[Author Note: 2 story updates in consecutive weeks? Unpossible! Here’s hoping I can keep this up next week!]
“Why should She have all the fun?” asked Zilla, doing the pronoun thing like she’d lived in the Regime all her life. “Why should Zeus? Don’t you ever get tired of everything being decided by two random assholes? Eh? I lead the greatest army in the world and I’m still a damn servant, I can’t even imagine how it must feel for the likes of you.”
“You want to challenge Her?” asked Dale, “Challenge Zeus? You think that hasn’t got tried, like a bunch?”
Zilla shook her head emphatically.
“I’m not going to challenge them,” she said. “I’m going to kill them. Just like I killed Fifth Fist. I won’t give them a chance to fight back.”
“Wow,” said Preventer, “That definitely makes me believe that She will lose to you. That sentence outweighs decades of Her beating the Union’s most careful plans and the Pantheon’s most powerful Gods.”
“Wake the fuck up!” shouted Zilla. “That fucking attitude is all that is saving Her!”
“That and Her gift,” I said, “And whatever other factor is keeping Her reign intact.”
“I don’t know about Zeus,” agreed Preventer, “but She isn’t going down no matter how Andy tweaks your gift. It is stupid to try.”
“The factor you are talking about,” said Zilla, her voice harsh, excited and angry, “Its just what is happening right here, just people giving up instead of doing something. It is you all resigning yourself to life as Her slaves, instead of standing up for yourselves!”
It felt intensely weird to be on the other side of this speech.
“Look,” I said, “Even with Andy, there’s no-“
She cut me off.
“Andy is the key! He can alter my gift, he can make me into what I need to be to take them out! I’ll remove the top tier Ultras, then our kind can inherit the world!”
She looked to Preventer, holding up a hand in appeal.
“The Council isn’t like you think. Zeus is the electricity in everyone’s brains, they follow him uncritically, no choice involved. Your goal would destroy you, but it doesn’t have to be that way.”
She held up her other hand, putting them together like she was praying.
“A genuine Ruling Council, leaders from the Regime, from the Pantheon, with no one standing above everyone else. We control the Ultras, they control the humans. We would finally have peace.”
“No one above us, huh?” asked Preventer.
Zilla gave a solemn nod.
“No one but you, that is?” she continued.
Zilla lowered her hands to her side.
“It wouldn’t be like that,” she said. “I don’t have any of Zeus’ delusions. I would value the counsel of my peers.”
Preventer gave a short bark of laughter.
“How desperate must you be?” she asked, “To say such things? Maybe even mean such things? Can you possibly think I’ll buy that you wouldn’t kill the rest of the Council, kill me? You wouldn’t let anyone who knows your secret live, or did you think I hadn’t figured it out?”
Zilla took a step back, started looking around, carefully. It seemed like she might be about ready to make a move.
Preventer kept right on talking.
“That thing Jane was talking about before, lying by telling the truth? Did you think I wouldn’t see what you were doing? That I didn’t know how you were going to support me for the ruling council?”
I pushed a trio of shades out of me, not towards Zilla, but sideways, spreading out. They would throw me aside if she rushed, block some lines of sight, if it was possible.
“I can’t believe it took me so long to get it. You were going to support me, alright, you were going to support me posthumously!”
Preventer was raging now, her voice shattering the night’s stillness.
“You knew I’d never be accepted while I was alive, but my arguments are good, I’ve followed your stupid laws, as long as I was dead you could persuade them that I’d been, however briefly one of them. You’d have to, because then you, as my killer, would be entitled to join their number.”
“Where you’d infest them,” I chimed in. “You don’t know how Andy’s modifications will work, not exactly, so you had to plan for if you had to reduce your ability to infest in order to get something else you wanted. A place at the table would give you all the time you could possibly need.”
“Don’t do this,” said Zilla, spreading hands out towards us, “You know my gift, you know I’m all over you, inside of you. I’ve been trying to give you guys a chance, I really have, but if you won’t help me out with this Andy thing then I’ll take you down the same way I did Fifth Fist.”
“Do you really not get it?” I asked. “Has it somehow not sunken in yet? We are your executioners, Zilla. Predicter picked us out specifically to take you down, to do what their crew couldn’t do. There’s an argument to be made that he literally set up the composition of our team for this.”
Zilla shot me a killing glare, her face growing wider as she did so, field of vision expanding.
