Shadow – 5.11

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“Damsel!” Sveta cried out, as the initial shock wore off.

Everyone was backing away from Beast of Burden and from Damsel, who caught her footing and looked down at the body.  Sentences were an overlapping jumble.

“What did you do?” Disjoint asked, eyes wide.  His mask was a black stick-on sort, but it was divided into two halves, one for the brow and one for the cheekbones.  As his eyebrows went up and his eyes went wide, the two halves separated, revealing red-painted skin beneath.

“What I did is obvious,” Damsel said.

Fuck,” Sidepiece said.  She ran her fingers back through the sides of her hair, and there was enough residual fat and blood on them from her using her power that her hair stuck where it was pushed.  “He hadn’t paid me yet.”

“Why?” I asked.  “Why did you do this?”

“He stepped on me.  He struck me.  In a fight?  That’s fine, you can hit me in a fight.  But like this?  When I’m helping?  I’ll hit back.”

“That’s not a hit,” Sveta said.

Damsel paced a little.  People were giving Damsel and the blood spatter a wide berth, and as she moved, people backed up more.

Nailbiter was on the far side of the group, furthest from me.  She prowled on elongated limbs, silent, staring.

Damsel spoke up, “I will not be stepped on.  I will not be beaten down and take it with a smile.  He wanted to be a tyrant but he couldn’t lead.  He didn’t know his own place in things and he thought to tell me mine?

“So he dies?” I asked.

“He knew what he was doing,” she said.  “He-”

Her power misfired.  She staggered a bit, and Capricorn and Sveta backed away more.  Damsel found her balance, but when she did, her hair draped down in front of most of her face, and she let it hang there.

She continued, “He knew the risks when he went toe to toe with me.  When he struck me, it wasn’t heated.  It was cold, logical.  He knew if he didn’t do something, he’d lose his team.  He calculated the risk and he calculated it wrong.”

“You pushed him to that point,” I said.

Sveta touched my arm.  Fear that I was provoking Damsel when she was in a dangerous state?  Or because I sounded accusatory?  Both?

“I calculated wrong, I thought he was smarter.”

She said.  She stuck out a foot, and rested her foot on Beast of Burden’s forehead.  His helmet had tipped back by its own weight, exposing a face with narrow eyes, and a muttonchop beard.  His head was resting on the part of the helmet that had once been behind his neck.  She moved his head around by moving her foot.

“Stop that, please,” Sveta said.

Damsel paused.

Sveta pointed at the foot.  “Please.  Even if he wasn’t a great person, he was human.  He deserves common decency.”

Damsel stepped back, placing her footsteps where there wasn’t too much blood.  There was a dusty print on Beast of Burden’s forehead now, with some small rocks settled into the corner of his eye, by the bridge of his nose.

“Thank you,” Sveta said.

In the background, lights danced around the shadows of the trees at the west edge of the settlement.  Vista and Weld’s group.  It caught Sveta’s attention, and I saw her focus her balance, swaying slightly less.  I could imagine it as a tension in the tendrils within her body.

On the other side of things, while everyone else turned to look at the shifting reds and blues and greens, my focus was on Ashley.  I saw something in her expression, as she looked at Sveta, then at Capricorn, and finally met my eyes.  It was fleeting, spooked, more like how an ordinary person might look if they were at the mercy of ex-Slaughterhouse Nine member Damsel of Distress, than Damsel of Distress herself.

Hardly the imperious bearing she had a moment ago.

I saw the expression pass before any of the members of the other group could react.  Love Lost tilted her head a little, walking around the periphery of the larger group- a wide periphery, given how we’d spread out and backed off.

“This is the true world of parahumans,” Damsel said, turning to look at Love Lost.  Damsel’s chin rose a little, as she went back to being the villain queen.  “The other things fall away, but this remains a constant.  It’s why we all die young.”

“Endbringers and end of the world helped,” Sidepiece said.

“The end of the world never stopped,” Damsel said.  “This is it, continuing, wearing demon masks and cheering about fucking over the rest of us.  It’s wearing stupid helmets with horns as long as my legs and thinking it can find its way to power by killing its enemies and stepping on anyone in its way.”

“It’s blasting a hole in someone with a stupid helmet,” Disjoint said.

She turned on him.  He stepped back some more.

“Don’t blast a hole in the guy with the stupid limb teleporting power,” he said.

She started to talk, then stopped as her power misfired again.  She gripped her arm, pressing down on the hole where she’d dug her thumb in.  I assumed it was the point where her arm stopped and the prosthetic started, interrupting the connection.

I was lost.  She’d always been tricky to deal with, but I’d mostly had a good sense of what made her tick.  I’d been able to talk her down a few times, I knew what she liked and what she wanted.

I didn’t know, here.

“Fuck me,” Capricorn said.  “I don’t know what to say.  This needs to be answered, but there are people with lives on the line right now.”

“Go,” she said.  “You guys seem to be good enough at finding us and showing up at inconvenient times.”

Capricorn shook his head.  “Fuck this,” he said.  Angrier, he said, “This isn’t over.”

“No,” Damsel said, her chin rising a bit more.  “I didn’t think it was.”

“This isn’t good,” Sveta said.  “This is pretty far from okay.”

“I’ve always been a long way off from good and okay,” Damsel said.

“That’s not an excuse to turn your back on those things.”

“Oh fuck off, you sanctimonious cyborg,” Sidepiece said.

“Clearly not a cyborg,” Damsel said.

“I’m- yeah.  Not a cyborg.  And I’m fucking off, don’t worry.  People to help.  Damsel of Distress?”

“Fuck offff,” Sidepiece said, head lolling back.  She stopped as Damsel raised a hand.

“What?”  Damsel asked.

“Help yourself so others can help you,” Sveta said.

Sveta and Capricorn were ready to go.  I hesitated.

Everything kept coming back to the same scenarios, moments, and scenes.  There were parallels, comparisons, things about people I noticed.

A therapist I’d talked to while Mrs. Yamada was away had explained it to me as a consequence of trauma.  Some things were just so big in our own heads that they had their own gravity.  They demanded to be dwelt on and they leveraged that dwelling to tie everything back into themselves, every detail they invoked and every question they raised.  They were impossible to figure out but we had to try, and that trying became more leverage.

She was fundamentally broken as a person.  I didn’t know a lot but I knew that, standing here and seeing her standing over a dead body.  I’d been there, I’d been a witness, and I’d been galled then too.  I’d witnessed a breakdown of someone extremely dangerous.

I one hundred and fifty percent understood Capricorn and Sveta’s reactions.

Those who had their trauma get too big were the types to extend it to everything.  A bad event became a fear of the world, or of men, of capes, or it became self-loathing that permeated every part of one’s own being.

The remedy was to talk to someone, to get perspective.  Complicated by the fact that sometimes people weren’t equipped to understand or to listen.

I stared at Ashley and the villains who stood around her.  They hadn’t rejected her outright.  Love Lost, Cleat, Disjoint, Sidepiece, Nailbiter.

They weren’t equipped.  Just the opposite.

“I’d like you to turn yourself in, and submit yourself into our custody,” I said.

Her eyes widened slightly.

“There it is,” Nailbiter said, in that eerie voice with its whistles and hisses of breath through teeth.

“There what is?” Sidepiece asked.

“Our hooded girl here called Damsel by her real name.”

“There’s a history,” I said, at nearly the same time as Damsel said, “History.”

“Uh huh,” Nailbiter said, disbelieving.  “The timing’s off.  When these guys showed up.  When you did.”

Damsel spoke without taking her eyes off me, “She probably came after me.  I fought her family in Boston.  My second trip, a while later, I fought her boss in the Protectorate.”

“Not my boss,” I said.

“No?”

“I wasn’t a Ward for long, and he wasn’t in charge at the time.”

Damsel shrugged, very easily and casually, as if she wasn’t standing over the body of the man she’d murdered.

“I’ve fought your family, and we’ve had run-ins,” she said.  “Bonesaw, who brought me back from the dead, fucked up her sister and attacked her family in their home.”

“Don’t go there,” I said.

She raised her hands in a ‘I give up’ kind of way.  Her power arced around the one, an aimless stream shooting off skyward at an angle before fizzling out.

“Come into custody, we’ll take you with us, we’ll have you stand down and stay off to the side until this whole thing wraps up,” I said.  “I know you’ve benefited a lot from the amnesty.  There are people you talk to and people who help you maintain a normal life.  If you walk away from this scene, that ends.”

“Holy shit, heroes are annoying,” Sidepiece said.  “Let’s go.  I’ve got a bingo sheet to fill out, and I’ve gotta land a direct hit with a bit of uterus or set off a combo explosion with a spleen toss if I want to clear a row.”

She approached Ashley, reaching out.  Nailbiter barred her way.

Was it worth it?  The ruse didn’t matter anymore, we weren’t going to keep her in this role.  Like so many things, she’d been great when the going was good.  When things got rougher- we needed to figure something out later.

It only mattered in that if we didn’t end up taking her away from this and revealed her role, she’d end up in danger.

