Interlude 18 (Donation Bonus #4)

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Dr. Jeremy Foster was woken by the sound of a distant gunshot.  He sat straight up in bed.

Another gunshot.

He reached over to his bedside table and found the remote.  A press of a button illuminated his bedroom.  He opened the drawer to grab the handheld radio and pressed the button.  “Report.”


“Captain Adams, report.”

It wasn’t Captain Adams who responded.  It was a woman.  “Stay put, doctor.  We’ll be with you in a moment.

He was out of bed in a flash.  Remote in hand, he turned off the light and opened his bedroom door.

There were two figures in the hallway, cloaked in shadow, one large and broad, the other narrow.  The smaller one saw him and broke into a run.

He slammed the bedroom door and locked it in the same motion.  There was a crash as the figure threw himself against the door.  If the door were the usual wood chip and cheap cardboard, it might have broken, but Jeremy valued quality, even with the things one normally didn’t see.  His doors were solid wood.

The doorknob rattled as the doctor crossed his bedroom.  He reached for the underside of one shelf on his bookcase, pulled a pin, and then pulled the bookcase away from the wall.

The remote fit into a depression on the stainless steel door that sat behind the bookcase.  He made sure it was positioned correctly, then hit a button.  There was a click, and the door popped open a crack.  He had to use both hands to slide the door open.

The doorknob rattled again, then there was a heavier collision.  The bigger man had gotten close.

Safely inside, Jeremy pulled the bookcase tight against the wall, felt it click into place, and then shut the metal door of his panic room.

Monitors flickered on, showing his estate in shades of black and green.  At any given time, he had seven armed men patrolling the grounds and an eighth keeping an eye on the security cameras.  He could count seven fallen, including the man in the security office.   They lay prone on the ground, or slumped over the nearest surface.  One struggled weakly.

He picked up the phone.  There wasn’t a dial tone.

The cell phone, then.  He opened a drawer and picked up the cell.  No service.  There was only static.  They had something to block it.

There was no such thing as ‘security’.  However much one invested in safes, in armed guards, in panic rooms and high stone walls, it only served to escalate a perpetual contest with the people who would try to circumvent those measures.  Raising the stakes.

Helpless, Jeremy watched the invaders making their way through his house.  He was already mentally calculating the potential losses.  Pieces of artwork worth tens of thousands, valuables not secured in the safes…

The Magnes painting at the landing between the second and third floor, overlooking the ground floor foyer.  Jeremy winced at the realization.  He’d only picked it up two months ago.  The two million dollar price tag might have given him pause, but it was insured.  He’d bought all the furniture for foyer to complement the work, and now he’d have to find another painting to take its place and buy new furniture to match.

Except they were walking by the painting as though it weren’t even there.

A part of him felt offended that they hadn’t even stopped to admire it.  Philistines.

No.  There was a very good chance they were coming for him.

One by one, they entered his bedroom.  It was a blind spot of sorts.  He’d wanted his privacy, so the only ways to turn on the security camera in the corner of the room would be to unlock or open the balcony doors, break the glass or input a particular code.

He stepped over to the computer, typed in the code.  Simonfoster19931996.

The screen flickered to life, but it wasn’t his bedroom in the picture.  A field with four walls approximately where his bedroom walls had been, the six invaders waiting very patiently in the middle as walls stripped away to become tendrils, tendrils became vines and vines twisted together into treelike forms.

The window went quickly.  The ‘field’ of knee-length grass rippled as the wind caught it.

The bookcase was slower to degrade.  Books were rendered into leaves, shelves into vines.  He watched the image on the camera with an increasing sense of dread, glanced at the door.

The screen went black.

“No, no, no, no,” he said.

A crack appeared in the door.  Floor to ceiling.

He grabbed the handgun from the counter, double checked it was loaded.

Another crack crossed the door, horizontal, nearly six feet above the ground.

He disabled the safety.

With the third crack, the door fell into the panic room, slamming against the ground.  He fired into the opening of the doorway, and the acoustics of the metal-walled room made the shot far, far louder than it had any right to be.

There was nobody standing in the doorway.

He looked around.  The layout of the room wasn’t set up for a firefight.  Especially not a firefight that involved parahumans.  He crouched, kept the gun pointed toward the door.

They didn’t make a move. The floor of the panic room was being finely etched with markings that overlapped and wove into one another.  Where lines drew to a taper, points were curling up, strands slowly rising, dividing into finer growths and flaring at the top with the vague cat-tail like ends of wild grass.  He could see the clean-cut edges of the door curling, twisting into tendrils.  Some had teardrop shaped bulges on the end.

“Elle,” he called out.  “Labyrinth?”

All together, the bulges on the tendrils unfurled into tiny, metallic flowers, framing the doorway.

“She’s having one of her bad days, doctor,” the woman who had been on the other side of the radio called back.  “She’s not feeling very talkative as a result.  If you have something to say, say it to me.  I go by Faultline.”

Faultline pressed her back to the ‘wall’.  Not that it was really a ‘wall’.  Labyrinth’s power was slowly working on the metal, gradually twisting it into gnarled textures and branches. Shamrock was beside her, clad in a costume of skintight black leather with a green clover on the chest, her red hair spilling over her shoulders, a combat shotgun directed at the ground.  Gregor and Spitfire were on the other side of the door, holding similar positions.

Newter sat with Labyrinth on the bed, his tail circled around the girl’s waist, keeping her from wandering.  The bed was barely recognizable, nearly consumed by waist-high strands of hardwood-textured grass.

A cool summer breeze blew in through the opening that had once been the window, scattering dandelion seeds and leaves throughout the room’s interior.

“I don’t know what she told you,” the Doctor called out.  “I always treated her professionally, to the best of my ability.”

“We’re not here for revenge on her behalf, Doctor,” Faultline responded.  “We’re looking for information.”

“I’m not working with the Asylum anymore.  It’s been over a year.”

“I know,” she replied.

“Protocols have changed.  I can’t get you past security or anything like that.”

“The Asylum doesn’t really interest me,” Faultline said.  “Not why we’re here.”

“Then why?”

“Because we’ve been trying to track down people who can give us answers, and you stood out.  Spending a little too much money.”

“I’m a good doctor, that’s all!”

“Doesn’t account for it.  Comparing you to your coworkers at the asylum back then, you were spending too much money.  Just enough that I think someone was bankrolling you.”

“Your sources are wrong!”

“Don’t think so.  I think someone was paying you to keep tabs on certain individuals within the asylum.  Was it Cauldron?”

She shut her eyes, listened.  She couldn’t make out any telltale gasps or movement.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“The other possibility is that you were working for a foreign government.  A spy.  Or, to be more specific, you were working as a spy for several foreign agencies.”

“Look at my neighbors!  We do the same kind of work, we live at the same level!”

“Your neighbors are in debt, or they’re riding on the capital from smart investments.  You aren’t.  Just the opposite.  Your investments are nil, yet you somehow have enough money sitting in the bank that you can coast into retirement.”

“No,” the Doctor said.

“The difference between you and the other people on my list is that you were stupid about it.  Showing too much of the money.  If it wasn’t me who noticed, it’d be one of the people paying you.”

“Nobody paid me!  Your sources are wrong!  I am in debt!  Hundreds of thousands!”

“Let’s cut past the lies and bullshit, Doctor Foster.  I’m offering you a deal.  You and I both know that you won’t be able to maintain this lifestyle if your employers realize you were discovered.  Depending on who they are, they might even take offense.  Either they terminate their relationship with you or they terminate you.”

More of the house around them was blowing away, dandelion seeds in the wind.  The wall surrounding the window was gone, and the roof was well on its way to the same state.

“I don’t- you’re wrong.  These people you’re talking about, they don’t exist.  I don’t know them.”

“Okay,” Faultline said.  “Now, I’d have to double-check whether the person paying for the mission is willing to torture or kill you for the information we want…”

She hesitated, glanced at Gregor.  He shook his head.

“…And he isn’t.  Isn’t that good news?”

“God.  I’m just- I’m a doctor!  I work with politicians, sometimes with big name parahumans.  The- the president’s friends come to me!  But I’m only a doctor!  I’m not a spy!”

