Source material: Worm, Queen 18.6
Blogged: October 21-25, 2020
So! Last time, Taylor stopped a giant robot by convincing it that moving might cause it to break its no-kill rule, and Lisa worked her magic by paying the Dragonslayers for information and putting it to use, thereby defeating the Protectorate’s latest line of defense against the Undertravelers and Coil taking control over the city.
This time, we might have some fun, casual downtime shenanigans mixed with serious conversation about the nature of interpersonal support. And maybe even some steamier interactions?
…something’s not quite right here, and it may have something to do with the chapter’s URL.
“Help is on the way,” Miss Militia’s voice came over the armband.
“Three Vistas,” I said. “And Noelle is probably north of our location, going after-”
“Skitter!” Tattletale shouted, interrupting me, “lose it!”
Is one of the Vista’s coming after them? Wouldn’t Taylor sense that?
Or… is Tattletale telling her to drop the armband??? That only seems like a good idea if they’re being conspired against by more than just Assault.
“The armband! Toss it!”
I pulled at the straps. As I gathered bugs onto the armband to get a better sense of what I needed to do with the straps, I could tell that the entire thing was swelling, distorting. I could hear the screen crack.
Ohh. One of the Draconia Blazes has recognized the band for what it is and started blowing it up from the inside.
I pulled it free and threw it, simultaneously climbing to my feet and scrambling away.
So one concerning thing is that if she can do that to an armband, she can likely do the same to other aspects of their costumes.
Helmets and chestpieces being particularly dangerous. Even if she can’t circumvent the Manton limit, she could affect the sides separately, or just accept the slowdown because Vista was never fully affected in the first place.
“Grue! Cover it!” Tattletale shouted. “Use your power on anything that one breaks down!”
Tattletale may not be the tactician of the team (she is, however, the strategist, a distinction I only recently learned was a thing), but she’s not bad at this either. Events are too fast paced right now to filter her understanding through Taylor’s command, so she resorts to giving these commands directly.
Grue threw out a stream of darkness, then dissolved the darkness that wasn’t covering the area where the armband had been. Without the ability to see, I had only my bugs’ senses to go by, but I could track where he’d laid down the darkness by the way the air seemed thicker.
From Tattletale’s words, I’d expected an explosion, but it simply twisted away into wisps of thick smoke.
Are the remains of the armband still there?
“It’s radioactive,” Tattletale intoned. “Everything she’s dissolving like that.”
Oh jeez, she’s using her power at the atomic level, increasing the density of the atoms to the point where they start radiating. Finely tuned spatial manipulation.
“Unless I cover it?” Grue asked.
“Unless you cover it. Should cancel out the effects. But you did want me to let you know when I’m making an educated guess. This is one of them.” Tattletale said. “I hope I’m right. We could win this fight and still wind up dying in a hospital bed a few years from now, because we got too close as that stuff dissolved.”
Covering it should help at least somewhat, given how Grue’s power has been said to work. I believe Lisa even once explicitly mentioned it’d block radiation. And at the very least it should block gamma radiation, since that’s a form of light.
Ah yes, found it in Tattletale’s Interlude:
Darkness generation; muffles sound.
Muffles sound, light: inhibits radiation, microwaves, radio frequencies, miniscule effects on the transfer of kinetic energy-
This still doesn’t explicitly cover the non-lightbased forms of radiation, of course.
“Doesn’t matter, does it?” Regent said. “World’s ending in a few years anyways.”
I did have a thought that this might come into Taylor’s head, but dismissed it because Taylor’s pretty clear on having some hope for a future past that still. I forgot to consider it might come out of one of the other characters instead.
And I like that it’s Regent, for consistency. He’s the character this attitude would come from. Apathy justified by a belief in an inevitable death and spun into a twisted form of positivity.
“Let’s avoid the extreme radiation poisoning,” I said. “Regardless of whether the world’s ending or not.”
The other Undersiders and the Chicago Wards were out of the van, and we were collectively backing away from the nega-Vistas. More specifically, we were retreating from the one who was creating the radioactive dust.
Ahaha, I still love how Taylor keeps finding new ways to refer to the Draconia Blazes.
The first one I’d noticed was still on the rooftop, spreading out her efforts, thinning walls and twisting supports. Her progress was slow, but I was willing to bet that half of the city block would be collapsing onto us in a matter of minutes.
At least she’s not just pinching entire building floors together with people inside them.
If not sooner. If I had to guess, her power operated in a different manner than the original Vista’s. It affected a wider area, it was slower, and she didn’t seem to be suffering for our presence.
Checking the previous chapter, it seems the one with the radioactive rubble is Draconia Blaze, the Spine, and I think we’ll say this one’s Draconia Blaze, the Spine Wrangler.
Though if I hadn’t already named the first six, I suppose I’d call her Draconia Blaze, the Spine Thinner. Osteoporosis the cape.
(I mean, there’s totally the possibility of Noelle creating a seventh one, but she’s smart enough to keep that seventh one out of battle as long as she believes the PRT to have fallen for her ruse that there could only be six. So I can’t in good faith use that to pretend I haven’t named this one.)
So that’s two power variations accounted for. What’s the
third second one’s deal? Is she a Twister, Shredder or Gobbler?
Incidentally, I’ve made a notepad file to keep track of which Draconia Blaze is which now.
The bugs that I was sending her way were having a hard time approaching. They kept veering around so they flew clockwise around her instead of straight.
…actually maybe this one is the Twister.
Except nah, any Vista/Draconia Blaze would probably do something like this. She’ll remain the Wrangler.
I had only a few bugs attacking her, but the same effect that I’d seen with her face had hardened her skin and there weren’t many places left to attack. Her mouth was little more than a lipless slit across the lower half of her face, firmly closed, and only the smallest bugs could get at her eyes. She barely flinched at the bites and stings my swarm was delivering.
I believe the last time someone no-selled (no-sold?) Taylor’s eye attacks, that someone was Leviathan.
Meagre as my efforts were, they still should have left her blind, filling her eye sockets with ants and no-see-ums, but her power was still steadily working on the buildings around us. Another peculiarity of her abilities? The ability to sense the layout of whatever structures she was affecting? Did that extend to sensing us?
That would play right into the “Skitter vs similar tactics” thing from last chapter, even if that was more about Noelle herself.
