Scourge 19.1: The Big Red Button

Source material: Worm, Scourge 19.1

Blogged: January 10-11, 2022


Hiya! Happy new year. Remember me?

So it’s been a year since I blogged the last Interlude of Arc 18. I should probably say a few words about that.

This hiatus wasn’t planned. What happened was that I felt the need to reread the Arc in order to figure out what I was going to talk about in the Arc Thoughts, so I started such a reread. And never finished it. I got distracted by other things, and that killed not only the momentum of the Arc 18 reread but of the entire blog, because apart from an April Fool’s update, continuing the blog was gated behind a reread that I just… wasn’t doing anymore.

On top of that, I went through periods with a lot of work and a fucked up sleep schedule, and I picked up additional interests to keep me distracted, such as making music. But let’s be real, I had plenty of time to blog in 2021. What’s ultimately at fault for this hiatus is my ADHD and creator burnout. On some level, I think I actually needed this break, even with previous hiati in mind.

But I’m sick of the break now. 2021 is over, so let’s get back into this!

For those of you who didn’t see it, I made these tweets on December 7th last year:

[Twitter]

Hey there! Been a while. Gonna be just a little longer too, because December is crazy packed with work, but I think at this point I need to actually make a commitment here. Liveblog WILL return in January, preferably early January, or I’m a dumb dumb poopyhead.

Due to the time that’s passed and its role in triggering this hiatus in the first place, and in order to get the momentum going in a better way, I will be skipping Arc Thoughts: Queen and moving right along to 19.1, and then catch up on the ask pile that has presumably amassed.

The Arc Thoughts for Queen will be merged in with the Arc Thoughts for whatever Arc 19 is called when that time comes around, and I’ll cover a few of the essential Arc 19 predictions that would have been in Arc Thoughts: Queen at the start of 19.1 instead.

Actually, let’s up the ante. If I haven’t gotten through at least four chapters of Arc 19 (including Interludes) by January 19th, I’m still a poopyhead, just not a dumb dumb one.

Hope you’re all doing well. 😊

Now, the “four chapters by January 19th” thing probably isn’t happening at this point. January has brought more work than I expected, and it’s already the 10th. But damn if I’m gonna be a dumb dumb poopyhead!

So let’s read 19.1!


So, where were we. Ah, yes. Taylor has been vored (she briefly looked like she might have escaped in the guise of a clone, but Noelle could still feel her inside later in the Interlude, so unless Taylor pulled something clever to replace herself I’m going to assume she’s out of commission for now), Noelle’s attacking the rest of the Undersiders, and things are generally looking pretty rough for Brockton Bay’s defenders on both sides of the hero/villain spectrum.

I should note that I did find one thing that was said to me near the end of the hiatus suspicious. I don’t actually know if it’s a spoiler yet, but this comment:

[Discord]

I guess I am just worried about an “oh no, getting eaten by Echidna has given Krix amnesia and now he doesn’t remember who anyone is or what they’re doing” arc

did have me thinking that amnesia could be a side effect of getting Echidna’d that I didn’t know about yet.

An amnesia arc for Taylor could be an interesting direction to take this. I mean, just imagine coming out of a monster and realizing you’re mostly blind except you can “see” through the positions of bugs, you’re the leader of a team of villains controlling the city, and you can’t remember how any of it happened…

Assuming we’re not doing that in this Arc, though, I’m interested to see how long Taylor actually stays inside. Will she come back almost immediately, or will this Arc be exclusively Interludes or rotating POV chapters like Sentinel? Maybe it’ll be like Migration and have a single POV character that isn’t Taylor?

I think if we’re not rotating the POV or returning to Taylor, the most likely suspect for the POV is Lisa. That ought to be interesting.

Alright, time to find out the Arc title! (Wait, if an Arc had exclusively Interludes and wasn’t treated like Sentinel, would I even find out the title without you guys?)


Scourge 19.1

…you can expect a number of Homestuck jokes with this one folks. Homestuck has a pair of characters who call themselves the Scourge Sisters (it’s not a surname), and that’s my main association for the word.

Who’s the Terezi of the Worm cast? We’ve got several Vriskas already…

I kind of wanna say it’s Lisa. Outwardly irreverent, actually thoughtful, loves mind games, chaotic lawful… Yeah, it’s Lisa.

Anyway, back to Worm, this is an ominous title. Scourges tend to be incredibly destructive, after all, and Noelle is only a few unfortunate clones away from unleashing a scourge on the entire east coast at any given moment.

Other definitions of “scourge” include a kind of whip particularly used for punishment. Considering Noelle wants revenge on the Undersiders, that makes sense — she wants to punish them, so she’ll be their scourge.

19.1 will presumably deal with the initial attack on the remaining Undersiders at Coil’s headquarters. If I remember correctly, we’ve got Tattletale, Regent and Bitch there, with Grue and Skitter being vored. I forget where Imp is, but what else is new.

Or, wait, was Regent also vored? Let me check.

Yes. She has Grue, Skitter and Regent, plus a tinker and a girl in white which I believe refer to Tecton and Grace.

Although rereading the late parts of Interlude 18ø, I still think that Skitter clone is suspicious. I won’t be that surprised if 19.1 actually does return the POV to her and the Skitter Noelle feels while brute forcing her way into the headquarters is somehow fake. The biggest questions there would be how that one was faked and how Skitter managed to wake up and get out.

Alright, alright, that’s enough blabbering. It’s time to actually start the chapter!


The school’s bell tolled, oddly deep, with an echo that continued, unending.  I couldn’t see it through the cloudy haze that consumed my vision, but I felt as though the lockers were straining against their hinges in keeping with the rhythm.  

That’s an interesting place to go. We appear to be in a flashback to Taylor’s trigger event, possibly in nightmare form. Does Noelle’s power possibly cause this in order to sort of farm the trigger events of her victims in order to create the powers wielded by the clones? That would explain why the powers are a little different.

The same went for the floor tiles, and the hundreds of footfalls of the students milling around me.  A pounding rhythm.

I couldn’t keep my footing.  I was blind, still, but that wasn’t the source of the problem.

I like the ambiguity of whether Taylor describes herself as “blind, still” because she’s blind in the present or because she’s in a closed locker. Similarly, the pounding of footfalls could also be the pounding of Noelle’s body around her.

It seemed vaguely familiar, the way every impact seemed designed to hit me where it hurt, to knock me off-balance and leave me in a state where I was spending too much time reeling and staggering to push back or find safety.

Yeah, it’s a lot like having an author.

Someone tall shoved past me, and his bag caught on my nose.  It tore at the skin between the nostrils, and I could feel warm blood fountaining from the wound.

Okay yeah that definitely wouldn’t happen inside the locker.

Maybe she’s having flashbacks to the locker not because of some kind of effect of Noelle’s power, but because of plain old claustrophobia from her trigger event, and because her brain isn’t fully awake and ends up processing her situation as a repeat of the locker.

I staggered, bending over with my hands to my face, and someone walked straight into me, as though they didn’t know I was there.  My head hit a locker and I fell.  

Or… as though she’s outside the locker, right before it happened.

I’m still assuming double meanings, but maybe she was actually blinded somehow just before getting pushed in. I wouldn’t put it past the Harpies.

Someone stepped on my hand as their vague shape walked by, and I could hear something break, could feel it break.  The pain dashed all rational thought from my mind.

I screamed, brought my hand to my chest, cradling it.  I was tougher than that, wasn’t I?  I wasn’t made of glass, to have bone fracture or-

“Made of glass” is a surprisingly good character aspect sometimes. Epithet Erased does some cool things with it as a villain motivation.

“You’re so pathetic, Taylor,” Emma intoned.

I know this is a flashback to the most important thing you ever did in this story, Emma, but do you have to be here? Can’t you just fuck off?

No.  Not now.  Not like this.

I could hear Madison tittering.  Sophia was silent, and her presence was all the more ominous for it.  I’d done something reprehensible to her.  I couldn’t recall what it was, but I knew she was here for retaliation.

Memories of later stuff peeking through, I believe. I don’t recall Taylor having done anything reprehensible to Sophia before her trigger event, at least that she’s mentioned.

They struck me, and I fell.  Emma and Madison took turns kicking me, and every effort I made to defend myself fell short.  It wasn’t just that I didn’t know how to fight, or that I was blind.  It was somehow worse, as though every effort I made were being actively punished.

One thing I find interesting about the notion that Taylor was blinded when this happened is that I’m surprised she was so chill about actually going blind if it was a part of her trigger event to this extent. That’s part of why I find it a slightly suspicious detail.

Due to the likely nature of this flashback, Taylor is an unreliable narrator and I’m not sure that particular detail was real.

Then again, psychology is complicated. It’s very possible that this is part of why she appeared so chill about the blindness, due to not wanting to think about the implications. Taylor has been in deep denial about it in general, just working with it as best she could and not even acknowledging it to her team until she had to. I don’t think she’s accepted that it’s likely to be a lasting affliction.

