Heavens – 12.4

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Moose, Prancer, Sveta, Swansong and I were a loose line against Paris’s group.  Etna was worse for wear but she could sort of fly, and that meant she could be an airborne mess instead of a burden on her teammates.  Contender was bleeding, but that wasn’t keeping him down.  I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.

Paris stood tall, darts in one hand.  Vulturehawk lingered somewhere between Paris and Contender.  I interpreted it as a kind of anxiousness, finding some degree of familiarity in Contender and a bit of reassurance in Paris’s confidence.  Thud hung back.

One of the Navigators had had their throat slashed.  We’d read it as an attempt at a mercy kill.  I found myself staring at Vulturehawk’s ‘talons’ – the singular blades at each foot.

“I was hoping you’d come around, Prance,” Contender said.

“Shouldn’t have,” Paris added.

I moved the Harbingers as we steadily retreated.  One was leaning on me, the other was unconscious.  My hand periodically convulsed or tensed, causing my grip to slip on the one I dragged, keeping me from making any headway.  Swansong couldn’t hold them at all, and Sveta- well, Sveta wasn’t an option.

“Let me carry,” Moose said.

“Can I trust you?” I asked.

“Come on,” he said, and it wasn’t a condemnation or a plea.  Closer to an ‘excuse me’, as he bent down.  Each of the Harbingers was lifted up, draped over one of Moose’s shoulders.  One was conscious and able enough to protest, and was shifted to a position where he sat on Moose’s right shoulder.

“Better?” Moose asked.

I wasn’t sure if he was asking me or the Harbinger, but the Harbinger said, “yes,” and I took that as excuse enough to stay quiet and stay focused on our immediate problems.  I could support Swansong’s balance and keep an eye on Paris’s group.

“Treat them well,” Swansong said.  “Hurting them puts you onto the shitlist of some powerful, scary individuals.”

Etna tried to make a globe, but her body convulsed and tensed, and she dropped it.  It landed on the field below her.

“Trying to scare us?” Contender asked.  He winced, touching his neck.  It looked like talking hurt.  Good.

“Individual one?  Me.  They’re my brothers.”

“You sound juvenile, grandstanding like that,” Contender said.

“Because they’re ex-Slaughterhouse Nine,” she said.  “All of us are one big unhappy family of not-to-be-fucked-with.

Her words were a growl at the end there.

“Who?” Vulturehawk asked Contender.

“Remember what I said when we did the Navigator job?” Contender asked.  “Some days are good, some days are bad, and some are bloody by necessity.”

“Throw away all the good days and all of the bad days, and make every day bloody,” Swansong intoned.  “Make every day a bad day for someone else.  Then you fit in right alongside the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“Not how I would have put it,” Contender said.  “But sure.”

“I wasn’t trying to help you explain,” she said.

Our footing was slippery.  What had been snow, ice, and frozen dirt was now closer to ice and slick frozen dirt, after Byron’s downpour.

“Your second issue?” Swansong asked.  I had the distinct impression that she was taking all of her frustration and the pain of her missing foot and channeling those things into her words.  She enjoyed being scary and this kind of taunting served.  “They have brothers.”

“We dealt with them,” Contender said.

They were edging closer.  Paris’s every movement was calculated, I noticed.  He was like a magician, timing his movements so he acted when people were distracted.  He put others between us and him, and the moment we were engaged and reacting to other people, he’d start moving again.  He had a dart in each hand but he didn’t throw them.

“You got lucky.  Our powers got wiped out by whatever that was.  Now we’re at, hm… I’d have to use my power to get a feel for where we are.”

“Seventy-five percent,” I said, testing my own flight.

“Harbinger,” Swansong said, keying her voice to be something closer to haunting, “Think you can beat all of these guys when your power’s working again?”

“Injured, so no,” the Harbinger said.

Swansong turned her head, shooting him a glare.

“Give me four rocks I can throw and my power at eighty percent and sure.”

“Thank you,” she said.  She turned to face Paris’s group, while still talking to him, “I’m intimidating them and you throw a ‘no’ out there?  And Jack said you were one of the scariest of them.”

“I am.  We are.  Which is why, ideally, I’d like four rocks I can throw, my power at eighty-five percent, and one nail or pen.  Because beating them isn’t enough, now.  Both sides of this equation need to be balanced out.”

“You couldn’t end this by saying you’ll annihilate them?  Or even ‘break them’?”

“Those kinds of phrasings have been made weak by overuse.  Math is unchanging and crystal clear.”

“Only to you,” Swansong said.

“This is going completely over my head,” Moose said.

“Just don’t drop ’em,” I said.  “You don’t want them holding grudges.”

“Alright,” Moose said.  “I wasn’t going to anyhow.”

I glanced at the phone, tracking my blip -the phone I held- and extrapolating directions from the way the image showed an overhead view of field and road.  Reaching over, I gave Swansong a tug on the arm, pulling her away from a course that would put her in the way of traps.

“Hey Moose,” Prancer said. “Remember the old mechanic, when we were road tripping?  Got in an argument with Velvet?”

“Sure.”

“Remember why I handled it the way I did?  Don’t go saying it, just yes or no.”

“Tricks, Prancer?” I asked.  “You’re being vague.”

“Nah,” he said.  “Not coordinating against you.  I swear on Velvet’s memory.”

“He’s being honest,” Moose said.  “I remember, Prance.”

We continued a slow retreat toward the road.  Paris’s group wasn’t letting us go, and I could tell that at least Paris had noted that we were adapting to the mines.  He might have hoped we’d walk right into them.

Before he could adapt or attack, I spoke up, “Contender.  Paris.  The Harbingers are in good with the people who really run this city, you know.  We asked for help in dealing with the real scumbags, with you assholes, and they sent these guys.  You have enemies with reach that extends beyond dimensions, now.”

“We’ll manage,” Contender said.

“We closed the doors,” I told him.  “Exits to other worlds are closed, until we unlock them.  You’re stuck here with us.  No running back to Cheit, no escaping the consequences.”

We steadily retraced our steps, moving backward through the field, toward the larger group of villains and our incapacitated allies.

Sveta was staying further away.  She triggered a trap and grabbed it, hurling it in the general direction of Contender’s group.

Paris looked ready to deal with it himself, but it was Contender who stepped forward, using his power to draw a glowing bubble around himself and the trap both.  Two seconds passed, and the bubble receded.  The trap was broken at his feet.  No symptoms.

I noted the moment when Paris’s group stopped, Paris touching Vulturehawk’s shoulder to get his attention, making sure he stayed with the others.  As part of that same check to make sure his group was organized, he turned to make sure Thud wasn’t falling behind.  The chess-piece Cauldron deviant was slow, heavy.

Turning my head, I could see why they’d signaled the stop.  Bluestocking stood on the road, a hump of dirt that had been sifted of stones, flattened and packed down.

I saw Bitter Pill, with Crested beside her, and I saw Bird Brain.  Bird Brain held a rifle.  I didn’t see any of Bird Brain’s funny head movement, but I knew it was in the cards.

“You okay, Et?” Bluestocking asked.

“They have-” Etna grunted out the words, throat tensing and jerking.  “Phone.”

“Your phone.  Did you do something stupid like have both personal and cape business on one device?”

“Mm,” Etna grunted in the affirmative.

“That’s stupid,” Bluestocking said, to Etna.  To me, she said, “There are rules.”

This group was the group that cut the Navigators to pieces and left them like that.  Undying and in agony,” I said.  “Pleasantries go out the window when you cross lines like that.”

“Not Etna.”

“Aiding and abetting that same group,” I said.

“You played your part in this.  Raising the stakes,” Bluestocking said.  We’d ticked her off when we’d last crossed paths.  She’d been breaking Etna and Crested out of jail, and we’d blocked her, forced her to shell out money, some limited information, and give medical care to the people they’d hurt.  Now I supposed she thought she had her revenge.

I shook my head.  “The stakes were always going to be raised.  There was-”

Prancer cleared his throat.

“What?” I asked.

“You asked me to negotiate.”

I closed my mouth, eyeing Paris’s group.  They were most likely to spontaneously attack, especially considering we were closer to the villains and hemmed in on the sides by the planted traps.

