This wasn’t going to be an Ultra Fight, I reminded myself.
I didn’t really need to. Lotus’ juice was pounding away inside me, sharpening my mind like a grindstone, giving me the extra little bit that I need to be fully alive, fully aware of the moment. But it was a good thing to remind myself of anyway.
I’d pulled my punches, back with the Pantheon at their fort. I’d left my enemies alive, tried to turn them into friends. I’d made limited progress, but I’d been doing my damnedest.
But that wasn’t going to be the case with the Brides.
I’d been ducking this fight for a day, and that was about as far as I could stretch it. Manus and Nimbus had been shitting on our names, straight up heeling it up against us, making their own rep bigger by telling everyone how weak they found us.
Nothing that we did, not my own movement of the ground, which doubled the distance the column moved in a day, not Haunter’s work with their healers and scouts, none of it could make up for the fact that we weren’t Brides, and so couldn’t be respected.
The old Dale, or maybe I should say the unaltered one, would have just sat here and let it happen. I’d have wallowed along, secure in my ways, and one day we’d have just been surrounded and lynched by bored kids. It wasn’t naturally my way to be proactive.
But I was working with Lotus now, was pumped to the gills with her yellow juice, and experimenting with just a taste of the red and green drinks. It was definitely changing how I thought, I could tell that.
I’d imagined, back before I met Lotus, that using stuff that changed who you were would be scary, that like the old you would still be back there behind your eyes, just getting madder and madder at what you were choosing, but it wasn’t like that at all. I was still me, or at least I felt like it, but I was just much more awake and more of a heel now.
It had given me the self confidence to step up to the Brides before their bullying could get us killed.
“Say that again?” I dared Manus, looming up over her as well as I could without getting inside of touching range.
This wasn’t as hard as it might seem, since she was all of four feet tall, or maybe a bit shorter. It was still weird how the Brides had members that were so young, who could straight up slaughter when they wanted to.
Preventer had told me that her name meant ‘hands’, so I wasn’t about to let her put them on me. My working assumption was a death touch of some sort.
“Boy Brides weak,” she said, Pantheon accent strong in her speech, “You… more weak. Lick boot.”
She was giving me a chance to back down, in a way. She was in her rights to start fighting already, just from the fact that I’d stood up to her. I could tell, somehow, that she didn’t want this, that she was under pressure of her own, was using us to deflect attention from her own position.
The people around us chuckled along with her line, sneering in at me in a way that felt distinctly dangerous.
This was the most dangerous time. Nobody fought during the day, or not many people. You’d fall behind the column, maybe get hit by Union forces. It wasn’t worth it. Almost nobody fought at night. No audience. But marching ended pretty early in the afternoon, and that left this little window, a few hours where there were a lot of bored Goddesses lurking around.
Nimbus, honestly, was the one that I ought to be fighting, from the talking perspective. She’d been the main one who started all this shit with us. But the problem was that there was no way I could beat her. Her gift would take me out in a second.
“You not chosen,” I told Manus, the girl I could maybe take, “Never chosen. Never will be chosen. Bride in name only. Sleep alone.”
I’d been watching, taking notes. So had everyone else. Every culture had their own version of smack talk, and among the Brides these were apparently sick insults.
The flaring of her nostils, the widening of her eyes, they were all the warnings I got. She swung a fist at me but I was already hurling myself aside as her gift manifested itself.
It was a good thing I’d used my gift, had it drag the ground under me, because I wouldn’t have dodged if I didn’t. Her gift was swift, and given that she was a Bride, I had no doubt it would take me out if it hit.
The ‘hands’ in her name turned out to refer to the shape of her gifts, not to her actual hands. She’d crafted a pair of energy fields, each shaped like a ten foot version of one of her hands. They mirrored her actual hands movement, whirring through the world around her with the same swiftness that a person could do basic hand movements.
For now, they were cupped around her. She had clasped them in front of her like she was holding an egg, and the gift hands clasped around her in the same way. It lifted her up off the ground a little, which was worrisome.
“Kill You!” she yelled, and her cry was taken up by the crowd around us as a cheer and a taunt. I’d seen variations of it a thousand times back in the Ultra Fight rings, but they were in deadly earnest here.
