Shade – Interlude 4a

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It’s his turn tonight.

They ran, they pushed forward.  A crush of people.

Smoke billowed, and it smelled like burning rubber.  For all the chaos, the noises seemed muted, dulled in how the individual elements mixed, the bodies absorbing the sound.  Shouts here and there cut through the cries, the noise of people, the sound of something falling down, but people further ahead in the crowd were actively grabbing others and shoving them to the side, dragging them out of the way.

Even with the high ceiling, the haze of smoke made the exit sign above the door hard to see.  The point of view blurred, blacked out for an instant as the person blinked.

“Lancaster fire-”  the point of view said, more to himself.  His voice soon rose to a bellow.  “Don’t- don’t stampede!  Don’t shove!  We’ll get crammed at the exit!”

The smoke got to him, and he coughed, hard.

He tried to slow, as if he could influence the crowd.  The force of people behind him pushed him forward, as heavy as he was.  He was a big guy.  Big around the middle, more.  Only a bit taller than average.  It was enough that he could almost see over the heads of the crowd.

He saw a young girl fall, and very nearly tripped over her.  To do so might have killed them both.  He fell to his knees beside her, grabbing at the edge of a sign on the wall to brace himself, one arm around the girl.  He became a barrier, battered by those behind him.  Feet scraped at his back, trying to climb over him.

He watched as the people pushed further down.  He knew what was happening as it happened.  That the press of bodies was keeping people from being able to get the door open, that by the time people realized there was no way forward, the people behind them would keep them from retreating.  There would only be the inexorable, forward pressure.

Straining, every movement made harder by people leaning against him or pushing past him, nearly being knocked over to crush the girl in front of him on three occasions, he rose to his feet.  For what seemed like a minute, it was all he could do to hold his position.

He looked back, and there was only smoke, people pushing toward the exit.  He looked toward the exit sign, and there was only the press, people crammed together until they were chest-to-back, shoulder-to-shoulder.

He looked around, at the trash cans, at the signs that were built into the wall, frames sticking an inch or two out, locked plexiglass doors protecting the contents from vandalism.  He looked up, and he saw the windows and the glass ceiling above the corridor that led out of the mall.  There were high windows that let the light in, and there were latches on those windows.

He reached down, and the young girl shied away.

“Up!” he said.  He seized her arm, and as he leaned down, someone bumped into him.  He nearly fell on her.  Only his grip on the side of one of the sign-frames kept him from falling.

He drove an elbow back, striking at the person who had pushed him.  With more energy, desperation, he reached down to seize the girl’s arm, lifted her bodily into the air, and shifted his grip, grabbing her body to lift her.

“Grab on and climb!” he called out.  “Get to the window!”

She tried.  Sneakers slid against the plexiglass.  Fingers gripped the ledge, and even with him boosting her, she couldn’t get up.  She wasn’t even looking at what she was doing, as she turned her face down and away from the thicker smoke.

Further down the hallway, a group of people fell like dominoes.  For those who wanted to get away, get to the exit, people who couldn’t necessarily see past the smoke or the people immediately in front of them, it was an opening, a way to get forward.  The mob moved forward.  A woman screamed, a multi-note sound.

Seizing the opportunity, only seeing the gap, people pushed past him, bumped into him.  He was holding the girl as he stumbled, and he dropped her.  He doubled over, coughing, trying to keep from getting dragged forward.  He was a big guy and the movement of the crowd was such that his feet left the ground at points, when people pressed closer.

The girl, too, coughed.  She looked at him, wide-eyed, until the smoke forced her to close her eyes, and then she ran for the exit, slipping from his reaching fingers, dodging into a gap of bodies, toward the press, where people were barely able to move.  People were panicking in places, voices reaching high pitches.

“No!” he bellowed at the girl.  His voice was lost in the chaos.

She nearly fell to the ground amid trampling feet as someone stumbled into her.  Then she was gone.

He looked up at the sign, and he reached, digging fingers in where the sign and the wall were.  He stepped on someone, tried to climb toward the window, eye on the latch, darting over to look at the smoke behind him, then up to where the smoke was thick near the ceiling.  The plexiglass front of the sign was a hinge, so it could be opened, and he dug his finger into that gap for the leverage it could afford.

The climb would have been hard on its own, but he was jostled.  His hand slipped, and both his fingernail and the tip of his finger tore off as his hand came away from the hinge.  A thin streak of blood was drawn on the plexiglass.

Someone slid between him and the wall, and he was no longer able to hold himself up.  He landed on the ground, and people walked over him.  His efforts to stand were defeated  by the feet trampling him.  He couldn’t stop coughing, and his vision distorted from the effort.

Behind them, the fire and smoke were getting worse.

He looked up, vision warped to the point that up and down and left and right were no longer clear, he looked at the walls that stretched skyward, the glass ceiling high above, the bodies pressed around him and over him.  The view blurred with the tears in his eyes, growing dark as the people closed in above him.

The image distorted, going black, and he saw stars, flying past him, as if he was being buoyed elsewhere.

A scene faded, unremembered.  Points of light became light.  Darkness became shadows in a large, dark room.

There was no skylight, no corridor, no crowd or mall.  In the center of the room was a spike of twisted metal and glass topped by what looked like a sundial without a marker.  Light shone through the glass as if it was coming through the other side, but no source could be seen.  The different tints of the red-blue-purple light divided the room into four sections, with a fifth left dark.  Each section was littered with debris of different sorts.

Without even needing to look to check the position, Rain reached down for the chair.  Always in the same place, the same position.  The floor in his section was dilapidated.  Uneven floorboards with spaces between them.  There were scattered books, tools that looked like they hadn’t been touched in a while, and some assorted branches and dry pine needles, as if it was a space that had been exposed to the elements.  He put the chair down on the ground.

“I don’t suppose you guys are willing to talk?” he asked.  Again, he didn’t even need to look or check the position of the others.  He knew where they would be.

There was no reply.

The memory had been Snag’s, and Snag was the first to really move.  Snag wasn’t as big as he had once been.  Still tall, but he had lost a lot of weight.  The beard he’d had before was longer now, shaggier.  So was his hair.  There were streaks of paler hair at the corners of his mouth.  The hood of a sweatshirt and the lack of clear lighting masked much of the man’s face, so only the beard was visible.  Snag’s area was a store without things.  Empty display cabinets, cracked glass, metal shelves, a lacquered floor, and more diffuse light than the other spaces.

Snag reached the table, and slammed one hand down on the surface.  He gripped the edges, hunched over.

Someone else spoke, quiet enough he was almost inaudible.  It was how he usually talked.  “You two should know I’m looking into our situation here.  I’ll be experimenting soon, so you should know things might get weird.”

A young man.  Nondescript.  Boring.  Blond hair, average weight, clothes without labels, a bit older than Rain at eighteen or so.  The slabs of concrete and tile made his space look like a hall of mirrors after an earthquake, if the glass was opaque concrete instead.  Shattered, dark, claustrophobic, devoid of the human touch.  The only thing about him that stood out was that his glasses were scratched up, to the point where it wasn’t possible to see his eyes.  He held his head at funny angles to see through the less scratched part, chin high, looking down, or head bent, looking up and out.

Rain had taken to thinking of him as the recluse.  The guy had talked before about not spending much time around people.  He was quiet, weird, and his dreams weirder still.

He hadn’t been including Rain in the ‘you two’.

“What experiment?” Snag asked, his voice hoarse enough to be a growl.

“I’m reaching out to someone.  They do interesting things with people and sleep.  I have no clue what’s going to happen, but it’s possible I won’t show up, or I’ll have a guest.  Tomorrow.”

The woman approached, standing from a sitting position in a squat, small armchair.  She stepped over stuffed animals and broken toys.

She was elegant, wearing an ankle-length dress with a slit up one side.  Her hair was styled into waves and curls.  She wore earrings and a necklace, heels, and her nails were painted.  None of her tinker gear was present.

Her lower face was covered in the mask that could have been described as a muzzle, it clung so tightly to her face, covering nose and mouth.  It was black leather, and it had real teeth set into it.  Fangs.

Her eyes were more vicious than the snarling maw.  She stared Rain down until she’d reached the plate of crystal at the center of the room, and turned around to sit with her back to the thing.  To Rain.  Her head turned toward the recluse, and she tapped one long fingernail to one of the teeth of her mask, her muzzle, before pointing it down, knuckle resting against the mask.

“Yeah, actually,” the recluse said.  “You know ‘em?”

The woman offered one, singular nod.

“Any advice?”

“Why ask?  She doesn’t talk,” Rain said.

The recluse ignored him.

The woman turned, reaching down to the dias.  Rain drew closer to watch as she picked her way through the assorted debris on the table.  The wood was burned and as delicate as charcoal, breaking apart at a touch, crumbling into dust as it fell to the five-sided plate.  Almost everything on the table was similarly fragile.  The glass, the rusty scraps of metal.

She picked out three human teeth, and slid two of them in the recluse’s direction.

“She’s dangerous?” The recluse asked.

Another nod from the muzzled woman.  She tapped a finger on the one remaining tooth on her part of the table.

“I really appreciate that,” the recluse said.  “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“I have a suggestion,” Snag said.  Growled.  He was pacing a little, hand brushing against his edge of the plate as he walked beside it.  One of his fingers was still damaged from the event a year ago.

“Sure.”

“Don’t do it tomorrow night,” Snag said, stopping.

“Why not?”