Traps we could deal with, but…

At the far side of the road, Byron and Chastity were sitting together, both visible.  Chastity had been disarmed, and Byron had Birdbrain’s rifle trained on him.  I could see the glow of my mother’s orb.  She’d retreated into that form.

Because they traveled over the orb, I realized there were still red electricity crackles dancing intermittently through the area.

I checked the phone.

No, the traps were a little more complicated.

“Remember that thing we talked about, Moose?”

“I remember,” Moose said.

“Being sneaky, Prancer?” Bluestocking asked.

“Nah,” Prancer said.  “Trying to figure out how to help you.”

“We don’t need help.”

“Look,” Prancer said.  “It sucks right now.  Pay’s shit, money doesn’t go far, heroes are ramping up, and we end up in places like Hollow Point and Frontier Row, here.  And the heroes show up, and we can’t get settled.”

While he talked, I drew a circle on the phone screen to ‘reel in’ the zoom.  Moving in closer, looking at the cluster of traps where my friends were, I could see how they were spaced out, seven in a loose cluster.

Nothing distinguishing one trap from the others.

“My group’s doing fine, Prance.  Sucks to be you, I’m sure.”

“All of us are getting together.  You’ve got drug kingpins and smugglers like me and my crew, you’ve got hitmen for hire, information brokers, the publicity hounds… we had to agree to a truce, to a strict no-infighting policy.  A truce that means we hear stories about what people are getting up to and we let it slide.”

“You were part of those discussions too, Prancer.  In fact, I seem to recall that the topic of the Navigators came up, and you had a stake in the matter.”

“Not denying I did,” Prancer said.  He glanced at me.  “Blue will bring it up if I don’t.  I wanted the Navigators gone.”

I was in the middle of zooming out to see the trap layout when I processed what he’d said.

I tensed, phone forgotten for the moment.

“They were going after our one means of trading with the settlements establishing on the other side of the ocean.  Stopping all trafficking, not just the human trafficking.  With winter coming up, everything fucked up, my girl dead…”

“You asked for it?” I asked, my voice hard.

“He didn’t,” Moose said, sounding defensive.  “That’s not how we operate.”

“But Cradle knew I wanted it and he offered,” Prancer said.

“And you said yes,” Bluestocking said.  “My group said no.”

“But you allowed it,” Swansong said.

“Etna’s even protecting the people who did it,” I added.  “And she’s working for you.”

“The only way we survive as a whole is if we’re strong.  Strength in number and strength in the powers we have,” Bluestocking said.  “The network of alliances we’re operating under is like a chessboard.  Try to take one piece and two more are positioned to wipe you out.  That’s on purpose.”

“All beside the point,” Prancer said.

“It’s the point,” I said, more than a little incensed.

“It’s not my point,” Prancer countered.  He sounded heated in his own way.  “My point is that deals were struck, in the midst of all of that.  Cradle came to me, he made the offer, asks for a cut of traffic if he removes an obstacle from our way.  He shakes my hand, and we go on our merry way.  Then I find out what happened and I’m… angry at the Navigators, because it’s their fault that it came to that.  Irrational, but I’ve become pretty fucking familiar with irrational lately.  Familiar with angry.”

“Your point being?” Swansong asked.

“That he made deals with other major villain groups.  With people in those villain groups.  And I’m willing to bet he shook their hands too,” Prancer said.  “The guy with tinker hands and arms and an emotion power shook Bluestocking’s hand.  I remembered Snag.  I know Snag could make stuff happen through his tech.  I got to wondering.”

I looked between him and the villains of the villain group.

“I had a little scab on the side of my hand.  Like a needle went in,” Prancer said.  “I’m wondering if anyone else here had anything like that.”

“Cradle touched my arm,” Moose said.  “Seemed weird at the time.  We talked about it, it’s when we first started thinking something might be hinky.”

There was a long pause.

“Yeah, he shook my hand,” Bluestocking said.  “If you were right, then alliances don’t matter.  He breached the truce.”

“I’m right,” Prancer said.  “Rationally, really, none of us would be okay with this.  Right?  We’re not monsters.”

The question was met by silence.  I saw some exchanged looks.

“No,” Bitter Pill, the woman who had turned civilians into hulking rage-filled monstrosities, said.  “We’re not monsters.”

When my eye fell on Prancer, he locked his gaze onto mine.  “He didn’t have to get every last one of us.  Webwork of alliances being what it is… he just had to get enough of us.  Subordinates are going to follow their leaders, and they aren’t going to go after all of Frontier Row.”

“That’s a really terrible name, even for this mudpit,” Swansong said.

“Let it go,” I said.

I could have addressed the group, challenged, questioned.  I didn’t.  No further comments.  Instead, I waited, studying the group.

I looked away, and looked back to the phone.  Zooming out – lots of clusters of seven traps, some so close together that they looked like they all interconnected.

Fuck.  Maybe I’d have to say something.

“Dad,” I called out.  “Try nuking the trap in the center?  To your left.”

“If you do anything, we’re going to have a problem,” Bluestocking said.

“The sooner they’re free, the sooner we’re out of your hair,” I said.  “Provided there’s any validity to this.”

I saw her pause.  She scowled, and she was good at scowling.  She was probably the type who scowled while reading, scowled while watching television…

“Do it,” she said.  “Antares’ dad, do what she said.”

My dad, incapacitated as he was, was able to create his orbs.  He moved his arm into the right general area, then created an orb, holding it down over the trap at the center of the area.  Here and there, it scootched over a half foot one way or the other, as his arm spasmed.

It detonated, his hand containing the direction of the blast.  The blast didn’t hurt him, and it was small enough that it didn’t disturb anyone nearby.

I didn’t see a discernible difference.  Had the red lightning stopped its intermittent crackling?

“There’s some validity to this, then,” Swansong said.

“I had a mark on my finger, and a weird heavy feeling, like I get any time I have an injection,” Bluestocking said.  “I had Bitter Pill take a look at it.”

“I took it for a splinter,” Bitter Pill said.

“He broke the truce, the heroes go after him and his co-conspirators,” Prancer said.  “They leave us alone.  We point the way and we don’t even have to get our hands dirty or risk our own skin, because they’re going to take over dealing with that asshole.”

“You could help, make amends,” I said.

“I’ll leave that to these guys,” Prancer said.  “Up to them.  But I’m leaving.  I’m going.  Greener pastures.  I have some money, I’m going to get settled in another corner.  Somewhere smaller and quieter.  People are welcome to come.”

“Poaching, Prancer?”

Prancer shrugged.

“I’ll help,” Moose declared.  “Carry your scary little buddies.”

“Now I have to wait for you,” Prancer said.

“Well… deal,” Moose told him.

It was a little thing, but the tone of it suggested that the tensions weren’t as high as they had been.  He could get away with that kind of comment and pushback.  Bluestocking didn’t look like she was going to attack any more.

The red lightning was dissipating.  I wasn’t sure if it was because the trap that held the reserve power was gone, or if the network was spread too thin.

Not that things were okay.

Paris, Vulturehawk, Thud, and Contender lingered at the rear of our group.

Prancer seemed aware.

“He shook your hands.  He would have, as part of the hiring,” Prancer said.

“Paris doesn’t need anything to make him monstrous,” Byron said, too quiet for Paris to hear.

“A small mark on the hand, or uncharacteristic anger?” Prancer prompted.  “Both?”

Paris shook his head.

“Whatever reputation you think you’re getting or holding by sticking to the contract, you’re losing by going against all the alliances.  You can’t work with a truce-breaker,” Bluestocking said.

“Years ago, his team couldn’t beat me,” Paris said, indicating Byron.  “Everything I did was fair-”

“You targeted capes and hospitalized them for kicks!” Byron raised his voice.

“I met them on the streets and I beat them on the streets,” Paris said.  “By the rules we all followed, that’s allowed.  Reduce it all down and that’s even what it’s all about.  Then they turned around and accused me of a murder that never happened.  Capes came after my civilian identity.  People interviewed my family.  My wife.  I went to jail.  I almost went to the Birdcage.  All of the rules you’re talking about now?  Truces, what’s allowed?  It didn’t matter then and it doesn’t matter now.”

