Monarch 16.5: Wouldn’t Hurt an Imp

Source material: Worm, Monarch 16.5

Blogged: April 28 – May 2, 2019


Aight, let’s do some demon-busting!

So, when we last left off, Team Fetch Rachel successfully Fetched Rachel and defeated/escaped the Melusine. Now it’s time to kick it up a notch – all the Undertravelers minus Genesis and Tattletale, versus the Undersiders specialist, Azazel.

What can we expect here?

The Azazel is designed by Dragon and Defiant to counter each of the Undersiders, and maybe the Travelers, as well as the Nine.

  • Skitter: One of Dragon’s mechs has already been seen to make use of Armsmaster’s anti-bug zappy tech. It stands to reason that they might add it to Azazel as well.
  • Tattletale (not present): Hmm. Dragon and Defiant both know Tattle’s most powerful weapon is her mouth. Maybe some feature that prevents communication by speech? Perhaps a knockout gas, forcing the Undersiders to shut up to avoid breathing too much of it in?
  • Grue: Blowing away the darkness worked for the enormous drone-unleashing one – wait, that wasn’t the Azazel, right? – and I don’t think the Double Ds knew about Grue’s second power.
  • Bitch: General brutishness and something affecting dogs – perhaps a sharp ultrasound similar to a dog whistle? That might mess with Shatterbird too.
  • Regent: As mentioned above, ultrasound might fuck with his use of Shatterbird’s power.
  • Imp: Her power is already useless against Dragon.

It’s unclear whether the Travelers are included in the deal, but if they are:

  • Trickster: Weak to blinding. Really, Grue’s primary power would be good for Dragon to have in this mech.
  • Sundancer: Uhh… sunscreen?
  • Genesis (not present, probably): Dragon popped over to the world of Steven Universe and brought back a gem destabilizer to poof Genesis with.
  • Ballistic (possibly not present): Scion sits on the Azazel’s back and brings anything Ballistic fires to stillness, but he’s preoccupied with his new phone and doesn’t bother to help in any other way.

As for predictions about the battle itself, I think it’s going to be a difficult one, but victory will likely depend on Skitter beautifully and effectively directing everyone to use their talents to complement each other, like a larger-scale version of last chapter. I know that sounds repetitive when I put it like this, but I think one major theme of this Arc is Taylor coming into her own in the role of leader of the Undersiders, so such a progression makes sense.

Though maybe that’d work better if things had gone more wrong under her plans early on. Hell, maybe that’s what’s going to happen here – Taylor has been on a roll for the last few chapters, and while this feels like a boss fight in setup (and in how long it’s taken me to get through these last few chapters, through no fault of the story), we’re only on the fifth regular chapter of the Arc. Maybe this is a tipping point in that Taylor’s planning fails, breaking her confidence so she can spend the rest of the Arc regaining it with a glorious victory at the end?

Either way, I’m intrigued to see where this goes, so let’s (finally) get into it!


If I was remembering right, the Slaughterhouse Nine had introduced themselves to their prospective members roughly two weeks ago.

…right. Good to have a clear timeframe on that.

I kind of ignored the Nine in my guesswork analysis of the Azazel because out of the few left, we’ve got a knife wielder who’ll have a hard time against the metal shells of the mechs (unless they’re really far away from each other, in which case he could probably knock the mechs around with a dagger), a girl who makes incredibly unpredictable soldiers but can’t use some of her tricks on a mech, and someone even the mechs can’t stop without locating the until-recently unknown real body. There wasn’t much I could come up with for the mech to have to counter them.

Oh yeah, and Hookwolf. I forgot about him.

But with Taylor calling this short timeframe out like this, who knows when exactly Dragon and Armsmaster/Defiant started work on this design? They may have attempted to account for far more of the Nine than just the three or four (depends on whether you count Hookwolf as a member) who remain.

  • Burnscar: Water spouts and other flame suppressants.
  • Pinkie Pie: Balloons, to distract her.
  • Mannequin: Another one who might have trouble dealing much damage to the mech directly, but very good at quick, hard-to-predict movements. Maybe countered by thick grease or something like that? Not to mention containment foam.
  • Shatterbird: As above, ultrasound.
  • Crawler: I don’t know that they really could counter him by anything except brute size and strength, except maybe large spouts of containment foam.
  • Hatchet Face, Hack Job and/or Cherish: Bots are immune to their powers. Hack Job’s teleporting is weak to blinding, like Trickster’s.

I couldn’t be sure what had happened, but Piggot had alluded to the idea that Armsmaster had banded together with Dragon.

Two weeks, and they’d built this.

Let’s hear it, what does the mighty Azazel look like? 😀

The other dragon suits had the general stylings of dragons, with claws, armor plating that resembled scales and heads or faces that resembled a reptile.  In the end, though, they were still machines, and the theme was just that.  A theme.

So does this imply that the Azazel looks like a full-fledged dragon?

Rather than armor plates, the scales were fine, intricately detailed and arranged with a kind of natural sense to it, with denser scaling in the areas which saw the most movement, creasing and folding and heavier scales around the elbows, talons and face.  There were wings, batlike, with openings at the base of each ‘finger’ that the membrane stretched between.  The actual body was more like a lizard, but the angle of the forelimbs and shoulders resembled those of a human.

Oh man, I’d love to see fanart of this.

When Azazel moved, its scaled exterior rippled with the shifting movements of the mechanisms underneath.

Fucking awesome.

I’m guessing Defiant’s help made it easier to fit the mechanisms in such a way that they could pull the shifting off without breaking anything?

My bugs found their way inside, and I discovered it was very different from the machine we’d just fought.  It wasn’t sturdily built, nor was it solid.

…possibly for the reason I just described?

The wires and internal mechanisms weren’t heavy-duty, reinforced or covered in chain mesh.  They were so numerous and dense that I couldn’t hope to make any headway with every bug in the city committed to the task.

Yeah, that sounds like Defiant’s handiwork.

I’m surprised the bugs are still alive, but I guess Dragon hasn’t realized Skitter’s arrived yet.

Also, how big is this thing? I’m kinda picturing it as a full-scale grown dragon right now, at least Leviathan-sized.

It was, just going by what I could tell from my swarm-sense, a machine as intricate and multilayered as a living, organic being.

I love it.

And I’m sure Dragon does too.

I wonder to what extent this is true for the body Dragon is walking around is too?

But how?  It didn’t make sense in terms of the timeframe.  It would have taken time to make each individual, unique part with their condensed and intricate design, but he’d only had two weeks.

…good point. I know tinkers are ridiculous, but is he really that fast? It’s not the sense I’ve gotten.

And the answer clearly isn’t mass production or automated assembly. That’s just not how tinker powers work, generally.

A thought dawned on me.  It was a half-formed thought up until the moment I devoted some attention to it.  Then it clicked.  Tinkers had a knack, a specialty, be it a particular field of work or something they could do with their designs that nobody else could, and I knew Dragon’s.

…do you now?

She could intuit and appropriate the designs of other tinkers.

Oooh, that’d be really powerful.

I don’t quite believe it’s true, because Dragon isn’t actually a parahuman or a tinker at all (and thus her power can’t passively help her to construct small things like it does for Defiant), but in theory, such a tinker would be a force to be reckoned with. Especially with access to the Protectorate tinker blueprint database.

It put everything in perspective.  The machines she was using, half of them drew on ideas I’d seen other tinkers put to work.  The drone model had used Kid Win’s antigravity generators and Armsmaster’s ambient taser, the wheel-dragon might have used the same theories as the electromagnetic harness Kid Win had been packing when we attacked the PRT headquarters.

…hmm. Okay, fair enough, the evidence does add up from Taylor’s perspective. And when the narration goes like this, Taylor is usually right.

