Plague 12.4: Multi Track Drifting

Source material: Worm, Plague 12.4

Originally blogged: May 11, 2018


Prague 12.4

Ahoj všichni a vraťte se do další kapitoly Worm!

*ahem*

Hello, everybody, and welcome back to another chapter of Worm!

So – last chapter, the Undersiders and Travelers discussed strategy and board games, but their temporary conclusion that they should attempt to capture and control one of the Nine through indirect confrontation seems to have been rendered irrelevant for now by the fact that half the enemy team appeared at the figurative doorstep of the meeting. Whoops!

I believe the Slaughterhouse Nine are done simply talking. It’s time for testing to begin, and the Undersiders have two of the nominees in their ranks (though they only know about one of them for now). Tellingly, the two members who picked those nominees are among the four who showed up.

The Undersiders – specifically Tattletale – almost found out about Bitch’s betrayal at the end of the last chapter. Tattletale might actually have, but immediately gotten distracted by what came after that: “Bitch’s new dog is a wolf > she got the wolf from Siberian > Siberian is here > so are three other Slaughterhouse members > shit oh fuck”. But regardless of whether she did, there’s a decent chance something the Slaughterhouse members say or do in this chapter will tip the Undertravelers off on this front, leading to internal conflict after this immediate situation has been dealt with (if it goes well enough).

Some of the foes in this situation are quite powerful, especially Siberian. Unless the Undertravelers are quite lucky and the Slaughterhouse members do just want to talk, they’re in quite a bit of trouble, but at least they’re together. Well, except for Trickster, who is downstairs and doesn’t know what’s happening yet, and Genesis, who is recovering at Coil’s base. They’ve got numbers on their side, if nothing else.

But there’s also a middle ground: I suspect there’s more to testing than just plain fighting, at least with some of the testers. What sort of trials might Jack, Siberian, Bonesaw and Cherish have come up with for Regent and Bitch? I don’t really know (Cherish might have something about letting go of your emotional attachments to people outside the team?), but I’m interested to find out.

So without further dawdling:

Shit. Oh fuck. Let’s go.


“This is not an exit.  Kudos for the reference,” Tattletale said.

Pfft!

Sharks told me she was holding back some asks until I’d read one line of this chapter – I’m guessing they were about “This is not an exit” being a reference to something. Can’t say I recognize it, but I still appreciate this.

And hey, this line doubles as a little bit of self-congratulation and as lampshading. And perhaps a bit of character development for Jack, if the reference was intentional.

“I try,” Jack replied.  He didn’t say anything more, looking us over.  I felt a chill as his eyes stopped on me before moving on to Regent and the Travelers.

Apparently it was. I’m looking forward to seeing those asks and finding out what the refrance. 🙂

You know how I can be with references myself, so seeing this makes me like Jack a little bit more than I already did.


Shit, shit, shit, shit.  What options did we have?  Running?  Siberian was bound to be faster than the dogs, and none of them were big.  We’d be dead before Bitch got them to grow.

Yeah, and you’d have to convince Bitch to run.

That was even without considering Jack’s ability to cut us down from where he stood.

That’s oddly comforting, honestly. If he wanted to, he could’ve killed them all already, with the way they’re standing mostly at the same height. At least as long as his blade could cut through their costumes, which might be a problem for him re: Skitter. But there’s a difference between cutting a costume with a knife and slicing at it with what is effectively a greatsword (or even way bigger – it’s not clear to me exactly how far away Jack is right now).

By the way, did any of the Undertravelers put their masks back on before going up here? I don’t remember that being mentioned.

Fight?  Again, Siberian was the biggest problem.  She could take all of us on and win.  I suspected the only people who could really go toe to toe with her would be Scion, Eidolon and the Endbringers, and even then, I wasn’t sure if they would really be able to stop her.

Jeez, her power is so wasted. Imagine the good she could do in an Endbringer situation, but here she is, instead showing up after an Endbringer situation just to make things worse.

Seriously, I’d peg her as more likely to actually be able to kill an Endbringer than even Scion, and even if she couldn’t, she’d make a massive difference.

At best, Scion and Eidolon would survive and keep her from killing any civilians.  The Endbringers would hold their own, but civilians obviously wouldn’t be a concern.

Yeeah, Leviathan versus evil!Siberian would be a mess, and the other two Endbringers probably wouldn’t make things better.


Could we escape under a cover of my bugs and Grue’s darkness?  I didn’t think Siberian would be able to see us, and if we surprised them, ran back the way we came-

Wouldn’t work, Cherish would track you.

“What’s this?” Cherish asked, cutting off my train of thought. “Someone thinks she’s had a clever idea.  A bit of hope and inspiration there.”

Heh, wow.

“Who?” Jack asked.

“When I looked at her with my power, before, I called her the Worm.

Relatable. :p

She spent some time being as low on the food chain as you can get while still being able to move under her own power.  As low as someone can get while still having an identity of their own.

…that’s not really fair, is it?

Hm. Alright, she’s not super high up, but she’s still got people lower than her in the villain power structure. Both literal subordinates and people who are just worse villains, like Über and Leet.

But she’s realized she’s poisonous, dangerous in her own unique way.  She’s useful, like a silkworm we harvest or an earthworm who works our gardens.  She’s even realized she’s not alone, so long as she looks for friends among other dirty… contemptible creatures.

I wonder what Cherish would think if she’d read everything we have. For one thing, the friends are a big part of what brought her into this.

Or maybe that’s what she’s saying. Maybe this analogy stretches back a bit further, to when she first became a villain, realizing she had the power to do things and that she was not as lonely when among the villains.

Speaking of which, I forgot to say hi, little brother.”

“Fuck you, Cherie.”

Are we sure Burnscar is the one with the fire powers? Because Cherish is inflicting burns left and right.


Cherish smiled and stared at me, “The little worm found a nugget of self-worth, she just doesn’t want to look too closely at what that nugget is made of.

This does sounds about right, honestly.

