From Within – 16.4

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What a shitty, shitty battlefield.  Cold, snowy, tall buildings on either side, cars sitting bumper to bumper down every bit of road and street I could see, and people who had evacuated their cars gathered at the edges, in doorways, nooks, crannies, building interiors.

I kept up in the air and out of the way, flying across the street and turning around so I could watch them and keep an eye out for Breakthrough as they advanced.

I relocated as Damsel directed some of her people my way – Mockument, Gibbet, Hookline, and Sidepiece, then relocated again.  She wanted to come after me, it was clear, but I was more mobile.

I didn’t mind being a distraction, if that was what it came to.

The Huntsmen were heroes who had set up shop in the city outskirts, west of the area that was geographically approximate to where New York had been on Earth Bet.  I could see them already, mostly hanging back and ensuring people were evacuated.  Heroes with something of a vigilante edge, and that edge combined with their aesthetic of black costumes and hoods to make me think of Shadow Stalker, to the extent I almost expected her to pop up among them.

But they had a nature theme, and Shadow Stalker didn’t, and they were serious about their job, policing the park territories.  Thing was, they were probably more corporate and business-driven than the likes of Auzure.  The park territories were tracts of forest multiple acres in size, which the government had contracted out to companies and groups of people who agreed to provide the city a scheduled allotment of game meat, wood, and other natural resources.  So long as they provided that, they had the excess to use as they saw fit.  Most subcontracted, to fill criteria, and most also subcontracted to hire the Huntsmen to protect their ends of the deal.

All of which was probably fucked, now that we were moving people out and away from the city, to alternate worlds and areas a half-day’s drive away from the city.

Trophy Wife, Backwoods, and a few others had preyed on the system the Huntsmen and park territory companies had set up.  Now they positioned themselves between the Huntsmen and Deathchester, but they watched me most of all; Damsel had pointed me out and warned them.  Their position and mentality reflected their experience with their nemeses.

Trophy Wife had a white fur coat with a trophy wrack sweeping up from her back, behind her head, with animal parts and what might have been human bits dangling from it.  Very intimidating, regal, messed up.  I could see why Ashley liked her.  Backwoods had a gnarled wooden mask, black toque, black overalls, heavy boots, and a dark green canvas coat that looked like it had been liberally smeared with oil or black grease.  Maybe to dull colors or to turn a regular coat into something resembling forest camouflage.  He held spear-like branches in each hand, and had a ‘v’ of two more branches sticking up from his shoulders.

Nailbiter and Hookline were the ones who had reacted most to Damsel’s alert, and walked on top of cars to get closer to me.  Nailbiter had extended her limbs.  Same principle as Trophy Wife putting herself closer to the Huntsmen.  Old grudges, and they had some sense of how to fight me, both in terms of what I was capable of and how that actually applied in the real world.

Gibbet was sticking close to Hookline, I noted, despite being a member of Mockument and Torso’s troupe.  She wore a truncated red noose around her neck, a black head covering that covered everything from the neck up, with a tear for the mouth that had been stitched up with red cloth, and tears around the eyes, which had been painted black, with red ‘x’s over the eyelids, and either contact lenses or a minor mutation that gave her actual eyeballs the same red ‘x’.  She wore a long and heavy black coat that probably weighed as much as she did, with more stark red imagery embossed on it.  She looked barely over five feet tall, petite enough I doubted she weighed over a hundred pounds, and she carried a L-shaped length of wood, telephone-pole thick, with a noose hanging from the short end, bearing it across her shoulders.

I guessed Hookline had a girlfriend now.

Hookline’s hook flew up at an angle, flying past the rooftop’s edge and past me, then did a u-turn, reversing course to travel back down to him, hook looped around and scraping against the chain on the way down.

Gibbet hopped up onto the hook itself, swayed a second for balance, and then found her position.  The hook started to retreat back up toward me, carrying her.

Nailbiter, too, started climbing, using the chain as a handhold.

I flew away from the roof they were aiming for, which made Nailbiter stop.  Gibbet continued to be carried up.

Mockument was in his own sub-faction, with capes who tended to hang around together.  Jokers and ‘randoms’.  He had a look that made me think of a jester proportioned like a gorilla, predominantly done up in the new group’s aesthetic of white and black checkerboard.  Torso was a mannequin or doll’s head and upper body in a hard and bulky stone-like material, the rest  black and slim.  with doodle-like drawings on it.  Mismatched cartoon eyes, a heart roughly where the heart would be, and a few words so scribbled out I couldn’t understand them.  The look seemed immensely top-heavy and uncomfortable.

Mockument, Torso, Sidepiece and Damsel were in the center of the mess, breaking into cars and collecting things, or cutting off the ropes that tied luggage to the tops of vehicles, so they could open the luggage and fish through the things.

I winced as I saw Damsel using a power to blast open a lock on a hard plastic case.  She held up a bass guitar.  Sidepiece said something and Damsel threw it to her, followed by the strap.

Damsel looked up at me, and I could see her distant expression.  Whoever Damsel was, I knew the kinds of expressions she wore and why.  My ex-roommate was almost exactly the same.

I took her bait, flying toward her.

“Damsel!” I called out.

She pretended to ignore me.  I avoided flying in close enough that she could use her power to close the distance and try to tag me with a blast.  I didn’t want her one blast, let alone two in short succession.

“You can’t use your powers!  This area is high-risk!”

“Fuck you!” Sidepiece screamed the words.

“How convenient for the heroes.  Scared!?” she called out.

“Heck yeah we’re scared!” I answered.  “You’re like an arsonist at a gas station!”

“Can we do that later?” Sidepiece asked Damsel.

Backwoods was using his power too.  He hurled his wooden spikes, they hit a car near the Huntsmen, and then exploded into a dozen more spikes, impaling the car from within.

I looked in that direction, anxious but unable to do anything.  I had to trust the Huntsmen.

“Can we talk?  Face to face?” I called down.  “I know Lookout really wants to chat, and I know you like her!”

Mockument used his power.  Hand held over ground, then slowly lifted, raising up a pillar of pavement from the road.

“Don’t-” I started.

The pillar broke like an egg.  Flesh spilled out, reaching, groping.  I had no idea what it was at first, until I saw the blonde hair and the extent of naked flesh.  I flew back about ten feet just from the unconscious recoil.

A caricature of a monstrous caricature.  Features distorted, with mouths yawning open in horror, lips lipstick red, or whole faces smooshed into distorted kissy faces.  I saw a tattoo of a heart with an arrow through it, the space within with a word in it.  ‘Amy’.

“Listen to me!” it screeched, shrill.  A hand slapped against a nearby car, caving the tire’s housing in while pushing the car a few feet away.  “Ugh!  I have a runny nose and a sore throat!”

Sidepiece began cackling.

“I… actually don’t know what to say,” Damsel said.  “I was going to joke I didn’t have to go with you to have a face to face with you.  But there’s nothing to joke about.  It’s just sad.”

“Get rid of it,” I said.

“Get rid of me!” the thing screeched.  “I’m so done with this shit!”

“You’re so ugly inside,” Damsel said, before looking up at me, locking eye contact with me, narrow pupils staring.

I tried to draw in a breath to say something else, and the breath hitched.  “Let’s call a truce.  Thirty minutes, we have tea, you tell us what you-”

The thing used my aura, its power spurting and stuttering, washing over me as something I had too many resistances against.

No, that wasn’t enough to interrupt me.  What was enough to get me to stop talking was that it kept talking over me, louder, echoing my words.  It flopped around, trying to use flight while having no less than six different frames of orientation fighting against one another.  “-have some fucking tea!  Tell us what you want!”

Sidepiece fell over, laughing.

I couldn’t get distracted.  We’d been told our presence helped the numbers.  I’d work toward that.

“-tell us what your demands are,” I said.  “If you guys back down and don’t stir things up, we’ll pay you off, strike deals, give you a territory.  You picked the right time and place for this.  You win.”

“-right time and place for this.  Fuck!  You win, we lose like we always do, boo hoo!”

