Eclipse – x.8

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She could see the group of kids at their usual hangout spot.  It was her habit to go out in the late evening, when the rest of the town was asleep, and to keep out of the way the rest of the time, but her cupboards had been bare and she’d felt her sanity fraying even more around the edges.

She held a spike of twisted, condensed metal, which was hooked through the straps of bags.  The length of the spike rested across her shoulders.  It was heavy and painful, but it beat destroying the stuff she’d grabbed.

She left the bags by the corner of a building, and she approached the group of kids.  Some of the younger teenagers stood up and backed away.  The oldest of them didn’t budge.  What was he called?  Fappy?

“Heya, Damsel,” Fappy said.

“Corrupting the youngest generation?” she asked.

“That’s my nephew, Connor, he’s only six years younger than me, though,” Fappy said.  “And that’s his stepsister Holly.  They’re staying with my parents because of family stuff.  Connor, Holly, this is Damsel of Distress.  Our local supervillain.”

At least they looked scared of her.

“I’m moving away to find work,” Fappy said.  “Retail stuff in a camera store.  Holly is going to get my room.”

“Work, huh?” Ashley asked.

“My parents lost patience with me and gave me thirty days to move out,” Fappy said, to her.  “I guess I’m taking Stan’s cue.”

“What did Stan do?”

“Oh, you don’t know?  I guess we haven’t seen you around.”

“I went to Mirelles, another town.  I caught something.  I was thinking about going to Brockton Bay, after Leviathan, decided to rest instead.”

“Aw, that sucks,” Fappy said.  “You okay now?”

“Yeah.  I’m tough,” she said.

She wasn’t, and she hadn’t really ‘caught’ anything.   A mundane scratch on her leg had become red and inflamed, and a use of her power hadn’t scoured away whatever was going on.  In a fit of frantic energy, she had taken one of the scraps of matter that had been left after a use of her power and cut into the scratch.  She had wanted to open it up enough that she could try to get her power inside and clear away the infection, but it hadn’t worked.  The infection had persisted and the leg wound had refused to heal.

Somewhere in the weeks of sweating it out and not being able to go out, the PRT had started looking for her.  She’d had to scare them off when she could barely stand.  Even now, grabbing food to fill her kitchen, she wasn’t at her best.

“Well,” Fappy said, “You know Stan, right?”

“Of course.”

“He got Amber pregnant.  I don’t think you’ve met her?  No.  Stan did the stand up thing and is getting his life together.  He’s got a job washing sheets and stuff in the hospital.  Which is great because he’s close to Amber.  She had to go in for a pregnancy related hip thing, and she’s not leaving until she has the kid so her leg doesn’t come off.  I don’t know how that works.  Am I boring you, talking about this stuff?”

She shook her head.

“The rest of us are getting around to it too, mostly.  We’re eighteen, nineteen, it’s about time we figure stuff out.”

“Well,” Ashley said.  She was a bit lost for words.  The stoner kids had been a fixture here for most of her life.  “Good for you.”

“It’s not all great.  Pete, you know Pete?”

She shook her head.

“He was there for the bank.  He’s been hanging out with Popcap since Stan took off.  They hopped on a bus to go down and join some messed up gang, talking about endless parties.  Stuff’s been pretty messed up since Leviathan hit.”

“It is.  Sorry about your friend,” she said.  Popcap was the most notorious meth dealer in the area.  She didn’t like him and he didn’t like her, and Pete spending time with the guy didn’t bode well for Pete.

Fappy shrugged.  He looked at his two relatives.  “Connor, Holly, don’t ever, ever spend time with Popcap or Pete.  Not even if they offer to buy you drinks or give you anything.”

“You said something about a bank?” Connor asked.

“Oh man.  That.  That was ages ago.  We tried to rob a bank with Damsel of Distress.  That did not go well.”

“You cracked under the pressure,” Ashley said.

“I guess.  We tried, right?”

“Mm,” she made a noncommittal sound.

“You guys were legendary at school,” one of the other guys said.

“We had so much detention.”

“Detention, for robbing a bank?” Connor asked.

“Because he talked about it at school,” the other guy said.  “Dumbass.  He had to go to court, but they ducked it.  School wasn’t as nice.”

“Don’t follow my example.  You don’t want to risk it, you two,” Fappy said.

A blue sedan with a tattered flag mounted on one of the windows passed down the road about a block away.  It slowed, and then honked the horn.

“Oh shit!” Holly said.

The car honked again.  It was an angry honk.

“Go,” Fappy said, and the two younger teenagers ran off.  Then, to Damsel, he said, “My mom.  She’s cool about most things, you know, she lets us cut school, but talking to you might push it.”

“I’ll go,” Ashley said.

“Actually, I, uh,” Fappy said.  He pointed.  “You mind?”

His intention was to walk with her.  They walked in the direction of where she’d stowed the bags.  Just the two of them.

“So, I know you disappear now and then.  Pete used to always look you up and try to see what you were doing.  Hometown cape pride, you know?”

She nodded.

“You keep coming back here.”

She didn’t immediately respond.  Familiar faces and places mattered in a way she couldn’t put to words, even if some of those places closed down or faces left, like the stoners were doing.  More practical was the fact that here, at least, she knew where to go.  Food, clothing, places she could head to if the PRT started acting like it knew where she was.

She wasn’t about to admit that, though.  The stoner kids were feckless and useless, but they looked up to her.

“Yeah, I guess I do.”

“It’s home, right?”

She shrugged.  It was home, she just wished it wasn’t.

“Right.  What I’m wondering is, you going to be around?  I’m thinking about my nephew and his stepsis.”

“I don’t know.  No plans right now.”

“Can you make sure Connor and Holly are left alone?  I don’t want them getting caught up in anything too shady, and Connor’s dad’s one of those guys who’ll take anything.  Connor’s got the DNA for that stuff, and Pete or Popcap might try when they get back.”

“I’m not in a position to see him or tell him what to do.  If he wants to do it, he’s going to do it when I’m not in town.”

“Fuck,” Fappy said.  “It’s fucked up, you know?  The guys that grow up seeing the worst side of that stuff still end up doing it.”

“It’s the way it is,” she said.

“I guess.  And I guess, um, hmm,” he didn’t seem to be able to find the words.

“I won’t take them out to rob any banks,” she said.  Seeing Fappy’s surprised expression, she said, “I noticed the subtext, when you said you wanted them left alone.”

“I don’t even know what subtext is,” he said.  He smiled.  “You and Stan were always the ones with brains.”

“It’s fine.  I don’t rob banks anymore,” she said.

“You’ve been quiet, the last long while.”

That, too, was hard to respond to.  It had been weeks dealing with being sick, no human contact except the voices on the television and radio, and communicating was hard.

“Good luck, doing whatever you end up doing,” she said.

“You too,” he said.

She bent down to pick up her hook and bags, pausing to clench her right hand.  She’d broken it after killing the giant four years prior, and it hadn’t healed quite right, despite her best efforts.

She grabbed the hook with her other hand, and her power kicked out, almost pushing it from her grasp.  It missed the bags but it damaged the corner of the wall.  Nothing more serious than what might happen if a car bumped into the siding.  That was fine.

“Hey,” Fappy called out.  “Damsel?”

She straightened, holding just the hook without the bags.

“I might never see you again.  It’s bugging me.  Should we have done anything different?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Fappy pulled off his hat and scratched at his hair.  “Should we have invited you to hang out or had a cigarette with you?  When Stan had the room setup in the garage, we watched videos.  Should we have had you over?  Would that have been weird?”

Having been sick, her defenses weren’t what they were supposed to be.  The questions were hard to hear.

“It would have been weird,” she said.  “The only thing you should have done differently was not fuck up the bank job.”

Fappy snorted and smiled.  “Yeah.  Sorry.”

She put the hook through the straps of the bags, then lifted it, shrugging her shoulders to make it comfortable.

She didn’t know Fappy’s real name.  She wondered if he had stopped using it, and if he had, when?

The town wasn’t a thriving one, and there wasn’t much traffic at ten o’clock at night.  She made her way down the street.  She was cold.  Another case of her defenses being down.  She hadn’t grabbed a lot of blankets, sheets, or towels, and now she regretted it.

There were streets that were okay, with houses in decent condition, but most were struggling.  Many had peeling paint, or siding that had come partially free in a bit of bad weather and never been fixed.  She walked past a car that had been left there for so long that the windshield was opaque with the effects of weather and bird shit.

