Crushed 24.2

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If I’d had any doubt it was Alexandria, it was banished when she followed up the attack.  Behemoth started to rise to his feet, and Alexandria struck.  It wasn’t a punch with a great deal of wind-up, and she only crossed fifty or sixty feet before driving it home, but the impact was undeniable.

Behemoth absorbed the blow, and redirected it into the ground.  He didn’t move, as though the blow had never struck home, but the ground around him shattered like the surface of a mirror.  Fragments of rock and clouds of dust flew up around him, and a three-story building on its last legs tumbled over.  The damage to the ground made him sink a fraction.

I could see the change in the Endbringer’s demeanor.  Before, he’d been wading forward, as if Legend, Eidolon and the metal suits were little more than a strong headwind.  He was moving with purpose now, with an opponent that was veering in and out of easy reach, one he could hit, without Legend’s speed or Eidolon’s personal shield.

She had told me that they knew how to fight each other, and I could see that at play, here.  Part of the change in Behemoth’s approach might have been that interaction at play.

It was a fight involving four individuals who couldn’t hope to do substantial damage to their opponents.  The dragon suits and other capes were a peripheral thing.  Alexandria circled, just beyond the perimeter of Behemoth’s kill range, her teammates and their supporting cast bombarding him in the meantime.  They destroying the ground beneath his feet, trying to get him when his focus was elsewhere and his ability to redirect the energies of a given attack was reduced.

He couldn’t keep her in mind at all times.  She waited until he focused on a different combatant, heaving out lightning or creating flame to attack the ones in the air, and then she struck.  Nine times, he simply deflected the strike into the ground, as a rumble and a series of spiderwebbing cracks in the streets, or into the air as a shockwave.  Again and again, he came within a heartbeat of getting his hands on her in retaliation, not even flinching as she struck him, reacting with an unnatural quickness as he reached out, to try to pin her using his claws, to strike her into the ground or to time the collapses of buildings to briefly bury her, so he could close the distance.

The times her strikes did get past his defenses, her tiny form in the distance with the black cape trailing behind her lunging into his kill range to deliver a blow or a series of blows, Behemoth stumbled, caught briefly at the mercy of physics.

In a fashion, she was doing the same thing the lightning rod had been, buying all of the rest of us a small reprieve.  There was no guarantee, and there wouldn’t be any until he was driven off or we moved a hundred miles away, but she was making the rest of this just a little easier, reducing the destruction just a fraction unless he specifically took the time to work around her.

Was she being more cautious than she needed to be?  I saw her pass up on a handful of opportunities I might have taken in her shoes, when his back was turned, his attention sufficiently occupied.  Was she aware of something I wasn’t?  Was she a convincing fake?  Or was she just a little more afraid, after what my bugs had done to her?

However effective the distractions, he was still Behemoth, still implacable, a living tank that could roll over any obstacle and virtually any individual, unleashing an endless barrage of artillery at range.  He reached the lightning rod and shoved it to the ground.

I was reminded of my teammates, descended to the ground, where they were still getting sorted.  The chains that led from the dogs to the harness had tangled.

“What the hell was that?”  Tecton asked.

“Alexandria,” I said.

“You murdered Alexandria,” Regent commented.  “Remember?  You’re a horrible person, doing things like that.”

“You leave her alone!”  Imp said, uncharacteristically.  “She feels so bad she’s seeing things.”

“Can we try to stay serious?”

“Don’t be too hard on them,” Tecton said.  “Some people use humor to deal with bad situations.”

“It’s true,” Regent said, affecting a knowing tone.

“No,” Grue responded.  “They’re just idiots.  You two keep your mouths shut.  The adults are talking.”

Imp raised her middle fingers at him.

He turned to me, “It’s Alexandria?  You’re sure?”

“Can you ever be sure of anything?  Clones, alternate realities, healing abilities… there’s any number of possibilities.”

In the distance, a glowing orange sphere flew into the sky.  It reached a peak, then descended, crashing into the distant skyline.

I reoriented myself and flew up to the edge of the roof to peek at the battle.  Behemoth had melted down part of the metal arm and fashioned the melted metal into a superheated lump.  A second lump, cooler and not yet fabricated into an aerodynamic shape, was sitting beside him.  Alexandria tried to strike it away, but he caught it with one claw.  He superheated it, shielding it from Legend and Eidolon’s fire with his body, then heaved it into the air.  The projectile flared intensely as it left his kill range, following nearly the same path as before.

Lasers from capes in the distance sliced the second sphere into shreds before it could strike its intended target.

Grue tugged the chain.  He looked at Rachel, who only nodded.

And we were moving again.

I returned to my recon position, scouting to ensure the way was clear, keeping an eye on the fight and ensuring that there weren’t any attacks coming our way.

Behemoth was glowing, his gray skin tending more towards white, a stark contrast to his obsidian horns and claws.  The heroes were backing off a measure, and Behemoth was taking advantage of the situation to stampede forward, tearing past buildings and barricades.

“Grue!”  I shouted.  The noise in the distance was getting worse.  If Behemoth was continuing the path I’d seen him traveling, he was wading through a series of buildings.  Grue didn’t hear me.  I raised my voice, waited until the noise died down, “Radiation!  Use darkness!”

He did, and we were cloaked in it.  I continued navigating, using my bugs this time.  Only a small handful ventured forward at a time, checking for fires.  I was flying blind, scouting without the ability to see.

It delayed me when a fire did present itself, and I was delayed even further when I faced the issue of trying to communicate it to the team.

“Fire!” I shouted.  I knew he could hear me through the darkness, but he couldn’t hear me over the sounds of toppled buildings.  I was no doubt drowned out by the sound of the sled scraping against the road, the crashes in the background and the rushing of the wind.

I changed direction, aiming for the sleds, and flew forward.  A little off target.  Didn’t want to knock someone off the sled.  I made a slight adjustment with the antigrav, and landed on the front edge of the sled, between Grue and Rachel.  Grue very nearly let go in his surprise, and I caught the back of his neck to keep him from falling off the sled.

He left the darkness to either side of us intact and created a corridor.

“Fire!” I said, the instant I was able.  “Just over that hill!  Go left!”

He cleared more darkness, and we turned sharply enough that the sleds swung out wide.  I held on to the lip of the sled, but I let myself slide back, using the antigrav pack to keep myself from falling to the road.

The sudden movement had shifted the occupants.  The design of the sled made it difficult for anyone to fall out, but they’d slumped against one side, and one man was hanging halfway out.  With only one usable arm, he wasn’t able to maintain a grip.

The sled went over a series of bumps, and I reached him just in time to give him the support he needed, one hand and both feet on the lip of the sled, the other hand holding him.

Once they were on course, I helped ease him down to a better position.

He said something that I couldn’t understand, his words breathless.

I took off.

A shockwave ripped past us, harsher, briefer and more intense than a strong wind, not quite the organ-pulverizing impact it might be if Behemoth were closer, or if there were less buildings in the way.  I ventured up to a rooftop where I might be able to see beyond the darkness.

The shockwave had parted the clouds of smoke, but they began to close together once again.  I could make out a form, maybe one of the Indian capes, swiftly growing.  Ethereal, translucent, his features vague, the light he emitted only barely cutting through the smoke cover.  He slammed hands into Behemoth’s face and chest.

Behemoth parted his hands, then swung them together.  I didn’t wait for them to make contact.  I ducked behind cover before the shockwave could hit me directly.  All around me, the smoke was dashed out of the sky by the impact’s reach.  With the front of my body hugging the building, I could feel not only the shockwave, but the vibrations that followed it, as buildings fell and debris settled in new locations.

He delivered shockwave after shockwave, and I was forced to abandon the cover of the building for something a little more distant.

He wasn’t irradiated any more.  Or, at least, the glow wasn’t there.  He’d been buying himself a reprieve from the assault of the heroes, a chance to cover more ground.  Now they had resumed the counter-offensive.  The noises of the fight followed me as I got ahead of the Undersiders.

Another obstacle.  A crowd, this time.

I landed on the sled once more and ordered a stop.  It took a second for the dogs to slow down enough.

Locals stood in our way.  Some had guns.  They ranged the gamut from people a step above homelessness to businessmen.

“Leader?” one asked, his voice badly accented.  He was younger, very working class, which surprised me.  I’d anticipated that someone older and more respectable would be taking charge.

“Me,” I said, using a small boost from the flight pack to get ahead of the group.

“Stealing?” he asked me, his voice hard.

“No.  Injured.”

He gestured towards the sled, taking a half-step forward.  I nodded.

I didn’t like wasting time, but I was hoping he’d give the a-okay and the group would get out of our way.  I watched as he studied the people lying in the sled.

“We take,” he said.  “We have doctor, hiding place.  You go fight, help.  Is your duty.”

I could sense a group approaching from Behemoth’s general direction.  Two women in evening gowns, a girl in a frock, another girl in costume.

No time to dwell on decisions.  I asked the man, “You sure?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Cuff, Annex, kill the chains.  Leave sleds behind.  Wards, stay with me.  Grue, I’ll direct you guys to the Ambassadors.  Take the dogs.  Leave us some darkness for cover so we’re safe from any more radiation.”

It took only a few seconds to get organized.  By the time the Undersiders had departed, we had a team of people pulling the sleds.

Message from Defiant,” my armband declared.  “Alexandria confirmed gone from PRT custody.

“Fuck,” I muttered.

“Message from Defiant.  Stay out of her way until we know more.  Behemoth’s approaching the first perimeter.  I will keep you posted.

“Tell him thank you.”

“It’s a good thing,” Grace said.  “Maybe not in the long run, but for now-“

“For now it’s an unknown factor,” I said.  “And there’s one really big known factor that’s tearing through this city, and we should be devoting all our attention to it.  To Behemoth”

“We can focus on both,” Tecton said.

“That’s how you get blindsided,” I told him.  I hauled on the chain, and the sled moved.  Cuff seemed to be doing the lion’s share of the work, standing between the sleds and ushering them forward.  Though it screwed up the direction the sleds were facing, making them veer left or right, it gave us enough momentum that we only needed to work on keeping it going.

We reached a squat building with signs featuring unintelligible writing and cars.  Some hurried forward and opened a garage door, and we kept the sleds on course to lead them inside.

Their ‘hiding place’ was an underground corridor, leading beneath and between two hoists for the cars.  Annex had to reshape the sled to fit, and we found ourselves on a general downward incline.  People shifted position to the sides of the sled to keep it from getting away from us and running over the people in front.

I saw the man who’d done the talking glance down at the wounded.  His eyes caught the light in a way that reminded me of a dog, or a cat.

Capes.  At least some of these guys are capes, I thought.  The ‘cold’ capes, the underworld’s locals.

It was an ominous realization, as we descended, to know that we were outnumbered by parahumans I knew nothing about, with unknown motives.

The armband’s crackling was getting steadily worse.  “Message from Grue.  Rendezvous is fine.  On way to your location.

“Message received,” I replied.

Message from Grue…

The voice devolved into crackling.

Too much ambient electromagnetic radiation, and the amount of ground that was between us and Grue probably didn’t help.

It was hard to gauge how deep we were getting.  We reached a point where a fissure made moving the sleds more difficult, but Annex, Tecton and Golem shored it up in moments.

We descended deep enough that I wasn’t able to access the surface with my bugs, then deeper still.

The more isolated we were, the more ominous the uncostumed capes around us seemed to become.  My bugs followed us down the corridor, just far enough back that the ‘cold’ parahumans couldn’t see them, close enough to help.

“This tunnel was made by a cape,” Tecton said.

Don’t bring it up, I thought, suppressing the urge to react.

“No,” the man with the eyes said.  He didn’t turn our way.

I reached out and touched Tecton’s arm.  He, naturally, didn’t feel the contact through his heavy armor.  Tecton continued, “I’m pretty s-“

My nudge became a shove as I moved his arm enough to get his attention.  He looked at me, and I shook my head.  Tecton didn’t finish the sentence.

“Oh so pretty,” Wanton offered.

“Don’t you start,” Tecton said.  “The Undersiders are bad enough.”

I could see the Wards change in demeanor as we descended well beneath the city.  Tecton’s head was turning now, scanning the people around us.  Wanton hunched over, as if the surroundings were weighing on him, a pressure from above.  Cuff had her arms folded, hugging her body, a defensive wall, however meager, against an attacker from above, and both Annex and Grace had gravitated closer to other team members, as if unconsciously adopting a loose formation.

Golem, odd as it was, seemed to fall more in line with Tecton and I, watching the surroundings, eyeing the strangers who accompanied us.  It wasn’t that he wasn’t afraid; everything else about him suggested he was.  It was more that he was wary in a natural, practiced way.

How had he picked that up?  He was supposed to be a rookie.

I held my tongue and used my bugs to scan the surroundings.

The area opened up into an underground living space, crowded with weary and scared people.  It was dim, with lights alternating between floor and ceiling positions, tight corridors with what seemed to be tiny apartments carved out of the rock.  My prison cell had more space than these quarters.  At least there was room to stand straight up in the jail.  These rooms were stacked on top of one another, two high.

But it was space nonetheless.

“Is it stable?” I asked Tecton.

“I can’t see enough to tell,” he said.  “Maybe?  Probably?”

“I don’t know if I can leave people here if it’s a deathtrap,” I said, as I eyed the people emerging from the rooms.

“Pretty risky up there,” Wanton said.

Up there there’s a chance.  I was counting hundreds or thousands down here.  My bugs could sense corridors, and I was left wondering if this was only one area of many.

Some of the residents stepped forward to help, hands on weapons or simply watching us, undecided on whether we were threats or not.

The leader, who I was mentally labeling ‘Cat’s Eyes’, said something, and they relaxed a fraction.  He said something else, and they started helping the wounded.  None used or displayed any overt powers.

“Done,” Cat’s Eyes said.  “You go.  Fight.”

Defiant had said we needed their assistance.  “We need your help.  You and any of the others with powers.”

He narrowed his eyes.  Except that wasn’t the sum total of the change in his expression.  His face hardened, drew tighter, high cheekbones somehow more prominent in the dim, lips pressed together.  “No.”

“No?”

“Not our duty.  Yours.”

“It’s everyone’s duty.”

“We handle enemy you don’t see, you costumes help enemies above ground.  Scare Prathama away.”

Like it’s that easy.  “We need your help.  Everyone’s help.”

“No.  We show ourselves, and all ends badly.  We fight subtle war.  Better to lose today and fight subtle war tomorrow.”

Better to let Behemoth win than to show themselves and lose whatever edge they hold against their current enemies?

“You see me, I am done.  Finished.  You see all of us, they are done.  No.”

Maybe India had its own share of capes, on the same scale as the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Cleverer capes who worked in the background.

Or maybe they were just deluded, too set in their ways, afraid to fight and searching for excuses.

“Go.  Defeat him,” he told me.

Grue was waiting.  Or Grue was coming down here, maybe, with Rachel and the others.  If they saw him, an intruder without invitation, would they act?

“Okay,” I said.  “We need a vehicle if, um…”

I trailed off as I mentally registered what my bugs were sensing.