If she’s lucky, she’s one of the worms without eyes.  They might be keenly aware of their environment, but they’re happier blind.”

Are there worms with eyes?

I mean, actual worms, not snakes.

Anyway, I quite like this whole analogy. It seems to provide another reason why this story is called Worm, one that reaches way deeper than just “the final boss is a worm monster”.

Of course, being the Worm means Skitter should really watch out for Shatterbird and the Simurgh.


“Poetic,” Jack said.  “I take it Skitter is this clever worm?”

“Yup.”

Naturally.

“Skitter.” Jack looked at me.  “You do anything and Siberian attacks.  I’ll attack as well.  Whatever it is you’re thinking of trying, I’m betting the two of us can cut you down before it works.”

Way to cut that potential issue off at the root.

Does “cut you down” count as a pun, coming from Jack? I mean, Jack would literally cut her down, but that doesn’t seem to be Siberian’s M.O., and he’s including her in the statement.

Honestly, I’d love it if he kept making subtle blade/edge puns.

I swallowed, then took a small breath to clear my throat and ensure I wouldn’t stammer or come out sounding even slightly unclear.  “Alright.”

So it seems like the Slaughterhouse members aren’t immediately looking for a fight. At least not with the non-nominees.


Bad plan anyways.  If we did try to escape under the cover of darkness, Siberian would probably reach us and cut at least some of us down before we got anywhere, even attacking indiscriminately.

True. More so with Cherish pointing out their locations in the darkness.

The darkness blocks a fair few things, but I doubt it blocks emotions. Even if Cherish’s brain does process the emotions as “sound”.

“The same goes for the rest of you, but I’m sure you know that.  One or two of you could kill me right now, I’m sure, but you’d die horribly for your trouble, and I doubt any of you are that suicidal.”

Well.

If anyone else had said this, they’d be almost certainly right. I do think Jack is right, but what I don’t think he knows yet is that whoever did it would be a martyr postponing the apocalypse by a somewhat significant number of years.

Did he know about the role he was going to play in the end of the world?  It might change his stance and self-assuredness.

He might be less sure about this particular statement, but I’m pretty sure he’d love it if he found out.

Jack looked at Cherish and she gave him a small nod.  He turned a winning smile towards us.  “How are our potential recruits doing?”

Plural. The truth is coming out.


Recruits?  Plural?  Was he including Noelle?  No.  He would know she wasn’t anywhere near here, thanks to Cherish.

Yep. And I think Crawler would be here if they thought she was.

Bonesaw piped up, “I wanted to say hi and meet the people who might be joining the family.  Jack said that if I’m ready, I can tell you what my test is.  Except I haven’t decided.”

That’s adorable.

“Oh?” Jack looked at her, “I didn’t know you had any ideas yet.”

“I haven’t decided,” she told him, sounding annoyed at having to repeat herself.  “The test might be about challenging them, but I’m challenging myself too.  I don’t want to be boring, so I’m making myself come up with something original each time.”

Well, this confirms there’s more to it than fighting. And I really like Bonesaw’s attitude towards it. 🙂


“How admirable,” Jack said.

“And it has to be fair.  What I have in mind isn’t fair, and I’m worried it’s too similar to the test I gave Burnscar.  I need this to be fair.”

Burnscar is the best.

“Why does it have to be fair?” Cherish asked, “Unfair world, unfair test.”

“Because I like them both!  What better way to add to our family than to have two real siblings on the team?  They would fight all the time but they’d really love each other deep down.”

I don’t think you’ve quite grasped the relationship between Cherish and Regent, dear.

But that’s just the reason she likes the idea of Regent joining. Is she going to elaborate on Bitch too?

“Ha,” Regent made it more of a word than an actual laugh, “You really don’t know the Vasil family, munchkin.”

Pfft.

Looks like Alec and I are in tune right now. Different words, but the same meaning and structure, right down to the use of a term of endearment at the end. :p

“And the dog girl!  I love dogs!  I’ve seen the pictures of them and they’re beautiful.”

Aaand there we go. Realization among the Undertravelers in 3… 2… 1…


I felt a chill.  All at once, Bitch’s presence behind me felt ominous.  She’d been picked by the Nine, and even when asked, she hadn’t said a thing about it.  Why?  And who had picked her?  The members of the Nine we hadn’t been able to nail down candidates for were Jack, Bonesaw and Siberian.

And Burnscar, though you’ve figured out which team she visited.

As for why she hadn’t said anything… she’s Bitch. Seriously, I’d suspect she might stay quiet about it even if she hadn’t been the only willing nominee.

Siberian, I saw, was staring at Bitch.  When I turned to look at Bitch out of the corner of my eye, I saw her staring right back at Siberian, unflinching, holding the sleeping puppy in her arms.

It comes together.

“If I don’t make it fair then it’s like I’m picking one over the other and I don’t want to do that,” Bonesaw said.

Ahh, that makes sense. Even if there wasn’t just one slot to fill, she’d have reason to keep it fair.

“You’re a smart girl.  You’ll work it out.”  Jack turned to our group, where we waited in tense silence.  “A lot going on tonight.  All these meetings, and we didn’t get an invitation.  Almost enough to hurt our feelings.”

Hehe. Sorry about that, pal.


“Can you blame us?” Tattletale gave him a shrug.  “We were talking about how to kill you guys.”

“That’s a topic that heavily concerns us, don’t you think?”

I wasn’t the only member of our group to look at her in horror.

Ahaha! Did they think the Slaughterhouse members – or Jack, at least – weren’t aware of that?

Jack laughed.  A little too hard for whatever it was he’d found funny about her statement.  “Of course, I already knew you were plotting against us, and you knew I knew.”

Let’s not go down that particular verbal cliché any further. :p

But hey, I suppose they did just compare Jack’s whole team to a chess set last chapter. There’s no game more heavily connected to that trope.

“Sure.”

