Condemner 2:1

My attention was jerked away from Betty’s monster when a ghost flashed through the walls, slid into Haunter.

It was the first thing that had moved in ten minutes.  We all started involuntarily, save for Becky’s monster.  It just kept shuddering, emitting a low keening noise.

“What does it know?” asked Preventer, first to demand answers as always.

Ever since Dale had burrowed out through the wall she’d been sitting there, using her sparkly barriers to make diagrams.  Haunter had watched, and I had the sense that it was important, but I couldn’t make myself leave Betty’s war form.

She had to be ok.  The war beast was still here, so Betty was fine.  We’d talk again.  She was ok.  I had to keep telling myself that.  Even though its shadow didn’t lead to her anymore she was fine.

“Him, not it.”  Haunter corrected her with an acid tone.  “My passengers are PEOPLE, Preventer.  I know that I’ve told you that before.  I’d hate to think you are too dumb to keep it in mind.”

Insulting Preventer’s intelligence was the fastest way to get her angry, which was pretty dumb on its own.  Haunter was riled up.  I had to talk them down, but again, I couldn’t make myself care.

I stroked the beast, running hands along the barbed spines on its brow.  It made a long, slow sound, turned into the scratch, rubbing the scalp along my knuckles.  A motion a lot like one that Betty had made, when we were together.

“You miss her too, huh,” I murmured to it.

“Condemner” came Preventer’s call.  “Leave it alone, get over here.”

I ignored her.  Betty would want me to keep her beast in good condition.

It was pitiful, to some degree.  I knew enough to know that.  Real love didn’t work like this, a week of screwing someone didn’t make a life partnership.  But knowing didn’t change anything.

I was fake.  Just a mask that Condemner sometimes wore.  Preventer had made that clear to me, and it fit with my fractured memories.  Or rather, my fabricated memories.  My amnesia wasn’t the result of something lost, it was the result of something that Condemner had never bothered to make up.  I was a shitty impression of a person, put together on the fly by an Ultra who seemed, based on all the info that I could gather, to be a colossal douchebag.

But what I had with Betty was real.  She was an actual person, an Ultra who would live forever in this Fist.  If Condemner got tired of me tomorrow and dragged me down, Betty would remember me.  If he didn’t fix my memories the next time he shoved me out, she’d promised that she’d remind me.  This wasn’t infatuation, it was salvation.

A hand fell on my shoulder.

I reached up to shake it off, paused when I realized that it didn’t sparkle.  Not Preventer then.  Haunter.  I twisted my body away from the beast, looked her full on.

In an instant, before an ungifted human could react, I saw her expression unguarded.  Ultra speed coming in handy once again.  People just could never make themselves understand exactly what it meant that I moved faster, saw faster, thought faster.

Haunter hadn’t been guarding her visage, and I’d seen the terror there.

Did she fear me or Condemner?  I banished the thought in an instant.  I knew she saw the difference.  Dale was a thoughtless jock, and Preventer was an icy bitch, but Haunter and Betty knew the score.

“She’s right, Nirav.  You need to come and help us get out of here. My shade told me what happened with Indulger.”

I turned my head away again, back to the creature.  I didn’t need to say anything else.

“Nirav, I’m going to die.”

That got my attention.  I looked back at Haunter, at Jane.

“I have thousands of lives inside of me, Nirav.  Hundreds of couples, just like you and Fisher.  When Dale doesn’t come back, when the earth shakes again, we are all going to be crushed by this cave.  A whole city of people gone.  I need you, Nirav.”

I let that sink in.  Instinctively I clutched the beast closer, clung to its horns for a second.  Thousands of people.  I couldn’t be responsible for thousands of people.  I had failed to protect one.

Responsible.  The word struck a chord.

If I rescued Haunter, if I did that one thing, then I was real.  Condemner couldn’t take that away.  Even if Betty was dead, and Betty wasn’t dead, if I just got Haunter up to the surface then I was real.

I drilled the idea into myself, forced myself to believe it.

“Condemner,” called Preventer again, making a beckoning motion to the those of us on our side of the room.

I stood up.  The beast squeezed my arm for a second, gently, then let me go.  I was heartened.  Some aspect of Betty must have survived somewhere, for her creation to recognize me.

Haunter and I returned to Preventer, exchanging glances as we did.  Despite the gravity of the situation Haunter rolled her eyes slightly, and I was in full agreement.  Count on Preventer to trample a moment of heroism with her petulant impatience.

“Condemner, we need you to go up there and get Indulger back.”

Preventer was the only one who invariably called Indulger by his Ultra name.  It was just one of many things that I hated about her.  I’d left the last proof that Betty existed shivering on the floor of a cave to listen to this…

I cut my thoughts off, that wasn’t going anywhere productive.

“Preventer, I’m pretty sure that I’ve told you this before, but I’m NOT CONDEMNER.  I don’t control when he comes and when he goes.  I don’t command him.  I don’t even LIKE him.”

I was shouting a bit there, and deliberately mimicking Haunter’s earlier admonition.

“When he is there, I am not.  When I am there, he is not.  I can’t get out of this cave any more than you can, and if he decides to get off of his lazy ass and show up the last thing that he’ll do is try to save you!”

Haunter jerked back, seemingly appalled by the vehement anger in my tone.  It slid off Preventer though, didn’t seem to impact her at all.  I wondered sometimes whether her gift kept her from being offended along with all other kinds of harm.  How else could someone be that oblivious to how much everyone around them loathed them?

She flapped her hands and I nearly hit her.  Only the knowledge that I’d just be hurting myself on her face kept my hands at my side.  I loathed this habit.  Every time she started shaking her hands back and forth her speech got slower and more deliberate.  With Ultra speed it made listening to her a pure torture.

“I’m Not Talking To You.”  She said each word, deliberately and carefully, pausing for emphasis at every step in the sentence.

I felt something then, Condemner’s special pressure, that inside shove that made my mind feel like a glove.

I crushed it back down, held him in check with every ounce of my will.  I was Nirav.  Betty loved me.  Haunter needed me.  I wasn’t going to let… the feeling subsided.

“What do you want him to do, exactly?” I asked.

I had controlled him!  He’d tried to come out, and I’d stopped him.  It was a heady sensation, but I didn’t let it make me lose focus.  Condemner could try again at any instant.

“ You’re…His fire form can go up these little holes that are bringing the air in.  He needs to get up there, find Indulger and get him out of whatever trouble he’s in so that he can get us out of here.”

“There isn’t any fuel in the air tunnels, Preventer.  He’ll burn out before he gets up to the city.”

I didn’t know whether to trust the flash of insight that moved me to say that.  Had I actually suppressed Condemner, or had he just wanted to ask that question?  I couldn’t feel the hand in my mind anymore, but did that just mean that it wasn’t making a fist right now?

“No he won’t.”

We both looked over at Haunter, who was looking at the ground, somewhat shamefaced.

“Excuse me?” I asked, trying to keep the anger from my voice.  I was trembling with the force of the situation, the injury to Betty and the argument with Preventer.  Still, none of that was Haunter’s fault, and she had thousands of helpless people to worry about.  She didn’t need any grief from me.

“According to his KEM file, Condemner can take souls, right?  Use them to power his flame and make it do what he wants?”

I nodded my head, slowly.  That sounded right somehow.  More of Condemner’s meddling?  How else could I know that other than him feeding me the info.

