Condemner, in Nirav’s body!
My form didn’t betray me this time. I absorbed the shock in cold, calculating silence. I kept the Lure pinned to the ground, my awareness fixed firmly on the tendril of darkness sliding from shadow to shadow within.
How could this be? If Condemner could take control of Nirav without transfiguring itself into a tower of flame, then why hadn’t it done so previously? What had changed to allow this calamity?
Most importantly, when had this happened?
I hadn’t read Nirav’s desires for a long time now, since well before the Union debacle. How long had I been deceived? How long had I been dallying with the creature who replaced Nirav? How had I not known?
“Maybe a dog?” said the female voice. There was a general murmur of agreement.
Now that I had a sense of their souls I could connect them to their voices, somehow. This was the woman who was more selfish than committed. The one whose top priority was protecting her own life.
Good luck with that, bitch. No one with any part in this was going to make it out of this unscathed, I vowed to myself. None of them were going to walk away triumphant.
“No dogs in town,” said Condemner, in Nirav’s voice. “I think, anyway.”
I couldn’t meld entirely into the shadow. I always had to have one of my forms outside of it. Consequently, I had to get out of there. If they opened the door and found the Lure at their feet it would all go to shit.
But I couldn’t make myself move. I NEEDED to know what was going on here, needed to understand.
“Was it you, Mae?” asked another voice, one whose soul I hadn’t yet sounded. “One of your conjurations?”
“I haven’t drawn any yet,” said a third voice, presumably this ‘Mae’. “That wasn’t on me.”
I finally pulled my shadow back, slipped it around to the side of the building. Mae was the first woman that I’d sensed, the more dedicated of the crew. It sounded like, counting Condemner, there were 4 Ultras in there. That was more than I was comfortable taking on.
Footsteps approached the door, and I pulled the Lure into my shadow just as I pushed the Hook out of it, safely out of sight in the alley. I kept an ear to the wall, desperately trying to hear what they were saying.
“…thing” said Mae. “Nothing … here that … see.”
“That’s ominous,” said Condemner. “Something’s up.”
I needed to think.
Earlier I’d talked about running for help with the Pantheon had the numbers on us, but that was before those explosions. If She was with the rest of the group then I certainly couldn’t go back to them. Who knew how She’d react to the idea that one of our own had betrayed us?
Even if those explosions weren’t Her, they were definitely something, and the rest of the crew would be dealing with that. If I approached them to deal with this problem they’d probably just want me to help them out first, and we’d lose our shot at whatever this was.
Wait, what was I worried about?
I heard the door close again, presumably they had moved back into the house.
I mean, honestly, what could actually happen here that would be so bad? What was the threat? Condemner was exposed now. When things calmed down and I told the rest of the Fist that he was supplanting Nirav they’d agree that he had to go. We could kill him at a time of our convenience, let the Link bring Nirav back.
I felt nervous just considering that, but at some point were going to have to trust the Link. There wasn’t any way to restrain Condemner, not if he was running around dealing with outside powers and not telling any of us. He had to go.
I couldn’t die while the Fist survived, so the threat wasn’t to me. That went twice for Condemner. The version of him that we all liked was Linked. The only thing in peril was the monster at the core. No, the real threat here was to Andy.
Andy wasn’t in any Link, and their plan clearly involved it. That was where the threat lay. That was what I had to protect.
I moved down the alley, away from their door. I needed to think. Where was Andy, right now?
I’d seen him earlier in the day, before Indulger had sensed the Pantheon. He’d been over on the other side of town, back past the Company Facility. Near the edge of town by the Ultra Fight.
I took a step, then stopped.
He’d have been moved. No doubt in my mind. Indulger had the Dover Ultras brought out to make sure Krishna didn’t pull anything. We’d been worried about something jumping off at the fight. So Andy, if we were treating him as any kind of VIP at all, would have been stowed somewhere far away.
I wracked my brain. Haunter would normally be in charge of that kind of thing, but she’d pulled in her shades for some kind of vote or other. Preventer had been distracted lately, so it would’ve fallen to Nirav and I. I hadn’t arranged anything, so it must have been him.
