Shade – Interlude 4c

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She stared up at the ceiling, tears in her eyes.

“It’s not like I didn’t give you warnings,” he said.

“I can’t change your mind?” she asked.  It sounded like pleading, begging.

She looked at him.  His head was shaved, his chin was marked with stubble, and he looked weary.  The front door was ajar, the world outside dark.  He had his jacket and shoes on, and he stood in the hallway, while she stood in the living room.  The water hadn’t even dried from when he’d walked in from outdoors and it was clear in his body language he was about to go.

He took a long time to decide what to say.

“I’d say you could tell me things were going to be different-”

“They will.”

“-But you’ve told me it before,” he said.  “I don’t believe your words anymore.”

“This isn’t just about me,” she said, raising her voice.

“Seventy-five percent me, twenty-five percent you, then,” he said.

“Don’t fucking reduce it to numbers,” she said, angry now.

“We’ve talked about this,” he said.  His voice was calm, in stark contrast to hers.  “I’ve tried to be fair.  I outlined what needed to change.  That you needed to take it easier and be more reliable.  I don’t even know where you are some nights, and it’s not because of work.”

“It’s part of the job!” she said.  Her voice echoed down the hallway, and the echo came back different.  “It’s the work culture!  How many times do I have to say it!?”

“I’ve outlined what needed to change.  The therapist took my side.  She thought it was fair.  We agreed on rules, the therapist signed off on them, and you broke them,” he said.  His voice was more weary than his expression was.  “How many times have I had to get Ever out of bed late at night, get her things, and bring her to the hospital like that because you’ve gotten hurt?  You’re a mom.”

“I’m a human being!  I’m trying to find a balance!”  Again, the echo, louder, jumbled, not going away as it bounced off of the walls, building and multiplying.

“She’s almost five.  She’ll be in kindergarten this September.  In the last four years and seven months, She’s learned to walk, talk, do some chores, and she’s going to go into school knowing some reading, adding, and subtracting.  She’s figured all that out.  Why can’t you figure out your balance in that same time?”

“Oh fuck you, Lee!”

“Dad?” the voice was small.

Lee turned and stepped aside.  The little girl- Everly, she’d crept up, and now she stood in the hallway that went from the front hall toward the bedrooms, fidgeting with her nightgown.

“Oh, hon-” her words were nearly drowned out by the jumble of sound.

“Hey Ever!” Lee’s voice interrupted hers, positive, happy.  Were the point of view not from the woman’s perspective, Love Lost’s perspective, then nobody would’ve heard the small, broken sound that escaped her throat.  Another person might not have seen how the lens was watery, blurry at the bottom edges with tears.

Lee bent down and swept Ever up in his arms.  “What are you doing out of bed?”

“You’re shouting.”

“No I’m not, goblin,” he said.  He squeezed the girl in a hug.  As he did, he turned, his face where Everly couldn’t see, and gave Love Lost an accusatory, disappointed look.

No I’m not.  But she is.

“Where are you going?” Everly asked.

“I have to go away for a bit.”

“You weren’t going to say goodbye?”

“Were you?” Love Lost asked.  She didn’t shout, but the words reverberated and echoed down the hallway and through the house as if she’d voiced the words with a megaphone.

Lee’s look was much fiercer, this time.

“It’s not goodbye,” Lee said, the gentle tone disconnected from expression.  “I’m going to see you soon.  Promise.”

“Wizards can’t lie, Daddy.”

“I know, baby.”

“And we’re wizards.  It’s not allowed.  It’s a pact of a promise.”

“I know.  You and me, we’re wizards and we keep our word.”

Love Lost shook her head, looking away, elsewhere in the living room, down at her hand, which was clenched.  When she opened her hand, her palm had a row of half-moon marks in it.

Lee set Everly down.  “Go to your mom.  Sorry, goblin, but I’ve got to go.”

Everly looked at her mom, hesitated, both hands on her dad’s leg, then obediently crossed the way.

Love Lost knelt on the living room rug, folding her daughter into a hug, her head buried in the little girl’s shoulder and hair.

“I’ll send you the papers by the end of the week,” Lee said.

Love Lost flinched, whole-body, as the door shut with a solid impact.  The sound broke up as well, scattered, became a hundred trampling shoes and boots, bangs.  Picture frames rattling became another kind of rattle, of things clattering, falling down.

The floodgates opened, and her arms still encircling Everly, she used her thumbs and fingers to try to wipe tears away.  To keep Everly from seeing.

“Why are you crying?  Mom?”

She shook her head.

“Mom?  What did I do?”

Her voice broke as she tried to speak.  The noises were too loud- the jumble.

Her eyes were wrenched open as people pushed in close.  Her surroundings were claustrophobic, not even accounting for all of the people.  Folded tables and pallets on either side of her, many with papers stuck to them.  The words ‘event’, ‘convention’ stood out on the paper.  People pushed, shoved, and Love Lost pulled closer to the wall, put her head down, burying her face in her daughter’s hair.

“Mom,” was the faint sound, almost drowned out.

Love Lost looked.  She made eye contact with her daughter, now grown, twelve or so years old.  Makeup around her eyes was thick, bright, smudged.  Strands of red hair with one strand bleached and colored blue had fallen across her face.  Everly looked terrified.

People pushed past, and Love Lost did what she could to hug her daughter closer.  The space between the piles of stuff might have seemed like a refuge at one point, but it wasn’t big enough for two people.  Love Lost sat on the ground, her back to the wall, pulling Everly in as tight as she could.

A man squeezed by, and Love Lost looked down at where her hand gripped her daughter’s waist.  The friction of the man pushing past had skinned the back of her hand.

Love Lost shouted, inarticulate, and her own voice was inaudible.  Angry shouts, telling people to get back, to give space.  Someone tried to stick a leg into the gap between her and the folded tables leaning against the wall to one side.  The tables rattled as the picture frames had, a steady, endless, echoing drum.

Her daughter said something, but the noises- too much noise.

I can feel the vibration of her speaking against Love Lost’s chest, Rain thought.

Love Lost screamed words at the crowd.

The pressure of the packed crowd was such that the stacked tables couldn’t handle it.  Something gave, and the tables fell, sliding down against the ground, taking the legs out of a dozen people in the crowd.  The result was a domino effect, people falling over and taking others with them.  Others sought relief from pressure in moving over the crowd.

The ripple effect in the crowd was more like a tidal wave crashing through.  One moment, where Love Lost’s eyes moved over the crowd, saw people falling, saw others pushing-

Her daughter was torn from her arms by the shift in the crowd.  She watched, the scene slowing down, the noise dying out, fingers grasping, as Everly’s face was forced- shoved into the side of a table that hadn’t fully collapsed.

The only sound was the impact, a single, hard knock.  The dull echo and the rattling.

Her eyes went first to the slash of red, the gap between nostril and teeth, where the upper lip had split.  Then to Everly’s eyes, which pointed in slightly different directions, unfocused.  Gone.

She reached for Everly and the movement of the crowd didn’t let her make contact.  People moved in, stepping on her, on Everly’s body, and Love Lost fought, fierce, desperate, and animal.

A scream tore from her lips, a multi-note sound.  Anger, desperation, despair, grief.

Love Lost leaned over the counter, hands at her temple, as the screaming on the television stopped, replaced by a jingle, jarring voices.  Bugs danced on the screen, turning around to wiggle their rear ends, showing off the symbols stamped on their shells.

“Everlyn,” she said.

Her hands moved at her temple, and the scene distorted with the movements.

“Everlyn!” she raised her voice.  The shout echoed through the apartment.

She heard the tromp of running feet.  The sound echoed, became a part of the background noise.

“Yes mom?” the voice asked.

“Turn it down.  That’s loud enough to bother the neighbors.  And turn it off, if you’re not watching.”

“I was going to watch.”

“You were in your room.”

“I wanted to find someone to watch it with me.”

Love Lost looked over as two stuffed toys were placed on the counter’s edge.  Ugly things, with twisted faces.  One of them looked like a ballsack with arms, legs, and a bulldog face.  Ugly toys were apparently the in thing.  The other was alright.  A princess doll with red hair.

“See?”  Everlyn moved the toys, animating them with wiggles and moving a finger up to raise the princess’s arm.

“I see.  Now turn it down.”

“Okay.”

The toys were left where they were.  A moment later, the volume of the children’s voices singing the repetitive song started dropping.  The noise of the lingering echoes remained.

“Quieter,” Love Lost said.  Her fingers moved at her temples, drawing her eyes into slits, as she stared down at the sink.

The sound of the television dropped again.  The two toys were whisked away from the edge of the counter.

Thank you,” Love Lost said, raising her voice to be heard as the footsteps retreated at a run.  She drew in a deep breath and sighed, aggrieved.

The peace lasted about five seconds.  Something crashed, a loud sound that cascaded, as if everything had fallen down.

“Sorry!” Everlyn called out, from the other end of the house, her voice high.  “I’ll clean it up!”

Love Lost raised herself up straight, then went to the kitchen cupboard, retrieving a bottle of headache pills.  She doled out two into her hand.  The stem of a wine glass was briefly visible as she washed them down.

The theme song had ended, and the television was high cartoon voices, now.

Love Lost buried her face in her hands and sighed.

“Mom?”

“Yes?”

“Mom.”

“What is it, Everlyn?” Love Lost’s voice could only be described as barely restrained, slightly muffled with her face still in her hands.

“Can I show you something?”

“How bad is the mess?”

“Oh, that.  I’ll clean it up after.  Can I show you something?”

“Can it wait?  Please?  I’m not up for it right now.”

“Okay.”

Love Lost remained where she was.  The sounds in the background settled into a throbbing sync.  The television show broke away to show ads, high cartoon voices replaced with adult announcers touting toys and kids screaming their glee in response.

She raised her head up, and a slice of color caught her eye.  She looked- the princess doll, sitting on the edge of the counter.  The weight of the doll held down a little booklet.

She set the doll aside, noting the paper shield stuck to the arm with two pieces of clear tape.  The cover of the book had two women on it, both with red hair.

The woman in a dress with the shield was in the book, alongside a figure that wasn’t supposed to be a woman, but Everly.  A child drawing herself as larger and more prominent, with a scarf drawn overlong, sprawling out over the page.

The red-haired wizard had once had a teacher but he was gone.  There was only the knight who had ‘raised her up’, who had red hair like her.  The knight ‘detected’ crimes and was always very tired and very grumpy.

Children on the television in the background shrieked.  The sound became a growing echo of screams.

Love Lost’s vision blurred slightly, and she paged through.  The lead-in to the book took a long time, and the confrontation at the end was brief, as the demon was slain.

Love Lost looked away, at a small collection of empty bottles on the counter, tucked beside the microwave and the wall, set out of reach.

She finished looking through the book’s ending.  She closed it, hand pressing down the front cover so it would lie flat instead of sticking straight up.  The teacher’s sticker was in the corner, a tiny superhero silhouette holding up a giant ‘A+’.  The teacher had penned out a response, saying in length how much they loved it.

Love Lost’s thumbnail dragged against the construction paper, scratching the words the teacher had put down, the edge of the nail finding the grooves where the pen nib had dug into the softer paper.

She pressed the book to her chest, and picked up the doll.  The paper shield came undone, and she carefully pressed the tape back into place along the doll’s arm.

She walked down the hallway, then pushed open the door.

Toys and stuffed animals were scattered across the floor.  Love Lost’s eyes roved, over posters on the wall, mostly wizard things, more of the goblins.    Homework assignments and one picture of Lee were taped to the wall, at waist height and below.

An eight year old Everly was on her bed, surrounded by toys.  She watched her mother, expression solemn.

“I’m sorry I forgot to turn off the tv,” Everlyn said.

“It doesn’t matter.”

Everlyn looked at the closet.  A set of metal poles with baskets had been pulled down, bringing down the basket from the back of the door in the process.  The stuffed animals from within had been emptied onto the floor of the room, with one pole leaning against the child-size chair in the corner of the room.

Everlyn nodded.

“I love this,” Love Lost said, pressing the book against her heart.

Everlyn smiled, “You do?”

“I love everything about it,” Love Lost said, for emphasis.

“There are parts I worried you wouldn’t like.”

“I love it all,” Love Lost said.  “Can I sit?”

Everlyn moved over so her mother could sit down beside her.  She took the doll back.

“When you wanted a scarf for Christmas, did you want one like this?  Like-”

“I like the one you gave me.”

“But did you want one like this?”  Love Lost looked at pictures on the wall.  The sound of her own heartbeat echoed, the sounds that the television spat out growing louder in the distance, like an onrushing train.  She pointed.  “Like that?”

Everlyn nodded, “Yes.”

“What do you say we go shopping later?  We’ll see what we can find.”

Everlyn nodded, emphatic.  “Yes please.”

Love Lost reached for her daughter and wrapped her in a hug.

“I’m going to try to be a better mom, okay?”

Everlyn nodded.

Everlyn pulled to one side.  The movement of people around her tugged her, threatening to pull her from her mother’s arms.  Her expression was so afraid.

Again, just as before, down to the last detail, the pressure of the packed crowd was such that the stacked tables couldn’t handle it.  The tables fell, sliding out and across the floor, bowling over a section of the crowd.  Again, the domino effect, again, people fell over and knocked or pulled others down with them.

Again, people climbed over the fallen.

Once again, the sound seemed to fade.  Once again, things moved in slow motion as Love Lost’s eyes moved along the same path, noting the same details, the same imminent result.

Her daughter was torn from her arms.  Love Lost watched as Everly’s face was driven into the side of a half-fallen table.

Again, the only sound was the impact, a single, hard knock.  The dull echo and the clatter after the fact.

Love Lost’s eyes traveled the exact same path as before, as if moving along a groove.  First to the slash of red, the gap between nostril and teeth, where the upper lip had split.  Then to Everly’s eyes, which each moved independently of the other.  Gone.

The dull echo of the impact against the table was the only sound as she reached for her daughter.  The movement of the crowd didn’t let her make contact.  People moved in, trampling the two of them, separating them, and Love Lost fought, with nothing knightly or good about how she clawed with fingernails.

A sound tore from her lips, a sound in many parts, for a feeling that couldn’t be put to words or wordless scream.

Then that sound, too, went quiet.

Tear-blurred vision with light from the windows slicing in through the brief gaps that appeared between people became something else.  Light on the horizon.

Love Lost sat with a ten year old Everlyn, facing the water, and the soft glow on the far side of it.  All around them, people milled, noisy.

“Do you want to do anything?” she asked.

Everlyn looked up at her, confused, then looked back.

Love Lost followed her daughter’s eyes.  The orb of the sun was behind them, peeking in between buildings.

She turned to look at the light on the horizon.  Gold.

“Do anything?” Everlyn asked.

“We could go to the ice cream truck over there, and see if we can get anything.”

Her daughter looked at her as if she was crazy.

“We could go to the shelters, but I don’t think it would help.”

People ran this way and that.  Not sure where to go.  Love Lost seemed determined to stay still, stay calm.

