Nirav, or Condemner, supported me, helped me limp down the street.
I knew that no matter who was driving, Condemner was ultimately in charge. Knew it. If he could take command for whatever he’d been up to earlier he could take over now. I tried to raise the Lure’s hands, tried to do more than just go along with him, but I failed.
It wasn’t just the pain of that bitch in the robes killing the Hook. The pain was subsiding, gradually. My bodies were resilient. No, this paralysis was all down to me lacking the Hook.
Last time I’d been in Redo I’d lost the Lure. I’d gone feral, shredding Indulger and attacking Preventer’s barricades. I’d been an animal, savaging everything around me.
This was worse.
I could think clearly, reason lucidly. I could put names to faces, tell you everything about the situation that we found ourselves in. It was my WILL that was missing. My drive to do anything. My ability to make decisions. It was just gone.
“I’ve got you, Babe. I’ve got you,” he murmured.
The shade led us back into the heart of Redo. Presumably the others were waiting on us, maybe with Her. They would have no idea that Condemner was in play, would think that this was still Nirav, still my guy.
I strove to speak, managed a halting gasp.
He stopped, still propping me up, and looked right at the Lure’s face.
“What, what is it? I’m sorry, I couldn’t catch that.”
He sounded, for all the world, like Nirav. Sounded exactly like he was genuinely apologetic, and desperate to make out what I was trying to say.
“Noth-nothing.” I managed. It wasn’t that I had difficulty talking, the pain was much less than it had been. It was that I had difficulty committing to meaningful speech, difficulty deciding to change things.
If I called him out now, if I told him that I’d tasted his soul, knew that he’d been Condemner earlier, while still looking like Nirav, then things would never be the same. The group would change forever.
I could reason as I liked, could tell myself all of the reasons that this had to happen, but the part of me that would let me actually take that step, actually make that change, was lost with the Hook.
The shade cleared his throat apologetically, Nirav tore his gaze away from my face.
“Right, sorry, I know we are in a hurry.”
He resumed his stride, more bracing me than outright carrying me at this point. I could walk pretty well unaided.
“When you are ready,” he whispered to me as we trudged.
The shade took us back to the building that we’d been holing up in, then flashed away. Haunter must have pulled it back in.
Nirav looked at me, searchingly, for a moment, as though to give me a chance to speak. When I stayed silent he led me into the building.
Preventer and Haunter were both on the ground floor, we interrupted them mid argument.
“Fisher, Nirav, She’s in town,” said Haunter, as soon as we appeared.
“What the fuck happened to your face?” asked Nirav.
He was talking, unbelievably, to Preventer.
One of her lips was torn, and she was missing both of her top front teeth. The blood was flowing nonstop from that impossible wound, mixing with the caked on makeup that she wore in a ghastly fashion.
“What do you think?” she hissed. “What could possibly hurt me, keeping in mind that you’ve just learned that She is in town?”
Nirav opened his mouth, then closed it again. It had been a pretty dumb question, actually.
“Where is She?” I asked. Questions were much easier. They didn’t entail a desire to alter the current state, instead just elaborating on my understanding of matters. Far simpler.
“Back at the Ultra Fighting ring,” said Haunter. “Indulger is stalling Her.”
“He’s ‘stalling’ Her? How does that work? She can teleport!”
Preventer held up one hand, made an O of her thumb and forefinger, then rammed her other hand’s thumb into it.
“Oh,” said Nirav. “Stalling her. I get it.”
“We were just talking about what we were going to tell her in the morning, once She and Indulger are done,” said Haunter. “She didn’t realize that Krishna and her crew were Pantheon, they got away.”
“We were fighting Pantheon in the city,” said Nirav. “Three of them, mingled among the humans they sent to ‘tie up loose ends’ in Redo.”
“Shit!” said Haunter and Preventer, almost at the exact same time.
I wanted to pipe up here, to let them know that it had been me doing the fighting, that Nirav had been leading Krishna’s men to their target, but I couldn’t make myself. Doing that would fracture our Fist, and I couldn’t make that decision.
“You didn’t…” asked Haunter.
Nirav shook his head.
“Never again. That beast will never rampage among the innocent again.”
