Snare 13.4

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Bad, bad, bad, bad.

Burnscar stood with Mannequin just behind her, sporting a red shirt and black jeans, cigarette burns running down her cheeks, and a dead look in her eyes.  Bitch, Grue, Sirius, Bastard and I stood a dozen feet away, walls of flame like bonfires barring our escape routes to the rear or sides.  Droplets of rain fell all around us, making ripples on the inch-high water that flooded the street.  The air was thick with the smell of smoke.

We’d at least had time to mentally prepare for the idea of facing Mannequin.  My strategy had been last-minute, but I’d been in the right frame of mind to fight a tinker, to anticipate ambush and tackle someone with decent offensive abilities, strong defenses and a crapton of tricks up his sleeve.

Burnscar had flipped things on us; she was in a totally different ballpark from Mannequin.  If I had to guess, her offensive capabilities were top-notch, even if they didn’t break the scales like some other members of the Nine.  I couldn’t even guess where she fit on the spectrum of defensive ability, but she’d been with the Nine for a little while and she was still alive, so that was some indication.  And utility?  She had every trick a pyrokinetic like Lung had at his disposal and she could teleport through flames as well, opening up a mess of tricks and avenues of attack.

“Happy now?” She asked Grue.

“Not so much.”

Burnscar’s voice was flat, without humor, like an actor reading the lines from a script without actually emoting them.  “I am following the rules, now.  Let’s see.  Trying to remember how this is supposed to go. Test you, you pass or fail, and then I kill you.”

“You only kill Bitch if she fails,” I said.  Opening my mouth was more automatic than intentional.  The majority of my focus was on our current situation.  Options.  What avenues of attack did we have?  What about self-defense or escape?

I had my pepper spray.  My knife and baton were available too, though I doubted my ability to dish out more hurt than I suffered in an exchange of hits with Burnscar.  Grue had his darkness, and both of the remaining dogs were in okay shape.  I had my bugs, but neither my costume nor my bugs would do well against the flame.

“I can still kill tall, dark and eerie and the alien girl,” Burnscar said.

“Bug girl,” I corrected.

“Don’t really care.  Bitch, the test is an old one, but it’s good.  We don’t get to do it often enough, because it requires research.  Got to do it with Cherish because she gave us the necessary info.  Wasn’t very bright, but she did.  Now that she’s on the team, she can give us all the info we need.”

“You talk too much,” Bitch snarled.  “Get to the point or go the fuck away.”

“You’re going to have to face your greatest fear.  Destroy any hold it has on you with violence, blood and death.  I don’t want you to just conquer your fears.  I want you to murder them, before anyone else can use your feelings for them against you.”  She put a special inflection on the word ‘murder’, making it clear she was being quite literal.

I expected Bitch to say something along the lines of ‘I’m not afraid of anything’.  She didn’t. Her eyes narrowed.

“I’m not going to fucking hurt my dogs.”

“Not asking you to.  Dogs are easy.  Replaceable.  Sure, you might cry when they bite the dust, you love them.”  The lack of inflection or emotion in Burnscar’s voice made the words sound almost mocking.  “It’s sweet.  But that hole in your heart mends, time heals the wound, you get more dogs and you bounce back.”

“I think you’re underestimating how much she loves her dogs,” I said, “A wound like that never heals.”

Bitch turned her head just enough to give me a hard look.

“I’m not saying she doesn’t,” Burnscar shrugged.  “I’m saying the idea of losing them isn’t what scares her the most.  So forget the dogs.  I’m not asking you to hurt them, maim them, murder them or anything like that.”

Bitch glanced at Bastard.  He was growling, barely audible, low and steady, and his hackles were raised.  Were they still hackles if they were mostly fragments of calcified muscle and bone spikes?

“Kill them,” Burnscar said.  She pointed at Grue and I.

Bitch laughed, if you could call it that.  It was more of a snort, with zero humor to it.  “That’s supposed to be my biggest fear?  I don’t give two shits about them.”

“You do.  They’re the closest thing to a human connection you’ve had your entire life.  Maybe you haven’t thought it out loud to yourself, but you’re terrified at the idea of losing them.  You know as well as anyone else that this relationship with your team, it’s like winning the lottery for you.”

Bitch scoffed.

“Sure, it’s shitty as relationships go,” Burnscar continued, “Anyone else would find it depressingly lame.  But they’re the best you’ll get.  The best you can hope for, because you’re fucked up.  Believe me, I know when someone’s fucked up.”

“Like I said, you talk too much.”

“They’re the best you’ll ever get, and according to Cherish, you’re losing them.  Whatever bond you made with them, it’s fucked up now.  Maybe you did it, maybe them.  Maybe both.  But it’s dying a slow death, dog girl.  Rip off the band-aid and finish off these losers who aren’t going to be your friends in a few weeks anyways.  Do it, and I let you and your dogs walk away.”

“Why the fuck should I listen to you?”

“Because if you say no, if you try to run or walk away, if you attack me, I’ll consider your test a fail.”

“So?”

“I’ll have no reason to hold back.  Your team dies, your dogs die, and you’ll wish you were dead.”

“Fuck you,” Bitch retorted, but she glanced at Grue and I, and I could have sworn I saw doubt.  Was it indecision?  The way Burnscar had framed this, Bitch either had to admit she cared about us and fight for our sake, or Bitch could attack us to secure her safety and her dogs.

I couldn’t say which road she’d take, not with any kind of certainty.  My gut told me it wouldn’t be the answer I wanted.

She’s considering it.

Which meant I had to take matters in my own hands.  Burnscar held the advantage, and Bitch was leaning her way.  I needed to flip things and take that certainty away from her.

I drew from the capsaicin-treated bugs in my armor compartment.  There hadn’t been any point in using them against Mannequin, but they might incapacitate Burnscar.  The trick was catching her off guard.

“You’re doing it wrong,” Grue said.

“What?”

“Did you even read the rules Jack gave us?”

“Yes,” Burnscar frowned.  “I did.”

“Then why are you doing it differently than he did?”  Grue pointed at Mannequin.

He was buying us time, using Mannequin’s inability to talk and Burnscar’s less than firm grasp to throw her off her stride.  He didn’t know it, but he’d also provided me with a distraction.