I turned back, let the Lure creep down back down the alley towards the porch I’d been crouching on.
As soon as I got closer I could tell they were on the move. Stopping to think had saved me from losing them utterly. I could still see them dashing away down the main street.
Nirav was in the lead, his form blurred by his Ultra speed. Condemner, I reminded myself. The soul driving that body was not the one with whom I had sought comfort. It was the demon that tormented him.
The woman immediately behind him was the strangest of the set. She was taller than Condemner, and wore a sort of long bathrobe thing, with a weird hem I couldn’t make out the details of. She didn’t seem to run as much as bound from place to place, using long low jumps. She was mostly paying attention to the sky, and had on a sort of halo thing.
The next lady was wearing a much more sensible outfit, seemed like a sweat suit kind of thing, and jogging along in a regular human manner. Nothing about her struck me as weird, she must be in the Pantheon’s equivalent of civilian clothing.
The last woman was wearing pretty much the same thing, but she was also hovering a few inches off of the ground, and seemed to be skating along. Or at least using skating like motions to shoot through the air. She was progressing backwards, facing towards me and skating along with the others. Plainly the rearguard, and definitely not in the back because she was the slowest.
They were moving fast, and I had to make a split second call. If I tried to follow without being seen I was going to lose them. I decided not to let that happen.
The Hook lurched around the corner into the street, and I set out in pursuit.
The skater spotted me almost instantly, and cried out to the rest.
Condemner gave a yell.
“Help! Betty, help! These guys are Pantheon!”
Even as he was saying that the lady in the tracksuit and the skater reversed direction and set out towards me.
I didn’t slow. He wasn’t fooling me, but I wasn’t about to have a conversation when a fight was in the offing. Leave that to Indulger and Preventer.
The skater was much faster than Tracksuit, and barreled right at the Hook, like she was going to try and ram her way through it. I was eager to oblige.
I leapt the Hook into the air as we closed, reaching out with my talons, aiming right for her neck.
She turned without killing her momentum, sailing off to one side and down, just under my claw. Something cut along the Hook’s side as she shot by, but not deeply enough to do any real damage.
I turned my lunge into a sort of roll, coming to a stop before I could get near Tracksuit. How the hell had she evaded me?
The turn wouldn’t have made me miss on its own, she’d been rotating, the invisible surface that she was skating on turning sideways to pull her head out of the way. It seemed like she could freely control her orientation while gliding.
I still wasn’t sure what exactly had hit me, some kind of short range projectile or other, probably coming from her feet. I didn’t have time to puzzle it out as Tracksuit barreled in, fists swinging.
I pulled the Hook back a bit from her, dodging her short hooks with distance. I was definitely faster, and I had a lot more reach. I slashed her across the belly with a claw, felt it chip and scratch rather than disembowel. Ultra tough then.
Eyes in the hook’s back let me see the skater coming around for a pass by my rear, and this time I got a good look at her weapon. She was skating on an imaginary vertical surface, and the lines that her feet made shot out into my back, cutting small chunks from my armor.
I couldn’t take a second to dodge her, Tracksuit hadn’t slowed or backed off. I didn’t know how hard she could hit, but her willingness to take my slashes in order to try her own shots made me not want to find out.
Thankfully the woman in the robe had left, apparently ‘chasing’ Condemner. Three on one (or God help me four) would have been too much for me. But I might be able to handle these two, if they didn’t have more abilities that they hadn’t shown yet.
I continued to fall back from Tracksuit, lashing out from time to time with a long limb to try and chip away at her. It wasn’t hard to avoid her swipes, but doing it while my attention was focused on the skater tasked me to the upmost. Fortunately she came around for another pass before I could be pressed too far.
She had no idea that I could see out of the back of the Hook, no concept of the structure of my legs. She came perilously close to my back to launch her slashes, far too close.
I bent my knees wrongways, and sprang straight backwards away from Tracksuit, graspers rotating about the Hook’s shoulders in ways that no living being could duplicate. My leap carried me across the T of the skater’s path, made her momentum carry her directly into the path of my swipes.