“If you come, Damsel, I can’t promise there won’t be consequences, but I’ll testify about circumstances.  It’s a chaotic situation with Valefor as a factor, and everything else.  They’re mitigating factors.  Protect the amnesty, here.”

I saw her start to lift her foot from the ground.  Her power flared, and she bent over at the waist, catching one knee with her good hand.  It wouldn’t have been enough to catch her balance entirely, but Nailbiter had draped fingers along the one side.

Damsel put a hand on Nailbiter’s finger to steady herself as she straightened.

“You have people to help,” she said.  She pushed at Nailbiter’s finger.  “And I’m done with this.  I’m going to get my arm fixed before I start killing everyone I see out of pure frustration.”

“Good plan,” Disjoint said.

Will you confess?  I wanted to ask.  Will you tell someone?

I couldn’t ask it out loud, because there was no answer she could give that would suffice for all parties involved.

Leaving wasn’t as good as her staying in our sight, but it was better than staying with this bunch.

Sveta and Capricorn were making their careful way toward Valefor, moving slowly for my sake, and to keep an eye on my exchange with Damsel.  I flew to them, and they started moving faster as I joined the group again.

There was still the situation further into the settlement proper.

“She’s walking away,” I said.  “Best we can get.”

“I didn’t know it would be that hair-trigger,” Capricorn said.

“I figured it was,” another voice said.

We stopped.  Tristan summoned some orange motes around his hand.  Sveta brought up one hand, holding her forearm.

The terrain moved.  It was the camouflage blur that was Chris, except the effect I’d seen was patchy and inconsistent, and Chris was almost seamlessly fitting into the environment.  The form was mostly faded, but I could see the spikes and ridges that were feathers.

“I must be the only person who wasn’t surprised by that,” Chris added.

“How the hell did you get that good with the camouflage?” Tristan asked.”

“Staying still helps.  Being a genius helps too,” he said.  He made a dry cackling noise.  “Not that I’m a genius, exactly.  I’m good at getting into the mindset and physical form that makes me good at doing something.”

“And being a weird spiral bird helps with camouflage how?” Capricorn asked.  He edged closer to the corner of a building, trying to get a peek of the situation.”

“The introspection-self-reflection-reflection-grief wing of things?  Great for self awareness, which is great for knowing just how I’m positioned and how I look.  Don’t spend too long looking, Capricorn.  They’ve got a fucky-”

I saw the camouflage distort as he brought his hands to his head.

“-power,” he said.

I thought about the visual ‘snow’ and it flared back into existence at the lower right corner of my eye.

“The anti-thinker measure,” I said.

“Yeah.  Guess so.  One of the Fallen with the hostages.  Valefor’s there.  My Dark Introspection form disconnects mind from body, which is great if I want to put my body on autopilot or leave it with instinctive actions, but it doesn’t stop my mind from being fucked with.”

“You shouldn’t be this close to things,” I said.

“Well, I am.  I did stuff while you guys were running around.  I get fucked up when I do the deep self-dive with that form, so I told my body what to do and interjected a few times with new input.  I think I’m having a good day, my body definitely was, but it’s hard to tell with the emotional aftertaste.”

“A good day?” Sveta asked.

Yeah,” Chris said, with a note of something that might have been incredulity, or even curious emphasis.  “This is why I’m in the game.  Running with the big guys, dealing with the big things.  Lives on the line.”

“You’re a kid,” Capricorn said.

“Right now?  I’m halfway toward being a freaky personification of Dark Introspection and being a pink skinned scoundrel.  We’re all special cases, Cap.  Ashley snapping should drive that home, if your daily schedule hadn’t already.”

Sveta looked back in Ashley’s direction.

“You’re talking a lot,” I said.

“I’m desperately trying to ride an excited high here, because the alternative is slipping into Introspection or dealing with the fact some power is trying to drive me nuts.  Work with me.”

“I’ll try,” I said.

I wanted to sound more confident and authoritative, but- I didn’t like how we’d left Ashley, or how we’d let that happen.  That was something that weighed on me, and the melancholy I’d noted earlier in the day was giving way to something that riffed on the panic I’d experienced with Valefor.

Except the hints of panic I felt wasn’t about one situation with Valefor, or even about this greater conflict.  It was about big picture stuff, and one impulse call by Ashley had brought the big-picture concern into focus.  I knew she’d called it calculated, not impulse, but I couldn’t see how it could be.

I wanted things to be better and right now, they weren’t.

But I needed to focus.  I needed to work with these guys, like Chris had said.

I glanced at Sveta, and she looked just about as lost as I felt.

I reached for her hand and gave it a waggle.

“Hostages,” I said.  “We want to deal with Valefor too.”

“I prepared another form in case we needed to fight,” Chris said.  “It’s slow.”

“Vigilance,” Capricorn said.

“Yeah.”

“Save it.”

“Fourteen hostages, by the way.  There are five Fallen, one Valefor, two people from the Clans, and someone who might be the guy in charge of the bikers.  I spent a while looking, and I’m seeing ghosts now, I think.”

“Not good that that’s a thing,” Capricorn said, “But this is good to know.”

He extended a hand down toward Chris, who was still camouflaged, albeit less tidily than before.  He straightened, moving his arm like he was pulling Chris to his feet.

“Fuck,” Chris hissed.  Things clattered to the dirt around him.  Some were camouflaged.  Others were containers.  “I thought you were shaking my hand or something.”

“What is that?” I asked.

“Food.  Because I need to fuel up, and my next form is dense.  Some meds.  Plus my walkman and pocket atari, and some other stuff.  I was sorting out my stuff after getting dressed again.”

Walkman?” Capricorn asked.

“We’re post-end of the world, I’m not going to bring my phone and risk it getting broken or losing it and having someone use it to figure out my secret identity.  Fuck, it’s hard to see it now that it’s not on me.”

“You can’t bring all this stuff,” Capricorn said.

“Fuck off,” Chris replied.  “I do things how I do them.”

Capricorn sighed faintly and bent down to help.  I took Capricorn’s spot at the corner of the building, peering carefully around.

Chris protested, barely audible but clearly pissed.  “No, don’t help.  You’re just moving it around, and it’s hard enough to keep track of things when holes are appearing in everything.”

“Holes?” Capricorn asked.

“Holes.  Flesh with holes in it like it’s rotting, but round, fleshy, and damp, ground with pockmarks, walls with more holes, and-” his voice became slightly higher pitched as the intensity of them ratcheted up, “Things are looking at me or wriggling on the other side of the holes.  It’s not the coolest!  I’m trying not to think about it!”

“Shh,” I said.

They stopped talking, but Chris continued to rummage and rustle, and Capricorn stood back, arms folded.

Conversation continued in the distance, as the people managing the hostages talked.  I could peer around the corner and past a tree to see a slice of things between two buildings, but it wasn’t much.  I didn’t want to move too much and alert anyone.

“Problem?” Sveta asked.

“I wanted to see if I could overhear anything.  Chris is seeing things, why aren’t they affected?  Is it selective?”

“I couldn’t tell you,” she said.

“I’m going around,” Sveta said.  She swayed a little and touched the wall with one hand to steady herself.

“Okay.  Be careful.  Don’t let them affect you like they did Chris.”

She extended her arms out, reaching out with tendrils that had the arms at the ends to hamper them and weigh them down, then pulled herself away with less noise than Chris made as he packed up his stuff.

The Fallen settlement was wedged in between a ‘v’ of forest, with the road cutting in from the east.  The settlement proper was a denser cluster of rustic buildings, and houses dispersed out into the wider area, thinning out the further they were from this settlement.

I had the impression that this was the city center.  The main road cut through the cluster of buildings, about two houses down from where I was, and it seemed to do so with a weird angled turn in it.  It made me think these buildings had been some of the first, and the road had been an afterthought.

The hostages, from what I’d seen from my bird’s eye view, were being made to sit in the road, corralled by a group of people with powers.  Valefor among them.

I ventured further along, checking the coast was clear, then skip-flying over to the next vantage point by pushing off the ground with my foot and flying from there once airborne.  The buildings remained dense between myself and the Fallen.

Sveta dropped down from above me, scuffing the wall as she did.  It seemed intentional, to keep me from startling too much or lashing out in anticipation of an attack.

She pressed her fingers to my mouth.  Leaning in close, she murmured in my ear, “Two to your left.  Two to our right.  They were told where we are.  About twenty feet away.”

I nodded.

She pulled away and turned to one side.  I turned to the other, so my back was almost touching hers.

My instinct was to go up.  I flew, and at roughly the same moment, Sveta went low, torso almost flat against the ground, and she pulled herself in the direction of Capricorn and Chris.

I brought myself up to the roof level, and navigated the rooftops while using them as cover from anyone on the street.

Gunfire in the distance was met with more gunfire.  Prancer, Velvet, Moose, Narwhal, Weld, and Vista, with some of the Undersiders.

My heart pounded.  I moved with only light contact using toes and fingertips to guide myself as I stayed as close as I could to the rooftop while not putting any weight on it.