My capsaicin-laced bugs made their way down my back and the backs of my legs.  Near the surface of the shallow water, they spread out, sticking to shadows, the cover of burning rubbish and the darkness that swirled around Grue.

“Doing it differently?  This isn’t that complicated,” Burnscar said.

“How’s it going to look if you do it wrong?  I imagine Mannequin’s going to get punished for fucking up,” Grue said, “But he at least tried.  If you screw up here, right at the beginning, you really think your team is going to be impressed?  No, they’re going to be embarrassed.  And I bet they’ll take it out on the person who embarrassed them.”

Mannequin tapped on Burnscar’s shoulder.  She turned, and he parted his mouth slightly before drawing an ‘x’ over it with one finger.

“Mannequin says you’re lying.”

Crap.  My bugs weren’t in position to attack yet.

“You really going to gamble on that?” Grue asked.

“Yeah,” Burnscar said.  The flames around us swelled in size.

I had no time left for subtlety.  I gave the order for my bugs to attack directly, closing the distance by the fastest and most obvious routes available.

They rose from every corner and shadow in the area, approaching Burnscar from every direction.  I directed them towards the exposed skin of her hands, ankles, face and neck.

The second they landed, they bit, stung and clawed at her.  I even felt a few touch her face.  Then I felt her move.  For an instant, I thought she had some kind of enhanced strength or speed that let her throw herself to one side like she did.  Except it wasn’t her.  It was Mannequin that moved, throwing her to one side, so she landed in the midst of a flaming pile of trash.  The bugs on her were burnt to a crisp and she promptly disappeared.

“Run!” Grue shouted.

Bitch hauled on Bastard’s chain, shouting, “Go!”  She climbed halfway onto Sirius’ back, unable to climb up higher with her injured leg.  Grue and I followed as Bastard crashed into  one of the walls of flame, sending burning trash flying and spreading out the flaming water.  Bitch rode Sirius through the break, and Grue and I hurried after.

Hot.

I stumbled as the heat built.  I was supporting Grue as best as I was able with the pain in my ribs protesting even the slightest movements of my arm, let alone trying to support a nearly-grown teenage boy.  The heat of the flames increased.  I think we could have made it if it was just one or two steps, but it wasn’t.  Five paces failed to carry us out of the flames.  We were too slow to keep up with Bastard and make use of the way he was scattering the flames for us.

I fell in the same moment we finally got free of the flames, and Grue fell with me.  There wasn’t fire underneath us, but I could still feel the heat, intense, accompanied by a blinding pain.  I was on fire.  The water was too shallow to extinguish the fires as they licked around us, and even rolling in it failed to do anything substantial.

Grue smothered us in darkness.  I’d fought alongside him before, I’d been under the effects of his power countless times, but this was different.  I was hurting, I wanted to find solutions, and now I couldn’t see.  I couldn’t even use my swarm sense to assess the situation, because the flames Burnscar had spread around the area were limiting my bugs’ movements.  Our enemies, Mannequin and Burnscar, were similarly out of my reach.  I felt a swelling panic as I thrashed, trying to immerse myself.

I felt something heavy on top of me, then three quick taps on my shoulder.  A signal?  Grue.  I didn’t fight him as he used what must have been his jacket to pat me down and splash water onto me.  I felt the water touch bare skin.

The pain and the heat continued as Grue hauled me to my feet, but the rational part of me knew he wouldn’t do that if I was still on fire.  I was burned.  It hurt, but I wasn’t in imminent danger from anything or anyone except Burnscar and Mannequin.

Using my power, I found difficulty at every turn.  Everywhere I sent my bugs, I encountered fire.  I felt like a blind person tapping their cane around himself to get a sense of the surroundings, encountering only danger, destruction.  A picture was gradually unfolding, and it was an ugly one.

We ran, Grue leading the way.  We fell four times.  My legs and back were burned, Grue had his injured leg, and we were running slightly downhill.  He was clutching my shoulders hard enough that it hurt, and leaning heavily on me with every other step, while my legs had none of the strength needed to support him.

When we moved past the darkness, we were standing in the midst of the shattered Boardwalk.  We half-slid and half-climbed down the ruined area to the beach, and walked over to the water’s edge.  From our new vantage point, we could see what Burnscar had done.

My territory was on fire.

Grue’s shadows still covered the ground levels of the area, but I could make out the tops of the taller buildings.  Not every building burned, but there were enough.  Rain fell around us, but it wouldn’t matter against a blaze like that.  In the gloom, the plumes of smoke that were as thick around as any building appeared black against the light gray backdrop of gray rainclouds.

“Come on, Taylor,” Grue said.  He tried to pull me to my feet, and I didn’t move.  “We can deal with all that later.  Right now, we’ve just got to get away.  We survive.”

“Survive,” I muttered.

I’d been prepared to die against Mannequin if it meant removing one monster from the world.  It was a pretty good indication of how much I valued my life at these days.  I’d cut ties with my dad, dropped out of school, helped get Lung arrested and started chain of events that had led to the ABB terrorizing tens of thousands of people.  I’d served as a distraction so a power-hungry supervillain could kidnap a girl and keep her drugged up in some underground cell for months.  I’d stood by to let a man die.  I’d become a full-fledged villain.  Pledged to protect people and then let them die horribly.  Not once, not twice, but three times.

What the hell had I been thinking, wanting to become a superhero?

“Come on,” Grue urged me.

I stood, leaning against the concrete wall that divided the beach from the street above.

“Genesis is going to be there,” I said.  “We need to go find her and help her.”

“We’re too hurt to do anything,” Grue answered, “Genesis can handle herself.  She can always make a new body with her powers.”

“And her real body?  She had it sent to my lair.”

Grue paused.  “Your lair could be on fire.”

“Exactly.”

He considered for a few moments.  “Alright.  Just let me call Bitch.”

“Don’t.”  I stopped him as he got his phone in hand.

“What?”

“A call at the wrong time, her ringer going off, it could mean alerting the enemy about her position or distracting her.  Wait.”

He nodded, and we ran.

Grue was letting his darkness dissipate, for the most part, as we were under cover and out of the way.  We made our way to the storm drain, using the wall for support.  We headed through the secured doors and into my cellar, then up the stairs to the main floor.

