Interlude 18ø: Synchronize

Source material: Worm, Interlude 18

Blogged: January 6-13, 2021


…excuse me?

Well then. I guess we’re at the end of the Arc, huh. I was getting ready to do this whole jokey intro but seeing the end of the url read /interlude-18/ caught me very much off-guard. I knew Arc 19 happened shortly after 18, but I wasn’t expecting 18 to end here, and I wasn’t expecting back-to-back Interludes.

I suppose it makes sense, though, what with Skitter’s current status. Arc 19 might need to play a bit with perspective too, unless the events of this Interlude result in her release.

I suspect this Interlude will be far more directly tied to what’s happening in the present of the main Arc than the previous one, likely showing us what sort of chaos is going down after Trickster’s betrayal. But from whose perspective?

I’m thinking there’s a decent shot at getting one from Eidolon, Tecton or Grace, but the real fun one would be Noelle. What now, now that she’s taken Skitter and at least a few of the other Undersiders?

Let’s jump in and find out!


Oh, and happy new year! Man, it felt good to be able to write something other than 2020 up at the top there.


“Scout it,” Noelle gave the order.  “Recuperate while we wait.”

Oh hell yes. Flashback time, and I think we’re in Noelle’s head.

Marissa sent a hawk flying through the dense foliage.  Noelle could feel that dull thrum of adrenaline, feel as though time had slowed down, her perceptions and reaction times cranked up to the maximum as she assessed every skeleton and bog zombie between her team and the hawk’s ultimate destination – a clearing with a withered crone standing idle in the center.

We are, and we’re going even further back than I thought!

I expect we’ll be skipping forward to various points leading up to the present.

Everything was a clue, the placement the enemy had chosen for each unit crucial, because it would force them to maneuver one way or another.  Was that treasure chest placed at the back of the swamp-dungeon because the enemy Overlord had wanted to put it as far out of reach as possible or was it because he wanted to bait them into a trap on that side of the room?

Or even both?

It would be impossible to guess from that one clue alone, but the position of the monsters, lighter on that end of the room-

“Stay to the right,” she ordered.

If the monsters are lighter on the side towards the treasure, the enemy clearly wants you to go for it. That or they’re not that great at the game, but my impression was the Proto-Travelers were competitive in ranked play.

There were reports of assent from the others.

Like being aware one was dreaming without actually disturbing the dream, it was a rare thing to be in the zone and to be aware she was in the zone.  She knew she was right.

The first time I either lucid dreamed or dreamed I was lucid dreaming, dream me started showing off the dream manipulation powers to a couple people he was visiting. It kinda just ended pretty quickly after that.

“Cody, go ranged.”

Cody’s Highwayman sheathed his rapier and drew twin pistols from his belt.

Over the Garden Wall — The Highwayman Song

Between the name, the pistols and rapier, the Highwayman class sounds like a sort of gunslinger rogue. Not exactly a vibe I associated with Cody, but I could see him thinking of himself that way.

“Luke, wind magic, wind spirits.  Dimplecheeks doesn’t usually use casters as an overlord, but he’ll stick to old habits.  He’ll have teleportation.  Mars, circle around, poke at her from range.  Go!”

Luke uses wind magic… fitting. He’s all about making things go flying, after all, even if he didn’t get to make himself fly.

Dimplecheeks is a good username.

They charged into the clearing.  The hag, Dimplecheeks, summoned two Über demons as they breached the threshold, then teleported to the far end of the room.

Uh.

…is this a sort of “blurred lines between memory and reality” situation? Has Noelle fallen so far that she’s started seeing the world through the game?

Luke’s shaman was already setting down wind spirits who were spewing forth miniature tornadoes, casting out gusts of wind that would accelerate his team and slow down or push their enemies.

“Enemy team just turned around,” Jess reported.  “They’re backtracking for the portal.  They’re going to invade en-masse.”

In which case the “enemy team” would be further cape reinforcements.

“Fuck,” Noelle said. Her mind was racing, covering a dozen factors at once – positioning her Challenger to best benefit her allies in the fight, avoiding the hag’s spells, calculating the damage her team was doing, keeping track of her items, and those of her team.  “How many rooms?”

The problem with the blurred lines idea is it was prompted by the seemingly deliberate use of “Über demons” and teleportation, but the thing is, those should be on Noelle’s side. She should be the one creating Über demons, and Trickster the one teleporting things around.

“They were one room past portal, they’ll be entering around now.”

Ten seconds at best.  “We can’t kill her before they show.”

But maybe that’s part of it. Maybe she’s fighting herself.

“Want me to send troops?”  Jess asked.

“No.  Fortify your dungeon.  If they take us out, you hold them off.”

Seems like a solid tactic.

“You know my boss monster isn’t that strong.  They’re only three rooms from fighting it.”

Hah, fitting. Her boss monster being analogous to her physical body while she creates other monsters in the dungeon.

Sure enough, the enemy appeared at the entryway of the boss room.  Her team was hurt from the fight with the hag, and the enemy team hadn’t ventured far enough in to burn all of their resources.

So how do you turn it around?

Dying was inevitable.  That didn’t mean that their efforts were futile.  She had to slow them down-  She challenged the enemy’s Chronomancer to a one-on-one duel, consequently shrugged off the vast majority of the damage the remainder of the enemy inflicted, and charged to close the distance to strike the mage down in three blows.

There’s a Chronomancer class and Cody didn’t play it?

I suppose Wildbow always did prefer such things to be a little less on-the-nose than I would have them.

She challenged the hag the second her target was down, landed two good hits, dropping their target to a third of her total health.

Then Cody fell, with Luke falling shortly after.

Noelle managed to use her own body to absorb the worst of the enemy attacks while Marissa ‘kited’ across the area’s perimeter, maintaining a consistent distance as she fired arrows at them.

Marissa’s form of ranged combat here is certainly more… precise, than her later adventures.

Noelle’s Challenger is the tank of the party. Yeah, that tracks.

Caught between the approaching enemy and a cloud of poison fog the hag had cast, Mars chose to rush through the latter.  Her health dropped to zero and she collapsed.

Whoops.

“Fuck!  Fuck, fuck, fuck!” Cody was shouting.  He kicked something.

In-game, or…?

It was as though Cody’s tantrum were happening in a very distant place.  Noelle’s focus was entirely on slowing the enemy down.

“a very distant place” as in outside the game, eh?

She challenged the enemy’s barbarian, because he did the lowest damage and everyone she didn’t challenge would do less damage to her.

Huh. Neat little mechanic.

But why in the world would a barbarian class do the lowest damage? What’s the point of a barbarian if not damage output?

I suppose maybe at this level of play, the game suffers from a case of quadratic wizards?

She took a swig of the potion she still had in her inventory from the start of the game.  It wouldn’t restore even five percent of her health, but there was a dim possibility that it would force the enemy to land just one more attack.  Take a half second, or invest a few magic points into an ability to catch her.  Magic points they couldn’t use to take Jess on.

Every hit counts.

Noelle would be great at chess. Unlike Coil, who only liked to pretend he’d be good at chess, but was actually relying on an engine the whole time.

The three remaining enemy heroes bum-rushed her, cutting off her fighting retreat and forcing her into one location.  The hag landed a toxin-bomb on her, and her health disappeared in an instant.  The screen turned to shades of crimson and black, and a timer appeared in the dead center.

Dead center, heh.

So one thing: Krouse is not playing. Which makes sense — he wasn’t officially on the team yet at the start of Migration. But is he around at all? How close is this to him replacing Cody?

Speaking of Cody, rereading the conversation in 17.1 all about how Krouse is replacing Cody because Cody wasn’t getting any better is fun. Because that pretty much sums up Cody. He never got any better.

Forty five seconds to respawn.  The enemy players were surrounded in flares of light.  Level ups.  It would make up for the expense of passing through the portal.  It had been a good maneuver, perfectly timed, so they could disengage from Jess’ own forces and backtrack through her dungeon.

Maybe Marissa was right to sacrifice herself to the poison fog, depriving them of XP.

Though that probably just gave XP to Dimplecheeks.

“Fuck!” Cody shouted.

Cody would take thirty seconds to respawn.  Thirty to forty-five seconds before they spawned at the checkpoint…

Plenty of time for a tantrum.

No, the enemy’s bandit was backtracking through the dungeon.  Hacking away at the checkpoint flag.

Oof. Dimplecheeks’ team really turned this around with that backstab assault.

Now twenty to thirty-five seconds before they spawned at the dungeon entrance.

She watched the clock count down, bought new items, continued to watch the clock.

t1ck. t0ck.

Cody respawned.

“Go!” she shouted.

8r8k. H34DS.

