There was a definite hierarchy in our little group, a kind of sorting. It wasn’t official, but for all of that it was definitely present, unarguably there.
Haunter and Preventer were at the top. They had plans, they had schemes. Haunter was too much of a martyr, and Preventer too much of a bitch, for them to see eye to eye. So separately they ruled, squabbling and fighting.
Indulger was next, the tie breaker between the pair. He wasn’t very smart, but his certainty, the way that he had of becoming impervious to argument, that elevated him. It didn’t hurt that his gift did the most for us, on a day to day basis.
Nirav and I were at the bottom. Maybe it was our general indifference to what the group got up to. Maybe it was the fact that, in different ways, we were both so much younger than the rest. Maybe it was just that they had ready access to power, and we were so much more limited. For whatever reason, we were afterthoughts, children in the eyes of the group.
Thus, we weren’t asked to attend the Ultra Fight that Krishna and her group had set up. Leave that to the main people. Our task was to handle the other end of the bargain, the favor that we were doing to the Pantheon, in exchange for playing along with Indulger’s obsession.
They were letting some of their followers go to tie up loose ends in Redo. Nirav and I were going to make sure this wasn’t just a cover to slip something clever past us.
By definition, it couldn’t be anything too serious. The Regime’s only real assets in Redo was us, and as a Fist we couldn’t really suffer permanent damage, due to the Link. The Company Center was being re-established, so it being hit would be annoying, but not really anything that would justify such a roundabout sneak attack. The Dover Ultras were at the Ultra Fight, so they couldn’t be targeted. We were mostly there just to keep an eye on which residents they spoke with, mark them as potential Pantheon sympathizers.
Krishna’s group seemed to abide by the terms of our earlier agreement, at least at first. 2 trucks worth of people rolled into Redo at the same time as the remainder arrived at the wrestling event. Nirav and my Lure watched them from a roof. I kept the Hook on standby in the alley below.
“How many people do you think they can fit in one of those trucks?” he asked.
“Say…Six?” I guessed. “The yellow one could probably fit a couple more.”
The yellow truck was noticeably bigger than the other. It looked like it might have started its life out as a van, or some larger utility vehicle. You could probably put a small mob inside it.
“Shit, Ok, twelve, fine. So… let’s say, worst case, they are all Ultras. What do we do?”
I looked over, into those ridiculous sunglasses.
“I guess that depends on how we are feeling, right? If we are feeling nice we slip away, leave them to fuck around in Redo to their heart’s content. We head back to the Fight and get the others, then they decide what to do.”
He thought about that a second.
“And…if we aren’t feeling nice?”
I gave a grin, the Lure’s picture perfect features lending me an air of innocence that had no basis in reality.
“There sure are a lot of people around. Your dark side scoured Redo once. We could let it go to work again.”
I kept the Lure still after saying this, hiding how important this moment was to me.
Nirav had been acting oddly ever since we dealt with the Dover situation. Grimmer than usual, and definitely much less…taken, I guess would be the word, with me. He felt like a different person, like he’d changed in a way that wasn’t natural in such a short time. It was a bit obvious, but the Nirav that I knew would protest violently at any suggestion that Condemner be loosed.
He gave a slight, pained chuckle.
There was a quiet finality to the way that the said it. I felt my doubts recede. He hadn’t changed THAT much.
“Sure, sure. I was just kidding.”
Beneath us, the smaller Pantheon truck had pulled to a stop. The yellow truck moved off towards the Company Facility.
“You get all the fun,” he complained.
I blew him a kiss, and dropped the Lure off the roof, catching it with the Hook’s snatching arm.
It was a given that I’d be the one to pursue the larger truck. As long as the Hook kept to the shadows I wouldn’t alarm the populace, or rouse a commotion the way a known member of the Fist would. I could follow without them learning of my presence.
Nirav, by contrast, would have a lot more difficulty with that. He was limited to Ultra Speed in his human form, and his other form was anything but stealthy. I was the obvious choice to take up the chase.
I folded my Lure into the shadows, and put all my energy into the Hook. Immediately I felt the increased strength, the speed. I made a note to do this more often.
