I am prey to a dark suspicion. I put it aside, long ago. I told myself, errantly, that Prevailer’s coming had, if nothing else, entirely disproven this idea.
We get what we deserve.
Such a small crumb of consolation to wrest from the jaws of apocalypse. Such a nugget of worth, a tiny silver lining on a storm that has raged for decades. We can’t possibly be being judged, assessed or measured, because no one could possibly be vile enough to merit Her.
And yet it returns.
When I spoke with Andy, I could almost see Her there. Almost hear Her porcine voice, speaking with unearned authority the well rehearsed lines of tyrants past.
“You know best. Use his gift, who cares what your followers want? It is YOU who matter! You who decide!”
I quashed those phantoms, pushed Her image aside and dealt with the matter exactly as I ought. I took my time, took every precaution. I reassured myself of his intentions, gathered knowledge of what he could do, and where he came from. I searched the situation thoroughly for pits and snares before I stretched forth my hand.
I queried my passsengers. I set up a poll, I let them have their say. I tallied their thoughts, the wishes of those that I save from destruction. I spent days doing so.
And then, as my careful pace finally brought me near to the conclusion, the goblet was snatched from my lips.
Krishna displayed the deranged savagery of the outside world, same as the Union commander. Her attack had little merit, whatever Condemner’s complicity, gained her nothing. It was executed without care or forthought, placing her person in savage jeopardy. It worked anyway.
The world, once again, smiled upon the bigots, the savages. They have inherited our beautiful countryside, and turned it into smoking ruins. They have made their nests in the buildings that we called home, and smeared them with filth and rutting chaos.
Prevailer was here. Hours ago. She stood before me. The fiend Herself.
She stood, and She turned aside. She watched, drunk with profane lust, as Dale sported for Her amusement. Unconscious of any peril She toyed with Preventer, torturing her as a spitful child torments an insect.
She turned Her back on me.
If I had only acted on my own instincts, earlier. If I had only told Andy to imbue me, at whatever cost, with the ability to channel all of the fury of my reserve into one strike… I could have done it. Her back was turned.
One blow through the back of Her head, dreadlocks flung aside by the force of my strike. Her skull shattering, Her brain, and the connection to Her monstrous gift, obliterated in an instant. The rape of my world, the death of my people, avenged. I can see it still, in my imagination.
Instead I stood, and did nothing. My caution had served me well. I was in no danger. I stood at Her side as She tortured one of my friends, and prepared to rape another. I did nothing.
We get what we deserve.
She talked to me, after.
She said so many things, murmuring threats and pleas, muttering Her way around what sounded kind of like rehearsed phrases.
I couldn’t follow all of it. I wasn’t sure if She knew that I was awake, so I was staying super still. Part of the reason that I couldn’t make out Her speech was that She wasn’t talking loudly. I think She was mostly talking to Herself.
But another part of why I couldn’t get it was that it didn’t really make sense. She was obsessed with being strong, with being powerful, it sounded like. Lots of talk about crushing your weakness and stuff. But all of the strong people that I’ve ever met don’t act like that. They don’t think about being strong, they just are that way, automatically.
From what She was saying She doesn’t see strength as a thing with complications, or nuance. There is just people who are strong, which she likes, and those who are weak, which lets her hurt them and somehow makes it ok.
I think She knows that’s wrong. It’s not exactly that She’s stupid, it is more like She is a kid, fingers in her ears and shouting so the grown ups can’t contradict Her.
It is super scary, to hear Her with no filter on. To know that the strongest Ultra on the face of the world is so insecure, so frightened. I’d almost rather that She was the untouchable queen that She wants everyone to think She is.
I was proud to let Krishna get away. Proud to let her Ultras escape from Prevailer. I’m still proud of that even though we might end up fighting them some day. I feel like, for some reason, we are all kind of on the same side now. Like they are on my side, or I am on theirs.
