I circled away from Crusher.
I hadn’t fully committed to his plan, mind. It seemed sensible that it would be better for me to fight as part of a two on two than take on a pair of Ultras alone. Crusher, though, gave off an air of brutal power that made me wary. Those limbs gave him a horrifying reach and mobility advantage. I felt as though my Hook would be overmatched in a direct contest, and with as many sensory organs as he had an ambush didn’t seem feasible.
This was a gloomy surmise, but in truth there was no way to know how things would go but to lock up with him. Tentacles and all, if his Ultra Strength or Durability was only at the first level I could fold myself into the Hook and tear through him. Similarly, if he was at the third level then he’d pull me apart like cotton candy. No way to know before we threw down.
That feature of Ultra fights, the inability to know beforehand whether one’s foes were even in one’s league, probably had a lot to do with why we’d both backed down in that meeting. Crusher could posture all he wanted, but if he’d come down on me one of us would be dead by now. This agreement, however, raised all manner of interesting possibilities.
One of the few bits of information that had stuck with me, in its full context, was the old world concept of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Two people, if they both choose friendship they get moderate rewards. If they both choose enmity they get no rewards. The greatest reward, however, went to the one who chose enmity while fooling the other participant into picking friendship. Crusher and I were in a similar situation now.
If we both hastened along the corridor, and arrived in time to find and fight the enemy pair, then we were each part of an even battle. Call this choosing friendship. If I loafed along, however…
Say Crusher arrived first. They’d perceive him, nothing stealthy about his hulking form. They’d start fighting. I could observe from a distance, and pick the moment that all parties were at their weakest before making my strike.
I stopped, crouching in an archway along the outside circular ring.
Both of us arriving together is good, but Crusher getting there first is better. So why move at all? But then, wouldn’t he be thinking identically? How would things shake out if we both stood fast?
I shook the Lure’s head wordlessly.
It wasn’t a symmetrical situation, though. The pair of Ultras had been circling towards me. More importantly, I couldn’t dodge into the center like everyone else could. If everyone was trying to avoid a fight then this was a crippling disadvantage.
My musings were cut off, as I heard voices echoing down the hall towards me. I shrank into the doorframe, folded down into the Lure. It was a pose very similar to the one that I’d struck as I waited for Crusher’s arrival down the other way.
“I’m Axing You. Where she at?”
The voice was smooth, female, practiced in public speaking. It was also aping Her accent, the distinctive dialect of the old world’s underclass. Whoever was talking had a death wish.
There was in a low murmur in reply, too low to hear. The voices grew louder, however, as they got closer.
“This Bitch Gon’ Die” said the first voice, growling like a tv character. “She gon’ get got! Wrecker gon’ wreck her!”
I stood the Lure up and stepped out into the lighted center of the archway, catching the illumination of the hall section they were traversing’s lights.
They betrayed no surprise, dropping into practiced combat crouches with a worrying lack of fright. Union trained, beyond a shadow of a doubt. It wasn’t precisely a surprise, but I cursed inwardly at the realization. This would be a bit harder than I’d been planning.
The two women were opposites.
The first, tall and slender, blonde with her hair cut short. She’d torn the rags that all of the other prisoners seemed to have been given to stripes and wrapped them around her forearms and shins. The blood of those she’d taken them off clung to the wraps, giving them an oozing red texture. She wore a knotted kerchief on her head, and had some kind of facial tattoo I couldn’t make out at this distance. From the sound of her soft, startled curse she was the one who’d been faking Prevailer’s accent.
The second, by contrast, was a squat, fat gremlin of a woman. Her eyes stared out of a great broad forehead. Her ratty hair hung long about her. Her dark skin was creased where her corpulent form had stretched it, folded from the long habits of daily living.
She called out to me.
“Fisher. Get over here”
How did she know my name? I stood the Lure right where it was, beckoning them closer. I didn’t actually have a strong desire for them to get closer, mind, but it was the aggressive, powerful thing to do, and maybe it would convey some sort of confidence to them.