“You’ve read KEM files?” asked Preventer, saving me the trouble.

“You haven’t?” replied Haunter, not missing a beat.  “It seems like an obvious method of reconnaissance.  I’m surprised you haven’t availed yourself of it.”

Haunter actually seemed to be getting more put together as she spoke.  She thrived in these kinds of situations, or was she letting her souls drive?

“Are you offering Condemner your shades?  Because that doesn’t really square with what you just said a moment ago.”

It was like I had punched her.  Haunter’s face fell, and whatever composure she’d gotten putting down Preventer seemed to fly away in a heartbeat.  The micro expression lasted an instant, but it was obvious to an observer with Ultra Speed.

“Not ‘my shades’.  ONE of my shades.  One man who died in a coma, who can’t be saved even if we ever do get bodies for them.  I’ll give up ONE to give Condemner the jump start he needs in order to get up the tunnels and save us.”

“You don’t have to do that, Haunter.” Preventer interjected.  “I’ve done the calculations, and Condemner should be fine so long as he moves at his full speed.  There is a backdraft effect which shoots fire up chimneys like these.  Condemner has nothing to be afraid of.”

“I can’t chance it,” replied Haunter.  “Nirav is our only shot at this, and I can’t bet the lives of every one of my passengers that your figures are perfect.  Not when I can put a thumb on the scale.  Not when I can sacrifice one to save the rest.”

“The Trolley Problem,” said Preventer.  “I never expected to actually see it in real life.”

I felt Condemner’s fingers about my mind again.  A strange headache that couldn’t be localized.

“He’s…He’s… not afraid.  He’s never afraid!  He makes others fear!”

My resistance crumbled.

I…awakened.

I surged forth once again, sourcing myself in Nirav’s clothing, a shitty, tiny manifestation.  The wretch!  This place was barely worth the burning.

Haunter, the old bitch, extended a hand in my direction, the other shielding her eyes from my sudden glory.  The room was dark, and I had caught her by surprise.  A white form shot out from her arm, stumbling and falling to the ground before me.

Such a pitiful attack.  A soul, a facsimile of a person, shucked of its mortal form and thrust upon me?  Useless, and less than useless.

I pushed my gift for power, gathered my form up from the pile of merrily burning rags and drank deep of Haunter’s stupidity.

It was…exhilarating.  It was sublime.  No mortal barrier between the soul’s energy and my gift.  I saw his life flash before my eyes.  Benjamin Peters.  Old world trash.  An existence spent watching some kind of display screen and typing at a keyboard.  Mundane to the core, before falling asleep for the last time.

Worthless trash.  I Condemned him.  I took his energies into myself, and felt my might surge.

Haunter was FILLED with these delicacies.  I gathered my flames, retreating for a moment to the rags.  This would be-

Balked.  A glittering barrier suddenly stretched around me, confining me away from those I longed to taste.

Preventer!  The bitch who had dared call me forth, twice now.  The bitch who thought herself beyond my Condemnation.  Could I breach her barrier with Benjamin’s fire?

“She’s invincible!”

I quashed Nirav’s thoughts, sundered a portion of them off and turned it to flame as punishment.  I was driving.  I was judging.  Condemner for true, and I had no need of assistance.

Still, he had a point.  I would need more fuel before confronting the little wretch.  Where could…

Ah, she had underestimated me, or was this part of some plan? Nirav’s memories were foggy where they weren’t directly concerned with battle.  In any event there were small escape holes bored into this arid tomb.  They honeycombed the ceiling and walls, rising towards an oxygen source of some kind.

Perfect.  I’d be back to sort her out once I had more power.  I’d be back to settle things with her, and for the delicious creamy center that Haunter had revealed to me.

I surged up the tunnels, filling them with my gift and rising on the thermals.  It was easy, I just let the air carry me up and up, sustaining my flames with Benjamin’s life.

The memories faded as I squandered them, trading years of screen watching for a few yards of extra combustion, burning his memories of air instead of the real thing.

It couldn’t last, but it didn’t need to.  Well before I ran out of Benjamin my flames burst from a dozen tiny holes, and I spread onto dead grass.

I was in a city.  A city afire.  I spread across a wrecked yard as I pondered my surroundings.

I ransacked Nirav’s memories, pulling away more bits of his pattern.  This was Redo, a name that meant nothing to me.  There were many Ultras here, but they were fighting each other.

I was to rescue one particular Ultra, and here his thoughts contained a picture of a muscle bound brute with a dopy mask.  This ‘Indulger’ could save the rest of the group.

Despite myself I felt a twing of awe.  Nirav must have concentrated on this thought with every ounce of his will for it to resonate this strongly.

Wasted efforts.  I took the information, but felt no commitment to any ‘mission’ that he might have wanted to undertake for these ‘friends.’

No, not friends.  They were a part of a group of some sort, something official.  I chased down more implications among the ruins of Nirav’s memories, even as I began to surge up a building.  We were a Fist.

I found the thought that was at the core of this whole message.  The letter in the bottle that Nirav had been so desperate to show me.  Spite was close to my core, and I considered ignoring it, but pragmatism won out.

“If we can succeed in this mission, She will make us a Fist.  She will make us IMMORTAL.”

Transparent attempt at manipulating me.  Seeking to sway control where he was too weak to seize.  I had Condemned others for far less.  But I could also sense that this understanding was sincere.

Eternity.  Immortality.  I rolled the worlds around in my mind even as the building succumbed, and my presence truly bloomed into the scene.

I considered them as I looked out over Redo, a city already in ruins, and being further decimated by two exhausted armies of Ultras.

It came to me then, an inarguable knowledge dropping as a boon from an unknowable darkness of the soul.  I was Condemner.  Eternity was a lie.  I would rescue no one.  This Indulger would die by my hand, consumed in the torrents of my flame.  I had no desire to live forever.  No one would live forever, because I would kill them.

I would kill them all.

Ultra Trends and Limitations

Due to the rampant spread of the Process (or rather, of the Company, which practices the Process) there is a vast and comprehensive sample size for Ultra powers.  Several trends have become apparent.

1: Male Ultras are frequently deformed.

Very few female Ultras exhibit the elaborate deformities which typify the male of the genre.  Pursuer, of the Regime, is one of the more famous cases, with a form that tends strongly towards the canine.  In most cases these strange body changes bear some relation to the Ultra’s powers.  An Ultra who projects fire might have red hands, or eyes that are actually made of flame, or similar.  An Ultra who has an ability related to water may find that that his Form has developed decorative gills.

2: Ultra powers tend to affect discrete objects.

It is a fairly common power for an Ultra to affect an object, or objects.  They might make one intangible, or transport it, or what have you.  Powers such as these are usually able to be used on multiple objects, but sequentially, rather than at one time.  Someone who can make forms glow couldn’t stick their hand into a bag of marbles and make each one glow.  They’d have to take each one aside and use their power on it seperately.

This is similar to how Ultra Strength allows affects  an Ultra lifting a building.  As she picks it up the structure will, implausibly, stick together.  It is still one ‘form’.  She is lifting a building, not a series of walls, floors,etc.  Even if she turns it sideways, the roof won’t fall off.  But a person ON that roof would, as they are not part of the building’s form.

3: Ultra powers are usually not directly harmful to the user.