“Can we keep it?” Sidepiece asked.

“You want to deal?” Damsel asked.  “Truce?”

“Yes!” the thing on the road screamed.

“Let’s shake on it,” she said.  Her eye contact didn’t waver.  Her clawed hand extended my way.

I knew Ashley.  I knew that she had her tells, and one of those tells was that she tended to go very still and quiet when poised for the attack.  Swansong had done it with Beast of Burden.  Before any outbursts, there was often a moment where she was more terse, quiet, as if something below the surface was simmering, and a part of her was trying to keep it from losing control by doing nothing.

Which was ironically what I wanted her to do.

“Stop ignoring me!” the caricature screamed.  Sidepiece laughed every time it talked or tried to fly and hit a car instead, the laughter completely new each time.

Torso and Mockument were hanging back, watching.  For how ludicrous their costumes were and how Mockument’s power worked, neither seemed to find much humor in this.

Ashley stared me down, pupils narrowing and then disappearing entirely, until her eyes were pure white.  She wasn’t trying to bluff.  She was challenging me on my convictions, with the implicit threat that she would slash me or use her power to annihilate me.

I called her Ashley in my head because in this moment, in that dangerous frozen position, her mannerisms were one, the same, and both.

“I just noticed, the tattoo says Amy,” Sidepiece cackled.

“Amy!” the thing screeched, abrasive.  “Amy, I love you!”

“I wouldn’t have thought, Antares!” Sidepiece jeered.

“How I love you, let me count the ways!”  It was demolishing a car in the process of trying to drag its bulk onto the trunk.  The strength seemed to come and go, as did the flight and the aura.  “Sweet sexy sister of mine!”

Sidepiece, already mid-laugh, stopped mid-laugh, dragging in a wheezing breath, before collapsing against the side of a car.  She made a sound that might have been her saying, “Oh my god!” while wheeze-laughing at the same time.

It was all I could do not to use every power I had to wipe that thing from the face of this earth.  Sidepiece a close second.  Mockument third.

I shot Mockument a look that made it unambiguously clear what I was thinking.

“No truce?” Damsel asked.

“Truce yes, but I’m not stupid enough to come down there and shake your hand.  Besides,” I said.  I pointed to the mask I wore on my lower face. “Cold.”

You’re cold!?” the caricature asked.  “I’m naked and I’ve got ten different tits pressed against icy pavement and I’m also sick!”

“Yeah!” Sidepiece called out.  “Have some consideration, you pious, sister-fucking bitch!”

“Those were the happiest days of my life,” the caricature said.  “Because she forced me to be happy.  But they were still the happiest.  I might go back if I could.  Things were simpler then.  I had everything I wanted.  Because she made herself the only thing I wanted.”

“Ooh,” Sidepiece said, “Oh.  That recontextualizes a lot.”

“If you had an ounce of decency in you, you’d kill that thing right now,” I said.  I turned in the air to face Mockument and say, “Or unmake it, send it back to where it came.”

Sidepiece retorted, “If you had an ounce of decency, you wouldn’t be a sister-sexual and a sister-romantic!  You think you have the right to preach morality and tell us what to do!?  Hypocrite!  Sister fucker!”

I flew back another ten or twenty feet, feeling a horrible kind of sadness welling in my upper chest, to the point it hurt to breathe.

Damsel had been planning something, and as I retreated, she lunged forward.  She created a ball of power in one claw, and a lateral blast in the other, as if to push the ball out my way.  The ball unfurled, traveling a surprisingly long distance.

If I hadn’t been wary, that might have grazed me.

My heart sank further, and I floated further back, staying relatively low to the ground.

I couldn’t get distracted.  If nothing else, I had grown up around heroes.  From the day I’d first started playing at being a hero, my parents had both been giving me tips, using some to manipulate me into doing homework or chores, because didn’t a good hero need to be smart?  If a heroine wouldn’t keep her room clean, how could she keep a city free of crime?  Tell that to Crystal.

They’d hammered in situational awareness, a need to stay in control.

I couldn’t come here, looking to keep power uses down and keep control over things, then turn around and use the full capacity of my strength on these guys.  I couldn’t provoke them or risk provoking them.

I tried to tell myself that if I was at least getting them to stand down in this moment, if they were standing there laughing at me, at least they weren’t using powers and threatening everything.

Backwoods was still periodically using his power, lobbing stakes of wood that exploded into multi-pronged outgrowths of wooden spikes.  Each time he pulled one from his shoulder, another grew out.

I saw Gibbet and Hookline huddled together, his hand at her waist, their hips touching, his head bent down to talk to her, while he kept one eye on me.  His hook…

I saw the line of it trailing down to the ground, and the slack seemed to run beneath cars.

He saw me looking.  The hook had been creeping in my general direction, snaking between cars.  It didn’t have to travel far, and it was whip-fast as it rose up toward me.

I put my foot up to give me a chance of kicking it or deflecting it if I needed to, while flying in another way.  It wasn’t necessary, and I managed to avoid it.

I hadn’t used my forcefield on going through the portal because I hadn’t wanted to hurt anyone on either side of the heavily guarded hole in reality, and I hadn’t wanted to damage the architecture of the portal itself.  Now I acutely felt the lack.

I looked down at the caricature, which was crash landing after another aborted flight attempt.

It was his power, right?  He created copies of people that reflected what they hated most about themselves.  Threw in a few mistruths, like the ‘I’d go back’, if they’d fuck with the target’s head enough.  Right?

I had to deal with it like I’d deal with any emotion power or secret-penetrating thinker power.  If I melted down now or did something that impacted innumerable others, I’d just be doing what my sister did.

And there was way, way more to that line of thought, and I was nowhere near being able to tackle it.

I was in a position to go after Backwoods.

Trophy Wife shouted, “Flier!” as I made my approach.  Backwoods responded by throwing down a spike, surrounding himself in spiked branches.

I couldn’t plow through, but I could dodge through, if-

The Huntsmen were motioning, waving arms in certain directions.  The ones on the left waved me left, the ones in cover to the right waved me right.

I headed left, because the only consistent message was not to fly straight for him.

As I got closer, branches forked, stabbing out, and then bloomed, exploding into foliage with gray-green leaves and tiny white flowers.  They grew with enough violence I could imagine I would have been scraped up, if not outright flayed or stabbed with a branch that then expanded out into five branches pointing out in different directions.

I could see some spots where the foliage was already grown, perhaps strategically located to block the defending capes from being able to shoot.  As I flew over, toward the Huntsmen, they motioned again.  This time it was unanimous.  Up.

I flew up and over, giving the growths an extra-wide berth.

Leaves and flowers came to pieces, detonating into what might have been poisonous gas or pollen, a heavy cloud that was about as dark as green could get while still being green.

Backwoods began to make other growths sprout and bloom, filling the area.

“I’m guessing they weren’t up to talking,” the leader of the Huntsmen said.

I shook my head.

Two Huntsmen were holding their ground behind cover that in itself had enough cover that the branch detonations wouldn’t reach them.  One used the length of a bus with some cars on the opposite end.  Another used a bus stop.  It seemed someone had tried to drive on the sidewalk to circumvent the traffic, out of selfishness or because the villains had spooked them, but they’d hit the stop and the mailbox that was built into the one side of the stop.  That car was the added cover for the cape there.

The third Huntsman was crouched by a row of cars, looking through a succession of windshields and rear windows to get a blurry sense of what was going on.

Three more were guiding the crowd.  They weren’t having a lot of luck in convincing people to get the fuck out.

“They sent us backup, huh?” one of the Huntsmen asked.  A woman with her hood down, wearing a white mask with a lot of airbrushed details on it.  It made me think of Snow White- black hair perfectly arranged, overly rosy cheeks and eyeshadow, crimson lips.  Their cape and hair blew against the wind, not with.

“Precog said it improved the numbers.  We’ve had a few run-ins with Damsel, Sidepiece, Hookline, and Nailbiter.  Disjoint’s not around?”

