Snare 13.3

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How the hell was that motherfucker that fast?

He wasn’t even trying to avoid my bugs, so I had a sense of where he was as Grue, Bitch and I tore down the street on our dogs.  I rode behind Grue on Sirius, my arms on his shoulders, while Bitch rode Bentley, Lucy’s corpse lying across her lap.

We’d lost a couple of minutes as we helped Bitch retrieve Lucy’s real body.  It was eerie to see.  When the dogs grew, they really appeared to be adding mass, literally growing and stretching.  Somewhere in the transformation, after they weren’t recognizable as the animals they had once been, their real bodies were reformed inside a placenta-like sac.  Mannequin’s gunshot had opened a hole in Lucy’s chest and penetrated that membrane to kill the real dog within.  We’d used my knife and Grue’s raw strength to help pull the dog free in a grim sort of anti-childbirth.

It might be seen as a waste of precious time in a crucial moment, but I doubted we would have had Bitch in our corner otherwise, and without her, we wouldn’t have a ride, so to speak.

I’d consoled myself with the fact that we had a pair of massive, muscular steeds that could outpace any car you’d see on the street, and Mannequin was limited to his two legs.  The thing was, somewhere around the point where he stopped trying to evade my tripwires and my bugs and picked up speed, when he really started moving, I realized he was actually faster than the dogs.

Mannequin covered a lot of ground with his long legs and seemingly endless energy, and he didn’t have any injuries.  The dogs, Bitch and Grue did.  Mannequin had been aiming at the animals more than he’d aimed at Grue or Bitch, so the damage to my teammates was more or less limited to a few flecks embedded in the legs, buttock and feet.  The injuries were small, but one in Bitch’s stomach worried me.  There were way too many vitals that could be hit with that location, and it was bleeding worse than any of the others.

She wanted to press on, and I wasn’t about to try and change her mind.  I wouldn’t be able to stop her, for one thing, and I did want to help my people.

Mannequin moved in a straight line, onto rooftops, down to the ground, or halfway down and through windows that had been stripped of glass, emerging from the far side.  My bugs swarmed him where I could get them to, trying to snag him with lines and threads of silk and hamper his movements, but I could only get him with a small few at a time.  He was approaching the edge of my effect’s reach, and I knew I’d lose track of him shortly.

Once I did, I wasn’t sure I’d catch him again.  He could apparently see my bugs and since our last confrontation he’d gained the ability to see the spider silk I was placing on him or in his vicinity.  It was remarkably high-resolution vision for someone who hadn’t been able to notice that I didn’t have a pool of blood spreading out beneath me during our last fight.  Or was his inability to see that because he was calibrated to see the small things?

It wouldn’t matter if I couldn’t find him or catch up to him.

“He’s veering left!” I shouted to my teammates, “Faster, Sirius!  He’s getting away!”

I could feel a tremor in Sirius’ body, like the momentary tremor of a twitching muscle, but in every muscle.  My legs spread a fraction further apart as he grew larger, his ribs expanding further in either direction.  The increase in his speed was small but noticeable.

I cast a glance over my shoulder at Bitch.  Her mask had fallen off at some point when we’d been retrieving Lucy or during our ride.  She looked drawn, the lines of her mouth and the bones of her face that much more prominent.  Had I failed to notice she was like that before, was it pain from her injuries that did it, or was it anger?

Whatever it was, I suspected this use of her power was drawing on reserves she didn’t have.

Mannequin disappeared into the penthouse floor of an apartment building, and I positioned bugs at the very periphery of my range to prepare lines of thread and to gather so they could land on him as he emerged.

Somehow, I couldn’t say how, he emerged from a lower floor, mere seconds after he’d entered the building.  He brushed past a small handful of insects, and then he was out of reach of my swarm.

“He’s out of my range!” I shouted.

Nobody responded.  I had to double-check that Bitch hadn’t fallen from Bentley’s back.  She didn’t look any better than she had a moment ago, and she looked out of breath.  I expected the pain of her injuries was taking its toll.  As for Grue, I couldn’t really see anything but the back of his head and his shoulders while I clung to his waist.  I didn’t get the sense that he was about to pass out, either.

No use in responding when you couldn’t spare the breath and everyone knew what the answers would be.  We’d search for him at the last place we’d seen him.  My territory.

Giant paws pounded on the wet pavement as we raced for our destination.

How the hell were we supposed to fight him?  If we could even find him?

He’d have some countermeasure for my bugs and my cocoon strategy.  There was no way he’d let himself get caught up in the same trap twice.  Grue’s power didn’t affect him.  Bitch’s dogs did affect him, but they weren’t bulletproof.

That was without factoring in any additional weapons he had.

One arm around Grue’s waist, I drew my phone from my utility compartment and dialed Genesis from my contact list.

“Genesis here.  What?”

“Mannequin en route to my territory for some kind of revenge against me for our last fight.  How fast can you pull a body together?”

“Two minutes.”

“He’ll be there in five.  Clear people out of the way, and put together a form that can take a beating and hamper him.”

“On it.”

Sierra was the first and only contact I’d entered into the phone beyond the ones Coil had put in prior to giving them to us.  I contacted her next.

“Sierra here, boss.”

“Clear people out of the area, and contact everyone you gave a phone to, telling them to hide and take cover.  Mannequin’s coming back to make trouble.”

“Got it.”

I hung up.  With the jostling movement of the dog’s running, I didn’t trust my ability to put the phone away in the compartment, so I held it in one clenched fist.

During the six or seven minutes it took us to cross from Ballistic’s territory to my own, my teeth were clenched so hard I thought I’d break something, my neck and shoulders so tense they felt more like stone than flesh.

