Gleaming – 9.14

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I tumbled through darkness, and this time there was no frame of reference, even a wrong one.  The water was numbing, the darkness all-consuming, and the water around me was moving, more akin to being in an undertow in a fast-moving river than a pool.

Was that only foreshadowing for what was to come?

The thought was eerily calm, disconnected from the danger and the chaos around me.

Fear was contagious, and the fear of the dark was something I’d inherited.  There was something about having a mom who often slept with the lights on that made a small child insist on her night-light.  When a first sleepover fell to pieces because of the night-light issue, that little girl’s parents had provided explanations.  They were superheroes, their powers used light.  That was why.

It would be a few years before that little girl would start to feel she’d been told a lie.  Not a realization, but a feeling.

Fear paralyzed like cold water did.  It shackled, limiting action, like debris stirred up by water, computer components and bits of metal hooking on clothing.

Two ways to deal.  One could bend to it, succumb.  It wasn’t a bad option, despite what one might think.  Because the alternative was to fight, to push through, and any movement that followed from shackles and paralysis was liable to be rushed, to get other people hurt.  I’d learned both of those things from my mother.  I’d seen her on her patrols, heading into dark alleys with only her weapon for lighting.  I’d seen her bend to the fear to the point it was an integral part of how she lived.

If I acted now, if I used the Wretch in a confined space when I didn’t know where my team was, if I flew, I could do a horrendous degree of harm.  I flew in one direction, found a flat surface, and pressed myself hard against it, until I was grounded enough to have a sense of gravity.  The water roared, someone was trying to shout underwater, but the sound was lost, dulled and muffled beyond recognition.

Something touched my leg, then pressed out, pushed, and I felt the strength of it.  Not a human hand or anything similar.  A tendril.

No sooner did I recognize it than I felt it pull away.  My leg was pulled after it by the force of the water moving in its violent wake.

Blue lights began to fill the space.  Motes of light appeared, leaving trails and lines behind them.  The illumination was murky, everything cast in one or two shades of blue and more pitch black.  Objects were unrecognizable, the side and top of a table ten feet away looked much like a folder of papers floating within my arm’s reach.  Both moved violently – I hadn’t expected just how turbulent this water would be, or how much.

This time around, I had my orientation, but I didn’t have the ability to do anything with it.  I exhaled slowly, letting bubbles slip through my lips, a way of measuring my time limit.

I searched through the oppressive, near-opaque gloom, a world of sluggish and violent movements, of chaos, and I saw nothing.

The movement of the water wasn’t as intense as it had been in the first few seconds, but for every small amount that it slowed and calmed, I felt waves of stress and strain, my breath pushing against the inside of my chest, wanting out and wanting more.

Not hard edges.  Look, Victoria!  Look!  Where are they!?  Look for human shapes, for the lines of the human body!

Motion caught my attention, almost invisible in a swirl of computer chips and boards.  I moved to intercept before I’d fully verified who it was.  Rain, swimming through the water.

I flew to him, grabbing him, helping him along.  I saw his head turn, his eyes wide.

I could fly, and flying was better than swimming.  Holding him, I flew us both toward the door, toward the tunnel where someone would have to swim further than the length of a swimming pool to get to the hole we’d made.  They would then have to get up through that hole.

Tristan drew outlines, and made dense material that fit within those outlines.  Byron drew outlines, but the condensed material was something that uncondensed, expanding out to fill space, vastly disproportionate to the outlines made.

Rain slipped from my grip.  He’d stopped abruptly.  I turned myself around.

He pointed.

Hair, floating free in the water, and a form that wasn’t really trying to swim.

I nodded confirmation, and Rain kicked, propelling himself toward the door, the eddies and flows in the water flipping him belly-up.  Leaving me to it, even as my pulse joined the dull roar of water in my ears, each beat a delivery of a swiftly dwindling oxygen reserve.

More blue lights surrounded Rain, surrounded us.  It still felt like two shades of blue and black, but the blue was lighter, the black filling less space.

I grabbed him and gave him a tug to help him on his way, and I saw a glimpse of Byron at the door.  He was drawing out motes.  Behind him, Damsel was already heading through the tunnel, visible more by the froth behind her, the water and debris turbulent.

Bubbles slipped through my lips.  How long had it been?  Twenty seconds?  Forty?  A minute?  Two minutes?

I was ready to get to a place I could breathe now, and I still had too much to do.  I pushed urgency out of mind, with a growing feeling that if I did start to panic, I’d be less able to handle it because I’d put it off.

The hair, as I flew to intercept, was Monokeros’.  She wasn’t really trying to swim.

I saw flashing, and for a moment, I thought it was the server somehow still alive.  Then I saw the shape.  The side of someone illuminated by the flash, a line with slight curves that could have been someone’s leg or back.  A human kind of shape.

I flew past Monokeros to the other shape.  The flashing continued- Lookout’s flash gun, aimed at the wall.  A signal.  It was a steady series of flashes, until the gun ceased to work.  I saw her smack the gun a few times.

She didn’t even realize I was there until I put my hands on her shoulders.  Her head turned, and multiple round red eyes appeared in the dark, focusing on me, some narrowing like an old camera’s shutter.  She raised her hand in a small wave, and some of the lenses went dark.

Somewhere in the background, there was a detonation.  I could feel it through the water, muted as any sound or vibration would be.  It still shook my entire body.

I drew her close, pulling her tight to my side so we might be able to move faster through the water, with less drag.  The return hug was bear-hug fierce, shocking after the casualness of the wave a moment ago.

I took flight, heading back the way I’d come.  I was a little less gentle with Monokeros, gripping her wrist in passing, wrenching it as I went.

Even approaching the tunnel was a complete change.  The debris had flowed in this direction, and with the movement of water from a larger room to a narrower corridor, the churn was worse.  It threatened to tear Monokeros from my grip.  Byron was still there, waiting.

I didn’t get that far before tendrils gripped me.

Two living people in my arms.  I couldn’t use my forcefield or strength.

The tendrils pulled away.

It was always Tristan who had done the hand gestures or motions to accompany the uses of his power.  This time, it was Byron moving his arm, touching a mote, and then moving his arm toward the hallway we were aiming to enter.

Ah.

More water, I thought, as the power took hold, motes disappearing.  The lines and dots of blue light winked out of existence, plunging us into a darkness where the two still-lit lenses on Lookout’s mask were dots against blackness, rather than anything illuminating.  With that darkness came an impact, enough that it knocked the remaining gulp of air from my lungs.

It was cold, so fresh into our reality, and I had to fight the impulse to use the Wretch.

My focus was on the team.  I controlled our pace by flying against the flow, tried to keep Lookout and Monokeros closer to the top of the tunnel.

I breached open air, and it was startling, because we weren’t anywhere close to the hole.  Water was flowing out and away.

My hand hurt in ten different ways because of the burn and the fact that the water was soaking through the bandage and it was cold enough that it would have hurt on its own, much less making contact with a sensitive injury.

I saw the square hole we’d cut in the top of the tunnel, and I hauled the two up.  In the moment I was about to take us up and out, Monokeros jerked her arm free of mine.  Waking up, maybe, or- who knew?

Rain was still in the water, half-turned to absorb the flow.  He was holding position and holding onto Byron, using his power to keep them both in place as rocks amid the overflow.

Tristan had walled off the tunnel, and up until just a short while ago, that wall had served as a dam, which was part of why the water had risen to the level it had.

Judging by the hole in the wall and the fact that the wall wasn’t intact anymore- Damsel had blown it up.  Helping, kind of.

I carried Lookout out, then flew down for the others.  Byron was next, heavy as he was soaking wet and wearing armor.  Rain was easier.

“My tech,” I could hear Lookout’s lamentations.

“I thought it was waterproof,” Byron said.

“Water resistant, a lot of it,” I heard her.

I flew back into the hole.  “Byron!  Light!?”

The light was meager, but it caught the edges and foaming rises of water as it flowed over the dam, past debris that had been dragged from the room to here.

There was a hole in the wall.  My first destination.  Damsel was within.  She’d blasted a hole that pointed back and away from the flow, forming an alcove she could stay within.  Thane, Teacher’s tinker from the server room, was lying in the rubble and dirt at her feet.

“You okay to stay for a minute?” I asked.

“You okay with making a lady wait, when she can blast your head-” Damsel started.  Her teeth chattered hard enough to interrupt her.  “-clean from your shoulders?”

My own teeth chattered, partly because of a sympathy reaction.  “Somewhere in there, there’s another lady who can do that.  I’m really hoping she’s behind a closed door.  I’ve got to help her.”

“If you must,” she said, before nodding in a way that didn’t match the words.  “Save her.”

“Huddle for warmth for now,” I said.