I’d reach out with my good hand to grab one of them and pull them off their feet, and my elbow would get stepped on, forcing it to bend the wrong way.  I tried to push myself to a standing position, only for someone to kick me in the back, slamming my chest and face into the tile, hard.

“I’d go to deliver Dinah home and they’d put me in a burning building.”

I tried to speak and a kick caught me in the throat.

And all around me, there was the steady rhythm of footsteps and the bell’s echo.

The bell is still going?

The point was clear.  I was supposed to give up.  I really should have given up.

If I wasn’t able to do something on my own, maybe a weapon?  Some tool?  My thoughts were confused and disordered, but I searched through them, as if I could remember if I’d stashed some tool or weapon on my person.

I think this is present Taylor’s mindset poking through again. Although maybe it was just that disorienting.

No, something else, I was supposed to have another weapon, though my instinct told me it wasn’t anywhere I could reach, and that was normal.  I searched for it-

Oh shit. Ohhh shit I think I know what that cutoff means and I’m so here for it. But she’s not in the locker yet… so does that mean her actual trigger was the beatdown before the locker rather than the actual locker part? Does that mean that her trigger bonus kicks in when she feels actively bullied and beaten down moreso than when she’s trapped and alone? That would actually make sense with a few times we’ve seen it flare up that didn’t seem to track with the locker itself being the trigger.

The scene was visible through a thousand times a thousand eyes, the colors strangely muted in favor of texture, the images blurring except where they moved, when they became oddly sharp.

That last part is particularly interesting. Usually both vision and quantum mechanics work the other way around, where less movement means a clearer image of where things are.

A thousand times a thousand eyes… normally I would assume they were the Dandelions’ eyes, but this is Skitter’s Dandelion vision we’re dealing with. Are we going to see a Dandelion vision through the eyes of insects?

Tattletale managed to leap back from the metal walkway as Noelle lunged and caught on the fixture. 

Wait what?

Mostly unconscious Skitter within Noelle processing the visual input from the insects around this fight? Heck yes! With the blindness, it was really only a matter of time before she’d start actually tapping into this aspect of the power, and this is probably the coolest way to have her do that.

What do we have to nerf for Skitter to start using crabs? Her ability to walk sideways?

As Noelle fell, her claws scraping gouges into the concrete walls, the walkway was pulled free.  Tattletale had put herself in one of the rooms that extended off the walkway.  Coil’s room.  There was a doorway to nowhere between herself and Noelle, surrounded by concrete walls that were two or three feet thick at their narrowest point.

Two of three feet of concrete doesn’t seem to mean that much to Noelle. Still, might slow her down a little.

Most of the construction of this place had taken place after Coil had found out about Noelle.  He’d known there was the possibility that she would go rogue.

Yes, true, but she didn’t seem to have had much trouble with the vault door, once she actually wanted to bust through it enough. I don’t trust Coil not to have underestimated her in other places.

Tattletale stepped up to the doorway, drew her gun, and fired, gunning down a Grue that had been vomited out.  Blood spattered and he went limp.

French Aisha. L’Imp.

Tattletale of course shows zero hesitation in gunning down something that looks like a friend. She knows better.

-and I couldn’t find anything.  I was unarmed here.

Alright, so reaching out for this other weapon she’s supposed to have from within the dream meant reaching out to her bugs in reality, giving her the input. It’s possible that doing it again could cause the bugs to attack, as she would use them to attack the bullies.

Attacking Noelle with them is useless, of course, but they could still be valuable support in taking down the clones.

Unfortunately, Taylor might lack the awareness needed to make them only go after that clones.

One kick caught me in between the eyebrows, and my head exploded with pain.

That spooked me.  I had to protect my head.  If I suffered another concussion…

More future memories sneaking in.

That was the breaking point.  My brain was more important than whatever else I was trying to protect.  Anything else was fixable.  I stopped fighting back, tucking battered legs against my bruised upper body, drawing my hands around my head.

The brain, of course, is her biggest weapon in more ways than one.

Immediately, the assault stopped being an attempt to break me and destroy my every effort to stand up for myself.  It became something more tolerable, with periodic kicks and stomps instead.  The accompanying shame and humiliation was almost nostalgic.  Horrible, but familiar.

Hm. Did she actually manage to protect her real life brain from some of the nightmares?

Then Sophia stepped close, and I felt something sliding beneath my hands and arms, settling around my neck.  A noose.  She used it to lift me, choking, off the ground.

Her brain’s stopped pretending to recreate a memory now. Now it’s just torment, revenge for things she feels guilty about. Oof.

Madison opened the locker, and the rancid smell of it wafted around me.  I would have gagged if I could breathe.

Ah, but the locker is still involved. I guess it just added the noose detail.

Sophia shoved me inside, planting one foot between my shoulder blades as she hauled back on the rope.  My unbroken fingers scrabbled for purchase, found only trash and cotton that tore when I tried to grab it.  Bugs bit at my flesh and there was nothing I could do to stop them.

Of course it makes little sense for Sophia to be able to hang Taylor within the locker without a bit more setup, but whose brain would care about making sense in a situation like this?

Oh, what fun is there in making sense?

Bugs?  There was something I thought I should know, something-

That’s right, you need to remember that you have the power to control faulty computer code!

The bugs observed as Tattletale pulled the pin from a grenade.  She waited while it sat in her hand.  It was dangerous and reckless to ‘cook’ a grenade like they did in the movies, but then again, this was Tattletale.  It fit with her nature, and if anyone knew how long the fuse really was, it was her.  She tossed it down to where Noelle lurked below.

Yeah, that tracks.

The grenade detonated just before it made contact, billowing with smoke and radiating enough heat to kill the bugs that were finding their way into the underground base.  Other bugs could see the shifting radiance of the flames.

It kind of sounds like Taylor has unconsciously been making the bugs follow again.

Earlier too — “thousands of eyes” is kind of a lot for a single room in an underground base without Taylor’s influence.

Tattletale shouted, “Rachel!  Now!”

Of course she has some kind of plan. Whether it’s an effective one remains to be seen.

Maybe it will at least force Noelle to drop Skitter, and if we’re lucky the other victims too.

-that eluded me, like the water that escaped the ever-thirsty Tantalus.

Tantalus at least deserved that shit. One of the few Greek figures whose horrible punishment was just.

As I scrabbled for purchase,

And so Taylor sat down in the locker to play a game of Scrabble with the bugs.

The annoying part was when she was beaten by a cockroach.

the contents of the locker shifted, falling and collapsing against me, pressing tight against my body, smelling like old blood and rancid flesh.

I mean it’s not entirely out of the question that the noose was involved. Especially if I was misinterpreting the part about Sophia lifting Taylor with it and it’s actually just a short bit that she was hoisting Taylor up from the floor with. But I still think it’s more likely that Taylor’s brain filled it in as karmic punishment for what she did to Sophia later on.

The reason I bring that back up here is that part of the misinterpretation involved the need for significantly more setup. But even when I said it to begin with, I was aware that there was definitely some setup involved. That locker didn’t fill itself with all those hygiene products. The lockering was premeditated.

My heart skipped a few beats and I felt as though my blood was turning to sludge in my veins, slowing down.  My thoughts dissolved into a slush of memories, speeding through my life in choppy, fragmented, distorted images.  I felt momentarily disembodied, as though the line between myself and my surroundings, my mind and my feelings were all blended in together.

Trigger imminent.

When it pulled back, I could finally breathe.  I let out a deep, shuddering breath.  I could breathe.  I could think again.

Hm? Is this just the result of the trigger event itself passing, or is Taylor waking up?

I heard the sound of blades rasping against one another, the ringing of steel building with each repetition of the sound.  I blinked, and the blind haze lifted as though I’d only had tears in my eyes.

Blades? Last I remember neither the trigger event nor the present battle involved anything I’d describe as blades.

The blind haze lifted… Is this going to– no, it’s because with the trigger event she’s gained access to the bugs in fiction, isn’t it? And so she sees, because now that’s no longer conflicting with the narrative of the nightmare?

Mannequin stood in the center of the room.  He had four arms, each ending in three-foot blades, and was sharpening each weapon against the others without pause.

Or that. Skip ahead to another rough moment.

I don’t remember him having four arms, though. It’s been a good while since I read the Mannequin fight, though, even without this latest hiatus, so maybe I’m just being forgetful.

If we’re actually seeing bits of the Mannequin fight in the flashback, Taylor’s going to be calling on her bugs a lot more, which could affect things outside the dream. Besides attacking, I remember it notably involved using the bugs to transport things to the fight, which has me imagining the bugs bringing random objects to the Noelle fight.

Around him, the factory.  Machinery churned, pumps and pistons and levers moved, and furnaces glowed to cast long shadows, casting Mannequin in a crimson light.  The people from my territory were there too, along with Sierra, Charlotte, Lisa, Brian, Rachel, my dad, and my teachers.