“Then you have nothing to worry about,” Faultline said, “if we leave and we spread the word that we thought you were involved.  If it’s an unfounded rumor, then nothing happens.  Maybe your reputation takes a little hit, but a powerful man like you will bounce back, won’t he?”


“But if you’re lying, if you are involved, the people who paid you to keep your eyes open and your mouth shut will be upset.  I don’t think you’ll be able to escape them by hopping on a plane to some remote country.”

She let the words hang in the air.

“I… if I told you, I would be in just as bad a situation.  Hypothetically.”

“Hypothetically,” she said, “I suppose you’d have to decide whether it was better to trust us and our professional, circumspect demeanor and the possibility that we’d let the details slip or whether you wanted to suffer the inevitable consequences if we started talking.”

There was another pause.  She waited patiently.

“I was supposed to find out just how much the United States knew about what was going on.  Like you said, keeping my eyes open.  Twice, putting a special thumbdrive into one of the main computers.  That was for the United Kingdom.  I sent regular reports to another group.  I think they were the C.U.  I didn’t do anything specific for them.  Just describing new inmates, recent hirings and firings, changes in policy.”

The C.U.l  China.  It was good to be right.  “Did you download anything onto the drives, or-”

“I don’t know.  I don’t think so.  I was supposed to plug them in, then wait.  After, I took them out and destroyed them.”

“Very possible it was putting a backdoor into place, giving your employer remote access,” Faultline said.

“Why does this matter?”

“That’s our business, not yours.  Did they ever show particular attention to an individual?”

“Some attention for the more powerful ones.  Nothing ever came of it.  I gave them more details, they paid me, that was it.  The patients stayed in the asylum’s custody.”

“If you had to, how would you get in touch with them?”

“Email.  Sometimes phone.  They changed handlers.  Been a while.”

“When did they last contact you?”

“Two years ago?  About?”


“Wisconsin.  The Simurgh attack.  There was an open call for civilian volunteers.  My contact from the U.K. left me a message.  Asked me to volunteer my medical expertise, see who was filtering out.”

“Did he have a handle?”


Her heart leaped.  “Spell it.”


A rare smile spread across Faultline’s face.  Finally, after weeks of looking, they’d found a connection between two clues.  Christof was a familiar name.  She glanced at the others, and Newter gave her a little ‘fist pump’ gesture, smiling.

“How much did he pay you?”

“He didn’t.  I refused the deal.”

Every clue points to a greater picture, how they operate and where the priorities are.  In a situation where every piece of information was valuable and every avenue of collecting that information crucial, there was a lot to be said for identifying where the major players weren’t looking for clues.  It suggested they already knew, they already had agents in play.

If they’d let him go so easily, there might have been others.  But it suggested they were interested in what had happened in Madison.

Which meant her crew had reason to be interested.

“Keep talking,” she said.  “Let’s talk about some of the other jobs.”

“Hate the heat,” Faultline said.  “I never thought I’d miss Brockton Bay, but the weather was usually nice.  Damn sun’s not even up and I’m sweltering.”

“It might be easier to bear if you wore something more… summery,” Newter commented, eyeing her short-sleeved dress shirt and the black slacks that were tucked into cowboy boots.  She glared at him, and he smirked in response.

She’d have to put him in check or he’d be intolerable for the rest of the day.  “Maybe I need to get the bullwhip?  Or did you forget the drills?”

Newter groaned aloud.  “You’re on that again.”

“On the wall.  Go.”

Newter leaped across the hotel room and stuck to the wall, one hand planted above his head so he could stay more or less upright, his tail curling around his lower foot.  “Pain in the ass.  You know I’ll have to scrub the hotel walls after to get rid of the footprints before we go.”

“Deal,” Faultline said.  “The practice could make the difference between you dodging a bullet and you moving too slow to avoid it.”

Spitfire and Elle stepped out of the bathroom, Spitfire with a towel in hands, drying Elle’s hair.

“How are we doing?” Faulltine asked.

Elle didn’t respond.  She chewed slightly on her lip, and her eyes looked right through Faulltine as she glanced around the room.

“I think we’re about a three,” Spitfire said.  “She brushed her teeth after I put the brush in her hands.  Why don’t you sit down on the couch, Elle, and I’ll brush your hair?”

“I’ll do that,” Faultline said.  “Get me a brush and then go finish getting ready.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Spitfire said.  She glanced at Newter, and Faultline suspected she saw an eye roll there.  Spitfire led Elle by hand in the direction of the couch, let go as Elle got close enough to Faultline.  Faultline led the girl to the couch, then sat on the back of the couch with her feet planted to either side of the girl.

She caught the brush that Spitfire threw across the room and set to brushing Elle’s white-blond hair.  “This is badly tangled.  Were you sleeping in a tree again?”

Elle nodded slightly.

“I’ll try to be gentle.  Let me know if I’m tugging too hard.”

Elle nodded again.

Faultline caught a whiff of hot sand, salt, and humid air.

“Don’t make water, okay, Elle?”  Faultline said.  “It’s not that we’re paying the deposit for the room, but it’s a matter of principle.  We’re professionals.  We don’t leave messes.”

The ocean smell faded away by the time Faultline had stroked the brush five more times.

“Thank you,” Faultline said.

The ‘Labyrinth’ power would typically clean itself up.  When they’d left Dr. Foster’s estate, much of it had been turned to leaves, grass and flowers with electric blue petals.  As the effect faded, the building would be restored.

What Elle’s power didn’t clean up was the aftermath the changes themselves wrought.  If a stone pillar toppled onto a car, the pillar might disappear, but the car would remain crushed.  A fire quenched by water would remain out, even as the moisture faded.

Gregor and Shamrock entered from the hotel room’s front door, holding hands.  Both were in their combat gear, with some adjustments made to adjust for the heat.  Shamrock wore black yoga pants and a green sleeveless t-shirt with her clover-leaf symbol on the front in black, her mask dangling from her right front pocket, her shotgun dangling from her free hand.

Gregor wore a fishnet shirt over bare skin, thick canvas pants and a snailshell-spiral mask strapped to his face, with holes worked into the gaps for his eyes.  The dark vague shadows of his organs were visible through the flesh of his broad stomach.

“I’m sorry the rest of us aren’t ready to go.  Slow start,” Faultline confessed.

“It happens,” Gregor said, in his accented voice.  “And I know it is almost always Spitfire, Newter or Elle at fault.  Not to say I would fault Elle.  But you should not apologize for any of them.  Only yourself.”

“Frankly, bro,” Newter said, “I’m surprised you’re even capable of moving.  It’s not like you slept a wink, know what I mean?”

Gregor lobbed a glob of goo at Newter, who leaped to the ceiling, cackling.  The slime bubbled away to nothingness.

“I took the role of leader,” Faultline said. “It’s my job to kick people’s asses and get them moving when we have a job coming up.”

“And I’m the client,” Gregor said.  He’d taken a seat in an armchair, and Shamrock sat in his lap.  Almost as an afterthought, he folded his arms around the young woman.  “I could ask that you and the team are more casual with this job.  Our destination is going to be there whether we leave before dawn or at sunset.”

Faultline shook her head.  “I’d rather treat this as I would any job.  If nothing else, keeping everyone on the straight and narrow means they won’t get sloppy on our next serious job.”

“Very well,” Gregor said.  “Then I’d like to leave within thirty minutes.”

“We’ll make it ten,” Faultline said.  “Pack everything up.  Spitfire can help Elle get her stuff on.  Elle makes us an exit from the balcony so we aren’t walking through the hotel in costume.”

She stood from the back of the couch, and nearly collided with a statue that had emerged from the wall above and around her.  A woman, back arched, hands outstretched to either side of Faultline.

She led Elle to the bedroom, where Spitfire was pulling the last of her fire-retardant gear on.  Her own gear was in a separate suitcase.