She looked down at Thane and sneered.  “I’d rather be cold.  Huddling with me is a privilege.”

“Then see if Capricorn can make you a ladder.”

“Will try!” I heard Capricorn.  Tristan now.

“Vic- Antares!” Lookout called to me.

I looked up.

She turned on a flashlight, then threw it down to me.  A small one, bright.

“You’re awesome,” I said.

“Help my friends,” was the response.  “I want us all together again.”

I wasted no more time.  I plunged into the dark.

Sveta, Crystalclear, Ashley, Ratcatcher.

Kingdom Come, if he didn’t come part and parcel with Sveta.

The water had vented out enough that I could fly over it.  I flew into the room with the server, and found it nearly empty of water, now.  Debris at the door was damming it, and I destroyed that debris using the Wretch.

“Sveta?  Kingdom Come?” I asked.

Tendrils whipped out of the water.  They seized me.  I activated the Wretch, then dismissed it a moment later.

Calm, I thought, as my heart hammered.

She hauled herself up.  She was too coordinated to be Kingdom Come.  Most of her was outside of her shell though.  In a way, she wasn’t our Sveta.

Raising herself up to eye level, she brought her forehead forward, until it rested against mine.

“Rinsed him off?” I asked.

I felt the nod.  “He’s over there in the corner, pulling himself together.”

“The B team is okay.  Where’s the A team?”

“Downstairs.”

Downstairs wasn’t good.

“He covered the ceiling so he was dripping down on top of us.  I saw it at the last second,” Sveta said.  “I took the bullet, and tried to put myself where I would at least get in their way.  Thane had to work remotely.”

“You did good.”

“I don’t feel good.”

I wanted to reply to that, but I knew the feeling one hundred percent.

One hundred and ten percent.

“Bricklayer’s mantra,” I said.

I felt her nod, her forehead against mine.  “I’ve got me.  You go get Swansong and Crystal.”

“And Ratcatcher?” I asked, turning around in the doorway I was already flying through.

She shook her head.  “Ran.  Get the other two.”

I nodded.

The light from the flashlight wasn’t quite sufficient for this kind of oppressive darkness.  A single beam of light weighed against corridor after corridor, room after room of only darkness.  I found the stairwell, and beyond the first flight, everything was obscured by the receding water, the level steadily decreasing.

I could hear something below.  The terrible noise I’d noted earlier, a roar or great grinding.

As good a cue as anything.

The debris and the degree of the churn at the top level of the water made entry by flight difficult, with an obstacle catching my shoulder on one entry and a lack of forward movement stalling the second.

Then I was beneath, and the already small beam of light from the flashlight halved in size, diffused into dark, grimy waters.  My skin and clothing were soaked through and gripped with the cold water.

The roaring I’d heard earlier was louder here.

Louder still as I flew deeper through the water, through a maze of things that threatened to catch at my armor and clothing, scraping at my arms.  It was a morass of debris, old construction material left in the tunnel, where it could sit forever, and I couldn’t use the Wretch because doing so threatened to make things harder to get through.  I’d only end up tearing things down and compacting stuff into barriers.  I’d run out of breath before I got through.

I exhaled a bit, letting bubbles rise to the surface.  I’d always found that trying to hold two full lungfuls of breath ended up being counter-intuitive.  A steady release helped.

The current of the water became stronger as I got closer to the bottom, and the amount of sediment increased.

I found the source of the roar.  Ashley, her back against the edge of a doorframe, stood knee deep in water.  Her power was directed at the hallway, a steady, continuous blast, that bucked, kicked, and forced her to retain her control.

I thought of fighting the shield as the Wretch tugged at it.

I floated in water as it was churned by Ashley’s power.  Some of what her power did was annihilate, but it was random, and most of what she was doing was holding it at bay, steadily removing some of the water from existence.

I was still trying to figure out what to do to help when she stopped.  The blast ceased, and water crashed into the room she and Crystalclear occupied, the both of them just barely visible in the froth of bubbles and sediment before they were pushed back.

I flew into the room, and the force of water rushing in forced me to stick my feet out, hitting the wall opposite the door.  I reached out, found Ashley’s head, and from there, found her hand.  One hand burned, holding Ashley despite the pain, feeling how cold her skin was, well beyond the norm of a human hand in cold water.

I did much the same with Crystalclear’s head and hand.  I could feel the chunks of quartz-like crystal studding each.  I held his hand with the same that held the flashlight, awkward, the fierceness of our mutual grip driving the metal into the meat of my hand.

I led them through the dark waters, into the maze of wooden slats and fence material.

There was no roar anymore, no distant explosions as Damsel of Distress tore down a wall.  Even high above, it seemed like the fighting had stopped.

Crystalclear helped to navigate.  We found our way up, and when the coast was clear, I pulled them up at my maximum speed, hauling them to where we could all breathe again.

Dripping, panting, we all caught our breath.

I started to head forward, and Swansong reached out with one hand.  It didn’t move well, and I could see her wince, before pressing her forearms against one another in an ‘x’.

“Sveta,” she whispered.  “She’s compromised.  Kingdom Come got her.”

“Sveta should be okay now,” I said.  “Rinsed off.”

“Did you confirm with a password?” Crystalclear asked.

“Sveta’s one of the very few people in this world who I don’t need to,” I said.

“There’s a lot of people out there who probably thought the same thing and they regretted it later,” he said.

I nodded.  I would have explained, but I didn’t have the words.

“Ratcatcher ran?” I asked.

“She went up one of the ventilation ducts that isn’t supposed to hold a person,” Crystalclear said.  “We thought she’d get help.”

“We haven’t seen hide, hair, nose or tail of her,” I said.  “Goddess won, we think.  And we destroyed the server.”

“You destroyed it,” Crystalclear said.  “You do realize that could have just set everything off?”

“They were going to set it off,” I said.  “Given a choice between a certainty and a possibility of making it, they chose the second option.  I didn’t disagree.”

“They were really going to go that far?” Crystalclear asked.

I nodded.

“Because Goddess won,” Swansong said.

“Yeah,” I said.  I wanted to be happy about it, but I couldn’t bring myself to.  Too many close calls, too many questions.  My sister was out there, and I couldn’t avoid this… third confrontation.  The third in one night.

One fucking long night.

“I think the situation is as resolved as it’s going to get,” I said.  “Teacher loses, he can’t blow the bombs, Goddess has her army.  The heroes are up there.  I think- if there’s anything left to contribute to the situation, we help her keep the peace.”

“We help them,” Crystalclear said.  “We help the heroes.  This protocol, I’m invoking it.”

As if we hadn’t fought enough uphill battles tonight.

But I nodded.

The others had caught their breath.  Ashley was rubbing her forearms, moving her hands with a little bit more in the way of dexterity.

We entered the server room, and Sveta was there, a face and tendrils that were barely visible in the dark.  She was hunched, for lack of a better word, over her ball.  A case of bulletproof glass with staggered ventilation, so that a tendril couldn’t worm through.  A circular lock required some careful manipulation and a clamp of Sveta’s teeth to properly open, if help wasn’t provided from the outside.

But it collapsed into a flat position, and try as she might, she couldn’t coordinate to un-collapse it.

“Can I approach?”

“You got them?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“You shouldn’t approach.”

I stopped where I was, floating.

“I can’t coordinate well enough,” she said.  “I practiced before, but never in the dark.”

“Give it here.”

The hunk of interconnected slats of bulletproof glass struck my breastplate in what was essentially a ‘soft’ pass from Sveta.  The noise made my much-abused ears hurt.

I squeezed the orb, using my forearm instead of my right hand, and hard edges scraped against hard edges.  It slid into its spherical shape, two pieces of plastic nipping off a bit of my arm as they came together.

I opened the lid, and Sveta reached inside, before pulling herself in.  Tendrils had to be coiled together, piled atop one another, filling much of the space.  With my hands full, I had only a glimpse of her expression.

Sveta’s hell.

I locked her in.

“Thank you, Tress,” Ashley said.  “Doing that.  I know we haven’t always been on the same page.”

“I’m still glad you’re okay.”

“It was noble, Tress,” Ashley said.

“It was stupid.  For an instant, I forgot what I was.  And I can’t do that,” Sveta said.  “Other people can’t afford for me to forget.  I positioned myself as best as I could, before he… seeped in.”

I felt some violent motion within the sphere, as if a torrent of physical activity could illustrate the feeling.

With a very different tone of voice, Sveta said, “I’ll need my armor.”

“I’ll get it,” I said.  I started to hand off the sphere, then stopped myself.  “If you’re okay with-”

“Yes.”

I let Swansong hold her.  A silent Crystalclear pointed the way to the armor, and I knelt by it, moving the debris that half-buried it.  Most of that debris was paper.

“Can you-” Sveta said.