Luke appeared soon after.  So did the enemy Chronomancer, in Jess’ checkpoint room.  The enemy was on the second to last room, dispatching goblin grenadiers and goblin gunners, fighting their way past the trenches Jess had laid down.

honk

They defeated the last of the monsters.  The blood gate was satisfied and opened, giving them free rein to fight Jess’ end boss, an ogre king.

HONK

There’s an obscure glitch in the game where if you bring a level 33 Catgirl Highwaywoman to her own team’s blood gate and make her touch it, the blood gate opens even if you haven’t beaten the monsters.

The boss Dimplecheeks had put in the checkpoint room, halfway through his dungeon, was just as tough and more dangerous.

Welp.

Mars and Noelle respawned, and they charged through the dungeon.

Jess had half her health remaining, the hag had one-third, but there were four enemies in Jess’ boss room and Cody hadn’t even reached the hag.

Yeah, uh, this is not looking good for you guys.

By the time Cody and Luke were in the hag’s room, it was thirty-twenty five in the enemy’s favor.  The ogre king was tough, but slow, easy to hit.  The enemy delivered damage steadily, while Luke and Cody were forced to adapt as the more fragile hag teleported to inconvenient spots, costing them precious seconds each time.

So what if they’re playing against Krouse, testing his skills?

That would imply he was already on another team, or playing with randos, though.

Noelle and Mars joined the fray.

When the fighting stopped and the screen went dark, Noelle wasn’t entirely sure if they’d won or lost.

Uh. Yeah, no, how would this be a win? As far as I’ve gathered, the hag isn’t even an end boss.

Second, did the screen go dark for reasons outside of the game?

Letters in gold script flashed across the screen.  ‘Victory!’

…huh. Okay. Must be something I don’t remember in the rules.

The others were out of their chairs, cheering.  She joined them.  They hugged.  She turned, saw Krouse perched on the desk in the center of the room beside Chris and Oliver.  He was smiling.

Eyy, he’s there!

Noelle hugged him, and for once she was able to forget all her doubts and insecurities, all her issues, the way even physical contact would leave her with a pit in her stomach.  She hugged him tight, and it was good.  It felt right.

Good for you!

“We’re going to nationals!” Cody whooped.

So this is a fair way back, then. In Migration, they were heading to internationals. Cody’s good enough to keep for nationals.

“That was you,” Krouse whispered to her.  “You made the difference.  You won.”

Good call to keep that at whisper level, ’cause wow would it be a dick move to say this so the others could hear it.

Her breath was too hot as it passed through her lips.  The exertion, this body mass, it made her feel feverish.  Worse than feverish.  She felt like she had when she’d been camping as a child, standing too close to the fire, seeing how long she could endure it.

Hm. Sounds like after the eyeball, but probably before it got really out of hand.

Only it was all over, inside her.  A prickling, almost unbearable heat.

I know why you showed me that, she thought. She looked at Trickster; he adjusted his hat, swapped Sundancer with one of the flying capes.  The sun fizzled out as she landed.  One threat out of commission.  Ballistic and the other cape he’d arrived with were down as well.

…oooh, is she thinking at a presence in her head that periodically shows her memories the same way the Simurgh did to Krouse?

I am so here for that kind of thing.

She tried to read Trickster’s body language.  Back straight, walking with confidence.  He’d hesitated when she’d asked for his help.  Now there wasn’t a trace of doubt.

Or are we in the present?

Reading the previous paragraph a little closer, it’s presenting Sundancer and Ballistic as threats, so I guess we are.

She’d admired that about him, had been jealous of it.  The confidence.  The sense of pride.

But the memory that had flashed across her consciousness, almost more vivid than reality, the emotions very real as she recalled them, it hadn’t served the intended purpose.

Another possibility is Eidolon did it.

You can’t convince me that way, she thought.  This victory and that one don’t even compare.

There wasn’t a reply, of course.

“Bitch!  Run!” Regent hollered. “Go to Tattletale!”

Definitely feels like a hostile mind presence situation.

Only his head, shoulders and one arm were free of Noelle’s grip.  She tugged and pulled him in faster.  He put his free arm inside her flesh, found something more or less solid and managed to push back enough to avoid having his head pulled in.

…why is this image so funny to me, ahaha

Trickster and Noelle wheeled around.  Bitch, the girl with the dogs, was the last Undersider here.  Trickster couldn’t find an angle to swap the girl with anyone else.  The boy in the armor would be too large, and Trickster’s field of vision didn’t allow for him to get his eyes on her and someone more appropriate.

Hm. Maybe you can make someone more appropriate?

Noelle tagged several of the bodies in her internal stomachs, felt flesh constrict tight against them, felt the pre-prepared nuggets of flesh in her gullet forming into close replicas in an instant.  Timing was crucial; if she spat them out too soon, they’d be malformed, missing limbs or features.  Too late, and there was extra material.

Is there actually a middle ground where they’re not malformed?


Well, shit, U.S. politics just decided to be very distracting.


[Session 2]

She retched, sending them flying in the direction of the girl with the dogs.  Bodies for Trickster to use.

Let’s see who we’ve got! And Skitter clones yet?

But the boy with the armor was already moving.  He slammed one hand into the ground, and a cloud of debris and dust masked him and Bitch.

Nice work, Tecton! Now retreat! Hopefully Bitch sees the value in it too.

She couldn’t wholly control the vomit, lost one of the powered ones.

Whoops, right. I suppose that’s still our best bet for getting Skitter out.

Not one of the Undersiders, she was relieved to note.  It had been the big one, who’d been with the tinker.  He’d called himself Über.  She didn’t try to reclaim him.  He was more or less useless.  The loss still pained her.  Better to have him than one of the unpowered ones.

I think I’ve already talked about this in this Arc, but the thing about Über is that his uselessness comes from his personality, and his and Leet’s showman approach to the cape career. Sure, he doesn’t have a particularly offensively powerful power, but it’s far from useless in its own right. Just look at what Victor can pull off with an arguably weaker (though more directly weaponizable) version of it.

So when Noelle’s power twists the minds of the clones, you’d think that might have an effect on the usefulness of Über clones versus Über himself.

But I suppose not enough.

Her vomit caught Genesis, who was presently a charging bull with a jellyfish-like tentacles trailing behind her.  The vomit blinded Genesis, and Noelle struck her hard enough to kill.  The body collapsed and started disintegrating.

The only person here who gets the respawn timer.

“Hey,” Regent said.  “Monster girl.”

Noelle snarled as she glanced down at the boy who was stuck inside one of her legs.  Only his face was left to be consumed.  Her voice was hoarse with emotion as she asked, “What?”

Regent’s position here is still hilarious. It’s like Artax but funny and in a monstrous leg.

What’s he got to say?

“When you make my clone, do you think you could give him a goatee?”

Ahahahaha

Noelle didn’t dignify the question with a response.  She flexed and drew Regent completely within her body.  She’d hurt him later.  For now, she needed him to help her escape so she could hunt down his friends.

–haha oh

We, uh. Might have a problem here, guys.

She ran.  The simple act of moving flooded her body with endorphins and adrenaline.  It felt good, made her feel strong.  That was another avenue of attack, as her body tried to work its manipulations on her mind.  The hunger, the heightened emotions, rewarding her with pleasant memories and good feelings when she operated in sync with it.

The thrill of the hunt.

Noelle and Perrin Aybara may have a couple things to talk about.

It was a matter of weeks, days or hours before she lost enough ground that she was the one trying to manipulate her body into doing what she wanted, with it calling all the shots.  If the process continued, she would eventually be subsumed entirely, unable to do anything but observe, and maybe not even that.

Let it be pointed out that this is being brought up literally two paragraphs after the implication that she’s planning to have Murderous Uncle control the people around her.

So… if this were to happen to her and Tattletale used her power on Noelle’s body while it was in control… would it register to her power as having been human?

The pavement had been cracked like a sheet of glass, and the footing was unsteady, but the mass of her body was crushing fragments underfoot, and she had four good legs, with five more for further support.  Falling wasn’t a concern.

The number just keeps growing, huh. Nine legs total. You’d almost think Skitter should be able to control her.

Noelle passed through the cloud of dust that the one in armor had sent flying into the air.  She saw the armored tinker punching the ground once more, leaped to clear the ground that suddenly plunged into a pit in front of her.  She picked out a selection from those within her and, with her rightmost head, sent a stream of bodies at him.  He punched the ground with his other hand, and pavement tilted upward in a makeshift barrier, blocking the worst of the stream and flying bodies.

Firing a ranged attack with one’s “rightmost head” makes me think of the Wither from Minecraft.

