In a blink, a flash, I went from cowering in one city to cowering in another, entirely different one.
The new city was far larger, for more elaborate. If Istanbul had cowed and intimidated the Pantheon’s Gods, then this would practically traumatize them. The Union city we found ourselves in now looked like something from another world entirely.
It wasn’t just that the buildings were tall. It wasn’t just that everything was immaculate. It was that it was built, architected, like nothing I’d seen anywhere else.
Buildings rose into the sky, of course, but they didn’t do so in straight lines. They meandered and twisted around one another, crossed whimsically and without any particular rhyme and rhythm all over the place. It was creation without constraint, a godlike design scheme that acknowledged no restrictions whatsoever.
I looked around almost instantly, tearing my gaze away from the bizarre architecture to look for other people.
The first one I saw was a Bride, a tall, gangly woman that I didn’t know.
The second one was another Bride, a short woman who did some kind of spatial distortion thing.
Those were the only people visible along this street. The metropolis was otherwise deserted.
“What the fuck is going on?” I shouted to them, jogging quickly in their direction.
Their body language was cowed, hunched. They didn’t look like they had any more idea than I did about what was going on. One minute we’d been struggling to survive Leveller’s tempest in the ruins of Istanbul, the next we were here.
“Where are we?” asked the taller one.
I was soaking wet, so a surprise attack was right out, but this fucker had the goddamn gall to look away from me, obviously not even considering that I might be able to threaten her.
I controlled my irritation.
“Somewhere in the fucking Union,” said the short one, who had a squeaky voice.
“What should we do?” asked the tall one, gawking at a set of skyscrapers that had been built to look like they were sort of ‘swallowing’ another, like enormous concrete and glass serpents.
“Break everything,” I said. “Kill everyone.”
They looked at me for a second, then nodded.
A third Bride appeared out of nowhere, sort of off to one side. I didn’t know her either. I was starting to think I should have maybe paid more attention to these fuckers.
Off in the distance there was an explosion, but it was a bit too far away for us to see what had blown up. Still, after the insanity we’d just escaped from, we all jumped a bit.
The short one reached out, stretching out her hands like she was grabbing ahold of something, then made a jerking motion.
One of the overhanging skyscraper/snake things sort of glitched across the sky, exploding through another building and bursting into a shower of rubble.
I took two quick steps to the side, my Ultra Speed working over time to track all of the pieces flying towards us. A slab of something hit the tall Ultra, but just cracked in half on her upraised fist. The other two were unscathed.
“Nice one Ymir!” said the new arrival, or something like that. It wasn’t easy to hear over the cacophony, but I was alright at reading lips, and I liked to think my overself, the Entity that had made me, was helping a little.
The tall one seized a big chunk of rubble and heaved it like a shot put towards another building, even as Ymir reached out to do her spatial thing again.
I moved back towards the pair.
“Where are all the people?” I asked, but nobody seemed to have heard me.
The third Bride pointed in a direction neither of the other two had lashed out in yet, and a rushing column of oily brown smoke shot forth, writhing like a serpent as it rapidly expanded.
I decided to call them Ymir, Strong, and SludgeDragon in my mind.
“Ymir!” I shouted, trying to get her attention as she reached out for another pair of towers.
She shot me a questioning look.
Once again I didn’t so much hear her as lip read. Even that was starting to get harder. Dust clouds were sort of rolling out from all the buildings we were damaging.
“I need to dry off!” I insisted. “Can your gift help with that?”
She looked away from me, clapped her hands together and caused the buildings she’d been looking at to lurch towards one another. Their fall started another cataclysmic propagation of rubble and smoke.
Guess that was a no.
“The Union!” I tried, this time yelling at Strong. If I couldn’t get them to dry me off here, then maybe I could get them to escort me to somewhere that I could get it done.
I pointed frantically when she looked at me, trying to imply that the Union was over there, in the rubble and the billowing dust clouds.
As opposed, of course, to over the other way, in what was rapidly becoming rubble and billowing dust clouds.
She looked back to me, nodded furiously, then started running in the direction that I’d pointed, hands held up before her like she was boxing. She nearly collided with another Bride who suddenly popped into existence.