“Here is what you need to know, Regent, Bitch.  Each of the Nine’s members get to put our recruits up to a test.  Some of us always give the same test, time after time, no matter the candidate.  Mannequin always asks candidates to alter themselves in a way that costs them something.

*80’s game show music plays somewhere in the background*

Siberian waits until half the candidates have been discarded and then hunts the remainder.”

I suppose that’s efficient.

“I hope she doesn’t catch you,” Bonesaw sounded disturbingly earnest as she spoke, “There’s no meat left for me to work with after she’s done.”

Nom nom nom.


“As for me,” Jack said, “I tend to go last, when all the others have offered their tests and only one or two are left.  I like to mix things up, and unlike our dear Bonesaw, I have no interest in playing fair.”

With one or two left, he can put more effort into messing with them.

“And if we fail?” Regent asked, “We die?”

Probably.

“No, no,” Jack smiled.  “Nobody passes every test, and the punishment for failing a test is up to the individual who assigned it.

Ahh. That’s good. Gives them a fighting chance, even if it’s a faint one.

I… doubt you’ll want to fail Bonesaw’s test.

Sometimes death, yes.  Sometimes something different.  But it’s always worse.”

…I’m not sure it’s good anymore.


“What did my sister do for her tests?” Regent asked.

Ooh, good question. If they answer, it might give some insight both into the nature of the tests and into Cherish.

“Hey!” Bonesaw raised her voice, stabbing a finger in his direction, “No cheating!”

Fair enough.

Bonesaw wasn’t the only one he’d irritated.  Cherish glared at him.

“Not cheating,” Regent said.  “Call it idle curiosity.  My sister got me in this mess, I figure it would be nice to hear what she had to go through.  You don’t even have to spoil the answers, I can agree not to copy anything she did.”

I am curious about this too.

Jack laughed, “Ah, adding to the challenge?  Fair.  She killed Hatchet Face.  Crawler took that as his test completed in advance, didn’t think of her as worth his time.

I guess his test might be something like killing a strong parahuman.

Little Bonesaw, for her test, designed a parasite that would stay in her system for forty-eight hours and strip her of her powers for as long as it remained.”

Hm. That’s… actually quite a dangerous thing. If she can make this parasite reproduce, she can introduce it into a city’s ecosystem, and before anyone knows what’s happening the city will need to call in help from outside if they want to fight back against the Slaughterhouse using powers.


“Because it’s not fair that Hatchet Face didn’t get to give his test.  And I wanted to break her out of her rut, so I made it so the parasite’s effects would be permanent if she didn’t drink lots of blood.”

Oh jeez.

And holy fuck, she could make it permanent too, which just makes my point from the previous post even stronger. If she could make this parasite viral and prevent it from infecting the Slaughterhouse Nine, Bonesaw could permanently take away almost all powered opposition they might find in a city, or even a larger area.

“Of course,” Jack tapped the heel of his hand against his forehead, “That was an interesting little twist.  Of course, you didn’t tell her how much she needed to drink, or if a certain species counted…  Well.  It broke her stride, didn’t it?  Siberian went after her, starting on day two of Bonesaw’s parasitic infection.  Three days and three nights of cat and mouse.

Sounds intense even before Siberian got involved.

To her credit, she did very well.  It came down to a hair.  Another ten minutes and Siberian might have caught her a third time.”

A third time? So there’s like a three-strike system in place, to make it even remotely fair?

Or did she fail that test?

A dark look passed over Cherish’s face.

Yeeah, the first two times were probably not pleasant, and then there’s Bonesaw’s comment about no remaining meat.


“Shatterbird likes the psychological tests, and she was in a hell of a mood after Cherish nominated herself for the team.  Our Cherie didn’t have five minutes to rest before Shatterbird drove her into a room and sealed her in.  No food, no light, barely any water.  The room was empty, but for one glass shard.  Always edging towards her, ready to prick, cut, slice and stab the second she stopped, the moment she tried to rest.”

Damn. Extended solitude and boredom on its own is heavy on the psyche, but with that constantly theatening glass shard on top of it? That’d be harsh even if it didn’t actively prevent her from even stopping her movement, let alone sleeping. How long was she in there?

I shivered.  Jack hadn’t said how long that lasted, but after three days and three nights without sleep, even a few hours like that would have been nightmarish.

Fuck yes it would.

There was a clue there, too.  Credit to Regent for getting Jack to let it slip. Shatterbird had more offensive range than Cherish, if she was able to trap the girl and use the shard without getting affected in retaliation.

Oh yeah!

Though that’s not saying much considering Shatterbird’s range apparently extends to just about the entire city of Brockton Bay.

It wasn’t much, but it was a tidbit of information, a piece for the puzzle.

“Burnscar’s test, she failed.  Afraid I’m not spoiling that one.  Doesn’t have the same impact if you know it’s coming.

I have a hunch: it involves fire.

Possibly having the building you’re in set fire to, though I’m not sure why or how Cherish would fail that. Maybe something that involves you being on fire?

That left only two tests for her to pass.  Go on.  Show them.”

Jack and Mannequin… Mannequin’s got the bodily sacrifice thing. What did she do?

Cherish glared at Jack.

“Show them,” he said.  There weren’t any hints of a threat or any anger in his tone, but she obeyed anyways.  She turned her back to us, grabbed the bottom of her shirt and pulled it off.

hot

“Mannequin demands that a candidate changes themselves, and that it be hard.  Having just faced the punishment Burnscar gave for failing her test, Cherish wasn’t about to pay his.”

The tattoo stretched from beneath the waist of her low-rise jeans and up the length of her back.

Ahh, nice. It counts as a change and it’s not easy to endure (especially at this size, where it would’ve taken a long time), but it doesn’t make a major biological difference or take things out of her afterwards, and it might even look cool. Good choice, Cherish.

The centerpiece was a large festering heart, done as realistically as any tattoo I’d ever seen.  It was all in shades of green, covered with ulcers, sores, patches of rot and live maggots.  The surrounding tattoos gave the appearance of torn skin revealing the bone and organs beneath, rats and roaches lurking behind ribs and atop her kidneys.  Framing the entire thing were words, not done in any elaborate script, but in scrawled letters that looked like they’d been carved into a surface with knives: epithets and invectives.

