Sentinel 9.6: Shell Game

Source material: Worm, Sentinel 9.6

Originally blogged: January 7, 2018


[pre-intro]

Before I get started on today’s chapter, here’s a thing that just occurred to me:

If this Arc ends with an Interlude, or there’s one mid-Arc, it’ll probably be from Taylor’s POV. I mean, we’re having an Arc where the chapters are like the Interludes we’ve had before, so why would that Arc not end with an Interlude that’s like what used to be the normal chapters?


Sentinel 9.6

hOI!!1

It’s the moment of truth… time to find out whether or not we’re getting a chapter from Sophia’s point of view. I think we are, especially because this chapter comes immediately after Sophia escaped from the last chapter. It’s a nice potential transition into following her instead, perhaps getting some answers to Vista’s questions as her words brew in Sophia’s head.

The main alternative I see is that this chapter follows Chariot, but that seems less likely. If we’re getting chapters from both his POV and Sophia’s, his’ll probably be the next one.

I don’t think there’s much else to say, so let’s go!


Shadow Stalker paused in her patrol when she arrived at the roof of the Hillside Mall, downtown.

Eyyy, here we go.

She’d hoped to run into some looters, had had some luck earlier in the week at this spot, but it seemed that police forces were stationed at the entrances, now.

Having trouble finding people to take out aggression on, are we?

Maybe that means you’ll just have to deal with it in a healthier way, for once.

Annoyed, she walked over to the corner of the roof, so the toes of her boots were just at the brink.

Someone, from below:No!! Don’t jump!!!

Shadow Stalker: “What?”

(#i’m sorry)


She got her smartphone and dialed Emma.

Oh, this could get interesting. What kinds of things do these two talk about when Taylor’s not around?

The phone automatically made the wireless connection to her earbud.

“Hey, superhero,” Emma answered.

Well, that’s a pretty damn solid confirmation of Taylor’s suspicions right there.

“How’s Portland?”

“Good food, good shopping, boring as hell. I wish I could come back, hang out.”

Pretty standard pleasantries so far. Fair enough.

“I wish you to come back, too,” Shadow Stalker admitted, “These morons are fucking pissing me off, and I’m not getting enough breaks from it. I don’t have the patience for this.”

I suppose Emma might to some extent function as the vent Vista tried to provide.


“Which morons? The Wards?”

“The Wards,” Shadow Stalker confirmed. She sat down on the ledge. “They’re children.”

Well yeah, kind of by definition. But that covers you too.

“Yeah,” Emma replied. She didn’t prod for more information or clarification. Shadow Stalker had gone over this before enough times, in one variation or another.

Honestly? I’m glad Sophia has Emma, in a way. I mean, of course it sucks for Taylor (because Emma’s a harpy herself, and clearly was already to some extent – I mean sure, people change, especially when prompted to by a new friend, but it takes some willingness to, even if that willingness is hidden beneath the surface), but it’s good that Sophia has someone to vent to when she needs it. We all need it from time to time.

…’course, that left Taylor without someone to vent to, but given what Emma has shown herself as willing to do with Taylor’s ventings, it might’ve been a good thing that she stopped venting to that particular person…

…though how can we know Emma wouldn’t be willing to do the same to Sophia if she were to get in with someone even cooler?

TL;DR we all need someone to vent to, fuck Emma, and I’m confused.


That didn’t stop her from returning to the subject, “Sure, some of them are older. Some have more time in the field than me. Maybe. But they’re still children, living in their comfortable, cozy little worlds. I dunno if you’ve seen what the city’s like now-”

Seriously, Sophia, you should read this Arc. Especially Clockblocker’s chapter.

“-I saw some on the news.” Emma interjected.

“Right. Damaged, destroyed, fucked up.

So Emma hasn’t been back to Brockton Bay since the Endbringer attack? I guess she was one of the early evacuees… if that’s true, that’s a pretty major development for Taylor, if she ever goes back to school.

I mean there’s still Sophia, Madison and their harplings, but while Sophia has found reasons of her own to hate Taylor, Emma really did seem to be the ringleader for the whole agenda against Taylor.

That said, it’s still possible that the whole thing stemmed from Sophia manipulating things so Emma would take a more negative view of her old bestie and thus stick to Sophia.

This is a place those kids visit, and they’re still convinced they can fix it.

Ah, I see, you’re a bit more pessimistic about all of this than the rest, and equating optimism with immaturity. Common fallacy, that.

I’ve lived with this all my life. Waded through this shit from the beginning. I know they’re deluding themselves.

…that’s an interesting comment. She’s definitely not talking literally about the Endbringer damage, unless she happens to be from somewhere else that got thrashed by Leviathan. So what exactly does she mean, then? What sort of childhood did she have?

So yeah, they’re immature, new to this, and I don’t know how long I can fucking put up with them.”

I’m not sure it’s what she’s talking about with “new to this”, but I wonder how long ago Sophia’s trigger event happened. Not to mention what it was.


“Two and a half more years, right?” Emma asked, “Then you’re off probation, free to do your thing.”

How much freedom does that actually give her, though? Would she get to go solo and back to the old ways that got her on probation in the first place? …probably not the last part, I suppose.

“God, don’t remind me. Makes me realize I’m not even halfway through it. I can’t believe it’s already been this long, constantly hearing them bitch about dating, or clothes, or allowances, and every time I hear it it’s like, I want to scream in their face, fuck you, you little shit, shut the fuck up. I’ve killed people, and then I washed the blood off my hands and went to school and acted normal the next day!”

Is that a thing to be proud of?


Silence hung on the line for a few long moments.

“I remember,” Emma spoke, a touch subdued.

Hm. It seems Emma isn’t quite as comfortable with this fact as Sophia seems to be.