She reached for her daughter’s hand, and that hand trembled as she took it in hers.

As if something had swept over it, the water briefly went still, every wave stopping, the ocean appearing as a flat expanse of ice or glass for the briefest moment.

The golden light flared, and it took nearly five seconds before the effect touched the water, breaking the spell.  The ground shook as the effect carried into the ground beneath them, and some people who were running lost their balance.

Everlyn’s hands went to her mouth.  One was the hand that Love Lost held.  Love Lost gathered both hands up in her own.

“I don’t understand why the ice cream,” Everlyn said.  A sentence garbled by confusion and stress.

“I wasted so much time.  I thought-”

She didn’t finish the statement.

Her daughter gave her a look, confused.

“I don’t know what to do,” Love Lost said.

“Hug me,” Everlyn said.

Love Lost hugged her daughter without hesitation or reserve, burying her face in Everlyn’s hair.

“Too tight.  That hurts,” Everlyn said.

The sound of the crowd mounted, the distant rumbles and rattling echoing.  People brushed across Love Lost’s arm, in greater and greater numbers-

Rain found himself in the room.  He didn’t reach for the chair.  He didn’t move.

The view of Gold Morning had been the third of seven scenes.

All punctuated by the same repeated event.

It had been the same way, every fifth night for the last year, with little variation.  Sometimes more scenes, sometimes less.  He’d seen all of these before.

It never hit him any less hard.

Snag was up, standing at the dais.  Cradle, too, had approached it.  Rain could hear the murmurs of their conversation.

He hated to look, but he looked.

Love Lost was in the small chair.  The same chair that had been in Everlyn’s room.

Rain recognized the stuffed animals, the toys, and the little belongings.  Nothing too personal, none of the wizard pictures.  None of the swords-and-sorcery superhero stuff that the more moody eleven and twelve year old Everlyn had kept on her wall.  None of the toys were ones she’d indicated any attachment to.

Hollow.

Love Lost sat in the chair, limp, not twitching a finger or shifting her posture.  Tears marked her cheeks, darkened with the makeup from around her eyes.  Unblinking, tears flowing, she glared at Rain.

It was disconcerting to see someone cry and not blink or move.

He hated this.  He hated seeing that and he couldn’t imagine what it did to Love Lost.  He hated that it took something away from the sympathy, that he had to temper it with his awareness of her wanting him dead.

She had been a deeply flawed person, but that didn’t make the love, the pain, or the resulting emotion any less felt.  Just the opposite, in the end.

She poured hate into her glare as if she could somehow make Rain feel the loathing and anger.

With the personality bleed, he thought, she probably could.

Rain felt his heart sink further as Victoria flew higher.

“Crazy,” Erin said.

He looked back at her.  She still stood by the door of her dad’s car.  She looked so weary.  “Me?”

“Her.  The flying, I mean.  It’s crazy to go from a conversation to seeing someone take off and disappear into the sky like that.”

He’d wanted to convince Victoria more than anyone.  She was the least biased in his favor because she hadn’t spent so long in group therapy, listening to his side of things, empathizing and sharing with him.  A part of him had wanted to get her on his side because she wasn’t that far from all of the strangers he walked past or took the train with every day- every person who he knew would hate him if they knew his full, unfiltered story.

In the background, Kenzie had stood up.  She was looking in Victoria’s direction.  Sveta broke away from the group to approach her.  Disconcerting, in a very different way, to see how Sveta turned her head away, and she hadn’t fixed her hair since moving it away.  The thin-ness of her face, the fact that the only thing behind it was the muscle-like bundle of finger-thin tendrils.

He hadn’t seen that often.  It reminded him of catching a glimpse of Erin’s bra strap.  Something hidden, that he wasn’t supposed to see.  It left him feeling uncomfortable in a completely different way.

Disconcerting, to see Sveta looking at him, catching him looking, and the anger and hurt in her eyes.  He thought of Love Lost.

Sveta was one of the kindest people he knew.  Having her angry at him?  It sucked.  But Peat and Fen had been the closest thing she’d had to kin for a long time.

He couldn’t wrap his head around that, because he’d never had real kin.  He’d never been in one place for long enough, he’d never been welcomed.

“You look like you’re in shock,” Tristan said.

Rain blinked.  Was he?  “I- for a long time, yeah.”

“Did you talk to Mrs. Yamada?”

“Yesterday afternoon.  She helped me work up the courage to come.  You were right.  They all needed to know.”

Tristan nodded.

He was aware of the subset of the group that had gathered.  Ashley, Tristan, Chris, and himself, with Erin in the background.  He looked back at Erin.

He knew the accusation Moonsong had leveled against Tristan, and he had an idea of what that was about.  Ashley hadn’t hidden her past.  Three out of the five people present  had killed in the past.  It was disorienting, to track the number as it climbed.

Sveta had an especially bloody past.  She’d even gotten blood on her hands after leaving the Asylum.

“Has Victoria ever killed anyone?” Rain asked, before he realized he was asking it.

The reaction was as one might expect.  Blinks.  Surprise from Tristan.  A snort and smile from Chris.

“What are you asking?”  Chris asked.

“I thought the admission I’d killed people would have had more impact than the things the Fallen has done in the past,” Rain said.

“I can’t speak for the others, but I guessed,” Chris said.

“Someone doesn’t have your kind of guilt without something that bad or worse,” Ashley said. “You didn’t think you had a choice.”

“I didn’t,” Rain said.  “But it doesn’t change what I did.”

“I know,” Ashley said.  “When I was talking to the group about understanding what I’d done and how, I knew that sometimes Mrs. Yamada would say things and it wasn’t to me.  Most of the time, when you asked about things, it wasn’t about me, it was about you.”

“Sorry,” Rain said.

Ashley shook her head.  She looked the way Victoria had gone.  “She hasn’t killed anyone before, if I had to guess.”

“Just Victoria and the kids, then.”

“Just Victoria and Kenzie,” Chris said.

Rain looked at Chris.  Chris shrugged.  “Accidental.”

“Only Victoria and Kenzie.  Sounds right,” Ashley said.

“Yeah,” Chris said.

“Christ,” Rain said, under his breath.

“You talking like that was what got me asking about you and Church, remember?” Tristan asked.  He folded his arms.  “What’s your plan?”

“I’ve got to drive Erin back tonight.  If it’s okay, I’ll get together with the group tomorrow.  I’ve got some junk for you to drop off, if that’s okay.”

“What kind of junk?” Chris asked.

“Bear traps, wire guillotines, blades without handles.”

“Really,” Tristan said.

“He’s not lying,” Erin said.  “I helped him load the car.”

“They’re going to come after me.  I’m going to plan accordingly.  I’ll cover my escape route, and I’ll make sure I’m armed if they close the distance.”

“They run on walls,” Chris said.  “Or jump onto walls.”

“I’ll cover the ground,” Rain said, firm.  “I’ll figure something out for the walls.”

“I can help some with that.  I’m going the anxiety route, so I’ll be crawling up the walls for the next few days.  I can give you some perspective on where to put traps.”

“Thank you,” Rain said.

“You want to set traps… around the headquarters?” Tristan asked.

“And some place we can retreat to if we go into Cedar Point and have to retreat out of.  It’s going to be hard to find places that work that won’t put civilians in the target area.”

“You can talk to Kenzie for that,” Chris said.  “Make them remotely armed.”

“Okay, wait, stop, stop,” Tristan said.  “Is this really what we’re doing?”

“It’s what I’m doing,” Rain said.  “For this specific scenario, as a just-in case.  I have to do something, and this is stuff I know about.”

Tristan ran his fingers through his hair.  He turned to Erin, asked, “Are you okay with this?”

“A while ago, I wouldn’t have been,” she said.  She set her jaw a bit, “But I have a gun now, and I know how to use it.  Half of the reason I’m carrying it is in case those people come after Rain, or if they come after me as a way of hurting him.”

Rain felt so sad, hearing that.

Sadder, at knowing the other reason she had it.

He hated this.  He hated that he saw Tristan here, looking so distressed.  He hated that Sveta was so upset, that Victoria was gone, that Kenzie wasn’t rejoining the conversation when being left out was something that bothered her so much.

He hated himself, for being at the crux of so much of that.  He could remember Love Lost’s penetrating glare.

How much of this self-loathing stemmed from her loathing of him?

“I don’t know what to say,” Tristan said.  “Guns and maiming?”

“You don’t need to say anything,” Rain said.

“I feel like someone needs to say something,” Tristan said.  He looked around the group, at Ashley, Chris, Rain.  He looked back at Sveta and Kenzie. “Shit, out of the four of us, it’s supposed to be up to me to make the moral argument?”

“You don’t need to argue,” Rain said. “Really, I get it.  It’s shitty, but I thought all day yesterday about this.  I’ve got to do something.”

Tristan paced a little, then walked a short distance away.  He muttered something under his breath.

It was Byron who walked the same short distance back.

“Hey,” Rain said.

“Hey,” Byron said.  “I’m supposed to talk to you, I guess, since Tristan can’t figure out how to.”

“I’ve got to stay alive,” Rain said.  “I can’t lie down and die, and the only way I can figure out how to get through this is to be a little more vicious.   I’ve been in these guys heads for a year.  They will kill.  They hate me that much.”

Images of Everlyn flickered through Rain’s mind’s eye.

Byron was nodding.

“Kill or be killed,” Ashley said.

“Me being killed might be deserved,” Rain added.

“You don’t deserve to be tortured to death,” Erin said.  “And I don’t believe in death for crimes committed either.  Only in self defense, if there aren’t other options.”

“Death is a reality when powers come into play and people aren’t willing to play nice.  It’s why so many of us have body counts.  Other teams aren’t that different, I’m sure,” Ashley said.  “A lot of powers don’t come with a ‘stun’ option.  A lot of other powers don’t come as part and parcel with power-users who would or could use that option if they had it.”

Rain shook his head.

“I don’t think you deserve the torture and-or murder kind of end either,” Byron said.  “I’m not going to say no to the traps, or to Erin’s gun.  If it comes to staying alive, use them.  Do whatever you have to that doesn’t put others in harm’s way.”

“Thank you,” Rain said.

“I’m going to say some other stuff, though,” Byron said.  His expression was so different from Tristan’s.  More serious by default than Tristan’s was when Tristan was being serious.  His words had weight, even spoken more quietly.  “I’m going to tick Tristan off, saying this, but I’m going to start off by saying I really don’t like the team idea.”

“That’s going to tick him off, yeah,” Chris said.

“The idea has good parts to it,” Byron said.  “It’s even cool to see people like Ashley and Kenzie talking about team names, getting excited about costumes.  But that’s where they’re at, Rain.  They’re still figuring it out.  Victoria is focused on that right now, I think.  A lot of talk of costumes and names.”

“We talked about that a fair bit,” Ashley said.

“The shitty part of the idea?” Byron asked.  “The thing that worries me?  It’s the idea that the worst things might bubble to the surface and get in the way of this being genuine or good.  Chris is talking about Kenzie making components or alerts for traps that are going to potentially maim?  No.  That’s… really not right.”

“You’re talking about me?” Kenzie asked, smiling as she asked it.

“Maiming?” Sveta asked.

The pair were rejoining the group, after their heart-to heart.

“We’re talking about how far we’re willing to go to save Rain,” Byron said.

“Oh.  That’s obvious.  All the way,” Kenzie said.

“No,” Rain said.  “Not if it compromises stuff.  Byron’s right.”

“If you’re going to take serious measures, I think it should be separate from the team,” Byron said, quiet and serious.  “Let them be heroes.  Be a hero with them, with that other stuff being secondary.  Keep it away from the hideout and headquarters.”

Rain nodded.

“It doesn’t mean these guys can’t help you,” Byron said.  “It means that if you’re planning on matching your enemy in preparing to go to war, you can’t ask others unequivocally to come with you.”

Rain nodded again.  He felt something bitter well up deep inside, and his expression twisted as he looked away.

“I missed stuff,” Kenzie said.

“I’ll tell you after,” Ashley said.

“Sorry Rain,” Byron said.  “Take that as advice from someone in the diminishing population of people with reasonably clean hands.  Advice from someone who had a very close up view of hands getting unclean.”

“I shouldn’t ruin them,” Rain said, looking at the group.

“Escalate if you have to, but don’t make it part of how the team operates,” Byron said.  “Because yeah, that might ruin them.”

“You’re overestimating how intact we were when we started,” Chris said.

“I’m estimating that the team started from a place of healing and support,” Byron said.  “If this is going to work out at all, and I really don’t think it is, sorry Tristan, it needs to hold on to that.”

“I like that,” Kenzie said.

“Thank you,” Byron said.

Ruined.  Rain had a sick feeling in his gut.  He looked back at Erin.

“I’ve spent nearly two years living with the Fallen,” Erin said.  She smiled, but her heart wasn’t really behind it.  “Don’t go thinking you ruined me, because they’ve got dibs.”

“That doesn’t make me feel better,” Rain said.

He was struck with the urge, almost panic-level, yet driven by that strong core he’d spent all of yesterday trying to dig up, to say something that would maybe save Erin.  To tell the others to grab her, or to not let her go back.  He could tell the truth and it might even work, or he could lie, and it would work slightly better, but be limited more to the short term.

She had a gun and she had it partially because she was his friend and she wanted to protect him.

She had it, in part, to protect herself against the people she was going back to.

“Thank you for hearing me out,” he said to the group.  “I guess I’ll see what Victoria says or does tomorrow.  If I’m welcome.”

“I think you are,” Sveta said.  “And I think Erin is too, but we’ll discuss if we’re okay having her in the headquarters.  If we aren’t, we’ll still hang out, talk, make sure everything’s good.”

“That sounds nice,” Erin said.  “I could do with more friends than just Rain.”

Rain nodded.  Privately, he wanted that for Erin too.  Especially if something happened to him, he wanted her to have people to reach out to.

“I wish you weren’t going back at all, Rain,” Sveta said.  “I can’t say it enough.”

I wish I wasn’t going back either, Rain thought.  I wish I wasn’t taking Erin back.

Byron blurred, his eyes flaring as he became Tristan.

“No,” Tristan said.  “I appreciate you stepping in, sorry for pushing you into that conversation.  I need to think.  Take the rest of my time.”

There was another blur.  Tristan became Byron again.

“It’s late,” Rain said.  “I think- we’ll go back?”

Erin nodded.

“Want a ride, By?” Rain offered.  “To the station?”

Byron nodded.

“Anyone else?” Erin asked.  Rain wished she hadn’t, but waited patiently while the others discussed.

They were going back to the headquarters, to check tapes and discuss, and to prepare for another patrol group that was going to do a walk-through of Cedar Point.  It would just be Byron, Rain, and Erin in the car.  Sveta had maybe noticed that Rain wanted to talk to his closer friends, and had steered the group’s arrangement slightly.