I’m taking this as a suggestion that this dream is going to follow the rule of three at the very least.

Why? Because I’m pretty sure that if she wasn’t going to show up in another sequence, Dinah would be here.

No Alec either. Odd. Dinah at least makes sense that she might have a sequence to herself, and Aisha might have been forgotten, but why no Alec here? Does Taylor just not care about him as much?

Each of them fought to hide in the shadows and the corners, but there wasn’t enough room.

In the rainbow factory… where fears and horrors come true… in the rainbow factory… where not a single soul gets through…

I carefully assessed the tools I had at my disposal.  My gun, my knife, my baton.  In a more general sense, there were my bugs.  I called for them-

Tattletale jerked toward the doorway, stopped as one arm stretched behind her with a clink.  She’d handcuffed herself to a length of chain, fastening that chain to a rubber-sheathed cluster of wires at the far end of the room.

What in the world are you doing?

Tattletale’s free hand gripped her gun, pointed it at something narrow… The bugs who were touching the object in question were being absorbed, dying.  It was one of Noelle’s tongues, wrapped around Tattletale’s waist.

I guess maybe the handcuffing is to keep herself attached in case of Noelle swallowing her, but I could easily see Noelle breaking the chain.

Then again, if Noelle doesn’t notice the chain, maybe Tattletale could manage to pull herself out, and maybe someone else too?

Is it time for a belly of the whale rescue maneuver?

The gunshot went off, severing the tongue, and the chain went slack.  Tattletale dropped to her knees, pressing her gun hand to her shoulder.

Not yet, it seems.

I wonder, did Noelle create any Tattletale clones with that contact?

At least we know there’s a risk of an original getting spat out alongside the clones. Making Noelle make clones might be the best way to get the originals out.

The three largest dogs attacked.  Bitch sent three, and the result was predictable.  Noelle absorbed them as they made contact, though each dog was nearly a third of her own size.  Her flesh stretched thin around the mass of each dog, then stretched thinner as they started to swell in size.

Big doggos get even bigger… bold attack strategy.

Noelle’s flesh crept over them faster than they grew.  The growth ceased the instant the flesh finished enveloping them, and their struggles slowed.  It took long seconds for them to stop struggling, but each dog eventually went limp.

Oof.

Tattletale and Rachel watched as two figures stepped out from behind Noelle.  Regent and a Skitter.  Me.

Oh right, that’s another reason for there to be so many bugs here. The clones would also use them.

And a Regent clone is just fucking terrifying.

This is kind of an uneven fight, y’know? Well done to Tattle and Bitch for even lasting this long.

Regent whipped his head up in Tattletale’s direction, and she dropped her gun.  As her good hand snapped up to her throat, gripping it, it became apparent that dropping the gun had been quite intentional.  If she’d been holding it-

The one time the gun dropping happens in response to his power and it’s not even the real Regent or actually his lower-end power being put to good use for once.

Looks like this Puppeteer has less of a threshold for being able to control someone, possibly gaining stronger limb control at the cost of controlling only individual limbs. Or something like that.

The perspective of the scene shifted abruptly as the Skitter bid every bug in the area, Noelle’s included, to turn toward Rachel.

Uh oh.

The ability to control Noelle’s bugs is already one upgrade for Mommy Long-Legs.

Rachel clenched her fists.

-and barely any responded.  A hundred?  If that?  The heat of the furnaces killed many of the ones who were trying to approach.  It left me with a mere thirty-nine bugs.  I might as well have been unarmed.

I think thirty-nine might be the most specific number we’ve ever gotten for Skitter’s ammo reserves, short of cases where she’s had none or less than five.

Mannequin extended one arm with the blade outstretched, pointing at the crowd.  His ‘eyes’ were on me as he did so, moving the blade slowly.  Pointing at faces that were familiar, but who I couldn’t name.

Pointing at my dad.

Mannequin here is obviously a stand-in for every kind of danger Taylor brings upon others. An appropriate one given her mindset at the time of his fight and the reason he attacked.

Nameless civilians. Dear old dad. Anyone else who’s ever been endangered by Taylor’s actions. Is that why Alec wasn’t mentioned as being here? I can’t think of a notable case of Alec being endangered by Taylor’s actions beyond what comes from being on the team.

And there was nothing I could do to save him.  Not saving him wasn’t an option, either.  I drew my gun, fired.

It’s not going to do anything, is it?

Only one bullet in the chamber.  There was a sound as it hit Mannequin, but he barely reacted as he turned toward my father.

I drew my knife and baton, charging.

Futile.  He ignored me completely, raising one hand and then stabbing down.  I couldn’t even look at what was happening.  Refused to look.

Nothing’s more frustrating to a hero than a hard no-sell.

I struck Mannequin, aiming for the joints, the small of his back, his hips and knees.  Nothing worked.

Without even looking, Mannequin reached over to one side and thrust one blade at me.  His weapon penetrated my armor like it was Armsmaster’s special halberd.

For Mannequin, this is just Tuesday.

I screamed, but it was more rage than pain.  I howled like I might against a hurricane, a storm that was destroying everything I loved, that I was helpless to fight.  I battered him, struck him with my weapons, gave everything I had and more, to no avail.

Taylor, I think you’ve mixed things up a bit. The hurricane was Leviathan.

He folded his arms around me in a bear hug, squeezed, crushed.

That’s, uh, one way to go.

More of him folded around me, pulling tight against my head, my throat, arms, chest and legs.

My life flashed before my eyes, every event, every memory and recalled feeling distilled into a single point.

This is remarkably similar to just before the trigger.

This whole scene obviously never happened, but are we sure there wasn’t a second trigger event nobody noticed?

I mean, you’d think the main character having a second trigger event would be a big, visible moment. And if anything’s gonna cause it, it’s more likely to be the present situation.

When the crushing sensation passed, I was left standing, disoriented, in the middle of a flooded ruin.

NEXT!

Mannequin represented all the danger, but I think he particularly merged with Leviathan towards the end there. Which is interesting, because Leviathan was mostly outside of Taylor’s control to begin with. He wasn’t there to fuck with Skitter personally like Mannequin was.

…weird thought: What if all of this setup with Noelle was in part meant to cause Taylor to have a second trigger, giving her an ability that aids the Endbringers in the long run? I don’t find it likely, but it is amusing to imagine the Simurgh orchestrating an event on the scale of “new pseudo-Endbringer” just to give someone a second trigger.

Of course, there are lots of things in Taylor’s life that wouldn’t have happened without the Simurgh’s influence already.

The momentary relief faded swiftly.

All around me, desolation.  Blasted buildings, bodies, flooded streets.  Graffiti covered the walls around me, the letter-number combination ‘s9’ repeated in endless permutations and styles.

So we’re going from a Slaughterhouse Nine member to a Slaughterhouse Nine post-apocalypse. What if the Nine show up and Mannequin is just randomly replaced by Leviathan in the lineup?

I flinched as an explosion took the top off a building two blocks away.  Blue flames roared on the upper floors.

Hm. Fire really comes in every color, huh. Burnscar and Lung with your usual red and orange, Greenfire with green, and now whatever this is creating blue fire.

Although given the graffiti it’s most likely Burnscar with the temperature turned up.

Or Bakuda? Given the explosion?

I couldn’t breathe.  My skin prickled, burned, just on contact with the air.  I felt nauseous, disoriented.

Radiation?  Plague?

A Bakuda/Bonesaw collab would be a sight to behold.

A fleet of cockroaches scurried over one of the nearby ruins, like cattle stampeding away.

When even the cockroaches ain’t having it, you know it’s bad.

They were fleeing from something.  Multiple somethings.

I took cover.

Where are you?”

The voice might have been sing-song if it weren’t for the filter that reduced it to a mechanical hiss.

That does sound like Bakuda.

I suppose that would explain the graffiti, actually. The nightmare mixes things together so it says S9 instead, but the graffiti everywhere was always an Active Bunker Buster move.

“Where are you?” another voice echoed the first.  Younger, female.  A girl’s giggle followed.

Oh my cod we’re actually getting it.

Either that or a rivalry between them and I don’t know which is better.

“Hush, Bonesaw,” Jack’s voice reached me, like a sibilant whisper in my ear.  The water that flooded the streets served as a surface for the sound to bounce off of, letting it carry throughout the area.

My costume was more tatters than actual fabric.  It wasn’t like there were spiders anymore.  Only cockroaches, and fewer than I might hope.  The water that flooded the streets wasn’t so kind to them.

It really is treated like post-apocalyptic horror. I love it. It wasn’t like there were spiders anymore.

“What game shall we play today?” Bonesaw asked.  “Did you make anything?  Please tell me you made something.”

I did,” Bakuda responded.  “I borrowed from your work for this one.”

YESSSSS

They were close.  Nine of them.  I couldn’t run without making noise.