Snow White answered, “Recovering from an injury.  Sidepiece has a few parts of him with her, from what she said.”

“Damsel’s twin was on our team as Swansong.  Swansong died in the raid, it’s part of why Damsel is acting out now.”

“Good to know.  That wasn’t in the briefing.”

“Questions?  Concerns?  Any way I can help?  Need any rundowns on power?”

“We got the rundowns.  The priority is evacuating.  There’s a lot of people still out there.”

I looked and I saw a few.  People hunkered down in their vehicles, periodically putting their heads up to look around.

“I’m not positive what we can do.  They might be better off staying put,” I said.

“They keep using maximum danger powers.  Damsel of Distress’s chaos storm power.  If something goes wrong, those people are right in the middle of it.  We tried to bait them away, but they aren’t biting.”

“Loot’s too tempting,” I said.  Torso started to pick up a piece of luggage and fell over, faceplanting into the top of a car, shattering the windshield and partially caving the roof in.  Hookline and Gibbet were sorting through a suitcase, with Gibbet holding something lingerie-ish up against her front.  Way too big for her.

Hookline, meanwhile, cracked open what might have been a jewelry box, going by the glitter as he emptied the contents into his hand.  Gibbet laid the see-through top over the top of the case, and Hookline emptied the jewelry box onto it, so they could sort through.

Damsel put bladed fingertips to her mouth, then whistled, sharp.  Backwoods and Trophy Wife looked, then began to retreat.

“Move up!” Snow White ordered her people.

“Looks like my team just arrived on the scene,” I said.  “She’s pulling back to defend.”

“Stay out of their ranges, do what you can.  You know the restrictions?”

“Yeah.  Minimize powers, only use always-on powers or ones that were turned on before the fight,” I recited.

“Any help you can give is great.”

“Rundown on Trophy Wife, anything else about Backwoods or Mockument?  What does Torso do?”

“Trophy collects parts, has an aura that grants subtle mutations to people around her based on what she’s collected.  She gets the same thing at double strength, just for herself.  Nightvision if she tore out a cat’s eyes, manual dexterity if she has some person’s amputated hand, ability to land on her feet if she has a cat’s tail, raw strength if she has a strip of muscle from a large animal, sharpness of nails if she has the claws from someone’s pet cat.  She’ll have important ones inside her coat.”

“Great,” I said.  That made Backwoods even more problematic.  He was the most wanton with his power, that power was disruptive and dangerous, and now he apparently had a mess of minor benefits granted by being close enough to Trophy Wife.

“Backwoods, nothing too special.  He’s dropping traps here and there, trying to be subtle.  There are two big branches extending over his shoulders, but they really form an ‘X’, and he’s grabbing from the lower prongs.”

“Good to know,” I said.  I floated up a bit, watching the guy.

“Mockument… we don’t really know.  The minions aren’t strong, they barely have powers, they don’t really have brains, they’re just conduits for a thinker aspect to his power, but…”

Snow White looked over at the caricature of me.  It was perched on top of a car now.

“Jesus,” she said.

“Yeah,” I tried to sound casual, and I sounded too quiet instead.  I spoke more normally as I deflected with.  “It targets parahumans only?”

“Think so.”

“Probably uses some weak connection to the power or replicates what it can track nearby.”

“Barely replicates.  Weak powers.”

“Its good to not underestimate powers.  Even broken, intermittent ones.”

Snow White seemed to accept that.  “Right.  About Torso-”

There was a crash.

Powers in use.  Damsel, primarily.  With a blast, she totaled someone’s car and most of the things they’d brought with them through the end of the world and this evacuation.

I clenched my fist.

“Do what you can,” she said.  In the tone of someone who was resigned to not doing a whole lot.

I flew straight up.

The tallest rooftops downtown were left below me.  The air got colder and the precipitation more ferocious as I rose up higher, and if I had any trouble breathing, I wasn’t sure how much of it was my cold constricting nasal passages, and how much was the thinner air.

My eyes closed, fists clenched, I slowed my ascent.  I continued upwards, more gentle now.

I could feel the transition.  My flight was like an ice cube, sliding across a slick floor.  If there was any resistance, it was in the air.  But up here, the air was thinner.  I panted for each breath.

Maybe it was how pure things were up here, now small the problems below were, how there was little to see except the diffuse clouds that made it impossible to see twenty feet away from me.  There was no noise up here, except the wind against my hood and the bottom end of my coat.

Maybe it was that the air was thinner, so there was more room to feel other things.

I could feel distinctions.  The ice cube slide of flight became smoother still.  It was a slide over skin, not scar tissue.  No bumps, no tiny bits of turbulence that weren’t actually wind.  If I controlled fire and paid the most acute attention, would I see the difference in how the flames touched and tongued the air?  If I mutated from head to toe, would it shape my form, the whorls of metaphorical fingerprints, and the spacing of pores?

Go, I communicated.

I activated my forcefield and aura, and then I let myself fall.

Surrender was the name of the game here, so I pushed everything out of mind.  I held onto that tranquility and peace of the cloud cover above, with the thin air and the scarcity of noise.  I held onto nothing else.  My plummet was almost meditative.  The wind didn’t touch me, but it touched the Wretch, catching the broad side of one part of the form, and flipping the Wretch vaguely around me.

My head was below my feet as I watched things unfold.  Sidepiece had a double now, shorter, fatter, more missing around the middle.  My double was still there, but her double was dangerous, where mine flopped around.  It was more wanton in how it tore itself to pieces, but those pieces didn’t all explode, and didn’t explode as violently.

But it was fucking loud.  Shouting, squawking, taunting.

Anger and instinct fed into my actions, as I went with the flow.  I wanted a weapon and I didn’t even have the buckler or armguard.  I patted pockets, found small change, and extended my hand.  I let go of it, and it collected within the forcefield.

Then, just as easily, it escaped the forcefield.  A mouth or other cavity yawned open.  The change leaked out and found another invisible trap to fall up into, one or two coins being lost in the process.

I’d thought about this, a long, long time ago.  As a ‘what if’.  In reaching for the change, I hadn’t even consciously recalled the memory.  It was only when I realized what was happening that I connected the thought.

The change moved, then disappeared.

I saw the violence, heard the impact of change striking car doors and icy road.  I’d been plunging toward my caricature and now I changed course.  My caricature was dead.  A coin dropped from the top of the tallest building in the world wouldn’t kill someone.  A handful thrown with the kind of strength and force that could lift trucks had a treatment like a low-impact shotgun.

Fuck the ‘wretch’, I thought, the thought punctuating the full collapse of her body onto the road.

I blindsided Sidepiece’s caricature, flying up close until the forcefield got a grip on her, then let the forcefield do its thing.  All around that same area of the road, everything was transforming.  Telephone-pole thick gallows were lurching and spearing up out of the ground, ropes snagging and pulling at my teammate’s arms, legs, and in Rain’s case, neck.  He slashed the rope twice before a full-body kick jerked it enough to trigger the silver lines.  He dropped ten feet to the ground.

“Holy,” Sidepiece said, as I disengaged from her other self’s remains.  I reached for the Sidepiece caricature’s lower rib, then hurled it at Gibbet, finishing the action before I fully realized I wasn’t grabbing it with my hand.

It hadn’t been my idea, I was pretty sure.

The rib detonated, more of a focused blast in two directions, that seemed to punch through a nearby bit of metal construction fencing by the side of the road.  The rattle of it knocked  Gibbet from her perch atop the tallest and sturdiest of the gallows, and she fell into the darkness beneath a sea of structures that loomed over parked, dark, and snow-colored cars.

Rain was cutting a piece off of a car that had been demolished by one of the attackers.  Tristan picked it up to use as a shield, while beating a retreat.  Most of the aggression was targeted in a way that meant he couldn’t run or the flying bits might hit people at the very fringes of things, so he just ran straight for Sidepiece, trying to limit how far her power could reach or what she could do in the motions of her arm or reaching down.  He began to bend the metal around.