You can color me… slightly skeptical, for now, though.

It also served to explain how she could invest the time to make the suits.  If her power afforded her the brainpower and raw thinking power to understand and apply the work of other tinkers, then she could put all of her resources towards manufacturing.

Ah, there we go – something we can latch onto as a way to fit this train of thought into what we know of Dragon.

What she needs is brainpower and processing power, and while she does not have a power that gives her those things like Taylor is thinking, what she is grants her those. Taylor is right, but has that little detail about how the processing power to do this came about wrong because she doesn’t know Dragon is an A.I.

Armsmaster made the base design, she appropriated it and then turned artificial intelligence or her own power to creating the necessary variations.

She’s so close to figuring it out, though. The dramatic irony of statements about Dragon using A.I.s like this is beautiful.

(She does use some other A.I.s, but she can’t make them, unless Defiant changed that…)

I could imagine how she had worked herself into the Protectorate and the Guild for just this reason.  It would get her the funding and raw materials she needed.  Being a member of the team would give her access to the work of the various tinker heroes, in the name of oversight and security.  Add the confiscated material from criminals like Bakuda, and she had unparalleled access to other tinkers’ work.

Yep, makes sense.

Taylor including the still-mysterious Guild here reinforces my theory that they’re a group for tinkers in particular.

There were realizations that were kind of a ‘eureka’ moment, except not so much an inspiration borne of creativity or creation as being about finding that weak point, finding that way out of a corner.  This wasn’t one of those.

I’m thinking that moment will be related to Taylor finally figuring out what’s up with Dragon, if she does, but I don’t know that that’s really a necessity, and I’d be arguing against that if I really thought this was the final boss fight of the Arc. Because such a realization on Taylor’s part doesn’t count as a twist, and I think Lisa’s mysterious activities will be a much more important part of coming out of this whole Dragon situation on top.

This was one of the realizations I wish I hadn’t had, because I could feel my own morale plummeting.  If I was even close to being right, then Dragon was the incarnation of why tinkers were so dangerous.

Massive versatility, quick work… yeah, sounds about right.

Really puts into perspective why she’s been called the best tinker.

Which didn’t change the fact that we had to find a way to stop her or everything we’d worked for would be for nothing.

So you’re telling me this mech is like a living organic being, right? Does it have any genitals for you to horrifically mutilate, or would that go (against all logic) be denied by the “no reproduction” rule?

Does her humanoid body have them?

I used the relay bugs to extend my search out further, and ran into a snag.

Hm? Did whatever Dragiant did to counter your bugs set in?

My swarm died in droves, bugs being obliterated or having half their bodies sheared off as they approached too close to what the suit was building.

Half their bodies sheared off?

So however she’s doing this, it seems to work differently from the zappy-doo.

Nanobots?

It slammed one claw down, and my bugs could sense a thin rod skimming along the surface of the ground, tracing bumps and depressions.

Like a disc player?

The telescoping rod extended several hundred feet, crossing from the corner of one building to the base of a wall on the other side of the street.  It stopped, and there was a pause as the suit moved on.  Then the rod bloomed.

what hedge.png

[El Goonish Shive panel]

Hedge: …what?

There wasn’t a better way to put it.  It expanded, unfolded, the rod of metal peeling open like a stick of bamboo, leaves and shoots unfolding over miliseconds.  The final stage, what I might call the ‘flowering’ was familiar enough.  If I could see it, I’d describe it as a vague blur.

Alright, nanobots it is. Nice.

I love how reminiscent this is of the birth of Dandelions. Maybe they’re going for the same visual parallel, to the spreading of literal dandelion seeds?

Armsmaster had used the effect for the weapon he’d used to hack away at Leviathan, and Mannequin had been in possession of a knife with the same effect.  Except these blurs were five or six feet around.

So, uh, maybe try not to get caught in one of those clouds? I doubt they nanobots follow Dragon’s rule against lethal damage, and while I’m guessing she can’t deliberately put these clouds onto people (once again, unless Defiant removed that restriction so that it wouldn’t interfere with their hunt for the Nine), accidents can happen.

I watched as the suit scanned the area, its head sweeping right to left to survey the area before it planted two more.  One extended for what must have been a tenth of a mile before it met another wall and stopped.  Since I’d been watching, four streets had been rendered impassable.

Right, keeping them from escaping. Solid tactic against the masters of the getaway.

What did the Undersiders and the Slaughterhouse Nine have in common?  Besides our general intimidating natures and disturbing powers, we were both elusive, favoring hit and run tactics with a degree of shock and awe to keep our enemies off-balance.

Yeah, and so the Azazel is designed to counter those tactics. Makes a lot of sense.

Dragon and Armsmaster had decided on this as their means of attack.  They would seal off our movements by erecting barriers that were the high-tech equivalent of barbed wire.  Barbed wire that would turn steel into vapor.

…y’know, I think you just brought up the flaw of this tactic.

It’s dangerous to the Azazel as well, unless the nanobots are specifically designed to not do their thing to the Azazel even after being deployed. The Undertravelers may be somewhat trapped (less so than the Undersiders would be on their own, on account of Trickster), but if the Azazel deploys too many of these and then doesn’t watch its step (again, Trickster might be useful), it might risk hurting itself.

That wouldn’t stop Siberian though.  What technologies had I seen that they might use against her?  Or was it a technology I hadn’t seen before?  There were some ugly possibilities there.  Something long ranged that could take him out before he could get to cover?

Something like that would also be a big threat to the members of the Undersiders who, as pointed out last chapter, prefer to hang back.

A microscopic form of attack that could fill the air and debilitate him if he wasn’t in an airtight container?

I’m on record as expecting something like that designed to deal with Tattletale and tactical communications already, so sure, why not?

“What’s wrong?” Bitch asked.

“Found it.  Trying to find the others but I’m running into a bit of a snag.

I feel it’s potentially notable that Bitch is able to tell that something’s wrong from the way Taylor is behaving, which is something she’s been known to struggle with. They’re beginning to understand each other and this seems to indicate that it goes both ways.

The suit’s setting up barriers.”

“The forcefield thing they sent against Sundancer?”  Regent asked.

You wish.

I shook my head.  “I think it’s the Azazel suit the Director mentioned.  It’s using that blurry stuff that cuts through anything, I told you about it.”

“I don’t remember that,” Imp said.

I’m just gonna lie here and appreciate the irony inherent in any case of Imp saying she doesn’t remember something.

It’s like when something’s bugging Skitter.

“Just don’t touch it,” I told her.  “Not even in a joking way.  You’re likely to lose your finger or your hand before you realize something’s wrong.”

Either way, hands off.

“Uh huh.”

“I thought these things were supposed to be packing nonlethal hardware,” Regent said.  “Blue fire and now this?”

Defiant may have changed that.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “The Director said these suits were supposed to go up against the Nine.  You want to be as lethal as you can get.  I- I’m pretty sure they’re holding back, though.  They could have hit us a few times and didn’t.

Yeah, fair. Restrictions aside, Dragon is compassionate. She might be able to deal lethal damage to them now, but that doesn’t mean she wants to.

We might be able to use that, but that’s testing our luck.”

“What?  You’re thinking about a kamikaze attack?”  Regent asked.

That’s a bit of a non-sequitur. Using the fact that Dragon is holding back against her doesn’t automatically mean a suicidal attack.

Doesn’t even necessarily mean doing something like Brandish making herself a woman shield against Marquis, which would be very dangerous if Marquis hadn’t caught himself.

“Probably not.  We don’t know everything that suit could be packing in terms of devices or hardware.  Especially with Armsmaster helping out.  It’s definitely going to have something they think can counteract Siberian, so let’s rule out a brute force attack.