Also, moment of appreciation for the attempt to use no-see-ums to blind someone.
The second one had arrived, creating footholds and handholds to ascend the section of road she’d raised into a vertical wall, twelve feet high. She was now perched on top, crouching. In the time that it had taken me to lose the armband, she had started to work on cutting off our best avenue of retreat. The road we’d traveled on to get here was raising behind us, bulging upward into a similar barrier. As far as I could tell, her powers were most in line with the regular Vista, and she seemed to be reacting most to the bites and stings. I wished that would make me feel more confident about these circumstances.
That just sounds like she’s got a sneakier ace up her sleeve.
That left the freakishly tall one. The Vista with limbs that zig-zagged, who was apparently turning matter into radioactive dust. She’d climbed past the wreckage of the fallen building and now stood on solid ground again, facing us.
So far Draconia Blaze, the Spine is my favorite Draconia Blaze.
I think with what she’s been doing with the roads, we’ll call the second one Draconia Blaze, the Spine Twister.
“We off the radioactive one first?” Tecton suggested.
Seems as good as any, honestly. Or better. Though I suggest you keep an eye on Draconia Blaze, the Spine Twister. I do not believe that her power’s as normal as it seems for a second.
Tattletale, any insights on that?
“No,” I said. I used my bugs to draw an arrow in the air. “Priority’s the one on the roof, over there.”
Draconia Blaze, the Spine Wrangler is a slower issue, but with a higher threat level both to them and to any civilians.
“There’s a third one?” he asked.
Apparently he hadn’t caught my message to Miss Militia.
“She’s going to bring down more buildings if we don’t take her fast,” I said.
Yeah, that’s a pretty big issue.
“Raymancer,” Tecton ordered, “handle it.”
Raymancer stood like he had before, feet together, one arm extended. I didn’t sense any energy blast or ray from his hand. The Vista didn’t act as though she’d been shot either.
There’s definitely more to Raymancer than “blasts”. Ranged attacker can mean a lot, and they were deliberately vague about it. Even the name may be a deliberate diversion from his actual power.
Maybe he shoots floating hands and feet.
“She bends light!?” Wanton asked.
Huh. She could totally use that for illusions if she refined it.
Also, are we sure Draconia Blaze, the Spine Wrangler did that and not Draconia Blaze, the Spine Twister, working to help her fellow Draconia Blaze out?
“She’s bending space,” Tattletale said. “You won’t get a straight shot.”
Right, I suppose any Vista would be able to bend light. Duh.
“Don’t need one,” Raymancer said. His second shot left a shallow crater in the Vista’s chest. She sprawled onto the roof, hands pressed to the injury.
Ooh, is it kind of like Legend’s directable lasers?
The thinning of the walls didn’t stop.
Uh. Either that didn’t finish her off, or the power needs to be explicitly stopped.
The latter would be way worse.
“How the fuck does that work?” Regent asked. “The laser didn’t even-”
“She’s still alive!” I called out, interrupting him. There was a small explosion as Raymancer directed a shot at the Radioactive Vista and missed. I could sense how the barrier behind us abruptly stopped growing and how the space to one side of her warped to let her evade more easily.
Please let Regent finish his sentence?
“Vista to our three o’clock is assisting her!” I said.
Because that’s exactly what you need: A space warper helping another space warper.
“Grace!” Tecton shouted. “Leaving rooftop to you! Launch!”
Grace leaped toward him, onto the back of one outstretched hand. She had no trouble maintaining her balance as she placed the other foot on the back of his other gauntlet.
…yup, still picturing Grace from Infinity Train.
She bent her knees, and extended them to jump in the same instant the piledriver attachments on the gauntlets extended with explosive force.
Can you imagine being one the poor bugs that have to hold onto Grace for Taylor to be able to make sense of this?
Most of the bugs I’d placed on her were torn free by the force of the wind ripping past her, as she turned into a human projectile.
…case in point!
She had to have used her selective invincibility to augment her feet and legs so they weren’t annihilated by the piledrivers, and she would be using her enhanced agility to ensure she stuck the landing.
Except the landing wasn’t going to happen as planned. If I’d understood what they’d planned, I would have warned her. Her trajectory shifted as she ran into the rooftop-Vista’s power. Grace fell short of reaching the rooftop. Very short.
Yeeah, honestly, with space manipulation in play, any tactic that relies on aiming is kind of fucked.
She hit the ground with both feet together, arms spread, and left a shallow crater around her impact site, a half-block away from the building. Grace was running toward her target a heartbeat later, unhurt.
At least she’s well equipped for dealing with a miss like that.
Some of the flying capes that had been assigned to watch over us were targeting the Vista on the rooftop, and I saw that as excuse enough to focus on other, more immediate problems.
Oh, good, the most immediate backup forces are helping out.
Rachel and her dogs went for the Vista to our right, with Regent doing what he could to hamper their target’s movement, forcing her to use her power to maintain the distance from the beasts.
f i n a l l y
I’m pretty sure it has been at least ten Arcs since the basic use of Regent’s power, the one we were originally introduced to, last got a chance to shine. Ever since his ability to take full control was introduced, any lesser use has fallen by the wayside. It’s about damn time!
Which left the rest of us to face off against the radioactive one.
“One on the rooftop’s occupied,” I said. “Now we can fight her.”
She extended her hand toward us, and the ground between us and her bulged, as though a cartoon mole had crawled beneath the pavement. Raymancer fired at her, clearly hoping to distract her, but each shot missed by a fair margin.
Judging by how the armband bulged, you may want to step back, and/or ready a hefty dose of Darkness.
My bugs were covering every inch of her skin, and I had them biting and tearing at her flesh. Her skin was hard, gnarled, and calloused, but I did the damage where I could at the elbows, knees and neck, drawing blood. I tried to tell myself that she was a monster, a mockery of a real person, and she was too dangerous to be allowed to live. With that kind of unhinged mental state, and her ability to irradiate people… I grit my teeth. No choice.
There are absolutely fics that explore the idea that these things aren’t mindless monsters and can find a way to establish their own lives independent from Noelle and their, um, source material, right? Right?
If not I’ll be forced to shake my head in disappointment at this whole fandom for wasting such excellent setup for one of my favorite tropes.
I mean, even Worm itself acknowledges the possibility through a couple of characters’ doubts, though Tattletale spoke up against it and is usually right. But she’s not always right, and would be down to lie about it if she found it necessary, so there’s still plenty of wiggle room for fic writers to overturn that decision.