…I guess she didn’t choose the design herself.


I feel like Alec’s going to be mocking her tattoo. If not now, then at some point. Off-screen if Wildbow didn’t write it.


“She told the artists to make it so ugly she’d want to kill them.  If she didn’t, she promised to kill their loved ones and then kill them.  Took six artists in total.  Inspired.”

“If you don’t make me want to kill you, I’m gonna kill you. And your little dog too.”

Well, I suppose she decided to make it hard on her vanity.

Cherish looked over one tattooed shoulder to fix Jack with a stare.  It was then that I noticed two things.  The first became clear as her skin stretched.  There was depth to the tattoos that you didn’t get with a two-dimensional image.

Ooh.

Her skin had been scarred and flensed to raise edges and give the images and words a permanence that simple ink wouldn’t have.

…oh. They actually have been carved into her.

The second thing I noticed was her eyes.  It was like a light had gone out inside her, just standing there with that tattoo exposed.

Aw. Cheer up, buddy…

“That was the hard one for you, wasn’t it?” Jack smiled.  “Even as tired, scared, hurt and desperate as you were after the other five tests, it was when you willingly defaced that young, unblemished body of yours that a little something inside of you broke, and you began thinking of yourself as one of us.  Liminality.”

Fitting that it should happen with the most permanent physical mark of the tests.


I wonder if Amy has the power to remove tattoos. Manipulate the biology of someone with one to squeeze the ink out, or something.


“What was your test, Jack?” Regent asked.  I couldn’t tell if he was glad to know his sister suffered or sad for her.

Who knows if he’s even feeling anything about it. But yeah, I suspect it’s closer to the former.

Also, it’s beginning to sink in how casual this conversation is, for who’s in it. Imagine Trickster, downstairs, not knowing this is happening.

After the whole thing is over, the rest of the Undertravelers go back down, and they’re like “Oh yeah, we were just talking to some Slaughterhouse members upstairs. So what did Genesis have to say about the villain meeting?”

“Oh, I knew it would be almost impossible to top Mannequin’s test.  He caught her at the exact right moment, struck the right nerve, and pushed her to her very limits.  Still, I think I managed to top it.  Turn around, Cherish.”

Oh boy, more bodily harm?

Like an automaton, she did.  More tattoos and scars covered her chest, just as expansive, just as unpleasant to look at.  Two nude women, their entwined limbs like the broken legs of a squashed bug, neither attractive in the slightest.  One was emaciated, the other morbidly obese, and both were old.  More tattoos of rotting and torn flesh framed the scene, and the words forming the border of the tattoos on the front were the opposite of the others, almost worse in their irony and desperation: ‘Take Me’.  ‘Please Desire Me’.  ‘Want Me’, and more vulgar variations of the same.

So this is just more of Mannequin’s, right? I don’t imagine Jack would copy his test, let alone do so and then say he “topped it”.

“I made her do the other six tests all over again.”

Oh.

Oh damn.

Yeah, he topped it alright.


“I even brought back Hatchet Face for Crawler’s test again!” Bonesaw grinned.  “No surprise attack that time.  That was one of the three tests she failed in round two, I was so proud of him!”

Huh. So she was able to bring Hatchet Face back on his own, and then added Oni Lee later to create Hack Job. (We know all of this happened before the Nine came to Brockton Bay, and only then did Oni Lee get involved.)

Seeing Cherish’s shoulders draw together, her expression darken as memories came to mind, the ugly tattoos that guaranteed she would never be able to leave this behind and get a completely fresh start, never have a boy look at her body and just be hungry for her… I had to look away.

(Or a girl, for that matter.)

I knew she was the worst sort of person, I just didn’t know how much of that came before the tests.

Well, I guess Alec’s the one to ask about that.

“Well, sis,” Regent said, “I thought you were running headlong into a fate worse than death.  I stand corrected.  You’re already there, and you did it to yourself.”

She really did. It’s not even like six out of the seven nominees here in Brockton Bay, who just got nominated against their will. Hell, not even like the seventh, who also got nominated against her will, but accepted it. No, Cherish actively made herself a nominee, and this is the result.


She pulled on her shirt and snarled, “This is the part where I’d threaten to kill you, except they are going to do it so much better than I ever could.”

I guess she’s upfront about why she nominated Alec. No “oh sure, he’d be good for the team, just test him as hard as you fucking can and you’ll see!”

“Can’t do it yourself?” Tattletale cut in.  “Why do you have to rely on them?”

Cherish’s eyes narrowed.  “You’re trying something.  I feel smugness from you, too much confidence for where you’re standing.”

That’s just Tattletale in a nutshell, don’t worry about it.

But yes, of course she’s trying something.

Jack smiled and caught the hairs of his beard between his thumb and index finger.  “Oh?  I’m still interested to hear your answer to her question.”

Thank you, Jack!

“Fuck that.  You’re getting predictable, old man.  You want to keep things amusing for yourself, you know you’re as smart as anyone else in the room, so you take the hard road so it won’t be too easy.  Why not have Siberian eat her?  Can’t you imagine the looks on her friend’s faces when they can’t do a thing to save her?

Well, that confirms it. There is a cannibal on the team, even if I was wrong about Jack taking Oni Lee to them.

Unless of course “eat” is just their term for something weird Siberian’s power can do that doesn’t leave any meat left, but I don’t think that’s the case.

I bet it’d light a fire under their asses, rev them up for the tests.  Maybe they’ll even throw themselves headlong into it, to spare the rest.”

revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night

Also if anyone’s going to light a fire under their asses, it’s probably Burnscar. 😉

(#yes i know what the phrase means #i’m kidding)


“Now who’s trying something?” Tattletale asked.  “She’s trying to manipulate you.”