So I guess the idea is Bakuda took the last slot in this timeline?

Bakuda got so shafted by Interlude 6. I think out of every dead character she’s the one I most wish was still around, even if she might’ve still been stuck in the Birdcage for now.

The cockroaches, then.  I reached for them-

“Regent,” Noelle gasped out the word.  She was far bigger than she had been before.  “Come.”

Now that’s a paragraph that sounds like it’s been taken out of context.

Regent hesitated, gave her a sidelong glance.

“Come!” she roared.

He reluctantly obeyed.  She raised one massive limb, slammed it into the wall where the walkway had once been attached.  The mutant Regent clambered up her arm to the doorway.

Noelle doesn’t seem to be doing so hot here.

That would be the doorway that leads to the corridor with the cells.

The same cells where Shatterbird was in sound proof containment.

Well, fuck.

Tattletale had descended to the ground floor and was backing up as two Skitters and a Grue approached, with Bentley advancing to her side.  Rachel was prone, lying at the point where the wall met the floor, with Bastard on the ground and pressed up against her, as if he were using his bulk to keep the worst of the bugs from reaching her.  Her other dogs were smaller.  Big, but much smaller than they could be.

Nobody here sounds like they’re doing too hot.

Then again, being alive is a good start.

“You take fliers, I take ground?” one Skitter asked the other.

“Mm-hmm,” the other Skitter grunted her reply.

Even when cloned, she’s good enough at tactics to be sure to avoid conflicting chains of command.

“Have to share, be smart about this one.  Grue, hang back.  She might try pulling something,” Skitter One ordered.  “Harder to make a counter-plan against bugs.”

This is the really scary part of cloning Skitter. It means Noelle can outsource some of the tactics and focus on the broader goals.

“Me?  Pull something?” Tattletale asked.  She was cradling one arm, and covered in vomit.  Judging by the body parts that surrounded her, Bentley had taken apart the clones that Noelle had vomited at her.

Never.

“Yeah, you,” Skitter One said.  “You’re the type, aren’t you?  Awfully fond of keeping secrets for someone who calls themselves Tattletale.  Keeping secrets from me, even at the best of times.  Even though you knew what I’d gone through.”

It’s true. There have been a good number of times when Tattle has been keeping secrets from the rest of the team that they really should have been clued in on.

“I’ve been pretty open,” Tattletale said.  She retreated a step, and Bentley advanced.  The swarm stirred around the two Skitters and the Grue.

“You haven’t mentioned your trigger event, have you?  Perfectly happy to dig through other people’s sordid pasts, but you won’t get into your own darkest moment.”

Ooh, this is getting juicy. Although I don’t see Tattle finding it particularly useful to open up to these clones.

“Really not that interesting,” Tattletale said.

Skitter One’s voice was thick with restrained emotion.  “It’s still a betrayal, staying silent.  How can we have a partnership, a friendship, without equity?”

This might be the most level-headed clone yet, even with that restrained emotion.

“Maybe.  I think you’re exaggerating.  Does the other Skitter have any input?  Awfully quiet.”

So we’ve got one Skitter clone that wants to talk things out, and another… who prefers to throw bugs at things? Notably the first one took the grounded units while the second got the fliers.

Skitter Two made a growling sound that might have sent a small dog running for cover.  “I’m the quiet type.”

“That you are,” Tattletale said.

This is all so awkward and I love it.

“No commentary?  No manipulations?” Skitter One asked.  “Nothing nasty to say, to throw us off-balance?”

“You’re already off-balance enough.  Besides, I don’t think anything I had to say would get through.  How can I target your weak points when you’re nothing but?”

Oh, that’s a damn good line.

And it may be exactly the in she needs.

“That so?” Skitter One asked.  “Doesn’t happen often, does it?  You’re not as cocky, now.  Do you feel scared?”

“Just a bit,” Tattletale said.  She’d backed up enough that she’d reached the wall.  The mangled staircase stretched out beside her, almost entirely torn free of the wall.

One Skitter on her case would be bad enough.

“Why don’t we turn the tables, then?  Let’s see how I do, trying to fuck with your head,” Skitter One suggested.

I’m here for it.

“I’ll pass.  Bentley, attack!”

The dog hesitated, hearing the command from an unfamiliar person, but he did obey.  Skitter Two ran towards him, surrounding herself with crawling bugs.  At the last second, she took a sharp left, sending a mass of bugs flowing to the right.

Wait, didn’t Skitter Two have the fliers? *checks* Yeah, she did. Keep in your lane, Skitter Two.

Bentley managed to follow her, struck her with his front paws, and shattered her legs.  Skitter One’s flying swarm flew over him, and began binding him with threads of silk.  It was too little, a distraction at best.

I guess Wildbow got it flipped around at some point. I can’t blame him; with the way the line that established it was structured, it’s easy to misremember.

Tattletale fired her gun, and Skitter One went down.  The bullet didn’t make for an instant kill, and the bugs continued doing their work.  Tattletale thrashed as the bugs started to cluster on her, took aim again-

And the Grue swept darkness over Skitter One.  She disintegrated, reappeared as the darkness sloshed against the far wall.

Oooh, that’s a really cool twist on Grue’s power.

Teleporting things via his darkness.  As divergences from the base powerset went, it was pretty extreme.

I mean, true, but it’s awesome. Vanishing people under the cloak of darkness…

“Heroes are on their way!” Skitter One shouted to Noelle, one hand pressed to the flowing chest wound.

Huh? Oh yeah, I forgot she had a tail of Protectorate and Wards incoming.

I could sense them, observing with the same bugs that Skitter One was using.

This is the first use of “I” in the narration of these sections. There was a “me” earlier as Skitter recognized a clone of herself, but all the observation was described as being done by the bugs. In fact, the narration of this section seems clearer-headed in general. Hopefully that’s a good sign.

Tattletale had left each of the doors unlocked as she’d made her way into the base, and Miss Militia was leading a squadron of Protectorate members and her Wards through the series of rooms and tunnels.

One thing’s pretty clear. This headquarters is probably getting left behind in this Book alongside Coil himself.

Even if the damage from Noelle could be fixed, the location is now compromised to the Protectorate.

More bugs sought Rachel out, and she kicked her legs at the gap where they were flowing in beneath the left side of Bastard’s stomach.

Shatterbird appeared in the doorway at the end of the tunnel.  She was holding the Regent-clone by the throat.  She pushed him forward and let his limp body fall.  It landed in the heaping mass of Noelle’s flesh.

Alright so on one hand, Shatterbird is free to attempt revenge on the Undersiders. On another hand, she’s not under Noelle’s control, for now at least.

This could go a lot of ways.

Shatterbird panted, her face was beaded with sweat, and it wasn’t related to the scene she was looking at, not the underground base filled with flesh and bodies.  Her hand shook as she pushed her hair out of her face.  Emotion?

I like how Skitter’s like “Wait, that woman has emotions?”

Miss Militia chose that moment to open the door.  She, like Shatterbird, stared at the scene, but she was distracted as she was forced to grab the door frame to avoid stepping out onto the ruined walkway.

Hello!

This is a heck of a scene.

Tattletale’s voice was muffled by the bugs that were crawling on her face.  To actually open her mouth, in the face of all that, I wasn’t sure I could have done it.  I knew better than she did what the result might be, but… yeah.

GEE YA DO NOW, DO YA

But she did it.  Tattletale opened her mouth and shouted, “Shut the door!”

I chime in with a haven’t you people ever heard of
Shutting the —damn door
It’s much better to face these kinds of things
With a sense of poise and rationality

Miss Militia moved to obey.  Too late.

Shatterbird screamed, using her power of her own free will for the first time since we’d captured her.

Nothing good ever comes from sounds exiting Shatterbird’s mouth.

-and the cockroaches obeyed.  They formed a rough human shape, then another.  Swarm-clones, as close as I could get to making them, without a concealing costume for my real self.

Better than nothing I suppose.

And the Nine didn’t fall for it.  Bakuda turned my way, and I belatedly remembered the heat-tracking goggles.  She could follow me by my body heat.

Ah. Not better than nothing.

I ran, and I knew it was futile.

Night caught up to me first.  It would have been a simple matter for her to kill me right then, but she had different aims.

I like this version of the Nine’s lineup.

Her claw cut at the back of my legs, and I fell, crippled.  My fear pushed the pain into a distant second place on my priority list.

In a matter of moments, I was surrounded.  Night at one side of me, Crawler on the other.  Jack, Bonesaw, Siberian, Bakuda, Shatterbird, Burnscar and Panacea.

Beautiful. Now we just need to replace Shatterbird with Skitter.


I’ve been at it for a while and I can feel my commentary getting less interesting, so I think this is where I’ll end the session.

So far I’m really loving this chapter. It’s nice to be back.

[End of session]


[Session 2]

It was Weld who seized my wrists.

Weld then… somehow I don’t think he’ll be a protective knight in metallic armor in this nightmare.