This is not to say that an Ultra cannot harm themselves with their powers.  They absolutely can, and there are numerous documented cases of suicide by Ultra gift.  However, it is extremely rare for an Ultra’s ability to harm themselves accidentally.  An Ultra whose speed has been enhance will not rip his own legs off by trying to go too fast.  An Ultra who projects lightning will not electrocute themselves starting the circuit, etc.

4:  Ultra powers are unable to affect thoughts

This is an area where there is a lot of grey, but it SEEMS to be a rule that an Ultra cannot control another person’s thoughts.  There are a lot of ways around this.  There are Ultras who control other people’s feelings.  There are Ultras who hijack other people’s bodies.  There are Ultras who put people to sleep, or mess with their memories.  But there are no known cases of Ultras actually making other human’s decisions.

5: Ultra powers tend to be limited in scope, for large degrees of limited.

Prevailer is, of course, the canonical counter example, but there is still an observable tendency towards powers that act on a personal scale.  No one, for example, has yet exhibited the ability to destroy everything that they look upon, and destroyed the world and observable universe immediately after surviving the process.  No one’s breathe converts air to anti matter.

This, combined with 3, is often times used as ‘evidence’ for an intelligent designer gifting Ultras with their abilities.  The existence of God is beyond the scope of this text.

Indulger 2:2

Thor wasn’t nearly as big as I was.

He was tall, sure, and the ground let me know that he was wearing some kind of boots that made him seem a little taller.  He had shoulder pads and a sort of half-cape, and he was carrying a big hammer.  He was even naturally a bit muscly.  I’m sure that lots of people would have been intimidated by him.  But all I could think was that he didn’t even lift.

I cracked my knuckles and stared him down, not saying anything.  A lot of times not saying anything was the most intimidating thing that I could do.  It was sort of my go to move when meeting a new enemy.  Let them do the promo before the match.

Thor didn’t disappoint.

“Big bitch, ain’t ya?!” he asked.  I was kind of impressed that he was talking instead of just attacking me.  Most people would just start trying to kill me, particularly with a big fight going on.

I nodded, slowly and deliberately.  It was the kind of nod that said ‘I’m too cool to have to answer you’, or so I hoped.

“Some of my people told me that there was a big guy in town, last couple days.  I thought you might be an Ultra, till they told me you were carrying things with the daggers.  Guess you fooled me.”

Once again, slow nod.  This time I didn’t have anything in mind for it to mean.  It was just the kind of cool gesture that mysterious strong looking strangers made when you rambled at them.

“And here you are, smack dab in the middle of Krishna’s coup attempt.  Gotta say, that’s a bit of a coincidence.”

I stopped nodding there, just gave him the ole eyefuck.

“You have any part in this whole situation?  Maybe you are a merc that Krishna brought in to take care of me?”

I saw a chance to lie with the truth, couldn’t help myself.

“I didn’t have any part in this.” I emphasized the ‘I’.  It had all been the others who planned this and did it, after all.  I was mostly just the transportation so far.

“So you DO speak English!” he said, suddenly jubilant.  He grinned, like I’d given something away.

Had it been supposed to be a secret that I could speak English?  Everyone could.  Why would he even doubt that I could?  I guess a lot of people thought that strong was automatically dumb.  And I had been standing there mutely while he talked.  I guessed it was reasonable to figure that I couldn’t talk.

“Yeah, I can talk fine.  Who am I talking to?”

I knew, of course, but I wanted to give him a chance to do a cool intro.  We were about to have an Ultra fight, and he could fly off at any time, so I wanted him invested in it.  Plus, I like cool intros.

“I’m Thor.  Come on, don’t pretend you don’t know me.  I already told you that I knew you were in town, remember?  Do you really believe that I believe that you’ve been in town for a few days and no one told you about the Ultra that runs the place?”

“I know about Krishna!” I responded, quickly.  It was rare for me to think of a comeback that fast, and I wasn’t about to pass up the chance to give one.

“You!-“, he cut himself off, clamping down his jaw in the middle of an angry answer.

He set his shoulders, worked his neck around, opened his mouth and breathed out.  It was a very practiced move, a sort of rehearsed shrug kind of thing.

“You aren’t worth this.”

He began to move, bending forward at the knees.

I couldn’t tell if he was going to launch himself at me, or just go back to the big fight, but either way I wasn’t going to take the chance.  I’d never fought anyone who wasn’t always on the ground before, and I wasn’t keen to.  Even as he started to lift off I asked the ground to lock him in place.

I wasn’t fast enough.  Maybe if I’d taken a page from everyone else’s book and started moving the ground while he was talking it would have worked, but as it was the earth dome hadn’t risen more than a foot around him by the time he was already blasting off, heading for the window of a nearby building.

I’d wanted the ground to grab his legs instead of trying to lock him in all the way, but there was no time for complaining.  I turned to watch him land.

He, for his part, was still facing me, looking a bit surprised.  He had turned while he was flying, another very practiced move.

“An earth mover, eh?  I haven’t seen a gift like that before.  What else can you do with it?”

I had the sense that he had been going to fly off, but seeing my gift in action he’d decided that he had to deal with me himself.  That was pretty much perfect.

“Lot of stuff.  This, for a start.”

I waved an arm, for kayfabe, and asked brah to knock over the building he was perched in.

Thor was just looking at me for a moment, then he seemed to feel the shudders.  Somehow I could tell that the ground was pulling away from one part of the foundation, and pushing on another.  Buildings might be basically cubes but they weren’t all made of one piece.  If you pushed on them unevenly they could come apart.

Thor didn’t stick around to find out.  He flew across the street to land in another window on the far side.

“Shaking buildings, huh?  That’s really useful.  You could have been a heck of an asset.”

He was talking again, and he didn’t seem at all threatened by the fact that I could shake a building.  I left the building that he’d abandoned unstable but standing.  Maybe he’d forget and fly back there.

I faced Thor straight on, took a fighting stance, and made a ‘bring it’ kind of gesture with one hand.  We had done more than enough opening stuff, it was time to get to fighting.

He seemed to get what I meant.  He stopped talking, clung to his window and studied me carefully.

I made a ‘rise up’ motion, and the ground began to hump under me, lifting me slowly up towards his level on a small hill of earth.

He moved his hands like he was about to sarcastically applaud, then in the middle of the motion changed it to a grab for his hammer.  He was suddenly MUCH faster, I could barely see him move.

I knew what Thor’s power did.  That hammer was basically a truck in terms of how much it weighed.  It would blast right through me.  I begged the ground to shield me, and the hill flowed up onto my body, quickly surrounding me with like two feet of dirt.

But he had never been aiming at me.  The hammer dipped as it approached, slammed through the earth hill that I’d made.  I was tossed into the air.

It was an awful sensation.  Being away from the ground was like being blind.  Being away from it in the middle of a fight was terrible.  I twisted around, vaguely aware that I’d taken some kind of hurt, desperate to avoid anything else he threw at me.

I was an easy target for a few seconds, as I plummeted back down to the street, wrapped in dirt.  He could have thrown something else, but instead he did a flyby of where I was falling from, snatched up his hammer just as I was hitting the street.

Even with my healing kicking in, I was reeling.  My body got fixed up whenever I was touching the ground, but I’d been slaughtered like a dozen times in the last hour.  I gave a huge cry, just a sort of big cow bellow.