I saw them.  A man and a woman.  He was wearing a costume with ragged black leather enveloping most of him, and a round metal mask surrounded by leather that obscured the shape of his head.  The skin of his arms was tanned with arm-hairs sun-bleached.  His visible skin was dripping with sweat.  It wasn’t that hot a day out, with the sun hidden behind the clouds but that much leather had to be intense.

The woman was Fallen.  Her mask inverted her face, so she peered through the mouth-hole, and horns swept out from the top and bottom corners, for four in total.  She’d dressed lightly enough she had to have been cold, with a strapless top bound to her body by thin chains.  More chains wrapped around the red cloth wraps that encircled her forearms, pelvis, and legs.

As I looked down from above, I could see that she was touching the wall as she walked by it, leaving a trail of what looked like gaseous glass.  It formed edged, hooked shapes as she left it behind.

I flew a course intended to take me behind them, so I could do something quick and decisive.

Yellow lights flared along the length of the glass, gaseous smoke.  Eyes.

The smoke billowed out, taking on a more solid form as it became a nebulous mass of teeth, barbs, claws, and razor edges.

I raised my forcefield and smashed it.

My forcefield won, but only barely.  The beast-smoke I hit broke into solid chunks, some as large as my head.

The woman- I turned to look and saw her creating more smoke as something that billowed toward me in a wave.  I backed away until my forcefield was up, then crashed into it, hard.  I saw her stumble back, arms around her face.

Behind her, the guy with the circular mask had four lenses spaced evenly around the mask flare with energy.  Four shapes manifested in front of him- long and slim, round, thicker crescent, and a star-like shape with radial spokes.

I pushed out with my aura before he could do anything.  The woman stumbled and landed on her ass.  The guy weathered it, paused, and then touched the long, slim one.

The other three images disappeared, but the one he’d touched flew at me like a javelin.  I threw myself to one side, but it wasn’t even aimed at me.

It flared with a dark amber light as it embedded into the wall, then faded.  I put some distance between myself and it.

The woman created more smoke, sending it down the side-street in a wave that grazed buildings on both sides.  I flew up and away.

I pushed out with my aura, and it failed.  Like a car failing to start, it sputtered and died out.  On my second try, it did work, but it felt weak.

Power dampener.

My flight felt fine.  The wretch, unfortunate as it was, felt okay too.

Was it because my awe power was the one I’d been using?

The woman with the glass smoke sent a column skyward.  As I flew back and away, I could see it expanding out into the air.  More demon imagery ran through it, all the overlapping chaos of hell, snapping jaws, and ripping claws.

The guy was creating another diagram.  Three images remained, now.

Yeah.  This group that was with the hostages was important, if they had people like this as bodyguards and errand-runners.

I flew away from them, trying to get a sense of how vulnerable Valefor’s group was.  I was aware he’d gotten some hooks in me earlier, but I wasn’t feeling it as much.  I wasn’t sure if the emotional shock of Ashley had shaken me of some of it, or if it was subtle in a scary way.

I saw another glowing object pass through two walls and part of a short fence before hitting the ground twenty feet below me and twenty more feet to my right.

It detonated with the impact, expanding out into the space around it, getting thinner as it did.

The moment I realized it was expanding at a rate that would catch up with me, I flew toward the ground, away from the bubble.

My flight sputtered out, maneuvering dying, speed cutting out, and the entire thing threatening to just give up on me altogether.

I landed hard, with a grunt.

Explosion bomb, javelin dart, and two more, and my flight and aura were both in tatters.

I could at least reassure myself that these things didn’t tend to be permanent unless they were power theft.  Powers wanted to be used, and submitting to a power-canceling effect on a permanent basis didn’t make sense.

A mixed feeling, when I thought about the Wretch being permanently removed.

Now it was more or less all I had.  I could hear the smoke creatures.  I could see the spire that had been sent skyward, that now was a rigid pillar.  After they attacked, they seemed to solidify into solid fixtures.

“Work with me,” I whispered.

I brought out the Wretch, and I hit the nearest building, shattering the wood exterior.

I remained where I was, feeling that fluttery panic feeling again, tinged with the heavy feeling that always came with the Wretch.  I used the moment to retrieve my metal mask and don it.

I reached out in the direction of the shattered wood, and I grabbed one lengthy piece.  “Arm yourself,” I said, my voice muffled by the mask.

The wretch reached out for other chunks of the wall.  It bit into them, drummed them with impacts that made the whole building complain, and shredded solid struts with fingernails, punches, and kicks.

I canceled the field, then brought it out again.  I seized another long bit of wood, a supporting beam, and hauled on it.  The Wretch hit it, and broke it at the base.  I stumbled as it came free.

One-handed, using only my regular strength, I tossed the three feet of two-by-four up.

The Wretch caught it.

They were getting closer.  I could hear them.

My heart sank as the Wretch gripped the two-by-four so hard it splintered and broke at the middle.

“Use it as a weapon,” I said.

There was no indication the Wretch heard.

The pair were making their approach.  The guy had one glowing circle on his mask, now, and a crescent moon of manifested power-canceling energy that he held like a sword.

The smoke woman unleashed her power on me.  I charged in, crashing into it, and shattered the first ten feet.

The Wretch threw the two feet of two-by-four, or it let go of the piece as it dissipated.

The block of wood hit the masked woman in the face hard enough to knock her off of her feet and break the horn at the right side of her her chin.  The smoke ceased flowing, and the forms went still.

I’d hoped it would use the weapon to break stuff before it broke down in turn.

I watched as she tried to get to her feet, stumbled, and then fell back down again.  On her second attempt, she created two columns of her power, letting them solidify, before using them as leverage to stand.  She slumped against one, then slowly slumped back down toward the ground.

That left me to deal with the guy who could disrupt powers with his arsenal of minor abilities.  Right.

He went to the girl first, still holding his blade, and bent down by her.

“She okay?” I asked.

He didn’t respond.  Slowly, he helped her get to her feet.

In the same instant, the two of them looked off to one side, as if they’d heard a loud noise.

He dismissed the sword, one of his eyes lighting up, then drew out the star thing.

He cast it down at the ground, hard.  He and the girl disappeared.

The direction they’d been looking.  The Fallen that had been watching the hostages.

I ran after them, trying flight when I could.  It took a few running steps before I had something that was better than legging it.

Capricorn and Sveta had arrived.  That was the only thing I could see as a more or less unambiguous plus.

There was a group on the scene, facing down Valefor and the other Fallen, with the power nullifier and glass-smoke woman having already rejoined them by teleport.  A woman with a bunny mask and marching band outfit, ears poking up through the brim of the flat-top, feathered cap.  There were three people in costumes that I didn’t recognize, and there was Rain, with the metal mask, gloves, and dark hood.  He was tense, and he was tense for damn good reason.

Their arrival had precipitated something I’d seen as more or less inevitable.  With as many players in this game as there were, the hostages were always going to be the last card the Fallen group could play, so a part of me had trusted and hoped that they would hold off on playing it.

Something Rain or this mystery group had done had spooked them enough that they’d played the card.

The battlefield was the dirt road that cut an odd angle through the settlement center.  On that dirt, Erin was among the hostages that writhed and screamed as they lost their minds.

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129 thoughts on “Shadow – 5.11”

  1. Well…

    On a lighter note, the word “wretch” in this chapter was used with and without capitalisation several times.

    ” “I calculated wrong, I thought he was smarter.”

    She said. She stuck out a foot, and rested her foot on Beast of Burden’s forehead. ”

    “She said” seems to be formatted incorrectly.

    Also, was Sidepiece calling Sveta a cyborg? I just want to make sure.

    1. Yes, Sveta’s body is prosthetic so it makes sense Sidepiece might have misunderstood what Sveta actually is and called her a cyborg.

      1. pocket atari – Atari should be capitalised as its a proper noun.

        I guess Worm is a universe without an ET video game, lucky bastards.

      2. Hi, I’m new to commenting.

        Correct me if I’m wrong but she didn’t say Ashley’s​ names here right?
        “I’d like you to turn yourself in, and submit yourself into our custody,” I said.

        Her eyes widened slightly.

        “There it is,” Nailbiter said, in that eerie voice with its whistles and hisses of breath through teeth.
        Since it’s my first comment, love this series and worm. Better than dc, Marvel, and most books imo. Cheers!

  2. I wonder if March has Circus. I wonder if Circus made it. I wonder a lot about Circus. She’s cool.

    I wonder if, if March doesn’t have Circus, she has any other members of Circus’ cluster, and what they can do. And how extradimensional storage works as a secondary power.

  3. Loving the indecisiveness Ashley shows from under her Damsel persona. I hope she comes out of this well off.

    Also loving the Wretch interactions. It can evolve to be Siberian-lite if Victoria masters its use, and that would be grand.

    Very nice chapter, scary as heck in a lot of ways, not the least of which was Chris going sudden Voice of Wisdom on everyone.

    1. I wonder if the blast that killed Beast of Burden was a misfire and the resulting speech was just an attempt to save face.

