Having no other plans or options, I set out in pursuit of Condemner.
I wasn’t entirely at a loss. The Link pointed me in his general direction, and I’d been in Redo long enough to pick up the lay of the land.
I folded in the Lure and let the Hook run free, dashing on all fours and bounding over obstacles. I was a dark blur in the evening air, a nightmare glimpsed from a distance, best left alone.
What I lacked was time. I was faster than Nirav over this kind of terrain, and presumably faster than the Pantheon member in robes, but they had a huge head start. Enough to make it to Andy’s location, and then to take action before I arrived.
I felt a chill deep within at the thought. Haunter was fixated on Andy. It had become important to her, somehow. If Condemner did something to Andy and she blamed Nirav the Fist might well shatter. I wasn’t sure how exactly that would work out for the rest of us, but I had no desire to find out.
I took a corner at speed, and passed a pair of humans. They cowered and screamed as I ran by, and I was shocked to realize how hard it was to restrain the urge to extend a claw and savage them.
I fought back the Hook’s bestial impulses with reminders of what was at stake. I couldn’t slow down enough to take my other body out into the world, to balance out the Hook’s bestial instincts with my thoughts. I had to win this on its level. I pushed against my fight or flight reflexes with desperate concentration, picturing Nirav, alone and betrayed by his own form. Picturing Torturer…waiting for my failure.
It was enough. I moved on without slowing, letting the bystanders recede into the night behind me. They were inconsequential, in comparison to what I sought.
I drew nearer to Condemner, the Link grew stronger. He was at rest, or at least not exerting himself. He was receiving sensations from his hands and feet, so he yet retained his human form. I had either missed my chance entirely, or they were doing something far slower than simply destroying Andy.
I stopped then, slowing and rolling aside into an alley. Condemner was a few houses down, close enough that I’d be in danger of being spotted if I moved any closer. Close enough that I’d have to start looking out for the woman in robes.
I eased the Lure out of the shadows, felt my mind slide back in to gear.
With sharper thought came a momentary burst of alarm. If I could sense Condemner through the Link, then he could sense me. He’d have been tracking me all this way, and would know, roughly, where I stood even now.
I fought it back, reasoning that the one who was linked was Nirav, and it was Nirav’s body that I was feeling. The usurper wasn’t part of our little family. I had to trust that he couldn’t use the Link.
I poked the Lure’s head around the corner, scrutinized the most likely buildings. My sense of his location seemed to be coming from a mostly ruined structure, one that Indulger hadn’t yet got around to repairing. It was probably a grocery store or something at one point. Something big and single storied, anyway.
I peered about, looking up on roofs and into dark crevices. No sign of the girl with the robes. No sign of Nirav. The night was still and quiet.
I moved the Hook out into the street, my gaze sliding nervously across the face of every building. I still saw nothing. There was no one out here but myself.
Nothing for it, then. I pushed the Hook ahead, low the to the ground and ready to dodge. I followed myself at a distance with the Lure, stretching my shadow out as far as I could manage, ready to retract either of my bodies at a moment’s notice.
A laugh sounded from the building I was creeping towards, sharp and biting. I flinched and cowered, but it wasn’t followed up with an attack. Instead a hum of distant conversation began. The laugh had been directed at someone else.
I abandoned my attempts at a low profile, and pushed my forms ahead as fast as I could while remaining quiet. If she were watching, she’d see me, but I was gambling that the fact that she was talking to someone else meant that she wasn’t watching the street.
As I got closer I could hear her voice, high pitched and nasal.
“…talk and no game. If you are still in town we could destroy this Fist toni-“
I made it right up to the edge of the building as she fell silent.
At first I thought that I’d been noticed, but a quick look into the great ruined lobby showed no such misfortune. Rather, Krishna’s servant had fallen silent because the device in her hand had interrupted her. She was standing with her back to me, but I could tell from her posture that it was a communication device, and that she greatly respected whoever was on the other end.
I coiled for a pounce, inwardly praising my good fortune in coming upon her unawares.
“I understand. I understand.”