Snag turned his head, staring at the darkness that separated his section from Rain’s.  He was almost but not quite looking at Rain, shadows heavy around his eyes as he glared.  “Tomorrow is your night.  The night after is hers.”

The recluse turned to look at the muzzled woman.

Snag said, “Let’s do it the night after hers.  In case something goes wrong.”

“Makes sense,” the recluse said.

On my night, Rain thought.

Rain approached the table.  He kept a wary eye on the others as he picked up the debris, destroying it in his hands.  Almost everything was so old, burned, water damaged or rusty that it disintegrated with firm contact.  He cast it aside, letting it litter the floor.  The items scraped and cut his hands on contact, but he didn’t mind.

There were only three items he couldn’t destroy.  Scraps of metal, too dull and thick to be knives, too flat and featureless to be of any particular use.  Like rectangular pieces of a broken glass, but not glass.

The others were sorting themselves out.  Five shards of glass for Snag, three coins for the recluse.  The muzzled woman stared him down.  She’d already handed out two of the teeth that served as her token, keeping one for herself.

Even the others, when they glanced at him, radiated hostility.

“I need to update up one of my arms,” Snag said, his voice low.  He glanced at Rain and turned his back, leaning against the table as he leaned closer to the recluse, lowering his voice further.  “I made a replacement, I want to make the other match it.”

“Today?” the recluse asked, picking up one of the tarnished coins.

“Hmm.  I’m not sure I’ll have time.”

“It’s fine either way, for me.  You?” The recluse turned toward the muzzled woman for that last bit.

The muzzled woman nodded.

Snag slid a piece of glass across the table, to the recluse’s side.  His fingertips stopped at the boundary, and the recluse reached over to slide the glass the rest of the way.

“I guess I get to be pretty strong today,” the recluse said.

“You won’t need your workshop,” Snag said.  “And we could use a better sense of tech, for reasons we discussed on the phone.  Give me your share tomorrow, too, and I won’t need it for a while.”

“I don’t mind,” the recluse said.  He passed the coins over to the others.  Two for Snag.  One for the muzzled woman.

Rain looked down at his rectangles of metal.  They hadn’t asked, and he hadn’t offered.  He had, once, trying to curry favor.  He’d given them his tokens and he’d never received a thing in return.

He kept the three rectangles of metal in his section of the table.

Rain took a seat in the creaky wooden chair and he waited for dawn, listening and hearing nothing of consequence while the three people talked, or, well, two of them talked and the muzzled woman listened.

He’d tried to reason.  He’d tried to talk.  He’d tried being angry.  There was no use.  The only option left was to wait until dawn, and try to listen, to act dumb, and drop comments here and there that could mislead.

He looked over to his left at the dark fifth of the room.  No details, no debris, no light.  No tokens on the table.

He gripped the three pieces of metal in his hands until the edges cut into his fingers and blood oozed out between them.

“Rain.  Wake up.”

Rain’s eyes opened.  No dreams, not really.  Only someone else’s recollections and then the room.  He felt more tired than he had when his head had hit the pillow.  He had a headache and every part of him felt heavy.

“School,” his aunt said, from the bedroom door, her face peering through the crack.

He sat up.

“Go downstairs to eat before you shower, if you’re going to shower.  The girls are making breakfast.”

“I will,” he said, before adding an automatic, “thank you auntie.”

She left the door open as she left.  Rain was annoyed, but held his tongue.

Swinging his feet over to the side of the bed, he looked at his hands, turning them over.  There was no sign of the dirt, grit.  No damage from moving the objects on the five sided table, no cuts on his fingers or blood on the back of his hand.

As he often did, he reached out for his individual powers.  His own power was at its ordinary strength.  The scythes of shimmering, flickering light appeared in each of his hands.  It felt right.

The emotion power- he reached for it and cast it out over the empty space in the middle of his room.  He was aware of it like he’d be aware of a patch of shade.  The effectiveness wasn’t much sharper than creating the shade would be.

When he reached for the tinker power, the ideas that came to mind were paltry, barely much better than how he might manage setting up a snare or the steps for forging a knife.  He wasn’t even especially good at those things.

That left the mover power.  He used it to get to his feet, pushing himself out of bed and using the power rather than his balance to steady himself.

He’d slept in a t-shirt and boxers, and felt exposed as he canceled out the arrested movement of the mover power, stepped over to the door and shut it.  He pulled on a dirty pair of jeans and ran his fingers through his shoulder-length hair until it was reasonable.

His family tended to subscribe to the notion that the kitchen was the center of the home.  The buildings that had been erected for the settlement were set up in a way that made for large kitchens.  Wood was burning at a massive brick stove with room for six frying pans on it, and there were two girls Rain’s age handling food there.  He couldn’t quite remember their names.  Heather and Lauren, maybe.  Or was one of them Jean?  He’d seen them around, but they didn’t go to the school and they’d never talked to him.

Rain’s auntie was at the counter, grating potatoes.  Her daughter, Rain’s cousin Allie, stood talking to one of the men that was sitting at the table, while she took her time drying a dish.

Rain knew only one of the men at the table- an uncle, who had said ten words at most in all the time Rain knew him.  There was no introduction made for the other two men who sat there.

As good as the food was, as much as the stove was warm and the family close and busy, it wasn’t warm in atmosphere.  There was no small talk.  There were some glances from Allie, who was washing and drying, and from the girls at the stove.  The glances were reserved for when they thought he wasn’t looking.

They weren’t kind looks.

Hash browns, ‘made properly’, his Aunt would say, and french toast cut in thick slices from homemade bread.  The bread that wasn’t being used to make french toast was sitting in a basket on the table, with jam and butter sitting nearby.  With the production that went into cooking, there was a lot of pressure to eat, to get full.  For most, it was necessary, with long days of hard work on the farms.

Not that Rain worked on the farms much.

“Thank you for breakfast,” he said.

The girls didn’t respond.

“You gonna have a shower?” his aunt asked.

“A quick one,” he said.

“Stomp when you’re done,” she said, turning the knob at the base of the sink’s faucet, cutting off the water.  The plumbing in the house wasn’t great, and the cold water being turned on meant the shower water would scald.

He gathered his dishes.

“You can leave that for the girls.”

“I already got it,” he said.

He collected a few more things, aware of the looks from the men sitting around the table, and took them to the side of the sink where the dirty pans and dishes were waiting to be washed.

Allie, standing next to him, pulled a knife out of the drying rack.  The metal made a sound as it ran against the side of the rack, singing slightly in the wake of it.  Between that, the weapon, the hostility he felt from the two girls at the stove, he shivered slightly.  He looked out the window.

Those people I saw in my dream want me dead.

He’d paused too long, lost in thought, being as tired as he was.  He was very aware of the stares, of the long looks from the men at the table, his uncle excepted.  The girls had paused in their work.

“What?” his aunt asked, her voice sharp.  She glanced at the girls.  Her voice was sharper as she asked, “What, do you need someone to come up and wash you?”

“Gross,” one of the girls at the stove said.

“Hey!” one of the men barked the word.  The girl jumped.  A rebuke without any elaboration.

“No, auntie, I was just thinking,” Rain said, feeling his face get hot.

“Then save the thinking for school and get going.  We need the sink free to finish the dishes.”

He got going.

The shower was hot, even with the cold water cranked all the way around, and he rushed through the process of getting clean.  The soap, spooned out of a jar with a wooden spatula to his hands, then applied to the critical areas, was a gooey mess derived from animal fat and ash.  He had no idea what the shampoo was, but it was harsh enough to make his scalp hurt, so he only used it every two or three days.

He had scratches and bruises, only some of them from his time with Victoria and the team.  He was ginger with them all, checked for the redness of infection, and dabbed them dry instead of toweling more roughly as he finished showering and started getting dry.  He stomped hard on the floor, three times, as he stepped out of the shower.  The pipes knocked as the water downstairs was turned on again.

The recluse was planning something for three nights from now.  He needed to plan, conserve strength.  It was possible he would be incapacitated, if the others found a way to hijack the rotation or interfere with his days.

His thoughts were occupied with the logistics and conversations he’d need to have as he wrapped a towel around his waist, checked for chin scruff, and then crossed the hall to enter his room.  Clean clothes, bag, shoes.

He did his best to stay out of sight of the kitchen as he headed downstairs, ducking into the front hall and out the door.

The dirt road cut a zig-zagging line between homes and fields.  Things had been situated in a way that had been convenient at the time, but the layout didn’t make for good town planning otherwise.  Other students were walking to school, older siblings watching the younger ones, friends meeting to talk.  Some parents walked with their children to supervise.  Other adults were around to supervise.  The notorious and inevitable Mrs. Sims was bitching at a group of the fifth graders, splitting up groups of friends to make the boys and girls walk on different sides of the road.

A truck came down the road, and the students moved to the muddy sides where the ground was far softer.  It was Jay, stopping periodically to let friends hop into the back.

A short distance behind Rain, Jay stopped in plain view of Mrs. Sims to ask Brianna and Kaylyn Barr if they wanted to ride in the truck, which was already mostly packed with senior boys.

The sisters climbed into the back of the pickup truck.  Mrs. Sims scowled, but she kept her mouth shut.

The truck moved a little bit further down the road and stopped beside Rain.  Jay leaned past his girlfriend.  He had thin facial hair, a baseball cap, and a sweatshirt with a logo on it.  The sweatshirt and cap looked brand new, and they also looked like they were from Bet, with the quality and logos.  Expensive.

“You want a ride, rain man?” Jay asked.