This time I’d accounted for the altered angle that her gift put her at. I swung at the correct angle and…missed.
She’d canceled her gift for a split second, let real gravity drop her to the ground beneath my swing. She rolled smoothly under my slash and came up in a combat roll, already accelerating away again. Tracksuit’s relentless pursuit prevented me from springing in the moment that she was getting to her feet.
I wanted to scream with thwarted rage. Condemner and the robed girl were getting away. Haunter and Preventer were handling who knows what at the Ultra Fight, and I was stuck here, getting slowly worn away by these bastards.
I advanced upon Tracksuit in a rage, putting my weight into my blows. I’d just kill this bitch and then-
I discovered my mistake instantly, as she stepped into my shot and struck a simultaneous hit on my upper abdomen.
I flew backwards, a vast crater smashed into the Hook’s chest. I careened off of a wall and only barely kept myself from getting entangled in the debris.
Even as I got back to my feet I felt the skater’s slash hit me again, another chip away from my armor.
I took stock. My chest was cracked where Tracksuit had hit it, my flanks somewhat dinged up from where the skater’s slashes had eroded my armor. The Hook was still in fighting form, but any more hits from the bruiser and I’d be in jeopardy. Closing with her had been a colossal mistake. I could beat her, as long as I could strike and retreat, but if I tried to stand and swing with her she’d go right through me.
I returned to my earlier strategy, retreating from Tracksuit and landing the occasional blow, trying to wear her down. I needed to change the game.
The skater flayed my sides again, another close pass. I couldn’t keep taking those hits anymore. I had to do something about it.
I made an abortive spring at her, and was unsurprised as she pulled back. She’d taken note of my capabilities, I wouldn’t be getting so close to her again.
Only one choice left.
I spread my shadow behind me, leaving it all along the ground. I raised the Hook’s grabber arm as though I were about to trade blows with Tracksuit again.
Skater shot across my flank even as Tracksuit sprang in for the kill…and I wasn’t there.
I dragged the Hook down into my shadow even as the Lure sprang from it, from directly under Skater’s feet. Or rather, from where her feet would have been if she was standing in a normal orientation.
She had time to avoid me, but she hadn’t been watching the ground, and her fixation on the Hook made her too slow to dodge. I emerged from the ground and she slammed into the Lure’s knees with her face and upper chest, even as Tracksuit’s fists hammered the road where the Hook had disappeared.
Skater’s head snapped back, and her gift collapsed. She toppled to the stone with brutal power. Skating face first into someone’s leg’s will do that to you. As soon as her fall stopped moving her I shot her three or four times.
“Bitch!” Tracksuit gave a feral scream. She rushed towards the Lure, which I immediately collapsed into my shadow, rising behind her as the Hook.
She avoided my initial strikes, despite them coming from her rear, but all of a sudden the complexion of the fight had changed. Now her pursuit wasn’t the dogged tread of inevitability. It wasn’t a distraction from the blades of her comrade. It was just the pitiful struggling of prey on a line.
I lashed at her from beyond her reach, struck with a speed and a precision that she couldn’t match. I danced back from her strikes, feral and wild. She was too slow. She couldn’t avoid, couldn’t retaliate. She’d be part of my Tally soon.
In frustration and terror she gave up defending herself and simply charged ahead in a berserk rush, but I just used my shadow and multiple bodies to pop out of the way.
Minutes passed. I lost track of how many blows I landed before she collapsed, but I did count the three dozen times I smashed her head as she lay on the concrete. I stopped when I saw oozing brain matter.
Only then, as I brought out my second form to ponder my next move, did I realize how much my rage had cost me.
I could have abandoned this fight the instant Skater went down, maybe even before that. Could have just spawned the Lure off in an alley that they couldn’t observe, slipped away. Instead I’d stayed here, taken out my anger on people who had nothing to do with what was going down.
Condemner had a head start on me, and he still had one accomplice. There was no way for me to stop them before they got to Andy.