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Underestimating Badassery / Literature

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People Underestimating Badassery in literature.

  • People outside the circle of protagonists in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga consistently underestimate Kestel Falke. It's easy to discern why: she's a beautiful redheaded woman who used to work as a high-society courtesan. What many people aren't aware of: she was also a Professional Killer. To begin with, it's mentioned that female inmates at the Velant Penal Colony are often taken advantage of by the guards, but the first two to force themselves on Kestel both turned up dead. In book four another assassin tries to take her hostage after she spent the whole evening playing the part of a noblewoman, but she overpowers him in seconds despite having a garrote wrapped around her throat.
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  • Belgarath spends most of The Belgariad talking smack about the Big Bad Torak's high priest Ctuchik, all but outright calling him a two-penny warlock with delusions of adequacy. However, when forced into a magical duel with Ctuchik, the two are extremely evenly matched (it's worth mentioning that Belgarath is widely considered the world's most powerful sorcerer, a master of several other magical disciplines, over seven thousand years old and Ctuchik's religion's Satan-analogue). Belgarath only wins thanks to Ctuchik's firm grasp on the Villain Ball, and even then he is left severely weakened and near-dead by the ordeal.
  • In A Brother's Price, the kidnappers who take Jerin are clever enough to search him for hidden weapons, and even find his set of lockpicks. However, they still underestimate him, as he pretends to stumble against them, and steals his stuff back just a moment after they took it.
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  • Codex Alera: Anyone who gets in a fight with Tavi quickly learns, much to their cost, that lacking access to Furycrafting does not make him an easy target; quite the opposite, in fact, because having to get by without Furies to help him out forced him to rely on his wits instead. Tavi's knack for improvisation and out of the box thinking ends up saving the day at least once per book. And then it turns out his furycrafting abilities are simply manifesting late...
  • Chloe from Darkest Powers. She is five feet tall and weighs a hundred pounds, maybe. She's in decent shape, but considering her size and her lack of any real self-defense training, she's not that much of a physical threat. She can raise an army of zombies in under five minutes just by thinking about it too hard.
  • Discworld: "Sure, she's wearing the uniform of the City Watch, but she's just some pretty blonde. How tough can she really be? Let's take her hostage again!" Protip, criminals: Captain Angua von Uberwald is also a werewolf, and one of the toughest and most dangerous members of the City Watch.
    Carrot: [As Angua is taken into a bar] Try not to hurt anyone.
    Thug: As long as you do what we say, she'll be fine.
    Carrot: Sorry, was I talking to you?
    • Also from the Watch, almost every antagonist will eventually underestimate Vimes and/or Carrot's ability to foil any Evil Scheme, regardless of the odds involved.
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    • Cohen the Barbarian often gets this. He is a very, very old barbarian hero, but people tend to forget that in this line of work, one doesn't live that long unless they are very, very good at it.
    • Lu Tze does his bit to spread rule number one: "Do not act incautiously when confronting little bald wrinkly smiling men." Most of the population is more than willing to go along with this rule. When he meets those few who don't, he has to educate them in why the rule is in place.
    • This seems to happen to Granny Weatherwax in about half the books she's in. The other witches get it too, but it's generally Granny who puts them down.
    • This is how Mustrum Ridcully became Archchancellor of Unseen University in Moving Pictures; the other wizards needed a break from the rampant Klingon Promotion going on, and decided that a 7th-level wizard who went out to live in the countryside should be the right choice. They figured that as a 'country-man', he was one of those animal-loving softies and therefore very easy to get rid of once the time had come. Unfortunately, Ridcully turns out to be a Boisterous Bruiser of wizards, and very much unkillable. However, most people, particularly Ponder Stibbons, underestimate how smart Ridcully can be.
  • Tris from Divergent is a small teenage girl. Far too often, she's assumed to be a non-threat — even when she's pointing a gun at them.
  • In The Dresden Files, there are a good dozen or more of persons or entities who look weak, pathetic, foolish, dim, and easy prey. They are not to be laughed at. They are not to be looked down upon. They can and will kick your ass, if they don't just kill you. Here is just a small sample of the most frequently occurring examples.