I valued my ability to come up with answers, but my mind was empty.  I wasn’t sure how I’d deal, and the worst part of it was that it wasn’t me that was necessarily going to pay the price.

As we entered my territory, I felt strangely composed for the anxieties that tore through me, a little detached from things.

My bugs swept through the territory, and I did my best to recall where tripwires had been set and figure out which had been broken.  I checked on my people, using bugs to make sure they were standing and that they were somewhere safe.

Could I sweep through my territory using squadrons of flies with dragline silk stretched out between them, to the point that he couldn’t slip past them?  It would take time to set up.

No.  There was no need.  As I approached the heart of my territory, near my barracks, I found him, standing in the middle of the road.

“There!” I called out to my team.  We changed direction and charged toward the street in question.  We stopped when he came into our view.

Mannequin stood in the center of the road, his back to us.  Half a dozen of my people were lying on the road, unconscious or dead.  I couldn’t see any blood.  There were a couple more people in nearby buildings that had fallen as well.  How had he reached them?  Why hadn’t Genesis and Sierra been able to get everyone out?

A quiet horror ran through me like ice water.

Genesis, too, was on the road, in the process of dissolving.  She’d taken on the form of something like a stegosaurus crossed with a scorpion, all brawn and armor plating, with a long, prehensile, wickedly spiked tail.  He’d beaten her.

Very little of the silk I’d laid on him was still intact.  My bugs settled on him, and began to draw out more silk, binding him.

He turned our way, and his mouth opened like a ventriloquist dummy or a christmas nutcracker.  It jiggled up and down, silently, mocking.  Laughter without sound.

“Fucker!” Bitch screamed.  Then she whistled, with a volume and pitch that could make crowds stop in their tracks.  Bentley charged.

The bugs I had on Mannequin began to die.

That took me a precious second to process.  “Bitch!  It’s a trap!”

She turned to look over her shoulder, and Bentley took some cue from that, because he turned slightly.  Maybe that helped, because she hauled him into a hard left turn, wheeling around.

Whatever it was that Mannequin was doing, it spread fast, knocking my bugs out of the air and reaching out past Bitch and Bentley before they realized the threat and started running away from him.

“Get back!” I shouted.

Bitch urged Bentley into a run.  They made it four steps before Bentley collapsed.

Tumbling to the ground, Bitch landed and couldn’t sustain her own weight with her injured leg.  She landed flat on her stomach, and then began making retching sounds as she gasped for air and continued to crawl forward.

Mannequin’s mouth continued jittering up and down, and he took a step closer to us, his hands upturned at his sides.

Gas.  Colorless, scentless, swift to spread and it incapacitated in seconds.  If my bugs were any indication, it also killed its victims shortly after.

I looked around, hoping and praying for some sort of outside assistance.  Nothing.

It was down to me, Grue, Sirius and Bastard.

Bastard looked unnerved.  His master and alpha were out of action.  He took a step forward, then back.  He was unnerved by Mannequin, and I suspected he could smell the gas.

“Bastard!” I said.  He whipped his head around to look at me.

Here’s hoping that Bitch trained him well.

“Get your master!  Go!  Fetch!” I pointed at Bitch.

Bastard turned, started forward, and then stopped.

“Go!  Fetch, fetch!”

He bolted.  Mannequin continued walking slowly towards us.  He didn’t move as Bastard approached and picked Bitch up by the back of her pants.

It would be so easy for him to simply shoot Bastard and slow him down long enough for the gas to take effect.  He didn’t.

“Bastard, come!  Come on!”

The puppy ran back to us.  There was nothing we could do for Bentley.

I hopped down and grabbed Bitch as Bastard came back to us.  He growled as I approached, but he didn’t protest as I took Bitch into my arms and dragged her back toward Grue and Sirius.

Grue didn’t dismount, but I doubted he would have managed well if he had, given his injured leg.  I tried to ignore Mannequin’s steady approach as I propped Bitch’s limp form up against Sirius’ side long enough to lift her arms up to Grue’s waiting hands.  Together, we hauled her up so she was lying astride Sirius’ shoulders, just in front of Grue.

“Gas,” I muttered.  “There’s a cloud of gas around him.”

“Fuck me,” Grue said.  “I’d hoped we could at least hit him.”

I looked at Bastard.  Too small to ride.  He was the size of a pony, but he wasn’t built for riding in the same way, and the spikes and bony plates that covered him were too densely packed for me to find any sort of flat patch to sit on.  I reached for the chain that trailed from his muzzle.

He growled again, vicious.

I was taken aback for half a second.  Then anger set in.  I barked, “Enough!” and I snatched up the chain.

He growled again, and I hauled on it.  The way it was rigged, it looped around his snout so it would tighten around the end of his nose when the chain was pulled.  It was like a choke collar, but focused more on the sensitive snout than on the throat.  He recoiled and tried to pull away, and I tugged again.

This time, he went still, resisting less.

“You’re with me, puppy,” I said, pulling on the chain as I backed away from Mannequin.  “Grue, take Bitch and get to cover.  I can’t see inside your darkness so long as that gas is wiping out my bugs, and he isn’t bothered by it, so remove it as fast as you apply it, but try to push the gas away or displace it or whatever.”

“We need a plan to win this,” he said.

“Priority one is surviving until we think of one,” I replied.  “Genesis will be back in action in a few minutes.”

“A few minutes is a long time.”

“I know,” I looked at Mannequin again.  He’d closed his mouth and was standing still.  I pointed.  “You go that way, I go this way.  Keep an eye on the sky.  If there’s trouble, we signal each other.”

He nodded once.


We split, and Mannequin broke off, chasing Grue.

I headed the opposite way.

Think, Taylor, think!  Mannequin was a smart guy.  Everything he did would be calculated to achieve some specific goal.