And in typing that, I come to realize that the song I’m listening to is a pretty big Tattletale mood. Maybe also Skitter. Or better yet, the ship between them.
Grue finished covering the bulging ground with darkness. Tall-Vista didn’t react. Her hand was still pointed at us.
“It’s a feint!” Tattletale shouted. She spun around. “There!”
My swarm moved in the direction Tattletale was looking. I found the bulge, a basketball-sized blister on the side of the containment van, felt it erupting a mere foot from Raymancer’s head a half-second before Grue’s darkness covered it.
Fuck, that’s gonna sting.
Too late. Raymancer stumbled, coughing.
Grue turned and extended a hand toward the tall Vista. With my swarm spread out around her, I could sense miniscule explosions appearing all around her, see the flashes of light with the bugs’ distorted vision. The individual detonations weren’t much larger than golf balls, and even the direct impacts weren’t enough to kill my larger bugs.
Is she using the power on the air?
Also, kudos to Taylor for using bug-vision. Keep at it!
“How the fuck do you use Raymancer’s power?” Grue asked.
“You copy powers?” Wanton asked.
“Thought you guys read up on us,” Tattletale quipped. “Grue, focus the beams with the lenses. The beam appears from the center, so line them up to refine the beam into something more effective.”
The center of what?
Sounds like Raymancer makes rays appear from a spot other than himself, explaining why Taylor didn’t sense any kind of blast from him and why he didn’t need a straight shot.
“In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve only got the one lens there.”
Lenses? My bugs weren’t sensing anything.
Probably not entirely physical.
Wanton was closing the distance, now that the other Vista was distracted trying to avoid Bentley and Bastard, still hobbled by Regent’s power. As he got halfway to her, the ground around her began to distort and twist into curls. Wanton disintegrated as he entered the area.
I suppose this is him turning into a “localized telekinetic storm”.
For a heartbeat, I thought she’d used her power on him. When the debris, dust and chunks of building began stirring and orbiting a central point that continued his general trajectory, I realized it was his power.
Mood. I was going to joke about how being randomly disintegrated before he could even do anything was “probably not ideal for Wanton” and everything, until I remembered he hadn’t gotten to show off his power yet and this might be the case. (Then I went back to check what it was, of course.)
Wanton didn’t hesitate as radioactive dust exploded around and inside his new body. If anything, it proved an advantage, as the dust provided more material to work with and the damage to the street let him pull up chunks of pavement. He closed the distance to our opponent and began thrashing her. One of her arms snapped and dangled as one large chunk struck her.
Hah! How do you like it when people throw radioactive dust in your face?
Grue’s attacks weren’t terribly effective. There were only half the number of explosions, but they were sufficient to kill bugs if they happened to hit one. He abandoned Raymancer’s power and cast out his darkness toward the Vista.
Oh boy, space-off.
Of course, Grue only gets a small portion of the power. Half the number of explosions… that kind of sounds like Raymancer only used a fraction of his full power in the first place.
A moment later, the ground under her feet was contorting, and dust was rising around her.
I wouldn’t count on the radioactivity against her. She seems unconcerned by that. But the contorting ground could be useful, given that Regent is occupied with Draconia Blaze, the Spine Twister.
To our right, Rachel and Bastard were closing in on the Vista. Her foot was contorted by Regent’s power, and her neck was craning at awkward angles, making it harder for her to focus on them and use her own abilities.
This is going too well, especially for less than halfway through the chapter. Something’s up.
She backed away, raised her one good hand in their direction, and promptly bumped into Imp. Before the pseudo-Vista could react, she had a taser pressed to her neck.
Nice one, Imp!
Rachel closed the distance, Bentley loping forward. My bugs caught her voice. An order, not too hard to make out. Not with the context.
“Kill,” Rachel said, her voice quiet. The bulldog picked up the Vista in his jaws and bit down until an audible series of cracks marked the breaking of a dozen major bones. He shook her like a rag doll, no doubt snapping her neck and aggravating every injury he’d just inflicted. The girl was dead in an instant.
RIP Draconia Blaze, the Spine Twister.
Rachel’s ordered him to drop the body, ordered Bastard to back away from the carcass, and then took hold of Bastard’s chain. She started to wheel Bentley around to rejoin us, but I was already drawing arrows in the air. Wanton wasn’t at risk from the radiation in his new form, apparently, but Rachel and her dogs were. There was nothing saying that any radiation wouldn’t be able to penetrate the monstrous flesh and hit the dog nestled in the core.
Oof, yeah, that would wreck her. She’d cope with getting affected herself, at least outwardly, but the doggos?
Kicking Bentley into an all-out run, she led Bastard in an all-out toward the one on the rooftop. No hesitation. No apparent remorse.
Bitch has no problem going on a killing spree if she has to. And this is not a situation for holding back in.
You know what fic premise I’d probably be inclined to drag out of this whole plotline?
The Noelle threat passes, Vista is reclaimed and reincorporated into the Wards… but it’s the wrong Vista, and only she knows that. She’s one of the most normal-looking clones Noelle could produce. As far as she knows, the original Vista is dead, so why should she, a nearly identical clone with all of Vista’s memories and only a slight impulse to kill the Wards, not be allowed to take her place to survive? And so she has to grapple with the anxieties of hiding her nature from friends who might kill her for what she is if they knew, and the morality of taking the place of a dead girl who was in some ways essentially her.
Meanwhile the real Vista might not actually be dead, just incapacitated in a way that gives Draconia Blaze, the Spine Replacer time for her plot to happen before Vista’s reappearance prompts the final confrontation, where the truth is revealed but the other Wards have had time to bond with the new Vista and a conflict arises on what to do.
What? I told you it was one of my favorite tropes. And this has a changeling angle, which is another one of my favorite tropes. And some of this is similar to a fic I’m already writing for another fandom.
Really, this whole thing was very predictable.
(If anyone wants to write this, by the way, you’re more than welcome to as long as I’m given idea credit.)
Getting sidetracked that heavily, however, seems like a good indicator it’s time to call it for the night.
