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 Betty’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 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?
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.