Wind blew, and some junk mail from a recycling bin at the corner of the road danced across the road.  There was a paper bag on the top of a dusty car, however, that didn’t budge.

Ashley investigated – a poke with her hook showed that there were things inside, which helped keep the bag upright.  A drink of something blue, and a plastic bag.

She looked around.  Not a soul in sight.  A few places had lights on, and she saw one man that sat at his computer.  He hadn’t seen her and wasn’t watching her.

She moved the bags she was carrying to her hand, and then adjusted the hook, positioning it carefully before impaling the bag and the box of baked goods.

She hefted it, and carried things the rest of the way to her apartment.

The radio and television were on as she entered.  She walked around the hole in the floor- she had dropped one of the living room chairs into it to ensure she didn’t fall in.  Her bags went to the kitchen counter, which was missing a segment.

The largest bag was full of clothes that had been dropped off at the back of the thrift shop- she would take what she could wear and then take the bags back.  Wouldn’t do to have the place close down.  Other stuff she’d claimed from the pharmacy, with an eye to medication and personal needs.  She spiked the pharmacy stuff, then tossed it through the hole in the bathroom wall, so it sailed over the tub and to the base of the sink.

The last thing was food, also from the pharmacy, which was convenient because it tended to have the staples.   Peanut butter, tuna, bread, canned veg.  Everything went onto the counter, because the cupboards were a ruin and the fridge was something she tried to avoid damaging, because there were perishables like milk inside.

Once she had her bags sorted out, she investigated the paper bag, tipping it out.

The blue drink was, according to the label, a ‘Legendberry Electrolyte Sports Drink’.  There was a red drink below it.  The plastic bag that had been put in the paper bag was stuff from the drug store.  Pills for fever, lozenges, stuff for indigestion.

At the bottom of the paper bag was a box of eclaires.  The contents had been thrown around the box by her manhandling, the white cream smearing everything.

She left it there, walking over to the television.  Her routine had been thrown off by the early excursion, but the time was right.

Changing the channel was difficult, but she managed it, switching the television across thirty channels of static to the studying channel.

At this time, it was repeats of the homework help that was on at three in the afternoon and on.  People ages ten to eighteen could call in to ask questions.  Later, it would be the taped university courses.  Most of that went over her head, but she tried to watch all of the courses all the way through, with exceptions for when the courses were really, really dull or incomprehensible.

The sound of the television and the radio overlapped, but the radio was positioned on the floor.  A gentle kick sent it skidding into the next room.

She blasted off the top of the Legendberry drink and took a swig.  She winced, coughing, and put it down.

She grabbed an eclair, spearing it with her hook and then eating it off of the spike.

There was a part of her that wished Edict had given it to her in person.  She understood why she hadn’t- Ashley had been in a bad place when she’d run into them two months ago.

Still… getting sick enough that she had been worried for her own life had given her pause.

She wasn’t even sure what she would say or do, had Edict turned up.  To say ‘you win’?  No.  To ask questions?  No.

If nothing else, she could question Edict’s taste, sensibilities, parentage and mental state, for putting this Legendberry drink in the same bag with eclairs.

She left the eclairs alone, and focused on finishing the drink, wincing as she did so.

It was a gift.  It was supposed to help.  It wouldn’t be right to not finish it.

The sound of sirens made her head turn, the bottle still at her mouth.

Not coming for her.

She finished chugging the bottle, then gave the plastic its due punishment for existing by annihilating it with her power.

She would have to eat something before having her eclairs, or the aftertaste would ruin them.

More sirens.  That meant something had happened.  If something had happened- Edict or Licit would be there.  Maybe both.

What would she say or do?  Why did that matter?

She found herself pacing, and in the midway point between feeling just how weak she was after her spell of illness and the sound of the next siren, she found herself moving toward the door.

She would see what was going on.  This was her territory, technically, so it was important.  She would handle things, maybe talk to the pair, and she would tell Edict off for the combination of Legendberry and eclairs.

Maybe.

She grabbed her mask, recently fixed up, and put it on.

She stalked her way through the streets, avoiding the people who were stepping outside to see what was going on.

Fire trucks, ambulances, and police.  She could hear the differences in the patterns and sounds of the sirens.  For the first ten minutes, she was able to hear things and head toward the endpoint.  Here and there, an emergency vehicle would go down her street or a nearby street.

After that, there was nothing.  Whatever the emergency, there were no more sirens or easy indicators.

She wondered how the heroes did it, to get to scenes on time.

She explored, trying to find it, looking for any clues, and found nothing.  Her legs were tired, lacking stamina after her long period of illness, and she’d already gone for a walk earlier in the evening.  She took her time going back.

The headlights of a passing van illuminated her, and unlike the others, they didn’t stop illuminating her.  She stared through the light, shielding her eyes with her hand, and felt the pang and the click where that hand hadn’t healed right.

When it didn’t let up, she picked up her pace.

The van pulled into reverse, then drove away.

She made her way back, and by the last block, her weariness had been driven home.  Her calves were like stones, and every step was an effort.

Maybe a bath, to relax her legs.  It was important to find ways to treat herself.  It was a good day, to have a treat to go back to.  A bad day, to know that the stoners were leaving and the replacements would be so young and untouchable.  A good day, to be healthier again.  A bad day, to have this interruption to her homework advice show.

She reached her street, and she saw a van that might have been the same one she’d seen earlier.  Adrenaline helped her to push through the pain in her legs.

Nobody inside, with a lot of general garbage on the seats and floor.

If she had been able to drive, she told herself, her car would be immaculate.  Cars were expensive, and to have something nice and not take care of it?

She was tempted to destroy the thing.

She reached the side of the building and let herself inside.

There was the partially eaten eclair.  She could have that before starting dinner.

The radio, still faint in the other room, went quiet.

She grabbed the twist of condensed metal with the hook-shaped bend at the end.

“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.”

A man’s voice.

Ashley walked around to see who was standing in her bedroom.

She recognized the man.  The beard, the hair that was greasy and pulled back away from his face.  The collared shirt that was only tucked in on the one side, the tuck apparently intended to hide the bloodstain on the corner of the shirt, failing because it had come partially untucked.

He had a tool belt on, but the belt only had knives in it.

Jack Slash.

“It’s been a crazy few weeks,” he said.

She considered her options.  She wasn’t well enough to fight.

She would have to be subtle, then.  If she could draw him in, get close enough that she could blast him before he could draw a knife-

She threw the hook back in the direction of the kitchen.  It wouldn’t matter anyway.

“I’m… honored,” she said.

“Are you?” he asked.

“You’re among the strongest, aren’t you?  There aren’t a lot who are as active as you for as long as you.”

She wasn’t used to flattering.  It felt off, coming out of her mouth, and from his smirk, she was left worrying that it was obvious to him.

“We have a high turnover,” he said.

“You’re royalty among parahumans.”

He chuckled.  “My predecessor was called King, believe it or not.  Don’t parents tell their children to behave and to clean by saying, ‘what if the Queen of England came to visit’?  Our unannounced visit could be like that, couldn’t it?”

Our.  He’d said ‘we’ earlier too.

Sure enough, there was another.  Bonesaw ducked under Jack’s arm to enter her hallway and approach the living room.

Ashley remained very still as she watched Bonesaw.  The girl walked over to the kitchen, passing Ashley.

She considered her options.  To blast Bonesaw out of existence.

She would die, doing that, and she didn’t want to die.

Bonesaw stood on her tiptoes for a moment before seeing the box of eclairs amid the other food.  She grabbed it, then collapsed into the armchair that had been pushed into the hole in the floor.  Her feet were on the floor above her and her face almost pointed up to the ceiling.

“You should ask before taking, Bonesaw,” Jack said.  “If all goes well, you want to have a good working relationship.”

“Can I, please?” Bonesaw asked.

“Yes,” Ashley said.  “Go ahead.  Leave me one.”

“Oh, of course.” Bonesaw had to work to get out of the chair and reach the counter.  She set the eclair down.

Working relationship, Jack had said.

“Someone who puts this many holes in walls has to be angry,” Jack said.  “Are you angry?”

Ashley shook her head.  She was, but years had dulled it.  She wasn’t about to admit to weakness, either way.

“It’s no way to live,” Jack said.  He touched the edge of the hole in the wall that led into the bathroom.

“You said working relationship.”