[End of session]
While eating breakfast today, I looked at the title of a track that was playing called “Juggernaut” and thought of how that’d definitely be someone’s cape name in the Wormverse. Which led me to thinking about the checking the Wards did to avoid overlap in Interlude 4, which led me to consider a question I’ve somehow never thought to consider before now:
Did Wildbow have the name Skitter in mind from the start, or had he like Taylor put that question on the backburner? Was there any audience participation in coming up with the name?
Regardless of the answer out of universe, I appreciate that Taylor didn’t really prioritize the question. As I believe I alluded to when she met the Undersiders, it’s an interesting characterization thing, because it’s the one thing about planning to become a hero that is focused almost exclusively on the social aspects of the role. Of course a loner like early Taylor wouldn’t spare it much thought.
The name is pretty much only there to serve other people’s interactions with and about Taylor, and so she didn’t really put much thought into considering it. Which given her arc of defying clear hero/villain labels retroactively makes it fitting that she ended up letting others pick the name for her, letting them call her whatever they wanted and not caring too much about it as long as she could do what she believed was right.
Because I have some strong opinions on names, I wasn’t too keen on the Wards getting to name her at the time, and held off on calling her Skitter until I got something approximating an acceptance of the name from her, but in retrospect I think that was a very sound move on Wildbow’s part both thematically and characterizationwise.
Rachel and I had grown closer, to the point of maybe being friends on top of being teammates. Whatever rifts had formed between us were largely mended, and she trusted me as a leader. With all that in mind, it was sometimes hard to remember that she was still Rachel at the core of it.
Hey, at least you no longer have that tic where your narration continues to call her Bitch regardless of whether the group is in or out of costume. Not that there’s much difference given that Bitch barely has a costume and doesn’t give a shit about being in it. And… that’s the thing, isn’t it? Taylor has accepted that there’s a Rachel behind the Bitch, but now she’s facing the fact that there’s also still a Bitch behind the Rachel. It’s not a matter of one or the other being fake. She’s both.
If her psychological wiring didn’t give her any real empathy for her fellow human beings, it wasn’t about to give her any for human-esque beings.
What about anime dog girls? If one of those showed up in Brockton Bay…
…Rachel would probably find her disturbing and offensive more than anything. Yeah, no, that’d go badly.
(No, I don’t mean Nina Tucker.)
Tecton slammed one gauntlet into the ground, creating a crack that rushed toward the taller Vista. It exploded in a geyser of debris and dust as it reached her. She staggered, then staggered again as Grue landed a shot with Raymancer’s power. She tried to raise one hand to defend herself, but the thin, curved bone of her upper arm had been shattered. Her broken arm dangled in front of her.
Grue is still using Ray’s power too? I suppose there’s no real reason to not use it even if he switched his main focus to directly countering the space manipulation.
Between Tecton, Draconia Blaze, the Spine Twister and Draconia Blaze, the Spine, the ground here has seen better days. At least Draconia Blaze, the Spine Twister’s ramps should be reversi… wait. Draconia Blaze, the Spine Twister just died, but we haven’t had any mention of the ramps beginning to revert. Is what she did permanent, as her spin(e) on the power? Or am I just asking after it too soon for Taylor to have noticed the effect?
With the topographical map my swarm provided, I noted the presence of thick veins standing out on her arm, where the weight of the dangling limb pulled the skin tight against the shattered bone. I barely thought about it, sending my bugs to the area, biting deep into the largest one, working together so that one hornet might pull one way, a beetle pulling another, to better rend the flesh or positioning it for a stronger bug to bite into.
It’s a weak spot!
She jerked in reaction, and blood began flowing. Beads of it at first, but the skin was pulled tight and the bugs were relentless. It virtually tore between the combination of damage and strain. A small river of blood flowed, intermittently spurting.
…how does something “virtually” tear in this context? Especially considering it seems to actually be tearing.
That would be an artery, not a vein. Fuck me. I tried to suppress the quiet horror that took hold of me as my bugs tracked the blood pouring down her arm, trickling off her fingertips in individual streams.
I suppose we’re at the next step already.
- leaving someone to die because she could do nothing
- intentionally leaving a bad person to die
- considering attempting to kill a group of very dangerous people
- actually attempting to kill a very dangerous madman
- almost killing a good guy while bluffing for personal reasons
- finally killing a bad person for personal reasons
- killing evil clones of a good person, dismissed as non-human but humanlike enough to trigger empathy <== we are here
Still fighting to avoid being brained by Wanton’s telekinetic storm, the tall Vista let out a drawn out half-moan, half-scream, equal parts despair and anger. It didn’t sound exactly normal, but that didn’t surprise me. What made my blood run cold was that she almost sounded like a young girl might. A little too close to reality for comfort.
This was pretty much inevitable from the moment their personhood was questioned.
She went all-out with her power, aimless, directionless. Street signs, mailboxes, piles of debris, walls and sections of road began twisting and bulging. Grue laid down a blanket of darkness all around us, aiming to dampen the spread of the radioactive particles. I wasn’t sure how that worked, but Tattletale thought it did, and I wasn’t about to complain.
It makes some amount of sense. One of the reasons alpha and beta decay are dangerous is that the particles move very fast and have a lot of kinetic energy to impart for something so small, and the Darkness has a somewhat dampening effect on the transfer of kinetic energy (resulting in the slight resistance felt when inside it). Gamma decay, meanwhile, takes the form of electromagnetic radiation, which is straight up just high-energy light.
I’d settle for a white lie if it meant we were able to stay focused on fighting, rather than the cancer we’d have five years from now.
That’s fair too.
It took ten seconds before the Vista collapsed. Only ten seconds to bleed out to the point of unconsciousness. The blood continued pumping free, and nobody leaped forward to staunch the flow.
The difference between this and Too Many Pinkie Pies (because I need to address this due to how my attitude here could be seen as conflicting with my portrayal of Too Many Pinkie Pies as a genocidal massacre in one of my fics) is that the Draconia Blazes are actively a threat. They have actively been trying to kill the heroes* and civilians (Draconia Blaze, the Spine Wrangler in particular has probably racked up a body count in the dozens or hundreds already).
There’s room for playing with the idea that they’re not all evil, that they deserve a measure of personhood, yes, but the thing is… I think killing them, here, would be justified even if they were people.
Maybe even more justified.
(*: Undersiders included.)
I sensed some of the faster capes from Miss Militia’s group making their arrival on the scene.
Good timing, guys. Really helped out.