If Thor had rushed me then and there I’m not sure that I’d have fought back.  I was sort of overpowered at the moment, just kind of short circuiting a bit.  Lucky for me he started to talk.

“I think I’ve got you figured out, big guy.  You didn’t move any earth when I blasted you away from it, and it looked as though the cuts you got didn’t start healing until you hit the ground again. Then there’s the whole ‘no shoes’ look.  I’m pegging you as an Antaeus sort of situation.”

I didn’t know what that meant, but him talking helped me focus.  I rolled over and glared at him, getting my feet under me.

This time I wasn’t taking any chances.  I sunk my feet six inches deep in the ground.  That would make it harder to knock me anywhere, and also let me use my gift to hurl myself sideways if he attacked with his hammer again.

“That means you are a tough guy, just so long as you are in contact with the ground.  Do I have that right?”

Almost against my will I nodded.  It was the first time that someone had talked about my gift so easily after seeing it just the once.  It was really impressive.

“All those idiotic greek myths that Zeus taught me, and it actually helped in a fight.  Go figure.”

“Zeus, he’s the Pantheon’s big boss, right?” I asked.

I was mostly talking to let myself settle again.  I was, and this was a new thing, kind of afraid to start fighting again.  This guy wouldn’t try to kill me and fail because I healed quickly.  He knew how I worked, and his powers matched well with mine.  He could actually win this fight.  I could really die.

“Mostly.  It’s a whole council situation.  If you ever make it out to Australia you ought to look them up.  They are always looking for people whose powers match one of their favorite myths.”

“That’s mighty kind of you.” I said.

It was, actually.  It was sort of baffling for a guy taking time away from his war to chat with me, and give me advice on future stuff.  Wasn’t he planning on killing me?

“I’m known for my kindness.”

Deadpan.  I almost chuckled.

“Anyway, I think its about time I wrapped this up.  Got Krishna to kill afterwards.”

He hefted his hammer again.

I tensed, arms in front of my body.

He threw it.

I hurled myself to the side, gift sliding me along the ground with all the speed I could muster.  No impact where I left from.

He hadn’t thrown it at all, just fake thrown it, like you do to a dumb dog to confuse it when you are playing fetch and feeling mean.

Even as I was realizing this he made the throwing motion again, but it wasn’t his hammer that came towards me.  I was raising an earth wall about myself even as the baseball slammed into it.

He didn’t have nearly as much of his gift on this one, the ball was more like a disguised safe than a whole truck, and it just sort of sank into my earth wall.  I concentrated, pulling the wall up and over myself.

Another soft impact, probably a baseball.  He was… what was he doing?

I realized that I had no idea.  I couldn’t sense him, because he wasn’t on the ground.  I couldn’t see him, because I’d built a wall about myself.

For a second I considered abandoning the match, breaking the rule I’d set for myself all the way back when I started and just tunneling away.  Thor was too much.  Every second I held myself in my wall was another second he might be plotting an attack.

Screw that.   I gathered my nerve.  Even as I did that, a prolonged, liquid impact came on the top of the dome/wall I was hiding in.

Was he…pissing on me?

Rage eclipsed my mounting fear.  I urged the ground to strike out at my enemy, straight up.  The dome leapt about me, formed by my mounting anger into a series of spikes that shot up with exceptional speed.

People didn’t understand how fast my gift could go.  Just like how they thought that big meant dumb, they thought that it meant slow.  There was nothing slow about these stone spears, rising up to impale… a canteen?

He’d thrown a bottle of some sort, with a spike through it, it had stuck into a street post above me and dripped water onto me.  Of course he wasn’t pissing on me.  His flight couldn’t hold him still, it was just arcs.  My gaze snapped around.  He was still where I’d seen him last, perched in the window and pointing at me.

Pointing?  Why hadn’t he thrown anything when I let my shield down.  He was making a sort of finger gun gesture.

An explosion was all the explanation I got, casting me back and into the air.

The second baseball, the one that I hadn’t seen.  It had been a bomb of some kind.  The horrible realization came as time seemed to slow down.  For the second time in this fight I was flying helplessly through the air, and this time he took full advantage.

He hurled again, with both hands, whipping them across his body in a sort of X motion, full Ultra speed and strength.  I braced for darkness, but he wasn’t making a killing blow.

Instead I felt two lances of incredible agony penetrated my upper arms, as the tent pegs he had thrown pinned me to a house’s wall, three feet off the ground.

“Gotcha!” he cried, punching the air in elation.

If I’d been shocked into immobility before, when my healing was working, it was nothing to what I was feeling now.  The anguish pulsing down my arms felt like a living thing, throttling my core and ransacking the center of my mind with hands made of fire.  I hurt as I had never hurt before.

“Hang tight,” he told me, and motioned with one hand.

“Mandy, keep this big guy away from the ground.  Don’t let him die.  He’s going to tell us what is behind this disturbance.”

I barely registered the Ultra who moved out from another building.  Of course he had minions about.  They could have helped if the fight started going against him.  It had never been a duel.  Why would he be so dumb as to do that?  Why would he fight alone if he had helpers available?

Why had I?  I’d locked my team in a cave and wandered up here alone to get my ass kicked.  The agony coursing down my arms now had shame for a buddy.  How had I been so dumb?

Everyone said how powerful my gift was, and I’d done basically the one thing that could get me killed or captured.  It was a huge fail.

And the others probably couldn’t come to rescue me, either.  The air holes that were letting them breathe were super thin, and digging around them to widen them would risk burying the whole team.

Jane’s gift wouldn’t help, Fisher was all fucked up, and I didn’t know if Preventer would even care to come to save me.

That just left Condemner.  Fire could certainly fit up the air holes.

I thought for a moment about how he’d been described to me.  Nirav had called him a demon, a force of nature.  A fire that burned the weak and foolish away until there was nothing left but ashes.

Maybe I was better off captured.

A Question with no Answer

“How to kill Prevailer?” is a question that usually follows hard on the heels of its natural predecessor “How can we fix the world?”.

There are a lot of ways to fix the world.  Honestly, the world’s default state is an improvement on the current situation.  You almost have to be aiming to miss in order not to fix things.

Peace treaty between the Union and some of the nicer Pantheon substates, leading to a MAD situation?  Would work.  Convince Ultras to wipe out The Company, die off in a generation?  Would work.  Surrender to the Pantheon’s council, let them enforce order?  Even that would be an improvement on the current state of things.

But fixing the world isn’t just ‘hard’.  It is much worse than that.

There was a thing, back in the day, called the stock market.  This was a place where you could file papers and make money.  Then, as now, folks wanted money.  One day, they invented computers, which were really good at the kind of paper work that the market rewarded.  Did they all get rich?

Nope, because ‘make money in the market’ wasn’t a task with a (high) static difficulty.  Rather, it was a contest with an active opponent (the other people trying to do the same thing).  Any strategy that the computer figured out would stop working once everyone knew about it.  This situation, where a problem isn’t just hard to solve, but actually resists solution, is known as being anti-inductive.

Prevailer’s Regime makes the world’s state anti-inductive.  If you make peace with your neighbors she will ramp up her attacks.  If you assault the Company she will offer it sanctuary and strike at you.