Yeah… the most likely option I can think of there is self-repairing mechanisms, kind of like the Melusine, for dealing with the holes left after Siberian blasts right through the mech Sonic X-style.

The hedge maze it’s building would hold off Hookwolf or Bonesaw’s creations, and the sturdiness of the design would protect it against Jack.  In terms of other tactics the Slaughterhouse Nine might use… hostages.  I’d bet it’s packing containment foam.”

Yeah, the containment foam is pretty much a given. The hedge maze – interesting choice – is also potentially an issue for Trickster, unless she’s just using that term to refer to the placements of the nanobots.

“So what do we do?”

“It’s still a machine, a well made machine, but it’s a machine.  We can break it, given an opportunity.  But our number one goal is going to be keeping it from catching us out of position and walling us in.”

Makes sense.

And goal number two is to get the remaining Undertravelers out, yes?

“We could move up to the rooftops,” Regent said.

“I have a bit of a policy against doing that,” I replied.  “It leaves you with a shortage of escape routes.”

Ahaha, nice. 😛

“Doesn’t sound like we’ll have many anyways.”

This machine specializes in eliminating them, so yeah, could be an issue.

“No.  But we’ll worry about that when it comes up.  Worst case scenario, we climb for the rooftops when it happens.  The dogs are mobile, and I assume Shatterbird can lift one or two people at a time?”  I asked.  Regent nodded confirmation.  I continued, “For now, we’ll take the long way, keep our distance from it, see if we can’t find the others.”

A solid plan so far. How is it going to go wrong?

I looked around, saw some nods.  I glanced at Bitch.  Would she see it as cowardly?

I just realized Bitch’s view of strength and appearances and all that stuff reminds me a bit of honor-based warrior cultures. In particular, I’m thinking about the Aiel from Wheel of Time, but that’s because that’s the one of those I’ve been most exposed to in my fiction consumption over the last year.

I’m not sure even an Aiel would be itching to dance the spears with this thing, though.

“Okay,” Bitch said.

“Good.  Let’s leave your people behind?  No use bringing them into a fight.”

Oh, right, I forgot they came along.

Does this include Barker and Biter? I’m not sure I agree with there being no use to bringing them, but they are pretty exhausted after the Melusine.

She nodded.  I looked over my shoulder at the vet trainee and the guy, and they took that as their cue to climb down.

The remainder of us rode.  Me on Bentley, Bitch on the wolf cub’s back, Barker and Biter riding in tandem on one door just behind Regent and Imp on the other.

Alright, good, they’re coming along.

Barker might be useful for knocking things around a bit, and Biter’s got a mean chomp and various other useful parts to enlarge and no need for Viagra.

The machine was gradually taking over an area near Ballistic’s territory with the disintegration ‘hedges’.

Alright, yeah, the hedge maze thing was about the nanobots and thus doesn’t mess with Trickster the way I was thinking a more literal hedge maze would.

Going counter-clockwise around Azazel would have meant running face first into the crater Leviathan had made.  Traveling the edge threatened to put us dangerously close to the suit, and with the water on one side we’d have denied ourselves one of the cardinal directions as far as escape routes went.

I’d like to see Taylor Hebert vs Mat Cauthon in a tactics-off…

I suppose the outcome would depend on what they were deciding tactics for, since their specialties are different. Are we talking the Undertravelers versus the Band of the Red Hand (which would mean a few orders of magnitude of numerical advantage to Mat)? Or would both of them be leading parahuman teams, or both of them armies?

Maybe they should just go for a more abstract game of stones/go.

That meant we were left with only one viable route to travel if we wanted to head further into the downtown areas; turning left and giving the suit as wide a berth as possible.

I kept one metaphorical eye on the suit as we traveled, while sweeping out with my swarm to scan for the others.  Azazel was laying down more of the ‘hedges’, not connecting them but placing one and then winging past intersections and streets to place another two or three blocks away.  I couldn’t be sure what the point was.

Getting started but leaving options open in the design to adapt to whatever the enemies do?

There’s also the issue of why Azazel is doing this right now and right here when Taylor can’t find the rest of their group. Are they around here?

Our teammates were nowhere nearby, as far as I could tell, and the openings were wide enough that the barriers wouldn’t really hamper us even if we were running straight through the area.  Maybe a bit if my power wasn’t informing me of where we needed to go, but even Bitch would be able to get by without too much trouble.

Yeah, and add some quick work by Trickster and the other group might be fine even if they did get blocked off.


I’m not too far into the chapter on account of getting a late start today, but it’s getting very late, I’m getting sleepy (a good thing considering it’s up early tomorrow) and my concentration is disappearing, so that’s it for today. Good night!

[End of session]


[Session 2]

Alright, let’s get back to it!

I couldn’t shake the notion that I was missing something.  Was there something about those rods that I wasn’t aware of?

Hmmm.

None of the rods were any thicker around than my pinky fingers, so they didn’t leave room for any real traps to be hidden inside, Armsmaster’s special talent or no.

You just had to go and use the phrase “special talent”, huh? It’s not wrong, but that specific phrase immediately makes me think ponies, because it’s the term associated with the talents granted/reflected by cutie marks.

did make the special talent of my Armsmaster ponysona match his tinker specialty, though.

CC44 Armor Gadget (less vriska, zoomed)

(It’s also physically represented in his design by way of his horn being extra pointy.)

It had been too long since I rode one of the dogs.  They weren’t well suited for riding, and that was doubly the case with Bentley, with his broad shoulders and barrel-like chest.  It forced my legs apart, and that made for an uncomfortable ride when coupled with the bouncing motion as he ran and the lingering soreness of my shoulder from the battlefield surgery Brooks had provided.

Sounds like a great experience.

I thought about calling for a break when I noticed movement.  Not Azazel.  It was coming from the other direction.  My heart sank.

Oh fuck. Without that last sentence, it’d sound like she might’ve spotted the other Undertravelers, but this sounds more like backup. Protectorate, Wards, that lot.

Either that or unwanted and probably negative interference by a third party like the Pure.

The drone-dragon.

Ahh, shit. As though Azazel wasn’t intimidating enough, it’s getting backup that has previously been known to very effectively deal with what both Grue and Skitter bring to the table power-wise…

Of course, I don’t think her power was the main thing Skitter was going to contribute here anyway, but still. That’s one more nasty, enormous robot to fight, or many more if you count the drones.

“Incoming!”  I called out, using my bad arm to point in the general direction of the approaching suit.  It was approaching at a right angle, accurately enough that I feared it had a way of tracking us.

Hmm. Who’s to say it doesn’t? Maybe one of the drones that landed on Skitter and Grue earlier placed a tracker in the process.

This was one of those moments where I had to make a clutch decision as leader, but it seemed like a choice of a half-dozen equally awful options.

Such decisions are among the hard parts of leadership.

Splitting up, moving closer to Azazel, trying to confront the drone deployer, hiding and risking getting cornered?

Yeah, those really are awful. Splitting up got you into this mess, Azazel is specialized in keeping you there if you move closer to it, hiding doesn’t accomplish much in the long term if Dragon knows you’re here… confronting the drone deployer seems the best of these options, but not an easy one by any means. Especially if the Azazel backs it up, in which case it becomes potentially as bad as or worse than approaching the Azazel in the first place.

Damn.

I have faith in Taylor’s ability to think of a clever fifth option, though.

I wondered if I was maybe better at improvising than I was at spur-of-the-moment strategy.   There was a distinction there.

I wonder how well Taylor would do in speed chess.

“This way!”  I shouted.

Running straight down the road left us dangerously exposed.

Okay, so far that looks like a fifth option, but the cleverness of it is yet to be determined.

I led the group down a diagonal route, zig-zagging between alleyways and the main streets.  Away from the drone-deployer and slightly towards Azazel.