“What?”

“I’m sorry but can we leave the tentacles?  The ones Rain made?  Say they were too heavy to bring.  His intentions are good, but…”

“Got it,” I said.  I moved the flashlight to my mouth before figuring out how the new arms connected as part of the greater suit.

“If it’s a problem, you should tell him,” Crystalclear said.

“I will.  But the last twenty-four hours have been utter insanity.  We need to make sure people are safe.  It’s going to distract him.  I know this is bad and it’s against every rule in the superhero magazines and Saturday morning cartoon shows, but…”

“Lie?” Swansong asked.

“Please.  For now.”

“He worked hard on that,” I said.

“I know, but-” Sveta said, her voice muffled.

“Can we compromise?  Bring them, but have them detached?”

“The material is good, even if the intent is overeager,” Ashley said.

I heard a ‘tuk’ sound.  Sveta’s forehead striking the lid of the sphere.

“I should, shouldn’t I?”

“Your body, your call,” I said.

“That’s the issue at its heart, isn’t it?” I heard her.  With the muffling effect of the sphere and how quiet she was, it was hard to catch all the words.

A forearm of pale flesh, a loose length of dense black netting that connected it to another forearm of pale flesh, all in sequence.  Some metal framework within provided a loose skeletal system with levers and pullies.  The locking mechanism involved getting some concentric rings lined up and sliding a bolt through them.

I hefted it over one shoulder, holding it there in a fireman carry.  with my free hand, I combed fingernails through wet hair.  Wet costume, armor, and Sveta’s body were all heavy.  Crystalclear lifted the tentacles, wrapping them around his shoulders like a scarf.

We reached the hole.  Tristan had made a ladder.  The group was huddled.  Thane and Monokeros stood off to one side.

We emerged, each of us in turn, with me steadying Ashley so she could ascend with her hands both full and not at their peak.

Lookout sprung to her feet, and Monokeros reached out for her- missing Lookout’s shoulder.

She bounded to Ashley, and stopped short of giving Ashley a hug.  Ashley adjusted her grip on Sveta, and pulled Lookout into a one-armed hug, arm at Lookout’s head.

Interesting, to see how Damsel observed that, the fidgeting with claw-fingers, eye contact not leaving that scene.  I wasn’t sure if it was a terrifying interesting or a positive one.  Figuring that out required resources I didn’t have.

In a similar vein, I saw Rain look at the tentacles Crystalclear carried.  He didn’t remark at anything, instead turning to survey the situation, almost the opposite of what Damsel was doing.

The prison was quiet.  Not a shout, no movement.  Many buildings had been pulled down, the staff buildings in particular.

“We lucked out with the bombs, it seems,” Ashley said.

“Not luck,” Tristan said.  He indicated Thane, who sat slumped against a wall, a short distance from Monokeros.

“The situation in emergency controls went bad,” Thane said.  He talked like he had a mouthful of tobacco, all mush and sloppy syllables.  “I had to work remotely.  Not nearly so fast as I would be.  But I turned off the fucking bombs.”

“Even though Teacher wouldn’t want you to?” Rain asked.

“Of course even fucking though fucking teacher wouldn’t fucking want me to,” Thane said, and he put enough clarity and emotion into each ‘fucking’ that it didn’t make a mess of the sentence.  “I’m wearing one of the damn things.”

He shook his ankle to demonstrate.

“He told Rain and Byron when we took him back to lash him to a light fixture,” Tristan said.  “Not that this is the best outcome.”

This.  The bombs were ineffective now.  The prisoners were free.  United under an effective leader.

“We need to save Cryptid,” Sveta said, within the sphere.  “And Natalie.”

“Yes,” Lookout said.  “Please.”

I could look across the group and I could see the people who had very little fight left in them.  Me.   Ashley.  Sveta.  Rain had taken a bit of a beating, but that was usual.

By contrast, Lookout and Capricorn looked fairly eager to go.  I knew that they had their own issues.  That Tristan was on edge from earlier in the night, still battling some demon I didn’t know the name of.  Lookout’s demon was named Lookout, accompanied by a yin-yang extension of that struggle, currently in the form of Monokeros.

“The worst of it’s over.  Let’s focus our energies on those two, do what we can to minimize the damage,” I said.

“It’s not over,” Crystalclear said.  “Let me… assert my authority on that.”

“Is that your vision?” Lookout asked.  “Is it something you see?”

That’s not the authority he means, I thought.  He means the master-stranger protocols.

I had to mentally reorient my perspective.  This isn’t over?  It felt over.

“…if my phone wasn’t broken, I’d really really like to get a reading of how your crystals work and how you see through them, and-”

Rain nudged Lookout’s shoulder with one elbow.

“-and yeah,” she terminated early.

“It’s not something I see,” Crystalclear said.  “It seems pretty obvious, but I don’t know how to handle this.  It’s freaky to see.”

“It’s not something you see, it’s just that you see as freaky?” Lookout prompted him.

“Yes,” he said.

“That doesn’t make sense,” she said.

“I’m going to handwave it and say my crystal-vision breaks the rules when it comes to seeing stuff.”

“Oh, duh.”

“You’re leader if you need to be, Crystalclear,” I said.  Then, for Monokeros’ benefit, to cloud the master-stranger protocols, I explained, “You’re with Foresight, they were first on the scene.  I’m okay following orders.  You make the calls.  If you say we should back off and make contact with our team another way…”

“I’m not going to say that,” he said.  “That might be the way to go, I don’t know.  I’m working with limited information, with a really distorted view of my own, and I hate that.  What I do know is that the situation is unsalvageable like this.”

“Agreed,” I said.

“We need one sane person to report to people in the know.  That means we get people out.  ”

“If you’re talking about going against Goddess, we might have a bit of a problem,” Monokeros said, and her voice was low.

“He isn’t,” Tristan said.  “The situation’s a mess.  The prison is totaled, and some complete scumbags are now going to be free.  We need to talk to the key people so they can rein those guys in.  The guys who aren’t going with Goddess.”

He sounded so natural saying it.  Not one hint of a lie or falsehood.

All the same, there was a pause as Monokeros locked eyes with Tristan.

“Woah!” Crystalclear barked the word, loud enough to startle us.  He threw himself between Tristan and Monokeros.  “What was that?  You used your power on him?”

I tensed.  Monokeros awed people, like my awe power turned up to maximum.  She gained protections against that target, as well as insights into their personality and mind.  It was that last thing she had used against Tristan.

“I wanted to see if he was being genuine,” she said.  “He’s loyal but not genuine.  I’m not stupid, Capricorn.  You know deep down inside that everyone is going with Goddess.”

“Shit,” Crystalclear said.

“Once the dust settles, she will come for you and any others who aren’t on her side.  As soon as it’s not pointing her to any immediate threats, her danger sense will tell her if there’s any corner of the world where enemies lurk.  She will find them and bring them in line, starting with the closest or the most severe.”

I saw Crystalclear draw in a breath.  Fingers ran along a crystal near his elbow, nervous.

“Do what you need to do, tell us what you need, and I, at least, will trust you,” I told Crystalclear.

“I wish I had a big plan.  Maybe I’ll come up with one-”

“You won’t,” Monokeros said.  She took a step forward, limping.  She’d hurt her leg earlier.

Crystalclear ignored her.  “But for now, I think my number one priority is making acquiring me as hard as possible.  I’ll see who I can round up, you do what you need to do with your team, and whoever gets to the authorities first tells them everything.”

There aren’t even any good authorities to go to.  The Wardens are in shambles, the major teams are either here or dealing with their own disasters.

“It won’t work,” Monokeros said.  “You won’t get away.”

“I’m going to try,” Crystalclear said.

“Cryptid said we should decentralize,” Sveta said.  “I think it makes sense.  We’ve got Ratcatcher out there, Cryptid’s doing his thing.”

“When in doubt, when law and right and wrong don’t factor in, reach out,” I murmured.

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  “Let’s reach out.  Let’s get our guys and Crystalclear, you get your guys.  Someone has to be able to find a good solution.”

“Goddess has,” Monokeros said.

“Please,” Damsel said, from the periphery of our gathering, still sitting with her back to a ruined wall.  “Shut the fuck up.”

Monokeros made a small giggling sound.  My skin crawled.

“It’s fine,” she said, sounding very cavalier.  The whites of her eyes showed very distinctly as she lowered her face to an angle.  It was a model’s pose for a portrait shot, a little out of practice, the hinges and bolts a little too loose in how she held herself together.  But still a model’s look, meant for the dramatic effect.  “You should run far, far away, Crystalclear.  And I’m going to leave too.  To report to my Empress.  The rest of you should do what you want.  It’s done.  I’ll tell her you did good work.”

“Thank you for that,” Ashley said, her voice laced with sarcasm.