“I could have killed you earlier,” Byron said.  “I didn’t.  Because I felt like I played a part in what happened-”

“You did.”

“But this road you’re going down, it doesn’t make sense.”

“Don’t talk to me like you’re righteous,” Paris said.  “If you had any guts, you would have done to him what he did to you.”

There were two statements set side by side there.  To me, they were a non-sequitur.  To Paris, no doubt, a natural jump from one idea to the next.

Byron shook his head.  It looked like he was recovering now.  No ambient red lightning, nothing humming in the air?

“Speaking of righteous,” Bluestocking said.   “I know about the charities, Paris.”

“Charities?” Byron asked.

“The money he earns, he gives almost all of it away.  Keeps some to secure his family’s future, anyone would, but nobody would give as much to those in need as this guy.  I bet Tattletale could shine light on why, if we asked her.  Guilt?”

My mind hadn’t been going to guilt.  Maybe self-aggrandizement.  If his civilian identity made the donations, that identity reaped the reward when it came to reputation and social status.  It wouldn’t be the first time a cape identity was used in a dark way to support a shining public image.

“Tattletale’s not available,” Swansong said.  “They took her head.”

Bluestocking nodded, seemingly unfazed.

“Outing me?” Paris asked Bluestocking.

“No.  But if you’re doing this for money, to throw ninety percent of what you make away at charities, I’m prepared to tell them where the money comes from.”

Paris shook his head.  “Do it then.  You’ll see how little I care about the money or the reputation.”

“It may not come to that,” I said.  “Because I don’t think these people are on your side.”

Paris glanced through the mask that covered his brow, nose, and cheekbones, peering at the crowd.  Rain pattered off of his hood.  He looked cold – a guy as tall with as little body weight as he had probably didn’t retain heat well, and being soaked in cold weather impacted him.  He still managed to stand with head erect, no visible signs other than clenched fists and a slightly drawn-out look to his face.

“I had a taste of revenge,” Paris said.

“What?” I asked.

“Capricorn.  You took photos while out with Moonsong, didn’t you?”

“What did you do?” Byron asked.

“I had a taste of revenge.  The Shepherds and Advance Guard came after us.  And the Shepherds are led by Moonsong.”

Byron struggled to stand.  Chastity gave him a hand, while being unable to stand herself, her shoulder as a support.

Standing up, moisture streaming off of his armor, Capricorn flinched as a spasm caught him by the side.

“What have you done?” Byron asked.

“You let me, Thud, Vulturehawk and Contender walk away, I’ll tell you what you want to know.  And you do want to know this.”

Byron’s gauntlet squeaked.  He looked to Swansong and me.

“Could be a lie,” Swansong said.

“It’s up to you,” I told Byron.  “We’ll manage either way.”

“No,” Byron said.  “Not up to me.”

He blurred, and the blur separated.  Two segments, side by side.  An armored Capricorn, insides partially hanging out.

Paris didn’t look especially happy at the sight.  But there was something in him that looked… satisfied?  Behind him and all around us, veins of rock ran through the water in the irrigation canals, filling the bottoms of ditches.

Tristan lay there, arms propping him up, Chastity providing more support.  I saw villains in the larger group behind Bluestocking look away.

“Do what you have to.  Save our old teammate.  Paris will get what he deserves- eventually.”

“I deserve to see you suffer ten times what I did for your fake murder charge.  This?  It’s a beginning,” Paris said.

Tristan began to change back.  As the blur fought to reconcile, I had to wince, worrying about what would happen if it didn’t.

“For those who don’t know, Cradle did that to multiple people.  For those who do know and allowed it to happen?  Fuck you.”

“Extenuating circumstances,” Prancer said.  He tapped his hand, where a faint mark dotted the side.

I didn’t respond.  Up on the road, Tristan became Byron again, and the veins of rock splashed violently, the water resettling.  A few people flinched or reacted with surprise.

“He knows you’re coming, and he researched who we were up against.  Breakthrough.  Foil.  He knows Foil can shoot through anything, that Precipice can break through anything if he uses his power and then hits it hard enough.  He knows that… they’ll be tempted to.”

“What?” I heard Foil.  She was still in the ditch, still recovering.

“He knew you’d want to shoot, so he put pieces of Tattletale, Moonsong, and other people you care about in the way.  Don’t shoot, don’t try.  That’s the information you’d regret not having, that buys me my safe exit.”

Paris brought out his phone.  I saw him bring up the same screen I had with Etna’s phone, showing the layout of the traps.

“Let’s get you first aid for that neck of yours,” Paris told Contender.  “Come on, V.H.”

“No,” Vulturehawk said.

Paris hesitated, staring at the aerial assassin.

“Cray’ did nick-drip my hand meat,” Vulturehawk said.  “No yah?”

“Yeah,” Contender said, sounding resigned.  “You realize that means we’re going our separate ways?”

“Yah.”

“Yeah.”

“Sor’, Thud,” Vulturehawk said.

“Neh,” Thud responded, voice low, guttural.

Paris and Contender exchanged glances before heading out into the field, Thud following.  Here and there, traps illuminated, and Contender created bubbles surrounding the two of them, allowing them to walk unmolested.  When traps weren’t destroyed, they activated well after the bubble disappeared and the pair had moved on.

On Moose’s shoulder, the Harbinger that sat there drew a slingshot out of his pocket.  “Three stones, one pen.”

“No,” Bluestocking said.

The others were rousing.  Most lay on cold ground, panting for breath.  I could see the sheen of sweat on faces.  My mother’s.  Rachel’s.  Foil’s.

Byron had helped Chastity up.

“Can we hurt him?  Just a little?” Byron asked.  “Because he’s a dick that hospitalizes minors for being different?  My friends, even?  And now he’s gone after Moonsong?”

“Who are you asking?” I asked, quiet.

“I don’t know,” Byron said.

An instant later, Byron blurred.

I tensed, watching.  Across the field, I saw Paris stumble, dropping to his knees on rough ground, as droplets of water became pebbles and water elsewhere became water with veins of rock in it and rock with veins of water.  But Paris had been skipping over the dips, avoiding the water, and he hadn’t really been affected, other than a change in footing.  Contender had forgotten Paris’s earlier warning, and Contender fell, making a sound that I heard from two or three hundred feet away.

A twisted ankle, a sprain, maybe a break.

Tristan, already blurring to become Byron again, was nodding, silent.

The change from Tristan to Byron hadn’t changed the stone back to water.  Paris had to use his power to disintegrate the rock, which meant shielding Contender from the spray.  It held them up.

“Letting him know,” Byron said.

“You can handle the rest of this on your own,” Bluestocking said.  I wasn’t sure if this was a consequence of Byron acting, after she’d told Harbinger no.  I wasn’t about to judge either way.

No, this was… uneasy ground.  Ground where I wasn’t sure I knew how to navigate the terrain.

Bluestocking’s group piled into the cars or started on their walk back.  Prancer went with them, while Moose stayed.  We took a moment to recoup, our people getting sorted out.

“You look like someone drowned a cat,” Swansong told Damsel.

“Cats can slash your throat.”

“Your makeup’s running.  And you were mocking me?”

“Look down on me and I’ll fucking evisc-“

The remaining word was drowned out by a blast of power, a swipe of claw.

Swansong took a single step back.  Her costume had been damaged at the shoulder, but the skin hadn’t been touched by the power.

The bladed claw-tips, however- a line of blood marked Swansong’s shoulder from collarbone to the rightmost edge of her right shoulder.  There were spots where it looked like it had cut deeper than just the skin.

“Eviscerate me?” Swansong asked, and even though her voice was calm, I could see the animation in her eyes- if it weren’t for Kenzie’s special contact lenses with their holographic smoke effect, I might not have seen how her eyes moved.  As it was, I could see the starting point for the black smoke as a faint ring at the edges of her eyes.  “You’re making us look bad, and that’s worse.”

“Shut up before I shut you up.”

“Let’s patch you up,” my dad said, intervening.  “I have a kit.”

“How useful,” Swansong said, smiling.  Calm, poised, with eyes that moved in an agitated way, checking people’s expressions, body language.  Checking on her sister.

“Instead of every member of the team having utility belts, they get a big guy like me, marry me into the family, and have me carry everything.”

