy while I work."
"Right. Of course," said Medic before all but rushing out of the tent. Amy couldn't help but feel sorry for him, Skitter had probably traumatized him.
She got to work, converting the blood that had filled the girl's abdominal cavity into mass that was immediately used to seal up the internal damage. One of Skitter's ribs had broken completely and a loose piece was perilously close to her lung. It was easier for her to simply convert the shard and use it to fuel the reconstruction of the remaining rib. It all took a few seconds. With the primary damage that had threatened to end her life dealt with, Amy woke Skitter.
The girl responded with a sleepy, incoherent mumble. From the edges of her vision, Panacea saw the swarm that had retreated from Skitter's form shift and buzz. Adrenaline shot through the mirror cape. Before Amy could even consider doing anything, she found herself on her back, one of Skitter's claws wrapped around her throat and an eye-like apparatus in the center of her other claw pointed directly at her face. The swarm was surging around them now and Amy's eyes became focused on the dim glow behind the lens that filled her sight.
"Fuck," Skitter said. Or rather Taylor, since the word had came from the girl's own lips and not the swarm. The glow dimmed and the grip on her neck loosened. "You know."
The statement was loaded with resignation and dread. Did she expect that Amy knowing her identity would mean the end of it being a secret? "Sorry."
Skitter rolled away from her. The chitin and silk clad heroine ended up sitting next to Amy, legs drawn to her chest. She suddenly seemed more interested in the prosthetic limb. Amy for her part rubbed her neck as she tried to reconcile Taylor and Skitter. There were enough similarities in their personalities that she could do it, but between the differences there and in their appearance it had been hard to think of them as the same person.
"Sorry. Please don't tell anyone," Taylor pleaded. She sounded...small. Without the voice of her swarm providing her words an extra heft, Skitter seemed smaller, diminished.
"I'm not going to spread who you are around. Besides general respect for your privacy, the unwritten rules, and the the fact that we became friends both in and out of costume, I have my own reputation to think of. No cape would want me healing them if they thought I'd go blabbing their secrets around," Amy said as sat up slowly, keeping her hands in sight and well away from Skitter. This wasn't the first time she'd dealt with a cape that didn't react well to waking up somewhere unfamiliar.
Skitter chuckled through the swarm, "I actually meant, don't tell anyone I was a second away from killing you. But, uh, yeah, don't tell anyone about what you found out either. Not even Victoria, she's too ...gossipy. Not to mention Dean doesn't know...or the other Wards. God. I'm going to have to tell them. I've been trying real hard to make sure they don't connect the dots, you know? Or anyone else for that matter."
"I won't. I had a good view of your biology right before. The adrenaline level... you probably didn't recognize me."
"No, not really. All I saw was something looming over me and memories of Khepri are still just below the surface," Skitter stated. She raised her right hand, hefted like it was a weapon, like the weapon it was, and asked, "Think they'll let me keep it?"
Amy laughed, "I don't know, but they've hardly any legal ground to take it from you if you really want to keep it, it would set a bad precedent. They did retrieve your original limb, I can reattach that and get you back to snuff. But to be honest, I touched that arm earlier, I actually don't know what I'm looking at for once."
"It's based on the laser cannons Khepri's soldiers have. Fabricating it like I did really taxed the crap out of my power. ...I'm going to end up knocking myself out when I detach it," Skitter admitted gesturing with the prosthesis. "You wouldn't mind fixing my teeth and everything? I doubt I'd be able to come up with a believable excuse for loosing a few."
Amy nodded, the corner of her mouth pitching upward.
"If you reach for it, the swarm's going to stay put. You know, if you need the mass. And.. I... I'm not good with this whole trusting thing, alright? Don't let me down." Before Amy could respond, Skitter let out a very human grunt of pain and the prosthesis seemed to unravel itself at the shoulder as it detached from the costume and bloody stub of the joint. It thumped down on the dingy cot before rolling off and hitting the ground.
Panacea reached out and touched the exposed flesh. Her friend was unconscious just as she predicted.
The world seemed to open up, grow, shrink, and expand in ways no human could ever hope to properly describe as I pushed deeper into Khepri's mind. I sought to do damage. My aims, however, disappeared as I beheld a primal Earth. My point of view was breathtaking. Mars drifted through the void nearby and I looked past it and the asteroid belt towards Earth. I knew that Earth should have been impossible for me to see, but see it I did. The blue marble that was the cradle of humanity hung alone in the blackness of space. I knew it was Earth, but this wasn't my Earth, the continents were all wrong and it lacked a companion in the Moon. Still, I recalled my own words, more true now than ever before.
We're so very small, in the end.