Shadow Stalker chewed on her lower lip, watched a butch policewoman pull into the parking lot, then hand out coffees to the others on duty.

This seems to mirror what Sophia is talking about with the Wards – people with the duty to protect the city being concerned with more trivial things like coffee.

But yeah, Sophia should probably talk to Clockblocker more.

…on second thought, please don’t.

“If it weren’t for all the crying and the complaining, I would almost be glad Leviathan had attacked the city. Tear away that fucking ridiculous veneer that covers everything.

…I suppose she does have a point. This city was always shitty, it’s just more physical now.

Get rid of those fucking fake smiles and social niceties and daily routines that everyone hides behind.”

That said, these things can be important in order to cope with living in a city like that.


“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Shadow Stalker didn’t elaborate too much further on the subject. Leviathan had revealed the desperate, needy animal at the core of everyone in this city. He’d made things honest.

…fair. Cynical, but fair.

Most were victims, sheep huddling together for security in numbers, or rats hiding in the shadows, avoiding attention. Others were predators, going on the offensive, taking what they needed through violence or manipulation.

I guess she’s at least indirectly acknowledging that Taylor is a victim? Is it a good thing that she does that? I’m not so sure… it kinda sounds like she’s counting herself among the predators, and the victims as prey.

She didn’t care what category people fell into, so long as they didn’t get in her way, like Grue had a habit of doing.

How exactly does he get in your way, though?

Worse yet were those who seemed intent on irritating her by being lame and depressing, like Taylor or like Vista had been this past week.

Hey! First mention of Taylor by name in this Arc!

But yeah, if you could elaborate on what exactly your view of Taylor is and why you’re bullying her specifically, that would be appreciated.

They weren’t all bad. The victim personality did have a habit of pissing her off, but she could let them be so long as the person or people in question stayed out of sight and out of mind, accepting their place without fight or fanfare.

Yeah right. Taylor’s been trying to do that for ages. It’s only recently she’s been getting more assertive, and that coincided with her literally getting out of your way by not going to school anymore.

There were some ‘predators’, she could admit, that were even useful. Emma came to mind, the girl went a long way towards making life out of costume tolerable, and there was Director Piggot, who had kept her out of jail thus far, because she fit into the woman’s overarching agenda of PR and the illusion of a working system.

I mean, fair. It’s not like being a Ward seems to have improved things with Shadow Stalker the way it was supposed to.

Has it?

There was a need for that kind of person in society, someone willing to step on others to get to the top, do what was necessary, so they could keep the wheels spinning.

I guess.

Not all of them were so useful or tolerable, of course, but there were enough out there that she couldn’t say everyone with that kind of aggressive, manipulative psychology was a blight on society.

Sturgeon’s law as applied to social predators.

She could respect the Piggots and Emmas of the world, if only because they served as facilitators that allowed her to do what she did best, in costume and out, respectively.

Hmm. Emma functions as a facilitator? How? By providing you with a victim?


She was a ‘predator’, whether she was Shadow Stalker or Sophia. Few would deny that, even among her own teammates.

Naturally.

A convoy of trucks on the road below caught her attention. Each vehicle was painted dark, and two had the look of army vehicles, with gray-black mottled cloth or canvas covering the cargo or personnel at the rear. They had their headlights off to avoid drawing attention.

Hm. Coil?

There were two good possibilities for who they might be. The first was that it was a shipment of supplies. Food, water, first aid and tools, which would mean there was a small contingent of capes inside one of the trucks or in the immediate area. The second option was that it was Coil and his troops.

And the former doesn’t have quite as much reason to try to avoid drawing attention. Though there have been all those villain attacks on the supply vehicles.

Using vehicles reminiscent of those carrying supplies seems like a double-edged sword. On one hand, it might get you past the heroes, but it might also attract attacks from other villains.


She realized she was still holding the phone, and the noise of a television or music told her Emma was still on the other line. “Something’s going on. Going to see if it leads to anything interesting.”

Good luck, I suppose.

“Call back when you’re done, give me the recap.”

“Right.” She hung up.

Sounds good.

Leaping into the air, she entered her shadow state, every part of her body shifting gears in the span of a half-second. Her lungs automatically stopped taking in air and her heart stopped beating.

Usually not a good sign, that, but this isn’t usual for anyone but Sophia.

She was suddenly hyperaware of changes in the atmosphere, movements of air as it passed through her body. She had enough solidity for her body to seize the air molecules as they passed through her, and in this manner, each of her cells nourished itself.

Huh, neat.

It was strange, to feel so still. She lacked even the most basic processes and routines that normally kept the body going, things people rarely gave a second thought to. There was no near-silent roar of blood in her ears, no need to blink, no production of saliva in her mouth or movement of food and water in her gut. She just existed.

tfw you disassociate so hard your body stops being solid


But the movement of air through her body made her feel just as alive, more alive, in a very different way. The material and gravel of the rooftop were still warm from the day’s sunlight, even submerged beneath a thin layer of water from the rain. This rising, heated air from this surface offered her an almost imperceptible added buoyance.

Cool!

The rest of her ascent was carried out by the momentum from her leap and the fact that she was nearly weightless. Jumping fifteen feet in the air to a rooftop one story above her was almost effortless.

Not bad.

She turned solid long enough to land. Changing back brought a sudden, thunderous restarting of her heart, a shudder running through her entire body as her bloodstream jerked back into motion. It only lasted the briefest of moments as she bent her knees and threw herself forward. The moment her feet left the ground, she entered the shadow state once again, sailing across the rooftop.

It sounds like a jarring experience, but she’s been doing it long enough that she’s completely used to it.

I wonder how she reacted the first time it happened.