A rush of cool, air-conditioned air in a space that had no right to have any, off to one side, the appearance of a person where there shouldn’t be any.

“Weaver?”

I’d stopped talking, my attention caught by this visitor.  She was close.  All of the details matched the person I’d sensed inside the Kulshedra.  The clothes, the hair, the dimensions, even the way she moved.

Purposeful, unhurried.

“It’s her.  The one who took Pretender.”

Everyone, myself included, tensed as she approached.  The foreign capes did it because she was an unknown variable.  The Wards and I did it because she was a known threat.

She was older, but not old.  Maybe my dad’s age, maybe a little younger.  Pretty, in a very natural way.  She didn’t wear any obvious makeup, and her black hair was somewhere between wavy and curly, a little longer than shoulder length.  Her features French or Italian, if I had to guess.  She wore only a simple black suit that had been tailored to fit her body, with a narrow black tie and a white dress shirt.  What got me were the eyes.  There was no kindness in them.

She spoke, but she spoke in a foreign language, and it wasn’t to me.

Cat’s Eyes hesitated, then gave her a reply.

“Who the hell are you?” I asked the woman.

She glanced at me, and her gaze went right through me, as if I were barely there.  She turned her attention back to Cat’s Eyes, said something else.

His eyes widened.

“You work for Cauldron,” I said.

“Maybe we shouldn’t taunt the bogeyman,” Wanton chimed in.

“Bogeyman?” Cuff asked.

“She’s a hitman,” I said.  “Takes out anyone asking too many questions about Cauldron.  Or she was.  Apparently she’s gone after a lot of powerful capes, walked away without a hitch.”

My bugs gathered.  I could see the underground capes reacting, preparing for a fight.

“No,” Tecton said, “The truce.”

“I don’t think she gives a damn about the truce,” I answered.

“Until she breaks it, we don’t break it.”

I didn’t take my eyes off her as I murmured, “Fun fact about life or death fights between capes.  You start letting your enemies make the first move, your mortality rate triples.”

“I gave the go-ahead for you to be acting leader,” Tecton said.  “Cool.  Lightning rod was fantastic.  But if we start a fight here and shit goes down, my ass is on the line too.”

“You’re vetoing my order?”

“You haven’t given an order yet, and no.  You’ve fought her, I haven’t.  But I’m advising you here.  Back off.  She hasn’t done anything aggressive.”

She will,” I said.

“Maybe,” he said.  “It’s your call.”

I didn’t give an order.  I watched instead.

She was speaking to Cat’s Eyes in a low voice.  He was nodding unconsciously as she spoke.

Then she met my eyes.

“Who the hell are you?”  I asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” she said.  “Go, Weaver.  Take your team.  We have no business with you anymore.”

Anymore?”

She only stared at me in response.

Damn, being on the receiving end of that stare was like being opposite Alexandria or Faultline in a bad mood.  I was starting to settle on the idea of her being a thinker.

She looked at Cat’s Eye, “It’s time.  Tell them not to be afraid, and this will go smoothly.  Tell them to pass on the message so everyone hears.”

He nodded, then called something out in another language.  Others took up the call.

“Hold on,” I said, raising my voice.

They didn’t listen.  Why would they?  I barely had any clout.  The bugs around me were minor, all things considered.

I brought them closer, so they gathered at my feet.  She didn’t even flinch.

One by one, portals appeared, rectangular doorways that were so bright they were painful to look at.  The smell of flowers, fresh air and nature flooded into the underground.  Every pathway and every available surface soon had one.  Nearly a dozen in my field of view alone.  My bugs could sense two dozen more in my range.

“No!” I called out, once I realized what was happening.  I thought of what the Eidolon clone had said, about them experimenting on people, kidnapping people from alternate worlds.  “You can’t trust her!”

But the people here were scared.  Once the first few people tentatively made their way through, they ran for safety, running out into the open field, disappearing behind tall wild grass.

Cat’s Eye turned to leave.

I reached for him, to grab his wrist before he could disappear.

The woman in the suit deftly deflected my hand, batting it aside.

“What the hell is Cauldron doing?  Do you want to start a war?”

She shook her head.  “No war.  But we need soldiers.”

That was all the confirmation I needed.

“Wards!” I called out.  My bugs and my Wards converged on her.

It mattered surprisingly little.  She stepped away from me, which I took as an excuse to close the distance.  If she wanted to get away, I’d get closer.  I worked to close the distance, using both the flight pack and my own two feet to draw in.  She stepped back out of the way, just out of reach of my strikes.

She swept her hands by the sides of her belt, and she was suddenly armed, if I counted a stiletto knife no longer than my finger and a handkerchief as weapons.

In the moment my swarm drew close, she stabbed the knife into a wall-mounted fire extinguisher.  The pressurized contents spewed out in a plume, collecting on my bugs and blocking their path.  It disabled the largest ones and killed the smallest, eliminating a good ninety percent of the bugs I had in reach in an instant.  I was forced to back off, so I didn’t get the spray across my lenses or the fabric at my mouth.

She’d managed to avoid getting dirty, even.  I watched her from the other side of the spraying canister.  The direction of the plume and the hand with the handkerchief left her virtually untouched as Tecton drew close.  She danced back out of reach of his attack as he plowed past the spray.  Wanton had transitioned to the form of a localized telekinetic storm, and Annex had slipped into the ground, closing the distance to her.

If she was a thinker, someone relying on craftiness to win a fight, then I’d turn it into the kind of fight she didn’t want to participate in.  Tecton had power armor, Grace had super strength and Cuff had her metallokinesis.

I cranked up the flight suit and charged.  It was reckless, and it was hopefully the last thing she’d expect.  The goal was simple.  Close to melee, keep her occupied long enough for someone to trap her.  With that done, we’d call each of the people she’d just contacted and bring them back to safety.

Assuming she was someone along the lines of Victor or Über, a combat-oriented thinker, she’d try to do something like a Judo throw, redirecting my forward momentum to toss me to the ground.  I countered that particular maneuver by bringing myself to an almost complete stop before she could grab me, slipping to one side as Tecton closed the distance.

He punched, and she stepped back.  He extended the piledriver, a second punch without an instant of warning, and she evaded to one side.

A precog?

I wasn’t even finished the thought when she stepped around to Tecton’s side.  He tried to body-check her, but she had a hand up to rest on his side, using the contact to brace herself, to push against him and leverage herself away.  She crossed one leg over the other to maintain an upright position, then brought herself into arm’s reach of me.

Bugs exploded from the interior of my costume.  Spiders, hornets, wasps and beetles.  The only parts of her that weren’t covered by the suit were her head and hands.  The hands were clasped behind her back before the swarm reached her.  A sharp toss of her hair swept them out of her way as she invaded my personal space.

Her hands, protected from my bugs by the simple obstacle of her torso, reached out, avoiding the worst of my swarm.  One caught the concealed flap of my mask, where it overlapped the neck of my costume, and pulled it down.  The other pressed the tip of the stiletto knife to my jugular.

My team, just a moment behind me and Tecton in their intent to engage her, froze.

Fuck me, I had ten thousand bugs here, easy.  How had I not found an opportunity to even bite or sting her?

“Wards, back off,” she said.  “Grace, Cuff, I want you out of sight, or Weaver bleeds.”

The two girls looked at me, and I nodded.  They backed away and stepped around the corners.

“Send your bugs away,” she ordered me.

I started to open my mouth to protest, but she cut me off.  “No tricks.  You have two seconds.”

Something about the fact that she was a known killer and her no-nonsense tone suggested she really was going to follow through.  I banished the bugs.

“The hell is she?” Wanton muttered.

“She’s a precog,” I said, “Something in that vein.”

The woman didn’t respond.  The knife shifted locations, no longer touching my bare throat.

Was she distracted?  I controlled the insect-like limbs on my flight pack.  They were simple, weak, but they were also weapons.  The end of the claw stabbed for her face, for the general region of her right eye.

She turned her head, and it grazed harmlessly against her temple.  The blade of her knife turned around, and she caught it in the hinge of one mechanical arm.

I pulled away, but the knife being wedged in the gap of the joint gave her a measure of leverage over the mechanical arm.  She twisted it as though she were wrenching my arm behind my back.  The arm didn’t give any, and I was forced to bend over a fraction.

Golem reached out from one wall, trying to seize her hair or neck, but she used me as a body shield, blocking the reaching hand.  Annex struck from below, attempting to ensnare her feet, but she threw me down into the reaching tendrils.  In the process, she got ahold of my wrist, twisting it much as she had the mechanical arm.

“Coordinate!” I said, my voice tight.  I activated the thrusters on my flight pack in an attempt to tear way, but she wrenched me to one side, tilting my upper body while using one leg to block my lower body from following suit.  The end result was that the thruster only pushed me into the wall.  I managed to avoid slamming my head against the surface, but I was now pinned against a solid surface.  She still had my wrist behind my back.

Dodge this, I thought.  I commanded my bugs to attack from every direction.

The Wards were taking my order seriously, attacking simultaneously.  Annex was looming, a spectre in the ground, raising up to try to engulf her, Golem was beside a wall, already reaching into it, and Tecton was kneeling, pressing his gauntlets against the ground.  Cuff and Grace had heard my order, and were stepping into view, advancing from behind the others.

The woman laid her free hand over the hand she was twisting behind my back.  Then she pressed my own fingers down into my palm, hard.

The control mechanism, I thought.  Too late.  My bug was already moving towards the off switch when the thruster kicked in.  She swept my feet out from under me, and the thruster drove me into the ground.  The bug touched the off switch, but the impact had locked up the controls.

I hit Annex on my way down, buying the woman time to step back out of his reach.  The bug managed to turn off the thruster, but I was already sliding across the floor, right through the lower half of Wanton’s telekinetic storm body and straight into Tecton’s gauntlets.

The piledrivers fired into the ground a fraction of a second after I bumped into the gloves.  He’d likely aimed to place an effect directly beneath her, but my collision with the gloves had knocked his aim off by a fraction.  It was directed into a wall, creating a crack ten feet high.

The crack, in turn, summarily severed Golem’s outstretched hand of granite.

The woman pulled her suit jacket off and held it out, sweeping it through the air to catch the thickest collection of my swarm within.  She folded it closed, simultaneously breaking into stride, heading right for Wanton.  Grace and Cuff were just behind him, with Tecton directly behind them, and Golem and I off to one side.  Annex was still pulling his spacial-distortion body together into something more useful.

“Stand down, Wards!” I called out, before Wanton could make contact with her.  I was still pulling myself up off the ground.

The woman slowed her pace, coming to a stop.  Wanton materialized a few feet in front of her, swiftly backing away.  I dismissed the bugs that were closing in to attack.

“This goes any further, she’s going to stop going easy on us and she’ll murder someone, maybe murder all of us,” I said, not taking my eyes off her.  “Because it’s the only way she’d be able to stop the bugs from surrounding her, the only way to really stop Wanton once he closes the distance.”

She didn’t speak.

“What the hell are you?” I asked.  “What’s your power?”

She gave me a look, up and down, and then settled her eyes on mine.  Throughout the entire fight, she’d looked unconcerned.  She wasn’t even breathing hard.  Except for a fleck of foam from the extinguisher here and there on the bottom of her pants leg and at the very end of her shirtsleeve, she wasn’t even particularly dirty.

She spoke, “I win.”

“I gathered that much,” I said.

“What I mean is that I can see the paths to victory.  I can carry them out without fail.”

I felt my heart skip a beat at that.  She’d volunteered an actual answer?

“The fuck?” Grace asked.

“She’s lying,” Wanton said.  “That’s ridiculous.  It’s not even close to fair.”

Powers aren’t necessarily fair, I thought.

“It doesn’t matter,” the woman said.  “What matters is that there are other enemies you should be fighting.”

“Enemies, plural?” I asked.

“We’re approaching an endgame.  The end of the world, the sundering of the Protectorate.  Most of the major players know this, and the truce has effectively dissolved in every respect but the official one.  Those in positions of power are making plays.  Now.  Today.”

“And Alexandria showing up, that’s a part of that?”  I asked.  “Someone’s ploy?”

“Yes.”

“Cauldron’s or someone else’s?”

“Yes,” she said.  A noncommittal answer.

“And you’re telling us this why?” I asked.

“That should be obvious.”

“Okay,” I said.  I wasn’t sure it was that obvious.  “Just two questions, then.  Those people you just took-“

“Are gone,” she said.

Gone.  And there wasn’t a thing I could do to change that.  I was almost certain I couldn’t beat her, and I couldn’t utilize whatever it was that was managing the portals to get access to them.  At most, I could survive long enough to report this to someone who could.

“Gone temporarily or gone permanently?” Tecton asked.

“I don’t expect anyone on this Earth will see them again, barring an exceptional success on our end.”

“You can’t use your power to get those successes automatically, huh?” I asked.

She didn’t venture an answer.

“Right, that wasn’t my second question.  What I want to know is why the hell you haven’t used a power like yours to figure out how to beat the Endbringers.”

“My power is a form of precognition,” she said.  “Unlike most such powers, other precognitive abilities do not confuse it.  That said, there are certain individuals it does not work against, the Endbringers included.”

“Why?” Tecton asked.

“No way to know for sure,” she said, “But we have theories.  The first is that they have a built-in immunity, something their origins granted them.”

“And the other theories?” Golem ventured.  “What’s the next one?”

The woman didn’t respond.

I suspected I knew what the answer was, but declined to speak of it.  It would do more harm than good.

“So you’re blind here, useless,” Grace said, a touch bitter.

The woman shook her head.  “No.  I can consider a hypothetical scenario, and my power will provide the actions needed to resolve it.”

“And?”

“And we are doing just that,” she said.  “Doorway, please.”

She wasn’t speaking to us.  Another gate opened behind her, and it wasn’t to that sunny field with the tall grass.  There was only a hallway with white walls and white floors, a cool rush of air-conditioned air touching our faces.

“Doing just what, exactly?”  Tecton called out after her.

She turned back to us, but she didn’t respond.  The portal closed, top to bottom.

“Vehicles,” I said, the instant she was gone.  “I can sense some at the end of that path.  It’s the fastest way back up that ramp.  Go, go!”

Things had gotten worse in the thirty minutes we’d been gone.  Whole tracts of New Delhi had been leveled, and where the buildings had been tall and mostly intact while we collected the injured and met the ‘cold’ India capes, only half of them stood even a story tall now.  The other half?  Utterly leveled.

It was a small grace that the fires had burned intensely enough that they’d exhausted the possible fuel, and the smoke was mostly gone, but that wasn’t saying much.  I couldn’t take a deep breath without feeling like I needed to cough.  Ozone and smoke were thick in the air, and the residual charge in the air was making my hair stand on end.

The Endbringer’s path of destruction had continued more or less in one general direction, but beyond that, the damage was indiscriminate, indeterminate.  Behemoth’s location, in contrast, was very clear.  A pillar of darkness extended from the ground to the sky.  Plumes of smoke and streaks of lightning slipped through the darkness on occasion.