It was one of a host of smaller changes. What looked like smaller appendages were bubbling along her sides, what seemed like cilia, or tentacles, were threading through her hair. I had no doubt that within her there’d be cages of bone and muscles moving to reinforce whatever organs she was stuck with, and there was no way her brain was actually in her head.
“Don’t underestimate my gift,” said Zilla. “Your anchor is not so safe as you might think. I don’t know how much of my record you know, but I’ve killed Gods with Ultra toughness three before.”
It was Preventer’s turn to cough derisively.
“You blinded them,” I guessed, “something in their eyes, something in their ears, leave them helpless and tied up while Bull or Noon or someone similar takes their shot? Is that how it was?”
She didn’t answer, which was answer enough.
Zilla crouched down, ready to spring at the slightest hint of the rocks moving under her, her form only vaguely human at this point.
I tensed as well, determined not to miss the leap.
Zilla had been cornered, outmaneuvered at every turn. Predicter had tempted her away from her army, then gotten her away from most of her entourage and up on the jail by sacrificing their own forms, leaving her to face us alone.
We were a nightmare for her. Not only Preventer, who she couldn’t kill without a heavier hitter, but also myself, who would phase through her parasites if she damaged me with them, and Dale who would regenerate their damage. Fisher and Condemner had no doubt shed their forms a few times over the course of the night. We were as safe as anyone could possibly be from Zilla’s deadly gift.
Which was far from entirely safe. This was the woman who’d built and ruled over the Grand Host.
The reserve had gamed out her actions at this point, but all of our understanding of her gift was speculation and guesswork. There was no guarantee that things would go like we expected.
The biggest question about Zilla, really, was why she had a body at all? Why wasn’t she just always a cloud of ultra plague? Why take a chance with the majority of her mass being destroyed?
The only reason that made any sense was that she had to. That her gift didn’t permit her total dissolution.
Dale’s cry of pain cut through the night, the big man toppling over, blood exploding from his mouth.
Simultaneously my form blurred, a shade perishing to something unseen, some parasite or spawn that she’d slid into my gut during our trip. I hurled myself aside, trying to ensure that she couldn’t get me again with whatever she’d used.
I wasn’t the only one springing into motion. Zilla was darting off at the same moment that Dale toppled.
I kept my gaze fixed on her, straining to see her movements as she receded into the dim of the evening.
I’d been sure that she’d split up, that she’d become a pair of dogs or something, play a shell game with her brain. I’d been bracing myself, only half listening to Preventer and her blather on, so that I wouldn’t miss her trying to get her core to safety.
But my expectations had betrayed me. Zilla simply ran away, her legs lengthening, her form lower to the ground that any human could be while maintaining that velocity.
I’d been hoping that the reserve could do something to impede her, that there was some way for us to catch whatever part of her had the vital core, but this left me powerless. She was Ultra tough, she’d shed bullets like water, and sending shades after her would be to condemn them to death.
I wouldn’t do that, couldn’t, not with Andy so close.
But someone else did what I couldn’t, someone else, with a gift for lurking in the shadows, and the Ultra strength needed.
The Hook leaped out from ambush, bore her thrashing and writhing to the ground.
My instinctive cheer died in my throat, and I hurried in her direction, sprinting towards the frenzied ball of limbs whose violent motions had already started to kick up a huge dust cloud.
Fisher was a fine Ultra combatant. Springing from ambush, she was better than that, a cruel predator with a form finely tuned for destruction.
She was struggling helplessly for her life only seconds after landing her leap.
For all her prowess at fighting, all the skills that she’d cultivated at this type of murder, it meant less than nothing against Zilla’s gift.
A scything claw ripped through Zilla’s flesh, which parted about it and closed again, holding Fisher in place. Zilla’s response was a new arm bursting from her back, slamming into the Hook’s shoulder, then flowing and writhing along her neck as it branched into a forest of tentacles.
In the time it took me to draw close to the pair Zilla had changed again, pulsing mass along the new limb and shrinking others, turning her strangling grip into something far worse, engulfing the Hook’s head and driving mass like a hammerblow down her mouth.
Any living being would be at her mercy then. If she could drive herself down into the lungs and digestive tract there would be no way for anyone to fight back, but the Hook wasn’t real in that way, didn’t have such structures. It’s mouth was only a crushing implement, not connected to any interior spaces. Against Fisher’s war form all Zilla’s move did was crack the jaw and seize her head in a grip of steel.
“Get clear Betty!” yelled a familiar voice, off to my right, even as a burst of flame erupted forth from Condemner, finally making his presence felt.