Thankfully the Wither only fires more heads, not vomit and entire bodies.

…actually speaking of bosses that throw their own heads at the player, I think I just realized which character I know of looks the most like how I pictured Noelle’s lower body before it became clear she had legs for days.

Except I pictured it as a lot broader compared to her more human upper body, and as black.

The ones who did land in his vicinity were on him in moments.  One was the little space-warper, another was a copy of the firebreathing acrobat with the rich smell, and three were copies of the unpowered people she’d absorbed.  They mobbed the armored tinker.

With the rich– what the heck does that mean, coming from Noelle? Circus, were you stinky? Or conversely, using a very noticeable perfume?? Did Noelle smell your medium rare lungs??? Is firebreathing not a natural power but rather one you’ve acquired through excessive use of spices????

For the sake of my sanity, let’s assume Noelle can smell economic privilege and decided that “eat the rich” should be taken literally.

She hadn’t included the Undersiders in that stream.  Until they were more fully absorbed, there was a good chance that she’d spit them out if she tried to copy them.

Huh. So there’s some “digestion” time.

Using any one person too frequently carried the same risks, and she suspected that it would be more difficult now that she was so full.

I guess “tagging” them ends up nudging them towards the mouths?

The girl in silver armor, with white flowing clothes was dashing toward her from the other side, not any slower for the shattered ground underfoot.  Noelle picked out unpowered individuals she could afford to lose, closed her muscles tight around them, and spat out the partially formed nuggets along with a mess of the internal fluids.

Ew, cloneballs.

The girl ducked low, landing on a fragment of road, using her forward momentum to skid toward Noelle as though she were snowboarding.

Sonic Adventure 2 — Escape From the City

There was an explosion of debris as she kicked off the ground, and the girl soared toward Noelle, twisting in the air to land a kick with that same foot.

It felt like getting hit by a cannon.  Noelle’s stride broke and she had to plant one foot to the side to keep from falling over.

Ah, yes, having to shift your feet to keep your balance is a common reaction when getting hit by a cannon.

She’d lost ground, and Bitch was swiftly increasing the distance between them.

Noelle hesitated, then decided to let the girl go for the time being.  Better to defend herself, establish a better position.

Woo, Bitch got away! Maybe she’ll be back with Labyrinth, if Contessa’s attack didn’t cause the Crew to back out of this and they’ve managed to get here in time.

While stationary, she could spit up an Undersider, swallow them back up again.  She’d read up on them, had talked to Trickster about them.  She had a good sense of what they were capable of.

If so, you should be careful about spitting them up. They’re slippery.

But which one?  She had three.  Regent might work against this girl in white, but his influence would be too minor in the big picture.  His smell was weakest of the three.

Ohh, it’s power she’s smelling. Circus has a “rich” smell because their powerset is so varied. They’re not powerful, but they’ve got an appealing combination of smells.

Regent is the highest-rated Master around here, but that’s largely because what he can do to humans is particularly disturbing and carries social implications to the people setting the ratings, as well as the ability to use other people’s powers. By other standards, though, Taylor is vastly more powerful.

This is why I rarely bother with rating numbers. Even within a classification, even between two powers as similar as Über’s vs Victor’s, most powers are too contextual to be linearly rated against each other unless there’s a very clear power differential. PRT power ratings are really just “how scary is this cape with respect to this classification”, nowhere near an objective measure of what’s actually most “powerful”, and certainly not of what’s more “fit”.

Noelle’s sense of power — smelling things that shouldn’t have smells, incidentally, is another thing to talk to Perrin about — seems to think Taylor is stronger than Regent. I think this is closer to an objective view of what actually does the most, what has the most potential physical impact on the world.

That said, there are absolutely situations where even the tripping aspect of Regent’s power is more better than bug control, so we’re right back to the issue of context for what’s more useful.

SHOGI

OH MY COD

SHOGI

NOELLE WAS FINALLY REVEALED WHEN THAT PLAN WAS DISCUSSED

AND IT’S WHAT SHE DOES

SHE TAKES PIECES AND PUTS THEM BACK DOWN UNDER HER CONTROL

*ahem*

Please excuse the Caps Lock of Realization.

Noelle isn’t a chessmaster, she’s a shogimaster. Even if she’s cheating. I mean, she’s the only one playing shogi against everyone else’s chess, and she’s placing down more than she’s capturing.

Not that it was really a smell… but she was peculiarly aware of the people with powers, active or otherwise.  Each had a texture and a tone and a flavor, something she felt like she could come to understand. 

Look, there are characters in El Goonish Shive who can “taste” magic with their ears. I’m willing to accept some unusual sense terminology when it’s needed.

She might have said it was taste, might have compared it to when she’d tried wine that one time and tried to see what the wine aficionados looked for when they sampled a vintage.

Case in point. “flavor” is definitely a word that brings to mind taste, even at a distance.

Except the word ‘smell’ worked better, because smell and taste were really very similar and smell worked over distances.

Yeah, that’s fair. Smell practically is just tasting from a distance, really. Tasting the air.

There was a difference in Skitter, Grue’s and Eidolon’s smells, along with a handful of the other visiting capes.  A smell that set them apart from the other parahumans in the same way that the other parahumans were set apart from the people who could have powers but didn’t.  An intensity.

Wait, what?

Eidolon is almost definitely a Cauldron cape while Skitter and Grue aren’t, so it’s presumably not that. And I would imagine Cauldron capes are less likely to get the Trigger State Power Boost, even if Tattletale was supposing that Eidolon was after that. So…?

Grue had a second trigger, and I’d believe that Eidolon could have had a trigger event on top of his Cauldron shenanigans, but we’d know by now if Skitter had one… unless she just had it from getting trapped inside Noelle, which is actually not far-fetched, but then I’d expect Noelle to note that this difference wasn’t there for Skitter until just now.

Hmmm.

Also this is the strongest indication yet that the “potential” is an actual thing.

She wished she’d spent more time researching the powers.  She hadn’t been able to bring herself to, had wanted only to distract herself from the thoughts of what was happening to her.

You know what, that’s fair.

Which one to use?  Skitter was more dangerous in a general sense, but she wouldn’t stop the girl in white now.  That left Grue.

Good choice. He’s already shown off his ability to blind her and to take a little of her skill away, and who knows what Flathead’s variety of the powerset will be capable of.

(By the way, it was recently brought to my attention that the developers of Zork referred to themselves as “implementers”, or for shorts, “imps“. That’s a fun touch.)

She didn’t spit, but simply contracted and let the body spill forth.  Sure enough, the real Grue tumbled out, prostrate, unable to move.  A tongue snaked out of her center-mouth and caught him before he could try to escape.

Hey, pal.

She’d swallowed him by the time her Grue was on its feet.

Ooh, ooh, first Undersider clone! Now the real fun begins.

I figure Flathead’s priorities might lie in tracking down Imp if he could remember her.

Noelle only had a glimpse of her Grue’s real form before he started cloaking himself in darkness.  He was muscular, broad-shouldered, his long hair slicked to his head by the fluids of the vomit.  Angry red ulcers studded his dark skin at set intervals.

Grue is also a good choice because he can do this. Just with the basic effects of the power, Flathead can hide himself and pretend to be the real Grue with relative ease.

He cast a glance over his shoulder at her as the darkness crept up over his shoulders and the back of his head.  His eyes were black from corner to corner, his teeth too large, misshapen much like his fingernails were, tangled together to the point that he couldn’t open his mouth.  It forced him into a perpetual grimace with his teeth bared.

Oh this is a great design.

Eyes of darkness, can’t speak, looks like a monster befitting of the name. Those are nice little nods to his power, but also they look fucking sick, I love it.

He turned his back to her as the darkness covered his face, squared his shoulders.  The body language was clear.  He was protecting her.

Oof. Still a protector to the core, just on the wrong side.

He’s one of the useful ones, then.  Her copies of the little space warper had been like that.  Naturally inclined toward teamwork, disciplined.  The other three were more likely to run off.  They were still useful, but they did things in their own way.

I’m still wondering if Draconia Blaze, the Spinosaurus was ever real.

Spheres of darkness appeared in her Grue’s hands.  One after the other, he hurled them at the girl in white.  The first missed, and the second seemed like it might do the same, until it arced in the air to strike her from the side.

Sounds like they might be more physical than regular Grue’s? A boost to the “thickness” of the Darkness?

Yet at the same time it sounds like they’re moving faster than the Darkness has been doing since his second trigger.

The darkness was more like gum than smoke, and she struggled.  Noelle’s Grue closed the distance, moving over the surface of the road much as the girl in white had.

Yeah, I was about to ask whether that allowed him to copy her power effectively.