How is Draconia Blaze, the Spine Wrangler doing against the flying capes and the doggos? Taylor hasn’t mentioned her collapsing or being torn to bits or anything.
The wound the rooftop-Vista had sustained from Raymancer was shallow, the majority of it consisting of surface damage to her artificially smooth, thick skin and to her ribs. I’d only peripherally been aware I was doing it, but my bugs had seized on the opportunity to dig in and attack the more vulnerable flesh of the open wound. She barely seemed to care, focusing her efforts on diverting incoming fire and trying to distort the rooftop to force Grace to fall off.
Damn, she’s actually doing really well for what she’s facing and the slowness of her power.
That changed when several bugs found a hole leading into the empty space surrounding her lungs.
Welp. Ready to take down another, Taylor?
(As I copied that over, the song I’m listening to had the lyric “One by one they die”.)
In that same moment, the Vista started trying to claw the bugs out of the shallow cavity. The distraction afforded one of the heroes a chance to catch her in the head with a gobbet of foam. A smaller containment foam blaster?
Maybe they’ve got a hero whose power is literally to be a human containment foam blaster.
Flying capes closed the distance and settled around her. There was a brief dialogue that I couldn’t make out with the unfamiliar voices. Someone said something about foam, there were a few words of argument from a pair, and one pressed a finger to their armband, saying something about a captive.
Hm. This strikes me as a bad idea with Draconia Blaze, the Spine Wrangler in particular. The other two, sure, it could work, but this one?
It was Miss Militia who responded through the armband. She gave a curt order, and several capes turned away. One of the capes who hadn’t took aim and shot the fallen girl between the eyes.
Miss Militia sees it too. Even if she didn’t know the particulars of this specific Draconia Blaze.
The fight was over. The heroes were already moving north in pursuit of Noelle. I signaled for Rachel to return.
So that’s three out of five or six known Draconia Blazes down (Draconia Blaze, the Spinosaurus may have been a fabrication, though Tattletale would likely be able to tell), though Noelle of course retains the ability to create more. But I doubt Vista’s the only cape we’ll have to deal with like this. Eidolon and Assault are particularly at risk.
(Eidolon because he’s ridiculously powerful when his power cooperate and pitting the heroes against that is a natural progression, and Assault because while Assault might be able to restrain himself from pulling shit against the Undersiders, Madcap would likely target them like one of the Perdition clones went after Trickster.)
That moan-scream the tall Vista had made was still ringing in my ears. It had been way too human for my tastes.
That’s how they get to you.
There was no doubt she’d been going all out. Raymancer was on his knees, supported by Tecton. He’d taken a hit of the dust straight to the face. If Tattletale was right… he’d just taken a lethal dose of radiation. The clone hadn’t even flinched in delivering the attack.
Yeah, see, this is what I mean. This is why I don’t question the morality of killing clones here nearly as much as I do in a show where execs won’t let a purple horse throw a physical punch in a grand villain fight that otherwise feels like Dragonball Z.
(I’m not kidding. The fight I’m talking about is fucking awesome. Spoilers for the season 3 and 4 finales, of course. One bit of important context: Twilight is currently powered up with all the alicorn magic of the country’s most powerful ponies, making her far more powerful and durable than her baseline. She almost certainly wouldn’t normally survive this.)
I’d had fights like this. Dealing with the Nine had been much the same, had demanded we hold nothing back, had involved enemies who didn’t hesitate. The difference was that the Nine had demanded it because anything less wouldn’t cut it. Fighting these clones, they were vulnerable. They only defended themselves so they could keep causing damage. When I tried to hurt them, they got hurt. It sounded so lame when I framed it like that, but… it shook me.
Again. That’s how they get to you. Might even be part of why Noelle picked Vista in the first place, as a nice bonus on top of her power being so good.
Even knowing they were deranged, that Tattletale had confirmed they weren’t really people, I couldn’t ignore how brutal we’d been. My actions. The clones weren’t innocent, but they were innocents. If that made any sense.
It really doesn’t.
And I knew I’d have to do it all over again, the next time we ran into a clone.
Yeah, and if you don’t get it together, your hesitation might cause the deaths of people who haven’t been doing everything they could to destroy everything around them.
I know that’s hypocritical of me after all the time I’ve spent arguing against Taylor taking the blame upon herself for failing to protect people, but this isn’t about the morality of it. This is a situation where pragmatically setting aside your empathy for the enemy is absolutely necessary and somewhat justified.
Taylor has always been a little too good at rationalizing, but her focus has shifted. Once, she would rationalize her way out of blame for things she did. Nowadays, she’s more prone to rationalizing the blame onto herself for things she had little control over. And right now, the former skill is what’s needed.
Tattletale touched Grue’s arm, and he banished the darkness around us.
“I’m going to die,” Raymancer said, his voice barely above a whisper.
Man. Sure would be great if there was still a healer in town.
Though pre-Infestation Amy wouldn’t touch this anyway. The hit was to the head.
“There’s a good chance, yeah,” Tattletale said.
“Hey,” Tecton said, “Don’t be a bitch.”
“No, I’m Tattletale, that’s Bitch. Honestly, I don’t know how you’d get us mixed up, given the enormous dogs and all.”
She didn’t respond. Instead, she touched her armband, “Raymancer down. He needs immediate medical attention for acute radiation poisoning. Quarantine this location, you’ll want stuff for radioactive decontamination, mobile showers if you’ve got them. Oh, and Skitter’s armband is out of commisison, we need a replacement before someone mistakes her for a clone.”
Tattletale is on top of things, as usual.
And jeez, Skitter has such a bad track record with these armbands getting sabotaged.
“Keep close to her, Tattletale,” Miss Militia said. “And we’ll deliver one shortly. Quarantine, civilian evacuation and decontamination are en route.”
“We’re moving on to check on Ballistic. Your man can meet us there.”
“If they can track us with the armband, they can follow us to his headquarters,” Grue commented.
That’s a good point. It would be taking advantage of an Endbringer-like situation, but it’s not covered by those laws due to the A-class rating.
“He can move bases,” I said, “Finding him fast is a bigger priority.”
Also a fair point.
“He won’t like that,” Grue said. “Going from a well set-up base of operations to some place improvised?”
“He didn’t want to come today, he deals with the fallout,” I said. I waved as Rachel approached. She was still holding Bastard’s chain. “Let’s go.”
