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"Gentlemen," said Aramis, "the principal question is not to know which of our four lackeys is the most discreet, the most strong, the most clever, or the most brave; the principal thing is to know which loves money the best."
—Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers
Heroes have moral standards; villains exploit that. Villains have no concept of loyalty; heroes abuse that. Sometimes, villains have standards; both heroes and worse villains can use that. Flaw Exploitation is the action of either a Hero, Villain, or even Innocent Bystander to take advantage of the inherent flaws (or to be more charitable, character) of their opponent in order to win.
This is similar to the Hero Ball and Villain Ball in that both deal with the inherent limits heroes and villains have or place on themselves, but differs in that the former deals with the two tripping themselves up, whereas Flaw Exploitation is someone else doing so. Neither the hero nor the villain need to make mistakes for Flaw Exploitation to occur, just act in character.
A Smug Snake abusing a hero's Lawful Good morality to avoid getting punched in the face would count. Said hero being Lawful Stupid wouldn't. A villain's henchmen being talked into doing a Mook Face Turn in the face of their bosses' policy on failure would count, but a villain doing a Revealing Coverup wouldn't.
Most villains will do this by snatching some completely random Innocent Bystander off the street to use as a hostage, because the hero just can't Shoot the Hostage, no matter how many million lives are at stake. Bonus points if it's a woman, a child, or for the 4X multiplier, a little girl.
Exploiting an opponent's character and flaws is a tactic as old as time and Truth in Television. There's a deeper level to this in literature. In some settings this means that evil is fundamentally flawed and incapable of long term gains, since a competent hero can use its very nature to defeat it. On the other hand, a clever villain can make a hero set for destruction because his ethical code and a Moral Dilemma are in violent opposition, creating a Tragic Hero.
It's worth noting that neither the hero or villain would see the flaws exploited as, well, flaws, but as character traits. Character traits of such importance you cease to be a Knight in Shining Armor or a stylish Card-Carrying Villain if you change them. If they do recognize them as weaknesses that can be abused, they'd all the same see them as inherent to being good/evil and necessary. If they don't, say "Hello Anti-Hero and Anti-Villain!"
When used against a hero, will often lead to a Sadistic Choice. The Manipulative Bastard finds this easy as breathing. The Fettered is a type of character that can frequently find their self-imposed limits exploited - and by contrast, one of the reasons The Unfettered is so terrifying is that it's nearly impossible to do this to him.
- In the Bount Arc of Bleach, Yoshi takes a hostage and pulls off an astounding 16X Multiplier during her battle against Rukia — by grabbing a little girl who is holding an infant child in her arms... a truly max-powered Dog Kicking, that.
- Aizen also exploits Ichigo's saving-people-thing by kidnapping Orihime, which leads to him, Ishida, Chad, Renji and Rukia going to Hueco Mundo to save her. While there they all get their asses kicked, and have to be saved by four shinigami captains. Aizen then uses this opportunity to lock them all in Hueco Mundo while he goes to Karakura Town, leaving the shinigami forces several men down.
- In Hellsing, the first villain that appears tries this with a policewoman. Alucard asks the girl if she's a virgin (in the manga) or if she'll go with him (in the anime). He then shoots her right through the chest to kill the vampire. When the mission is over, he turns her into a vampire. Alucard is not exactly a Knight in Shining Armor (except literally, in volume 8).
- All over the place in Death Note. Light exploits anybody who places trust in him (a pretty serious flaw) for all it's worth. L and company exploit Light's ego, Misa's carelessness, Mikami's strict routine, and so forth. And then Light, at a couple of points, exploits his minions' very exploitability by playing on a deeper level.
- In Katekyo Hitman Reborn, during Tsuna's fight with Mukuro, the fight between them is prolonged much longer due to Mukuro's dirty fighting tactics that completely exploit Tsuna's kind-hearted nature. (Tactics that include taking over Tsuna's friends' bodies to fight him, making it difficult for Tsuna to defeat them without harming their bodies, and pretending to surrender only to attack Tsuna's back when Tsuna decides to spare him, etc.)
- Both fans and characters in Ranma ½ accuse Ranma himself of abusing enemy weaknesses with utter abandon, such as triggering their curses or taking advantage of their near-sightedness. Of course, "anything goes" in his "indiscriminate" school of martial arts. On the other hand, when an enemy exploits his flaws, he calls foul.