They three of them got in Erin’s dad’s car, leaving the traps and other junk in the boot.  Rain took the passenger seat, suppressing his grunts and groans of pain as bruises made themselves felt.  Byron took the back seat.

He wanted to talk to his friend, and he wasn’t sure how.  The first fifteen minutes of the drive were agony, in a way.

Any other time, he would have been just fine with the fact that Byron was someone who seemed content to be quiet, to not make conversation.

They reached the train station, and Erin pulled into a parking spot.

“You didn’t tell them about the room,” Byron said.

“The room?” Erin asked.

“Dream thing,” Rain said.

“Should I get out of the car or plug my ears or something?”

“No,” Rain said.  “I trust you.”

“Nah.  You boys talk.  I’m going to run to the vending machine, since it’s a long drive.  You can fill me in on the way back if you want.”

She climbed out of the car.

Rain watched her go, feeling a pang of sadness.

“She looks stressed,” Byron observed.

“Bad day yesterday.  It’s starting to catch up with her, Fallen being Fallen.”

“And even like this she’s so stunning it sucks the air out of the room,” Byron said.

Rain looked in the direction Erin had gone.  “Yeah.”

“I don’t know how you do it.”

“I’m not doing it.  Not well.”

Rain wasn’t just talking about Erin.

“Today wasn’t easy,” Byron said.

“Last night wasn’t easy.  If I wasn’t forced to sleep I’d have been up all night freaking out.  Instead I had to have some of the shittiest memory-dreams, and then put on a poker face so I wouldn’t show any weakness to the people who want me dead.”

Byron thought for a moment, then said, “Last night was Love Lost?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah,” Byron echoed him.

“You said something about the air being sucked out of the room, and I feel like it’s always that way.  I can’t breathe, I can’t focus, I go from one bad moment to the next and I don’t even get the mercy of sleep.  That’s without even taking Erin into account.  Who’s-”

“You love her.”

Rain reeled at the idea.

“I don’t blame you.  I don’t think anyone would.”

“I- I spent all of last night watching someone have the one person they cared about most in the world get torn from them over and over again.  Then I saw the aftermath.  Hurting Erin would be the one way they could do that to me.  I guess I do.”

“Yeah,” Byron said.  “I think anyone in your situation, in ours, in this kind of thing, if they had someone being nice and cool, they’d cling to that.  Love would be natural and inevitable.”

Rain nodded.

“But Erin’s special, I think.  She’s someone you could fall in love with, in any situation, not just one where she’s the one port in an ugly storm.”

“Yeah,” Rain’s voice was hollow.

“Be good to her,” Byron said.

“I can’t,” Rain replied.  “Because the most ‘good’ thing I could do for her would be to kidnap her and take her away from all of this.  But if I did, she’d never talk to me again, and I’d lose my mind without her having my back.  I hate myself for it.”

Byron was silent.

“Instead, I’ve got to drive back with her, take her back to that.  Actual, serious danger.  I feel like I’m going to panic any second, I can’t figure out a clear way out, you’re right that I can’t drag the others into it, so there’s a part of it I have to do myself, the uglier, more monstrous part and-”

“That’s hard,” Byron said.

“I’m not sure I’m strong enough.  That’s why I decided at the last minute I couldn’t tell them about the room.  If I did, I feel like they’d read a selfish undercurrent into things.”

“It would tie your hands,” Byron said.

“It- kind of.  The room, and how the powers are doled out.  It incentivizes us killing each other.  I’m weak.  I’m really weak.  If I kill them, I probably get stronger.  That’s my only way out, and if I admit it to the team, and if one of the cluster die, it’s going to be something entirely different from most of us having taken lives in the past, under duress or before the amnesty.  It’s going to be real and now.”

Byron nodded slowly, looking out the window.

“Does that change how you see me?  That I’m seriously thinking about killing them?”

“Yeah,” Byron said.  “It doesn’t surprise me.  I don’t exactly blame you, or blame you for not wanting to tell the others.”

“But?”

“But if you want to have that conversation, I think you should have it with Tristan, not me.  You sound an awful lot like he did, and I don’t think he liked how it ended up.”

Byron opened the car door.  He put a hand on Rain’s shoulder, brief, as he made his exit from the vehicle.  He crossed paths with Erin, who was returning, accepted a chocolate bar from her, and disappeared around the corner.

Erin dumped the collection of junk food onto the space between the two front seats, then put the sodas in an empty trash bin on the floor of the car, so they wouldn’t roll around.

“Good talk?” she asked.

“Yes, thank you.”

“I thought you two needed the elbow room,” she said.  “Sugar and caffeine is for if you want to stay awake on the way back.”

Rain was startled awake by a hand at his shoulder.  Candy wrappers fell from his lap as he sat up straighter.

It was dark out, Erin was in the driver’s seat, face illuminated by the reflection of her headlights.

She looked spooked.

The path to the camp cut through woods, and the boundary where the area had been cleared out and the settlement began was marked with posts and a signboard that hung overhead.  ‘Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here’.

It was supposed to be a cute reference.  It seemed apt now.  Standing around the two posts, on either side of the road, were Tim, Jay, Nell, Levi, Amos, Ruby and Naomi.

Tim was the oldest in the group.  His mask was a horse’s head, cut up, twisted around, and rigged to work as a mask.  The mouth pointed up and to one side, teeth bared.  Tim’s eye peered through the open eye socket of the horse’s, the back of the head and cheek of the horse serving to house the roll of Tim’s chin.  He was tattooed heavily, with more black ink than pale white skin, all textured by heavy body hair.  It was macabre enough it didn’t look ridiculous, especially in the stark light of the car’s headlights.

Not Tim, not really.  Seir.

The teenagers were in civilian clothes, the crevices of their face cast into shadow by the angled light.  Jay had his mask in hand, long hair held back by his baseball cap.

Erin’s hand went to the gearshift.

To park?

No.  To reverse.

“No,” Rain said.

It wouldn’t work, they wouldn’t get away, and they’d be punished for trying, as sure as they would be any other time they tried to make a break for it.

“Just… drive,” he told her.  “Slowly.”

Seir walked over, as the car crept forward.  He stopped by Erin’s car door, peering at them with the one eye.

“Cozy,” The side of the horse’s head parted as Tim spoke, a slit opening up between temple and the joint of the jaw.

Erin kept her eyes forward.

“What have I told you about not ignoring me?” Seir asked.

“I’m sorry, sir,” Erin said, turning her head to look at him.  Her neck and jaw were stiff.

Seir’s eye shifted, looking at Rain.

“My brother-in-law beat the shit out of you,” Seir said.

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “He did.  I literally asked for it, though.”

“So I heard.  What candy is that?”

Rain felt in the dark cab of the car, until his hand rustled a bag that wasn’t empty.  “Grape apes.”

Seir reached his hand through the window, and Erin twisted her face away.  The hand was held out, and Rain placed the bag of candy in it.

Seir ripped the bag open, and put a handful of purple monkey gummies into his mouth.  He chewed noisily.

“Your repeated absences have been noticed,” Seir said, mouth full.

Rain was silent.

“Buying candy?” Seir asked.

“And using the internet, doing research on powers.”

“And?”

“Going into the city.  Shopping.”

Seir chewed more candy.  He didn’t ask any questions, and Rain didn’t volunteer anything.

The bag of candy was about the size of two fists put side-to-side.  As time passed, Seir rummaged in the bag, found more, chewed them, cramming more into the slit in the horse’s head before he was even done with the last mouthful.  He must have finished three quarters of the bag as the silence stretched on, his one eye on the pair.

Erin flinched as Seir tossed the mostly empty bag into her lap.

“Leadership wants a chat with you,” Seir said.

Rain had been sleeping minutes ago, but now he was more than awake.  Those words- if he’d gone straight to bed, no longer bound by the rhythm of his power and the demands of the room, even being as tired as he was, he wouldn’t have been able to sleep.  Not after hearing that.

“With-” he started.  He wanted to word it right.  Couldn’t show weakness.  “Me?  Now?”

If he asked if that invitation included Erin, Seir might say yes, just out of spite, might make her go.

Please don’t make Erin go.

“You.  We were to wait and bring you as soon as you turned up.  Which is now,” Seir said.

Rain opened the car door.  He didn’t look at Erin, he didn’t say a word.  He got out of the vehicle.  He closed the door.

She drove away, through the settlement center, to her parents’ house.

Rain was left with his escort.

They talked among themselves, but they avoided talking to him.  Seir remained close, ready to push at Rain’s back or shoulder if he dragged his feet.  The rest were a half-circle behind and to either side of them.  They talked among themselves, but they avoided talking to him.

Fear driving his senses to the next level, Rain was very aware of the smell of the grape apes.  A candy he’d never be able to eat or smell again without feeling nauseous.

If he even got that far.

The house wasn’t even two years old, but it looked older, because the white paint on the wooden slat exterior was haphazardly applied, brush strokes long and the paint allowed to go thin.  There was a white-painted fence, and none of the teenaged escorts went past the gate.  They stopped beyond, standing guard there.

The front door was unlocked.  Rain was ushered inside, the door was gently closed, and Rain was made to walk further.

In the living room, six of the senior Fallen were seated.  Drinks sat on side tables, assorted snacks sat on a platter on the coffee table.  The domestic scene was made eerie by the masks they wore.  Demonic faces, many homemade.  Several had been farm animals, the flesh altered with the power of a man Rain didn’t see present, so the pigs and sheep would have half-human, distorted faces before they were killed and skinned.  Women in nice dresses with nice hair had heavy tattoos that reached up their necks and beneath their masks.  A man wore the hide of an animal around his waist, wearing no shirt so the letters carved out and left to scar on his belly and chest would be visible.

Rain could trace his family connection to most of those present.

He could trace his connection to the meek young women who stood by, ready to serve anything requested.  The one with her back to Rain had old lines of red dots soaked through the back of her blouse, criss-crossing.

The assembly was silent, wordless, watching from behind masks as Rain was urged to the stairs.

Even Seir didn’t go upstairs if he could help it.

Rain felt every ache and pain, every human doubt he’d experienced over the past two days, as he ascended those ten stairs.  The second floor was spartan, with a long rug, a small table with a vase of wilted flowers on it, and a light overhead.  The hallway extended to rooms to the left and the right.

He knew the door was to the left, but he looked the other way, as if there could somehow be an out.

He saw Lachlan, standing in the hallway, toothbrush sticking out of his mouth.  He reached up to pull the toothbrush free.

“Rain,” Lachlan said, smiling.  His voice was a hush.  “Hey, good to see you.”

Rain didn’t have the words to respond.  It was surreal, seeing Lachlan here.

“Did you talk to Allie?” Lachlan asked.

Rain stared at Lachlan.  “Not the time, Lachlan.”

“Leave the boy be, Lachlan,” Seir said.

A faint thump from the left end of the hallway made all of their heads turn.

One of the meek servant-girls from the living room stepped into the hallway to stand next to Seir, even though she looked like she didn’t want to.  She looked up, checking.

“Go,” Seir said.

Rain didn’t need to be told.  He walked to the end of the hallway.  The doorknob squeaked.

The inside of the room wasn’t all that decorated.  Dresser, bedside table, and a four-poster bed with sheer drapes winding up the posts.

“Mama,” he said.

She wasn’t his mother, but it was how she was addressed.

Rain averted his eyes, but he could see the white drape of the nightgown, the feet on the floor.  She was sitting so the post and the sheer drape kept him from seeing a lot of her.

But he saw some.  Her presence jumped into his head.  He looked away, but it didn’t help.

Mama Mathers.  Taller than him, gaunt, wispy of hair.  She wasn’t old, but she had the presence of an old woman, thin enough that it seemed like she would break or crumple into a heap if struck.  She stood right next to him, leaning over him.  She touched his face, and he flinched.

“You’ve been pulling away,” she said.  Her voice was just as ethereal as the rest of her.  “There is no away, Rain.  You should know that.”

He remained still, trying not to look.

“We give the young ones so many allowances, and we’ve given you more than most.  We thought you would find yourself.  Have you?”

“Working on it,” he said, his voice quiet.

“How long has it been since we last talked?”

“Years, mama,” he said.

Her fingers traced his shoulder-length hair.  “I told you to grow your hair long, back then.”

“Yes, mama,” he said.

“Do you remember why?  Any boy of mine that does anything to catch my eye, good or bad,  I have them do it.”

Rain nodded.  No words would have come out if he’d said anything, so he didn’t try.

“The girls know it, but the boys sometimes need to learn it.  I’m content to let either be my soldiers, but that requires zeal.  Not everyone has it.  Not everyone cleaves to their role and position.  Everyone has responsibilities, and it takes a soldier to obey.”

Rain nodded again.

Her voice took on a different tone.  No less ethereal, but haunting-ethereal, now.  “The hair is to remind you that if you won’t be a soldier for the families, we’ll have you be a slut.  We’ll get children out of you.  If you fail at that, if they’re sickly or disobedient, we’ll geld you like we would any of the farm animals.”

Rain’s nod was stiff.

“You’re so distant.  Have your aunt and uncle failed us?  I’d thought your uncle was so dutiful.”

“They’ve done everything right,” Rain said, eyes on the corner of the rug on the floor.

“Your uncle beat you.  You’re weak but you’re one of our blessed,” she said, speaking in his ear.  “We could have him crippled or killed.”

“I asked him to, mama.”

“Even so,” she said.

“He is- he’s everything you want in a soldier,” Rain said, and his words were halting as he tried to defend a man he didn’t even love or like.  “Hurting him to make a point or impart something onto me would hurt the Fallen more than it helped anything.”

“Allie then,” she said.  Her voice was a whisper now.  “Has she said things to you, to make you pull away?”

“Allie will be as dutiful a wife as my uncle is a soldier,” Rain said.  His neck was so stiff his head shook slightly as he talked.

“Have you talked about it with her,” Mama Mathers said.  She leaned over to put her face in front of Rain’s.  He closed his eyes.  “Leaving?”

“We both know you don’t ever leave,” Rain said.

“Then where have you been, Rain?” she asked.

He couldn’t voice a response.

“Anyone who can’t answer my questions isn’t a soldier,” she said.  “If I can’t get an answer when you’re right in front of me, I won’t breed you, either.  We’ll take your mind and identity, or we’ll take your balls.”

“I’m weak,” Rain said.  “I’ll be your soldier, but I need to figure that out first.”

“You’ve had a year.”

The words echoed Lee’s response to Love Lost.

“I’m going to kill the people who triggered alongside me.  Hopefully, I can take their power.”

Her hand brushed his cheek.

“You have a time limit,” she said.

He nodded, stiff.

“I’ll be watching,” she said.

He nodded again.

There was only silence after that.

“May I go, mama?” he asked.

“Rain,” the voice came from the bed, even more ethereal and thin than it had been.  He felt chills, hearing the voice.  He felt the words worm into his head.

The bedsprings creaked as she stood, holding the pole to steady herself.  He looked away.  She only now stood from the bed.

“Rain,” she said.  “Look at me.”

He resisted.

“I will have you killed if you do not,” she said.

