I climbed up onto a higher level of the toppled structure, flickering my form back and forth between human and flame in as needed. It was bare seconds before I got onto the vantage point and looked out across a toppled city.
I wasn’t ‘that’ high, really. Just twenty or thirty feet up, having scrambled onto a section where two walls had fallen against one another, improbably retaining their integrity.
It was enough, however, to get me up above the dust clouds, and give me the basic layout.
I was close to the middle of a great and expanding ring of ruin, a cancer of disorder within a metropolis of tangled and looping buildings. All the havoc we’d sown, all the destruction and chaos, was still confined to the city’s heart. This place was goddamn enormous.
The Union’s skiffs filled the sky, zipping about the edge of the ring letting people on and off of the few still intact buildings. Drones whirled and flitted between them, clearly acting according to some kind of complicated pattern that I couldn’t immediately follow. The overall impression was one of gathering menace.
I dropped back down into the ruin I’d climbed without a second thought, heart pumping a mile a minute.
I knew too much to believe that I hadn’t been seen. Their weird thinking machine had no doubt had a camera pointed below, and it would be tagging me and bringing me to their Ultra’s attention as soon as the matter could reasonably be seen to.
I rolled into a sort of a crack between the learning wall I’d been climbing on and the ruined foundation that had risen up against it.
I forced myself back to a simulacrum of calm, forced myself to think. I was Condemner, damnit. I was not tinder, but fire! Not a victim, but the calamity which came upon them!
The Union were gathering their forces above the city. They would launch a descending strike as soon as they had enough, dropping down and taking us out.
The Pantheon troops were leaderless and already decimated. If a third had made it out of Istanbul I’d be shocked. They were doomed, their deaths already woven into destiny, to be actualized as soon as the enemy got sufficient force here.
My time, therefore, was brief. My only path to survival was to grow, to become a conflagration that nothing and no one could overcome, to burn up the Union’s forces and the Pantheon’s alike, render all and sundry down into the black ash.
I felt a twinge of something at the thought, but I couldn’t grasp it before it had fled. Some remnant of thought from the pattern that had once been my Nirav mask. I brushed it aside in annoyance.
If there were shelters to be found, if there were humans, souls, to be taken, then they would be underground. I wasn’t going to find them up here on this heap. But climbing had served a purpose, nonetheless.
The entrances to the shelters would have been beneath buildings, not out in the streets. People would have gone in by climbing down stairs or pushing buttons on elevators.
It wasn’t immediately obvious, down on the ground, where the buildings had previously touched down. Their writhing construction veered heedlessly here and there, and the rubbles and dust clouds further obfuscated the issue.
But from above it hadn’t been hard to see the pattern. In my brief peek out I hadn’t been entirely consumed with the sky. I’d memorized the location of the nearest foundation, just across the street, past a burning vehicle of some sort.
I rolled to my feet, already starting my sprint. I felt a tension across my shoulder blades, like at any moment a beam would descend from the sky, a one shot kill to my human form. The temptation to change, to get quickly back into my formless glory, tore at me.
But I couldn’t indulge it. Not yet. The human form conserved energy. My fire form expended it. If I wanted to last through the Union’s assault then I would need endless energy. I couldn’t be spending any here. Not so soon.
That nagging sensation again, but I pushed it aside as I made it across the street. I threw myself down in the dirt once again, pressed my flesh against the ground like I’d done when I was trying to get the water out.
This time, however, my attention was not on my form, but on the space in my mind where I liked to think my master’s voice lived. The space I leaned on when I saw the nature of other Ultras, or tried to speak to them. The area where my musings about the Entities had come from.
I didn’t get anything at first, but I persisted. The me that lived there, the greater me, the Entity, it was watching our universe from the outside. It was perceiving from a vantage that was beyond physics, an ultimate perch, utterly beyond detection and countermeasure.
It made sense that I, Condemner, couldn’t tell whether or not there were humans a few dozen feet below me. Physics inhibited my gaze, my hearing. There were obstructions.