      1. The misfire angle will be hard to sell since she deliberately aimed at BoB and fired a rather focused burst, unlike her typical undesired sparky fumbles.

      2. Unlikely, as IMMEDIATELY after it happened, she told him that he was the one who needed to shut up. Seems like an odd thing to confidently say if it was an accident, considering while she IS good at being a believable villain, she loses her poker face rather easily when someone says her name.

        Now, if there was instead a moment of silence, followed by someone asking what she did, and THEN for her to say “he thought I was the one who should stop talking ,and I disagreed” or something like that, then it could’ve been all a ploy following a tragic accident.

  4. I feel like the others are being a bit harsh with Ashley at the start there. Obviously killing people is bad but he was an unrepentant superpowered criminal who had attacked her. He wasn’t even one of the relatively sympathetic hollow point capes who were mainly in it for self defence or money.

    Also, on purely utilitarian grounds him being dead will probably save more lives long term. So go Ashley.

    1. Well, I’m not sorry that BoB’s dead. But it’s clearly not OK for a hero to straight-up murder him for insulting/assaulting her. She can’t claim it was self defense, or that she was protecting someone.

      However, Skitter was able to get a pardon, and turn hero. What are the limits of the amnesty?

      1. Ashley’s not a superhero. Not really. Part of the deal with the post-Gold Morning story is people stopping and asking whether unelected, un-nominated, un-licensed masked enforcers are even a thing that they want to tolerate anymore.

        Team Therapy are basically a bunch of vigilantes with no legal standing whatsoever.

        1. Ummm… dunno what story you have been reading, but the Warden HQ (from which heroes petition their missions and territories) unquestionably has legal power.

          True, the authority of capes thing is getting questioned, but it has not yet been abolished.

      2. She got hit with a gauntlet clad hand that hit her hard enough that it knocked her down, that’s assault with a weapon. She 100 percent can claim self defense.

        1. “I provoked someone, they hit me, I killed them, give me a free pass” is a very shaky argument coming from an ex-S9 member who habitually provokes people and is constantly armed with a nigh-unstoppable ultra-fatal close-range weapon.

          And this wasn’t really self-defense. If Ashley had blown BoB’s arm off as he attacked her, or if he had told her to stay down and threatened her while she was on the ground and she’d fired from that position, those would have been self-defense arguments. Not terribly sound arguments as she makes a profession out of putting herself in much higher levels of danger on regular basis and she had very good reason to believe BoB wasn’t trying to kill or seriously injure her. But those scenarios would have at least included actions intended to protect Ashley from imminent harm. What actually happened though? BoB wasn’t actively a threat in the moment Ashley killed him, there’s no self-defense argument argument to be made.

          I know with the way self-defense often gets interpreted in high profile cases in the US, particularly for cops and white guys killing PoC, it may seem like lethal self-defense is justified in any scenario where you can say “I felt threatened” or “they hit me first”, but that’s not actually how the law is written in the US. (And the US has just about the loosest self-defense laws you’ll find in the industrialized world). Lethal self-defense is supposed to only be valid in scenarios where someone’s life is in immediate peril and lethal violence is the only available option. And while this world’s legal system is currently up in the air, even if the self-defense laws end up being as subjective as the US’, I doubt Ashley would get the special privileged treatment under them.

          1. Ashley doesn’t have many options. Although “taking arm off” would be a decent thing for her to have done.

      1. Also, Team Therapy have reeeeaaally dodgy standing to even be doing shit like infiltrating villainous organisations and taking part in these kinds of operations. They’re a bunch of dysfunctional people who were all in therapy for various reasons, have killed people and committed crimes of their own before the amnesty, and basically decided that they were gonna be heroes now. No license, no authorization, no legal power, no direct oversight. Their own lawyer is trying to advise them to cool it. Their shared therapist thinks this is a bad idea.

        1. “No license, no authorization, no legal power, no direct oversight.”

          Isn’t that a bit of a stretch considering that the Wardens know most of their identities and histories, and still gave them the go-head to set up shop in Cedar Point for information gathering?

          1. Their own lawyer still keeps telling them that they need to slow down and stop acting like they have legal power of arrest. They’re not the police. A significant point of the narrative so far is that ordinary people are *pissed* with capes and resent the idea of them continuing to be masked law enforcement.

            Besides which, they got authorization for this specific op by kinda sorta lying to the Wardens about how shit was actually working out.

          2. And they have heeded that advice and have taken a mostly hands off approach.
            The only times they have directly fought any Hollow Point villains was when it was in the protection of themselves or others.(Houndstooth and Advanced Guard)

            Or that time when Moose explicitly told Victoria to do so and then leave or a whole gang of villains would seriously hurt her.

            You are right about this current mission though.

          3. @Exejpgwmv

            See, Ashley’s not going to face any kind of major consequences for this. She fragged some guy whom nobody liked in the middle of a battle with terrorists, and no-one’s going to testify jack shit about what happened.

            But.

            In the vastly, staggeringly unlikely event that this entire episode got put in front of a courtroom, and that courtroom contained a jury, Team Therapy would be *fucked*.

            “And your team formed how, exactly?”
            “And can we draw testimony from the various healthcare and legal professionals who can attest to this? I see.”
            “And Ashley Stilson’s background is…? Oh, yes. I see.”
            “So, how Damsel become embedded in the Hollow Point organisation, can we go over that once more?”
            “Is there any pattern of prior similar behaviour?”

            Everyone involved would be obligated to lie their asses off, just to prevent Team Therapy from becoming public knowledge. Recall how pissed people were about Fume Hood trying to join a hero team? Holy shit, the outcry over Team Therapy deploying Slaughterhouse 9000 veterans, as well as (depending on how much of it came out) Fallen terrorists, stabilised Case 93’s, and tinkers with extreme borderline personality disorder would threaten the amnesty.

            It wouldn’t even be about Beast of Burden, who was an asshole. It would be about the fact that Team Therapy is fundamentally a bad idea.

          4. @Lee

            I wasn’t really talking about legal consequences there.

            But I wouldn’t be so sure it would be a problem in court either. The Amnesty isn’t just an agreement between capes, it’s a legal agreement that protects people like Riley, Ashley, Amy and Rain.

          5. @Exejpgwmv

            Oh, I know the amnesty is a legal fact, not just an informal cape agreement. My point here is that if you get a bunch of ordinary folks and tell them “That’s why this potentially unstable group of vigilantes were able to deploy an ex-Slaughterhouse member as part of an undercover operation in which people got killed,” they’re gonna turn right around and say “Then fuck the amnesty. Don’t allow this to happen.”

            It’ll only turn more ordinary people even more heavily against capes.

          6. @Exejpgwmv

            Also, wait, hang on. The amnesty in no way whatsoever protects Rain. The amnesty is not a blank cheque for crimes committed by parahumans. It’s an amnesty applied to villains after Gold Morning. That’s all. So, Riley, Ashley, and Amy are fine, they got the amnesty.

            Rain was not powered when he took part in a terrorist attack and killed a bunch of people, a year or so after Gold Morning. He triggered as a result of that. We still don’t know how he ended up in the therapy group, because there’s no way in hell that he ever saw the inside of a courtroom for what he did.

            So, that’s another thing which would likely explode if it came up in a court case.

          7. @Exejpgwmv

            Is cool. Basically, I’m not going to agree that Team Therapy is a good idea as opposed to a ticking time bomb until we find out what’s really going on with Chris, how Rain even ended up in the group and whether the authorities know that he is an actual, literal Fallen terrorist, and whether Tristan’s got his motivations sorted out.

            Sveta and Victoria are lovely people, but I will always remain deeply suspicious of the idea “I should be a superhero! That’s a career!”, because what that actually means is “I should be a cop with a mask and no badge and very little accountability, and people should pay me for it!”

            In some ways, I find the Undersiders to be *less* suspicious, because I know who and what they are, how they work, and where their revenue is coming from.

  5. Well, let’s hope Mama Mathers dies in the next chapter or two before she can do too much damage to Erin’s mind. Fortunately, Rain’s there to point her out to everyone else, if he can’t just bank her himself.

    1. Banking her is for after everything goes well.

      …Yes, that’s a terrible joke on several levels. Unfortunately, it (arguably) had to be made, and I come from a long line of people who make terrible jokes.

      1. I don’t take it as a joke. From what we’ve seen of TT, there is no reason she would choose to just murder a bunch of (admittedly unsavory) people who never hurt her, especially if the “good guys” wanted her to do that. However, if she thought she could master/enslave/subvert/recruit/somehow take over some of those people for her own uses? Yeah she would do that.

  6. Stupid mama mathers! Rain and March should be natural allies and you picked a fight with them!?

    I hope ashley is okay. I’m worried about her. Legally and ethically brute smacks girl and threatens her=lethal force time, but that doesn’t make it easy mentally. Especially if it tied into some other trauma.

    I hope Erin is okay.