Sveta was almost at full capacity.  Her ‘power’ was always on.  Her focus was Nailbiter, who was much the same.  As with Croc o’Shit, Sveta showed her stuff when faced with enemies who were too big and tough to take down in any normal way.  I imagined they became accustomed to being too big to wrestle or crush, and let their focus and skills slip when someone like her effectively tried.

Torso charged into our group’s back line, and our guys scattered for the most part.  That wasn’t the focus here.  I turned around, spotted Mockument, and flew toward him.

He was already creating another minion.  Pillar raised from the ground, already cracking.

I was trying to be careful to preserve the forcefield.  I kept my flight speed controlled to grab the rusty little post-GM car instead of just punching it.  To partially push, partially pull, but mostly just to get it from where it sat to Mockument.

I wasn’t going full-bore, so he had time to react.  He tried to get out of the way, and he wasn’t quite that fast.  He put his mis-proportioned arm out, and he managed to exceed the strength of the forcefield.

Well, for the most part.  The forcefield didn’t get tired, and every fraction of a second that passed, Mockument was losing ground.  But he did manage to bring feet up and out of the way, so being caught between two cars wouldn’t sandwich and pulverize his legs.  Flexible, strong, he had the ability to create minions and the ability to gather information from those minions, because they reflected deeper things about the targets.

I saw his eyes, and I saw the trick.  Irises of a different shape beneath that jester mask.  That would be Trophy Wife.

I twisted around, saw her looking, and moved my hand, fingertips grazing a car’s side-view mirror.  Multiple hands slammed the side of that car, indenting it a half-dozen times.

In another time and circumstance, I would have berated the Wretch.  I would have cursed it out for the unnecessary property damage, for not doing quite as I wanted.

But I was pissed, hurt, sad, sick, and a little door had opened before, back in Teacher’s headquarters.  Once opened, it didn’t close quite the right way again.

Hands gripped the side mirror, and I twisted as the Wretch did the same.  The mirror was flung so fast I had trouble tracking it with my eyes.  It hit Trophy Wife, hard, and flew off with enough speed still driving it that it shattered a car window, striking ragged side first.

Trophy Wife was tough, and we’d hit her where the trophy rack was attached to her back.  But that was a hit that would have been bone-breaking without the armor, if not purely lethal.  Backwoods started to run to her side, but the Huntsmen fired bows and crossbows, one using a net that was thrown at least two hundred feet.

Backwoods started producing more outgrowths to act as cover so he could get to his partner’s side.  She was leaning over a car now.  He helped her straighten.

Behind me, the Wretch pushed the car.  Mockument was still there, one hand sealed to the roof of the car by Capricorn’s power.  With one leg dangling while he fought to get leverage, the movement of the car pinned that leg.

“I hate your power,” I told him.

“I hate it too,” he replied.  He smiled wide, but his eyes were cheerless.  “The person who had it died, and I’m the mess they left behind.”

I backed off, leaving him to it.

Damsel was using her blasts.  A lot of it was focused on fending off the attack from the Huntsmen, who were closing the gap.  The villains were closing their ranks, Hookline and Gibbet together, Trophy Wife and Backwoods joining them from one direction, while Torso faced off against Breakthrough at the other.

One of the Huntsmen had a flier power, a helmet with a cowl built in and a flame motif at the sides and was flying near outcroppings, provoking them by stabbing at them with a glass spear, then flying away.  The wall that was created was almost a barrier to the villains escaping.

Except for Damsel, who blasted at the nearest one.

“Idiots, imbeciles, incompetents!  We finally get a good thing going and you can’t do the most basic things!”

She blasted again.

That ugly feeling I’d felt free from in the clouds above was worse.

Hookline’s hook came around.  I tried to dodge it, or to catch it, and in that moment, the spell was broken.  Training working against me.  It was me acting, not the Wretch, and the Wretch in that moment wasn’t as smooth or focused.  The hook struck it, and I lost my forcefield.

Damsel used her power again, a continuous burst used as a shield as another net was thrown.

“No powers!” I shouted, top of my lungs.  I dropped out of the sky and onto a car, the impact punctuating my shout.  My throat felt tight from the cold and the recent high flying.

Damsel blasted again.

Not listening.

“Damsel!” Lookout shouted.

You were supposed to stay back.

Kenzie ran forward, into Torso, who was facing Capricorn and Rain, and pushed Torso out of her way, toppling him, to the extent he faceplanted.  He couldn’t get up on his own.  She hopped onto his back for the extra eight, then hollered, “Ashley!”

Ashley stopped, hesitating.  She flexed her claws, glaring, going very still.

In the midst of that stillness, again, I saw mannerisms that were more Swansong than Damsel.

Bleed.  Personality leakage.

Followed by anger.  Recognition of what was going on.

“Don’t,” Kenzie said.  “Can we talk?”

For an instant, I thought there might be compromise in that internal war.

Then she looked at the crowd.

Pride, I thought.  That’s a no.

“She already offered,” Damsel said, pointing a claw at me.  “I made my answer clear.”

I’m offering,” Kenzie tried.  “We got along, didn’t we?”

“You’re annoying me,” Damsel said.  “I destroy things that annoy me.”

I could see Kenzie absorb that, a twisting of a knife in an already tender wound.  She shrank into herself to the point she seemed an inch or two shorter, backing up until her back was resting against a car.

“We surrender,” I called out.

Damsel turned.

“We give up,” I said.  “You win.  Take your loot, leave.  Let people continue evacuating.”

“Don’t patronize me.”

“Take what you wanted.  Take your wounded if you care about them, leave them if you don’t and we’ll give them treatment.  I’ll argue to release them after.  All we want right now is peace.”

It was like all of the fight had gone out of me the instant I’d banished the Wretch.  I just felt that sadness again.

“Weak.”  She said the single word softly.

“You’re too strong, you’re too dangerous, it’s not worth it.”

“I wanted to talk,” Kenzie said.

“I want you to shut your mouth for once,” Damsel said.  “I can guess what you have to say or to ask and I don’t care, I don’t want to talk about it.”

Trophy Wife said something, approaching by a few steps, when Damsel twisted, looking like she might lash out, out of a purely defensive, paranoid place.

“-go,” was the last word Trophy Wife said, through the pounding in my ears.

I motioned to Tristan, who walked over to where Sidepiece was.  She’d broken free of the section of car roof, and now lay slumped against a car.  She took his hand without a fight, and wobbled as she made her way toward the rest of Damsel’s group.

Mockument was over there too, but it took Backwoods’s help to support him.

It didn’t look like Damsel believed us, and I didn’t fault her.  The Huntsmen only had three of their capes here.  The rest were making a more concerted effort to get people clear.  Technically, we were matched in number, or slightly ahead in numbers if we counted the members of Damsel’s team that had been knocked out or hurt.

But we were knocked out too.  We didn’t have our powers, or we had them and we weren’t willing or able to use them.

Lookout stepped off of Torso’s back, and Snow White worked with Rain and Tristan to help the guy up.  He fast-walked to catch up with his group.  They had to weave through the cars and the outcroppings of Backwoods’ power, using the gaps created by Damsel’s blasts earlier in the fight as a kind of path.

They left, Hookline and Gibbet grabbing two massive suitcases, including the one they’d dumped jewelry into.  Backwoods threw sticks behind him, littering the road.  If we gave chase, he’d turn this road into a thicket.

Sveta, off to the side, was the last to release the villains, letting go of Nailbiter.  She found her way to us.

“Doesn’t feel right,” Snow White said.

“Really doesn’t,” Sveta said.  “What was the reasoning?”

“It’s the old reasoning.  Years of cops and robbers distilled into moments,” I said.  “Isn’t it?”

“Mm,” Snow White made a sound.

“Lookout, can you do us a favor?  It’s okay if you can’t, but-”

“Give me something to do,” she said.

“Okay.  Trace what belongs where.  Whose cars were damaged.  We have funds, and money might not mean enough right now, but…”

“Money for the people who had stuff break.  Okay, I can look up license databases.”

“Do you need to go back for tech?” Rain asked.

Lookout shook her head, tapping her eyeball.