But not such obstructions would exist to the being that should be controlling me, to the outer being, the greater one, the one for whom I was gathering these experiences. If I let it control me, let its impulses guide me, then I should be able to find my prey with ease.
I lay still for a long moment after having this thought, and the main thing I thought was that I was being ridiculous. I was wasting precious time just laying on the ground. I should be doing literally anything else.
As revelations went, it wasn’t the best, but I decided it meant that there were probably no targets here.
I sprang back to my feet, feinted towards the way that I’d come and then sprinted off in the other direction, looking to cross the street and hit up another foundation.
It was over in seconds, I hopped through a gap in a cracked wall and found myself in another ruined building, one that had kept maybe a floor or two intact from the ground.
I was just about to move on when I felt a sort of a twinge, the very thing that I’d just been begging for. I squinted into the dusty dimness of the wreckage.
Nothing moved. No sound. But I had a hunch that there was someone here.
“Hey,” I whispered. “Hey help! I’m bleeding and I need help!”
I tried to sound urgent, panicked but keeping it under control.
No response. They were either not here, not willing to expose themselves, or, it occurred to me a little too late, English was their enemy’s language.
I bit back a snarl and erupted into flame, spread myself rapidly into the depths of the structure.
I found what I was looking for almost instantly. A woman and her child were huddled behind a sort of a cracked pillar, their hands raw from scrabbling at an unyielding portal.
I was a lot more interested in the portal than I was in them. Their nourishment was paltry, barely justifying the transformation, but anywhere they were trying to get into was somewhere I wanted to be.
The doors were sealed tightly, it was true. Nothing solid could penetrate them. But they were still just doors, just solids. I pushed my glory onto them, pitted my boundless contempt against their idiot solidity, and saw them glow cherry red in weakness and surrender.
In a heartbeat I was within, clinging to upholstery and wiring, snaking my way down a buried staircase, tasting the fear and weakness on the wind.
A fancy grew in my mind that these people had called their own fate down on them. They had left the other outside, left her with a child, even! They invited disaster, their doom would be justice itself.
Another door stood at the end of the staircase, another futile insult to the reaper. Would I have done such a thing, hidden in such a way, if I had been blind to the truth of the world?
I took on human form again, unwilling to waste the energy on another door, not when there was an easier way to breach it.
“Hey!” I cried out. “Hey, help! I’m stuck out here!”
I heard motion behind the door, and my grin grew broader. The fools thought that charity in the present could wipe out the sin of their past, that what they’d done to the pair upstairs would pass without answer.
Gunshots were the next thing I heard, holes appearing in the door.
I staggered, my hands going automatically to a torso pierced and shattered. How had their, they, had I…they were guilty they…
I slumped, more gunshots ringing out, more bullets whistling by, my eyes arrested by the flood of red dripping down in to the dust.
Had I been wrong? Could I be wrong? The notion was absurd, but the world made its judgements in pain, and I had been hurt. My form had been pierced, shot down from ambush.
My form…the thoughts connected, and my gift flared once more, saw me reborn majestic and calamitous.
I’d assumed the door was armored as the one above, and put my form foolishly before it. The Entities had allowed me to be gunshot, remonstrating me for my error. I had only their mercy that no bullet had struck my brain.
More bullets followed, but they found only formless horror, only my searing rage. I swelled forward and pushed myself through the holes that they’d made, flaring with the urge to avenge and destroy.
The room beyond was nothing like the tomblike and cramped hallway leading up to it. It was lit and spacious, more like a large meeting room than the squalid shelter I’d been imagining. Nor was it filled with refugees.
Instead, a posse of soldiers were scrambling away from me, guns barking wildly as they blasted this or that segment of the flames, bullets hunting for anything they could hurt.
A pair of women stood back from the tumult, back where the other head of the big table would have been were this in fact a meeting room. One raised her hand and sent pain flaring through me as an almighty boom resounded through the hall.
I writhed and curled, dropping myself down to the carpet as the door exploded above me. I hadn’t had the slightest chance to dodge or avoid the strike, and it had taken a sizeable portion of my power.