- In Transformers Robots in Disguise, the Predacons take advantage of Side Burn's obsession with red sports cars to lure him into a trap.
- In the Golden Week arc of Hayate the Combat Butler, Gilbert Kent, Sakuya's illegitimate brother, tries to use this with a dash of Boobs of Steel and fails, picking Hinagiku (at least, she sees it as a flaw) as Hayate's partner for a beach volleyball match. He thinks that she's the weakest of the girls. Hayate wins against an army of volleyball robots, presumably without even touching the ball.
- In the 2003 anime version of Fullmetal Alchemist, Edward and Alphonse Elric are taken advantage of multiple times by a cat burglar by the name of Psiren who pretends that she is only stealing to save a hospital scheduled for demolition, and then later a school, and finally a church. All three of which get demolished during their stay.
- In The Fantastic Four, Reed periodically is able to bait Doom into getting careless by playing to his overwhelming ego.
- In the Batman/Punisher Crossover, the Joker is cornered by the Punisher, and tries to use Batman usual "flaw" of not killing his foes. Unfortunately for him, he doesn't know how Frank operates, and his realization of "You're really going to do it" as Frank puts a gun to his head is among the most awesome Oh Crap moments ever.
- Part of Doctor Strange's bag of tricks, particularly when dealing with massively overpowered enemies. Dimension Lord Dormammu, for example, wants to beat Strange in a way which gratifies his pride, so Strange can usually trick him into fighting 'fair' (when he could annihilate Strange with a single glance).
- In the Bleach fic Winter War, it's established very early on that Aizen won the Fake Karakura Town battle, and Rangiku died of her wounds on the retreat. Gin refuses to believe that she's dead (it helps that the last he heard was that Kira had been able to stabilize her). La Résistance lures him out of his stronghold by having one of their members impersonate Rangiku and allow herself to be seen by some of Gin's men.
- Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine of Star Wars is the master. He creates a rebellion based on real anger people have with the central government, exploits Amidala's anger at the Republic to get the Chancellor out of the way, and exploits the Senate's fear of rebellion to give him dictatorial power. He exploits Anakin's ego and fear of losing loved ones to tempt him to the Dark Side, exploits the Jedi's aloofness to sow distrust. He exploits the Rebellion's desire to get in a killing blow on him personally by luring them to the second Death Star for an ambush, and nearly manages to exploit Luke's concern for his friends to tempt him as well. His one mistake was forgetting that he'd originally exploited Anakin's fear and anger at losing loved ones, so killing Anakin's son...
- Who, of course, exploited Vader's feelings to turn him against Palpatine. Not consciously (he went to try and rescue Vader, not kill Palpatine, according to the EU).
- It could be said that Luke certainly USED his father's feelings for him. But he used his father's positive (Light Side) emotions to help Vader/Anakin turn and free himself from the Emperor's control . Also, Luke's intent seemed to be for his father's own good and redemption, not JUST to topple the Empire for the Rebelion.
- Who, of course, exploited Vader's feelings to turn him against Palpatine. Not consciously (he went to try and rescue Vader, not kill Palpatine, according to the EU).
- In Superman II, General Zod realizes Superman's weakness is that he cares for the humans he's protecting. Zod and his minions start attacking and endangering the people of Metropolis. Superman finally realizes that fighting his enemies in the middle of the city is endangering innocent lives and takes off.
- Averted in Speed. Shoot the hostage.
- Kirk taunted Khan in Star Trek II the Wrath of Khan in order to get him to enter the Mutara Nebula, which gave Kirk the advantage and ultimately victory. The result is that Khan was undone by his own massive ego.
- Lampshaded during Sid's Evil Gloating in Jake Speed
Sid (William Hurt): "Heroes... you're so predictable. Always doing the right thing.")
- A rare hero-on-hero case occurs in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Azeem, newly arrived in England, needs to turn toward Mecca to pray, but it's too cloudy for him to tell which direction it is. Rather pettily, Robin won't tell his friend which way is East until Azeem confesses the name of the woman he was imprisoned for loving.
