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 were no obvious exits. 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.