The Chicago Wards rode bikes that were somewhere between a scooter and a motorcycle in design.  The vehicles might have been indistinguishable from normal road vehicles, but Tecton had quickly discovered that they had some other features.  There were gyros that allowed them to tilt without allowing them to fall, and the engines were electric, with only the option of a generated sound, to appear normal.

Near-silent, the Wards zipped down the streets, zig-zagging past piles of rubble and fissures.   I flew above the group.

“Armband,” I said, touching the button.  “Status update.”

The ensuing reply was too distorted to make out.

Grue had gone ahead, though he’d no doubt had information on our whereabouts.  Bitch’s dogs probably could have sniffed us out.  He’d gone ahead.  Why?

“Armband,” I said, still holding the button, “Repeat.”

I thought there might have been an improvement, as we got closer, but it was miniscule enough that I might have been imagining it.

I dropped down, settling on the back of Wanton’s bike.  The wings were already tucked away, to minimize damage from the electromagnetic radiation, but I didn’t want to push my luck further.

We passed a cluster of dead capes, alongside a series of massive gun turrets that had been mounted on hills and rooftops.  The heroes had made a stand here, or it had been one defensive line of many.  A number had died.

Had it been foolish to descend to the cold cape’s undercity?  Should I have told them to take the wounded beneath, damn the consequences, so we could have helped more?

I hadn’t thought it would take as long as it had, hadn’t anticipated a fight with the woman in the suit.

I hoped I wouldn’t regret this, that the absence hadn’t cost our side something.  We weren’t the most powerful capes in the world, but maybe we could have made a small difference here or there.

I’d learned things, but did that count for anything in the now, with tens, hundreds or thousands of individuals dying where they might have lived if we’d stayed?  Another lightning rod?  Something to slow him down and give them a precious extra second to form a defensive line?

The second defensive line, another collection of the dead.  Whatever method they’d tried here, there was no trace left now.

We were getting closer.

The third perimeter.  A giant robot, in ruins.  As many dead here as there had been at the last two points, all put together.

And just beyond this point, Behemoth, in the flesh.  He glowed white, marking the radioactive glow, and Grue’s darkness wreathed him, containing it.  The ground beneath Behemoth was tinted gold, vaguely reflective, and geometric shapes were floating in the air, exploding violently when he came in contact with them.

With all of the obstacles he’d faced to this point, he looked less hurt than his younger brother had for his one-on-one fight with Armsmaster.  He didn’t limp, or slouch, his limbs were intact, his capabilities undiminished.  The tears and rents in his flesh and the gaping wounds here and there didn’t seem to have slowed him down in the slightest.

And with that, he managed to fight his way forward, out of Grue’s darkness, striking out with bolts of lightning.  Forcefields went up to protect the defensive line, but only half of them withstood the intensity of the strikes.

“Armband,” I said, and there was a note of horrified awe to my voice, “Status update.”

The A.I.’s voice crackled, but Grue’s darkness might have been suppressing the electrical charge, because it was intelligible.  “Chevalier is out of action, Rime is present commanding cape for field duty.  Legend is out of commission.  Capes are to assist defensive lines and fall back when call is given.  Earliest possible Scion intervention is twenty-two point eight minutes from the present time, estimated Scion intervention is sixty-five minutes from present time, plus or minus eighteen minutes.

I clenched my jaw.  I’d committed to doing something, but I had no idea what that could be.

I felt a sick feeling in my gut.

“Armband, status of Tattletale?”

Out of commission.

By all rights, I should have reacted, cried out, declared something.  I only felt numb.  This was falling apart too quickly.

“Status of the other Undersiders?”

Two injured.  Parian and Grue.”

Which would be why Grue wasn’t replenishing his darkness.  I closed my eyes for a second, trying to find my center, feeling so numb I wasn’t sure it was possible.

Citrine’s effect seemed to be maximizing the effects of Alexandria’s attacks, because Behemoth wasn’t able to channel them into the ground.

He swung his head in my general direction, and I could see the steel of Flechette’s arrows in the ball of his eye, clustered.  Holes marked the point where the bolts had simply penetrated.

Other capes had managed varying degrees of damage.  The Yàngbǎn had formed a defensive squadron, using lasers to cut deep into Behemoth’s wounds, and other capes clustered close to them, adding to the focused assault.

And yet he advanced.  Inevitable.

A blast of flame caught the defending capes off guard.  Their forcefields and walls of stone blocked the flame from reaching the capes, but did nothing to stop it from spreading as it set fire to nearby buildings, grass and the stumps of trees that had been freshly cut, if the sawdust was any indication.

As if alive, the fires reached forward, extended to nearby flammable surfaces, and cut off a formation.  They started to clear the way for retreat, and Behemoth punished them with a series of lightning strikes.

Golem was already acting, bringing stone hands up to block Behemoth’s legs, two hands at a time.  Tecton moved forward, striking the earth with his piledrivers.  Fissures raced across the road, breaks to keep any impacts from reaching too far.

“Antlion pit!” I shouted.

“Right!” Tecton reported.

And my team was engaging, finding the roles they needed to play.  Grace, Cuff and I couldn’t do much, but there were more wounded needing help getting out of the area.  Annex began reshaping the ground and walls to provide better cover.  Wanton cleared away debris from footpaths.

This particular front hinged on one cape, a foreign cape who was creating the exploding, airborne polygons.  I could see, now, how each explosion was serving to slow time in the area around the blast.  Had he actually been the inspiration for that particular bomb Bakuda had made?

Eidolon had added his own abilities to the fray.  He had adopted something similar to Alexandria’s powerset, fighting in melee, ducking in only long enough to deliver a blow, then backing away before Behemoth’s kill aura could roast him from the inside.  Eidolon was using another power as well, one I’d seen him deploy against Echidna.  A slowing bubble.

Cumulative effects.  Cumulative slowing.  Each explosion added to the effect, and Eidolon’s slowing bubble was a general factor to help them along.  What did it really do if you tried to walk forward, and the upper half of your leg moved faster in time than the bottom half?  How much strain did that create?  Was there a point where the leg would simply sever?

If there was, Behemoth hadn’t quite reached that point.  Either way, it seemed to be a factor in how slow Behemoth was moving.  He was getting bogged down.  Bogged down further as one foot dipped into Tecton’s antlion pit.

Until the Endbringer struck out, targeting one group of capes with a series of lightning strikes so intense that I was momentarily left breathless.

And the explosive polygons disappeared.

He lurched forward, and even a direct hit from Alexandria wasn’t quite enough to stop him.  The shockwave dissipated into the air, rather than the ground, and flying capes throughout the skies were driven back.

The Endbringer broke into a run, insofar as he could run, and nobody was quite in position to bar his way.  He ignored capes and struck out across the area behind them, hitting a building with two massive guns on it, a clearing, a rooftop with what looked like a tesla coil.  Fire, lightning, and concussive waves tore through the defensive measures before they could be called into effect.

We don’t have the organization.  Our command structure is downTattletale is gone, either dead or too hurt to fight.

He struck one area with lightning, and explosives detonated.  A massive forcefield went up a moment after they triggered, and the explosion was contained within, a cumulative effect that soared skyward.

For a solid twenty, thirty seconds, the sky was on fire, and the Endbringer tore through our defenses, making his way to a building with capes clustered on the roofs.  They weren’t, at a glance, our offensive capes.  They were our thinkers, our tinkers, the ones our front line was supposed to be covering.

The woman in the suit had declined to share the other reason her power wouldn’t let her simply solve the Endbringer crisis.

The answer I’d declined to share with the other Wards was a simple one.  She had the ability to see the road to victory.  Maybe, when it came to the Endbringers, there was nothing for her to see.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

383 thoughts on “Crushed 24.2

  1. Thanks for reading.

    Hoping it isn’t too sloppy. Had a three hour train ride home today, screaming baby to my right (in the other aisle) the entire way.

    Thanks for reading. Votes on Topwebfiction appreciated (we’ll never let Diary of a Runner take first, never! Bwahaha)

      • Diary of Runner is my second favorite web serial. Worm being my favorite obviously.

        But I’m a zero sum vote there 1 for Worm 1 for Diary of a Runner.

    • Wildbow, I have no idea why you were on a train screaming the word “Baby!” repeatedly to your right, but it sounds like fun and I’d like to meet people polite enough to let that go on the whole time.

      • I would guess he was on the train alone.

        I’m wondering whether he was screaming at the other aisle freely because there was no one around to shut him up, or there was no one around because they steered clear of the madman screaming at an empty seat.

        Either way seems a fun way of passing the time while commuting.

    • The Yanban seem to have an abundance of capes for the moment, and they have to deal with a time rewinding asshat as well. Considering the title of the arc, I think they’ll be crushed as well in the next chapter or two.

      • Depends on where they are in relation to the Yangban. Also if the Yangban have any brains they won’t take anyone who has distictive powers as that would immediatly give away that they are abducting forign capes.

    • “For a solid twenty, thirty seconds, the sky was on fire, and the Endbringer lay waste to our defenses, making his way to a building with capes clustered on the roofs, behind .”

      I think it’s “laid waste”? And there appear to be missing words at the end of the quote.

      • Never mind. Grammatically correct as it stands, but a bit awkward. The long participial phrase between the subject and verb makes the sentence lose focus. Maybe move that phrase’s information somewhere else.

    • “communicate it to the team.

      “Fire!” I shouted. I knew he could hear me”

      “he” should be “Grue” (it’s pretty obvious, but there is an intervening paragraph between the last time ‘he’ was used to refer to him)

      “gap of the joint gave her a measure o fleverage over the mechanical arm.”

      misplaced space

    • The times her strikes did get past his defenses, her tiny form in the distance with the black cape trailing behind her lunging into his kill range to deliver a blow or a series of blows, Behemoth stumbled, caught briefly at the mercy of physics.

      Bit of a run-on and/or weird clauses.

    • This here’s a typo.

      Was re-reading the chapter and I noticed that “They Destroying” still needs to be fixed.

      I also see that Bobby mentioned it on Tuesday.

      • “They destroying the ground beneath his feet, ”

        Typo there: first should be something along the lines of “They were,” and “attack was reduced.”

        Noticed this as I was reading through for the first time. I love the work, Wildbow! HPMOR sent me here when I was looking for something to read while I waited, and I haven’t regretted reading as single chapter.

  2. Thanks for the new chapter!

    So I’m running out of books to read during the summer and finding new interesting stuff is always hard. Since there are so many different tastes when it comes to literature, it’s very hard to know which recommendations to trust.

    Thus I had an idea. Seeing as the people who read Worm obviously have great taste, maybe ask recommendations in the comments section.

    So what books do you think would be good summer reads? Try to steer away from those landmark series that everyone knows.

    To kick the ball off, the last book I read was Megan Whalen Turner’s “The Thief”. I quite liked it, it had a very simplistic approach to plot and characterization which actually let the good writing to stand out more.

    • I’m a fan of the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett. I started with Reaper Man, though I also recommend Going Postal, Making Money, The Hogfather, and Unseen Academicals.

      The 1632 series by Eric Flint isn’t bad either, and the first couple of books are available for free online legally at the Baen Free Library.

      House of Leaves isn’t too bad and is rather unique as far as literature goes.

      John Dies at the End is good if you like a humorous take on Lovecraftian themes, though it starts to get a little slow there near the end when they split up. I won’t spoil the ending for you though.

    • If your going Jim Butcher, check out the Dresden files. It has fights and scenes both epic and personal in the same manner as good old worm.

    • I’ll go the Urban Fantasy route, since that’s what I mostly read.

      Here’s some of my favorites:
      Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews
      Dresden Files by Jim Butcher
      The Hollows by Kim Harrison
      Jane Yellowrock series by Faith Hunter
      October Daye series by Seanan McGuire
      Written in Red by Anne Bishop

    • For something vaguely similar to Worm in the sense of weird superpowers used cleverly albeit in an almost urban fantasy-ish United Kingdom, I highly recommend The Rook by Daniel O’Malley. It’s a very British book with all that that implies.

      • If you’re looking for weird super powers in the United Kingdom, the Laundry Files series by Charles Stross – [i]Atrocity Archives, The Jennifer Morgue[/i], etc. is another good series.

    • If you’re looking for an epic sized novel series (that’s not Wheel of Time), I’d recommend Tad Williams’ Otherland series. It’s a Fantasy by way of Sci-fi set in the near future. There’s a pretty large cast of characters spread out across the world who get caught up together because of (unspoiled plot device).

      Anyway, this series really shaped how I think of Computers and the Internet as I was growing up, so forgive me if I’m a bit biased.

    • Sooooo… should I just recommend whatever?

      Life of Pi by Yann Martel
      In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje
      The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
      The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
      The Road by Cormac McCarthy

      Also heard good things about China Mieville, Gene Wolfe, and Nalo Hopkinson (Canadian resident authors go!), among others.

      Also, I supposed GRR Martin recs are inevitable, but as far as A Song of Ice and Fire Goes I was only positive through and through about the first book, ambivalent through the second and third, and then I stopped giving a shit.

    • -the Walking Chaos series, starting with The Knife of Never Letting Go (By Patrick Ness)
      -Enders Game/Enders Shadow (By Orson Scott Card)
      -Prince of Thorns/King of Thorns (By Mark Lawrence)
      -And for something a little denser, and more High Fantasyesque: The Wars of Light and Shadow, starting with Curse of the Mistwraith (By Janny Wurts)

      • The Black Company by Glen Cook. It’s… well, it is as if the regular fantasy stories are the propaganda written after the fact. It’s great, really, and there are omnibus editions out collecting the books. Plus, it’s finished.

        • Technically, there are still two books left to be written. The main character up to this point’s story has ended, but there is still more to be written.

          • Technically, yes. Something like Tears of Steel rings a bell as a continuation, but the way it is now is also very… fulfilling? Well, there’s a distinct limit of loose ends. Pretty tightly woven at the end.

      • Oh, I don’t often see people talking about the Wars of Light and Shadow. I loved them when I was in high school. They are very… dense, though. The prose is getting into the purple zone.

    • The Bazil Broketail series for fantasy.

      Landmark, but no one reads them, get the Stainless Steel Rat series by the late great Harry Harrison. Gadgetry supervillian turned supercop.

      I will always suggest harlan ellison to anyone. Start with Deathbird stories. There is a warning in the forward of the book, to only read one a day. I heartily suggest you follow this. The emotional rollercoaster of reading the book in one sitting left me shell shocked for a week.

    • So Ursula K. Leguin is pretty “landmark” in many circles, but even a lot of her fans haven’t read her trilogy, “Gifts”, “Powers”, and “Voices”. I think I may have the order wrong. I think the trilogy as a whole is called Annals of the Wester Shore or something like that.

      Also, if you’re not familiar with her, I recommend most of what she’s written, but particularly “The Dispossessed” and “The Left Hand of Darkness”.

    • If you are willing to try anthologies, I know a few you might like.

      Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut is more focused on his experiences as a POW during WW2 in a little town called Dresden. I particularly liked Guns Before Butter, The Commandant’s Desk, Spoils, and the titular story. You may not want to finish Spoils and just pretend it doesn’t end like you know it does.

      Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov is interesting for giving you insight into the experiences of political prisoners sentenced to a Siberian prison work camp due to Stalin’s purges. You may not want to finish the one with the dog and just pretend it doesn’t end like you know it does.

      Masked is more what you’d see for us here. It’s an anthology of superhero stories. My picks as particularly good stories are The Non-Event, Message from the Bubblegum Factory, Downfall, and A to Z in the Ultimate Big Company Superhero Universe (Villains Too).

      Now onto the books.

      For another good Russian work, I very much recommend The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. It might fit with the idea of Urban Fantasy. In it, a mysterious man named Woland and his companions, including a large talking cat named Behemoth. I can’t seem to find my personal copy, unfortunately, which irks me. And thou shalt never irk the Gecko!

      The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself is also pretty good. Gives you a good insight into a real life wily character from America’s past. If you ever visit his museum, I recommend the Egress exhibit as the first thing you should see.

      Another good book to take a look at for personal enjoyment (especially when it gets to the guy who pranked Nixon) is The Museum of Hoaxes; A History of Outrageous Pranks and Deceptions by Alex Boese. It also has a website. Beware China’s Sibuxiang Beast!

      You might check out Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee series. I’ve only read The Chinese Gold Murders, but I enjoyed it. It is set in maybe the mid 600s or so in China in which Judge Dee was appointed magistrate in order to help figure out some strange happenings, including a murder. Yes, it’s a detective story set in China in the 600s.

      Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go find my damn Bulgakov.

      • Since I got too caught up trying to find my Bulgakov to talk about the book, I’ll do that here.

        The Master and Margarite has a man named Woland, who claims to be a magician, show up in Moscow with his companions, Hella, Azazello, Behemoth the cat, Fagotto, and Abadonna, claiming to do a show to expose the lies of so-called black magic. What he really shows is some of the parts of the USSR’s citizenry that the government does not like to admit. The titular master is an imprisoned writer whose lover, Margarita, gets caught up with Woland’s group who are generally causing a bit of havoc in Moscow.

        Remember, manuscripts don’t burn.

    • Two words; Alastair Reynolds. If you havn’t read them and you understand relativity, you should read them. If you don’t understand relativity, get a physics textbook and read them anyway. Some of the best books I have read. Probably best to start with the revalation space trillogy.

    • I would recommend the sequals as well. I admit, there are people that like the first book of the series Turner makes far more than the others, but in my mind, they are all good. I can’t actually tell you too much about the next books, since there are in-built spoilers…in a similar way to the big twist of ‘The Thief.’

      Actually, another recommendation: read through “The Thief” again and find all the foreshadowing and hints he left in for his identity. It’s quite an exercise, and Turner does a very good job of hinting without telling…

      • Yeah, I actually guessed the twist like one third of the way into the book, due to having had the series recommended to me by its name which in itself is a spoiler. It was quite enjoyable to spot the foreshadowing hints and even with being a bit spoiled, the book managed to get a few good surprises in there that I didn’t expect.

        And thanks for the recs everyone, I’ll look into them when I have a bit more time.

    • Well, there are a couple of things I could recommend. One is a young adult series that (IMO) is enjoyable at any (or at least most) ages, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, by Rick Riordan. The action’s great, the plotline’s interesting, the character’s are well written, and the humor’s amazing. I could also say the same thing about its in-progress sequel series, The Heroes of Olympus, and its spin-off, The Kane Chronicles.

      • Also, if ya like comics I can recommend stuff like Garth Ennis’s run on the Punisher both the Marvel Knights and MAX versions, the Authority as written by Warren Ellis and Dan Abnett, and I’ve heard very, very good things about Ellis’s Nextwave.

        It’s hard to get ahold of outside the internet, but I loved Charley’s War a 70’s British WW1 comic. It has a whiplashtastic funny/lighthearted/depression ratio that should be envy of grimdark fantasy writers the world over.

        If you haven’t hit your depression limit with Worm Maus by Art Spiegelman is a very good semi-autobiographical comic involving the Holocaust. That’ll send you over the threshold.

    • If you like unusual superhero stories, maybe check out Wildcards, or Soon I Will Be Invincible.

      Sci-fi I’d say March Upcountry and Honor Harrington are worth checking out. If you like Psycho Gecko, the Posleen War series by John Ringo has the same sort of crazy awesome unrestrained by anything like reality. I’m also fond of Weber’s Safehold series, which has an android in a 16th Century sort of setting. The Culture is good for a mental workout, but some of the books can get a bit slow, plus the author Iain Banks just died.

      Fantasy I’d suggest Oath of Swords, Runelords, and the Black Company. Plus anything by Diana Wynne Jones, particularly the Merlin Conspiracy and Dark Lord of Derkholm, one of my favorite books of all time. Also, check out the Prince of Nothing trilogy: the Darkness that Came Before, the Warrior Prophet and the Thousandfold Thought. Artemis Fowl went downhill as a series, but the first 4 books are absolutely worth your time.

        • I heard that the exact same Caveat apply to Scott Bakker’s stuff as well. Someone mentioned those Whatever of Thorns books, so ditto for them too.

          • While Bakker’s work might offend some people’s sensibilities, I still think it’s one of the best fantasy series out there and that the worldbuilding is enviable.

            As for the Thorn series, the protagonist is actually at his worse in the first book, so if you can stomach that one, you shouldn’t have any problems.

            • Wish you could edit your posts…

              Wanted to add: While I love and recommend Bakker’s fantasy series, do not, for the love of God, read Neuropath. That book sure IS disgustingly offensive to anyone’s sensibilities.

              • Which reminds me of whoever recommended Garth Ennis. The first couple of volumes of The Boys is ok (especially Wee Hughie’s scene with his girlfriend in his arms right near the very beginning, that’s hilarious), but you’ll probably want to stop by Herogasm.

                Instead, if untimely suprahuman savagery, executions, and ejaculations strike not your fancy, this one’s superlative recommendation is Empowered starring the omniscient overlord, the Demonwolf, and its housemate, the fetchingly bespectacled and begartered Librarian Sexy!!

                I’ve also heard good things about DC’s Secret Six (Bane intimidating a stripper that’s taking out his surrogate daughter, Scandal Savage, stands out) and I particularly like The Flash’s Blackest Night Special. I’ve been looking for Final Crisis: Rogue’s Revenge for some time too, as I anticipate its awesome villainy.

                If you prefer Marvel, go with Nova. He’s dead now, but it was a good series in the time I read it after Annihilation. Also, some fantastic cover art.

        • Very true. Still, no matter how bad Wild Cards got, and it got very bad, it did have some clever views on how superheroes would impact on society. For example, a comment below wondering how superpowers affected the caste system in India, reminded me of how in Wild Cards’ South Africa during the apartheid white Jokers(read mutants) were considered black, but the reverse did not apply to black Aces(read standard superheroes).

          • Hard to say, they’re sort of mosaic books. Short stories by many authors in the shared universe, each linked by a theme or contributing something to the over-arching plot.

            Where the line gets drawn… I’d say you’re good to Dead Man’s Hand, which was crap. Ace in the Hole was edgy for me, but the overarching theme (superheros meddling in politics) was enough to keep me going. Reitz would probably have a different opinion. I’d say read, and as far as you get is as far as you get. But Reitz is right, good catch you should know the dark parts are really freaking dark.

    • Joe Abercrombie, author/superhero!
      Even if you read nothing else, read his latest standalone book Red Country. It is a triumph. I recommend all his stuff, he needs more publicity.

      After that, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer and it’s sequel The Detective, by Johnathan L. Howard.

      I should also mention The Warded Man, The Desert Spear, and The Daylight War, by Peter V. Brett.

      Patrick Rothfuss writes some enjoyable books.

      For a change of pace, you could try Morgue Drawer Four, Morgue Drawer Next Door, and Morgue Drawer For Rent, by Jutta Profijit.

      Psychogecko mentioned John Dies At The End, by David Wong. It was the first book I’ve asked for as a present. It’s….unique. Also, there is a movie version of it with Paul Giamatti. Good for a laugh or two.

      If you want something a bit more serious and postapocalypse style, try The Union Creek Journal. It’s a webseries.

      I’ll stop now before this gets carried away.

      I keep doing this, I try to build up a buffer of Worm, but then I end up staying awake until 2am reading everything.

    • A few suggestions from stuff I’ve been reading recently:

      Lois McMaster Bujold – pretty much anything by her. If you like Taylor for her genius at planning, look for the Miles Vorkosigan books for another protagonist who’s physically underpowered compared to his foes and makes up for it by being damn clever and a little crazy.

      The Martian by Andy Weir – an astronaut is trapped on Mars and has to figure out how to survive until he can rescued. Essentially a hard science version of Robinson Crusoe, or in other words another story where the protagonist survives based on their wits and cleverness.

      Jack o’ Lantern Girl, Fable of the Swan and Unclean Legacy by Jenna Katerin Moran. See also Nobilis. See also Chuubo’s Marvel Wish Granting Engine. It feels a little weird to be promoting the work of one of the other commenters here, but these are really good and well worth checking out.

      Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. If you want to study a master of dialog, you really can’t go wrong with reading Jane Austen. The book is engaging read even apart from that though.

      Switch Flipped by Greg Stolze. A different take on modern day “super heroes”, much closer in character to Unknown Armies (the RPG) than a comic book but nonetheless highly engaging.

      The Laundry Files by Charles Stross (series). Call of Cthulhu meets information technology meets underpaid secret agents.

      I Am Not A Serial Killer, Mr. Monster and I Don’t Want To Kill You by Dan Wells. A boy diagnosed with sociopathy who is determined not to let himself become a monster encounters a real monster that is killing people in his town. Neither grimdark, nor depressing (note: I’m in the camp that says Worm is neither grimdark nor depressing, take that as you will).

      • The white book (Nobilis) remains one of the most striking and elegant attempts to fuse form and function. Still utterly remarkable.

      • I just read some of Jenna Moran’s short stories and bought one of her books based on this. They really are amazing. Thanks for the recommendation!

    • two books That I greatly enjoyed are “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman. Which is a combination of ancient and modern mythology with a modern fantasy. The other one that I loved that is very different is “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak. It is narrated by death and is the story of a girl in Nazi Germany.

      Both well worth the read.

    • So, books that you might not have heard of…

      Try to hunt down a copy of Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg. One of my all-time favourites.

      LeGuin’s The Dispossessed (as someone already mentioned).

      I don’t know if this is now “landmark”, since they made a movie out of it, but Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie is well worth the read.

      And just in case you haven’t read it, I urge you to check out Haldeman’s The Forever War. Anyone who considers themselves at all interested in Science Fiction should read that.

      Also, just about anything by Spider Robinson. Oh yes.

      Hg

    • You know, with all these books… my wishlist kind of tripled. *sighs*
      Not that I’m complaining, but there is a limit to how much time one can spend reading, especially if there are other things taking time.

    • I cannot over-recommend Fine Structure by Sam Hughes. You could read it either on the authors website or at Everything2. everything2.com/title/Fine+Structure‎

      I would also reccomend Storm Thief by Christopher Wooding, the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane, and Midnighters by Scott Westerfield.

      • +1 Fine Structure
        It was one of the more engaging reads and I occasionally happen to think on it still. Anything I want to read more than once is worth taking note and Fine Structures would be at its fourth read next – without me feeling bored.

    • I can recommend karen miller’s kingmaker knigbreaker duo, about mage’s and magic. It’s a very good read. also has a follow up duo called the fishermans children.

    • ok here i go in a super hero thread, you have been warned;

      Confessions of a D-List Supervillain by Jim Bernheimer (its very similar to worm and the characters are kinda awesome.)

      After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn (its a nice objective take on the silver age transition. and the author also does the Kitty Norville urban fantasy series which is a nice balance of funny and serious)

      Blackjack Villain (The Blackjack Series) by Ben Bequer (gritty hero story of redemption, you should read both books in the series, the second one is a tearjerker at the end)

      Velveteen vs the Junior Super Patriots by Seanan McGuire (a great webserial turned novel from a pro-writer. much like wildbow, only different.)

      the whole Elemental Assassin urban fantasy series by Jennifer Estep (while technically an urban fantasy title, it’s has more of a comic book semi-noir feel to it and i would recommend it wholeheartedly, no matter what genre you love.)

  3. Contessa: “Meh, I could take her.”

    Everyone: “You know, saying that is kind of a-”

    Contessa: -wipes the floor with Skitter and her temporary team- “Like I said. Meh.”

    • Genre-Savvy Audience Member: “Of course you realize that, seeing as how you’re just the Big Bad’s lieutenant and Skitter’s the protagonist, all you’ve done is pissed away your guaranteed first-fight victory on a fight that didn’t matter, thus ensuring that the second fight (where she beats you into the ground) will happen when your defeat would be the most devastating for your side?”

      • Her ability is powerful, but there are opponents who are simply too powerful for her a baseline human to kill, or there might be a lack of options/someone she can’t predict. The doormaker also makes it almost impossible to trap or weaken her. If she starts to get tired, or her options get too limited she simply takes a portal away.

        • It depends on how far into the future she can see. Maybe she sees far enough to avoid legend. To step into the shadows at just the right time.

          Or perhaps out of all the billions of possible actions available to her, she chooses the one path where she hides in the right corner to hit him with some sort of poison dart (as he’s practically bulletproof). Then escapes with Doormaker’s help.

          It seems like a pretty scary power to me. I mean, she could have killed Alexandria as well with an exploding containment foam cannister (an explosion at just the right angle to enter her throat and nose), like she got Taylor’s bugs. Then immediately escape. Victory achieved.

          Like I said, a scary power.

            • Ah, forgot about that. Maybe she’d use a different substance then. Getting killed by an exploding glue gun or something would make for a rather ignoble end. Nonetheless, ignoring the containment foam faux pas ;), I think my point still stands.

              • I know what you can toss at her!

                O-ethyl S-[2-(diisopropylamino)ethyl] methylphosphonothioate

                VX, as it’s shortened to, is an area denial nerve agent, meaning you just spray it in an area she’s likely to go into and let it do the rest. Better yet, spray as much of it on her as you can.

                Or maybe you want something from the G series instead?

                Sarin is well known, but Soman could work pretty well too. And even if they get Contessa cured, there’s the whole “permanent neurological damage” thing that ought to make it difficult for her to do a lot of winning.

        • It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again. Xykon the lich’s quotes about power: “Only two things matter: Force, in as great a concentration as you can manage, and style. And in a pinch, style can slide. In any battle, there’s always a level of force against which no tactics can succeed.” That said, I’m fairly sure Taylor could have at least hurt Contessa a bit near the end, but it would have probably cost some or all of them their lives.

          • Yeah that’s basically how you beat a ‘perfect’ precog. You make it so the only possible future is their death. I even think Skitter could pull it off. If Contessa didn’t have unlimited access to Doormaker. Really that guy is what makes her so impossible to beat.

            But anyways Skitter could theoretically grab a massive swarm, order it to kill Contessa while staying at a very large distance, and then just leave. Let the swarm kill her while staying an impossible to close distance away.