    • So there's this guy. He's a tall but gangly fellow, looks perpetually unshaven, wears a big coat and walks around with a big stick and generally seems like a scruffy, weird sort, but is otherwise not really all that much of a threat. A great many people, both Muggle and supernatural, consider him to just be some freaky guy with eclectic fashion sense. Except this guy's name is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, titular character of The Dresden Files. Conjure by it at your own risk. After all, this is the man who has taken on all kinds of supernatural beings and survived every encounter. He killed a Faerie Queen, stared down and nearly killed Nicodemus Archleone- twice, reanimated a dinosaur and marched it through the streets of Chicago, and annihilated the entire Red Court of vampires because they took his daughter. The supernatural types eventually start coming to realize how dangerous he is, but the muggles? Not so much.
    • So, there's this short woman, 5 foot tall, and like the example below, about 100 pounds. Head of the Special Investigations department for at least 8 years, while most last 2 weeks. Shot a half-ton werewolf monster from point-blank range. Once killed a plant monster with a chainsaw, and hamstrung an ogre with the same. One-hit-killed a Physical God with a holy sword, after having cut through countless Elite Mooks, any one of whom could tear an ordinary human to pieces. She drove away a Fallen Angel by drawing the same sword about 2 inches out of its sheath. Later, she killed a Faerie Queen that was about to kill the man she loves. And that is only the beginning of how extremely badass Karrin Murphy is.
    • Ebenezer McCoy: An old Scottish redneck living on a farm in the Ozarks. Sounds relatively harmless? He's one of the most powerful wizards in the White Council, and fuck with him or his loved ones and he will pull a satellite out of orbit and drop it on your head like squashing a bug. If that is not a viable option, he will simply kill you with a wave of his staff. With one wave, he killed about 100 Muggle mercenaries.
    • Thomas Raith. Drunken bishonen playboy who doesn't seem to care about much but enjoying himself. Until you hurt someone he cares about. Then he can and will rip your arm off and beat you to death with it before you have time to blink. A surprising number of people don't quite realize what it means that even though Lord Raith habitually kills his sons, Thomas is still alive.
    • Ivy, the Archive: A tiny slip of a girl who is the repository of all human knowledge, and can blast a fallen angel into oblivion with an Offhand Backhand. Remember, knowledge is power. She has a LOT of knowledge. Ergo, she has a LOT of power. Q.E.D.
    • So, there is this small fairy named Toot-toot. He is about 12 inches tall. He cannot understand complex orders as he has a very Literal-Minded. And he is a pizza addict. But he is incredibly quick, able to change directions on a dime, and with his trusty box cutter, he will take on a Skinwalker. Slicing into the ancient evil. Even one of the most powerful wizards in the world was impressed by how well he handled himself against a Physical God-tier force.
    • So, there's this guy dressed in what seems to be a pretty authentic recreation of a full set of Roman Centurion armor. He has a cigar and is just generally wandering around being smug and arrogant. Then he uses half of Harry's Name to bring him to his knees with no particular effort when Harry starts giving him lip. This guy just so happens to be Ferrovax, the single oldest Dragon alive and is by Word of Jim a being that could go toe-to-toe with Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness. Oh, and that suit of armor? It's not a recreation. It's a trophy.
    • Donar Vadderung is not the head of the organization that hires out people like Gard as hired guns for no reason. When Harry seems to be taking his power lightly (specifically, the power of a dozen beings he describes as being not quite as strong as he is), he gives a little demonstration via slamming Harry into the ground with his raw will, leaving Harry as helpless as an "insect watching the shoe coming down". Even weakened, the guy is still a Person of Mass Destruction. This makes sense, considering that Mr. Vadderung is actually, literally, a Physical God. Odin, to be precise. And if you're to young to comprehend how scary that is, he's also Santa Claus. Be afraid.
  • In the backstory of Empire of the Ants, the whole ant population of France severely underestimated the Dwarf Ants, believing them to merely be small, weaker ants. In the following days, they took over Black Ants, Red Ants, Wasps, Termites... When the protagonists Red Wood Ants finally confront them, they discovered to their horror the Dwarf Ants had several queens in each of their colony, making them dangerous Zerg Rush specialists, and possessed high intelligence for the specie. By the time the story has started, the two species has become nemeses to each other.