Hm. Alright, I guess we were going to have to get in there sooner or later anyway.

When Azazel shifted positions and took flight, heading straight for us, I was left to wonder if that had been their plan all along.

It very well might’ve been. The drone deployer showing up mainly to give them cause to actually approach the Azazel…

“We’re being herded!”  I called out.  “Reverse directions!”

Hmm. But then the question is, did Dragon rely on Skitter coming to this conclusion?

I hauled hard on Bentley’s chain, getting him to turn, then goading him to start running the way we’d come.  Regent, Imp, Barker and Biter had a harder time.  The ‘sleds’ were too dependent on momentum, and they didn’t have built-in traction.

Fuck, right, that’s not ideal.

And the whole point of a sled is to reduce traction, so yeah, makes sense.

Bitch and I pulled ahead on our respective mounts while the others tried to get turned around and build up speed again.  We couldn’t afford to stop and wait for them.

Aaand they’re getting split up further?

The drone suit flanked us on our right, drones spilling out of its ports to trail behind it like my bugs trailed behind me.  Other drones were moving to cut us off in front.  Azazel was behind us and to our left.  The herding was still underway – the sole route left to us, if we didn’t want to run straight into a mess of drones or one of the suits, would be going left.

Whether Dragon was planning for them to reject the herding or otherwise, it seems she was prepared for the possibility.

Left took us into the area Azazel had employed the rods and the ‘hedges’.  Fuck that.

…would following the original path have led you there, you think?

I could see what Azazel wanted to do, now.  The moment we were in there, it would take flight, setting down rods to close the gaps and trapping us inside.

Sounds about right.

My swarm and my eyes scanned the area.  In a matter of seconds this decision would be made for us.

I saw what I was looking for.  A third option.

Sure, we can go back to that phrase using “third” now.

If I was eyeballing this wrong, or if Bentley didn’t have a hard enough head… well, one of us would get hurt.

Oof.

Also, if Bentley gets hurt by one of your decisions, you very possibly will be too. If not because of the immediate consequences as because of the wrath of Bitch.

“Go!” I urged the mutant bulldog on, steering him for the nearest building.  He pulled away, and I steered him back on course, ducking low so I was hugging his neck as I drove him forward into the already ruined display window of a minimall.

What is it with the Undersiders and breaking through shop windows?

 I could feel the top of the display window scraping against the armor on my back as we passed through.

We stampeded past a store that had already been looted, headed for the glass window that faced the mall interior.

I wonder if “minimall” basically means malls of the size found in my hometown.

…perhaps it’s more akin to the smaller building that I don’t think anyone really considers a mall anymore.

If I could find a shortcut through here, exit on the far side of the drone-dragon, we would be able to make a break for it.  Shatterbird could drag the two sleds faster than the dogs could run.  She wasn’t that fast: I could remember how she’d fallen behind the rest of the Nine in the fight where we’d taken her captive.

I suppose that only makes sense, when her flight is indirect the way it is.

Still, they could fend for themselves for just a little while, while Bitch and I got some breathing room to prepare a counterattack.

The drone-deployer could see what I was doing.  Drones were moving down to cut me off.  Cut us off, as Bitch had followed.

One thing I think Taylor needs to keep in mind – even if she doesn’t realize what Dragon’s deal is – is that if one of the dragons (or even just one of the drones, though those do seem to run on A.I. separate from Dragon) can see them, the other dragon will also know.

Bentley and I crashed through the store entryway and into the mall proper.  It wasn’t a big place, and the interior was riddled with tents where some people had holed up.  Store owners wanting to protect their goods?

…huh. That’s… fair, honestly, given the whole looting spree going on. And some of them might’ve lost their homes to Leviathan and not found space in the shelters.

The area was empty now.  Had Azazel evacuated it?

If so, that does suggest there’s a fair bit of planning and preparation involved here.

Notably, it also suggests that Dragon thought this mall would get involved. And unless she’s expecting collateral damage over a wider-spread area, that suggests the Undertravelers are still following a prepared path.

I could sense two drones orienting themselves to bar our way, and steered Bentley between them.  Twenty or twenty-five feet of distance would be enough, if there wasn’t anything to conduct the ambient electric charge.

An assumption Dragon might be relying on you making.

There was.  Bentley and I were rocked as both drones fired off at once.  The dog took it harder than I did, and we sprawled.

See? Dragon probably set up the drones like that to trick you into making that gamble and run right into this trap.

Bitch slowed as she approached.  She started to head my way, maybe to rescue me, maybe to help Bentley, but I could sense a drone moving straight for me.

Well, shit…

Y’know what I’ve kind of wanted to see for a while, and I’m not sure I’ve actually talked about? It’d be kinda neat to see how Taylor would deal with being in Protectorate custody – we’ve had tastes of it, like Flechette sticking her to the floor last Arc, but I’m talking actually being brought in. If this were to go pear-shaped enough, that could be an interesting way to fill out the remaining half of this chapter.

But I do kind of feel like that would be more suited to having her caught at the end of a chapter and starting the next one in custody.

“Go!”  I shouted.

She turned and ran, the third drone turning to pursue her.  It was too slow.  She, at least, would get away.

It does look like Skitter’s in some solo trouble here. Maybe we’ll finally get some follow-up on Dragon’s desire to talk personally to Skitter again?

I couldn’t say why the electricity had reached me.  I’d thought I’d figured out their basic range when I’d first fought them, but maybe the simultaneous effect had extended the charge between them?

Maybe? It’s also very possible that there’s something set up where you’re lying, designed to extend the charge.

Or there was something nearby that had helped carry the charge, something in the tents or the mall’s design?

Through the plexiglass that framed the mall entrance, I caught a glimpse of Azazel.  The scales that covered it were small and dark, glossy, and the spaces between them glowed like hot coals, red and orange.

Sounds like awesome fanart fodder.

Its head paused as it glanced through the window, and a red eye fixed on me.  It stamped one claw down on the ground, in a movement my swarm had felt too many times.

merlin_135847308_098289a6-90ee-461b-88e2-20920469f96a-articleLarge.jpg

Hello, Skitter. You’re looking well today.

also:

pyralspite.png

No.

The rod extended beneath me before I could climb to my feet.  In one second, smaller branches had extended under, over and around me.  One more second passed, and they bloomed into the blurry effect.

I don’t think Dragon’s about to actually unleash the nanobots on her, but they’re really good for keeping her in place.

Bright red, orange and purple, as if to signify the danger it posed in the most basic, primal sense, like the yellow of hornets or the bright red of poisonous berries.

I froze, afraid to even breathe.  I was still in one piece.

Just gonna be a bit boxed in in a moment, I think.

Tentatively, I commanded some of the bugs out from beneath my costume.  The insulation had protected some, luck and sheer durability had saved a scant few others.  They died the second they moved more than an inch away from my body, vaporized.

Yikes, really cutting it close there, Dragon.

My heart was pounding from the recent exertion, adrenaline still flowing through my veins.  As I realized the situation I was in, my body was shifting into fight or flight mode, but humans weren’t engineered to go into the same ‘deer in the headlights’ state like conventional prey animals.  And that was what I needed to do.

Yeeeah, the less movement the better.

I needed to freeze, not to fight, struggle or run.

My lungs screamed for oxygen, and I let out a small breath.  It came out as a half-whimper.

This is how the world ends.

I watched as one lock of hair shifted from where it was draped over my shoulderpad, slipped down to touch the blurry growth that surrounded me.  It turned to dust, and I held my breath yet again, afraid I’d inhale the vaporized hair and cough.

Now that’s just rude, Dragon. Messing with her hair? You’ve gone too far.

Azazel was taking the long way around the building, heading into the same storefront I’d ridden Bentley through.  It wasn’t huge, but it was big, and its progress was agonizingly slow.