            • Another way to beat Contessa is to attack her indirectly. Doormaker is her trump card? Figure out a way to wreck his wagon. She’s obligated to protect DM? Attack DM in such a manner that the only way for Contessa to save her is to sacrifice life and limb. Another way is to create multiple simultaenous crises that Contessa is forced to respond to with no possible way to resolve both. I think this falls under the Xanatos Gambit trope.

              • Ehm, Doormaker is inside a cell in Cauldron’s facility which is not only one of the most secure places to ever exist but also in another dimension which can only be reached thanks to Doormaker himself.

              • I can already think of how to handle Doormaker. Lure Contessa out of hiding and sneak Imp through the portal. I am not sure if Cauldron has a way to handle her unique abilities (though to be fair, there are way too many people who seem to be able to counter her in this setting.)

              • Motion sensors, termal scanners, stranger-trumping powers. Cauldron has plans to stop THE SIMURGH from breaching their facility again and has lots of powerful capes with weird powers. (We have no idea, for example, what the Custodian can do. I believe one of the prisoners called him/her/it a spirit or something similar.) Alternatively, maybe Contessa’s power is powerful enough to stop her from taking such a course of action, even without knowing why. There are still too many variables.

      • Nah, she used the first-fight win while snatching Pretender. This is a possibly unprecedented second fight victory by the villain’s Chief Minion.

        • I don’t think The Worf Effect actually applies here for a couple of reasons. The main one is that the Worf Effect is an *ongoing pattern* of the show’s designated badass having their posterior repeatedly handed to them by the monster of the week. A key point of the trope is the badass decay that the character suffers as a result: Worf ceases to look so tough when everyone he meets lands him on his butt.

          The other reasons are that Taylor has:
          (a) clearly been facing a series of *escalating* threats and rising to the challenge. ie. she’s Goku, not Worf. :D, and
          (b) she’s always been kind of a glass cannon. She’s brilliant and kicks butt (especially at range) but there’s always an element of tension when she’s within range of a dangerous opponent.

    • To be fair, Taylor has already figured out one way to negate her power: Make it so that there are no paths to victory. Now she just needs to get control over an Endbringer and force Contessa into a corner.

      • I would add that with her description-if it is honest-requires conscious use to activate. If you can take her out in one hit by surprise, you win.

        • Also, her power seems to work similar to the way Number Man uses his ability; meaning that if you are sufficiently unpredictable, it might overwhelm her ability like Jack Slash did to Harbinger

      • Coil was pretty much unbeatable with his mulligan power, and where is coil now?

        Taylor can take her, but it’ll take a lot of planning and setup. Probably some really impressive bait to.

        • Coil’s power didn’t make him unbeatable. It was Coil’s clever, cautious use of his power ,combined with Dinah’s prescience, that made him maximise his victories. All it took was for Coil to use his power at the wrong time at the wrong place to ensure his downfall. Coil knew this, hence he only used it when safe in his lair, and Tattletale knew that he knew, hence the need to engineer a situation where Coil would be sure of his invincibility.

        • I’ve been rereading, and went through and got the explanation for the coin toss exhibition in the limousine, so I’ll try to show why Coil is actually pretty vulnerable.

          Coil’s power is to create two branching timelines and then choose the one he likes the most. The usual way for him to use it is to have a timeline where he does nothing, and a timeline where he does something: goes on the attack. This way, failure is something he can avoid, as long as he is in control of the situation. That is what he did with the coins: he would speak or check on whether someone was ready to catch a coin, or somehow delay throwing in a Safe timeline and actually throw in the other.

          But this safety breaks down as soon as he enters a situation where he can’t hold back his hand in both dimensions. Let’s take the coin toss exhibition, and presume he is forced to throw a coin in both dimensions: he is not allowed to hold back and not throw the coin, he has to throw it. The point of the coin tosses was that he would end up tossing the coin many times, and always end up with the same value, Heads or Tails. But that becomes something he can lose at when he has to throw the coin in both dimensions, because he can end up with a situation where he throws a bad throw in both dimensions. With the coin tosses, he has a one in four chance of getting unfavourable throws in both dimensions (two Tails in the story), and if he has to do this enough times, the chances are going to catch up to him sooner or later and bam. Two tails, Coil is dead, game over. That’s basically what happened when Coil was taken of in the story: both dimensions came up tails, because the Undersiders went on the offensive and forced his hand in both.

  4. So the trick for dealing with Contessa is to try to arrange a situation where she can win and then have some way of changing it to one where she can’t once she’s already committed.

    Easier said than done, admittedly.

    Although the Regent-Imp tag-team might actually be able to take her.

    Most other methods I can think up involve some sort of deliberate sacrifice, whether that means taking a hit from her or having a cape walk into the fight intending to lose in such a fashion that it also kills her.

    Or surrounding her with other Thinkers and then going in for the kill.

    A lot depends on just how far ahead her ability can see, and whether it can pull out information on things that other people are deliberately hiding.

  5. Well that is… not good. But then I suppose none of us really expected anything good to happen in this chapter- even the arc name…

    Cauldron though, is almost definitely up to no good. Confirmation of Contessa’s precognition is nice, though. Pretty much what I expected.

    A note- Theo is tagged, but hat means less than it used to, what with Wildbow getting wise to our tactics.

  6. Oh, happy happy happy, see, isn’t it a happy happy happy story? The apocalypse monsters are unstoppable, Taylor can’t beat Contessa, Grue might be dead, the truce is universally acknowledged as toilet paper, Cauldron just recruited the New Delhi cold capes, and Alexandria appears to be back, though the alternative is a lookalike and some creative grave robbery (I’d blame the Malkavians again) and Scion’s still not here to save the day.

        • Oh sure it looks bad now, but it’s aways darkest before the dawn. Taylor’s going to realize she’s the one, go super sayian and open the Autobot matrix of leadership.

          Unless we do get the downer ending. But I hope not.

        • There is a bit of a middle ground there between “depressing story” and “Worm, now suitable for Teletubbies!”

          Understand, when I say Worm’s not “grimdark” or “depressing”, I’m not saying that it’s awesome that Tattletale got her throat crushed or that millions of New Delhi residents are probably dead or dying. Those are bad things, but not so bad that I’m cheering for Behemoth.

          • Heartily agreed.

            The world of Worm can be dark, there is evil there, and there are monsters in it- but there is light as well, things worth protecting, and there are heroes who stand up to protect them, in even the unlikeliest of guises.

          • I agree as well. Worm is realistic in it’s darkness. It sort of sets up the world and points out that yeah you can expect corruption, incompetence, and favoritism. But at the same time you get heroic villains, genuine redemption, AI’s that love humanity, and true friendship.

          • I can’t possibly understand how Worm can be considered grimdark, because when I think of that word I think of a narrative that not only has alot of fucked up shit and suffering, but twists the plot and characters in knots to accommodate as much of it as possible as if the universe goes out of it’s way to punish people for not being miserable. Worm is dark but it certainly doesn’t do that.

            Grimdark also brings to mind of a narrative that reads in a callous, exploitative, or unemphatic way, either by tone or through the characters. Skitter actually has active empathy and human suffering is treated as human suffering instead of furniture so that’s out too.

            • Seconded. To me ‘grimdark’ basically means that a setting is hopeless and cruel and depressing for the sake of it. (Apparently Warhammer 40k is the trope namer, which makes sense). Worm is dark and depressing for the best possible authorial reason – to explore how people deal with it.

              It reminds me a little of Stephen (“Oh hey, let’s drop a mysterious impenetrable dome over a town just to see how they cope”) King’s approach. Though honestly, I think Wildbow’s handled it better, sorry Stephen…

    • Alexandria, to the press afterwards, “These usurping cowards took me with an assassin’s blow. The need to stand up against Behemoth brought me back. Behemoth and those who would strip an entire world of even a hope of victory if it be not on their terms.”

      Who they gonna believe, a bunch of scrubs or Alexandria?

      • Well, the “scrubs” in this case include Chevalier and Miss Militia, so there’s quite a lot of clout on both sides. However, I’m not sure Cauldron’s interested in spinning this anymore. We’re quickly getting to the endgame of the comic (The proverbial cosmic deadline of *checks FAQ* 30 chapters, the S9000 gun has yet to be fired, The Birdcage gun has yet to be fired, none of the Endbringers have been defeated beyond driving them away, Number Man and Contessa are tag-teaming field missions for unknown purposes, etc., etc., etc.), and what Cauldron has done since sending Number Man into the field, (kidnapped a bodysnatcher who’s somehow better for their purposes than Regent (otherwise, why not grab Regent) and ushered a whole mess of Indian refugees into another universe, never to return, as well as taking steps to maximise the powers granted by their formulas) seem to scream “gathering weapons and creating contingencies for final showdown.”

  7. First thoughts:
    * If Cauldron is really done with Weaver, why leave witnesses? Unless they gain more value from spreading terror than they do silence.. which would sorta make sense now that the latter isn’t really an option. And that “this earth” line sorta makes me think they’ve already written this one off.. maybe it’s a resource for the defense of the next one, now.

    * Fuck the Yangban.

    * I was betting on save-scumming for Contessa’s power, but “victory” or “I win button” were maybe.. 7th or 8th on the list? Bah, I wouldn’t even get a medal at a swim meet.

    * I wonder what Revel has gotten up to, she’s potentially Weaver’s new boss. Assuming the Protectorate doesn’t get de-funded or suspended pending investigation or something. Contessa doesn’t seem to think they’re long for this world, and that’s a baaaaad sign.

    • Can they even defund the Protectorate at this point? It would leave America and all the foreign teams they support pretty screwed at this point. Without a viable alternative I just don’t think that is an actual option.

    • Maybe they’re not completely finished with Taylor. IIRC, she was needed by Cauldron because she was the criminal leader of BB, they’re probably keeping her around in case she returns to the position.

      • It would fit, but I always figured their/Coils plans for the Undersiders were more subtle, something about developing powers, what with the “master” and “thinker” heavy roster. Could Cauldron have really predicted the portal being in Brockton Bay? I suppose they could have at the very least predicted that Brockton Bay is or will be a high value location.

    • A lot of what Cauldron has done since Skitter’s arrest has been to maximise their potential weapons and plan contingencies for catastrophic failure (see also: Number Man+Contessa in field, new Universe full of Indian undesirables). Keeping Weaver around, a skilled master in her own right, is simply another weapon in play. Whether that weapon is pointed at Cauldron or elsewhere depends on where the danger to civilians lies.

  8. Did Cauldron just seed another universe with humanity? A few generations down the line with a bunch of capes in the genepool from the start should provide Cauldron with a very effective army.

    • Or it means that they are simply going to force feed the raw formula to a larger group of people to keep up their numbers. More case 53, more deaths, but a similar number of useable parahumans for them. Though the doormaker makes me question Cauldron. Why stay in the wormverse? Their identity is outed, they have lost control of the PRT, and the Endbringers are there. I somehow doubt, despite all the shit they tell themselves about the greater good, they are trying to help the wormverse. Why not go the Traveler’s dimension and set up shop there?

      • I think it is faily obvious that these people aren’t intended to be used as case 53’s, or at least not ones that will be brought back to Earth. Unless Cauldron wins in a spectacular way those people aren’t being brought back which says to me they are a backup.

        • I wonder if capes taken to other world would have children who could become capes? From what we’ve seen the Omni-Worms are heading for Taylor’s Earth in particular.

          If the passengers are fragments of them (which I think we have evidence for right?) then I’m not sure if new passengers would show up on an alternate Earth necessarily. It might depend on how “close” in a metaphysical sense the other Earth was to Earth-Bet.

          • Frankly, they could. Even taking into account we don’t know the origin of Numbers Man and Contessa (Cauldron or natural), Rachel has been to Gimel and back and it is highly implied she used her power for her dogs there. Furthermore, the Travellers who went back to Aleph probably retained their powers, and gained them on Bet. By formula, granted, but I see no convincing reason why newborn children should not as well.
            The more prevalent hypothesis is there being quite a few passengers, not only two. They connect to one or more humans.
            Though I can see your reasoning, MM’s interlude made me think the flakes discarded by passengers were where powers come from.

            • I was figuring that existing parahumans would retain the bond they had with their passenger. Essentially they’re already spot welded together and simply traveling to a different world world wouldn’t change that.

              The question is would there be any passengers hanging around on Earth-Sigma (or wherever) to connect with the children of parahumans who move there?

              • Next Earth would be named Daleth, based on hebrew letters. (Aleph, Bet, I proposed Gimel for Rachel’s stomping ground)

    • That’s what I was hoping at first, that they were seeding alternate dimensions, preferably with some time travel involved to maybe allow them to grow into their own in time to provide material aid against the Endbringers (if they’re willing….) or at least some place to run to. But.. good money says they got ground up for Research Points. Maybe one of them gets lucky like that Kudzu-clone but I’m not holding my breath.

    • I think they’re a backup in case of catastrophic failure (i.e. Cauldron is crippled somehow by Jack Slash’s end of the world).

  9. Golem, odd as it was, seemed to fall more in line with Tecton and I, watching the surroundings, eyeing the strangers who accompanied us. It wasn’t that he wasn’t afraid; everything else about him suggested he was. It was more that he was wary in a natural, practiced way.

    How had he picked that up? He was supposed to be a rookie.

    I knew he was Theo before, but this is the clincher. It’s actually heartening how much he resembles Taylor of six months earlier, given what he needs (or believes he needs) to do.

  10. So BEHEMOTH earns his nickname of herokiller and we find out why Contessa is a bitch to fight. I also think we can add inferred holocaust to the tropes page considering the damage to the city, New Delhi’s population, and the fact that they couldn’t evacuate everyone. Someone made the prediction that the bodycount might be at least 6 figures after this is over, but I’m guessing it will probably be higher considering how fast the fire spread, and the lack of defense against radiation for the civilians. Dragon really needs a Scion signal built.

    • radiation kills are debatable whether they count as this hour, or next day or week, which is when they’ll actually die.

    • I’m guessing eight figures. The evacuation was unfinished, the fight has been a rout, and barring Scion it looks like Behemoth will be free to make any big move that it wants to.

      • Damn, perhaps several million. Then there is the economy of india, all the dead bodies rotting, the industry, etc. I wonder how long the PRT stays after an Endbringer attack? After a smurf attack, they have to build a wall, but India might need humanitarian aid for months, maybe years.

      • The total population of New Dehli on our Earth is about 16 million, so breaking into 8 figures would mean around 2/3rds of the entire city was lost. Maybe possible but given the warning they had I wouldn’t expect quite that many people to still be remaining in the path of destruction. Even the death tolls in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were way less than that (about 33% and 25% respectively).

        • Total population of the city is up to 22m in our world, and I’ll speculate that it’s higher in Earth-bet where many major cities have been attacked or destroyed outright; populace that wasn’t destroyed has to go somewhere, and I expect people have gravitated to the cities they felt would be the most heavily defended. Worst of all, there was no evidence of massive infrastructure investments that would let them evacuate tens of millions in less than an hour, and that was all the warning they had.

          • I dunno. As a couple of posters have suggested, people may be spreading to smaller population centres in the Wormverse since the big cities seem to be Endbringer and S9 bait…

  11. Contessa is remarkably talkative in her encounter with Weaver and even Taylor saw that she was taking it easy on them. Why.