“How much brain-overheating tech did you jam into your eyes, Lookout?” Rain asked.

“Lots.  Enough.”

Sveta looked at me, the team mom worried about the team kid.

Yeah.  We had to talk about stuff, arrange stuff, get everything in order.  Kenzie was grieving, but…

“Can you track their group?” I asked.

“Yeah.  Are we following?”  There was interest in her eyes, but not hope.

I nodded.  “We need to get that loot back for the owners, if you could keep tabs on what’s from where?”

“Can do.”

“And I want to try talking again.  On their turf, away from this mess, away from the high-risk area, and without all these people watching.”

“Ashley isn’t as conscious of her standing if there isn’t a crowd,” Kenzie said.

“Hopefully not,” I said.

The Huntsmen were getting sorted out.  The flier with the glass spear pulled off her helmet, because she was sweating, and I recognized the hair and facial features.  Etna.  That would be who filled the Huntsmen in on ‘our’ villains from the stretch between the New York and Boston areas of the megalopolis.

“I don’t want problems,” she said.  “I moved way out to the woods on the end of the city to get away from everything else, and I still get dragged into it.”

I shook my head.  “We’re good.”

She gave me a wary look.

“Really.”

“Alright,” she said.

“Good showing,” I said.

She nodded, then walked over to her team.

“I saw Swansong in there,” Kenzie said.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“It sucks.  Because if she’s in there, then she can’t be out here.”

I nodded.

“I’d rather nothing at all and a bit of hope or pretending, than this.”

“Agreed,” I said.  “Yeah.  Absolutely.”

I pulled her into a one-armed hug.

“We were talking on our way over here,” Rain said.  “She once mentioned she had dreams.  She was studying them with the Wardens.  Might be relevant, before we try anything with…”

Sveta arched an eyebrow.  Tristan, at the same time, elbowed Rain, giving a look to the Huntsmen, who weren’t close by but were potentially close enough to hear.

We walked away from the others.  The civilians were starting to make their way back to cars.  Tristan bent down to pick up luggage, and Sveta did the same.

I was a little dizzy and fatigued, so I kept my work light, gathering things that had been knocked from luggage and boxes atop cars onto hoods and trunks, or the big things that had tumbled to the ground.

Further discussion was delayed as people approached Tristan with questions.  They left, others approached.

Then those people left.  Traffic began to crawl forward at its glacial pace, slower and more awkward because of the damage, the pulverized cars, and the spiky outcroppings of wood that had to be navigated around.

All accepted with resignation, or quiet glares in our direction.

“We’ll talk about it,” I said, when I was sure the coast was clear.  “After we talk to her.  Because this situation as it is is untenable.  If we’re going to have to take the high road again, I don’t want it to be because we’re accepting more losses.  We might as well take the highest road and decide things.”

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80 thoughts on “From Within – 16.4”

    1. Let’s now consider a Tattletale-Mockument combo for a brief instant, before banishing the thought.

  1. – Mockument ‘s power is more CREEPY than Nursery’s power. Nursery’s power creates monster babies, Mockument’s power literally play with human’s deepest fears, anxiety and trauma. This is more scary than all the baby monsters. More disturbing, he isn’t the original parahuman, but another copy.

    -Before I realized that it was his power, I thought Vic went crazy and started to imagine her Wretch as a separate mocking enemy. I was worried for her mental state.

    -I like Vic’s decision. If you can’t make the villains understand how stupid they’re then let them win so nobody will suffer anymore. Isn’t a shame to voluntary “lose” but a prudent thing to do.

    -Etna is a hero. Good, she redeemed herself.

    1. Huh I assumed Mockument was being metaphorical about the original him being dead, but I guess it could also be literal.

  2. Phew, I was worried Etna died or something.

    But. Mockument, holy crap that is a terrible power, no wonder he dehumanizes himself.

    Trophy Wife has an amazingly OP power, but what does she use it for? Wasteful.

    But Ashley? This was, all in all, pathetic. The original Damsel would have been ashamed of you. (Poor Kenzie)

    1. > Phew, I was worried Etna died or something.

      In chapter 13.9 Little Midas mentioned that Etna decided to become a heroine. Tattletale even mocked Victoria about hitting Etna so hard that she retired. After I read that I was 95% sure that Etna would be at least mentioned again in Ward, and 80% sure that we will actually see her again.

  3. I can imagine exactly how the original Mockument could have gotten himself killed. Use that power on someone who really takes offense, and then they kill you in revenge, or hire people to do so.

  4. Wretch: “Do it, Vicky. Kill them all.”

    Victoria: “Getting harder and harder not to listen to you.”

  5. I didn’t think Mockument could say anything to not be completely detestable and, well, he managed it. Saddest story in 27 words, poor guy.

    I mean, what do you think it says about Mockument I that his own mockery of himself is someone full of self-hate who still keeps on rotely tearing into people, following a twisted unfunny routine he doesn’t believe in with dead eyes? It gives me a really vivid idea of who he might have been, and how his life might have went.

    Sidepiece can fuck off though!

  6. Could Mockument have Scion’s version of Echidna’s shard? Their powers seem really similar.

    Man, in a chapter that focused so much on the wretch, the line “I’m the mess they left behind.” must have had quite an impact on Vicky.

    Vicky is willing to give her Shard more and more trust and freedom… I’m excited to see where this goes.

    (psst Vicky, “We might as well take the highest road and decide things.” sounds pretty tyrant-y)

    1. > Could Mockument have Scion’s version of Echidna’s shard? Their powers seem really similar.

      This was one of the possibilities I thought about when I read about “the mess left behind”. It would fit the fact that he said he hated his own power. Echidna clones hated pretty much everything about their originals after all… The other possibility was that the person who originally had Mockument’s power used it on himself, and then died.

      > Vicky is willing to give her Shard more and more trust and freedom… I’m excited to see where this goes.

      I read it more like “Vicky is trying to become one with her shard”, which would fit her shard’s desire to have one “label” to describe both of them. Either way seems like a dangerous path for Victoria to take.

      1. On a second thought this line:
        > Go, I communicated.
        seems to suggest that at least for now the way Victoria is still treating her shard like a separate being, so you may be closer to the mark here Zeckenschwarm – she is probably not trying to “become one with it”. At least not yet.

      2. @Zeckenschwarm

        Sorry, looks like I somehow managed to misread your comment about Mockument and Echidna. My other theory was that Mockument was actually an Echidna clone of someone, not that he had Scion’s equivalent of Echidna’s power. I must admit though, that in my opinion your theory is both plausible and interesting too.

    2. Or he’s a Cauldron cape who also got a Division vial, in which case he just straight-up has the same shard as Echidna.

  7. “It was like all of the fight had gone out of me the instant I’d banished the Wretch. I just felt that sadness again.”

    That sounds… suspiciously Breaker-y.

    1. It also feels like Wretchie found a way to use her emotion part to push Victoria through some motions for higher ‘synchro’. Maybe a remnant from Shin drugs. Mildly ominous.

      1. If it’s Shin drugs, then it would mean that Victoria was basically right to put herself under M/S protocol after her last heart-to-heart with Amy… even though she did it for somewhat wrong reasons.

  8. I forgot to mention, what the heck is up with Torso? Does he even have powers or is he just some random dude in way too heavy armor? xD
    And how did he hold Tristan and Rain at bay and then get defeated by friggin Kenzie pushing him over? xD

    1. Considering that his silhouette is so top-heavy, that his costume covers so much of his body (including his entire face), and that his buddy Mockument could be an Echidna clone, maybe Torso is yet another of these clones?

  9. Typo thread.

    trophy wrack > trophy rack

    > The rattle of it knocked Gibbet
    Extra space between ‘knocked’ and ‘Gibbet’.

    extra eight > extra height

    > “I’d rather nothing at all and a bit of hope or pretending, than this.”

    This sentence seems to be missing a verb. Shouldn’t it be something like “I’d rather have nothing at all and a bit of hope or pretending, than this.”?