    1. But that’s not okay legally OR ethically! You can’t just murder someone on the basis that they hit you first.

      Well, I mean, obviously you can. And Ashley’s actually in a great position to get away with murder. The justice system is still in shambles, and she has connections to both to cape Illuminati members like Bonesaw, and established lawyers like Victoria’s mom. And none of the witnesses have any real interest in testifying against her. Who can really prove that BoB didn’t, say, commit suicide under Valefor’s orders? Or that he wasn’t blasted by one of the Fallen capes? Damsel’s power is fairly distinctive when you see it, but the wound is probably just going to look like any other disintegration/implosion effect. It’s not going to be worth it pursuing an uncertain murder case when there’s a huge backlog of certain ones. And it looks like her personal relationships are going to be fine, too. Team Therapy is a bit spooked, but less upset than they were to find out Rain is Fallen, and they got over that in a day.

      But just because you can freely kill people with no fear of repercussions, that doesn’t mean you should! Even if it feels good.

      1. Yeah Ashley is gonna get out of this scot free, provided nobody has it in for her. The question is if Ashley realizes that or if she thinks she’s just totally blown her chance to be a hero…

      2. I’m pretty sure that deliberately provoking and physically assaulting a former Slaughterhouse Nine member with known instability issues and one of the most fuck-off-OP Blaster powers out there qualifies as “suicide” under Ankh-Morpork law, anyway.

        1. Yeah. Someone should have told BoB that no one would have thought less of him for letting the ex-S9 member with the insta-murder mouth off to him.

      3. “But that’s not okay legally OR ethically! You can’t just murder someone on the basis that they hit you first.”

        You don’t kill people on the basis they hit you first. You ARE allowed to use lethal force if you reasonably believe there is a sufficient threat, and you don’t have better options. BoB was a brute. He had just killed people. He had just attacked Ashley, and was making implied threats towards Ashley. He was about to attack Ashley. Ashley was in no condition to simply turn her back and flee, especially since BoB could easily throw a bike at her or somesuch.

        This was one of those times when lethal force was justified. BoB was probably a couple seconds away from splattering her.

        1. Yeah, about that, hypothetical Ashley-can-claim-this-and-no-one-can-prove-it-false arguments aside, BoB wasn’t actually about to attack her. This was absolutely not killing in self-defense. This wasn’t even killing to achieve some strategic or tactical goal. She killed him because he was annoying.

          1. Yeah, I don’t think Ash can lay out all the facts and call it Self Defense. But considering the circumstances, she should be able to chalk it up to Fog of War, Hypno-Master compulsions flying around, and He Needed Killing. If she possesses sufficient instincts of self-preservation to let her peeps make the argument for her. Which is one helluva assumption.

            Please let Erin be okay. Or at least not dead. Or broken beyond character agency.

          2. I just re-read the terminal encounter at the end of 5.10. I’m revising my opinion. A dude attacking an unarmored girl with an armored gauntlet meets any reasonable standard of Assault With A Deadly Weapon. This is the weapon The Mountain used to defeat The Viper in A Storm of Swords. It’s the same as stabbing you with a knife. One can shoot such a mook and claim Self-Defense. Without the aggravating factor of the mook packing Super-Strength.

            Super-Heroes, however, may reasonably be held to a higher standard.

          3. Yeah a lot of the commentary here on reasonable use of lethal force seems to be supported more by wishful thinking than by e.g. having taken a CCW or ethics class. Yes Virginia, you can hit back. If one doesn’t approve a woman defending herself when attacked by an abusive male, why on earth is one reading this story? When a Brute attacks a non-Brute, he richly deserves anything she does in response.

  7. I’m starting to wonder if Team Therapy is going to survive this. Oh I’m not talking about anyone dying. I mean members not wanting anything to do with each other.

  8. Victoria is keeping a suprisingly level head. Good.

    “I wasn’t sure if the emotional shock of Ashley had shaken me of some of it, or if it was subtle in a scary way.”

    ^ The fact she can have this thought at all probably proves that there are no lingering orders.

  9. I still feel like Ashley made the right choice. It’s not always as simple as killing=wrong, Victoria.
    Also still not clear what March’s deal is. And having trouble even remembering all the times we’ve seen them. Was it just one off thing during the prologue I think? And they were hitned as being part of Foil’s cluster somehow? Or was it Circus. Think someone mentioned that in their comment and now i’m confused. Foil never did mention some cluster thing. Also thought those were a post Gold Morning thing.
    Anyway, on another note. The fuck Rain? Disappears for a while and then shows up in the middle of this fight with a different group of capes? Probably not Hollow Point, since they’re working with Love Lost and Snag. Not Fallen, because they’re facing off with Fallen. So where the hell did they come and who are they with? Heroes maybe? But how did Rain join with them? Questions.
    Also, felt some phrasing was kind of unclear in this chapter, especially near the beginning with the conversation with Ashley. Like “Everyone was backing away from Beast of Burden and from Damsel”. Second from not really necessary. Though that one was more for keeping things concise. As for clarity, I wasn’t really sure what Victoria was thinking anout or trying to do. It was kind of a jumble as to what her thoughts on the situation were. Then at the end when she walked away, satisfied I was confused. I thought she would be mad or upset that Damsel didn’t turn herself in. Then I belatedly realized that when Damsel said “I’m done with this” she meant the attack and she was going to leave, by herself. I thought she meant the conversation and she’d be staying with ex-BoBs group. Maybe could have finished that with her walking away by herself?
    Anyway, still enjoying things and looking forward to seeing where this goes.

    1. IIRC March is Foil’s clustermate. The two powers in question are the Sting (primarily Foil’s) and the “sense of timing” / coordination power (primarily March’s). She presumably has a few members of Circus’s cluster, but we don’t know much more about them. I think she popped up with the Undersiders when Snag et al were recruiting mercs. Not sure why Rain’s with them now though. I think he might have gone to her at the end of 5.d?

      1. Are we sure March got the timing as primary and Sting as secondary? Or are we just assuming because of the relative power levels of the Foil’s “sting” vs. Foils aim/timing. Foil would make a great sniper without Sting. What if Sting is March’s primary and her timing ability is “I’m perfect at DDR?” or “I can pace myself perfectly!”?

        1. I’m pretty sure. We know the name of the Sting shard because Scion identified it upon seeing Foil during the climax of the Slaghterhouse Nine Thousand story. Ergo, Foil has the Sting shard and March has the…whatever the other one is. Getting even a lesser version of it would likely make March extremely deadly, but I think it’s definite the main Sting power resides with Foil.

  10. He extended a hand down toward Chris, who was still camouflaged, albeit less tidily than before. He straightened, moving his arm like he was pulling Chris to his feet.

    “Fuck,” Chris hissed. Things clattered to the dirt around him. Some were camouflaged. Others were containers. “I thought you were shaking my hand or something.”

    Someone help me out? I don’t understand what’s happening here – what did Capricorn do to make Chris’ stuff fall?

      1. Ah got it thanks, the “like he was pulling” threw me off – made me think he was doing something similar to pulling Chris up but not actually doing so 🙂

  11. “On the other side of things, while everyone else turned to look at the shifting reds and blues and greens, my focus was on Ashley. I saw something in her expression, as she looked at Sveta, then at Capricorn, and finally met my eyes. It was fleeting, spooked, more like how an ordinary person might look if they were at the mercy of ex-Slaughterhouse Nine member Damsel of Distress, than Damsel of Distress herself.”

    This part makes me wonder, what if Ashley didn’t chose to kill Beast of Burden? What if she was just planning to point at him to threaten him and her power misfired? And now she’s just desperately trying to look like she meant to do it instead of admitting that she can’t control her power and is terrified of it.

  12. I don’t think Ashley did that accidentally. Her first reaction after blowing BoB’s brains out is “YOU stop”. I’d be surprised if she had the presence of mind to have a little quip ready immediately after accidentally killing someone.

    It makes more sense that she lost control and let her emotions / Bonesaw programming get the better of her.

    P.s Team Therapy isn’t going to survive this I don’t think. Ashley has killed a leader of the Hollow, Rain is squaring off against the Undersiders and Heroes with another gang of villians and the rest of the team is barely in control.

    1. She didn’t strictly speaking lose control as gave up control to her shard. She stopped fighting the shard and gave in to it’s conflict inducingness which is part of why she is so spooked afterwards cause she didn’t really pull the trigger but let the shard do it for her.

      1. The shard isn’t really a fully separate entity. It’s a part of her. I think it’s less like giving in to the part of herself that wants to kill everyone, and more like getting stuck into a mode of thinking where SHE wants to kill everyone.

    2. I don’t think Ashley killed Bob accidentally, either. I also suspect she started to regret it once she had a chance to think about what she’d done (and the consequences thereof).

  13. Obviously I’m messed up but I loved this chapter.

    I was totally down with Damsel killing Bob and her reaction afterwards was perfect. What is awesome here is that she has already lived through so much that she doesn’t have any hesitation. She’s like the kids on the WIRE who are so inured to violence that they can’t really conceive of nonviolent solutions.

    I finallly get Victoria. She’s a sergeant who’s been promoted to an officer and who sucks at running a team. She’s never been a leader before and she makes terrible mistakes and fails to anticipate. That’s why this plan has such crappy strategy. She’s not had to run a plan before or a team and she doesn’t know how to handle it.