“I did.  Interested?”

“I’ve heard stories.  If I said yes, then… it could be a monkey’s paw wish, couldn’t it?”

“Go on,” Jack said.

“You would say you want to work with me.  I would say yes, and then Bonesaw could then turn me into a gun made of meat.  A living tool, working with you every time you pull the trigger.  Technically there is a working relationship.”

“A bit forced,” Jack said.

“The only real critic for your interpretation would be a gun made of meat.”

Jack smiled.  “We’re our own critics.  It’s a fact when you’re an artist or a… very violent, long-term performance artist.  We put the effort in, even if the one member of the audience isn’t in a place to tell the world.”

“Mm!” Bonesaw made a sound.  She held up a finger, while she finished chewing.  “Mm.  Sorry.  You know, I’ve only done that sort of thing once, making someone into something like a gun.”

Was it a mistake to give her ideas?

“I like that you thought of that,” Bonesaw said.  “You came up with something I haven’t done much.  Creative!”

“The theater matters,” Ashley said.  “Sometimes it’s all we have.”

“No,” Jack said.  “Oh no, I don’t agree at all.  We are so, so much more than that.  You realize that once you’ve seen a good number of people lose next to everything, theater included.  There’s something else that boils to the surface, once you’ve applied enough pressure.”

“Do you have an audience?” Bonesaw asked.

It was so hard to track all of this, the back and forth, the dialogue, and the subject-matter changes.

She focused on her end-goal.  To get Jack to let own his guard.  To blast him and then either get away or get Bonesaw too.

“I had one.  Small.  But I’m not as active as I once was.”

“If you joined us, the entire civilized world would pay attention to you,” Jack said.

She thought about agreeing.  The end-goal remained the focus.  Get close, destroy him.

But even in this scenario… she couldn’t.

“I don’t join.  I don’t serve under anyone.  I’m the one who leads, or I walk alone.”

“If you joined with the intention of taking my position as leader, you wouldn’t be the first, fifth, or even tenth,” Jack said.

Ashley shook her head.  “No.”

“A lot of people tell me no,” Jack said.  “It’s usually repeated over and over again, followed by a death rattle.”

Bonesaw snorted.  She was eating yet another of Ashley’s eclairs.

Ashley consoled herself by focusing on how Bonesaw could die.

The thought crossed her mind.  If she did this- if she found a way to get this kill, she would be celebrated.  Wasn’t there a cash payout for anyone who killed these people?  No questions asked?

“No,” Ashley said.  “If you want your performance…”

“Performance art.  The message.”

“Give me an order,” she said.  “A task.  I’ll do it, or I’ll try to do it.  In exchange, you leave me alone.  I don’t join, you get your murder and mayhem.  I could be your distraction.”

“Hi, Siberian!” Bonesaw said.

Ashley turned to look.  The front door.  The Siberian was there.  No costume, no clothes, no theater, words, or even posture, not in this moment.  Just the woman and an imposing presence.

“I’d offer you one of these eclairs, but I know you prefer lady fingers,” Bonesaw said.  She tittered.

“Any trouble?” Jack asked.

The Siberian shook her head.

“Then we have a little while,” he said.  He looked at the Siberian.  “We’ll talk details later, after the others catch up.”

“I thought she didn’t talk,” Ashley said.

Jack smiled.

“If you want mayhem, I’ll give you mayhem.  It’s something I’m good at.  If you want violence, I can give you violence,” Ashley said.  “I’ve taken a boy’s arms and legs and I watched him bleed out.  Name a target and I can do that.  I’ve killed.”

“I don’t want mayhem,” Jack said.  “I don’t want violence.  I don’t want killing.”

“Oh, shoot!” Bonesaw said.  “We’ve reaaaaaaally been messing up, then.”

“I want to change people,” Jack said.  “I want to show what’s beneath the surface when things are taken away.  We see it in the public when they’re scared or outraged.  We see it in the individual when we take away everything they have.”

Ashley’s eyes narrowed.

“You don’t have much at all,” Jack said, he looked at Ashley’s apartment.  “What lies beneath must be so close to boiling up when there’s so… so very little surface.”

Ashley had a hard time responding.  She was tempted to do something suicidal and she only barely held herself back.  “You’re not convincing me, Jack.”

“What would we have to offer you, for you to agree to give up that very little you have?  I would be interested in seeing the inversion.”

Ashley thought back to earlier, when she’d considered talking to Edict and Licit.

“Her hand is injured,” Bonesaw said.  “I could fix your hand.”

“I doubt it,” Ashley said.  Her power crackled as she moved her fingers.

“Wonky powers?  Not to worry, I think I can fix that.  As thanks for the eclairs.”

Ashley was given pause.

“An audience, a fix, and again, I must remark on how the defining feature of your decor is the holes in the wall.  There’s an anger to that.”

“I’m not angry,” Ashley said.

“Not angry at all?  Living like this, when you clearly have so much pride?  There’s nobody you find time to spend hating or resenting, every day?  We would give you resolution for that.”

She thought of Accord.  Of Boston.

“Someone,” Jack said.  He smiled, walking closer.  “Multiple someones?”

“I made my offer,” she said.

“I’m refusing,” Jack said.  “My counteroffer: I’ll give you everything you want, with the exception of this one thing you cling to.  This… construction of rules and limits, that you will not bend the knee to anyone.”

“You can’t give me everything I want.  I want the world,” Ashley said.  “I want territory of my own that I rule, and once I have it, I’ll expand it. I will want more.”

“Believe it or not,” Jack said.  “I want the world too.  I expect to have it in two year’s time, and when I do, you can take it from me.”

“He’s not lying,” Bonesaw said.  “It’s supposed to be a prophecy.”

“They’re trying to kill me as if it’s true,” Jack said.  He smiled.

“Bam,” Bonesaw said.  “Clear path for you.  You want the world and here’s a nice, obvious way to take it.  It won’t be easy, but hey!  Woohoo!”

Ashley shook her head slowly.

The goal.  She needed to keep it in mind.

Her emotions were getting away from her.

“You don’t have many options,” Jack said.

“I don’t know,” she said, even though the answer was closer to a ‘no’.  If she could convince them she could be swayed… to gradually change her mind…

Her heart pounded.

“Here,” Bonesaw said.  “I have an idea.  Because you gave me permission to have the treats, I’ll fix your arms.  You can try it out, and you can see how it feels.  This is super easy.”

“Maybe,” she said, to continue her narrative of being convinced.

“It’s really, really easy,” Bonesaw said.  “I have most of what we’d need, since I did work on my own hands recently.”

Bonesaw approached.  Ashley hesitated, backing away a bit.

“Come on.  This way,” Bonesaw said.  She approached the kitchen counter, while Ashley remained where she was.

Bonesaw picked up the twist of metal with the hook.  “This is neat.”

“Leftovers from my power.”

“That’s great, that’s something I can use for the infrastructure!  Here, come, come.  Put your hands down on the counter.  I’ll show you.  It’s so simple it’s elegant!”

The Siberian moved, approaching.  Ashley wheeled around.

“The Siberian lives by the principle of taking everything she wants, with no regard for civilization’s niceties,” Jack said.  “Bonesaw pursues her art as inspiration demands.  They are nobility as much as I am, with long track records.  The entire point is to have whatever you desire.  If at any point you see something you want or don’t want, you say the word.”

“Come on,” Bonesaw said.  She gave Ashley a push.  She reached into her bag and pulled out a metal tube.  “This is the first thing.  I’ll show you how this works.  We can channel your power.  Just put your hands on the counter there.”

There was an imminent threat, with the Siberian so near.  What was her route.  Jack was too far away to blast.

To hit Bonesaw and use the recoil from that to throw herself at Jack?

Would the Siberian intercept her, tackling her in the air?  The woman was supposed to be fast.

She let Bonesaw move her arm, putting it down on the table.  She would cooperate until there was an opening.

A heavy impact at her arm made her legs buckle, sharp pain shooting up to her shoulder and neck.  A cleaver.  Bonesaw had brought down a cleaver on her forearm.  It had sunken into the bone.

Ashley reached around with her other hand, and didn’t make it the full distance.  Jack moved his hand, and the skin of Ashley’s arm split.

A razor blade gleamed in the dimly lit living room.  Jack had been holding it between two fingers.

Bonesaw hauled the cleaver out, and Ashley dropped to her knees from the pain.  The cleaver came down again, and cut the rest of the way through the bone.