Trapped between nine freaks and a hard face.

“Run,” I tried to warn him, but the words didn’t reach him.  Fluid bubbled out of my lips, and it came out as a mumble.  The radiation?  Plague?  Had Bonesaw or Panacea done something to me without my knowledge?

Possibly also a part of being stuck inside Noelle.

He said something I couldn’t make out.  It sounded like I was underwater.

And/or we might be exaggerating the flooded state of this post-apocalyptic Brockton Bay, maybe even bringing in Leviathan?

Then he pulled.

He wasn’t gentle about it.  He threw me over one of his shoulders with enough force that bile rose in my throat and the sharper parts of his shoulders poked at my stomach.  I tried to move my hand to raise my mask, so I wouldn’t choke if I threw up, but my arm didn’t respond.

Wait, surely this isn’t reflecting real life attempts to literally pull her out of Noelle?

My head swam, and half of my attempts to breathe were met with only chokes and wet coughs.

Was this another delusion?  A dream?  Could I afford to treat it as though it was?

Of course it’s all happening inside your head. But why on earth should that mean it isn’t real?

I was still blind, but my power was waking up.  I could feel the bugs in the area, and I was getting a greater picture of the surroundings as my range slowly extended.

Ooh, this is promising.

Shatterbird was still perched in that doorway-turned window.  Noelle was beneath her, and I had only the bug-sight to view her with.  Her already grotesque form was distorted further by the three dogs she’d absorbed into herself.

The barrier between the worlds has broken down!

…I’m surprised Dinah didn’t show up before we got to this point.

Instinctively, I tried to move my bugs to get a better sense of the current situation.  They didn’t budge.

Right, still gotta wrestle for control against Skitter One and Skitter Two.

Instead, I felt the pull of the other two Skitters, wresting control of my bugs from me as though they were taking a toy from a baby, ordering those bugs to hurt my teammates and allies.

And even if Taylor does manage to wrestle control back, it won’t completely disarm the other Skitters. They’ll still have the Noelle bugs that the original Skitter can’t control.

Rachel and Tattletale were down, and Imp was crouched beside Tattletale.

Oh, hi there, Imp.

Imp had pulled up the spider-silk hood that I’d worked into her scarf, covering the back of her head, and cinched it tight.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was leaving her almost totally protected.

I wonder, does her power work only on humans, or would she be able to stop herself from being attacked by an animal that didn’t have a human awareness guiding it?

Hm. Considering the implication that she might have triggered in part because of Leviathan, it seems reasonable that it would also apply to non-humans. Then again, Endbringers in particular generally seem to have a degree of power resistance, so who knows if it would actually work on them.

Imp could be incredibly important if her power works on the Simurgh.

In any case, it’s not actually confirmed whether her power’s appearance after Extermination is causation or just correlation. She could just as easily get this power because of her family.

Almost.  Bugs had reached her scalp, and there were spiders working thread around her legs.  I wasn’t sure if she was aware of the latter.

Shit.

The Wards and Protectorate in the upstairs hallway- some were hurt.  The fallen and the wounded were numerous enough that the heroes had lost any momentum they’d had.  Their focus was in the hallway, now, in saving their teammates.  Maybe they’d deemed the situation unsalvageable.

It would be a damn good time to regain control of your bugs.

The bugs of course do nothing to Noelle, but they’re invaluable for taking out clones, and of course we need to stop the enemy from using them.

I exerted a greater effort, trying to reduce the impact the swarm was having on everyone present, but there was nothing.  My doppelgangers had a complete and total override, and the pair definitely noticed my attempts.  They turned my way.

So Taylor is just straight up out of there now, yeah? I guess she got spat out and Weld managed to grab her before Noelle could reabsorb her, just as she was coming to. Good job, Weld.

What would I be doing in their shoes?  They couldn’t hurt Weld, but they could hurt me.

Oof. Time for a taste of your own medicine.

Or they’d find another avenue for attack.

Or…?

“Weld,” Skitter One spoke up.  Her voice was quiet.  “Surprised you’re here.  Did Imp help you get close?”

Do I really sound like that?  I wondered.  And Imp?

…why would he need Imp?

Weld wasn’t replying.

Really surprised you’re with her,” Skitter One said.  She had one hand pressed to a chest wound.

Is Skitter One trying to convince him she’s the real one?

Weld glanced over his other shoulder at her.  The other Skitter was a distance away, with shattered legs.

“Did she tell you?” Skitter One said, “She set someone on fire.  Maimed a minor, slicing his forehead open.  She cut off Bakuda’s toes, carved out a helpless man’s eyes.  I can keep going.”

Ah. Nope. No “she’s the clone” pretense. More of a “yeah she’s real but is she worth saving”.

Wait, what’s that about a minor’s forehead? I think I’m forgetting something there. The rest are obviously real, but taken out of context, so I don’t think she’s lying.

“I don’t care,” Weld said.  He wasn’t moving.  Why?  He was waist deep in Noelle’s belly, holding me…  it dawned on me that he couldn’t throw me to some point clear of Noelle without giving me to the Skitter.

Oh. Yeah, uh, that’s kind of an awkward position.

…he really did just dive in and pull her out didn’t he.

“You should care.  I could tell you about the critically injured man she left to bleed out and die.  She stood by and let people get attacked by Mannequin so she could buy herself time to think of a plan to make a counterattack.”

What else was she supposed to do?

I opened my mouth to speak, but I couldn’t draw in enough breath to manage more than a hoarse whisper, and Weld wouldn’t have heard me.

“I don’t care,” Weld said.  “I know she’s done bad things.  After this is over, we’ll find her, beat her and take her into custody.”

Stuff like this is why I like Weld. He can’t easily beat Kid Win for favorite Ward, but he’s definitely top three.

“You don’t care?” Skitter One asked.  “She murdered your boss.  Shot Thomas Calvert in cold blood, not that long ago.”

Making it personal and tossing one of Skitter’s bigger secrets out there…

Weld froze.  Or he went more still than usual.

“Whoopsie,” Imp said.  She’d appeared behind Skitter One.  A slash of her knife ended Skitter One’s contributions to the discussion.  “Sorry to interrupt.”

A little late but thank you.

I couldn’t say whether Skitter One’s feedback had done anything to change his behavior, but Weld wasn’t gentle when he grabbed me and flung me overhand.  My legs tore free of Noelle, where her flesh had closed firmly around my legs, and I was sent flying.

YEET

That last sentence sounds a little awkward (“my legs tore free, from the place where by the way my legs were stuck”), but I can forgive an awkward sentence here and there in an otherwise masterful chapter.

Also the repeat of “wasn’t gentle” and… I was under the impression that Weld was already holding her, so why does he grab her again?

Whatever. Not every paragraph can be a winner.

Unable to move to protect myself or react to the landing, I sprawled where I landed, fifteen or so feet from Noelle.

Splat.

…it just occurred to me to consider where Atlas was last seen. He’d be useful if he could swoop in and grab her right now.

*searches blog*

Oh right, he’s still halfway across the city where Coil put him after the fake Alcott residence visit. Taylor was planning on picking him up while in the area back in 18.5, but then they ran into a bunch of Draconia Blazes.

Weld turned back to Noelle.  His left hand changed to become a blade, and he used it to hack and slash his way through Noelle’s side.  His other hand dug and scraped for purchase as he deliberately and intentionally submerged himself.

Weld’s Manton ambiguity is actually really good for this fight. He’s basically the only character who can directly touch Noelle without total power immunity. Nice.

My bugs found their way to the others.  I did what I could with my bugs to drive Shatterbird away from the doorway and put her out of reach of Noelle’s tongue.  Once she’d started staggering back, I set about finding and destroying the bug clones who were attacking people and ignoring my powers.

Shatterbird is in such a weird spot here. Like, she’s finally been freed from the Undersiders’ grasp, but it spat her directly into basically an Endbringer fight she can’t escape or do much of anything about one way or another. Worse yet for her, she has a power that would be quite useful to said Endbringer and it’s a wonder Noelle hasn’t more actively targeted her yet after the Regent clone ploy failed. Nobody here is on Shatterbird’s side, but she’s also not their primary enemy, and she doesn’t seem to know what to do in the slightest. Add exhaustion from being controlled for so long and she’s in quite the pickle.

The door where the Wards and Protectorate had been lurking opened.  Miss Militia tested her weight on the staircase, then leaped down to ground level.

What are the odds that a Miss Militia clone would immediately pull out a rocket launcher? Pretty high, I think.

She trained a gun on Imp as she noticed the girl crouching over Skitter Two, the taciturn Skitter with the broken legs.  Imp executed the girl, glanced at Miss Militia and shrugged.

It’s actually interesting that Skitter was able to effortlessly take the bugs back with Skitter Two still alive, once Skitter One was down. Broken legs wouldn’t stop Skitter Prime from using the bugs.