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Molly Weasley's "NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!" followed by her killing Bellatrix Lestrange, who laughs at her and has only a second to be shocked when she realizes what's just happened.
    • Most people don't take the three main characters too seriously, either, until they start winning. Meanwhile, Neville, Luna and Ginny run a successful resistance against Voldemort's followers' rule of Hogwarts for the better part of the school year although it was made easier by Snape being Good All Along.
    • Especially in the earlier books, where Harry, Ron, and Hermione are usually dismissed by older wizards because of their young age. Even in some of the later books, information is intentionally kept from them because other characters are worried it'll be too much for them to handle (which is sometimes true).
    • It seems that everyone (including himself) thought that Peter Pettigrew was a weakling. He was able to accomplish many feats of difficult magic, and was eventually responsible for the death of two of his old friends.
    • In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Golgomath, the giant with Death Eater ties who ripped off Karkus's head, assumes that Hagrid and Madame Maxime will be easy prey. They escape from him handily, though many of the giants who wanted to ally themselves to the Order were killed in the ensuing bloodbath.
  • As you might expect in a military SF series, Honor Harrington contains a goodly number of examples:
    • Right off the bat, the enemies of the titular heroine regularly find, to their regret, that she's not as easy a target as they first thought:
      • In the backstory, a fellow midshipman at the academy tried to rape her in the shower, not realizing she was a heavyworlder in Earthlike gravity. She beat the shit out of him, but unfortunately wasn't brave enough to press charges.
      • In Field of Dishonor, a professional duelist hired to kill Honor dismisses her as a serious threat on the dueling field, though he grants that she is a capable starship captain. He doesn't get a chance to even aim.
      • In the next book, Flag in Exile, she gutted and decapitated a trained swordsmen in one movement after having only spent a few months learning the sword, in part because her opponent was in the mindset of winning swordsmanship tournaments, not killing opponents. This was a few hours after she'd survived a crash after her shuttle had been shot down, had barely escaped armed gunmen trying to finish the job, and looked like she should be in a hospital, not a duel.
      • One of the major villains in Honor Among Enemies dismisses Honor as a threat when taking her as a hostage... right before she guns down some pirates in cold blood with an antique weapon, and reveals that she has arranged for the pirate shuttle that was trying to escape to be rigged with a bomb, destroying them before they could get away.
      • After that point, everyone in the universe suddenly became Genre Savvy and now want absolutely nothing to do with Honor Harrington if it might involve a face-to-face fight.
    • A less conventional example comes in the form of Manticoran Admiral Augustus Khumalo: his own navy considered him to be a by-the-book political appointee lacking both imagination and tactical and strategic experience, but when Terekhov discovered Mesa's plan to conquer the Talbott Quadrant, he demonstrated a tough-mindedness and adaptability that none of his fellow officers anticipated by backing his subordinate to the hilt, even at risk of war with the Solarian League.
    • On the level of fleets, rather than individuals, the outcomes of not a few battles are radically affected by one side learning that the other's hardware is a lot better than anticipated — starting in the very first book, when the Manticoran light cruiser Fearless goes toe-to-toe with a massive Havenite Q-ship. The Lensman Arms Race that follows results in a lot more such surprises from both sides, especially when the Solarian League — whose peacetime navy was, as of the first book, roughly on par with Manticore — discovers what happens when you join the arms race late.
    • The aforementioned Terekhov rather succinctly described the trope when the local dictatorship of a backwater planet threatened to start mass executions of civilians if he didn't leave which they are confident he will do because the Manticorans make a point of being the good guys. In his last message to them before a kinetic weapon strike from orbit utterly obliterates their headquarters and leadership, he asks:
    • Also on the level of fleets — or in this case, entire star systems — Haven tried attacking Yeltsin's Star, home of the planet Grayson, four times. On none of those occasions did they succeed, and they lost a hefty amount of tonnage in warships to boot. After Fourth Yeltsin, the Peep government rather prudently decides that Yeltsin's Star is a black hole for its navy and refuses to go anywhere near it. At any time. Ever.