“Come,” Monokeros said.  “Lookout, with me.”

Lookout didn’t budge.

“She gave you to me as a gift.  It’s a little bit like getting a book as a gift with the cover ripped in half, I have to grin and bear it-”

The entire team tensed.  I might have put out a bit of aura, but I couldn’t be sure.

“What the fuck?” Rain asked.  “You did not just say that about our teammate and friend.”

“It’s okay,” Lookout said, her voice light.  She took a step forward, and Ashley reached out for her.  Lookout shrugged free of Ashley’s hand, spinning around.  “It’s okay, really.  Please don’t grab me like that.  It’s okay if she does it because she’s that kind of person, but I know you’re better than that, Ashley.”

Ashley let her hand fall to her side.

“I’ve got to do this,” Lookout said.  “And I want you to trust me that I’m okay doing this.”

“Okay,” Ashley said.

Not okay!” Sveta raised her voice.

The rest of us voiced our own protests.

“Come,” Monokeros said, like she was talking to a dog.  Lookout went to her with a bit of a skip to her step.

Tristan was quickest to close the distance.  Monokeros stumbled a little as she turned around, putting a hand out to her side, indicating Lookout.

“She’s using her power,” Crystalclear said.

Tristan stopped in his tracks.

“I’m using my power,” Monokeros said.  She lowered her gaze again, so the glower of her eyes was barely visible beneath finely plucked eyebrows, the ‘horn’ of the triangle tattooed on her forehead pointed at Tristan.  She moved her hand, revealing a shiv that she had been keeping in the sleeve.  “Lookout.”

Lookout took the shiv.

“You don’t want to do this,” Ashley said.  “I told you what would happen.”

“If they move a muscle to follow us, if they say a word, if they use a power, I want you to put that shiv in your neck as many times as you can before they make you stop.  I’ll be really, really proud of you if you do.”

The group was frozen.

“Really?”

“If you can get it in there and give it a good twist, get it in there so it goes in one hole you’ve made and sticks out another, then cut out what’s in between, I’ll be extra proud.”

“It doesn’t really work that way, though,” Lookout said.  Her voice was small.  “I do more than I’m asked for homework and the teachers get annoyed.  I work hard on my projects and my team gets upset because I’m overworking myself.  Every minute I’m working hard, and it is hard, there’s this feeling in the back of my head, like I can imagine the warm fuzzy feeling when they’re amazed and happy.  I’ve made them happy.  That’s what pushes me to do it.  But it never works out the way I hope, because I hope too much.”

“You want to impress me, don’t you?” Monokeros asked.

I found myself shaking my head slightly, as Lookout nodded.

“You can feel me, big in your head and your heart.  Hold onto that feeling, and believe,” Monokeros said.

Tristan started forward.  Ashley stopped him, grabbing him with both hands to haul him back, force him to land on his ass.

“Close,” Monokeros said.  She said it to Lookout.  “He almost took a step forward.”

Lookout nodded.

“I want you to believe.  If they step forward or give you any reason, and you do as I’ve told, then this will be the time that matters.  Believe that.”

“I believe you.”

“Yeah,” Monokeros said, barely audible.  “This one last time.  Unless they let you and me walk away.”

The shiv fell from Lookout’s fingers.

Monokeros twisted around, but Lookout was backing off too.  She drew her flash gun, pointing it at Monokeros.

“That-”

Lookout fired the gun.  A bright flash that seemed to illuminate the entire side of the prison complex the pistol was pointing at.

“Won’t work, I’m immune to my targets,” Monokeros said.  But she backed away a step, then lunged forward another step.  Bending down for the shiv.

I was already flying.  I wasn’t alone in my charge.

Monokeros hit me with her power.  It took all of the fight out of me, blinded me, and sent my thoughts spiraling into irrational tangents.  Instinct and impulse recognized people hurling themselves toward her, and a bizarre, white-phosphorous bright impulse made me not want to share that space close to her with them.  I turned.

Lookout fired again, and the feeling went away as quickly as it had come, just an instant before I could lash out at anyone nearby.

In the wake of it, I felt like a small part of me died, burned away.  Not because of any lingering aspect of the power, but because I hadn’t ever wanted to be influenced like this again.

Blinded, Monokeros kept a hand out toward us.  I saw others react as she hit them in turn, firing blind.

But she could only affect one person at a time.

I put my hand around her throat.  She hit me with her power, that white-phosphor, all-consuming feeling of being overwhelmed in a good way.

Again, the feeling of death as it passed.  Swansong was there.  Saying something.

“…if Antares lets go of you, I will take your head clean off.”

“Then do it,” Monokeros said.

“No,” I said.  “No, we aren’t killers.”

I didn’t use my powers to force her to move.  Shoulder to shoulder, my hand at Monokeros’ neck, Swansong’s hand gripping her by the ear, we made her walk backward.

She started to speak, and I squeezed until the words stopped trying to get out.  She’d talked enough.

Her feet reached the edge of the lip of the hole we’d made.

“I’ve got it,” Swansong said.

“You’re sure?”

She nodded.

“Don’t just push her so she falls down to the hole and then falls through.  That feels too barbaric.”

“I know,” Swansong said.  Swansong held onto Monokeros’ ear, as the rest of Breakthrough formed a loose circle around the hole.  Swansong had to crouch, one hand and both feet sliding on the slope as she got closer to the hole itself.

She let go.  Monokeros fell through.  Capricorn’s lights were already marking where he was closing off the tunnel.

If anything in this was salvageable, it had to be that we’d either tell people to watch out for Monokeros in the access tunnel, or that we’d just close the portal altogether, or leave it lensed.

Not a death sentence, but if we could put her in a world without people, without innocents, where there was only nature and subsisting on her own, I was okay with that.

“…my first genuine friend that doesn’t have my DNA, and you know that’s a high bar when it comes to quality.”

I turned to look at Swansong talking to Lookout.  A small laugh from Lookout.

“…and if you want to know for sure when people are proud of you, when people think you’re amazing then you should know that this…”

I turned away, turning a deaf ear to the scene.

It was for them, not for me.

Sveta was in Rain’s hands.  Tristan stood off to one side, keeping an eye on Thane.  I turned my focus to Crystalclear.  He was standing way off to the side, almost a hundred feet away, staring off into the distance.

“Shouldn’t you be going?” I asked him.  “You wanted to get away.”

He shook his head.  The crystals caught the meager light.

“No?”

“Over there,” he said, pointing.  “That building?”

Three hundred feet away.  The building had been hit by something that had caved in one wall, wiping out the floors that separated the first floor from the second, so it was just a husk.

“What about it?” I asked.

“I got that far,” Crystalclear said. “And then… it was like something major had happened.  A turning point in history, you know?”

“I kind of know,” I said.  I had a whole mess of mixed feelings as I realized what he was saying.  Trepidation was about fifty percent of that mess.

“It came from you guys, but it bounced, because I get a feeling it started somewhere else.  I can see it with my power.”

“She aligned you.”

“That’s a good way of putting it,” Crystalclear said.  “Oof.”

“Oof,” I said.  I gave him a light punch in the shoulder.  “Come on.  Stick with us, then.  I wouldn’t mind the backup.”

We didn’t hurry as much, now.  If there were moves to be made, then they would be leisurely or opportunistic ones.  There was no use running, not when we were all tired, not when I was carrying a prosthetic body and Rain had a pair of prosthetic tentacle arms.

Besides, I really wasn’t looking forward to seeing one inevitable individual in particular.

We made our way past the shattered entrance building of the prison.  Past looted rooms and parahumans standing watch over scared staff.

I saw the assistant warden we’d reached out to earlier and approached him.  Parahumans moved to block my path.  They seemed to recognize me and then backed off a little.

“We’ll do our best to help you out,” I told him.  “Do you need anything?”

The look in his eyes was haunted as he shook his head.  An inmate at his own asylum, with the patients as the wardens.  And maybe, just a little, there was a lifelong fear come to life.  That the Parahumans were taking over and there was nothing he could do about it.

“Keep your chin up,” I said.

Out of the portal and into another world.  An interim world.  Here, people were camping or laying out tables and other things they’d taken from the prison.  There were a few improvised medical areas, and my heartbeat quickened on seeing them.  I had to double and triple check to confirm.

No Amy, for one thing.  That was ninety percent of it.

No friends, either.  No Ratcatcher with grievous injuries.  No Natalie.  Not in the medical area, at least.

It was a short hike to get to the other portal.  We were offered a ride by someone that had taken a guard’s car, but we refused.  The group needed to stay together.  It was what Lookout wanted and needed right now.

The prison had been burned to the ground.  The interim territory was a camp, a place to fall back to.