I ran quickly over to the new bride, who had dreadlocks, before she could get to the other two. I opened my mouth to ask her a question, but before I could get anything out she threw herself at me.
Only my gift let me react in time. I twisted the foot I was stepping with and kicked my planted foot out from under myself, while simultaneously ducking/hunching over as much as I could.
It was just barely enough. Her reaching arms missed me with inches to spare, and I rolled past before she could pivot and track me.
I didn’t think this was a deliberate move against our Fist, or anything like that. I figured this was just an Ultra surrounded by chaos and debris lashing out at anyone she could see who wasn’t wearing the Brides’ characteristic outfits.
I kept on moving after my initial dodge, quickly losing myself in the dust and tumult. I wasn’t going to be able to usefully engage with them anyway, just a lot of mouthing stuff at each other while waves of grit and rubble swept over us. Better to be on my own.
That had been an easy decision to make before I actually tried it. I quickly found that my world diminished to a tiny sphere of haze and smoke. I tasted dirt behind my teeth, and my eyes were constantly threatening to squint closed underneath the endless waves of irritating grit.
Being human, having a human form, it was the worst. I longed for the purity of flame. But there was no point in looking for towels or a heat source here. I could hardly tell whether I was on a street, clambering over a toppled building, or pushing through the rubble where a building had once stood. I wasn’t sure that there was a meaningful difference, at this point.
I reached up to rub some dirt off of my face, trying to force myself to think.
We had appeared in a city, obviously one of Union construction.
There were no people in evidence, and there had been no time to evacuate.
Put those two together and it made me think that Vampire’s move had been anticipated. Wherever she’d sent us, if they knew enough to evacuate, they probably also knew enough to have a welcoming committee incoming.
The Union would be attacking soon, if they weren’t already.
All of a sudden my smothered surroundings took on a sinister cast. I crouched, hunched down as though I could feel the snipers lining up their shots.
Did the Union have lenses that would let them see through this foul cloud? Did they have computers to do that? It felt like a thing that they would have. The images we’d seen of their attack on that one Host hadn’t seemed to have a lot of dust in the way.
I moved quickly, set my back to the next piece of rubble that I could find. I had to force myself to think.
I’d survived the maelstrom of the original attack through blind luck and staying near the back. That wasn’t an option now. Vampire’s teleport, presuming that was who had warped me, hadn’t dropped us in anything like a formation.
I was in the middle of a city busily being demolished by the Brides of Zeus, presumably surrounded by Union forces. Which meant I was in the middle of an utterly disorganized set of Ultras who were about to be besieged by their enemies, who would deliver continuous attacks until they fell.
Our march before had been enabled by the shield, and, I guess, the sheer numbers of the Grand Host and the Brides. But after what I saw of the battle with Third Fist, those probably weren’t going to be a factor anymore. Which meant that we would be open to constant and unremitting enemy assault.
Which meant, basically, that I was on borrowed time.
I was probably safe for now, for whatever value of ‘safe’ I was assigning my current status of being almost blind in a collapsing city where the world’s most powerful Ultras were rampaging.
But give it an hour, maybe two, the dust would have settled enough for military operations, the Union’s scouts and spies would have taken our number and measure, and they could start a surgical dismantling of our forces.
I was pretty sure I would be one of the first targets in such a campaign. If I were the enemy I would pencil in a bullet to my own head pretty much instantly. Even if they only thought it would keep me gone until the end of the day that would still be plenty of reason to bother with it.
I spared a thought for the idea that Haunter’s vague schemes with the scouts might have brought us some kind of truce or friendliness with the Union, but I couldn’t make myself believe it. We’d mindfucked their ambassadors. They’d tried to slaughter us back in the Regime. We were enemies.
Besides, did I even want to be friends with them?
I squinted, kneeling there in the grit.
How had I gotten so twisted around, so thoroughly ‘human’ about all this? I was Condemner! I was the devouring flame!
And right here, right now, I was surrounded by some of the world’s strongest Ultras, with their enemies in yet another ring around that, and I was mewling and whining about the possibility that I might not win this glorious battle?