My lair wasn’t burning down, but I could see the faint flicker of flame on nearby buildings through the slits on the shutters.  A quick investigation with my power showed that it wasn’t anything serious.  I set bugs in place as an early warning system.

We headed straight for the bedrooms.  I wasn’t expecting to see what I did.

There must have been fifteen of them.  Kids, none of them older than ten, some as young as four.  There were three to a bunk, sitting up or lying down.  Charlotte was with them, the eldest.

“Don’t be mad,” she said, in a small voice.

“Mad?”

She spoke quietly, as if the kids wouldn’t hear, “I didn’t know where else to take them.  Sierra said we had to hide, that Mannequin was coming.  I saw him killing people without even moving.  He went after families, but he was focused on the parents, not the kids.  He killed them and let the kids run-“

“Stop.”  My voice was harder than I meant it to be.  “I don’t want to hear it.”

This is my failure.

“I didn’t know where else to take them.”

“You did good,” I said.  I sounded like Burnscar did.  No emotion behind the words.  “Someone else should have come here.  A girl or a woman, probably with an escort.”

Charlotte didn’t answer, but moved aside.

Genesis.

Genesis slept on one of the bunks I’d set aside for my employees.  Her face was contorted in an expression of concern.  Average looks, if a little round-faced, she had long eyelashes, and her auburn hair was a mop.

She had to sleep to use her power.  Could we afford to disturb her?  If we tried to move her and she woke up, would it mean taking her out of the middle of a fight where she could do something to Burnscar or Mannequin?

“Where are the rest of my people?” I asked.

“Sierra divided us into teams and sent each of us in a different direction, telling us to get people to evacuate.  I almost ran right into Mannequin.  I hid and saw him attack.”

I felt out with my power, sticking exclusively to the building interiors, to avoid inadvertently barbecuing my bugs and frittering away my resources.  I used the bugs in the area to try to get a headcount.  The geography and the spread of people in this area was becoming familiar to me.  Very few were still alive and in this area.  Too many had died.  How many bodies were there?  Thirty?  Forty?

I didn’t want to think about it.

“Charlotte, did you come in through the front door or the other entrance?”  I asked.

“Front door.  I was thinking about taking these kids and running for it, but I didn’t know if you’d want-“

“Secrecy is not that important right now.  Take them down to the storm drain and stay there.  It’s more or less fireproof, it’s not going to collapse on their heads, and it’s a better hiding spot than this.”

It seemed like getting orders invigorated her.  “Okay.  Come on, guys.  Get ready, shoes on, this way.”

The kids began to get sorted and follow Charlotte’s instructions as she herded them out of the room, staying by the door to ensure nobody was left behind.  There were no complaints and there was nothing like chatter or crying from the kids.  How many of them had watched their parents die for them?  They were so stoic, or shocked.

Grue looked at me, “What are you thinking?”

“They take cover, we stay.  I’m going to try to use my swarm to get a sense of where Genesis is and how the fight’s going.  The second things go south or this area gets too dangerous, we get her out of here.”

“You’ll need this,” Charlotte said.

I hadn’t noticed it with all the people in the room.  At the foot of the bunk, in the corner of the room, there was a folded up wheelchair.

Can’t ever be easy.

“That might complicate things if we have to run for it,” Grue said.

I didn’t have a response to that.

Charlotte left with the kids, and we took the time to manage our wounds.  I headed into the ground floor bathroom to run cold water over the burns on my legs and back.  Grue sat on the toilet’s lid and began gathering the necessary things from the first aid kit.

My power found Genesis, but only briefly.  She was big, some sort of flying pufferfish with a hard exterior and tentacles.  It was a hard image to piece together.  She floated slowly over the streets, and the bugs that I had on her died as Burnscar pelted her.  I tried to send some bugs after her, but she disappeared into the side of a burning building as they approached.  I tried and failed to find where she’d teleported to.  Frustrating.  Whatever her destination, it was a place my bugs couldn’t touch, so I had to wait for her to move away or start attacking from another vantage point.

Nearly half a year ago, I’d gotten my powers when I was trapped in a locker, wanting to be anywhere but where I was then.  I’d reached out, my mind extending out for something, anything to distract me and draw my focus away.

I wasn’t trapped in a locker, but I felt very close to how I had then.  Except it wasn’t the feeling that I was trapped.  My power’s range hadn’t increased.  It felt like that in a different way.

“We can’t do this,” I said.

“Hmm?”  Grue had torn open his pants leg and was suturing one of the cuts.

“We can’t endure this.  We won’t last.”

“We got unlucky and took the brunt of it.  We’ll get a breather.”

“Will we?  These guys are experts in preying on weakness!  They’re going to target us and come after us until we can’t defend ourselves, they’ll kill us, then they’ll go after Panacea, or Armsmaster, or Hookwolf, or Noelle, and they’ll do the same thing!”

“Taylor.”

I pushed myself to a standing position.  “They’re going to do the same thing they’re doing to us, and they’re not just going to win.  They’re going to ruin everything while they do it!”

“Stop!”

I hobbled past him, and he grabbed my wrist.  Between anger and the fact that my sleeve was wet with the water of the shower, I managed to rip my hand from his grip.  “Don’t.  Don’t do that.”

“What do you think you’re going to do?”

“I’m going out there.  They’re just bullies.  They’re powerful, they’ve got every advantage, but that’s all the more reason we can’t let them get away with this.  I’ll bait them out, or find where they’re hiding.  I can take Burnscar down if I can get the right bugs to bite her, or sting her enough times.  I just have to do something.  I can’t just stay here and let them get away with this.”

“You’re so hurt you can barely walk.  If they find you, you won’t be able to run.”

“Sick of running.”

He stood and followed me.  He got ahead of me despite the fact that he was probably hurt worse than I was.  I ducked around him, and he pushed me against a wall.  “Don’t do this.  If you want to get revenge on those guys, if you want to help your people, you need to stop, rest, recover and plan.”

I struggled briefly, but the pain in my ribs and the burn on my back made that far more trouble than it was worth, and it was already pretty futile.

Hated this.  Hated feeling weak, even if it was Grue I was comparing myself to.