    Well done Wildbow.

    1. “She’s never been a leader before and she makes terrible mistakes and fails to anticipate.”

      She’d be dead already if that was the case.

      And what did she fail to anticipate?

      1. A good leader has an articulable set of tactical objectives prioritized, understanding of strategic purpose of an operation, comprehension of the strengths and weaknesses of squad members, Contingency plans if something goes awry, and victory conditions to gauge success.

        Victoria failed to anticipate that Ashley could not bear the stresses of undercover work, failed to anticipate that her team might be treated as hostile by the people she was trying to rescue, failed to have a plan for hostages, failed to have contingencies around for domination powers, failed to have a strategic purpose in stepping into this fight.

        Her team is vastly underpowered trying to do too many different things with no sense of why they are doing them. She has, in light of one member getting violent WITH A KNOWN ENEMY decided to place that fighter under arrest or send them from the field, again weakening her team.

        She now has devolved into a default state of attack because we like to fight bad guys and places herself at risk for hostages that she barely knows on behalf of a team member who has gone rogue This is a muddle.

        1. I’m kinda surprised they haven’t retreated from the field actually. Victoria knows that at least one of her team members isn’t on the up and up, she doesn’t know what chris is doing half the time, has no idea what rain is up to, is now very worried about Ashley’s state of mind/murdering spree, and she and multiple members of the group have had their minds compromised overtly with Valefor and covertly with Mama. All that in the middle of a battlefield of at least two groups whom they cannot and will not ally with.

          1. Victoria really really wants to be a super hero and the idea that attempting to do so in this situation is dangerous and unhelpful is something that she’s predisposed to just rejecting out of hand without thinking about it.

          2. Yes. Poor leadership.

            Upon the killing of Bob the answer was to leave and call it a victory.

            Taylor had the queen admin shard. She got leadership instinctively. Victoria ? Not so much.

        2. Yeah. It’s a real shift from Wildbow’s prior work and I’m interested to see how it gets handled as the story goes on.

          In Worm Taylor was a tactical genius (even if she did wield that genius more like a machete than a scalpel). Her weakness was never that she lost sight of objectives, enemies, or allies on the ground, but that she was strategically near-sighted and completely unable to sheath her claws and accept a small loss instead of escalating. But ultimately every individual move she made was done intelligently.

          In Pact Blake wasn’t necessarily *good* at fighting, but he was relentlessly committed to improvement, constantly sought to operate outside the battlefield his opponents delineated for him, and was surrounded by intelligent critics. He fucked up (often) but he was never *passively* bad at anything. If some aspect of his decision making was causing problems, there was absolutely no way he was going to just let it slide.

          In Twig Sylvester … was Sylvester. ‘Nuff said.

          The point is that in all the stories Wildbow’s done so far, the protagonist was never bad at what they did. Skitter went to war, Blake scrapped, Sylvester schemed, and they were all *great* at it. Their tragic flaws were rooted in the consequences of their actions, not any failure of execution.

          But Victoria is actually *bad* at this. She is a bad tactician. Absolutely no action she’s taken so far has had a contingency for failure or frustration and that’s just suicidal in the long run. She’s a pretty bad leader too. She’s decent enough off the field, I think she’d make a good trainer or administrator. But she’s just shown no talent for coordination or utilizing her companion’s abilities. And to be frank she’s not the best at the warrior monk thing either. Like, emotionally she’s making good progress and combat-wise she’s got decent power and plenty of experience. But she’s not really suited to operating outside the box or intuiting her enemies’ weaknesses in a way that a truly great fighter needs to be.

          So I’m really interested in seeing where this goes. With the other stories there was a very natural progression obvious from the beginning. Taylor’s fights naturally brought her to more combat, which led to more combat, which was never not going to escalate. Blake had a clear external pressure and inability to give up which was only ever going to go one direction. Sylvester’s situation was more complicated, but there was never a question of him just stopping. But Victoria? She’s kinda bad at what she’s trying to do. And she doesn’t have to do it. She could apologize to Team Therapy for biting off more than she could chew, retreat to a more clearly restricted mentor role, get a non-hero job which makes use of her flight, and work on her mental health. She could do that. She probably ought to.

          So I’m *very* interested to see what Wildbow does with this. How does he push the story forward with a character whose tragedy isn’t rooted in the consequences of their actions, but rather the fact that she’s just not the best as what she’s trying to do?

          1. Which is why, even though I like Victoria as a character, I disapprove of what she’s doing. She has options. Shitloads of options. She has flight and superstrength, if she wanted to she could walk onto a construction site and be earning a professional wage by the end of the day. But that’s not what she wants to do. What she wants to do is this.

            She’s probably a better person than Taylor. But she’s not really smarter than Taylor, or more mature. She’s doing this because her self image is that of a superhero. Victoria wants to help people and be a good person, but the extremely specific way in which she really, really wants to do that is by wearing a costume and being a superhero.

            She’s good at punching people and using her powers, so maybe she can do that and it’ll be fine. But nonetheless, she’s not a solid tactician. She doesn’t home in on objectives and get shit *done*. She doesn’t build in a comprehensive understanding of her team’s capabilities. She takes care of things as they come up, and switches focus too easily. She thinks about everything like a thug with a short attention span. A good and benevolent thug! But still with that focus on direct action followed by tactical distraction. Are Team Therapy focusing on:
            – Evacuating civilians?
            – Taking out the Fallen outriders?
            – Engaging the Fallen counterattack?
            – Neutralising the hostages?

            They’ve done a little bit of the first, got distracted into the second, got distracted into the third, and have now been dragged into the fourth.

            Victoria’s plan is kinda shitty. Taylor would quite literally be better at Victoria’s job than she is.

          2. @Sengachi

            By Victoria getting better at it?

            It wouldn’t exactly be a novel concept for a main character to simply start off as average, or even bad, at what they want to do and then improving with experience.

            @Lee
            “– Evacuating civilians?
            – Taking out the Fallen outriders?
            – Engaging the Fallen counterattack?
            – Neutralising the hostages?”

            The first and original objective was to evacuate civilians and to take out an fringe Fallen members that got in the way or attempted to pursue fleeing civilians.

            ^ Contrary to popular belief, evacuation duty in an active and fluid combat-zone sometimes involves a lot of fighting.

            They got involved with hostages when it was revealed that there were any hostages at all and where they were.

          3. @Lee “Victoria wants to help people and be a good person, but the extremely specific way in which she really, really wants to do that is by wearing a costume and being a superhero.”

            I think you hit the nail on the head with that one. That might as well be the driving thesis of her character right now.

            @Exejpgwmv Oh yeah, for all I know Wildbow’s going to have her improve. Maybe that’ll be part of her warrior monk path, a serious critical self-examination of her weaknesses and commitment to training to improve them. Like Theo from Worm but with more outright success.

            He could also have her find a different path though. Or really fuck up forcing herself down this one. I don’t know. That’s part of what’s engaging me in this story.

        3. I don’t understand.

          The only teammate’s capabilities she doesn’t fully know about is Chris. And that’s because he’s being tight-lipped and refuses to explain. So now she needs to verify by proxy that his forms can in fact do what he claims with the rest of the team.

          They all already went over teammate capabilities, mission objectives, “Worst Case Scenario” events to be avoided, and contingencies in the Warden meeting.

          She also used her own, and the Warden’s, resources to research and try to plan around the abilities of the prominent Fallen capes they know will be there. (Mama Mathers and Valefor being the most recent examples.)

          “Victoria failed to anticipate that Ashley could not bear the stresses of undercover work”
          Ashley blowing her cover, either deliberately, by doing something stupid, or being found out was always a risk. And is, in fact, always a risk when anyone goes undercover.

          ” failed to anticipate that her team might be treated as hostile by the people she was trying to rescue”
          No, she did. That’s why Tristan and Sveta were so quick to react when that guy pulled a gun on Victoria.

          “failed to have a plan for hostages”
          Find where the hostages are being held.
          Try to figure out how they’re being threatened/contained.
          See if anyone on your side could safely extract them.

          ^ You can’t really plan around some nebulous and vague “hostage situation” with any kind of effectiveness without knowing those three things.

          “failed to have contingencies around for domination powers”
          As far as anyone knew: The best contingency for Valefor’s power was to avoid getting Valefor’d in the first place.
          Unfortunately; apparently no one, besides maybe the Undersiders, knew about Valefor’s new power.

          So Victoria and Co. had to improvise a solution.

          “failed to have a strategic purpose in stepping into this fight.”
          Search and Rescue of civilians on the fringes of the battle field. Giving them instructions and a clear path to authorities outside of the combat-zones that can properly help them.

          “Her team is vastly underpowered”
          This team has many potential draw-backs. But a lack of firepower has never been a problem for them in any of their encounters.

          They could use more of it, almost any team could, but it’s not what I would call a pressing issue.

          And if you actually mean “understaffed for this mission”: That’s why they got Junior Wardens to help out.

          “trying to do too many different things with no sense of why they are doing them.”
          They’re only doing the one thing right now.