So long as Prevailer retains her position, the world will remain in this shape.  This is not coincidence.  The world’s present, deplorable state is more or less a direct representation of her preferences.  Rubble suits her, as the poet famously said.

So, really, every way of fixing the world is the same way, in the end.  They all have “Step One: Kill Prevailer” in common.  And they have all foundered at this step.

So, what is up with that task?  Why can’t the world at large, trying without surcease for decades, kill one Ultra?  Prevailer’s powers offer part of the solution.

Everyone knows that she has Ultra Strength Four.  We can all look up at the moon, after all.  This power doesn’t directly protect her, but it does mean that fights that she is involved in end as swiftly as she wants them to.

More problematically, she has Ultra Toughness.  There is a lot of debate about the exact level, with some arguing a strong one and others going with a weak two.  It is on the cusp.  What is apparent, however, is that ordinary attacks affect her much less than they would a human.  Bullets chip bits off of her, wrecking balls send her flying through the air.

The power that is the single biggest problem for would-be assassins is her third power.  She can teleport.  When she does so, she forms a new body, entirely uninjured.  All damage that she had previously sustained is wiped away.

This power is most of the problem.  She can’t be poisoned, because she doesn’t eat.  She is fully nourished after each teleport.  She can’t be killed while sleeping, because she doesn’t sleep.  After each jump she is well rested once again.

In battle she generally uses her teleportation to get close to her enemies and employ her unrivaled Ultra Strength.  There is also a small explosion from her old body when she jumps.  She can control this from a harmless ‘pop’ to a bomb blast.  This is generally how she disposes of massed humans.  Battle, obviously, shouldn’t be a concern for a stealth killing, but somehow it always ends up there.

So that’s the problem.  How to kill a woman who never sleeps or eats, who can form a new body, in a new position, at will.  Obviously, she has to die in an instant.  A difficult proposition for an Ultra Tough target.

And yet, not difficult enough to explain the sustained failures that have been recorded.  Ignoring the amateur attempts in their uncounted thousands, Prevailer has walked away from literally hundreds of serious attempts to kill her throughout the decades.  These attempts took into account everything we’ve discussed thus far, and yet they failed anyway.

The obvious conclusion is that something else is going on.  Perhaps another Ultras power shields her.  Perhaps she has other powers that she has concealed.  Perhaps she has moles inside of every organization that is targeting her.  Perhaps she is God’s judgement upon a sinful world.

No one knows exactly why she cannot be killed.  We know only, to our great cost, that it is so.  Still, the task must be attempted.  For the future of humanity to exist, Peggy Martin must die.

Indulger 2:1

“What’s going on?” asked Preventer.

I didn’t think she was talking about whatever monster Fisher had summoned.  She ought to know more about what thing had been doing than I would, because I had blacked out after it stabbed me in the chest.  Also, we could see it right now, by the light of Preventer’s sparkly things, and it was just shuddering and hugging Nirav.

It didn’t seem super fair that I got stabbed and he got hugged, but I didn’t know what I could say about that.  Maybe when we found Fisher again I could ask her.

Nirav gave a wracking sob, and Haunter sort of cleared her throat at me.  She was looking at me expectantly.

“What?” I asked.

“What’s going on?!” repeated Preventer, louder.  That didn’t really help.

“She means up top.  What is your gift telling you about the situation on the ground?” clarified Haunter.

Oh, right.  It felt kind of mean to not pay any attention to Nirav when he was crying, but I was the leader, so I had to do what the girls said.  I put a hand to the wall, soaked in the ground’s concern.

“Well, he’s kind of messed up right now.  That dude who Fisher was fighting smacked the ground real hard, and also I just got messed up…”

I trailed off.  They weren’t saying anything.  Ok, no excuses.

I tried to ‘force’ my gift to tell me what was going on up on the surface.  Sort of push it, with my mind.  It was like when I wanted to make sure that some rocks were going to be a road instead of stairs, or when I was in a fight.  My buddy wanted to focus on what was right around me, since I’d got hurt so bad and the monster was still in here.  I pushed him to look up, tell me what was up with the surface.

I must have looked pretty goofy during this.  I had a hand sunk into the wall and I was scrunching my forehead like that helped at all.  It was a habbit, but until I saw how Preventer and Jane were looking at me I didn’t realize how silly it was.  I tried to stop.

“Uh, there is a lot going on.  All over the city, people are running around, and the ground is getting tore up.”

“Make a map!” said Haunter, kind of impatiently.

“Uh, ok…” I sort of fidgeted around.

Another moment of silence.

“I don’t know what you mean by that.” I admitted.

“I think Haunter wants you to make the walls bulge out into a map of the city,” Preventer said.  “Show us where there are people, and where there are explosions, and such.  Like I did with my barricades when we were planning.”

The light of her sparkly walls got brighter while she said this.

“Oh, um…that’s, uh…that’s a really good idea.  But, like, I can’t do that.”

Something about Haunter’s disappointed look made me so sad.  It was because she was old, I thought.  It was like letting down my aunt.

“The ground only mostly does what I want.  Like, I can’t make him do things that complicated.”

The dirt rubbed against my hand where I had it in the wall.  I rubbed him back.  I wasn’t dissing him by telling the truth.  Lying was for heels.

“Alright, well, that’s disappointing.”

I wasn’t sure which of them had said that, and then they did that thing that ladies can do where they talked with their eyes.  Like, I’m not crazy, they sort of looked at each other, and after a bit they started talking to me again, but all of a sudden they were on the same page.

“So, Dale, can you attack from down here?” asked Haunter.  She said it in her best ‘old grandma’ voice, which made me suspicious.  She wanted something.

“Uh, I guess.  That’s how I helped out Fisher with that bouncer.”

“How did you know that Fisher needed help?” asked Preventer.  She was doing the fake niceness thing too, but much worse.  Preventer wasn’t really nice, so she was much more bad at faking it.

“Well, I felt it through…” oh, I got what they were getting at.

“It’s different with people I know.  I can tell where they are.  Or even what a few people I don’t know are doing.  But I can’t tell you what a whole city is doing!”

Only thing was, saying this and thinking about it while I had my arm in the dirt, I sort of could.  Like, I couldn’t track each person, but in general there were two groups.  Most people on one side faced the other, and most people who fell bounced away from the line between them.  They were probably two teams fighting.

I told them as much, and Haunter answered by saying “That makes sense.”

Preventer gave her a look.

“It does.  As far as Thor knows, Krishna just tried to bump him off.  He’s striking back.”

Preventer had that sour look she sometimes got when Haunter was being smarter than her.  I figured that of the two Preventer was mostly the bigger nerd, but Haunter had like a hundred ghosts inside her, so she was usually right about stuff.

“Ideally, yes.  But we don’t know how things ended up with Fisher.  He may well know what’s going on, even our involvement.”

Preventer waved with her glowy walls at Fisher and Nirav, like to make a point.

“Irrelevant,” said Haunter.  I was surprised she’d go that far.  That was a fighting word for the big brain types.

“Whatever he knows, Thor just got handed a golden opportunity.  He couldn’t move against Krishna before, not without the leadership’s blessing.  He just had to wait for the axe to fall.  Now, though, he can proceed as though she struck at him first, and defend himself.  If he kills her, then he’s safe, at least until they get a new replacement.”

I was kind of getting impatient at sitting around underground while a big battle was happening.  Like, Haunter and Preventer would say smart stuff at each other all day and all night if I didn’t break it up.