She’d hesitated, and it had cost her.  When dealing with people like this, like Accord, she couldn’t afford any weakness, and yet the weakness was built-in.

Jack drew and swung a cleaver of his own.

Ashley was aware of Bonesaw saying ‘thank you’, and of the fact that there were words that followed that statement.  She didn’t register them.

Her consciousness slipped away, in shock, the lingering exhaustion of her recent ailment, and the long exhaustion of the past several years.

She’d hesitated.  She’d gone too long between the start and the end of this encounter without considering the task she needed to accomplish.  She’d wanted what Jack was selling to her, and now she would have it.

Dreams.  Incoherence.

Too much was still vague.

There had been a time when there were the bad days and the days she dreaded the bad days.

Then… just bad days.

Ashley stared at her mangled hands as she sat in the car.  Her fingers were blades, long enough that she could stand up and have her fingertips touch the ground.  Her power was wholly under her control and yet she still couldn’t reach out to touch anything.

Jack, as far as she could tell, was keeping to his promise.  He’d told her that if she had something she wanted or didn’t want, she only had to ask.

That they’d taken away her ability to speak was the monkey’s paw part of it.  Jack had made a comment about her tendency to rant and rave, and he’d said that had to go, with all the other parts of her act.

In exchange, though it wasn’t an exchange she’d asked for, they’d let her communicate their destination.  She climbed out of the car.

Her emotions flailed through her like taut steel cables that had been cut, whipping out in every direction, but nothing changed.

The building was nice.

“After you,” Jack told her.

She moved her hand, her fingers flexing.  The components locked up before she could position to blast Jack.

“You wanted this,” he said.

She had.

Her claws flexed as she blasted.

Perfect control.  She could even manage the recoil.

She took the door in entirety, then stepped into the building.

She saw artwork, likely expensive, and she demolished it with a slash of her claws.

There was a kind of catharsis in this.  Jack, perhaps, would get what he wanted, at this rate.

The other Nine moved through the house, checking rooms, getting ahead.  Damsel only walked in a measured pace.

There were capes defending the area.  Accord’s people that he whored out to other teams.

She kicked at the door that one held behind, denying her cover, and stabbed her in the shoulder.  She walked forward, her steps measured, and the woman backed away, trying to keep the blades from penetrating deeper.

When the woman retreated through the doorway and stopped because a railing above a staircase stopped her, Damsel blasted her, focusing the recoil by controlling the strength of the blast, pushing the woman out and over the railing.

There was a large muscular man with a mask ducking low beside the door, using the stairs to be especially low profile.  As she saw him, he lunged.

She slashed him with the power dancing around the blades.  He tumbled down the stairs.

A laboratory.  Blasto worked within.

He was in Accord’s house, with a proper lab.  Had he been working with Accord, even back in her first proper visit to Boston?

The anger made her almost nauseous.

Bonesaw came skipping down the stairs. winking at Ashley as she took the stairs two at a time.

“I know you!” Bonesaw proclaimed.

“I know you too, Bonesaw” Blasto said.

“Nice lab.”

“It’s not mine.”

“Man, it’s… this is nice stuff.  Being constantly on the move, you miss out on stuff like this.”

“My old lab wasn’t this good,” he said.  Then he turned to look at Ashley.

“Who’s that?”

The words chilled her.

“Damsel of Distress, with some modifications by yours truly.  Damsel for short.  Better at controlling her power now.”

“Hi Damsel,” Blasto said.

Damsel looked at him, and she tried to speak, to comment.  The sounds were strangled.

He didn’t remember her.  She’d killed his giant and- what?  Had someone else claimed credit?  Was one of her crowning achievements a forgettable moment for another?

She was a nonentity.  Even here, Bonesaw was the focus.

Other memories.

To be in the tank, gel-like fluid flowing into her nose and mouth.  Drugged, paralyzed, her body was slow to listen to the instructions her brain tried to convey, to hold her breath, to fight this.  Her power had already been locked out.  It had never been hers, but now it wasn’t hers at all.  The switch was in Bonesaw’s hands.

The fluid reached her lungs and she didn’t drown, but she couldn’t breathe either.  Her heart kept beating, the drug kept increasing its hold on her.

Floating in the tank, she remembered things that hadn’t occurred in the one hour this version of herself had been awake.

Then the fluid began to heat up.

Chaos, incoherence, death and destruction.

There were other things.

The horizon glowed gold.  Jack’s end of the world was coming to pass.

She had surrendered when Riley had.  The surrender was because a switch had been flicked, but that was the external control.  Internally, even though every memory in her head was an unpleasant one, she was relieved.  She was glad to stop.

The relief had been short lived.

She had died in Blasto’s lab.  A hero she didn’t even know had cut her in half.

She had metaphorically died when her core identity had been taken from her.  Her hands, her voice.  The theater had been all she’d had and she’d lost that.

She had died in Bonesaw’s lab.  Over and over again, she had died.  Many times, she had been boiled alive.  Her head had been cut open, the brain poked at while she was awake.

Seven times, she had died, since leaving the lab.

Now she reached out, and bladed fingers closed around bladed fingers.  They watched the world end.

She turned to her companion.

She saw her expression, her hair long, pupils absent in eyes surrounded by heavy and roughly applied decoration.  It was startling to see, and her water bottle slipped from stiff fingers.

“What did you do to your hair?” the other Ashley asked.

“I felt the need for a change,” Ashley responded.

Her counterpart reached up.

“Hands down,” the Patrol guard said.

“It’s fine,” Ashley said.  “She won’t hurt me.”

Bladed fingers settled on either side of her face, enough pressure applied that a strong wind might have been enough to push the threshold and see blood drawn.

It was reassuring to see the only other person left in existence that understood, that she couldn’t hurt with her power, should a freak accident happen.  It was terrifying.

Her other self had the long hair, had wanted to keep the bladed fingers.  The girl wore a long black dress and Ashley wore clothes that, while predominantly black, were more fit for the tribunal.

Riley had given them both the same options.  Ashley didn’t know what had led to her other self responding a fraction before she did.  Little decisions and situations cascaded.  They’d been together at first.  Her other self had carried on with their old ways.

She had a voice, the claw-hands gave her the ability to master her power, with no misfires.  She’d lost control all the same.

Ashley had seen the video where her other self had been arrested.  Every road led to death or ruin, it seemed.  She’d known she needed to find another way.

She’d made a decision, then.  Finally, finally, she had put herself at the mercy of others.  That had led to the diagnosis.

Now she was here and… somehow she wasn’t upset.

“Come in,” her other self said.  “I can’t believe you did that to your hair.”

“It’s so much lighter,” Ashley said.

She stepped into the apartment.  The device at her ankle beeped.

Supposedly, even if she used her power to blast it, the charge would take off her foot.  The same would happen if she tried to run.

She turned to look at her keepers, the men from the patrol.  The goofy boy in uniform that wanted to impress Victoria.

Past them was the complex.  With so much of the world empty, their wardens had decided to build a small contained facility in the middle of nowhere, with no civilization for a long, long way in every direction.  Powers helped to close the gaps.

“Good luck,” Jester said.

“Take care, Jester,” she said.

She watched them walk away before shutting the door.  Her hand was stiff as she pushed the door shut.

She carried her box through the apartment to the kitchen.

“We have so much catching up to do,” her other self said.  “Tea?”

“Oh, you have tea.  That’s good.”

“Sit.  Put your things down.  You do know we can share clothes, you didn’t have to bring your own.”

Ashley sat, setting the box on the table.  She could hear the television.  It had been left on in the background.

She hadn’t even had a television at her own apartment.

“I brought some favorites.  You can wear them too, if you don’t cut them with those fingers of yours.”

“Criticize me when you can move your hands properly,” her other self said.  Long bladed fingers plucked a teapot from the top of the cabinet.  “I don’t use my teapot much.  I put the teabags in a mug.”

“I did the same thing.”

“I take it you lost your trial?”

“The pre-trial proceedings,” Ashley said.  “Lose is the wrong word.  They sent me here because we get along, and because space is limited.  Too many  parahumans were arrested recently.  One of them should be joining this complex.”

“Ah, you have a friend.”

“I have a lot of friends,” Ashley said.  “I’ve had… a lot of good days, with bad days I can manage because I know more good days are coming.”

The other Ashley made an amused sound.