“No thanks.  Walking with a friend.”

“I know who you’re talking about.  You know you don’t have the slightest chance with her, right?”

“Of being her friend?”

“Yeah, right,” Jay said.  He rolled his eyes.  “Enjoy that walk.”

The wheels spun against the dirt road before finding traction.  The pickup truck bucked a little with the uneven transition, nearly tossing Kaylyn Barr out the back as the back end came up.  Only a quick grab by one of the older boys saved her from a tumble.

A cloud of dust followed behind it.  If it was meant to annoy Rain, it didn’t.  He turned his back to the worst of the cloud, looking out at the farmland.

“Rain!” Mrs. Sims called out.  Some of the smaller students on the road flinched.

Rain looked more her way.

“Get yourself straight to school.  Don’t dawdle,” she said.

He could have said something about that.  Jay might have.  If he hadn’t had the experiences he had, he might even have called her an evil person, said she deserved it.  She was an artifact of a prior era, the kind of person who had lived in every small town and rural community he’d known; she was someone who used morality as a stick to beat others with.  He could have asked what she was implying, or challenged her.

He didn’t.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.  “Just waiting for the dust to settle so I’m not walking face-first into it.”

Someone else might have made a comment, empathized.  Mrs. Sims only said, “Go to school.  Be a better example for the little ones.”

He walked.

The people like Mrs. Sims and his aunt were easier to deal with than many of the alternatives.  He could understand the people who’d reacted to hurt and loss by becoming harder.  He wished he’d been able to do the same, a lot of the time.

Erin emerged from her house as he reached the mailbox staked out in front.  He waited while she made her way down, her little brother following.

It was hard not to have his eyes linger on her.  She wore a plum colored muscle tank with a cross in black on the front, a black choker with a steel buckle, and black jeans.  The jewelry in her ears matched the buckle of the choker, a series of rings in her left ear and a single piece of jewelry in the right, glittering in the sun as she steered her brother along the path.

He’d come to dislike the muscle tops with those oversized armholes on principle, after seeing so many girls he couldn’t stand wearing them as a trashy sort of look.  Seeing Erin wear it and look so stunning, he found himself doing a one-eighty on the position on the spot.

“Hey, Erin, hey bruiser,” he said.  He stuck out his hand, like he might for a handshake, and Bryce slapped it in a high-five.  He and Rain reversed the directions their hands were moving to lightly slap the backs of their hands together, and Bryce moved forward to mock-punch Rain in the hip, then thigh.  The third punch missed Rain’s groin only because of a timely twist to one side.

“Careful with Rain, Bry.  He looks a little battered, he doesn’t need you giving him more bruises,” Erin said, putting one hand on Bryce’s forehead, pulling him back while Bryce continued punching at the air.

“He’s coming to school with us?” Rain asked.  “I didn’t think he went to school.”

“Next year,” Bryce said.

“I’ve got to drop him off at church.  He’s being punished, and somehow my parents think a sermon is going to give him direction.”

“What did you do, Bry?”

“I said mean things about Elijah,” Bryce said.  “Mr. Jean heard and tattled.”

“You need to be careful who you talk about and how,” Erin said.  “You don’t want to upset anyone.  What if Elijah heard?”

“Yeah, I know,” Bryce said.

Erin gave Rain a look, from an angle Bryce wasn’t meant to see.  Worried, unsure.  “You don’t have to come.”

“It’s not a problem,” Rain said.

“Thank you,” Erin said.

Bryce spotted his friends walking down the road with their older siblings, and started to walk that way.  Erin bent down, putting her hands on Bryce’s shoulders to catch him.  “Nuh uh, Bry.  You’re supposed to be in trouble.  You walk with us.”

She steered Bryce in the other direction, toward school and church, and as she turned, bent over, Rain saw through the oversized armhole of her top.  Stomach, ribs, lacy black bra strap, bra, and a bit of what the bra was meant to support.  The look had been automatic, and the moment he realized what he was looking at, he looked away.

He had very complicated feelings on those tops, now, as he found himself simultaneously trying to memorize every detail of what he’d seen and prepared himself so he wouldn’t be an asshole and look again at what she didn’t necessarily intend to show him.  He was well aware of how the two things conflicted.

“Are you doing okay?” she asked him.  “You’re a little scraped up.”

“I’m always a little scraped up.  I’m used to it.”

They walked, Bryce between the two of them.

“I’ve officially watched the last of the videos from the library.  Even the bad ones, like E.T.3,” Erin said.  “I’m stuck reading and rewatching stuff until they get more.”

“Reading isn’t so bad,” Rain said.  “There were five years where my family didn’t even have power at the place we were staying.”

“Every time you talk about your past my heart hurts a little.  No TV?  No music?”

“Reading by candlelight.  Hobbies.  You figure out how to entertain yourself.  There was a summer some other kids and I dug a hole and covered it with slats of wood, and we called it our hideout.”

Erin pressed the heel of her hand to her heart.

“It was a good hideout.  Really.”

“You were so deprived you couldn’t even build a treehouse.”

“We could’ve.  We wanted to dig a hole.  We covered it with dirt and sticks so people wouldn’t know it was even there, if they didn’t see the hole.”

“How old were you?”

“Ten?  Eleven?  About Kenzie’s age, I think.”

“When I was eleven?  I think we went to Disneyworld at the start of summer.  And I had six weeks of camp with the most irresponsible camp counselors.  Tons of food we shouldn’t have been allowed to have, swimming, mud Olympics.  One of the boys fell on the mud slide and broke two of his fingers.”

“It’s hard to imagine you being eleven.”

“I was the most awesome eleven year old.  Man, I really wanted to go back there the next year, but I think our parents all shared notes and realized how dangerous it was.”

“When I was twelve, I think I spent the summer hunting with my dad’s best friend.”

“That sounds neat.”

“It- no.  No, it really wasn’t.”

“Aw,” Erin said.

“Dull, wet, buggy.  I got to shoot the gun once in three months.  I missed.”

“Aww.”

“I was so excited to get back home and see my friends, get back to my routine.  Then… no home to go back to.  The trip with my dad’s friend was just to buy time for my parents to get everything sorted out for me to go live with my aunt.”

Rain was caught between a yawn and something that might have actually reflected his feelings, and decided to yawn.

“I’m sorry,” Erin said.

Rain shrugged.

“How’d you manage last night?”

She was asking about the dream, as much as she could with Bryce listening in.

“It wasn’t too bad.  Pretty usual.  I’m tired.”

“Yeah.  You gonna grab a nap later?”

“I might.  Have to get through school first, and I’m already feeling like I’ll doze because I have a full belly.  I woke up to three girls around my age cooking breakfast.”

“Barefoot in the kitchen?  Not going to school?”

“Pretty much,” Rain said.

“Spending time with you, seeing how you stack up?”

“I’m the one that’s supposed to be studying or showing interest in them,” he said.

“Creepy as-” Erin paused to put her hands over Bryce’s ears, “-shit.”

Bryce pushed her hands away, nearly hitting her with the stick he held.  He was drawing a line in the dirt road as he walked, with an apparent system in mind about how he did it.

“Creepier when one of them’s my cousin.  I’m pretty sure she’s my actual cousin, too.  It’s hard to keep track.”

“Allie?”

“Yeah.”

“She’s not so bad.  She played the guitar at one of the campfires a bit ago, she was good, and she’s nice, she was nice to Bryce when she was helping out the teachers during a nature hike, even though she hates me.”

“She’s my cousin, Erin.”

“I’m just saying, if you’re going to have cross-eyed underbite babies, you could do worse.”

“Ugh.”

“It’s better to stick to the ones you aren’t related to,” Erin said.

“I don’t want to stick to anyone,” Rain said.  “I’m not interested.”

“They can apply a lot of pressure.  You might end up having to choose one of them.”

“I don’t even know the names of the other two girls.”

“Sounds like another point in Allie’s favor, then.”

Stop.  Please.  Have mercy.”

Erin stretched, fingers knit together, hands turned outward and up over her head.  The black band of her bra jumped into Rain’s attention and shook him the same way a wildcat leaping in his direction might.  What kept his attention was her profile: the way the sun outlined her face, throat, chest.  He looked away, his heart now thudding.

She was so beautiful he couldn’t believe they were talking together.  Her and him?  What the hell had he been saying before about spending a summer sitting in a hole?  What was wrong with him?

She sighed heavily as she stopped stretching.

“My family’s been making those noises,” she said.

Rain glanced at her.  For someone who had been joking a moment ago, Erin looked so sad.

“How bad?” he asked.  He swallowed hard.

“These days?  Bad.  It’s all they think about.  Every conversation, if it runs for more than a minute or two, turns to how pretty I am, and if I have any suitors.”

“You’re talking about the marriage thing?” Bryce asked.

“Yeah,” Rain said.

“Our parents talk about it a lot,” Bryce said.  “With Erin, I mean.  I’m too young to get married.”

“So are Rain and I,” Erin said.

“Rain?”

“Rain’s getting bugged too,” Erin said.

“I’m getting hints.  Girls showing up with chaperones, when they really don’t want to be there, but it’s subtle.  Nobody really talks about it,” Rain said.

“Lucky you,” Erin said.

“Are you managing okay?”

“I’ve been going over to the junkyard to shoot at bottles.  That helps,” Erin said.  She had a serious look on her face.  “Might be good to have the practice if you ever need help.”

“I don’t want to get you involved.”

“Getting caught up in your thing would be a relief,” she said.