And these idiots thought I was their fucking friend! Their ally! They thought the raging inferno could be reasoned with!
This was what I wanted my greater self to remember? Crouching helpless in the rubble and bewailing my fate?
I rubbed my wrists across my eyes, looking to dramatically wipe the tears away. There weren’t any. The dust had already taken them.
I flopped myself down in the muck and the rubble, rolled frantically about like I’d lost all control of my limbs, like I was trying to put out a fire.
The truth, of course, was just the opposite.
I didn’t need a towel to dry off, didn’t need heat. This gunk that was all about me would do the trick. I writhed vigorously against the stone, pushed my form across the ground as though I was a snake myself.
In due course my efforts were rewarded. I could feel the change, the potential suddenly there. I was myself again.
I did not, of course, turn instantly into my true form. There was little to burn in this particular ruin. It would be a waste of my gift.
What I needed was the fallen buildings themselves, they would no doubt have had wooden furnishings, plasters and fibers. All sorts of flammable things.
What I needed was people. Souls to fuel my rage.
The flying jail had been an appetizer. The battle at Redo had been a cheat, my meal thwarted by Haunter’s gift.
Haunter. That fucking bitch.
Behind a veil of murk and smog I let my face twist into a veritable rictus, a grin so wide it was fucking painful.
Haunter. Indulger. Preventer. Those fucking bitches. It was time to settle things with them.
I wasn’t terribly introspective. I didn’t bother to ask myself why I’d suddenly decided to finish those fools off. That wasn’t interesting.
What would be interesting was cooking them. Baking them. Raising the temperature just enough to hear them scream, but not enough to vaporize them.
I was going to fucking SEAR the rest of my fist. Cook them for long minutes. They had kept me restrained, kept me docile, for far too long. The world believed that Torturer was the Ultra who could inflict the greatest pain, but I would throw my Sigil in the goddamn ring.
I stood up from the ground, hunched over and loped back into the streets of this collapsing metropolis. I moved with all the speed my gift could grant me, changing direction constantly in an attempt to baffle hypothetical shooters.
Where were they? Where was anyone?
A Bride loomed out of the smoke ahead of me, one that I recognized. She was named after some mountain or other, she could changed the directionality of things, make any direction ‘up’ or ‘down’ to friend and foe alike. I think she also had a little Ultras strength.
She saw me coming, raised a hand, then lowered it as she recognized me.
I pointed behind her, let her turn, then set myself alight and descended upon her.
She didn’t even have time to scream. I couldn’t chance her flinging me off, surviving and warning others. I pushed my flame to the max and burned her flesh away before she could so much as gasp.
I was human again before a moment had passed, my motion carrying me into a roll and back into my hunt.
Had I passed through her gift anyway? I dimly recalled that she’d been surrounded by the effect at a low level, enough to push bullets and weak foes away at least. Once again I gave thanks for my formlessness, for fire’s divine lack of structure.
Lack of structure…something about that phrase caught at my mind. Something about the city.
I found a mound of wreckage, alighted once again and began to rage through it, behaving as any flame might. There was a considerable amount of flammable material within the fallen skyscraper, and none of the anti-fire devices humans loved to put in things would do any good when the whole place was a jumbled wreck.
Lack of structure…lack of structure… I mulled the notion over.
Earlier, I’d concluded that they had evacuated this city. That certainly seemed to be the case, but this place was massive. Could they have possibly gotten everyone out?
I gorged myself on a particularly fancy pile of cloth and wood, probably used to be a king sized bed. I devoured a dog’s body and a potted plant that had somehow come down intact as the building collapsed.
It didn’t seem plausible. How much warning could they have possibly had? Someone had left a fucking dog! How efficient could their moving systems possibly be? The people couldn’t all be gone.
So where were they? Something I’d been thinking earlier…
I returned to my human form, materializing within a section of the fallen structure.
The battle at Redo. The people, their souls vouchsafed in Hunter’s bullshit gift. Their bodies, crammed tight inside of a shelter.
I laughed derisively.
There would be no shelter from me.