Faultline was a believer in doing things right.  Image came secondary to effect, and doing the job right was better for image than having the best costume.  Her own costume blended several functions.  A bulletproof vest, lightweight, with a stylized exterior, formed the most expensive single component of the outfit.  She tied her hair back into a crude bun, then gingerly drew the ‘ponytail’ from the side of the suitcase.  Unfolding the surrounding cover, Faultline slowly and carefully used her fingers to comb the fake hair onto a semblance of order.  The bristly hair extension masked a thin, flexible rod in the core, with painted spikes protruding at various angles.  It was all too common for an enemy to reach for the ponytail in an attempt to get her.  Their hands would be impaled on the waiting spikes, if they weren’t invulnerable, and the hair extension would come free, giving her a chance to escape.

Belts with various tools and weapons were strapped to her upper arms, forearms and thighs, held in place with suspenders.  Knives, lockpicks, various pre-prepared hypodermic needles, climbing tools, sticks of chalk, a mirror, a magnifying glass, iron wire and more were on hand if she needed them.  She ran her finger over the belts to ensure that each pocket was full.

She checked her semiautomatic, then slid it into the holster at her left hip.  A flare gun went into the holster at the right.  Flowing sleeves that would mask the belts and their contents were buckled on next, followed by a dress with a side pocket that would let her access the gun in a pinch.  The buckles meant that anyone pulling on the fabric would pull it free rather than get hold of her.

It was amusing, just how much of a contrast Labyrinth’s costume was.   The robe was easy enough to wear that she could put it on over her clothes.  It was green with a ‘maze’ drawn on the fabric.  There were no safety measures, only minimal supplies and gear.

Faultline donned her mask, more a welder’s mask with a stylized crack to see through than anything else, then led the other two girls back into the main area of their hotel room.

Newter had changed, but he didn’t need much.  He had handwraps and footwraps that left his fingers and toes free, basketball shorts and a messenger bag slung over one shoulder.  He was the first one to exit the apartment, disappearing out the window, then poked his head back in long enough to give a thumbs up.

Elle opened the window into a proper exit, complete with a staircase leading to the road behind the hotel.  Faultline paused to look at the looming stone wall, only a few blocks away.  Three hundred feet tall, it was all smooth stone.  Parahuman made, no doubt.  The barrier encircled the area the Simurgh had attacked, containing everything within.

Every house and building within three hundred feet of the wall itself had been bulldozed.  She couldn’t help but feel conspicuous as they crossed the open area.  It was dark, there weren’t any spotlights, but she couldn’t help but be paranoid.

“Cell phones are dead,” Shamrock commented.

Faultline nodded grimly.  Of course there wouldn’t be any transmissions into or out of this area.  No messages of any sort would be permitted.  Not even water entered or left the quarantine area, let alone communications or goods.  Anyone still inside was left to fend for themselves with whatever resources they could gather.

She’d checked and double checked the measures authorities were taking, ensuring that the area wasn’t being watched for intruders.  There weren’t any people on the wall, and the only surveillance was busy keeping an eye out for anyone who might be trying to make it over the top of the wall.

Going through the wall?  Anyone digging through would be caught by the daily drone sweeps, and anyone trying something faster would make too much noise.

Besides, they certainly didn’t expect anyone to be trying to get in.

Faultline touched the wall.  She felt her power magnifying around her fingertip on contact.  She just had to will it, and her power would dance around the contact point, leaving a hole a third of an inch across.  If she really pushed for it, it would extend several feet inside the object.

Her power worked better with multiple points of contact.  She touched with her other fingertip, and felt the power soar between the two, running through the surface like a current.

She let it surge outward, and a fissure appeared.

She tapped one toe against the wall, and power surged from either fingertip to the point of her toe, drawing a triangle.  Moving closer to the wall until she was almost hugging it, she moved her other toe against the surface.  Four points of contact, six lines.

Then she pushed, literally and in the sense of using her power.  The power surged into the object, the lines widening and she swiftly backed away as the resulting debris settled.

Once the dust had more or less cleared, she could make out a tunnel, roughly door shaped.  Her power had destroyed enough of the material that there was barely any debris on the ground.

“Labyrinth,” Faultline said, “Shore it up?  Make a nice hallway?  Taller and wider than this, please.”

Labyrinth nodded.  It took only twenty or thirty seconds before there was a noticeable effect.  By the time they were halfway down the tunnel, there were alcoves with statues in them and torches burning in sconces.

Walking through the tunnel was claustrophobic.  Faultline could handle that, but she could see Shamrock clinging to Gregor.  It made his progress through the narrow tunnel that much slower.

How fragile civilization is, Faultline mused, as she emerged on the other side.  Newter clambered up the side of the nearest building for a vantage point.

Some of it was the Simurgh’s doing, no doubt, but the thing that made her catch her breath was the degree to which things had degraded.  Windows were broken, plants crawled over the surroundings, a building had collapsed a little further down the street.  Stone was cracked, windows shattered, metal rusted.  The buildings, the cars that still sat in the middle of the street, they looked as though they had been left abandoned for a decade, though it was closer to a year and a half in reality.

It didn’t take much.  Animals found their way inside, fires started and spread, and weather damaged the structures.  Once the spaces were partially breached, the wind, sun, rain and temperature were free to wear on the interiors, and everything accelerated.

That damage, in turn, paved the way for other things to take root.  Mold could get into materials and surfaces.  Plants could take root, winding roots into cracks, widening them.  Ice did much the same in the winter months.

Still, it was so much, so fast.

She couldn’t help but think about what Coil had said about the world ending in two years.  However it happened, if it happened, how long would it be before nature had destroyed every trace of humanity, after mankind was gone?

“Pretty,” Labyrinth said, as she emerged from the tunnel.  Her head craned as she looked around.

Faultline and Spitfire gave the girl a look of surprise.  It wasn’t like her to talk on a bad day.

“You think so?” Faultline asked.

Labyrinth didn’t venture a response.

“Guess you like different architecture, huh?”

Still no response.  Faultline rubbed the girl’s hooded head, as she might with a dog.

Gregor and Shamrock were the last ones to exit the tunnel.

“All good?” Faultline asked.

“A little much,” Shamrock said.  “Knowing how tall the wall is, how much pressure’s bearing down over our heads… I’m a little claustrophobic at the best of times, and that’s worse than the best times.”

“We have some time before we need to pass through again,” Faultline said, “Maybe Labyrinth can make it wider, shore it up more so you’re more comfortable, for the future.”

Shamrock nodded.  “I hope so.  Thank you.”

“We’re looking for any signs of life,” Faultline said.  “Avoid confrontation if you don’t have backup.  We patrol this area in a pinwheel formation.  We have four people patrolling, each in a different cardinal direction.  Head three blocks out, turn clockwise, travel two more blocks, then zig-zag your way back to the center.  One person always waits with Labyrinth in the middle, so we have a fortified spot to fall back to.  We take turns staying with her, so nobody walks too long.”

There were nods from each of her subordinates.

“Flare if there’s any trouble or any find.  Everyone has their guns?”

Everyone did.

“Gregor and Shamrock babysit during the first patrol, don’t need anyone to backtrack, obviously.  Move out.”

It took only a second for Newter, Spitfire and Faultline to choose their individual directions.  Gregor and Shamrock stayed behind.

Better to give Shamrock a chance to calm down, Faultline thought.  Her boot heels made noise as she walked.

Doctor Foster had been asked to keep an eye on those being released from the city’s quarantine.  Each individual got a tattoo of a bird on one hand or on one arm, marking them as someone affected by the Simurgh.

It had been a short-lived policy, covering only two of the Simurgh’s visits to America in the span of four years.  Shortly after the second event, the idea was abandoned.  The idea, that people could take extra caution around anyone with a tattoo of a white bird, only generated prejudice.  The affected individuals couldn’t find work, they were beaten and they had their lives threatened.

The outcry had meant it was hard to spread the word about what the tattoos were intended for, and the problem was further exacerbated when some people had started getting the tattoos as a matter of protest.  In some poll a year back, something like six out of ten people had been unable to say why the tattoos existed.

But it wasn’t likely that the tattoos were why the Doctor had been asked to oversee this situation.

No.  The person who had assigned the Doctor the job, Christof, most definitely wasn’t working for the United Kingdom.  Christof was, according to data they’d picked up on a job a week ago, supposedly working for Cauldron.

Which meant Cauldron wanted someone expendable that could keep an eye on things.