Yeah, I’m with Taylor on this one.
“Tecton?” Tattletale asked.
“I… I can’t leave Raymancer here,” Tecton said.
A shame, but valid. Though they might need you more than Ray would.
“Wanton can watch him,” she said.
I looked at Wanton. He was still in his telekinetic form. To my swarm sense, he gave me the impression of a miniature galaxy, with dust and various objects orbiting a central point. When he moved, the outer edges took longer to catch up than the bits closer to the center, almost like a jellyfish in water.
Hopefully he has more brains than one.
“Hey, W,” Tecton said. “Fight’s over.”
“He can’t change back,” Tattletale said. “If he does, that dust he drew into his t.k. body is going to settle, and then he’ll be in the same shape Raymancer is. Maybe everyone in his vicinity will.”
…oof. Can he get rid of it? Dump it into the sea, maybe?
“But they can stick him in a decontamination shower,” Tattletale said. “Just needs to hold himself together long enough for that to happen. Not to worry. Fifteen minute decontamination and he’s clean.”
“Longest he’s ever held that form was twelve minutes.”
“Then he’ll need to hold together for longer. But we’ve got to get ahead of Noelle before the next trap is set up. We need you to come with us.”
“You want me to leave my team,” Tecton said.
The Undersiders would do it for you, in a situation like this.
But then, the Chicago Wards have been thoroughly established as a tight-knit group used to cooperating and using tactics that account for each other.
“We could run into more Vistas. She warps space, distorts architecture. If the next batch is organized enough to cut off all avenues of retreat while keeping their distance, or drop more buildings on us, we’d need you to help. Rachel’s dogs aren’t going to be able to get us free if Vista buries us, or if she traps us under some bubble of stretched building.”
Yeah, makes sense. Tecton’s power is good for handling this. Plus he’s the coolest on his team except maybe Grace, so I’m all for having him along.
“Go, T,” Raymancer said.
I do have to wonder whether there might be something more between these two, but them just being platonic close friends and teammates is also good.
“I’ll get looked after, and I’ll give Wanton he encouragement he needs to break his old record. Get Grace and go.”
Should probably also give Wildbow he encouragement he needs to fix a couple typos around here. 😛
I didn’t have it in myself to go with Grace
‘Cause when I’d fight you used to tell me I was brave
And if I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake
Cursing my name, wishing I stayed
Look at how my tears ricochet
“You heard the man,” Tattletale said. “You want to drive?”
“You go ahead,” Tecton said. “Driving with the suit is a hassle.”
Imagine accidentally using the ability to create a fissure where he steps… on the gas pedal.
“All the better,” Tattletale said, cheery.
Tecton didn’t reply as he got into the van. I climbed onto Bentley’s back.
The van had to take a detour, given the three sections of road that had been raised as barriers and the one fallen building. Bentley wasn’t so disadvantaged. We crossed the ruins of the toppled building.
Yeah, looks like either my assumptions about real Vista’s power are incorrect or Draconia Blaze, the Spine Twister’s special spin on the power was that the effects were permanent. Or it just takes a while to revert.
I could smell the thick, metallic scent of blood in the same moments that his hot breath wafted past me.
Civilians inside the building?
I wondered if I should be in the van. I could communicate with Tattletale and Grue if I was, and it would mean I wasn’t experiencing an agonizing pain in my side every time he set his feet down with too much force or leaped an obstacle.
Oh yeah, that’s right, Taylor is still near the tail end of a fucking gauntlet of injuries and superheroics. Her blinding was literally last night, if I’m not terribly mistaken.
That said, I wasn’t sure I wanted to turn Rachel away if she was being friendly.
Perhaps not. There’s still a Bitch behind the Rachel.
The van stopped to pick up Grace. They traveled down a different street, moving parallel to Rachel and I.
“…so fast?” Tecton asked. I couldn’t make it all out.
The doggos? Tattletale figuring things out?
I caught the tail end of Tattletale’s reply: “… a trap.”
I drew out letters on the dashboard with my bugs: ‘Trouble?’
That’s gotta be a little disconcerting for Tecton and Grace, who would have no idea Skitter could listen in.
She shook her head. I didn’t catch what she said. She repeated herself. “…ventative measure.”
Maybe he was asking if she needed to drive so fast and Tattletale said it was so Noelle wouldn’t have time to set up a trap?
Preventative measure. She was picking up the speed so any other enemies that were lying in wait would have less time to spring any surprises on us. I scattered the bugs, left a brief ‘ok’ and then removed those. I caught Tecton saying something, but couldn’t make it out. His mask didn’t help.
Probably acknowledging the thing about Skitter listening in.
I redoubled my efforts to check our surroundings and find any possible clones of Vista, Uber, Leet or Circus.
At least a Leet clone would be relatively harmless, due to the material
component to his spells requirement of tinker powers. But an Über clone would get to have his power while possibly not suffering from as much sheer incompetence at using it.
Also, previous mentions of Über’s name have pretty consistently used the umlaut, so I’m counting that as another typo. I think you can tell sometimes when Wildbow was tired while writing, because the typos get way more frequent.
Why wouldn’t Taylor watch out for Ballistic clones among these, incidentally?
We caught up to a group of the faster-moving heroes who’d flown ahead. They were dispatching another Vista. She was shorter, thicker in the arms and legs, with a neck as thick around as her head was.
With a neck like that, this has to be Draconia Blaze, the Spine Gobbler.
The space around her was twisted into jagged shapes, with some raised into points. Two of the capes had been injured but were still fighting.
Pointy space. There’s a concept.
We rode past, and the van with the others gave chase.
The flying capes weren’t moving with purpose. They were roving the area, going west-to-east and back again as they moved in a general northerly direction.
That reads as moving with purpose to me. Just a different purpose.
We were nearly at Ballistic’s base when a digitized voice sounded over the armband. Not Miss Militia. Dragon’s A.I. “We have a sighting. All cooperating capes are ordered to stand down. Remain at your present coordinates until further notice.”
Are we sure this isn’t Noelle managing to pull off a remarkably good Dragon impression with a stolen armband?
Stand down? I tapped Rachel on the shoulder, and she pulled Bentley to a stop.
The armband buzzed again, but it was Miss Militia’s voice this time. “Eidolon has found our primary target. He has requested that all capes in the area remain in position.”