Why was he here?  He wanted to hurt me.  He wanted to hit me where it hurt, and he’d done it.  He’d killed no less than ten of my followers.  Charlotte and Sierra could easily be among them.

He had let us find him because he wanted to bait us into a trap.  It had worked against Bitch, for the most part.  She wasn’t dead, I hoped, but she was out of action.

What about the small stuff?  The little things?  After he’d caught Bitch, he hadn’t shot her, and he hadn’t shot Bastard when the puppy was making its rescue attempt.


He could have been conserving ammunition.  What was that term for ‘the simplest answer is often the correct one’?  It didn’t matter.  It was possible.

I moved my bugs closer to Mannequin, to test his presence for gas.  Only a few perished.  There wasn’t much, if any.  His mouth was closed.  He was catching up to Grue.  Grue must have noticed, because he directed Sirius up into an alley and towards a roof.

Mannequin stopped and raised one arm, then fired.  My bugs felt the concussion of the shot, but no reaction from Grue and Sirius.  There was a pause, then another shot.  Again, no reaction.  Two misses.

Okay.  So Mannequin was shooting now, when he hadn’t been before.

Were there other clues?  What had changed after he’d closed his mouth?

He’d started running, for one thing.

So he hadn’t been running, he hadn’t been shooting…  What had been holding him back?  It could have been him trying to look intimidating, but he could have achieved the same ends by shooting Bastard and making me watch Bitch die.  He could have been just as scary running towards us as fast as he’d sprinted from the ambush site to my territory.

The gas.  If the gas was coming from his mouth, and he was being careful in how he moved, that meant there was something about the gas.  I even had an idea about what it was.

Maybe he hadn’t wanted to blow himself up.

He’d been invested in terraforming, once upon a time.  Making inhospitable environments hospitable.  Chances were he was loaded down with custom-made organisms that were primed to generate the gas he was using, maybe even storing it in a compressed form.  Given his tinker abilities, they could be advanced enough to account for the sheer volume of the gas.  It could even be how his guns operated: with compressed, combustible gas used to fire the shot.

There was no way to say for sure, but my gut told me I was right or I was pretty close to the mark.  His actions, both the obvious and minor ones, make a complete, logical sense if I assumed he was spewing out massive volumes of flammable gas.

Could I even take advantage of that?  The amount of gas he seemed to be putting out would make for a devastating explosion.  It could potentially hurt him, but I couldn’t say if the shockwave or the blast itself would kill me or any nearby innocents.  If there was enough gas, it could even damage or destroy nearby buildings.  Some of the structures around here weren’t exactly sound.

If nothing else, it gave me a clue about what to watch for.  It also gave me a last-ditch weapon if things really went south.  I ordered my bugs into the building I’d designated as my people’s barracks and collected some small items with silk and clouds of bugs working in unison.

A spear of darkness soared towards the sky.  When it lost momentum, it began billowing outward and drifting slightly with the wind. A signal.

“Come on, Bastard!” I ordered.  I bolted for Brian’s location.  I crossed the street, glancing at the fallen Bentley, and I headed toward an alley.

My bugs crossed paths with me, and the items made their way into my hands.  A cheap plastic lighter and a packet of matches.  I stashed the matches between my belt and my hip and slid the lighter into a small pocket in my utility compartment.

I really hoped I wouldn’t have to use them.

Entering the alley, I swept through the area with my bugs, directing them to extend outward with lines of silk between them.  They were gathered close enough to one another that Mannequin wouldn’t be able to avoid them.

I found Mannequin and the black smudge of Grue’s form at the opposite end of the alley.  Sirius and Bitch were a distance away, both sprawled at the base of a building, covered in rubble.  I wondered how this scenario had unfolded.  How had Mannequin hit them that hard?  Grue had reached the roof, the last I saw, and I’d missed what came next because I hadn’t wanted to lose precious bugs from my swarm by getting them gassed.  Whatever had occurred, Mannequin had turned the tables and brought them back to the ground, hard.

Mannequin looked at me, and his mouth was open, engaged in that same shuddering up and down movement as before.  I raised one hand to the fabric that covered my nose and mouth and backed away.  Were Bitch and Sirius close enough to be getting gassed too?  I could feel bugs crawling on them.  Both were breathing, though Bitch’s breaths were rapid and hoarse.  My bugs were alive, as well, which meant they were safe where they were.  A quick test with my bugs told me the cloud around Mannequin was small, with a radius of about four or five feet.  There was no gas around me, either.  The bugs on me weren’t suffering, and they’d be the first to die or feel symptoms.

But Grue?  Grue had surrounded himself in a thick cloud of darkness, to the point that I couldn’t make out his arms and legs in the midst of it.  From what I could gather, he was getting some benefit from it, and was pushing the gas away.  How long could he sustain that, though?  Was the darkness filtering it out, or was he holding his breath, slowly suffocating?

“Mannequin,” I said, sounding a million times more calm than I felt.  “You’re going to back off and you’re going to let him go.”

He cocked his head to one side.

I raised the matchbook and, after checking again that my bugs were gas-free, lit it.  A handful of my bugs carried it into the air.

“Or I light you up,” I said.

Could I?  I believed I could.  Maybe it was fatigue speaking.  Maybe it was the grim recognition of the fact that Mannequin had spoiled any hopes I’d had of winning Coil’s respect and saving Dinah when he’d murdered the people in my territory.  He’d singlehandedly destroyed my reputation and dealt a grave blow to the thing that had been driving me forward.  Maybe a teeny-tiny part of it was hopelessness, knowing that I couldn’t  beat him otherwise.

