Shadow – 5.10

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“Valefor,” I said, just loud enough for the others, Damsel included, to hear.  “Hypnotist Master.  I wrote about him in the document.  Don’t look him in the eyes.”

Chris was in his bird-spiral Dark Introspection form, and he curled up further, eyes nestling in deep, so his eye only barely peered out.

We backed up as the Fallen advanced as a crowd.  Chris prowled around behind us on long, black, bird limbs, his eye peering over our heads.  the pupil resembled a human face in shape, but more a cross-section of the middle of the face.

I wished I’d asked for more details on just how his forms functioned.  He might not have answered me, but on the off chance that he did, I’d have some sense of what we could do to defend ourselves.  I just knew it was maybe a solution of sorts in the face of Mama Mathers, the anti-thinker measure, her family, or some combination thereof.

Crises tended to highlight things.  They brought out the best and worst of us, whether it was courage in the face of danger to our loved ones or craven behavior in the midst of desperation.  They showed us who our friends were and how much they cared.  I was getting a sense of things I really needed and wanted to work on with these guys, and where our strengths as a team were.  Case in point: I needed to figure things out with Chris.

I’d never really had to think about it.  I’d grown up with my first team, and I’d known them intimately by default.  They had been there by default, up until a crisis bad enough it had broken us.

“You wanna piece of me!?” Sidepiece screamed out the words.  She put too much pitch in the higher sounds, and managed to get some vocal fry in the mix.

“You’ve got to stop saying that,” Disjoint said.

Love Lost wasn’t screaming, and the others in her group weren’t attacking.  Cleat, Etna, they only retreated in our general direction.

“You want some of this!?” Sidepiece screeched.

“Silence!” Valefor called out.  He pointed his cane in her direction, as he shouted it, and a few people tensed from that action alone.

Sidepiece shut her mouth.

“If the intrusive twits give each other advice, I think we should listen,” Damsel said.  “Don’t look at him.”

Sidepiece shook her head.

“She wasn’t looking,” Beast said.

“Let’s go,” I said.  I turned to go, hand on Sveta’s shoulder.

“Don’t run!” Valefor called out, at the top of his lungs.

My stride halted, and I swayed a bit before finding my footing.  Introspection Chris had been quicker to stop, and I bumped into him in the midst of my retreat.

“Don’t go anywhere!” he cried out.  His arms were out above his head, as if he shouted it to the heavens.

I turned around to look.

The others were reacting in a similar way.  Beast of Burden was one of the last to stop moving, and nearby bowled over the teammates that were using him as a human shield.  Sveta lost her balance, tipped over and crashed to the ground, arms paralyzed around her, not moving fast enough to break her fall.

Shit.

I took off, flying straight for Valefor.  I wasn’t the only person with the same idea.  Nailbiter attacked, fingers stabbing out.

One of Valefor’s people said something, distant enough he was barely audible, his hand on Valefor’s shoulder.  Other capes were protecting the group against Nailbiter.  One was producing a plume of red smoke that moved in slow motion.  The claws hit the smoke and stopped like they’d hit inviolable steel.

The cane swung out my way.  “Stop.”

I canceled my flight, dropping down to the ground.  I took a few steps forward before I could stop.  Our side was twenty or thirty feet behind me, and Valefor was another sixty or seventy feet ahead of me.

Nailbiter kept up the offense, bringing her claws back like she’d been hurt by the curling smoke, and then swiped in from the side, trying to catch the group from the other side.  The defending Fallen threw more smoke in the way of the attack, so red it looked like plastic, opaque and moving through the air at a crawl, once it left the Fallen man’s hand.

“Attacker,” someone said, hand at Valefor’s shoulder, indicating Nailbiter.

Sidepiece joined in.  She didn’t advance or retreat, but darted out to the side, fingers clenched in her guts, ripping something out.

Cease,” Valefor called out.

Both Nailbiter and Sidepiece were affected.

Nailbiter stopped, then withdrew her fingers.  Breathing hard, Sidepiece held a chunk of what might have been appendix or ovary in her hand, blood dripping freely down her arm and off of her elbow.  More blood flowed from the fresh injury in the roadkill mess that was her gut, over her pelvis and the rise of her low-rise jeans, and splattered onto her sneaker.

She dropped the bit at her feet.  It detonated, and she was flung to one side.

“Clever, but no.  You lie there, guts girl,” Valefor said.  “Don’t move a muscle.  The rest of you?”

Damsel used her power, hurling herself forward.

No powers,” Valefor called out.

Damsel stopped.

“No weapons, no tools.  None of you.  Stay still and wait.”

I hadn’t been looking at him.  I glanced at him, and I could see that his eyes were still covered.

The instructions he was getting.  He couldn’t see.  His power worked without him needing to see?  Or had he tapped into another source, replying on a cape that granted vision like Mapwright could get and grant mental images of areas?

My heart pounded, and I felt nausea welling up.  The Fallen chuckled.  A few of the young hooligan types cackled and danced around, arms waving as they approached, spreading out.

We’d been too tied up with Beast of Burden.  What should have been a brief engagement, taking out the two powerful Fallen and then retreating had become a thing.  Valefor had gotten into earshot, and apparently that was all he needed.

I was having trouble thinking straight.  Paralysis seemed to freeze my thoughts as much as it did my body.  I’d dealt with it for two years, being unable to move under my own weight.  The need to move became something fluttery in my chest, which fanned the swell of nausea.

It felt like colors were different, as was the clarity of my vision, as if I had someone else’s eyes.  I was acutely aware of the feeling of my clothing on my skin, every breath and how they weren’t measured to the breaths before or after them.

No powers, he’d said.  I couldn’t bring myself to fly.  I couldn’t bring the wretch out.  I glanced at Love Lost’s group.  They’d been bound by words in the same way.

I looked down and tried to focus.

The Fallen closed the distance.  I’d charged in, and that put me front and center.  I got a good look at Valefor as he approached.  There were white feathers in his hair and around his collar.  He bent his head at an angle while talking in a whisper with the person leading him.

His companion stopped him a few feet in front of me, thumbs hooked in the slim belt at his waist.

“Mama told you to help us,” Valefor said.  “You didn’t.”

“We did,” I said, still looking down.  “We got your people to safety and protected them.”

“I’ve been told there are Fallen casualties,” Valefor said.

“Pazuza and Gel are dead.  Smashed to a pulp.  Jay and Nell,” his companion said.  A guy with a face tattoo visible in the gaps of a ragged head-covering that only let his eyes peer through.  “Some injured.”

“Family,” Valefor said, sticking his cane in my direction.  “Don’t lie to me.”

The fact that he was talking to me meant that I was off limits for the rest.  The hooligans with demon masks and the darker, more adult Fallen walked past me, toward Beast of Burden and the others.  We were quickly getting surrounded, except surrounded was the wrong word.  We were stones in a river, and the Fallen were the water.

“We didn’t kill your people.  We did protect and evacuate some,” I said.  “That’s the truth.”

“Evacuated?  Yeah, that’s not a good thing,” he said.  He walked around me, reaching out until he touched my arm.  I flinched a little at the contact.  His fingers traced over the decoration at my shoulder.

I felt angry at that.  I was reminded of being in the hospital, of being manhandled by nurses and carers that only wanted to get on with their days.  When you were a certain kind of helpless, people took it as their right or common sense that they got to touch you.

“You’re going to help us.  Tell me you understand.”

“I understand,” I said, the words escaping my lips, barely audible.

“You’re going to help us.  You’re going to serve us.  Tell me you’re going to serve us.”

“I’m going to serve you,” I said.

Amy.  The thought sprung to mind.  Amy.  Amy.  For two years it had been Amy this, Amy that.  All my thoughts in service to being with her, thinking about her, wanting her.

Another compulsion.  Then and now, when I’d hit my limit, frustrated-

He reached up to my cheek, and gave it two sharp pats, audible.  “Good.”

Anger became indignation, enough to choke me, together with the irregular breathing and the nausea.  My head shook a little, my vision grew dark around the edges, and I teetered slightly.

I tipped over the brink, past the point where the use of my power was willful and wanted and at the point where it was something I had to hold back.

In surrender rather than intent, I lashed out with fear and self-admiration, and I let the Wretch loose, with Valefor in arm’s reach, in that order.

Had it been the other way around, the Wretch might have gotten its hands on the man.  But intimidation took hold, and Valefor was assisted by his manservant, who hauled him back and away.  He sprawled in the grass.

The manservant was slower to get back, his attention on helping Valefor.  Compulsion, possibly.  An invisible hand struck him in the arm, and the arm folded backward, wrist slapping against elbow, skin tearing from the blunt impact and the bones cutting him from within.

What was the rule I’d set for myself?  Seventy-five percent?  Seventy-five percent of the harm done was fair.

I wasn’t sure how to quantify physical harm against the emotional and mental harm done.  Standing where I was, Wretch active, Fallen backing away from me, I was in a fugue, emotions a storm as things I’d been bottling up sought release.

Valefor’s distraction had apparently freed people, or served as a kind of punctuation to end his ongoing commands.  I was free, even as the ‘serve’ command lingered in the corner of my mind’s eye.

It was like the Amy compulsion, the desire I couldn’t fulfill, painful to think about and unwanted even in its straightforward way.

Amy, Amy, Amy.  A wild, repetitive thought.