Whatever she understood wouldn’t help her now. I sprang towards her with a savage grace, the Hook’s claws spreading wide.
I didn’t exactly expect this to work. An Ultra fight tended to be a protracted affair, a brutal slugfest where you learned one another’s powers and chipped away at their endurance. Still, I felt a brutal pang of disappointment as the Hook rebounded from her back like a dog that tried to tackle a train.
I was rolling away immediately, pulling the Lure up to the edge of the building to get more eyes on her reactions.
She turned around, slowly.
“I’m gonna have to call you back,” she said into the box she was holding. “That thing where I said I captured a member of their Fist? It’s prolly gonna end up being two.”
The arrogance of this girl. I tried not to let her nonchalance intimidate me as I sized her up.
She was young, incredibly so. Almost certainly still a teenager. She came from deep in the Pantheon, her skin was the same hue as Nirav’s. Her height made her gangly, awkward. My general impression was that she was prey.
She hung up her communicator, held up a finger as though to ask the Hook to wait.
I circled, trying to get her back to the opening, and the Lure. She obliged, moving in an answering circle.
“Hey, wow, you are super ugly,“ she said. She didn’t have much of an accent.
The robe thing wasn’t a dress. It was a toga. She was wearing a fucking toga, and some leaves around her head. I was having a fight with someone who was basically cosplaying an old movie god figure.
I moved the Hook towards her, slowly and menacingly. I brought it up to its full height so that I loomed over her.
“You are Condemner, right? That’s your slave name? I’m super glad I get to kill-“
I slashed her across the face, mid speech.
“-you. I’ve never killed such an ugly monster before.”
My talon rebounded, making no impression at all. It was like I’d hit Preventer.
“Hey, come on, ugly. I was talking. Don’t you even know not to fight while someone is talking?”
There was no way that she was Ultra Tough Three. She couldn’t be. I couldn’t be so fucking unlucky as to slam into the first invincible Pantheon operative since Mithra.
“I’m Hera, by the way. You know who that is? She was the best Goddess, the ruler of all of the others.”
I needed more power to hurt her. But if I pulled in the Lure I couldn’t dodge into my shadow if things got bad.
Hera put her device away, pulled out a fancy looking knife. It didn’t look incredibly sharp.
I stepped the Hook up again, stretched my tendril out towards her in a slow, almost inviting, movement. I wanted to see how much power she could put out. Having a tendril sliced off wouldn’t matter very much, and I could cut it off myself if she just started dragging me in.
She reached out with her empty hand and tapped her finger against the end of my tendril.
“Are we making a pinky promise?” she asked.
I wrapped the tendril around her hand, crushed with all of its force.
She looked at it curiously, then wrapped her own hand around it as well.
“Shake,” she said, suiting action to words by pushing my tendril up and down in a vigorous handshake motion.
The strength of her grip crushed my tendril to a rag of flesh. The Hook felt no pain, but I still winced to see my form wrung out like a dishrag.
I sprang the Hook back, tearing the tendril away in spurt of dark fluid. Who was this bitch?
Ultra toughness that I couldn’t scratch, and Ultra strength to boot. Why had nobody heard of her before?
Even as I was thinking this she blurred forward, fast as Nirav. I tried to leap aside, but the Hook was still settling in from my backwards jump. I hung motionless before her for a fatal second.
She reached out and tapped the Hook’s carapace, stepped back at the same time that the Hook’s leap began.
Ultra speed too? She had the Subtracter package? Hera was bullshit.
“Wow, I’m so much more powerful than you, huh? That must suck real hard.”
I paused, torn between the desire to retract the Hook and slink away with my other form and the desire to retract the Lure and tear into this bitch with my full power.
“Betty!” came a pained cry.
I didn’t look at the deceiver, didn’t drop my focus for a second. As a result I was able to avoid it when Hera stepped forward and kicked high.
I stepped to the side, easily pulling the Hook out of the line of her strike. The blow had been slow, easy to dodge. Why hadn’t she struck at full speed?
“She’s…she’s only strong OR tough OR fast. Not all at once.”