- Loki's favourite tactic in The Avengers. However, Tony realizing that he and Loki are Not So Different helped him figure out that Loki would sacrifice pragmatism for showmanship, which would end up biting Loki hard.
Live Action TV
- Kivas Fajo uses this against Data in the Star Trek the Next Generation episode "The Most Toys", while Data has a disruptor weapon pointed at him, convinced that Data will not fire it because he's programmed with a "fundamental respect for all life, and an inhibition against harming living beings". Subverted in that Data does actually prepare to shoot, reasoning that killing Fajo would save more lives in the long run, and would have done so if he hadn't been beamed out of there in the nick of time. He then tells a near-lie to his commanding officer about it; he suggests that the disruptor may have discharged due to the transport. He never says that this is what happened, only that it is a possible explanation.
Fajo:If only you could feel rage over Varria's death... If only you could feel the need for revenge, then maybe you could fire. But you're...just an android. You can't feel anything, can you? It's just another interesting, intellectual puzzle for you--another of life's curiosities.
- Of course, this was only after Fajo had successfully used this against Data to get him to sit in his assigned chair by, ironically, threatening to kill the aforementioned Varria if he didn't comply, on the same hunch that Data's "fundamental respect for all life" wouldn't even let him allow someone to die, through his inaction. In case the above quote wasn't obvious, it was Fajo's killing of Varria at the end of the episode that prompted the subversion.
- In Doctor Who, this is one of the Doctor's main tactics. He is repeatedly underestimated about how dangerous (for those people, who don't know about him) or how ruthless (for some who do) he can be, and he plays on this to Manipulative Bastard levels. That's only if everyone else involved isn't already scared stiff of him...
- In the Firefly episode "Objects In Space," Jubal Early takes advantage of Simon's love for his sister River and his attraction to Kaylee by presenting him with The Sadistic Choice: either he helps Early hunt down River, or Early will kill Simon and then go back to the engine room where he has Kaylee tied up and then rape and kill her.
- In Robin Hood, Marian attempts to use Guy's genuine feelings for her to get information about the Sheriff's evil schemes so that she can pass it on to Robin. It works less often than the shippers would have you believe, and it ultimately costs her her life.
- However, one notable instance is when both Marian and Robin acknowledge Guy's weakness for Marian by executing a perfect Decoy Damsel ploy in order for them to escape a tight situation. Guy falls for it hook, line and sinker.
- In Merlin, it didn't take long for Morgana to pick up on Arthur's devotion to Guinevere and use it to her own advantage on at least two occasions: The Castle of Fyrien and Queen of Hearts. The latest footage from season four suggests that Arthur's enemies aren't done exploiting this weakness.
- In Warehouse 13 when Sykes puts Myka in the Chess lock chair to make HG give the right answer...if HG fails 3 times the one peron she cares about will die.
- A good example of this is Harry Potter. Half of Harry's triumphs come from the fact that Voldemort has no concept of loyalty to his men; thus, many of them will abandon him the moment there's something better to be loyal to. Dumbledore turned Draco Malfoy in book six, and his father and mother switched sides (his mother being the more important of them) pretty much at a drop of a hat, because a choice between an uncaring vindictive bastard who would likely kill them for their past failures or the life of her son wasn't a hard choice.
- Flipping it right around for another good example: half of Voldemort's triumphs come from the fact that Harry has an especially fierce sense of loyalty, and thus will go to any lengths to help his friends. It's even lampshaded in Book 5, when Hermione points out to Harry that he's got a "saving people thing", and raises the possibility that Voldemort could be deliberately taking advantage of that. He is.
- Voldemort's problem isn't that he doesn't appreciate true loyalty. He does. He rewards his two most loyal servants, Bellatrix and Severus Snape with his greatest trust. His problem is that he's terrible at creating loyalty. Bellatrix was loyal due to her obsession over Voldemort. Severus was loyal due to a seeming brotherhood with him, through similar shared childhood experiences. Up until Voldemort tries to kill Lily Potter. Then all loyalty goes out the window. At no time does he do anything that a reasonable person would find inspiring of real loyalty. He seems to want people to feel loyalty towards someone who's a raving sociopath and is incapable of returning that loyalty.
- Since some raving sociopaths actually think like that, this may not be a surprise. Plenty of historical rulers were the kind of Complete Monster that no sane person would willingly follow... and then railed against the treachery and disloyalty of their followers.