So yeah, if he was going to snatch my hopes of saving Dinah from me, if Bitch and Grue were about to die anyways, I could turn the tables and blow us all up.  I might not save Dinah, but I could save all the people Mannequin would murder otherwise in the course of his career.  No bluffing.

He stepped back, and I realized his foot had been on Grue’s chest.  I watched as Grue stood and then began limping toward me.  Bastard growled and tugged on the chain I held.

I was in the process of reaching out for Grue to help steady him when I saw Mannequin move.  He closed his mouth, raised one hand, and I could see a hole appear in the base of his palm.  The barrel of a gun.

“No!” the word was as much a grunt as anything else as it came from my throat, too choked for me to say anything normal.  I grabbed for Grue as I’d planned and I shoved him to the ground.

In a movie, that might have been the heroic sequence that occurred in slow motion, where the lunatic villain missed the pivotal shot by a hair and blew himself up in the process.  We’d be left bloody but victorious.

But Mannequin didn’t fire.  He was too collected to do any of that.

He adjusted his aim, directing his hand-gun to where I’d pushed Grue to the ground.

“No!” I said, and the sound wasn’t a grunt this time.  I stepped in the way, putting myself between Mannequin and Grue, arms spread, half-kneeling.  Bastard tugged on the leash again as he stepped forward, and I almost fell on my face.  I could let him go and sic him on Mannequin, but he’d almost certainly die like Lucy had.

“Bastard, back,” I said, tugging him to one side.  I wasn’t about to let a dog take a bullet for me.

Besides, a part of me suspected that Mannequin was going to let me live so he could make me watch while he killed my friends and followers.

I stared at his blank, featureless face, praying my instincts were telling me the truth.

Then he shrugged, and my heart fell.

Three things happened all at once.  The first and most painfully obvious was that I got shot full in the chest.

The second was that I realized Grue was using his power to shroud us in darkness.  He’d probably started the second Mannequin shrugged.

The third was the explosion.

Long, disorienting seconds passed in the aftermath.  The pain hit me like a summer rain.  There was a second of nothing at all, I realized it was starting, and then I was treated to buckets of it.  I writhed, my ribs screaming in agony, trying to find some position where the pain would be less and failing.  I felt like a hot poker was being shoved into the spot on my ribs where I’d taken the hit the previous night.

“Hey, hey,” Grue said, “You’re okay.  You’re in one piece.”

I shook my head, unable to catch my breath.  Each time I inhaled, it seemed to double the pain.

“You gotta stand, T-  Skitter.  Stand up.”

More through Grue’s efforts than my own, I was helped to my feet.  Every movement exacerbated the pain in my chest.

I gingerly touched the site of the gunshot.  Flecks of what looked like glass fell as I ran my hand over the cloth.  Still couldn’t breathe.  The explosion had ignited every piece of rubbish at this end of the road that stood taller than the inch-high water level.  Grue and I weren’t, thankfully, blazing.  My hair hadn’t been ignited either, and perhaps most importantly, we hadn’t been pulverized by the shockwave.  It hadn’t been a huge explosion, but it had been substantial enough.

I looked for our opponent, and I saw Mannequin virtually unscathed, lying in the shallow water.  The blast had knocked him sprawling, but he’d disconnected his parts so only lengths of chain attached each.

An application, perhaps, of that martial arts principle.  How did it go?  An oak is broken by the hurricane’s winds, but the supple willow only bends?  He was already pulling himself together.  There was barely a mark on him.

“Run,” Grue said.

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

Bastard pounced on Mannequin, taking one of the villain’s arms in his jaws.  Clenching, he began whipping Mannequin around like a rag doll.  Twice, Mannequin’s lower body was bludgeoned against the nearby wall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I grabbed a tissue and tore it, once, then twice, until I had a series of strips.  Then I ignited them with the lighter, the item I’d grabbed with my other hand.  Dragonflies gripped the burning tissues in the instant I let them fall from my fingers.

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

The gas ignited for a second time, but I didn’t get to see it.  Grue shielded us with his darkness once more.  Whether it was to dampen the shockwave or keep us from being blinded by the light or something else, I didn’t know.  I could only trust that it worked.  The darkness dissipated, we were standing, Mannequin wasn’t.

A whistle from Bitch’s direction and a signal that was too brief for me to catch sent Bastard forward.  With Bitch’s condition, I couldn’t imagine how she handled it, but she managed to pump Bastard up.  He grew to half-again the size he’d been, roughly as large as a small car, and when he bit down on Mannequin’s arm this time, he broke the material.  He adjusted his grip until he had Mannequin’s lower body and legs in a hold, but the material there proved sturdier.

Two arms in two fights, I thought, with a grim satisfaction.  The flames at our back were getting a touch too close for comfort, so I stepped forward, supporting Grue.  His arm around my shoulder, we approached as close as we dared to Bastard’s mayhem.

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

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

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

Grue took Bitch’s hand and placed it on my shoulder.  She didn’t pull away.  Once he was sure we were both standing, he stepped away.  Bending down with an excruciating slowness, Grue picked up a piece of rubble that had to have weighed fifty or sixty pounds, roughly cone-shaped.

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

The dog lurched forward and placed both front paws on Mannequin’s body, pinning his arm and chest. Bastard growled at the one who was intruding on his quarry, and Sirius growled back.

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

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

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

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

Would it puncture?  Hard to say.

Worth a try.

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

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

“Do it,” she repeated herself.

Grue didn’t get a chance.  An eruption of fire tore through our surroundings.  Not an explosion.  There was no shockwave, and barely any noise.  It was more like a push, intensely hot and brief.  We were knocked sprawling, dog and human alike.  The agony in my ribs hit me worse than ever as I was knocked flat onto my back in the water and a huff of air was struck from my lungs.