“Kill what?” I asked, putting my hands together before me in a mockery of hers. “Kill time maybe? I am still here!”
I was dimly aware that I should have been absolutely terrified. There was death here. I had no Link to bring me back, and they’d had the same time to find out stuff about us that we had about them. She might easily know to keep my body off the ground if she got a shot in. I might be living my last seconds.
Lotus’ drug didn’t let me care, though. If I was living my last, then the emphasis was on living. I had never felt so focused in my life.
She snarled and swung a fist, making sure it was the one that had previously been on top of her gesture. The energy projection shot towards me, even as she stood safely on the top of the other one, standing on its palm as she mimed the punch.
This time there was no way to skid to the side. She was watching, would simply adjust the angle of the swing. I dropped instead, my gift opening a gap beneath me and sending me plummeting into the earth. I heard the whirr of the wind as her ‘punch’ raced above me, and then I was cradled in the soil, stone and sand rasping about me as my gift carried sideways at an angle.
My thoughts raced along as I shot through the ground.
Not coming up would make me weak in the eyes of the crowd. It would be a death sentence whenever I did come back up, a punch from behind from some cocky Bride and it would all be over for me.
If I came back to the surface, however, she would just swing again, and I’d be right back down here. If I was lucky.
The ground surged around me, my gift making me aware of a great fissure being ripped through it. She had even less patience than I’d expected. I was launching myself back up before I could finish the thought.
If delay would be fatal, then obviously hiding would be twice as much so. I couldn’t let peoples takeaway from this fight be that I was afraid of her, or that I couldn’t stand up to her. Jane had told us over and over that in a group like this the appearance of strength was strength. I couldn’t let her set the pace at all.
I burst out of the surface off to her right, already facing her. I’d been able to tell from the way the furrow had been being dug what angle her ‘hand’ was at, which let me know about where she would be for that to be true. I probably couldn’t have naturally done that kind of problem, but with the Yellow in my body it just happened automatically.
I hadn’t come up empty handed. Even as she was spinning around to face me I whipped a rock at her head, throwing it overhand like a pitching player from a ball game.
I thought it would hit her, but at the last instant the hand she was riding on dropped down a few feet, let it shoot past her head. She brought the other hand, the one that she’d been groping around by her feet with, back up in an uppercut gesture, and once again I had to fling myself to one side.
This time she’d been mad, had moved quickly, didn’t take the time to adjust for my dodge. I got away much cleaner, skidding across the ground on one knee as her attacking fist rose into the sky.
I had a second, before the fist came back down. A few seconds if it was a predictable smashing attack. I tried to work out how I could survive this.
If I kept frustrating her she’d use 2 hands. I knew this, bone deep. She was someone who’d gotten everything she wanted all her recent life, who’d been set off to fight with a simple sentence. She wouldn’t be used to frustration, to long fights. She’d move to end things.
When she did that she’d drop to the ground. I could shoot spikes into her, grind her with stones, but she was a Bride. No way she wasn’t at least Ultra tough one. They would just bounce off, and she’d snatch herself up again, get back on the hand.
I needed to hit her. Needed to be touching the ground when I did it. Only my Ultra strength could harm her. But moving towards her would see me splattered by her fists. I had only dodged the previous two by the narrowest margins. The one under her would come too fast from that close.
Things moved before I could think anymore. Her hand stopped going up and started coming down, a fly swatting gesture. I knew that if I had my gift shoot me sideways it wouldn’t work again.
I lifted my own fist up, then, and the ground mirrored the motion, rising up in pillars around me, like I was trying to hold the field up. Most importantly, they blocked her view of me.
The drugs had saved me again, giving me the answer in a split second. She’d instinctively tensed up her swing, pushing into the ‘down’ of it as I apparently raised a challenge, losing the flexibility to adjust to my slides. This time I’d slid straight away, my motion initially hidden by the collapsing pillars, and by the time she saw me I’d already created a bit of distance.
I showboated a bit, hands folded behind my head, giving a big old wide yawn, like this was just so easy and I couldn’t be bothered.
Nothing could have been further form the truth, but I had to get her mad, get her careless, because I wasn’t going to survive much longer. Whatever I was going to do, however I was going to get my hands on her, it needed to be now.