“That doesn’t necessarily follow.  If he is sufficiently canny, he may realize that he needs to rally all of his forces against the outside threat.  He saw Fisher, and perhaps interrogated her.  Given that she could have revealed Indulger’s power set, this may be a carefully orchestrated charade.”

I didn’t really understand exactly what they were meaning, but it seemed like that was a weak line, judging by Haunter’s raised eyebrows.

“First of all-“ responded Haunter, and my impatience got the better of me.  I didn’t have time for First Of All’s, I was going to miss the whole battle.  I asked brah to pull in the rest of me, slowly, so they wouldn’t notice.

They noticed instantly.

“Indulger, where are you going?” asked Preventer.  Haunter had been about to say the same thing, I could tell.  It was like the only thing they could agree on was that they knew better than me. Lame.

“I’m just…well, we are gonna miss the fight.”

I hated the whine that came into my voice when I spoke.  It would be gone once I had my mask on, when I got up to the surface.

“That’s the plan,” said Haunter.  “We are letting them kill each other.”

“That’s…” I groped around in my brain for the word.  ‘Heelish’ was what I was thinking, but that wouldn’t persuade her.  “super unfair.”

They stared at me for a moment.

“Indulger,” said Preventer, “I’d like to ask you another question, that’s been bugging me.  I promise it’ll be quick.”

“Uh, sure.”

“This tunnel thing that we are in, could you do that any time?”

“I guess.  It isn’t very hard.”

Haunter jumped in, seeming to be able to see where this was going.

“So, all of the time when you are fighting, you could just sink down into a tunnel, and never get hurt?  But still attack with rocks and things?”

“Sure, I guess.”

“And you don’t…because that would be…’super unfair’?”

That had been Preventer again.

“Well, yeah.  But more, like, it would be lame.”

It was hard to put into words what I was trying to say.

There was a long moment where neither of them said anything.  I wasn’t going to talk again, so we all just kind of stood there, paying no attention to the murmurs from Nirav and Fisher’s monster.  Jane was the first to break the silence.

“Indulger…Dale…you get that people are dying.  This is for real.”

I nodded.

“Kind of, but it isn’t like you can get in any trouble.”

“Excuse me?!”

She was mad.

“Well, like, if somebody tries to hurt you it just hurts one of those things you make.”

Haunter’s face screwed up like someone was tightening a key on the back of her head.  I turned my attention to Preventer before she could blow up at me.

“And you are invincible.”

Before Preventer could answer that Haunter walked across the room to where I was sitting and slapped me across the face.  I could probably have blocked her, but I didn’t for some reason.

“THEY ARE PEOPLE!” she hissed at me.  It was kind of frightening.  Her old grandma face was all screwed  up, like a rag with someone crinkling it.

The hell with this.  Hell if I stood around and got hit by 2 members of my own stable.  They could fight each other just fine without me.

She was saying something else as I asked the ground to suck me in, but I didn’t hear it as my head went into the wall.

I floated for a moment in the dirt, breathing air that he carried to me in through tiny channels.  I concentrated carefully on keeping the cave that they were in safe, moving stuff around so it wouldn’t collapse while I was gone.  It took a little while, because I was being very careful.

I knew that Haunter thought her ghosts were people.  I did.  She’d gone on and on about it when we were out drinking.  It was just…hard.  It was hard to think about them like people when I never saw them, and they were always willing to do what she said.

Like, if they were people, they were her slaves, right?  That was all kinds of messed up.  She was supposed to be one of the good ones.  It was easier to pretend in my mind that she made them up whenever she needed a helper, like Fisher’s monster.

I stopped myself from thinking about it.  I had an awesome fight waiting for me.  I asked the ground to bring me up, and he carefully pushed towards the sky.

As I got closer I angled myself, using the skills I’d learned when I was making roads.  I would only get one chance to look awesome in this fight, and I’d have to make it count.  I planned to rise up right between the two sides, roaring and raising my arms up.

The air was cold against my face as the earth spat me out.

I pushed my arms above my head.

I roared.

It was awesome.

I was in the middle of a pitted, shitty street.  Lights zipped by, and I heard a bullet noise.  My eyes weren’t ready to see anything, so I was mostly getting directed by the ground.  I rubbed at them with the heel of a hand, getting the dirt out.

Something hot and clingy slammed into my back.  Fire or acid or something.  It didn’t have an impact, but it hurt like hell.  I dropped and rolled, nearly blacking out in the instant when I wasn’t getting healed by the earth.  He kicked up a wall behind me, then that got knocked onto me by something.

I had never been in a fight like this.  So many Ultras, dozens in just this area.  I didn’t have any time to even get a bead on what was happening.  I was just standing up out of the rubble of the wall when whatever knocked it down slammed into me, sending me skidding along the road.

Someone out there had some kind of grenade power, and was blasting the big idiot who had stood in the middle.  Not my proudest moment.

I lay still on the side of the road for a second, wincing as a red streak shot by me, letting him fix me up.  Round 2.

Once again I got to my feet.  This time nobody shot me immediately, and I had a second to see what was going on.

The side that had mostly been shooting at me was further away.  They were in the direction that we’d camped, which probably meant that they were Thor’s ladies.  That made the closer squad kind of our friends.  Or at least they were against the guy we were fighting.

“Hey-“ I tried to yell.

It wasn’t that it was so loud that nobody could hear, but it was loud enough to make most conversation impossible, plus just doing that much had made me a target again.

The close side, the ones I’d been talking to, turned their attention to me.  A pair of light streaks slammed into me, blasting holes clean through me.  A big woman with a lion’s mane of hair came bounding over, ducking and dodging as the other side fired something or other at her.

I wasn’t even close to healed up when she got here.  I couldn’t move at all, the damage was real serious, so I just kind of stood there.  Was she here to talk?

She was not.

As I held my guts in she punted me into the air.

Anguish.  The wounds that had been healing suddenly weren’t, and they were bad.  Plus, her kick broke a bunch of things.  My mind blanked, I just kind of screamed as I flew through the air.

The next instant wasn’t the next instant.  I was laying on the ground, sometime later.

I’d died.  It happened sometimes.  My gift brought me back when my body touched the earth.  Lucky that I didn’t hit a building.  The girls had been right, this was dangerous.

I looked around.  I’d been moved about a block away from the front lines, landed in someone’s front yard.  I got up carefully.

I’d never known my power to fail to heal something, unless I was actually stuck on an object that was in the way, but I’d never taken damage like this before.  Fisher’s monster had ripped me open, and then all of this.  I moved gingerly, not totally sure if I was entirely healed.

I felt better, just like always, but it didn’t seem possible that there could be no side effects from being killed twice in ten minutes.

I knew that I should head back towards the fight, but I couldn’t make myself do it.  Was I afraid?  That would be so lame.  None of the wrasslers that I’d watched were ever afraid.

Suddenly, from behind me, a man’s voice boomed out.

“Who are you supposed to be?”

My gift hadn’t warned me.  I spun around to look.

Thor was just landing.

Regime Attacks

The Regime, considered as a military opponent, functions more like a militia or insurgent group than it does a unified army.  It is unable to stick to a peace agreement, wages no long campaigns and lacks an overall strategy of war.  Students of the Regime’s conduct have categorized the Regime’s attack patterns as follows.