I thought that my spirits would lift when Prevailer went away, but they didn’t. I just lay there, trembling. I knew She’d be back. She’ll come back whenever She wants to. I’ll never be safe again.
I tried to tell myself that that wasn’t true, tried to drop off to sleep, safe in the knowledge that She might have warped to anywhere.
I woke with Her hands on my head, picking me up to deliver a message. She wants us to go back to Her Lair, to Shington, to the center of the Regime.
Krishna and the Pantheon can’t help us there. Preventer and Jane can’t be smart enough there. I’m going to be with Her there, with all of Her anger and all of Her fear and all of Her sadness.
I don’t feel anything about that, not really. I’m not letting myself feel angry or frightened. I chose this, there in the ring. It was the price of getting Krishna away. It might be that distracting Her can help more people. I don’t feel anything about this.
If I tell myself that enough times it will be come true.
My fucking lip!
I can still feel the pain, still feel Her fingers rooting carelessly through soft tissue to grasp my teeth. Still feel the ache as She yanked them out.
This isn’t a metaphor or a figure of speech, I am still hurting.
My gift should be protecting me. I shouldn’t have to suffer this. Even if it couldn’t stop Her from tearing my mouth apart it should be within my gift’s capabilities to numb the pain.
Her gift hasn’t acted on me for hours. Its lingering echo can’t possibly be stronger than Ultra Toughness three, can it?
I focus on my ire on that prospect, that Prevailer’s might so far outmatch my resilience that it will take hours to heal from any wound she inflicts, in order to distract myself from a far more terrifying possibility.
Perhaps my indestructible form CANNOT heal. Perhaps my perfection, unmarred since I emerged from the Process, is a form of stasis. If so, then there may be no mechanism for returning to a prior, undamaged condition. Why would I need it, after all? If I cannot be harmed, what need have I for healing?
If this is how my gift operates, then I will need to become accustomed to this pain.
The thought repels, but I will not let it appall. I am no beast, to be ruled by emotion. No animal, to be goaded by the whip. Reason alone defines my path. Reason alone brought about this victory.
Let Prevailer take my lip, afflict me with this torment. Let me lose the teeth from my head. What of it? For, even in Her very shadow, I have achieved the beginning of Her end.
I had to kill Condemner, to silence the fool, before I could verify the report, but I know of no reason why the plan should have gone awry. Condemner, more than likely, delivered Andy intact to Krishna’s forces. Even now the false man is being trundled across the distance, ever closer to the heart of the Pantheon, ever closer to those who can properly utilize his bizarre meta-gift.
And all of this achieved without the slightest bit of knowledge from the fools that surround me. Beneath their very eye, and my hand moves unseen and unchecked. They even thank me for taking care of Condemner, gave me their thanks for silencing the only person who could have given me away.
Fisher has rendered me her strange gratitude. Nirav’s return, in the absence of his terrifying controller, is all that she has desired. Jane extends me her sympathy, powerless to resist the impulse to wipe away every tear, to comfort the one who suffers. And Dale, when he returns, will surely regard me with the same bland benevolence that he gives to all. Perhaps he’ll even be grateful that my suggestion, the Ultra Fight, worked out.
Yes, a triumph. This is an unmitigated triumph. I would be a fool to regret what has come to pass, merely because of the anguish which clenches my jaw and makes mud of my thoughts.
I have willed this.
He was like a sound that I didn’t know that I was hearing. Like a ringing in my ears which had grown so customary that I had ceased to register it at all. That was how he crept up, how he took me without raising an alarm.
I had been gulled into tranquility, a victim of Condemner’s patience and subtlety. He moved on our shared soul not as a conflagration, but as a spark. He took my volition, my awareness, all of my being, one step at a time.
Long before my eyes became his flames he had been influencing my movements, easing himself into my consciousness and evicting me, little by little. The possession was effortless, subtle. I had no warning, no way to fight back.
I have few memories of his actions, little recollection. I recall him smiling my smile, speaking my words. I recall him and Andy, him and Rebeccah… him and Betty most of all. But I have difficulty remembering which actions occurred in which context. Which betrayal was committed against who?