“I’m sure you have other merits, Mr. Dallon,” Swansong said.

“He does,” my mother said.

I was very sure that every bit of calm and charm was like a poke with a sharp stick to Damsel.

“Can the dogs track?”

“Give me a minute,” Rachel said, brusque, annoyed.  Chastity went straight to her.  A helping hand, a familiar face.

My mom assisted my dad in getting things out, holding the kit in her hands while he picked through the sub-compartments and drew  a bent suturing needle out of a kit.

“This will sting.”

“My foot was cut off.  It hurts every second.  I lost my hands once.  That hurt.  I can deal with a scratch.”

“Sure,” my dad said.

Foil was with Capricorn, and they were talking about Paris.  I could hear the emotions in Byron’s voice – emotions I didn’t tend to associate with him.  He named teammates, Moonsong, Furcate, Reconciliation, and my ears latched onto the names, but I wasn’t trying to listen, and I stepped away to avoid overhearing things that were being shared in private.

Too close to home, for Byron.  Paris’s involvement.

No.

No, not just Byron.  This was too close to home for Sveta, who was a little out of control, isolated, and cut off from the rest of us.

For Chastity, probably, because she’d stepped away from Rachel to go to Damsel, touching Damsel’s hair, smiling.  Playing peacemaker to someone that was emotionally volatile, dangerous, who probably didn’t deserve that peace.  But Chastity was doing it, and she was good at it, from what I could tell.

The Undersiders?  I couldn’t tell.  Rachel was alone, focusing on her dogs.  Foil was worrying, no doubt, especially with the nebulous hints Paris had given.  She probably wanted to be stopping March, not here.  I knew she’d always felt displaced, before.  It was probably why she was with the Undersiders.

Damsel was tense, but she was easing up.  Walking a razor’s edge.  Ashley was trying to look poised as my dad stitched up her shoulder.  She wasn’t doing the best job of upholding the poised and ‘I couldn’t care less’ image, I could see the tells, but nobody commented.

And, all this while, I was thinking of Brandish as my mom and Flashbang as my dad because right now they were.  I associated coming home at the end of the night to medical care and small talk or recaps of the night with family.  After a point, it had been coming back to Amy, to fix any bumps or scrapes, if anything had slipped past my forcefield.  That thought did sour the picture.

Soured, but it didn’t change that some of the moments my mom had felt most like a mom had been when she’d been holding my hand over the sink, dabbing at blood or probing at the bones to see if I’d broken my hand by hitting something too hard.  Like other girls had their moms brush their hair, but I’d had that too when I was little and it didn’t sit with the same weight as the hand care.  I remembered my dad massaging my shoulder and talking to me about the bigger picture, after a frustrating night where five carjackers had scattered the instant they saw me and I’d only caught two.  In those moments I’d felt more like I was a part of the family than I had on any Christmas or on any summer vacation.

Close to home.  Pain had a way of bringing us that direction, and those traps had hurt.  Exposed the raw nerves.

That only left Moose and Harbinger.

I really hoped Harbinger wasn’t closer to home, because home for him had to be a scary, scary place.

I floated, testing my flight.  Ninety percent.

Still no clue why it had cut out.  It hadn’t been one of Love Lost’s traps.  It had affected the other guys.  But that kind of interruption went hand in hand with someone having a trigger event.  It was just that this was… major.  It hadn’t been anyone in our group or our ongoing skirmish, and it had been both more distant and more profound.

Something more intense in quantity… or in quality.  I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it spooked me.

“Hey Moose,” I said.

“What’s up?” he asked.  “Everything good?”

His attention moved to Swansong and Damsel, then to the mutant dogs.

“It’ll have to be.”

“Good.  Sorry about, y’know, not jumping on board.  What Bluestocking said about alliances was more or less why.”

“I’m just glad you came around,” I said.

“What am I walking into?” he asked.

“A vicious rivalry.  A lunatic who’s butchering people, and we don’t know- well, we have hints about why.  It’s convenient to eliminate the Navigators in a brutal way.  It plays into the villains wanting to posture.  But there’s more to it.”

“Sure,” Moose said.

I lowered my voice.  “Prancer’s thing about Cradle injecting something into hands was pure, unmitigated bullshit.  The mechanic thing?”

“Doesn’t have to be bullshit,” Moose said.  “Old mechanic gets told one thing by Velvet, he does another, turns out she’s right, but he’s proud.  He needs a way out, so he can do the right thing.  Doesn’t mean the way out is wrong or a lie.  It’s even better if it’s the truth.”

“Cradle’s thing isn’t anger.  That’s Love Lost.”

“Could be,” Moose said, jaw square, gaze focused on the horizon, in the direction Paris and Contender were both limping off.  “Tinkers are funny though, aren’t they?”

“Funny,” I said.  “A lot of people are getting a pass.”

“Prance delivered what you asked for.”

“Yeah,” I said.

Chastity whistled.  “We’re moving!”

Further up the road, Rachel was hanging off the side of the hunting hound.  It had started pacing forward.  The wolf ranged further ahead, checking the path.

We packed up what we could, and Swansong’s first aid ended with an unceremonious length of bandage pressed down over sutures.  Everyone started following.

“He’s a smart guy.  Admirable, even,” Moose said.

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

“Just wait until he starts playing more to his strengths like this,” Moose said.  “He’ll change your mind.”

“I dread the day.”

One of the Harbingers was waking up.  That was good – being unconscious for longer than five or ten minutes was a really bad sign.

I flew to Swansong, noting that part of her costume was destroyed, and that meant her outer layers were damaged.  I undid the straps for my breastplate, and pulled off the hooded top section.  I picked off the shoulder and hood accessories.

“You don’t have to.  The cold doesn’t bother me,” she said, while looking very bothered by the cold.

“Wear it.  I have a forcefield,” I said.  “You’ll have to find someone else to lean on, though.”

“Noted,” she said.

I was already feeling the bite of wind.  I slipped all of the accessory parts into a pocket and I fixed my breastplate back into place – I had a long-sleeved thermal top on beneath, like a skintight sweater, and I did have gloves on, with bandages under one glove.  There were still slivers of glass stuck in the bandage and the fabric of the glove, from where I had punched the trap.

“Victoria,” my mother said, while I was still making sure Swansong was squared away.

I turned in the air.

“It was good, back there.  The negotiation.  Getting through a bad situation.  I’m proud.”

“I’m pleased too,” Swansong said.  “I’ll turn Breakthrough into some top notch villains, just you wait and see.”

She laughed, mostly for her own benefit, and she might have glimpsed the frown on my mother’s face, because she doubled down on the laughter.

Capricorn broke away from Foil to see what was up.

“Give her a shoulder to lean on?” I asked.

He nodded.

“Gentleman,” Swansong said.  She sounded far too pleased with herself, for whatever reason.

We were making some headway now.  Some walking, some jogging, with the group getting a bit more spread out.  The stragglers like Swansong would catch up.  I hoped that a lone wolf like Rachel would hang back and wait for us if she found something, instead of going in alone.  I didn’t know how predictable she was or how she operated.

I hoped too, that Damsel wouldn’t try to stalk ahead and tire herself out too thoroughly in the process, just to prove she moved faster than her sister.

Moose was waving me down.  Please let this not be too complicated.

“What is it?”

“Paris, Thud, and Contender.  They’re going in the same direction we are.  They cut through the trees between the outcroppings, way over there.  Harbinger Two saw them.”

I looked.  ‘Over there’ was three hundred feet away, down in a valley.  The trees were thick.  I was surprised they could see anything.

“Good to know.”

“I want to shoot,” Harbinger Two said.  He was the one who was most aware and able, sitting on Moose’s shoulder still.

“Which one?” I asked.

He shrugged.  “Either of the two men.  Not the deviant.  Hard to say how they’ll react.”

I paused, considering.

“You have a gun?  Foil can lend you hers,” I said.

He held up his slingshot.

Contender was looking to join religious extremists after being far too okay with what had happened.  Paris was worse.

“I won’t stop you,” I said.  “Maybe don’t kill.”

The Harbinger nodded.  “I said I’d balance the equation.”