Zilla must have known this was coming. Had her goal been to push her own core down into Fisher’s form, hoping it would take her along when it slid back into shadow? That didn’t make…
She divided this time, legs and torso falling away into lumps of flesh, then writhing along the ground like serpents, desperately moving out of the way of the coming blast.
This was what we’d been waiting for, why I’d gotten so close to the conflict.
My shades moved with military precision, shining phantom flashlights on each wriggling section of Zilla, hurling blankets and similar bulky objects, frantically trying to keep them from escaping into the night.
Fisher’s scream tore me my attention away from this pursuit. She hadn’t moved her Hook out of the way of Condemner’s attack, and now she was ablaze.
I staggered back, the heat of the fire forcing me to squint and look away. Betty was a tower of flame, a blazing pillar. The Hook didn’t writhe or roll about, it stood motionless, clutching a lump of Zilla’s discarded form.
I whirled to where Condemner’s voice had come from, but I couldn’t make him out.
“Put it out!” I shouted, “You are-“
Mid sentence the heat and light of the flames vanished away. I dropped and rolled, suddenly aware that I’d turned my back on a few of Zilla’s forms.
Nothing fired on me or tried to tackle me, and I pushed out a few more shades as I returned to my feet, scanning my surroundings in an attempt to see where Zilla had gotten to.
All her forms were immediately visible, lying motionless on the ground. Shades surrounded them, shining lights and applying restraints, but so far as I could tell she wasn’t struggling.
Sick at heart, I looked to Betty’s Hook, expecting to see a pile of ash, one more person fooled by Condemner’s person act.
Instead, the Hook stood scorched but intact, tearing the section of Zilla’s form that was still on her into ever smaller portions.
Condemner stood by her, one hand on the Hook’s flank. His grin looked about to swallow up his face.
That hadn’t been an attack he’d launched, that had been Condemner himself. I hadn’t considered that he could might hurl himself through the air like a fireball, but it made sense. And that explained the rest of it.
Given that Condemner could choose what he burned, he’d been able to let Fisher off with a light scorching, while turning Zilla to ash.
Or at least one of her forms.
“Pile them up!” I told my shades, and we hastily began the process of destroying the rest of her mass.
It didn’t move or resist, but I was reluctant to trust that. Who knew when something like Zilla was really dead? How could we tell if we’d missed some tiny segment?
“You all really like to talk!” said Condemner. “We nearly fell asleep out here waiting for that whole thing to wrap up.”
“We were delaying,” I said, between gritted teeth, “In the hopes that you would arrive in time for the fight.”
He chuckled at that, and I nearly slapped him. It irritated me immensely when Condemner acted like a person.
“Did we get Andy?” asked Fisher’s Lure, who had been manifested over by Preventer and Dale. “I didn’t put eyes on him anywhere on the prison, but I figure if he’d gotten away you wouldn’t be nearly so calm.”
“He’s here,” I said, still not nearly as calm as the rest of them. How could I tell if Zilla was really…
I looked to Condemner.
He gave a solemn nod, for whatever that was worth.
Condemner had seemed to have some ability to sense or communicate with gifts before. I didn’t fully trust him, but it didn’t seem like it was in his interest to lie in this situation.
I pulled the shades back into the reserve, finally relaxing a little.
Dale was heaving, blood and vomit pooling on the ground before him. His gift should restore him before long, but it looked like he had gotten hit pretty bad. I’d been most worried about him, out of all of us.
Condemner was fine, of course, and Fisher had only suffered slight damage to her Hook.
It looked like Zilla had gambled on Fisher drawing the Hook away, sending out mobile decoy forms while she tried to burrow her core down into he ground. She’d expected that Condemner wouldn’t fire on his own teammate, and presumably as long as she’d been alive and controlling her forms Dale wouldn’t have been able to use his gift to track her down.
A strange quirk of fate, that Condemner’s ruthlessness had been our salvation. He had, of course, not hesitated for even a second before burning a comrade. I was only surprised that he’d stopped.
“Preventer, are you ok?” I asked.
Ordinarily a useless question, of course, but it hadn’t escaped my notice that she’d done nothing during the battle.
“I’m alright,” she said. “Bastard blinded me, like you guessed. I’m…”
She trailed off, rubbing furiously at her eyes. It was hard to see in the dark, but there seemed to be some kind of filament or goo layered on them, and she was having a heck of a time pulling it off.
“We did it,” said Fisher. “We really did it.”
I looked up the skiff above us, taking it in for a long moment.
“We really did,” I agreed. “Now let’s get to tuning our gifts.”