  • The Jenkinsverse:
    • Many, many aliens underestimate humans and pay the price for it. Considering humans can ignore small-arms fire, survive multiple shots from anti-tank weapons, and rip apart heavy mechs with their bare hands, it's only understandable that aliens (who are invariably much more fragile) would have trouble dealing with them. Furthermore, humans are much better at adapting to changing combat situations, thinking outside the box, and just basic deception, making them difficult to handle even for people who have successfully accounted for their strength. One alien commander who is in the process of successfully killing a squad of human soldiers notes that while his traps are killing them one by one, if he runs out of tricks before they run out of men, he's dead. And indeed, they manage to figure out enough of his traps to survive the rest of them, and one man is able to take over the ship.
    • A Russian special forces squad has this turned around on them. They had been fighting aliens for so long they had forgotten what it was like to fight people who had any tactics more advanced than "shoot straight and take cover occasionally." They weren't idiots, of course, they still played things by the book and were careful, but half of them got killed because they weren't paying quite enough attention.
  • Journey to Chaos: Lots of enemies think that Tiza is an easy target because she's not a mage. They typically end up Bound and Gagged and humiliated.
  • In Larry Niven's Known Space setting, the Kzin first encountered humanity in the form of an unarmed colony ship from a pacifist world, carrying only a skeleton crew. Seeing easy prey, they attacked. Unfortunately, "unarmed" and "pacifist" don't add up to "harmless" and a communications laser is still a laser...
  • Mistborn:
    • Vin is another one of those five-nothing, hundred-pound girls who's constantly overlooked and underestimated because of how unimposing she looks. She killed a Physical God, vertically bisected a man and his horse, headbutted someone in the face hard enough to reduce his head to Pink Mist, and has abused her Super Strength so much that she's essentially dependent on it to function, but also gets about three times more power out of it than anyone else. Most amusing when she's facing Koloss; they tend to get very confused while she slaughters them by the hundreds because they don't get how it's even possible for someone so little to beat someone much bigger.
    • Elend gets it too, for a different reason. He was well-known among the nobility as a head-in-the-clouds-idealistic scholar with little practical experience with the outside world. Not all of them have gotten the memo that things are a bit different now.
  • The One Who Eats Monsters: Ryn is one of the oldest, most powerful entities in existence, and even the Fates whisper of her as "The One From Whom There is No Escape." However, she looks like a sixteen year-old girl, so she gets underestimated a lot. The main antagonists of the book initially dismiss her as a daeva too young and unimportant for anyone to know her name; even when they find out who she truly is they assume they can at least stall her long enough to complete their plans. Mark, the Bradford bodyguard, initially assumes that she's just a boastful kid until he sees her beat up three big guys without any trouble whatsoever (and that was with her holding back a lot). He then thinks back to their first meeting, and realizes that she had put herself in a perfect position to attack him if he proved hostile.
  • In the Robert Browning telling of "The Pied Piper of Hamelin", the Mayor and Corporation (his advisors) decide to renege on their promise to pay the Piper the agreed-upon fee for ridding the town of rats. Their thinking is that since the rats were drowned and "What's dead can't come back to life", there's nothing the Piper (a wanderer whom they regard as beneath them) can do in retaliation for the promise being broken. He warns them that he can use his music as an instrument (so to speak) of revenge, but they don't take the threat seriously and effectively dare him to try it. They learn to their eternal sorrow that his music also works on humans — specifically, children.
  • This happens a couple of times in The Queen's Thief series. In The King of Attolia, Eugenides spends the whole book practicing only basic sword routines in the public practice courts, and then reveals himself to be the best swordsman any of the soldiers have ever seen by trouncing an entire squad. People always forget that he had two grandfathers.
    • This often happens to Eugenides, most notably when he manages to single-handedly destroy the house of Erondites, which was powerful enough to pose a significant threat to the the Queen's reign, and, in the same scene, scares the crap out of his attendants and thus gains their loyalty.
      Attolia: Ninety-eight days. You said it would take six months.
      Eugenides: I like to give myself a margin when I can.
    • He even lampshades it: "Has it occurred to you, Costis, that the only reason I'm alive is that those three assassins took me for a prancing lightweight?"
  • Ranger's Apprentice: Halt is rather short, wears a mottled cloak, rides a shaggy pony, and has unevenly cut, greying hair. Underestimate him at your own risk.
