Crusher was well caught. It was immediately apparent.
Rewinder had one of his tendrils in her grip, and he was vibrating back and forth through a frozen instant. She let him advance a second, then rewound him, over and over. The forest of tendrils that surrounded all of us were shifting back and forth like a tempest was lashing at them.
Touch, that was what I’d been missing. She had to touch someone to rewind them. She’d touched Crusher when he grabbed for them, and Wrecker as they walked up. But she hadn’t been able to turn me back because we’d never made contact.
Wrecker, her back to me, was grabbing tendrils and ripping them apart. Crusher, it turned out, didn’t have Ultra toughness level 3. Wrecker tore a pair of limbs off with casual ease, and they didn’t heal as Rewinder brought him back to stasis.
Wrecker and Rewinder were a pair well matched. They could have overcome just about any single foe, but forgetting about me was an error that they wouldn’t get the chance to regret.
I hit Rewinder in her lower back with the blades of the Hook, slamming the spikes into her flesh with lethal force. I aimed for the clothed areas, avoiding flesh on flesh contact, hoping that my guess had been right. I felt a shudder and a massive impact as my blades struck home.
They rebounded, bruising and staggering her but not penetrating. Rewinder had the same kind of Ultra toughness as my Hook did! I tried to jump back, but tripped over one of Crusher’s tendrils. He’d been released from the rewind when I hit Rewinder and his tendrils were jerking into spastic motion.
Before I could get to my feet again Wrecker was bearing down on me, tearing through tendrils in a heedless race to see me pay. She knotted both fists together and swung the double fist at the Hook’s midsection, but I kicked off a tendril and slid aside from the strike. She cracked the concrete where she slammed her fists into the ground.
Around us, the tentacles were once again vibrating back and forth as Rewinder held down Crusher. Wrecker paid no heed, seemingly berserk.
“You gon’ get it!” she snarl as she sprang at the Hook again, kicking furiously as I rolled it aside. She landed a hit or two, but her rage made her a little bit clumsy, a little bit slow. She missed, for the most part.
“Sarah!” called out Rewinder, from her position near the middle of Crusher’s tendril cloud. Her voice was taught with concern, even fear. What was she worried about?
Suddenly I got it. Their unity had been broken, and now they were in peril. If I could beat Wrecker again, Rewinder would have to use her power to restore her partner. Doing so would leave her vulnerable to Crusher.
Even as the Hook rose against her, Wrecker seemed to come to the same realization. She stopped the blitz and raised her hands in a fighting stance. Anger still showed from her visage, but she was making a deliberate effort to calm down.
Opposite her, I brought the Hook to its feet once more. I moved it with a calm menace that I hoped would prey upon Wrecker’s volatile mental state. It was a calmness that implied that I was at some manner of advantage, but I was far from certain that that was the case.
Earlier I’d defeated Wrecker, true, but at that time she’d been fighting with the certain knowledge that she couldn’t fall. With Rewinder standing by to unhappen defeat, she’d been an arrogant and careless assailant. No reason to think that that would still be true.
We seemed equally matched in strength, or close enough to it. I didn’t think she had as much Ultra toughness as my Hook did when I folded up the Lure inside it, but I couldn’t exactly afford a slugging match with someone who inflicted wounds that never closed up.
I stood the Lure silently before her, letting her sweat, letting her contemplate her moves. If she jumped forward, we’d be in it. If she tried to get back to Rewinder, I’d be on her like a shot.
“You need me?” she called out, never taking her eyes away from the Hook. Her fake old world gangster accent was slipping again, a poor match with pretended nonchalance.
I realized a way forward all of a sudden, to tip the balance in my favor. Beneath the Hook, I carefully extended my shadow across the floor, sliding silently beneath the battle debris until it intersected Wrecker’s shadow. Delicately, carefully, I slid the Lure into it.
I couldn’t affect Ultras the way that I could daggers, of course, but I could observe. Their priorities, their intentions. These were priceless advantages in a fight, and with this standoff I had the time to sort through them.
The first shock was that Wrecker wasn’t, at the core, entirely selfish. So many Ultras had, at the top of their priority list, something like “stay alive”, or “gain power”. Wrecker wanted to “Protect [Name]”, which had to refer to Rewinder. She was best summed up as a banner bearer, or posse member. Not someone who considered herself a power in her own right. She was a flunky. I wondered if Rewinder reciprocated this bizarre loyalty?