Now I could see Condemner, wearing Nirav’s face with a mask of bruises. He sprawled on a large piece of rubble, about ten or twenty feet away from the struggle.
That explained a lot. If I could believe it.
Hera moved in on the Hook again, slashing with her knife. I backed away, pondering.
It would explain why I’d bounced off at the start. Naturally she’d keep herself durable while she wasn’t fighting, to protect against surprise assaults. She probably also kept it up during the early strutting, trying to make me despair of hurting her so that she should shift it into something more useful.
I’d played right into her hands with my test of strength. She’d shifted her power up, without fear, crushed my tendril while I hadn’t pressed the attack, mesmerized by the impression that I’d developed of being unable to harm her.
I met her rush, clawing at her with my talons. As expected, it sliced off. More importantly, her own slash glanced from my hide.
“Yes, that’s the way!” shouted Condemner. Or maybe Nirav. I couldn’t give it any consideration right now.
We scrabbled at one another for a moment, claws and knife chipping and sliding, then backed away, as though by mutual consent.
“I knew I should’ve kept you unconscious,” she snapped at Condemner. “You’ve made this a little harder on your friend.”
This was something of a stalemate. As long as she kept herself Ultra Tough I couldn’t harm her, but she also couldn’t harm me. I’d have to lure her in somehow, get her to use her strength.
I bounded into the air, much too high. You don’t generally want to leap in a fight, as you lose contact with the ground and can’t change direction.
I was hoping that she’d take the chance and step up for an Ultra strength punch to my torso.
Her fist slammed into, and then through, the Hook. I shot her with the Lure’s gun, spraying bullets wildly into Hera’s body.
The Hook slid back into shadow even as she slumped to the ground, bleeding heavily.
I wanted to reload and take the headshot, but what I actually did was sort of slide to the ground and moan.
Waves of pain pulsed from inside of the Lure, an anguish so overwhelming I nearly puked. That had fucking hurt.
I’d only experienced this kind of pain once before, when Subtracter had killed me, and that had been swift. This was enduring. I rolled to the side, desperately waiting for the agony to stop.
“Betty, Betty are you ok?” yelled Condemner. It sounded like he was getting closer.
I needed to be mobile, needed to be active, but my form was not cooperating. All I did was lay there and wretch, the phantom agony emanating from the center of my chest.
What had Hera done to me? Why was the Lure suffering from a blow that the Hook had taken?
Her Ultra Strength, at its peak, must have reached three. I’d heard rumors that the universe, or whatever, actively blessed the damage that was meted out by sufficiently strong Ultras. It would ensure that the harm they strove to inflict found its way to the victim. Perhaps that’s what this was?
I felt Nirav’s hands on me, turning me faceup.
“Babe, what’s happening to you? What’s got you?”
He was battered and bruised, but concern rang through his words. He had ditched the stupid shades, and no trace of Condemner’s disdain showed through his eyes.
I convulsed as a fresh wave of agony forced its way through the Lure’s frame, through my body.
“Yeah,” he said. “She killed him. I tried to stop her, but it took me too long to figure out how her power worked.”
“Why,” I coughed and sputtered. “Why…Condemner?”
For a moment confusion filled his face.
“You know why I couldn’t use Condemner! I’m not going to kill the people of Redo! How could you even-“
He cut off as I reached a hand up and placed it across his lips.
“Why…Condemner?” I asked. Making my meaning clear.
“I’m not Condemner!” he protested. “How can you even say such a thing?”
I gave up, letting my hand fall back down onto my body, relenting and allowing him to fuss over me.
I was too weak to fight, if Condemner was really in control then I’d be dead momentarily. If Nirav had seized back his body then I was in good hands. I stopped considering the world around me, permitted the Lure to curl up into a Fetal posture.
Nirav was holding me, cradling me in his arms and speaking softly. I didn’t let myself hear his words. I couldn’t trust him, couldn’t let myself forget for one moment that Condemner might be behind those brown eyes, leering out at a flammable world.
It was another voice that brought me out of my misery, forced me to pay attention. One of Haunter’s ghosts was calling out from down the street.
“She is here! Everyone! Prevailer is in Redo!”