This- this was a front line.  All of the prisoners were gathered, organizing themselves.  The heroes we’d brought along had come around to working with Goddess.  I could place them by the teams they belonged to.

Most of them.

I saw Goddess, and I saw that she was talking to heroes.  They weren’t heroes that had accepted our invitation.

She’d reached out, using her new power battery.

I saw Lookout wave, and I saw Natalie, gathered with prison staff.

I spotted Ratcatcher on my own.  She was standing on the back of a pickup truck, ropes binding her hands to the spoiler.  I got Crystalclear’s attention, nudging him, and pointing.  I saw him nod.

There were enough parahumans around us that we couldn’t talk.  The noise was too much.  He tried anyway, saying something about how she was too big a pain in the ass.

No Natalie.  No Ratcatcher.

Was it just the Wardens now, fractured and distracted?

Just us, who had barely enough of a sense of protocols to doubt this reality?  We could say no to Monokeros, but were the others convincing themselves in the same way I was, thinking of how bad she was for Goddess?

On that topic, of Goddess, I saw Cryptid in Goddess’ vicinity, talking to- to my sister.  He wore a monstrous form, narrow but with a chest and spine so distended that it was almost like he was a dorsal fin or clown fish with four legs extending from the sides and planting on the ground, like stout arms mid push-up.  His body was writ in mottled pink flesh, with a row of boils down the back.  Only Cryptid could be that weird.  If I’d had any doubt about his identity, he wore the sash he usually did, to protect his modesty and carry his stuff.

What was unusual was that for the first time since I’d known him, he was changing where people could see.  From this to something else.  I saw flesh sag and slough, and it wasn’t this fin-shaped plague-disgust thing.

Goddess finished talking to the team she had just recruited.  Arms folded, she surveyed her soldiers, and her soldiers, even the roughest of them, seemed to look up at her in turn.  She turned her head and looked over to the horizon.  Earth Gimel’s Megalopolis glittered.

I watched with a heavy heart and a growing feeling of trepidation as Cryptid and Amy joined a small handful of others, forming something of a line.  Amy at Goddess’ right hand.  Cryptid a couple of spaces over, growing black feathers, his neck extending.  He looked at us, and then he looked away.

Mute, yet capable of saying everything with a single look.

I looked back at Lookout, and I saw that she’d been happy to confirm the others were okay, and now she was geeking out with Rain and another cape I didn’t recognize.  They were pointing at the prosthetic suit of Sveta’s I still carried.

Only Sveta was really paying attention like I was, watching Amy and watching our teammate.  She had been traumatized on a level by what had happened with the Irregulars.

That story was repeating itself, at least on one small front.  Betrayal, inexplicable.

Communicated in one look: he was with Goddess, as we were, but he was no longer one of us.

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107 thoughts on “Gleaming – 9.14”

  1. Interesting though that Ratcatcher is caught, not aligned. Is she immune somehow or..?

    (Ironic hell punishment for Monokeros, yay! But why did Cryptid switch sides so thoroughly? Is Amy aligned? Are we about to get the next Capricorn Interlude now? Will this Mastery subplot ever end because it’s rilly hard to root for our heroes when they’re literally Just Following Orders)

      1. I think he switched because he’s had Goddess use a lot of her Alignment on him. He did turn up to a private meeting, after the initial dose, in a form he thought would counter her. And that was only one level of the deception he was pulling at the time.

        Goddess doesn’t trust him, so she’s super-Aligned him, and is keeping him close to make sure he stays that way. He might still betray her somehow, but… Without an external boost, I doubt he’ll manage it.

        1. I’m not sure if he was hit with a particularly strong burst of Alignment; he might just have picked a form that mitigated but didn’t eliminate its effects. Goddess has considered this scenario and judged that he shall provisionally remain alive.

        2. I dont think goddess can “super align” people. I think they are either aligned to listen to her or they are not. Otherwise she would have superaligned victoria who she has made it clear she doesnt trust entirely

    1. I think that Ratcatcher is aligned, she’s just such a pain in the ass they decided to tie her up. I mean, Crystalclear had said that it was his job to look after her and make sure she did the right thing.

      Imagine that. Someone so annoying that they’re tied up when even Chris is allowed to go free.

    2. Probable Ratcatcher is either nonhuman or has significant brain alterations from her power such that she’s either immune to Alignment or behaves erratically when Aligned.

      Cryptid’s relationship with the team has always been a bit strained from various factors, so now that he’s Aligned he may have decided Goddess is the only friend he needs, particularly given that he’s at least temporarily top advisor.

      1. Or it could be neither. She might resist Alignment because she uses a similar method to keep her rodent minions in control. Nonhuman might not affect Goddess; she’s Manton-limited to parahumans, which isn’t ‘humans’. Weld might resist ‘human’, Dragon certainly would- and has, at that-, and Nilbog’s goblins also resist ‘human’ effects. Goddess’ parahuman limit might enable her to target Dragon, and potentially any Goblins that triggered- a feat they are, WoG, capable of. And Weld, despite not fitting into some categories of ‘human’, since he’s specifically tricky where the Manton limit comes into play (he’s non-living to those powers that, like Amy’s, affect living matter, but living to those powers that, like Faultline, don’t affect living matter) is a parahuman.

        1. They’ll all depend on what exactly Alignment does; it may not be capable of inducing the correct changes to the brain in nonhumans even though it can attempt to operate on anything with a Shard. Whether or not it works on Dragon, though, it won’t work on Dragon-created automota that aren’t Dragon.

          Ratcatcher may have Master resistance from her power but I think not enough to negate power battery Alignment; it seemingly displaced Khephri so I wouldn’t count on any non-Trump power related side benefit blocking it to the point of not being a usable minion. Shakey, maybe, but not so much Goddess wouldn’t assign her a couple minders and let her free.

          1. Pretty sure it operates on the passenger, bringing their goals in alignment with hers, and the passenger in turn influences the host

      1. It’s entirely possible Blindside got out of dodge before everything went to hell. He’s there for the money. I don’t think he’d be willing to risk his life for Teacher.

    1. Actually Blindside should be able to exit through the main cave entrance. At least I don’t recall Capricorn sealing it up.

  2. Eh, I side more with Ashley than Victoria on the Monokeros issue. As for Cryptid, I’d suggest he switch so thoroughly because The Empress in blue decided she wanted him on her side, and he doesn’t have the background needed to parse it after aligning.

    But yeah, this arc has been great. Looking forward to the next. ^_^

    ~Teian.

    1. I’m fully willing to believe that Cryptid is unaligned and joined for the deal of being her lieutenant in this, or a new, world.

      But it doesn’t feel like the change he just made now is within his limitations. It’s possible he trusted Amy to fix him up or some other power like Goddess’s power adjuster.

      I guess we’re supposed to believe that HE is the one their Psychiatrist was afraid of?

    2. I’d suggest it’s an act. It’s been hinted if not outright stated that Chris’s shapes are not his own power but someone else’s. (Like a breaker version of teacher without the mind control I guess)

  3. I assume he went over because whatever is going on with his powers is literal hell and she is his best hope of a long term solution.

  4. Thus one rises and another falls.

    Kenzie got her Character defining moment! She finally proves beyond a doubt how much she has developed and also just how inhumanely awful Monokeros is! That being said, it was a terrifying moment.

    Chris though, oh Chris. He had to fall away from the group. I’m just hoping that the next chapter is an interlude where we see what happened with him. Whether it’s his trigger event, falling to goddess, or both, I don’t care. We just need something.

        1. We had a Capricorn interlude, not a Tristan interlude. Since they had to split it, that means we’ve had 1.5 Byron interludes and only 0.5 Tristan interludes. I don’t think Tristan will stand for that.

    1. Typo thread:

      “trying to hold two full lungfuls of breath ended up being counter-intuitive”

      “counter-productive” makes more sense here imo.

      1. >“They were going to set it off,” I said. “Given a choice between a certainty and a possibility of making it, they chose the second option. I didn’t disagree.”

        I suggest replacing one of the “they”s with the names of the people you’re referring to. As is, grammatically speaking, both pronouns refer to the same people.

        >Of course even fucking though fucking teacher wouldn’t fucking want me to

        “fucking Teacher” -capitalize

        >Rain had taken a bit of a beating, but that was usual.

        LOL poor Rain. “Normal” might work better in this sentence.

        >“But for now, I think my number one priority is making acquiring me as hard as possible

        “as difficult as possible” clears up the ambiguity (“as hard as possible” can mean to do something with all one’s might)

  5. Oh man Monokeros getting tossed in a hole where she belongs, where an annoyed supervillain who’s immune to her power and has a gun is waiting, was so satisfying.