He slipped something like a marble into the slingshot, drew it back so far that one arm was outstretched, holding the slingshot itself, and the hand with the marble clasped tight in it was against his shoulder.

“Killing isn’t enough,” he said.

“Wait-”

He released the shot.

I didn’t finish my protest or clarify the point.  It was done.

“Okay,” he said, turning away.  “Problem solved.”

“You didn’t wait to see the result,” Moose said.

“Second one’s already in the trees.  She took too long to decide.”

“And the first?” Moose asked.

“Will rethink the sequence of events that brought him to this point.”

I drew in a deep breath.

That was vague, but I wasn’t sure I wanted the answer.

Fuck them, anyway.  I floated up and away from the Harbingers.

It wasn’t a short trip.  We didn’t have a vehicle.  Still, there was a limit to how far they could travel – we hadn’t been that far behind them, delayed primarily by the time it had taken to recoup and recover at the university building, waiting for doctors and reinforcements.

I flew to my parents.

“Hand warmer?” I asked.

“You should be more prepared,” my mother said.

My dad had a hand warmer in one of the pouches of the bandoleer he wore.  He drew one out and threw it up to me.  I undid my forcefield, caught it in my unbandaged hand, shook it, and felt the plastic packet begin to warm.

And Sveta-

Sveta was making her way through the trees, phantom-quiet, except for a rustling.  A pale face against a dark background.

I followed, tracking her, being wary.

When she realized I was there, she didn’t startle.  She didn’t grab me.

I recapped her on everything she might have missed, and I included some things I realized she hadn’t missed, and she let me.

Talking.  A break from the situation.  The two of us moving like ethereal figures through woods that looked like black and white snow-covered trees against a black and white background.  She didn’t have much to say, so I did much of the talking.

Maybe that was still too close to home for her, reminding her of the hospital room, because there had been days where she didn’t talk then, either.  The room had been filled with the mechanical voice, echoing words I typed out with the special keyboard, the voice tuned as best as we’d been able to get to my old voice.  Putting aside the horrible enunciation and a more horrible monotonous tone, it hadn’t been very close at all.  But some days had been like that.

But that home was better than the other home – the memories of being wild and alone, so dangerous to others that she had to exile herself.

No exile here.  I’d risk a tendril around my neck in the woods before I allowed that exile to happen.  I wanted to find her a solution, to dig out that one parahuman in a hundred thousand that could do something about her situation, resolve the Weld issue- make her feel like herself again.

If only there were time.  If only there were quiet, if the monsters would just… stop.

Did that take something like me saying what I’d said to give Harbinger Two permission?  Something more?

I thought about what Paris had said about Cradle.  That we would want to shoot, that Paris had taken measures to ensure we couldn’t.  I had a bad feeling, hollow in my chest.

That feeling only grew more intense as we reached the edge of woods.  Cradle had a building out here, more like a factory than a home.  Big, with a lot of open space within.  A hangar for his robot hand-mech, potentially.

There were guards stationed around the outside, taking shifts.  There were capes.  I recognized some from my research.

Rachel approached, stopping at the edge of where forest met road, hugging the trees.  Others were well behind.

We waited, and we watched.

There were more within.  They came out regularly to check on the other shifts.  Patrols seemed to be loose in how they were structured, random, numbers differing.  Unpredictable.

The others caught up.  There was a brief exchange of info, and then we made our initial scouting foray.  Sveta used her power, tendrils and face slipping beneath snow.  I flew over, dropping out of the sky.

There was no signal to tell me that the guards were agitated or responding to anything.

It meant I could check the window.

A small army was gathered within, all huddled around a fire.  Groups of men, each with capes.  I remembered Contender talking about the Russian cape scene- he’d toured over there in his mercenary work over there.  Over there, military and powers were woven into one another.  One squad leader with powers or one cape as an adjunct to a squad, adding to their capabilities.  Capes were rarely allowed or encouraged to get along.

It felt like that.  Not like they were Russian, exactly.  They didn’t look it.  But maybe Lionwing and Cretan, Noontide and Contender had been organizing things in that direction.

As I checked another window, however, I saw Cradle.  Or at least, I was fairly sure I did.

An orb, a sphere fifteen feet across.  Slices of meat and body parts were suspended in air, forming a puzzle-work lattice with barely any light leaking through.  All was held up in the air by Cradle’s machine, multiple sets of mechanical hands, large in scale, all joined at the wrists.

An egg.  A shell, stasis-sealed, protecting the people within.  Love Lost.  Cradle.  Colt.

My first thought was Chastity.  Her sense for physical things.

You won’t want to shoot.

It wouldn’t work.  Love Lost and Cradle seemed to think so, and he’d researched powers involved.

This was an egg we couldn’t easily crack.

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85 thoughts on “Heavens – 12.4”

  1. Ok, when did the Shepherds and Advance Guard even have time to zerg rush into Cradle’s group and get cut up? They had to have completely lost, or Victoria would have heard of it before now, right? Did this happen before Breakthrough and the Undersiders got cut up?

    1. Maybe it happened during the Nursery fight. Victoria only checked up on Vista afterwards and then it was a whirlwind of GOTTAGOGETCRADLE for the most part?

    2. Yeah, I’m assuming this is what they did immediately after they found out about the Navigators, when Victoria was arguing for going slow but the other groups didn’t want to. So like, right at the beginning of Blinding, maybe?

  2. This was a really great chapter and exactly the kind of emotional relief I needed after the emotional slog of our heroes constantly taking lumps.

  3. Well, if they’re already preserved by Cradle’s device, it’s not like shooting through them will hurt them any more

    Although I suppose the real concern is that if they shut down the device then everyone preserved by it might just straight-up die.

    1. Shooting it with Foil’s power might kill them. After all Sting breaks all the normal rules, and bypasses all the defenses.

      Still let’s hope we get a nice god old fashioned takedown on Cradle. We’ve had enough assholes walk away this arc… Well until Thing 1 got his slingshot out. Sometimes you really should research who you might be pissing off and if you want to risk their friends or family tracking you down. Not that that was neccisary…

      But again, come on, give me some satisfaction! It’s like the salads have been great, but it’s time for the steak!

      … This is just my day for odd tangents and metaphors. Sigh where’s Psycho Gecko when we need him?

      1. Which is why you don’t have Foil shoot them, you have Foil shoot some random mook and then give that mook’s gun to Harbinger.

    2. I suspect that they didn’t take the body parts just as hostages, but because it is required to maintain the effect. It would be a wee bit absurd if they had a long term tinker/trump effect that granted permanent immortality.

      1. My thought was more that any additional damage is real. The cuts themselves won’t kill, but a bullet to the severed head of someone afterwards would.

        1. But Scaffold of the Navigators survived having his throat ripped out after. Because Vulturehawk had second thoughts and didn’t like what they were doing and tried to mercy kill the one he could identify enough of to cause what would ordinarily be a fatal injury.

  4. That’s stupid,” Bluestocking said, to Etna. To me, she said, “There are rules.”

    “This group was the group that cut the Navigators to pieces and left them like that. Undying and in agony,” I said. “Pleasantries go out the window when you cross lines like that.”

    “Not Etna.”

    “Aiding and abetting that same group,” I said.

    Yeah… There’s escalating and then there’s burning all your bridges and flinging your feces back over the river and being surprised when they retaliate with the burning pitch. That metaphor didn’t go great, but I hope I got my point across.

  5. Not uncrackable, that egg. Not wholly, anyway. Get someone with a people-sense, like Samuel, hook him up to Foil (who has enhanced aim) via Darlene, and hopefully Foil gets a go at the people-sense and can find Cradle inside the egg and where there’s a gap- possibly where two people meet in non-fatal ways.

    And don’t tell me Darlene’s not here; she’s part of the egg. Samuel… Might be trickier. Last we saw he’d been shot by Colt, and we don’t know how he’s doing.

    1. Darlene almost certainly has parts of herself lining that egg. However, they’ve got no way of telling her to start the network. Earth N has been cut off. However, networking Darlene with Foil and whoever was inside the egg, would be enough to hit them. I suspect that there’s nothing in there but the three cluster capes and some machinery, however.

