A flash across my mind, like lightning in a night sky. Torturer. I twitched and shuddered.
That was ridiculous. I had complete control of my bodies, no reflexes to speak of. If I’d shuddered, it was because I’d intended to. Only, I hadn’t. I must’ve, but I didn’t.
The woman looked at me reassuringly.
“It’s all right,” he said. “She stays down when she hears people above her. She hides away at the bottom of her cell to make sure her power doesn’t get us. It’s deep enough for her to get away.”
I nodded, like that made any sense at all. Torturer, from the name, must be another Ultra. Was she another who I’d have to battle? Why would she hide away from daggers? It didn’t make any sense without more context, but there wasn’t time.
“Lead the way” I said.
With me seemingly reassured they turned and trotted off. I… didn’t follow.
It was alarming, frightening even. I simply stood there as the Lure, watching plaintively as they headed through the hallway towards the center door. They stopped after a few paces, looking back in puzzlement.
“Come along?” said Handsy, somehow making it a question.
I nodded and… didn’t move.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m coming with you.”
There was a brief awkward moment.
I tried to take a step. I strove with every ounce of my essence to cause the Lure to raise its foot so much as an inch. Wasted effort. I might just as easily have tried to grow a third form, or make a fist with my hair. I just stood there.
“Um…soon?” he asked.
Leader said something in an urgent tone to the rest, but I wasn’t close enough to hear exactly what he said.
I couldn’t just stand here. I started to walk away from the group, instead of after them. This I could do. I headed clockwise around the circle, towards the lone Ultra.
“Stop!” yelled Leader, this time loudly.
The group’s eyes, fixed upon me, were no longer showing concern. There was uncertainty, terror, and a new and horrifying hostility. Eyes narrowed and jaws clenched. The jig was up.
I brought the Hook forth a moment before they could start firing, slid the Lure down into my shadow even as the shots rang out. They glanced off my hide as I lunged away down the dingy corridor. No big surprise there. If their shots had been chipping away at the Hook when I had both of my forms out they’d accomplish less than nothing when I was in full battle mode.
I could have stayed and fought them, of course. They couldn’t hurt me, so I would certainly prevail in a confrontation. There was no reason to do so, however. Just because I was beyond their ability to threaten didn’t mean that they might not be able to hurt some of my competition.
Aside from that, whatever was going on with the Lure’s ability to move, whatever had caused my hesitation there, was nothing that I wanted to experience any more of. Let the humans go. Let them hide in the center, with Torturer-
Another shuddering flash interrupted my thoughts. It was like a streak of white noise, a bar of bright light illuminating a cavern. I nearly fell over. Torturer, that was the key.
A memory surfaced suddenly, from before the darkness. An instant only, my Hook dangling on a literal hook, hanging helpless and writhing above a dark and empty pit as unsupportable anguish wracked me beyond endurance.
I stopped, leaned the Hook against a wall. Leaning the Hook was absurd, of course. I controlled my forms with my conscious will. They didn’t breathe, or fall, or react save that I demanded it. Or at least, so I would have said up until a few minutes ago.
I put the pieces together. More instants slid back into memory as I concentrated on it, worrying at the edges of the remembrance like a dog pulling apart a chunk of meat. I’d met Torturer. I must’ve. I was deathly afraid of her.
Preposterous, but it had the stink of truth to it. I’d lost my fight with Her. I couldn’t imagine why I’d picked one, but I must’ve. I’d lost, and been brought here, and…
Conjecture filled in the gaps. I’d been tortured, or Tortured to be precise. It must have damaged my mind. My I. My identity and agency. The very thoughts I was thinking must be deformed, twisted by the shape of that time of agony.
I put the thought aside. I didn’t care about the past. It was irrelevant.
My Hook’s claws rasped against one another as I slid them up and down like a man ringing his hands. I had to stop dwelling on this. I was in a fight with three other Ultras.
I took a step, and then another, sliding back into my Hook’s combat pace. Ultra Speed wasn’t among my gifts, but I could get a move on when I needed to. Keep moving. Focus on the present. I’d have leisure to think about the past later, after I’d won the fight. One step ahead of the other.