“I’m not so sure it would,” he said.  He glanced at Bryce, to see if the boy was listening.

Nope, drawing wiggly lines in the dirt with his stick.

They were close to the church.  There was no parking lot, so the cars and trucks were parked haphazardly.  Some were moving at a crawl as they tried to navigate the parked vehicles and the people who were gathering.

Rain glanced at Jay’s truck as they found a path between cars to reach the church.  Jay was here, then.  Rain was left to wonder whether the Barr sisters had hopped out and headed on their way to school, or if they were attending the morning service, now.

Erin drew looks.  She stood out, and not just because she wasn’t a usual for the morning service.  It was in moments like this that Rain knew he wasn’t letting feelings color his views on her.  He could see the way people acted around her, the way they looked at her.

He was spooked, seeing it.  He knew who these people were, he’d grown up with them, and he knew how they functioned.  On a level, he was one of them.

Erin took Bryce to one of the moms of one of Bryce’s friends.  They exchanged words, and the mom scooted over, having Bryce sit next to her.

Rain was acutely aware of the looks he got too.  The opposite of the ones Erin got, really.

Erin joined Rain at the door.  People were still filing in.

At the front of the church, a shirtless man climbed up onto the stage and walked back to the sanctuary, where the altar was.  The light shone through the stained glass window behind him.  He was skinny, long-haired, and tattooed.

“Yo, faithful,” he said, leaning over the altar.

There was a murmur of responses from the congregation.

“I’ve been watching, and I’ve been thinking.  You guys have been asking me when I’d speak again, and I think it’s time I say a few things.”

There was a louder murmur, with a few hoots and whistles from certain locations.

“We’ve had some hard days,” he said.  “Less jobs, the strikes, the talk of war, it’s getting colder out, and I think that reminds us all of winter.  Last winter sucked.”

There were more murmured responses.

“It was cold, there wasn’t enough shelter, there wasn’t enough food.  Not everyone made it.  We did better than some, but we lost six.  We remember them.  Jack, Josh, Georgia, Kiara, Christian and Rhys.  We remember them, and we remember the cold, hunger, and sickness that took them from us.”

The responses were more animated.

“May they be with the Lord.”

It demanded a response.  More of a response than the last.

“We remember the bad days, we remember the end.  While I was doing that watching, listening, and thinking, I could tell.  People are scared.”

His tanned face was expressive as he emphasized words like ‘end’ and ‘scared’, lines crinkling in around his eyes, betraying him as thirty-something.  He gripped the podium as he talked.

“All through the city, through the many worlds, people are scared shitless.  Bad days are coming.  Everyone knows it.  You know it, am I right?”

There was a more vocal response.

“Yeah, you know it,” he said, his chin rising a bit.  “You fucking know it.  Sorry parents, you can cover your kids’ ears if you’re shy, but this is how I talk.  Honest.  I’m gonna be honest with you.”

Rain looked at Bryce and the woman he sat with.  She wasn’t covering Bryce’s ears.

He looked at Erin, and saw how tense she was.

The speaker continued, “You’re scared and you’re scared with good reason.  It’s going to get messy.  People are going to die.  People are going to deal with worse than death, because that’s where we’re at.  That’s how it is in the worlds we dwell in.  It’s inevitable.”

He remained where he was, lean muscular arms bristling with sun-bleached hair  as he gripped the altar, letting that hang there.

“We’re gonna be okay,” he said, his eyes narrowing.  “I memorized a passage.  This king Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his territory.  Sihon gathered all his people together and went out against Israel in the wilderness, and he came to Jahaz and fought against Israel.  Then Israel defeated him with the edge of the sword, and took possession of his land.”

He pulled his hand away from the edge of the altar and struck it with his hand.

“You know what that says to me?  It says you get in our way, you pick a fight with us?  You’d best be prepared for the edge of our fucking swords.  You’d best be prepared for us to take possession of your land.  Do not get in our way, am I right!?”

There was a vocal response.

He raised his voice to be heard as he preached, “Cover your kids ears if you’re raising pussies, parents, but I’m going to say things that gotta be said, and if your kids haven’t heard this yet, you’re doing something wrong.  This is the credo we live by.  There are fuckers and there are the fucked, and we are fuckers of the highest order!”

Cheers.  Bryce reacted, joining in.  Erin started to move, to enter the church, and Rain stopped her.  He glanced around to make sure nobody had seen.

“We are right and we are righteous!”

Cheers.

“We saw the end, we preached the end, and we survived the end!”

Some people stood from the pews, which forced others to stand if they wanted to see.

“They can shake and sweat and worry about winter and war, but we’re going to fucking thrive!”

Bryce stood on the pew, his high voice joining the crowd’s.  He probably didn’t even understand.

Erin didn’t repeat her initial impulse of trying to go in, pulling her little brother away.  Rain let his hand drop.

“We don’t get cold, we set our enemies on fire!”

Erin leaned close to Rain to be heard over the roars.  “Can we go?”

He nodded.

“If we get hungry, we raid, we pillage, and we’ll eat them alive!”

Cheers.  The sound of the mob made Rain think of the mall, of Snag’s dream.

“None of that pussy skipping of the impolite parts.  We go Old Testament on the asses of our enemies!  Slaves, war, and disaster!  We’ll go full Revelations with a rod of iron, and dash nations to pieces!  Anyone who’s read that far knows, the end ain’t gonna be pretty, it ain’t going to be kind!”

Rain turned to go.  He was aware that people were casting glances his way, that they were seeing him leave.  It would be remarked on.

But he’d heard variations of this ‘sermon’ for all of his life.  If pushed, he could probably write one.

For now, his focus was on Erin, as he saw how deeply unhappy she was, leaving her brother behind.  He caught up with her, walked at her side.

She saw him looking at her, and said, “His behavior gets worse after they make him go to church.”

“I’m not surprised,” Rain said.

“It doesn’t make sense.  It’s idiocy.”

“It’s not about sense.  It’s about feeling like they have power.”

“They have it.”

“Some.”

She flinched at that, then looked over her shoulder.  She slowed.

“I could go in there, drag him away.  But they’d get upset with me, and it’s just…”

“You have to pick your battles,” Rain said.

“I don’t get to pick any,” she said.  “When do I get to pick a battle and get one I can win?”

He didn’t have an answer for her.  The question echoed something he’d felt for some time.

He clenched his fist, feeling the frustration and anger boil up.

In the distance, in the background, he could hear the preacher raising his voice.

“This is the end and the ending has always belonged to us!”  The acoustics of the church magnified the voice.

“Let’s go,” Rain said.

“We are the Fallen!”

The church shook with the furor of the crowd and Rain shook in what felt like equal measure, as he saw the hurt on his friend’s face and clenched his fists with a force that should have seen blood seeping between them, as it had in the room he’d dreamed of.

“Thirty-five, forty people?”

“As a rough estimate,” Snag said.  “But you’re not a soldier or a team player, from what I heard.”

“No.”

“Beast of Burden recommended you as more of an assassin.  Thirty five to sixty individuals with powers.  Plus armed henchmen, drones, minions.  We go to war, we do it with the sanction and assistance of the major names, and we intend to leave no room for any result except the one we need.”

“You want them wiped out?”

“Broken, scattered to the wind, if need be.  But this one…”

The distorted image projected on the wall of the headquarters shifted.  Snag pushed a piece of paper across the table.

“Seventeen years old, by our best guess.  We don’t know his name, but we have an idea about his powers.  Breaking things, primarily.  Mover ability.  Tinker ability.  Emotion power.  The last three are weak.”

“You’re asking me to kill someone young.”

“That hasn’t been a problem for you before.”

“No.”

“Whatever happens in the chaos, whether they’re scattered, broken, arrested, killed, the result we want you to ensure is that this one doesn’t walk away.”

“Makes sense.”

“We could have reached out to someone else.  We reached out to you.  You should know why.”

“Because you want this kid to suffer.”

A rustling noise, muted.

It was Love Lost who handed the thin slip of paper over, her claws glinting.

The man at the table investigated the check.

“You really want this kid to suffer.”

“We want him to face a fate worse than death,” Snag said.  “But we can’t have that and have him dead at the same time, and we need him dead.  If he suffers as much as possible along the way to that conclusion, we’ll be satisfied.”

“If you’re paying, we can satisfy.”

“The check will clear.”

“Then you’ll get that satisfaction you’re after.”

The conversation paused as something grabbed their attention.

“What in the fuck did you do to them?” Chris asked.

“Shut up, Chris,” Sveta said.  She gave Rain a worried look, and Rain flinched away from the compassion.

“Victoria’s in a fight,” Kenzie said.  “I hope she’s okay.”

Rain pushed his hands through his hair, backing up.

“I hope we’re okay,” Kenzie said.  “This is a bit much to deal with just us.”

It’s not to deal with you, Rain thought.

He could see the way Sveta was looking at him.  Putting pieces together.

He couldn’t blame her.  He was just now realizing what he was up against.  For a year, he’d seen them at night.  He’d seen them talk, getting everything in order.

For this.  To destroy him.

Even hiding among the Fallen wouldn’t protect him.  He’d clung to that reassurance and now it was gone.

He turned to go, grabbed his bag.

“Rain,” Tristan said.

“I gotta go,” Rain said.  He collected more things.  The key he’d been given. “You look after Victoria.  Tell her thanks.”

“Don’t panic,” Tristan said.

How was he not supposed to panic?