    1. “the rest black and slim. with doodle-like”
      Extra spaces and punctuation.

      “pulling at my teammate’s arms,”
      >teammates’, considering several of them are targeted.

  10. Typos:

    “they hit a car hear the Huntsmen” – should be ‘near’.

    “Money for the people who had stuff break.” – should be ‘broken’.

  11. 1. “Those were the happiest days of my life”, “sister-sexual and a sister-romantic”? I wonder how much of what Mockument’s mockery of Victoria alluded to here actually took place during those three days Victoria can’t remember due to memory blocks. It could be the reason why Amy never let Vicky remember those days, couldn’t it?

    2. Just how strong the personality bleed from Swansong to Damsel really is? Could it be that Damsel was so angry and aggressive because it is so strong that she is afraid of losing her (sense of) self, and becoming too much like Swansong?

    3. I wonder if open mouths (and similar cavities) in Victoria’s forcefield are actually holes, or if when the mouths are opened, the forcefield simply “jumps” from covering just outside of the lips to covering an entire mouth cavity? It could be a critical weakness if it was the former case. I also wonder if the forcefield worked the same way before she was “wretched” or “restored” in GM’s aftermath? Could you completely bypass Glory Girl’s forcefield by throwing or shooting something into her open mouth?

    1. 2) Pretty sure that’s it. The Bonesaw-duped shard doesn’t differentiate between the two, so after Swansong died the backed-up data probably got accessible to her twin more often than when they’re dreaming (she’s the only one left linked to it, after all). She’s getting flooded with a couple years of character development in a direction she personally rejected, on top of the loss. Can’t even envision how that must feel.
      It might also be a sign of the ice getting thinner, and more bleed happens as it weakens due to shards not really caring to keep the game running for much longer.

      Forecast is gloomy with a large chance of blood and tears.

      1. Good point about the loss. I think it is obvious that part of Damsel’s anger is just a facade she tries to hide her pain of losing her sister behind. Someone should gently let her know just how thin this mask is, how easy it is to see through it. Do you think that Kenzie may be the right person to do it?

        1. Victoria defused that situation because Kenzie probably brings too much of Swansong to the surface, and Damsel may push back too strongly with disastrous consequences even with her finer power control.
          Right now it’s probably too early for both, putting them together sounds like a bad idea ™.

    2. @Alfaryn
      > 3. I wonder if open mouths (and similar cavities) in Victoria’s forcefield are actually holes
      > It could be a critical weakness

      Tattletale should have guessed it back in Worm and used it. I think mouth e.t.c have possibility to release things, but not always opened.

      P.S. Firefox 52 seems to allow proper replying to comments

      1. > Tattletale should have guessed it back in Worm and used it.

        Remember that Tattletale’s power does not give information that has to be 100% accurate or complete. The fact that it gave Tt one way to beat GG’s forcefield, doesn’t mean that it has to give all other ways. On top of it even if Tattletale knew about this weakness when Undersiders confronted Glory Girl in the bank back in arc 3, would she reveal any more GG’s weaknesses than necessary for the Undersiders to escape? To make make taking down Undersiders a higher priority target for PRT and the heroes?

          1. The way I see it either “taking down” or “target” would work, but not both.

            I may be wrong here of course, since even for a non-native speaker my English is obviously far from great.

          2. Since I know you like dissecting grammar like this, it’s the sort of “sounds right” grammar I’d use as a native English speaker- there’s probably formal name for it, but the adjective/noun ambiguity of “priority” lets you pick both options simultaneously to emphasize the meaning of the sentence.

  12. Mockument is so goddamn interesting I really wanna see more of him.
    His power, in context to the parahumans universe, is DEVESTATING.

  13. “I had to deal with it like I’d deal with any emotion power or secret-penetrating thinker power. If I melted down now or did something that impacted innumerable others, I’d just be doing what my sister did.

    And there was way, way more to that line of thought, and I was nowhere near being able to tackle it.”

    Go down that line of thought Victoria! Do it! What’s the worse that could happen?

  14. Typo:

    “Maybe it was how pure things were up here, now small the problems below were,…” now should be how.

  15. more typos

    used my forcefield on > kept my forcefield on
    Its good > It’s good
    now small > how small
    back to cars > back to their cars

  16. Do you think that the negotiations between Breakthrough and Deathchester could have an entirely different outcome if Disjoint was there? I don’t know about you, but I feel that out of all members of Damsel’s new group he may be best suited to act as a voice of reason. In fact maybe he will end up being just that in the next chapter, especially if Sidepiece had at least one of his ears with herself in this one?

  17. dude, mockuments power was brutal and i loved it. i also love victoria being possessed by her shard when she gets pissed/fucked up in the head enough

  18. I’m guessing the original mocku made better copies. I’m guessing the current Mockument is the mock of the original mocku. It was not a perfect copy, his power probably made copies of those with powers, close but not perfect. Powers not as strong, mentally unhinged and hate are the worst
    distilled from the original. They would be far better than the ones Mockument make.
    I’m guessing as well that the original copied himself, the copy then kills him. Noone banishes this copy, and it continues on, not as good as the original, and it’s power copies of are even further one step removed with regards to perfection. So let’s say this Mockument makes a copy of himself and dies, the new mocks copies are even further messed up.

  19. Is been a loooooong while since last time I was so furious on Victoria’s behalf. She took the flesh monster and mockery way better than I did, which talks great about her improvement. But seriously, fuck Ashley. Making fun of Victoria, knowing what it means to her, using sensitive knowledge on her to mock her, hurting Kenzie…seriously disgusting. I’ll take Chris over her any day thanks

  20. Trophy wife comes with a built in headhunter, doesn’t even have to save up exalted orbs for it. That, is straight up scary. Mockument is freaking terrifying on a fundamental level. All in all, nice team, Damsel, now please, could you do us a favor and stop fucking the fabric of reality up?

    Also, good to see sidepiece again, she makes me laugh.

    1. > Also, good to see sidepiece again, she makes me laugh.

      Actually it may have been a first time in quite a while when Sidepiece completely failed to even make me smile a bit. The way she laughed when someone else’s worst fears were brought to light seemed just… pathetic. Doubly pathetic, when you consider that those fears were closely tied to that person’s sexuality, and Sidepiece herself has some inner demons in that departament.

      Almost as pathetic as… a bunch of villains who risk interdimensional disaster with huge loss of life just to steal some luggage of people who have been turned into refugees for the second time in less than three years, and to have a brawl with some heroes while they’re at it. In this chapter Deathchester seemed just so small, so petty, so hollow. I can’t imagine that any of them (especially Ashley) can be content with themselves after they fell to this level.

      Even when Mockument created Sidepiece’s mockery it was just… sad.

      1. I would even say that Deathchester is practically a mockery of a “proper”, self-respecting villain team. So much that if you took an actual mockery of a person created with some power and made it one of them, that creation would fit among them perfectly. It may actually be the case if what no doubt many of us suspect about Mockument’s origin is true.

        Is this what a woman who calls herself Damsel of Distress envisioned as her kingdom?

        1. Perhaps Damsel created this “mockery”, because deep down she feels that she is a mockery of the original Damsel herself?

          1. A couple more things – if current Damsel feels that she is a poor imitation of original Ashley, why didn’t Swansong feel this way? Was it because she “reinvented” herself? Accepted medical help, got herself some actual friends, became a hero, even had her hands replaced with something original Ashley never had? Became a person very different from the original she remembered?

            And if this is what made a difference, then what the remaining Ashley can do to stop feeling like a half-baked copy of someone else? She can’t became some Swansong 2.0 – that would simply mean changing from being an imperfect copy of original Ashley, to being an imperfect copy of another imperfect copy… Hardly something she should try to become in my opinion. Maybe she should even become someone who is neither a hero nor a villain? But who else could she be?

          2. I think you’re hitting the heart of it: Remember that when Bonesaw created the clones, she did a lot of patchwork and guessing to try to approximate the memories the original had, and then the shard has helped fill in some of the gaps. Between the two, the personality of the Damsels that came out of those tanks really was a cartoon supervillain caricature of the original Ashley.