Lying through his damn teeth. Or, wait, did he just not know? Maybe Nirav had no idea that Condemner had used his body for a while. But he’d had to have noticed the missing time, wouldn’t he?
“What are we going to do about Prevailer?” asked Preventer, holding up a hand stained with the blood from her mouth. “She can’t just BE in the fucking city.”
We all kind of looked at her.
“Sure she can,” said Nirav. “She can be anywhere She wants to be. What are we going to do about it?”
“That’s what I’m asking you!”
I’d never seen Preventer this put out, this enraged. Losing her teeth was affecting her. Perhaps she hadn’t felt pain in years, and couldn’t take it.
In a flash I realized that that wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t pain that was destroying her composure, it was terror. Preventer wanted away from Her like a burned man shying away from fire. It wasn’t so much a reasoned decision as it was a panicked reaction.
“Calm down,” said Jane. She was probably relishing this. “There is nothing that we can do about Her presence. You yourself are exhibit A as to why mouthing off to Her is a bad idea.”
“I didn’t ‘mouth off’!” snarled Preventer.
“Ladies, calm down, calm down…” Nirav said, placatingly. He did the thing people do with their hands when they want someone else to be calm.
They both focused on him, two pairs of gimlet eyes boring holes right through him.
“You said that you fought with Pantheon soldiers tonight. Why did you provoke them? Didn’t you hear Her arrival? The last thing we need is a fight while She is around!”
Preventer’s voice cracked like a whip.
“No, no, that’s not how it…look, they were already hostile! They rolled up on us! I didn’t put them up to anything!”
I couldn’t make myself contradict him. Couldn’t bring myself to speak. It was like trying to stand on a phantom limb. I had all of the facts, all of the facilities, but no way to externalize them. Exposing Nirav’s lies, or Condemner’s lies, or whatever, would require making a decision, and I lacked the agency to do that.
“Sure,” said Jane. “They just rolled up on you, at the exact same time the rest of their squad was socializing with us, while Krishna was under our guns, and decided to make random trouble. That makes tons of sense.”
Nirav spread his hands in a conciliatory gesture.
“I don’t make their plans. Don’t ask me to explain why they did it, I’m just telling you what happened!”
They paused for a second, then Haunter looked to me.
“It’s just like he says, just exactly like he says. They attacked us.”
It was my voice, my mouth speaking. My head even nodded enthusiastically.
Nirav looked back to me, a grateful expression in his eyes. I felt myself smile in response, even as my thoughts curdled in rage.
“What the fuck could they have been thinking?” asked Haunter. “If Prevailer hadn’t fucked everything up they’d be in some serious hot water when we found out that they were making trouble in Redo. Krishna bet her life on this, and for what?”
“I’m not sure she did.” Preventer responded. “Think about the timing. Do we actually hear about this before they leave? I think the plan was for their assault team to do its work while we were kept at the fight, then be gone before we found out.”
“Still a risk,” Jane retorted. “Still a damn risk, and for no gain. Even if their trio beat Betty and Nirav, what would they get out of it?”
“Maybe…” I managed. “Maybe we weren’t the target.”
I cheered inwardly, I’d finally managed to initiate something. My will was coming back.
“You mean that they might have been targeting the Processing Center?” asked Preventer. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
Haunter spoke just the one word, frozen, with her eyes widening. She’d guessed the awful truth.
“Alright, not the Processing Center, then-“
Jane cut Preventer off.
“They were after Andy, weren’t they?”
Nirav looked as though he was suddenly coming to a realization. Gasping, etc.
“Yeah, that must have been it! That thing died in the fight. They must have been after that from the start!”
Preventer looked like she wanted to strangle him. Haunter just looked poleaxed, like she’d been shot. She crumpled into a seat, slowly.
This was my moment. All I had to do was tell them that Condemner had done this, had usurped Nirav’s body and led the Pantheon hit squad to Andy. I had to do it now, or my silence would be seen as conspiracy. I opened my mouth.
Preventer ran over my words.
“You stupid mother fucker. You tell us this now! You sit around bullshitting and you only remember to mention that Andy is dead at the end of the fucking conversation, when we call you out on it?”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Nirav said, his hands still held up before him.