Then Noelle saw why and how.  A thread of darkness, barely thicker than a finger, extended from the sticky darkness to her Grue.  That would be how he’d moved the projectile in the air, and how he was absorbing her power.

Aaand that’s why, besides the more solid nature of this Darkness. Like Noelle, I thought the globs were disconnected.

The boy in armor created a fissure that spat debris into the air as it parted, aiming to separate the Grue and the girl in white.  By intent or accident, he cut the thread of darkness in the process.  Noelle’s Grue stopped, turned to face the tinker and created more spheres in his hands.

Glob the thruster gloves, Flathead. That’ll mess him up.

Those two were occupied.  Noelle turned to see Trickster dealing with the flying heroes.  Two were on the ground, prone.  That would be the result of Trickster baiting them into shooting one another.  The remaining hero had a weapon in hand but wasn’t shooting.

At least one of them has noticed when a tactic doesn’t help.

Eidolon was there too. His smell was interesting.  Complicated, but somehow off.  If he was using any particular method of attack on Trickster, then Noelle couldn’t see it.

Off?

I mean, his basic ability to switch powers is covered enough under “complicated”. Is it “off” because he’s struggling with the power?

Trickster disappeared from the skirmish with the flying heroes, putting one of her creations in his place.

She sniffed him out.  He was in the midst of the one batch of bodies that had piled up against the tinker’s makeshift wall.  They were turning on him, grabbing for his arms and legs.  He teleported to keep them from getting any serious leverage, but the escape was slow.

Noelle: “Hey, Krouse, need a lift? There’s still a little room next to Skitter.”
Trickster: “…I’ll pass.”

“Leave him!” she ordered, and her voice came out with surprising volume.

They didn’t listen.  They struck him, gripped his costume and dragged him to the ground.

Dang insubordinate clones.

Trickster shouted in alarm as he was submerged in the mass of clones.

Noelle advanced on her creations in as threatening a manner as she could, the ground shaking with her advance.  They noticed and backed away.

Somehow the mental image of Echidna stomping in like an angry mother is really funny to me.

Trickster, for his part, didn’t even flinch as she closed the distance between the two of them, stepping within a few feet of him.

It would be all too easy to just snap her tongue at him.  Catch him, swallow him.

Noelle: “Come on, it’s free of charge.”
Trickster: “Charge?”
Noelle: “Yeah, I’ve been thinking of getting into the taxi business. Make some bucks from that big guy’s side gig.”

She held off.  Instead, she faced Eidolon and the other flying cape.

Trickster adjusted his hat and did the same.  The two of them against the world.

It’s almost beautiful.

“It’s not you, it’s me,” she said.

Classic. So there are two options that spring to mind as to when this is:

1) After she started becoming monstrous, with Noelle having convinced herself Trickster could never love someone like her and trying to break it off. (Which, honestly, Trickster might have agreed with some months earlier — remember how he admitted in his narration that he wouldn’t have been able to look past Jess’ wheelchair?)

or 2) back in their world, when the topic of sexytimes came up and her past trauma prevented them from doing anything.

I’m inclined to think it’s #2, both because that’s a dangling character backstory thread (though we’ve been given enough hints to have a decent idea of what happened in broad strokes) that I’d honestly be surprised to not see come up in her Interlude, and because that’s a more relevant memory for her body to drag up to justify her swallowing Trickster.

Krouse folded his arms.  ”You can’t blame me at least a little?”

…this line feels more like #1, though.

But I could see him saying this either way, with the logic that if she blames him, then at least there’s something he can work on.

“No,” Noelle said, shaking her head.  If I could only explain, I would…  She could feel her throat seize up.  Worrying that her voice might crack if she spoke at the normal volume, she lowered her voice to a hush as she said, “You’ve been great.”

Yeah, it’s #2.

He spread his arms, “I don’t get it.  I thought we were doing fine.”

Doing fine?  How many hours had she spent lying awake in bed, agonizing over this relationship?  Hating herself?

Or, well, close enough to #2. Kind of a mix of ideas I brought up in #1 into #2, actually.

She’d relapsed because of it, and recovering was proving to be a long, hard road.

Oh, sweetie… you have no idea.

“We aren’t!” Noelle said, “This is… it’s not working.”

“I’m okay with it.  I enjoy spending time with you, and I didn’t get any impression you were having that bad of a time, either.”

Krouse… was never good at picking the right words. In fact, picking the wrong ones seems to be his real superpower.

“But we don’t- we aren’t-”  She stared down at her feet.  ”We’re stalled.  It isn’t fair to you.”

Now, if Krouse had said that after this…

Just for the record? I’m far from an expert on relationships, but I do know this: Not wanting to “go further” in a relationship, for any reason or no reason at all, is totally valid and does not, on its own, mean your relationship isn’t a good one.

Admittedly wanting different things out of a relationship can cause friction, but if you take a leaf out* of excellent Worm role models Victor and Othala’s book and communicate, you can work it out. And if they in any way make you feel obligated to do anything of that nature with them, it’s not you. It’s them.

(*: Why is such book abuse admitted into English as an idiom? Don’t literally do that, ever. I will find you.)

[End of session]


So between sessions I finally finished another chapter of Reflections, and in it there was this one scene where I wanted to have some baby changelings startle my main character by turning into her (which, even after hanging out with changelings for a while, is disturbing to her on its own because she has a history with copies of herself and fears the pony she herself is a second or third level copy of).

I blame Wildbow’s and Noelle’s influence for what I actually ended up writing.

(For some additional context, Party Popper is wearing a purple coat and a purple hat that won’t come off. “The hole” refers to the way she entered the room, which is in a structure that constantly changes its layout.)

“Sure,” she said, now surrounded by at least half a dozen changeling larvae [out of dozens in the room], “I just gotta say goodbye to these—” She looked towards the larvae again and immediately leaped back. “AHH!”

Right in front of her were three adult-sized ponies, except their features were… incomplete. They had cheese legs and eyes that were too large and monochromatic. Their back hooves were lying limp, as though they didn’t know how to use them yet. There were no cutie marks, and their mouths carried sharp teeth.

And the worst part was they were all her. Three pink earth ponies with bubbly manes. One of them wore a hat, but Party Popper was sure that if she touched it, it would act like flesh, just another part of the head. Another had purple fur on everything but its head. And the smiles, the smiles were all wrong.

She backed away slowly, shaking, not breaking eye contact with the three – no, four now, five, eight, twenty – twisted reflections. No, no, no, no…

Memories flashed in her mind. Her memories, of all the clones she had created, of all her sisters and daughters and her mother. Of the moment she had understood what had happened to them all. Of the one who had allowed it to happen, the one she had thought she could trust.

Tears in her eyes, Party Popper turned and ran. She didn’t look back to see if the larvae were following. All she could think of was being somewhere else, anywhere else.

The hole was gone. Of course it was.

Turning left, she spotted another exit, another path away from herself. Without hesitation, Party Popper galloped.

I just wanted her to be startled a little by a cute baby mimicking her, not traumatized by horrors out of her nightmares! But here we are. This is why I’m an eternal pantser.


Fury Bowser is just straight up Behemoth, right?


[Session 3]

That’s what you’re worried about?”

Only part of it.

Fair enough.

“Don’t dismiss my concerns,” she said, and the anger in her own words surprised her.

“No’, it’s fine.  It’s cool.  I get that there’s stuff you’ve got going on that you don’t want to tell me about,” Krouse said.

I like how the pet name No’ pulls double duty there.

Her breath caught in her throat at that.  Had Marissa told him?  Or had he figured it out?  It wasn’t like she hadn’t left signs.

Yeah, uh. You’re not being that subtle about it, even if some of your friends do think you’re just modest. Krouse is close enough that he’d pick up on it being more than that.

He continued without a pause, “…I can be a bit of a jerk sometimes, but I’m not an idiot. And I’m not going to twist your arm to get you to share, either.  That’s your stuff, and I figure you’ll tell me in time.  Or you won’t.”

He’s being pretty forceful in his wording, but the sentiment behind it is good.

“It’s not fair to you.”  Noelle knew she was repeating herself, but it was the only argument she could make.  All of the others would involve discussing other topics, her issues.

Assuming what’s going on here is what it seems to be, that’s not fair to you.

And she couldn’t bring herself to do that.  Marissa knew, would keep quiet because she got it.  Marissa knew, wouldn’t bring it up, would back her up when needed.

And so Marissa was Krouse’s main support in caring for Noelle’s “modesty” in 17.3.

Noelle loved Krouse, but she knew he wasn’t so graceful.  It would become something jarring, intruding on their everyday interactions.