I could keep it in the corner and avoid thinking.  A trap I wouldn’t fall into if I didn’t take a step or clear partisan action.  I wouldn’t help Valefor, but I wouldn’t or couldn’t hurt him either.  I couldn’t speak.

I flew up and back to get myself safe.  Neutral.

Others were taking advantage.  Capricorn slugged a hooligan that was up in his face, gauntlet to chin.  Nailbiter, Beast of Burden and the others tore into the crowd that had moments ago thought they could pass through our group without incident.

Love Lost screamed, aiming the scream more at the Fallen stragglers.  The red smoke Fallen had already thrown some defenses up around Valefor, so the two of them seemed unaffected.

Others were caught in the effect, and their demeanor shifted.  Some looked happy in a demented way, others went cold, and it was hard to tell with others, as their costumes and masks covered them up too much.  They charged at Love Lost, and she met them with hands out, claws outstretched.  Cleat was a few paces behind her.

Some weren’t getting up.  Sveta.  I could see her looking up at me.  Sidepiece lay where she was.  Others weren’t fighting.  Chris in particular had backed away.  Good.

I still felt nauseous.  My skin still crawled.  I was still pissed, but it was bottled-up pissed again.

I looked in Prancer’s direction, and saw that he was moving on, heading away from us, not toward.  Some of his people looked back.

We were facing the casualties of Beast of Burden’s decision to split apart.  Prancer had to know we were here, with the noises and shouting, he wasn’t that far away, but they’d decided to go.

“Stop!” Valefor called out.  “Freeze!  No powers!  No weapons!  No tools!

Again, Beast of Burden was the last one to stop.  I turned to look, and saw Damsel off to one side.  Her arm was limp at her side, and she gripped her forearm with her hand.  Blood ran down to her fingertips.

Valefor had affected his allies, too.  There had been a note of emotion in his voice, frustration and a bit of fear.

He couldn’t see.  His voice was his control over the situation and he’d momentarily lost it.

There had been a time he’d needed eye contact.  Now he used his voice.  The trouble with a voice was that it wasn’t focused.  I could remember the cane, and the way both Nailbiter and Sidepiece had obeyed at the same time, earlier.

It worked on someone if they thought they were being referred to.

There were mental tricks I imagined someone could do.  It seemed like a noose that could be slipped, especially when he referred to people in the general.  I just wasn’t sure I could do it.

“Pagan, stand at ease,” Valefor said.  He tilted his head slightly and said the words like they were a joke.  “Report.”

The one the Wretch had hit shifted his weight until he could roll over enough that his knees were under him.  He knelt on the ground, clearly unsteady as he worked his way to his feet as best as he could without his hands.  His good arm cradled the damaged one.  “Two dead.  Ten injured, my best guess.  I’m one of them.  I need help soon.”

Two dead.

Were those dead on my hands?  I’d created a momentary opening, others had taken advantage of it.

What would have happened if we hadn’t been here?  Would there be less lives lost?  Or would some of the dangerous individuals be Valefor’s captive audience?

Could I afford to even think about that?  We were- we were caught again.  So long as we could talk and we could hear him, there wasn’t a good way to avoid his effect.

“Fallen, you can move,” Valefor said.  “Look for anyone that’s covering their ears.”

Fallen that had been paralyzed started moving

Fear was making it hard to breathe.  Could I use that again?  Another disruption?

“Girl with the spikes that I was just talking to.  Calm down.  Don’t try to be clever.”

Just like that, my thoughts were dulled, and I found myself going back to the little meditative phrases and mental loops.  Old PRT case numbers, a mantra I’d started to go over once when I’d needed to break a loop of thinking, which had inadvertently become something that calmed me down.

We’d been prepared for Valefor as he was, with outdated records and a printout of a wiki page that had been salvaged from someone’s laptop after the slow process began of rebuilding the internet.

Case zero was Scion.  He was also, I presumed, the last case.  Case one was the Siberian, technically the one who had first started the case files, as the PRT consolidated old data and tried to get information from other government agencies.  Case two was Behemoth, his rise had incited the creation of the PRT.  The case series had been an excuse to gather data from international agencies, too.  Case three was the lie of the virus, an early claim about the origin of powers, propagated by an early online newsgroup.  Case four was The Player, an early Thinker mastermind who had required some greater cooperation across multiple agencies to root out.  Later on, The Player would be a case-in-point for the formation of Watchdog and its core purpose.  Kenzie’s would-be group.

The first cases had inspired things, major functions and interests.  Committees had been formed and those committees had become something.  Even though a whole chunk of the early ones were minor or fabrications in the end, the virus theory included, they’d led to things like a dedicated parahuman science department.

Ordered, interesting, familiar.  It was calming, even if I didn’t want to be calm.

We’d talked about how to deal with him.  Tricks, techniques.  I’d thought I could use my aura, to try to override or distract.  I’d been right.

I’d gotten two Fallen killed and the ensuing fracas had led to roughly half of them being injured.  I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.  The idea of death weighed heavy, even if it looked as if it was Beast of Burden and Nailbiter’s doing.  Violence and death didn’t weigh heavy for them.

“Our side matches yours in number.  From what I’ve been told, you’re divided, fighting among yourselves.  We aren’t.  The strength of faith,” Valefor said.  He said it almost ironically.  “Let’s tip the scales.  You’re going to serve us.  You’re going to fight for us.  I’ll talk to you one by one and I’ll have you pledge allegiance, starting with-”

I heard Damsel’s power, brief.

Beast of Burden said something, his voice a growl.

“I said not to be clever,” Valefor said.  He drew in a deep breath, then tilted his head as far to the left as it would go, where ear would have been touching shoulder if his mask didn’t cover it.  “Do you want to see what I can do if I get creative?  Someone assist me.”

A Fallen woman near him hurried to his side, supporting and guiding him.  She had her tits out, and every inch of her was caked in goopy black paint, which obscured her features and hid details.  Where her lips parted, the paint had cracked, so there was only a broken hard ridge, with lips, teeth and tongue behind.  It even caked her hair.

It didn’t look like a Tempera sort of thing.  Just costume.

They navigated the crowd, Fallen moving out of their way, our guys and the violent capes frozen in place.

Valefor was far enough away from me that I could barely hear him.  He stood in front of Damsel.

Her power flared.  She stumbled.

The woman with Valefor said something.

Stop,” Valefor said.  “Don’t do that again.  Move your hand.”

She pulled her hand away from her forearm.  There was a hole where she had dug her thumb in under the skin.

We’d talked about this, but not- not quite like this.

“You-” Valefor started.

The power flared again.  She stumbled, spell broken, and then brought her good hand around, toward Valefor.

The woman in black paint let go of Valefor and caught Damsel’s wrist, forcing it upward.  The power shot well over their heads, and Damsel fell.

Cease,” Valefor said.  “Let’s distract you.  Kill your friends.”

Damsel wheeled around, turning toward Nailbiter and Sidepiece.  Then she hesitated, looking up at me.

The woman in black paint moved, lunging to intercept another attacker.

Chris, leaping in.  The woman in black kept him from getting his talons on Valefor.  He was a spiral twist of feather and scaly talonflesh, with eyes and hard ridges in the mix.  His spindly talons raked and grabbed, but the woman in black was fast, strong, and possibly a precog.

He’d picked this form with Masters in mind.  Capes that controlled people.  He hadn’t been willing to say just how or why it helped, only that he was unsure how well it would work.

At the time, I’d told myself he’d be kept back and out of the way, so it barely mattered, especially if we couldn’t be certain how reliable it was.

Chris got two of his four talons on Damsel, and he tossed her.  She used her power while mid-air, and landed roughly on her feet, one hand touching the ground.  Her injured arm hung limp.

The arm sparked and she fell.

Fallen pushed past our people to help Valefor, as Introspection Chris tried to reach around the woman in black and scratch him.  Powers came to bear: red smoke, a snake that looked like it was made of intestine and barbed wire, sprouting spikes that crackled with electricity- Introspection Chris disengaged and leaped back as the Fallen came rushing at him.

Him was really a quirky word to use when he had this form.

There were two with enhanced speed, and the barbed intestine snake had reach.  He wasn’t that fast in this form, even if he was faster than a normal human might have been.  The speedy Fallen tackled him.  The snake caught his leg.

I flew a little closer, unconsciously, wanting to keep an eye on things, make sure he was okay.  Mrs. Yamada had charged me with their care.

The two Fallen with enhanced speed looked related.  They sped up, but as they did, their bodies deformed.  Legs bent the wrong way, operating digitigrade, the tops of their heads twisted, until their lower jaws pointed the opposite directions that their upper jaws, noses, and eyes did.

From the way he reacted to their hits, they hit hard too.  Strength, speed, but at a cost to fluidity of motion, steadily increasing clumsiness and facility.

He shook them, and the first fell, the second slipping and the getting a hold of one taloned foot.  Fallen advanced on Chris as a larger group.

The two awkward Fallen speedsters were bleeding, I saw.

Just as the group seemed poised to go after him, I pushed out with my aura, hard.

Heads turned.

I hadn’t even meant to.  It was instinct, and it was instinct on behalf of Chris.  I didn’t even care that much about Chris.

The act on his behalf brought the pledge to Valefor to mind.  I’d promised to serve, and it was a loop in my thoughts now.  The usual techniques didn’t help to break it.