She used one wispy foot to push herself out further as she reached the roof’s edge, so she could glide just above one rooftop without even touching ground.

Pretty handy for getting around rooftops, this power. No wonder she was so much faster than Flechette.


In this fashion, she kept pace with the trucks, which weren’t moving slowly but weren’t going full-bore either, likely because of the condition of the roads.

Oh yeah, Brockton Bay roads aren’t exactly Formula 1 tracks these days.

It was five minutes before trouble arrived.

It was Menja that made the first move, stampeding out of a nearby alleyway, standing at a height of twenty feet tall. She drove her spear into the engine block of the lead truck, stepped in front of the vehicle and wrenched her weapon to tip the truck over and arrest its forward momentum.

Who knows whether Menja thinks this is a supply truck or a Coil vehicle. Either way, she has reason to attack it.

The truck immediately behind tried to stop, but the flooded pavement made it impossible to get enough traction. It skidded and collided into the back of the foremost truck.

Ouch.

Miss Militia was climbing up out of the lead truck’s passenger door in an instant, hefting a grenade launcher to blast Menja three times in quick succession.

Hiya! Supply vehicles it is, unless Hannah neglected to tell us something fairly important in her Interlude. 😛

The giantess stumbled back, raised her shield – her sister’s shield – to block a fourth shot.

I guess that’s her way of preserving her sister’s memory.

Fenja did die, right? She wasn’t just “down”, she was “deceased”…? *checks* Yeah, 8.4, first person to get both “down” and “deceased”.

Hookwolf, Stormtiger, and Cricket all joined the fray, followed by their foot soldiers. On the PRT’s side, the trucks emptied of PRT troops and one more cape, Assault.

Aaand it’s officially a brawl.

They mobilized to defend, and the noise of gunfire rang through the night air.

Here we go.


Shadow Stalker crouched at the corner of the roof, loaded her crossbow and fired a shot at Cricket. It passed a half-foot behind the woman.

If she realizes you’re shooting at her, you’ve pretty much lost your chance to hit.

Her second shot was on target, and Cricket dropped a few seconds later, tranquilized.

Nice work!

Good – The woman’s radar might find Shadow Stalker if she wasn’t in her shadow state, and Shadow Stalker could be far more effective if the enemy didn’t see where she was attacking from.

Especially this particular enemy.

Who else? Menja was classified as a breaker, the spatial-warping effect that surrounded her made incoming attacks smaller even as she simultaneously made herself bigger.

Called it [here]! Menja and her sister being breakers, I mean.

So the spatial warping makes the attacks objectively smaller, not just relative to Menja? She’s even bigger relative to incoming attacks than she is relative to her surroundings?

The darts wouldn’t even be noticeable to her. Stormtiger could deflect projectiles by sensing and adjusting air currents.

Hm, yeah, that’d be a problem.

And this leaves Hookwolf. He’s got fleshy bits sometimes, but how susceptible is his biology to tranquilizers?

With the right timing, so her shots came out of the shadow state as they arrived to make contact with him? Maybe.

That could work. Seems like a very Flechette tactic.

But he was engaged in a fist fight with Assault, and she’d be risking tagging the hero.

Ah. Yeah, we don’t want that.

Hookwolf? No point. He was currently in the shape of a gigantic wolf made of whirring metal blades. Even if the dart did penetrate something approximating flesh, which it wouldn’t, his entire biology was so different that she doubted he would be affected.

Figures.

Seems you’re out of targets, unless there’s someone hiding around here somewhere.


Instead, she settled for targeting the clusters of Hookwolf’s troops. ‘Fenrir’s Chosen’.

Oh right, the mundane foot soldiers. I kinda forgot they were there.

Each of the thugs had white face-paint extending from forehead to cheekbone to chin, in a crude approximation of a wolf’s face. She began dropping them at a steady rate, aiming for the biggest, the most aggressive and the ones who looked like they were in charge of lesser troops, the captains.

Sounds like good prioritization.

As the troops began falling, Hookwolf’s forces became unsettled, hesitating to advance.

Nice.

Hookwolf reared up on two legs, pointing and howling orders, likely demanding they attack. His words were incomprehensible from the rooftop where Shadow Stalker crouched, but the tone left no mistake that he was threatening them to drive them back into the fight.

Sounds like something he’d do, yeah.


The distraction afforded Miss Militia time to prepare and fire a mortar straight into Hookwolf’s chest.

Excellent.

As he collapsed backward, his chest cavity gaping open, her gun shimmered, split and transformed into a pair of assault rifles. She unloaded clip after clip into the enemy ranks; rubber bullets, most likely.

I’m rubber, you’re glue
You say ouch as I’m shot into you

The innate issues of the nonlethal ammunition were almost negligible in Miss Militia’s case. She could reform the gun in a second if a gun jammed.

Pretty handy!

Shadow Stalker watched a crowd of Hookwolf’s Chosen move to flank, moving along the sidewalk, where the crashed truck blocked the view of the PRT forces.

Sneaky little chosenses.

Shadow Stalker raised her crossbow, hesitated. She could jump down, take them down in close quarters combat. It had been her entire reason for going out, after having to deal with the irritation of Vista. She craved that catharsis.

I guess that confirms that the reason she’s doing this is to take out aggression. Not that that was very difficult to figure out, exactly.

She holstered her crossbow, prepared to dive into their midst, and then paused as she saw the Chosen stagger back, lashing out with their hands.

Hm? Did someone else show up?

This… kind of sounds like how someone might react to being attacked by insects that are too far away for the observer (Sophia) to see. Is Taylor around?

One shouted something, which was odd given how they had been trying to be stealthy only a moment ago.

Hm, yeah, something’s definitely up and I think that something might carry the name Skitter.


