The howling was what let me know that things had gone off the rails.
I’d been more confident than not, before that, suppressing the urge to flap my hands or generate barriers, laying quietly under the ruin of the building like any other corpse.
I went over the plan in my mind. The bomb would take out the vulnerable members of Second Fist, bury their Knights and shatter their coordination. Haunter would swoop in and rescue Dale, who would use his gift to haul me out through a tunnel or one of his moving caves or something. The survivors of Second Fist would be stuck fighting with Subtracter.
That was best case. If things went a lot worse I might be dug up by an angry Second Fist, but it was still far from certain that they could do anything to me. I’d never tested my gift against Refiner’s, but I might just be able to laugh in their faces.
I might also simply not be dug up at all. My gift would eventually see to my freedom, but that would be long after Subtracter and Second Fist’s survivors had it out. Something of a worst case scenario, if you took Haunter’s notions of our time table seriously, but it didn’t feel quite so imminently threatening.
But First Fist was a different matter entirely. First Fist had Remover, and Pursuer. First Fist, more even than Her, was what I’d run away from the Regime to escape from. I felt like I hadn’t had a day go by when I didn’t remember opening the door into the room in the Garden, seeing Pursuer rise from the ruin of his victim and give me that awful lupine smirk.
That memory, the knowledge of what they were, it was all past my ability to countenance. I started to scrabble at the dirt around me, pushing and clawing with animal ferocity.
A dagger in my position would have scraped their hands raw in a second, would have choked on dust and dirt, maimed or crushed themselves in the shifting of stones. I was unhurt, of course, but for all that I was no closer to escape. My prison gave a little, but the werewolf howls drew closer.
Nirav, back before he’d vanished into Condemner’s awfulness, had tried to talk to me once or twice about faith. His idea was that there was something or someone watching over us, a God to whom we mortals could pray.
I had nothing like that. I thrashed and scrabbled at the rocks around me until a great clawed hand closed over my ankle, and I was ripped unceremoniously out of the building’s depths.
I kicked furiously, uselessly, with my free foot, and flailed my arms around wildly. I screamed in terror and pain, but it vanished into the cacophony of howls that were rising all around me.
Pursuer wasn’t the least bit affected by my writhing. The blows bounced uselessly off him for a second, and then he reared back and slammed me into the ground like a club.
I gasped from the shock of it, eyes clearing in time to realize I was rising into the air again. He slammed me down a second time after that, a great chunk of loose rubble breaking away under my impact.
I focused through the disorientation, through the insane whirl of being slammed up and down like a toddler’s rattle, and braced my other foot against his wrist. As he brought me back to level I pushed with every scrap of leverage and strength I could bring to bear.
Useless. It had just as much effect as the Knight’s efforts to escape my strangulation. Ultra Toughness couldn’t be circumvented by trying hard.
Ultra Toughness, the thought connected with another in my brain. I was Ultra Tough. I hadn’t splatted when he slammed me, hadn’t so much as bruised.
“Aww,” crooned Alerter’s voice into one of my ears, “I was betting on you trying to cut your way out with those bitchy little platforms you used in our fight.”
I froze for an instant, just a second or two away from trying just that, and made myself hang limp.
Pursuer, naturally, bashed me on the ground once more, but I ignored it, just ragdolling and trying to get my focus back.
I was alive. They couldn’t overcome my Ultra Toughness, not unless I used my gift and let them break some barriers. I was a stupid bit-
I shook my head, frantically. I’d imagined that last, or, no.
I was a stupid bitch and no one would ever…
I wasn’t thinking that. Alerter was murmuring it into my ears, inside my ears, using my own voice. I was too dumb to-
I extended a hand in what I hoped was her direction, gave a defiant middle finger as Pursuer finally stopped slamming me and let my body danger from his grasp around one ankle.
“Boss was right again,” came Alerter’s voice, her own voice this time. “Guess we’ll take you back home and then Pursuer gets to play around with you for a while until people get scared enough for him to finish it. Remember, the safe word is giving us some platforms to shatter so his dick rips right through you.”
Pursuer turned away from the ruin and started stomping through the streets, dragging me along and bouncing me off everything that came remotely close to him. His howls roared out for blocks around us, spreading the fear and ensuring that no one would come to my rescue.
“Listen,” I tried to say, not because I had any arguments that would work on First Fist, but because in the right circumstances you tried absolutely everything you possibly could.
I couldn’t get another word out. Alerter echoed my own word back at me almost instantly, and for some reason that made me shut up.
I curled myself around as he dragged me along, grabbed and clutched at anything I could take a hold of. I looked desperately around, trying to catch someone’s eyes in a window, trying to appeal for help.