It was a peculiar battlefield, so many people frozen in place, the combatants on the Fallen side not wanting to break the spell by jarring anyone too much.  I hadn’t experienced it myself, but it seemed that if people were told to stop, and were set to moving by a stumble or a push, that was enough that it needed to be renewed.

Damsel had broken her prosthetic hand to make her power spark, each stumble forcing a renewal.  Now she stalked toward the group.  Her last order had been to kill her friends.

Thought process:  I needed to help Valefor.  I needed to help the others.  I couldn’t break the mental loop and I couldn’t remain neutral anymore, now that the thought was heavy in my mind’s eye.  I would help Valefor.

I flew to Valefor, while everyone’s attention was on Chris.  Fallen turned, the woman in black first among them, skin red and sunburned beneath the cracked black paint.  There were veins of red through the paint that weren’t sunburned skin peeking through, either, and I saw she had horns, now that I was closer.

I brought the Wretch forth as she lunged for me.

The Wretch was invisible, and she had planned her punch and tackle to hit me, not a force a few feet in front of me.  She bounced away, and the Wretch disappeared.  Others were so distracted with Chris and now Beast of Burden, who had been jostled in the fighting, they didn’t even seem to notice.

I collided with Valefor fairly hard as I put my arms around him.  He couldn’t see me coming, so he couldn’t even brace against the impact.  I would help him in such a way that he couldn’t tell me to stop helping and put himself in danger again.

Collecting him, I flew away from the scene.

I would help and serve him.  That was the idea he’d planted in my head.

Before he could catch his breath from the impact, I flew in a spiral tight enough his legs went out to the side, and then gently deposited him on a rooftop.

I flew away before he could catch his footing, get a lungful of air, and give me another command.

The compulsion wasn’t gone.  It was there.

But it had abated.  I’d served the rule, but not the spirit.

The tide had turned.  The villains that were assisting us were B-listers, but the Fallen weren’t the cream of the Fallen’s crop either.  I flew past the group, jostling people, grabbing them and letting go a moment later.

Valefor wouldn’t find his way back in time, I hoped, and the Fallen were already injured from the brief surprise attack.

A spray of cold water from Capricorn woke up everyone I hadn’t been able to reach.  The Fallen retreated, the intestine-snake snatching up two and yanking them back.  I did much the same in finding Sveta lying in tall grass, her suit and wig without a head beneath.  A knife impaled her back but hadn’t penetrated the shell.  I carried her away, feeling the reassuring thump of her presence within.

“You okay?” I asked, once we were in the air.

“Embarrassed,” Sveta said, her voice sounding a bit like it came from the depths of a well.

“Okay,” I said.  I landed a distance away, just far enough away we could keep Beast and Damsel’s group of capes in sight.

Once four-legged, now three-legged, Chris limped his way to us.  He breathed hard and curled up tight.  Byron followed.

“Hey guy,” I said.  I wished we had a name for him.  “Mr. Introspection.  You’re missing a leg.  You okay?”

He blinked once.

I had no idea what that meant.  Go figure, that he wasn’t any more forthcoming when he didn’t seem to have a working mouth.

“What did you end up doing?” Byron asked.

“Took Valefor away.  He’s still out there,” I said.  “Unfortunately.”

I eyed Damsel, who was at the periphery of Beast of Burden’s group.  There was a dark look in her eye as she talked to that group, clearly heated and I wasn’t there to talk her down.

“Tristan couldn’t switch to me, I don’t think,” Byron said.  “When we were talking about capes we might run into last night, we theorized it was a thing we could do, that if he switched to me I might not be compelled, but he didn’t switch.”

“It’s okay,” I said.  “We knew there were a half-dozen things we could maybe do, and some worked, some didn’t.”

“I hate- I hate losing control.  I only have control over half my life to begin with,” Byron said.

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  Her face peered up through the neckhole of her suit.  “There’s- Careful, Victoria.  Or, Byron, can you put your gauntlets over this gap, fasten it when I say so?”

“Sure,” Byron said.

“Be careful,” Sveta said.

She’d undone a clasp at the shoulder.  She brought her head out,  twisting it around in a way a neck couldn’t.  Her tendrils were bound with metal rings into a loose column that disappeared into her suit.  She began working her way into a comfortable position.  “Not having control, it sucks.  Fuck that guy.”

“Agreed on both counts, but the lack of control helped us,” I said.  “It’s how I used my aura.  It’s what Damsel did.”

Sveta pursed her lips.

Damsel was stalking.  Sidepiece and Nailbiter were sticking with her.  Disjoint hung back, talking to Beast of Burden.  Etna, Love Lost, and Cleat seemed to be a sub-clique in that group.

Byron blurred.  His armor shifted tints from blue to red.

“It’s what Dark Introspection here did,” Tristan said.    “Mind-body disconnect, right?  Looking inward, elective connection.”

Chris curled up tighter.

“Yeah,” Tristan said.  He bent down to give Chris a pat.  “You’re so weird.”

“You did good,” I said.

I could see the looks on faces throughout our small group, or what I could see of faces.  Chris being wound together, Sveta looking so deeply unhappy, Tristan’s eyes being narrower.

It wasn’t just us.  The violent capes were more agitated.

I felt that way.  The panic that had let me tap into the aura and Wretch wasn’t going all the way away.  I wore armor and a costume that made me feel like standing tall and I felt very small.

Fuck that guy was right.

“What did he tell you?” Tristan asked me.  “Orders, compulsions?”

“To serve, to help.  I helped by removing him from a dangerous situation.  I’m not all the way resolved, there.  I don’t want to run into him again.”

“Did he tell you to lie?”

“Stop that,” Sveta said.  “She would have to say no if he did, so it doesn’t matter.”

“Not always,” Tristan said.  “Sometimes you get loopholes.  It’s worth asking.”

I shook my head.  “He didn’t tell me to lie.  He was distracted, I think.  He tried to pull a big gambit to turn the tides and he’s operating blind.  Literally, I don’t think he can see.”

I still had the traitorous, general thoughts and impressions from the compulsion.  I was familiar with having thoughts that weren’t mine in my head.  The mind was supposed to be sacrosanct, the thoughts it contained purely sourced from oneself and for oneself.  Valefor had violated the former, like Amy had violated the latter.

On a level, I was just happy I hadn’t killed him.  I knew there was an argument for why I should have, had I had the opportunity.  I also knew it would have been a betrayal of myself and the me I wanted to be.

For all these reasons and more, mind control was another one of the parts of the game.  Too many people found it viscerally horrifying, myself included, and the way things could break down if mind control saw common use was too big of a problem.  The natural reaction from society, or from our sub-society, was to fight back.

Valefor obviously didn’t care.

He didn’t give me the impression of someone at home in a big thing like the one we’d been in, especially after the fighting had started, and he’d still been pretty damn scary.

“We could go,” I said.  “We caught them off guard once or twice there, and we got some lumps in.  It’s not quite breaking the back of the Fallen, but we could pull away, regroup with others, and plan for the perimeter and Looksee’s trap.”

“I want to do more,” Sveta said.  “I was useless back there.”

“I can’t back down from this,” Tristan-Capricorn said.  “I think if we run into him again, if I’m alert, I might know what to do.”

“If you’re sure,” I said.

He nodded.

I looked down at Introspection Chris.  “How about you?  You good to retreat to the background?  Gallop in if you see the need and feel up to it?”

He lurched to his feet, curled and uncurled like he was stretching, and then loped away, swaying a bit to compensate for the missing forelimb.  He bucked a bit, claw reaching up, and then the iffy camouflage kicked in.

“Okay,” I said.  “I have a lot of questions.”

“His whole thing is he doesn’t like answering them,” Capricorn said.

“He’s doing his part,” Sveta said.  “That was brave.”

“It was insane,” Capricorn said.  “No offense intended to present company, brothers, or self.”

“Fine line between bravery and insanity,” I said.

I looked across the clearing to Beast of Burden’s group.  Damsel wasn’t pacing anymore.

Capricorn approached and stood next to me, his armored shoulder touching the spikes at mine.  Sveta stood at my other side, looking in that direction.

“Do we try this?” Capricorn asked.

“We might have to.  I don’t like leaving her alone like this.”

“Okay.”

Capricorn put a hand up.  Disjoint was watching us, and nudged Beast of Burden.

Their group went quiet.

I was well aware that Love Lost was a danger to Rain.  I was aware of how dangerous these guys were in general.  Beast of Burden had killed two members of the Fallen’s inner circle, it sounded like.  They’d been people Valefor was close to.

We approached, slow and steady.

“Can we try this a second time?” Tristan asked.  “Truce?  We deal with this whole situation.  There are hostages we need to rescue and we can’t afford to fight.”

“I like the idea,” Disjoint said.

“Backup would be awful nice,” Sidepiece said.  She had a really annoying voice.  I’d noticed it earlier.  A bit of the teenage vocal fry, trying a bit to sound cute, but she wasn’t a teenager and I didn’t think she was cute.

“Not your call,” Beast of Burden said.

“Is it supposed to be yours?” Damsel asked.

“You can be quiet,” Beast of Burden said.  “I’ve heard too much from you today.  Earn your stripes first, then talk.”

“Hey, Damsel of Distress,” I said.