My bugs alerted me to movement from Genesis.  I didn’t say anything to Grue, and simply waited as she grabbed her wheelchair, unfolded it and transitioned into it, before wheeling out into the hallway.

“Did we wake you?” Grue asked.

“No.  I can’t be woken by anyone except myself if I’m like that.  It’s more like a coma than sleep.  You were watching me?”

Grue and I nodded.  He must have felt self-conscious, because he backed off, letting go of me.  I did note that he positioned himself between me and the end of the hallway.  I wouldn’t be able to run for the cellar or the front door without going past him.

It didn’t really matter.  He was right.  Maybe I would have gone on if he hadn’t stopped me, using my anger and frustration to drive myself forward until I got myself killed.  Grue and Genesis had, in their individual ways, interrupted that.  I felt simultaneously angry at him and embarrassed that he’d had to stop me.

“What happened?” I asked Genesis, trying not to look at Grue.

She glanced between the two of us.  “Realized Mannequin was using a gas, got a form together to fight that and occupy him, like you recommended, but he wasn’t there when I reformed.  Burnscar was.”

“Mannequin forfeited his turn.  Burnscar went up next,” I explained.

“Ah.”

“You manage to stop her?”  Grue asked.

“No.  I wasn’t prepared to fight her, but she couldn’t really hurt me either.  She left.”

“Can you get a body together to fight the fires?” I asked, hugging my arms against my chest.

“I’ll try.  My reserves are low.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to stop them.”

Grue got his phone out while Genesis retreated back to her bunk.  I made my way upstairs to curl up in the armchair.

So many dead because I couldn’t save them.  I felt doubly guilty because my reasons for regretting their deaths were partially selfish.  It was a deathblow to my plans to seize my territory, earning Coil’s respect and make inroads into saving Dinah, one way or another.

I took off my mask and let it drop to the ground.  My costume, I saw, was in tatters where it had burned.

Our enemies were good, they were smart.  Mannequin had been toying with us, and we’d taken that advantage and beat him to the ground with it.  But every action was calculated.  Cherish was informing them, Shatterbird was apparently smart in other ways, and Jack was the brains of the operation.

Had Jack calculated things so everything would play out the way he wanted, like Mannequin was?

Grue appeared at the top of the stairs.  “Bitch isn’t replying.  We should go look for her.”

“Okay.”

“You okay?” Grue asked.

Pissed.”

“Me too.  Though I get that you have more reason to be angry.”

“I just-” I stopped, clenching my fists.  “I don’t-“

I blinked back tears.  Fucking contact lenses.

He wrapped his arms around me in a hug.

My face was mashed against his shoulder, his grip was too tight, my back was sore where his hand touched a spot near the burn.  There was also that mess of awkwardness from when I’d confessed my feelings for him, that now seemed so minor and distant compared to everything that was going on.

“We’ll get through this.”

“No,” I said, pulling away,  “Not like this, we won’t.  We fight them every time they come, we’re going to be worn out, exhausted from always being on our guard, and if these past fights have been any indication, we won’t make it through eight rounds of this.”

“The way you phrase that, you don’t sound like you did in the shower.”

I shook my head.  “No.  Because I’ve realized Jack wants us to focus on each of his people, one by one, because he knows it’s going to play out like it has so far, and that we won’t make it through eight rounds of this.  Let’s change that dynamic.  We take out testers before they get their turn.  We go on the offensive.”

“Offensive?  Dinah said that a direct attack would be suicide.”

“So we go for the indirect attack.  They want to play dirty?  Let’s play dirty back.”

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78 thoughts on “Snare 13.4

  1. Oooooh yes. That’s the good stuff right there, that there is some good story progression! I think the part of my mind that loves reading just had a readgasm. That is a word now. “Readgasm: To read something so good, that the feeling after finishing could be likened to a orgasm.” You can now call this story Readgasmic. :P

  2. I really hope that Mannequin didn’t take a few seconds to kill off Panacea en route to Taylor’s territory.

    This chapter was really, really good. The Nine specialize in turning the homefield advantage against their opponents, and these last few chapters really drive that home.

  3. Holy fuck.

    One step forward, sent flying back. Though I imagine having a bunch of impressionable orphans might come in handy, I wonder if that attack triggered anyone. How many Theo-like people are there, hunting down the nine or some of their members? Luckily for them that they haven’t killed off any fathers ye-

    Oh wait. Well, time for Inigo Montoya to make his entrance.

  4. No matter what Taylor supects, I am going to continue to believe that Bitch was not actually going to betray them. Only good can come of Bitch realizing that she definately has ties to Taylor and Grue.

    • Nah, she said that the whole reason for her insanely stupid joining was to attain sufficient protection that she couldn’t be attacked and retrieved by him. In fact she and Burnscar share that protection factor…and they both want to get out of the nine if possible…

      What I’m curious about is that if memory serves, she failed that test. Certainly I don’t see Bitch passing it, not unless Taylor and Brian hand her the knife and tell her to themselves.

  5. Aha! Time to fight dirty, is it? *pulls out a revolver with a sight set a few feet above it* Here, center this on who you want to shoot, right in the torso through the sight. Instant ball shot.

    Then there’s this little beauty. *hefts a pump-action bazooka and fires it experimentally, a pie blasting out of the end to splat against a wall.* Can be reloaded at every standard bakery, ammo comes in all flavors, and the weapon applies a thin layer of rubbing alcohol. It ruins the taste, but tests with more traditional forms of alcohol haven’t turned out as I hoped. Still, it’s a good way to obscure an opponent’s vision and muck up the field of battle.

    So is this, actually. *lifts up a bunch of small gatling gun with a bunch of bananas attached to the back in. He fires it a few times, bananas being ejected as banana peels are fired out onto the ground* Just like the one they used to wound the Predator in that movie. Big guy lost his balance in the jungle.

    Now, say you’re caught in close-quarters combat, but you don’t want to appear to be holding a weapon. *pulls out a squashed up rubber chicken.* Just grab the cock and whip it out, then beat people when fully erect. *holds its legs as he whips it, causing the body to extend like the baton hidden within.*

    Another version features a grenade. You have to pull the head off. I’m currently working on a version of the spicy chicken that runs on its own, but it’s difficult to aim and has a tendency to attempt to cross roads. I don’t know why.

