“-Fuck?” she yelled, finishing the sentence that I’d interrupted.
I fumed inwardly, but made no visible response. I kept myself in my true form, clinging to a toppled beam for sustenance. She’d already proven that she could escape my rush from much closer than she was now. Blitzing her would just wear me out.
“What the fuck do you think you are doing, you Regime shit?” she elaborated. “You want to go at me? At ME? I can see you don’t have a fucking brain in that form, but I thought you could still think.”
I ignored her words, thinking furiously. I could rush towards her again, or just throw flames at her, but all she’d have to do to avoid the attack was to put herself in shadow and teleport away. She could obviously do that extremely fast, but I just needed a way to get there with the slightest bit of my essence. Once she was aflame nothing could save her.
“Whatever,” she concluded. “Fuck you.”
There was no shadow to warn me, my own light driving it away, but I didn’t need one to see the enormous chunk of stone suddenly plummeting down at me. I shot across the ground in an instant, spreading myself rapidly to another toppled strut.
The clash the falling stone made was earth shaking, or at least it felt so to one tethered as I was. The pillar I was clinging to bounced and jostled, rolling end over end. I looked in every direction at once, trying to keep her in sight.
It wasn’t hard, as she hadn’t moved, but it also wasn’t what I needed to do. With my attention focused on not losing track of her I nearly missed her next onslaught, a huge cloud of sand and dust bursting into existence above me, raining down like a granite hailstorm.
This was a lot more serious for me. I could probably have just let myself be crushed by the boulder. I wasn’t solid, wasn’t anything that could be smashed. I’d have just shaped my form into the cracks of it, flowed up and around as though it hadn’t been there.
I’d dodged it instinctively, and also to conceal my lack of substance. But this time the dodge was in deadly earnest, and she’d started this payload a lot closer to me.
I spread across the ground again, forcing my essence to burn that which nature would not ignite. It took all of my Ultra speed, but I managed to outpace the cloud of grit and sand, blazing out of the edge of it and into the superstructure of one of the toppled buildings.
The dust load would have been ruinous for me, an environment with no paths, no air, and nothing flammable. I’d have been stuck burning through it, wasting life force on pebbles and sand of which she had an endless supply.
I’d landed, however, on considerably better terrain for me. The toppled building was at least somewhat intact, a vast and shattered cylinder crammed to bursting with combustibles. I grew through it with alacrity, snaring insulation, wooden furnishings, and a hundred other traces of man’s existence, all ripe with vital essence.
Her third attack was as I figured, a thick sludge of ground and stone, dropped inches from all of the parts of my form that were in the open. I couldn’t dodge at all, couldn’t move nearly fast enough, and she extinguished a swathe of me in an instant.
I coiled through the building, staying within walls and floors, along carpets and furnishings. I kept myself to places where the world around me was solid enough to resist her strikes, places already cluttered and obstructed, where she would have to place each pebble individually.
I was gambling, of course, that she couldn’t teleport forms into other forms, but it seemed a reasonable bet. An Ultra who could do that would be greater than Her, and there was presumably a reason that Vampire was out here scrapping with me instead of running the Pantheon.
There was no fourth strike, or at least not one on the tempo of the other three. My gambit had bought me a little time at least. I tried to put it to good use.
She’d had me cold at the opening, had me out in the street without any cover. She’d been angry and impetuous, probably still terrified from the fiasco in Istanbul, and she’d let me get away. That would be smarting. She’d be looking to simplify the situation, and with her gift I could think of a lot of ways to do that.
The most obvious way, simply hurling beyond the limits of the world, was closed off to her. That was probably the only reason I was still alive. I shed my own light, brought it up out of the core of me and gifted the world around me with it. She had mostly trained against people holding lights, or standing near them. She’d be good at putting things between people and their illumination sources, but that wasn’t going to work with me.
To kill me she needed to extinguish me. If she could get me into my human form then death was easy, in any of a hundred ways. But putting me out wasn’t the most impossible task. I spent energy with every second I burned. Keeping me away from souls or materials would do the trick, or she could use water or inert substances to stop my reaction if she was impatient.