    …Kind of cancelled out by Goddess just whammying everyone. At this point, who can save them? Dragon might or might not be immune, Valkyrie is elsewhere (both of them would also feel a little deus ex machina-y and unsatisfying)…I think it’s down to Amy or Cryptid pulling some kind of last second betrayal.

    1. It’s got to be Amy doing her best Class-S Bonesaw Plague impression. Only a true heavyweight capable of no-selling Mastery could possibly take out Goddess here, and Amy’s earlier attempt to touch Victoria speaks to her confidence in her ability to free Goddess’s victims.

      Valkyrie or Bonesaw are the only other heroes/”heroes” I can even imagine resolving this, and as you say, it wouldn’t be very satisfying if they strolled in out of the blue. Narratively, a resolution from Amy gives Victoria the most internal conflict to grapple with. I wouldn’t trust even Imp to take out Goddess at this point, and TT would never send her into the fray, as Imp getting snagged would be the end of TT.

      1. Tbf i was kinda of expecting Lisa to send Imp with some tinker tech to stop Goddess power from afecting her, and it would make she out of all people to come out of the blue with a knife, you know since her power lets her in the know of that kind of shit. But im assuming either TT didnt find anything about Goddess, or her power told her there is no weak point, or she just decided that Taylor would gut her if she did.

        My money is on Panacea, yeah she did shit but for some reason i cant help but feel like she deserves something. Who knows maybe im mastered.

        1. Imp’s power isn’t totally reliable against Thinkers and people with enhanced senses. Also won’t hide her from Lookout’s cameras, though it would keep people from seeing her in the footage.

    2. If we *were* going to be saved by blatant deus ex machina, I’d hope it would be a certain Stranger who hates it when people steal Taylor’s shtick and do it wrong.

      1. Right? My thoughts exactly. Everyone in this has just been pulling a ‘Taylor’ non stop, about time she appears. But then we need to think where does Goddess factor in this.

    3. It’s gonna have to be one or several of the Warden superheavies at this point. The Aligned Thinkers will be defending Goddess against any such betrayal, supplementing her own danger sense.

      Dragon is likely immune and if not she can create drones that are. Valkryie has her massive stock of Einherjar including at least one capable of blocking Khephri.

      What Breakthrough could potentially pull off largely on their own is getting Goddess to withdraw to Shin with an elite cadre and free everyone else rather than warring with the Wardens and the Dragons’ Teeth. Goddess has been asking them whether or not they’d like to come be vassals, which implies she’s not 100% set on taking everyone, and that’s the sort of thing they can work with while Aligned. Goddess has been pleased with the team’s performance as advisors so far so they might be able to talk her down.

      1. Also, intervention isn’t likely to be a Deus Ex Machina. Recall which team Breakthrough is on at the moment and who they’ll support in a major battle.

  6. This chapter was a whirlwind of emotions, especially at the end. I’m very proud of Lookout, but also worried for Gimel.

    You’ve gotta wonder what Natalie’s perspective has been throughout this arc. Hopefully she makes it out okay.

  7. Anyone else ready for more Chris in the upcoming chapters?
    (Also hell yeah Ashley, you hug that girl and validate those in need. Seriously, her genuine gratitude to Sveta is heartwarming to see, and she’s the best with Kenzie)

  8. So Goddess has won out of Teacher’s trap after all, presumably due to the power upgrade she got from receiving the girl from her cluster. It’ll be really interesting to find out just who this person is, and what allowed Amy and Chris to capture her so quickly when Goddess herself couldn’t (or Teacher or anyone else, for that matter).

    Either way, this is awesome. Especially the insinuation that Goddess’ next target will be Earth Gimel itself. That’ll teach them to whine about universities and little girls extorting their parents.

    Not that I think Amy and Chris have really gone over to the dark side, but I can dream.

    1. I figure Victoria is right about it being the ankle bombs; Crystalclear’s vague danger sense seems to be reading safe now so that was probably the tension point Goddess detected. The power battery let Goddess claim the rest of the prison and the heroic response at a stroke, so now she’s organizing and probably planning to move on Teacher before he can reorient and dig in more extensively.

      I got the sense that the power battery woman had gone into hiding but Goddess’s preexisting minions had tracked her down so Goddess sent a pair of fresh minions she wouldn’t recognize and avoid to make the pickup. If she hadn’t been confident they’d manage it quickly she’d likely have delayed a bit rather than commit to the prison assault. She’d want it on hand for the inevitable Warden attack.

      1. Yeah, that makes sense. I didn’t get the idea that the power battery was such a casual thing, though, because of the way Goddess talked it up during her first meeting with the team. Why advertise her weakness, unless she was genuinely desperate? It even seemed like her main concern, at least until Chris joined her and she stopped mentioning it.

        There’s definitely something important there. It was the one thing Goddess claimed to need, and she sent her two least trustworthy followers to secure it. Amy wasn’t ‘aligned’ when she left to help Chris, and Goddess claimed to be unable to control Chris at all. If either one of them was going to rebel, the easiest thing they could have done would have been to deny Goddess the power she wanted. So either they actually are still loyal, or their plan to defect takes into account a fully-empowered Goddess.

        Which is reasonable, of course, since keeping the power battery back would have risked Teacher winning and closing off the prison with everyone inside it.

        Personally, my money is on the alignment effect being reverse-engineered through the power battery person somehow, probably through some hitherto-unseen aspect of cluster-power mechanics.

        1. Remember that Goddess has a danger sense that tells her if a plan is a bad plan and she relies on it very heavily. So she’ll send her two most disloyal minions off to a perfect opportunity to defect if her danger sense says it’ll be fine. She’s apparently able to sense when it’s being obstructed, so this is hard to exploit.

          1. Oh, I can see why Goddess would be overconfident, just there must be more to the choice of personnel. Maybe given her own connection to the alignment power, the power battery can sense its effects and probably Goddess herself? So Goddess needed to send people she specifically hadn’t used her powers on. Or maybe Ms. Battery needed to be talked into coming, so it had to be someone who wouldn’t just say ‘because Goddess said it was a good idea’.

            And there does seem to be an upper limit to the danger sense’s predictive ability. Hence ‘let’s go storm the prison, minions!’ turned into, ‘there’s an inevitable, Scion-like threat coming, solve this now!’ Definitely a big obstacle to sudden betrayals, though. You either need to bring overwhelming power to bear or wait until someone else does and Goddess is distracted. Chris is probably paranoid enough to second-guess each step of that, at least.

  9. Rat! You where supposed to catch the bad guys not get tied up!

    Now I’m wondering what rat catchers powers are exactly.

  10. I’m confused as to what Lookout did. Was she resisting one of Monokeros’ powers, or just her own need to make people proud? Did the flashlight underwater have something to do with it?

    1. I think that she has so mutch experience with being infatuated and disappointed, that monokeros infatuation effect is canceled by her own self doubts.

    2. Monokeros’s Master power isn’t absolute, so I think Kenzie was resisting it until she could yank out her flash bulb of power disruption and open a window for a joint rush. Dunno if it specifically disrupts powers or if the blinding broke Monokeros’s concentration and stopped her from reestablishing it.

    3. I’m not much of one for detail, but I get the impression Monokeros could make people want to please her, but because Lookout is so used to *not pleasing* people when she tries too hard to please them, Monokeros saying what things would *really really* please her made Lookout think that she absolutely couldn’t do that, because it’s wouldn’t actually please Monokeros, because no one was happy when she really really tried to please them.

      It seemed to be something along those lines anyway.

    4. She basically listed off the causes of Kenzie’s trigger as win conditions. Given that Kenzie’s reactions to most emotional cues are inverted as it is, it was the same realm of unpossible orders as the sort that let Victoria break Valefor’s jaw.

    5. I think Monokeros’ power seems to make the target eager to please her.

      But Kenzie is eager to please everyone and has had years of psychological coaching to deal with it.

  11. So Victoria — the viewpoint character — is *still* aligned by Goddess, and her point of view reflects that. At her best, Victoria is an unreliable narrator, her normal ‘affect’ somewhere between hysterics and navel-gazing paralysis, but under Goddess’ mental influence, she’s delusional and confused to the point of schizophrenia — and so are these chapters!

    I have been annoyed and bored by recent updates; muddy, vague and ambiguous chapters that have been a trial to read. What’s happening? How is it happening? What hasn’t happened, but Victoria thinks it has? Have the events of *any* of these updates actually happened? Yes, Wildbow, your characterisation is quite convincing, but it also makes for tedious and frustrating reading, when Victoria’s skewed perceptions are the only ‘in’ to your world.

    As far as the “double-thinking” to get around Goddess’ influence goes, it obviously didn’t work sufficiently well to avoid Goddess’ influence, and at this point, I would find your *telling* the results instead of *showing* them (again) very welcome. I understand that Victoria has many annoying character traits, but when you dwell on them moment-by-moment, it’s not much fun to read. I cringe every time that “warrior monk” motivational thinking comes up… and it comes up a lot.