I tried to speak, coughed.  I pulled my bugs away from Rachel and Tattletale.

Maybe her control wasn’t as total as I thought.

Miss Militia stared at Noelle, her eyes adjusting to the poor lighting.

S-class threat, don’tcha think?

“You fed her!?” Miss Militia asked.

It… was a rather strange move. I think the idea was to make it harder for her to get around? But Lisa works in mysterious ways.

“Rachel,” Tattletale said, “Come on!”

There was a clapping or slapping noise, and Bastard lurched to his feet.  Rachel stood, and the other three dogs spread out around her.

And she prefers to show rather than tell why she did what she did.

“You fed Echidna?” Miss Militia asked, disbelieving.

Echidna?  Right.  They’d coined a name for her, then.

Oh yeah, the only Skitter who would know that is Creepy Crawly, who’s either dead or with Trickster.

Would be pretty cool if that particular group of clones actually got away and formed a new team under Trickster’s leadership. Or Creepy Crawly’s.

“And we’ll feed her more,” Tattletale said.  “Rachel!  All of the spare dogs!  Try not to get in Weld’s way!”

Obviously Rachel believes her dogs will be able to get out of this, or she would be a lot less on board with this plan.

She did go all out on Leviathan, losing ten dogs in the process, but I think that would only increase her reluctance.

…today’s weird crossover idea: Worm x Silver Fang.

Also why can’t I stop reading “spare dogs” like I would “spare ribs”?

The dogs began to grow, flesh splitting, bone spurs growing, and muscles swelling to greater size.

Rachel hesitated.

“Do it!” Tattletale shouted.

Of course there’ll still be some hesitation. It’s… an uncomfortable plan.

Rachel gave the orders, shouting, “All of you, hold!  Malcolm, go left!”

She slapped one dog on the shoulder, and he bolted.

“Coco, go right!  Twinkie, go right!”

Surely Malcolm should go in the middle.

Calling it now: If one dog doesn’t make it through this, it’s going to be Bastard.

The other two dogs gave chase, stampeding past me as they ran along the right side of the room.

“Hurt!”  Rachel gave the order.

Is Bastard not classified as a “spare dog”?

The dogs attacked the closet target – Noelle.  They got stuck in her like she was tar.

I assume “closet target” is a typo. If it isn’t… well, I suppose she does open up and has clothes inside. She might as well count as a closet.

But, I realized, that the converse was also true.  Noelle was absorbing them, but she was unable to move so freely as long as this much extra mass was stuck to her.  It was like the way we’d fought Weld, sticking metal to him.

Exactly! Get her stuck down here!

The problem would be when she spat out the dogs.

I mean, yes, but that also really depends on whether they come out as hellhounds or just regular dogs with Noelle enhancements (like the bugs). Ultimately Noelle’s power seems to sample DNA, and we don’t know if Bitch’s power affects the DNA of the dogs.

Then again, Noelle’s power doesn’t seem to struggle with nurture-based features, so maybe I’m talking out of my ass.

I tried to move, but I felt like I had fifty pound weights strapped each of my arms and legs.  My face burned hot, and my vision swam.

Honestly, it’s incredible that you weren’t like this before getting Noelle’d. These last few Arcs have been a fucking gauntlet.

Wait a minute, vision? Did her human eyesight actually return earlier? I don’t think buggovision would be affected by this exhaustion, at least not directly.

It wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar feeling.  I felt sick.

With that thought, it dawned on me.  Noelle absorbed living things, and that apparently extended to bacteria.  Where others had bacteria in their digestive systems to help them digest food, Noelle, Echidna, had no need for such.

Oh my cod, are you telling me she pulled a Panacea on her digestive bacteria?

When she absorbed the ambient bacteria and molds from her surroundings, she was storing them, weaponizing them like she did with rats and insects.  They were used to debilitate her victims, render them unable to fight back while her clones got the upper hand.

Damn.

Let’s hope she didn’t get any ideas from the Nine and the cure against the miasma.

It meant I was sick, and I’d have to hope that whatever the illness was, it would be short-lived.

And of course this time there’s no magic doctor. Everyone with healing powers has been driven out.

…I guess maybe the Protectorate might have someone to call in from elsewhere, but true healers seem to be rare.

Shatterbird was still thrashing, trying to do something with her glass and failing because she couldn’t breathe or see.  Echidna couldn’t move, as her legs were caught on the dogs.  The other clones had been executed by Imp, as far as I knew.

Imp and Weld may be the MVPs here.

The sticking point was Weld.  Tattletale had apparently figured out that he was immune to Echidna’s absorption ability, but he wouldn’t be immune to her basic shapeshifting ability.  She didn’t have a lot of control over her form, or she surely would have chosen something without that number of legs, without the three mutant dog heads, but she did have the ability to shift her flesh around, and Weld was limited in how fast he could cut that flesh away.

Kinda seems like Noelle is the sticking point and Weld is stuck to it.

Rachel had moved to my side.  She put her arms under my shoulders and my knees and lifted me, grunting.

I twisted around to cough and gag.  I managed to move one arm to my face, but didn’t have the strength in my fingers to move the fabric at my neck.

One nice thing about a superhero setting is you don’t see a lot of people complaining about wearing masks.

Then again, some are less protective than others. Among the Undersiders, Rachel, Lisa and Alec all have masks that don’t protect their mouths.

Rachel found it instead, pulling it up and halfway up my face.  I coughed up lumps of stuff that tasted the way raw meat smelled.

Blegh.

“Careful!” Tattletale said.  “Incoming!  Dogs!”

Here we go, moment of canine truth.

Noelle had apparently moved one of her heads around, because she managed to spray a stream of vomit our way.

There was a pause as her body heaved, my bugs could sense the movement as one of the bulkier dogs was repositioned inside her monstrous lower body, and then she puked up one of the dogs, along with a handful of humans.

Hm. It seems like she’s focusing more on getting the obstructions out than on cloning. Maybe she realized she could only make regular dogs with them, or maybe it’s just tactics, realizing how much trouble they’re causing.

Besides, if she can make hellhounds, she only needs one.

It wasn’t large, wasn’t mutant.  Well, it was a mutant, but it wasn’t one of Rachel’s mutants.

Oh, it was a clone, never mind. Although I was right about the other thing!

“Bentley,” Rachel ordered.  “Kill.”

And then we keep Bentley out here to get rid of the clones. Nice.

Presumably this was all part of the plan, thanks to Lisa’s power telling her it would work this way.

The bulldog lunged and seized the smaller dog in its jaws in a matter of seconds, crushed it in a heartbeat.

“Yeah,” Rachel said, her voice low enough that only I heard it.  “Feels wrong.”

Dogfights…

“Why?” Miss Militia asked.  “Why was it small?”

“When we were hanging out with Panacea during the Slaughterhouse Nine fiasco, she put her hand on Sirius,” Tattletale said.  “And she said that the tissues die as they get pushed out from the center.  They’re more like super zombie dogs, really, with a juicy, living center.”

Ohh, so the hellhound portion doesn’t actually even have anything living that Noelle can use.

…this might have some interesting implications for how the dogs interact with Manton-limited powers in general. Would Faultline be able to cut through a hellhound?

“And Echidna doesn’t copy dead things,” Miss Militia said.

Tattletale nodded.  “We got lucky.  I was worried it would only be a little smaller.”

Weld was fighting to emerge.  He had his hands on Grue and one of the dogs.  He hurled them out, and Miss Militia caught the dog.  Imp and Tattletale hurried to drag Grue away.

Awesome work, folks.

Wait, is he pulling out the dogs from within the hellhounds within Noelle? That way they could permanently leave the dead flesh inside Noelle, get the dogs out, and maybe even redo the whole thing to make more dead flesh.

“Did you bring all the stuff I asked for?” Tattletale asked.

“Yes.  It won’t be enough.”

“So long as you’ve got some, it’ll help.  Just need to buy time,” Tattletale said.

Now what?

Echidna’s bulk shifted.  I couldn’t see it with my own eyes, but with the blurry vision the bugs offered, I could track how she was getting her legs under her.  I could see that there weren’t any distinct bulges anymore.  She was breaking down the mutant flesh she’d stripped away from Rachel’s dogs and she was making it her own.  Six dogs… if my estimates about them being roughly a third her mass were right, she could be three times as big as she’d been before.

That’s still potentially helpful if you can get her stuck. But then, we did see her rearranging the flesh to slither through tight gaps last chapter.

…isn’t the Greek mythology Echidna snakelike, or is that just Homestuck talking?

[Wikipedia]

(…) a monster, half-woman and half-snake (…)
(…) “half a nymph with glancing eyes and fair cheeks, and half again a huge snake, great and awful, with speckled skin”, who “dies not nor grows old all her days.” (…)

Yeah, that tracks. So if we feed her enough, she might grow long enough to fit the description even better.