  • The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.: Discussed when the main character recognize that their superior officer Blevins believes that everyone from the distant past is an ignorant simpleton who will be easily managed when transported to modern times. Grainne, a brilliant witch and spy from the Elizabethan era, and Magnus, a cunning Viking war chief, prove Blevins wrong and become a huge problem when they go AWOL.
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms: Also true to history, this is one of the factors of the downfall of Guan Yu. His advisors warned him that Wu has been setting its eye on the Jing Province that he's in charge of, and their new strategists, Lu Meng and Lu Xun, were up and coming brilliant strategists on their own. Guan Yu dismissed them, assured that his general badass prowess and war experience will make him prevail over these newbies. These newbies eventually formed a cunning plan that exploited some of Guan Yu's flaws in people management, backstab him in the best opportunity available, captured him and had him executed.
  • In the Sherlock Holmes short story "The Speckled Band", Dr. Roylett, having learned that his stepdaughter paid Holmes a visit concerning the suspicious nature of her sister's death and the strange atmosphere now surrounding her, attempts to intimidate Holmes by bending an iron poker with his bare hands. After Roylett's departure, Holmes, now even more interested in the case than he already was, informs Dr. Watson that had Roylett stayed, he would have seen that Holmes possessed an even level of strength by bending the poker back to its proper form.
  • The Sienkiewicz Trilogy has a glorious example at the beginning of the second book. The protagonist, Andrzej Kmicic, mocks his opponent, Michał Wołodyjowski, before their duel. What happens next is such a one sided fight that Kmicic ends up begging his opponent to just kill him already and spare him more humiliation.
  • The Sinister Six Trilogy features this from the main villain, the Gentleman, in his dealings with the Sinister Six; after evading law enforcement all his life, the Gentleman is finally defeated because he underestimates the Chameleon and Doctor Octopus, believing that he could always see through the Chameleon's disguises and that he had the perfect means to control Octavius, only to be shot by the Chameleon just before Doc Ock reveals that he had already deduced how the Gentleman intended to betray them.
  • Happens from time to time in A Song of Ice and Fire.
    • Taking time out of your life expectancy to gloat at, belittle or threaten Arya Stark basically just gives her more time to make you feel very, very sorry you bothered, for instance.
    • Or, how about laughing in the white-haired old man's face or just dismissing him as "old" as you square off against him? If that's Ser Barristan Selmy, you've just proved what a jackass you are.
    • And, heaven help you if you insult Tyrion's intelligence by assuming he can't talk himself out of the bind you've just put him in: the odds are good that he can.
    • Finding yourself facing a plain woman in *snicker* armour? Go ahead, attack like a demon in a frenzy because 1) you don't want to be beaten by a girl and/or 2) you want to look impressive when you beat her for mates points. Unfortunately... it's probably going to result in 3) you being wiped along the floor. That's Brienne of Tarth, and she's a Badass Stone Wall who just suckered you into a loss.
    • But, to win a Crowning Moment of Underestimation... you have to beat Kraznys mo Nakloz, a Good Master of Astrapor, for his underestimation of Daenerys Targaryen. Repeatedly insulting somebody you should very well know for a fact is descended from an exiled branch of Valyrian Dragon Lords in a derivative of the Valyrian language over several days is... a bit crass, but kind of understandable. They were the historical masters of your city and you hate them, so getting your digs into one of their few remaining descendants makes a little sense. Convincing yourself, however, that this mere slip of a girl without much visible backup won't be able to understand you or the nature of the very dragon you hope to gain in trade is... dumb. Handing her the army of invincible, obedient slaves in the middle of your (now) poorly defended city before full receipt (and control or containment) of the mobile flame-thrower whose chain you're very busy yanking (literally)? And, um... you were calling her stupidly new, uncultured and unschooled in this whole tactical negotiation thing, Mr. Charcoal Briquette?
  • Spenser, despite being a pretty big guy, is often underestimated by the mooks he encounters, though their overconfidence is usually justified due to their outnumbering him. It rarely does them any good.
  • Star Trek: Prey:
    • The villain Korgh's plan to undermine the Federation/Klingon alliance so that the Klingon Empire secedes from Khitomer Accords and puts him in charge fails because he basically fell victim to this, as Korgh both underestimates what his enemies are capable of and overestimates his own influence over his 'allies', resulting in his plans being exposed and his supposedly loyal partners betraying him.