He looked.

He’d only seen her leg and foot, and she’d jumped into his head, tactile, audible, present, impossible to ignore.

Now, seeing her in full, it was more pronounced, heavier, insofar as the frail woman could be ‘heavy’.  Her hair was long, bleached silver, and frayed.  Her face was thin enough that it appeared older.

It was worse.

“Why would you leave, when we haven’t talked?” she asked.  “You’ve been standing there, talking to yourself.”

“Sorry, mama,” he said.

He knew how she worked, but he couldn’t ignore the apparition in situations like this, because ignoring her and having her turn out to be real was the sort of thing that got him killed.

“Everything I said to you before now, it came from within you.  I saw and heard much of it,” she said.

He hated seeing her, hated hearing her.  He hated knowing it was for real.

“You should know these things to be absolute truth, divine and malign both,” she said.  “The fears, the promise you made.”

“Yes, mama,” he said.

“Every time you think of me or mention me, I will be there.  I will know where you are and see what you are doing.  I will take stock and I will make my judgments.  You will think of me, while saying your prayers on waking and on retiring, kneeling by your bed.  Before each meal.”

He nodded, stiff.

“It’s been years,” she said.  “You only think about me a few times a day.  I thought it was time we were reacquainted.  You have your mission.”

“I’ll kill my cluster.”

“And be a loyal soldier.  Think of me,” she said.  “If you don’t, you know what will happen.”

“Yes mama,” he said.

“Allie.  Your aunt and uncle.  Erin, her family.  And you won’t see me.  You’ll see other things.”

“Yes mama,” he said.

“Give me a kiss, now.”

She didn’t bend down, so he had to raise himself up to give her a peck on the cheek.  He hated the contact, he hated how large she loomed in his vision, how that would give her more of a foothold.

He hated everything.

“Go, now, it’s late.”

He escaped the room, doorknob squeaking.  In the process, he nearly collided with Elijah.  It was only his own doing that stopped him.

Elijah held a bowl of water with a sponge floating in it in the crook of one arm.  He had a slight smile on his face, barely visible through the long white-dyed hair he had.  it was long enough to drape around his collarbone.

Behind that hair, his eyes were a milky cataract white.  Not just for show.  Seeing his cane was the only reason Rain hadn’t walked into him and spilled the water.

“Elijah.  Escort Rain to the door, please.  He seems unsteady on his feet.”

“Yes, mama,” Elijah said.  He fumbled, and found a place to set the bowl down on a dresser.

Rain didn’t want the escort, but he didn’t want to refuse.  Mama Mathers-

Rain flinched as she appeared, standing further down the hallway.

The figure made a small sound of amusement.

Elijah fumbled for his arm, then seized it tight.

The blind leading the sighted.  Rain went, reaching out for the railing as soon as it was in reach, so he could have something to hold onto, and so he could keep Elijah from falling if it came down to it.

“Only the guilty are as upset as you seem to be,” Elijah said, his voice smooth, silky, and dangerous.

Rain didn’t reply, focusing instead on the stairs, trying not to think-

Mama Mathers appeared at the bottom of the flight.

He’d gotten so good at controlling his thinking, and it was all for nothing, now.  Even thinking about not thinking about her was now enough.  It might be for weeks or months.

“It’s hard, I know,” Elijah said.  “I had a hard time with it for the first few years.”

They made it far enough down the stairs for Rain to see that the living room was empty, now, but for the meek women who acted as servants in the white cabin, cleaning up bottles and glasses,.

“I fixed it myself, after getting powers,” Elijah said.  “Looked myself in the eye, mirror right in front of me, and I told myself to enjoy it.  To like it, my own mother a mere thought away.  To be loyal.”

When Rain heard the word ‘mother’, Mama Mathers appeared in the living room.  They were fleeting images, each lasting for seconds, five or ten at a time.  Her head would turn, and she would look around herself, or she would stare at him.

“I’m sorry,” Rain said.  He wasn’t sure why he’d said it.  Dangerous words.  “I’m sorry you had to go that far to find loyalty.”

Not better words, but he wasn’t thinking straight.

Elijah’s fingers dug into Rain’s arm.

“I can’t see anymore, Rain.  My eyes have no power.”

Rain nodded.  They were at the door now.  Elijah didn’t let him go.

“But what I say?  My words have more power than before.  All I have to do is tell you to, and you’d want it.  I could tell you to be gleeful to have the worst punishment we can offer, and you would be, because it would be in service of the Fallen and Mama.”

Again, the image, standing outside, wearing her nightgown, hair blowing in the wind.

“Like I did for Lachlan,” Elijah said.

Rain nodded.  “I know.  But I don’t need that.  I don’t want it.”

“Whether you want it or not has nothing to do with it, Rain, and never did.  Don’t disappoint mama.”

He let go of Rain’s arm.  Rain stumbled on his way down the stairs.

“Be careful walking home,” Elijah said, his tone light.  “It must be dark out.”

Rain pushed past the gate, passed Nell and Jay, who were still standing guard.

They started to approach him, and for the briefest moment, as he felt panic flare, his power appeared at his hands.  They stopped, and Rain stumbled back more steps.

“Sorry, Rain Man,” Jay said.  “I know it sucks.”

Nell sounded less sympathetic.  “Don’t do anything reckless now.  Never goes well.”

Rain shook his head, turned and jogged away, down the dark dirt road, with scarce lighting.

When he couldn’t see anyone or anything around, he leaned over the ditch and emptied his stomach’s contents.  It tasted like all of the preservatives in the candies he’d taken, so he could stay awake and keep Erin company.  That reminded him of Seir, of Tim, and that only made his stomach churn more.

Mama Mathers crossed his mind and was standing on the road above, watching him, as he straightened.

He staggered past her.

He couldn’t go home.  Too far away.

His workshop.  It wasn’t far.  Dark, it required fumbling.  He let himself in, made his way up the stairs, and collapsed to the floor as soon as he had it shut behind him.

The fact that the light was on was slow to register.

“Rain,” Erin said.

“Don’t,” he said.  He didn’t want her to see him like this.

She knelt beside him.  He shook his head.

She wasn’t strong enough to move him, but when he realized what she was doing, he didn’t have the willpower left to resist.  She pulled him closer, so his head was in her lap.

She stroked his hair and shushed him.

Mama Mathers stood above the two of them, watching, and he couldn’t bring himself to mention it.

When the cluster dream whisked his consciousness away, it was a mercy.

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211 thoughts on “Shade – Interlude 4c”

    1. They talked among themselves, but they avoided talking to him. Seir remained close, ready to push at Rein’s back or shoulder if he dragged his feet.

      Rain

      1. They talked among themselves, but they avoided talking to him. Seir remained close, ready to push at Rein’s back or shoulder if he dragged his feet. The rest were a half-circle behind and to either side of them. They talked among themselves, but they avoided talking to him.

        Probably only need ‘but they avoided talking to him.’ in there once.

        cleaning up bottles and glasses,.
        The punctuation.

    2. “He had a slight smile on his face, barely visible through the long white-dyed hair he had. it was long enough to drape around his collarbone.”

      Capitalization for the second sentence.

      Awesome stuffs by the way, loved it, as always.

      ~Teian.

    3. Three out of the five people present had killed in the past.
      -double space between present and had

      and if one of the cluster die
      -dies

    4. “In the last four years and seven months, She’s learned to walk,”

      “as a just-in case.”

      “after their heart-to heart.”

      “They three of them got in Erin’s dad’s car,”

      “Hurting him (…) would hurt the Fallen more than it helped anything.”
      > more than it’d help anything

      “mama/Mama”
      Inconsistent capitalisation.

    5. “More serious by default than Tristan’s was when Tristan was being serious.”

      Perhaps the “was” should be “even”?

    6. “Her voice took on a different tone. No less ethereal, but haunting-ethereal, now.”

      Not 100% sure on this one, but it seems a bit weird. Been mulling over posting it since I read this chapter and it still doesn’t sit quite right with me, like one of the “ethereal”s was meant to be something else.

  1. It seems Mama Mathers has the ability to appear and respond as she would as if she was there, every time a person affected thinks of her. Rain also felt her touch his cheek, and either the apparition is tangible to who it appears to, or it’s illusory but indistinguishable from the real thing. Both are devastating in their own ways for purposes of controlling behavior.

    I wonder if the Mathers apparition acts exactly as Mama Mathers would act, or the apparition acts according to how the affected individual believes she would act.

    It’s a chilling method of controlling a cult.

    1. I tentatively assume that you need to have seen her first. In which case, the proper way of removing such a psychologically savage power is either 1) null-Trump support or 2) drones.

      Seriously, this is a scary power that’s abuse potential practically begs for someone to put Mama down as a public service, but unless the manifestations are able to affect the real world or her presence can spread through word of mouth it’s not unbeatable.

      Also, f**k the Fallen. I mean, they were never much better than Nazis, but *goddamn* this takes the cake.

      1. “Also, f**k the Fallen. I mean, they were never much better than Nazis, but *goddamn* this takes the cake.”

        Honestly? I’d say I’d prefer the old Empire 88. Yeah Nazis, yeah hate most of the same groups, but at least Kaiser didn’t fucking masterfuck your brain an abided by the unwritten rules. You also felt like they were at least being kept in check, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at all with the Fallen.

      2. J K Rowling: Every time you say Voldemort’s name, he knows where you are and what you’re doing. Creepy AF, right?

        Wildbow: Hold my beer.

        Seriously, Mother Mather’s power could be the basis for a horror flick all on its own.

    2. It works, but it feels like this strategy was stupid. Rain, if he’d been coldly rational enough to think of it, could almost certainly have killed her then and there. That said, I don’t think she’s as powerful as she pretends to be. Why? Because her psychological profile screams Puppeter. She demands excessive control of her ‘soldiers’, she makes personal visits a Big Thing, and her one confirmed child, Elijah, is very clearly a Puppeter as well. Jackers don’t have the ‘must control all social’ complex, at least not inherently. Puppeters do.

      Now, granted, we do have an example of a Jacker kid whose parent was a Puppeter: Regent, son of Heartbreaker. But even accepting WOG regarding Regent’s sibling Guillaume, who seems more like a Striker-Thinker, that’s at most 2 kids with Jacker ratings, and at least as many with Puppeter abilities. (Regent and Guillaume against Cherish and the little girl from Aisha’s epilogue.) Wait darn, that’s not convincing either way. Oh well, I’m still predicting that ‘Mama’ can’t see through the impressions she leaves on people.

      1. How would killing her be rational? Even if we assume she has no means of defending herself, he would have been tortured to death by all the guys in the area that would have found out right after. And they’d probably have done worse to Erin and his family while he watched.

        1. *She does have means of defending herself, but not strong ones. Being alone with him was pretty dumb, when she was threatening everything he loved. If she’d misread him even slightly, it could’ve been fatal – she seems pretty frail, and illusions aren’t going to save her if he stabs her during the ‘goodnight kiss’.
          *It’s very possible that the others won’t kill his family or friends. She obviously rules through fear, and whoever takes over afterward might not feel the need to be as brutal. As suicide moves go, it’s not terrible – she had pushed him hard enough that many people would consider it.

          Would it be the best choice? No, not if she can’t see through her impressions. If she can, though, choosing to kill one person who richly deserves it instead of killing three who might not, especially when the latter involves ‘Mama’ choosing to rape him or make him kill at her whim, has a strong appeal.

    1. I had to go back and read up on Valefor.. such a great villain for such a relatively small arc in Worm during the height of the Warlord days.
      I am 99% sure you are right – the descriptions add up: white-dyed long hair, silky voice, slight smile.. commentary on looking into eyes and giving commands; “my own mother a thought away” (this comment was the one that gave it away).
      Blinded (Valefor’s fate was left unknown when he was given to Rosary and Halo), powers adjusted to commanding with just words instead of needing the visual component.. ooh, this aught to be good reading, even if it’s going to be horrible for Rain.

      1. If Mama Mathers is smart she would take one look at the team and go “Oh, your Amy’s sister. Nope. Noping out of here. Nope, nope, nope. Rain, your free to go. Here have an Erin. I’m kicking out both your families.”

        1. Getting a victory-by-default just because she’s Amy’s sister is probably the worst thing that could happen to Victoria.

          1. …So you think Wildbow will do it then? Or will he go for maximizing everyone’s pain, not just Vicky? 🙂

          2. On the upside it’s a good thing for Rain and Erin and their families.

            Seriously though do you want to imagine what would happen to the people who seriously hurt Victoria, especially if Amy is snapping.
            “Hi. You’re probably wondering why I had a couple of your relatives kidnapped. Well that’s because I needed to touch them to engineer the virus. What Virus? The one that’s infecting you and all your close relatives. See that’s why people avoid inbreeding. Makes it too easy for the same disease to kill all of you. Well enjoy the next few hours of your live as every single nerve you have turns into a pain receptor, with your Coronia Potenia suppressed so you can’t use your powers or trigger or second trigger, until finally it kills you. And when you get to hell, remind them. Do. Not. Fuck. With. My. Sister.”

            Amy has the potential to be one of the outright scariest people alive, along with a certain unchained AI and Chooser of the Slain.

    1. Damn for a bit there I thought I was reading Pact.

      Ahem. Fuck the fallen. Fuck them all the way to hell. Which they will probably find a lot less fun place to be than they expected. Amen.

    2. I assumed there were 12-15 powered members in the local branch. Otherwise why would Rain’s cluster of 3 highly-synergistic capes need backup? So far we know no next to nothing about their actual combat powers, so I’m shooting high and assuming they have enough collective firepower to make Chev, Defiant, Narwhal and like four other A-listers think twice.

      1. Seir is a demon themed name. Also from the way that rain shits himself when he’s neat, I can assume he’s got some scary power. Valefor and mama are terrifying masters. Can’t even imagine what else they’ve got hidden away. I almost feel bad for Snags crew.

        1. Pretty sure she’d be a stranger, not a master. She doesn’t exert any direct control over you, her power just lets her mercilessly fuck with your head, giving her a lot of indirect influence. Kinda like Imp in that regard.

          1. stranger/thinker actually because it allows her to gain information about what you are doing and where you are, allows her to hear your conversations without being present..so yeah im pretty sure that would give her a thinker rating

      2. I don’t think this is ‘the local branch’. I think this is the Fallen’s main settlement. Lachlan’s here, and Mama Mathers, and Valefor. The bastards that killed Peat and Fen, if they survived, are here, all of them are here. That’s why the Church has so many different preachers, with different messages- every group had its own preacher, with their own message, and now they’ve collected into one place, each needs to keep their followers happy to avoid internal clashes. That’s more than 12-15 powered members. If it were only that many, the Fallen would be far more vulnerable to vigilantes, heroes, antagonised villains, rival religious capes and everyone else who might want a pop to raise their profile.

        1. I disagree. The Mathers are the kidnapping brainwashers, which is why Lachlan’s here. And Valefor is Mama’s actual son. And I didn’t get the wine that there’s much going on in the form of jackass parties. We haven’t seen the Crowley leader either.