It really sounds like Noelle is based more on the mythological Echidna than I realized. I knew she was the Mother of Monsters, but I wasn’t aware of the chimeric appearance, the association with the eating of raw flesh or the hundred heads mentioned in one account.

…apparently Orthrus and Cerberus were among her most consistent children. Maybe one of the mutant doggos could be multiheaded, then, because that’s definitely a thing with Echidna’s canine kids.

“She’ll be stronger,” Miss Militia said, putting the dog down.  “If this doesn’t work, we just gave her a power boost for nothing.”

Uh… maaaybe “putting the dog down” is not great wording if you meant for her to put the dog she caught on the floor. As I understand it, that’s one of the original dogs, not one of the clones, and I don’t think Rachel would appreciate the other meaning.

“We’re saving the people she took,” Tattletale said, “And we’re buying time.  It’s not nothing.”

Echidna heaved herself up to her feet.  She vomited forth a geyser of fluids and flying clones.  Our ranks were scattered, knocked over and pushed away from Echidna by the force and quantity of the fluids.

Ew.

So at this point Skitter and Grue are out. That leaves at least Regent, Tecton and Grace, but we don’t know if she caught any of the Protectorate or Wards yet. The only ones of each that have actually been mentioned by name are Miss Militia and Weld.

It was stronger than before.  Whatever the source she was drawing from was, she’d reinforced it with the mass she’d gained from eating the dogs.  No less than fifteen clones littered the floor, and there were another twelve or so dogs and rats in their mass.

Damn. If this is how much of a boost that gave her, then by the time she’s snakelike… Yikes.

Miss Militia didn’t even stand before opening fire.  Twin assault rifles tore into the ranks of the clones as she emptied both clips, reforged the guns with her power, and then unloaded two more clips.  Several clones were avoiding the bullets more by sheer chance than any effort on their part.  One Grace-clone managed to shield the bullets, moving her hands to block the incoming fire.  One stray shot clipped her shoulder, but she was holding out.

This is the first time we’re really seeing Miss Militia go all out, I think. Even in the Leviathan fight she had to be somewhat reserved for tactical reasons since they were playing with Bakuda’s toys.

She’s pretty cool.

Echidna spat up another wave, and I hurried to get my flying bugs out of the way.  I still couldn’t move, but I held my breath.  The wave hit us on two fronts, an initial crush of fluid and bodies, and the bodies from the first wave that had been shoved up against us.  As the fluid receded, my bugs moved back down to the ground to track how many clones she’d created.  It made for a pile of bodies, with snarling dogs and clones struggling for footing as they reached for us.

Unfortuately Noelle also isn’t holding back.

Bentley and Bastard provided our side with the muscle we needed to shove the worst of the enemy numbers away, bulldozing them with snouts and shoving them aside with the sides of their large bodies.  Miss Militia followed up by sweeping the area with a flamethrower.  She stopped, waiting for the smoke to clear, and Tattletale shouted, “Again!  Weld’s still inside!”

Weld is having the world’s worst surgery job today.

Another wave of flame washed over the clones.  They were Regents, Tectons and Graces, as well as various dogs, and none were able to withstand the heat.  Each and every one of them burned.

I like how well Tattletale and Miss Militia can work together when they put their differences aside. This would never work with Armsmaster in charge of the Protectorate.

But this much heat and smoke, even with this space being as large as it was, it wasn’t an assault we could sustain.

Echidna opened her mouth for a third spray, then stopped.  One by one, bodies were dropping from her gut.

What? Did Weld manage to cut it open?

“No!”  Noelle screamed, from her vantage point on top of the monstrous form.

Weld forced another dog free, and Echidna moved one leg to step on it.

Rachel: “Oh no you fucking don’t!”

Grace and Tecton fell, and Weld dropped after them.  He turned the blade of one hand into a scythe, then chopped a segment of Echidna’s foot free.  With one motion of the scythe, he sent Tecton, Regent and some of the dogs skidding our way, sliding them on the vomit-slick floor like a hockey player might with a puck on ice.

GOOOOOAAAAAALLL!!!

Seeing as the scythe is his hand, this is kind of a strange gray area between hockey and curling.

Echidna deliberately dropped, belly-flopping onto Weld, Grace and the dismembered foot that had stepped on the sixth dog.

Weld: “Oh come on.”

Miss Militia was already drawing together a rocket launcher. 

I assumed the main reason she didn’t use one already was because of the risk of friendly fire. It seems to still be a risk if she fires at the main body, but she might be able to “safely” fire at the face or some of the clones now.

…then again, if Noelle has any Regent clones left, any weapon is pretty damn dangerous.

He forced his way free of the resulting wound a moment later, the dog tucked under one arm, Grace under the other.

Sheesh! Weld is one thing, but Grace and the dog only had Noelle’s body as protection from that!

Echidna swiped at him, but he hurled the others forward to safety a second before it connected.  He was slammed into the wall, but he didn’t even reel from the blow.  He made a dash for us.

Weld is definitely the MVP of this fight.

I mean, Tattletale helped a lot too, and Imp was very useful, but not like this. Not like any of this.

“Retreat!” Miss Militia gave the order.

The staircase shook precariously as we made our ascent, one group at a time.  One of the capes had frozen the staircase of the metal walkway to the wall to stabilize it.

I guess the headquarters will just have to be Echidna’s lair now.

Although I don’t think they can keep her forever.

Also there’s no way this whole situation is resolved in 19.1. If this chapter ended the immediate Echidna threat, it would be 18.9. Wildbow is not the type to make the climax of an Arc into its own separate single-chapter Arc just for the hell of it.

They started getting organized to hand each of us and the dogs up to the door, but Rachel barreled past, carrying me and two dogs, with Bastard and Bentley following behind.

Damn, Rachel.

Also that’s four out of seven dogs accounted for. Rachel’s not going to be happy.

As we reached the doorway, dogs were handed to the able-bodied.  Others were helping the wounded.  Clockblocker had fallen, and Kid Win was being moved with a makeshift stretcher formed of one of the chain-link doors that had been in the hallway.  There was a lot of blood.

Oof. I hope they’ll be okay. Clocky took a while to grow on me but I like both of them quite a lot.

It was Shatterbird’s power, I realized.  I’d barely registered the event.  Shatterbird was still in the hallway on the other side of the underground complex.

Wait what? Dammit, Shatterbird.

Standing away from the main fighting, perhaps, or waiting for an opportunity.  She’d found the locker where Regent kept her costume, was using her power to put it on while simultaneously fighting off the bugs that were still biting her.

Oh yeah, her costume is made of colored glass, isn’t it, so she can use her power to put it on easily? Talk about total transparency.

Echidna reared back, apparently gearing up to vomit, and Miss Militia fired a rocket launcher straight into the monster’s open mouth.

EAT THIS

It barely seemed to slow Echidna down.  Vomit spilled around her, crawling with vermin and bugs.

The monster was moving slower, now.  The entire structure shook as she advanced on us, sections of the walkway crumpling and screeching where her bulk scraped against it.

She’s really damn big now, huh.

But the door was just that – a door.  Three feet wide and six feet tall.  The tunnels the trucks had used were too small for her mass, even if one ignored the fact that they’d been strategically collapsed.

In theory. But we also saw her using them surprisingly well last time. She’s bigger now, yes, but she might still be able to snake through with some effort.

Skitter didn’t see that, though.

Besides, “with some effort” still might be enough to buy some time.

The entire area shook with the impact of her furious struggles.  She was trying to tear her way free.  The violence only ramped up as we made our escape, to the point that I was worried the building above us would come down on top of our heads as we headed outside.

It looks like it’s working for now, at least.

The warm, fresh air was chill against the damp fabric of my costume as we escaped from beneath the building.  I could sense other heroes and trucks stationed nearby, no doubt surrounding the area.

It looks like for the time being, Echidna is stuck in her “cave”, “beneath the secret parts of the holy earth… deep down under a hollow rock far from the deathless gods and mortal men”…

Coildammit the lair of the snake goddess is the former lair of a snake-themed character.

The second we’d reached the perimeter, Tattletale collapsed to the ground, propping herself up with her back to a wall.  Grue and Regent were placed next to us.

Maybe the title Scourge is actually in reference to the Undersiders actually having to deal with getting properly caught.

…I wonder what would happen if the Undersiders ended up in the Birdcage. I’ve figured an Endbringer might be responsible for the mass breakout I’ve expected since the moment the Birdcage was introduced, but it’s entirely possible that sticking the Masters of the Getaway in there could do it. Tattletale in particular.

We were covered in blood and vomit, half of us so weak we could barely move.  It didn’t convey the best image.

Not really in any shape for a getaway.

“Vista wasn’t inside Echidna,” Weld said.  “If she’s still in the building-”

“Triumph, phone her,” Miss Militia ordered.

I wonder what her ringtone is.

“Yes’m,” Triumph replied.

Miss Militia turned to Tattletale.  She gestured at the nearby vehicles.  “You said you wanted containment foam.”