She turned to me.

“You good?  Any lingering compulsions?”

“No.  I don’t have much goodness to go around, but I don’t have any compulsion either.  I don’t have friends.”

“You gave me a look,” Sidepiece said.  She had hair over one side of her face, but she didn’t take very good care of it, and a mask in the same cut as the phantom of the opera one, albeit cruder, covered part of her face.  Black makeup filled her lower eye socket and distorted the impression of her eyeshape.  “A very flattering murderous look.”

“I thought about it,” Damsel said, imperious and proud, chin rising a bit.  “I don’t know if you qualify as a friend, when I barely know you, but I don’t mind your company, Sidepiece, and I can respect a lady with the discipline to have a… twelve inch waist?”

She smiled a bit.  Her arm sparked, her power ripping between the wound at her forearm and her fingertips.  and she stumbled into Disjoint.  Frowning, she backed away until she was a short distance from everyone else.

“Sixteen inches, last I checked, but thank you.  You’re a dear,” Sidepiece said, ignoring the power misfire and maintaining her intentionally frayed voice as she feigned higher class.

“Will you help us?” I asked.

“No,” Beast of Burden said.

Nailbiter and Damsel exchanged a look.  Nailbiter looked over at Sidepiece.

“Yes,” Nailbiter said, voice whistling slightly.

Beast of Burden wheeled on her, finger pointing.  “Not your choice.”

“Democratically?” Sidepiece asked.  “I think most of us want the help, Bob.”

“This isn’t a democracy,” Beast of Burden said.  “This is a fucking tyranny.  You signed on for it, and you agreed I’m leader because I’m good for the business and track record.  You also agreed that if the crown is moving to another head, it’s going to do so outside of jobs.  Leaders can’t be second guessed on the field.”

“Either we run or we press on,” Damsel said, second guessing him.

“Enough,” Beast of Burden said.

“If we press on, we’re going to face worse than we just did.  I agree with Sidepiece and Nailbiter.  It makes sense,” Damsel said.

Her power sparked again.  She maintained her balance, overcompensated, and stumbled a step the other way.

“You okay?” Sveta asked.

“Just fine,” Damsel said, curt and sounding anything but.  She turned back to Beast of Burden.  “Don’t be a wuss, Beast.  You look weaker trying to go this alone than you do taking the help.”

Before Beast of Burden could reply, Love Lost approached him from behind.  She rapped claws with blood still on them on the back of his armor.

He turned.

She pointed at Nailbiter, then at us.

“She’s the client,” Damsel said.

He stabbed a finger her way.  “Last warning.”

Her power sparked.  This time she fell.

“Good.  Stay like that,” Beast of Burden said.  He stepped forward and placed one iron boot on the edge of her dress.  Damsel remained where she was.  Struggling would have been futile.

“Don’t be a dick,” I said.

“Don’t interject yourself into our business.  If the client wants help, fine.  We’ll do this.”

“We need to find the hostages.  We’ll reunite with another group we’re working with and use their thinkers or other resources.  If there’s a confrontation, we work together,” I said.

Beast of Burden shrugged, spreading his gauntlet-clad hands slightly.  He stepped off of Damsel’s dress, and went to walk in the direction the fighting had gone.  It seemed with Prancer mobile and Velvet having some emphasis on enhanced maneuverability when driving with her telekinesis, they were moving around a lot, and the Fallen were giving chase.  They had moved away since the fight with Valefor.

Love Lost pointed.  She didn’t spare Damsel a glance as she walked on.  Some of the others joined her.  Nailbiter, Disjoint, and Etna.  Sidepiece lingered as Damsel picked herself up.  Her arm sparked twice, but she didn’t fall.

She gave us a look, then stalked away.

We cut through the north end of the settlement, toward the northwest corner, and the sound of ongoing confrontation got us jogging after them.  Well, I flew, but the rest jogged or ran.

Prancer was engaged.  They were fighting with hit and run tactics, and when the Fallen didn’t take the bait or stopped to pause, Prancer’s group assaulted buildings.  There was a shop on fire, and a large garage with a truck in it that now had a chunk missing.

A big part of what let them do that was the heroes at the west end of the settlement, and the presence of the Undersiders.  Bitch and her dogs were standing beside Vista.  Narwhal was close, and two black stuffed animals reared up at the edge of the camp.  Foil was there, but Tattletale was not.

No Valefor, but I could see a core group of Fallen with fancier costumes and that kind of presence.

Nobody that looked like they could be Mama Mathers, either.

The pressure was on, and the Fallen looked to be losing ground.  There were world-class capes lined up against them.  If the actual groups were even in power, and I wasn’t sure they were, then Prancer’s group was playing it in such a way that even if the Fallen won, they wouldn’t have a town left after.

My phone buzzed.

I pulled it out.

Looksee:
Not peeking am reporting what others saying.  Precog with me says Vista says that the hostages you want are toward south end of town.  Map attached.

The text had an image attached.

I flew skyward, looking.

A group.  Valefor’s group, with Fallen civilians and others.  The hostages.

We could figure something out.

White flickers danced in the corner of my vision.  I looked away, but they persisted.  Like the motes of dust in my eye, but akin to snowflakes.

If that was their anti-thinker measure, which might well be Mama Mathers, then even the thinker-esque advantage of having a bird’s eye view was enough to give them an in.

I grit my teeth.

I’d seen the building Looksee had marked on the map.

Dropping out of the sky, I landed beside the group.  “This way.  The-”

Turning toward Beast of Burden’s group, I was just in time to see him backhand Damsel across the face.  It was a casual swing, but he was strong and he wore a gauntlet.  She hit the ground hard.

“Jesus fuck, no wonder your team is mutinying,” Capricorn said.  “You can’t play nice with others in a crisis?  There’s stuff going on!  Be a professional.”

“She didn’t even say anything!  This time!” Sidepiece said, bending down beside Damsel.  Damsel pushed her away.

Her damaged hand at her face, the other used to get to her feet, Damsel worked her way to a standing position.  I didn’t see anything resembling Ashley in her eyes.

“I gave her a final warning,” Beast of Burden said.

“Hey,” Capricorn said.

“Damsel,” I said.  “Ashley.

“Stop,” Beast of Burden said, pointing at Damsel, talking over me.

One hand still on her face, she pointed at him and blasted before his expression could change.

Darkness, shadow, distorted space and visual static ripped through armor, flesh, and armor again, tearing a hole clean through him.  The hole caved in on itself, metal creaking as it bent, blood fountaining out and splashing up on half the people nearby.

You stop,” she said.

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183 thoughts on “Shadow – 5.10”

  1. Uh oh. This just went bad. I don’t want to see a miniature cape civil war. Cape war is bad enough, civil war means (more) dead people.
    Also… bloody Valefor. Though I find it funny that someone with severe self esteem issues could perhaps ignore his general orders by thinking they’re not important enough or something. Or the option of hiding and thinking ‘can’t be talking to me, doesn’t know I’m here’… actually that’s good, he’s not outright OP. Just far too close for comfort, that was scary.
    I love Stranger powers. They alleviate so much terror when it comes to other powers. Except for the fact they could kill me too.

      1. No, everybody knows her name. Ashley Stilton was DoD, and this is a clone of her. If it wasn’t public knowledge previously, it became that (and widely distrusted I’m sure) as soon as she joined the Nine. So this? This was the sappy hero move where you reach out to somebody’s humanity. Not an outing of their friendship.

      2. Don’t think her name was a secret? It was something that Victoria knew before they met, anyway. The bigger giveaway was looking at Victoria right after Nailbiter and Sidepiece, when ordered to attack friends. Perhaps no one noticed, but anyone in this group could have noticed and said nothing, especially since everyone was pissed at Bob.

        I’m really hoping that she really did just one-shot Bob, and he doesn’t have some OP restoration power that’s going to heal him by the next chapter. That guy was unsavory.

        1. Point valid, but still concerning; the familiarity she showed is what’s concerning, especially on the heels of DoD’s look to Victoria in the face of Valleygirl’s order.

  2. I presume Victoria’s compulsion to Valefor will come back to bite her in the butt sometime later, but for the time being, HOLY CARP, Ashley, did you you do it or was it something Valefor asked you to?

    As with the previois chapters, the sheer volume of characters makes all the pronoun actions confuse the reading, in a few places Valefor gets referred to via pronouns in the narration despite not being the most recent “he” (like when Victoria stumbles over Introspection Chris).

    1. “Ashley, did you you do it or was it something Valefor asked you to?”

      At least there’s plausible deniability.

  3. Just FYI. If Victoria gets trapped by Valefor again and spends more than 2 chapters trapped I’m done with this doc and not coming back.

    1. Why?

      I mean, it seems unlikely that we’ll dive into a mini-arc of Victoria being a thrall to Valefor’s will, but why is that a deal-breaker for you?

        1. Probably because it’s a win for the Fallen, and really these assholes are just the bad kind of love to hate.

      1. Um, not for nothing, but the idea of reading our point of view character and getting inside her head as she’s forced to labour under the will of an abusive fuck like Valefor miiiiiiight be uncomfortably close to the experience of someone, say, trapped or abducted by a real life abuser, or at least close enough to bring up some unconformable memories.

        I mean, Jessica Jones Season 1 used mind control as a rape metaphor for a *reason* you guys.