Ah, fuck, Eidolon found her first and is apparently intent on taking her on alone. That’s not good. Learn from Armsmaster’s mistakes, pal.
I caught Tattletale pressing the button on her armband. She asked, “Why?”
Whatever program was managing communications, it didn’t see fit to convey Tattletale’s message.
Or Eidolon has already been cloned and the request came from one of his clones.
The van caught up to us. Tattletale rolled her window down, and opened the back. The others climbed out to join the conversation. Grace folded her arms and hung back.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Don’t know,” Tattletale said. “But if Eidolon is fighting Noelle…”
Then you don’t have much time before Eidolon’s abilities are turned on you.
Regent finished her sentence for her, “We might not have to worry about the end of the world happening in two years.”
This feels like an end-of-chapter sort of line, but there’s still quite a bit left according to the scroll bar.
“Why is Miss Militia letting this slide?” I asked. “She has to know the risk. Everyone has to know the risk.”
“She’s letting this slide because Eidolon outranks her and she has no choice,” Tattletale said. “And he’s doing this because he’s got an agenda.”
How much did you figure out in that little one-on-one chat of yours?
“An agenda?” Grace asked.
“He’s the top hero in the Protectorate. His agenda is doing the right thing. Is this what you guys do? You analyze the situation until you’ve twisted it into a scenario where you just have to do something?”
*looks at Taylor*
“Yeah,” Regent said. “We’re really good at it, too.”
“Ha ha,” Grace said, without any humor.
“Look,” I said. “Fine. You guys are helping us, so you get a say. If you guys are willing to hear me out and you decide that there’s no merit to what I’m saying, we can go along with what you want to do.”
Look at Taylor handling this as a leader, she’s come so far ❤
“Hear you out?”
“Yeah. Look, you can’t deny that putting one of the most powerful people in the world in close quarters with someone who could turn Vista into those things is a fucking bad idea.”
To be fair, no one said close quarters. But close quarters might be further than expected when the enemy is super fast and has Draconia Blazes on her side.
“Sure I can.”
Yeah, but doing so is dumb.
“Play nice, Grace,” Tecton said.
“No, I’m going to make my arguments. He’s not stupid. He knows what he can do, and he’s heard what she can do. You don’t get to be a member of the Triumvirate if you’re an idiot.”
Are you sure about that? It’s also not a great argument against Skitter, who has very little patience left for the idea that authority has anything to do with competence.
“He’s desperate,” Tattletale said, “He’s losing his powers. He knows putting himself in dangerous situations makes his power stronger, like how one of my teammates gets a little stronger when outraged, and another gets a little stronger when feeling protective. Fighting Noelle is nearly as dangerous as fighting Endbringers.”
Interesting. Does that apply to other Cauldron capes, or was Eidolon not actually a Cauldron cape, just a particularly powerful natural cape that got involved with the Director?
No. If Eidolon is regarded as stronger than any other known cape short of Scion, him being a trigger cape doesn’t track with the talk of trigger events eventually making capes as strong as or stronger than the ones the Doctor could produce, which Alexandria didn’t think had been fulfilled until Behemoth.
So that implies that either Eidolon gets this boost because his power is more likely to deem a particular ability “needed”, or Cauldron capes also get the state-of-mind boost but for a more general trigger.
I wonder if the loss of powers is something that will eventually start happening to all Cauldron capes, the potions “wearing off”. Or maybe it’s because he’s so powerful that it takes more and more for his power to decide it’s needed?
I like the ambiguity as to whether “another gets a little stronger when feeling protective” applies to Rachel or Brian.
Endbringers. When Leviathan had attacked, it had been destruction layered on top of more destruction. Noelle was being pretty damn subtle for someone who could tear vault doors apart and generate an army of superpowered soldiers.
Speaking of the Triumvirate and Endbringers, let’s take a moment to remember and appreciate Alexandria wrestling Leviathan.
Even in terms of the overall impact of her assault, as far as I knew, it had been limited to one fallen building, two injured capes and one in critical condition. It felt like too little.
Probably because she’s still fighting it, still holding back.
Then again, the sun wasn’t up. Dinah had said Noelle wouldn’t do any real damage until dawn. Would things get worse?
Oh you sweet summer child. You’re the main protagonist in a gritty superhero story and this conflict against a foe whose power lets her build up her threat level exponentially has barely begun. What do you think?
…Noelle has shown some signs of light sensitivity. Maybe the dawn will have a more direct impact than “until dawn” sounds like on the surface.
“How long until sunrise?” I asked, cutting Grace off just as she started to voice a response.
The odds of Tattletale responding to this with a very specific number of minutes are through the roof.
“Nine minutes,” Tattletale answered.
I’m not going to claim credit for calling that. That one was obvious. And I still love it.
“Dinah said the situation doesn’t start getting really bad until dawn…” I trailed off.
“You think this is why the situation goes south,” Grue said.
“It’s a possibility.”
Tattletale pressed the button on her armband. “This is really bad timing on Eidolon’s part, M.M.. Shit’s due to go down at sunrise. Can you call him off? Remind him?”
Let’s hope Dragon sees fit to forward this.
There was no indication the message went through.
Dang it, Dragon.
“Fucking computer,” she said. “Let’s go.”
“No,” Grace said. “You said it was our call. I don’t buy the argument. We stay put.”
Grace didn’t have it in herself to go with me— wait that’s not how the song goes
“Tecton?” I asked.
He was still in the passenger seat. “I don’t know. Are you willing to disobey the order and have Miss Militia okay a kill order on you?”
Right, I suppose it would look like the Undersiders pulling shit.
“Try to okay a kill order on us,” Imp said.
“Oh, well then,” Tecton said. “That’s not a problem.”
I thought about the possible scenarios that could unfold. Deranged Vistas had been brutal enough. Deranged mutant Eidolons?
I figure twists on his power — “twist” is the word I’d rather use for it but I avoided it in favor of “spin” earlier to avoid punning on Draconia Blaze, the Spine Twister, thereby walking headfirst into an even word “spine” pun — would largely take the form of different criteria for an ability to be “needed”, as well as the occasional lack of a Manton limit. Worst case scenario might be one that doesn’t have the whole “need” thing at all and can access all his powers at any time.
“Yeah,” I said. “If it comes down to it, I’m willing.”
“Be it on your heads,” Tecton said.