“I’ve wondered,” Ashley said.  “Did the scientists reach out to you too?”

“They tried.  I wouldn’t cooperate with them.”

“Then… you got what I was doing just now.  Is that only because you come from the same place I do?”

“You want to know if we share anything.”

“Do we?”

Her other self ignored the question at first, but it didn’t feel like an insult.  Ashley knew what it was to digest, to consider.

“I have memories that sharpen,” her other self said.  “A small few are memories from the files.”

“The files,” Ashley said.  “Edict and Licit.”

“Bonesaw implanted us with memories, using a framework she got from the books.  The ‘inciting incident’ for our powers.  The paperwork surrounding our trips to other cities.”

“The gaps filled in.  Some things, it reached for other available, familiar sources.”

“It’s vague,” her other self said.  “But I didn’t dig too hard.”

There.  Answers.

Hardly worth being imprisoned, but interesting.

“Do you have a recollection of… the fields?” her other self asked, as she prepared the tea.  She had no need to ask Ashley’s preferences.  Her back was to Ashley.  “A memory that doesn’t belong to anyone- not any person.  A thing.”

Ashley met her other self’s eyes.  The questions that she was being asked were the same questions she had planned to ask.  She nodded, and she studied her other self’s face.  She couldn’t tell if she was relieved or not to have the answer.

She took the tea that was given to her, being careful with her uncooperative hands and the hot drink.  “A great plain of red-black crystal, one facet cracking and then mending in the span of a few seconds?  The creaking sound and the dull static?  It’s a recollection that isn’t exclusive to us.”

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119 thoughts on “Eclipse – x.8”

  1. Have you ever had a moment reading something where your heckles rise in response, every muscle tensing as you sit up straighter… stiffer?

    Yeah… I just had that… Pepperidge farms remembers.

    Awesome cap to a sad but wonderful arc. Thank you.

    1. Yes I had those Hackles go up multiple times in this chapter. Damn Jack Slash! Ashley could have turned herself in, and been part of Taylor and Narwhal’s book club!

  2. Ah Jack. You damn murderhobo asshole. How I have not missed you. Hope you are still getting gutted, even if you probably feel you got the last laugh.

    And some nice insights into Ashley. It’s really sad because it feels like she might finally have turned her life around. Also funny in a way she was hoping for the opportunity to kill Jack and Bonesaw there but afraid to act… Sort of reminds me of how Riley was acting after Contessa got to her.

    1. Good note… because I’m pretty sure Jack’s shard distracted her at the critical moment she was planning to act.

      On the other hand for me it’s a treat to have nice solid Jack interactions.

      He’s a great solid villain that you just love to hate.

      1. Jack was such a monstrous awful person.

        Also, Bonesaw as Bonesaw. She is scarier.

        One of the things I don’t understand is how much freedom Bonesaw has post golden morning.

        She’s an asset sure and they have Amy to watch her, but she is the second most qualified doctor in 34 linked worlds. There would be presidents and wealthy people and thousands of others with life threatening diseases where Amy or Riley are the only people who can save them. Medical tourism to New Brockton would be a huge industry.

        Riley having time to just let Ashley drop in and do a touch up seems unlikely.

        1. I think that a lot of these people in high places would either not trust Bonesaw, not trust Capes in general, or possibly just not know she exists. As a former S9 member she’s very much under lock and key as shown by her lamenting her lack of freedom or excitement when talking to Ashley and Amy.

          Taking into account how spread out the human population is, how much normal people seem to distrust capes, and the general situation around Riley, I’m sure she’s likely a closely guarded secret of the Protectorate. Ashley being able to swing by and get help for her hands is likely part of her parole, and one of the few things Bonesaw is allowed to do outside of official Protectorate business. She’s essentially a private retainer for the new PRT at this point, which is also how they manage to keep her under wraps/control.

          Furthermore, even if she weren’t a secret, do you really think people would willingly flock to a former S9 member for medical help considering that it would also involve traversing who knows how many portals or how much distance just to potentially get turned away at the door? In this new world, when people are sick, they likely don’t get much better. Medicine is likely scarce, capes with healing powers are known to be rare due to the conflict-drive, and the situations throughout all of the Earths isn’t exactly safe or cleanly.

          1. Especially since the only person available to check Riley’s work for nasty surprises is Amy, who also doesn’t have the best track record.

    2. I honestly don’t think Ashley would have changed, but obviously didn’t deserve S9 treatment. Murderhobo is the best nickname ever btw.

      1. It’s a term used a lot to describe a certain style of play in D&D and other RPGs. Murderhobos are players or parties that like to just roam around the world and get into combat encounters at every opportunity.

  3. And finally we got to see The Other Ashley, one that apparently decided to be The Designated Evil Twin as opposed to The Designated Good Twin that is Swansong. What should we be calling her? Ashley Scissorhands?

    The entire segment with Jack was filled with dread, like I knew where this was going but still hope things would change for the better. She would blast that van. She would not hesitate. And then the cleavers came down.

    This comes full circle to Swansong’s biting remarks on how Riley isn’t getting to make her her weapon again, or how they last had tea together.

    But what was that about the red crystal and, more importantly, WHO ELSE HAS THAT MEMORY?

    1. I dare say the memories belonging to ‘a thing’ rather than ‘a person’, plus the alien crystal landscape are probably from their passengers.

      And every parahuman probably has those, more or less aware of them. Scissor!Ashley probably met someone else who noticed and willing to chat about it.

    2. I think it’s partly to do with what each Ashley remembers. Swansong obviously remembers Jay, and Fappy, and conversations with Edict and Licit that weren’t wholly hostile, and Edict leaving her food and medicine because she’s worried. Positive stuff, good days. Bad days, too, and days that aren’t bad because of the knowledge bad days are coming, but good memories nonetheless.

      Other Damsel maybe remembers more of the anger, the hate; getting snubbed by Accord, Blasto’s lack of recognition; the days of restless resting with a broken hand, cut leg, etc; how good it feels to be the scariest person in a room. Hence the amused noise at ‘good days’. Other Damsel doesn’t remember those, or doesn’t have as much.

      1. Honestly, I think they both started with the same memories, but took different paths anyways. As much as it seems Ashley likes having someone she can be around without worry, she also no doubt wants to be her own person. I think each of them might make different choices just to maintain their own personal identity in the face of clone wonkiness.

        ~Teian

        1. They started out with only whatever memories Bonesaw felt up to giving them. As they were around for a while, I think then their original memories returned.

          And I think maybe the clones were kept seperate, doing different things with different groups of the Nine, so they matured and grew experienced apart from each other. Two capes with a punch-holes-in-everything power are dangerous and useful. I’d split them up so every group had an emergency door to get through obstacles, from walls to tough opponents.

      1. I like “Denoument”.

        It’s a theatrical enough term along the same thread of Swansong, which is fun.

    3. >What should we be calling her? Ashley Scissorhands?

      Wiki’s calling her “Damsel of Distress 3”. Somehow I think she’d object to that particular moniker, given that it’s giving her clone-sister primacy over her…

  4. …She was so close. That’s what really makes it sad for me. She was just about ready to turn her life around, and then she was made into a weapon and died almost immediately after.

    1. She got a second chance, so that’s good. Two second chances, actually, not counting the ones who died earlier. She’s already made some very good headway into squandering both, but it’s not over yet.

      1. Something ironic about her first death. Damsels in Distress are supposed to be saved by knights. Instead Damsel got killed by Defiant who resembles a knight.

        1. It’s great that she didn’t recognize him when he killed her, because he’s just as desperate for recognition as she is.

          1. Eh, the move to Defiant was his largely abandoning that. He’d show up, count the dead, follow them again, fight the 9, follow the 9 again, rinse and repeat. He actually seemed to realize that his need to be recognized was unhealthy and tried to change.

  5. Interesting, I wouldn’t have guessed Jack honoring Damsel’s request is why they attacked Accord in Boston. I thought that was planned so Bonesaw would get to Blasto and his cloning tech

    1. 1) Jack can have more than one reason for everything. That’s a core part of his MO.

      2) Wildbow may be retconning the damsel stuff in.

    2. Really, he might have gone to Damsel partly because she already had motive to do the job he wanted to do.
      That, or he decided he wanted Blasto later and chose to “magnanimously” grant Ashley’s request.

  6. Worm: Defiant cleaves through that random new S9 villain from a few chapters ago before starting his epic duel with Bonesaw.