The world absorbed all of my considerable attention and I realized I wasn't seeing one Earth, I was seeing them all. It was like when Mrs. Perkins would turn on her overhead projector with dozens of transparencies atop it. The content of each was indiscernible as they layered one atop another. Written word and math equations became little more than an ugly bloated mess.
Even as I thought that my vision narrowed and I saw a certain Earth, where a golden man's rampage was brought to heel. A garden of limbs, faces, and more obscure body parts filled the area. I saw Golem pushing his hands out of the earth. I saw Scion giving into despair and I saw Defiant firing the weapon that would kill him. In the middle of it all, in the center of my vision, was me. So small and so insignificant yet the crutch upon which so much had come to rest.
I saw my narrow escape as the people I had taken control over turned on the monster in their midst. Despite the fact I knew I was viewing this from an astronomically significant distance away, I could see the faces and expressions I'd been unable to discern before. As my condition became known, the more scornful looks softened, somehow recognizing what I'd done, what I sacrificed to see this through. There was worry, fear, and disgust in abundance, but there was also much more positive emotions in the mix.
My form clambered through a portal alone and the view shifted as if turning a page to follow my progress. I felt a great alien will, more vast than Khepri, reach out cupping my battered form in metaphorical hands as I passed out in a field of grass gazing upon the stars. The will surged with a sense of interest that I couldn't properly describe or ever hope to. It saw the damage I'd inflicted on myself and grimaced, mournful over the loss of my mind. I saw it page through the book of every possible Earth, finding other versions of myself to draw upon for reference. Many I noted were clad in the costumes I was familiar with, still more were girls who'd never gained powers. Some of the latter lived lives full of mundane joys I desperately wanted, but knew would never be within me to pursue in earnest. Still others were bizarre, as alien to me, I expected, as Skitter would be to my more mundane versions. The variety was vast and I saw, among others, a sharp suit and featureless mask, a girl in silver armor glowing green, a girl wearing a helmet and outrageous cape making grand motions, and even a cross-dressing mime of all things.
I decided I didn't want to even know about how those versions of me came to be. Instead, I observed as Contessa calmly stepped through the portal my body had passed through only a day before. My past self was coherent enough to speak. The only two humans on that entire instance of Earth conversed, unknowing that something far more vast was observing them and fixing me. Then Contessa shot me. Twice.
The vast consciousness was annoyed as my body fell to the ground. Its work wasn't done and it was still interested in me. Death, however, seemed like nothing more than an inconvenience to this vast mind as it grasped my own mind gently and...oh god. It, this thing was responsible for my reincarnation. It was some sort of protocol, but it was the being doing it, finding my current body in a well threaded world and inserting everything that I was into that Taylor as she passed out in the locker during her trigger event. It knew that following the protocol would cause changes to me, and I realized it didn't care about my life so much as it cared about my perspective.
It created an imprint of me, of everything that I was, and it drew upon another protocol, a template. This one was not its own work and not designed for the purpose it wanted. Still, it salvaged the first's administration shard to serve as the canvas as it combined my imprint and the template. It fiddled, tweaked, twisted, and warped the protocols as much as it could as the being began forming, infusing its own vast energies into it. After an eternity and no time at all, the being was formed with golden, multifaceted almond eyes gazing at the world.
...It made Khepri.
It made Khepri from me.
I felt sick, disgusted, and violated. I dropped onto all fours and barely got the mandibles to split open before I vomited. Khepri, my twisted reflection, was sitting only thirty feet away, her eyes gazing upon the starry sky overhead and not reacting to the beam attacks of the minions I had set upon her. Ichor was seeping from gouges in her carapace and the fleshy areas between. Her body quaked in time with a pulsating sense of sadness that flowed from her spark. She looked defeated. She was crying.
As much as she revulsed me, I found myself ceasing the assault and I felt the Endbringer's drones slip from my grasp one by one. Khepri wasn't retaking control and they just ended up standing around directionless.
Then Khepri's mind reached out across my-our network and touched my own. Soothing classical music played, distorted by the chrysalis that cordoned my recovering form off from the world. My mind recalled reading about how such experiments had been conducted shortly after Khepri appeared in hopes of lulling the Endbringer into a more sedate action. It hadn't quite worked out, but Khepri had been recorded humming the occasional tune in the field.
A moment later, a festival was being celebrated. People were too wrapped up in their reverie to pay mind to the slumbering Endbringer in their midst. A young woman pushed her partner against my chrysalis as they made out. A heart beat passed and the scenery changed. Fall was in full swing, colonial architecture dominated the landscape. A young woman, very much different from the last, sat on a stone bench nearby, puffs of breath visible as a man approached, looking decidedly nervous. He spoke, stammering and stumbling over his words. They were distorted by the golden shell separating us, but I got the meaning when he dropped to a knee and produced a small box. The woman cried out her reply through tears of joy. It wasn't just Khepri's heart that warmed at the memory.