  • Star Wars Expanded Universe:
    • Ahsoka: The Sixth Brother assumes that the title character, based on her age, is just a Jedi Padawan and thus will be easy to defeat. Fans of The Clone Wars will know that she's an extremely experienced combatant who was offered the rank of Jedi Knight before leaving the Order. He pays for this underestimation with his life.
  • Star Wars Legends:
    • The Novelization of Revenge of the Sith has Count Dooku make this mistake with regards to Anakin and Obi-Wan, starting their duel in full Smug Snake mode as he refuses to believe that any Jedi can defeat him. He spends several minutes Just Toying with Them as he outmaneuvers them—until they suddenly switch to their favored lightsaber styles and start outdueling him, at which point he has "a sudden, unexpected, overpowering, and entirely distressing bad feeling about this..."
    • It's not a real fight, but in Wraith Squadron, the Wraiths ask Wes who the greatest pilot alive is, and Wes considers for a bit, then says it's their commanding officer, Wedge Antilles, because of his kill count and time in active service. Falynn Sandskimmer scoffs at this, says that he might have been good in the past but got old and became washed up. Wedge tolerates this for a bit, then challenges her to a race in ore haulers and wins handily after toying with her a bit.
      • How does he win? Amongst other things, he drops his ore hauler on top of hers, pushes off hers, and plops down right at the finish line. The only thing she can say? "You cheated." His response is yes, of course, because combat isn't a game. And if she wants to live through the war, she had best learn to cheat better. Of course, teaching Wraith Squadron to cheat might have been an example of Gone Horribly Right.
    • Also not a direct fight, but in several of Wedge's appearances in the New Jedi Order and later Legacy of the Force, people underestimate his abilities in all kinds of things. Not piloting, but things like the ability to tell when he's being used as a political pawn about to be sacrificed, and in general his extraordinary resourcefulness and endless skill with the Indy Ploy and, sometimes, Xanatos Speed Chess.
    • The heroes spend the latter half of Galaxy of Fear on the run from the Empire, which finally puts up a bounty on them for any random hunters to see. While the first one the heroes encounter is an amateur, he's aware of Hoole's capabilities and prepared to counter them, taking Zak hostage at blasterpoint and planning to just shoot Hoole and bring the kids in alive. However, he's clearly not aware that Tash has been developing her skills with the Force.
  • In The Tome of Bill, Sally is frequently subject to this. Marlene and Jeff/Night Razor knew her before she became a vampire and was just a normal human. They learn the hard way that Sally's probably the biggest badass in the series.
  • The Traveler's Gate: Since Valinhall is a new Territory with only a handful of Travelers (never more than thirteen at a time, and apparently they haven't had a chance to have more than twenty total), most people have never heard of it. Valinhall Travelers are often mistaken for normal people, or even lone Tartarus Travelers (who are famous for never fighting alone). Simon in particular gets underestimated for being a young boy in a ridiculous cloak who talks to dolls.
  • The Wandering Inn: After being scammed, Erin is challenged to a game of chess against a Level 24 [Tactician] to win her money back. Everyone tells her she is an idiot for taking the bet, as she has no levels in that class at all. It turns out that she is probably the best chess player in the world.
  • Warrior Cats: When Firestar, then known as Rusty, joined ThunderClan, the other cats just thought he was a timid kittypet. He then managed to beat up a seasoned apprentice despite having no fighting experience.
  • The Wheel of Time: Gawyn and Galad, both of whom are highly-trained swordsmen, together take on a just-recovering Mat Cauthon who is armed with only a quarterstaff. Mat wins.
  • Sunny from Wings of Fire is unusually small and very friendly. She's seen as the "little sister" of the dragonets and gets looked down upon by others, even her friends. Despite this, she is still a dragon.
  • The protagonist of Worm is a skinny teenage girl whose only power is the ability to control bugs. This is in a world where game-breaking superpowers are common. Do not underestimate her. A Running Gag in the comments section is that pretty much everyone's reactions to Skitter is "Meh, I could take her." Eventually, the PRT learns not to do this: they specifically say, "Look, take our rankings for her, and treat her as though she were two rankings higher across the board." They decide to treat her as though she were a Brute, a Breaker, and especially a Trump of some degree.


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