A sound ahead helped me focus. I slid to the side of a doorway, and manifested the Lure on the other side. I was at the end of a long section of hallway, at some kind of archway. If the layout held the same all the way around it should lead to another section just like the one I’d come out of.
I listened intently. My Lure actually hears better than my Hook. The Hook doesn’t have any ears right now, which probably explains it.
Footsteps, closing in. Heavy, tromping, with a swift gait. A strange extra thudding alongside the primary steps.
I stepped the Lure through the door, then dropped it to the ground with an exaggerated shriek of terror and dismay when I saw what was approaching.
The Ultra coming down the hall was one of the rare male Ultras. Like many of his kind, he was physically mutated by his gift.
His general features were Asian. He wasn’t short, however, and he had long stringy hair. He was wearing the same faded rags that the rest of the prisoners had on, although his had more bloodstains than any of theirs. None of this, however, compared with the oddity of the tentacles.
A veritable thicket of limbs rose into the air around him, swaying and stretching like snakes. They were about as thick around as forearms, and there had to be a few dozen of them. Some rose above him, some stretched out before him. Some curled around one another and some wrapped themselves around his torso like makeshift armor. He had to have more body mass in tentacles than there was in his human form, several times over. He was a forest of limbs, an animate mass stomping directly towards the Lure.
I gave a low moan, peering through my Lure’s hands, trying to suss out his form’s peculiarities. He’d killed an Ultra, and he hadn’t needed dagger help to pull it off. I looked for a weakness, a vulnerability, anything.
His tentacles all emerged from the same part of his body. They rose from a large hump in his upper back. He’d have been bent over, save for the fact that he’d wound three of them around one another and was using them as a sort of tail, balancing himself when his mass pulled him this way or that.
The grasping limbs weren’t uniform. Some were just tentacles, ending in rubbery masses like an amputee’s stumps. Others came to an end in large eyes, peering hither and yon as he whipped them around. Still more had elongated fingers at the end, with joints for grabbing and holding. There were tentacles with obvious mouth equivalents, and tentacles with snuffling nostrils like an elephants trunk. There were claws and brushes and male reproductive organs at the end of these limbs, a switchblade of elongated body parts, spares of every portion of his body waving around at the end of long supple tendrils.
As he drew steadily nearer, he spoke.
“What’s this? What’s this?” he asked. His voice was incredibly odd. No human accent, Asian or otherwise, but there was a strange quality to it. There was a sort of vibration to his words, a strange emphasis on one syllable in each word. ‘Waaat’s thiiis? Waaat’s thiiis?’.
“What do we have here?” he asked, rhetorically. He drew nearer.
My Lure began to crab walk backwards, scrabbling away like the victim in a horror movie. It wasn’t entirely feigned. I was affronted and disturbed by his form. I did want to get away. I knew there was no way that I could run from something with that many points of contact with the ground, however. He could probably sling himself along these halls like a rocket if he felt the need. It depended on how much Ultra strength he had, but I felt instinctively that he could catch me.
“Little girl, all on her own?” he asked, once again seemingly talking to himself. Again, his pronunciation was bizarre. ‘Leeetle grrrrl’, etc. This time, staring at his mouth, I saw how he did it.
There were more tentacles within him, sliding up and down his tongue and pinching its shape to give his words a strange sort of inhuman resonance. Tentacles inside him. Thinner ones. The implications…
He could probably use them to plug wounds. Maybe he could do quick surgeries? Maybe he could pull his vital organs aside if someone stabbed him? He could almost certainly shoot them out, ripping through his own skin to surprise someone who thought that getting past the thick tentacles meant that they were in the clear.
“Crusher will take care of you.” He said. “Crusher will take good care of you.”
The Lure backed into the archway’s doorframe and cringed there, letting him get closer and closer. I held my hands out in front, in a classic ‘don’t hurt me’ posture. Even as I did so, I brought the Hook up to the other side of the archway, ready to pounce.