The sizes I’ve been picturing it at would not fit in through the storefront. Good to have some indication of this, but maybe it should’ve come a little earlier.

I’d been on my hands and knees for ten seconds, maybe twenty, but already my body was feeling the strain, screaming at me to change position.

Oh jeez, of all the positions to be in when this happened.

A crease on the inside of one of my kneepads was digging against the bone of my kneecap.  The branches that extended around me might hold me, but they might not, either.

Have you checked whether there are nanobots directly below you?

And there was nobody even close by.  If this was the movies, it would have been an opportune time for Tattletale to make her move, but we’d already been that fortunate once, with Imp forcing Piggot to order a standby.  I couldn’t hope for a second lucky save.

Yeah, I think she might get a big damn hero moment this Arc, but not like this.

Azazel was moving through the store now.  It was a minute away, as it carefully planted its feet to avoid crushing store merchandise.

Because Dragon is considerate like that and she has plenty of time.

I wanted to scream at it to move faster, that I was afraid my hand would lose traction on the dusty tile and slip into the disintegration effect.  I could lose a limb like that, or belly-flop onto the blur beneath me, bisecting myself.

…for a given value of “plenty”.

Why hadn’t it cut me when it grew?  Because whatever guided the growth kept it from tearing up the surrounding material.  It was why the Halberd and dagger hadn’t been destroyed by the growth of the disintegration cloud around them, why the growing ‘hedges’ of the stuff hadn’t cut out sections of building.

Basically, its effect is delayed until it’s formed the cloud?

I wasn’t in immediate danger, besides the obvious, so I decided to try something.

MaxthonSnap20190501220423

[Skwitter]

Skitter (@SkitteringAround):
I’m not in any immediate danger, although if I stop doing the plank, I might be partially disintegrated.
Gym class sucks.

“I’m going to fall!” I screamed.

Ooh, bluffing, are we? Nice.

I could sense Azazel lunging forward, crushing a store display as it hurried to the opening, its mouth opening.

Sounds like the Azazel has something like the blowing weapon the drone dragon was using, and is about to blow away some of the closest nanobots.

It directed a blast of superheated air at the ground, so it cut through the lowest portion of the disintegration hedge, clearing the area beneath and around me.  I winced at the heat of it, but took it for what it was.

At least now you can sit down.

You may lie down but do not try to move from your current location, Skitter,” the machine spoke.  It was the same voice as the armbands and drones, but deeper.  “Do not stand or make dramatic movements or you may be harmed.”

…interesting. Had Taylor not heard Dragon’s voice before the armbands? Maybe I was hasty to suggest that she made the armbands sound particularly different from her usual appearances.

Or maybe it’s that she does want the Azazel to not sound like her, because her “real body” isn’t supposed to be inside it at the moment.

The message delivered, Azazel began spraying Bentley down with containment foam.

Bitch ain’t gonna like that.

Especially because if Skitter gets detained on a more permanent basis than just out this chapter, actually getting captured and moved to the PRT HQ or wherever they put capes in custody, she has no way of empowering Bentley again. A prison break might not allow her to bring Bentley back to Bitch.

I checked with my remaining bugs.  A bubble with a four-foot radius had been cleared around me, but the larger branches still existed and a rough dome loomed over me.  The area where the hot air had been vented in made for an area I might have been able to fit an arm or leg through if I felt brave, but I wouldn’t be able to crawl through, not with the branches being where they were.

Sounds like a decent cage.

“You assholes aren’t holding back,” I muttered.  When the suit didn’t respond, I glanced up.  It was standing stationary above me, apparently content to have me and me alone.

Yeah, I think this is exactly what Dragon has wanted for a while.

Besides, better to keep one prisoner than spread too thin and risk letting all of them slip.

My allies were still making a run for it.  The drone ship pursued Shatterbird, Regent, Imp, Barker and Biter, and some stray drones were chasing Bitch but falling behind.  I positioned the relay bugs to keep in touch, but didn’t know what to communicate.  That I was captured, but they shouldn’t come back for me without a plan or reinforcements?  Bitch would let them know.

That was what I was about to suggest until I accidentally copied a slightly longer part of the paragraph than I meant to. (I meant to select up to “communicate”.)

No, I was stuck here, in custody.

“So, she design you to talk?”  I asked.

Silence.

…not yet, apparently.

I’m gonna guess that the conversation that does end up happening here might tip Taylor off to the fact that this actually is Dragon. Then again, Dragon has a lot of experience in hiding her true nature.

“This statement is false,” I told it.

Heh. Worth a shot, but nah.

I’ll go with true.  There, that was easy,” Azazel replied.

Ahahaha, Dragon is messing with her now!

Damn.  Wouldn’t be able to shut it down with paradox.  Dragon apparently had a sense of humor.

She does and I love it.

The reply sounded canned, a recitation.  Or she had a liking for popular culture I wasn’t aware of.

If that is a quote from something, I’m in the same boat as Taylor.

Think, Taylor, think!  What were my options?  I had bugs, but they wouldn’t be able to do anything.  I drew them closer, wary of the two drones that were picking themselves off the ground.  Bentley was down.  My weapons wouldn’t cut me free, and I was leery of trying to use my weapons on the larger branches, in case I brought something down on my head.

Using her weapons would probably destroy the weapons rather than her cage, so yeah, won’t help.

Wait, the drones are only now picking themselves up? Must’ve been a really big charge compared to what we saw in 16.1. Those drones picked themselves up after seconds, but these have been down for at least a minute or two by now.

Armsmaster had called it nanotechnology.  It cut through anything, everything.  If some dropped free and fell to the ground, would it keep falling, cutting out a bottomless pit?

…for some value of bottomless, I guess so? Unless there’s a limit to how much each bot can destroy.

No, I needed to find and exploit weaknesses.  If my costumed career had taught me two things, it was that things could always get worse, and there was always a solution.

They can always get worse and they can always get better. Spoken like a true realist.

This is one of many things I like about Taylor: She’s notably grounded in reality and willing to consider the possibility of things going badly, but she does have an optimistic outlook on her ability to do something about it. When faced with horrible challenges, she acknowledges the reality of the situation and that it can get worse, but her natural response is to look for a solution, and we have rarely ever seen her lose faith that a solution actually exists. It’s the best of both worlds between pessimism and optimism.

Notably, the way I just highlighted the contrast between Taylor’s two lessons is a paraphrasing – I highlighted the way they’re equal and opposite outlooks, the similarities, but there’s a crucial difference too that isn’t quite captured by it: Things can always get worse, but you can always make them better.

The former happens passively to Taylor, while the latter takes active effort. And that belief drives her to actually put in that effort rather than wait for things to get better on their own, an admirable trait I can’t always be said to share. And that makes her a very compelling protagonist.

(I really like lines like this, the ones that practically sum up a large part of a character’s worldview and characterization when you think about them.)

It was, in a way, why I wasn’t freaking out over the end of the world.  I’d already accepted that things could get bad, and I held out hope that we could find a way out.

Hm, yeah, that is a fair extension of this idea.

Honestly, though, the thing that had me confused at her nonchalance towards it was that I’d expected more guilt at letting Jack escape. Especially since her blunder in the miasma allowed Jack to learn about the prophecy, I thought she would blame herself way more than we’ve seen her do.

But maybe that still ties into this view that there’s always a solution. Because the end of the world hasn’t happened yet, unlike Dinah getting captured in the first place, there’s still time to stop it as far as Taylor is concerned. Even if the odds of that look terrible.

I could find a way out here.

I do believe that Skitter will escape this situation without getting brought in, much like the Flechette scene, but we’ve got almost half a chapter to go, so I think we’re at least going to get some juicy Dragon-Taylor interaction first.