  2. Well, with how Mama Mathers’ power seems to work, it’s kind of miraculous that Rain was able to control his thoughts enough that the Fallen don’t already know he’s been going to therapy and has a team. That’s probably not gonna last.

    It’s interesting that this is apparently the Mathers branch, not the Crowleys. Given Valefor’s crossdressing I’d expected that branch to be slightly less homophobic/transphobic, but I guess he’s an exception because of how closely his power resembles Simurgh.

    On the bright side, maybe when the mercenaries attack Mama Mathers will be killed in the fighting.

    1. As I’ve said elsewhere, I think this is just ‘the Fallen’. Where they all are. The Clans are now internal divisions, with their own preachers in the same church, all to keep things peaceful on the home front. Rain probably was with the Crowleys, or the other branch, but now Mama Mathers has asserted herself as Queen Fallen… Or possibly is simply scary enough the Crowleys and the others aren’t arguing.

    2. I think rain is originally from a different branch than the Mathers. It’s clear that a big part of the hate that Rain was taught as a child included hatered from anyone not straight, as wel as some pretty serious misogyny. I’m sure she has no shortage of fucked up ideas on traditional roles, but mama Mathers seems to be a bit more equal opportunity, at least as far as gender roles go. She said she’ll use both men and women as soldiers, and both as essentially sex slaves is they disappoint her. She doesn’t seem like the type to punish a useful, loyal soldier like Elijah (who as people pointed out is totally Valefor) for cross dressing or being gay or anything like that. My guess is that the other branches, particularly whichever one Rain originally belonged to were a lot more heavy on the anti women anti lgbt stuff, and then post gold morning the fallen branches conglomerated into one main group, and for some reason mama mathers is the leader. Maybe the others died, maybe she killed them, maybe she’s just so fucking scary that they backed down. Anyways that just my interpretation, it fits pretty well with the fact that they ahve to s of different preachers with tons of different ideologies. And in a way it’s would make sense for the groups primary leader to not share quite as much of the blind hatred as the group she leads. After all, a truly effective cult leader is one who uses other people’s blinding beliefs to control them, while not being blindend themself. Mama mathers seems pretty god damn effective to me

      1. Velafor wasn’t cross-dressing for the sake of it, his costume was designed to invoke the Simurgh, which the Fallen worship.

  3. Cue confused noises from me why Mama Mathers doesn’t affect the dream room.

    Also: fun confirmations that yes, Tristan did have someone killed, Byron failed to talk him out of it, and in general there’s a neat mirroring between Tristan’s breakup with Reach and Rain’s with Team Therapy.

    I sincerely hope that Rain isn’t going to turn out to be the token traitor (or that the traitor would be Yamada or maybe the Wretch? It’s Wildbow, we should expect anything).

    (Also called it on SB: Rain’s absences from the camp did NOT go unnoticed!)

    1. I almost pity the rest of his cluster next interlude. They thought they’d turn the tables on him using Nailbiter (or whoever that dream cape is), but it’s really going to be the other way around, now is it?

    2. Why mama doesn’t affect the dream room:

      Rain never thinks of her, ever. Unless she’s right in front of his face and then afterwards he has trouble not thinking of her for weeks (a Rain POV comment I recall). Next dream room sequence should be fun; after the other cluster members see Mama (even a dream version), I’m assuming it’s going to be hard to sneak up on Fallen-town …

    1. One of these days Wildbow’s gonna sadistic away his readers if he’s not careful. So far he’s able to strike the balance, but damn there’s parts that really make coming back to the story a scary feeling. I’m honestly suprised I made it through Pact and Twig sometimes.

      1. Wildbow knows how to create a certain tone in his work—dark and oppressive, but never quite hopeless. While everything from individuals to entire worlds can be devastated, they always claw their way back up. (The people and worlds who can’t don’t get as much focus.) I have little doubt he’ll continue doing so in the future.

        1. He can make it a damn hard thing to get through at times. The Crushed arc in Worm damn near did me in. Funny, after that though I never felt it was hopeless in Worm. Even though the only reason it wasn’t Behemoth killing the cast was Scion, and he proved much more dangerous later on.

          And some parts of Pact and Twig were pretty damn hard to get through too.

          Probably helps that despite how horrible some stuff is, Wildbow never comes across as actually being mean spirited or cynical to me in the tone of his writing. Characters may, but not the story itself.

        2. I’m actually disappointed that Sy clawed his way up in the end. Wildbow dug him so deep I lost my suspension of disbelief when either Jessie or Lilian did not have to put him down after all.

          Sort of the same feeling with the last interlude of Worm. Not with Pact.

    2. …if Mother Mather’s promised Rain a marriage to Erin (either with or without using Elijah’s power to make it stick), would Rain still leave?

      Because here’s my worst case scenario: Snag and Love Lost get killed, Rain powers up and the personality bleed ceases to temper his worst impulses. If Mother can give him what he wants, and if Vicky doesn’t come around, that could be all he needs to justify staying to himself…

      1. Rain kills the other members of his cluster, so instead of having four weak powers he now has four decent-to-strong powers, making him a valuable soldier. The bleed-over stops, giving him back the anger and hatred for outsiders he had before. Mama Mathers sees how he has changed and decides to reward him, knowing that he won’t try to leave now.

        Rain wants to protect Erin, so when Mama Mathers goes to reward him, he asks for her, so the old leaders can’t claim her and he can keep her safe. Only over time he becomes a worse and worse person, reverting to the misogynistic, xenophobic bastard he was before. His desire to keep Erin safe is gradually warped into jealously keeping her away from other people and all to himself, leading her to be even more trapped than she was previously, as now her only friend has become the main person keeping her imprisoned. Eventually she snaps, triggers and escapes, with Team Therapy helping her hide. And enraged Rain follows and goes after them, forcing the team to fight him to protect her, possibly ending up with Rain killing a few of them and later on leading a group of Fallen as recurring antagonists over the course of the serial.

  4. Wow, really dailing the hillbilly horror tropes up to 11. Listen I like Rain, and I want Erin to be okay… But fuck I’m honestly quite okay with seeing the Fallen wiped out completly. The sooner the better.

    Oh and it seems Taylor should have gone for the vocal cords too.

    1. Seems that way. Although, since his powers apparently adapted to the lack of eyesight, I wonder if they could also have adapted to the lack of a voice?

      …Now I’m imagining a blind mute guy brainwashing someone by creepily stroking their face.

    2. I’m left wondering if Mama deliberately does that. The more sinister, and memorable, dealing with her is, the more effective her power. The house in the center, the ceremony of walking up the stairs, the creepiness of her bedroom. It’s designed to stick in your mind.

      It’s the real world power of a cult of personality given a wicked sharp edge and reach.

      1. Be hilarious though if Rain ends up off the Hook and the Fallen run into some issues because she dies from health problems stemming from spending too much time in bed. Like a blood clot or something.

      1. Wonder how it’d interact with Canary’s power? Cause the Fallen can go fuck themselves. Uh the fatal manner, not the incest manner. I wonder how Paige has been? Hopefully not getting railroaded by the justice system.

    1. Valfor used his powers. So if it came out they were outright doing that to young parahumans, or Wards… How the fuck did the Fallen not get a collective kill order?

      Don’t suppose it’ll turn out that the five member of the Cluster grants the ability to resist or mess with master effects? No? Shame.

      1. Well, I don’t know what really caused the Authorities to issue kill orders. However, assuming this qualifies, I’m guessing that it never came up because Mama Mathers’ power kept the authorities from looking at her Fallen branch too hard. That plus other threats being more showy probably kept them far enough off the radar.

      2. Most people didn’t actually know what Valefor’s powers were, and he covered his tracks very carefully, so nobody outside the Fallen knew that he had killed anybody. Kill Orders are only signed off on in the most extreme situations, and they take a while to go through the system, which is carefully made so as to prevent Kill Orders being abused.

        WoG is that Bakuda would have gotten a Kill Order in another couple of weeks if she hadn’t been caught and sent to the Birdcage.

  5. Damn, that was disgusting and harrowing. These people need to die, hard. If innocents die along the way, that´s fine. There are fates worse than death after all, as WB hammers home time and time again…

    1. A point I’m going to bring up here again is that what the Fallen are doing here mirrors what real cults and fundie communities do. They might not have superpowers to back them up, but those powers are just literal incarnations of the power such cults hold over their members.

      1. Yeah. Momma’s power is just the literal manifestation of how real cult leaders work their way into their follower’s heads as this omnipresent, judging force, holding the threat of excommunication over them as a tool of control.

        To paraphrase Terry Pratchett, the trick isn’t to have a policeman on every corner, its to put an image of a tiny policeman in everyone’s heads, making them scared to break the law in the first place.

  6. Team Cluster Triggers are gathering enough firepower to be able to confront the Fallen and are driven by (what seems to be Righteous) revenge.. the Fallen have been surviving like roaches in nuclear fallout in the post apocalypse and have fortified themselves across the US, but are self-sustaining enough not need other civilization nearby; and aggressive enough to respond with the force of a small city-state if provoked.. I look forward to seeing the chaos unfold.

    1. I wonder what happens when that kind of rumor spreads around the Fallen camp. Does she let them have their fun and keep an eye on who’s doing what, or does she order a big town meeting to tell them to knock it off?

  7. I’m suddenly scared about Rain’s one-sided love for Erin and his emotion ability of unknown effect.

    It’d perfectly mirror what Amy did to Victoria, and set up for further alienation in poor Victoria’s eyes.

    And since Rain’s abilities will grow stronger if he kills his cluster, I suspect he’ll beat his enemies, save the day, and get the girl, whether she likes it or not.

    1. One-sided? The chapter ends with his head in her lap, and she stroking his hair. And Mama Mathers observing, but that’s the Fallen for you.

      1. Yeah I’m with Ultimate_Procrastinator on this one. Head pillowing is an intimate activity but that doesn’t make it necessarily a romantic one.

    2. What makes you think it’s one-sided? We haven’t seen into her mind yet. For all we know, she loves him every bit as passionately as Bella loves Edward, but being 16 or 17 an a little shy, just doesn’t know how, where or when to express it to him.

  8. Oh well fuck. Excellent chapter. I think Rain is definitely the character I’m most invested in. But just… Fuck. The fallen don’t even need powers to be one of the most disturbing things wb has written. And then you get freaks like Mather’s and valefor… (You got those maggots out then?)

    I remember in worm were the fallen were just another villain gang, not particularly impressive, that the undersides could fight off one of their soilders and call it a nice afternoons lesson for their trickier members. Now they’re the utter example of how fucked humans are.

    1. Should be noted, that was a small branch of the cult, extending its feelers into an area it felt was vulnerable… And having it proven otherwise.

      The Fallen were planned back then, right down to Mama Mathers. She was mentioned in comments as why the Fallen were still around, because with her power, and remote viewing? Yeah.

    2. Haha after the maggots turn to flies they leave all by themselves! Of course at that point there isn’t much left of those eyeballs… I think back then we all sort of assumed that Valefor would get surgery to fix his eyes, because yuck. It makes sense that no surgeon would touch him though; they’ve all heard about the frog and the scorpion.

      Certainly this visit to Fallen Acres proves that Skitter was right. Maybe she was right because she knew masters? She complained about tinkers, but in her heart she knew that compared to masters they are normal well-adjusted people. She was screwed up, the masters on her team were screwed up, and she could figure that a whole clan of masters would be what we read here, which is kind of another level of screwed-up. It doesn’t take much imagination to see Skitter’s treatment of Valefor as sort of a displaced aggression that she really felt toward Regent, but if it was a setback for the Fallen, it was probably for the best.

  9. And, as seems to be the norm with these kind of powers, I’m betting it doesn’t work through tech.

    Same limitation that Imp, Regent, and Valefor have.

    If not; then why hasn’t Mama tried a live broadcast before GM?

    1. Same reason that nobody trained the big guns on Bakuda until she started stuffing the inhabitants of several apartment buildings with bombs. If Mama tried to f*k with the entire country at once, she’d shoot to the top of basically everyone’s hit list.

      Not to mention that her apparitions are going to be more effective on members of her own community. They only need subtle reminders of her authority and power to keep them in line. Not so for outsiders.

    2. Canary’s power worked through phones, though even that we only saw at short-range, from an unreliable narrator. But yeah, quite fortunate that most Masters missed out on that particular perk.

  10. Oh balls.

    Valefor would be scary enough on his own (interesting that his power adapted to compensate for the loss of his eyes), but Mama Mathers is absolutely terrifying. It’s impressive that Rain was able to control his thoughts enough that she never came up before now.
    And of course, he can’t warn anyone about her because she would instantly know that he’s betrayed her. He essentially can’t go back to Team Therapy now without her learning everything that’s going on over there. I really don’t see how Rain is going to make it out of there unless the Fallen are wiped out. Whichever way it goes, he’s going to be hurt badly before this is over.
    I wonder if Mathers has anything else to her power other than the surveillance? Even if that’s all I suppose it makes sense – Thinkers naturally make good leaders even if they can’t directly fight.

    1. Actually, this gives us a hint –
      “Think of me,” she said. “If you don’t, you know what will happen.”

      “Yes mama,” he said.

      “Allie. Your aunt and uncle. Erin, her family. And you won’t see me. You’ll see other things.”

      Seems like she’s threatening to mindfuck him with some unspecified other sort of visions if he doesn’t report in frequently enough. So I guess she can alter the nature of the visions.

      1. If she can make people see things that they can’t tell aren’t real, and possibly even not see things that are real, that gives her a lot more versatility than just being able to spy on people. An example from a novel I’ve read, is making a person see that the room is on fire, and that there’s a fire escape just outside the window. They reflexively jump out the window to go down the fire escape, but as there isn’t actually a fire escape there, they fall to their death.
        And if she can make people see a street as empty instead of having a bus driving down it, she could fool them into walking right in front of the bus.
        It might not be quite that easy, depending on how focused on her they have to be thinking to see the illusions. The fire example might be too distracting, and would only last a couple of seconds before they were too busy thinking about burning to death to think about Mama anymore. But wandering down a street, start thinking about Mama and then something pops up in the corner of their vision to make them jump to the side and into trouble.
        If you were actually trying to *fight* Mama, you wouldn’t be able to trust anything you saw presumably.

    1. I think it’s pretty clear that he caused the whole mess at the mall, or at least was in the group that caused it.

      Now, WB can still hit us hard with the casual evil that Rain had been dishing out in his old Fallen ways. Maybe we’ll see him killing some kids for sport. I’m more worried with the others, still have a sinking feeling that Rain isn’t the one that has the worst history there…

      1. Watch the next dream sequence show past Rain to be so horrible that we will become okay with present Rain being tortured to death!