          “She has, in light of one member getting violent WITH A KNOWN ENEMY decided to place that fighter under arrest or send them from the field, again weakening her team.”
          I won’t defend Ashley killing BoB; so I won’t.
          1)BoB wasn’t an enemy, or even a threat, to the team when Ashley killed him.
          2)Ashley killed someone she was supposed to be undercover/falsely working for.

          And most importantly:

          3)The reason Victoria tried to pull Ashley away from the other villains was because she was able to see past the bravado. Ashley was unsteady, probably close to breaking again, and her powers were misfiring.
          She was a liability at that point, not an asset, and probably should’ve sat the rest of this fight out.

          ***

          Maybe you don’t like Victoria’s plans because, when things go wrong, she has to improvise instead of revealing some perfect contingency plan she had up her sleeve.

          Except that’s not a realistic expectation for any strategist or leader. It’s a fact of life that plans tend to fall a part when enemy contact is made, so you’ll be spending more time than you’d like just improvising based on new information.

          Unless you’ve got someone like Dinah, Coil, or Tattletale on your team; multiple and incredibly specific contingency plans for a variety of “what if” scenarios simply aren’t feasible when on a time-crunch.

          1. The points about Chris and Ashley are not new information which Victoria suddenly had to deal with.

            Chris won’t tell the team the full functionality of his powers. Ashley goes around quite literally threatening to kill people in the manner of an unstable school-shooter type, very frequently. Nonetheless, Victoria relies on Chris in a battle, and sends Ashley into stressful undercover situations. Neither of these things is a good idea. Team Therapy don’t actually have to be here, at all, and things might be better if they weren’t. They choose to be here. Anything that goes wrong as a result of them being here is on their heads.

          2. Again, I don’t dislike the characters involved. I just think that Team Therapy itself is a fundamentally bad idea and that the motivations of the people involved are sketchy as hell. If someone wants to be a police officer, they should go to an academy, get trained, qualify for the badge, and accept that they are a servant of society. If that someone doesn’t get accepted into the police force, we don’t allow them and their friends to get together and form an armed Neighbourhood Protection Squad.

          3. “They could use more of it, almost any team could, but it’s not what I would call a pressing issue”

            When I first read “they could use more of it”, I interpreted it as “They [currently have the ability to] use more of it [than they already are].” As in Ashley could actually blast people instead of acting like low grade mover/brute and Sveta could start hugging people.

            “1)BoB wasn’t an enemy, or even a threat, to the team when Ashley killed him.”

            I disagree. BoB just attacked Ashley, and his last word was pretty clearly an implied threat. I do agree Ashley needed to get off the battle field. She had taken big hits physically and emotionally and sending her in would be reckless.

          4. @Lee

            Oh yeah, it is. Yamada knows it, so does Houndstooth, AG, Tattletale, Byron, the Wardens(probably), and Victoria.

            But they made it pretty clear that this was happening:

            Team Therapy with Victoria’s help.

            or

            Team Therapy without Victoria’s help.

            And Victoria, at least by proxy, took on the responsibility of keeping them safe and being their pseudo-guardian.

            … Also; I think Ashley has still, against all odds, kept her cover up. But I don’t think Natalie would approve of the methods and Victoria is planning on pulling her out of it post-haste.

            ***

            “If someone wants to be a police officer, they should go to an academy, get trained, qualify for the badge, and accept that they are a servant of society. If that someone doesn’t get accepted into the police force, we don’t allow them and their friends to get together and form an armed Neighbourhood Protection Squad.”

            I agree, but The Warden’s standards for parahumans don’t seem to be that high.

        4. She has, in light of one member getting violent WITH A KNOWN ENEMY decided to place that fighter under arrest or send them from the field, again weakening her team.
          Pfft, you thought that was why she was sending Ashley to the authorities (and away from the people whose leader she just killed, who she was in serious risk of blowing cover with if she stuck around)?
          I do think Victoria’s in over her head, but I don’t think she’s that clueless.

    2. Sergeant promoted to Officer? That was a pinpoint comparison; I’m guessing you’ve read the Sharpe series.

    3. Yeah that’s a perfect descriptor of Ashley.

      I’ve got a fair amount of experience with abusive childhood situations, and one thing I try to help people to understand about how untreated abuse affects people is that *everything* is a skill. Absolutely *every* form of interaction is a skill that you have to identify, learn, and polish. And that children who grew up in abusive situations haven’t necessarily picked up those skills. Something as simple as accepting a compliment, resolving a dispute over where to go for lunch, needing to apologize for being late, these things can result in wildly disproportionate outbursts or internal conflicts. Not necessarily because there’s something specifically fucked up about those situations that the person picked up during their childhood, but just because they might not have ever picked up the *skill* of resolving those issues properly.

      When we’re born, we can do absolutely nothing. So everything we can do as adults, that’s a skill we learned at some point. Now if a skill is deeply rooted enough, performing it may seem like a simple question of choice. So when someone fails to perform a very rudimentary skill like basic conflict resolution it seems obvious to ask: “Why didn’t they just choose to do X?”. It’s a framing that often makes it seem like the person in question is actively choosing to lash out, or failing to control themselves. But the reality is often that the person in question just *never learned the skill*. It’s not a failure of choice so much as a limited toolbox that’s been built up.

      And the way Bonesaw constructed Ashley? Jeez, it feels to me like this whole effect turned up to 11. I’ll bet Ashley literally doesn’t have a single memory of resolving a violent situation without escalation or submission. So if she was unwilling to submit to BoB … well the only other option she had to work with was murdering him. I don’t think it was so much that she chose not to walk away, as walking away is a skill she has never learned and never practiced. As Cthulhu said, she couldn’t conceive of a nonviolent solution.

      1. “I don’t think it was so much that she chose not to walk away, as walking away is a skill she has never learned and never practiced.”

        I think trying to walk away peacefully would have gotten her splattered from behind. Submitting would have meant helping BoB with his murderous rampage. Maybe walking away didn’t cross her mind, but it wasn’t anymore of a real option than hugging BoB would have been.

      2. That’s a solid point. Even Ashley Prime spent a good chunk of her life living rough where the finer points of civil discourse weren’t exactly an everyday exercise.

  14. Honestly, BoB was seriously pushing his luck. Don’t weep for the stupid, or you’ll be crying all day.

    Well, on the bright side. Maybe March’s group and the Fallen group will all kill eachother so nobody else has to deal with them. That honestly strikes me as a best case scenario for getting out of this with minimal losses of characters who actually care about.

    Of course there’s also the possibility of this making things really worse for everyone, if March and Co get themselves compromised by Mama and Valefor and end up a Fallen asset like those bikers.

    Also, I have to wonder what was going through Rain’s head while March’s team was directly confronting the Fallen, and as the hostages got brain melted as consequence. That strikes me of the exact opposite of what he wanted, especially when it comes to saving his own neck. Since here he is directly standing against the Fallen, which severs him from the main group that has been shielding them up to this point. Though that also depends on if March’s team get co-opted by the Fallen as mentioned above, in which case Rain might be given credit for that and end up in the Fallen’s better graces, which itself is not great for anyone except for him.

    1. I think most people are more concerned about the possible consequences of Ashley killing Bob. Rather than concerned about Bob himself dying.

      1. And I think that’s hilarious. Nobody in- or out-of-story cares much that Bob’s dead, they just care about who Ashley might kill next. Frig, I bet Prancer would thank Ash if he wasn’t worried she’d ventilate his torso the next time she got an unpleasant order.

  15. “Everything kept coming back to the same scenarios, moments, and scenes. There were parallels, comparisons, things about people I noticed.

    A therapist I’d talked to while Mrs. Yamada was away had explained it to me as a consequence of trauma. Some things were just so big in our own heads that they had their own gravity. They demanded to be dwelt on and they leveraged that dwelling to tie everything back into themselves, every detail they invoked and every question they raised. They were impossible to figure out but we had to try, and that trying became more leverage.”

    ^^ THIS. Not only does it take a way with words to be a good writer, you also have to understand the human condition so that you are able to properly convey it. I read this paragraph and had to stop for a minute just to take it in, it so brilliantly encapsulates *exactly* how trauma feels. Well done Wildbow sir, you continue to blow me away every. single. time. I truly look forward to following your work in the years to come.

    1. I know, right? I was amazed by that exact paragraph; I’m always having problems on that note in writing my own book.

      Lessons have been learned.

  16. So, if Victoria gets a glimpse of Mama Mathers, she’ll get blasted by a massive sensory overload that will potentially force her into instinctive reactions. Her biggest instinctive reaction is her emotion attack, which is like getting punched repeatedly in the gut except it’s in the brain. And I’m betting Mama Mathers is over 65…what are the chances Vicky accidentally kills Mama by giving her a heart attack?

