“No,” Grue said.  “You can’t interfere!”

Not with the testing, at least, but I’m not sure the rules said anything about this?

The Protectorate?

It would be disastrous if the Protectorate-

Nah, my money is still on Burnscar. The Protectorate doesn’t have anyone local that could… hm. The rules do specifically say the Triumvirate are in town and can’t interfere, and that includes Eidolon, who could absolutely have this sort of power today. But why would he interfere with Brian attempting to shut down Mannequin? To make sure they could arrest him?

But yeah, mix in Taylor getting cut off here and I’m fairly sure it’s Burnscar, not Eidolon.

No.  I fixed my eyes on the scene.  Much worse than the Protectorate.

Burnscar tapped her finger to one side of her nose.  “I won’t tell if you don’t.”


Also why wouldn’t they tell, if they survive to do so? Of course, that part might be easier said than done.

Grue limped around the scene until he stood over Mannequin’s body.

“Ignore the head,” I said, quiet.  “Nothing important in there.  I’m not joking.  It’s a decoy.  Get him in the chest.”

Right, not just hold him down, but hurt him. Got it.

Grue nodded and hefted the chunk of rubble until it was over his head, point facing forward.

s t r o n k

Would it puncture?  Hard to say.

Worth a try.

Yeah, let’s see how it goes and take it from there.

“Do it,” Bitch growled, beside me.  “Killed Lucy.”

“Bentley too, maybe,” I said, quiet.  “I’m sorry.  I don’t know if he made it.  There was no way to save him.”


I was expecting Taylor to fill in with her own reasons, but this is sadder.

“Do it,” she repeated herself.

Grue didn’t get a chance.


I mean, I did expect him to survive, but this is ominous.

An eruption of fire tore through our surroundings.  Not an explosion.  There was no shockwave, and barely any noise.  It was more like a push, intensely hot and brief.

…Burnscar to the rescue?

We were knocked sprawling, dog and human alike.  The agony in my ribs hit me worse than ever as I was knocked flat onto my back in the water and a huff of air was struck from my lungs.

Taylor’s torso is not having a good week.

Sirius was hauling himself out of the rubble, with Bitch in the arch that formed with his front legs, chest, and the ground.  She stood, shaky, still breathing funny, making rhythmic facial motions like she was swallowing convulsively or gagging.

It might not be deadly unless she spends more time in it, but the aftereffects of being in a gas that knocks you out that quickly probably ain’t pleasant.

Grue limped over to Bitch’s side.  She couldn’t stand without Sirius’s support, but Sirius was shoring up the rubble with his body.  Grue gave her the support she needed and the pair of them made their way towards us.  Sirius stepped away from the wall and the rubble he’d been holding up tumbled to the ground, and he returned to his master’s side.

Good doggo.

“Bastard,” Grue said.  “Monster.  Freak.”

Uh, careful, don’t want Bitch to think you’re talking about her puppy.

Grue took Bitch’s hand and placed it on my shoulder.  She didn’t pull away.  Once he was sure we were both standing, he stepped away.

I think everyone’s too woozy to be worrying about how well they get along right now.

Bending down with an excruciating slowness, Grue picked up a piece of rubble that had to have weighed fifty or sixty pounds, roughly cone-shaped.

Gonna use that to keep Mannequin down?

Bitch seemed to follow his line of thinking.  “Sirius, hold!”

The dog lurched forward and placed both front paws on Mannequin’s body, pinning his arm and chest.

Nice. He’s still something of a threat, thanks to his extendable limbs, but he seems to be down for the count for now.

Bastard growled at the one who was intruding on his quarry, and Sirius growled back.

You’re a good doggo too, Bastard.

Bastard quieted.  It seemed he didn’t fully realize that he was bigger, more dangerous and less injured.  He was too used to being the puppy, with Sirius as the full-grown one.

Makes sense. Dog/wolf instincts probably aren’t meant to accomodate these drastic size changes.

A whistle from Bitch’s direction and a signal that was too brief for me to catch sent Bastard forward.

Oh hey, sounds like someone’s awake!

With Bitch’s condition, I couldn’t imagine how she handled it, but she managed to pump Bastard up.  He grew to half-again the size he’d been, roughly as large as a small car, and when he bit down on Mannequin’s arm this time, he broke the material.


If that’s not a milestone against this guy, I don’t know what is.

He adjusted his grip until he had Mannequin’s lower body and legs in a hold, but the material there proved sturdier.

I guess it would have to be, carrying his body most of the time.

Two arms in two fights, I thought, with a grim satisfaction.  The flames at our back were getting a touch too close for comfort, so I stepped forward, supporting Grue.

Maybe someday you’ll get one of his legs, too!

His arm around my shoulder, we approached as close as we dared to Bastard’s mayhem.

I think this is a victory at this point. Which means Mannequin, assuming he gets out of this alive, just lost another day. Which I suppose in turn means the time limit for his test is now outside his alloted turn.

Cherish is up next, and she’s going for a deal. I think the next few days are going to be interesting.

Mannequin shut his mouth, stepping back.  Half of the tissues went out or were dropped by the burned dragonflies before they got close enough.  Which meant that the other half made it.

Well, I guess it won’t result in an in-mouth explosion, but it should still be pretty near him.