Would she crack my refuge open? Just crush the entire building beneath a larger yet? I wasn’t sure that wouldn’t actually give me more nooks and crannies to hide in, but the thought birthed another a heartbeat later.
Could she? She hadn’t used water to smother me, hadn’t hit me with anything exotic or especially potent. There had to be water in shadow, somewhere, and her range was great enough to bring us here all the way from distant Istanbul. She might have limitations, checks on her gift that I couldn’t easily understand. It would do a lot to explain why the battle with Third Fist had gone on for so long.
“Condemner!” came her shout, filtering its way through the building’s wrecked corridors. “Why are you hiding? Aren’t you some kind of badass?”
I gritted imaginary teeth, wracking my mind. All of my thoughts were being bent to survival. I’d made nothing even resembling an attempt to strike her since my first failure. Was I that outmatched? That overwhelmed? Could the world let me fall without even giving me a chance?
She taunted me again, but I didn’t bother to listen, forcing myself to think of attack, of devouring the bitch, to ignore the fear and focus only on my truth, only on gathering experiences for my greater self.
Her fortress was distance, location. She attacked with control of it, defended herself by changing her location within it. Aside from this petty trick she was only human. All I had to do was cross the intervening area, bring my force to her flesh, and this would be over.
How did she know when to dodge? It couldn’t be just sight. She’d have died long ago, shot in the face by some Union scumbag. She had to have another sense, one that would warn her, some aspect of her gift that let her flee from the death due her, a cheater trick to keep her flesh uncooked.
Most Ultras didn’t have multiple Entities. Most who had multiple gifts were just misdiagnosing two separate aspects of the same gift. Say that was the case. Say this bitch was just a teleporter, just someone with control over forms that were unlit. How could that be twisted into a sense?
She probably sensed light, or dark. Something like that. I couldn’t get the details, but I felt confident that that was basically what was going on. When the fire had drawn near to her she’d registered the change of the light, of her body leaving her gift’s protection, far faster than her human self could act. She’d vanished away on instinct, on automatic.
What did that mean? The only way to kill her would be with something that didn’t change light and dark? I’d have to strike from within the dark, but to do so would be to submit to her power.
“You sure you don’t care about your colleagues?” came the taunting voice? “You don’t mind at all if this one perishes?”
I pushed myself through the ruins, pressing a tendril of my conflagration against a window, looking out over the street.
I couldn’t have planned a better twist. Would she kill Haunter to hurt me? Grant my fondest wish in the hopes that I’d suffer for it? Or that oaf Indulger, Dale’s altered cognition betraying him to the very faction he’d sought to join? Maybe waste her efforts on Preventer’s impervious smugness?
Fisher’s Lure dangled beneath Vampire’s perch, impaled on a jagged hunk of rebar, her blood flowing down the wall in a crimson river.
“Wait!” I shouted, back in my human form. “This is all a misunderstanding!”
What was I doing? I’d left unliving flame burning on the walls around me, but it was a pale and flickering barricade. One gravel attack and I’d be at her mercy.
“Oh yeah?” Vampire asked, voice rich with well-deserved skepticism.
Betty tried to shout something, but she was too gravely injured. Her eyes were glassy, her mouth opened and closed, but I could hear nothing of reason in the pain stricken moan that issued forth.
“Go ahead and kill her!” I shouted, clambering up onto the window sill to look at her directly, burning a flame in my hand at ruinous cost to keep myself safe from her gift. “She’ll just come back to life tomorrow!”
“Did a pussy like you really take out Zilla?” she asked, her voice softer now.
Vampire was hidden in shadow, lurking back on the edge of a ruined hunk of a toppled structure, while Fisher suffered beneath her.
I forced my hate away. What was it Haunter was always saying? Hate couldn’t deliver victory. Prevailer had taught the world that. I needed reason now, in this moment of crisis.
“Let her go,” I called. “You don’t get anything out of her death. I’m just as tough to take down after she’s gone.”
What was that? She’d smell bitch all over that little speech.
“You couldn’t have,” she said. “I heard about Zilla growing up, how she was this ultimate Ultra, how she ruled the Host like a Bride, how she’d have been one of us if the Master didn’t need her to keep the Union in check. Nothing like you could have taken her out.”