She pushed the ‘swatting’ hand at me with an actual growl, and my gift took me straight towards it, sliding to it as though I was going to try and meet her punch with my own form.
I wasn’t, of course. The way the fists tore through the ground they were at least Ultra strong 2, and quite possibly a three. They would go through me like I was made of cloud, leave nothing left at all.
She did it again, tensing up into the push when it seemed like it was going to meet resistance, and I swerved at the last second, my gift dropping me down into the ground under the onrushing hand, not losing any velocity in the process, still shooting me towards her.
It took her the critical second to catch what was going on, to realize that I’d ducked under again, that she hadn’t splattered me. She didn’t have the drugs, didn’t have the experience of a hundred Ultra fights. Hadn’t fought real battles against strong opponents like I had.
I’d been lulling her, a bit. Giving her separate opportunities to strike me, setting her up to reset after each strike, to see what I’d try next. Tricking her into the Ultra Fight cadence, not the raw every-second-counts of a real life and death struggle.
It all combined to steal a second, leave her processing that her push had missed without alarm or worry, getting me away from the first strike as she automatically pulled it back, shooting towards her as that alarm finally triggered in her mind, as the primordial sight of a bodybuilder who towered above her charging in upon her pushed her into an instant panic.
It came then, the thrust I hadn’t figured out how to avoid, the shielding hand rising up in an instinctive, undodgeable shove, powered by all the ‘nope nope nope’ in her tiny body, arising from every person’s automatic answer to death closing in.
My body did it for me, solved the puzzle that I couldn’t figure out myself.
I’d palmed a stone when I put my hands behind my head, had carried it through the charge. Even as her hand started the ruinous thrust I was hurling it, every ounce of my momentum and strength behind it.
If it missed I was dead, but I’d never been more alive. It struck home exactly where I aimed, striking her hand just as she started to push it forwards.
The flinch was automatic, a reflex just like the shove had been. I hadn’t given her time to think since she finished the original swat. Ultra toughness wasn’t natural, and with her shields hers wouldn’t have been tested a lot. When her hand took an impact she froze for a moment, bracing for a pain that wouldn’t come, and her gift froze with it, slave to the actual motions of her physical flesh.
I reached her, lashed out instantly, fist moving even as the chasing hand closed from behind me and the one that had frozen lurched into motion again.
I punched her in the head.
In the Ultra fights when you hit someone in the head there was always a sagging, a sort of hammy staggering, like they were fighting for consciousness, or waging some kind of inner war. Or they just went limp, toppled like someone had switched off a light.
None of them were kids though. And I’d never hit any of them nearly this hard.
My fist went ‘into’ the hit, in a way that I’d never felt before, Manus’s skull giving beneath my hand and her body catapulting sideways.
It saved my life, as her fists moved in faithful obedience to the hands that bound them, flying off to the side for the instant it took her gift to realize she was dead.
The red sang in my veins, filled me with energy as I stared wildly around at the onlookers, fist stained with a fluid I was trying very hard to force myself not to identify.
Most of me knew that I’d die if they stepped up, but another part of me, much larger than I’d realized, would relish the struggle.
Their cheers had been cut off, stilled like someone’d put a rope around their throats. They regarded me with a dangerous light, a sea of sullen, angry stares.
“Way to go Indulger!” shouted a voice, off to my left, then another echoed it, offering similar sentiments.
I looked out of the corner of my eye. Ragnarok and some of the others from the fort, swept up somehow to this time and place, their cheers legitimizing my win, making it acceptable that a Bride could fall.
One of the Brides moved up, and I tensed myself, but then she lurched sideways in an exaggerated manner, threw her hands out and screwed up her face in an exaggerated style.
Her colleagues joined in with her mirth, laughing at Manus’ death, taking childish glee in the fall of someone they’d always looked down upon. I heard variations of ‘sleep alone’ and such amid their mirth, and the dangerous feeling ebbed away.
I looked around, the drugs roiling through me, singing their songs of life to me. I could feel everything, could hear every voice, somehow see every face. This was glory. This was what it was to be alive. I was at one with myself, a part of the sky and the ground, wholly a part of this moment in time.
I looked down at my hand, and I wiped the stain away.
“Did it help?” asked Lotus, somehow at my side already. She must have been watching the whole thing.
“Needs more red,” I told her.