Category One: Belligerent

Oftentimes the Regime behaves like a drunk, spoiling for a fight.  A Fist or large detachment of Ultras will move into enemy territory and won’t stop until they see battle.  These drives are often tremendously destructive to frontier personnel, but corporal damage is not their objective.  Rather, the Regime forces will only halt when they find an enemy that promises a difficult fight.  After the fight, win or lose, the Regime’s Ultras will head for home.

There is anecdotal evidence that these raids are held primarily for the benefit of the Regime’s voyeuristic leader.  If these stories are to be belived, then by using the talents of the notorious “Snitcher”, She observes Her killers in action, sating her bloodthirst by proxy.

Category Two: Punitive

When the Regime is injured it lashes out in a more considered and deadly fashion.  Punitive expeditions followed some of the more obvious assassination attempts that Union or Pantheon forces sponsored.  They are waged by two or more Fists, and supporting forces, under the command of an Inner Circle member, typically Subtracter or Prevailer.

These expeditions are attempts to rub enemy cities off of the map.  The Regime destroys urban areas wholesale, killing all those found within.  Unlike a Category One offensive, the Regime does not indulge in battle for its own sake at these times, preferring to focus on their objectives.

Category Three: Acquisitive

Rarely, the Regime is moved by unknown factors to add a section of the border to the territory that it claims.  It will move a Fist and supporting forces into an enemy city, and strive to destroy the defending Ultras.  During these assaults the Regime strives to minimize infrastructure and civilian losses, seeking instead to plunder these resources for its own purposes.

It is widely believed that these attacks are initiated by individual Ultras in the Regime, rather than its command structure.  Leaders of Fists, renowned Troubleshooters and the like have all inspired Category Three efforts to bring sections of the Regime’s borders under its direct control.

In all cases, the Regime’s attacks do not coincide with activities on other fronts.  It behaves as a series of mostly independent armed camps, each unconcerned with their neighbors.  This military inadequacy will likely play a large role in this rogue state’s eventual downfall.

Fisher 2:3

Thor descended from on high, slamming down into the midst of Lara’s Ultras with a deafening crash.

The guy had presence, give him that.  He towered over everyone, barbaric finery jangling and clattering with the violence of his descent.  He had the sort of innate larger than lifeness that would have drawn the Lure’s eye even if I hadn’t crossed a country to kill him.

“What’s going on here?” he boomed.  Not a lot of people can actually boom, but Thor pulled it off.

Even as he spoke, however, Ultras were drifting closer.  Seemingly interested in their leader’s words, or seeking his support, they hastened towards him.  Those behind moved fastest of all.  Lara hung back, still clutching her wounded side.

“I said-“ Thor yelled again, but cut himself off mid sentence, just as the killers were starting to reach him.

Instinct made me begin to unwind the Hook, even as Thor leapt forward, away from the Ultras closing in behind him.  It slipped from the world and into my shadow even as his feet left the ground.

I couldn’t have said what tipped him off.  Maybe some of the Ultras in front of him gave something away.  Maybe he heard someone coming up behind him.  Most likely he saw something in Lara’s demeanor that made him see that her long awaited moment had finally arrived.

Whatever it was that warned him, Thor didn’t waste an instant second guessing himself or hesitating.  With Ultras behind and before he threw himself towards us, using his gift to hurl himself headlong across the ground.

I started to manifest the Hook again, deep down in the tunnel with the rest of the Fist, as he slammed through a tall willowy blonde Ultra who I’d seen using a kind of ranged power during the previous fight.  He shouldered her aside, but in the process of doing that he lost his horizontal angle, and plowed down into the earth, carving a furrow with his face and shoulders.

Before he could rise again a pair of Lara’s Ultras jumped him, grabbing and yanking on his legs and torso.  Humans in this position would be wrestling, but I’d just seen an example of how Ultras fought.  They were trying to tear him limb from limb, wrenching his body with all their might even as they restrained him to allow the rest of the unit to attack.

A wild jubilation welled up inside of me, centered in neither body.  This was happening, actually happening.  He was about to…I nearly missed the moment when Thor struck back.

Somehow he’d freed one hand.  The Ultra holding his upper body had been focused on keeping it away from her body and his hammer.  She hadn’t reacted when it had snapped straight up in the air.  A second later and she’d captured it, pinning it against his neck in a chicken wing hold.  The damage, however, had been done.

A showered of gravel was rising from where Thor had thrown it, tossed almost directly upward, arcing without much velocity towards the heavens.

I wasted a precious second in stupefied puzzlement. I wasn’t a Pantheon Ultra.  I didn’t have their constant vigilance drilled into every fiber of my being.  I’d spent the last few years in a lightless cell, folded into half of my being.  Even as Lara’s Ultras gave vent to a bloodcurdling scream I was still standing there.

It was when a pebble encountered a flying Ultra, who had been winging in to drop down onto Thor and contribute to the pummeling, that I realized what was going on.  Thor’s power, his famous gift…it could work on more than his hammer.  It could work, for example, on each and every stone that he carried in a little bundle for emergencies like these.

How long had it taken him?  Night after night manifesting his gift on each stone, giving insignificant rocks, pebbles, barely flecks of granite the approximate tonnage and mass of monster trucks.  Maintaining it, his personal device of last resort, must have been an act of immense discipline and personal effort.

The flyer who had been descending to pounce on him bulged out, then burst in a grotesque spray of entrails and gore.  She must have encountered two or three near the midsection, and wasn’t Ultra toughness two.  Would even that protect you?

Time snapped back to normal speed.  The stones descended all across our band.  I finished bringing out the Hook down below, and instantly strove to yank the Lure back into my shadow.  I didn’t make it in time.

My volition jumped to the Hook, instantly cognizant of a vast loss.  The last flash of awareness I had from my more sociable half was a shard of pain and blackness as one of Thor’s mini meteors came down on my head.

A freezing discontinuity swept over me.  Anguish and loss, but not…real, somehow.  Phantom agony.  I thrashed my Hook about in the squalid darkness that surrounded me.

I’d lost…my concepts.  I’d lost my… the way that things connected.  I was un-whole, not real.

A light appeared before me, harsh and blinding.  I swept my claw towards it, and She caught it easily.

“Stupid little Bug.  You mad that I crushed your fake girl part?”

Her voice carved into me, etching my memories like battery acid.  Her face, sullen, dark and closed, stared down at me.  Pain arced along the claw as she dug her fingers into it, armor yielding like sand to the strength that had cracked the moon.

“Adder says you are mostly in the girl part, and me killing it probably fucked with all the time I put you in with Torturer.  Good.”

Superimposed upon Her, somehow coexisting with Her, was another Ultra, a short, pale one.  She was lit not by an electric bulb but by a shimmering barrier.  I used the Hook to snarl my hate and stabbed her in the face with a barbed appendage.

“I don’t like how when I make someone go with Torturer they get scared of her.  She’s a bitch!  She’s MY bitch.  You should be scared of ME!”

My claw passed right through Her, and glanced off of the pale midget.  Glanced wasn’t exactly the right word, it was rejected.  It was like trying to punch with a limb you didn’t have, or trying to see out of your back.

Prevailer leaned down to the Hook’s face, each word striking like a boulder.

“You remember this.  You remember it in the bug part, the part that is strong.  The part that is real.  You….Are….Mine!”