What?

Then another figure stepped out of the alleyway closest to them. A girl, skinny, but not in the attractive way you saw in magazines. Spindly. Was that the right word?

Like a spider! 😀

Wait, is that word actually associated with spiders in English too? In Norwegian, one of the words for a spider’s web is spindelvev – essentially “spindle weave”.

Hm, looks like “spindle” is at least associated with threads made from fibers.

The girl was hard to make out in the gloom – there were no lights on the street, and the only light was what filtered from the moon and through the rain clouds.

I wonder if she’s in costume right now. If she isn’t, she’s made a bit of a mistake in not hiding better before using her power.

But yeah, Taylor’s costume is well suited for camouflage in the dark.

The girl glanced left, around the back of the truck, then glanced right, where she might have seen Shadow Stalker if she looked up just a little.

Probably the last person Taylor would like to see right now.

The lenses of her mask caught the moonlight, flashing a pale yellow.

Yep, costume confirmed. It was getting a little hard to defend Sophia not recognizing an uncostumed Taylor, even with the latter being “hard to make out in the gloom”.

Good to see you, Taylor. 🙂


Skitter.

😀

D:

shit, as far as Sophia knows, Skitter’s a villain, fuck


On the other hand, Sophia probably knows that Skitter is aware of her secret identity, which could be a problem for Sophia.


A feral smile spread across Shadow Stalker’s face, beneath her mask.

Fuck. Skitter is not only a villain in Sophia’s eyes, she’s a villain whom Sophia has personal beef with (re: identity mishaps) and who, last Sophia heard, was on the same team as Grue.

Shadow Stalker resisted the urge to jump down, watched as the shadow of the bug girl’s swarm moved over the Chosen, almost obscuring them from view. The bug girl drew her combat stick, whipped it out to full length, and dispatched the Chosen one by one.

Woo, go Taylor!

So what does Sophia think Skitter’s motivations for going against the Chosen are? That she wants the resources for herself and the Undersiders?

Shadow Stalker couldn’t see the hits, between the darkness and the obscuring mass of the swarm, but she saw the splashes and movements of the Chosen as they fell to the ground, clutching their faces, knees, and hands.

Nice work! 😀


Incidentally, Taylor showing up now makes me believe it’s less likely that we’re getting a Chariot chapter, simply because it makes a lot of sense to pull things back to Taylor at the end of the Arc. Which also is part of why I figured we might get a Chariot chapter in the first place – if he is working for Taylor, that reveal would make for a pretty good transition into finding out what her plan is all about.


Some of the bugs flowed out to pass over the PRT forces and the Chosen.

Wait, what is she doing now? Is she attacking the PRT too, or is this saying that the bugs are going past the battle and to the other side?

The thugs started recoiling and slapping at themselves, but Shadow Stalker couldn’t see much reaction from the PRT forces.

Ah, okay.

They were made of sterner stuff, in a way, and their uniforms covered them thoroughly enough that the bugs wouldn’t do nearly as much damage, if they were even attacking.

Yeah, and that’s a big if there.

Skitter emerged from the center mass of the swarm, carrying a bag of supplies from the truck. It was green canvas, large, not dissimilar to a gym bag.

Wait, she is raiding supplies too? Huh.

I guess the PRT wouldn’t willingly provide those resources to Skitter and/or the Undersiders, and it’s tricky to get them even as civilians…

Pulling the strap over one shoulder, she briskly retreated back into the alley, the bugs trailing after her like the tail of a slow moving comet, or the steady trail of smoke from a candle.

I guess you could consider that one bag of supplies her payment for helping to stop the Chosen from taking everything.

It’s worth noting here that Skitter seemed to be working alone. Does that mean she isn’t working with the Undersiders, or just that they didn’t think she needed backup?


“Hungry, are you?” Shadow Stalker murmured to herself. She shifted into her shadow state, moved along the rooftop to follow the girl.

Welp.

Time for round two.

Shadow Stalker was almost entirely silent in this state, virtually impossible to see, especially in this light, unless someone was actively looking for her.

I suppose if she keeps following Skitter rather than confronting her, she could find out some important information.

She was a gray shadow against a background of black and shades of gray.

How many shades?

(#fifty perhaps?)


You saw my face. Shadow Stalker thought, Records say you’ve got no team, now.

Oh.

I guess they’ve been updated since 9.1, then.

Operating alone between the old Boardwalk and the east end of Downtown.

That would be around where Danny’s house is, wouldn’t it? Did she move back in, or just stay in the area?

She leaped to the next rooftop, and the movement carried her a little ahead of her target, helped by the fact that the bug girl was moving a little slower with her burden. Shadow Stalker paused and reached up beneath her cloak and between her shoulder blades. She withdrew a cartridge for her crossbow, each bolt loaded in at a slight angle, so the aluminum ‘feathers’ at the tail of each bolt stuck out.

I know you’re out for catharsis and all, but you’d probably be better off following her all the way back to whatever acts as her base these days. Although I suppose if you tranquilize her now, you could just bring her in… if she really doesn’t have a team, then finding the base doesn’t matter as much.

She popped out one bolt to examine it, then turned it around so the barbed, razor sharp arrowhead caught the moonlight. As Skitter passed beneath her, she turned the bolt’s point so her perspective made it appear to be at the girl’s throat.

…I said “tranquilize”.


Operating solo means there’s nobody to miss you.

Fuck you.

She entered her shadow state and moved further along the rooftop, only to feel a group of flying insects pass through her body. A fraction of a second later, Skitter was running, abandoning the bag, disappearing around a corner, not even turning to look Shadow Stalker’s way.

Oh, good, she got detected. Run, Taylor, run!