Faultline noted a message scrawled onto a wall: ‘three thorn babys seen here may twenty. killed two one lived’.

Just below that line, there was another message, drawn in pink chalk that had streaked where moisture had run across it: ‘thanks’.

Faultline walked on.  Where doors were obviously open or unlocked, barriers hacked down, she peeked inside.  There weren’t any signs of people having resided anywhere nearby.

Her patrol carried her back to Labyrinth, Gregor and Shamrock, and the statue-topped gazebo that Labyrinth had put together in the meantime.  Newter had returned and was looking out from a nearby perch.

“No luck?” Shamrock asked.

“Signs of life, not too long ago, but no people.”

Gregor put down the backpack he carried and handed Faultline a water bottle.

Newter scaled his way down the side of the building nearly as fast as if he’d fallen, arriving a few seconds before Spitfire returned.

“Anything?”  Faultline asked.

“Ominous graffiti, not much else.”

“Those… spine babies, was it?”

“No,” Spitfire said.  “I couldn’t read it all.  Very broken English.  But it said something about a Devourer.”

“Let’s move.  We move up six blocks, then do another patrol,” Faultline said.  She thought about the Devourer, and the fact that the number one priority of the people in this place seemed to be warning about the local threats.  “And, until we’re out of here, we walk with our weapons at the ready, flare guns in hand.”

They moved up to the next location, moving deeper into the city.  Faultline was pleased that she didn’t have to order her team to hold formation.  They were practiced enough that they did it naturally.  Newter scouted out front, Gregor took the rear.  Shamrock took the right flank, shotgun at the ready, and Spitfire took the left.  Faultline moved in the center with Labyrinth.

She called the group to a stop when they had traveled far enough.  When they paused to look at her, she gestured for them to move out, staying with Labyrinth.

“Sorry to drag you around like this,” she said.  “Do you feel thirsty?”

Labyrinth shook her head.

“I know new places don’t help you feel more lucid,” Faultline said.  “And it’s more than just today.  We’ve been going from city to city, doing a series of jobs to try to dig up more info.  I wanted to say thank you.”

Labyrinth only stared around her, looking at the buildings.

“Maybe you want to stay here?” Faultline asked.

Labyrinth shook her head once more.

“Well, I’m glad.”

A flare detonated overhead.  Faultline whipped her head around.  Newter.

She bolted in the direction he’d gone, holding Labyrinth’s hand, pulling the girl after her.

When she saw Newter, she stopped, let herself breathe.

Civilians.  Five of them.  They were wielding improvised weapons.  A makeshift bow and arrow, spears.  Nothing that posed a serious threat to Newter.

“These are my friends,” Newter said.  He was holding his hands and tail up in the air.  “More will be coming shortly.  We’re not here to hurt anyone.”

“Why are you here?  You’re insane, coming to a place like this.  You know what the Simurgh does.”

“We do,” Faultline said.  “But we have a friend, she’s got a bit of precognitive talent.  Enough that it should clear us of any schemes the Simurgh is pulling.”

Eyes went wide.

“We’re looking for answers,” Faultline said.  “Information, either about or from the monsters who came through that portal the Simurgh made.  Give us something to work with, we’ll show you how to leave.”

“Assuming we want to,” one man said.

Why wouldn’t you?  Faultline wondered.  She chose to be diplomatic and keep her mouth shut.  “Assuming you want to.  I’m sure we could come to another deal.”

“Why do you want to talk to the monsters?” the woman with the bow asked.  She had improvised urban camouflage paint over her face.

Faultline gestured in Newter’s direction, was aware of Gregor and Shamrock arriving.  She turned her head to see Spitfire coming around the corner.  She gestured at her teammates, “These guys are my friends, and they’re my employees.  We want answers about why this happened to them.  Once we have those answers, we decide where we go from there.  If nothing else, it’s valuable info.”

“You’re on their side?” a man with a spear asked.

“Yes,” Faultline said.  “But I could be on yours too.”

The woman with the bow stepped away from her comrades.  Her weapon pointed in their general direction.  “You have a way out?”


“And you just let us go?  There’s no catch?”

“No catch.”

“I… how do I know I can trust you?”

“You are one of us,” Gregor said.

The woman froze.

“Maddie?” a man asked.

“How did you know?” Maddie asked.

“I know this feeling, of being lost.  Of being very alone and not knowing who can be trusted,” Gregor said.

“How can I believe you?”

“Because we’ve been where you’ve been.  These two don’t remember, they had their memories taken,” Shamrock said, “But I didn’t.  I remember what it was like in there.  And I get why you’re afraid.”

“You were in there?”  Maddie asked, her eyes going wide.

Shamrock nodded.  “One moment, I was going to bed in my temple-school.  In another, I was in a cell.  A cot, a metal sink, a metal toilet.  Three concrete walls, a concrete floor and ceiling, and a window of thick plexiglass with a drawer.  You might know the kind of cell I’m describing.

“They drugged me, then they waited until I started showing signs that something happened to me.  It took them a while to figure out, because my power was subtle.  When they had an idea of what I could do, they gave me a coin.  I had to flip it when the doctor came.  If it came up heads, I got to eat, I got fresh clothes, a shower.  If it didn’t, I got nothing.  I realized I was supposed to control it.  Decide the result of the toss.  When I got good at it, they gave me two coins, and both had to come up heads.”

“How long were you there?” Maddie asked.

“I don’t know.  But by the time I saw the chance to escape, I had to roll twelve dice and each one had to come up with a six.  And if it didn’t, if I got more than a few wrong, they found ways to punish me.”

Gregor put his hands on Shamrock’s shoulders.

“They made me use my power.  I… I think I was one of the people they used to punish the ones who failed their tests,” Maddie said.

“Christ,” one of the men said.  “And the freak has been with us for a week?”

Maddie turned to glare at him.

“If it means anything,” Shamrock said, “I forgive you.  You didn’t decide to punish anyone.  We did what they made us do.”

Maddie flinched as though she’d been struck.

“Come with us,” Faultline said.  “You don’t have to stay with us, but we want to hear what you have to say.”

“I’m a predator,” Maddie said.  “Not because I want to be.  You don’t want me to be near you.”

“You were around them for at least a little while,” Faultline said.  “You can be around us for a few hours.”

Maddie glanced around, then nodded.  “When… when they tested you, did they give you a name?”

“They gave me a number at first,” Shamrock said.  “I couldn’t use my real name or they’d punish me.  When I passed a year of testing, they let me pick a codename.  I picked Shamrock.”

“I wouldn’t pick,” Maddie said.  “So they gave me one.  Matryoshka.  I… I don’t deserve my old name.  So call me by that one.”

“Layered doll,” Faultline said.  Matryoshka nodded.  “Let’s go.  We’ll leave the quarantine area, get you some proper food while we talk.  If need be, we’ll come back and see if we can find more people.  If you wanted to guide us for a return trip, maybe direct us to others, I could pay you.  Get you on your feet in the outside world.”

Matroyshka smiled a little at that.

It took a little while to verify that everything was in order at the hotel.  Nobody had noticed their exit and there weren’t any law enforcement officers stationed nearby.

They entered the hotel room much the way they’d left, with a makeshift ladder leading to the balcony, and quickly settled in.  Matryoshka gorged herself on the groceries Faultline had bought shortly after they’d arrived.  She stared wide-eyed at the television.  It was the first time she’d ever seen one.  It led to her excitedly describing her world between mouthfuls of food.

Faultline visited the bathroom, then stopped as a square of white caught her eye.

A note?

She opened the door to verify it wasn’t attached to anything, then pulled it into the room with the toe of her boot.  Closing the door, she unfolded it with her toe to verify that it didn’t have any powder inside.

Only a message: ‘Front desk.  Message from Brockton Bay.  ASAP.’

Brockton Bay?  Faultline frowned.  That would be Coil.  He was the only one with the resources to get ahold of her group.

She was loath to leave Madison while they were having some success pulling in more information on Cauldron’s operations, but… Coil did pay well.

Well enough to warrant a phone call.

She headed down to the lobby in civilian clothes, with Shamrock as backup.