          1. Sure the show also had accounts of actual rape, but mind control was more prevalent, and many of the situations in which it occurred felt kind of rapey. It was a way to talk about rape and sexual harassment without overloading the viewer with rape in every other scene.

  4. Wow, talking about playing stupid games to win stupid prizes.

    “Hmm. This woman has a short temper and one of the most absurdly hyper lethal powers on the planet. It can chew through even the most indestructible materials in the world like a anti-tank rifle through Styrofoam… I’m going to do my best to antagonize her!”

    1. Yeah. BoB may not have deserved death in a strict usage of the term ‘deserve’, but damn. ‘Play stupid games, win stupid prizes’ is just the perfect description of what happened.

      But also someone needs to kill Valefor. That’s kind of a thing which needs doing.

        1. I was honestly expecting Valefor to succeeding fall over dead, and then have Imp standing there saying “Skitter always was too soft. All she did was have a couple centipedes chew out his optical nerves. Said, ‘No killing Imp. If you do that the big bad heroes will throw you in the Birdcage.’ Well look who gets to clean up another one of Taylor’s messes.”

          1. The night is young. Though I really think Valefor had a second trigger – that helps explain why we don’t know of anyone letting him out of the Birdcage, maybe he never got there because the thought of going in blind triggered him. Considering he could sense Imp before, we can’t count on her power working. Does she even bother to move silently?

          2. Imp’s all grown up now, sort of, and she’s been thinking about people’s legacies. Valefor is part of Skitter’s legacy. To just kill him now would be an insult to Skitter’s memory, almost erasing a victory. No, I think that Valefor’s going down with his throat cut, but not dead. Instead, he’ll get back up missing his vocal cords. It seems more fitting for Imp to finish what Skitter started by removing his last semblance of power than to undermine the message that she was sending by removing Valefor’s eyes. It seems more in line with what little we’ve seen of her character, post Gold Morning.

    2. I think BoB might have intended to provoke an attack, but then WIN. To cement his leadership position, maybe. Or to have a casus belli to get rid of an annoying teammate.
      If that was the case, it half worked.
      Next time, he might want to try provoking an attack from someone who can’t one-shot him.

          1. To my knowledge, shards are not like Exaltations. I have not heard of them seeking a new host when the current one dies.

  5. So. Ashley’s blown her cover. Valefor is nearly as irritating as he was in Worm. Vicky may have minor MM exposure. We still don’t know where Rain is.

    Mistakes were made.

    1. Wondering if the older woman Victoria rescued in the second house could have been a disguised Mama Mathers? Don’t think so, but the text was clear to say that the woman touched Victoria in an unexpected way.

      1. I think we were supposed to assume she was Mrs. Sims? Still that would be awesome if WB slipped one past us like that…

        1. Who’s Mrs. Sims? If they were a Worm character, I don’t remember them and I can’t find them on the Wiki.

      2. I’m thinking more likely that while flying, Victoria saw Mama Mathers somewhere but was at a great enough distance and couldn’t see her well enough that the power had a negligible effect.

        1. Yeah, didn’t Rain mention a preacher that came by to speak against the more radical portions of Fallen doctrine? I’d bet that that was Mrs. Sims.

      3. I definitely had that thought. On the other hand, the weird line about vigilance or ending up on the wrong side made her sound more like a generic fanatic. Maybe Mama needed to kill time somehow while her power took hold? Otherwise she had no reason to extend the conversation.

    2. I don’t think Ashley blew her cover, technically. She did blow up a teammate, but it was perfectly in character for her “Damsel of Distress” persona. Which is really just her.

      1. It might not have blown her cover yet but its almost certainly blown any chance of the Hollow Point villains letting her play with them. And Vicky and co might need to blow her cover in order to restrain her and calm her down. I think the Presley e-mail might come into play on that front, either now or later when trying to convince Ashley that this mistake doesn’t mean that she should give up on trying to be a hero.

        Now to convince the authorities that Valefor or her Shard made her do it. Both of them could be true even. 😛

      1. Not exactly, but a unique quirk of Damsel of Distress’s powers is that there are very few to no powers and absolutely no materials that could stop it or even slow it down. The PRT actually wanted her for ages for that very reason so they kinda subsidized her villain career by making sure the places she squatted in had power and cable and figured eventually she would get tired of living on the run with unreliable powers. I’ve always wondered what would happen if she hit an Endbringer with the stuff myself.

        1. It would depend on where the Endbringer took the shot. If it took the shot to the core? No more Endbringer.

          Of course, the Endbringers aren’t stupid. They aren’t going anywhere near Ashley.

          1. Honestly it probably wouldn’t have killed an Endbringer because they just kinda don’t die to amything short of sustained Scion attack. Behemoth at least seemed to have a negation field shielding his core.

          2. I thought the endbringers were attracted to things that could hurt them, like in Dubai. I could be personifying though.

            Anyway, my money’s on the endbringer trumping her power.

          3. The main rule with the Endbringers was that they acted to compel people to fight them; they picked targets where they’d do sufficiently catastrophic damage that simply evacuating and waiting for them to go away wasn’t an option. Behemoth’s attack on Deli was the only known instance of them seeking out a current threat (the Simurgh targeted a lot of things that could have become threats) and that was with the Endbringer most capable of shrugging off the energy blast and eliminating the danger permanently.

          4. Even if Ashley’s power could penetrate to the core of an Endbringer and she knew/luck out o where to fire it, she’d have an extremely difficult time getting into firing position. What’s the range of her power? Behemoth simply kills most capes that get close to him with his aura, plus he’s got that lighting attack. Leviathan is ridiculously quick and deadly to people in close quarters with him. Anyone perceived as a threat is going to have streams of water scything at them aiming to cut them in half. The Simurgh is airborn and never going to get in range of her, plus the PRT psychologists would NEVER have okayed Ashley to go anywhere near her. The new ones have their own defenses for killing people who try to get close them even as they do enough damage to compel capes to get close them.

            Finally, the Endbringers are the (pen)ultimate test to determine just how inviolable your power actually is. I have no doubt that she’d hurt one if she hit. But there may be a limit to how much matter one of her blasts destroys and they get unimaginably dense as you go in.

  6. So, right now, I’d give Team Therapy about a c- in terms of plan, tactics, and strategy. Victoria I’ll raise to a b- for figuring out a workaround on Valefor.

    Simple answer right now: Go kill valefor. I don’t care about nazi hostages or civilians. Go kill valefor right fucking now. Simple plan: don’t let him talk. He’s blind. Have Capricorn fucking close him in a box and then have Ashley blow his head off.

    God, I miss Imp. Or Regent. Or Grue.

    1. If you’re going to use Capricorn’s power to kill Velafor, you do NOT leave his head out so he can speak. You simply enclose him entirely in stone. You either make the stone permanent or don’t switch to Byron until it’s been 5+ times longer than it should take a normal human to suffocate. The End.

      However, the team is trying not to kill people and Valefor would likely have someone with him to warn about the orange blots forming around him. Hearing protection is a must if you’re planing to go up against him. At least now. They didn’t know about his powers changing.

      1. I have a feeling that Tattletale might take a hit to her reputation after this. Either she didn’t know about Valefor’s power changing or she deliberately withheld it. Neither makes her look good considering her whole persona is being the All-Knowing Thinker from which no secret is safe.

        1. She might have known but not told BoB’s group since she knows well enough how difficult he can be to control. That said, even if she didn’t know, the Fallen are running some pretty potent anti-Thinker measures with Mama’s power. So I don’t think anyone could blame her for missing that.

          1. Its not about blame, its about reputation. Tattletale is trying to portray herself as a infallible all-knowing mastermind that you shouldn’t even think opposing because she will know more about your plans than you do yourself.

            Basically its lose-lose for her. Either people assume that she screwed over her allies by withholding vital information or the aura of invincibility that she’s tried to build takes a heavy hit and more people start moving against her.

          2. @Wololololo or she just says she figured out he was planning to take over Hollow Point and stop associating with her, so letting him die this way was good for business AND had the added benefit of softening up the Fallen a little. Or something like that.

            It’s definitely a tricky situation, but Tt’s clever and manipulative enough to turn it to her advantage.

        2. She was already known to not be infallible.

          Interlude 1.x

          ” “Snag, sitting over there, is looking to hire people for a project down the road. He wants to do test runs first, make sure he succeeds on the first try. Those two hired the same information broker we worked with for that job.”

          “You had an information broker?”

          “She was ops too. Talked to us on the earpieces. A little shaky on some things, surprisingly quick on others. But I think you run into that with any thinker.” ”

          As we later find out, this thinker was Tt

        3. Tattletale can send Imp in with earplugs and stab Valefor in the face.

          At any time.

          The Fallen don’t have better security against Imp than the Slaughterhouse 9 did.

          Yes, she is screwing over the Hollow Point crew.

          The Undersiders have not been acting up to this point, but, when they do, it will be decisive and lethal.

          1. “Tattletale can send Imp in with earplugs and stab Valefor in the face. At any time. ”

            This statement made me remember that Rain was packing bear traps. He got those from the camp. IIRC, that’s exactly how the S9 caught her. I doubt that she’d fall for that specific gambit again, but she’d not invulnerable. Plus, she’s vulnerable to any type of shaker effect that she might get caught in. The Fallen had someone protecting there group with some sort of area effect. She could easily not be able to reach him on the battlefield, and sending him into the same as MaMa for an assassination…*shudder*

          2. I don’t think Tt is staking everything on imp, but she has a couple ways to neutralize valefore and mama Mathers which she hasn’t tried yet. She has this under control still.