    • If you want to get a chicken that won’t run away on you, you just need a…

      …um…

      …nevermind. *Flees.*

    • Unfortunately, your gatling gun is ejecting the ammo–it’s the banana that’s slippery, not the peel. Besides, why don’t you use the potassium to light your foes ON FIRE!?

      You’re also lucky that the spicy chicken only tried to cross the road. Most non-frozen chickens are turn-coats of the worst kind. They’ll cross you just to get to the other side.

      Exploding zombie chickens are where it’s at: they can keep going even if you remove their heads. They’ll keep running around in circles until they hit something and then *BOOM*. Taking spicy foods to the next level like a boss.

      • All Gecko-Tecko Products are subject solely to the law of narrative causality. Also, the potassium in bananas is stable. Bonded to something else, you see. Otherwise, your mouth would be bursting with flavor if there was any water in there while eating one.

        Besides, what you really need to light someone on fire is some methanol. It burns with an invisible flame. Finally, someone could use a stealth flamethrower! Of course, once other materials are burned, those other materials will have a flame with color, but it still makes a good first-strike weapon.

        Also, exploding zombie chickens are out of the question. To kill a zombie, you have to destroy the brain or remove the head. Hence, activating the zombie chicken would kill it. Yes, amusingly enough, you have to zombify a chicken to cause it to do less upon removal of its head.

        There are just so many better ways to use chicken. Like frying them. Fried chicken, hot wings, chicken tenders, chicken nuggets, that kind of thing. Or grilled chicken sandwiches, those are good. Whataburger makes a good one, if you’re in the South. Waffle House’s grilled chicken sandwiches are surprisingly good too. There’s another place that makes good chicken of the grilled and fried variety, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat there these days due to comments from upper management. Now, what you really need to do is get what is called chicken-fried chicken. It sounds redundant, but it’s not. Some people call it country-fried chicken instead. Anyway, that’s some good stuff with mashed potatoes and white gravy. You might try some chicken-fried steak too with the same kind of gravy.

        It’ll take years off your life. You can taste them falling away. I was gonna live til I was 90. *bite* 89. *bite* 88…

  6. Possible typo: “We take out candidates before they get their turn.” — Should “candidates” be “The Nine” or “testers”?

      • Oh, wow. I actually thought that taking out the candidates was the plan, lol. Hah! You forfeit your turn, evil 9’ers, for your candidate has already been killed!

        • I considered that possibility as well, but that would have only made sense before Tattletale proposed the “game”.

          One more observation: with Mannequin out, nobody has to mutilate themselves anymore. (This is a bit convenient, since all the other’s tests are—as far as we know—possible to pass without permanent injury.)

  7. I´ve just had a Readgasm.
    Up to the middle of this chapter I was thinking that you would go all George R Martin on us:
    And the cold ones (substitute for endbringers) are coming from the north being stopped only by a night watch (read heroes) in which nobody really believes and that is not so saint after all.
    While the world is about to end in undeath, the people in power (with power) are fighting each other and killing the real good (or at least less bad) guys in the process.
    Very Game of Thrones and you do write well enough to pull this of.
    But in the end you save my despairing soul that was screaming: NO, NOT AGAIN, NOT AFTER READING FIVE DAMNED BOOKS FULL OF DESPAIR AND TRAGEDY with a hero that bounces back.
    As Machiaveli said (quoting by memory, can`t find the book):
    ” Some complain that the circumstances changed and they were defeated. The good prince adapts to the circumstances. ”
    And yes, playing defending the castle against the nine is stupid.

    • Wow, a comparison to George R. R. Martin? I don’t deserve that one, honest.

      As a tangent, while I definitely don’t feel I’m at his caliber in any respect, I do like to write the same way he does. I think. And I think I fall into the same traps as well. Lots of characters, each with their own motivations & contexts, no problem is perfectly resolved; the story almost tells itself. So long as the author has the ending in mind from the start and that ending is capable of tying everything together, it’s capable of working out. (I’m speculating here as to Mr. Martin’s motives/approach; I have a strong suspicion as to how Game of Thrones is gonna end)

      But this approach does mean one gets bogged down. Worm has roughly as many characters as it has chapters (~130) and there’s plot threads everywhere. If every problem that is resolved still leaves you with 1-2 more problems as a result, that creates a hell of a lot of branches over a long running, epic (not in the ‘fantastic’ sense, but in the literary sense) series. Therein lies the difficulty. George R. R. Martin admitted he hit a stumbling block around the middle of A Song of Ice and Fire – too many characters to track, all of whom needed their stories told. He wound up splitting a book into 2 books, with half of the characters in Feast for Crows and half in Dance of Dragons, if I’m remembering right, and the second of those two books took him four or so years to write?

      • Well not to be pushy, but I for one have never seen excessive length as a problem, especially given the advent of the net.

        Indeed I will happily beg for you to be as excessive as possible with the length of this piece. Frankly the only thing I can imagine as awesome as all that would be a fanfiction archive or six and some fanart, maybe a good cosplay (and a thousand bad ones) and an adaptation to a screen medium. But excessive length is definitely better then all of that from this humble perspective. This story kicks more ass then I thought existed.

        • Well, thank you.

          But Worm is being written with an end in mind. It is also being written with the idea that I’d clean it up, thoroughly edit & then parcel out sections of it for ebooks (and, though it’s a bit of a dream, a print book I could have on my shelf). Right now I’m debating how much time I want to spend on the post-Nine story arcs.

          Can’t say for certain, but I’d say Worm will be roughly 75-80% through at the close of this arc or the next. If I paced out the later arcs, it might be at 66%, currently.

          • What? Its almost over? Goshdarnit. I least tell me you might be doing another with in the same universe? That would be lovely. Though I can understand how you might not want to, given I have no idea if the story is going to end via the universe blowing up or something else that would make it impossible.

          • ‘Almost over’ is a bit of an overstatement. It’d be ending in January, February, or thereabouts.

            I don’t think I would write another story in the same universe, unless it was a novella focusing around, say, Armsmaster, Glory Girl/Panacea or the Travelers.

            • And the plot thickens…

              Again. Actually it’s been thickening for the last 13 arcs. Right now it’s at least half as thick as my…

              You know. So extremely freaking thick.