The suit had used a heat gun.  Was the nanotech vulnerable to heat?  To fire?  It would be ironic in a way.

Hmm.

I suppose?

The growth around me resembled fire with its hues and blurry, transparent nature.  Fire frozen in time.  The entire scene made for a strange picture.  Azazel and its ‘fire’ weren’t moving in the slightest, and the only things that were moving were the two drones that were rotating lazily around Azazel and the clouds of dust that had been stirred by the blast of hot air.

“Fire frozen in time” is a nice description.

Though I don’t think Clockblocker wants to touch it.

With my swarm, I felt around my utility compartment.  Yes, I had a box of matches.  I’d packed tissues in there to keep them from rattling around, like I did with my changepurse, so I’d have to use my hands to withdraw them, probably.

It’s not everyone who has to consider whether or not they need their hands for a move like that.

The suit wouldn’t let me once it saw what I was doing.  I wasn’t sure what the response would be, but it could range from blasting me with containment foam the second the fire ate at the nanotech to hitting me with that superheated air to blow me into the side of the dome, vaporizing me.

I highly doubt Dragon would do the latter. The containment foam is definitely an option, though.

Had to deal with Azazel first.  I looked up at the reptilian face with glowing red eyes.  I could see the snakelike neck, the human-ish shoulders and arms.  It looked more like a demon than a dragon, from this perspective.

Considering the additional info I stumbled into about who Azazel is named after, that makes sense.

The only weapons I had were my bugs.  There weren’t enough in my range, even with the relay bugs, to do anything to the suit.  The model we’d just fought in Bitch’s territory had been able to bend steel, would have been able to tear my spider’s silk.  I couldn’t hope to tie Azazel up.

Troublesome. It looks like you’re gonna have to talk, once Dragon sees fit to.

It was bigger and I was willing to bet it had more raw strength.  Maybe it was better to say that I was confident enough it had more raw strength that I wasn’t willing to take the risk.

No, my bugs wouldn’t serve.  I sent some cockroaches in to see if they could nibble through the insulation of some wires, but it felt futile.

Nom nom.

Even in what stood to be the more vital areas, like the neck, I doubted my ability to do any real damage.

What other tools did I have?

Hmmmm. Mouth… Keeping track of and guiding the others to help you out…

My voice.

Dragon was smart.  Smart enough to write an A.I. that wouldn’t crumble to a simple issue with paradox.  But the A.I. wasn’t necessarily brilliant.

I think there’s a pretty big problem with this train of thought, but please, continue.

It had leaped to my defense when I’d said I was in danger.  Either it wasn’t smart enough to discern truth from a lie, or it wasn’t allowed to when a life was potentially in danger.

Oooh, you trying to lie to it about being in danger?

I’d wondered if the machines were obligated to preserve our lives.  Now I had a better sense of it.  Now how to use it?

Regent and Imp were still fleeing the area on one of Shatterbird’s sleds.  They had outpaced the drone ship, which was moving too slowly to pursue even Shatterbird.  It was better suited, it seemed, for seizing and protecting an area than for pursuit.  Good.

Yeeah, to be fair the thing is the size of four eighteen-wheelers. It’s gonna be pretty heavy, even with tinker materials.

I drew out a message on Regent’s back.  ‘Hide’.  Imp was directly behind him, and bugs on a white shirt would be clear as day to her.  I hoped.

Is this message specifically for Imp, or did you mean for her to share it with Regent and just place it like that for the visibility?

They were almost out of my range, relay bugs or no.

“You’re Azazel, correct?”

Let’s have a conversation!

Correct.

“What’s the other ship called?”

The Glaurung Zero is an old model, designed to deploy drones of varying loadouts.

Alright, that’s the Glaurung, nice. Thank you for asking this, Taylor.

“Thank you for the information.”

You’re welcome.”

“Don’t suppose you’ll tell me how to defeat you?”

No.

I love this.

…I haven’t been making completely unfounded assumptions about Taylor being wrong about the mechs, right? My grounds for assuming they’re actually being directly controlled by Dragon, besides that it’s what she’s been doing before, was that Dragon wasn’t able to launch multiple without Defiant’s help, but that also applies to her ability to create A.I.s of her own.

“Or your self destruct code?”

No.”

“Worth a shot.”

“What if I told you that you were putting a human life in grave danger?”

I have no reasonable cause to believe that.

Alright, so this is gonna take more than her word.

Damn.

But if it wasn’t designed to tell truth from a falsehood, maybe…

Acting?

“Imp had a second trigger event.  She should be invisible to your sensors.”

Ohh. That’s why she wanted Imp to hide – so the drones wouldn’t find her.

I have no reasonable cause to believe that.

Okay, yeah, this repetition doesn’t sound like Dragon herself. I guess I was wrong about which part of the restrictions Defiant had helped her circumvent when launching everything at once.

That, or Dragon’s acting.

“Doesn’t matter.  Imp may be in this room.  If you move a foot, you could be stepping on her.”

“Imp could not be in this room.  As of two minutes ago she was recorded at a distance of .4 miles away from this location.  She could not return here in that span of time unobserved.”

…fair play.

(Also Wildbow forgot the italics on this line, unless of course it’s deliberately indicating her voice slipping into something less robotic.)

The suits were communicating.  That was good to know, but it wasn’t exactly good.  It made this harder.

Yeah.

Even if I hadn’t known the truth about Dragon, I’d assume this from the start.

“She could if Trickster leapfrogged her here,” I said.  If Trickster was currently engaged in a fight with one of the other models, this could blow up in my face.

I suppose, though at least it’d give you more information on Trickster’s status.

But the suit didn’t refute me.  It didn’t speak at all.

“I used my power to signal Imp and Trickster and ask them to help.  They’re nearby, and it’s very possible Imp is here.  She could be crawling on top of you, for all you know.  If you open your mouth, move your head or move a wing, you might be causing her to fall.  With your head being where it is, it’s not impossible she could fall and roll into this nanotech hedge you’ve made, right?”

…well played, Taylor. Well played.

I waited for a response, for the canned reply saying Azazel had no reasonable cause ot believe it.  Nothing.

Had it worked?

Maybe the drones are out searching for Imp and/or Trickster?

“Maybe I should be more specific,” I said.  “I told them to help in general.  They might not be helping me, so it’s very possible that any other suit might be in immediate proximity to Imp.  Be careful you don’t accidentally crush her.”

Hah, nice. If this works, it should disable any suit involved in a conflict at the moment.

No reply.  Hopefully that would help the others somehow.  It wouldn’t stop any of the ones in the air like that Glaurung drone suit, but it could stall others.

…wait, Azazel doesn’t need to move its mouth to speak, right?

“Now,” I said, picking my words carefully, my pulse pounding, “I’m going to light a match and try to burn this thing away.”

I drew the matchbook from behind my back, grabbed a match from the box.

This almost certainly isn’t going to get her out of the situation judging by the scrollbar, so when is the other shoe dropping? (And/or Dragon’s humanoid body, from the sky?)

Hesitated.

If the hedge burned quickly enough to matter, what would happen?  Azazel could easily spray me down in containment foam.

Good point. Probably could do that without moving too much, too.

I began organizing my bugs, placing them on the ceiling, drawing out lines of silk cord.

Hm? Shield against the foam? Rope to pull yourself out of it?

The PRT could be entering my range any second, ready to take me into custody.  I needed to be fast, but I couldn’t rush this.  I was replicating the natural design of a spiderweb, three times over, but I was making each strand fifty or sixty times as thick, braiding other threads into cords and braiding cords into thicker strands.

…interesting…

It took a minute before I was satisfied.  I was aware of the drone that hovered some distance over my head.  I adopted a general runner’s pose, then lit the match.  With my bugs, I was able to sense the safe distance I could raise my hand, match held high.