“You want to run? I don’t mind a bit of a chase,” Shadow Stalker smiled behind her mask, loading the cartridge into her right-hand crossbow.

…well. At least she’s getting some catharsis?? Might not stay cathartic if/when she fails to catch Skitter, though.

She leaped after the girl, gliding down to street level, rebounding off a wall to turn the corner and give pursuit.

Skitter had turned around, was waiting as she rounded the corner. The bug girl sent a mass of insects out to attack.

Round two – FIGHT!


The bugs passed through Shadow Stalker’s body, slowing her momentum.

That’s something, at least.

She suspected that if there were enough of them, they could even carry her aloft, push her back. But there weren’t – the swarm wasn’t quite big enough.

Hm, unfortunate.

As the stream of insects passed through her, reoriented in preparation to flow through her again, she pounced.

The residual bugs threw her off, slowing down her power. Her body had to push them out of the space it wanted to occupy, delayed the change back to her normal self by a half-second.

Hopefully that’s a useful half-second to Taylor.

Her hand passed through Skitter’s throat, but she caught her balance, drew her rearmost foot up and back in a half-spin. Her heel collided with Skitter’s mask.

Ouch.

Skitter went down, and Shadow Stalker turned her crossbow on her fallen opponent. She was about to fire when the combat stick lashed out.

You do know it’s called a baton, right?

I guess we do know from before that Sophia isn’t that good with words.

She lifted the crossbow up just in time – had she been a second slower, the stick might have broken her weapon.

She’s consistently calling it a (combat) stick – this is the third instance. I don’t think she knows/remembers what it’s called after all.

Acutely aware of the bugs clustering on her, she dropped into her shadow state before they could crawl beneath her mask.

It’s kind of like with Velocity – in one state, she’s limited in what she can do offensively in return for increased mobility, but in the other, she’s vulnerable.


The stick passed through her head, once. She resisted the urge to snap back to her normal form and retaliate. The girl was powerless here.

As long as you’re staying wispy, I suppose.

Shadow Stalker could afford to hound her, drive her to the brink of desperation, wear her down.

Oh, you’ve already done that more than you know.

The bug girl switched to a one-handed grip on her baton, flying insects clustering around her to mask her movements as she backed away a step. She used her free hand to push the wet hair out of her face. Then she adjusted her costume, reaching to tug her shoulderpad forward a bit, then reached behind her back to do much the same with the armor there.

I suppose as long as Sophia’s wispy, it’s a bit of a stalemate, to some extent, though Sophia does have an advantage in that she can still use her crossbow while wispy, and that she’s somewhat solid.

Might as well use that almost-stalemate to adjust one’s outfit.

But… behind her back happens to be where Taylor keeps her gadgets. What is she about to pull out? Would pepper spray do anything against a wispy Stalker? I mean, she’s solid enough for the air to enter her cells, so I suppose it might.


“You really want to fight me?” Shadow Stalker asked her opponent, a note of incredulity in her voice. She raised her right crossbow. The one with the lethal ammunition.

I’m… not sure. On one hand, Taylor knows exactly who she’s dealing with. On the other hand, Taylor knows exactly who she’s dealing with.

Skitter didn’t reply.

Whatever else Shadow Stalker might think of the bug girl, how the girl was creepy, a freak, she had to admit Skitter had demonstrated enough viciousness to date that she could almost respect the girl as a fellow predator.

Oh fuck.

Man, if Taylor heard this…

But… I can kind of see it. She may only be vicious in certain circumstances, but she has been doing her share of manipulation and sometimes violence for her own goals.

Just look at what she did to Clockblocker, for one thing. That was violence intended to further her own goals of manipulating the Undersiders.

I think Taylor’s civilian self falls in the victim camp almost all the time (though she’s been getting out of that role a bit lately), but Skitter leans somewhat towards predator.

An idiot, for wanting to fight her, but kindred, in a fashion. “Alright, fine.”

Doesn’t mean she’d be happy to hear that Shadow Stalker approves.


Skitter gripped her weapon two-handed again. The grip was strange. Something in her left hand?

Hm. I guess she did pull something from her back, but what? Seems too small to be the pepper spray, unless pepper spray bottles are smaller than I’m aware of.

Shadow Stalker realized what it was. She simultaneously moved back, gripped her cloak with her left hand and shifted to her solid state to raise the fabric as a barrier. The pepper spray spattered her cloak.

I guess it was the latter!

I suppose it makes sense for pepper spray bottles to be designed to be easily concealed.

When she was sure the spray had dissipated, she threw her cloak back over one shoulder and shifted to her shadow state to escape the bugs that were crawling on her, taking advantage of her solidity.

Nice. Got more of those bottles, Taylor?

She lunged after Skitter, who was running, already turning a corner at the other side of the alley.

Ah, right, getting away is a better plan.


Good runner, but I’m faster.

Shadow Stalker didn’t need to slosh through the water, but she knew she would be faster than the other girl even if she did.

She wasn’t on the track and field team for nothing.

It wasn’t just her shadow state eliminating wind resistance, or the lightness of her body. She was a trained runner.

Yep.

She bounded from one wall of the alley to the one opposite, staying above the water, pursuing her target.

Skitter was going up the steps of a fire escape. Shadow Stalker aimed and fired a bolt – the girl ducked, and the shot clipped a railing instead.

Skitter and fire escapes have a poor relation from before, but it looks like she’s giving them a second chance.

Good reflexes. Shadow Stalker brushed away at the bugs massing around her. Or do your bugs help you watch what I’m doing? Disturbing little freak.

Little bit of both, I think.


Apparently deciding the fire escape wasn’t a great option,

They have failed her again.