The next, that Wrecker didn’t care at all what other people thought of her. There was no “look cool” or similar notion anywhere on her priority set. The fake accent, the swagger. It was a pose. She feigned overconfidence, but there was no insecurity at the core of her. It must have been a battle tactic that the two had worked out, concealing her attitude in order to deceive their enemies.
“Bitch, you gon’ fight, or what?” Wrecker asked. She made ‘come get some’ gestures with both of her hands.
I slid the Lure back into the Hook, retracting my shadow. No obvious weaknesses, but if I could engineer a threat to Rewinder…
With a flash, Prevailer was among us. The Hook dropped instantly into the Posture.
She’d appeared as was Her wont, in a sudden ‘bvurp’ of teleportation, displacing into the midst of the tendrils without a care. The leader of the Regime was wearing the beat up old jeans and tee shirt attire that She usually did, with Her famous Sigil tilted on Her head. Effortlessly, She made Her presence felt.
Rewinder stopped whatever she was doing to Crusher, dropped into the Posture. Wrecker ran back to Rewinder’s side, then joined her. Crusher writhed in confusion for a moment, tentacles shuddering as his sense of time caught up to the present, then registered Her presence and fell to his knees.
“Four of y’all?” She asked.
Rewinder spoke up first.
“We were just waiting to finish these chumps while you were watc-“
“Ees a lie! Leetle Beetches were for crushing!”
Wrecker’s counterfeit fury flared up at this interruption from Crusher.
“Shut up, freak! You gon-’” She shouted at him, then went instantly pale.
That accent had caught up with her. She’d done her Prevailer impression, doubtless with the intonation of habit, in front of the genuine article.
The dictator didn’t seem to mind. She continued as though no one else had spoken.
“That’s three too many. Guess I’ll pick.”
I kept the Hook bowed, but inside I was panicking. My life hung on Prevailer’s one out of four random pick? This couldn’t be happening!
I wasn’t the only one that had that thought. Wrecker came to her feet in a rush.
It took me a second to figure out what she was going for, but when comprehension came it was unmistakable. She was here to protect Rewinder. She couldn’t take the chance that Prevailer would pick her, and kill her boss, or lover, or whatever.
The thing that surprised me, though, was that Rewinder came to her feet an instant later.
“You bitch, you ain’t gon-“ began Wrecker, only to be cut off by Rewinder saying much the same thing.
The two stopped, frozen in a moment, realizing that they’d both erred. Cutting off Prevailer’s words, getting yourself killed, would be a noble sacrifice. Both of them doing it rendered the whole thing utterly pointless.
I relished the look of realization that crossed their face in the instant it took Prevailer to teleport to them. Rewinder was reaching out, not for Her but for her friend, when Prevailer’s fist took her in the face, blasting her head out of existence.
Wrecker gave a great, heart rending cry, and took a swing at Her. Prevailer ducked smoothly, backed away as the furious Ultra rained blows on her.
Wrecker got a few hits in, striking several glancing blows to Prevailer’s guard. She seemed the superior fighter, but no one can beat greater Ultra strength. Eventually one of Her blows touched Wrecker’s guard and shattered her arm. The end came an instant after.
During this time I stayed locked in place, the Hook’s arms folded behind its head as the old world police had demanded of their victims. The fear of moments ago was still racing through me. A pair of combat trained Ultras, long time partners, and Prevailer had snuffed them out in a few instants, barely trying. The Posture was supposed to be a generalized signal that She didn’t need to kill you. I hadn’t pissed Her off. She had no reason to kill me. I tried to make myself believe it.
She walked back over to the two of us. Crusher was folding his tendrils around himself, trying his damnedest to stay out of Her way. I contented myself with keeping the Hook looking meek and unthreatening. Both of us knew that our lives were just as much at stake in this contest as they’d been in the fight earlier.
“So,” she said, in the same bored drawl. “One of you.”
She looked us over, gaze passing from one to the other with no visible reactions. I thought about speaking up, decided against it.