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

The Protectorate?

It would be disastrous if the Protectorate-

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

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

“You can’t assist him.  They’re your rules.”

“Jack’s rules, not mine.  But fine,” Burnscar said.  Something about the tone in her voice: it sounded casual, but there was something in it that reminded me of Shadow Stalker and Sophia.  It wasn’t angry like Shadow Stalker was, but it had the same emptiness.  I just hadn’t really picked up on it in the past.

Burnscar gave Mannequin a hand in getting to his feet.  Cracks marred his lower body, and his left arm was a mess of cracked ceramic and pale gray organic pulp.  I heard her murmur something.

Mannequin shook his head.  Burnscar said something else.

He raised one hand, and Burnscar slapped it in a lazy high-five.

She turned towards us.  “There.  He just tagged me in.  Forfeited his turn.”

She cracked her knuckles, and every flaming piece of debris on the street became a pillar of fire, stretching vertically for the sky.  The fire snaked over the surface of the water to cut off our avenues of retreat.

“My go.  I’m taking round two.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

75 thoughts on “Snare 13.3

      • Nope, silk is extremely flammable 😦 She’s so screwed. Bug types are weak to fire, and the other two are in no shape to fight. Assuming that they could do anything anyway.

        • Incorrect, fortunately. Spider silk is completely, totally, 100% fireproof. Someone’s been playing too much Legend of Zelda.

          That said, it does shrink with the application of heat, and it’s not a great thermal insulator. So flame would probably damage the costume irreparably, and cook Skitter anyway. That said, I’d be willing to bet Wildbow is unaware of these last parts (most people outside of arachnology are), so in-universe Skitter’s suit could well be fire-proof in the conventional sense.

  1. Oh my god oh my god oh my god…
    Fantastic Chapter! Author you have been on a roll with the past couple of updates and interludes and now this too! Crazy Awesome! I can’t wait to see what happens next! I think I can voice everyone’s thoughts though.

    Oh Shi-!

  2. No wonder Mannequin targets primarily tinkers and rogues, they are the only people that can be ambushed due to lack of equipment or experience in combat. He is pretty clearly the least dangerous of the nine when fighting experienced combatants.

    • One down, seven to go. Or six.

      Also, it could be argued that this *is* assistance of a sort, giving Mannequin a chance to escape/recover… unless he’s resigned himself to the defeat and is waiting for the end to come… at which point his highly flammable knockout surprise could become… bad.

    • I’d say it’s more that he’s something of a defensive type. He’s good for dealing with those who have highly offensive abilities that might allow them to take out members of the nine. Like Crawler, only weaker. To make up for that is the fact that he is a tinker, and one with noticeably better material-crafting skills than Bonesaw. And even then, he would have probably won against a team with less subtle abilities.

      • I’ve been thinking he is more of an ambush predator. He doesn’t have a particularly amazing offense, and after the last few chapters it is pretty clear that his best defense is replacing pieces that are damaged. I know he has a psychological reason to go after tinkers and rogues, but it probably really helped that nthey are the easiest targets to find alone and defenseless.

        I find it doubtful that he would have won against a combat oriented team either. That might be a big part of why he joined the Nine. It was the only way to continue killing tinkers and rogues without being hunted down by experienced heroes.

  3. So, it got worse… again. It seems to always get worse for our protagonist and that she can’t ever catch a break.

    I feel that Taylor might be a bit too pessimistic about her loss of reputation. She and her allies managed to get Mannequin to back of. Depending on how the next fight plays out she just might be able to spin this. She really needs a minion with a background in PR.

    On the plus side, since Mannequin forfeited his turn the candidates won’t have to do any self-mutilations to advance. I hope everyone else will be informed of this in time.

    Also, now would be a good time for the cavalry to arrive. With Mannequin officially having forfeited his turn he is now wounded/damaged and fair game to finish of once and for all for any out of towner who might have been watching afraid to interfere until now.

    I am looking forward to Burnscar’s challenge for the candidates. I tried to look up what Burnscar’s test for Cherish was, but apparently it is a secret, but we know that she failed to meet the requirements and was punished for it, but survived and that the whole ordeal didn’t leave any visible, well, burn scars.

    For the upcoming fight, I have no idea how someone who controls insects could possibly hope to defeat or even survive against someone who controls fire and can teleport through it. Burnscar’s mental instability seems to be her major weakness, but I don’t think our heroes are in any position to exploit it. The parts that have come of Mannequin are probably fireproof and might make for improvised weapons, but that is about it

    • Taylor is definately being too pessimistic about the state of her reputation. One of the big dangers involved in having horribly low self esteem. Honestly I think her fights with Mannequin would make her look much better in Coil’s eyes. It shows she can throw down with some of the most murderous and dangerous people in the world.

        • Or a random person nearby when they show up.

          Or are using the urinal when Jack Slash walks into the bathroom.
          Or open a door for an old lady around Mannequin.
          Or wear camo near Siberian.
          Or show off an organ donor card around Bonesaw.
          Or smoke a cigarette near Burnscar.
          Or wear glasses near Shatterbird.
          Or feel happy at seeing a puppy near Cherish.
          Or win an arm wrestling contest near Crawler.

  4. So Mannequin clearly lost that round, and then he tagged someone else. I didn’t think we were playing by Freebird rules here, Mannequin. Out of tries, Mannequin. Now it’s up to Burnscar, who is immune to fire, can teleport with it, and can generate a lot of it. Yeah, I don’t see too many bugs helping her with this one. Maybe a few out there in some really harsh hot climates, but I don’t have any that come to mind. Not like I study bugs anyway.