- Sauron in JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is defeated because he was incapable of imagining that someone who could wield the One Ring wouldn't want to, and would instead send it away to be destroyed. Thanks to the palantir, Gandalf convinced him Aragorn had the Ring and was headed towards him to buy enough time for Frodo to destroy it.
- Subverted in Terry Pratchett's Feet of Clay. A trio of thieves discovers that the bar they're trying to rob is populated entirely by off-duty members of the Watch. They take hostage a pretty blonde woman, figuring that the others will let them go free as they [The Watch] won't want to risk injuring her. Fortunately, depending on your point of view, she's a werewolf--and a cop--and she can take care of herself.
- Kellhus in Second Apocalypse exploits the flaws of everyone around him. In most cases, this flaw is religion, but he also exploits love several times. His morals aren't exactly in line with the rest of the world.
- This is par for the course in A Song of Ice and Fire. Littlefinger is especially good at Flaw Exploitation, playing on the weaknesses and foibles of pretty much everybody; Eddard Stark (honor), Lysa Arryn (obsessive love), Robert Baratheon (impatience with the mundane issues of running a kingdom), Joffrey Baratheon (wanton cruelty), Tywin Lannister (pride)... and so many, many more. In fact the only person who might be better is Tyrion, who did most of the above as well as handling his sister Cersei (hunger for power,) his brother Jaime (fear of being betrayed by his lover,) Varys the Spider (multiple, delicately-balanced loyalties,) the Dornish royal family (collective thirst for revenge,) Pycelle (greed,) and even Littlefinger himself (reliance on people underestimating him.)
- In the Redwall series, badgers are known to be fiercely (perhaps feverishly) dedicated to Justice and Good in general. Salamandastron has the Big Bad acknowledge this outright:
Ferahgo: I've dealt with big badgers before. Oh, they're fierce fighters, sure enough, but they lack cunning and suffer from silly little things, like honor and conscience.
- Later in the story, the villains capture a pair of the Badger Lord's finest fighters and have fun messing with him over what they want for their hostages before making an impossible demand for the entire mountain fortress. They even give the badger a couple days to give his answer, knowing full well they plan to kill their hostages before the time elapses.
- Fortunately for the two hostages, the series is prone to softening the consequences of such difficult choices, and they end up surviving anyway. Partially this is because hares are invariably awesome in a pinch.
- In James Swallow's Warhammer 40000 Blood Angels novel Deus Encarmine, Inquisitor Stele exploits this when trying to corrupt the Chapter, as they believe they owe him. Fortunately for them, he believes they hold Honor Before Reason a little more strongly than they do; he thinks it forbidden to use the gear of the dead, when it is only forbidden except in the direst circumstances. When a Blood Angel gets off a message with a dead man's gear, he doesn't think to investigate who had access.
- Baron Choard wasn't exactly a hero, but his assistant Disra did spend a long time finding all of his buttons, and influenced his boss into planning to secede violently from the Empire. Disra, as it turned out, was orchestrating all this so he could report the treasonous activity and get promoted. Given that twenty or so years later he's a Moff of no small power, we can assume that he did.
- In Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts novel Blood Pact, Rime jeers at Gaunt: he's read his files, and knows he won't execute him without proof. Fortunately, he hasn't read Rawne's file.
- In the Dragonlance novels, Kitiara plays Laurana like a fiddle, when she uses Laurana's obsessive love for Tanis Half-Elven to lure her into a trap.
- In Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, Katniss exploits the Capital's need for a victor.
- In Aaron Allston's Galatea in 2-D, they know Kevin will come to the convention even when they are gunning for him, and he knows it, because he can't miss the chance to bask in the admiration.
- In Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian story "The Phoenix on the Sword ", Ascalante gloats at how he will deal with the men who think he is their tool.
by the clay in each, I will crush them when the time comes.
- In The Pirates of Penzance, the titular pirates won't hurt orphans. Everyone seems to know this and use it to escape from them, even Modern Major-General Stanley.
Frederic. Then, again, you make a point of never molesting an orphan!