  7. Typo thread:

    > […] her fingertips. and she stumbled into Disjoint.
    Either there’s a word missing (or several) or the “and” needs to start with an A.^^

    1. Beast of Burden was one of the last to stop moving, and nearby bowled over the teammates that were using him as a human shield.

      “Nearby” should be “nearly”

  8. Well. That happened.

    This was a very tense chapter with Valefor involved, but I like how both Victoria and Ashley managed to work around his power. Victoria’s freakout about Amy was also great.

    Ashely, though…that’s going to have reprucussions. For one, it’s less likely the villains will accept her if they don’t trust her not to lose her temper and kill them. Victoria’s reaction is going to be the most interesting, though.

    Great chapter.

    1. Eh, “fear will keep them in line” seems to be a common mantra of villains in the worm verse. Just look at Lung (or Bakuda for that matter). He had plenty of people working for him out of sheer fear that he would rip their faces off. Also Accord operated off of “Anything less than perfection will result in death”. Ashley can take either route.

      But agreed, this was a great chapter. Valefor was chilling.

    2. Alternately, she just proved her leadership chops by assassinating her predecessor. The Teeth did that, and the Slaughterhouse Nine used to- until Jack proved himself better for each member’s individual psychosis than any possible replacement and that the group would crumble without him.

      1. Some villain organizations work that way, sure, but judging from the banter, Beast of Burden was the only guy in this team who would have gone for that kind of management.

      2. Used to? It had one leader until Jack killed him. Either it wasn’t the Necromonger way to begin with or Jack was leading the 9 at the age of 12.

        1. Yes, King. Who, if I recall correctly, encouraged any member who wants to lead into challenging him for the position. I don’t think Jack was twelve, but I’m pretty sure he killed King.

          1. Jack and Harbinger/Number Man worked together on that. Then Number Man got the hell out. The benefits package at Cauldron was much better.

    3. Oh come on. If you randomly attack Damsel of Distress without cause and then threaten her again its self-defense when she kills you.

      1. It’s self-defense… from BoB’s terrible leadership. He really thought that *signing a contract* would cause people to unquestioningly follow his orders in life-and-death situations?

  9. If I’d been in Victoria’s shoes, when Valefor Mastered her, I would have grabbed Sveta and dragged her up to him, so that he could Master her, and told him that her suit is a power limiter that reduces her strength to stop her from hurting people unintentionally, and then flown away, out of range of her tendrils.

    Give him enough rope to hang himself with, in a manner of speaking.

    1. While that’s a good idea, Victoria cares too much about Sveta to do that to her. Can you imagine what Victoria using her to kill would do to both her, and their friendship?

    2. That would be absolutely evil. Sveta has been doing all she can to control herself. You would have not only volunteered one of your best friends to be mind controlled further (when her emotional issues are derived from losing agency) but likely set her up to kill someone again. Sveta would never trust you again.

    3. Beyond the moral implications that Moogarton and Driel bring up, Victoria wouldn’t have been able to do that anyways. She was caught in a “protect and serve” loop in her head, and outright murdering is neither protecting nor serving. There is no possible way that she could convince herself that letting Sveta loose right next to Valefor would be a good way to protect anything. If it were as easy as being one step removed, Victoria could just drop a big rock on Valefor.

      Maybe, and this is a big maybe, she could play semantic games in her head with something along the lines of “he can’t be hurt if he’s dead,” but then she could just kill him herself with no need to drag Sveta into this. If she could do that, she’d need to wholeheartedly convince herself that she was helping through murder, and she’s more screwed in the head than the rest of Team Therapy.

  10. If Valefor’s power is based on his voice, and is applied based on who the listener believes he is referring to as Victoria theorizes, I have an idea of what may happen in the next chapter or two:

    Tattletale has sussed out this limitation and advised Imp along those lines. “He won’t be able to detect your presence, so when he gives an order it can’t possibly be directed at you- feel free to ignore it.”

    Bam, Valefor falls to the ground with his throat cut at the climax of the chapter’s tension, just as the heroes seem to have abandoned all hope of keeping the hostages safe.

    1. “Tattletale has sussed out this limitation and advised Imp along those lines. “He won’t be able to detect your presence, so when he gives an order it can’t possibly be directed at you- feel free to ignore it.””

      Huh, that’s actually really damn clever and exactly the sort of thing TT might do. Good thought.

        1. So give her noise-cancelling headphones. Valefor could affect her before, when her power was up- either she was caught by his voice and her power didn’t undo him seeing her, or his power outright no-sold her perception filter. If the latter, it won’t any more- he might be able to tell she’s approaching, but none of his soldiers would, and if she’s wearing said headphones, he’d be totally defenceless.

          Victoria’s already mistaken on how Valefor’s power worked, before it adapted to his sightlessness. It wasn’t meeting his eyes; it was letting him see you and hearing him.

        2. I mean, he could be bluffing. It’s at least plausible that his power’s effect currently allows a listener to ignore orders if they believe it isn’t directed at them.

    2. If Tattletale really sussed out that Valefor’s power was based on his voice now then not telling anyone on the villain or hero teams was both a dick move and incredibly stupid. If even the slightest thing had gone wrong here the Fallen could have ended up subverting two entire teams of Capes and turned them on the attackers. And all it takes is one Cape with a power that can alert them to Imp’s power (which has been beaten before and by Fallen to boot) operation assassinate would go down the crapper and Valefor would add a hyper lethal Stranger to his arsenal.

      1. Hollow Point Plebs and Team Therapy have enough neuroses between them that I feel things would quickly fall apart for the Fallen if they tried to bring them into the fold. They’re all too volatile to manipulate safely in such a brute-force manner.

      2. Who says she didn’t tell anyone? Prancer’s group, the Undersiders, and the Wardens are all hanging back. The only people at current risk of being Valefor’d are BoB’s group, who are seemingly charging in like idiots, and Victoria’s group, who have not yet tried to contact the commanders of the other teams.

        Like, what do you want Lisa to do? Break out a loudspeaker and be all like “HEY GUISE DID YOU KNOW VALEFOR HAS NEW POWERS LOOOOL” over the entire town?

        1. This is just getting sad Reveen. The therapy group met with several members of the Wardens earlier and has a member standing right next to one of the bigwigs. As we just saw phones work just fine so if Tattletale really had informed the Wardens a heads up would be a simple text message away.

          Meanwhile Tattletale and the Cluster has been planning this whole thing for weeks, if not months. There’s been no shortage of time to bring people up to speed.

          And what do I want Lisa to do? Nothing. Are you so used to jumping in defend her that you didn’t even realize we were discussing a hypothetical rather than canon? I said that “IF” Lisa had known then not telling would make her a bitch (and kind of dumb). I wasn’t actually accusing Lisa of anything, just pointing out that the theory made no sense because it made no sense for Lisa to do that.

          What I actually think happened is that Lisa simply didn’t know because as has been demonstrated multiple times in Worm and mentioned several times in Ward she is not infallible.

        2. I’d bet Lisa didn’t even know Valefor still had powers – she knows better than anyone that he’s been depowered, and it’s not like he’s been going around using it since then.

      3. Bah. There was enough forces in reserve for someone to kill Valefor. Imp, Narwhal, and Foil were all unaccounted for.

        Between Vista and Bitch they have insane mobility, and with their own inherent deadliness there’s no way Valefor could’ve made it.

      4. Valefor’s commands aren’t durable. He could neutralize the attackers but not turn them into a stable attacking force.

        Valefor and Mama Mathers working in concert for a few days could do it, but Tattletale could react to and stop that process.

  11. Hmm curious if Valefor second triggered or if this is another case of his power adapting to differing biological circumstance like it did Vicky.

    That said Vicky is a better person than I would be in that monster’s regard.

    Finally, bye bye Beast of Burden, the bob is no more unless he has a nicer brute rating than we’ve seen.

    1. I’m 95% certain he didn’t second trigger. There’s only one case I know of where we know somebody’s powerset before and after their second trigger, and that was Grue, whose powers changed rather drastically. They went from stopping people’s normal senses in a targeted area to a more projectile-styled concentrated effect that weakened their powers as well while giving him limited access to their powers. From what we’ve seen the shards are, to some degree, sentient. Regent’s power backfired regularly if he didn’t use it as intended, but he didn’t suffer that if he used it as it was intended to be used while his range and precision went up drastically. Powers also strengthen or weaken depending on the circumstances. We even have an example of somebody whose power temporarily changed them while in use with Burnscar. And a leading theory in Worm was that their agents pushed them towards conflict so they could adapt and grow.
      I think Valefor’s power changed because he couldn’t use it if it didn’t. That brings to mind an interesting question – what would happen if somebody refused to use their power? We haven’t seen any cases where somebody with powers just never used them. Would it change them until they were willing to use the powers, would it change itself until it was something they were willing to use, or would it simply remove their ability to control it, resulting in a chaotic always-on situation?

      1. > Would it change them until they were willing to use the powers
        > would it change itself until it was something they were willing to use
        > would it simply remove their ability to control it, resulting in a chaotic always-on situation?