I gritted my teeth. The mistake she was making was obvious to me, an idea that a lot of Ultras were seduced into, the notion that people could only be killed by those of their own stature, but I’d gain nothing from pointing it out.
“You are the one who couldn’t have,” I countered. “Just like you couldn’t stop Third Fist. I bet you didn’t even get one, just ran away like you always do!”
Most people get unpleasant truths thrown in their face, from time to time. They get used to it, develop defenses or patterns for it. Not Vampire.
“You guys are nothing like them,” she answered, ignoring my statement “Not a challenge at all.”
“Wow, not even one?” I went on, like she hadn’t even spoken, ignoring her in turn. “They ran you off without even trying? You know the Union killed Leveler once without even a single Ultra?”
She stomped the edge of her platform, face coming out of the shadows. Her teeth were gritted and her eyes were wide and staring. A more perfect picture of fury I’d never seen.
“I killed one!” she shouted, then stopped instantly, a hand rising to her lips as though to catch the errant line.
“You admit it?” I gawked. “Just one? Oh wow I was just guessing. You ran off without even getting Killer? You know she’s not even 20 years old? You ran from a girl with all her teeth?”
Her mouth worked for a second, nothing coming out. She was literally speechless with anger.
And it was doing nothing for me. I wasn’t getting any advantages from my opponent being out of her mind with rage because how the fuck could I beat her? Vampire was invincible. I needed to get out of here before-
“I haven’t killed enough Fist members for your taste?” she yelled. “I guess I should kill one more?”
“No!” I shouted, even as her hand fell like a guillotine to point down at Betty’s drawn face.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, the strong’s elemental contempt for weakness in her voice. “You can’t stand to see your friend gone for even a day?”
I stood mute, flame guttering in my hand. What could I say? What would improve my odds?
What would Haunter do?
“If you don’t want to see…” she drawled, voice thick with an almost elemental cruelty, “Then put out the light.”
I looked back to Betty, looked long and hard.
She was anguished, face contorted in anger. Her human form, always the frailer of the two, was utterly-
Where was her other form?
I looked again, striving for precision despite the distance. Where was her shadow?
Vampire’s hand turned on its end, one finger pointed towards Fisher, the thumb rising and turning the hand into the universal sign for ‘gun’.
“Ok!” I shouted, “Ok, I’ll-“
And I let the light fade. Stood before her as a human entire, helpless and weak.
She smirked at me for a moment, then leaned back into her shadows, hand rising again and moving into a finger snap.
I moved my hands up reflexively, as though there was something to dodge, something that I could do, but found myself instantly gagging for breath, an impossible pressure forcing my form to the shattering point.
I convulsed, uselessly. The airless void around me had nothing to kick off, nothing to burn. My lungs gagged for breath that would never arrive, my hands clawed at nothing.
Above me, or below me, the Earth rose vast and blue, a great glistening sky substitute that blotted out half of the darkness around me, cold and distant.
I flared my gift uselessly, burned a mote of power and lost a foot to a partial transformation, my flame form fading even faster than my human life.
A timeless infinity of pain, of shame and rage, seemed to pass before the crowning humiliation. Fisher appeared in front of me, superimposed over the gleaming world below, her forms both ravaged and damaged, convulsing and choking like me.
I strove to keep my life from fading, flailed uselessly as though I could swim to her. Vampire’d dropped us maybe ten feet away, maybe closer, but it might as well have been miles.
She caught my eye for a moment, her Hook catching sight of me in a moment of synchronicity, wordlessly saying something I wasn’t capable of understanding, but that the defective part of me that had brought me to this pass already knew.
A moment later she raised its hand, a gesture voluntary and deliberate, in stark contrast to the fevered writhing of her human self.
Her claw was bloody for the entire last foot, maybe further along. The blood was dissipating and fading out into the void around it, but I’d been fast enough, had seen it in time.
I dragged my hand up, pointed at my mouth. I was trying to make a ‘fangs’ kind of gesture, but I was fading fast, my vision going rapidly.
I hung on long enough to see her solemn nod, my last act to return her triumphant smile.