It wasn’t very hard to keep up with the truck. It was trundling along, the inhabitants stopping every few blocks to gawk at another marvel of Indulger’s reconstructive gifts. They were taking their sweet time.
I kept pace without much effort, skittering across alleys and clambering through rubble, occasionally using the transition between Lure and Hook to fit through openings that I couldn’t get the Hook through. It was comparatively easy going, and my gaze rarely left the Pantheon vehicle.
At first glance, these were definitely not Ultras.
The driver was a fat man, a rarity in these times. He had no obvious deformities, and the generally befuddled way that he looked around wasn’t the kind of attitude that an Ultra from the Pantheon would pull off. They carried themselves like warriors. This guy looked like somebody’s useless uncle.
The woman in the passenger seat was more plausible as an Ultra, but, again, the attitude was all off. She spoke to several of the Redo citizens that they passed by, and, going by her body language, didn’t condescend to any of them. That didn’t really gibe with a culture where people named themselves after Gods.
None of this was proof, of course, so I continued to tail them. They could simply be skilled spies, trained to act like what they weren’t. It could easily be that they left driving to the daggers, and the important people just rode in the back.
Still, I felt myself relaxing, just a smidge. It seemed likely that this truck’s mission was exactly as innocent as it appeared to be. The Hook couldn’t actually calm its breathing and pulse, but that’s the general sense of what I was feeling.
After a bit more driving they pulled to a stop outside of the Company Facility, and got out onto the sidewalk. The fat guy and the woman from the passenger seat didn’t open the door for the passengers, they had to do it themselves. Another point against them being Ultras.
There were a total of 8 people crammed into the van, all told. Mostly dudes, and mostly older. I really wasn’t feeling these guys as Ultras.
I settled the Hook into a ruined corner easement atop the alley, and watched carefully anyway, determined to do this right.
They milled around for a while, talking to one another, and then got into a fairly fierce argument. There was lots of finger shaking and shouting.
From what I could hear they were mostly grousing about the fact that the cities layout had changed since Indulger had started rebuilding it. They’d worked out a whole planned route, who they were gonna see and when, and now it was worthless.
Eventually they stopped arguing and headed into the Facility, clearly determined to seek help. I didn’t have any way to pursue them without being spotted.
I could send the Lure in, of course, but I couldn’t trust that the lobby wouldn’t have some sleep deprived dagger lurking around, whose reaction would give away my position in the Fist. Heck, I couldn’t trust that the Pantheon folks hadn’t heard descriptions of each of us before. It was best to act as though they’d recognize me on sight.
I sulked a bit, crouched against a ruined building all alone, watching people who were almost certainly unimportant.
After a few minutes, which seemed like much longer, they came out and got back into their truck. I dropped down and followed again, paralleling their journey much as I had the previous time.
It didn’t take me long to realize that they were headed out of town. They’d given up. This had been a complete waste of my time.
I was already getting ready to go and find Nirav when a line of explosions stitched themselves across the sky, east to west.
People screamed, the ones out on the street bolted for shelter. I hunched the Hook over, lowering its profile as much as I could. I was seized by an atavistic panic. It was Her.
I couldn’t know that, of course. There could be any number of explanations for blasts in the night sky, but my mind leapt there and wouldn’t break away.
I blinked aside memories of Torturer’s pit, and manifested the Lure. At once my thinking became slightly more textured, more refined.
Whether it was Her or not, it was something important. I needed to find Nirav, before whatever was going down got to the city. Once we were together we’d figure out what to do.
It was funny that I felt no impulse to rush to the aid of the rest of the group. I could rationalize it that they had Preventer, so they’d be fine without me, but the truth was that I just didn’t care about them as much.
I lost that introspection as I slid the Lure out of existence and ran out onto the main streets as the Hook. The time for concealment was over.
Most people were hiding inside anyway, alarmed by the banging noises, no doubt reliving the trauma of the previous battle. The few who might glimpse my fiendish shape flashing past would have no way to connect it to their rulers. Moreover, I didn’t really care.
The smaller truck was where I’d last seen it. I skidded to a stop about a block away, extruded both of my forms again.