Yeah, uh. “Graceful”… is absolutely not a word associated with Krouse. Not the real Krouse anyway — he may sometimes put on a show of it as Trickster.

“I’m not saying things have to be equitable or balanced or fair or any of that.  So who cares if things aren’t fair?”  Krouse asked.

She does.

“Don’t do that!”

She could see his expression change to bewilderment at her reaction.  He spread his armsas if he were asking a question without opening his mouth.  I’m being irrational… but that’s the disease at work.

Are we talking a literal disease here, or the psychological aftereffects of trauma?

It took her a long time to find the words.

“Someone said, a little while ago,” Noelle spoke without looking at Krouse, “That I can’t really forge a good relationship with others until I have a good relationship with myself.

That’s an interesting insight. I’ve heard it before, but haven’t thought about it in a while.

I should probably use that if I ever feel confident enough about relationship stuff to try writing my fic about Dockyard the couples’ therapist.

But then, it’s interesting, but is it good? On one hand I love the dynamic of characters who come together an help each other with their personal issues, but on another hand, in people that could create a sort of codependency that could cause things to go south fast if other relationship issues arise.

“You don’t?”  He asked. “I think you’re fantastic, if that counts for anything.”

Unfortunately it far too rarely does.

The words stung, nettled her, as if they personified his lack of understanding.  She said as much, “You don’t know me.”

I love that this is what she says here. Because a) it parallels 17.3, when Krouse was irritated by Oliver saying Noelle was modest and wanted to growl “you don’t know her”, and b) as a consequence of the talk of characters with that dynamic I mentioned, and also rereading that bit in 17.3, I was already thinking about a chapter of mine titled You Don’t Know Me.

I don’t have it said between the romantic interests, though.

“I’ve been getting to know you some.  And I have yet to see anything that’s going to scare me away.”

What about something about her that’s going to make you scare her away?

She couldn’t keep going down this road, couldn’t have an argument, or she’d let something slip.  She stared at her feet.  ”…I don’t think we should date.”

“Okay.  If you think that’s for the best.  But I just need you to do one thing.  Look me in the eye as you tell me that.”

Gareth Gates — Tell Me One More Time

Noelle glanced up at him, then looked back down.  She tried to find the words, but both brain and mouth failed her.

“Because,” he went on, “I think you’ve seemed happier than I’ve ever seen you since we started going out.  Marissa said so, too.”

I’m unsure how to feel at this point, because I know I’ve been prone to downplaying Krouse’s more manipulative tendencies at times. I don’t think he means to be manipulative, but he often is by accident, and there’s absolutely a case for this argument to be considered manipulative.

But on another hand, I think it’s fair for Krouse to get the chance to point out things like that and essentially ask “are you sure”, too.

So, uh. This is why I haven’t written Dockyard.

It’s… it’s a bad time for me, she thought, as if voicing the words in her head would let her utter them out loud.  The wrong moment.  Any earlier or later in my recovery…

Hey, Spotify, are you sure accompanying this line with SHOT THROUGH THE HEART, AND YOU’RE TO BLAME is appropriate?

I don’t think it is.

He continued, “If you really feel like us dating is making things worse in the long run, then I’m perfectly okay with breaking it off.  I can leave the club if that makes things easier on your end.  It was your thing before it was mine, and you’ve got enough on your plate with being team captain.”

It’s like… he says all these good things between the badly worded bits, but there’s also this undercurrent of “look how reasonable I am and also if you do this it’ll break our group apart”…

“I don’t want you to leave the club,” she said, meaning it.

“Okay,” he said.  He paused very deliberately.  She didn’t take the invitation to speak.

He sighed, ”Listen, I get the feeling today is a bad day.  Don’t know why it is, but it is.  And that happens.  Fine.  But I’m not willing to end this if it’s because the stars aligned wrong.  So I’m asking you to tell me that you’re worse off because we’re together.  Not asking for an explanation, just-”

The problem is, a lot of the things he says really are reasonable, and I think he sees it that way too.

Can’t do this.  Can’t break it off.  Not when he’s being this good about it.  Not when it’s making the both of us this miserable. 

And there it goes, he’s made it hard for her by being so “reasonable” about it.

“Never mind,” she said, abrupt.  I’ll find another way.

Ouch.

“Never mind?”

“I’m- just never mind.  Can we forget this conversation happened?”

…and it promptly gets dragged up by a hostile presence in her body.

“Sure,” he said.

Her feelings were a chaotic storm.  Relief, quiet joy, fear, misery, self loathing, panic…

I’m not well, she thought.

And that’s Krouse’s mistake. Letting this continue.

”Want me to walk you home?”  His voice was gentle.

She nodded mutely, unable to find the words to speak.  A simple five word confession would simultaneously explain everything and spoil the tone of their relationship.  She knew it, knew she was being irrational, that her recent relapse was making her that way, was making her nasty and emotional and unpredictable.

Five words. Probably something like “My dad sexually abused me.”

How could he not notice?  The way she picked at her food, the way Marissa got on her case about eating?  The countless other clues?  Yes, she’d been in recovery for much of the time they’d known each other, but… hadn’t he been paying attention?

Anorexia? That would explain “the disease”.

She simultaneously loved and hated him, in that moment.  He was the best thing in the world for her, and the worst thing in the world for her, both at the same time.

These two are so bad for each other and I love them.

…also it’s bulimia, not anorexia, isn’t it. Dammit, her whole thing is eating things and vomiting them back up! Of fucking course she’s bulimic!

I love the parallel and hate that I didn’t call that.

And it wasn’t fair to him, putting that on his shoulders.

There’s a lot about this relationship that’s just… really unfortunate.

Krouse’s subconsciously manipulative behavior is a big problem, but it’s hard to fully blame him for it because he means well. It’s like a perfectly crafted argument against my intent-based framework of morality.

He’s, like… negligently abusive.

She was fighting with Eidolon.  The realization startled her.  She’d been adrift in vivid memories, and she’d lost time.

Whoops. That’s probably not good for your prospects of maintaining control over your body.

So is Trickster still running around?

She sniffed, for lack of a better word, and found Skitter prone on the ground.  Her tongue snatched the girl up, and she swallowed the girl anew.  The taste and smell were right.  Good.

…that’s not a sentence that’s often used about main protagonists.

That spooked her.  Her body wasn’t making good decisions when it was on autopilot.  Or, at least, it wasn’t making decisions she’d accept.  Almost losing an Undersider?  No.

Check your inside. Given how your body was acting before the memory-out, there’s a very real chance it autopiloted into eating Krouse.

She double checked.  Skitter, Grue, Regent and the little space warper were safely ensconced inside her, each tucked away in neat little wombs, unconscious and helpless and safe from the ongoing fighting.

…an exercise in disturbing anatomy. But I suppose wombs are well suited for storing people, especially ones you may give vomit-birth to clones of.

Somewhere along the way, she lost Leet and Circus, it seems.

Why did you show me that?  Why was that so important?

There was no reply.  Never a reply.

“How has your day been?” She knew the moon wouldn’t answer – she never did – but she asked the question anyway. She always did.

She even gave the moon a pause, some time to say something. Anything. But the dark unicorn’s head imprinted on the pale gray disc stayed as tight-lipped as ever.

Eidolon reached out with one hand, and she instinctively rushed out of the way.

Social distancing.

The gravity effect hit her, and she could feel her flesh tearing, feel the extremities ripping: her ears, nose, lips and all the little pieces of her monstrous lower half.

He’s back to this, huh? I suppose that makes sense, with the people on his side starting to clear out a bit.

At her shoulders, the top of her head, the flesh above her spine on her lower half, the flesh was pulled down and away until it started to rip.

It’s evidently time to make cupcakes.

Eidolon fell out of the air, hitting the ground hard.

Uh?

Creepy Crawly’s work?

Noelle turned her head, saw Regent.  Her Regent.  He was only half-formed, one arm missing, the features of his face more like a fetus than a teenage boy.

Oh hell yes.

Important question, though: Does Babyface here have a goatee?

She smiled.  Maybe her other half had made some good decisions.

Her flesh was already knitting back together, everything shuffling into their proper places or shifting around to fill in gaps.  The fluid that welled from a bottomless source in her monstrous lower half bubbled up and coursed through her veins to supply the needed materials.

Ah, yeah… I wonder if Noelle’s upper half could’ve been saved by straight up cutting her across the midsection and then immediately healing the gaping wounds Panacea-style, leaving her legless but alive and severed from Echidna.

There may be some practical issues with that plan, not least of which being the possibility that Noelle’s upper half would start generating a second Echidna.

The girl in white hit her again, striking the joint of one outstretched limb.  Noelle swiped at the girl in mid-air with her other forelimb, came within inches of making contact.