        If you ask me: Yes, yes, and yes, possibly in combinations. It’s already 100% confirmed that the first one happens to just about everyone, and the third one is known to happen especially with some of the more bizarre powers. The second is only speculative, but we have evidence to suggest that it is at least possible.

        Of course, the way the agents work, it would be difficult to distinguish some examples from the cape’s own mental processes.

        1. It was more of a case of wondering to a somewhat existential degree how or which was prioritized. Considering the entities looked into the future and past at once to send the shards to where they would land, is it a possibility that the known uncontrollable powers are like that because the person receiving them would have not been willing to use them…? Tattletale has certainly complained about her power not having an off switch enough, but for me the question is if there was an off switch for it how often would her power actually be used? While she loved the uses she got out of it to some degree, that could be the effect where you look for things to appreciate about something you cannot change, but were you provided the option would have refused. At this point I’m mostly just rambling and beginning to wonder entirely how sane I really am.

  12. Oof, Ashley having to avoid thinking of people as friends in order to avoid killing them…that’s not going to go well. They really need to kill Valefor if his voice powers don’t wear off.

  13. Sticking with this, Wildbow is awesome for sure, but to this point I’m not really seeing the logic in most of what is going on.

    1. Basically, in a fight, shit goes sideways.

      Especially if, say, the nominal leader of the Hollow Point Killfuck Edgelord faction is an insecure prick who likes to play dominance games with an insecure woman whose entire life ethos is based around ‘be a hard enough fucker so that no one can play dominance games with me’ who can erase reality on a whim.

  14. I really liked that Valefor fight, nice job Victoria for finding those loopholes. It’s clear Valefor isn’t used to this kind of large-scale confrontation or maybe he would have been a bit more meticulous about his orders.

    I supposed it was only a matter of time until Ashley snapped at someone. Pre-Gold Morning, I think that would pretty much kill her chance of being on any hero team, even an informal cobbled-together one like Team Therapy. Her best hope now is that the legal system is still too nonexistent for anyone to actually charge her with Bob’s death.

    1. Assuming she’s actually managed to kill him, Looksee’s eyes in the sky could probably substantiate that he struck first and that she had been compelled to kill her allies. She’ll be fine, but the legal aide isn’t going to be happy about it.

    2. Ashley’s situation isn’t hopeless here at least. She might not actually be in control of her actions at the moment, its possible that she’s been hijacked by her Shard or is still under Valefor’s compulsion, in which case she can’t really be held accountable (though some might insist that she needs to be put in a padded cell because of that).

      1. “I couldn’t help but kill him” isn’t a very compelling argument for why one should be left to freely interact with polite society. Quite the opposite. Ashley would be less dangerous if she just wanted to kill him. Sveta was in the Asylum because she was dangerous, not because she was “bad”. Even now, one bad incident with Sveta unintentionally killing dozens of innocents and people may wonder what the sense is in allowing her to walk around freely. Accountability has little to do with it.

        1. Right, that’s not a compelling argument in our world. But in a world where compulsion powers fade after a time? Certain types might grumble about it but I can’t see how you can justify blaming her, short of her pulling a Trump and blurting something out that ruins her case. “No, I killed him because I was mad” would probably do it 🙂

          1. I agree. A compulsion by Valefor would be quite mitigating just as, in our world, learning that she had a credible threat (by someone other than BoB) against her and/or people she cared about if she didn’t kill BoB would be mitigating. I should have been clearer that I was focusing on the “my Shard made me do it” case which is the situation Sveta is also in.

            The difference between the Valefor compulsion and the Shard case, though, is still not one of more or less accountability. It’s simply that we (think we) can remove Ashley from the influence Valefor and without it she wouldn’t kill people would be less likely to kill people. There is currently no way to remove Ashley from the influence of the shard, but if there was, we should do (or at least offer) that rather than incarceration. But as long as we can’t, it would still be necessary to protect people from Ashley (or Sveta) and incarceration may be the best option we can think of (also taking into account Ashley’s/Sveta’s well-being too, otherwise we’d just execute them).

            In Sveta’s case, people apparently believe that her prosthesis is adequate for protecting society from her, but a failure of it could lead to a serious reevaluation of that.

          2. This just prompted the thought that many people in the comments feel Valefor is too dangerous to live (and also bad), but Valefor could actually use his powers to nerf himself and/or compel himself to dedicate himself to the betterment of mankind. If one was confident about the self-compulsion, then Valefor could be of great benefit to society. You could imagine criminals opting for Valefor therapy in exchange for suspended sentences. (Or, knowing society, people would instead ask for compulsions to stick to their diets…)

    3. Eh, I dunno. Taylor murdered three PRT directors and they still let her in. It’s not gonna look good on Ashley’s file, but I doubt it’s a deal breaker.

          1. She did kill Chief Director Costa Brown as well, since she was Alexandria. Therefore, Taylor offed three directors. One of which was too dangerous, one too stupid and one too arrogant to be left alive/in that position. Your decision who is who.

    4. Eh, Bob did and said enough to make a reasonable non-Brute fear for her life. In that situation, she’s allowed to hit back. There is probably a long line of women who didn’t get that opportunity with old Bob. Everything about him seemed to indicate “abuser”.

      I don’t think the “I had to kill my friends” explanation is going to fly with anyone who had any familiarity with the situation…

  15. Veeeeeery smart, Bob. Let’s piss off the girl with inferiority issues and a fucking Siberian-level offense game.

  16. Uh… am I supposed to still be pretending that Team Therapy isn’t a tire fire of bad choices? Because “We put a highly volatile cape in an undercover role and she flipped out and murdered an ally in the middle of an op” definitely seems… not… good?

    Also, I find it funny that the only groups who haven’t decided to keep it reeled for now in are BoB’s gang and Victoria’s. BoB’s gang are idiots, what’s our excuse?

    1. Ashley going undercover was kind of questionable but then again things just suddenly starting to escalate in a real hurry. They barely even started doing their undercover stuff before the Undersiders suddenly showed up and announced that it was time to attack. And to be fair to Ashley it took a combination of Valefor having completely different mind control powers than anyone was expecting and Beast of Burden being a fucking idiot for her to flip. We also can’t be sure if its really Ashley that’s flipping out yet or if BoB’s strike made her lose the battle against Valefor’s command or she got hijacked by her Shard.

      Victoria’s group was in charge of evacuations, you kind of need to actually go into the area in order to do that. And they tried to avoid the fighting but the fighting came to them and they haven’t really had the chance to disengage yet (but would have by now if BoB didn’t decide to go for a Darwin Award).

    2. Of course it’s a tire fire of bad choices. Jessica Yamada said that much before the team was even introduced.

    3. I thought that too, Reveen.

      “I want to do more,” Sveta said. “I was useless back there.”

      This is not a good reason. Victoria seems to have a bit of a blind spot here. I always get uncomfortable when a friendship “means” something to someone. Is it really friendship anymore if you have to be friends?

  17. To quote xkcd; So, it has come to this.
    How Ashley handles the repercussions will determine the fate of her best girl status.

    Already short on your tears supply, WB ? Please be gentle.

  18. Given the bullshit nature of powers, Bob being out of commission isn’t a sure thing just yet.

    I also have to agree with Revan about Team Therapy being a massively bad idea with a bunch of bad sub-categories. I get the impression that “normal” cape teams of this setting are a mess of cross-wired psychological issues just waiting to catch fire and this one has most of the dials turned up to maximum.

  19. Valefor’s power seems to have turned from a precise ‘strong’ hold to a wider affecting ‘weak’ hold.
    I feel like I’m jumping the gun with this statement but it seems that the way Valefor’s power has adapted has changed its distribution and through that its overall impact.
    This begs the question: Would all powers adapt?
    ‘Forcing’ a change seems easy enough given we have body altering capes such as Panacea and Riley.

    I think it would be interesting to see anyway.

    1. It’s possible that his power hasn’t changed at all. His vision was more for hypnotizing people and shutting down their brains than actually controlling them from how Skitter describes it when she went up against him, leaving them more open to suggestions. He may have simply never realized that controlling people without the hypnotism was an option because he never really tried it until he lost his eyes.

    1. Actually I was wondering, would Valfor or Mama’s powers work on Dogs? Cause them getting chewed up by Bitch’s dogs would please me.

      1. Even if they did he’d probably have to use one of the commands they’ve been trained to follow for them to realize they’re being referred to.

        1. Problem is, he can control Rachel, and order her to call the dogs off. It’s well known that she’s the one that controls the dogs, and she has to stay fairly nearby to keep funneling her power into them, so he could probably shout at her if one of his people alerted him to the giant mutant dogs coming after him. Unless it was a sneak attack, in which case it doesn’t matter whether he can or can’t control the dogs.

          1. Yeah, tattletale purposely brought team therapy in. She helped collect the villain teams. She is avoiding the direct fight.

            Her plan probably came together like this.

            1. Tattletale is hired by hollow point to find Rain.

            2. Tattletale finds out he is living with the fallen who have mama Mathers and valefore.

            3. She tells hollowpoint where he is and offers to help them attack.

            4. She talks to Victoria, almost certainly knowing she has a relationship with Rain, and tells her to stay away from hollowpoint.