              So what I’m saying is that I liked this, and I have no idea why I’m not at the end of this story yet.

            • ^that posted in the wrong place, it looks like. I meant that in regards to the 75-80% done comment made by our valiant author. To continue the GRRM comparisons, he once thought ASOIAF would be a trilogy… not so much

        • Also, thanks for the mention on Mangafox. Got a bunch of clickthroughs so far. Not many have actually gone on to read the archives (I think they were expecting manga?) but is still nice. ;)

          • At least your characters are not spread in a large area, like two continents.
            George R Martin had problems beause, due to the physical distance between characters he ended telling a lot of separated tales in the same book.

  8. And so, Taylor learns the most indispensable lesson for any who would stand against an established regime. Honor is a tool by which the strong oppress the weak. There are no honorable battles, only people trying desperately to make sense of the senseless.The truth about power is this: The vastly more powerful side only wins 70% of the time. And that’s when the underdog plays by ‘the rules’.

    When the underdog makes his own rules, he wins 60% of the time. David vs Goliath is an unfair fight. Goliath will never see it coming. The Slaughter House Nine brought it on themselves. They operate in a linear, segmented fashion. They take turns, they retreat. They live and kill in batch.

    The Undersiders are an insurgent force. And Insurgents operate in real time. Taylor has changed the pace of the battle. It’s become a battle of endurance. And Endurance battles always favor the underdog. I’m proud of her. She’s learned to stop thinking like a human and start thinking like an Ant.

    Without the hanging out and doing nothing because other people are already hard at work.

    • I think you got which is the insurgency and which is the entrenched superior force mixed up there. It’s the Nine that can appear out of nowhere using a numerically inferior force that has a couple of extremely powerful units, versus a city full of cops, superheroes, and supervillains that want the Nine dead (except for Battery). The Nine have designated a few key targets as part of their goals, using a biological weapon to make sure their enemies can’t run from them and that no outside reinforcements can interfere. The enemy can then divide up their forces or turn against themselves in attempting to protect those targets, but either way it allows the enemy to be divided up into a few different groups while the Nine concentrate on whichever target they want at their leisure without being tracked by the superior force.

      At this point, Taylor has just proposed changing the pace of the battle. We’ll have to wait a little longer to see if she does or not.

      I think what you mean about honor is honoring the rules of the game. That’s a big deal considering the plague that will be unleashed if they mess with the rules. Given how proud Jack is of himself that he can control all his monsters, how do you think he’ll feel that one of them disobeyed him and the rules he agreed to? Someone needs to start spreading the rumor that Jack couldn’t even keep Burnscar on a leash, so much for being the leader of the Slaughterhouse Nine…maybe Shatterbird’s the brains of that operation instead…?

      • Technically, they both operate as an insurgency. The Nine are small numerically, but they make up for it with power. The Undersides make up for their small numbers with tenacity.

        With these two teams it’s more like a game of basketball. It’s the Harlem Globe Trotters(The Nine) vs a team of street ballers(The Undersiders). The Harlem Globe trotters have all the advantages. They’re tall, they’re fast, they’ve got skills, and they make even the simplest maneuver look good. The Street Ballers, on the other hand, will use the full court press, every time. That’s all they’ve got going for them. They’ve got one play, and the stamina to use it.

        There’s no rule in basketball that you can’t do just that, but people would rather retreat down to their basket and try to defend it rather than play the whole court. The Full Court press is “dishonorable”. Jack never said the Undersiders couldn’t attack the Nine on their home turf, they never said they had to sit and defend the candidates; it was conventional thinking that lead to that conclusion. Taylor’s proposition stretches the fighting over the whole city, wherever the nine might show their faces, rather than concentrating it on a single goal.

        You do not fight the enemy where they are strongest, you fight them where they are weakest. You shake them up by operating under the rules of the game, but with strategies that are unconventional at best. It’s time for a full court press.

        • Is this a good or a bad place to point out that it was Aisha, and not Taylor, who decided to go on the offensive first? (Aisha’s might not have been well thought-out, but while she is responsible for her own actions, I am inclined to put most of the blame on Brian’s poor leadership, because he could have and should have known better, and it is simply naive to think that simply keeping someone away from the action will keep them safe from the Nine, who absolutely love attacking their enemies’ loved ones.)

  9. Also, a random fan hypothesis: there is only one real candidate, and it’s Skitter. The idea is to push her to the breaking point, then take away everyone and everything she cares about, and then offer her membership, perhaps sweetening the deal by offering to help her rescue Dinah.

    Of course, she’d have to agree to some safeguards, courtesy of Bonesaw and Cherish.

    • That might be interesting in fanfiction, but I don’t think that it’s going to happen in story (or that it should).
      Jack would no longer be able to hold the team together if it were to happen and I don’t see Taylor becoming that sort of person.
      Skitter is a survivor. She does what she does because ideals/ people that she cares about are threatened. She can be gruesomely aggressive in protecting what’s important to her, but I don’t see her as taking pleasure in others’ misery, not even those of her worst enemies.
      There’s also a certain level of hubris required to belong to this gang: you have to honestly believe that you’re able to handle most if not every threat. Skitter, especially the part of her that is Taylor, is all too aware of her mortality.
      In other words, it’s her paranoia that’s keeping her alive, and she knows it.

      • You and your logic, character consistency, etc.. Stomps off to write a fanfic.

        In my defense, I never said that the plan would work, and if, by some twist of Wildbow, I turned out to have been correct, wouldn’t that be something?

        But, to continue the thought experiment, consider that, without the benefit of her internal dialogue, Skitter might look like a pretty good candidate for The Nine. Her power is creepy, and it can be used to cause suffering on massive scale. She appears to be casually ruthless even early in her career, and seems to be willing to inflict suffering—often unnecessary—on others, including humans. (E.g., with the first fight with Lung, what was a miscalculation on the part of Skitter might look like sadism to everyone else.) Her modus operandi inevitably involves mind-controlling and sacrificing living creatures—bugs, yes, but still—by the thousands. Her morality appears to be highly flexible: she joined a team in order to betray them, then chose to go along with them anyway.