To… block up the cave?

“I did,” Tattletale said.

“You think she’ll fight free?”

“Almost definitely,” Tattletale said.  “She had a Grue with her.  One with teleportation powers.  He disappeared partway through the fight, lurking somewhere out of sight.  Being pragmatic about the situation.

Ah shit, yeah, that’s an issue. If the darkness can come out, so can Echidna.

So unless someone can testify to having killed the guy, we can expect her to pop up in a matter of minutes.”

“Minutes,” Miss Militia said.

“No reply from Vista,” Triumph reported.

Honestly I half expected as much. If she hasn’t made contact already, she’s probably not in any shape to respond either.

“Keep trying.”

“She gets free in a few minutes, and we’ll use the containment foam then?” Assault asked.  I jumped a little at the realization it was him.

No, I don’t think that’s the plan here.

“No,” Tattletale said.  “We’ll use it as soon as the dust settles.”

“Dust?”  Assault asked.

She withdrew her cell phone, raised her voice, “If any of you have force fields, put them up now!”

Draconia Blaze the Spine bled out, so I don’t think that’s what Lisa’s worried about…

Tattletale started punching something into the keypad.  Miss Militia grabbed her wrist, prying the cellphone from her hand.  “Stop.”

…self destruct mechanism for the entrance, maybe?

“It’s our only option.”

What’s our only option?”

Buying time,” Tattletale said.  She wrenched her hand free, but Miss Militia still had the phone.

“How?”

“You could punch the last two digits, one and four, into that keypad, see for yourself,” Tattletale said.  “Or you could give me the phone, let me do it, and then if Vista’s in there, your conscience is… less muddy, if not exactly clear.”

Oh my cod I swear if they drop a building on Vista to defeat an Endbringer…

It all comes full circle.

Miss Militia turned her face toward the phone, stared at the building that loomed over Coil’s not-so-secret base.

“Shatterbird-” I started to speak, had to catch my breath, “She’s in there too.  She was talking to Noelle.  To Echidna.  Last I saw.  They might be deciding to work together.”

damn it Shatterbird

“I won’t have a clear conscience, no matter what I do,” Miss Militia said.  “But I might as well own up to it.”

Weld and Miss Militia are really out here showcasing why they’re great in this chapter.

Miss Militia touched the phone twice.  Long, quiet seconds reigned.

“Didn’t think you had it in you,” Tattletale commented.

Well, you underestimated her then.

There was a rumble.  My bugs couldn’t reach far enough to see, but they could see the blur.  A cloud, at the top floor of the building.

Another cloud expanded out from the top of the building, one floor down from the first.

The explosions continued, escalating, ripping through the building in stages.  I couldn’t even breathe as I experienced the resulting aftershock, the vibrations as the building folded in on itself, plummeting down to the construction area.

You can tell whoever set this up knows how to do deconstruction work.

“What-” Assault started.

There was another explosion, muffled, and my bugs were in range for the explosion that followed.  Plumes of earth rose in a rough circle around the building, and then the ground sank.  The entire underground base, folding in on itself.  Even with the debris of the fallen building on top of it, the area seemed to form a loose depression.

And that makes two Endbringer-related pits in this city.

Fitting for the criminal mastermind, I thought.

I mean yeah, of course Coil would have a self-destruct mechanism. He was smart enough to have one and also to not have it triggered by a big red button inside the base.

“Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiit,” Regent said, his voice reedy.

There goes the base.

Wait, can Regent sense that Shatterbird didn’t make it?

“He didn’t use it on us?” I asked Tattletale.  “Coil?”

That’s a good point, actually. He could have done this instead of ticking off Noelle. Though I think ticking of Noelle was a more effective revenge.

She was staring at what must have been a massive cloud of dust.

“He tried, sort of,” she said.  “His computer was rigged to blow everything up if someone tampered too much.  I found the stuff when I went looking for his files, as I moved in.  Scared the pants off me when I realized that it was already in motion.”

Oh. Yeah, that tracks.

Although it’s pretty close to having that big red button if it was rigged this whole time.

“Before that?”  I asked.  “When we were waiting for the meeting?”

“Couldn’t afford to let ‘Echidna’ loose,” she said.  “And I think I would’ve known.  Can’t say for sure.”

It took minutes for everything to finish settling.

“Containment foam on the wreckage!”  Miss Militia shouted.  “I want cape escorts for each truck and equipped PRT member, do not engage if you see her!”

Miss Militia on top of things as ever. Her leadership is one of the few good things that came out of Extermination.

She was rattling off more orders.  I couldn’t focus enough to follow it all.

“She’s not dead,” Tattletale said, “But we bought an hour, at least.  Maybe a few.  With luck, they’ll upgrade this to a class-S.  We’ll get reinforcements… which we’ll need.”

An hour.

This for a single hour.

But then, against an Endbringer, even a few minutes can be crucial.

“She’s stronger,” Grue said.  He didn’t sound good.  “You fed her.”

“Had to.  Or she would have escaped before the explosion.”

“But she’s stronger,” Grue repeated himself.

And assuming Brockton Bay drives her off but she does go out into the world like the other Endbringers, she’s only going to get stronger still.

Hey, the whole snake thing… remember how I’ve been expecting the final threat to be some kind of worm? Hm.

Then again, I have been spoiled long ago that that wormy final threat has space/time-related powers, which isn’t quite what’s going on with Noelle. Besides, it would be kind of odd for one of the four elements (in case anyone forgot over the course of the hiatus, I basically think of Echidna as the Endbringer of Earth, completing the set) to be elevated above the rest as a final boss. This isn’t Avatar where the whole premise is that one of the elements breaks the balance.

Tattletale nodded.

“Do you have a plan?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “Not really.  Ideas.”

This ain’t gonna be easy.

“I have a few too,” I said.  “Not good ones, though.”

“I’ll take bad ideas,” she said.  She sighed wistfully, “Fuck.  I really wanted an evil mastermind headquarters of my own.  It’ll be years before I can build one for myself,” Tattletale groused.

Ahaha

Yeah, would be cool.

“So impatient,” Regent clucked his tongue.

Tattletale pushed herself to her feet.  “The next part’s going to be three times as bad.  I’m going to go see if we can scrounge up some healing.”

Hopefully one of the out-of-towners does have that ability.

I suppose Eidolon could do it?

I brought my legs up to my chest and folded my arms on my knees, resting my head on them.  The visions I’d seen were swiftly fading into memory, but the ideas behind them lingered.  For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to fight, to step up and save others.  A large part of me wanted to say it was up to the heroes, to take the unsure thing over doing it myself and knowing I’d done everything I could.

…memories become legends, legends fade to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the visions that gave it birth come again…

*snaps out of his trance* Oh, right, Worm, Skitter, heroic crisis.

You… can still back out. I mean, besides Echidna coming after you. She knows how you look. But the rest of it, you can back out from. Although Dragon also knows who you are and can have you arrested if you go back to your civilian life. But you can back out.

But will you? No, I don’t think you can make yourself do it.

I turned to Grue.  “You okay?”

He didn’t respond.

You okay, she asks, distracting herself from the fact that she isn’t.

“Grue?” I asked.

Nothing.

Uh.

That’s not good.

I used my bugs to search for someone who might be able to give medical attention.  Everyone was milling around, active, busy.

Us Undersiders aside, there were only two people nearby who weren’t active, trying to contain and prepare for a potential second attack.  Weld and Miss Militia.

This really is a highlight chapter for these two, huh?

They were talking, and they were looking at me.

Well… at least you already have their attention.

Thomas Calvert.  My clone had informed them.  And they’d seen our faces.

Right, yeah, there’s that whole thing too.


End of Scourge 19.1

So yeah that was a fantastic chapter. Definitely felt like a good one to return to after all this time.

I really enjoyed the nightmare sections and the way they were used to unlock full use of the buggovision, and feeding Noelle hellhound flesh to get her stuck in the headquarters was quite creative.

Shatterbird getting freed is an interesting spanner to throw into all of this, as long as the collapse of the headquarters didn’t kill her (particularly likely if Taylor’s right that she’s teaming with Noelle; Noelle would be able to swallow Shatterbird to keep her safe like she did with Trickster earlier). Maybe if she can spend some time outside of Regent’s control she can do something about her status as least interesting Slaughterhouse Nine character (not counting Hatchet Face). Doesn’t mean I have to like her.

Skitter’s heroic uncertainty towards the end of the chapter seems like something we’ll be exploring further over the course of the Arc. Maybe we’ll see her consider giving herself up when confronted about the Calvert thing.

Next chapter… planning, I suppose. Hopefully some healing, too. I don’t think Miss Militia will fully confront Skitter about Calvert immediately, given the overall situation.

Oh yeah, and there’s whatever is going on with Grue. That’s probably not good.

See you soon for a year’s worth of asks!

2 thoughts on “Scourge 19.1: The Big Red Button

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