Interesting that Cherish would do that via words. Can Jack tell if she’s using the power on him on any significant scale?

I suppose that guy Cherish commandeered to be her driver did resist the changes.

Jack frowned and yanked out the hairs of his beard he was holding.  He flicked them away, “I know she’s trying to manipulate me.”

“Okay, except I just noticed something else, as I finished that last sentence.  Do you know she’s playing a long con?  She’s setting you guys up, using her power to pull your strings and make you attached to her.

But yeah, this is why I said “significant scale”. She does this on a lower scale which is further evidence that if she does it on a bigger scale, they’ll notice.

Half a year to a year, she’ll probably have you wrapped around her little finger,” a slow smile spread across Tattletale’s face.

At least that’s what she’s planning.


I could see Cherish’s expression change from anger and irritation to wide-eyed horror.

Welcome to Brockton Bay, Cherish. Your secrets are not safe here.

And now three of your intended victims have heard one of them.

Better play up their disbelief, if you can do that without them noticing.

Jack pinched the bridge of his nose, looking down, and I could just barely hear him mutter the word, “Disappointing.”

“Ugh… Seriously, that’s all you had?”

“It was probably her plan from the start,” Tattletale said.  “She-”

All at once, Tattletale stopped talking, and I was blind.

Uh

What’s happening

There’s no one in the immediate vicinity who could have just triggered, so it’s probably not another Dandelion vision.

Is it Trickster, coming up the stairs and teleporting Skitter to safety? Except that would be unsafe for everyone else if Trickster didn’t act very quickly.

In that same instant, something slapped against the fabric of my mask.  Wet.

Oh, alright, so she was wearing the mask. Good.

Wet, you say? Hmm…

That could be literally anything in Brockton Bay. :p

I could taste it against the fabric of my mask.  Salty-sweet, with a faint metallic taste.

That doesn’t sound very good.

Could Taylor have passed out or something, and is now getting slapped awake with a wet, metallic glove? I don’t know, this seems a bit too abrupt for that, both in passing out and in waking up.


“You fucking bastard!” Grue shouted, his voice distorted by his power.

…oh. No sound, no vision. Then distorted sound (heard through bugs on top of the usual distortion). Of course that would be Grue’s darkness. But what about the wet metallic thing? Did someone just attack Taylor?

Probably not Jack – for all my jokes about nothing in this city being dry, I doubt the extended cutting edge of his blades can be “wet”, or have a taste.

It’s a bit too abrupt to be Cherish unless Cherish’s power made Taylor unaware of the moments it was actively messing with her emotions. In that case, the metallic thing could be Skitter’s knife. This would also imply that the darkness can shield against Cherish’s power.

Bonesaw?

Blood. 

…oh. Right, forgot about the metallic taste of that.

So… did Jack swipe her face or something? Maybe even across her eyes, making her actually blind, considering she can hear Grue? (Normally the darkness would prevent that, which is why I suggested she was hearing him via bugs that were on him.)

If that’s the case, Taylor’s going to need to either find Amy and convince her to help, or learn to look through her swarm at all times. Either way, not particularly fun for her.


I hurried to wipe it from the lens of my mask.  Everything I saw was obscured by the streaks that remained, almost black in the light.

Ah. Right, masks.

Don’t you know, though, Taylor? Those lenses are sort of like glasses, and it’s a fact of life that glasses cannot be cleaned. A law of nature. You gotta be a Breaker to clean ‘em.

Tattletale lay on the ground a little in front of me, both Regent and Sundancer crouched at her side.

Alright, now don’t go dying on me, Tattle.

So much blood, covering her face and Regent and Sundancer’s hands.

Jack toyed with the knife in his hands, while Siberian stood between him and the rest of our group, her eyes primarily on Ballistic.

Makes sense to watch out for him in particular, being the only one with an offensive power who is still standing and not rubbing blood out of their face.

Jack paced back and forth, two or three steps at a time, gesticulating with his knife.  “I was looking forward to Cherish’s attempt.  Bonesaw and I even had a plan in mind.  I wanted to see what she did, how she worked around Siberian’s immunity to her power… then the safeguards Bonesaw implanted in us would have kicked in and released us from her thrall, and oh, the look on her face.

“Spoiler warnings, Tattletale, ever heard of them? Come on.”

To have seen that would have been so very worth all the trouble.  And that girl just spoiled it all.”

Wait. Where’s Cherish now? Just standing where she was?


“You know,” Cherish said, shell-shocked.

Apparently so!

This kind of behavior is part of what makes Jack dangerous. You might think he’ll turn on his teammate for plotting against him, but no, he’s aware of it and just waiting for an interesting payoff. You never know what to do because he doesn’t give a shit about whether you live or die or whether someone’s trying to betray him – he just wants entertainment, and good luck to you if you spoil that for him.

And good luck to you if you have no idea which of your actions might do that.


By the way, Bitch might be immune to Cherish’s power.

Siberian is immune, according to Jack. That doesn’t seem to tie in with her power’s abilities (except maybe in the sense that you can’t force her to assume any pose she doesn’t want to assume, physically or mentally), but it does make some sense that it could tie in with its side effects. It’s heavily implied that Siberian has a similar condition to Bitch’s, making her mind feral. If this condition, this different brain functionality from mundanes, is what makes Siberian immune to Cherish’s power, that might apply to Bitch too.


“Clearly.”

“But my power – I didn’t sense anything as far as your planning, your emotional networking or-”

He’s probably very sneaky about it.

I dropped onto my knees so fast it hurt, and immediately began trying to help Tattletale, and Regent gave me the space, allowing me to take over.  Jack had cut her from her mouth to the edge of her jaw.  It had parted the skin at the corner of her mouth.

Ouch.

I must’ve been directly in the line of fire for the resulting blood spray.  How was I supposed to put pressure on a wound like this?

Yeeah, I have no idea.

Guess all we can do is call in Greenfire to burn her face off, make it symmetrical.