Skitter climbed over the railing and leaped a half-story down to the pavement, putting a chain link fence and some accumulated trash bags between herself and Shadow Stalker.

Skitter: “None may enter my fortress of garbage!”

Moron. I can walk through that fence. She loaded her crossbow, aimed, and fired through the fence at the girl.

Ah, right. Good point.

A flash and spray of sparks erupted as the shot made contact with the fence. Skitter stumbled as the bolt hit her, but Shadow Stalker couldn’t see if it had done any damage.

Electric fence… Can you still walk through that?

No, what concerned her was the flash. She ignored the fact that Skitter was disappearing, entered her solid state and touched the side of her mask.

Lenses snapped into place, showing a blurry image of the alley in shades of dark green and black. The chain link fence, however, was lit up in a very light gray.

Tinkertech scanners, I suppose.

Similarly glowing, a wire was stapled to the brick of the building next to the fence, leading to a large, pale blob inside the building. A generator.

Yep. This thing’s electric. If you want to go through it, you might have to disable that wire.

Probably faster to just leap over it.


The fence was electrified.

Shadow Stalker snarled at what had almost been a grave mistake, entered her shadow state and leaped up and over the fence, being careful not to touch it.

Yeah, I suppose that could’ve gotten nasty. I wonder if Taylor was planning for it?

One of the reasons she couldn’t move through walls at will, beyond the huge break in her forward momentum and the excruciating pain that came with stalling in the midst of a wall, was wiring. She remained just as vulnerable, maybe even more vulnerable, to electrocution.

Interesting.

The people in the PRT labs couldn’t tell her if she could be killed by electrocution – traditional organs were barely present in her shadow state – but it was one of those things that couldn’t be properly tested without risking killing the subject.

“Yes, miss Stalker, it appears you can be killed by electrocution. …miss Stalker?”

End result? She had to be careful where she went, had received tinker-made lenses to help her spot such threats.

Ah, so they’re specifically for detecting electricity, not other things. Fair enough.

If Taylor’s paying attention (which she almost always is), she might’ve noticed Sophia’s hesitation and decision to jump the fence rather than walk through it. If she’s figured out Sophia’s weakness now, that might help her find a way out of this situation.


Skitter had known the fence was electrified, judging by the route she’d taken through the fire escape. The area here didn’t have any power, so the question was whether it something this area’s inhabitants had set up to protect themselves… or was it a trap Skitter had put in place well in advance? No. More likely the girl had studied this area before carrying out any crimes.

That would be typical of her, yeah.

Still, it troubled her that the girl had thought to use the fence like she had. She really didn’t like the idea that the villain had not only seen her face, but that she might have figured out one of her weaknesses.

Or, if she hadn’t, and just needed to get past there for some other reason, that she just did.

Two, if she counted the pepper spray. Being permeable was a problem when she absorbed gases, vapors and aerosols directly into her body.

Ah, yeah, that’s a problem. Presumably makes her particularly susceptible to toxic gasses and such too.

It wouldn’t affect her if she was in her shadow state, and it would eventually filter out, but if she were forced to change back, she’d suffer as badly as anyone, if not worse.

I see. I suppose ending up with pepper spray inside every part of your body would be rather… uncomfortable.


Shadow Stalker caught up to the girl yet again, saw Skitter running with her swarm clustered tightly around her. Was the girl wanting to make herself a harder target?

Makes total sense to.

Hardly mattered – Shadow Stalker loaded and fired another bolt.

At the same instant the bolt fired, the swarm parted in two. Two swarm-wreathed figures covered in bugs, each turning at a right angle to round a corner.

Ghost technique go!

The bolt sailed between them. One was a decoy, just a swarm in a vaguely human shape.

Yes, but which one?

She checked the sides of the alley and the recessed doors. Could they both be decoys? She couldn’t see any obvious hiding spots that Skitter could have used at a moment’s notice.

Good thinking, even if it’s wrong.

[Order of the Stick comic snippet]

Haley: A con man doesn’t choose to play the shell game with you if there is any possibility of him actually losing.
Haley: The con isn’t in getting you to pick the wrong shell. The con is in getting you to accept that the basic premise of the game is still being followed.
Haley: The con is in getting you to pick a shell at all.


Shadow Stalker closed the distance, placing herself at the intersection between the two bug-shrouded figures. Holding each crossbow out in an opposite direction, she fired at both targets at once, snapping her attention from one to the next in an attempt to see which reacted to the hit.

Huh, nice. Choosing all the shells at once is one way to find the prize, if it is actually there.

That said, Taylor could still have both shells react, regardless of whether she’s under one of them.

One slowed, began to topple. She lunged after, in pursuit, loaded her crossbow and fired two more shots into the center mass of Skitter’s body while airborne, then kicked downward with both feet as she landed, to shove the girl into the ground.

Except Taylor is clever and would know that you’d attack the one that reacted most visibly…

Her body weight dissolved the blurry silhouette into a mess of bugs. A trick.

Gotcha!

Snarling, Shadow Stalker wheeled around, ran in the direction the other half of the swarm had gone Had the girl’s armor taken the bolt? Had the crossbow shot missed?

Both are quite possible.


More bugs were flowing from the area to join the swarm, bolstering its number enough for it to split again. She wasn’t close enough to be sure of a hit, and she didn’t want to waste her good arrows, so she delayed, leaped forward to close the gap.

If there’s enough bugs in the area, she could potentially keep doing this until she finds a hiding spot to pull a proper shell game con from while Shadow Stalker’s getting too frustrated to consider it anymore.

I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen, but it might work in theory.

The swarm split once more, making for four vaguely human figures in total, each cloaked in a cloud of flying insects.

Oh damn, more shells this time. Nice!

Shadow Stalker snarled a curse word.