            5. Tattletale interfaces with hollowpoint and brings in more people.

            6. She keeps track of Victoria’s preparations.

            7. Tattletale sends in advance guard to derail Victoria’s soft conflict plan.

            8. Tattletale doesn’t out Ashley or reveal the cameras.

            9. Tattletale brings in the undersiders and pulls the trigger on the fallen attack.

            10. Tattletale watches the fallen and hollowpoint fight while keeping the undersiders and heroes in reserve until mama Mathers can be found.

            11. Make sure mama Mathers dies.

      2. I think you need to understand Valefor to be affected by him. So Dogs are probably out. Maybe he could get them to obey preexisting commands, but maybe not.

        I suspect Mama’s power would work on dogs. She might have some trouble at first with her power’s attack mode, since the strongest senses of a dog are different from the strongest senses of a human. Dogs could also be more or less vulnerable to her power’s attack mode in general.

        If I had to guess I would say the dogs will probably go down to Mama, but they have a better chance of surviving without serious long term damage than a human.

  20. Our heroes and BoB’s group are pretty brave. If it had been me, I would have run out of there as fast as I could and not stopped until I had earplugs in.

    But seriously, that’s all they need. Just give everyone earplugs, or something to stuff in their ears, communicate by hand signals and text messages. An experienced team ought to have done this from the get-go, really, if they knew they were dealing with a family of masters. Tattletale and any other thinkers on her side can’t have known, or else all the villains would be wearing them.

    Valefor’s new power is a massive downgrade. Once people know what it does they can just block their ears, and he’s useless. It’s no wonder they hide him out in the woods.

    I’ll be sad if Beast is really dead. His costume was awesome.

    1. Valefor’s new power is a massive downgrade.

      I thought this might be a misunderstanding of Valefor’s appearance in Worm, but then I thought of something else. He wasn’t puppeteering people à la Regent or Khepri. He was actually telling them what to do, supposedly after something “hypnotic” about his gaze made them suggestible. (Mama also makes people suggestible and tells them what to do, although there are other things going on with her powers.) Skitter described the hypnotic gaze as, “My thoughts dissolved to warm, wet, white noise.”

      He doesn’t have the gaze anymore, but it seems that Valefor simply has to know someone is in earshot, for his words to take effect. So, his senses are downgraded because now he is blind, but his power is seemingly upgraded because he can command without the hypnotism. He does miss the hypnotism, though, because people who aren’t hypnotized can rules-lawyer themselves into opposing Valefor in oblique ways, like Victoria does in this episode.

      It seems possible that the hypnosis-then-command two-step was just a habit back when Valefor had eyes, and wasn’t strictly necessary. If his commands were followed, even without the hypnosis, then his powers haven’t really changed, with the exception of losing the hypnosis. Perhaps he could always command someone if he had some idea they were around. She’s a Stranger, but he knew about Imp before running into her at the grocery, so he might have just started commanding her as soon as there was some vague feeling that a Stranger was around. If Skitter had had that understanding of Valefor, she might have taken his vocal cords along with his eyes. In that case he got lucky? Valefor might ought to research some form of audio hypnosis, since it’s possible that it was never tied to his gaze in the first place.

      1. I see two good frameworks to understand this, and my money is on B because it’s scarier.

        A) second trigger

        B) Valefor’s gaze and voice were working in concert until Skitter got through with him. She just wrongly assumed the eyes were the sole conduit of his power. Now he still has some power of compulsion, just not nearly as effective as he used to be.

        This is scarier because he has lots of room to get better (more specific commands with fewer loopholes, more personalization maybe), and because the second trigger is still on the table. Second triggers are about removing limits, who’s to say he doesn’t get some limited clairvoyance, or some other thinker nastiness?

      2. Right. Good point. Valefor’s original power was that he could hypnotize people by looking at them, then implant verbal commands. So you still needed to hear him and he still needed to talk to be really effective. There seems to be some ambiguity as to whether his power was actually triggered just by him seeing people, or if it involved looking him in the eye, with more evidence for the former. Particularly that he caught Imp.

        In a way that seems weaker than what he has now, since the whole point of blinding him was to disable his power. Now he doesn’t even need to see people. But at least before he had the hypnotic gaze. With his old power, he could hypnotize you with just one glance, then walk up and do whatever he wanted.

        Now he has to have victims able to hear, and that’s all, so just covering your ears is enough to stop him. Preventing someone from looking at you is a lot harder than wearing earplugs. Plus, like you said, no automatic hypnotism. Whole groups of people could easily be immunized just by stopping their ears, where before there could be no possible defence except ‘never be in Valefor’s vicinity.’

        I’ve always had a hard time taking Valefor seriously, either way, because it seemed like he should have been a huge S-class threat given this absurdly overpowered ability. All I can imagine is that the commands wore off fairly quickly, and that’s why he didn’t have armies of bodyguards and hostages just from walking through any town.

          1. I think Regent was limited to one person at a time for mind control which makes a pretty big difference. His was more complete, but also limited in its own ways (like most powers).

        1. He never got a kill order because he was careful to ensure that either he never used enough of his power for people to realize how dangerous he was, or because any time he did he covered his tracks. Skitter and accord were knew what his powers were but they were surprised by just how strong they were

  21. Kinda hoping BoB is actually down for the count at least- but, that makes me think he probably isn’t. As for how everyone’s gonna react to this bit of infighting… *shrug!*

        1. Precisely, Prt trained people have master protocols. Valefore would not have been able to keep control even if the victims couldn’t break free themselves.

          Successfully mastering 20 parahumans means they shoot to kill.

        2. They got pistols. That’s not going to cut it unless they’re within “Please point it at your own head and pull the trigger” range.

          1. I thought Valefor was a joke in Worm, despite his op power.

            Here, however… he is seriious bussiness.

  22. He had that coming.
    Great chapter though! Nice to see another character from Worm, even if it is Valefor. Probably a case of second trigger event I’d guess. Maggots in your eyes will do that to you.

  23. **I still felt nauseous. My skin still crawled. I was still pissed, but it was bottled-up pissed again….**

    No, Victoria, you still felt NAUSEATED. If you felt nauseous, you felt that you were sickening to others (i.e. “a nauseous shade of green that made viewers want to puke”).

    Though in all honesty, Vicky can indeed come across as pretty nauseous sometimes….

    1. Gold morning destroyed all the dictionaries, and, strangely, all the prescriptivist grammarians! Can you believe that!

      No one knows what happened for sure, but eyewitnesses saw one of Scion’s mind-combining rays hit Lexicon and the Dictator at the same time. It could be just a coincidence though.

    2. Actually it can be used either way. Nauseous second definition is to feel nauseated. Even if it wasn’t basically everyone I know uses it that way, so in a first person narrative it could be excusable. Still, I fact checked it real quick just to see if I had been living a lie my whole life, and the grammar here is sound according to Merriam Webster themselves (link below)

      https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nauseous

    3. >sickening to others
      Isn’t that “nauseating”? I can’t remember seeing “nauseous” used that way.
      Unless “noxious” is a corruption of it.

  24. There has been this nagging feeling in the back of my head that maybe, just maybe, that old lady they evacuated from the previous chapter was Mama. Hopefully not since that would mean she would aurvive the attack and be able to get in vicky’s head whenever she wants. Probably nothing but just a bit chilling.

    Also thanks for another Great chapter Wildbow. I have been a bit ill lately, so having something to look forward to is nice.

  25. Wow. At last something happened that shows why this book might be interesting. A pile of spies and mind controllers burning. It might be interesting.

  26. “Don’t run!” Valefor called out, at the top of his lungs. My stride halted, and I swayed a bit before finding my footing.
    Valefor would make a great camp counselor. You have no idea how often we shout at kids to stop running and they just ignore us.

    For all these reasons and more, mind control was another one of the parts of the game….The natural reaction from society, or from our sub-society, was to fight back. Valefor obviously didn’t care.
    Why would he? He has his own society to take care of him. The Fallen clearly aren’t as strict about that.

    One hand still on her face, [Ashley] pointed at [Bob] and blasted before his expression could change.
    Geez. On one hand, I can’t say he wasn’t asking for it. On the other hand, I can’t say he deserved it. On the third hand, that’s pretty nasty (and an example of why Ashley will be craving a phaser set to stun if she keeps up this hero thing).

    1. Oh, and on a thematic note, I found it interesting how characters were using controlled doses of their own lack of self-control to overcome Valefor’s power. Something to bookmark for my metaphorical book report.

  27. I like Ashley’s backstory, as well as her panache. There are countless hints that she is struggling with a terrible burden and I hope things work out for her in the end. I think she’s my favorite character by this point.

    Also: Hahahahahaha, suck on that, BoB! Couldn’t have happened to a nicer fellow.

  28. “Kill your friends.”

    Oh Valefore, very poor choice in words.

    And is Beast of Burden really that arrogant? Seriously, just because she’s on your side it doesn’t mean you just HIT a former member of the Slaugherhouse 9. You got a bit way in over your head there.

    Please please please Ashley, direct that pent up energy to the nearest Fallen member please.

    1. Except if (or when) Ashley gets so close to someone that she would consider them as a friend, that command would resurface…?

  29. Maybe I missed something but since when does Victoria explicitly know about Mama Mathers? I thought that all the outsiders knew was that there were some anti-thinker measures in place, and nothing more.

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