  11. Anyone else think Mama Mathers would be right at home in Pact, as some sort of abstract demon of the Seventh Choir?

    Once you look at her, she’s in your eyes, and she doesn’t ever leave … any thought of her, no matter how indirect, opens up enough of a connection for her to appear to you, see through your eyes, speak to you. A voice forever whispering in your ear, a judgmental eye forever watching you, nudging you towards some dark path that only she can see. And now that she’s in your eyes, she can show you other things, control what enters and leaves them. She could break your mind immediately, or slowly torment you with more subtle apparitions … bleeding spiders that scuttle across your peripheral vision, eyes that blink from every surface when you aren’t looking but are never there when you focus, everyone around you melting, changing, your own face slowly rotting in the mirror, surrounded by people who aren’t really there (or are they?), things too horrible to describe writhing behind your eyelids every time you close them. Breaking you down, until you’re fully possessed and there’s nothing left but the part of you that listens to her. Or something even more subtle … words on the page are changed, people aren’t who they seem, objects aren’t where they seem, until you blink at the rusty saw blade you’ve put through Kenzie’s throat and realize that this time it wasn’t a hallucination …

    1. I’d say she fits better in Pact than in Worm. Not to say that she’s out of place here, just that you could slip the Fallen into Jacob’s Bell and I wouldn’t bat an eye (until they mentioned Endbringers).

  12. > Bugs danced on the screen, turning around to wiggle their rear ends, showing off the symbols stamped on their shells.

    Is there something about Love Bug Love Hug that drives Wildbow to write horror? First the Bonesaw intermission, and now this. It’s fitting that Love Lost’s dead daughter was into Maggie Holt, because the people she intends to fight seem to be doing their best to look like demons.

    I used to think that the Fallen were kind of lame, since they operated pretty much like a normal unpowered cult, and even let people leave their compounds to go shopping and visit therapy meetings. Turns out it’s all okay, because they have a whole bunch of Master/Strangers to remotely observe members and mind-wipe them if necessary. Well, at least two, but with Mathers demanding to be addressed as “Mama”, it’s not unlikely there are others with the “sight-based mindfuck” shard in the family. Yeah, that’d give them a decent boost on the danger scale.

    1. I used to think that the Fallen were kind of lame, since they operated pretty much like a normal unpowered cult, and even let people leave their compounds to go shopping and visit therapy meetings.
      …What part of that is “kind of lame”? Cults are some of the most dangerous groups out there (to their own members, at least). The powers that the Fallen bring to the table are almost redundant, merely literal incarnations of the power that real cults (and, to a lesser extent, “normal” religious communities) exert over their members.

      1. Dangerous compared to what? Cults aren’t exactly SAFE, but compared to most criminal organizations and political terrorist groups, they really aren’t that bad.

        1. Yeah I’m gonna have to disagree with you on that one. Cults are not necessarily *externally* dangerous, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still incredibly dangerous to their own members.

  13. Also, hang the eff on a second. Before Gold Morning, the PRT drafted (but didn’t quite finish signing) multiple kill orders on the Undersiders, and were willing to literally carpetbomb the Brockton Bay city centre in what was an attempt to kill the Slaughterhouse Nine AND the Undersiders together.

    Now, we see that the Fallen have a ton of low to mid level brute killing power and some truly awful Master combos, to the point that they have clearly always been in the practice of mind wiping and installing psychic spyware in their thralls, and they have been left alone to do their thing and gather their powerbase, for generations. Generations of this!

    Lads. Lads, what the hell were the powers that be PLAYING AT before Gold Morning? What the actual hell here, guys? Ex-frigging-scuse me? Can we discuss your priorities? Listen, did anyone who was command rank of the PRT survive Gold Morning? Can we ask them what they were doing here? What was their plan to deal with the Fallen?

    Jesus Christ, they even gave Valefor back to the cult? Lads. I think that maybe y’all don’t get to complain about any societal problems you’re having, because you’re very clearly not interested in fixing them!

    1. Dealing with a violent, fanatical parahuman cult is pretty different from dealing with a gang of warlords that have taken over a city. The cult operates in a decentralized fashion, whereas the warlords are making a direct challenge to the state and can therefore be brought down with force. The cult also comes with dozens to hundreds of ready-made hostages, and the government isn’t going to be too keen on kicking off another Waco. Acquiring proof to go after them is also hard because, with powers like Valefor and Mama Mathers, finding witnesses to testify is tricky-and they likely maintain a level of plausible deniability between which people are just assholes who like to go around flaunting their Endbringer worship and the ones who actually violently attack people. So, they contest the Fallen where they can spare the manpower and try to work around Mama Mathers’ power, they try to protect anyone willing to run from the cult and testify, and they do not, for example, initiate a prolonged siege of the Fallen’s fortified compounds that could kill hundreds of noncombatants and destroy the PRT politically.

      1. I see those factors, and they’re valid and true, although I disagree on the centralisation issue. The Fallen are plenty centralized in terms of how they lock down their social control harder than any cult without powers, in that there are literally between two and half a dozen Masters hitting people with head whammies to prevent them from disobeying. Take them out and the Fallen lose one of their big sticks.

        Aside from that, the Fallen are demonstrably more societally harmful than a criminal gang who want to run the underworld of a city. Organised crime is pretty awful, but gangsters at least have an interest in society being functional and prosperous. The Fallen are basically an apocalypse cult.

        1. But the Fallen presumably weren’t challenging the status quo. They may have been doing more harm, but they weren’t getting in the PRT’s face, saying “You guys are doing a terrible job, we’re stepping in and doing it for you”, like the Undersiders ended up doing.
          It’s like Taylor mentioned. Things were worse when the Empire 88 and EBB were loose on the streets but because that all happened kinda out of sight and never directly challenged the powers that be, the powers that be were content to just uphold the laws as got broken right in front of them.
          Plus, this would be were the decentralisation comes into play. There may have been a more central control for the fallen, but the people out doing the crimes were just the hundreds of low level plebs doing regular gang sort of stuff. The people controlling them weren’t doing any obvious crimes they could easily be charged with. With the Undersiders, there was just the few of them right on the front lines getting right up in the faces of the lawful powers.

          Though one point for the PRT and co, while the Undersiders themselves may not have been causing nearly as much harm to society as the Fallen, if you add in all the copy-cat villains that tried to follow the Undersiders example in other cities only with less benevolent intentions, the damage that we didn’t hear about could have skyrocketed.

    2. You hafta remember, Khepri pulled Everybody outta the Birdcage. Even the ones the block leader’s thought were better off left inside. Even the ones the other members of the Birdcage didn’t want to go near.

      And then she let them all go.

      And then everyone got a blanket amnesty.

      ~Teian

    3. They didn’t go after the Undersiders because the Undersiders were dangerous, they went after the Undersiders because the Undersiders openly challenged government authority. I’d guess the Fallen were quite content to avoid the PRT when they could, and mostly committed random and uncoordinated crimes. Things like manslaughtering a couple C53 kids for their horns or setting fire on some civilians don’t really threaten the state in any way. The Protectorate probably wanted to do something about them eventually, but they weren’t a threat.

      They still aren’t an obvious threat. They’re recruiting people, but not in large enough numbers to build an army. They got a whole bunch of powerful capes, but Valkyrie could probably solo the whole group. If the Fallen declared a part of Megalopolis proper their territory and raided the Warden headquarters twice, she just might, but so far the only thing they’ve done is allegedly kidnap one kid.

      As for Valefor, they might have immediately sent him to the Birdcage and he’d still be around, because the Birdcage was cracked wide open during Gold Morning. Also, they didn’t know he had killed anyone because he’d mind-wiped all his victims. At least they had the good sense not to fix his eyes. Too bad it didn’t work.

      1. I’d say that it’s less challenging state authority and more threatening stability. The Fallen are enormous dicks to small, specific groups, but they don’t throw entire supervillain communities into violent chaos in a naked bid to seize control.

        1. Plus, Haven was specifically gunning for the Fallen, so the PRT might have left it up to them while they handled other problems.
          Also, if they’re based off the Westboro Baptist Church, they aren’t just a threat to “small, specific groups”. The Westboro Baptist Church hates pretty much everyone.

    4. I know! Shit I’m amazed anyone’s got time to worry about Prancer’s little attempt to run a town with shit like this out there! That’s like worrying about the pot growers when the fucking Mexican Cartels are leaving corpses all over the place! At least Team Therapy you can say is trying to do something they can actually deal with! What the hell was with the PRT? Oh yeah Cauldron was manipulating them.

    5. It’s noteworthy that there WERE people going after the fallen. Halo and Rosery, capes belonging to a religious private superhero team (I think they were called Haven) traveled from their home in the south all the way to Brockton bay just because two fallen goons were trying to get their hooks in. That indicates to me that Haven knew how bad the fallen were, and they wanted something done about it. The problem, as other people have explained better than I could, is that between the power brainwashing and just the regular real life cult brainwashing that goes on in the fallen, it becomes really hard to deal with them. Also powers like mama mathers and Valefors are pretty easy ones to hide; or at least not let everyone know how scary they really are. Cults are tricky for government organizations to deal with, literally just look at Scientology. An unbelievable amount of sketchy shot goes on behind closed doors but it’s there’s little the government authorities can do to handle it. (Sorry this goes on in a lot of religions, but yeah I’m singling out this one because for its age it has a disporportionate amount of skeletons in its collective closet)

  14. I’ll bet you no one outside this particular Fallen faction knows about Mama Mathers. After all, to talk about her you have to think about her, and her apparition would probably kill you before letting you rat to outsiders.

    Also, no fucking wonder everyone refers to this vague and ill-specified “leadership”. I wouldn’t want to refer to her any more specifically than I had to either.

    1. Judging by what Rain said, and the interaction, I think it wears off after a while. And if you’re looking in with clairvoyance, or clairaudiance, or some other far-reaching perception-based Thinker power, it might be lessened.

      And even if they don’t know her name, they probably know about her- pre-GM, the Fallen’s modus operandi was kidnapping, and she (and various offspring) gave bad visions to any Thinkers that tried to spy.

  15. I appreciate the Pact reference with “wizards can’t lie”. I guess Worm and Pact are both much more popular in each other’s worlds than in real life, with the references to Maggie Holt in Worm and the fact that Blake treats Weaverdice as though it’s a reference everyone should get.

    1. Glad I wasn’t the only one who caught this reference! Very cool. And agreed — I think a Maggie Holt sequel has awesome potential. The Rose/Blake relationship made Pact extremely frenetic just because of its nature (without going into spoilers); I think a Maggie Holt sequel could easily avoid that particular problem. I loved the magic system in Pact so much that I’d love to see what else could be done in that universe.

    2. The Maggie Holt books are basically a Canadian Earth Bet version of Harry Potter.

      …Though there’s a part of me that wants the references to goblins and wizards to be hinting that the rules underlying Pact’s reality underly reality in Wildbow’s other works, too. I mean, they’re all in the same multiverse. (Wildbow said “sure” when asked if they were, which is far more than a “maybe”!)

    1. I’d hate that so much. I hate that character. In a good way, but I’d still probably stop reading partway through. Likely after throwing something heavy at my computer screen.

      Now a character like Mags on the other hand would be pretty cool.

      1. That brings up an important question- which Maggie is the protagonist of the Maggie Holt series? Was it going to end in a twist of “she was an asshole fairy all along?”

        1. Ha! That’d be really interesting. Hopefully the story is about her killing some faeries or otherwise tricking them into getting her name back. “Asshole fairy all along” is a bit Shamalan-esque (not a compliment).

        2. It wouldn’t end on a twist, obviously. Either it’d be established from the start, or she’d discover somewhere in book three that she’s a lost elven princess or something. I don’t think it would really work with the goblins, though, if the Maggie Holt series follows Pact rules at all.

          If it’s at all like Harry Potter, there’s definitely a Maggie Holt fanfiction, on a dead server somewhere in the ruins of Earth Bet, where some Mary Sue faerie steals the whole plot. And another where Maggie carries a pipe shotgun and swears. And like a thousand where she bones Blake Thorburn.

          1. “If it’s at all like Harry Potter, there’s definitely a Maggie Holt fanfiction, on a dead server somewhere in the ruins of Earth Bet, where some Mary Sue faerie steals the whole plot. And another where Maggie carries a pipe shotgun and swears. And like a thousand where she bones Blake Thorburn.”

            Let’s not forget the thousands where she and Paidrac are actually in love, and he’s wearing leather pants for some reason. Or the fics that bash Green Eyes.

    2. Monkey’s Paw twist: Pact 2 will be about Maggie Holt, as she tries to avoid faerie justice trying to enforce her exile to the lost Jacob’s Bell.

      1. Ending spoilers: Goblin Queen Scarfy McButts rips Maggie Holt a dozen new ones, summons Titania then leaves, her debt repaid.

      2. Maggie Holt is a children’s book series (often compared to real life’s Harry Potter), and “goblin” is a term of endearment for a child rather than something you call them when they’re being little pricks. I think it’s safe to say that whoever wrote Earth Bet’s Maggie Holt books did not have a clear picture of Jacob’s Bell.

  16. Oh dear God, I just thought something horrifying. Mama Mathers got grabbed by Doormaker and Khepri, right? How many capes saw her at that fight? They probably don’t think of her, but now the Fallen can just send people an email with her picture and a sad story about how she’s a lost grandmother or something. Then people would start seeing Mama Mathers.

    I’m hoping Caldron installed some Mama Mathers filter in the clairvoyant.

    1. Mama Mathers appeared in Worm? Oh shit, I completely forgot, I feel kind of stupid now, I’ve read Worm a long time ago, (I think I have to re-read it). It was confirmed that Mama Mathers was a real woman or nobody knows for sure? (I still believe that “she’s” in fact a man who’s using a woman projection, like Manton did with Siberian). I also believe that Kenzie’s father is also a solid holographic projection or a robot (I would like to find more about her past).

  17. I REFUSE to believe that Mama Mathers is a real woman. No woman will ever lead a cult that treats women like domestic/sex slaves, as Fallen proved to be. Yes, there are sexist women in real life, women who HATE other women for different reasons, but I’m sure that no man/woman who are raised up believing that they’re different according to their sexes (men being the superior ones and women the inferior ones) will never accept to be ruled by a woman. Its like a KKK group is ruled by a black person or a gay. Or an exclusive white right wing group being ruled by a jew or a muslim. Hard to believe. So I fail to see how Fallen accepted so easy to be ruled by such a “weak” sex, UNLESS they possible know that Mama Mathers is actually a projection of a man, in the same manner Siberian was a projection of a man. It is possible OR Mama Mathers is a crazy, demented, self hating who is so strong that nobody would stand a chance to fight her even if they’d try. So, they have to accept her as their leader, whatever they like or not. I’m very curious to find more about this man/woman even if I despise them with all my heart. Next thing I’d want, all those Fallen monsters to die, but after they’ll SUFFER, Rain to save Erin and be happy with her (Gosh, I ship them so hard, they both love and are dedicated to each other, its easy to see). Please, Wildbow, I don’t care what you’ll do with others (well, I do care, but right now my priority is Rain/Erin), but let those kids be happy, please, they deserve after everything they went through.