    More details about the flames would aid with identifcation of the gas in question. Colorless, odorless, flammable, highly toxic, and potentially more dense than air. Also, the gas might not be toxic and might just asphyxiate people instead. You’d be surprised how many gases having those qualities are stated as capable of igniting on their own with air or humidity. If you’re willing to ignore that, I wonder if Arsine is at play here? It has an odor, but is generally toxic enough to kill at low enough amounts that people can’t smell it. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of thing that critters just up and make. Same with Germane, which also does the whole “exploding due to air” thing so that one’s out anyway. Methane isn’t all that toxic but it can asphyxiate.

    Hydrogen cyanide is a good contendor though, as it can kill in a minute or less at high enough concentrations, and is only flammable at such really high concentrations. Has an odor but that is faint and not everyone can detect it due to a certain genetic trait. Some of it is produced by various plants and even some insects. It also might have played a role in the origins of life, along with its very well known role ending it.

    Phosphine might also work due to the possibility of it being created by natural processes of some bacteria while being odorless, colorless, flammable, and toxic. It also can be produced by reactions involving certain agricultural pesticides.

    Seeing as I’m rambling, tired of writing, and probably not being all that interesting, I think this is a good spot to wrap it up.

    • Remember that he’s working with biological organisms, and his focus was more on getting them to produce lots of the gas vs. producing a gas that organisms don’t often produce.

    • The symptoms were wrong for it being a simple asphyxiant. Whatever it is seems to disable long before it kills, though- IF it kills creatures as large as a human/dog.

      • That’s why I didn’t have asphyxiants as my number one contenders. Methane was just mentioned as one that had all but that key characteristic. One gush of whatever it was took Bitch and her dog out of the fight for awhile due to toxicity and not asphyxiation.

        The fact that they would be potentially useful to terraforming made those two, hydrogen cyanide and phosphine, stand out so far. Could still be wrong. So many toxic gasses, so little time.

        • From wikipedia:
          Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs after enough inhalation of carbon monoxide (CO). Carbon monoxide is a toxic gas, but, being colorless, odorless, tasteless, and initially non-irritating, it is very difficult for people to detect. Carbon monoxide is a product of incomplete combustion of organic matter due to insufficient oxygen supply to enable complete oxidation to carbon dioxide (CO2). It is often produced in domestic or industrial settings by older motor vehicles and other gasoline-powered tools, heaters, and cooking equipment. Exposures at 100 ppm or greater can be dangerous to human health.[1]
          Symptoms of mild acute poisoning include lightheadedness, confusion, headaches, vertigo, and flu-like effects; larger exposures can lead to significant toxicity of the central nervous system and heart, and even death. Following acute poisoning, long-term sequelae often occur. Carbon monoxide can also have severe effects on the fetus of a pregnant woman. Chronic exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide can lead to depression, confusion, and memory loss. Carbon monoxide mainly causes adverse effects in humans by combining with hemoglobin to form carboxyhemoglobin (HbCO) in the blood. This prevents oxygen binding to hemoglobin, reducing the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood, leading to hypoxia. Additionally, myoglobin and mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase are thought to be adversely affected. Carboxyhemoglobin can revert to hemoglobin, but the recovery takes time because the HbCO complex is fairly stable.

          This gas is an old killer in laboratory settings, and an old fear of mine.
          I also thought in methane, but I don´t know if it could confuse and paralyze.
          H2S (the terror of oil industry) was a possibility but when you do not feel its smell is because you can already be considered dead or, at least, poisoned.

        • Here comes a VERY interesting option, and imbued with a dark sense o humor.
          From wikipedia:
          Oxygen toxicity is a condition resulting from the harmful effects of breathing molecular oxygen (O2) at elevated partial pressures. It is also known as oxygen toxicity syndrome, oxygen intoxication, and oxygen poisoning. Historically, the central nervous system condition was called the Paul Bert effect, and the pulmonary condition the Lorrain Smith effect, after the researchers who pioneered its discovery and description in the late 19th century. Severe cases can result in cell damage and death, with effects most often seen in the central nervous system, lungs and eyes. Oxygen toxicity is a concern for scuba divers, those on high concentrations of supplemental oxygen (particularly premature babies), and those undergoing hyperbaric oxygen therapy.
          The result of breathing elevated concentrations of oxygen is hyperoxia, an excess of oxygen in body tissues. The body is affected in different ways depending on the type of exposure. Central nervous system toxicity is caused by short exposure to high concentrations of oxygen at greater than atmospheric pressure. Pulmonary and ocular toxicity result from longer exposure to elevated oxygen levels at normal pressure. Symptoms may include disorientation, breathing problems, and vision changes such as myopia. Prolonged or very high oxygen concentrations can cause oxidative damage to cell membranes, the collapse of the alveoli in the lungs, retinal detachment, and seizures. Oxygen toxicity is managed by reducing the exposure to elevated oxygen levels. Studies show that, in the long term, a robust recovery from most types of oxygen toxicity is possible.
          Central nervous system oxygen toxicity manifests as symptoms such as visual changes (especially tunnel vision), ringing in the ears (tinnitus), nausea, twitching (especially of the face), irritability (personality changes, anxiety, confusion, etc.), and dizziness. This may be followed by a tonic–clonic seizure consisting of two phases: intense muscle contraction occurs for several seconds (tonic); followed by rapid spasms of alternate muscle relaxation and contraction producing convulsive jerking (clonic). The seizure ends with a period of unconsciousness (the postictal state).[16][17] The onset of seizure depends upon the partial pressure of oxygen (ppO2) in the breathing gas and exposure duration. However, exposure time before onset is unpredictable, as tests have shown a wide variation, both amongst individuals, and in the same individual from day to day.[16][18][19] In addition, many external factors, such as underwater immersion, exposure to cold, and exercise will decrease the time to onset of central nervous system symptoms.[1] Decrease of tolerance is closely linked to retention of carbon dioxide.[20][21][22] Other factors, such as darkness and caffeine, increase tolerance in test animals, but these effects have not been proven in humans.[23][24]

          • Oxygen is perfect, odorless, very flammable, as far as I know produces flames in the normal color, and imagine the irony of being poisoned by oxygen.