I left the Hook lurking in the distance, moved the Lure up to the truck. I didn’t see the Pantheon owners anywhere nearby.
I looked up at where I’d left Nirav, but it didn’t seem as though he was still watching from the rooftop.
The most likely outcome was that they’d left their truck, and he’d followed. I brought the Hook over, settled the Lure atop it.
I used the Hook to sniff the ground, smelling Nirav’s familiar odor. The trail was fresh and strong, a cinch to track. I started off down the street, perpendicular to the direction that I’d come from.
He hadn’t gone far. The scent lead me down an avenue, around a corner and up to the closed door of one of the few intact buildings in this part of down. I stopped outside of it, and dismounted the Lure.
Putting my ear to the door I could hear voices, muffled but still mostly understandable.
“…those explosions? It’s got to be Her!”
I’d recognize Nirav’s voice anywhere.
“… necessarily. Lots of … explosions … panic.”
The second voice was a woman’s. Softer and more difficult to make out.
“…got to change the plan. There’s no way you are going to … Andy … if She is here!”
My blood ran cold at Nirav’s words. What plan?
I could imagine innocent explanations, if I strained myself, but the most obvious answer was the most likely to be correct. Nirav was conspiring with the Pantheon. He was willfully putting me at risk of being subject to Torturer once again.
I felt the disquiet that I’d been feeling since Dover boil over within me. Nirav’s twitchiness, his distance, even his siding with Preventer instead of Haunter. It must all be due to this. Some kind of sordid betrayal, committed without a thought of what it would do to me.
The Hook made a sound midway between a growl and what happens when you try and close a door that has warped from heat. I gasped, jerking both my bodies at once.
I hadn’t meant to do that. The noise that I’d made, through the Hook. I hadn’t had the least intention of making it. How the hell had that happened?
Not very many things could have broken me out of the anger that had been building inside of me, but this was one. My own body, taking action without my intent? The shock left me shaken, unsure of anything.
The voices had fallen silent, behind the door. No doubt they’d heard my snarl, or whatever I was going to call that. I subsumed the Hook into shadow and crouched down on the porch as the Lure, thoughts racing a mile a minute.
I couldn’t focus on my outburst for now. I had to think through this mess. Prevailer was here, or somewhere. Nirav was inside this building, with some people from the Pantheon. Those were facts, or close enough to them for now.
First question, was Nirav an enemy? No. It simply wasn’t possible.
Second question. Were these Pantheon people simply more of the irrelevant tourists that I’d wasted the evening following around, or were they Ultras? Nirav talking to them didn’t really tilt things one way or the other, but the fact that he’d mentioned a plan to them would make it more likely that they were Pantheon Gods. Who would bother to plan with daggers?
Say that they were Ultras. Go with that for now.
I stayed stock still, making no noise at all, listening with all my might. I pressed the Lure against the seam, where the wall joined the floor, and sent my shadow questing silently along the ground, under the edge of the door frame.
If they were Ultras, and they were talking with Nirav, mentioning Andy, then this was serious. Maybe he was going to hand the creature over. Maybe he was just pointing it out for them to kill. I didn’t really care. He was betraying the Fist, and if anyone else found out about it there’d be hell to pay.
I felt my shadow brush someone else’s. Their first priority was obeying a leader figure, seeing that its will was done. Their second, preserving their own life. Lastly, accomplishing their mission, capturing a target.
That fit with what I’d figured. Pantheon operatives, here to capture Andy. I pushed my shadow deeper, sliding past that person and groping blindly in search of others.
The next person was another stranger. Same priorities, generally, as the first. Only difference was that she had the order changed so that self preservation was foremost.
Lastly, I felt my shadow slide across Nirav’s familiar form. I’d promised him that I would never read his desires. It didn’t even sting a little to break that promise.
Instantly I realized my mistake. Nirav’s priorities looked nothing like those that he’d always had before. Nothing whatsoever. There was no need to protect or impress me, no desire to serve his newfound family, not even the driving need to win control of his form from his other self.
Instead I felt a violent need to conquer and subjugate, to rend and destroy, to lay waste and be seen doing so. The urges of an utter monster. The priorities of Condemner.