    Ward: ASHLEY, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!! *gross sobbing

    WB I’m sounding like a broken record but only because it bears repeating so often, WELL FREAKING DONE! (now please get some sleep)

    1. But if you look at it as cape theatre… Two who are basically twins with one embracing the villain life, and the other trying to change and be a hero? Oh that’s some good shit right there.

      1. Hmm, maybe this Ashley isn’t the same one that was in the pretrial with Victoria attending. This could be another one with similar proceedings to the Team therapy Ashley. iirc it’s mentioned that Team Therapy Damsel lived alone, where two others lived with each other.

        And it does seem that they have all gone through a similar process. and honestly, it wouldn’t be hard to switch between an of the three in this arc. After all, that backstory belongs to all three of them.

        Looking forwards to seeing how close I am with this…

        1. This feels off to me, it doesn’t seem like something Bow would do without more foreshadowing. I could be wrong though.

        2. I think you are remembering incorrectly. During GM Khepri only found two Damsels that survived from the Slaughterhouse 9K. And in this chapter Ashley even says that she remembers the deaths of the 7 other copies (out of 9).

          There was only ever the Ashley we knew throughout Ward, and the one we meet here, whose current whereabouts were unknown to us, until now.

          1. I’m blanking a ton. Aside from the 2 Ashleys, I know at least a few of Number Man’s clones survived. Were there any other clones that made it?

        3. The two were together, then Bonesaw surrendered and “surrendered” them with her. Ashley Scissorhands went back to crime, and was eventually arrested, while Swansong went on parole and therapy.

  7. I really liked the chapter. A good conclusion for this interlude-arc. Now we have much more informations about Ashley, her past and that exactly happened.

    But I think we have a continuity error: If the games were 2007 means that, that Fleur was still alive then. But in other places Wildbow said Fleur died shortly after te outing odf New Wave and New Wave outed shortly after Maquis, what was around 2000.

    How is that possible? Considering that New Wave is pretty much older than four years, that much we now. And it is I think true that Fleurs dead killed the New Wave mouvement in its beginn. All in all, the dates don’t fitts.

    ps: I posted this already, but somehow it was not saved I think.

  8. It’s nice to see the other Ashley is well.

    Is Pete someone we’ve seen anywhere? “Endless parties” is evocative of both the Fallen and the Merchants, although I’m sure there are countless other groups that market themselves as endless parties. Part of the meth scene, I guess.

    1. Fappy mentioned how things have been bad since Leviathan, so I think Pete ended up joining the Merchants and promptly wrecked by the Undersiders.

  9. And where is it sourced from? That it isn’t unique to the Ashleys implies it isn’t something specific to their shard. Zion died, insofar as their kind can, as he lost enough of the portions of his being that that gave him a central intelligence, the ability to organize and manipulate his other shards, and so forth. But as we’ve seen in Ward thus far, the shards aren’t dead, just…lobotomized. the console running the grand machine was blasted straight to hell, but the machine is still running, and it’s running out of control. Sounds like a stress point might be coming for the shards themselves.

    1. There’s also the possibility that the shards themselves are the base lifeforms – maybe with more limited intelligence, but still massive power(s). They’d only gather for convenience and higher efficiency.
      When united in a worm, the shards would defer to a hivemind authority (kinda like cells in our earthborn multicellular lifeforms), but unlike us, they’d keep their agency to split apart from the many so they can bud and give birth to another generation, before reuniting to find the next breeding grounds.

      In that case, each shard could have its own memories of their homeworld and the start of their exodus.

      Biology can be expressed in such diverse ways, the worms are actually a truly alien existence in that regard (unlike the large majority of sci-fi aliens out there which are way too close to us).

  10. First time commenting. I want to open up with: Wildbow, you are THE man. In the last few months I’ve torn my way through Worm and Ward after an offhand suggestion from a friend, and I can honestly say my perspective has changed on both “What makes good writing”, as well as “What is a well written character”. You’ve set a bar that honestly worries me because every book I’ve started since finishing Worm a month or so ago has been lackluster.

    I personally really enjoyed this arc. I was admittedly hesitant at first due to not wanting to tear away from the main story, but the way this “interlude” answered so many of our questions about Ashley’s origins and mentality has opened up a whole new facet of the group for me. Throughout Ward thus far, Ashley has always seemed like an aloof, cynical older cousin-type for the group. The voice of reason coming from a place of personal failures as well as a “If you only expect the worst, you’ll only ever be right or pleasantly surprised” mentality. She’s seemed world-weary, yet simultaneously hopeful for what she likely saw as the next generation. She’s been a big sister figure to Kenzie, a proper rival for Tristan, and an advocate for the autonomy of each other individual on the team. Even Victoria, who she first disregarded, has grown on her and has shaped her in this essentially infantile stage in her development. The disconnect between the Villain that Ashley knew herself to be in the past, the implanted memories, and the sudden acceptance of other people into her life has been a driving force in her personal conflict since day 1 outside of the tank.

    But this arc….this arc showcasing who Ashley USED to be is what really cinched her character for me. An abusive dad, a potentially “broken” trigger event due to her injured arm, accidentally murdering both of her parents, living on the run and basing her expectations of the world on what she’s seen and known from TV and movies (as she referenced a few times), forever being paranoid and unable to trust anyone due to her upbringing and the nature of her trigger event, trying to make it on her own because the idea of success that she’s built up is based on one of authoritarian power and her being the main character in the universe. It’s all VERY understandable, relatable on a lot of levels, and more importantly nostalgic.

    Who hasn’t been lost in the world before? Who hasn’t felt like they are the main character in their own story and therefore are or must be invincible and infallible? Edict saw this, Licit saw this. Everyone around Ashley can see her for the poor broken trigger runaway that she is, except Ashley. But what does that matter when she won’t let anyone into her life? This interaction with Jack showcases just how fickle his power can be. Yes, he “convinced” her to join him, and yeah she lost focus and lost track of her own goals, but I don’t think it’s because Jack was hitting the nail on the head with his words. I think if anything, Jack was hitting the nails for the Ashley that Ashley herself wanted to be. It wasn’t “her” though. The real Ashley is still a scared little girl trying to make her way through the world, dealing with an unpredictable and highly violent passenger, and trying to strike a compromise between the urges of her power to destroy everything and her own need for some sense of normalcy. This has been showcased several times, but I don’t think anything drove it home as much as seeing that she was trying to educate herself using the homework help TV show.

    Ashley is obviously someone who takes pride in her appearance and how she comes off to people. But how much of that is from her own innate personality, and how much of that is a defense mechanism of a scared little girl who never got to mature or grow up past the point of her patricide?

    And then we get this beautiful Evil/Good twin dynamic between her and the other Ashley. I don’t want to delve too deeply into that because we’re lacking info and I don’t want to speculate, but suddenly we’re also starkly reminded that this Ashley is a clone…..a clone with most of the memories of the original, but a clone nonetheless. Why did the other Ashley clone choose to be evil while our Ashley chose to be good? Was it influence from Bonesaw? Was it something innate within Ashley? Which Ashley is the true Ashley, if either of them can truly be considered a baseline for personality? Was it truly just a split second decision based on all of the same information and memories, or are there things innately different between the two? Is this a result of Riley’s memory machinations, or is simply the two equally likely paths that the original Ashley would have chosen?

    Regardless, this has been a beautiful arc. Ashley has been one of my favorite characters from the start of this book, and I’m immensely happy that we’re getting so much insight into her mindset and how she does (and used to) operate. I’m very excited to see where this goes, and I desperately hope that this isn’t another “Canary in the Birdcage” scenario where we won’t see Ashley for several (many) arcs before she comes back in with new revelations and resolutions.

    1. We saw that the clones each had quirks – even different Siberian manifestations, for Manton, which are a clear indicator of different memories. Plus, Ashley Scissorhands asked Swansong whether she had a specific memory, which means they got somewhat different ones, or maybe different levels of clarity.
      One notes Swansong is very clear on memories of building rapport and working with others, as well as regret, while her memories of committing violence, the time before the move to Boston and around her recruitment by Jack, are all understated.

  11. So Ashley has the part of her that’s moving forwards, and hoping to make something of herself… and another of her sitting at home and preparing tea with giant clawed hands.

  12. Riley, did you really have to give her the memories of all the failed clones being boiled alive? Not cool.
    Then again, maybe those memories came from the shard weirdness instead…agh I want to learn more about how that works.