          • I considered carbon monoxide only long enough to confirm it wasn’t flammable the other night.

            I considered hydrogen too, but it seems to be more of an asphyxiant, it rises very quickly, and the flames are noted as being almost invisible.

            Yeah, invisible flame sounds kind of awesome. I’d like to have a character with some sort of discreet methanol flamethrower because of that.

            I knew I forgot to check oxygen. Oxygen toxicity seems to be partially dependent on pressure and time, which is why it’s more of a risk to scuba divers, astronauts, and people in hyperbaric chambers. “At partial pressures of oxygen of 2 to 3 bar (200 to 300 kPa)—100% oxygen at 2 to 3 times atmospheric pressure—these symptoms may begin as early as 3 hours after exposure to oxygen.” That is a little too long of a time frame too. hydrogen cyanide, for comparison… “A hydrogen cyanide concentration of 300 mg/m3 in air will kill a human within about 10 minutes. A hydrogen cyanide concentration of 3500 ppm (about 3200 mg/m3) will kill a human in about 1 minute.”

            Hey, even water can poison you if you drink too much. And table salt is just made of two poisonous elements. You know that potassium stuff you get from bananas? Explodes in water.

  5. Funny thought – Mannequin designed some of his weapons to indicate a logic by which he could be defeated. He didn’t need to show that the invisible gas was coming by signalling with his mouth, he could have been way subtler. Ergo he wants to give a “fair” chance to anyone who tries to defeat him, as if he still appreciates intelligence.

    • He built the new head for that purpose. He needed a new one anyway. Having it filled with odd new holes would stand out more than a mouth section you can sometimes see in action.

      Or he could have just had it issue from the same holes as his blades and chains.

    • I think that you have a good point here: he certainly knew that the gas was flammable, so why did he add both a gun and the gas?
      Either he was in too much of a hurry at the time to resolve the issue, or he wanted to leave that clue. Since he never used his rotating blades trick this time around, I can only conclude that you’re right about his motive.

    • I doubt it’s being fair and more of mocking them. He made it seem like he is laughing at them which in a way he is. “Haha you thought you could really beat me? Well watch me dismantle you now.” Or sheer arrogance. Either are great options. Fair denotes respect and Mannequin doesn’t seem to be one of the people in that group with respect. I’d say only Jack and Shatterbird have enough cards in their decks to be able to feel that.

  6. Is burnscar flameproof herself? Closely related, is she wearing full body protection?

    Because she really seems a far better match for Skitter then Mannequin, at least if she takes a swarm to the chest it’ll have an effect.

    Meanwhile Mannequin must be feeling pretty humiliated by now, two losses in a row the second despite having prepared specifically to fight Skitter and co. That’s got to sting.

    • Well, this might not be a fight, as such- We don’t know what Burnscar’s challenge IS yet. She might just have approached this way so that they’d not flatten her while she informed them.

      • Isn’t there too much flame for that by now?

        Going by her encounter with Faultline’s crew her reasoning side vanishes pretty quickly once she gets flame going, assuming she didn’t lie to Elle she didn’t intend on fighting when she went to the club.

        Even if it’s only her own flame that counts we now have a couple pillars of that and a wall behind them. Though I do wonder if maybe Jack might intervene, given Mannequins defeats he’s already going to be feeling the impact to his pride. This could be too much for him to allow and Burnscar at least seemed to outright expect Jack to be violent in the preceding interlude.

        • I keep thinking in a scene from Aracnophobia where the spider jumped from a high place in the neck of the victim.
          IF caught by surprise this way by a really poisonous insect (perhaps a scorpion would be better) and IF Bonesaw didn`t do to much alterations, Burnscar may be defeated (perhaps, die).

          • If Mannequin has ceded his test and Burnscar dies, wouldn’t that eliminate two tests? That would be a hell of a victory.

            Alternative to Skitter and co, Genesis should be turning up about now, preferably as a ten foot, flame proof firefighter. Or possibly a firefighter’s dalmation. They can put out fires, right?

          • They can put out fires, Anzer’ke, but it depends on if she’s got a full enough bladder and it would be easier to aim if she were male. I would say she’s immune to flames, except for some of those scars she’s got. Aside from that, I’d say her fire teleportation and how often she has flames right by her help show her as immune to fire. There is a difference in comfort between being under a flame and over a flame, though.

            If Grue’s gas doesn’t work against the flames, and if Genesis shows up useless with a form better designed to fight Mannequin, then they need to either goad Burnscar toward the water or get in contact with Jack and let him know the situation. Jack’s idea of following the rules might be somewhat given to loose interpretation, but it does send a bad sign when the people he’s supposed to be speaking for can’t even hold up their very basic end of things. Why should the heroes bother with the rules if the Nine are going to break them so casually themselves? Says something bad about Jack’s ability to control them too.

          • Good point. I think Jack might be a little bit unhappy with the way Burnscar did things. Plus, Mannequin didn’t seem too offput by the idea of killing Bitch! Also, I was rereading and Jack said Cherish was supposed to go second, not Burnscar! But given the way Burnscar checked out Noelle and didn’t nominate anybody maybe she doesn’t care about the rules or the nine much anyways.