Oddly enough, there was a wait at the front desk.  A young woman, dark-haired, wearing a suit and fedora, with luggage on wheels.

Arriving at four in the morning?

The woman smiled and tipped her hat at Faultline as she headed to the elevator.  Faultline watched her with a touch of suspicion.  She didn’t relax when the elevator doors closed.  She watched the floor number for the elevator tick upward until it stopped at ‘four’.  Two floors above the rooms her team was in.

“What is it?”  Shamrock asked.

“Gut feeling.”

“About the woman?”

“Just… felt wrong.  Do you mind going upstairs?  Check on the others?  Maybe tell them to be on guard, and get all the nonessentials packed up.  Might be paranoid, but I’m thinking we should change hotels.  Good enough chance we were seen, worth doing anyways.”

Shamrock nodded and headed for the staircase.

“You had a message for me?”  Faultline asked the woman at the front desk.  “Room 202.”

“Yes.  A phone number.”

Faultline nodded.  She took the piece of paper with the number, then stepped outside to call it on her cell.

The person on the other end of the phone picked up on the first ring.

“Yes?” Faultline spoke into the phone

“This is Tattletale,” the voice came through.

“Fuck me.” Faultline groaned.  “How the hell did you find us?”

“Long story.”

“What do you want?  We’re not available for any jobs.”

“Don’t want to hire you for a job.  In fact, bringing your guys into the current situation would be a fucking bad idea.  Pretty much all of you are… well, let’s say it’d do more harm than good.”

“You’re wasting my time, Tattletale.”

“It’s been a long night.  Cut me some slack.  I want to borrow Labyrinth.  I don’t care how many of the rest of you come.  Non-combat situation, use her powers.”

Faultline paused.  “Why do you want her?”

“Because I have a group of people here with very little to lose and nothing left to hope for, and I need them on our side.  I think Labyrinth can give them what they want.”

“Labyrinth’s powerful, but I can’t imagine any situation where she’d be able to give anyone what they wanted.  Her power’s temporary.  The kind of stuff you could do with her power… there’s easier ways.  Other people you could go to.”

“I think,” Tattletale said, and she managed to sound condescending, “That I understand her power better than you do.”

Faultline considered hanging up.

She sighed, then raised the phone back to her ear.  “You wouldn’t be baiting me if you didn’t think you could get away with it.  Cut to the chase.  What are you offering?”

“Three point four million.”

Faultline blinked.  Her surprise at the sum was tempered only by irritation that Tattletale had managed to get her hands on that kind of money.  “Double it.”

“Done,” Tattletale said.

A little too fast.  I’d think she was lying, but that’s not why she was so fast.  She expected me to make a counteroffer.  Probably decided the first amount with that in mind.

Faultline grit her teeth in annoyance.  “I want it in advance.”

“Sure,” Tattletale said, sounding far too pleased with herself.  “And done.”

A little too fast, again.  She had that set up, damn her.  “You have my account information?”

“Coil did.  Don’t worry about it.”

Faultline hung up in irritation.  She considered taking the money and refusing the job, but she -and Tattletale- knew her reputation as a mercenary was too important.

Should have refused.

She made a beeline for her hotel room.  She’d need to check the account information, then move funds to an account Tattletale didn’t know about.

A glance at the display above the elevator showed that it hadn’t moved.  Faster to take the stairs to the next floor than to wait.

Her heart skipped a beat when she heard the screaming.  Faultline flew up the stairs to the door, pushed her way into the second floor, and raced down the hallway to the hotel rooms.

There was blood on the door as she pushed it open.

How to even take this sort of thing in?  How to describe it?

Her team had been destroyed.

Gregor was in the kitchen, on his back.  His chest heaved, and he’d covered much of his upper body in a foaming slime.  What she could make of his face was contorted in pain, scalded a tomato red that was already blistering.

One of Newter’s arms, one of his legs and his tail had each been broken in multiple places.  The remains of the coffee table, the flatscreen television and one door of the television stand lay around him, where he’d sprawled into them.

Matryoshka had unfolded into a mess of ribbons, but knives from the belt Faultline had removed to go down to the lobby had her pinned to the wall in six different places.

Labyrinth was the one screaming, steady, almost rhythmically, with little emotion to it.  From the lack of affect, Faultline might have assumed she was in shock, but it was simply the fugue from her power.  A small mercy – two thin cuts marked her face, and one hand was impaled to the armrest of the couch by another of the small knives.

Shamrock was busy giving Spitfire a tracheotomy.  A fedora filled with slime was plastered to the younger girl’s face, and she was struggling weakly.  Shamrock’s own face was covered in blood from nose to chin, and her efforts to administer the tracheotomy were limited as the fingers of one hand were bent at awkward angles.

“The woman in the suit,” Faultline said, dropping to Spitfire’s side.  She noted the slime.  Gregor’s.  And Gregor had been burned with Spitfire’s breath?  “Power thief?”

Shamrock let Faultline take over, positioning the clear plastic tube that was sticking into the hole in Spitfire’s throat.  She had to spit blood out of her mouth before speaking, “No.  I don’t know.  She came in here and took us apart in twenty seconds.  We didn’t touch her.”

Spitfire coughed, then started breathing at a more normal rate.  She gave Faultline two pats on the wrist, calmer.  A signal of thanks?

“Super speed?  Super strength?”  Faultline asked.

“No.  Don’t think,” Shamrock spat blood onto the floor.  She tried to stand and failed, put one hand to her leg.  “Nothing I could see.”

“A thinker power.  Precognition?  No, that wouldn’t work with your power.  Fuck!”  Faultline scrambled to her feet, hurried to Labyrinth’s side. “Hey, Elle, calm down.  It’s okay, it’s over.  Stop screaming.”

Labyrinth shut her mouth, whimpered.  The cuts to the face were thin.  They’d heal with little to no scarring.  The hand-

Faultline stopped.  There was a piece of paper beneath the hand.

She helped Labyrinth raise her hand where it was impaled, leaving the knife in place.

The bloodstained piece of paper had a message on the underside.

Final warning.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

122 thoughts on “Interlude 18 (Donation Bonus #4)

  1. This chapter was a special request from a reader who asked for a chapter involving Labyrinth.

    Crossing my fingers that it’s received well. With luck, the fact that Faultline’s Crew (and Labyrinth in particular) will be rejoining the main narrative (rather than disappearing into obscurity) will make up for any issues.

    As an aside, a huge thank-you goes out to Robbie for his donation. I’ll be scheduling another bonus chapter.

  2. Wow. Matryoshka’s origin confirms that The Simurgh dropped Cauldron’s creations on the area, and not monsters of more unknown origins. And now we know why The Doctor feels so secure with her companion Contessa around.

  3. The most recent few chapters have just left me with an oh crap face on…

    It was nice getting another look into the dynamic Faultline’s team has, this time while they’re in costume. Less nice seeing them all brutally taken apart by Contessa. Now I’m rather curious as to what she does….

  4. “They made me use my power. I… I think I was one of the people they used to punish the ones who faile their tests,” Maddie said. – You forgot the ‘d’ in failed.

    Anyway, interesting chapter. Was rather surprised to see it would with Faultline’s crew,, even a bit more surprised to see Shamrock and Gregor are togethor; good for them! Also it’s kinda surprising seeing Matryoshka apparently looks normal now, that or the camo paint is covering that up.

  5. Okay we knew that Cauldron were evil scumsuckers who kidnap, change, torture, and remove the identities of people that won’t be missed. We guess that they justify it by the “greater good” of creating more heroes than villains, at least that is what the heroes say to themselves. But we don’t know the doctor’s agenda. Battery’s interlude confirms they also create villains, and don’t give a damn about civilians or morals by asking her to let two of the 9 get away. So why did they let them live? I can’t wrap my head around why they would let people who have gotten closer than anyone in probably years to finding info about them go. It is much safer to simply kill them and be done with it.

    • Maybe they don’t want cape fatalities for some reason? Like, for a completely unfounded speculative example; they need living capes to create the power giving formula.

      Or maybe it’s just a general “keep the numbers of parahumans as high as possible to fight endbringers” thing.