    It couldn’t have been because she thought the few wards with Taylor could make a major difference in the Behemoth fight and in any case she was willing to draw away the cold capes from the fight too. Maybe there is still a place for Taylor in whatever plan Cauldron has.

    Maybe her powers do let her see a path to victory against some of the other enemies going around upstairs and Taylor is the best tool to get there?

    In any case with the command and control being inoperative and Behemoth about to take down all the remaining strategists someone needs to take charge and organize things. Someone with a clear view of the battlefield and the ability to relay messages throughout the area. It might be time for Weaver to shine.

    • Another possibility: she’s so talkative because that’s her best path to success in this fight. You saw how close Weaver and the Wards came to taking her down — if she hadn’t warned them off, perhaps they would have defeated her (even if it meant taking significant casualties).

  12. It’s weird having Taylor constantly physically fly around to get a view on things. I’ve gotten used to her being able to monitor everything with her swarm, but I suppose great as her range is, even that would be too close.

  13. I liked the fight between Taylor and Contessa and thought it a wonderful display of an interesting power. The effortlessness that Contessa displays throughout is awesome.

    I’m curious about the ‘individuals’ that Contessa is not effective against other than the Endbringers. I definitely think Scion is one of them. The scene where Legend is meeting with Doctor Mother and the others and Contessa seems actually wary and anxious, as if he might be a threat, makes me think that she’s not as guaranteed to win as one might think. There’s only so much you can do against a laser that can level a building and a man who can reach you before you’ve even recognized his presence.”

    But I did find it a little unrealistic. I find it strange that not a single bug was able to sting Contessa throughout the whole fight. I didn’t expect a win by Taylor, or even a respectable loss, since her power is victory, but to avoid the thousands of bugs I’m sure Taylor had at that moment doesn’t actually seem physically possible within that limited space.

    In regards to the Endbringers: they don’t seem completely unbeatable. I mean, The Siberian could have ripped any of the Endbringers apart at sufficiently close range, though the Simurgh might interfere with the control of Manton over the projection. But repeatedly, Siberian was shown to have zero limits in projection form in terms of offensive capabilities. She was literally unstoppable and indestructible, to a much higher degree than Alexandria.
    This is all useless speculation since P. Manton is dead, but still, Taylor’s speculation on the Endbringers being literally unstoppable seems untenable.

    And I guess that raises the issue of the Endbringers possibly simply regenerating from what seems like catastrophic damage.
    Can’t wait for more.
    Great chapter :)

      • But apparently no Endbringer ever showed up wherever the Nine were causing conflict to face off against Siberian. It’s almost as if Endbringers don’t want to kill Cauldron capes.

        • Transfer the memory of the trigger event for the ones that had triggers. For the Cauldron ones, maybe the alterations were enough to stick after cloning.

          Then again, they’re cloning Manton himself. If he can remember his own work, or piece it back together using the memories and abilities of his other clones, they’ll just be able to make the kind of Cauldron juice that gives someone a power like Siberian.

          Isn’t that a lovely thought.

  14. hmmmm new puzzle pieces to assemble ..I still going with Alexandria actually being the Las Vegas body jumper that cauldron made off with , also its intresting that Cauldron needs a army and essentially recruited the india cold capes who where more combat oriented or more okay with doing dangerous blood thirsty things .

    I also think Tattletale will go missing and thus no one will know that chev and accord were killed by the yangban(cody ) aside from the yangban and whomever takes tattletale (im guessing cauldron ) as they seem to be making off with useful people .

    man I love worm so much simply because it allows for so much wild mass guessing .

    • I think Alexandria faked her own death: she really did play Taylor: she played her to the extent that she forced her to “kill her”.

      Still a great story – thanks Wildbow. The only web fiction I really look forward to, even when I know it will be a total downer!

  15. Actually, I suspect Taylor’s powers would have let her obtain victory, but her aggressive instincts failed her. Swamping the Contessa with a continually growing swarm while staying as far away as possible to minimize her choices seems like a potential path to victory. It’s like how you take out spider-man. You’ve got to make him put himself in a position where his defenses aren’t going to save him.

    If Taylor had focused on grabbing as large a swarm as possible before attacking, kept her distance, and ordered the Wards out to remove variables, I think she’d have a shot. Alternate response? One of Kid Win’s laser rifles. Since she doesn’t seem to be ACTUALLY precognisant, a lethal attack, faster than her highest potential movement speed, without warning, might be enough to do the job.

    Other thoughts: Who are the other factions? Cauldron is one. The Yangban, obviously another. I’m presuming whatever force or urge directs the Endbringers is a third, if potentially inhuman. Who else?

    • Wouldn’t work b/c she had ready access to a doorway. The buildup would have easily been defeated by just walking away.

    • If Taylor had focused on grabbing as large a swarm as possible before attacking, kept her distance, and ordered the Wards out to remove variables, I think she’d have a shot.

      Nah, she’d have just put the knife to someone else’s neck instead and ordered Skitter to withdraw the swarm. Square One.

      • Or Countessa wouldn’t have been there in the first place. Meaning if Taylor could have put together an effective attack against her then Countessa’s power might have said “the win strategy for today is: take a trip to Rio and enjoy the sun”.

        Unless we get an Interlude from her perspective, we don’t really know how much Countessa’s power limits her actions.

  16. Contessa’s power is to contain copious amounts of win. I am both terrified, and ok with this.

    I would it if Contessa’s power told her to tell Taylor all of that, but that would be optimistic of me-which clearly means it’s wrong.

  17. The idea that there’s no route to victory fits together with Lung’s reaction—a little. And thematically, if not literally, with the increasing density towards the core. An idea that superficially these are things that can be fought; superficially, they are monsters—but at a certain point that illusion dissolves.

    How does that make sense, though?

    One option is that there’s a psychological phenomenon. That’s a good possibility for the underlying metaphor, and it’s also a conceivable possibility for the actual thing. That they can’t be defeated because they embody something that people can’t defeat, or that can’t be defeated by defeating it. That they represent, say, the breaks in your own psyche, when you get down to the fundamental nuts and bolts of them, and that’s going to rule out practically any triggered parahuman beating them and be pretty difficult for a normal human or Cauldron-born. There could be an extra layer in there that would break a Cauldron-born or trigger a human en route to any potential victory, too. Or maybe they’re psychological arguments about the futility of violence bundled up in daikaiju forms, which would just be a mean thing for a great teacher to do.

    It could be physics. That the Endbringer victory is in some sense hard-coded. That’s really problematic since . . . ideas like victory and defeat aren’t normally the kinds of things that physics *can* limit. Physics is usually statements on the world as a thing, rather than the world as an experience, if that makes sense. But if the world is a mental construct of some sort of passenger-related entity then it’s possible that the goal-neutral physics we’re used to is just a product of not previously meriting the substrate’s conscious or subconscious attention.

    . . . it still seems off. I don’t think you can have an objectively, physically impossible victory without making it all too easy to tweak by getting a mind-controlling cape to reset your victory conditions. “We can’t ever beat the Endbringers!” “Curses! There’s nothing that we can do to stop them from suddenly leaving Earth forever to do a Morris dance on Mars for the next billion years!” “Nooooo!”

    It could be spiritual, a judgment enforced by something stronger than humanity or para-humanity. That’s plausible given the story we have so far but it’s also a little off—I wouldn’t think Lung would be suddenly defeatist just because a deity or angel stood in his way.

    It *feels* like it’s psychological, though. I don’t think we have enough information to be sure, but it feels like . . . what has to be going on here is that the Endbringers are somehow evoking or modeling or manifesting the limits of a person’s capacity. That Behemoth relates to the inevitability of death, Leviathan to erosion or time or nature’s endlessness, Simurgh to the finiteness of our ability to resist corruption and our worst selves, and Scion . . . I’m not sure. Possibly the inexorability of grace? One could hope that he fills the role of engineering or human achievement in this morality play, although it’d be a little strange for him to be so thoroughly disjoint from actual attempted human achievement. So I’d be more inclined to suspect grace.

    But in all the cases it feels like what might be going on, that only a few capes have sufficiently absolute powers to discover, is that grappling with the Endbringers is like trying to beat the inevitability of death, or conquer nature, or become absolutely untwistable, undeceivable, and incorruptible—you can help someone who’s dying here, you can build a building or dam a river there, you can make a practice of intellectual honesty there, but if you want to actually WIN the fight you’re always going to see another vista, another level, more to do.

    Maybe?

    I guess that since this is also the story of the despised little people banding together behind a relatively compassionate former victim, it’s also possible that instead of representing actual absolutes the Endbringers may represent social absolutes: not the inevitability of death but the inevitability of oppression; not the infinite sprawl of nature but the tendrils of . . . haha, Perlman’s Leviathan*; not the inevitability of our vulnerability to corruption but simply extraordinary pressure to participate in a corrupt system. In which case their invulnerability might be an illusion.

    * pokes at wikipedia and Hobbes but lacks the free time to read Hobbes’ Leviathan and Hobbes’ Behemoth right now to see if that’s where Worm is going.

    • My reading was a lot less philosophical than that.

      I just figured that the Endbringers are physically tough enough that nothing Contessa could do would ever significantly injure them.

      So Contessa’s power can’t give her a victory path against them.

      But maybe if someone like Legend was able to use Contessa’s power, they’d see a way to drive off an Endbringer. Probably not a way to kill one, since an Endbringer’s core is probably about as tough as the Siberian, but a way to make one retreat.

      • Or perhaps someone like Grue, Perhaps Grue+Contessa. It depends on if his healing factor works exactly like crawlers, which in theory, it should. Then he just has to become immune to all the ways the endbringer can kill him, and stall them until scion arrives.

        • Okay, why does Grue have a healing factor? His second power is siphoning powers of capes in his darkness, I get that. Crawlers power was adaptive survival or something, and a good first step is a healing factor. Does this mean he now has a minor healing factor, i.e. higher resistance/immunity to illness/cancer and less time necessary to heal in general?

          • It’s something people have been saying. Grue briefly copied Crawler’s power, which wasn’t just healing, but healing better than he was before. Immune to whatever hurt him. Some people believe that means Grue should heal faster now, or his chest should be resistant to blades.

            • Yeah, that’s why I at best give him a minor healing factor. But with the way powers in Worm seem to be geared to maximize the downside it might just might have given him a higher tolerance for pain or something. Or higher physical resistance on his nerve paths.

      • Indeed! I was pointed here by the RPG.net thread long ago. ^_^

        (I used to be able to comment under my google name, I think, rather than my wordpress account, but, still, I am the same me either way.)

        • Doctor Moran? Oh my! Love your work, glad to see you enjoying Wildbow’s current magnum opus.

          Come to think of it, you could do a pretty good job of playing a Worm-like game with a slight reworking of Nobilis. Or perhaps Chuubo’s, if it works like I think it does…

        • Hey, just picked up 3e. Good stuff! I adore the Lifepath system.

          In response to your comment, it actually does feel more spiritual to me. Almost as if there’s one rogue passenger handing out powers to psyche’s that touch it’s own, and perhaps other passengers that seek to eradicate this race that can glomp on to their psyches. Of course, time will tell.

    • There’s also the possibility that it’s a result of some sort of mechanistic fate. Powers like Contessa’s and Dinah’s detect a potentially finite number of possible futures. If the universe only has a finite number of possible outcomes, it’s possible that none of them contain scenarios in which the Endbringer(s) is(are) defeated. If there are infinite possible futures, as science is pretty sure is the case in our universe, maybe the ones that include Endbringer defeat are simply so unlikely that they don’t show up among the options Contessa’s power considers. Alternately, their own power or some other agency could just be shielding them.

      • Her power could also be a transitive consciousness, with her jumping from universe to universe depending on how she fares against anyone. Looks the same as always winning, but she’d leave multiverses behind with dead versions of herself.

          • Sort of, yeah. Though Coil was aware of his double life, while Contessa wouldn’t. We don’t know if she can see the way she ought to move to ‘win’, just has feeling or is kind of actively pulled. It isn’t even relevant for the narrative, so I don’t expect it will be expanded upon, but you see how of the top of my hat there could be three versions of the apparantly same power be running around.

            • The third being? Number Man’s? That one seemed to be pure Awesomeness by Analysis/Combat Clairvoyance* cranked up to absurd (in a good way) levels.

              Or are you referring to someone else?

              *I apologise for my unrestrained use of tvtropes lingo.

              • Okay, a quick rundown:
                1) Switching realities/universes
                2) Knowing when/where to move
                3) Seeing probablities (i.e. Numbers Man)
                4) Short time precog

              • 5.) Long term precog with a specific limitation of “winning at the goal that I specify”.

                I like that one because it offers an explanation for why 50 guys with machine guys can’t kill her -> she never winds up in a situation where she’s facing 50 guys with machine guns. (Or if she does it’s because there is an unexpected win strategy open to her, like blowing up the plane their all on or something).

    • The Endbringers as a psychological phenomenon. I like the implications of that. I think I can take that a bit further and actually point at them and say what they would be in that case: true monsters. Trigger events given physical form. They would be concepts with bodies, which would be why they are impossible at their cores. Behemoth is The Bully, Simurgh is Paranoia, and Leviathan would be exactly what Lung called it: a natural disaster.
      Those of you who have paid attention in high school english might recognize those 3 conflicts. They have just been given monstrous form.
      To kill an Endbringer in this case would be to save all of humanity from one of those conflicts. Scion IS trying to kill an Endbringer (Leviathan – the Endbringer who could be stopped the easiest) by attempting to remove the fear and pain caused by natural disasters.

      • Here’s a question… Would defeating the endbringer that embodied the trigger potential of that particular situation negate future trigger events from that sort of situation?

        • Using this reasoning? Yes. If only because those situations wouldn’t occur in the first place anymore, as that would be the only way to kill the Endbringer.

    • After beating Dragon, Lung, and Alexandria I can’t underestimate her. Still the prospects look pretty bad. They could use some help right about now.

    • This is the act 2 of this arc, our protagonist is firmly in the down and outs, the world seams to have taken a collective dump, etc. Thankfully, this is about the point in which Taylor thrives. She’ll find a way to survive, not sure if she wins; but defiantly survives.

    • I know Skitteris a badass and all, but I don’t expect her to actually save the day here. At this point I kind of expect a resounding Behemoth victory.

    • Certainly. The ‘crushed’ in the title refers to Leviathan. Obviously, somebody is going to have a second trigger event here, and will give them abilities specific to stopping Behemoth. Then Weaver will get a promotion, and it will turn out that Simurgh is fatally allergic to peanut butter.

  18. Imagine Contessa’s power being always on and her subsuming every desire/personality to Doctor Mother… then she’s effective a win-doll. Give her any objective and she will accomplish it, due to her power, but with her at the same time being trapped in a decision loop. She knows the perfect way to win, the perfect way to success, so why should she deviate?
    That though is actually kind of sad. I can see Contessa being a slave to her power, with her merely setting goals and then moving and acting on autopilot.