FWOOSH?

It burned faster than I would have thought.  With a whoosh like I might expect from lighting a barbecue, it was gone.

FWOOSH

A series of things happened in that instant.  I pulled free of the branches that hadn’t burned away, sprinting for the exit,  Azazel opened its mouth and began spewing containment foam, and the drone began speaking, “Attention Citizen…

I still love the drones’ lines.

I maneuvered the spiderweb-nets into place in the stream.  Two were far enough away to catch only a little, but the burden was heavy, growing more awkward for my bugs as the expanding foam captured some and rendered them unable to fly.

I don’t remember if the color of the foam was ever actually stated, but I’ve been picturing it as a sort of amber yellow all along. And now we’re getting bugs stuck in it…

I still managed to drag the foam-nets into place, covering one drone’s eye-lens and the other’s gravity panel.  They spiraled out of control, one striking a column, the other plummeting for the ground.

Sweet!

The other net was fixed just in front of Azazel’s mouth, strands already wound around the scales of its face.  It tore free on one side, but the foam expanded, forming a beard, then covering its mouth.

bearded-dragon.jpg

The makeshift barrier had kept the worst of the foam from reaching me.  I scrambled out of the way of the rest, narrowly avoiding getting the damned stuff on my costume.

Azazel’s chest opened, and a grappling hook speared out.

Hah, of course. Armsmaster’s influence.

Still trying to recover from dodging the foam, I couldn’t dodge it.  It seized me, and I hurried to climb over the railing that surrounded the now-empty fountain to keep Azazel from drawing me up into its chest.  Or into the foam that wreathed its head.

Clearly what you need is a bunch of people pulling you in the opposite direction with friendship-powered ninja ropes while banishing Azazel through a portal to Cauldron’s world.

Mane_Six_and_Pillars'_ropes_reach_out_to_Stygian_S7E26.png

I climbed under the railing, to see if I could wind it up any further, then jerked to a stop.  The hook was frozen in midair, still clutching the armor at my chest and shoulder.

…huh? Oh, did it just go taut?

“Frozen in midair” made my brain spin through options like Clockblocker showing up out of nowhere and helping Taylor for some reason.

Right.  So this was how they’d planned to counteract Siberian.

Does this hook employ tech adapted from Bakuda’s time bombs, which in turn were an adaptation of Clocky’s power?

I couldn’t free myself, and I couldn’t fight back, so I waited.

Armsmaster had said this technology drained his batteries, but Azazel could have a major power source in its chest.

Quite likely. You need a lot of power to run something like this.

It took only a minute before the hook went limp.  I managed to pry myself free.

Huh, nice.

Other than opening its mouth to spray the foam and turning its head, Azazel hadn’t budged from its position.

It seems your little fib worked.

With my swarm, I signaled Regent and Imp:  ‘Good job.  Come back fast.’

…you sure you want to pull Imp out of hiding just yet?

Without Bentley, I couldn’t cover enough ground.  Couldn’t run.  I found a hiding spot by the mall entrance instead.  From the spot, I used my swarm to covertly keep an eye on Azazel, praying that whatever Dragon was doing was consuming her attention.

So that she won’t override the A.I.?

Praying that she wasn’t about to override the simple head game I’d pulled on her hyperadvanced mecha-suit.

Huh, a block. Seems like an odd point for a time skip, but maybe it took a while for Regent and Imp to get back?

There’s also the vague possibility that we’re, for the first time, going outside Taylor’s perspective in a regular chapter, but I find that unlikely.

very satisfying crunching noise rang through the minimall.  I stood there, watching in approval with my arms folded as Grue, Sundancer, Ballistic and Genesis approached.

Oh hell yes!

Besides the implication of success in Ballistic and Genesis being here (maybe Team Ballistic succeeded and they and Team Bitch passed each other on the way between here and Coil’s base, explaining why Team Ballistic was nowhere to be found when Team Bitch got here?), this is a great set of capes for this battle.

Although… where’s Trickster?

I’d signaled Trickster to tell him to stay back.

Oh, okay.

No use giving the suit a way to rationalize its way out of my lie.

“Is that the Azazel?”  Grue asked.

It sure is, buddy.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“It’s not moving.”

“Because I told it that it might crush Imp if it did.”

Be very careful to not let on that it was a lie.

“Ah,” Grue answered.  He didn’t ask for clarification.

“How’d it go?”  Regent asked.  Azazel had started venting the mist to clear away the containment foam, freeing its head and front claws where it had been covered in its own foam, but I’d already formed a mesh of spiderwebs to keep it from opening fire with any of its weapons.  The mist had also exposed enough of Bentley for us to save him.  Working together, we’d already cut the real Bentley free of the desiccated flesh of his larger self that contained him.

Nice work.

So basically, the time skip was just to get some of these things done off-screen.

The bulldog and Bastard were happily sitting between Bitch and I.  Shatterbird was hammering at Azazel, smashing it repeatedly with a massive wrecking ball of condensed glass.

Sweet. Maybe get Ballistic in on the action?

Not to mention Sundancer. Sunny should be fantastic for this.

Sundancer spoke up, “We took down the hybrid model.  Giant gun, was sitting in the stratosphere, shooting down Genesis every time she sent a body out into the open.”

Pffft, that’s great.

“Our group took down two,” Bitch said.

Sure, make it a competition.

So that should mean three out of seven suits are down, yes? The Azazel, the Melusine and the Astaroth-Nidhug.

Progress.

“Where are the others?  Shouldn’t more reinforcements be arriving?”  Grue asked.

I shrugged, “If they come, I’ll know, and we can react.  We’ve gotten this far.”

Hm. Grue does have a point.

A minute passed, punctuated by the thud of the glass sphere against Azazel’s outer body. Only a little damage was done with each hit, but it was adding up.  That, and it felt good, in a way.

Heh. Just chipping away at this big beast.

Sundancer created an orb of flame and drove it into Azazel.  I watched as the metal melted and the wiring burned in clouds of acrid black smoke.  In the span of a minute, the suit was slag.

SEE! Now that’s how you take out a mech!

I signaled Imp and Trickster to tell them it was okay to approach.

We watched the suit burn.  Trickster and Imp joined us from the outskirts of the mall.

Oddly enough, this is bringing to mind the opening of 16.1.

They’re all gathered around this nice campfire.

“I feel bad about this,” I said.

I suppose there is the issue of having just destroyed Dragon and Defiant’s hard work, and the potential uses it had against the Nine or an Endbringer. (Although the stratogun seemed more useful against the Simurgh.)

“Why the fuck would you feel bad?” Bitch asked.

“They must have put millions into manufacturing this.  That was supposed to stop the Nine, and It was powerful enough that it might have, if it’d had Dragon’s brain backing it up.”

I’m not sure why it didn’t, honestly. She did want the ability to use multiple bodies at once. But I guess maybe she wanted to focus her processing power on the Nine?

“They can build more,” Grue said.

“Scary thought,” Sundancer commented.

And that’s another thing about tinkers.

“We got lucky,” I said.  “What with Imp being able to force Piggot to shut them down, and the way I could exploit it’s A.I. to lock down its movements.  Maybe you can make a program versatile and leave yourself open to the program using loopholes to work around any safeties you put in place.  Or you can make it heavily restricted and leave it open to vulnerabilities like what I exploited there.  I guess we’re a ways off from an A.I. being smart enough to work around those limitations.”

Ahahahahaha

Just,

Dragon

And yes, I do notice the clear parallel between Taylor’s commentary here and Dragon’s whole beef with her “father”. That just makes it even funnier, especially because this whole situation happened because Dragon was smart enough to work around those limitations.

“It’s a matter of time,” Regent said.

Negative time, even.

“You’re such a pessimist,” Imp retorted.