    1. Aside from flashbacks and flinching at imagining Amy, every event is real. What’s shifted is only Victoria’s perception.

      The effect of the double-think has been unsuccessful, but it’s why she only took Byron and not the Aligned people to raid the Pharmacist, and it’s why she let Crystalclear lead a team to go for the bomb anklets and the capacity to raise an alarm with the Wardens. It lets her do things in service of Goddess’s orders that threaten Goddess’s interests.

  12. Well, so much for my interest in this story. When it grows out of awfulness for its own sake, someone message me to pick it back up. Until then, I’d rather wait for Berserk to update for a dose of a story that’s dark without being derp-laden and edgelord-ish. Or put another way, that’s evangelical about the advantages of evil.

    1. Apologies, to clarify, that’s not evabgelical about evil being advantageous. Because so far l, evangelicalism about the benefits being a bad actor in society has been the major takeaway of all 4 stories. And it suggests an intellectual bankruptcy I find disappointing. If I wanted that, I’d listen to idiots a-contextually quote The Second Coming. Or go read Punisher comics. Or the news.

      1. Apologies. Just disappointed that the opportunity to step back from the whole ethos of psychotic behaviors done for their own sake that Victoria’s comment about the aftermath of Scion”s death, that the drive to shit-stir might have died with him, apparently wasn’t taken.

        1. I don’t really see why it would? The Shards are autonomous and the lack of a central respected authority would make for a chaotic power struggle anyways as would-be warlords fight for dominance.

        2. Your apologies followed by further insults makes me think your apologies are ungenuine. I also don’t agree that evangelicism about evil is remotely the takeaway of these stories. But I guess all I can say is: Buh-Bye!

        3. @ThiefofWords – Yeah we get it dude, you don’t like the story. You don’t have to post three redundant and useless buzzword theories about the message of the stories, all the while being ungenuinely apologetic and insulting in the same sentence. My message to you: I won’t miss you.

    2. Sorry, you’re citing Berzerk as an example of a story that’s not derp-laden and edgelordy? Rape horse and penis golem Berzerk?

      1. I’m pretty sure the extremeness of that comparison was the point? Not everyone can tolerate the sort of Darkness Induced Audience Apathy which this arc was definitely overdosing on.

        1. Not really. There’s been worse and far darker arcs in Worm than here thus far. Did we all conveniently forget how Bonesaw mutilated Grue? Sure it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re going to complain about Darkness Apathy to audience reception, Berzerk is the thing that should really make you stray away from it. Not Ward.

    1. I think youre right there. This is a Kurt and Citrine problem, in my opinion the best thinker with the best trump

  13. Yeah, this is getting to the point where there is going to be another major player going to come in and stop Goddess.

    Most likely either The Undersiders, Cauldron or Dinah Alcott’s faction. I don’t see any other way unless Amy can super-plague the alignment cure without Goddess’s danger sense going off.

    1. I think this has officially reached the point where the Wardens drop what they’re doing and show up in force. Meaning we finally find out what the hell they’ve been doing.

      1. Of course, Dinah would have had conversations with Dr. Y, and later might even have sent some cryptic notes to Dr. Y, who was thereby influenced to create BT. Fortunately for them, Dr. Y had the foresight to totally cut ties by staging an interuniversal gate attack.

    1. I know heroes don’t kill, but there’s not a jury in the world that would’ve convicted Victoria if she left Monokeros to drown in that tunnel in the first place.

    1. Sorry, can’t come into work today, I got a bad case of Alignment.

      Hail Goddess, our Empress in Blue and see you next week.

  14. FINALLY i’ve caugth up with worm, started reading this masterpiece on march and im in love with it.
    Wildbow, you deserve it man, im going to make a nice donation for you, based on how much i would have paid on a game that gave me so many hours of joy (lots of hatred? Sure, but joy too). Unfortunately im brazillian so convertion rates would fuck my donations right now, but as soon as our economy stabilizes i’ll try to make my part. Seriously, amazing work.
    Ps. Where is psychogecko? Did something happen to him?

  15. When it turns out that Chris is just faking being Aligned and is moving against the Blue Lady under her own nose, I’m a gonna laugh and laugh.

    1. Doubtful; the thing about Goddess is she’s an all-rounder; she has her danger sense for that, and now she’s Aligned Crock ‘o Shit to supplement. She’s headstrong and arrogant, but defeating her outright is going to require some kind of strength-against-strength move; whether Valkryie summoning her Alignment blocker and two of her strongest, Dragon sending automota or her Dragons’ Teeth (as nonparahumans who can defeat them in direct combat they’re precisely fit for battling contagious alignment), Teacher deploying an anti-Alignment drug, Lung getting Alignment cover and defeating her in battle, Dinah or the Simurgh maneuvering her into a corner, or something else, it’s going to be a match between giants.

      Now that Goddess has the prison she’s basically got a Protectorate force assembled for action against an S-class threat. The window where Breakthrough or anyone on their level could stop her slammed shut the moment she claimed the battery. They can play kingmaker, but they can’t kill her alone any more than they could an Endbringer.

      Not unless Dinah has selected them as her weapon and set her precog against Goddess to shield them from her danger sense. Their presence is a consequence of her actions, so I assume she has some kind of plan, but I think phase one is Goddess beats Teacher and the part where Goddess loses comes during or after that.

    1. Except Nilbog’s been portaled into oblivion thanks to the station attacks along with Bonesaw and Jessica Yamada.

      The closest things we got to an epic shitshow are the Triumvirate, Contessa, Mama Mathers and Sleeper.

      1. There are still Endbringers around, including the Simurgh. You didn’t mention Dragon. And being portaled away may only be a temporary inconvenience.

  16. Now that the conflict with the prison is over and Goddess has everyone worthy aligned, I’m guessing the next logical step for Goddess would be to take out Teacher. While a worthwhile action to take, I can’t help but worry that Goddess is attempting another takeover of Earth like she did before. Hope the Wardens can stop her or someone in the group can break out of alignment in time.

  17. This is going really poorly.
    I can’t see any way out of this except a) one or more of the really major players is alarmed enough by this situation to come over and kick Goddess’ ass, or b) someone close to her (like Chris) sneakily betrays her.
    a) is most plausible, but it wouldn’t make for a very good story, as others have mentioned. The problem with b) is that she’s been shown to have a really good danger sense for detecting that kind of thing, plus she’s got a bunch of other thinkers on her side to supplement that now. In general, Goddess is just too damn strong for anything short of a massive team-up to stop her now that she’s got her full set of powers back. I almost feel like Wildbow’s written himself into a corner with how strong and well-rounded he made her, but I’ll reserve judgement until we see the outcome of course.

    I suppose option c) is that Goddess over-commits in trying to completely crush Teacher, underestimates him, and the resultant chaos gives an opening for one of Our Heroes to blindside her. Somewhat plausible given how many tools Teacher has got in his toolbox.

    1. I honestly never thought Breakthrough was going to actually defeat Goddess except by triggering option A or mutual kill option C. That seemed about as likely as Taylor killing Leviathan or Behemoth in single combat. She’s a genuine S-class threat; Breakthrough deals with S-class threats by calling in reinforcements.

      Honestly it’s Chris selling them out that’s left them screwed; until she got the power battery and pulsed Alignment they’d MS-protocoled their way to sending Crystalclear to call the New Triumvirate/DnD.

  18. I think people are overestimating Goddess’s danger sense. It’s a danger sense, not unbounded precognition. It will trigger on physical harm, obviously, and perhaps it might also trigger on sufficient psychological stress — intense shame, loss, fear, and equivalent. But, how likely is her power to understand abstract concepts like sobriety and informed decision making? Like, say you slip her a drug that makes her feel satisfied, unmotivated, and lethargic. Under that drug’s effect, she would not care that you took away her minions and confined her to a cell, so long as you kept her supplied with the drug. Would the prospect of spending a few decades in that state register as a threat to her danger sense? If she’s being fed, watered, and otherwise looked after, I suspect not.

    Of course, shards being shards, her danger sense might actually identify as a dangerous any situations where she’s not coming into conflict with other shards for extended periods of time, in order to prevent her from using it too effectively.

    1. It seems to abstractly warn about threats to her interests, so I think it would cover that, at least for like the half hour before she’d take it. It provides very nonspecific information but she’s good at interpreting it, so I expect it’ll thwart any plan that relies on her not employing her TK defensively or being slipped poison. And it’ll warn her about direct and straightforward defections, but not necessarily stuff like deliberately leaving information for hostile forces. I think it also only warns about dangers that will actually manifest, so it didn’t warn her the pharmacist was unaligned because Crock ‘o Shit and baton bodyguard had that. And it doesn’t batter through Blindside’s Stranger power and possibly many others.