    Depending on the exact workings of her power, she doesn’t even have to be aware of what she needs to say to further her goals. She might not even have understood what she told the Cold Capes, only yapping her mouth in such a way it formed words convincing them in their own language.

    • Conversely it’s got to be frustrating for her to be balked by her power in some cases. Fighting the Endbringers for example. Other people go knowing it’s a fight they might lose. Countessa’s faced with her power telling her that it’s a fight she absolutely WILL lose.

      And the Endbringers aren’t the only ones.

      She was merciful with Taylor and the Wards. She was merciful with Faultline’s crew. She works for a monstrous organization, but for the mercy she’s shown I’m not willing to write her off as wholly monstrous herself. Given that, I could see how the limits of her power might be a pretty painful curse.

      • For the moment I consider her akin to a golem – deadly in the orders it can be given, but very little to no initiative beyond that. That’s based on my interpretation of her power, though, i.e. her being kind of a slave to it.

  19. Well, now we pretty much know why Cauldron was so interested in jailbreaking Pretender – the body snatcher. Disturbingly enough, based on what we’ve seen of his personality, I somehow doubt that this is even the first time he’s stolen a woman’s body.

  20. - what, “Cat’s Eyes” doesn’t warrant a tag? ;)
    – I’ll say one thing for Theo’s upbringing: having Night and Fog as your babysitters will put hair on your chest
    – who the hell are the cold capes fighting that is more important than BEHEMOTH?
    – “No war. But we need soldiers.” That suggests the Earth she’s sending them to is inhabited … perhaps by hunter-gatherer-level beings who will be summarily enslaved and/or slaughtered to make lebensroom. Me so punny. My name isn’t Godwin by the way.
    – who wants to bet Number Man is doing the exact same thing somewhere else in the world?
    – “That should be obvious.” Because all the shit has hit all the fans and very few secrets matter any more. I see a reread of every Cauldron-POV interlude in my near future.
    – Contessa miniboss battle. I actually cued up “Yell Dead Cell” before reading that fight
    – I was wrong. Wildbow did eventually tell us what her power was. A few people including myself guessed it correctly. Of course, given how much shit was flung at that particular wall …
    – so is she claiming there are other factions on this Earth that rival Cauldron’s breadth/power? A fifth column of interdimensional invaders? Alternatively, an internal schism *within* Cauldron?
    – BEHEMOTH is fucking unstoppable. They really need to rig up a Jimmy Olsen signal watch for Scion, man. This shit is too bananas
    – Okay, Skitter Weaver Taylor Spy, this is your moment. Time to bug everyone and everything and multitask like a motherfucker. Let’s go!

    The agenda is taking form. More pieces to more puzzles. Here are a few things I strongly suspect/am almost completely certain of now:

    – pretty sure Alexandria (OR her body double) is being run by Pretender. Skitter’s observations imply this
    – the Endbringers are neither former-humans nor ex-animals, they are waldoes. Someone is (remotely) piloting them. Their combat tactics aren’t … kaiju-style. They’re more the sort of thing a Spacebattles member would do if he were controlling one.
    – that and they seem rules-based. Like video game characters, complete with having to switch between power-ups like some kind of third-person action RPG with on-the-fly resource management. Especially notable with BEHEMOTH’s limitations on how many and which attacks he can use per unit time. To my eyes, that suggests technology as opposed to parahumanity (even if it’s more like theotech than anything else.)
    – the Endbringers, I think, are the creations of an Earth where parahumanity caused/is causing a disaster so vast in scale that the only logical response was to build all-powerful monster kaiju and invade the realities where parahuman population has yet to hit critical mass.
    – Doctor Mother, Contessa and Alexandria know about this
    – the cold capes of India know something. Could they be fighting … Endbringerspawn?
    – Project Terminus involves moving a breeding population to an Earth where the Endbringers can’t follow.
    – Project Terminus has already begun. Cauldron’s given up and is pulling up stakes.
    – the S9000 will be making a move soon or not at all.

    • My theory for a long time has been that the Endbringers are equivalent to a program. They operate within strict parameters, sort of like Dragon used to, no one explicitly running them, no actual intelligence, just going through the motions they are hardwired to do. I have no idea who or what created them, though I’m pretty sure I know what Cauldron’s gig is.

  21. Great chapter as always and for a good book the,the Leviathan triogly by Scoot Westerfeld is great, book two Behemoth is the one I like the most.

  22. Interesting.

    Contessa might well be lying – at the very least about her execution being inherently flawless. Even if she’s telling the truth, she’s constrained by her understanding of what victory means – a distraction covering a real attack somewhere else seems quite plausibly effective. I’d consider it highly likely that her speaking was part of her ‘path to victory’. I’d also consider it likely that she’s ill-suited to an extended engagement – her emphasis has, here as with Faultline’s crew, as with Lung’s meeting, literally every time we’ve seen her – been on a very swift nonlethal resolution to the fight. She chooses her fights – perhaps quite literally – very carefully. But consider Wanton – a mobile, sentient, telekinetic storm. If he closed with her, her only out is Doormaker or taking a hostage – he’s not something that flawless human hand to hand skill can defeat. Ditto Taylor’s swarms, if she’s not personally in range of Contessa. Imp’s surprise could likely trouble her; Regent’s tripping trick could wreak utter havoc on her precision. Tattletale face to face with her might well see something… interesting. And Grue, of course, could try to use her power himself.

    Note that while she got away clean, she didn’t wreck the team, as she did Faultline’s crew and Lung’s crew. Couldn’t? Didn’t want to? Too early to tell. She also has only ever used her hands, or melee weapons or tools – thrown knives against Faultline’s crew. A limitation on her powers? Likely. Note also that she has very little force of her own – she used Tecton to deal with Theo’s stone hands, for example, and the account of Lung’s fight, as well as the evidence of her fight with Faultline’s crew, suggests that her style relies on using her foes against each other. A single enemy with perfect coordination could perhaps be a real problem for her – and Taylor’s well set up to be just that.

    Note also that Taylor hit Contessa with one of her jump pack arms – had Defiant engineered the arms as he plans, that could have been a concussion or even fatal. She can be touched, when distracted. She demanded that Cuff and Grace back off – specifically those two. Why? Both of them have enhanced strength and durability – though Contessa took down Faultline’s crew, and Gregor both had that too. The evidence there suggested that she used Spitfire against Gregor. Contessa simply might not have the force to stop a brick without a teammate to throw in their way – and the Endbringers only ever come one at a time.

    Possible alternate explanation for why she was talking – Taylor (or Theo) may be one of those whom she cannot simply autodefeat – what she does simply doesn’t work on certain capes (if she is to be believed).

    And, on the upside, crushed probably refers to the Protectorate rather than Taylor personally. Alexandria, be it Pretender in her corpse or the true Alexandria taking the death of her double in stride, can afford to discard the the protection of being thought dead if Cauldron is deliberately discarding the Protectorate in favor of gathering their own army. And yet – if those capes will not be seen in this dimension again… whom will they be fighting? Contessa said she wanted soldiers. Are the Endbringers staging into this Earth from another? Will Sundancer and Ballistic be fighting an invasion by Cauldron, and call for help? Or will Cauldron attempt to take and hold the vacant earth on the other side of the Brockton Bay portal?

    Tentative conclusion that Coil/Skitter’s importance to Cauldron relied on their control of Brockton Bay and the portal therein, which fits with the current implied evacuation that Cauldron’s doing – implying that Cauldron always planned on that portal being there. Precognition on their part? Did Tattletale see the bones of their plan to put the portal in place, and pick it up as her own?

    The sheer numbers of the ‘cold’ capes are extremely disturbing, if everyone in that warren was parahuman. Taylor sensed thousands? Thought this might be one area of many? That would easily be more parahumans than we have ever seen in one place before, Endbringer fights included, even if the ratio was merely 1:10. At 1:100, you’re still looking at a sizable fraction of the capes who showed for the Endbringer fight above-ground. Was that his target? Why would they assemble there to NOT fight Behemoth, or does every major city in India have hundreds or thousands of capes in catacombs? Cauldron being Cauldron, even the ones who weren’t already parahumans… could be shortly. We know from Number Man’s interlude that they’ve had at least 3,016 subjects, and currently retain at least 2,048 (in total, or on one of the denser floors, depending on how you read it – it’s clearly a chosen number, 2^11, and is plausibly either the number above which Cauldron starts autopsying or the full number of cages on subbasement 2). Any way you look at those numbers, this Indian influx is a staggering increase in whatever Cauldron’s doing.

    As for Behemoth… looks like he crossed the final defensive line. And if he gets in aura range of the squishier capes, this could have an unprecedented cape kill-count.

    Best idea yet is to stick Theo in the middle of the Yangban for the power boost and try to grab Behemoth’s ankles and – let’s face it – that’s not a great idea.

      • There was an assumed intermediate step of execution… but you’re right, Cauldron is unlikely to be above vivisection. I was taking my cues from the Number Man’s explanation to the attempted escapee about how his death would help advance science.

    • Notes as always provides useful notes food for thought.

      As for the sheer numbers of the ‘cold’ capes and the existance of the catacombs, read up on B. R. Ambedkar’s works regarding the discrimination, trauma and tragic effects of the caste system in India and add how superpowers are traumatically induced for true 1st gen capes into the mix. The ‘cold’ capes being treated like Untouchables and marginalised by the rest of Indian society is not surprising.

    • Do we know if Theo’s power works on Endbringers? A good plan could be to tear a chunk off Behemoth (yes yes easier said than done just go with it), then have Theo shove his hands into it and start broggling around.

      The Manton effect would probably stop his power working on a person, but Endbringers don’t seem to follow the same rules as humans. It probably wouldn’t work, but it’s worth a shot.

    • My guess on the “soldiers” bit is that they’ve decided colonizing Earth-aleph makes more sense than rolling their own civilization in some other dimension. They’ve got mighty big carrots, too.. just imagine how quickly our politicians would sell out to them if they could get no-shit superpowers for it. They need enough bodies to fill out the ranks of their Mirrorshades, the ones who show up when a client gets uppity, having one or two professionals just doesn’t scale once secrecy is no longer an option.

      • The only plus point of Aleph is the preexisting infrastructure. Everything else is an argument against that course– inhabited, able to field resistance, already low on easily accessible ressources, cape community, …

        • Earth-aleph has the most useful resource in the post-Hero era: civilized human population. Minimally defended, aware of the threats the universe has to offer but not yet able to engage them (insofar as we know), they’re theoretically ripe for the plucking. Straight military invasion would be hard, but there’s no need for that, not when you can corrupt or coerce all the decision makers with ease.

  23. Superstrength – real superstrength, with all the secondary powers and ramifications, not the “superstrength lite” of comics – would be easily capable of taking out Contessa. You wouldn’t even need that much of it – someone capable of lifting and throwing around 10 tons could do it. Why?

    1) Toughness. A human-sized body capable of exerting that kind of strength without damaging itself would be tougher than a tank.
    2) Speed. A human-sized body propelled by that kind of strength is fast because its own inertia is almost meaningless in comparison to their own strength. Imagine someone that can jump a hundred feet or run at three hundred miles an hour, for example. Or someone that can punch or kick just as fast as they can type letters on a keyboard – any move, even the largest, completed about as fast as they can think it.
    3) Accuracy/balance. For the same reason as speed. Balance on a single finger. Aim blows as easily as you can turn your eyes or point a finger. Compensate for being off-balance effortlessly.
    4) Damage. Realistically speaking, if someone that hits as hard as a wrecking ball jumps up to you and punches you twenty times in under a second, you’ll be a greasy smear on the floor as soon as the fight starts.

    It doesn’t matter if Contessa can predict how to best dodge. She still needs to move her body aside with only human strength and if you can swing a half-dozen times for every time she can dodge, she’s toast.
    It doesn’t matter if she knows how to beat you by something that is in the other side of the room or escape through a doorway. By the time she starts moving towards her goal or asks for a doorway, you’ll have crossed twenty feet in a single small (for you) step and punched several times.
    It doesn’t matter if she partially dodges a blow and you only land a finger. Fingers that can treat concrete like soft clay would dig gaping wounds through a body casually.

    • Have fun getting her in position to take advantage of that vulnerability. Especially when she has a teammate that can open dimensional doors at will.

    • A lot depends on whether she ALWAYS has that stiletto and handkerchief or if she brought them with her because she was going to need them.

      If she brought them with her because she was going to need them, then any solution of the “no one can beat this with skill alone” variety is unlikely to be helpful.

      If she had them because her power told the cosmic GM “it’s reasonable that I’d have a stiletto and handkerchief, right?” then that’s even worse.

    • …Isn’t that Alexandria’s power? Speed, Strenght, Toughness?

      Then again, it depends on how her “I Win” works, precisely – on a larger scale, she’ll never be in a situation where someone can use their overwhelming ability against her.

      Whenever she uses the ability it may very well just tell her, welp, time to change the continent, no paths to victory here.

      • Yeah, just like when Darwin faced the Hulk and his power to survive any situation gave him the ability to teleport to the next state. Contessa instead can teleport in another dimension.

        Seriously Number Man/Contessa+Doormaker is a gamebreaking combo and Cauldron knows it.

        • I actually like that. A conspiracy like Cauldron has been depicted to be needs some good “degenerate combos” to feel believable in a world with super powers as diverse as Worm’s are.

          That way, their success is less “Author’s fiat” and more “leveraging these horribly game breaking abilities we have”. The primary difference between the two is that in the first case they can only be overcome by more Author’s fiat and in the second you just need to figure out a way to break the combo.

  24. Taylor faces Contessa. “It’s six against one, meh we can take her.”
    Every reader everywhere:”Nooooooooooooo!!”

    On a related aspect, the first time we saw Contessa at work, I briefly speculated wether her power was actually simply “winning fights”, but dismissed it because I thought, just like Grace, that it would be a bit too overpowered. Guess I should have realized, as Taylor so aptly put it, that some powers simply aren’t fair. :)

  25. I kinda facepalmed when she told about her power.
    I can so see a group that looks as power-elitist and intoxicated with hubris as Cauldron using her power to determine their plans.

    Her power might be useful on a small tactical scale, but “Win” as the only strategic objective… seriously, that’s the kind of reasoning the Silastic Armorfiends of Stiterax would employ. And we know how it ended up for them and their supercomputer.

    As for her power not working on the endbringers, “the only winning move is not to play” I guess. Either that or since every power is multi-dimensional in origin, and the endbringers are only on Earth Beth, hers does not have a sufficient statistical breadth do do a good analysis.

  26. Welp, Contessa’s (stated) power is what we suspected.

    And oh deary me, things aren’t going very well.

    If wildbow has Tt survive Cody’s attack only to be killed off-screen by Behemoth, or disappeared by Cauldron during his attack on the headquarters, then that would be GRRM levels of hillarious dicking. : D

    • To clarify, I meant that in a positive way, sort of. Not that I wouldn’t be mildly traumatised inside if it happened haha, but I’d be traumatised in the sort of way that good fiction can achieve, if you see what I mean.

  27. I have a theory: Perhaps the beings that are the source of capes’ powers are the war that Cauldron is gathering soldiers for? The passengers in capes could be eggs of sorts, and the beings are migrating to the multiple Earths in existence to “hatch” the eggs, causing Bad Things to happen to the various Earths?