One figure turned on the spot, moved as if to slide past Shadow Stalker. She lashed out, striking it in the throat, failed to hit anything solid.

Yeah, if you knew Taylor better, you wouldn’t even bother with that one. Although in that case she might anticipate that and make that the real one… “I know you know I know” can get pretty complicated sometimes, and suddenly nobody knows anything.


She loaded her crossbows, fired at the figure on the far left and the far right of the trio. No reaction. She dove after the remaining one.

Hm. But is that one real? Maybe she did pull the stunt I described after all?

She made contact, drove the bug girl’s face down into the water. She shifted into her shadow state, straddling Skitter.

Ah, looks like she found the right one.

The girl turned over of her own volition – easy enough, as Shadow Stalker was barely solid, but when Skitter tried to stand, Shadow Stalker resumed her normal form for a second – just long enough to force the girl back down.

Well, shit. What now, Skitter?

Picking one of her non-tranquilizer bolts from the cartridge, she held the point of the ammunition to Skitter’s throat like a knife, “Game over, you little freak.”

It might seem like it, but is it?

I’m not sure, because Taylor is a lot more resourceful than I am.


Skitter cocked her head a little, as if analyzing Shadow Stalker from a different perspective.

She hasn’t seen how Sophia acts while alone in costume before, nor has she (to my knowledge) gotten to see Sophia in action, in costume, while she knew it was her.

I feel like this moment is Skitter thinking about the fact that this is Sophia, a supposed hero, catching Skitter, a supposed villain.

“What are you looking at?” Shadow Stalker spat the word, “Nothing to say? No last words? No begging? No fucking apologies?”

Skitter went limp, letting her head rest against the ground, the water lapping over most of her mask. Dark curls fanned out in the water around her, swaying as the water rippled.

Uh.

Taylor?


“Guess I don’t need to worry about the villain who saw my face, now.” Shadow Stalker went solid and drew the razor-sharp tip of her bolt across Skitter’s throat.

The fabric didn’t cut.

uh… right, spider silk, really tough stuff.

Skitter struggled to get free, but Shadow Stalker’s body weight was too much for her to slide free. She gripped the girl’s wrists with her hands, pinned them to the ground.

Oh good, seems she’s conscious.

“Irritating,” she spat the word. She could always go into her shadow state, stick the arrow inside the girl and then return to normal. The problem with going that route was that it left a very characteristic imprint in the victim.

Hm, yeah, I suppose it’d be easy to identify the murderer.

She would need a way of covering up the evidence. Something she could hit Skitter with afterward that would make the wound too messy to analyze for evidence.

And I’m very deliberately using that word. It’s what she is. She’s a murderer.


While she craned her head to one side to the next to search for something useful, her surroundings were plunged into darkness.

FUCK

YES


It took her only a moment to realize what that meant. She climbed off Skitter, moved to run. The darkness was oppressive, sluggish in moving through her, unlike ordinary air. She was slower, wasn’t taking in enough oxygen.

So that’s why his power messes with hers. It displaces the air, makes it hard for her to breathe in shadow form.

Against her will, her power instinctively adjusted, shifted her into a middle ground between her regular self and her shadow state. It left her slower, heavier.

Oh jeez.

…that might explain why she had some trouble getting out of the containment foam at the gallery, besides the properties of the foam itself. Her body hadn’t adjusted back yet.

She baited me.

She sure did!

A massive shape tore through her, dissipated her entire body.

And there’s Angelina, too! Unless Rachel’s been training more of her doggos…

She pulled back together, but it was hard, painful and uncomfortable on an unspecific, fundamental level. It left her breathing hard, feeling like she’d just put her body through five hours of the hardest exercise of her life. Enervating, was that the right word?

I think Enervation, or something like that, is a spell in Hearthstone that gives you extra energy, but I don’t know what it actually means.

*looks it up* Drained of energy. Hm, you’d think that spell would drain energy from the opponent, then… *looks up the spell* Ah, it was Innervate, not Enervation.

Bugs were gathering inside and around her body, making it a little harder and a little more time-consuming to pull together.

I wonder if that has something to do with the Manton effect, à la how Vista’s power is hindered by the presence of people in the area she’s manipulating.


Then, before she had succeeded in pulling herself all the way together, it happened again, another large form striking from another direction, passing through her lower body.

Another large form or the same large form coming back? You sound sure about it being the former, I suppose.

She sagged. Gasped out in pain as another shape passed through her head and shoulders. The darkness absorbed her cry so it barely reached her own ears.

Get fucked, Sophia.

It was only seconds later that the darkness dissipated. She was on her hands and knees, barely had the strength to move, let alone fight. She tried to raise her right crossbow, but her hand seized up, no longer under her own control as it bent to a pain like a bad Charlie horse.

A pain, or an impulse?

Yeeah, you just lost. Game over, harpy.

Her fingers curled back, and the crossbow tumbled from her fingers. She still had one in her left hand, but she was using the heel of that hand to prop herself up.

If you try to use it, I have a feeling that one’s gonna tumble out too.


So was all of this planned? Did Tattletale Know that Shadow Stalker would be in the area to help protect the load, and the team quickly plan out a way to lure her away? I mean, it would make sense for Taylor’s plan to set things right to involve her confronting some of the things she perceives as wrong, such as Shadow Stalker getting to be a Ward.


Her opponents were revealed as the shadows passed, arranged in a rough ring around her. Hellhound and her dogs took up half the clearing, in front of Shadow Stalker.

That’s Bitch to you, pal.

She held a metal ring in each hand, with two chains extending out from each ring. The chains, in turn, were connected to harnesses around the heads and snouts of the ‘dogs’, each animal only a little smaller than a refrigerator.