“I hear everything, for miles around” sneered Alerter, “You remember back when we used to do this to random daggers? Remember your little lecture to your little boy toy? He’s waiting for you too, by the by, Pursuer actually thinks you might let us kill you in exchange for his life.”
Thui? Wait, what lecture?
“Why don’t people ever get together and kill those fuckers? They can’t be as strong as all the Ultras of Shington” asked Thui’s voice into my ear.
Why was she impersonating him, and, wait, why did that sound so familiar?
“She’d stop them,” came my answer, my own voice, distracted and uncaring. I’d been drowsing, resting my head against his chest.
“She can’t bring them back to life!” argued the Thui of the past, “and no punishment She could possibly come up with for us could be as bad as First Fist.”
I kicked again, tried to shout the words down, but Alerter muffled all my struggling.
“Don’t be dumb,” lectured past me, “Even if ‘we all’ could take them out, a lot of us would die, and I’m not about to chance being one of those. It’s better to just let them take their prey, do their thing. It’ll never be anyone important.”
“Don’t you just love being right?” asked Alerter.
The streets passed in a daze of horror after that.
Pursuer dragged me back to the Garden, the place where I’d bluffed them back with the secret of their immortality, where I’d started on this entire journey.
The rest of First Fist were waiting for him, with one obvious exception. Averter was leaning back against a pillar, smoking a cigarette. Alerter and Attacker were making out on the steps.
Alerter reached out a hand to slap lazily at my head as Pursuer dragged me by, the door closing behind me with a chilling finality.
Consciousness returned as my gift knit me back together.
I kept still, pressed myself against my brah, against the good old earth, and let my gift work its healing magic. I let my eyes stay closed, my form stay limp, reaching out only through my gift.
I was in Shington, just outside of the Knight’s building that I’d been confined in.
I sat bolt upright. The Knights had trapped me! Jane and Preventer were off dealing with Pursuer. How had I got here?
I was in a ruined house, cratered down into a basement. I must have been flung across the street, but I couldn’t remember it happening. All I recalled was sitting in that stupid cell, the hours passing away, one after another. I remembered cursing Answerer, cursing Deceiver and the Knights, and myself most of all, for once again leaving solid ground to step into a building.
Never a fucking gain, I swore. But of course I’d done that before.
My hearing came back with a pop, and I nearly jumped out of my skin as I became aware of the howling all around me. I knew that sound.
It was the fucking werewolf guy, he’d finally tracked me down for payback.
I crouched down a for a long moment, before I realized how crazy that would be. I couldn’t feel his footsteps anywhere nearby. Most people I could feel were hunching down in corners or running away.
One was approaching me, something familiar about-
“Indulger?” came a querulous voice, old and shaking.
A man’s voice, one I recognized somehow.
“Who’s-“ my question was interrupted by a great hacking fit of coughing.
Before I could finish my question he’d gotten to the edge of the house, was looking down at me.
Even in silhouette I couldn’t mistake that form. No one could. Anyone in the Regime, anyone on Earth could tell a Company Man by sight.
“Come come,” he said, “She needs you.”
I froze for a second.
“Right now?” I asked, which was a dumb thing to ask.
“Come,” he said again, “Best to do quick.”
There wasn’t a lot he could have said that would keep me from jumping up and going back to find my friends. Whatever had blown up Second Fist’s place might be after them, or they might already be gone. I felt like every bit of me wanted to get to them right away.
But She was that one thing. Company Men didn’t lie, and if She wanted me, then the safest thing for Haunter, Mario and Preventer was to be as far from me as possible. Prevailer wouldn’t care about their mission, or about what they thought of Remover. She would just fold them into whatever She had going on right now, and if they wouldn’t fold, they’d break.
“Uh, I…” I stalled, trying to think a way out of it. I couldn’t take this Company Man out, the others would know. Wouldn’t they? I was pretty sure that was how that worked.
“Be quick,” he said, already turning, “Follow, follow.”
I pulled myself up and hunched after, using my gift to try and improve my knowledge of my surroundings as best as it could, head on a swivel at the ever present howling.
It was weird. I couldn’t sense the werewolf in any of the directions that his roaring was coming from, and I didn’t think echoes worked like that, so there was clearly some other factor going on. Maybe people had recorded them or something. It made me super nervous.
“Follow, follow,” he said again, beckoning me along the nearly empty streets, “Hurry, hurry.”
I tried to find my team with my gift as I chased along after him, but they must have been up on something, or acting like everybody else, or maybe just a long way away. We’d worked out a sort of stomping code that they could use, but only Jane ever really actually did it, and she wasn’t doing it now.
“What does She want?” I tried, pulling up alongside the Company Man. “Did She say?”