I strive to push these flashes aside. Betty’s voice breaks as she assures me that it’s over, that he’s gone. The Link never included him, and now he has fallen into the Hell that always awaited him. I nod and assent, but I’m not so sure.
If he was really gone, then wouldn’t I be gone with him? I’m…a way that he sometimes is, a mask or a role that he invented to keep his human form safe. I’m a way of thinking, a set of relations with other people. I’m as false as my flesh.
If Condemner was gone, really, truly gone, then I should be dead.
He’s here. He has to be. Putting everything else aside, I’m simply not lucky enough for him to stay vanished. He’s hiding, lurking. Behind my eyes like always.
I can’t feel him, can’t hear his words, but that means less than nothing. He’s always been capable of subtlety, this last experience has reinforced that lesson, if I’m ever tempted to forget it.
Perhaps he sleeps, perhaps he bides his time. But I will not succumb again to the delusion that I am the master of this conjured flesh. I will not fool myself, nor those around me, with assertions of sanity and friendship that I cannot back up.
I will fix, as the unalterable pole of my thought, as my Guiding Star, this simple principle. Condemner watches. He is present, observing me and testing me, awaiting the opportunity to once again usurp my place in the world.
I am never alone. I am never safe. I will never be fooled again. Condemner is here.
Condemner is here.
I did it.
Preventer did it.
Whoever gets the credit, the fact is simple. Nirav is saved. He’s finally free.
I’m not simple minded. I know, from bitter experience, how linked the movements of body and soul may be. Strip me of my war form, and I’m a doll. Strip me of my Lure and I’m a beast. I understand that Nirav, the mind that accompanies the flesh I’ve come to prize, is not a soul entire.
He will be wounded, his sentience torn by the loss of the deeper mind which has been stripped from him. He will be traumatized, suspect.
But that will pass.
The Link has torn his soul, perhaps, or maybe just rotated it so that the pleasant portion is the part that protrudes into our world. Snitcher’s gift, mighty beyond all reason, functioning as do-it-yourself therapy. Who’d have thought it?
I’m not a fool, of course. I know that this might not be as simple as I’m making it out to be.
If his soul is rotated, whatever I might mean by that, then it may one day rotate around again. If it is torn, then there is nothing to say that it will not knit itself together again. No one knows how any of that works.
I don’t place my faith on this miracle. This doesn’t have to be happy ever after. I don’t need anything more than I’ve already received.
I’ve learned the basics of his condition, and even if his present state is only an oasis in a much more desolate terrain I still know enough to keep him here.
When Condemner takes hold of him, I can sense it through my shadow. I can feel the creature’s warped objectives, the strange hungers that drive it.
When that happens, I can bring Nirav back to himself by slaying his body. The Link is eternal, forever anchored to the moment of its creation. Whatever may come to pass in the future, we can always pull Nirav back to this state, free of the beast’s grasp.
I say ‘we’, but the truth of the matter is that, beyond our partnership, I am more unsure of the rest than ever. Preventer, newly maimed, has shown herself ready to slay one of us at my say so. Jane is sulking again, no doubt bewildered by this fresh betrayal. And Dale… Dale is Hers.
I know Her ways. She will bring him to Shington, to Torturer. He will be conditioned, as I have been. His spirit, the odd innocence about him, will crumble away. I will see the change to his priorities, witness the resolution never to approach that dread being again rise to the forefront of his thoughts.
It is inevitable.
But for all this looming uncertainty, I feel more centered, more grounded, than I have in a while. I have faced the loss of the Hook. I have faced the loss of Nirav. I have been tested, weighed and measured. And I have been found fit.
The Hook is returned, Nirav is redeemed. I am safely Linked with mighty comrades. I will not fear this uncertain future. I will not dread tomorrow.
And, if I am fortunate, and Condemner is as banished as this moment implies, tomorrow will not dread us.