I raised up the Hook and leapt at Her, but somehow I just bounced off the short pale one again.  It was mouthing sounds that I couldn’t hear, gesturing at other silhouettes in some dim underground space.  It wasn’t REAL.  It didn’t MATTER.  Real was Her, hovering before  the Hook in a brightly lit lab, holding my gaze and lecturing me.

“You are just a copy, you fucking dummy.  I had Copyer zee-rox you while you were out, and I’m keeping the real one on ice.”

A large figure was jumping on me now.  Bigger than Her, twice the size of the impregnable form with the barricades.  He was weak.  I impaled him on a claw without effort.

“You fuck this up, you think its no big deal.  You think I can’t get to you, once you are dead.  Think again!”

I shuddered, falling into my large victim and rending him.  Prevailer was, somehow, still before me, the light about Her still illuminating only Her.

“If I hear that you died, you fucking insect.  I’ll take her out.  You’ll close your eyes and she’ll open them.  She won’t have a fucking clue how you fucked up.  She won’t know word one of your dumbness.  But I’ll put her in with Torturer anyway!”

I gave a low moan.  I could FEEL the Lure’s absence, the thoughts and sounds beyond my grasp, the other part of my mind slowly rebuilding itself within my gift’s shadow space.  I shredded into this big guy’s intestines, moaning with distress.  I knew that the shining one was behind me.  I couldn’t care less about it.  Prevailer hadn’t stopped speaking, was somehow also hear inside this guy with my head and shoulders.

“I’ll keep the real you in there forever.  Both parts of you, the slut and the bug.  I’ll tie you to Torturer’s fucking arms.  Every time you start to die I’ll send in another copy.  You will hurt like nobody ever hurt.  You will hurt so bad!”

Another figure tried to pull me off of, out of, the big warm meat that I was in.  It was weak, old.  The skin of the hands that skidded over my Hook’s armor were papery, shriveled.  I shuddered, but ignored it.

Somehow She was gone then.  Darkness, the darkness of this meat I was in.  This flesh that my head was in.  Blessed darkness, warm silence.  No Lure.

I spent a time, thus.  The hands that grasped me stopped, and somehow the body stayed warm.  A dream.  A blessed dream.  Time slipped by, warm and slow.  I was far from Torturer, far from Her.  I was not real, I could not be hurt.  This meat would never grow cold.  I would never need to think the Lure’s thoughts, to know the full measure of my pain.

Something intruded upon my bliss.  A strange tugging at the edges of where I was dug into my refuge.  The dead flesh was shuddering.  A pleasant sensation.

The Hook keened my sorrow.  I pulled myself out of the corpse, alert to any sign of Her.  She was still gone.  I was still somehow underground.

Two enemies crouched in a strange glimmering dome.  The old one and the short one stood at the front of the dome, screening off another figure that I shied away from recognizing.  They seemed to be restraining it, holding it back.  Fine for the Hook.

My gaze roamed, slowly, around this cave.  I had no real curiosity.  This place lacked the raw, red-hued realness of Her place.  My phantom pain was nothing to the agony that Torturer had given me.

There was no obvious exists.  It was a short, dark room.  My foe’s barriers were the only source of light.  This didn’t…It wasn’t right.

How had I come here?  How had any of us?  There were no doors.  There was no sky.  There was no Lure.  I had a shadow in the light of their walls, but it didn’t help me bring forth my thinking half.

I dragged the Hook towards them.  I still hadn’t figured out what that tugging had been.  I didn’t know how I’d gotten here.  I didn’t know where She had gone.    I knew what to do with enemies, however.

The barrier didn’t look solid.  A quick kick, however, confirmed that it was stronger than I’d thought.

The figures inside made noises.  Short, pointed sonic attacks, in rapid succession.  They glanced off of the Hook without impact.  Waste of effort.

I walked it along the barriers edge, dragging a hook along it.  No sparks, but wherever I pushed there was a sort of…cracking effect.  Like ice or glass around an impact point.  Like when She hit me with my head.

I shuddered, forcing the memories back down.  No need to remember in a dream.

I drew back a claw, experimentally.  Inside, the old figure made more noises.  They still didn’t hurt.  They still weren’t real.

I slammed the Hook’s claw into the barrier.  It didn’t feel like when the small woman disregarded my attack.  It felt solid, important…real.

The small one shuddered, but maintained its hold on the one I didn’t look at.  More noises.

The Hook went to town, driving its ridges into the barrier, again and again.  It was glorious.

Here was something that needed destroying.  Here was a job for the Hook.  This shimmering wall, cracking and repairing itself wherever I struck.  This was real.  I might not be, but this was too…rough to be fake.  It was imperfect, flawed, messy.  It was here.

I fell into a transport of violence, a second prolonged moment.  Left and right, slash my claws across the surface.  Watch the crack’s spread, then light over at the gesture of the short one.  Kick where it wasn’t looking, then get back to the first pattern.

Then, suddenly, the ground betrayed me.  I found my Hook floundering, claws sinking beneath me.

With typical dream logic, what had once been solid stone, or at least earth, was suddenly fluid gravel.  No, it was quicksand, and I was caught.

I relaxed the hook into it, letting it sink.  Where would this dream go next?  I hoped that I’d get to hit the glowing wall again.  Or maybe kill.

As though the thought had summoned that earlier time once again, the large body that I’d nested the Hook in was suddenly in motion.  It had reverted to a wholesome look, a big male guy with ridiculous muscles.  The dream had messed up though, it hadn’t fixed his shirt, which was still damaged as though I’d actually torn into him and stuck my Hook through his torso.

He joined the others in making noises with their mouths.  The wall moved around behind them.  For a moment the way that it lit their faces reminded me of Her, but the Hook moved its limbs about in the quicksand and the worry fell away.  This wasn’t that part of the dream.  I was safe.  Until she put me back in I would stay safe.

The three suddenly fell silent.  They seemed to know that their noises weren’t hurting me.  It made the Hook uneasy.  The noises had been constant for so long.  What did it mean that they were gone?

The one that I couldn’t see stood up and walked past the others.  They didn’t stop it.  I turned the Hook’s head so I wouldn’t have to see.

I felt its hands on me, then.  Weak hands, small.  They rubbed my spines, but couldn’t damage me.  It made a noise.

This noise…wasn’t an attack.  It was just like the others, short, made up of several smaller noises, but this wasn’t an enemy, so this couldn’t be an attack.

I turned the Hook’s head back, looked over this one’s shoulder at the three by the barrier.  I KNEW them.

Not in the sense of knowing them.  Not in the sense that they were real.  But I knew them in some way.  They were dupes.  They were stupids.  They thought that the Lure.  No, dangerous thoughts.

But something about the close one’s noises made the thoughts come back.  The Hook crooned again, and this time he crooned into it.

I wanted to see him now.  Not seeing him hurt…so it was real.  I turned the Hook’s head to regard him at last.

He was dark skinned, like Her.  It was hard to make out much in the dim light, but he was definitely making those noises with his mouth.  His shoulders shook, and he shot water out of his eyes and nose.

I was transfixed, I tilted the Hook’s head around, looking at Nirav through each part of my gaze.  When had he grown so beautiful?

“Baby, come back to me”, he was saying, over and over.

That was ridiculous, of course, because I could never have left him.