    • At this point anythings possible. The vision with the passengers I find the most interiguing is the one where it seems they want to go to earths with potentially interesting futures. How does that factor in with the whole apocalypse thing? Are they going to cause it? Or do they find post apocalyptic settings interesting? Or is something else trying to cause the apocalypse so they will lose interest in that earth?

  28. >> She was speaking to Cat’s Eyes in a low voice. He was nodding unconsciously as she spoke.
    >> Then she met my eyes.
    >> “Who the hell are you?” I asked.

    and later,

    >> I hadn’t thought it would take as long as it had, hadn’t anticipated a fight with the woman in the suit.
    >> Should have asked her name.

    Minor error, or perhaps an artifact of reality alteration?

  29. I may be missing something, but how are Contessa’s motives for exposition “obvious?”

    Unless, of course, she means it benefits Cauldron down the line for Taylor to know, or that’s how she wins in this context.

    And a warning that some players are making plays under the cover of the truce. We know the Yangban, and Cauldron. Who else is making the moves?

    • My guess is that her power is telling her that they are.

      I do however think that she screwed up there, assuming the radiation does not corrupt the video recording too much I think Tattletale will be able to gain a lot more information out if it that Contessa thought she was giving.

    • I thought it was Contessa’s way of telling Taylor to get her shit together. The last arc Taylor was mostly doing unimportant things, getting settled with her new position, when she should be looking at the big picture.

      I think Cauldron knows Taylor has the potential to be a major player in this game and she’s not going to live up to her potential if she’s busy talking to a bunch of elementary schoolkids when the end of the world is on the horizon.

  30. Man, I hope if Chevalier is crippled from the laser wound down, he at least gets a bitchin’ combat hovercycle as a steed.

  31. huh. Yanno, I wonder if Contessa, at some point, asked herself “How do I beat the Endbringers?” and her power said “Well, step one is joining these Cauldron fellows…”

  32. Ummm… Guys, remember the camera Dragon stuck on Taylor back on the ship? The recordings of Taylor & the Chicago Wards’ encounter with Contessa is going to make an interesting After Action Report for the Protecterate & PRT

    • As I said a few posts above, I’m waiting for the recording’s analysis by Dragon and Tattletale.
      That should finally shed some light on Cauldron’s motives and possibly location.

  33. “Message from Defiant,” my armband declared. “Alexandria confirmed gone from PRT custody.“

    Hmm.. what is that implying? Alexandria came back from the dead. Now that is pretty extreme and requires an explanation.

    • It’s looking more like Cauldron simply opened a portal into the Morgue & took her body so Pretender could use it as a sock puppet.

      • That’s a pretty good theory and explains why they wanted Pretender alive, and looks all the better with the body gone. Another possibility is still the body double working for Cauldron with similar powers, and still stealing the body.

        Either way, Alexandria herself is not likely back to life, given the brain damage she’d be suffering from. Even if she could somehow heal that, there’s still all the data she’d lose out of the ole-noggin, even if we’re in a world where clones somehow retain memories from their originator.

  34. Regarding Contessa’s powers and her weaknesses.

    We know that her power helps her see the path to victory, but we don’t really know much about its scope.

    Based on her appearances we can make some speculations though.

    So far she has only ever appeared alone and direct conflicts.

    Maybe one of the weaknesses for her power is that it doesn’t take into account her wishes and priorities: “So you want to defeat that bear chasing you? Ok, first step is to trip your slowest teammate, once the bear starts mauling them kick him to the head…”

    Contessa is always fighting alone because she can’t really instruct her powers to consider certain secondary objectives beyond merely winning. (Her stint as Doctor Mother’s bodyguard would speak against this)

    Another factor might be that she so far has mostly engaged in physical brawls. Would her power allow her to play chess really well or would it just say “You have to knock over the board and punch the other guy in the throat while he shields his face from flying pawns.”

    Could she do strategy and direct other capes with her power?

    I think Contessa’s weakness might simply be that she is limited to winning actual physical fights and coming out of them totally unscanted.

    One obvious solution is to put her in a position of conflicting priorities. Her powers show her how to win the fight she is currently in, but she knows that something more important is at stake. Maybe try to make her sacrifice herself for Cauldron and Doctor Mother.

    • I figure Contessa is something that they just can’t deal with until they can get at Cauldron directly, ice the motherfuckers execution style, take Doorman out of commission, and then when they find her again have Dragon carpet bomb her ass into a smoldering pile of war criminal pissant charcoal.

      I’d love to see her face when that happens.

    • Well, since Tattletale has already proven she can figure out how to work around tricky, reality-modifying powers using careful, long-range planning (i.e. Coil’s), I imagine, given enough time and resources, she couldn’t figure out a scenario that causes Contessa’s death too.

      Heck, if Accord was still alive, he could probably come up with and construct a perfectly viable solution to the Contessa problem as well.

      Hg

      • I kind of wonder how different Accord’s power and Contessa’s are. They both tell them how to execute a plan to succeed. The difference only really seems to be that Contessa’s power relies strictly on things she has absolute control over (her body, her clothes, her weapon) where Accord’s power seemed mostly to account for things that he had little control over.

        In both cases, their probable weakness is in letting them be aware of their situation and use their power to define a way out. Accord died because he didn’t really believe his life was in danger before he could contemplate a solution. It seems likely that Contessa’s defeat will be similar. Just don’t give her an opportunity to be aware of the threat before it’s over. Sniper fire should be pretty effective, for example.

    • Because if you let your attention slip on anything, you will get blindsided by the thing you let slip. And if you choose not to focus on something, you could get blindsided by that. It’s not focusing on multiple things that’s the problem, it’s accidentally slipping your focus on one of the multiple things.

    • If they focus on both, they’re not focusing on anything, not really. People love to say they multitask, but their inability to talk and drives competently suggests otherwise. People love to say how they’re great at it too, how it’s just fine as long as it’s bluetooth hands-free, but they’re not, they’re just really bad at judging how much their performance is impacted while their attention is split.

      • Actually, from what I’ve read, I think I remember that research shows that you can never really concentrate on two things simultaneously, instead you just switch attention very rapidly and otherwise let reflexes, unconscious thinking, and short-term memory do their thing.

        • Also, the more you train to multitask, the worse you get at it, because you really train to cfocus on one thing.

  35. Wouldnt it be great if Grayboy’s power was being unable to lose. Then we could have the old “spear that pierces everything versus the unpierceable shield” cliche.

  36. Oh, and Wildbow? Just wanted to state for the record that I did spot the part where the cold cape referred to BEHEMOTH as ‘Prathama’ the Sanskrit word for ‘First’. Makes sense, seeing as BEHEMOTH was the first reported Endbringer, yes?

  37. – “We handle enemy you don’t see, you costumes help enemies above ground. Scare Prathama away.” —

    Chilling, as is the thought Cauldron needs soilders in a war that they do not expect to go well enough that the dark capes will ever be seen again.

      • Anticipated I wouldn’t have time and I was right. Traveled home Monday (wrote Tues chapter), writer’s circle took up my time from 4:20pm to midnight (traveled to next city over, since usual meeting place was a no-go), and just unpacked/got reacclimatized today. Would’ve stressed & produced something shoddy if I tried to squeeze it in.

        • That’s totally cool man, I think we’d all much rather you were happy and at your best than killing yourself trying to pump stuff out, even from a totally selfish perspective.

          Hope the move went okay and you’re settling in well : )

        • No worries. I always check on Thurs, myself, just in case… but I also check the site Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. I don’t know why. I’m just compelled to come back.

        • Do not worry. For one, it’d’ve been an extra update anyway and for two, I prefer quality over quantity. Not that you’re lacking in any of these apartments, mind you…

        • Don’t worry you weren’t the only one. Not sure I’ll do that for Saturdays though. On the other hand not much I haven’t seen on the cartoons so it’ll be a fine way to spend the morning. Hmmn, Worm as a Saturday cartoon.

  38. A thought occurred to me…
    If Contessa only needed to ask for a doorway to receive one, this implies a sort of communication to Doormaker. Multiple explanations, some with good and some with bad implications, arise:

    * Doormaker is on Bet and she radio’d him. (Actively or by surveillance, who knows)

    * Doormaker is in another universe and Cauldron has some kind of interuniverse communication. (Technological? A parahuman?)
    If Contessa didn’t have some kind of transmitter, this implies some pretty powerful interuniverse listening/spying capability. As if Cauldron wasn’t already powerful enough… Or Doormaker had a portal running in some nook for them to look at the situation at it unfolded.

    * Contessa’s request for a portal was timed and only appeared to be on demand.

    • Doormaker appears to be able to upkeep portals indefinitely (see the Number Man’s interlude). Easy enough to run some wires through. The Number Man was also handling his money stuff from Cauldron’s world, so they’ve done that sort of thing before.

      • There’s also mention, in the Number Man’s interlude, of another of theirmessed up parahuman working in tandem with Doormaker. Someone capable of seeing all universes at once, I believe, so coordinating multidimensional transport shouldn’t be that much of a problem

  39. Worm gets a mention in the Epiguide Podcast here (Spoilers for other web serials, including LoN, Animal Kingdom and Bad Influences).

    Nothing much there, they spend more time criticizing me about being sparse with details/spoilers than they do talking about the serial, haha.

    • Good, if the only thing they get to criticize is the lack of details (which is a selling point for me btw, and so far you neatly avoided arc fatigue) it must mean you’re getting even better at writing.

      Personally I find the style improvement is getting noticeable in the last few arcs btw, practice makes perfect ;)

          • Well, I kinda loathe podcasts, (never understood why, but I get really annoyed with those things. does not happen with audiobooks) so your recap is the only thing I know about their recaps… of something I’m actually reading… urk, the recursion is making my head spin now.

            I also hate spoilers with a passion, so thanks for the heads up, and thanks to Packbat for putting on the red shirt for all of us ;)

    • *clicks “play”*

      *gets distracted for a moment*

      *starts listening again*

      …Oh, god fucking dammit. Wildbow, could you add a big gigantic SPOILER WARNING to your post? Because people like me who are still slowly trawling through, say, the Legion of Nothing archives might not appreciate being given great big spoilery plot summaries straight up right at the top of the episode.

        • Thanks muchly. At least now I know to turn on my Tattletale-senses when dealing with unfamiliar podcasts, review sites, and so forth — ten seconds spent contemplating the implications of advertising “recaps” (or even your comment about the hosts’ complaints) and I could have dodged that bullet. Easy to forget how cavalier some people can be about spoilers when those in your social circle go to great effort to avoid dropping them.

  40. I just realised, with the rust colour of his armour and pile bunker weapons, Tection based his power armour design on the Alt Eisen didn’t he?

    • I dunno. Alt Eisen isn’t rust colored. And I think that Tectons weapons would be more like Rumble and Frenzy’s piledrivers.

  41. Thank you to Megan for the generous donation.

    And an especially big thank you goes out to Phillipe. I’ve queued up another donation for a later date.

  42. Holy carp. Well, we know a little more about Cauldron, a bit more about how screwed the world is, and suspect that Tattletale is dead (although unconscious/immobile are still possibilities).

  43. Taylor should have used a MAD situation when the precog had her by the throat. If she stabs she gets full of poison and dies in seconds.

    “The woman pulled her suit jacket off and held it out, sweeping it through the air to catch the thickest collection of my swarm within. She folded it closed, simultaneously breaking into stride, heading right for Wanton.”
    If only the thickest collection was caught then there should still be plenty left that are now on her.
    This would be checkmate except the rest were swallowed by a plot hole (annoying how common those are becoming).

    “Because it’s the only way she’d be able to stop the bugs from surrounding her”
    She CANNOT stop the bugs as they continue attacking even without Taylor concious.

    Perfect moves are nice and all, but they don’t help if you’re playing chess against someone who is playing by Accelerated Absorption Crazyhouse rules (hey Endbringers :)).

    • If only the thickest collection was caught then there should still be plenty left that are now on her.
      This would be checkmate except the rest were swallowed by a plot hole (annoying how common those are becoming).

      That one was obvious enough that I saw it, and endorsed the fanon that “Contessa’s plan of victory was to make Weaver surrender before it mattered”.

  44. Why does everything keep catching fire and burning? I know that things would burn but if he’s blowing a great gout of flame at a building I’m pretty sure the Oxygen would be used up as everything flammable would be incinerated, and if everything was so easy to catch fire then New Delhi would be a nightmare.

    And thousands dead, really? I think we’re talking a little bit more than that Taylor.

    “Population (2011)[2]
    • Municipal corporation 249,998
    • Density 5,854.7/km2 (15,164/sq mi)
    • Metro 21,753,486″

    Isn’t having a non-mobile command centre against Behemoth one of the most stupid things that anyone could do?

    Why do any of the thinkers and non-combat strategists have to be near the front? Just look through a video camera or a sat feed or a recon drone feed.

    Aren’t they meant to have had hundreds of fights against these monsters? 2 a year for the last 30 years? They certainly don’t seem very intelligent at all, it’s like they’re trying to get killed. How has no one analysed the Endbringer’s and formulated some, any kind of battle plan? I can just imagine any of these capes involved in a war it would be laughable, it’s like they saw a history record of the Battle of the Somme and were like, let’s do that over and over again until all our capes die.

    Where are the Generals of this world?

  45. typo- fifth paragraph

    “They destroying the ground beneath his feet, trying to get him when his focus was elsewhere and his ability to redirect the energies of a given attack was reduced.”

  46. I wonder what powers Eidolon is using. He has flight, super-strength or a Striker ability, the ability to not perish from a brief time in Behemoth’s aura, and the slowing bubbles. That’s four major abilities, so two of the first three are presumably the same power. Maybe tactile kinesis, durability, and the bubbles?

    And, considering other holes in Contessa’s ability, I’d imagine that the “no path takes you to victory” thing is likely. The assumption that Contessa’s power lets her do the obvious–held by some fans–always bugged me. I mean, the improbable, sure. The million-to-one chance, sure. But what if Contessa tried to figure out how to set up a lunar colony with nothing but a can of beans, while stuck on a desert island? What would her power tell her then, considering that it isn’t sentient enough to call her an idiot?

  47. Dear Wildbow,

    If you’re still editing the story for future publication, you may want to audit your “and I”s (and probably the “and me”s too). For example, “Golem, odd as it was, seemed to fall more in line with Techton and I” should be “and me”. I’ve noticed one if these every few chapters.

    It seems insufficient to say thanks for the story so far, so I’ll just say that it’s been a fun ride, and I’m looking forward to the rest.

  48. Damnit, I basically picked Contessa’s power and never actually said for fear of spoiling. xO

    I figured she had the ability to automatically do the most effective thing in any given circumstance rather than precognition in the Dinah sense or worldshifting like Coil.

    This chapter still hasn’t made it clear though whether Contessa consciously acts on information her power gives her or acts as a puppet to it. I suspect the latter to at least some extent. Even if a normal person were being drip-fed the perfect course of action, I doubt they could act on it fast enough for it to be useful.

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