      • I doubt their team would fight an Endbringer. Not out of cowardice but from the simple fact that Labyrinth is the only one who could make a contribution in such a fight. The vial thing is possible but it should have been easy to capture them if that was true.

    • They are still lab rats.
      Cauldron releases some of their patients in this world, the hole world is probably just a place for them to do experiments upon.

    • Maybe they have a policy advising against killing former clients, of which there were four in that room if I’m counting them all (Newter, Gregor, Shamrock, Matryoshnka).

  6. I’m a bit confused about where in the timeline this interlude fits. If its after they discovered Noelle’s breakout, when did Tattltale get the chance to call them? If its before, how would she be sure it wouldn’t get back to Coil?

    Anyways, Contessa is scary due to being so mysterious yet powerful. How will this attack affect their decision whether or not to go back to Brockton Bay? I think when they find out Coil worked for Cauldron, they would either go all out against Cauldron or back off and disappear. Which one is more likely, I don’t know.

    Last thought: if Labyrinth got absorbed by Noelle, worldwide destruction would be assured, but what would her clone name be?

  7. Those Bastards! (I mean, of course Cauldron.)

    On a more positive note, I really like the Team, and that they’re apparently coming back.
    I also really like that, despite their Powers, they’re decked out with armor and guns.

    • They’re mercenaries, not capes. Mercenaries can use guns without getting the Code called on them, and they can’t afford not to.

        • The Travellers also:

          A. have much more powerful powers (who needs a gun when you can turn anything into a bullet?)
          B. are much more concerned about hurting people from a hurting-people standpoint.

  8. Ah good, I was beginning to miss these guys.
    It does make sense that a rank 12 shaker would be able breach dimensions. Interestingly, she is tied with purity in terms of total power ranks and 3 ranks under Lung at his best. If Labyrinth was sane, she would likely be an A rank threat all on her own.
    Speaking of ranks and classes, did we ever decide on what Grue’s powers rank as? Also, could the Undersiders be considered an A rank threat prior to Noelle consuming them all?

    • The team as a whole is definitely rank A . Regent could potentially take control of someone very powerful/important, Tattletale scares the shit out out them by the things she knows, Grue is as powerful as Eidolon depending on how many/what capes are in his darkness, they probably now next to nothing about Imp, though Rachel is probably nothing too special to them. Skitter is probably infamous for being connected to nasty things happening, leading this very dangerous team, and for beating people she should frankly have had no chance against. I would be spooked at a being with a relatively weak power that has beaten Lung, hurt the 9, and destroyed Dragon’s most advanced suit ever.

      • Arguably, winning against stronger capes despite a weak power should make her even more scary than simply winnig through brute force. At least, if she simply relied on a very strong, but simply used power, someone with an even stronger power should reliably be able to take her out.

        • Well lets say you have someone like Aegis or Weld corner her. They should be very resistant to her bugs, and should easily be able to crush her if they can get close to her. On paper the outcome should be obvious but anyone smart would be wary since she has beaten people even stronger than they are. Flechette’s scary/freaky image of her would probably add to that wariness depending on just what her report said.

      • I don’t think the power ratings necessarily influence the rank class. After all Jack is part of a group that is classed as S and he himself has a rather low level power of being able to cut things. He is dangerous because of his personality and the group as whole rather than the powers he has himself. I could see the heroes applying similar logic to Skitter and the Undersiders.

      • I agree. I also think they should really up Skitter’s Thinker rating above a 1. Anyone who can figure out how to repeatedly and consistently take out threats well above their weight class should be at least a Thinker 3 or higher.

    • We were never given what Grue’s rank or classification was and Wildbow seems to prefer giving us gradual info through the chapters than giving us clear clarifications on classifications/ranks. I am going to guess he was a shaker of at least five, with his darkness blocking things/negating certain powers. I think Grue would count as a Trump now since he can change his powers depending on who is in the darkness. Probably a fairly high number since he is potentially a very big threat depending on who is in his darkness. Lets say a Trump 8?

      • I won’t spoil anything, but he’s not a trump 8, nor is he quite in that neighborhood.

        There is, I should say (going by comments) a recurring, significant misconception as to how that particular sub-power works.

          • Specifically, I think Wildbow may be referring to the fact that people seem to keep forgetting about the fact that Grue can only borrow one power at a time. I haven’t been following the comments very closely of late, but I’ve seen several people mention him stealing multiple powers. The facts that he’s limited to a single target a time, they have to be within range and inside his darkness, they lose some but not all of their power (which makes it annoying to use on allies yet not disabling to use offensively), and he gets a weaker version of the power, which he doesn’t necessarily know how to use or use well all combine to make him much less powerful than he could be. It’s still an amazing ability, especially in a group like the Undersiders whose power comes from their flexibility, but it’s not world-shaking.

        • I was guessing trump myself, but I wasn’t willing to give him an eight. The primary reason that I thought trump was that he only other trumps appear to be eidolon and that one guy from the empire (Vlad I think). I guess I was just hoping for more insight into powers.

  9. And so we see Matryoshka again, and confirm where all the ‘monsters’ came from. Well, at least, where they made a pitstop en route to Earth Bet. I wonder how many people she’s eaten since then.

    Looks like Contessa knew how to really hurt them, even Spitfire and Elle… And now I wonder if Tattletale plans to send the Travelers home through the Pattern of Amber.

    “thought I’d miss Brockton” Extra space.
    “who faile their tests” Failed.

  10. Times like these make me wish the cast page was updated with minor characters, even if only quick blurbs. Would be more cohesive than trying to re-read all the chapters that contain characters who don’t show up a lot.

      • In this specific case it was Contessa and Matryoshka I was curious about. If it wasn’t for your tag, I would have thought that the note was meant to means Cauldron, rather than Contessa.

        I was also confused as to whether Matryoshka was from Earth A, Earth B, or somewhere else entirely. Is she considered a “freak” because she is a cape, or because she was one of the monsters, or are they the same?

        Of course, it may be that we’re not supposed to know these things yet, but if so I think I missed the details.

        • I don’t think we know yet. However, it’s an entirely valid conclusion that she was one of Cauldron’s experiments.

  11. “If nothing else, keeping everyone on the straight and narrow means they won’t get sloppy if and when we get a serious job. After we’re done all this.'”
    Should be “we’ve”.

  12. There was quite an interesting, and some might say upsetting, revelation here in this interlude. It may well change our perception of the main story and fill in details about a criminal organization.

    I’m talking about the fact that Gregor is getting laid. I guess it’s fitting that we find this out on Valentine’s Day. And since it’s Shamrock, you know he’s getting lucky. Though I guess she doesn’t have to worry too much about sex. She can just use her power to find the best way to move to get her Sham Rockin’.

    • Oh the puns, the terrible, terrible puns. I will probably see more than a few today. My sister refers to it as Single Awareness Day.

      • That’s SAD. Still, I suppose even Kraft cheese products need their day in the spotlight. Ok, so they spend plenty of days in the spotlight already on fast food burgers, but you know what I mean.

        • In honor of Valentine’s Day, or VD as some people call it, I have here a romantic love song to put people in the mood. Problem is, I couldn’t get to my computer until just now, so it’s a little late for the mood. I know it puts a grin on my face. Anyway, here goes:

          Enjoy your VD, everybody.

    • Those are some awesome puns. I agree it is very nice to see Gregor with a girlfriend who honestly cares about him! And to TheAnt, yes, it is definitely Single’s Awareness Day. Valentine’s Day is evil. Single’s Awareness Day is a good drinking day.

  13. So Matryoshka has never seen a TV- is she from an extremely poor area of earth Aleph or is there at least one more dimension in play here?

    This also makes it sound like Simurgh has direct access to Cauldron’s dimension since Matryoshka never mentioned escaping on her own, and I can’t help but wonder why she didn’t dump out everything Cauldron had since bastards or no they are one of the few entities theoretically capable of stopping the Endbringers.