Jack was getting heated, talking mostly to himself.  “That was the whole point!  To see how long we could go without tipping her off.  Bonesaw helped with some surgery, even some artificial neural connections that Cherish wouldn’t be able to see.  So much work and preparation ruined.”

You should’ve had an ask screener.

“I-” Cherish started, then stopped before she could finish the sentence.  Trying again, she asked, “What are you going to do with me?”

What, for trying to betray him? I don’t think he cares.

The others might, though. Shatterbird, for instance.

“Not a pressing concern,” Jack said, as if realizing she was there.

My power crackled at the edge of my consciousness.  I had to suppress it, before I gave them another excuse to attack us.  The majority of my attention was on Tattletale, on Lisa. I used my fingers to scrape as much of the blood out of her mouth and throat as possible, then adjusted the angle of her head so any further blood would flow down the side of her face or out of her mouth.

It’s a good thing Jack doesn’t seem to see this as Skitter “doing anything”. That is if he’s even noticed.

The fabric of my gloves afforded more traction than fingertips would have, but the amount of blood made everything slick to the point that I couldn’t be sure of what I was holding.  I had one hand inside her mouth, her teeth hard against my knuckles, my other hand pressing down from above to sandwich it and press everything as closed as I could get it.

Today in professions I don’t envy: Dentists. Though apparently they get handsomely paid for their work, which I think is entirely fair.

She roused herself enough to pull away, no doubt because I was pulling the tear at the corner of her mouth open.

I thought you were trying to do the opposite, but fair enough.


“Hold her head, Regent, don’t let her pull away.  And cloth,” I said, my voice small, “Need some kind of cloth to absorb the blood.”

“Also I need you to call this one guy I met when Leviathan attacked. I didn’t ask him, but I’m wildly guessing his phone number is 1-800-GRN-FIRE.”

First aid classes hadn’t prepared me for this.

There was a tearing sound, and regent handed me a strip of cloth.

It was the strip of cloth that made the upper part and front leg of the letter R.

I fumbled to put it into place at the corner of her mouth, where the bleeding was worse, then applied the rest along the cut.  The white cloth turned totally crimson in a second.

This is looking bad… and I doubt there’s much chance Bonesaw will help.

“More,” I said, keeping my voice quiet so it wouldn’t carry to the members of the Nine that were standing nearby.

“I wouldn’t bother,” Jack said.  “A wound like that, she’ll die of blood loss before you can do anything.”

How about not, please?

Heh, imagine if Amy just randomly showed up, healed Tattletale and ran off again without a word.

Of course that silly deus ex machina ain’t gonna happen. I’m just finding it to be an amusing mental image.

“You asshole,” Grue growled.

“You really shouldn’t swear!” Bonesaw said.  “It’s crude!  If you agree to be good, maybe I could fix her for you.

Alright, sure, Grue and I could swear off swearing for the rest of the chapter if you just fix her up to as close as you can healthily get to the way she was?

Oh, and since her cheek’s already cut, I could change it around so her teeth are on the outside and she wouldn’t have all that skin and flesh just getting in the way.

The way she was.

And, and, I could make it really artistic and beautiful, and change her tongue so she can make all of the speech sounds you’d normally need lips to make, like puh, buh, muh, wah, vuh…”

The silly thing? This is still adorable.

But yeah, if you do any of this stuff, I’m gonna say a swear word real loud. Do you want me to say a swear word real loud, Bonesaw? No? Then be a good girl and help the Undersiders fix Tattletale to the way she was, please.

(#don’t call the number
#apparently it leads to an illegitimate online pharmacy
#either that or its website host
#either way it’s kind of appropriate considering i’m bringing it up in the context of bad medical decisions)


Regent handed me more cloth, and I wadded it into place.  Tattletale wasn’t really moving, and I couldn’t be sure if it was because of the amount of blood she had already lost or just because it hurt too much.

She’s probably not having a good time right now.

I saw a flicker of light as Jack flicked his knife out, tossed it into the air and then caught the blade tip between his middle finger and the nail of his index finger.  He snapped it around so he gripped the handle.  “I suppose I should get around to the purpose of our meeting you here, Regent and Bitch.

Alright, I will admit that’s pretty neat.

And yeah, might be time for that now that one of their teammates is bleeding out on the ground, sure.

I guess it’s not Jack wanting to tell them what his test is, since he said he usually goes at the end.

Unless you want to pose your test to them, Bonesaw?”

Did she decide yet?

“No.  Let me think about it for a little while.”

Alright.

“Alright.

Hey!

Well, it wouldn’t do if our candidates died before we even got around to the tests, so I came to offer you two a warning.  Two warnings, as it happens, for each of you.”

…that’s ominous. Is there another threat separate from the S9? Between the Nine and Hookwolf’s alliance, it seems the Undertravelers have got enough on their plates.


Why couldn’t he stop talking so we could take Tattletale somewhere where she could get the help she needed?

I get where you’re coming from, Taylor, and you’re right. But think of it this way – if he’s getting to the point now, he’ll be done here soon-ish.

Maybe not soon-ish enough for Tattle, but soon-ish.

My hands were already cramping from trying to maintain pressure and the awkward angle that resulted from  the way I had her head tilted.

“Two of the candidates we chose are heroes, for lack of a better word, and Cherish reported that we may have trouble bringing them in close enough to introduce them to the tests.

Ah, yeah… one is protected by the PRT, the other is running away from home. What does this have to do with Regent and Bitch? Is it just a warning that they shouldn’t try to avoid the tests?

Our dear Bonesaw has devised an incentive to encourage their cooperation.”

Oh cod, what did she do now.

Bonesaw reached into her pocket and withdrew a small vial.

It keeps coming back to vials, huh?

Though it’s almost certainly not the same contents.

I felt Tattletale tense and looked down.  She was staring at the vial.

Her power seems to have identified it.

What is it, Tattle? Did Timmy fall down a vial?

“Biological warfare?” Grue asked.

“Naturally.”

“What does it do?”