“Bitch, you Gon’ make us kill you!” shouted Wrecker, as she swaggered away from her partner. I still didn’t respond. What would I even say? She seemed aggressive to the point of insanity. The Lure cowered back in the doorframe as the woman who called herself Wrecker bore down upon her.
She approached with a calm, measured stride. It was more like a strut. She puffed out her chest and turned her feet with each step, the unwearied tread of the dominant party. Once again, I had the contextless impression that my notion of this came from fiction of some kind. I’d watched something or read something that told me that this was how old world criminals projected strength. It might have been intimidating then. For an Ultra to do it was just bizarre. She might just as appropriately have sent forth a herald to throw a glove across my face and challenge me to a swordfight.
Just before she could touch the Lure, I burst into action.
My shadow slid beneath her, orbiting my body and extending out past her. Even as she reached towards the Lure I was drawing it down into the dark, sliding it into the folded space of my form, as the Hook pounced into the world behind Wrecker.
She turned as I struck, give her that. Some sound, some instinct, had warned her, and she was halfway around, raising an arm as though to fend off the blow, by the time I struck. If I hadn’t done this so many times she’d have survived.
I slammed the Hook’s bladed forarms into her back. I winced in anticipation as the blades shot forth, but she wasn’t Ultra Tough three. My Hook’s hooks didn’t glance off, they sank deep into her upper back, grinding through meat and bone and raising a fountain of blood as they tore into her heart.
Before I could do more, however, the strangest thing occurred.
The blood sprang back in. My arms were forced out, and she backstepped past me at incredible speed. She was at her partner’s side again almost before I could blink, seemingly unharmed, despite the evisceration that I’d just accomplished.
The Hook stood, regarding them, silent and forbidding. Inwardly I strove to figure out what was going on.
The short fat woman again, addressing her comrade.
“She has two forms, joined by the shadow.”
“Wha-…she got me?” asked Wrecker.
“She did. She is at least Ultra Strength two. You’ll have to be careful.”
I’d recovered my poise by this time, and was sliding sideways along the corridor towards them. As near as I could tell, the little one had unhappened the injury that I’d inflicted upon Wrecker. She’d reversed her somehow, bringing her back along her timeline to a point where she was uninjured.
Once again, Wrecker came against me. This time it was no strut. This time she put her shoulder down and charged like a linebacker. She met the Hook’s opening slash with a forceful counter, slamming my arm aside with a wrenching impact.
Whatever her durability’s flaws, her strength was certainly at least my combat form’s equal. I struck my other arm at her, frantically gouging chunks out of her side and back even as she smashed into the Hook.
We entered a frenzy then, her punching furiously, me slashing frantically. She dented my carapace, cracked and chipped away at the armor on the Hook’s front. I, for my part, shredded her back and limbs, raking my hook’s back and forth across her form. I was winning, but any moment…
Just as I feared, the little one used its power again. Once more my fight unhappened, once more Wrecker’s damage was removed. The Hook’s injuries, however, remained.
I sprang back, unfolding the Lure in order to get my healing working. They didn’t seem in any hurry to pursue, standing idly and chatting.
“She’s hitting you with those blade things,” the little one said. “You’ve got about the same power, but she’s winning because she’s sharp all over.”
“Bitch ain’t winning,” said Wrecker. “She just prolonging this shit.”
I let them chatter, content to stand. The longer they wanted to waste time, the better. Things could only get better for me. Crusher might show up. Prevailer might show up. They might have heart attacks. Anything that happened would make the situation better.
“You think she gon’ give us any real trubbs?” asked Wrecker. “She got anything that she can do?”
One of the benefits of not speaking, of having a form that has no verbal apparatus, is that sometimes folks think that you can’t hear, or can’t understand what they are saying.
The little woman shook her head slowly. “No, you’ve taken care of her.”
My wounds weren’t healing any more. I was fully spread out, both bodies in the light, both casting each other as a shadow. The uninjured Lure ought to be altering the Hook’s form second by second, recreating it without injury. Where Wrecker had punched, however, remained a pocked and partially shattered chest plate.