“Thanks for everything, Tristan,” Rain said.  “I’ll be in touch, but I gotta go.  I can’t-”

He couldn’t.  He wasn’t sure what to do.  There was no answer.  He had three people after him and they were stronger, more capable.  He couldn’t do anything.  He couldn’t breathe.

Choking on the sentence he hadn’t finished, he hauled the door open, stepped out to the fire escape, and made his way down at a run, trusting his power to catch him if needed.

He ran until he couldn’t run anymore.  He walked, feeling the full force of dread catch up with him as he slowed down.  Then he ran again.

“Rain!”

Rain turned.  With the panic firmly set in, his first instinct was fear.  Even at a familiar voice.

Tristan.  Tristan had run after him, and the guy barely looked winded.

“There you are,” Tristan said.  “Oof.  I turned down the wrong street back there.”

Rain was silent, except for his hard breaths.  He felt like he was going to throw up.

“You can’t run.  Don’t panic.  Trust me, shitty things happen when you panic.”

“I’m dead,” Rain said.  “I’m a dead man walking.  Holy shit.  They’re going to torture me to death.”

“You’ve got to tell people, Rain.  You’ve got to tell Victoria, you’ve got to tell Sveta.  Kenzie.  Chris.  Even Ashley- she won’t blink either way, but you should tell her.”

Rain shook his head.

“I’m surprised you didn’t already say,” Tristan said.

“I can’t.  I can barely admit it to myself.”

“What were you going to do if Snag or Love Lost mentioned the Fallen while negotiating?”

“I don’t- wouldn’t it be easier?”

“Easier?  Yes.  Better?  No.  It’s best if it comes from your mouth first, Rain.  The others think this is all lined up against us.  But it isn’t.  We’re just liable to get hit with the collateral damage.”

Rain wasn’t sure what to say or do.  He shook his head.

“No?  No what?”

“You tell them.”

“I’m not going to tell them.  I’ve been in situations like this before, trying to be an ally, ending up only hurting.  Talk to them.  Tell them.  Write them a letter if you need to put the words in order.  I’ll back you and argue on your behalf.”

“I heard that the Fallen attacked Victoria’s hometown.  What if they hurt someone she cared about?  What if she says she’ll only help the team if I’m not on it?”

“Do you think she would?  I’m not so sure.”

“What if?” Rain asked, stressing the question.  “They attacked people who were evacuating.  There were groups that kidnapped people on the absolute worst day in history, raided them.  What if it turns out they hurt people Kenzie cares about?  Sveta- do you know what they say about people like Sveta?  What I’ve said about people like Sveta?”

“I know what they’ve said about people like me,” Tristan said, setting his jaw.  “What you’ve probably said about people like me.”

Rain flinched, breaking eye contact.

“Look at me, say it, and I’ll tell you it’s okay.  Because you’re working on it.  You’re better.”

“I think you’re really underestimating how little I want to face that side of me, that said those things.  Or how little progress I’ve made from being a sack of shit.”

“Look me in the eye,” Tristan said.  “Say something like, ‘hey Tristan, I used to be the kind of guy who’d call you a faggot or look down on you because you really like the dick.'”

“C’mon, man,” Rain said, cringing.

“Then you say you’re sorry, and I say it’s not a problem, I figured as much, and I reaffirm that you’re a friend.  Really easy script.  Then you say it to Sveta.  We’ve talked about so much shit, we’ve worked through so much.  You have to know we can be cool with this.  All of us.”

“I know,” Rain said.  “I get it.  Fuck.  But-”

He was interrupted as Tristan’s watch started beeping.

“Fuck,” Tristan said.

“-But I don’t want you to be cool with it.  I’m not cool with this,” Rain finished.

“I gotta change.”

“Yeah.”

“Look after Rain for me, Byron,” Tristan said, then blurred.

Byron wore a long-sleeved, slate-blue shirt with a snake on the front, and jeans.

“I’m going to go,” Rain said.

“What are you going to do?” Byron asked.

“Hide.  Figure things out.  Think.”

“Okay,” Byron said.  “I think all three of those things sound pretty reasonable.”

“Can you tell the others?  Fill them in?”

“I think if Tristan is saying no, I should say no too.  Especially when I’m not part of the group.”

Rain sighed.

“Go.  Hide.  Think.  Spend time with that ridiculously awesome friend of yours,” Byron said.

Rain allowed himself a small smile.

“Maybe call Mrs. Yamada.”

“Maybe.”

“Seems like a big enough emergency to give her a call.”

Rain nodded.  It helped, knowing he could do that.

It helped, hearing Byron calmly lay things out, agree that it was right to get away and get safe.  Tristan understood a lot of the other stuff, the fighting, the struggle, the- even trying to come back from being a scumbag.  But Byron understood other things.

“Thank you,” he said, without even really realizing he’d intended to say it.

“You have allies,” Byron said.  “Friends.  Me included.”

“They have thirty-five to sixty people with powers, a hired assassin, and a grudge.”

“And we have a bit of time.  We’ll use it.”

“We?”

“Fuck off,” Byron said, without smiling or even sounding like he was amused or annoyed.  “You’re a friend.  Of course I’m in this.”

Rain swallowed hard.

“Today was valuable.  The team has a sense of what they’re up against.  Mostly.”

“You think I should tell them,” Rain said.

Byron shrugged.  He was Tristan’s inverse, in that he wasn’t one to push, even when he had strong feelings one way or the other.

“I’m going to hide out at the compound for a day or two.  I, uh, I’ll think, and maybe I’ll explain when it’s time to come back.  When there’s a clearer picture of what’s happening.  Make sure they don’t do anything in the meantime?”

“Sure.  Tristan heard too, and I think he’d agree.”

“Thank you.”

“If you’re going to hide, you should go before they wrap up that meeting and decide to catch a train heading in the same direction you’re going.”

Rain nodded, swallowing hard again.

He turned to go.  Not running, this time, but walking as fast as he could.

To seek sanctuary amid monsters.

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131 thoughts on “Shade – Interlude 4a”

  1. Well, that explains some things. Rain ended up with the Fallen at a young age, now he’s hiding out with them. No wonder Snag wants an army, if he’s willing to start a war with the Fallen just to kill Rain. The Fallen are a pretty acceptable target as things go, so it’s not surprising they’re able to sell it.

    With that fire, no wonder Rain doesn’t know who the fifth is. There’d have been more than enough corpses. I’m guessing either he set it or he’s the one that barred the door, possibly on account of the cult thing.

    Also confirmation Tristan is gay, neat.

    1. I think it was implied that Tristan was bi/pan, earlier? It would relate more closely to the extrovert “I don’t mind as long as I have a warm body to snuggle down with” mindset, and it still is a case of him being labeled the F word by the asshole doomsday-church-cult.

    2. Even if he set it, he didn’t design the building with doors that open inward. Now we all know the reason building your building like that is illegal, and I don’t know why anyone would build like that on another Earth, other than doing it out of sheer ignorance.

      1. *PUBLIC buildings, I mean.

        And it’s entirely possible that Rain targeted that mall specifically because it had the stupid death-trap doors. Or that powers were involved.

  2. So yeah, that Fallen compound was even creepier than I expected (perhaps in part due to it seem far more disturbingly realistic than I was expecting from the prior mentions).

    Also, what, did Rain start the fire in the mall during a Fallen rally or something (perhaps accidentally)? Is that why the others hate him?

  3. Rain may be a teenager, but he’s part of a group of nasty people, and the trigger event seemed very traumatizing so I can see how they can get help so easily.

    1. Maybe he should have gone to Imp for help. She seems to have a soft spot for people who come from messed up cults. I mean sure she might just knife him if she thinks he’s got it coming for setting a fire or whatever, but at the same time she was willing to give a lot of Heartbreaker’s kids a chance after the things they did while daddy was manipulating them.

      But Imp vs the Fallen? She’s going to find a way to pack some eyes with Maggots.

      1. Maybe her power’s hitting me more than I think, but I honestly don’t remember Imp making an appearance in Ward thus far, or even being mentioned.

        1. What, Imp’s downright been a regular! She’s been in almost every chapter!

          Okay actually she hasn’t appeared yet. I’m going by what she was doing with the Heartbroken kids in her epilogue for Worm.

  4. God. The Fallen are WAY more disturbing than I thought they were. The descriptions of the arranged marriage system and the church sermon made my skin crawl.

    This new connected between Rain and the Fallen just made an interesting character even more interesting in my opinion. With so much prejudice seemingly hardwired into him at a young age, it’s impressive that Rain appears to be making an effort to change his opinions, if his conversations with Tristan is any indication.

    My one question is… do the Fallen know about Rain’s powers. That he’s a cape and the members of his cluster are trying to kill him?

    1. “My one question is… do the Fallen know about Rain’s powers. That he’s a cape and the members of his cluster are trying to kill him?”

      I suspect they know he’s a cape. Rain is not liked by people there from what we’ve seen, but the Fallen really like their cape breeding. Those two things together make me think they know he’s a cape and are pushing their daughters on him because of it.

      The Fallen are seriously creepy. I’m guessing that’s the party animal’s camp?

      1. “God. The Fallen are WAY more disturbing than I thought they were. The descriptions of the arranged marriage system and the church sermon made my skin crawl. ”
        The scary thing is that’s exactly what fundimentalist cults in real life do.
        “The Fallen are seriously creepy. I’m guessing that’s the party animal’s camp?”
        Pfft. Boring. My cult will have more heavy metal, Orgies, and tolerance… Wait one of those doesn’t fit.