“And I’m so right.”

It can always get worse.

And there’s always a solution.

The suit continued to burn.  Containment foam billowed out of a container within Azazel’s body, putting out the worst of the flames and leaving us with an assurance that Azazel wouldn’t be lurching back to life the second we turned our backs.

Almost like Dragon considered that something like this could happen and the fire could be a threat. Also like she wanted to protect the remains of her tech from quick thieves. She’s burned herself on those before.

“Let’s go,” Grue said.  “Four more suits to take down, and we don’t have long before it gets dark.”

I suppose maybe 10:25 PM was too late in the night for that skweet’s timestamp. But 6:12 PM seemed too early (because this whole mess probably started around 4:13 PM and more than just two hours seemed to have passed), and 10:25 PM was the next Homestuck number…

I nodded.

We were half a block away from the minimall when a phone rang, startling the living daylights out of us.  It was my satellite phone.

Tattletale get past the communications block somehow? Or maybe Dragon wanted to commend Taylor on her victory over the Azazel.

Or perhaps Defiant did.

Dragon?  

Tattletale: “Phones are back on.”

Aw, alright. I was hoping for Dragon, honestly.

“Why?  Is she baiting us?  Trying to get us to reveal our positions?”

“She’s gone,” Tattletale replied.  “Suits leaving the city, satellite phones are working.  Few factors at play, there.  I got word back from the Dragonslayers.

Wait wait wait

WAS I FUCKING RIGHT?

Paid them a few million bucks to tell me how they keep getting the upper hand on Dragon, tell me how she’s relaying commands to her suits.

I mean she didn’t hire them to come to Brockton Bay like I suggested, but this is close enough!

With that, I had some squads plant C-4 and knock down cell towers.  That slowed her down, cut her bandwidth, so to speak, and limited her ability to reprogram them on the fly.

…and that’s why we got cheated out of the direct Dragon-Skitter conversation Azazel seemed to set her up for, and why Dragon didn’t override the programming.

Also I like the irony in the act of bringing phones back online by knocking down the cell towers.

I’m guessing you guys took out one or more suits?”

“Three,” Bitch said.

Not bad, really.

So I suppose with the suits leaving the city, this was the boss battle of this whole Dragon situation. Now we just need to get things in order in the territories in time for the election and confront Coil about Dinah… I guess that is enough to account for the fact that we’re only on 16.5.

Which would probably make Coil himself the true boss battle of the Arc, even if it’s not a battle in the sense of a physical fight. (Yet.)

“Two or three,” I clarified.

What? Oh, right, since the Melusine’s defeat was kind of ambiguous.

“That cost the Protectorate a good chunk of cash, and it’s detracting from Dragon’s primary mission, which is the Nine.  My guess is she’s zeroing in on them.  Better to have a few suits closer to where she thinks they are than to leave them here in the city for you guys to keep breaking.

Ahh, yeah, makes sense.

So she thinks, anyways, and the bigwigs that are footing the bill seem to agree.”

“I can live with that,” I said.

Hehe.

“I think we all can.  It doesn’t mean there won’t be more coming down the road.  But whatever else she does, she won’t be able to sell the local government on the idea that victory is a hundred percent assured, and she’ll have to justify the costs to the PRT.  That means we’re getting a reprieve.  When she does come back, it’ll only be because she’s certain she can win.”

Interesting. Narratively, this is an even clearer “she will be back for another, even harder round” than Lung’s power was.

I look forward to it.

I glanced around at the others.  “That’s good to know, kind of.”

“What’s important is it won’t be in the next little while.  If they intend to send someone like Eidolon or Alexandria here, even, it won’t be anytime soon.  So I can give you the official announcement.  We won.  Job complete.  The Pure have hauled ass out of town, Faultline’s apparently decided it’s safer to be out of the city, and you’ve humiliated the heroes enough that they can’t honestly contest your claim.  There’s nobody left.”

Huh. Good fucking job!

Shame about Faultline, but I suppose they needed her and her Crew out of the way too.

Feels kind of empty here now, doesn’t it?

…no, really, this victory kind of feels like the Genocide route in Undertale to some extent. All we’re missing is a bad time. How long until Sans Undertale shows up in Worm?

“The city is ours?” Grue asked.

“The city is ours.  And here’s the thing.  Order from the one in charge,” Lisa paused, and her meaning was clear.  An order from Coil.  “You’re done.  Good job.  Your final order for the time being is to take a few days off.  No costumed tomfoolery.  Go back to your territories, make sure things are okay, but no getting into fights.  If I see you out in costume, you’re fired.  Hell, I’ll shoot you.”

Hmmm.

Another test of loyalty?

If he’s to any extent serious about this, there’s a good chance fights will come to them anyway.

It sounded like a joke, the way Tattletale put it, but the deeper meaning was clear.  Coil was telling us to stand down.  No matter what.

And it’s very suspicious.

Why does he want this? Is it something about the image of his takeover? Or… did his favor to Cauldron get called on and he won’t be able to use his power to help them for the next week?

“Just like that?” Grue asked.

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.

“I was going to go out,” I said, “Uncostumed, don’t worry, but um-“

Why is that relevant here?

Didn’t want to say where I was going on a line the heroes might be listening in on.

“I get it,” Tattletale said.  “I know where.  One sec.”

Wait, right, the plans with Brian, not the plans with Danny. The ones with Brian were tonight, so she might want a ride?

A pause.  No doubt while she checked with Coil.

“Okay.  Cool,” she said.

“I can go?  It won’t cause issues?”

“No issues.  So long as you-“

“I know,” I cut her off.  So long as I left the costume at home.

Alright, cool.

“We’ll talk later,” she said.  “Gonna go see if I can get more details on what happened.  Betting someone blew their top when they realized you guys demolished two of those suits.”

Hehe, have fun!

Oh, hey, we still have Piggot to deal with, by the way. Gotta send her home, I suppose.

“Three,” Bitch said.

“Sure, three,” Tattletale clarified.  “Ta ta.”

I like Bitch’s insistence on this.

She hung up.

Our group paused, each of us looking to the others, as if we couldn’t believe it, or we were measuring each other’s reactions.

We’d won.  We’d cost the PRT too much in resources, pride and money, and they’d apparently decided it wasn’t worth their time to uproot us.  I hated the bureaucracy, the fucked up mindset of the institutions, but it was clearly working in our favor here, at least.

They’ve finally decided there wasn’t a solution…

Coil had his city.  There was nothing more I could do.  The only thing stopping Coil from following through on his end of the deal and releasing Dinah was, well, Coil.

Exactly.

And I don’t think that’s going to be that easy, even now.

I exhaled slowly, letting out a deep breath that I felt like I’d been holding in for a month.

🙂


End of Monarch 16.5

This was… kind of underwhelming, actually. I guess I hyped the Azazel up too much for myself, and it didn’t help that I was teased with the follow-up on Dragon wanting to talk to Skitter and then didn’t get it.

That said, the Azazel’s exchange with Skitter was great, and the chapter itself was well written as usual.

And hey, we got the culmination of what Tattletale was doing playing an important role in defeating Dragon like I was expecting! Though I was definitely not expecting my little idea about her bringing in the Dragonslayers to be correct… this is why I must record every stupid thought I have, besides the pure entertainment value in them. You never know which stupid thought will turn out to be not so stupid. 😛

The grand victory described at the end of the chapter feels hollow, much like the city itself at this point, but I think that was intentional on Wildbow’s part, so I don’t hold it against the chapter’s quality.

Next up: Going out with Brian? And/or dealing with Coil and his slithery ways. Either should be fun. See you soon for that!

(Though we might have a few billion other demons to deal with first.)

One thought on “Monarch 16.5: Wouldn’t Hurt an Imp

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s