      Unfortunately she has probably at least twenty Thinkers now; they’ll guard against indirect threats just like Breakthrough rushed to her aid against Lung. Because Alignment is in the supreme power category: powers that let you obtain powers. Like Eidolon, Valkryie, and Khephri, she can employ the right power for any job. Logistics are more difficult but she can use more simultaneously (not counting Khephri+Doormaker).

  19. I think the main problem i have with this entire arc is that Goddess herself is such a shitty Villain. Her POWER is terrifying and stupidly overpowered, like altpower-taylor overpowered, but her personality is such a disappointment after the hype about her, again like many fanfic-taylors.

    I get the feeling that lookouts entire backstory was designed to counter a power like Monokeros, and possibly Goddess herself, but holy shit they can’t help but shooting themselves in the foot with their morality-addiction.
    I mean, i don’t buy into the responsibilty to stop people that Spider-uncle taught way back in the day, that’s ethically nonsense, but goddamn if i don’t feel like any kid Monokeros kills in the future is some blood on Vickys hands now.

    1. I’m not sure what different personality you were expecting from someone who unironically calls herself Goddess.

      Monokeros has been sentenced to ironic hell, to be trapped forever on a world with no one to use her power on. She could escape, but then again she could also come back from the dead. And anyways the courts haven’t handed down a death sentence so I would put the blood on their hands rather than the person who declined to illegally perform an extrajudical execution.

  20. Probably should have killed Monokeros, wrong call in my opinion or at least maimed. Arg, this arc is so edgy and warped. I find myself more bored with it that anything. Really hoping all this master shenanigans gets finished soon.

  21. Despite my annoyance with this arc (subtle Master powers provide an interesting buffer but not a focal point in my opinion) I find myself more impressed with Wildbow’s ability to make me hate and/or love characters simply because he wants me to. Monokeros is a child-killer, and if you didn’t already hate her for that, this new interaction with Kenzie and Breakthrough would have anyone sold. Goddess is a petulant child in the body of an adult and now more than ever I refuse to believe she has been anything but.

    With Chris, however, I find I’m unsure of my opinion. Of all the members of Breakthrough Chris has always been my favorite. He strikes me as very self-aware, and I enjoy his caustic attitude despite knowing I would hate to have someone talk to me like that. Now that this has been added to the pile of impressions I have of Chris, I’m wondering: should we have been worried about him from the beginning? I don’t know, but I feel like, level-headed as he is, Chris has a reason for throwing in with Goddess, just like he always does.

    1. Goddess claimed he had several layers upon layers of deception and tactics against Master effects. Chris doesn’t do anything unless Chris wants to. Not to mention he was easily able to question Goddess when first aligned, when people just basically agree to whatever plan she throws at you. I have this horrible feeling that Wildbow won’t even confirm he’s even a human being until Arc 30. That accidental homicide case? Epilogue chapter. A known fact about his backstory from a reliable source? Book 5 of the Parahumans series.

      Basically, I fear that Chris is going to be this unknown entity whose only assurance is that he is apparently a hero and he can change forms for a long while. Not because it’s poor writing on Wildbow’s part, but because Chris’s past is bugging me so much right now.

      Just, give me a general idea of his trigger event. It has to be something about how he was forced to show his emotions, hence his power being to show his emotions.

      1. I’m pretty sure Chris is Aligned; when prepping for the Fallen attack he indicated he had the ability to get resistance but not immunity to Master powers. So he’s likely less reliably loyal than the others but not totally uncontrolled.

        Also I wouldn’t count on him having a trigger event in the normal sense or one that relates to his power. He apparently regularly sustains significant injuries from transforming; living Scion Shards pre-GM have built-in safety features to prevent that sort of thing. So it’s likely he either downed a Cauldron vial or had his power tampered with.

        1. Also, on this specifically:

          Not to mention he was easily able to question Goddess when first aligned, when people just basically agree to whatever plan she throws at you.

          I don’t think that’s how Alignment generally works; it seems to make people loyal rather than obediant. They work to advance Goddess’s goals more than to obey her commands. Chris questioned her operational strategy, not her objective. He spoke up because he didn’t think Goddess’s plan for siezing control of the prison was a good plan. No one else questioned the plan because they didn’t see any problems with it.

      2. I almost feel like Chris isn’t an actual parahuman. They did almost confirm that he uses a power that isn’t his (I think it was arc 7), and besides, if it was his power, wouldn’t the Manton effect prevent it from having such drastic drawbacks as losing chunks of flesh when taking a shit? Either he’s the result of a broken trigger that somehow survived, or he’s been affected by someone else’s power to grant him this power.

  22. Oh, well, it does seem that Goddess has to die now. I was kinda hoping she doesn’t die, but has some sort of personal development? Her power could really be used for good, if only she wasn’t such a self-centered egotistical asshole who only thinks of herself.
    If (for example) someone (ghm Panacea and Jessica and maybe Natalie?) could tamper or even plainly convince Goddess to be more altruistic – and then she could, (for example) align the villains to be less villainous and more kind and helping… And then Gimel could be rebuilt so much faster and may they could even start putting Bet back in shape. “If only people cooperated and worked together for the common goal”. Wait we’ve already had this before, right?
    The prologue with Valkyrie and Nilbog and Bonesaw kinda hinted at how the worst villains were trying to be better people after the end of the world. Has Wildbow ditched this idea now?

    1. Alignment doesn’t exactly turn evil into good, though. Goddess would have to change radically for her goals to become a benefit for the entire world.
      A Jessica-Bianca heart-to-heart would make for a wonderful epilogue to Ward, regardless its outcome (whoever convinces the other they’re right will have immense consequences).

  23. Lookout passed the big test with respect to Monokeros, but I doubt she’ll pass the test when Goddess asks her “hey what happened to Monokeros?” “Oh Antares choked her and Swansong dropped her down a hole and then Capricorn buried her.”

  24. As a reader who jumped onboard after Worm and has been reading this as it’s been going on, just wanted to say something in response to some criticism this last arc has been facing.

    I can understand people not wanting to read stories involving mind control. I totally get it. That said, I don’t think that’s a reason not to write them, not every story is for everyone, and I really, really like how this one is going.

    In essence, every story involving the shards is a story of mind control. They don’t bring out good things, and the heroes aren’t heroic in these because of the powers alone, but because they fight it.

    Agency is an issue for many. No one is truly their own person, and it reads false when they are written to be so, imo. This arc and its lead-up works, again, imo, because it is a nuanced take on agency. Not everything that is going on is Goddess’ will, and Goddess’ own actions likely aren’t her own will at all. Even some of the things that are working for her are totally not her will and not her alignment, specifically where Team Breakthrough is concerned.

    People are funny about free will, and the idea we have of it comes from a history that is complicated and problematic. And some people have had terrible experiences of being robbed of agency, and I can totally understand where that is a hard subject. But I find there is more light in the story of Victoria and her struggle with it, and that the dark is more external to her than internal, and I find that heartening.

    But the core here really is, we were reading a story that had mind control going on from the start of Worm to now. What I am seeing here is a story of people dealing with the problems of that lack of free will in which, for the last bit, has added in two people who control in entirely different ways, but who seem utterly driven not by their own free will, but by their shards, and a group of central characters dedicated to not letting the shards define their power use, and seeing solutions not involving the shards’ judgment of things.

    To shorten the mind control arcs for comfort would be a mistake. At the center of this all has been a continuous defiance to that control. That, not victory in the smaller fights, is a more real and more positive look at agency to me.

    Lastly, I’m not sure how any of this could be viewed as edgy in the pop-culture sense, which is almost always style over substance. Our central character’s central struggle IS agency. She was controlled, her power is half defined, like everyone’s, but in ways more literally and directly, by her shard, and she continuously hedges that very power to not give the shard control, her very identity is something she is taking agency to shape.

    The story, before this, was shards giving power to those who were not in a headspace to defy the shards themselves. From Worm and on, this is central to it all, and I think it’s a very good take on power and agency and its relation. Sometimes, power robs people of agency, and the ones worth admiring seem to be those who hedge this, who struggle and limit one potential so that they don’t lose their potential goodness.

    As for what happens next, I think Amy and Marquis are probably more in the camp of no longer caving to being the people their shards want, and I think they are pursuing a more human response than anything they would in the past.

    The solution to this is not more powerful shard bearers. The deus ex machinae here is the hero of Scion and Eden, not of the character’s, and it is the antagonist of this story, not the hero. That’s my guess.

    Obviously, I’m still liking this story, I understand if others aren’t, but I don’t agree on the the most common reasons I’m hearing why at this point.

    Also seriously interested into looking at the role playing game.

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