        1. Yeah, who needs Orgies? I’d rather bang someone I like. Heavy Metal and Tolerance sounds rad though, I’m in.

          1. In that getting really good at sex with someone takes lots of practice and experience, I can see that. But I don’t know of a married couple where it actually works out that way in practice.

          2. I know of at least two, and I’m reasonably sure I could find more than that if I asked around. Also, sex is hardly the only thing marriage is useful for – it’s much easier to care for someone if you don’t have to spend effort to see them, and if you want kids (or have them on accident) then marriage grants many benefits. Those are pretty potent, honestly.

      2. That piece was seriously well written – gave me chills, because it very closely echoes some of the doomsday-cult kinds of sermons that are being spoken in our world today; the kind of ‘old testament’ aggression necessary for warring tribes over diminishing resources.

  5. Finally, I figured out the stinger once they started talking about arranged marriages, instead of the paragraph just before the stinger!
    Also, Jesus H Christ.

  6. Cripes, this was quite the surprise! Can’t wait to see the trigger from Rain’s POV…

    And, I wonder what would happen if Rain tried to give his little power item things to the empty space on the table?

  7. I’m not so sure the fifth is dead. Just an intuition.

    And I’m very interested in learning more about Rains backstory. I remember thinking, earlier, that the others in the cluster might have been plotting to off him because he was just “the runt,” and getting rid of him was a way of becoming more powerful. Now it looks like it may be because he earned it. Interesting thought – that he might be the villain who’s getting his due, even as he tries to become better.

    I didn’t expect the bit about the fallen, though. I caught it as soon as the sermon started, although that didn’t blunt my appreciation, seeing how Wildbow slowly passed out small hints of information right up to the reveal.

    1. What I don’t get is… if there was a fifth then shouldn’t there be a fifth power? Every other power is accounted for and somewhat easily attributed to one member of the cluster. So what, they died before his powers could set in so no one could get them and yet there’s a place at the table for them? I feel like the dream stuff should have been defined after the power, not before…

      1. The power-trading dream-sharing thing isn’t really standard issue for multi-triggers. It might be due to the fifth member’s power, which would then probably classify as Trump. Maybe something similar to the power of Zero of the Yàngbǎn.

      2. The fifth could be a Noctis cape, with no need to sleep. Or maybe one of the four had a second trigger on the heels of the first, and the cluster counts that. Or maybe there is a fifth power, but it’s passive and can’t be turned ‘on’ so Rain doesn’t know of it, except maybe tangentially. Or possibly there is a fifth power, but the way they were shuffled meant Rain was left out- though that seems unlikely, with the tokens. Or perhaps the fifth power was killed during the trigger, and the shard responsible hadn’t finished shaping itself for their needs.

        This is an unusual set up for an unusual occurrence, and I don’t think we’ll get full answers for a while.

      3. It’s possible that the power hadn’t set in yet since iirc cluster triggers can have their trigger events happen within a few minutes of each other. Meaning the powers of each cape can be subject to change for a short time.

      4. Maybe the fifth power is the dream itself. That would be a form of clairvoyance. And those tend to cancel each other out. So maybe the fifth member got a strong enough dream clairvoyance that the others cannot see him, since they only got weaker versions of it. We’d need to see other POVs of this dream-assembly to determine if there are stronger or weaker “forms” of this dream…

      5. Given the lack of tokens for the fifth, it could be that each power is lost when its owner dies. Not sure about how this arrangement works shard-wise.

    2. I caught it a bit earlier than that. You started to hear the cultiness of the whole thing, and then the whole “punished by going to church”

    1. “I need to update up one of my arms,”
      Updundancy.

      “because she wasn’t a usual for the morning service.”
      Considering this page is the only hit google returns for ‘being a usual for’, I’m assuming something’s missing. ‘A usual face’ maybe ?

  8. So I guess we have an explanation for Rain’s unusual name. I’m guessing this particular branch of the Fallen worshipped Leviathan?

      1. See this is why we need a Taylor cult. They can go “My god stabbed your god in the ass once and made him run away. Later on she made all your gods obey her.”

        1. I can’t help but wonder how Taylor would react if she heard that people were worshiping her. Probably not much better than if she heard that people were shipping her…

  9. Also, Team Therapy has Ashley. An S9 clone who spent the time prior to GM casually murdering people. Being part of the fallen is not big deal for the group.

    1. Yeah, but… Ashley’s murdering was two years ago, and she’s been closely watched since. Furthermore, she’s a clone. All the original death she caused wasn’t her. And for the spree stuff she did with the SH9K, she was coerced. On her own, she seems more… Hmm. She wouldn’t flinch at killing, but I don’t think she’d go out of her way to kill, either. A mass murderer, not a serial killer.

      Rain’s Fallen involvement is far more recent, and the terrible things they do hit the news quite often. Plus he doesn’t have any coercion excuses for the shopping centre chaos. He’s changed, sure, and they’ll probably be fine with it. But I think on some level he’s right to worry. I don’t think he needs to, but I think the fact he thinks it’s a big deal is an example of why he’s changed.

  10. Good Chapter!
    I like the notion of the tokens as well… begs the question if everyone has the mover power or just Rain. Or what happens if you die.
    Does your power stay as the previous distribution dictated?
    More questions to answer… Well Played WildBow, Well played…

    1. They have different mover powers. Snag has the main bulk of it, he can jump-without-jumping, or whatever he did to get around when Victoria couldn’t quite watch him because Blindside, and Love Lost can walk on walls, according to a news report of a multi-trigger with Tinker claws robbing something back in Glow-Worm. The Recluse is trickier. All we know of him is he’s the Tinker; this is the first time he’s showed up in person.

      1. Come to think, if the Recluse is the Tinker of the group, does that mean he was also involved with the Fallen for a while leading up to the trigger?

        1. Not necessarily. If he was, he’s been able to keep it quiet from the others- notably Rain, who was probably part of the team that started it all.

          He’s specialising in prosthetic limbs, mostly arms from what the others demonstrate. Looking after a disabled loved one, perhaps, with the actual trigger being their death at the mall. Or maybe he’s disabled himself.

    2. I think it’s worth assuming powers stay distributed, considering how grab-bag capes tend to run in equal levels across powers (a mover+shaker+brute+breaker rated at 6/6/3/3, or at least that seems to be the norm). Rain has like… a 6, in his Breaker power, a 4 in his Mover power, and then 1-2 in his emotional power (not sure what category that is, offhand).

      I bet that whoever starts with five tokens in a day gets their weak power leveled up just past their main power, and their main power levelled up equally. I’d love to see Rain and Bonesaw, perhaps, finagle something that lets him steal *every* token – as horrifying as that might be, it would be cool to see.

      1. Oof. Kind of miss-worded things.

        I think that there are permanent tokens as well as temporary tokens – so if I’m Rain and I gave away a Breaker token, I’d get all my tokens back the next time, but my Breaker power is still weakened. Rain tried to give away some emotional power to Snag, and now his emotional power is weakened, and Snag’s is strengthened.

        1. His power breaks things. That’s not a Breaker power, that’s a Blaster power. Breakers change their state, phasing out or turning into mist or looping their body back to before they were injured.

          Also, I doubt he has tokens for his emotion, tinker or mover powers. Those aren’t ‘his’ part of the package, they’re powers he picked up from the others. The permanent as well as temporary tokens are quite an interesting idea, though.

  11. I’m guessing Rain’s cluster doesn’t know about Group Therapy. This also explains why they haven’t just tried an assassination strike.

    You know, I’m thinking the solution might just giving the bad guys a huge. Sveta giving the bad guys a hug. Just toss her in a window while they’re all gathered. A round of hugs and the bad guys will no longer be trying to torture a child to death.

    1. If we’re abandoning all human morality, the far better solution would be just to kill Rain. He’s a much easier target than the group of thirty to sixty supervillains. He only has five powers. He trusts the group, so they’ll have no trouble getting close to him. He has no meaningful allies. Erin will definitely be upset when he disappears, but she has no powers or resources. The Fallen might be curious about what happened to him, but they don’t really care about him as a person. His cluster group will be annoyed with the killstealing, but not annoyed enough to follow through with their cape war plan. And no one will ever find the body, after Ashley blasts it to fine red mist. Problem solved according to spec, with just one easy murder instead of hard ones in the double digits.

      1. Abandoning morality is not the same as abandoning friendship. Being willing to torture-kill strangers who stand in your way or harm what’s yours can be entirely compatible with being kind, understanding and protective of the few that have a place in your heart.

    2. Aaaand I suspect that would not do good for her mental health and progress.

      For someone in Sveta’s situation she may want to avoid all death, even where someone without her past might consider it a necessary evil.

    3. I think the general consensus is that Earth Bet would have turned out much differently if therapy was more widely-available.

  12. Well that certainly explained why Snag’s secondary emotion power was so strong in Vicky’s fight – these suckers can share power between eachother in a weird power-poker oneiromantic tontine. I’d still like to know what the hell Rain did, or they think he did, that justifies torturing a teenager to death, especially when they get to talk to him every night.

    1. Probably kill a lot of them with his power.
      His ability is perfect to open a door that ooens inwards but is blocked by hundreds of people.

      1. I’m thinking he didn’t have his powers since the Cluster got their powers all at once. But considering the hints we have here I’m guessing he used to be more of a typical fallen asshole and either lit the fire or blocked the door. To make things even more interesting we see Snag used to be the kind of guy who would try and save someone else.