    • Cauldron is active in “this” dimension,
      they can create powers
      the other dimension doesn’t have endbringers
      … …

      am i the only one starting to think that the endbringers are good?
      ok so leviatan killed a lot of people, but he was trying to get to noel (acceptabel loss and so on)
      so the simurgh got noel in “this” dimension and caused a lot of death
      wait in “this” dimension there are caps who could kill noel?
      imagin what would have happened if she had a natural trigerevent in her own dimension, without powerfull caps to stop her

      (year i dont think so just want to hear counterarguments^^)

      • Endbringers killed a whole lot of people, way more then Noel so far, and they appear to be behind her circumstances. Leviathan was going after her – but was it to kill her or to welcome her into the fold, so to speak? And even if Noel had a trigger event, it looks like that power giving serum was specifically made to create an Endbringer. She wouldn’t have become this on her own. I feel like Cauldron is using this dimension to test things, and then they’ll simple jump the boat for another one, where they’ll put the data to use for their ends.

      • If the Endbringers wanted to defeat Cauldron, Simurgh would just toss Leviathan and Behemoth through a portal into Cauldron’s base. She obviously knows how to access it by portal, but she hasn’t taken actions that would require a lot less plotting and planning to take them out.

        • Well Dragon outright says that she considers them as bad as the Endbringers. So maybe Simurgh could attack them but chooses not to because Cauldron will do more damage by being left alone.

    • Hm…

      I don’t think the Endbringers are good, but they might not be evil. They could simply be soldiers for another side, and devoted to destroying Cauldron rather than humanity in general.

      Still, the Endbringers being good is really unlikely. They have killed millions of people and gutted things like Japan. It seems that most good goals would be better handled by communication than slaughter.

      • Endbringers attack one by one, instead all together and they wait for months between the attacks. So it’s either there is some limitation, perhaps they are remote controlled and it takes effort for whoever is running them, or their objective isn’t destruction of humanity.

        Cauldron benefits from Endbringers. They keep a lot of capes in line with ”We are doing it to stop Endbringers”, they use them as distractions and they advance their plans with specter of Endbringers influencing people. Simurgh might have helped them out with creating Noel, so for all we know there could be some connection between them, and not necessary antagonistic one.

        • The Endbringers are more effective if their attacks are constant.

          Attacking all at once a) Focuses the damage on a smaller area and b) Vastly reduces the overall numbers and hence the fear of their existence.

          Furthermore this ignores that all three attacked and appeared separately. The connections between them are mostly drawn by humans, they might be totally unconnected. They may instead simply operate on their own schedules and be staggered due to their initial date of appearance.

  14. I’m guessing Contessa has some sort of time related power. Maybe bullet time or some sort of non linear time perception like Doctor Manhattan. Or she could be rewinding time and memorizing what each guy does and how to react. Whichever it is, she’s pretty goddamn badass, I like her already aside from the child stabbing.

    Shamrock was intended as a Cauldron enforcer too it looks like. Makes sense they’d have subtler more ninjaey powers. Less evidence that way.

    • I’m thinking that Contessa’s ability is to suspend the subjective sense of time of everyone within a given range. Those under its effect are frozen in place for the duration of its activation, therfore making it seem as if she took them down in 20 seconds when she simply took her time (no pun intended).

    • Might have to stop calling them bonuses once you have so many scheduled that they become weekly. Three Worm updates per week is a lovely thing, let me tell you.

  15. you employer –> your employer
    Shamrock holds the shotgun up in the air. She should be aiming at the floor if she’s been trained to use a gun.

    I really like Faultline’s crew, too. It’s good to see them again, though circumstances could’ve been better. Wait, this is Wildbow, it probably couldn’t😉

  16. Hm…

    Overall, this was an interesting interlude.

    1. Cauldron seems needlessly evil here. Why would kidnapping their own guards be the best idea? There have to be plenty of willing allies. They do have certain mind control abilities, but overall this seems more likely to backfire than doing it the good way. Experimentation made sense, but this just seems foolish.

    2. Gregor was noted as the client this time. That’s intriguing on a number of levels. Despite being mercenaries it seems Faultline’s Crew is more interested in the Cauldron Mystery than anything else.

    3. I agree with everyone else that leaving them alive is weird, but Wildbow is smart enough to have it make sense later.

    4. Overall, this was pretty good. Lots of new information and lots to think about. I am getting more and more interested as to Worm’s endgame.

  17. After a ridiculous amount of reading, finally caught up. Such a long story…

    This has been a really interesting story so far. So realistic, with gray-on-gray mortality, as many good people as bad, and…well, it’s basically as realistic as you can get with a superhero story. I sometimes have difficulty keeping up with the amount of characters and plot details, but it’s still very enjoyable. I’m happy I found such a good web serial, and hope it goes on for a long time. Thank you, wildbow.

      • Eh, don’t agree with you on that one. Battery got into bed with some pretty shady people to put Madcap behind bars, and Kaiser, despite a manipulative, racist asshole, stepped up to fight Leviathan when push came to shove. Battery is definitely a lighter shade of grey, but nobody is without their sins in the Wormverse.

        • I don’t know, Battery did get into bed with the person she set out to catch specifically because he shat on her father’s chance at making a difference in the world.

          Not only did the supervillain win that one, he got to fuck the little girl of the hardworking cop he thwarted.

          Talk about insult to injury. I’ll give him that one. That’s getting him nominated to the Playa Hater’s Ball.

        • Well, there are allowances in regard to mortality about who deserves to live. But my Tarantinoesque mindset dissalows me from letting anyone even anyone remotely related to Kaiser not being dead. I dunno. Kill all Nazis and somesuch.

          There’s definitely some grey area allowable between people who are only technically dead due to psychological fuckery and people leyeAgally dead due to same bullshit.

          Uh, yeah I’ve no idea whats going on on that front. Kill all Not Sees yay.

        • Battery cooperated with Cauldron, but did not compromise her integrity when she was ordered to do something obviously bad and morally wrong.
          Kaiser is evil and not grey at all. Cooperating with other parahumans does not change that (there is a trope for that, “Evil Versus Oblivion”).
          Worm is a pretty grey setting, but not everyone (who matters) in it is morally grey.

      • Yes, yes it is. I can not say how grateful I am that updates are two to three times a week, because I’ll be able to find out what happens next tomorrow.

        And I meant to say morality. Autocorrect messed with my words. Sorry for the confusion.

          • I agree.

            Back to Worm, has anyone noticed that, as the story got darker, the occasional jokes in the beginning have almost disappeared? It suits the story’s direction, but I kinda miss them. I’m hoping the next arc will lighten things up, and focus more on Taylor’s territory, dealing with Sierra and Charlotte, and Regent. I generally don’t like romance, but wildbow seems to know what xe’s doing, and these two can’t catch a break.

  18. Also in light of the holiday I am going to toss out something a little different. To say it is different than my normal style is to suggest that it would be difficult for a 100 pound sumo wrestler to become a world champion.

    The good news is that if no one likes it, you can all get Wildbow to delete it.

    • I know it’s not the normal scheduled update, but OOC insisted I do something for Valentine’s, even if I got around to it late due to some business in Vatican City that I can’t talk about right now. So I figured I would tell a story about love. Knowing me, you can probably figure out this won’t have a happy ending. We were able to overcharge the connection to get this through to your universe by plugging a capacitor bank into a nearby motel tonight and charging it up on the power of love. It required one of those European outlet adapters.

      It’s not my story. I heard it from a hero named Slapstick. Not really man or woman, or perhaps both at the same time, Slapstick is a shapeshifter and a very skilled one. We ran into each other one day around some Middle Eastern country. Can’t remember which, but it had a lot of rioting and neither of us much felt like taking any side in it. Normally I’d love to riot and cause a ruckus, but not in that heat. It’s just too much. Besides, I was done with my business there. Slapstick had been the mole who sold out the people I had worked for, but I had finished my part and they paid me already so I had no beef with him or her.

      So over a bottle of brandy he told me this tale:

      I have actually been in love before. I was still Slapstick, just a younger Slapstick. A more idealistic Slapstick. A hornier Slapstick. She was Selene, after the moon goddess. We met in South America.

      I was a mercenary working with this gang of guerillas out of a mountain. They did things like smuggling, drugs, and human trafficking. They only did a little human trafficking. It paid well. She busted in and handed the guerillas their asses. The other powered mercs didn’t do so well either. The money was dead or captured and I was neither at threat nor highly motivated.