The ground underfoot shattered.  Noelle leaped before the tinker could repeat the effect and sink her into another sand trap.

Grace and Tecton are putting up a decent fight, it seems, but not really getting anywhere. This takes bigger guns.

There was another explosion from beneath her.  She leaped to avoid the worst of that one.  She vomited in the direction of the tinker, but he was anticipating the attack.  He provoked an eruption of rock shards and dust midway between them.  The bulk of the flying bodies and fluids were knocked off course by the plume of debris.  With a third strike he raised a barrier around himself.  Two of the three bodies that hadn’t been stopped by the debris were caught on the shards of pavement.  One suffered a broken back, the other hit the edge of a fragment with enough force that his stomach was ripped open.

Damn, though, if Tecton isn’t cool.

The third flew over the barrier.  The tinker caught it with a punch, and the piledriver in his gauntlet extended twice in an instant, punching two neat holes through the upper body.

He didn’t even wait for the body to hit the ground before striking and creating another fissure that extended beneath the barrier and beneath her.  She leaped out of the way before it opened wide enough to catch her or one of her feet.

Look, Grace, you’d better put on a heck of a show here. You have a lot of catchup to do to match your teammate’s coolness.

It was bad timing.  She had been distracted by the recent vision.  Eidolon hit her square-on with another gravity attack.  Her flesh was savaged and split, she was almost immobilized under the force of it.  If the tinker used his power now-

Nice work, everyone.

Trickster broke Eidolon’s contact with the gravity field by teleporting him.  The hero reacted in an instant, releasing a half-dozen blue sparks from each hand.  They grew until they were each three feet across, crackling with electricity, moving at a walking pace as they slowly homed in on Trickster.

That seems too slow to hit Trickster if he can see anyone of the right size.

But maybe the point is that he can stop the sparks if Trickster swaps someone in.

He had to teleport to avoid the closest one.  Only some of the orbs followed him to his new destination, the others remaining where they were.

Oh, nice, they continue homing if they can.

Noelle opened fire on the tinker, two streams of vomit, each directed to one side of him.

She considered vomiting on the electric orbs, then thought twice about it.

Last thing we need is electrified vomit.

Trickster teleported again, trying to maintain distance, but Eidolon had created more of the sparks, and the things were spreading out evenly across the battlefield, moving closer to Trickster if he got within ten paces of them.

This is a decent tactic.

Except if you want to stabilize things. What this does is incentivize Trickster to teleport more, as the orbs don’t immediately hit him when he goes near them. The problem is rapid teleportation is when Trickster is in his element and everyone else gets more disoriented.

It can land him in positions where he can’t see enough to work with, though.

It threatened to hamper her own movements too, Noelle noted.

Eidolon raised a hand in Trickster’s direction, and Trickster was quick to teleport away.  The gravity slam hit one of Noelle’s creations instead.  Trickster wound up within two paces of one orb, and had to scramble back before it touched him.

The enemy Queen pulling an effective skewer of the knightrider.


Traveler fairy chess pieces

  • Trickster: Moves like a knight, but can also swap places with any piece he has orthogonal or diagonal line of sight to, of either color.
  • Ballistic: Moves like a king, but when he does, instead of capturing, he launches an enemy piece along the direction of movement until it hits the edge of the board or another piece. In the latter case, the launched piece takes the position of the hit piece and the hit piece is captured.
  • Sundancer: Moves like a bishop, but can’t capture directly. Can, as a move, destroy every orthogonally or diagonally adjacent piece of either color. Does not affect pawns, like captures in atomic chess.
  • Genesis: Can, as a move, switch between acting as a rook or a bishop.
  • Echidna: Moves like a king twice. Can capture only on the first move, but cannot stop there. The captured piece appears in the same location with flipped colors.
  • Oliver: A pawn that looks nice. (Counts as a pawn for other moves.)
  • Perdition: Moves like a rook, acts like an ass. A piece in a spot he moves to is not captured, but instead placed where it was before the last two moves made with that piece. If there is now another piece in that spot, that piece is captured.

[Discord]

Q-Anondorf:
“made with that piece” so…we’re talking about jumping back 10 or 15 turns sometimes? what if you take a piece that hasn’t moved yet?

Nynaeve al’Meara for Pope [me]:
Yes, and you can’t because it has nowhere to move.
Obviously that piece only works if you keep track of moves. Not great for over-the-board timed chess or casual games without records.

Q-Anondorf:
Incorrect. The right interpretation is that Perdition indirectly captures itself.

lurkmaster:
I imagine if you landed on such a piece, it would instead capture you since it’s forced to occupy its current space

Nynaeve al’Meara for Pope:
Hm. You know what, I can vibe with that.
I like it.
Dumb move that does nothing but lose you Perdition, which honestly is worth it.


Noelle looked at him, remembered the scene from the most recent memory.  In this moment, with so many other people to be angry at, so many others to hate, she didn’t feel that bottomless resentment for Trickster that she’d experienced ever since the transformations started.

It’s you two against the world. Quite literally — his betrayal theoretically puts him at odds with the entire cape community aside from other Endbringer sympathizers.

It wasn’t you, she thought.  I keep saying it was your fault.  It wasn’t.

Well, who didn’t want the whole dose again? Granted, he was still the one with the idea to mess with the dosage at all.

She was already moving towards him as the thought came to her.

I blamed you for giving me the elixir.  The potion.  Whatever you call it.  But it was me.  I heard you guys talking about how the people who drank the stuff were supposed to get tested for psychiatric issues.  I didn’t tell you the Simurgh showed me visions of my worst days, of my relapses, my lowest points.

Oof. Yeah, I’m sure that didn’t help.

Giving the half-dose was probably still bad, mixing a lower amount of Balance into the Deviation, but this is probably why Oliver’s fine. It didn’t work quite right for him either, but he was psychologically fine enough to not Deviate.

That she drove me into a state where I was reluctant to take the full dose, eager for a compromise.

Well played, Simurgh.

It just occurred to me that this whole situation can be construed as the Simurgh’s attack on Brockton Bay, even though she’s not actually here.

Though I still think there’s way more to this than that, it’s still relevant if one expects each Endbringer to be an issue to deal with for the main protagonists in succession, capping off each book before the finale.

She started running.

I knew all this, and if I’d only had the courage to say it, maybe this all would have gone a different way.

Uh, Trickster? You may want to watch out.

Oh, the irony, that this was what she’d become.

She crashed into the first of the lightning orbs.  She felt the current surge inside her, settle in her bones, latent.

A heartbeat later, every single orb that Eidolon had cast out flashed with visible arcs of electricity, striking her.

zappity zappity

The energy ripped through her, stripping flesh from around the bone of her arm, her ribs, her spine, and the larger bones of her lower body.  The electricity surged to the ground and out the top of her head, stabbing toward the sky in a visible lightning strike.

So, uh. Trickster would’ve been fried to a crisp, is what you’re saying?

Noelle staggered, touched one hand to her face, where her flesh had been distorted by the strike, separated from bone so it hung down, large patches of hair at the crown of her head burned away. The ends of her fingers where she’d touched the orb were blasted away, revealing bone.

Marquis, now’s your chance! …wait.

She could feel it growing back, flesh knitting together.

Even this wasn’t enough to kill her.

Damn.

She touched another, and it was worse, drawing on the residual energy from the first contact.

So she’s just straight up attempting to help Eidolon finish the job now? Or is she still focused on Trickster?

The third was worse still.

She’d complained of the sheer heat of this body before, but this… it was heat and pain on an inhuman level.  Transcendant.  Were she regular Noelle, Noelle without the powers, without the monstrous lower half and warped brain, even a tenth of this would knock her out, stop her heart from the sheer intensity of it.

“What’s for dinner?”

“Deep fried echidna!”

On contact with the fourth orb, her frontmost legs collapsed under her, with everything within a half-foot of the major bones being rendered to little more than ash.  There was nothing to connect flesh to bone, and she toppled.

She roared, and for perhaps the second time in the past hour, both she and her monstrous half were in agreement.  With her other legs, she pushed herself forward, and extended one of her long tongues for the orb closest to Trickster.  

If it were simply a matter of getting Trickster away from the orbs, she could have created more bodies for him to swap with.

If she were going for Trickster himself, she could probably reach him with that tongue with not that much more effort.

I think she’s genuinely trying to kill herself here.

To Krouse.  She screamed in pain and fury as it ripped through her, and another bolt stabbed toward the sky.

Too much damage, too fast.  She wasn’t healing fast enough.

…and is that what you want?

A series of lightning strikes nearby marked the deaths of some of her clones.

It’s a Minecraft PvP game!