There was just too much chance that She’d kill whoever broke the silence. Asserting Her power was a very big deal to Prevailer. I wasn’t sure how I knew this, but I trusted the instinct. I would say nothing until bidden to.
“Shadow, you’re up.”
So much for that. I unfolded the Lure, bringing it up from my shadow in the same posture as the Hook had been in.
“Prevailer, I’m by far the best suited to take on…” I faltered for a second. How had she described it? “…to be your gal. I’m deadlier than Crusher, and I’m also much smarter.”
It was hard to know what buttons to press. I was mostly trying to get Crusher to seal his fate by speaking out of turn, but I was also trying to portray the sort of infinitely deadly emotionless murder puppet that She might want. I just didn’t have any actual ideas what that entailed.
“During this contest, I’ve killed one of the others, despite the time limit.” Bad move to mention that. She’d just killed two in far less time. She wasn’t about to be impressed by my work with Shrinker. “I also infiltrated the daggers, steered them towards Torturer’s Pit.”
Reaching. Dangerous. I had no idea what She’d make of that.
“Torturer…” she mused. “Kelly’d hate to be called that.”
She turned her attention to Crusher. It might have been my imagination, but there seemed to be a flicker of disgust across her face, a slight curl to the lip. Did She dislike dudes, freaks or tentacles?
“Prevailer” he began “I am most honored to be considered for…”
She held up a hand for silence.
“Never mind, Crusher.” I felt a wave of elation surge through me. “Get back to your cell.”
He didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, pulling himself out of sight with a frightening speed.
I almost envied him. He was still condemned here. Still trapped in this hell with no chance of escape, but he was almost certain to live out the hour. I had no such certainty about myself. Prevailer was mercurial. Drawing Her favor for one moment didn’t mean anything for the next.
She looked back to me.
“Imagine hearing that accent, day in and day out?” She chuckled.
I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to laugh alongside Her, so I settled for giving Her one of the “we are jointly enduring the folly of a third party” looks I’d practiced from the Lure.
She didn’t speak for a moment, seemingly waiting on reply, so I coughed up meekly.
“It would be dreadful.”
She seemed to take this in stride.
“Dreadful…” said Prevailer. “Good guess at what’s coming.”
I was trying to think of a response when She moved over to me. I held myself tight in place, willing my forms not to flinch. Showing fear to Her was death. Everyone knew that.
“You mentioned Torturer” She said, practically purring the words. She ran fingers along the Hook’s chin-equivalent, effortlessly pulling its lanky mantis form down before Her. “Have you ever met her?”
“No…” I had the Lure say, suddenly unsure. “Or, I don’t think…”
Prevailer gave a cruel laugh.
“You have. I thought I remembered that you were one of the ones. That’s useful.”
I fell silent once again. My forms had no reflexes. I didn’t tremble, shake or in any way show my fear, but being in Her direct clutch, as she mused on Torturer, was driving me into a wild panic.
“I dipped you into her range, you know?” She asked.
“Yes.” I said, knowing no such thing. It made sense. I’d lost the memories, but that must be why I couldn’t go towards the center room.
“It’s something I do to Ultras I plan to use later. It teaches them useful lessons.”
As She spoke Prevailer pulled down on the Hook’s head. It was an easy pressure at first, like you’d use to guide a tame animal. As the Hook relented it got stronger and stronger, jerking my skull down from until She was holding the Hook’s upper body bent double before her, right about at Her waist.
“Useful lessons. Lessons that their bodies enforce, whatever their minds might desire. Lessons that go deep.”
Her other hand came across, landing on the other side of the Hook’s head, caressing it with a thumb, each movement scarring the head like a rough knife.
“Lessons that their minds can’t forget. That their will can’t erase. Permanent lessons, as much as any thing about you bitches can be permanent.”
My mind went nearly blank. I tensed, a tremendous effort of will sufficing to keep from pulling the Hook into my shadow and making a run for it. ‘Hold on, Hold on’ I chanted inside my mind, keeping my forms rigid and motionless as the insane tyrant fondled my head.
“One lesson really. Don’t betray me. Try it, and your body will betray you.”
I felt a flood of relief. She needed me alive for something. As far as betraying Her? I wasn’t an idiot. She didn’t need to tell me twice.