        We’ve got an interesting story forming here. On the one hand we’ve got Rain, who seems to have become a better person, and the others who seem to have become worse. Will we end up at a point where Rain is trying to save an innocent from a fire they set, so to speak?

        1. If he’d intended for things to turn this bad, I don’t think he’d have triggered over it though…

          My guess is that realising the consequences of his actions/inaction is what made him trigger…

      1. I expect that it was the Fallen that set the fire, but that Rain was part of the group that did it. He didn’t strike me as someone that would have been trusted to perform a terrorist attack all by himself. It may be that he did most of the actual dirty work if the attack was part of some sort of initiation. “Making his bones” so to speak.

        1. Since Rain triggered too, I’m betting he got caught in the crowd. Possibly deliberately, in an attempt by an in-group enemy wanting him dead, possibly accidentally, possibly because he got cold feet and tried to do something about it.

          1. Agreed, it’s likely Rain was portalled in the middle of that deathtrap, probably along with a few other kids, with the express order to hurt/kill as many people as possible.
            If he suddenly had an epiphany during the attack and tried to sabotage the deathtrap, it fits with a lot of elements:
            – barely tolerated in his own family/community. They keep him around for his powers.
            – gotta hit rock bottom to trigger.
            – his power would let him open exit(s).

            Of course, on the evil side of that possibility, he was getting his butt kicked by a survivor so bad he ended up triggering while wanting to tear him apart and the other Fallen disrespect him for that.
            Can’t really guess much about the personality bleeds since we don’t know who the 5th was – could have been the worst of them all.

      2. Yes we have an interesting case here as there’s someone who might have been far worse before their trigger event becoming a better person afterwards. That said I’m not sure how much of what he’s showing is because he feels remorse now, and how much is because he knows they are going to kill them. At the very least he does seem in some ways more afraid of the therapy group hating him for it than not.

  13. Well this was an amazing chapter. We got some nice stuff hinting more at the group trigger and why the others hate Rain so much. We got a great build as we see where Rain is and eventually realize who he’s with. We get to know more about Erin. And we got a nice moment with Tristan and Byron. Definitly a good chapter.

  14. Geez. That press in the mall…there are fire codes for a reason! Why the hell didn’t you follow—oh, right, apocalypse. I guess nobody’s enforcing those things.

    “I said mean things about Elijah,” Bryce said.
    The tone of that exchange is highly dependent on if they’re talking about Biblical Elijah or someone in town named after him.

    I never would have guessed that the Fallen were rooted so deeply in Christianity. Though given the nation where it caught on, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.

    “Sveta- do you know what they say about people like Sveta? What I’ve said about people like Sveta?”
    Hm. There are two very different ways this could be taken. Either the Fallen take a traditional Christian approach and call Case 53’s demons, or they revere them as reflections of the Endbringers (which would probably be worse, since people might take it seriously).

    1. Given the Endbringers are named after biblical creatures, it makes sense that they’d be rooted in Christianity. Whether the Christianity or the Endbringer worshipping came first is another question though

  15. This may just be my favorite Ward chapter. God, I absolutely LOVE IT. As I expected, Rain has solidified his place as my favorite Ward character(of the ones they’ve shown, anyway).

  16. Veerrrry interesting. I so did not see Rain’s community being with the Fallen until it was explicitly said at the end of the sermon, I’m slow.

    So the power-sharing dreams are neat. It seems like whoever’s “day” it is, that person gets 5 tokens, and everyone else gets 3. In the dream they can give their tokens for the day to others, so in practice anyone can be the strongest on any given day, it just depends on what they decide on. But one person starts out stronger.
    Notably, though, we don’t see any tokens for the missing member. Does that mean that when one member of the cluster dies, the others don’t necessarily get any stronger? So if they kill Rain, they would stay at their same level of power, and the only difference would be that they would get an extra power-up day that goes to one of the remaining three people randomly, instead of having to wait through a day where he is stronger.

    This is all assuming the fifth person is actually dead and there’s no shenanigans going on there.

    1. From context, I’m pretty sure that Elijah was someone in their community instead of the biblical prophet.

      Based on the context of what the Fallen say about non-traditional sexuality, I’d say that the Fallen’s view of the Case 53s the traditional demons/monsters.

      I noted people above speculating on whether Tristan is homosexual or whether he has a more non-binary sexual preference. I’m going with the guess that he’s plain vanilla gay. I don’t have much in the way of evidence for this. It’s just that Victoria noticed Byron checking her out and one of the brothers being straight when the other one was gay would be another thing that makes sharing a body with each other terrible. Tristan did hint that his relationship with Byron made dating pretty much a no-go.

    2. Something Tristan said to Rain caught my attention: “I’m not going to tell them. I’ve been in situations like this before, trying to be an ally, ending up only hurting. Talk to them. Tell them. Write them a letter if you need to put the words in order. I’ll back you and argue on your behalf.”

      I’m thinking the situation that he’s been in before is Furcate. I’m thinking whatever happened that caused the blowup between Tristan and Reach was centered around Furcate and Tristan tried to take initiative on their/his behalf. That’s my guess, anyway.

  17. Hm. I wonder if the marry young and have lots of kids thing is a specific investment in powers thing, or just a “outbreed the infidels” thing like the Quiverfull movement. It’d make sense to maximize the number of kids hanging around the powered cultists.

  18. The fact that Rain is able to maintain an outside social group like he does is interesting, it definitely suggests that the Fallen practice social ostracism rather than using outright force to punish people who look like they’re leaving the cult. Probably as a means of keeping the authorities off their back. They seem to hate Rain, while offering acceptance and community if he’d just come back into the fold, so it seems they can tell they’re on the verge of losing him.

    Erin’s treatment is odd and different. Is that a factor of her beauty? We know that one of the Fallen leaders takes multiple young wives so that might be it. Or maybe she has powers and the Fallen know it, so they’re being nicer to her.

    1. Could simply be old-fashioned sexism. Plus her father was a desk jockey before he was Fallen, so they’re already slightly outsider, whereas Rain’s family grew up in the cult. His aunt’s a member, which implies to me that it was a grandparent who joined up. Though it could simply be a pair of siblings running off together. They treat Erin differently because they want to keep her, treating her like Allie would possibly alienate her parents, then they’d lose all four of them. They only keep Erin right now because she’s got nowhere else to go.

  19. Does anyone else get a sort of Sierra-y vibe from Erin, with how her little brother is being inducted into a mob that profits off of chaos and total societal breakdown? Makes me wonder whether we’ll see Victoria doing a similar raid to extract him or something, as a way to set up more compare-contrast in how she handles it vs Taylor.

  20. On a more serious note, this does tell me that Rain is definitely underselling his power set to elicit sympathy from Team Therapy. If the momentum stop power is just his version of Snag’s Mover power, and glowing cutty Lightsaber Tonfas is his main power…

    …plus he hasn’t mentioned the power sharing working more like Settlers of Catan instead of a straight roster system …

    …he’s definitely manipulating them. And I get it, because being raised in the Fallen will screw you up. Its just a question of what the emotional fallout will be once this comes to light.

  21. Is it just me or is the power exchange scene even more evidence of Rain’s lies? Because when he was asked about the power rotation mechanic, he said nothing about the clutstermates being able to voluntarily exchange bits of power.

  22. BTW, does anyone know how to get email updates without having to “confirm” every single chapter? Only this and Leigon of Nothing are like that, among the serials I follow, and I don’t know what’s different about them.

    1. Yew (who’s managing the tech stuff) reported that the use of Categories as a table of contents might have gotten Ward listed as a spam blog. Too many tags also does this.

      I’ve since deleted the categories (I was only filling in that info to help myself keep track & out of habit, I’m using a ‘menu’ for the ToC in the sidebar now) and the issue may self-correct with that.

      1. Btw, with the categories deleted, the main links for arcs 0 to 3 inclusive are now missing (act 4’s main link isn’t affected and properly redirects to its first chapter).

  23. So, things I notice:
    1) Erin is way less sketchy then I had previously assumed. Yay? (also, way more in trouble). Not entirely sure why she doesn’t leave… not sure where to go… but… if Rain cares about her, sending her to some ally in team therapy seems like a thing (Victoria’s house? Or her dad’s house, if no space with he cuz)
    2) good job Capricons. Way to be good pals.
    3) Is there any evidence that Rain’s clustermates even know he is there in the dream? Maybe they aren’t trying to screw with him by doing things on his day, maybe they just literally don’t realise he is part of the conversation. They don’t seem to be making any effort to deceive or manipulate him… or interact with him in any way. Which implies that the part of corner of the room that Rain can’t see might also contain a person, unnoticed by the rest of the team.
    4) If that were the case, that might imply that they have literally never talked to Rain… and just assume he is the arsonist asshole he (presumably) was previously (Although we don’t even have confirm on that, really). Point being is, if he meets and is like “I was a monster, and now I’ve picked up all these weird character traits and regret from you, and that person I was literally doesn’t exist any more… and now I’m trying to make things right…” … well I mean, its worth a shot. I guess. Hard when dealing with their assasins for hire rather than them, but It seems like that conversation really needs to be had.
    5) Snag: Damn fine dude… at least he was back then at any rate.

    1. 1- If he does truly care about Erin and her little brother, he’d better get some shit together. Because either way she’s in trouble. She’s in danger if all the guys the others gather attack, especially if they realize she’s close to him. Even if the Fallen do drive them off, she’s a pretty young girl in a cult that wants pretty young girls to start popping out kids. It’s just a matter of time before someone high up in the Fallen takes notice of that.