“Just in case all of our candidates fail to play along, I would strongly advise you to stick to bottled water.

See, this is the sort of thing I was talking about earlier with the parasite. Let it spread through the water supplies and the entire city will be depowered soon enough.

But I doubt this is that harmless.

No filtered water, no rainwater, none of that.  Not unless you’re feeling brave.  Just to be on the safe side, avoid getting your injuries wet as well.”

Jeez.

In this city?


“And the second warning?” I asked.  I wanted him to finish.

“In…” Jack pulled out a pocket watch on a chain. “T-minus thirty-four minutes, Shatterbird is going to sing loud enough for much of the city to hear her.

Ahh.

As was suggested in Hookwolf’s Interlude, they don’t want the glass to kill potential recruits, but they’re still going through with the city-wide shatter – they’ll just warn their nominees to stay away from glass first.

She wants to make it known to everyone in Brockton Bay that we’re here, and since there’s no need to maintain surprise with our potential members, I said she should.  With this in mind, you would be well advised to stay away from anything made of glass or any beaches, and be sure to put away anything in your pockets with a screen.”

Beaches? Interesting. Does she control raw sand too? Or is this commentary on the amount of glass shards people leave there sometimes?

Dad.  The people in my territory.  I had to warn them, but…

Oh boy. It’s a race against time, a choice between Tattletale and warning people. Shit.

I looked down at Tattletale and felt paralyzed.

“That’s the meat and bones of it,” Jack smiled, “It was nice to meet you two.”

Sure.

Also “meat and bones of it” seems like something Bonesaw should be saying.


I felt Tattletale move.  Her hand was fumbling at her belt.  Was she going for the gun in the largest pouch?  No.  A pouch near there, just as long, but thinner.

Hmm…?

Removing something made of glass, maybe?

“Sundancer,” I hissed, “Help her.”

Sundancer did.  There were pens in the pouch.

Right.

“Help her find the paper,” I said.  Jack and his team had wrapped up and were walking away.

Ahh, I see, a message. I suppose she can’t exactly use her face to talk right now.

It was a notepad barely larger than a pad of post-its.  Tattletale took the pen that Sundancer held for her, clasping it in a closed fist.  She scrawled out one word.  ‘Deal’.

…what? Deal… with it? Make a deal?

Then she looked up at me, her eyes wide.

“No,” I whispered.  “We have to get you help, and I have to go warn-”

Oh, could she tell what dilemma Taylor was in?

Also that better not be “deal” as in “deal the finishing blow”. Probably better ways to write that, though.

She stabbed at me with the pen and clenched her teeth against the back of my hand, which must have caused her incredible pain.  I wasn’t sure if it was her pain and mine, but Cherish turned and gestured for Jack, who was already walking way, to stop.

She might’ve also sensed the despair caused by the dilemma.

“A deal,” I called out, “I don’t-”

Sundancer had ripped off the first sheet, and Tattletale was writing the next message.

What do you have in mind here, Tattle? This better be good, you’re not exactly in prime condition to be doing this if you don’t think it’s important.

I swallowed, “She wants to know what happens if… if more than one person is left at the end.”

Oh yeah, that’s a question I asked a while back. Askers told me in that scenario, there’d probably been opened another slot during the tests, but that can’t always be the case.

“We pit them against one another,” Jack said.

Ah. Well, that makes sense. That was how I initially thought the whole thing was going to go.

The next word- I could barely make it out.  ‘Game’.

Deal… game… what, are you challenging the reaper or something?

“She, um.  I think she wants to play a game?”

tumblr_inline_p8l4sgOGoa1sxgvvn_1280.png

[comic]

Rowlf: What have I done?

Rowlf: Animal? Please start breathing, oh god, please breathe.

Rowlf: Haha, ok, make-believe time is over!

Rowlf: oh god oh god oh god oh god oh god oh god oh god oh god oh god

Rowlf: What will nanny do to me if she finds out? No one can ever know. I have to hide the body, but where? Think, imagination! Argh, the one time I really need you!!

Spotlight: Click.

Jigsaw, off-panel: Hello Rowlf.
Jigsaw, off-panel: I want to play a game.

Jigsaw: I want to play a game.

Jigsaw: –T TO PLAY A–

You’re welcome.


Tattletale gave me a single, slow blink of confirmation.  She was writing more.

“A game?” Jack asked.

I couldn’t make sense of it.  ‘If there more half left at end.’

…hm. I guess that means Shatterbird would need to start her hunt without having it whittled down as much as she likes.

“One second.”  I said.  Sundancer ripped off another sheet.  This was excruciatingly slow, trying to parse her shorthand and follow her line of thought.  “Tests.  If there’s more than half of the candidates left at the end of the tests, we win.  You leave with volunteer?  You could leave with whoever wants to join.  But you leave.”

I suppose a game like this would appeal to Jack, but there’s one thing missing so far: A reward for if the Slaughterhouse wins.

Also, good thing Burnscar’s sitting out according to you guys. Otherwise there’d be an even number of nominees.

“You expect that half of the candidates could pass the tests?  I’m intrigued.  I don’t think it’s possible, but I’m intrigued.”

What exactly constitutes “passing” the tests? Jack said nobody succeeds at all of them. Does passing the tests just mean being alive and sane after all tests?

“Brockton Bay has its share of badasses, Jack,” I said, my voice hard with repressed outrage.

That is true. I could see Hookwolf passing a lot of the tests, for one.

“I don’t see what we get out of it.”

Tattletale had dropped the pen.  It was up to me to pick up the slack.

And yeah. If you’re going to make a deal like this, almost any foe with a brain is going to decline if there isn’t anything in it for them if they win.


“It’s a challenge.  A game.  Changing the routine.  We can do whatever we need to, to keep as many candidates alive as we can.  You guys… do what you do.  It keeps things interesting.”

And she’s found the ticket, I think.

Though he might still demand something more.

My eyes fell on Bonesaw, “And maybe it keeps things fair?”

Heh, perhaps.