        There is also some possible synergy between her power and Bonesaw’s. Bonesaw can make a lot of cybernetic spiders, but AI is outside the scope of her powers, as far as we know, at least, so she would not be able make a massive army of them and use it effectively. Skitter has been seen controlling swarms of millions. On the other hand, she has a lot of difficulty interpreting visual and auditory input from her bugs. Bonesaw might be able to fix that problem—either on the bugs or on Skitter. The synergy is not Panacea-grade, but it’s there.

        • True. She would make a wicked villain, especially combined with Bonesaw, just like you said.
          Can you imagine all of those bugs that she controls having cybernetic implants or chimeric mashups, courtesy of Bonesaw? I wonder how different the critter could be and still be controlled by Skitter? You could have flying scorpions, maybe silk worms that can spin spider silk (in real life, they’ve gotten goats to do that but that sounds too far-fetched), maybe armor-plated Giant Amazonian Centipedes.
          Sure, maybe they’re not teleporting zombies, but you’re sure to win with shear numbers.
          So, you going to write the fanfic? :)

          • Regarding the fanfic in question: No.

            Besides, like I said, the hypothesis makes what little sense it does mainly because The Nine are not omniscient, so they could, conceivably, have an Alternative Character Interpretation of Skitter. In fact, you’d think that Cherish could get a good idea of her character, but what if she scanned Skitter during the chapter where Skitter was torturing the invading Merchants while drinking tea in her lair?

            However, with what we know, the recruitment would almost certainly fail. (In fact, my original hypothesis — bringing in Dinah as an incentive — assumed too much knowledge on the part of the Nine, so I have to modify that.) So, any such fanfic would either have to make Taylor severely OOC or not lead to army of cybernetic spiders.

  10. I liked this chapter. Makes sense too lol. I kinda forgot that Grue can black out basically the entire city. I guess he’s kinda been up against people that can see through his darkness recently, which I’m sure is extremely annoying/frustrating for him.

    Interesting bit about Genesis and the wheelchair. One thing though, you didn’t really indicate how old she was, which would have been nice. Her power is fairly straightforward reasoning wise. “I’m paralyzed. I dream of being somebody else who can walk, etc…” Power kicks in, takes that longing, and cranks it up to 11.

    So, Skitter’s costume is fried, and she used up most of her materials on Mannequin, and most of her bugs are probably dead. Doubtful that there will be enough time to make a new one before round 3 too. I’m very curious about what she’s going to do there. Also, I can’t believe she hasn’t stopped by her dad’s yet. I get that she’s been busy, but he was in the hospital. Kinda sucks.

    Any chance of seeing Armsmaster again? I was honestly hoping either him or Hookwolf would show up and give Mannequin/Burnscar a thrashing.

    • If Armsmaster comes “out of retirement,” the next question is “why did you retire in the first place?” Since the answer to that is “I broke the Endbringer truce by letting a dozen people die, then outed a superhero in disguise as a villain in front of an entire hospital full of witnesses,” he probably won’t be showing up any time soon.

      • “Why did you retire in the first place?”

        “Spontaneous acute chronic anal leakage. But I got better.”

        “Will you be able to keep it together against the Slaughterhouse Nine?”

        “Depends.”

      • “Armsmaster” isn’t going to come out of retirement. He’s been a bad boy and is in timeout forever.

        With that out of the way I’d like to introduce our newest member, “Smarmaster”. Any resemblance to other heroes, living or douchey, is entirely coincidental.

  11. Hmm I am curious if Bitch reconciles with Taylor, wish they can down at least one of the Nine.
    Would really like to know how the revelation of dragons origin to armsmaster worked out
    and can not stop myself from heavily thinking in terms of powers.

    I mean even tough Panacea behaved like an ass last time we seen her, I still keep thinking of superbugs(though we probably would need a timejump for those to be completed in the story)
    I am also thinking if Taylors multitasking ability could not make her a powerful tinker by allowing parallel learning/studying and parallel brainstorming on design problems, as she is already a clever person with creative problem solving she fullfills the requirement.

    Also which of you other people have already thought of a powerset or character for the story?(A habit of mine always think of your own powerset).

    I already have two cause my first powerset worked greatly to solve panaceas early problem of overworking and would have done spectaculary in the endbringer fight, but was boring and ineffective on itself with the nine so I had to come up with something new.

    Also a pity that even though I made a character for the first powerset it would not work out, the birdcages security supervision was tighter than I thought and the mother of that chars powerset would be to similar to bonesaws.

    Am I rambling?

    • Rambling is good.

      I’ve thought of lots of powersets for the story! Wait, do I count?

      On the subject of tinkers, it’s a little more complicated than just having a sense for design. More on that later.

      • Wildbow’s habit of pairing ostensibly “conventional” superhero abilities with novel limitations, mechanisms, or quirks definitely is an interesting framework to think around in. I’ve come up with several interesting ones, but they’re only interesting in the sense that they’re interesting to me. I get a sense that there’s a pretty strong internal logic/metaphysics driving wildbow’s powerset designs, and I have no real way of knowing whether mine conform.

        My favorites thus far are:

        1) A “teleporter” who teleports by freezing time, moving, and then unfreezing time. She’d therefore be limited to teleporting to places she can get to by mundane means within the span of time granted by her power.

        2) A parahuman with the ability to anchor herself to any object she can see, fixing their relative positions. This would let her, say, hitch a ride with passing cars, arrest herself when in free fall, and all sorts of other interesting things.

        • The second one would work well. The first opens up a whole lot of issues though, as far as required secondary powers. Generally speaking, the limitations, mechanisms and quirks will offer more answers than questions. (I’m betting 10 of you will now point out powers where that’s not the case)

      • I’ve always seen tinkers as Mad Scientists, in one sense or another; they impose their own brand of physics to do things no one else can through sheer force of will, kinda like magic.

        • Sure, I think that’s the only reasonable way for “Mad Science” to work, as it’s usually depicted. But associating Tinkering with Mad Science doesn’t quite hold water for me. For one thing, there are all sorts of things that would fall out from the idea that natural law can ever just be straight-up abrogated or suspended like that, for any reason.