    1. Mama Mathers isn’t a real woman. She’s a Parahuman. Fallen believe Parahumans are the top dogs, top of the food chain. Mama Mathers, with her potent power, is a God on Earth. Look at how Lachlan treats Rain, even though Rain’s powers are so… Lacklustre. Look at how eager his aunt is to pair him off with the girls in the kitchen. Then, listen to what she says- soldiers are male or female, and if they lack the zeal to be a soldier, they’re a slut, to be used in breeding more soldiers.

      1. Yes, maybe this is the reason why they accept her, because of her powers they look upon her as their Goddess. In real life she’d have zero chances to be accepted by this kind of cult (I don’t think I ever heard about women cult leader) but in their screwed up world, she’s literally their God, which is credible and logical. Seems legit but I still hate her to death, I want her to be the last who’ll die, after she’ll be forced to watch all her people being massacred.

        1. I know what you mean. I was thinking of something sneaking around, doing steal kills all horror movie boogeyman like, whispering “Mama Mathers” in it’s victims ears right as they die (since she seems to be aware of if you are thinking of her) one by one. Until only she is left, at which point it just walks into the room she’s in and then kills her.

          It seems like there’s going to be an entire subgenre of Ward fanfiction just about killing the Fallen. Impressive that Wildbow’s got them so hated so fast. Just hope he doesn’t double down too much on it and overdo them.

          1. The Fallen are the Trio of Ward. Initial enemies presented in a way that we can truly understand and can empathise with their victims, before later being replaced by what is objectively a much bigger threat on a scale that we don’t intuitively understand, and therefore don’t instinctively revile as much.

            It’s the same as Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter being hated more than Lord Voldemort. Although he is objectively far worse than she is, the kind of relentlessly spiteful and petty evil that is her hallmark is something we’ve all experienced to a greater or lesser degree, and that personal experience is what makes her so much more hate-able than Voldemort is.

            I guarantee you that by the time Ward is finished there will be far more fanfics about revenge on the Fallen than there will be about revenge on objectively worse groups. Evil on a scale we are familiar with always seems worse than greater evil on a scale we aren’t.

      2. This. She’s in an echelon apart because of her powers.

        Besides, I don’t think the cult is explicitly sexist — they just engage in arranged marriages with a specific priority: producing powered individuals. The men she says are just as likely to be “sluts” as the women, if they don’t become soldiers. I’d guess men lower in command are just more likely to take advantage of this practice and their actions have you wind up with what we see.

    2. Mama Mathers is Valefor’s biological mother, meaning she gave birth to him at some point. There are capes in the setting who could probably make that happen, but it’s a lot more likely that she is a woman, was always a woman, and is only a cult leader because her power is extremely well suited to being a cult leader.

      It’s kind of weird that you’re latching on to the cult’s treatment of women. They have arranged marriages, sure, but they also have the ghostly apparition of Mama Mathers looking over your shoulder every time you think of her. They consider unpowered members to be next to cattle, to be used as foot soldiers or as breeding stock, but worth nothing beyond their use. They use Valefor’s power to brainwash innocent people. He only has to tell you that you love the cult, and it will be true.

      In this chapter, Mama Mathers claims they’re actually quite egalitarian about their employment practices. Anyone can be a thug, if they have the will and the ability to swing a lead pipe at whoever the Fallen indicate, and the rest get breeding duties. You probably assume she’s lying, but I don’t think there’s been anything on-page that would contradict her.

      1. Well, the cult treats everyone bad (including black people and gays) but I referred (in particular) at women here because of Mama Mathers being the cult leader and everything. Anyway, they are very bad people, and the only worm-verse groups I could see being as bad as them were the Merchants (the chapter where they’re slaughtered by S9 was one of the best and joyful chapters in my opinion) and S9 (but I also loved them because they’re so damn eccentric and over the top crazy that it was a pleasure to see with what horrible disgusting-demented-things they’ll come up next. I can’t say the same about Fallen, while they’re interesting, there’s nothing exciting to read about them, only creepiness and hate inducing feelings).

    3. That sounds fairly sexist of you Lulu. Do you just not believe that women are human beings? Capable of all things both good and evil that any man is capable of? I mean, they already commit half of all domestic violence and rapes in real life. What seems out of place here in fantasy land?

      1. Lol, I do believe that women are just as evil as men (even if, lets admit, men are much more violent in real life than women -school shootings, serial murders, terrorist attacks- most of those are committed by men; also I seriously doubt that women commit half of rapes- men commit way more rapes than women and this is statistically proved. Doesn’t mean that I’m saying that men are devils, I’m not misandrist, I’m just realistic about facts. There are also more women who abuse their children than men, for example, another real fact), so I don’t know what you find sexist in my comments, its only a statement I made about a cult group whose members treated certain human beings as shit. And I’m right when I say that I never heard about women cult leaders but since this is a fantasy, everything is possible.

        1. > men commit way more rapes than women and this is statistically proved.

          IIRC that’s because the official rape statistics use a definition of “rape” that requires the rapist to penetrate their victim, so most female-on-male rapes don’t count, since the victim is the one doing the penetrating.

        2. If you do a bit of reading on cults you’ll find examples of women in the leadership who are 100% on board with all the sketchy stuff. Usually they’re wives of the male leaders, but not always.

          Australia’s Anne Hamilton-Bryne, leader of The Family springs to mind. New age cult, Hamilton-Byrne supposedly a psychic and reincarnation of Jesus, specialised in abducting children and brainwashing them through physical abuse and LSD.

          https://www.vice.com/en_au/article/d757dy/a-look-inside-australias-most-notorious-cult-the-family

    4. I mean…Rain is pretty clearly a dude who has done some awful shit, even if the person he is today is quite literally a different person and personality to the one who committed his crimes. He certainly doesn’t deserve to suffer and die, but he probably shouldn’t walk away scot free either. He has some restitution to make.

      Erin seems like a nice girl who deserves much better than the life her parents unwittingly chose for her.

    5. By this point, other commenters have pretty well argued that the Fallen aren’t specifically against having a woman in charge, but just to throw on one little bit more evidence for completeness sake: There was a throwaway line in Interlude 4b about a Mrs. May preaching a sermon. Plenty of sexist churches in the real world (and, heck, one or two I’ve been to that generally respect women) would never have allowed that, let alone a crazy sexist cult.

      1. Mrs Mays sermon was quite specifically about preaching female sexual servitude as being a holy calling, mind.

        I think its accurate to say that the Fallen are willing to let women assume areas of responsibility *provided* they toe the party line, and the party line is explicitly a supremacist doctrine (against any outgroup you can think of) with a side order of male primacy (although exceptions for powers and zealots can be made).

    6. Internalized oppression is a real thing. It’s often one of the biggest obstacles in social movements. Just look at all the homophobic right-wing congressmen who got in trouble for messing around with male prostitutes (or boys). You mention the idea of the KKK being run by a black or gay person as if it is absurd, there was once a KKK leader who was arrested for having sex with a black male prostitute. Dan Burros was the Grand Dragon of the KKK in New York (basically the state leader), and he was a Jew!

      1. Besides, there are plenty of super sexist women today. I know you admitted that, but I think you’re underestimating just how bad it can get. Especially with some older religious women.

        Not to put too fine a point on it, but 26 million women voted for Trump.

        1. Oops. I can’t do math. It’s to late for this. Suffice to say tens of millions of women voted for Trump, and hundreds of thousands for Roy Moore (remember him?).

          Sorry for the politics, ‘Bow.

  18. >In the last four years and seven months, She’s learned to walk, talk, do some chores,

    In the last four years and seven months, she’s learned to walk, talk, do some chores,

  19. Valefor is back… and he has powers… Great.
    Is it too late for Skitter to have ants eat his vocal chords?
    It is… Damn.

    But to go back to an earlier part of the chapter I was surprised to find out that Victoria and Kenzie are more than likely the only two people in the group who hadn’t killed before. Rain, Sveta and Ashely made sense from what we’ve seen so far but i’d completely forgotten what we’ve been told about Tristan so far, and the little tidbit about Chris caught me off guard.

  20. The clusterstuff is really suffocating. None of them have slept properly since their trigger. Every night, constantly reliving the nadir of their entire existences. And then meeting their enforced-for-life mates and trading powerlevels while being unable to actually reach out to them for comfort or choke the life out of that stupid kid who helped with all this.
    Pain, loss and frustrating impotence over and over, for years. No real way to mourn either.
    That stuff would turn anyone bonkers, even without any personality bleed.

    I would think the 5th member just offed themselves to escape from that mess, but Rain doesn’t remember them at all, so that’s probably not what happened. It’s bloody amazing none of them have destroyed themselves through booze/drugs or whatever’s the easy way out.

    1. #5 probably died during the rampage that triggered them all. It’s implied in Worm that that probably happens more often than people realize (since, you know, if you die right after triggering it’s hard to realize you’re a parahuman).

  21. Okay, too many commenters are falling for Mama Mathers’ deceptions. Let’s think skeptically and try to nail down what her powers actually are.

    Author comments in the wiki footnotes say surveillance thinkers have to be careful to avoid “seeing her looking back at them. Because if they do, then they’ll likely end up in a brief coma followed by a year and a half of something like being convinced the walls are bleeding spiders.”

    The coma bit is interesting, not totally sure how it fits in. The bit about seeing her *looking back at you* suggests the attention has to be mutual. So no worries about everyone seeing her during Gold Morning. Though being able to look back at a scrying thinker suggests some ability to sense incoming attention, which is powerful in itself.

    We know for a fact she can make you see an apparition of her when you think about her. She can also make you see the walls bleed spiders. My guess is she picks what to make someone see; her own image is the default only by her own choice, not by any inherent feature of the power. The trigger thought may or may not also be something she can choose.

    Most apparitions seem to go away quickly, but Rain has an extended conversation with one. Seems that engaging with the apparitions makes them stay around longer.

    We don’t actually know she gets any surveillance power out of it. She probably does know how often her victims think about her–venturing a guess would carry a risk of Rain learning she’s fallible–but this could just be a general sense she gets when she examines a prior victim in person, rather than a real-time awareness of who’s thinking about her at any given time.

    She tells Rain she “heard and saw much of” his conversation with the apparition. Much, not all. This seems like proof she isn’t consciously present when she appears. It could be that she gets some kind of partial sense of what the victim is seeing, it could be that she just inferred the conversation by watching Rain.

    So on the low end, it could be that she can sense attention and set hallucination triggers on those paying attention to her–not the strongest power in most situations, but devastatingly effective for running a cult. I’d call it master, thinker, and maybe blaster, but not super-high numbers in any.

    On the high end, she might get real-time long-range awareness when a hallucination is triggered. This would up her thinker power. Especially if she can choose the triggers: that would let her effectively set up Google Alerts on her victims’ consciousnesses.

    1. You’re missing Stranger. She knows when people are looking at her, even through powers according to the author’s notes, and can make them stop. Wouldn’t necessarily say Blaster, though. That implies (to me) the ability to hit people in range, even if they can’t see you. The leadership only attacks people peeping, no matter how far away.

      I’d be interested to see how it meshes with Guillame of the Heartbroken, who can see through the eyes of anyone he touches.

    2. The more I hear about Mathers, the more plausible it seems that she’s actually a Practitioner or Other. It’s only growing from, I dunno, 3% to 5% viability or something, but something about her powers just seems…off, different from how parahuman powers usually work but in tune with how Pact’s magic works.

      1. I’m… Rather surprised how much I want this to be the case? Canonical connections between settings would be amazing tbh (even if it means I miss out on understanding some, having not read Twig yet)

        1. Isn’t there a WoG somewhere that says Worm, Pact and Twig all exist in different universes in the same multiverse? The Scion interlude says that there are more universes than there are particles in any one universe, but they are still finite, the Entities just limit themselves to a few universes during the Cycle.

      2. Naw. I think it’s possible the entities have incorporated pact magic into themselves and their powers. But mama Mathers has children and her shard has buds.

      3. I think it’s completely in line with how parahuman powers work. Single power, granted by extradimensional entity. Requires no practice to use. Cannot be taught or given to others, but can divide spontaneously from extended contact, causing children to trigger with new variations of the parent power.

        Meanwhile, in Pact, all power comes from knowledge and deals made with magical creatures. Anyone can summon and bind an other, just following instructions from a book. If they survive and keep doing it, it’ll become easier as the others gain a degree of respect for them, but even the most established practitioner’s power isn’t truly their own. It’s given to them, and can be taken away if they break the rules they’ve agreed to. Fundamentally different systems.

  22. I wonder if instead of another Rain interlude, we will see Rain’s dream from the perspective of the parahuman Cradle thinks can join the group dream. It would be interesting for the reveal of what Rain actually did to come from someone unrelated to the cluster.

  23. So…. this is horrifying on about five different ways.

    Love-losts flashback was a gutpunch of horror all by itself. Even if we already knew “What happened”, the visceral feeling of the back and forth- memories of the girls childhood, building up that connection and then the “Thud” over and over again.
    Hell, I could barely keep reading after the first round.
    The blood, the crossed eyes, the knowledge that Ev is just ~gone~.
    Fucking heck.

    Oh, but back to team therapy, that should be nice. Right?

    And then they go back and we get to REALLY see how scary the Fallen are.
    Turns out that Taylor blinding Valefor was TOO MERCIFUL. … and here was me thinking she’d put a stop to his evil. Oh well.

    And mother. Ohhhh boy. Super creepy, but unless there’s something I’m missing, Valefor seems scarier. (Being watched/vs being controlled).

    This chapter was amazing, but also really awful to read. Frightening.
    I kind of want the story to solve this and get lighter.

    ANYWAY… wild mass guess/hypothesizing:
    Rain seems to be making the fundemental mistake of thinking that the Fallen are a solution to his ClusterKill problem. To me, it seems way more like ClusterKill might be one of the few options he has for dealing with his Fallen problem.

    During Dream time he should totally go “The Fallen are scary, and I will give you everything I can to help you destroy them, and if you kill me too at the end of it… well I hope that you don’t.” I mean hell- helping ClusterKill bring down the Fallen is about the MOST heroic thing anyway. Plus, he can probably communicate with them without Mama watching, so could set up some mean collaboration, and then execute it during the day, AND ClusterKill presumably want revenge on ALL the fallen, not just him (even if Cluster trigger shenanigins focus it on him)

    Kenzie is an ANTI-SURVEILLANCE Tinker. There is reason to believe…. Wait… could Kenzie blind mother?
    Deliberately think of Mama and then flashgun her?

    The Fallen are really scary…
    And Rain’s dreamroom pals may be his ONLY safe way of communicating now. And frankly, even if they do kill him, bringing down enough Fallen capes would be worth it (especially if they break things enough to get Erin+family and Allie and Lachlan(?) out.

    Heck, it’d PROBABLY be worth while him just using his power to murderize Elijah (even with the inevitable repurcussions)… having the chance to do so with back up from ClusterPals seems like the best plan ever.