Eidolon was there, too, at the end of the street.  The glow beneath his hood and sleeves was almost blue in the reflected luminescence of the twenty or thirty orbs that hovered around him.  A further twenty or thirty orbs were spread out over their immediate surroundings.

He can tell it’s working.

The thing is, if she eats her boyfriend (vore), his clones may hold the key to escape. Question is just whether she wants that.

The others… the tinker had created short walls of stone to shield himself and the girl in white.  The rest of the battlefield consisted of bodies and other fallen.

This really has been pretty brutal, huh.

Eidolon spoke into his wrist.  Noelle realized that there were other capes nearby when they each came to a stop, resting on rooftops and behind cover a few blocks away.

You seem to be losing, Noelle.

Short of Eidolon, there was nobody for Trickster to swap himself with.  And given that Eidolon had so many orbs in his immediate vicinity… no, Trickster swapping himself for Eidolon wasn’t an option.

Would you risk losing Skitter for this?

Her other half hated him, and she was realizing just how much her monstrous body had been influencing her without her knowledge, now that her emotions were all pointed at this one individual, this one target.  It left her feelings towards everyone else at an almost normal level.  Her feelings for Krouse, her hatred of the Undersiders, her anger at Coil, each had been twisted, magnified, warped.

Interesting.

“If he does another gravity attack, I’m kind of dead,” Trickster said.

…not if you take the taxi.

“He won’t,” Noelle rasped,  “He’d knock those orbs out of the air, and he’s counting on them to destroy me.  They probably will.”

Hm. Fair point.

As some of her tendons and ligaments knit together, she got two legs under her and positioned herself as close to Trickster as she could without touching him, shielding him from the orbs that were approaching at a crawling pace.

Dean McCoppin comes running in to shout at Eidolon to stop attacking because the giant has a child.

Eidolon just looks at him and says “Who the fuck are you?”

“I’m sorry,” Trickster said.

Noelle couldn’t bring herself to reply.  She wanted to say she was sorry too, that his apology was unnecessary, but a kind of indignant rage was rising deep within her, threatening to overwhelm her.  All of it was directed at Eidolon.

This is one of those scenes that make me think people should probably read Worm on its site before reading my liveblog. Because damn if I’m not ruining the mood of a beautiful scene here.

Noelle raging against Eidolon may be bad news.

And in the midst of that rage, she felt a killing instinct she hadn’t experienced before.  Even coming this far, she’d never wanted to kill.  She’d wanted the Undersiders dead, yes, she’d tried to kill people, but a part of her had always held back from wanting to kill, from wishing to carry out the act of murder herself.

Considering the circumstances, the restraint is admirable.

To execute this man who sought to end her existence.

It wasn’t her desire, not really.  It was her body’s.

Are you certain?

“You want to kill?” she asked.  “You really think you can fight your way through this?”

Is she saying this out loud now? Because that’s going to look like quite the non-sequitur to Trickster.

“What?” Trickster asked.  “What are you talking about?”

Not talking to you, she thought.  “I have two conditions.  Don’t harm Trickster, and make it a nice memory this time.”

Oh boy. Negotiations, and preparing to relinquish control on her terms. This can only go well.

Then she let her defenses down.  Her other self took over, and it wasn’t her memory that she experienced.

What?

Does the body have its own set of memories or something?

Some of the others departed early.  Others were readied to depart soon after arrival.  Still others, this one included, were to wait.

My other thought was “Dandelion memory”. I could see this being that.

They were one, they were all.  A collective, a single entity, a trillion times a trillion entities.  Each with a function in the whole, each with a role in the cycles, each with an individual identity.

Yeah, there’s no way this isn’t a Dandelion memory. But what about her body gives her access to it?

The implication of a hivemind is interesting considering we’ve seen inter-Dandelion communication. But maybe that’s just how they start thinking of themselves when they communicate in raw ideas?

Actually, maybe she’s experiencing this because someone in the scene — Trickster? — is having a second trigger?

As one, they traveled.  The distance was immeasurable, the passage of time impossible to convey.  There was no standard, for there were realms they had traveled where time and space operated on different levels.

Did they say hello to the Horrorterrors while they were traveling through the Furthest Ring?

For all, their own kind was the only standard, the only thing that remained relatively static through the cycles.  When they met their own kind they shared with each other.  When a new cycle was carried out, everything of the parent was borne by their spawn.

We’ve seen each step of this…

Are passengers incubating Dandelion spawn?

That would actually explain a hell of a lot.

And the collective moved toward their destination.  They operated as a whole to decipher it, to pick apart the permutations, see the futures and the possibilities.

I have believed for a good while that their destination is Earth-Bet, but it’s not just about location and dimension, is it? It’s also a time, a timeline.

But for this one entity, which existed as part of the whole, there was a target within that destination.  When it came time for this one to depart, it would seek out a particular individual, and it would bond with that individual.  This one would fragment itself if others met the criteria; if there was time and opportunity enough then it would move to better candidates, younger or more able ones with a greater ability to affect the cycle.

!!

Confirmation that

  • there’s a form of Dandelion-human bonding involved
  • Dandelions know ahead of time when and where to find people to bond with
  • there are “criteria” and if multiple people meet them they can end up bonding to the same Dandelion (people getting multiple powers when multiple people have trigger events at the same time comes to mind)
  • the Dandelions are actively bestowing powers in hopes of affecting the future

That last one is core to some of my biggest endgame theories, so I’m quite happy about that one.

This one would wait until the time was right, and then it would activate, come into the identity and role that had been ingrained into its being.

Blossom, if you will.

And that ties into what we’ve seen with how Dandelions collectively seem to have powers similar to those they bestow. When they bond, they specialize.

All to serve this cycle.

The cycle implies the whole thing recurs, but I don’t know that it means within a universe. Maybe the final threat eats through worlds and the Dandelions try to stop it or minimize the damage each time?

With the help of the collective, this one could see its objective.  A single living being.  This one encoded that being, the time and place in its very makeup.  It would be ready.

So, uh. Did splitting the potion confuse it? It seems like it would just “fragment itself”.

I’m always mildly disappointed when a Dandelion sequence ends, but that’s a good thing.

Noelle’s eyes went wide.

It wasn’t me.

That split may have been a bigger problem than you thought.

Whatever her body was, the intelligence and purpose that lurked inside her other half, whatever these powers were.  It had all gone to the wrong person.

Oh… oh

So Cauldron’s potions… they hijack the Dandelions? Even though they can fragment themselves? Possibly by briefly making them “better candidates”?

Gone to the wrong person, askew from the beginning, then twisted further by her own psychological issues, messed up by the fact that she’d only taken half a dose.

This really is a furious cocktail.

The realization and the confusion that came with the vision were compounded as she stared at her surroundings.

So. How much did you do?

Her minions surrounded her: two copies of Trickster; a skinny girl with long dark hair, covering herself with her arms and a carpeting of rodents, Skitter;  a Grue; a Regent; two blondes who would be copies of the girl in white; four of the civilians, and one she didn’t recognize as any of the civilians she’d absorbed.  The tinker.  Eight of them in all.

Creepy Crawly! Who… seems to control rodents now?

Her flesh was knitting together.  Wounds as bad as the ones before, and worse ones.  Eidolon had apparently wanted to spare her captives, because the electricity had only affected her, her flesh as it surrounded her bones.  He had selected that power with their safety in mind.

That’s nice of him.

And there he was, in front of her.  Eidolon, on his knees, covered in bile and blood.

Oh boy. It seems the enemy queen is in checkmate.

Somehow. I know my chess metaphors have been all over the place this chapter.

“Why?” he asked, in an eerie, distorted voice.

Good question.

You want to know why I did this?  Where would I start?  Why would I even tell you, when you tried to kill me, kill Trickster?

She was breathing too hard to respond, even with her nearly bottomless stamina.

It’s a long story.

“Why isn’t it working?”  He asked.

Ooh, what did you do?

“I…” she had to stop for breath, “I don’t care.  Whatever it is.”

“I was supposed to get stronger, and there’s nothing.  Nothing at all to reach for.”

Ah, that. I guess this still isn’t enough danger somehow? Or maybe you’ve misidentified what causes it.

She turned, saw Trickster on his hands and knees, covered in the fluids of her vomit.

How was the ride?

You weren’t supposed to hurt him.

You were supposed to give me a nice visionfor that matter, she thought.

It was a nice vision. To it. That’s a twist I saw coming a mile away, so you really should’ve worded yourself better.

Maybe “a memory I like” or something.

“Why?” Eidolon asked.