- That's just the best known one. The entire play is about this trope. For example: Fredric's loyalty (by the pirates), the pirate's patriotism (by the police), Fredric's naivete (by Ruth), Stanley's patriotism (by the pirates)
- In Othello, Iago is the master of this, playing Brabantio's racism and paternalism, Cassio's low alcohol tolerance, Othello's jealousy, and Roderigo's lust (and lack of grey matter) all to his own advantage.
- In Jade Empire your beloved Master Li strikes the main character/you through a series of holes in your defense that he built into your techniques himself! Glorious Strategist, indeed.
- Bioware has another good one with Mephistopheles engineering circumstances to make you free him to wreak havoc on the surface world
- Injured pride is a great weapon indeed: if you're able to convince the Master from Fallout 1 that his plan for World Domination has or will fail, he will commit suicide.
- In the Fallout: New Vegas DLC Lonesome Road, Ulysses can tell you that if you're going up against Lanius that you can take advantage of his fear of defeat in order to make him back down. Most of the Speech options do involve convincing Lanius that he has no long-term hopes for a campaign after this battle or bluffing him into thinking that he's walking into the kind of trap that felled his predecessor Joshua Graham.
- This is practically a requirement in any Shin Megami Tensei game. Partly because the enemies will exploit your flaws for all they're worth and then some.
- In Radiant Historia one of the side quest has this. The bad guy grabs hostage the inn keepers' daughter.
- The final puzzle in Sam and Max Freelance Police: Culture Shock turns villain Brady Culture's "It's All About Me" egotism on his head. Brady orders the Brainwashed Soda Poppers to attack Sam; interestingly enough, the Soda Poppers aren't brainwashed to follow Brady specifically, and so Sam can order them around as well. The end result appears to be a stalemate, but if Sam orders the Soda Poppers to "worship me!", Brady petulantly yells at them to "worship me!" instead of ordering them to attack Sam as usual. If Sam then orders the Soda Poppers to "attack me!", Brady's knee-jerk reaction is to scream "no, attack me!" - the last order he's in any condition to give them.
- Ganondorf does this so often that's it's practically one of his defining characteristics. Countless times he's kidnapped Zelda knowing that Link would come rescue her, and in The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time (and to an extent, Wind Waker) his plans were actually based around the idea that Link and Zelda would try to stop him. And then there's The Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess, where he exploits Zant's anger and ambition, using him as a tool to free himself from the Twilight Realm and conquer Hyrule.
- In The Elder Scrolls V Skyrim, the Thalmor goad Ulfric Stormcloak into seditious acts against the Empire through a combination of his malcontent towards a lopsided "peace" treaty the Empire and Thalmor have, and his own impatience and brashness. They know all his buttons and just which ones to push, thanks to him being a prisoner of war to them. He's not a Manchurian Agent, but still manipulable. The end result is that the Stormcloak Rebellion impedes the Empire's preparations to heat the cold war back up again.
- Subverted mightily in Antihero for Hire, where Shadehawk fully is greatly disappointed to learn a room full of unaffiliated villains did not in fact fight over their treasure at all, though it's immediately Double Subverted as they fight over killing him.
- During the Sluggy Freelance arc "Aylee" Leono is defeated because the same Fantastic Racism that drove him to wipe out humanity means he never suspects a member of his own species would betray him.
- Happens a number of times in Order of the Stick...
- Durkon exploits Hayley's greed, to get her to come with the rest of the Order to a court case.
- Shortly thereafter, when the assassin threatens to blow up the inn, Roy deduces that if he cared that little about killing innocent bystanders, he'd have already done it. It worked, too, and then Belkar ran by. . . .
- Vaarsuvius resolves a Spot the Imposter situation by offending the Evil Twin's Pride and zapping the one that takes offense.
- More recently, V's own Pride has been exploited by fiends aware that V would rather rent out his soul for the power to do things without help than rely on others to accomplish the same thing without obligation.
- In The Dreamland Chronicles, the pirates exploit the Power Nullifier of fear, terrifying the children they abduct to keep them from flying off.
- Bob and George How Mega Man defeats the robots, sometimes by accident.
- In Impure Blood, Dara wants Mac out of the rigging and down below. So she points out that's where the engine room is.
- In Our Little Adventure, escaping into city limits means a paladin can't just kill you.
- In Sinfest, Slick discovers the sales clerk hates Love. So he throws around the word.