            Since then, where Swansong took huge strides beyond that starting template toward becoming a real person, Damsel has been trying to base her entire life off of a clip reel thrown together with the love bugs themesong playing in the background. She’s right to feel like a parody of the real thing, because that’s all she really is- and now the bleed through is forcing her to face that as she metaphorically covers her ears and sings “la-la-la”.

    2. Why would exalts be used to buy a HH in a world where shards are more powerful than mirrors ?
      (P.S. Sleeper is Krillson)

  21. It sounds brutal and very not “Ward-like” but I think its time to bring back guns. Those villains are literally risking hundreds of millions of deaths by using powers. And the heroes had to use powers to respond. Victoria (or honestly an aimbotted gun of Kenzie’s making) should have shot Damsel, no hesitation. You tell the villains after, “Look guys we get you are going to loot, you’re going to do what you do, and we are gonna try to stop you. BUT if you use your powers, we are going to kill you. If you don’t use powers, the game stays the same its always been.”

    It has to be about stopping the power breaking for now. Anything else is secondary, even if it is brutal.

    1. @The Denominator
      > if you use your powers, we are going to kill you
      If heroes start to kill villains with guns, villains will also start to use guns, kill heroes and, probably, their friends and relatives.

      > Victoria should have shot Damsel
      I think Breakthrough hoped Damsel will bleed-through into another Swansong almost completely.

      1. > I think Breakthrough hoped Damsel will bleed-through into another Swansong almost completely.

        I both don’t think so, and hope it is not the case. Breakthrough may have expected some bleed-through from Swansong, but “almost completely”? It would be both unrealistic to expect (because if blood-throughs between clones were so complete, how could Swansong and remaining Damsel turn out to be so different in the first place), and simply cruel to hope for an “almost complete” bleed-through (I think Damsel already struggles with awareness that she is a copy of original Ashley, and if she turned into a copy of a copy… I imagine it would be even worse.)

        Damsel is her own person, and I think everyone in Breakthrough is mature enough to both recognize and respect that.

      2. @ OverQuantum

        You are right that the villains likely would. But honestly, right now an all out war with guns would be massively preferable to any serious power usage in the city. If the villains with guns each shoot 10 people, that still kills a tiny fraction of the number of people who would die if the shards fracture reality in the city. The heuristic “guns are bad” is almost always correct, but right now gun violence is actually preferable.

        Its the only effective way I say of actually reducing the amount of powers being used by villains. You are essentially saying that any cape who unnecessarily and frivolously uses powers is immediately given a kill order. Its the same idea that you would give a kill order to any cape who was incredibly dangerous and rising millions or lives. Its just that now, instead of killing them with a super cool cannon-blade or an unstoppable forcefield, you kill them with a gun.

        1. I don’t think it is that simple. What if gunning down one group of villains provokes other villains who were cooperating with the heroes for now to change their minds, and start fighting back using all available means – from their own guns, to powers?

          Also don’t forget that currently the government is probably very unpopular. Issuing kill orders in such situation may simply cause an large scale rebellion of not only capes, but also civilians. Both anti-parahumans and foreign powers like Shin or Cheit (which as far as we know Teacher can’t stop from invading Gimel anymore) are probably waiting for a situation like this.

          1. Of course probably neither Shin nor Cheit governments are foolish or misinformed enough to attempt a full scale invasion of the city right now, but surgical strikes (possibly through whatever anti-parahuman radicals they control) to cripple current government of the city (at any level – from something as simple as police stations all the way to another attempt to kill Citrine herself) are very likely at the moment in my opinion. After all even if the city itself will be destroyed, at least some of its population is likely to survive due to the ongoing evacuation, and Shin, Cheit, and many of the anti-parahumans would probably be very pleased if this population was no longer controlled by a cape-lead government. Shin, Cheit, and the anti-parahumans native to these worlds would probably be happiest if after whatever disaster is about to happen in the city Gimel.US had no government to speak of at all.

          2. In other words – the government probably needs to avoid making situation even more tense and chaotic by escalating to using lethal force against the villains. Doing so would destroy whatever remains of its credibility among the population, increase chaos and panic, and provoke more of its enemies to act. It is probably much better to stick as much as possible to the game of cops and robbers while dealing with groups like Deathchester, and use thinker (including precog) guidance to ensure that such small-scale conflicts remain small-scale, and are solved with minimal use of powers – just like the heroes are doing at the moment.

  22. Victoria can now feel the damage to reality while flying as though it’s turbulence. Interesting. Presumably powers in general are going to become increasingly unstable as we approach the breaking point. Bad news for Sveta.

    1. Being able to “feel the damage to reality” may be the most important thinker-like ability a cape may have right now. I wonder how common it is among capes. Maybe it has something to do with how Victoria’s relationship with her shard evolved recently, especially when “a little door had opened”, and “didn’t close quite the right way again” after she learned about Swansong’s death?

    2. @Pizzasgood
      > Victoria can now feel the damage to reality while flying as though it’s turbulence.
      And she flew up to activate Wretch and aura outside damaged area?

      > Bad news for Sveta.
      Why? I think Sveta in her current form have more chances to survive than original.

  23. ““I hate it too,” he replied. He smiled wide, but his eyes were cheerless. “The person who had it died, and I’m the mess they left behind.””

    Congratulations Wildbow, that was some genuine fridge horror.
    That line is honestly more disturbing than Nursery and the living dismembered, combined.

  24. @Alfaryn, regarding Ashley and Deathchester: I’d say that this Ashley is actually a perfect continuation of the original one, as she was in Eclipse arc. The original one was just as petty and pathetic morally, and more pathetic physically because of power incontinence. It was quite a character growth for Swansong to distance from that as much as she did.

    And regarding guns, I support The Denominator. The reasons against that seem very strained, especially an argument about civilians rebelling to protect villains. The government is so unpopular that people offer more sympathy to criminals who overtly rob and kill them? If so, that would be already past the point when they’d rebel.

    1. > this Ashley is actually a perfect continuation of the original one, as she was in Eclipse arc.

      I don’t think so, even during Boston Games the original Ashley managed to find friendship and love (even though it turned out to be one-sided). I may be misinterpreting things here, but I feel that the current Ashley is completely alone even among Deathchester. Notice that except Ashley each of them had a partner, someone they kept close to. Damsel had it when she lived with Victoria and Swansong, and abandoned it…

      As for the government and the people, I think that if it used lethal force to keep villains in line right now, it would be seen as a sign of weakness. An admission that the government simply has no other way left to keep peace and order. Who would want to follow such government anymore? What better time would its enemies have to strike?

      1. Another thing – how many heroes would stop supporting Citrine if she decided to abandon the rules the game and use guns against some B-list villains who are ultimately just robbing people and causing some property damage, while avoiding doing any serious physical harm to people (much less killing them)?

        1. Remember that at this moment many (possibly most) of the heroes know about mayor’s past, and about the fact that she is currently working with the bogeyman herself. I imagine that it would be all to easy for some of the heroes to say “They don’t want to follow the rules of the game? Then to hell with these villains and their Cauldron ways!” while conveniently forgetting that the game was Cauldron member’s idea in the first place.

          Side note – how many people are even aware who came up with the game and the unwritten rules?

  25. > the original Ashley managed to find friendship and love (even though it turned out to be one-sided)

    I’d say even if it weren’t one-sided, it wouldn’t make a big difference along with her attitude to everything else, and one-sided certainly doesn’t count at all. I think the original Ashley would consider this one a success. After all, now she has underlings who are actual supervillains and not some delinquent kids, she is taken seriously, and her power is under control.

    > if it used lethal force to keep villains in line right now, it would be seen as a sign of weakness.

    Letting villains win and straight-up abandoning attempts to keep them in line is a far greater sign of weakness.
    An IRL equivalent would be martial law. And it’s fully justified here, given that the situation already could be equated to wartime, with the enemy being aliens. Dire measures for dire circumstances are preferable to hopelessly and obviously inadequate measures, and the government essentially abandoning many of its functions.