“I don’t care,” she said, again.  She took a deep breath before speaking again, though there was little point, when it was this entire body that was so drained.  “I… it’s your choice.  We continue this fight, and my creatures run, they do whatever damage they can, and it’s weeks before you find every last one… or you let me go.”

…and that’s not going to make it take “weeks” to stop the destruction?

Frankly the first option is far superior unless the creatures in question are Eidolon clones (Ghast), or he expects she’ll win anyway.

“Three Undersiders down.  Three to go.  Then I give myself up.  Deal stands.”

Well… that could be a problem, if he were to agree.

“What’s to say you keep that promise?”

“Nothing.  But you don’t have another choice, do you?”

…fair.

Eidolon didn’t respond.

“I’ll even let you call in reinforcements,” she offered.

“Your knight in shining armor took it,” Eidolon spoke.  “The wristband I use for communications.”

Heh, nice work, Trickster.

Noelle turned to Trickster, and he extended one hand, holding out one of the wristband displays.  Noelle took it.

Her Skitter was watching, looking concerned.

You’re sure that’s not the real Skitter somehow managing to pretend she’s a clone?

“Don’t fucking look at me,” Noelle spat the words at her minion.

Her Skitter turned her eyes to the ground.

“Trickster said you thrived on this kind of impossible fight.  Prove it.  Or die horribly.  I don’t care.”

Is she talking to Eidolon or Skitter/Creepy Crawly here?

Her Skitter looked up and smiled, lopsided.  Half the girl’s face was paralyzed, Noelle realized.  She wondered if the real Skitter had spaces between each of her teeth like that, or the gnarled twist of a nose.

Looks like it’s a clone or Skitter’s acting well.

Also, half her face being paralyzed fits so well with both her power (hard insect faces) and her personality (conflicts between the person and the mask).

Noelle turned back to Eidolon, waited for his decision.

“Okay,” he intoned.  She gave him a curt nod.

Eidolon is now a threat to the remaining Undersiders. Great.

Tentatively, Eidolon slid the armband into place and pressed a button.  “Requesting reinforcements to my location.  In bad shape, need to mop up some clones.”

Saying nothing about the deal, of course.

Her Regent said something she couldn’t make out.  He talked as though his tongue was too large for his mouth.  He had more muscle than fit on his frame, stretching his skin almost comically tight.

Oh man, if only real Regent could see this guy.

It was easy to believe the problem extended to the inside of his mouth.

“And they let me pass uncontested,” she said.

He spoke into the armband again.  “Do not engage target Echidna.”

And theeere’s the name!

Understood,”  a woman’s voice came from the armband.

“Echidna?” Noelle asked.

“One of the PRT members coined it,” Eidolon said.  He was eyeing her minions warily.  “Said he had a three year old girl called Noelle, didn’t want to associate her with something like you.”

Ouch.

“What was his last name?”

…you don’t think she’s alternate universe you, do you?

I mean, the only other reason I can see for Noelle to ask this is if she thinks some kind of revenge is in order.

Eidolon gave her a wary look.  “Meinhardt.”

This is very interesting, because it implies some degree of In Spite of A Nail between the universes, but with a temporal disconnect. Then again, I suppose maybe the PRT career got Mr. Meinhardt to have a child later in his life than he did on Earth-Aleph?

“Okay,” Noelle said.

Then she turned to run, leaving Trickster behind.

Wow, way to fuck him over.

Her nose led her to the remaining Undersiders.

Welp.

Back home, insofar as she had one.  The same place where she’d been kept contained for weeks.  Coil’s headquarters.

Surfacing from her dream, she’d temporarily supplanted the killer instinct that was demanding Eidolon’s head.  Now that she was closer, her thoughts were afire with thoughts of revenge, and that killer instinct was welling up again.  The idea that she’d maybe had the chance to get back to normal, that her friends had maybe been close to going home, and the Undersiders had taken all that away, it made her want to scream.  To inflict punishments worse than death on them.

Currently playing: “Rise Like a Phoenix“, featuring the line “seeking rather than vengeance, retribution”.

Her vision from before lingered.  The entity.  The thing that was taking her over, that had made her a monster, it had an identity, now.  She wouldn’t say it had a face, but it was no longer a vague malevolent force, now.

It has blossomed.

So… if this is how this particular Dandelion acts when it gets near-conscious control over a body, are Dandelions overall malevolent, is this one just grumpy about being hijacked, or do they maybe just not really care about the people and do whatever leads to the best ending for the Dandelions, or the continuation of the cycle?

For a while, I’ve been positing that the Dandelions might be empowering people so they can fight the final threat. Maybe I’ve been putting the Dandelions on the wrong side.

Part of her felt sympathetic for it, because this thing that shared her body had been wronged by some nebulous circumstance.  In that, at least, they were kindred.

True.

Another part of her was just bewildered.  The memory it had shared with her was so vast, it changed everything, had left her feeling like her problems here were so small, so miniscule.  Even this, this fight, her revenge, in a way it felt artificial, false.

Yeah, it’s. Not exactly the biggest thing happening, aside from on a narrative focus level.

It’s not my world, she thought.  It’s almost like a game.  Killing characters in some false, barbaric setting.

At least she’s not actually delusionally believing herself to be in the game like I suggested early on.

If she felt like she was more in sync with it, now, did that mean she’d lost ground in her perpetual war with the entity, her other half?  So much ground lost, so fast, in the heat of this battle?

Or does it mean you’re coming closer to a horrible peace?

She shook her head.  Focus.

The tunnels that Coil had used to move his trucks in and out of the base had been collapsed, and it had been recent.  She could smell the smoke from the explosives.  She spat out a Vista, then another, and another, until she had one that could give her a way in, shrinking the rubble and expanding the corridor.

What can the others do, I wonder?

In her restlessness, unable to shake the idea that her sanity was slipping away moment by moment, she pushed her way through the last length of the rubble, absorbing it into herself and spitting it out behind her, moving through it as though she were a thick fluid; even her bones dissolved when needed.

Fitting that the Endbringer of Earth can pseudo-burrow through ground debris like this.

The only thing that slowed her down were the capes she’d stored within herself.  Each of the three Undersiders, the tinker, and the girl in white.  She used her strength to wedge gaps sufficient to squeeze the individual organs through.

I imagine the capes aren’t much use if squeezed too hard? Though she might just need the DNA. In any case, it’s hard to give someone a punishment worse than death if they’ve already died and resurrection isn’t an option.

She brute-forced her way through the last few feet of the barrier, and paced her way into the interior, the ground shaking with her footfalls.  The vault door was still open, crumpled, and the entire interior was lit only by red emergency lights.

Welcome home. Has Tattletale set up a trap for you?

Tattletale was on the metal walkway, hands gripping the railing.  Bitch was on the ground, with no less than seven dogs around her, each of varying size.

Speak of the fox!

Noelle could smell the Protectorate and Wards members moving towards her location.  She was put in mind of the memory her entity had granted her only a little while ago, of the night her team had passed the qualifiers for nationals.  She’d passed the point of no return, and now the enemy forces were collapsing in on her.

Well… you turned that into a victory last time, even if my memory of the game’s rules wasn’t good enough for me to grasp how.

But this time, there’s no respawning.

She smiled a little.  She would almost thank Tattletale for this, if she wasn’t so eager to rend the girl limb from limb, to wipe the smile from her face and hear her screams.  All that aside, Noelle hadn’t felt more like herself in a long time, and she had these circumstances to thank.

I love this.

The difference between this scenario and that one, really, was that the reinforcements were minutes away.  This fight wouldn’t last that long.

We’ll see about that.

“Well then,” Tattletale grinned.  Her tightening grip on the railing betrayed the emotion she was trying to hide.  “Come on.  Do your worst.”

It takes a fair bit to throw off her attitude.

Noelle would do it.


End of Interlude 18ø

So… that was an interesting way to end it. The end of this chapter feels like it’s setting up a big climactic chapter, but I’ve had it confirmed that this is the end of Arc 18, so… is all of Arc 19 that climax? Or is this going to drag out significantly longer?

Maybe Arc 19 is like two chapters, a short Interlude Arc from a different perspective while Skitter is still stuck in Noelle’s womb? (I imagine she’d have noticed by now if the clone was fake, after having to bring her wombs through the debris.)

In any case, this Interlude was masterful. The tactics, the senses, the parallels, the interplay, the cursed romance, the Dandelion perspective, everything. Mwah.

Trickster is going to be in so much trouble.

I don’t think I really need to say anything more here. See you soon for Arc Thoughts!


(By the way, another thing confirmed in that one paragraph that made me pull out the bullet points, that occurred to me later: Dandelions prefer younger hosts, which explains why we rarely see capes older than their 50s or so in this story, and those who are that old are usually long-established. Neat.)

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