    This was an awesome arc, Wildbow. Before this I never feel like I really “got” Ashley – I could never fully understand why she did what she did and said what she said. Now I get her.

    1. She didn’t, that’s the mystery! Ashley has a whole bunch of memories that Riley didn’t give her. Both things that she had no motive to give her, like being boiled alive, and things she couldn’t have known, like Licit’s son’s name. The working theory is that her shard, anxious to reintegrate into her mind after the cloning, is patching her memory up with things from other shards.

      1. Seeing as they’re potentially intelligent and are meant to study how they’re used, they likely have some kind of record of every time the power was used. For some powers, that wouldn’t be so that useful for rebuilding a personality. Like if Ashley had had control over her power it’s only have images of her trying to destroy things and fighting people, but without control it gets sparks of her life at random. If that’s what’s happened, Tt or Skitter would probably have every waking moment recorded in their shard, but Grue or Rachel would only get fights, and preparing for fights.

        1. Rachel would probably get memories of the scenes where she’s using her power to take care of her dogs by having it cure them of diseases and parasites, too.

        2. I think the shard has memories of Ashley’s entire life, I mean it even includes pre-trigger memories (the fight right before it), it’s just ‘absorbed’ them from her mind to get full reference for how she used the power. And that means people can essentially be resurrected from Valkyrie’s “storage” 😀

          1. The trigger is just an activation of the shard. They arrived with Zion and observed the subjects for a while. That, plus integration with the subject’s mind, gives them plenty to work with.
            But yeah, Riley commented back at the time how the clones converged surprisingly well to their originals, with quirks and variations.

    2. I’ve been thinking about how the Echidna clones had all the memories of their originals. Also about what the squiggly shard-centaur in the broken trigger said. Also that Damsel died, and her shard was effectively called back in to the office.

  13. Oh no. No, no, no, you are not pulling this shit WildBow. What’s happening with the Shards? Is Abaddon returning? Did it leave something behind when it communicated with the Thinker? Is Zion or Eden making a comeback? Are the shards pulling themselves together to create something new? If it’s something new, will it be more human than other entities? I need answers to these questions!

      1. Abaddon, when it collided with Eden (the thinker, as opposed to the warrior), back in that one interlude.
        We’ll never know what Eden planned to do, since she crit-fumbled her landing and got killed shortly thereafter.

        1. Ohhhh, THAT thinker. I dont know why, but I thought you were talking about Teacher, since he reminds me of the DC villain the Thinker so much

    1. I don’t think Eden is coming back, at least. Contessa had used the power of prediction to see how to kill it.
      As for Zion… It’d be so crass, to have it come back. I’m sure Wildbow could swing it, but I hope he doesn’t.

  14. Holy fucking shit, Wildbow. You managed to write the equivalent of a light novel in the span of 8 days. And not just any mediocre-to-shitty novel, but something that really makes you sad for a character. You really are an exceptional individual. I don’t think there are many people in the world that can pull this off. Canada should recognize you as a national treasure.

  15. I’ve realized something. The two Ashley’s can never fight in public. It’d be too emberresing. Their powers don’t hurt them, but would totally destroy their clothes! They’d end up naked in no time!

  16. I wonder if Ashley is getting bleed through from her dead fellow clones? They were alive for such a short time they were practically the same person.

    1. The whole point of the indoctrination/triggering part if the cloning process was convincing the shard that they WERE the same person.

  17. Picking out a favourite part…. I like the Siberian’s introduction. It plays nicely against what happens to Ashley.

    “Ashley turned to look. The front door. The Siberian was there. No costume, no clothes, no theater, words, or even posture, not in this moment. Just the woman and an imposing presence.”

    1. I’m a bit sad we didn’t get to find out what the interaction between the Siberian and Damsel’s power would be.

      1. Siberian is just a projection. There’s nothing there to annihilate. Siberian is also a lot faster than Damsel, so it wouldn’t have mattered much regardless.

      2. Nothing. Siberian is immune to powers that function with reality. Things that break reality or that are as fundamental as reality itself are the only things that effect it.
        Ashley doesn’t actually annihilate anything. It’s just time altering, gravity, kinetic energy, and other effects piled on top of each other. Reality isnt breaking, and its nothing immutable like clock blocker. If her power can obliterate a tree monster, it wont obliterate Siberian.

        1. Eh. Her power can destroy forcefields like they’re nothing. Plus, I’d say concentrated spacetime distortion (gravity, time and velocity fluctuations) are very much on the level with what Clockblocker did.

  18. At first I was pleased that Ashley got her promised eclairs… then I realised that the Nine were gonna show up and I was afraid they’d ruin the eclairs or something like that, but then Bonesaw asked politely so it was okay. And then there was arm-cleavering 🙁

    And then we got other-Ashley (I’d just been reminded about her so I was wondering if she’d get a mention.) and shard stuff 😀 Neat!

    One of the funniest exchanges, in a very dark way, is:

    “I don’t want mayhem,” Jack said. “I don’t want violence. I don’t want killing.”

    “Oh, shoot!” Bonesaw said. “We’ve reaaaaaaally been messing up, then.”

    ahahahhaha!

  19. Waaaaiiiit…

    Was our Ashley only eager to go on trial as a ploy to (1) get answers from her fellow clone and (2) keep Rain company?

    Clever girl.

  20. The only thing I can seem to think about is how much of a favor Riley did Ashley. I mean, here we have an 18-year-old girl who is grossly disabled both physically and mentally, to the point where she can neither take care of herself or accept help. Her entire existence prior to the day the S3 came is a tragedy of the highest order.

    For all that Bonesaw had no good intentions toward her, Ashley can trace literally every good or even tolerable thing in her life to the point where she interfered in it.

    1. Ashley: “You cut off my arms, got me chopped in half (indirectly), poisoned me, boiled me alive, vivisected me…”

      Bonesaw: “I was doing you a favor!”

      Ashley: ” … True. But you could have used anaesthetic, that’s all I’m saying.”

    2. What?
      Ashley was coming close to arranging her life in a way she was satisfied with. Note how she was estimating her day as being partly good, how she was trying to get something of an education, how she was okay with the idea of Edict supporting her and herself responding to it, how she wanted to take care of her neighbourhood, how she figured out how to arrange a way to move stuff without messing it up, with the hook. Ashley was nearly okay, when Bonesaw came and broke it all over again.

      1. Ashley wasn’t okay, Ashley had given up. You can tell she isn’t okay, because of all the holes in the walls. Nothing about the scene before Jack arrives is a sign of healthy coping. At that point, she had no goals, no satisfaction in life, no meaningful relationships, and was in a steady downward spiral, while doing precisely nothing about it.

        1. No. The point is now that she hit rock bottom, she was considering letting others help her. Given a little more time, Ashley may have gone to Edict, Licit and Armstrong to take them up on her offer. She was already letting her guard down with Fappy a bit–no posturing or paranioa, actually being civil. With time, she may have been able to swallow her pride let the PRT help her. And *then* she could’ve turned her life around.

        2. She has little control over her power. Accidents happen. Plus, she was still not quite there.
          Please, don’t take what Jack said at face value. The idea that she was blasting away in anger was something he wanted to put in her head.

    3. Ashley was actually trending upwards when they found her. With two years towards the end of the world, she might have made a lot of progress – probably not as much as she has since the end of the world, but then again she had another eight sets of traumatic memories to deal with (her original stay with the SH9, plus seven deaths).

    1. Fappy seemed to be unpowered, so just a nickname. And I’d rank Skidmark as a worse name. I mean, it’s not the poor teenaged boy’s fault he probably got caught jerking it by a friend, but Skidmark choose to name himself after a line of feces in the back of a pair of drawers.

  21. Oh gawd.
    I don’t know why, but in this whole arc, the thing that got me most was Fappy’s simple “Should we have invited you over”….
    Just because everything else was so clearly ruined, where as that… with just a slightest change… might actually have worked out okay.

  22. I really wish Ashley was our protagonist. I think I liked this arc more than the rest of Ward combined.
    Also let me say that Wildbow hasn’t lost his ability to write the SH9 at all. I was cringing in a good way when Riley started hacking through Damsel’s arm, Jesus fuck.

    1. It’s weird, Ashley’s voice manages to be louder in 3rd person than Victoria’s does in 1st. Plus Damsel’s combination of pride and vulnerability make her really likable. Reading this, I somehow seem to remember liking her even in the S9000 arc.