Though I’m not 100% sure how good an idea this is. It incentivizes the Nine to up the intensity of their already harsh tests.

Seconds passed.  I felt the tension ratcheting up another notch with each beat of my heart.  Every moment that passed was one step closer to Tattletale bleeding out or to Shatterbird using her power.

Or both.

“I like that.  It might be a way to fix the test I want to give.  Let’s do it,” Bonesaw said, looking up at Jack.

I’m not sure I like the sound of that middle part, but I guess it’s good to have some support on the Slaughterhouse’s side for the Undersiders’ plan.

He frowned.  “We’ll discuss it as a group.  I suspect we’ll have terms of our own to attach to this game.  Among other things, a steep penalty for when we win.”

Yeah. To be expected, really.


And then he turned to leave.

I looked down at Tattletale.  Her eyes were closed.  My hands felt like two blocks of stone where I had them pressed to her injury; rigid, heavy, unable to move.

See ya, Jack.

So, let’s see what we can do for Tattletale and/or the people of Skittertopia. Is Doctor Cleese available?

“I don’t know what to do,” I said, barely audible to myself.  I looked up at Grue and said, louder, “I don’t know what to do.”

He didn’t have an answer for me, but he bent down to check on Tattletale.

So, if forced to choose… would Taylor go for helping Tattletale, or the people of her territory?

On one hand, Taylor is genuinely concerned about the safety of the many. On the other hand, the person bleeding out before her is her best friend. And the trolley is on its way,

tumblr_inline_p8l5pcX9ui1sxgvvn_1280

I honestly have no idea, except that I don’t think Tattletale is going to die here. So with that in mind, I guess she’s going to focus on Tattletale, or not have to make the choice thanks to the fact that there are other people around her who can take Tattle to Dr. Q while Taylor heads off to warn as many people of Brockton Bay as she possibly can, in and out of her territory.


It was Tattletale who gave me my orders.

…ah. How exactly? More scribblings?

“Guh,” she coughed out the word.  As Grue gently pulled my hands away to take over, she repeated, only slightly clearer, “Goh.”

Guh Goh Power Rangers!!

Guh Goh Gadget portable joke!

Go.

I stood, wobbling slightly as I backed away from her.  She looked so fragile, lying on her side, blood pooling beneath her head, around her dirty blond hair.  And I was leaving her there.

It’s okay, Taylor. She understands, and she has plenty of other people around who can help her get to someone who can actually help.

Guh goh pull that track lever.


“We can call Coil,” Ballistic said.  “He can send a car to get you where you need to be.”

Yeah, as long as he still cares to help them, which I believe he does.

I shook my head.  I couldn’t wait and trust that a car would arrive in time, or that it would get me where I needed to be.  There would be detours, areas a car couldn’t pass through.

Fly on a cloud of bugs!

tumblr_inline_okhzl0Kwmm1sxgvvn_540

I turned and I started running.  Out of the parking garage, past Cherish, Bonesaw and Jack.  They didn’t say anything, and they didn’t try to stop me.

“Oh, so that’s why she’s called Skitter. Makes sense.”

(#I think I’ve used this image before #probably in this context)


I was a block away from them when I got my cell phone out and dialed home, but I already knew the response I would get.

Home as in home to Danny? She did want to warn him.

The automated message came from the phone as I held it in one hand, heading directly north.

At least she already got him to take off his glasses. Hopefully he didn’t eventually go “eh, guess she was wrong, back on with these”.

That still doesn’t save him from windows and such, though, unless he’s remained constantly aware of all the glass around him since.

This phone number is currently out of service.  If you would like to leave a message… 

Yeeeah. Old number, pre-Leviathan.

Judging distances wasn’t a great strength of mine.  How many blocks, how far did I have to run to reach my dad?  Five miles? Six?

Same.

I was a practiced runner, but the streets here weren’t all in the best shape.  Some were flooded, others strewn with debris, still more suffering in both departments.  There were areas that were blocked off.

Speaking of Leviathan… Seriously, dude’s got no respect. Come back here, Leviathan, clean up your mess! We want every bit of debris put back in its place or you won’t get any brownies after dinner!


And I had less than thirty minutes.

Well, guess we know what the next chapter is about!


End of Plague 12.4

Alright, so they did come to talk. We still got some action, though, what with… Tattletale… being… grievously injured… yeeeah. That’s not good, though I’m sure she’ll live at this point.

This was a fairly interesting one. We learned about the Slaughterhouse’s tests, got a little further characterization of Cherish, Bonesaw and Jack (and a confirmation that Siberian is a cannibal), and brokered a deal that I’m not entirely sure was a good idea, even before the Nine lay down their demands.

Bonesaw remains the best Slaughterhouse member. She’s so adorrible and I love that.

Trickster’s in for a surprise when he finds out what everyone else has been up to.

So, next chapter: It’s a race against time – Taylor has less than 30 minutes to warn the people she cares about of Shatterbird’s incoming glass nuke, primarily including the citizens of her territory and her dad. In the latter case, she doesn’t seem to have given thought to how she’d warn him without cluing him in on the fact that she has connections who could actually genuinely tell, but of course that’s not as important right now as keeping him alive.

As for warning the citizens, I’m fairly sure she’s going to use bugs to direct them away from any glass she can find, either via text or via actively chasing them away from the glass – time is of the essence, after all. She might also cover the windows in bugs to block the glass and slow it down.

Somehow getting the Endbringer sirens going might help by getting people all over the city to evactuate to the shelters, but it might also create a panic, and no one’s actually manning the shelters and making sure the evacuation goes smoothly. Plus, there’s probably not enough time to do something like that, let alone to let people evacuate, and Shatterbird might decide hurrying up her plan is necessary if people all over town start moving away from where they can see and feel it.

Whatever happens, though? Unless it covers a shorter span of time than I’m expecting, next chapter’s gonna have a heck of a body count (though mostly offscreen). Quite likely a much bigger one than Extermination as a whole.

See you then!

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