- At the Super-Hero School Whateley Academy in the Whateley Universe, there are Combat Finals at the end of the Fall 2006 term. In one chapter of Joe Gunnarson's Call the Thunder, Diamondback finds herself teamed with the Supervillain Hekate, who everyone in the entire school knows will backstab Diamondback first chance she gets (and who is much more powerful magically than Diamondback). Diamond lays a very cunning Batman Gambit that only works if Hekate shafts her as soon as she gets the chance. Hekate grabs the Villain Ball for everything she's worth, leading to a very satisfying demonstration of this trope.
- Whateley Universe double example: In "Boston Brawl 2", power-armored Ironhawk grabs a little girl and holds her at knifepoint to stop the heroes, to exploit the classic hero flaw. It fails horribly because of the second example: the little girl he grabs is Generator. She uses her power (she can animate things if she can touch them and they aren't too big) to take over the control switches for his power armor, and she beats on some of the other villains using Ironhawk like a remote controlled toy.
- Yet another example: in "Ayla and the Great Shoulder Angel Conspiracy", one of the antagonists in the big trap (it's a simulation they can't get out of) is a power mimic. Phase beats him by giving him a copy of her powers and then using Flaw Exploitation to take advantage of the weaknesses of her own powers.
- Azula in the Beach Episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender has her team concentrate on a single player of the opposing team that she deduced had a childhood knee injury to win a volleyball game.
- In The Spectacular Spider-Man, Doctor Octopus pegs Spider-Man as "weak" because he's obliged to save Innocent Bystanders. Ock then grabs a nearby damsel and uses her in a Hostage for McGuffin ploy to get Spider-Man to fork over some desirable Applied Phlebotinum.
- An early episode of the 80s Transformers cartoon has Megatron executing a plan to teleport Cybertron (the Transformers' homeworld) into Earth orbit, the presence of which would disrupt Earth's gravity and ultimately destroy the planet. The Autobots try to stop him, but when Optimus finally does prevent Megatron from pressing the button to complete the teleport, Megatron gloats, and insists that Optimus will be the one to push the button — because if he doesn't, the teleport will fail, destroying Cybertron in the process. Optimus, true to form, reluctantly pushes the button, rather than let his homeworld perish. (Which is kind of opposite of other characterization he's had since, where he would sacrifice the rest of his species if it means the Decepticons would not be able to threaten any other sentients ever again.)
- In an earlier episode, Megatron goads Optimus into a one-on-one duel in which the loser's faction will exile themselves forever, knowing the Autobot leader's sense of honor would never allow him to refuse a chance to end their war peacefully. Naturally, he cheats during the competition, but at least he was just Genre Savvy enough to send troops into the Autobot base to disable their computer and prevent the deception from being noticed (and he would've gotten away with it, too, were it not for those meddling Dinobots...).
- Dr. Drakken is known to have exploited Kim Possible's teenager flaws, like making Kim disappear if she's too embarrassed or sending in a perfect boyfriend for Kim to fall in love with.
- Shego takes over the world by exploiting the major flaw that Kim Possible is nowhere near as effective without her sidekick Ron Stoppable, Shego splits them up by offering Ron's mother a new job in Norway.
- Danny Phantom has Manipulative Bastard Vlad who constantly pulls this on Danny, usually by making him his personal Unwitting Pawn. Danny however, does the same thing against him, too! One example is in "Maternal Instincts" where Danny tricked Vlad by using his desire for the boy as his son. Calling him "new dad", Danny slaps a Power Nullifier on him, then proceeds to beat the crap outta him.
- Technus also used Danny's emotions to keep him busy or enraged in one episode while he worked on his ultimate plan.
- This is Spectra's MO, as she feeds off misery, and thus manipulates people's flaws to make them as miserable as possible.
- Discord from My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic uses the mane cast's flaws to turn break them and turn them against their Elements. It fails on Fluttershy, however, because she knows she has flaws and is perfectly accepting of them so he brainwashes her the old fashion way. Ironically, the heroes do this right back at him to ultimately defeat him, as his ego and inability to truly understand friendship's strength is ultimately what allows them to get the final blow.
- 2 hostages (x2), one is female (x2), both are children (x4) = x16