      1. That is an issue, but not an insurmountable one. Chicken Little’s ears are in that egg, and he’s near Darlene. Maybe they can tell Chicken Little’s ear to tell Darlene to do the power? And maybe use his real eyes to aim the linking effect?

    2. Cradle just gave Rain his Tinker power and Rain has access to one of his whips. Whips are explicitly nonlethal damage. Cut up everyone in the egg and the shell now, play jigsaw puzzles later.

      1. Didn’t Rain reject Cradle’s tokens? (just reread…we don’t know, but it looked like Rain was rejecting the coins, and LL was trying to make sure her teeth weren’t collected by not offering until the last minute.)

  6. Typo thread.

    > It looked like he we recovering better now.

    we > was?

    > “I know about the charities, Paris.”

    There are three spaces in front of this sentence.

    > My mom assisted my dad in getting things out, holding the kit in her hands while he picked through the sub-compartments and drew a bent suturing needle out of a kit.

    There are two spaces between ‘drew’ and ‘a’ in the chapter text.

    > That we would want to shoot, that Paris had taken measures to ensure we couldn’t.

    Paris? Maybe Cradle?

    > I remembered Contender talking about the Russian cape scene- he’d toured over there in his mercenary work over there.

    Maybe scratch one “over there”?

    1. Strength in number > Strength in numbers
      toured over there in his mercenary work over there. Over there (lots of ‘over there’s. maybe reword unless it’s intentional)

    2. >“You look like someone drowned a cat,” Swansong told Damsel.
      I have the sneaking suspicion this is backwards: pretty sure it’s Damsel doing the talking here.

    3. “All beside the point,” Prancer said.

      “It’s the point,” I said, more than a little incensed.
      -it’s the point

      a guy as tall with as little body weight as he had
      -as tall as he was

      drew a bent
      -double space

      Pain had a way of bringing us that direction,
      -in that direction

  7. Jesus Christ. I love seeing Prancer be morally dubious, and I love seeing him talk his way out of a tight spot. That’s all great. But Cradle, and everyone who works for him, needs to die. There’s a kill order in play, and everyone still supporting Cradle more than deserves what’s coming to them.

    Seriously, if Victoria keeps holding back I’m going to get very frustrated.

    1. Cradle just needs to die. Everyone else is morally ambiguous with the fact that they all got whammied with Cradle’s master power. Plausible deniability, as Prancer took it.

      I’m just afraid that Cradle whammied Love Lost and Colt to the point of no return.

      1. Pretty sure that the “Cradle’s master power” thing that Prancer was talking about was straight-up a fabrication to give the villains an out. LL, Snag, potentially Colt now could be influenced by the bleed-through and it sounds like Cradle has been actively exploiting that, but I don’t think Cradle actually has tech that would whammy the villains. It was the network thing that kept them together and they needed an excuse to be able to back out; a master power would be crossing the line in such a way that they wouldn’t have to feel guilty or take a hit to their reputation by not defending a network member.

        1. On the other hand, each member of the Mall Cluster has been shown to have two ways to project their primary emotion onto others. One is by lending their power within the dream room and one is by projecting a supercharged version of said emotion through their power, which has been shown to be an ability enhanceable by their personal tinker tech.

          Now think about what “emotion” Cradle projected onto his “allied” cluster mates.

          Whether true or not, Woobie definitely set it up perfectly to make us give all those aiding and abbeting villains the benefit of the doubt for now, just like the heroes are. Not only did he keep Cradle’s emotion power perfectly secret up till now, he also showed us that this course of action would fit pretty well into Cradle’s M.O.

    2. Yeah. I mean I get their’s ambiguity, tragic monsters, everyone’s got all their reasons, etc. But in the end as long as someone’s doing this shit, at the very least, we the readers are gonna want some straight up villain for the protags to put down for catharsis reasons.

      I think there’s a nice quote from Tales of Vesperia that went something like this. “Don’t tell me his reasons. It won’t change anything, and will just make it harder for me to kill him.” Because at that point they were left with no other option but to kill the antagonist, he was never going to back down, and every second they kept him alive, more people were going to suffer.

      It’s like I said back in Worm when Riley had her interlude. Riley is a child I want to see saved and redeemed. Bonesaw is a monster I want to see put down yesterday. As long as she’s Bonesaw and acting it, she needed to die. Once she stopped, then I’d give her a chance.

          1. Let’s face it, it all goes back to March seeing Lily at the train station, and wishing she could be her. The triggering just took that ball and ran with it.

  8. Nice if a little setup-ish chapter, though I must say I feel there might have been a bit too many of those lately. It is not that I dislike chapters without fighting, but having a large part of a chapter feel like a setup for later, or a way for the characters to organize for an upcoming fight can also quickly became boring. They are fine once in a while, but I hope they won’t become Wildbow’s go-to solution for “not every character needs to contain a cape fight” problem.

    I feel like a good way to deal with this problem is to have some “downtime” chapters like the ones at the beginning of arc 10 for example, or some of the ones in therapy group HQ early on. I do understand why the closest thing to such chapters we can get now are several scenes in chapter 11.12 or at the beginning of interlude 11.c or chapter 11.5, but I hope that by the end of this arc things will settle down for enough to have at least an entire chapter or two like that before things become hectic again. I’m not necessarily expecting it to happen that quickly, but I do hope it will.

    My usual quick thoughts on details that caught my eye:

    1.

    “They were going after our one means of trading with the settlements establishing on the other side of the ocean. Stopping all trafficking, not just the human trafficking. With winter coming up, everything fucked up, my girl dead…”

    Prancer had access to goods Europe or Africa? Does it mean that we will see those two capes disabled by their triggers to the point where they were sent to a facility in Europe for treatment? What sort of intercontinental trading route the Navigators could try to cut, and why would they do it? A shipping line employing practices similar to the ones that caused Nailfarer to trigger?

    2.

    Something more intense in quantity… or in quality.

    Ok, quantity is simple – a lot of people triggering at once (a likely effect of what March is doing), but what could quality mean? A massive cluster of dozens, hundreds or more people, or something other than humans undergoing something akin to trigger event? Maybe not even a literal trigger, but for example the fifth space getting Love Lost’s teeth and becoming unleashed in the process?

    3. Ok, so now we see that Cradle could have been using some suspicious, likely tinker-tech drugs (assuming for a second that Prancer wasn’t lying). Is it possible Colt trigger because he slipped something into “mundane” drugs in Love Lost’s place? Where did he even get such drugs from, if Bitter Pill seemed as surprised as everyone else that he had them? I think that the timing makes Love Lost unlikely. They probably didn’t work that closely together when Cradle made all those deals. Chris? When and why would he do it? And shouldn’t there be some visible physical changes if it was him? Similar reasons seem to eliminate other bio-tinkers and bio-kinetics I can think of. Maybe a scan of some master power of a member of Goddess cluster?

    Of course Cradle’s drug could be bullshit, just like Victoria suggested.

    4.

    I flew to Swansong, noting that part of her costume was destroyed, and that meant her outer layers were damaged. I undid the straps for my breastplate, and pulled off the hooded top section. I picked off the shoulder and hood accessories.

    “You don’t have to. The cold doesn’t bother me,” she said, while looking very bothered by the cold.

    I wonder if it really was just about the cold, or also about fashion again…

    1. 1- Everyone seems to overlook that Cradle’s thing is hands and *strings*. His mover power is related to spatial relations, his hand-contraptions are made of connected hands, he uses whips and cables to channel powers… he’s all about things that connect and manipulate. Cat’s Cradle, a spider in his web, … and maybe *a puppeteer pulling strings*. Not totally discounting the possibility that Prancer is BSing here, but Cradle’s emotion power being a subtle one having something to do with “pulling people’s strings” and tangling the emotional connections people have to people and things makes perfect sense. The power itself could be as simple as that he can *sense* these connections, and then used his tinker power to work out a way to screw with what he sees.

      Total tinfoil hat theory I started to joke about but that seems less silly the more I think about it: neural networks are “strings” and Cradle’s using nano-handbots to rewire them.