      5-Yep he used to be a decent guy. But I’m not so sure that’s the case anymore.

      1. 3) He’s handed his tokens out before, to try and get them to talk to him. Hard to do that if they can’t see you. Plus Love Lost glowered, as Fiona mentioned. And he can see them, too.

  24. That just seems like they are asking for someone to start hitting them with the plagues of Egypt. I’m just saying, I wouldn’t mind seeing them get dogpiled by frogs. We could have a frog based offspring of Bitch’s shard. It’d be awesome.

  25. One thing that kinda weirds me out is the apparent lack of heat directed at Snag and the others after their kidnapping/assassination attempt. It wasn’t a robbery or a heist, it wasn’t a straightforward crime with an impersonal objective. They were there to abduct Fume Hood, a fledgling hero, so that she could die in a horrible fashion. It’s really, blindingly clear that the story about them being contracted to haul her in front of the woman whom she caused to miscarry so she could be yelled at and made to ‘feel bad’ is total horse hockey. It was an assassination attempt on a hero.

    Why hasn’t a ton of bricks landed on their heads? They crashed an event looking to drag someone off to be tortured to death.

    1. Reminder: they never admitted to the public that their objective was assasination, or nearly so. The shooter was “independent” and they said that they were not murderers.

  26. It occurs to me that this actually could be a win-win for team therapy if they play it right. Now that we know it’s not them the Cluster Triggers are getting an army together for, that frees them up. They’ve got some massively useful intel. Cards played right, with the help from groups like The Wardens and Foresight, they could potentially smash up that part of the Fallen, and mess up a bunch of Supervillians, while not being directly involved. Very much more of an intelligence agency type operation.

    1. Yes it seems “the good guys” will want to know about a community of mostly non-para getting attacked by an army of villains, even/especially if the community is Fallen. It probably happens on a fairly regular basis, but with all the heroes stretched thin, knowing about it ahead of time will make for a real opportunity. SnagLost probably assume that Fallen wouldn’t go for help, but they’re not seeing the big picture.

      It will be amusing when/if Victoria lets Snag know that it was his actions in the Fume Hood hit that pushed her into the position in which she could really dash his hopes and dreams.

      One also wonders if it wouldn’t have been more effective, if less “honorable”, for SnagLost to have just bribed some Fallen bigwigs to hand over the dude that nobody likes. Maybe they didn’t because of their major hate-on related to their trigger.

    2. I don’t think Team Therapy is going to be involved in any Fallen smashing, at least until the Fallen do something worse than peaceful Cultery and breeding a super-army. That’s not violent. I mean, it obviously leads to a bad place, but we got the amnesty remember?

      However, if they time it right the villains could smash up the Fallen. Now that wouldn’t be very heroic, so I doubt Team Therapy would try something like that. But I bet there are plenty of others who might think that’s a good idea. Plus they also get a good excuse to come down on the villains like a ton of bricks.

      So of course, Team Therapy will have to get involved on the Fallen side of all this.

      Disclaimer: None of this applies if something unexpected happens. Which it probably will.

      1. Good points. Though even if they don’t do smashing to the Fallen, there’s a lot of subtle and shady stuff that could happen in this kind of operation. Vicky might find herself in a Parahuman CIA type group down the line.

        Or something unexpected happens. Like the Simurgh shows up and starts pushing Rain and Erin to kiss.
        Vicky- “Shit it’s true. She’s become the Shipmurgh. I’m getting the hell out of here.”

  27. Prediction: Rain’s cluster want him dead because when he dies, the negative personality traits (cruelty/evil…whatever) that she distributed/shared to the group will go away with him and make them good again. On top of that, they also gain a boost to their powers since that doesn’t go away with the dead cluster member. This way the shards motivate them to go after Rain, while also motivating Rain to avoid killing them in self-defense…since he would lose the positive traits that he got from them if he killed them (thereby making him “evil” again).

    1. So eventually the now fully good Rain will realize that he must die to save the others from his evil nature that’s been transferred to them, and commit suicide? And then the now good again other will name their group “Rainy Day” in his honor?

      1. Nah, he can’t become fully good. He will always retain some of his own nature even if he shared some of it with the cluster. So he wouldn’t commit suicide. I’m thinking that one or maybe all of the rest of the cluster will die at the worst possible moment later in the story. Just when everyone have fully bonded with him and he have earned their love and respect. That’s when he will return to his original “evil” state and betray them all. I think that will cause the maximum drama in this soap opera. 😛

  28. I really like how all the characters in the protagonist group seem to have their own backstory secrets and personal arcs set up for the future; it feels kinda like the beginnings of a well thought-out d&d campaign. In Worm, sometimes the fact that the narrative was all about Taylor bugged (heh) me, the other Undersiders (Lisa being the exception) feeling like they only mattered as accessories to her development – though it was phenomenal, don’t get me wrong.

    I was having a little bit of trouble getting into Ward, but the last few chapters of arc 3 and all of this one have really picked up, and now I’m hooked. I’ve missed having these highlights in my week since Pact! (Couldn’t follow Twig after about the midpoint due to time constraints ;~;)

    ooh, gay Tristan! I was hoping for that reveal ever since the exchange about his Weld fanboying. As if he needed more reasons to be my favorite character… (here’s to hoping the story doesn’t end up proving Moonsong was right all along, though ^^’) But damn, sharing a body with your sibling already seemed like hell, having them be opposite orientations is just downright cruel. Wildbow Nightmarish Fates™

  29. I do not see how this whole presenting suitors is bad? The human race cannot persist on ,7 babies per person. It’s not like they’re forcing kids together they’re just urging them to get it on. Besides I cannot imagine any of them not being horny in a post-porn world without contraception, marrying is probably better than single-momhood.

    Dog-eat-dog isn’t a nice mentality, but peace only works if it goes both ways. The British in India and white Americans were fairly reasonable so peaceful protests worked, try that shit with the Nazis or the Communists and they will swiftly wipe you out.

    I’m not a big fan of zombie cultists, but they make up the majority of Americans. If science didn’t convince them, why should the end of the world?

    1. *A baby boom doesn’t seem like a bad idea, and marriage is much better than single motherhood. I don’t think the lack of porn is going to make things worse, though, nor do I think that Earth Bet is going to be a whole lot more survivable with a larger population base. Also, I don’t quite understand the ‘7 babies per person’ thing.
      *Depends on which Americans, British, and Communists. They were all multigenerational things handled by multiple groups, unlike the group commonly referred to as Nazis. Also, I’m not sure how this relates to the chapter, but I’d probably love to explore it.
      *As a faithful LDS scientist, I think I’m offended by this. I’m aware of the Bible Belt stereotypes, but calling many millions of people ‘zombie cultists’ is both reductive and rude. (Also, the cultural awareness of Biased Studies/Fake News makes “Science” hard for people to trust. Which isn’t good, and symptomatic of something worse, but that’s another story.

  30. This chapter was incredible! The fire, the weird dial summit room where powers are exchanged and Rain ignored, the slow understanding that something is very weird in Rain’s community until you realize it is deeply wrong, the catching up with the main timeline so seemlessly so that everything falls into place, Tristan being explicitly gay, and some of Byron. Incredible.

  31. This is a… really, really, profoundly biggoted portrayal of Christianity. All the old politically correct stereotypes proudly on display.

  32. At it again with the diversity checklist I see.
    I love your writing and your stories but is it really necessary to go down the list like this?
    Black – check
    Gay- check
    etc.

    1. I think that this says more about your world view and biases then the author’s.
      You must have grown up in a pretty homogeneous environment for the mere presence of minority characters to register as an artificial imposition or extension of an agenda.

      I mean, considering Blacks make up a bit more than 12% of the population of America and gays are estimated to make up somewhere between 5-10% of any given population, having one main character who happens to be each of those out of a core cast of around eight isn’t even outside of the statistical average. And that’s not even accounting for the fact that they’re in an urban area on the east coast, which are often above average in pervelance of minorities. Not to mention the theoretical effect of discrimination against minority groups causing them to have a greater occurrence of parahumans, as has been previously implied in Worm, further skewing the representation.

      Heck, to give an alternative perspective as a counterpoint, I grew up in a neighborhood so diverse (albeit, still majority white) that back at my high school you would have been genuinely hard pressed to find someone without at least one East-Asian and one Indian person in one of their circles of friends. And, as far as I can recall, Ward has yet to have either of those as a member of its core cast. So relative to my life experiences Ward is actually still slightly too undiverse to line up with what I regard as normal.

  33. I’m deeply interested as to what ‘the recluse’/cradle’s Trigger-event was about to have manifested as a Tinker in a Mall fire.

    According to what we know about tinker triggers it would have to be some prolonged and ongoing issue which managed to come to a distinct head or breaking point during the chaos of the fire or the resultant stampede.

    The best I can think of off the top of my head is that someone who he had been constantly trying to protect or keep out of danger was killed in the incident and he either triggered from being unable to save them or from having failed in what he viewed as his responsibility.
    Knowing Wildbow though, it’s probably something much more fitting, original, and unexpected.

  34. Shit keeps getting darker. Rain was desperate enough to go to a Fallen camp just for some minimal protection, it’s like he’s taking every precaution possible and its still not enough. I think its finally dawning on him that he’s putting *people* in danger, not just looking to survive. That Fallen settlement was pretty creepy, simply because of how realistic it felt

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