“Get in if you’re coming,” Tattletale said. “Get out if you’re not.”
And so we test once again whether he’ll split from his teammate.
If he goes, it might create fissures.
Tecton hesitated, but he stayed in his seat.
“Tecton?” Grace asked.
“They believe it enough to go this far. They’ve either got an unhealthy amount of conviction or they’re insane-”
I mean you’re not wrong.
Both of those sound like reasons to not go with them, to some extent, but you do you. Unhealthy conviction can be worth following.
“Or both,” Imp said.
Regent and Imp really are perfect for each other.
“Or both. If it’s conviction, I can accept that they might know what they’re doing. The same argument you made about Eidolon being an upper echelon member of the Protectorate applies to them. They didn’t get here by being terrible at what they do.”
I like Tecton more and more by the paragraph.
“They did get to the point where they’re about to get kill orders put out on them, and you stand to get in trouble with the Wards.”
The bit about the Undersiders is a fair point, but getting in trouble with the Wards is a small cost if they’re right.
“What’s the worst they could do? As a tinker, I’m a protected species. Not like they’re going to fire me. If these guys are right, they might need our help. If they’re wrong, maybe I get in a bit of trouble. I’m willing to take that bet.”
Hey, remember a couple Arcs ago when the Undersiders were talking about getting a Tinker on board?
I don’t think Tecton’s going to stick around as an Undersider, but this means we’ll get a small demo of what it might be like.
“And if they’re trying something? Or if they are insane?”
“Then it’s better I’m along for the ride, isn’t it?”
Heh. Yep, this dude’s fun.
Grace didn’t respond. Instead, she turned around and walked away.
He really didn’t have it in himself to go with Grace.
When she reached the back of the truck, she hopped in. “You fucking owe me, Tec.”
She slammed the one door closed, as if to punctuate her irritation with the situation, leaving the other open for my teammates.
Hah! I love that. Just… she wants the effect of a door slam, but it doesn’t quite work because they still need one door open.
[El Goonish Shive panels]
SFX: VIGOROUS CLICK
The Better Justin: Someone needs to make a damn cell phone you can slam.
Tattletale dropped her armband out the driver’s side window. The rest of the Undersiders discarded theirs. There was a pause before Tecton and Grace followed suit, throwing theirs free of the van.
And along with them, all plausible deniability.
That done, Tattletale put the van in gear. It was already starting to move by the time Imp and Regent had climbed in and slammed the doors behind them.
Both doors? They reopened the one Grace slammed, just to slam it again?
With Tattletale’s ability to identify Eidolon’s general location and my ability to narrow the result down with my bugs, it only took a few minutes to find them. The issue was that we only had a few minutes to begin with.
So let’s review. We’ve got an adrenalin-hungry powerhouse going up against an enemy that copies people, who has asked for other capes to stay away. And we’ve got a group of capes heading that way without the armbands that were specifically intended to mark them as originals.
Welp. Eidolon might be a problem even before he gets copied.
Eidolon was in the air, flying a safe distance above Noelle. And Noelle…
I couldn’t get a read on Noelle. My bugs disappeared into her as they made contact, their signal distorting and cutting off. It left me with a hazy picture. She was big. African elephant big. I didn’t get much more than that.
Hey, Noelle, mind copying those bugs? Just as a favor between friends?
They were talking.
Hmm. Maybe he’s realized he can provide the same thing Coil tried to win over the Travelers with in his final moments? Access to the Doctor?
He may also be here because of Cauldron in the first place. An agenda. Something about Cauldron’s plans relied on Coil “succeeding”, and I don’t think they were talking about city domination.
Eidolon had his hands folded into his sleeves, like an ancient sensei, legs dangling, his costume billowing around him.
You say ancient sensei, I say Minecraft villager.
His voice was calm, quiet, in stark contrast to the hot breath that billowed around Noelle as she panted with no less than five mouths. Four of the mouths were considerably larger than the one owned by the rough human shape on top.
“H’hm! Mmm. M’mh.”
I only caught two words as he spoke to her. Coil was one. Cauldron was another.
Yep, he’s definitely pulling out some secret cards from those sleeves.
It’s worth noting that the only things Taylor really knows about Cauldron is that they exist, that they sell powers on vials, and that Faultline’s Crew were test subjects.
I imagine Tattletale has been trying to look into it a little further, though.
End of Queen 18.6
It’s finally happening. Cauldron is finally coming to the Undersiders’ attention again.
Which makes sense. This whole situation is, as I see it, the culmination of a Book that has been going since Sentinel or at least Parasite. Throughout it, Cauldron has had an ever-growing presence in the background. The Undersiders only had one direct indication of their existence back in Infestation, near the beginning of the Book, but almost everything that’s happened since can in some way be traced back to Cauldron, most notably the involvement of the Travelers and this final conflict.
So after a whole book of Cauldron operating in the shadows and our protagonists dealing with some of the fallout while we readers learned more of what Cauldron’s deal is via Interludes, a natural next step is for the protagonists to finally be caught up on some of it so Cauldron can take more of a center stage role in book 3.
More on topic for this chapter, the fight against Draconia Blaze, the Spine Wrangler, Draconia Blaze, the Spine Twister and Draconia Blaze, the Spine was quite good, and frustrating as Taylor’s need to beat herself up about things might be in the moment, her empathy towards the clones was very much expected and well done.
The Chicago Wards didn’t make a great first impression last chapter, but I’m coming around on them. Tecton in particular is good, and Grace… Grace continues to remind me of a different, more recent Grace and benefiting somewhat from my enjoyment of that Grace. Which is a roundabout way of saying this Grace ain’t too shabby either.
Next chapter, the Undersiders and Noelle might get some answers they’ll wish Noelle didn’t get, and Eidolon may be a pain in the ass. Sounds fun to me — see you there!
Final state of the notepad file as of the end of the chapter:
the Spine Twister: turns roads into ramps, seems relatively normal powerwise (permanent effects?). dead by doggo.
the Spine Shredder
the Spine Wrangler: wide area of effect, somewhat less manton limited. slow-working, thins walls to make buildings collapse. on rooftops, foamed, executed.
the Spine Gobbler: short and thick, pointy space
the Spine: twists objects into radioactive dusts, contending with telekinetic storms and Grue, bled out.
the Spinosaurus: going after Vista’s family
(the Spine Replacer: living only in ficspace)