          I have no good reason for this, only hunches and intuition, but I have a feeling that in Wildbow’s universe, parahuman abilities aren’t violating natural law. Instead, they’re simply exploring a larger space of natural phenomena, of which all of “mundane” science is only a small subset. It just doesn’t seem in keeping with the style so far to throw in outright contravention of nature through force of human wills.

          • Then again, we have Tinkers specialising in areas which others cannot copy from them and the explanations we have been given really did speak of some ability to tap into a deeper sort of reality to make things work. Kid Win’s gun openly functions via troll logic, so either the rules are being broken or Tinkers can tap into some other set of rules that only their powers can access.

            It would make sense of why it’s so hard for mass production to occur, remember the person Kid Win described to Chariot? The one who makes data storage devices in certain numbers every year?

          • I always feel like I should applaud Catastronaut’s comments because he’s really very consistently on the mark. 90% accuracy, if not higher (he also came closest to guessing Coil’s power after the initial hints, IIRC).

            Anzer’ke and Catastronaut are thinking along the right lines here.

            The topic of ‘magic’ has come up before in Worm, but almost always in the same breath as “Is that just a power so complex/esoteric that we could explain it away as magic?”

          • To anzerke, I recall Bakuda’s thoughts on her bomb collar. Specifically, the elegance of the design and the fact that it was made to be put together by fools. I suspect that one of the tinker abilities is simply better craftsmanship.

          • It’s worth pointing out that there’s simply some things about the universe we don’t yet know. Very confusing things that mean something should act this way when instead it acts another way. We can work on it, but maybe there’s something intuitive about these tinkers in grasping notions that aren’t even recognized as existing yet by the non-Tinker scientific community.

            Or, to quote some instances of Discworld dwarfs doing some rules-lawyering: “Dwarf law bends but doesn’t break.”

            And we do see some interesting things about fundamental things in the universe bending, like in how time is affected by gravity, or how space can be affected by a black hole… *wanders into the workshop*

            ………

            *Floats out later on a giant chicken, controlling it via a chicken brain in a jar on a console, occasionally firing hot glazed donuts from the mouth*

            Now how did we end up here?

            • Tesla’s Ball Lightning?

              For those who don’t know the story: Nikola Tesla, the patron saint of mad science, produced ball lightning, a moving ball of electricity previously only reported in stories, inside his lab. No one has been able to replicate the feat since. He was able to do it, most guess, because he had an intuitive grasp of electrodynamics that nobody alive possesses.

  12. So, this is probably the wrong time to raise the topic, because it’s the point in the week when viewership is the lowest & the least people are checking in, but it’s been on my mind for a little while.

    There’s a storyline I really do want to tell, and I think the only way to do it would be to either tell it like I did the Wards’ interludes or to do it like I did the Nine’s interludes. Both have their problems.

    Doing it like I did the Wards and spacing it out over 2-3 weeks, I think, would bug some readers because it detracts from the main story. I don’t think I’d be leaving you guys with the same sort of cliffhanger, but yeah.

    Doing it like I did with the Nine, having X consecutive days of updates, by contrast, well, it’s rough on me. I usually write ~2k words a day, and keep two thirds of what I put on the page, the rest getting scrapped or rewritten. For comparison, I was writing around 7k words a day over the two weeks I was putting that interlude series together.

    What do you guys think about, say, a two hundred dollar donation benchmark with a week’s worth of daily updates if you hit the target? The target’s a ways off, and it would take place after the next arc, if not after the one immediately following that (that is, 1.5 to 2.5 arcs from now).

    If you’re not keen or if you don’t think you’d hit the mark, I could cut out stuff and reduce it down to a two-parter, maybe.

    Don’t want to seem greedy or like I’m extorting you guys for content – it’s just that the Nine’s series was hard as heck to get done, almost killed me, (and I was ok with that, as we were celebrating one year of Worm) and I don’t want to run into the same problems I did with the Sentinel Arc, where perhaps the appeal of the arc was hampered by the fact that you guys were itching to get back to Taylor.

    • I liked the week’s worth of updates, but why not do some kind of compromise? Bonus updates twice a week or so. Let’s you keep the main story going, and get the side story going too! Plus, I don’t know about you, but I feel refreshed when I’m writing if I switch between stories.
      Just an idea.

    • I’m pretty confident we could hit the mark, and I know from personal experience that even a labor of love can become a bit less laborious when a little filthy luchre is thrown into the mix.

      But as ever, I’ll put myself behind whatever decision wildbow comes to. It was probably time for me to donate again anyway; it’s been a while since I last donated, and I’ve been enjoying this far too much.

    • I’m broke so my words carry no donation weight, however for what it is worth I for one have no objections regarding length.

      At the end of the day you are incredibly prollific. Add regularity to that and frankly I have seen few to match you. Other then such Juggernauts as the author of Schlock Mercenary, heck most well published authors don;t crank out this much of this quality.

      So take as much time as you need, burning yourself out is bad and it’s not like Taylor’s story is the only interesting one. Most interesting perhaps, but not only.

  13. ” … started chain of events … ” needs article (a or the).

    The paragraph that minor edit issue appears in SO sums up Taylor’s warped sense of self.
    She doesn’t think that her having TWICE badly damaged and nearly defeated Mannequin means squat, yet she feels personally and solely responsible for the entire mess in Brockton Bay for the past few weeks (months? I’m losing MY grip on the time line). Like none of it would have gone down if she’d just sucked it up and stayed a bullied HS kid. The insecure, adolescent mind just cannot believe the universe doesn’t revolve around them somehow, whether positive or negative.
    Well portrayed, Wildbow!
    ~~~
    I do find her ability to keep running/ fighting despite major injuries, little food or sleep, etc. for days (?) now is getting a bit implausible. She should need a heck of a lot more than first aid. Like Panacea-level repairs.
    ~~~
    Re: don’t phone Bitch just now: ” … her ringer going off … ” — Nope, I don’t buy it. Capes don’t use silent/vibrate?!?!? Come on! Don’t distract makes sense, but that doesn’t.
    ~~~
    and, grave-digging from comments 18 months and halfway upthread ago — I’m sure glad somebody convinced you that this point WASN’T 2/3rd or more to “finished” with Worm! WAY too many players/ threads to expand on at this point, and I’m looking forward to SOME of them having good, or at least, satisfying, outcomes!

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