“Crusher will take good care of shadow girl. Will only kill her if she is naughty.”
Shadow girl? How did he…
The answer became obvious to me almost instantly. So many eyes, so many vantage points. The strange behavior of my shadow might be difficult for a human to notice, but his awareness of his surroundings must be several levels beyond what I could conceive. The jig was up.
“Crusher, is it?” I made my words cold, almost haughty. I stood the Lure up even as I spoke, abandoning the charade of panicked helplessness.
“That’s what they call me, little girl.” He made it sound like he had no idea why they called him that. It wasn’t hard to guess though. It was all too easy to picture those tentacles, that writhing pulsing knot of flesh, squeezing and tightening around a person sized lump, wringing the blood out like a dish towel.
“I’m Fisher.” I said. “You ready to do this?”
It was a pretty terrible line, but it didn’t actually matter. We were going to fight, and the loser would die and the winner would live. The dialog was foreplay.
“Don’t be in such a rush, Fisher,” he said, pronouncing it ‘Feeesher’. “I’ve got a deal to make with you. One that I think you’ll want to thank Crusher for.”
“What deal is that?”
I wasn’t really paying attention to what I was saying at this time. Mostly I spent my energy watching the tendrils, flicking my gaze from one to another, ready to draw in the Lure and spring forth with the Hook at full power the instant he made his play. My mouth was sort of on autopilot, continuing the conversation in the hopes that he was one of those guys who has trouble talking and fighting at the same time.
“You know that there are two other Ultras in here. Let’s kill them together, then settle things between us.”
“Sounds great.” I said, noncomitally. “Great plan. I double agree. We are partners to the end now, thanks to that great plan.”
His tendrils swayed, and laughter barked forth from several of the mouth-tacles.
“I am serious, little Fisher. I am serious like She is serious.”
“Once again, an amazing line. I’ve totally come to trust and respect you, based on what you just said. We are now the best kind of allies, the kind that turn our backs to each other.”
He chuckled again, and then he turned his goddamn back.
I didn’t bring the Hook through the archway. His human form didn’t matter. The tentacles would do the work, and the eye-tacles were still watching carefully.
“You rather fight Crusher?”
I said nothing. No more sarcasm. I just stood there.
One of us was doomed if we started to fight, and we both knew it. Ultras were rarely anything like evenly matched. One of us would have more Ultra strength, or speed, or toughness, and they would just unilaterally win. With two brawlers there would be no escape or second engagement once we started. The stronger would walk through the weaker like a bank of mist, tear them apart like cardboard.
“I’m not asking for your trust, little Fisher” he said. “We are having to kill one another, having to kill one another or She kills us. So no trust between us. Crusher and Fisher, never to be together as family.”
Did he ever shut up?
“I’m asking you to go back the way you came. I go back the way I came. We catch them between us. Two on two, instead of one on two.”
I raised a hand slightly, a sort of quelling gesture. Without taking my eyes off of his myriad waving limbs I gave the idea a quick consideration.
“Alright, big Crusher” I aped his speech pattern. “You’ve got a deal. I’ll walk away, leave you for later. You help me with the last two, and I’ll make your death quick and painless.”
“Such generosity! Such a big heart, for such a little girl,” he responded.
He started to back up. I drew the Lure back through the doorway. I still hadn’t shown him the Hook. It would be a nice surprise if he didn’t observe it during whatever fight we’d have to have with the other two.
I stood watching him retrace his steps, tentacles slamming out and grasping at the wall, suckers gaining purchase and grinding his bulk along. He moved at a good clip, faster than he’d been going when he approached. That had been more of a deliberate theatrical stalk. This was an actual businesslike stride. He was several times faster than a fit man could run, his tendrils whipping his body forward in a never ending flinging motion.
Just before he vanished back into his own archway he looked back. I’d been almost ready to turn around myself, but stopped and caught his eye.
“Crusher…is not so generous. When I beat you, I drop you to Torturer.”
The shriek that rose from my throat was entirely unintentional.