Somehow the two seemed to understand what I was thinking. Maybe everyone that they fought had this reaction. In any case, Wrecker through back her head and laughed.
“You think you gon’ get better, bitch?” she yelled through her feigned mirth. “You think you kin wait long enough, you gon’ feel all right again? Bitch, why you think they call me Wrecker.”
The figure with the rewinding power spoke again. “What she damages, will never be made whole. What she splits, no one shall put together. She was born to wreck this world.”
I took a step back with both forms. This wasn’t going to work out. I couldn’t harm Wrecker, as her partner would just undo it. I couldn’t heal any harm I took. Two reasons I had no business in this fight.
Just before I could dart through the door and try to make a break for it, a sudden yell seemed to shake the corridor. I recognized the accent immediately.
“Leetle Feesher!” boomed Crusher, from somewhere down the hall behind them. “Is looking like you are in big trouble, ya?”
Somehow, despite the respawning killer currently engaging me, it felt like Crusher’s appearance meant that things were getting worse.
They reacted instantly to his voice. Wrecker stopped stalking me, jumped back to her partner’s side. She kept her eyes on me, even as the short woman turned her gaze towards Crusher’s end of the hall.
His appearance was something out of a nightmare. It was elaborate, ceremonial, and utterly terrifying. His tendrils writhed all along the doorway he was emerging from, pulling his human form along like a puppet master long outgrown by the marionettes.
“Who is this freak show?” yelled Wrecker, slipping out of her accent for a second. She cast a nervous glance or two over her shoulder. I didn’t try to take advantage of her distractions. I had no interest in getting close to Wrecker again.
“Freak show?” came Crusher’s voice once again. The deep base tone still had that strange reverberation, as his tendrils played his vocal cords like an instrument. “Leetle girl dares to make leetle insult?”
His tendrils pounced. Faster than I had imagined that they could move, they shot across the room’s divide, light, fast tentacles reaching out to surround and strangle Wrecker and her partner. Just as fast, they shot back.
Crusher hadn’t deliberately retracted them, it was immediately clear. His yelp of surprise had nothing of deceit in it. Rather, his pouncing, and whatever damage that he’d done, hadn’t fit into the short Ultra’s version of events, and so had been edited out.
I’d had a bit of an opening there, with Wrecker pulled off her vigilance by the strangling limbs of Crusher, but I hadn’t bit. I told myself that it just wasn’t the right time, hoping that my ordeal with Torturer hadn’t stolen my nerve.
“What has happened to Crusher?” he asked, plaintively. I could see that some of the eyes were focused on me, hoping that I’d honor our alliance enough to tell him.
That raised an interesting question. When I’d scrapped with Wrecker, why had her partner rewound her, and not me? It meant that she’d had to instruct her of what had gone wrong each time, whereas I’d been learning by doing, as it were. Tactically speaking, it was the wrong play.
The right move, rewinding the enemy, gave you the situation here, where Crusher had no idea what was going on, but Wrecker and Rewinder (I decided to name her in my mind), knew just how fast his tendrils could pounce.
Perhaps, she couldn’t? Maybe she had to get close to her victim. But then, how had she rewound Wrecker? I was missing something. At the least they seemed to have forgotten about me.
Rather, the pair were trooping back the way that they had came, menacing Crusher with a steady advance.
They strode towards him, side by side, like a pair of conquering queens. Showing no fear at all they passed into the section of hallway that he infested, beneath the hanging hazards of his appendages, surrounded by his unblinking eyes.
Instinctively I followed at a safe distance. This would be the end. If Rewinder could keep Crusher in her power’s grasp, Wrecker could tear him apart without resistance. Presumably her power’s anti healing effect would overcome the restorative part of Rewinder’s power. Crusher would die in a frozen instant, rewound over and over, more damaged each time. Shortly thereafter, I’d suffer the same fate.
I couldn’t let that happen. My only hope was that her power wasn’t quite so all-trumping as it seemed. With barely a pause I flung the Hook at the back of Rewinder’s form. Simultaneously, Wrecker sprang at Crusher, and he grabbed for us all.