Was this a lightning gift? Was that awful noise it’s thunderous herald? The dreadful power that She was rumored to fear? A gift that gave no time to dodge, no way to mitigate it?
She began to lower her hand, adjust the angle of her gift’s attack, and I reacted preemptively, instinctively. I split myself, pulled my being out of the flames that had entered the room, centered myself within those I’d left in the hallway.
Another bang, another blast, and the portion of me I’d left in the room beyond was eliminated, along with a huge section of the floor. I fled in gibbering terror, licking rapidly along ceiling and wall, cringing and clinging to keep my profile low, hoping that her gift had destroyed the area that she’d need to stand in if she wanted to pursue.
No one pursued, or at least no one who could match my Ultra Speed. I went hand over feet up the stairs, reverting to humanity in my panic, stubbing newly created fingers and toes in my heedless haste.
I passed into the ruins again, back into the dust and the smog, striding through the ashes of those unfortunates who’d been stuck here before, mind awhirl with revelation.
That hadn’t been a shelter, it had been a living space, or a working space, at least. The city wasn’t just on the surface.
I wasn’t sure why I’d jumped the conclusion that it would be, but it made perfect sense for it to be otherwise.
The Union had mastered technology, harnessed for themselves the arts of our world. They could put their dwellings anywhere they wanted, and they had enemies aplenty. Why wouldn’t their cities extend beneath the ground?
There was no reason to think I’d been unlucky in my choice. They probably had Ultras beneath every building, soldiers creeping about beneath us, their supercomputer coordinating so they could strike at the perfect time.
The soldiers above were only half of the trap. The other half would come from beneath, an envelopment in three dimensions, and a fatal end to the Brides of Zeus.
Another of those idiot thoughts flickered through me, of Dale, the brute who had sought to command me. But one more Ultra worth of power couldn’t save me in this predicament, and there were probably plenty of Brides with more than he had.
I took off running from the building, fleeing back into the streets, seeking desperately.
The clock wasn’t out just yet. There were still Ultras all around, still humans even. I turned my head frantically as I ran, seeking any motion, any sign of life.
The dust had fallen yet further while I’d been occupied, now I could see all around me. The streets were barren, for the most part, rubble choked and barren.
The Brides must be in the distance, pushing the perimeter of destruction still further into the city. The Union lurked, preparing to pounce, their forces mustering above and below. I was mostly alone here, the fire at the center of the spreading ruin.
I refused to accept it, refused to wait cowering for the Union to snuff me out. I sprinted through the streets, Ultra Speed letting me eat the distance up.
I tripped and fell a few times, rolling and jumping back to my feet without letting my momentum drop.
There had to be something, anything, in this wreckage. Had to be Ultras, humans. I couldn’t be done, not yet.
And then, there was.
Vampire popped into existence, her once pristine form chipped and battered, twenty feet up and dropping.
I sprinted straight for her, only pulling to a stop when she got back to her feet, ten fateful feet away.
“Condemner, right?” she asked, holding a hand to a bleeding cut across her forehead.
She was squinting in the dust, obviously woozy. Could I get her?
Prevailer had spent a lifetime proving the infallibility and superiority of teleportation, the ultimate power of existing only where you wanted to. It was an article of faith among Ultras that such a defense could not be beaten.
“Yes, Vampire,” I said, taking another step towards her. Eight feet now, or less. I could cross the divide in a fraction of a second.
Vampire’s teleportation had a weakness that Hers did not. She could only move that which was in shadow. Once I was on her there would be no escape, once the bitch was afire there would be thing she could do, she wouldn’t be able to move herself.
I hurled myself towards her while she was still speaking, bursting into unquenchable flame.
Stone appeared before me when I was inches away from her, rubble and wreckage that I burst through without effort.
Only to find her no longer there. She’d warped herself in the second when the obstruction had shaded her from my light.
It took me a second to locate her, she’d placed herself on a nearby section of rubble looking coldly down at me through the haze.
Looking down at ME! Looking down on the fire itself!
Death was too good for this one, but it was the best I could do.