The world changed again and in this memory I was not encased in her golden shell. Nearby, a child left behind by parents more concerned with their own survival than their little girl was crying. Khepri squatted down, her rear only millimeters off the ground, so that she'd be at eye level with the five-year-old. She looked like me. Not like I did in pictures from when I was that age, but she had dark curly hair, large chocolate eyes magnified by her glasses, and so forth. The feelings I got from Khepri's memories were odd, definitely nothing I'd have expected from an Endbringer. There was a warmth in her chest, almost motherly that was completely at odds with the role she played.
"Who is your favorite hero?" Khepri asked, her voice was soft and gentle. A whisper on the wind I doubted I could replicate.
Despite it still being a cacophony of insect sounds, the girl responded to the tone and throttled her tears enough to answer. "Alexandria."
"She was mine too," the Endbringer said. A pang of sorrow, and sadness accompanied the admission. A flash of memory, of this world's Alexandria attacking Khepri as the Endbringer tried to explain its rules. A sense of disappointment that this world's version was no different than the one in our past life. Khepri turned its gaze to the plastic teacup in the girl's hand, "Do you want to have a tea party? I'll invite Alexandria."
The crying gave way to sniffles. In a skeptical tone, the girl replied, "You can do that?"
"Oh yes. There's not much I can't do when I put my mind to it. That goes for everyone really. Don't ever let people tell you otherwise."
The girl reached out grabbing hold of one of the Endbringer's claws and pulling her. There was a frantic moment as Khepri adjusted her biology, dulling her claws so that the child would not come to harm. She allowed the child to lead her. The girl glanced back and up to the Endbringer, a tear-stained smile breaking her face, "My name is Lauren."
"I am Khepri."
"I am only as much a monster as the world makes me," Khepri stated in my voice, within my mind. I might have thought it was my own subconscious had it not been for the fact her spark pulsed in time to the enunciation.
"You were twisted from birth," I answered verbally.
"We were all twisted. The others do not even realize it. Perhaps the Seer does, but we often disagree and I've, in the past, unraveled her carefully laid plans," she retorted. I could feel the others closing in. Some of the drones had disappeared while I was submerged in Khepri's memories, they were easy enough to pick out.
EBC Shielder down, GK-3. EBC Firebrand deceased, GK-3.
"Realize it or not, you're still a monster. You said they'd never accept me, but what about you. Look at the devastation you leave in your wake. You see yourself as a teacher, trying to push us to cooperation, yet you happily slaughter those who fall short of your expectations. A twisted core for a twisted soul."
There was a flash of anger through our link, "And whose soul is that?"
Manpower down, GK-2.
Her copies were throwing themselves into one last offensive push, and while I was sure we'd win, I knew she'd try to take more lives. Even the soldiers still loitering in the area were turning towards the coming battle. I tried to reestablish control over them, but was rebuffed. I still managed to grab one, but the twenty three others were being morphed into copies of capes. I set my swarm on them. Khepri growled as she began generating more warriors. My swarm was large enough still to more directly consume these.
The demand was clear and crisp in my mind. If she thought I'd bend my knee to her demands, she had another thing coming. My friends were in the attacking force. I replied by setting the remainder of my swam upon those copies already fighting. Through the swarm, I heard the cape fighting one shriek in surprise before driving a red hot sword through her target's skull.
EBC Dissonant deceased, GK-2.
I could feel the hostility from the Endbringer as her wings fluttered. If she attacked me directly, there wouldn't be enough time to evade. Remembering her first words to me, I settled for a last retort, "You said I was shackled. But you're the only one here who feels the tug of their bonds. You're the one who's a slave."
With a lunge and an angry sound, she was upon me. Pain sheared through my side and I bit off a scream as I hit the ground. We struggled; for all her size and power, she didn't feel as strong as her memories indicated. I punched her in the face and she returned the gesture. My mandible broke, cut into my mouth, and hit my teeth hard enough I felt some get knocked out. My mind swam as I discharged the laser in my palm directly in her face. Darkness clouded my vision as the laser tore through her head and out the back. Through her remaining eye, I saw the night sky turn orange as her chrysalis formed around her.
Skitter down, GK-1. Khepri chrysalized, GK-1.
-/ Author Notes:
And that's the second, and last part of the Khepri battle. Told you I'd post it immediately afterward. Expect there to be a long delay before I post Chapter 14: A Lit Match here. I want to focus on writing Chapter 16, put some work into Chapter 1's rewrite, and so forth.