      2 Maybe someone went over that cliff edge we keep hearing about in the visions?

      3 Interesting thought, but I’m not sure he’d risk throwing a possible wrench like Colt into his plans unless he knew exactly what he was doing. If he did do it, he’s either figured out way more about clusters than we know, or he’s even more reckless and unpredictable than previously thought. Either would be scary.
      This also sparks another tinfoil hat theory: Given how keen Cradle seems to be on reverse-engineering other powers, I wouldn’t put it past him to be constantly scanning every cape he encounters. Cradle and Chris crossed paths in the battle with the Fallen; even a passive partial scan of Chris’s cocktails and their results in action could have been all Cradle needed to glean some basic “biomanipulation 101”.

      4 I think maybe fashion did play a part here: both Victoria and Ashley value appearances, not only in terms of fashion but also in the sense of street cred. Looking like she just got out of a fight she almost lost (especially if that’s exactly what just happened) could bother Ashley almost as much as the cold would. Its a rather heartwarming moment from either view, really.

  9. 1. So “Prancer’s thing about Cradle injecting something into hands” was bullshit or not? If it is bullshit, then everyone just what – found excuse to declare Cradle truce-breaker?

    2. “that kind of interruption went hand in hand with someone having a trigger event. It was just that this was… major. It hadn’t been anyone in our group or our ongoing skirmish, and it had been both more distant and more profound.
    Something more intense in quantity… or in quality.”
    So wild ideas? 🙂 Massive trigger? Very big cluster due to effect of time bubble?
    A lot of people from just-opened bubble cluster-triggered at once?

    3. “Second one’s already in the trees. She took too long to decide.”
    Who she – Victoria? Because Harbinger Two shot in the direction of Paris, Thud, and Contender.

    4. “Slices of meat and body parts were suspended in air, forming a puzzle-work lattice with barely any light leaking through.”
    I wonder if Sveta would be able to grab all parts at once and do not kill anyone.

    1. 1) Bullshit backed by the fact Cradle’s making a lot of people uncomfortable and doing things many people disagree with, morally speaking.
      2) Broken trigger is the current theory, a big one.
      3) Yes, Victoria, taking too long to decide whether Harbinger should fire that slingshot or not. So he only hit Paris or Contender, can’t hit both.
      4) Maybe, they do seem protected from some damage- Scaffold (or whatever his name is) survived having his neck cut out.

    2. It was one of March’s broken triggers. The screwed up nature of space makes multitriggers very easy. The mayor triggering was implied to knock out powers citywide.

      I suspect it traveled through the portal and being a multitrigger added more strength.

      1. There’s a really horrifying possibility that it not just went through the portal, it kept going, jumping through the city, and through all the portals in it. The only reason everyone in this world weren’t hit harder is the breaksiders closed the door after themselves.

        You know it’ll be darkly comedic if they go through all this to get those parts back, and then find out the rest of them got killed while they were away. That was not a suggestion Wildbow.

    3. Re. 1. Maybe it was only partially Prancer’s lie? Maybe Cradle never injected anything, but he did break their skins to take samples of their blood? Considering DNA’s role in forming a connection with shards, such blood could potentially have interesting, power-related uses.

  10. 1- Bullshit but plausible bullshit. Cradle’s a Tinker who specializes in *hands* with a *emotion* sub power. We know the two can be combined, and Love Lost was able to switch her screams emotion effects with Tinker tech. So it sounds like he used the handshake to push emotional buttons, and get them to agree to something they normally wouldn’t. It also gives them all an out from the fallout later on.

    2-Likely the mother of all broken or cluster triggers. I’m gonna be mildly suprised if the city is recognizable when they get done here.

    3- Good question, not sure.

    4-Swansong probably didn’t want to show any more vulnerability. She’s kinda been having a day, and just lost a dominance tussle with her sister there.

    1. The strategy Prancer employed is a pretty common con-artist strategy. Back them into a corner, create an urgent need to be out of that corner, and provide a way out, all the better if they think that way out was their idea.

      Cradle made the need, the corner, with his alliances and atrocities. Prancer provided the way out, and made them think abandoning Cradle was their own decision.

      If they wanted to abandon the deal due to Cradle’s awfulness, they would be backing out of a deal made, harming their reputation. However, they were able to abandon Cradle because they collectively agreed deal he made was under false pretenses, and could save face that it wasn’t really them that allied with the monster.

  11. Calling it now. Greg Veder has finally triggered, in a cluster with Madison, Gary Nieves, Natalie, and Jessica Yamada. All other capes are now obsolete, for the Omega Cluster has risen. Quake and tremble.

    1. Tell me what powers will they have. We know those people, you should be able to figure out what powers would fit their personalities.

      1. Gary Nieves survived the end of the world, is watching the remnants of humanity crumble all around him, and it’s all the fault of people with superpowers and people from other planets! Fear of the out group and of foreigners? Sounds like the origin story of a trump! Nieves’s power is to build big beautiful walls out of steel slats and make the taxpayer pay for it – he’s a resource tinker! It synergizes well with the secondary powers he got from Yamada and Veder: omnipotence and impaired social graces, respectively.

    2. Greg has a thinker power power that lets him deduce facts about a target’s interests and opinions and their emotional reactions and such, but it only works on people who are upset at him and is stronger the more upset the target is at him, and is also weaker or stronger depending on how many people are upset at him. But it doesn’t work at all when someone cuts off contact with him.

      Or in other words it helps and encourages him to get as many PHO infractions as possible without getting banned 😛

      1. Ok, that is one power and one person, but what about the others? If all of those people are supposed to be a cluster, then Greg’s power needs to manifest in other cluster members somehow, and they should bring their own powers to the cluster.

        Also what about internal cluster dynamic? What would relationships between them look like? Any Kiss/Kill? Between who, and why? What about personality bleed-throughs? How would they happen, between who, and what personality traits would likely be passed?

        1. Well if we’re being memetic, Mrs Yamada has a trump power that detriggers others as she puts them through therapy. From Greg she got the ability to read emotional states more accuratly.

  12. Time for the Doomguy approach to solving tinkertech puzzles, Victoria. Don’t let the setup intimidate you and kick the shiny bits into paste while Sveta’s cooking mercenary-borscht in the background.

    1. That would probably do a good job of killing Cradle and co. The downside is it might kill everyone Cradle wiped. She needs to whip Cradle and then see how Cradle reassembled himself and then reassemble her friends and then kill Cradle.

      1. How about they repair the whip and use it to break the “egg” and everyone inside? Should be non-lethal, and you could argue that at least one person inside deserves it to happen to them.

        1. Or.. they could just wait for them to exit the egg and then Swansong or Damsel or a Habringer or Foil just kill them? Thats what they are here for after all.
          And those 5 can kill pretty much everyone. Hell, Foil killed fucking Scion. And now they wimp around some two-bit assholes?

          1. Except… will Colt and Love Lost be even able to leave the egg? They may die if the heroes don’t do something quickly, and while some people may think Love Lost deserves to die, I don’t think anyone (except maybe Cradle) wants Colt to share this fate.

          2. Hmm.. maybe this is some time difference from the interlude and the heroes actually do something now that cause LL to fade. Maybe was not Cradle after all. Just a random thought.

            Anyway, I do believe Colt had enough chances to get out. And like Vic said “remorse without action is worth shit”. And she is very right in that.
            She knew Cradle carved up the Heartbroken and Lookout and didnt get out when Vic asked her to. So if you ask me she deserves to burn just like the rest of Cradles henchmen. Maybe even more than LL, looking back at the interlude.

          3. I don’t know about the time difference from the interlude. We know when when Rain was knocked out, and it was quite a while since then. We should probably check previous chapters to see how long Rain’s cluster dreams usually last, but I think it should be over by now.

            In fact I think that whatever happened at the end of chapter 12.2 could be caused not by March’s action, but by whatever Love Lost did with her teeth after her interlude – I suspect that she did not give them to Rain, but threw them to the fifth space, and whatever is there could react at that moment causing a reaction similar, but not the same to what the capes go through when they witness a new trigger. I’m not saying that I consider it a more likely explanation than March messing with time effects again, but I do consider it a possibility.

            As for Colt, I admit that she has made plenty of bad decisions, not to mention that she avoided making any decisions at all, when she really shouldn’t have, but do you really think she deserves to die for it?