  7. Good chapter, as always. At the same time, I think the big picture is becoming a bit like playing against a Rubber Band AI: the protagonist is not allowed to gain or accumulate a lasting advantage, or to have even a brief respite during which she could better prepare for the next threat. While it’s awesome to see Skitter and friends pull victory from the jaws of defeat, and then to do it again when the enemy reinforcements arrive, I think it may be too much of a good thing. As far as we know, Taylor doesn’t have any endurance-related powers, so believability might be taking a bit of a hit…

    Mind you, it could be that Wildbow might be working up cutting the proverbial rubber band. For example, engaging Grue could be a gross miscalculation on the part of Burnscar, because Grue might be able to simply smother any flames she creates, completely nullifying her powers. In particular, we know that his darkness stops EM radiation, which means that fires will not be able to radiate heat. We also know that it attenuates sound, which suggests that it might prevent the convection that a fire needs to keep from suffocating. (Breathing might not be affected, due to the Manton Effect.)

    So, it could be that Grue, Skitter, Genesis, and Bitch are about to capture or kill not one but two of the Nine. We’ll find out shortly…

  8. “Maybe he hadn’t wanted to blow himself up.”

    I don’t think it has been explicitly mentioned that that’s what happened to turn Sphere into Mannequin.

  9. So. Cherish is getting a little reprieve from proving herself to the S9.

    And, more tragically, we never learn what Mannequin had in mind for…well, anyone. I’m thinking he was either planning on doing something to Panacea’s hands or stripping her of her innocence, and possibly something to Bitch’s dogs. Armsmaster’s been dealt with, but what did he have in mind for Regent, Hookwolf, or Noelle? Am I right about my guesses for Bitch or Panacea? Would any have refused, and what would happen then? …Would he have tried administering his test to Noelle? (For that matter, how did they intend to test her at all? Before Siberian’s test, at least.)

  10. Fucking hell! Why do the characters have such dilemmas when deciding to kill the evil bastards in this? Fucking kill them.

  11. >His actions, both the obvious and minor ones, make a complete, logical sense if I assumed he was spewing out massive volumes of flammable gas.


    >I bolted for Brian’s location.


  12. SO CLOSE! Man, Taylor is seriously too smart for her age. She beat mannequin twice, TWICE! And here I thought tattletale was the only one that had advanced reasoning skills.

  13. I am really getting tired of this bloodless repetition. Killing off mannequin would have been very interesting. What would have happened emotionally and as a consequence of that act?
    Also, Burnscar broke the rules so already we see there ARE no rules.

  14. To be honest I feel like this arc has been a little too drawn out. It’s all written well, but it’s kind of unpleasantly tense and grimdark. I find myself feeling very tempted to skip forward a few chapters until they’ve made some progress, because it’s already felt like an eternity with them just trying to deal with Mannequin.

  15. This is getting stupid now. Twice she’s had the chance to finish off mannequin and twice she has failed to do so. Sorry but how is she in anyway a villain at all? One thing most villains tend to be smart enough to do is to finish the fight and then finish every other fight. She isn’t smart, she isn’t skilled or awesome she has now twice let him go, twice embarrassed him. She has ensured she and her people will never again be safe due to her embarrassing him. She has failed not only herself but her people as well. No she did nothing to help and there is no victory. The only victory that truly matters against an opponent who has nothing to lose, will keep coming back time and time again, will get deadlier every time, and has absolutely no compunctions about killing is to put the down for good. No she has won nothing here and she shouldn’t be proud for chasing him away. She has failed!

    • What blasted reasoning are you employing here? Then, perhaps, could you be so gracious to explain WHAT was Skitter supposed to do the first battle? Mannequin still has enough mobility for her to be left behind if he truly tried an all out retreat, spider-silk-in-joints-and-body still withstanding. And even if she did catch him in their first fight, what then? He can’t contain him, she doesn’t have the resources. All the painstaking spider silk coverage inconvenienced and semi-slowed him down at worst, and his arm/head were lost because they were extended and likely would have remained in his possession if he did no such thing.

      So then, what? What does the girl with a bunch of bugs do to kill the weird robot? The very same weird robot that can still outrun her and had a body that could stand the bite of one of Bitch’s dogs right here until she made him big enough? Strike with her baton everywhere until it does something somewhere? And what about when she tires? What in the hell does she do if she gets tired, unlike Mannequin who lacks the biological limitation? What options does she have while lacking communications and any perhaps feasible option pulling her away from him to fetch tools for the job and, in the end, let him escape anew? It’s quite easy to say she has failed for not doing the essential when, morals aside, she had no WAY to do that at all! When you engineer a clever way for the bugs she had to crack Mannequin’s armor, maybe you can judge her in that area better.

      As for this fight… What? Did you read a different chapter than me? Did I miss something or flew over a piece of text? At what point wasn’t Skitter, still tired and bruised all over from the previous scuffle unlike Mannequin, in a position to do anything to the damned puppet? Grue can’t hurt him, Bitch could as we saw but until everything was right in place so that Mannequin could retaliate at all, trying costed her a dog, two possibly, and an injured one. The fuck do they do then, when now he even has ranged fire power? You know, is immensely irritating seeing someone yap out to a character for not doing something, something they couldn’t believably accomplish in almost all normal scenarios, just because is the “best option”.

      Of course, Burnscar interfering when they were about to crack try and crack his armor is also a lack of willingness on their part to do what they must, and they were in complete control of this. Surely.

    • All of the merchants just died last chapter and quite a number of heroes annd villains died against Leviathan. Sure, it’s a slow start, and no major character died yet, but the most devastating death are always reserved for the end, aren’t they ?

  16. In one word: ouch. To stay uncensored. 😉

    Intense chapter, and yet again the stupidly built tinker.gets a whining, if not for.the dogs, and.then…

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