      We had a rocky start but a passionate and fiery one. We began to work together before long. I became something of a reserve member of her team.

      It was wonderful. I was a college student with an amazing secret. I was in love with someone. We lived far apart, but I knew then I wanted her in my life for as long as she would have me. It did not matter one bit that she had twins by an ex. It made me smile sometimes just knowing that she was out there somewhere. That happens when you know you’re truly loved.

      One day I was hanging out at her team’s base when I saw someone there who, I’ll admit, looked pretty hot. Her name was Crystal. We got to talking, but not that way, and in the course of events my girlfriend came up. Crystal knew Selene. Crystal knew Selene very well. Selene was Crystal’s girlfriend and submissive.

      I don’t think highly of all that dominant and submissive bullshit these days.

      Next time I talked to Selene, she was with Crystal. She was also with Crystal in a different way. She broke up with me. According to Crystal and Selene, the whole relationship with me was just a way to play me and keep me from being an enemy then and in later times.

      I was devastated. I found my way back to my dorm room and just collapsed into a salty wet puddle of goop for awhile. Despite not having a heart, I could still feel phantom pains where it should have been.

      As a side note, it proved wrong the English professor I had who referred to a broken heart as purely metaphorical.

      I did get my act together some, and I did help with the team some more. I was around Selene some in the process. I didn’t care for this at all and I refused to speak to her. I did help save her for what little it was worth.

      I didn’t like Crystal and it turned out my spurned lover instincts were correct. She was obsessed. I found this out due to a new romance that formed in the wake of the one with Selene. An old friend and former lover of Selene’s who had taken up with me out of some sympathy and understanding. Together we uncovered that Crystal was obsessive and dangerous. Selene found it out too and wanted help. Together, we were able to make Crystal back off and go her own way.

      Through a sort of default, Selene and I were kind of back together. This was a problem for me because I was still together with our mutual friend and because I didn’t care for Selene any more. It was nice she and Crystal were broken up and I could still remember the good times, but I didn’t love her any more.

      I let other things take precedence and we lost track of each other. That is easy to do when you just stop going out as a superhuman like I did.

      It changed me. I lost that spark to do good, but I couldn’t go back to being what I was before. And I became a lot more cynical. Especially about my feelings. I began to second guess them and I refused to ever put them out there so fully. I felt ashamed of the way I had been, thinking I had been in love with someone who up and left me for some psycho bitch who was willing to put a collar on her.

      Time passed. I moved on.

      Until I ran into her again, four years later.

      She acted like nothing had changed. She thought it was wonderful seeing me again. All lovey dovey. She even told me she loved me. I felt awkward. I had always felt bad for our relationship just petering out, but now I had to find some way to make it known to her that I didn’t love her.

      Since I had decided to get more active in costume again, I ran into her more and more. It was one time when I had a few more beers than I should have that I began to talk some shit about dominating her better than Crystal. It was some sort of macho BS.

      That’s when she told me possibly the only thing that could still hurt me about our breakup.

      It wasn’t real. She didn’t even remember Crystal or that whole incident until I mentioned her. As far as Selene knew, the breakup was faked and so was her relationship with Crystal. It was all done to go undercover around Crystal and her group to find out what they were all pulling. She even avoided having sex with Crystal all that time, despite Crystal’s bragging around me.

      She thought I knew this. Somehow. Hell if I know how I was supposed to know that. She couldn’t very well tell me afterwards because I was refusing to talk to her. To me, the person who was just broken up with out of nowhere for a D/s dominant, this course of action makes sense. It’s Selene’s actions I can’t wrap my head around. All just faked but she never bothered to let me know before, during, or after.

      The original breakup changed the course of my life. I went from wanting to marry this woman despite my youth to just kind of drifting. I wanted her by my side and then the whole scenario was blown up. I had one of the worst days of my life, but she didn’t even remember it happened because that day was a game to her.

      I tried to maintain that conversation and let her know how I felt, but she just insisted that the past was the past and we should just move on from here. Move on from here what? I don’t have any feelings for her. Not ones of love, anyway. I had four years of moving on without even considering her a part of my life anymore. Four years of going off in some other direction with a small personality change due to her actions. And excuse me, but I see no reason to ignore my very righteous and rational feelings of anger towards all of that.

      I didn’t tell her that last part. After her talk about moving on from here, I got out of there. The next time I see her, we need to have a serious talk and I need her to realize there is nothing between us.

      I don’t remember how many months ago it was since I talked to her and then walked away in baffled disgust over her actions and her wanting to continue what we had. I have yet to have that talk with her. How many months, five, six?

      The idea of never seeing her again doesn’t bother me.

    • Let’s see, looking through the related tags the last time we saw Contessa was Alexandria’s interlude, also the first time we saw Behemoth. And this is the first time she’s appeared without “Doctor Mother” according to the tags.

      Between Doorman and Contessa anyone wanting to oppose Cauldron is in for a hard fight.

      • That’s more like the PG we love and hate. I was wondering where you’d gone for Valentine’s Day.

        And now I’m wondering about an Edgar Allen Poe based cape. Telltale would be make people paranoid, hear things, and confess their worst crimes. The Raven would make people depressed or assume the worst just by talking.

        Huh. Sounds like Tattletale may be both.

  19. Two questions about Faultline:

    1) Is she ex-military? If not, where’d she get her training?
    2) Does she have some kind of low-level Thinker power or is she mundane-smart?

  20. Wow. In Alexandrias interlude cauldrons actions could ALMOST be sort of justified, but this really paints a better picture. And the heroes are working for these guys.

  21. How did Faultline’s group get into the hotel inconspicuously? Did Gregor and Newter go in through a window after the others paid for the room, or what?

  22. “Each individual got a tattoo of a bird on one hand or on one arm.”

    Anyone remember Manton/Siberian having that tattoo of a swan on his hand? I wonder whether he was in a Simurgh attack or if he got it in protest😛

  23. I do love Labyrinth. And all of Faultline’s crew for investigating Cauldron.

    Typos not yet mentioned:
    “furniture for foyer” – missing “the”?
    “The C.U.l China.” – surplus “l”.

  24. “The C.U.l China.”
    Is China the C.U. or the C.U.I.? You used both (missing final period).

    I’m a little baffled how Newter could be sitting with his tail wrapped around Labyrinth without giving her hallucinations (above and beyond her usual fugues). There are several points I ‘think’ he either touched or was touched by his teammates. Can he control whether or not his body fluids are dangerous?

    Skimming back through his first appearances, it seems that his TAIL is specifically exempted? Maybe you should give that a bit of emphasis in re-write.

  25. Oh Gregor has a girlfriend!!! Good for him ^_^

    Huh so was Contessa is badass apparently. Super badass. Worrisome.

    Hmm it’s nice to see that Matryoshka is sane and helpful since she did come off as an interesting character from the Travelers side. I’m surprised the crew didn’t know that the Travelers came from there though…the PRT seemed to have an inkling and I can’t see Faultline not having SOME contacts there that can get her info about Madison.

    While it is great getting to see Faultline’s crew again I have to say this is frustrating with Taylor in the middle of being swallowed. Wildbow you tease us!

    Mild annoyance and impatience aside, I really do want to see more of this crew and hear about why Fault and Tattle dislike each other so much.

  26. Hmm.
    I think this ending could’ve benefited from another second or two in Faultline’s perspective. I can see two different ways her reaction could go- “we are discovered; flee at once” or “now you’ve made me mad”- and not knowing which way she turns feels unusually artificial.

  27. Man, how many of these guys got powers from Cauldron? That’s all of the biggest PRT heroes, at least two S9s, most of two villain groups… Maybe the actual cape difference between these worlds is just because Cauldron only releases things on Bet?

    I don’t really relate to Faultline’s group, but this update was more than worth it. Awesome stuff!

  28. “I think they were the C.U. I didn’t do anything specific for them. Just describing new inmates, recent hirings and firings, changes in policy.”

    The C.U.l China. It was good to be right.

    Dunno which bit’s the typo, but there’s something off.

  29. I’m glad to see these guys again! I loved them the first time they showed up. Also glad to see Gregor has finally found love. Shamrock is a very lucky lady.

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