          4. The only evidence we have that Colt knows anything about what Cradle’s up to is that she’s been hanging around with Love Lost. We don’t know she’s in the egg; Cradle seemed surprised at her in the dream, implying he didn’t know she’d triggered (or at least joined the cluster), and so he wouldn’t see a need to put her in the egg. In addition, Love Lost knows Cradle’s been cutting people up, but she’d keep that gruesomeness from Colt, if only because she’d keep it from Ever.

            I think Colt’s young and misguided, but also in the dark about what Cradle’s up to. She doesn’t necessarily trust him, but trusts Love Lost (as wrong as that may be) so he’s got the benefit of the doubt there.

          5. > Cradle seemed surprised at her in the dream, implying he didn’t know she’d triggered (or at least joined the cluster), and so he wouldn’t see a need to put her in the egg.

            Which begs the question – who, when and why put Colt in that egg? Is it possible that it was someone who realized that Colt joined the cluster either when she was knocked out, or earlier – when she triggered? Who, other than Cradle himself, would even think about doing it? Was it someone who was instructed by Cradle to do it with him and Love Lost, and decided to “creatively interpret” their orders when they realized that Colt belonged to the cluster too? Was it something ordered by March?

            And the craziest theory I came up with – maybe it was even only Love Lost drained by Cradle at the beginning of the dream, and there was no egg then, because it was produced by the fifth space? I could happen if whatever Love Lost did with her tokens caused whatever was in the fifth space to become active?

          6. Cradle’s in the egg. That we know. Everyone else? Is hypothesised to be in there. Love Lost might be in there, too, to keep her safe, but why would Colt be in there?

            Unless they went in the egg after they collapsed and it was turned on from outside, by minions who put all three in the egg after they collapsed. But then it can be turned off from outside, too, which seems a bad idea.

          7. Hmm, “does she deserve to die”. Thats a loaded question.
            Legally and logically speaking certainly not. She is a minor and and that alone only makes her partially accountable. She did shoot people with intend to kill. So yeah she certainly deserves jail. Did she know what Cradle did to the kids? Good question. I think she COULD if she didnt close her eyes to the truth. She was there when LL gave the kids to Cradle. But we do not know for sure.

            The much better question here is probably: “Does anybody here deserve to die”?
            I mean, Cradle hasnt killed anybody (as far as we know). He hasnt even done irreversible bodily harm. Yes he is an empathy-less creep. But apart from that what has he really done to deserve to die?
            He caused bodily harm to other capes. Thats pretty much accepted as what capes do to each other.
            Just playing devils advocate. Of course I hope the Harbingers put a steel ball through his head the moment he shows his face. 🙂

          8. They’ve got Foil, two harbingers and a slingshot. Just have the harbingers do the math, Foil shoot with the slingshot, and watch perfect timing and math equal Cradle getting the David special. Bonus points for it being getting biblical on his ass.

          9. Or they could risk using the other kind of “David special”. Just remember which character in the paraverse is known to be named David…

        2. That’s… actually a solution.
          1. Repair the whip
          2. Win over small army guarding an egg
          3. Use whip on an egg
          4. Undo whip effect on everyone, except Cradle
          5. Decide what to do with Cradle
          6. PROFIT! 🙂
          The only problem is that Rain probably need Cradle’s coins to repair the whip and if he took them he could became apathy/ruthless (and probably enraged from LL’s token) and kills Love Lost and Colt in the process.

          1. Regarding possible solutions, could at least a part Tattletale’s message contain some clues about the egg, and possibly how to deal with it?

          2. Maybe they are some sort of code for us to interpret, but maybe not – they are supposed nonsensical to us, because they are a part of Cradle’s tinker notes Tattletale just copied (I could see her power potentially being able to inform her which part she needs to copy, based on Cradle’s behavior, or the way the notes themselves were organized), and Rain just didn’t know how to interpret them last time, because his tinker power wasn’t supercharged at that point yet.

  13. My bet is that March is trying create a reverse-trigger. She’s trying to infect the SHARDS with her and her clustermates’ consciousnesses.

    Or put another way, she’s trying to brute force her way into recreating something somewhere between cluster-Khepri and the Butcher setup. But she’s intent on imprint the minds of her megacluster onto the remains of the entity itself. And she’s just fucking crazy enough that that’s her idea of paradise.

    So yeah. Basically, my theory is she’s attempting either grand theft Zion or to turn her cluster into a new entity by hijacking whatever sufficiently intact bits remain of the Warrior.

    1. She’s totally trying to infect the Shards. Not sure what she plans on doing once inside though. Possibly play sappy love tunes to Foil for eternity.

      1. Foil: “For the last time I like my women middle Eastern, with a doll theme, who give me stuffed animals for gifts, and who DON’T TRY TO TORTURE ME INTO LOVING THEM AND KEEP TRYING TO MURDER MY WIFE!”
        March: “I’m not hearing a no…”

  14. So Contender or Paris just got Harbingered. Curious to see who got hit and how bad it was (With a Harbinger it could really be anything haha)

    1. Wasn’t Contender the one who took down Harby #2? Plus, Paris has more style. He may be a disturbed individual way too okay with hurting other people, but he has ethics, of a sort. If the darts are his whole power, that’s pretty underwhelming considering he just faced off against four members of the slaughterhouse 9 and a brute. To get meta, if you’ll excuse me, I don’t think Capricorn’s business with him is done yet, although if Harby#1’s target isn’t dead, I guess that leaves room for encounters all the same.

    2. I’m pretty sure he’s shot one of them in the balls. It’s pretty much maximum damage you can inflict without becoming lethal. Stopping them from reproducing is an added bonus

  15. That was another pretty good chapter. WB is at his best when characters are talking.

    Also for once a fight they kind of won. (That means they get their asses kicked in the coming fight I guess.)

    Harbingers really start being interesting characters.

    Still a few things I have my problems with: How come the villains are so damn well organized and structured with plans for everything and the heroes are such a bunch of disorganized wimps? That doesnt make much sense to me. Vic obviously recognized the problem and tried. But the villains… where is all their money from? All the Mercs. Especially if Number Man is hitting them.

    Also: Who is Prancer hostage?

    1. It’s like this weird thing where despite the fact they are all at cross purposes, and competing together, the villains are better able to work together. Now it could be numbers, but wasn’t there a line in the beginning about how heroes finally outnumbered the villains?

      1. Exactly. Okay, somewhere there is Teacher masterminding but that cant be all there is to it.
        And the PRT is gone and the gates are a mess so Heroes are on the back foot. But despite all that I dont understand why the villains seem so multiverse-spanningly well connected.

        Just because all of them are afraid the heroes “dispose” of them since they no longer need them for global threats like the Endbringers? Seems mighty far fetched….

    2. > How come the villains are so damn well organized and structured with plans for everything and the heroes are such a bunch of disorganized wimps?

      Fundamentally,
      Selfish strategy won in short-term, cooperation strategy won in long-term.
      Taylor make a very good explain of this in Worm. I think it is one of best things of Worm.
      Same result we know from Prisoner’s dilemma and other scientific stuff.

      Locally – Prancer for example is a drug dealer, it should mean a lot of money, at least compared to patrolling and rescuing civilians. Other mercenaries probably murder for money, human trafficking, racket and do other stuff Victoria and Co would not agree to do.
      Money means resources – weapons, other mercenaries, time for planning and so on.
      Also it is anarchy time, no defined law means good guy arguing over what should be considered good, what is acceptable and what is not; while villains preying on civilians.

  16. What exactly does “Killing isn’t enough.” mean? What could he do with the stone that was worse than killing? Is it supposed to say something like “Hurting isn’t enough”?

    Also, being caught up really sucks. I plowed through worm, and when Ward started, I purposefully waited a long time to begin reading. Waiting a few days for each chapter is slowly killing me.

    “Slices of meat and body parts were suspended in air” Time for a delicious sandwhich?

  17. Son of a bitch, you know what I just realized? We have someone who could offset the negative effects of the Tokens established in this story. Fucking Scapegoat.

      1. Yeah, but in this case it occured to me because Scapegoat just learned to remove specific negative mental effects. So he seems extra pertenent.

        I wonder if the fifth isn’t actually some sort of master power for networking, like Darlene’s.

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