    1. If Rain tells the cluster that he hates the Fallen, they’ll just help the Fallen. Killing Rain is their main priority, closely followed by making him suffer as much as they can. Anything else is a distant third.

      Good thinking about anti-surveillance Kenzie working to blind Mama Mathers, though. I hadn’t thought of that, and given the two other area-effect viewers/listeners they’re up against, Team Therapy is going to need Kenzie more than anybody.

  24. I hope that the goblins in the Maggie Holt books are a lot nicer than the ones in Pact. Comparing a little kid to the likes of Buttsack seems needlessly cruel.

    Love Lost looked over as two stuffed toys were placed on the counter’s edge…One of them looked like a ballsack with arms, legs, and a bulldog face.
    That hope is feeling kinda fragile right now.

    Maybe I’m just already primed to be thinking about Pact from the Maggie Holt references, but something about Mama Mathers makes me think of an Other. Maybe it’s just her intentional aura of mysticism, maybe it’s how much her powers depend on looking at her, maybe it’s how she can detect when people are thinking of her (ie, making/strengthening connections).

  25. This might just be me, but it’s easy for me to picture that Rain might be playing the Fallen, his cluster, and Team Therapy all against each other.

    The only thing he tells Mama Mathers is that he’s going to kill the other members of his cluster. In spite of the fact that he knows very well that the rest of his cluster is going to show up at his compound with an army in tow. I read through these chapters a bit fast, but it doesn’t seem like there are any hints that the Fallen know what’s about to happen. He could have resolved the problem with his cluster quite easily just by talking about it openly with The Fallen. With an appropriate set of cluster powers, it wouldn’t be impossible for him to be a high-level soldier and even “save” Erin.

    Except he hates and fears and detests the Fallen. “Saving” Erin by becoming powerful enough to have her to himself wouldn’t really save her – it would be a deluded form of control that would break her and him in the end and turn them both into something they loathe. So even though the Fallen are the obvious solution to his cluster problem, he has to think about how to get out from under Mathers’ thumb, too. One solution is to bide his time and hide and let the two sides take care of each other. And in the meantime, build relations with unaffiliated capes who can help ensure that he escapes along with the people he cares about.

    I don’t think he’s a mastermind or anything. But I do think that he’s trapped and looking for a way out. To solve the problem with his cluster, all he ever really had to do was choose the Fallen. But he can’t do that. And then Team Therapy presented itself and a third possible route appeared. All he has to do is never tell anybody the full story except a select few, and wait – even though waiting is terrifying.

    And all his talk about setting traps – he was talking about an escape route. Away from the fighting, hopefully guarded by friends, as his two problems solve themselves. I thought it was interesting, too, that Mathers thought that holding his family (Uncle, Aunt, Allie) over his head meant something. I get the impression that they don’t, much.

    1. “it would be a deluded form of control that would break her and him in the end and turn them both into something they loathe.”

      That sounds exactly like something Wildbow would do in his story. If the fan theory of killing other members of the cluster stops the personality bleed-over is correct, then killing the others might revert him back into the vicious, misogynistic, xenophobic bastard he used to be. If the other fan theory that killing members of a cluster lets the survivors have greater control over the dead member’s powers is also correct, then Rain will end up with four or five decent powers all to himself, making him a valuable soldier to the Fallen.

      Erin may end up fleeing from Rain, who will become a recurring antagonist to Team Therapy.

      1. Very possible. I’m hoping Rain doesn’t go villain. There are more reasons for the personality changes in the cluster than just personality bleed, too – and it’s worth noting that there are bits of personality that don’t appear to have transferred. Love Lost’s impulsiveness and irresponsibility doesn’t appear to have transferred much to Cradle or Snag (or Rain). I’ll admit I’m probably reading too far into things, though.

        Also possible is that Rain is put in a position where, every night, he truly has to face the human consequences of his actions – where he has to realize that what he did hurt real people (and good ones, at that). And that forced a growth in his personality. And the others, every fifth night, have to view his side of things and watch as somebody takes glee in starting the disaster that killed their loved ones and made them suffer immeasurably. Seems to me that a weekly showing of that particular video would add a lot of darkness to someone’s personality, even without the bleeding.

        At any rate, I’m sure that whatever Wildbow does, it will have everyone on the edge of their seats the whole way, loving every bit of it. You’re definitely right about the way this could go – I just hope it doesn’t, because I’d like to imagine something like a half-happy ending for Rain and Erin.

  26. Huh… It just occurred to me that this is why Victoria couldn’t even get any answer out of the Fallen jerks about who was leading them- she asks, they immediately think of Mama, and then see her (and supposedly she sees them)

  27. Here, let me predict the next arc:

    Rain is totally screwed, with no way out. Erin realises just how bad things are, and that Rain can’t possibly do anything without Mama knowing. She rides on her white hor— old van to meet the heroes of Team Therapy, and to mount a rescue. She smuggles them inside the compound in her van. Most of the arc consists of intense intrigue and combat but the heroes ultimately lose. As all seems lost, Imp suddenly slits Mama’s throat, and proclaims “Skitter and Tattletale send their regards.”. Everyone is relieved and extremely confused at the same time. Erin saves Rain from mind-rape.

    Rain was the damsel in distress all along.

  28. Powershifting is becoming kind of a thing in this story. The powers in Worm didn’t seem to change much, outside of specific situations (second triggers, outside tempering). Usually they just seemed to have minor improvements in specific situations. I’d think that it changed because of Gold Morning, but Capricorn’s power changed when they got a new costume, and Victoria’s forcefield became wretch-shaped, and had previously altered to include her costume.
    Now Valefor is back and his powers have changed so he can still use them. And Rain’s Cluster power seems to be built on change. I don’t understand what’s going on there, because I don’t know why or how their passengers built an abstract dreamworld with tokens. I do think it’s interesting that they can each choose to give away some of their powers.
    I don’t know what will come of it, but I’m sure we’ll see more examples where somebody’s power shifted slightly.

    1. Personally, I think the dream-room and tokens might be something to do with the shards experimenting post-Scion. They’re orphaned now, and have to learn how humans work for their own survival. And the whole point of multi-triggers was to see what would happen, come up with new abilities, chop and change and see what works where.

      Doesn’t explain how Valefor’s or Capricorn’s abilities changed, though.

    2. Victoria’s power didn’t change. Her force field took the form of her self image, and once she started thinking of herself as Glory Girl rather than Victoria Dallon her force field included her costume as well. After two years as Icktoria, that’s still how she subconsciously thinks of herself. Her power didn’t change, just her self-image.

  29. So we’ve got Valefor as Elijah and Prince August as Blindside (pretty sure he had a second trigger). I’m calling it, eventually Bambina is coming back too.

  30. With this, Brandish, Nursery and Lovelost it seems motherhood as a theme is quite present in Ward.

    Also: “Is that M-M-Mama Mathers the ma-ma-master who ma-ma-matters?”

  31. Can we talk about the fact that the Machines from the goblin interlude are are self-replicating, self-repairing, spreading emplacements? The way the focus was on not having Kenzie design things to maim or kill seemed to have ominous undertones of her being way too good at it.

    Is the machine infestation old enough for it conclusively not be Kenzie’s work?

    1. The Machine Army was one of the original S-class threats, and resulted in one of the first cities (Eagleton) being quarantined. So unless Kenzie triggered with a specialty to make self-replicating, murderous nanomachines well over four years ago and simply hasn’t created any more since then for some reason, Kenzie definitely isn’t responsible.

  32. Yeah… I’m all for treating dangerous parahumans like Israel treats promises to play nice. Namely, instead of helping your enemy, attack first and say sorry ’bout that.

    “Yeah, we’ll abide by the unwritten rules. Sure.”
    “Whoops, we carpetbombed the S9 immediately after we found out they acquired a biotinker.”
    “As much as biotinkers are a no-no, OP mind control Masters are a bigger no-no. Whoops, we dropped some tactical nukes on the main Fallen camps. Guess they were right about the end being near, though that’s probably not what they meant. And we dropped one on Heartbreaker’s company when our Thinkers said they were on the move to another city, too.”
    “Ellisburg is unsalvageable, so we put a wall around them. Did we say wall? We meant to say dome. Or three.”
    “Machine Army rebuilds itself from scraps in the ground? With sufficient motivation, one of our Tinkers created something called nanothorns. Let’s see them rebuild from atoms.”

    This seems like a good plot for a Contessa!Greg crack fic or something.

    1. The unwritten rules don’t apply to S-class threats. Or rather, they do apply, but only in the sense of “everybody who isn’t an S-class threat bands together against those that are. Aside from that, anything goes.”
      Are there any tactical nukes left? How many people in the Fallen compounds are innocents stuck in a shitty situation, like Erin? How close are the Fallen compounds to other pockets of civilisation? Is wiping out a small village run by unpleasant villains worth contaminating the ground for miles around for centuries to come, as well as removing an irreplaceable weapon of mass destruction?
      Same problem with Ellisberg and the Machine Army. Sure you can get rid of most of them, but you can never find them all, and any attempts to use large scale weapons only results in spreading the infections.

      1. Now you see, this is why it’s a shame Bakuda died. I’m sure she would have found it a fascinating challenge to create a large scale bomb that only kills assholes (perhaps as determined by bloodlust?). Come on Valkyrie, you know you want to.

        Alternatively, a bomb that applies a large scale Clockblocker effect. All the Fallen ‘wake up’ in anti-brute shackles, with master-stranger precautions in place. Sort them out afterwards, maybe call in Tattletale if Valkyrie’s power is insufficient as a safeguard.

        Or another good one, send in Siberian (immune to powers) backed by a thinker good enough to figure out the worst of the worst (Tattletale is the obvious go-to here), and kill them. Without their terrifying masters the Fallen become a much more manageable problem.

        1. You know, I started this post mostly joking, but by the end of it I was at least half-serious. With all the powers they have available (heck, just with all the powers *Valkyrie* has available) the heroes really should have come up with something for the Fallen. Specifically, something better than “let’s just let this army of villains kill ’em all, God’ll sort it out from there”.

  33. Just a reminder we still don’t know entirely how Mama’s powers work. The apparition may or may not actually allow her to see and hear what happens when summoned. If it does that is a major power up, but we can’t assume it does. If it does then shit she is fucked up and a scary thinker as well as a master. Though there is also degrees of how much she could see. Maybe it is vague and blurry. Based on this I don’t think she controls the apparition, I think the person having the vision does (she tells rain those questions came from within) so it behaves how the person thinks she would behave. If she can actually see what it sees is unclear, and people may not know. If I had that power I might want people in my cult to think Mama was always watching regardless of my actual power. At the very least though I think she can definitely tell if someone thinks of her (mentions it was a year since rain last saw her, and I am not sure she meant physically)

    1. Though from this chapter, it appears at least that she claimed it does;

      (from chapter) – “Every time you think of me or mention me, I will be there. I will know where you are and see what you are doing. I will take stock and I will make my judgments. You will think of me, while saying your prayers on waking and on retiring, kneeling by your bed. Before each meal.”

      That’s not conclusive proof, of course. If someone were in control of a cult and didn’t have that power, but had one that could reasonably lead people to *conclude* that they did… well, they would probably play that lie for everything it was worth.

      1. Ah. Re-read your comment and saw you’re thinking along the same lines too. I wish this board allowed me to delete/edit comments.

        You’re right that it’s not conclusive, and your reasoning about how much she does seem to know (i.e. that she can tell if someone has been thinking of her) makes a lot of sense. One question I think is worth asking, however, is this – if the extent of her power was simply generating that specter, and seeing a vague picture of what it sees, how would she be able to exert control over so many strong parahumans? She is obviously a master social manipulator – no questions there. But at some point, somebody both powerful and close has to have had the thought of murdering her to get the visions out of their head. I think she has to have some real force to back it up, or some way of knowing about it before it happens, so that she can prepare.

        1. Perhaps she is smart and connected enough to the fallen community to be able to tell who isn’t quite all into her little cultish cabal and can therefore instruct someone to keep an eye on him, like say, a beautiful member of the opposite sex or if she is feeling that that isn’t enough and they are too powerful, sending the minion off on a mission to say, take over a town from a girl who plays with insects or something to be rid of them or to test them depending on the given scenerio.

  34. I took the wizards not lying thing to be a reference to Young Wizards books by Diane Duane. (Wizards can lie, but it increases entropy and makes them less likely to stay wizards.)

    I haven’t started Pact yet, and I’m on Arc 15 of Twig. (And only up to the first Interim Errantry on Young Wizards…I’m normally a book behind markreads-net (so I can convert the vids to MP3s and have slightly cuss-filled & mispronounced (but VERY enthusiastic) audiobooks.)

  35. Why did Rain trigger? The others all had great trauma associated with the event. Why did Rain, as the perpetrator, or at least a perpetrator, also trigger? I can think of a few possibilities, but I think that one of the big questions to be answered when we finally get Rain’s POV on that event will be what it was that traumatized him. It could have been his first time killing, or his first time witnessing death that close. It could be that he was caught in it. It could be that the Fallen left him high and dry.

  36. Not much in the way of feedback, but I just want to say I’ve really enjoyed these Rain interludes. Interludes in Worm, I must admit, I never looked forward to. They had to gain my interest after starting, and in almost all cases, I really liked them by about midway through. Very rare that I don’t ultimately enjoy the interlude once I give it a chance.

    On the other hand, I actually look forward to these. And suddenly I realize that all that’s really going on is that Rain has essentially become a second POV character, introduced as such only after he had been built up with enough mystery to make me glad to see his interlude the very first time it popped up. This, as opposed to the usual random character I can’t possibly be interested in initially. I guess I just like it when I have that interest going in.

    Unfortunately, I assume the Rain interludes have either ended here, or will inevitably end very soon. And then I would guess we go through this process with other members of the group becoming the interlude POVs, who have also been surrounded in similar levels of mystery? Well, will see.

    1. And just to note, I always hate it when I’m reading a book and get shifted randomly to some unknown character’s POV, no matter how good the author. In the case of Worm/Ward, it’s the same, only you’ve so far managed to just about always have me interested in the interlude before long, and typically wishing it went on longer by the end, so that’s actually a pretty good thing.

  37. This was terrifying, in the way of a numb horror that really only starts registering after the fact. The masks made out of animals, Chris nonchalantly declaring that he has killed “accidentally”, that incredibly creepy lady, Everly dying over and over gain, the skinned hand… It’s all catching up to me, now!

  38. Rain’s interludes always put me in the mind of Pact, and I love Pact 🙂 You can really see here how Wildbow’s grown as a writer through writing Pact and Twig.

    Poor Rain though…

  39. AHHH!
    Love that Love Bug reference. (Are they like Care Bears? I think they are!!!)

    And maybe even slightly more than the reference itself, I love that I caught it. :3
    The Riley interlude has always been one of my favorites.

    Also, I was moved to tears by the Gold Morning scene.
    As always, WB, well done.

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