The gas ignited for a second time, but I didn’t get to see it.  Grue shielded us with his darkness once more.  Whether it was to dampen the shockwave or keep us from being blinded by the light or something else, I didn’t know.

Possibly both.

I could only trust that it worked.  The darkness dissipated, we were standing, Mannequin wasn’t.

Good job, both of you. 😀

Whatever.  I reached behind my back and retrieved two items.  The change purse was the first.  I popped it open.  A variety of quarters, dimes and nickels, all kept in place with wadded tissue, and a few small paper packets of smelling salts.

…alright. So are the smelling salts the important part here?

It was stupid to be carrying change around, really, but I’d wanted to have some on hand since it had crossed my mind during my first night out in costume.

You never know when you’ll have to change out of costume in a public bathroom with a coin deposit slot.

I grabbed a tissue and tore it, once, then twice, until I had a series of strips.  Then I ignited them with the lighter, the item I’d grabbed with my other hand.

Ah! She doesn’t have the matches anymore, but she can’t throw the lighter and expect it to stay lit, so she’s using the paper strips as “matches” for the bugs to carry.

Dragonflies gripped the burning tissues in the instant I let them fall from my fingers.

Dragonflies have got to be the most appropriate bug she could possibly use for a fire-based move, just for their name.

In English, anyway. In Norwegian they’re more appropriate for the kind of thing she did to Lung and Clockblocker, being called eye-stingers.

I know they don’t actually sting, let alone sting eyes, but hey. As far as I know they don’t exactly breathe fire either.

That vibrating mouth of Mannequin’s was going again, puffing gas into the air, maybe to buy himself some breathing room from the dog.

Hey, Taylor, I’d actually be fine with you stuffing a bunch of insects into this mouth. Maybe if you stick enough in there, the corpses will clog the system?

I doubt he has a spitting functionality or a gag reflex, so he’d probably have to double over forwards in order to get them out.

“Bastard, stay,” I said.  What commands had I heard Bitch give her dogs?  “Off!”

Yes, good, speak the language he understands.

Couldn’t say whether Bastard obeyed or if he just didn’t want to attack anyways.

Heh, that’s fair.

I had to check twice to see that there wasn’t anything burning in Mannequin’s immediate vicinity.  No stray garbage to ignite the gas, sadly enough.

Do you still have the matches?

I looked behind me, and saw that the flames were raging.  Even the water’s surface was on fire.  How?  Had there been some chemical nearby, or something in the gas that transferred to the water’s surface?


Our avenue of retreat was shrinking.

Yes, but maybe it could be useful somehow?

I don’t know. I’m not the one making the awesome plans here.

Mannequin turned the tables in a second.  Between one of Bastard’s shakes and the next, the villain stopped flopping around.  I realized he’d ejected the knives from his toes and staked them in Bastard’s neck and snout for leverage.

Well that sounds just delightful for Bastard.

His one free hand dangled at his side.

Moving was agony, but I was lurching towards them in a half-run before I fully realized why.  Mannequin raised his free hand and pointed it at Bastard’s left eye.

Wha– oh, going for the brain, are you.

I’m… not sure that actually works with the hellhounds? Judging by Lucy, it seems like that’s not really how their anatomy functions.

I caught his arm and hauled it back in the same moment he fired.  Bastard repaid my kindness by whipping Mannequin to one side, striking me.

This is getting into intense melee. Not quite as good as the first Mannequin fight (notably, Mannequin is making less use of the more interesting parts, combat-wise, of his design), but I like it.

Both Mannequin and I fell sprawling to the ground.

No sooner had I fallen than Grue was there to help me up.  He was slower than I was with that granular buckshot in his leg, so he’d only just caught up.


Mannequin on the ground, Bastard off to one side, largely untrained with no master and nobody holding his chain, Grue and I both helping one another stand.

This is looking… kind of like a victory in the making? ‘,:?

I was about to voice an agreement when I saw Bastard lurch to his feet.  The chain leading to his muzzle wasn’t in my hand.

Ooh, now what’s he going to do?

Remember what I said about thinking Bastard would be important? I think that’s about to come true, somehow.

Bastard pounced on Mannequin, taking one of the villain’s arms in his jaws.  Clenching, he began whipping Mannequin around like a rag doll.

Whoo, go Bastard!

Twice, Mannequin’s lower body was bludgeoned against the nearby wall.

I’d get on Taylor’s case about attacks to certain lower parts again, but a) Mannequin probably doesn’t have those parts, and b) this ain’t Taylor’s doing, Bastard is doing this on his own initiative.

Yeah, didn’t expect us to be that tough, did you?

Hehe. They really are a lot tougher than they look.

I looked for our opponent, and I saw Mannequin virtually unscathed, lying in the shallow water.

…of course. That can’t be regular ceramic he’s using.

The blast had knocked him sprawling, but he’d disconnected his parts so only lengths of chain attached each.

I suppose it makes sense. Less resistance to the movement might reduce the damage.

An application, perhaps, of that martial arts principle.  How did it go?

“When two great forces collide, the victory will go to the one that knows how to yield.”
– Lao Tzu

An oak is broken by the hurricane’s winds, but the supple willow only bends?  He was already pulling himself together.

Yeah, that sounds like a good one too.

There was barely a mark on him.

“Run,” Grue said.

Good plan, but can she run after the gunshot?