    > Who would want to follow such government anymore?

    People who understand just how dire the situation is. Also, people who don’t want to be shot. These two groups together would make up a pretty large part of the population.

    > What better time would its enemies have to strike?

    It’s already quite obviously the best time for the enemies to strike, if they think for some reason that the City isn’t yet fucked enough and they could achieve something by fucking it even more (which I find unlikely, but who knows).

    1. > I think the original Ashley would consider this one a success. After all, now she has underlings who are actual supervillains and not some delinquent kids, she is taken seriously, and her power is under control.

      I fail to see how going from underlings who are some “some delinquent kids” to “actual supervillains” is an upgrade when these supervillains display Sidepiece’s emotional maturity. I also don’t see how using a gang of powered individuals to grab a few random suitcases from evacuating civilians can make people treat you seriously. Sure, she did manage to provoke some heroes to oppose her, but even these heroes didn’t fight using all their powers, and at some point they just… let her go, even though they clearly had the upper hand. Probably not quite the “serious treatment” she envisioned. She will probably get some short term emotional gratification from the fact that she has technically won (her less intelligent and/or emotionally mature teammates most certainly will), but she is intelligent enough to realize just how little this victory means, that she just risked lives of millions to get what? A short adrenaline rush? Some random stolen goods? A chunk of territory in a place that may become ground zero of interdimensional disaster at any moment now? A “satisfaction” of showing a metaphorical middle finger to a bunch of heroes, some of whom are actually her friends, and are mourning her “sister’s” passing right now?

      I think that as soon as her combat-induced endorphin rush dies down, Damsel will be really dissatisfied with herself, especially once she gets a quiet moment away from her current teammates to gather her thoughts.

      Re. martial law, and people who would follow the government either because they understand just how dire the situation is, or because they don’t want to get shot.

      I tried to write in detail about it, but it it came out way too long. Suffice to say that many unpopular governments fell right after trying to introduce martial law, because the military that was supposed to enforce it either refused to follow orders or even actively turned against the governments in question. When the government is universally hated, it doesn’t matter if from objective point of view introduction of martial law is justified. All that matters is that both civilians and low ranking soldiers want the government gone, while high ranking soldiers either also hate the government, or simply want to cover their asses by supporting some new, more popular regime.

      And the entire Citrine’s term was one huge PR disaster. She hid her villainous past (and even the fact that she was a parahuman) from the voters, her term has been full of setbacks that she and the heroes failed to prevent (and it was their job to do so – if they failed to do it, then from average voter’s point of view they at the very least should accept political responsibility for it) – broken triggers, portal explosions, destruction of the parahuman prison, hero-villain war, Cheit embargo, Kronos incident… and now the government ordered the general evacuation in the middle of winter. Few people will want to support her after that. Even the heroes will likely leave her if she orders them to kill people as anything than an absolute last resort.

      By the way, I think that we may be seeing the last days of Gimel.US. Once the people will end up in the tent cities in the middle of winter, they will follow anyone who can provide them with food, fuel required to stay warm, medicine, and protection from their neighbors who will want to take these things from them (and considering how rushed and chaotic the evacuation is already, I suspect that there will be not enough of these things for everybody). Considering that Contessa said that option C guarantees less deaths in the short term than options A or B, I suspect that she may plan to evacuate most of the people to Earths which already have a large human population. Maybe Cheit and Shin, maybe Aleph (not impossible, but unlikely for multiple reasons), maybe some other mayor “refuge worlds” (maybe even Zayin, where Sleeper is supposed to be!) In any case people who end up in these worlds will likely have to accept the rule of governments already established there in exchange for the right to settle and for basic humanitarian aid they will almost certainly need to survive next few months.

      Citrine’s government may end up retaining control over the bunker, the Cauldron complex, some high-profile heroes (like the Wardens, Breakthrough, and other government-sponsored teams), and whoever else ends up settling there (possibly thousands, or even tens of thousands of people, but certainly not millions). Could this be the beginning of yet another incarnation of Cauldron which will try to use its control over portal technology, access to some of the most powerful capes, and the “well of power” to influence things on other Earths?

  26. > how many heroes would stop supporting Citrine if she decided to abandon the rules the game

    By now, all heroes are already aware that the games are over, and B-list villains who rob and do property damage using powers are now fully equivalent to terrorists with WMDs. If some heroes would leave despite that – well, okay, as long as they themselves don’t start to use powers wantonly. It’s not like they’d be much help anyway, insisting on playing games when the world is about 90% ending.

  27. @OverQuantum
    > And she flew up to activate Wretch and aura outside damaged area?

    Yeah.

    >> Bad news for Sveta.
    > Why? I think Sveta in her current form have more chances to survive than original.

    Because Sveta’s body requires shard-assistance to function. Back when Dauntless overtriggered at the end of 12.2 and Breakthrough’s powers were knocked offline, Sveta was described as going “utterly limp” even though other people could still move just fine (barring injury). So, that implies that she uses powers to animate her body rather than it being a self contained organism. If the damage to reality is a general thing that makes all powers manifest less smoothly, then as the effect escalates it might leave Sveta a jittery, uncoordinated mess. But maybe she’ll be fine; maybe it only affects certain kinds of powers or won’t actually become severe enough to hamper her.

  28. are the reply buttons broken for anyone else? ive tried on both chrome and firefox,cant directly comment/reply to a post on either >.<

    as someone else said above, "Swansong"'s looking pretty pathetic- a return to her template's classic screw-up form- no class, no style, no intelligence, just clawing over trash during an evacuation like a petty thug.

    1. From my experiments shortly after chapter 16.1 was posted.

      The reply buttons don’t work on:
      – Safari running on iOS,
      – Opera running on Android,
      – Firefox Quantum running on Windows 10.

      The reply buttons do work on:
      – Internet Explorer running on Windows 7,
      – Microsoft Edge running on Windows 10.

      Aside from that , both you and Earl of Purple reported that they also don’t work on Chrome. OverQuantum reported that they do work on Firefox 52 (which was an ESR version – maintained until September 2018).

      1. Anything using Gecko, such as the aforementioned FF52 (but also all its forks that didn’t jump engine to Quantum) works fine. Possibly a wordpress issue with some recent patch somewhere in the backend that tickles bleeding-edge js engines the wrong way.

        1. There are certainly plenty of things that seem to suggest that there is some activity “somewhere in the backend”:
          – recent posts on https://toybox.parahumans.net/
          – the fact that the comments sections for anything more than last three chapters are closed (until recently you could post comments in any chapter of Ward you wanted to. I actually did it from time to time if I spotted an unreported typo or a similar problem in an old chapter,
          – the fact that ever since the old comments sections were closed I had no problem with the site right after a new chapter was posted (and it has been a problem a couple of weeks ago),
          – a technical discussion between confusionsteephands and cfcommando in “From Within – 16.1 – Parahumans 2” thread on reddit regarding the current state of the site (though I’ll admit that a lot of it went over my head, so maybe you should have a look at it yourself?)

    1. Note that the Ashley clone in this episode went by the cape name of Damsel of Distress III.
      Swansong is the one who left us last arc.

  29. I love black humor. So when I realized what Mockument did, I giggled nervously at first and then I laughed when it started talking. But once it started going about Amy

    They mocked her worst vulnerabilities and she took it in stride.

    The whole chapter was sick.

    Sickeningly funny (Mocku-Wretch)

    Sickeningly interesting (Go“).

    Sickeningly sad (Damsel).

    If the average Ward chapter is great, this was certainly above average.

    And sickeningly ominous…

    “Threw in a few mistruths, like the ‘I’d go back’, if they’d fuck with the target’s head enough. Right?”

    Right…

    Fuck.

  30. Gotta say, if you’re talking about potential world-ending cataclysm because stupid villains just *won’t* stop using their powers where they might, y’know, tear a hole in reality…

    It might be time for someone who isn’t a parahuman but *is* good with a rifle to start headshotting the stupid motherfuckers.

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