    1. She already got a glimpse. She sees snow that gets stronger with the more attention brought to it. Mama Mathers either didn’t show herself enough or has plans for the non loose cannons of team therapy. (unlike chris who is a loose cannon and has to deal with mama overload)

  17. I’m unhappy that BoB got killed, if only because I like it when large bearded men survive. Shallow of me, I guess.
    I think Victoria is being unusually sane. Perhaps TOO sane. I don’t think her reaction to Ashley slaying BoB is particularly appropriate given the unusual circumstances. Behaving as if ‘villain, after murdering other villain, surrenders to the authorities’ still makes sense in a post-apocalyptic world sounds insane to me because the context is all wrong. It might have made sense on Earth Bet before Scion wrecked it, but they’re on Earth Gimel now, AS (After Scion).
    Chris continues to confuse me. He’s so strange. Like a number of data points that make up no particular pattern.

  18. Fantastic chapter! Really good stuff.

    I suspect Victoria is on the wrong track talking to “the wretch” it’s not a different entity. It’s just her with body image distortion. What she needs is not to dissociate it, but to make it a conscious projection so she can use the fact that the force field is able to shift shapes.

    1. It is her projection of her unconcious self upon the world. It used to just be her flesh, then it became glory girl and now she sees her own self as the wretch who is limited to destroying and ripping and pushing handsome moose away. Her conscious self recognizes this and is extra careful to be constructive but she can’t make the projection conscious anymore than jekyll can hyde from his true self.

  19. Everyone has so much sympathy for “the hostages”, but I don’t think MM sees anything about this as notable. She tortures her people all day long every day. Now she’s torturing 14 of them by way of greeting some new capes that her favorite “soldier” brought around. If she and March come to some sort of understanding about mutual goals and plans, she’ll turn off the torture for a while. March might not be impressed by the display, but she might very well take it for what it is and just resolve to tolerate it. She knew going in who lived here, and whatever reasons she had to show up, those reasons are still more important to her than some randoms getting tortured.

    In other words, I don’t think we’ve seen a conflict yet between March’s Clusters and the Fallen. If March intends to make Foil, Parian, and TT have a bad day, they might still have a bad day.

    1. Considering how Rain’s cluster is, and how Foil turned hero to get away from her, March and her group are very likely more than a little ruthless even by villain standards. If it’s to the point that they would side with the Fallen, then Rain is pretty well condemned by his association with them. Unless he turns back on their deal, he’s no longer just some kid swept up in the Fallen and victimized by circumstance, but an active agent of the Fallen who helped form an alliance with another villain group, and now nobody aside from his friends have any reason to not fuck him up. The Undersiders would want his ass for helping March going after Foil, the heroes will want his ass for aiding the Fallen, and he’ll be sucked further into the Fallen’s hierarchy so that he can no longer say he’s not really one of them.

      The other possibility that March started a fight is pretty shit too. In that case he’s partially responsible for destroying someone he wanted to protect by bringing March into the mix. But atleast in that situation there’s more of a chance for Rain to come back from it.

      1. March is a woman.

        I don’t think Rain’s goal was to form a Cluster Gang/Fallen alliance. I mean that might happen, but he was after more muscle to help him take down snag/love lost and save Erin, plus shelter him from the Fallen afterwards.

        There’s enough moving parts and agendas here that everything’s on the table. I don’t think anyone is really in control of the situation (but several people might think they are).

  20. … I wonder if Mama Mathers might be the kind of thing which triggers Imp’s power to reach new heights. She mentioned once that she felt like it could make people forget other things too, but the power always retreated whenever she paid attention to it.

    Well, Aisha is almost certainly not immune to Mama Mathers. Buuuuut if her power could make her forget having seen Mama Mathers, that would be a pretty effective way of saving herself from an eyeful of Mama Mathers. In fact, it might be the only way to keep herself alive and sane.

  21. A lot of people in the comments seem pretty confident in Imp’s ability to fight Mama Mathers, but I’m not so sure. Valefor was able to thrall her. Charity was able to sense Imp, and while she didn’t attack her I don’t believe that was from a lack of opportunity. It seems to me that another power that directly interfaces with minds would similarly be able to detect Imp.

    And remember that Imp has to actively suppress her power. If an attack from Mama robbed her of enough focus to do that, she could be screaming and writhing on the ground already and nobody but Mama would know. I’m sure Valefor would love a chance at revenge.

    1. “And remember that Imp has to actively suppress her power. If an attack from Mama robbed her of enough focus to do that, she could be screaming and writhing on the ground already and nobody but Mama would know. I’m sure Valefor would love a chance at revenge.”

      I hadn’t even considered that. That’s scary.

    2. The other big problem with taking out Mama is that nobody outside of the Fallen (except maybe March’s group through Rain) know that she’s the one using it. The Wardens know that someone in the camp has some sort of anti-spying power.

      “Thinkers had always avoided scanning for the Mathers family because using a thinker power on or near them had a way of causing severe problems for the thinker. A strapped to a hospital bed screaming kind of severe.”

      It’s reasonable to assume it’s directly power-based. If it was from a tinker device, the Mathers probably would have duplicated it and had some of their terrorizing teams like Valefor in Brockton carry it with them. The person with the power is probably in the upper hierarchy. Let’s say that’s 10 people, a few of whom have known powers like Valefor. That’s still maybe five people who this anti-spying power could belong to. Without any more details on the nature of the power, it’s at most an educated guess that it belongs to Mama and that Valefor’s power is second generation. Tattletale and anyone else working to solve this case would have to account for it belonging to any of these people.

      We might know their names and have vague descriptions of them from people who have escaped the Fallen over the years. Those descriptions could be out of date; costumes change, people change, and our five targets could be costumed or not. We don’t know their current locations. Heck, they could be hiding among those writhing hostages.

      Even though the attack is underway, Tattletale’s power is surely being hampered here by her restricting herself to word of mouth, and even that is risking that the power can’t be transmitted over the phone like Canary’s could.

      In conclusion, even if Imp was sent in to disable or assassinate select targets among the leadership, the lack of information would make this really risky.

      (I hope this all made sense, I’m very tired)

  22. It depends. You need one with the right kind of power. Now generally speaking there’s been at least someone who can counter someone else’s parahuman power. So if Imp say get’s a heartbroken that can control sensory input, or bounce back master effects that might work. Shoot even the right kind of emotional manipulation could work. For example this might happen.
    “Don’t you care that I’m showing you these horrible things, and making your friends writhe on the ground?”
    “No, all I really seem to feel right now is an intense urge to gut you.”

  23. Mama Mathers speculation:
    Her power works through cameras. I thought it was pretty obvious that the snow was caused by the brief glimpse of her or her location through the satellite image.
    She’s aware of everybody who she’s affecting, dependent on the degree she’s affecting them. So she’s got a vague sense that somebody peeked at her (Victoria), but has more awareness of Chris. She has to be aware of who she’s affecting in order to use the insanity effect selectively like she does.
    Maybe she’s good at dividing her attention?
    She can see whatever he visions see? She became aware of Hollow Point’s plans through Rain, among other things, but couldn’t (or wouldn’t?) receive a message from Victoria through the biker.
    Having too many people become aware of her at once would be a huge distraction for her, but it’s not a major weakness because she can apparently turn of her power’s effect. But maybe she’s still aware of when Rain thinks of her (the feather sound) and just not aware of what he’s doing.
    She’d probably sense that Imp was aware of her, but might immediately stop noticing it. I wouldn’t count on it though.

    Bonus: Foil can be a sniper, and I think shooting Valefor from outside audible range would be more reliable than sending Imp.

    1. Foil is only slightly closer to having a stun setting for her power than Ashley is. I have the feeling that Tattletale is trying to keep the old rules intact (whether for principles or personal gain).

    2. I thought the snow just came from Victoria getting a bird’s eye view of the area while flying, which included MM but at a large enough distance that it didn’t take hold.

      1. Probably not a matter of hold but just how much she occupies your senses – from far away, you can barely see her, can’t hear anything, or smell, and of course no touch either. So the echo-vision is just that – a whitish dot in your peripheral vision. No idea how much feedback Mama gets from it, but it’s probably similarly scaled down.

  24. “F***, it’s hard to see it now that it’s not on me.”
    Your decision to apparently get all of your things out at once. Or at least to hold your bag in such a way that it could easily spill.

    [Sveta] pressed her fingers to my mouth. Leaning in close, she murmured in my ear…
    “If this gets taken out of context, it’s going to be great ammunition for the shippers.”
    I sighed. “Sveta, when have shippers been overly concerned about the details of the text?”
    “Whenever they think they support the ships they like.”

    A woman with a bunny mask and marching band outfit, ears poking up through the brim of the flat-top, feathered cap.
    Whatever group she works for needs to revise their dress code.

  25. I’m kind of disappointed there wasn’t a post yesterday revealing that the leader of the group that just showed up was actually the Easter Bunny.

  26. “solidify into solid fixtures” feels redundant.

    solidify into fixtures? tangible fixtures? or just “solidify”? idk.

  27. A marching band outfit and bunny ears? That is an… interesting choice for a costume. I guess (i) March Came in Like a Rabbit.(/i)

    Also, first post! I didn’t want to comment until I caught up, but I had to put that joke in. Love your stuff, Wallace Broecker.

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