It was a funny visual, Nirav was like a foot taller than her, but he was almost literally cringing away from Preventer, who had never looked less intimidating than she did now, wincing every time her jaw moved.
“I knew this. I knew this was going to happen.”
We all turned our attention back to Haunter, who was sitting, woodenly, where she’d collapsed.
“The second that I decided to ask the reserve for a vote, I was already seeing this. I’d do the right thing, like I always do. The world would fuck me for it, like it always does. There wasn’t a single question in my mind. I did what the Colonel would have done, I let the people speak, and while they were talking Andy was taken away.”
We fell silent for a moment.
“You were going to let him alter your gift?” asked Preventer.
Jane nodded, mutely.
Preventer shook her head, apparently at a loss for words.
“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. I just, there was fighting, we didn’t think that they might be targeting someone in particular, we just, we just fought.”
Nirav kept spewing that bullshit, but I was getting more and more sure that he bought what he was selling. His gift had bewitched him, false memories or something. Nirav simply wasn’t this good as a liar.
“Yes, we are sorry.” I managed to say. “We didn’t know you were going to be having your gift altered.”
Haunter looked up, all of the weariness in the world somehow crammed into her eyes.
“Would you understand, would you get it, if I said that it shouldn’t matter whether or not I was going to make use of him? Would you comprehend if I told you that someone under our protection should be kept safe, regardless of whether we got any benefit out of it? Fisher, please say you get that. Please.”
I was struck silent for a moment. I just stared at her.
“Please,” she said again. “I need this. I need to know that I’m not alone. Tell me what you think of Andy’s death, what it means to you.”
I dropped down to one knee, wincing a little as my chest gave a burst of pain, and took one of her hands in both of the Lure’s.
“Of course it means something.” I told her. “Andy’s death is a tragedy, a pointless, worthless waste. Krishna’s thugs killed someone who could have helped fix the world, for no reason at all. It was odious. It was evil. Nirav is Condemner.”
“What?” asked Nirav, panicked.
I’d slipped it out. I hadn’t been sure that I could do it, but sliding it into another sentence, another thought, had let me say the words. Maybe it was the Hook’s gradual repair, or just my soul resettling itself somehow.
“What do you mean?” asked Haunter. “We all know that.”
“Yeah, Baby, what are you saying?” asked Nirav, frantically. “I’ve got him contained.”
I looked him in the eyes, possible for the last time.
“You can stop hiding it, Condemner. You took him over earlier in the day, led those goons to Andy. You’ve betrayed us.”
Condemner was fast. He flashed into a sheet of flames and shot towards Haunter, and the limitless power that she represented, far faster than any of us could have stopped him.
But Preventer had started acting the instant I’d told her that Nirav was Condemner. Her barriers had been creeping along behind him, across the floor, and now they rose in a great cloud to shield Jane.
Condemner’s flame burst through the first layer, foundered on the second, but he had no fuel. He surged back towards the Lure, but the barriers had circled around him as well. The flames beat and raged at the inside of Preventer’s shields.
“Traitor,” said Preventer, spitting a mouthful of blood on the ground.
Inside the barrier Condemner formed a daemon’s visage for a moment, howling soundlessly inside of Preventer’s prison.
“Traitor,” said Haunter. I knew that she wasn’t referring to a betrayal of the Fist, of the Regime. Haunter’s ire had deeper roots. In her eyes Condemner had betrayed the whole world.
The face reformed again, a mask of flame, and its eyes sought me out. Nirav’s eyes appeared for an instant, his face mouthing words I’d never hear.
I opened my mouth to echo the others, but I couldn’t. I reached out and touched the barrier.
“Beloved.” I whispered.
Preventer closed her fist, and the barriers contracted. Condemner died in an instant, starved of fuel and given no space in which to burn.
We felt Nirav pass into the Link, hopefully leaving Condemner’s wretched soul behind. I felt a great surge of relief.
Nirav would be free of the demon when he came back. I had to believe that.
“What did he say, there at the end?” asked Jane.
Preventer caught my eye, her fist opening and closing again.
“Just more lies.” I told them. “We’ve taken care of the traitor in our midst.”