Four dogs, then? Nice. I feel like they, besides Angelica, might be some of the dogs we met before, in 7.2 and 7.3. I should probably reread those sometime soon.

They were monstrous, with scaly, horned exteriors and exposed muscle. Not as big or ugly as they could get, Shadow Stalker knew. The smallest one was barking incessantly. Three of the four were pulling on the chains, hungry to get at Shadow Stalker, clearly intent on tearing her apart.

The fourth one being Angelica, who’s had more training than the rest. I wonder if she still pulls on the leash on walkies.

Hellhound’s sharp pulls on the chains contracted the bindings around their snouts, which made them stop before they could get too close.

In other words, you really shouldn’t try to take out Bitch right now.


Grue stood to her left, arms folded, almost indistinguishable from the darkness behind him. After her first humiliating loss to him, she’d made it a mission to drive him out of this city. He’d stubbornly refused.

He’s not a guy that gives in to pressure easily.

So that’s why you hate him so much. He beat you, so you try to kill him or drive him out…

[Order of the Stick comic snippet]

Haley: Wow… so can you guys believe [spoiler] flipped out like that??
Elan: Yup.
Durkon: Sadly, aye.
Vaarsuvius: I find it to be entirely in keeping with what I know of her.

Haley: No, no, I meant, did you expect her to flip out in that exact manner?
Elan: Oh! No, not at all.
Durkon: Nay.
Vaarsuvius: I find it to be entirely in keeping with what I know of her.

.

A girl Shadow Stalker didn’t recognize stood just behind him, wearing a black scarf and a pale gray mask with pointed horns arching over the top of her head.

Oooh, interesting. Did we get a new Undersider while I wasn’t looking?

The eyes of the mask had lenses that were black from corner to corner, stylized to look fierce, more animal than human.

I like this design.


Rounding out the group were Tattletale, Regent and Skitter. Tattletale smiled, her hands clasped behind her back, while Regent twirled his scepter in his fingers. Skitter stood between the two of them.

😀

It’s so good to see the gang all together again.

The bug girl bent, then crouched until she was almost at eye level with Shadow Stalker.

A laugh escaped Shadow Stalker’s lips, building until she couldn’t balance her upper body on her weakened arm.

Shush, stop ruining Skitter’s moment.

She bent so one shoulder hit the ground, rolled onto her back, arms at her sides. She looked up at Skitter, “All that drama, all that fucking nonsense about allegiances, betraying your team, was it a trick, some joke?”

Well… no, but there is such a thing as forgiveness. You should try it sometime.

Skitter shook her head slowly.

Shadow Stalker tried to rise, but the growling of one of the dogs intensified. It was the only one that wasn’t pulling on its chain – the largest and most monstrous of the four, with one empty eye socket.

Good to see you too, Angelica 🙂

Between the threat of the dog and the lack of strength in the arm that Regent wasn’t fucking up, Shadow Stalker gave up and let herself slump down.

Game over.


“Well,” she spoke, her tone sarcastic, “How wonderfully fucking nice for you, that you guys patched things up. You even have a new member, congratulations. I guess everything’s back to normal for you freaks.”

I’m not sure about that, though, if Taylor’s decision from 8.8 is any indication.

“No…” Skitter spoke, and the bugs around her chirped, buzzed and droned to match the pitch and tone of her words. The villain hadn’t done that when the Undersiders attacked the fundraiser, she remembered. Her voice was quiet, which only made it more eerie. The girl held out her hand, and Regent passed his scepter to her.

Oh damn, that’s a really cool effect. Seems Taylor has picked up some more tricks from Grue since last time.

“…Things are different now,” Skitter finished.

Skitter drove the scepter into Shadow Stalker’s body.

It’s Skitter’s turn to get some catharsis.

It was everything Shadow Stalker could do to stay solid as she felt the tines of the crowned stick biting through the fabric of her costume and into her stomach. She resisted the instincts that two and a half years of exercising her powers had lent her, because she knew what came next. It’ll be worse if I’m in my shadow state, maybe lethal.

Oh right, the scepter is a taser!


Being tased didn’t hurt as much as she’d expected. It was like being doused in ice water, her entire body seizing, straining, and refusing to cooperate, the pain almost secondary. What hurt most was the way she involuntarily clenched of her jaw. The strength with which her teeth pressed together made her worry she might crack a tooth.

Ow.

It only lasted a moment, but her body wasn’t any more cooperative after the current subsided. She lay there, huffing small breaths, every limb unresponsive. A deep, furious rage grew inside her chest, but she was impotent to do anything to release it.

Yeah, no catharsis for you this time.

A pair of hands seized her, sat her up. Her arm dangled limp to her side.

Grue spoke from behind her. “Skitter, lift her legs. Regent, support her midsection. Imp? Give me a hand with her upper body, take the other shoulder. We lift on three, alright?”

“Right,” someone said.

Imp, huh. Nice name, kinda simple but gets the point through. Her power might be something sort of mischievious?

“One, two, three!”

Time to go!


End of Sentinel 9.6

They’re back, bichesss!

This was a pretty good chapter. Shadow Stalker is even worse than I thought. She’s straight up a serial murderer, even while in the Wards.

The Undersiders, on the other hand, are great and I am very pleased to see them again. And we’ve got a mysterious new one, named Imp… I’m looking forward to getting to know her.

We’re definitely not in for a Chariot chapter now. At this point, we’re almost certainly either continuing with Shadow Stalker or moving to Taylor or Imp as the POV character, possibly getting into Interlude territory now that we’ve gone through all the Wards.

I don’t know exactly what the Undersiders plan to do with their new captive, but I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be pleasant for one miss Sophia Hess.

See you next time!

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