    2. One good thing about Victoria is that her being more stable means she can pay attention to everyone else, whereas Ashley’s unresolved issues are so sharp, still, that they would naturally be the focus of any narrative centered in her. Sure, she cares about Kenzie, but that is colored by her own problems.
      Plus, Victoria being the newcomer to the team makes her a good audience stand-in. Much like Taylor, now that I think about it.

  23. I wonder how Jack would have reacted if someone quoted Vir from Babylon 5 when he asked what they wanted.

    “I’d like to be there when they cut off your head and stick it on a pike, as a warning to the next ten generations that some favors come at too high a price. I want to look up at your lifeless eyes and wave, like this.”

    1. Jack-“Oh like I’ve never heard that before!”

      Personally I’d go with something like this.
      “What would I like Jack Slash? Well you said you liked to see what comes to the surface of people when they are squeezed? I’d like to see that for you. Not just physically, as fun as that might be. I’d like to see you broken. I’d like to see your sad little delusions that you are anything more than a petty little bastard tearing things and people down because you think that’s some sort of dark meaning gone. I want you curled up on the floor in a fetal posistion as you are faced to realize that your entire worldview was bullshit spouting from the asshole that you are, as everything you ever tried to achieve fails and backfires and people genuinly become better. A little too optimistic a dream I suppose. So I’ll settle just for you being dead and forgotten.”

    2. He’d probably laugh and tell you to go for it. And then subtly manipulate you into serving his purposes anyways. As he said, many, many others have been in the group for the express purpose of killing him and taking his position.

  24. oh god
    Ashley was just starting to come close to maybe putting her life in order, and then S9 happened to her 😡 I’d suspected she might not have gone with them entirely willingly, but, fuck, to see it is still another thing 😡

    and the weird memories thing, huh

    …interests me less than Ashley herself 😡

    1. That recruitment sucked, though I still think Riley got it worse in that particular respect.
      Then again, comparing tragedy is mostly pointless.

  25. I was thinking that Ashley had joined the s9 of her own free will, but to see that it happened when she was just at a point where she was about to turn her life around… makes it a million times worse and more tragic.

    1. I’d been suspecting it wasn’t, and it’s actually nice to get a confirmation… as horrible as it is to see Ashley come so close before it’s all ruined again.

  26. This is a wonderful arc. Deeply evoked emotion, great worldbuilding, extremely effective and economical characterization of secondary characters.

    It also turns out that good worldbuilding for a world we know no longer exists is uniquely haunting.

    I know effusive praise is the least useful kind of feedback, but this deserves everything everyone’s giving it.

  27. I dont understand the last bit. They remember the vision the original got when she triggered? Isnt that unimportant for everyone at the final battle since a Cape forced everyone to remember it?
    Or was it saying they can remember zion’s memories?

    1. No, her vision when she triggered was different. And usually people don’t remember the visions post-trigger anyway. This memory is different and it doesn’t sound similar to the other trigger visions. Other visions that were described could usually make sense once you know the context of the entities–what they were, what they looked like, what they did–especially if you reread Scion’s interlude. This memory doesn’t remotely resemble the others. Personally I think its the dimension where all the shards are physically dwelling while they observe the parahumans their connected to and collect data. And the reason these Ashley-clones can see this, where other parahumans can’t, is because they’re clones–so the connection between shard and host is screwed up and broken in a weird, unique way. I bet the other S9 clones can remember it too. That’s how the other Ashley found out, she met and talked to them.

      1. I think the shards connected back to the clones, found them somewhat similar to the originals, and gave them memories it had stored to correct them in that direction. The problem is it sometimes gave corrupted versions, or even the wrong memories (like Swansong remembering Edict’s life, or this scene).

      2. When you say her vision was different, are you talking about the original Damsel, or swansong and the clones? Because I thought bonesaw had to implant memories to cause them to trigger when being created?
        Because I just assumed that the clones could remember two triggers, one from the original and one from their manufactured one

  28. that scene with Damsel sharing a talk with foppy and his cousins.. her enjoying her eclair… it was sweet. very very sweet – now if only Jack hadn’t come along when he did…

    I’m glad Ashley has some nice memories to fall back on, even among the bad days, and her describing her time with the team was really touching

  29. Love this chapter, Damsel and Chris are probably my favorites so far of the Ward cast.

    Shame I find Victoria about as interesting as watching paint dry, and still loathe Rain.

    1. I think of rain as 1/5th of an interesting character. I kind of wish cradle was the member of the cluster we got to follow.

      I don’t think it’s that Victoria is boring. She’s just a secondary character being forced into the main spot. The biggest issue for me with ward right now, and by extension Victoria, is that it seems kind of directionless. There’s no clear goals. It’s mostly been Victoria meandering around the group trying to figure it out and an admittedly awesome battle with the fallen. Plus Victoria’s own baggage keeps weighing her down at the most random moments. I don’t think she will be a compelling main until she resolves the issue with any in some way, doesn’t matter how.

  30. I think this arc here finally let me put my finger on why I haven’t been enjoying Ward as much as any of your other stories, even Pact: I don’t know who Victoria IS.

    Ashley comes across loud and clear in this arc, who she is as a person is laid bare and what makes her tick is pretty clear, with room to develop. The same applies to Taylor, Blake, and especially Sylvester.

    I don’t know Victoria. I know things about Victoria, I know what her triggers are, I know vague character traits and minor places she tries to touch up her personality flaws, but Victoria, unlike all the other viewpoint characters, doesn’t feel like a person. She’s just a character in a story.

    I think you might be hampered by Victoria being established so solidly when you were a much weaker writer (both with the “Guts and Glory” thing you’ve mentioned as being a Worm prototype and from early Work) and struggling to get across what makes her compelling to you. At least, I don’t see it.

    You’ve got a ton of great stories to tell and characters to tell it with, but it feels like none of those are the character we’re stuck in the primary viewpoint of for the majority of the series. Just my 2 cents.

    1. I kind of agree with you. Victoria seemed broken at the beginning of ward but now she just seems kind of….directionless I guess? That might not be the best word.

      It’s like she has things she wants to do but either doesn’t have any idea how to pursue them, or she suddenly finds herself crippled by her past again. She needs to either engage with the group 100% or move on already. She doesn’t have any clear goals at this point. Just a to do list assigned primarily by Yamada.

    2. Victoria is lost.
      She had a center to her life – being a cape, powerful, confident. She had a family. She had her hobbies. And then Amy came and nuked everything.
      She took being a cape away from Victoria – first she was disabled, and now her powers are neither something she’s comfortable with nor completely in control of.
      She took Victoria’s power and confidence. Vicky spent two years almost completely dependent on others for basic care, and being looked on by almost everyone with pity.
      She took Victoria’s family. What she did took away their sisterly relationship, poisoned her relations with her mother.
      So Victoria is lost. She has managed to pick up the pieces of her life, but they no longer fit together. So she is at the same time trying to find a new self and help others in somewhat similar situations.
      The reason Victoria doesn’t feel like a person to you is because Victoria doesn’t feel like a person to Victoria.

  31. So Damsel OG was a really shitty villain who thought she was the biggest game in town due to parental abuse, a dangerous power, and what seems like a very dominant passenger warping her mind. Then she gets frustrated when she doesn’t get the results she wants, lashes out, then loses everything by lashing out and getting involved with far more dangerous people she should never have gotten involved with (though the s9 showing up wasn’t damsels fault). Am I the only one who was thinking about Shadow Stalker the entire arc? It seems like Shadow would have ended up very similarly had she not been forced into the wards program and arrested

  32. This was great. Thank you, Wildbow. I had a hard time getting a hold on Ashley before this, but now I feel I somewhat know her as a character. So very tragic, but she lives in a crapsack world after all.

  33. So, there seems to be a plot hole here for me that maybe I didn’t understand correctly.

    I was pretty sure that Ashley made a reference to the last time that Riley and her sat down for tea and how she wouldn’t allow that to happen again. I don’t see anything here in the flashback that describes anything about having tea, only eclairs. Am I missing something? I though it was an allusion from Riley of her drugging Ashley when they first met to sedate her or something.

    1. In Worm, Bonesaw’s interlude, Bonesaw/Riley have tea with a Damsel clone, drugging her, and then boil her alive, because it’s deemed an unworkable variant of Ashley.

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