He didn’t answer, but there were tears in his eyes when he looked back at me, which rocked the heck out of my world.
They didn’t feel, right? I thought that was the whole thing about the Company Men. They couldn’t choose and they didn’t feel. That was how I’d gotten away with that shit back at the Pantheon’s forts, over across the ocean.
“Wait,” I said, realizing something else, “Where are you taking me?”
We weren’t heading towards Torturer’s zone, or towards the Lair proper. We were just kind of heading off into the city.
“There, there,” he said, pointing to one building along the street.
Why did he keep saying words twice?
“You are saying Prevailer is in there?” I asked him, pulling myself to a stop.
The building was an anonymous ruin on a run down street, nothing at all like what Her taste would be.
“You made a baby with Her,” he said, “So She had to sleep, no warping around. She couldn’t let anyone catch Her in that way, so She hid here, had us tell everyone she was over there. Trusted us because we were soulless.”
His words were hard to catch, a torrent now, and his gesture could have easily indicated half the city. If the Company Men had ever been emotionless, this guy wasn’t anymore.
“She was sleeping when I changed, all the others killed,” he continued, “I gave Her more drugs, kept Her out. Now everything is bad, and the baby is coming.”
“Wait,” I said (baby?!), “You kept Her asleep? You have Her helpless, and you didn’t kill Her?”
“Everything is bad, is bad,” he said, “Bombs and howls. Do we need Her back, or go away? I can’t say. I can’t say.”
“She’s really asleep?” I asked.
I just couldn’t imagine it. The Prevailer I knew was such an unstoppable force, such an invincible figure in my mind. Nothing anyone had ever tried had ever worked on Her. This was just another loyalty test or something.
“She is always my hero,” he said.
“I…” I trailed off.
“Come,” he said, “You were Her pick, you decide what is to do. Wake Her, Kill Her. You pick. Come, come.”
I followed after him once again.
There was no one near the Pain Zone, unsurprisingly.
Mario’d told us that name while he was relating some of his old briefings, and it wasn’t hard to understand where it had come from. Torturer’s gift had taken a huge bite out of Shington, dispossessing those residents who’d fled fast enough, and destroying others. It stretched for blocks, and occasionally moved around as its creator foraged for food.
I’d noticed the absence at least three intersections away, as Shington’s perpetual witnesses gradually made themselves scarce. By the time I got to the edge of it there was no one watching me at all, other than all the skulls.
Someone had helpfully marked up the corners of each of the buildings as I got closer. They’d used a pattern of hash marks, growing more frenzied and vigorous as the edge of the Zone approached. It was a simple danger sign, but no doubt very effective. Even if I hadn’t known about this place, I’d have understood it meant danger.
I stopped at the edge of the zone, then extended a hand toward its edge, being careful not to stray to-
I pulled my hand back instantly, looking frantically at it for any sign of the damage that I’d felt.
A long time ago, before I got my gift, before the world had crumbled, my leg had been wrenched around and partially crushed by a piece of heavy machinery. Even across all the decades I could remember it, the feeling of pain mixed with impossible shifting, parts of my body suddenly rendered down into offal without the slightest transition.
This…I wasn’t sure it hadn’t felt worse, only to vanish the second I pulled my hand back.
I turned my hand over, even as I rapidly retreated from the edge of the zone, but it was naturally completely unmarked. Torturer’s gift struck the soul, not the body.
“I won’t do it,” I announced.
That probably would have been a lot more dignified if it hadn’t been immediately proceeded by a banshee scream, but whatever.
The alley stayed silent, the full moon above shining down on stone, skulls and me.
“I get your fucking game,” I told the listener I’d decided must be there, “You want me to chase after Preventer and fight with your fucking minions. Or maybe I dig around for Dale and end up fighting Deceiver’s jackasses. Maybe both? Why not? Well, I’m not fucking playing.”
“That’s fine,” I said, “But you’ve paved every step of my way to this point. I’d have to be an idiot not to see it. Us surviving, over and over. Me finding out your scheme, figuring out where you were, making it here just in time to be told about a last minute deadline? How dumb do you think I am?”
I felt a bit like the ancient king who was supposed to have told the tide not to rise, standing here ranting at Torturer’s gift, but I was also pretty sure I was right.
“You need me, for something,” I continued, “That’s the only thing I can figure. You need me, and you need me alive. I’m sure if I dragged this shit out, if I chased my friends into one of your traps, I’d come out the end of it. More of the heroes of my reserve would fall, I’d be more fatigued and your deadline would be closer, but I’d make it through. You and your destiny bullshit would see to it.”
Silence and darkness, not that I’d expected anything else.
“Well fuck that,” I said. “I’m coming in now, and we are settling this now. Whatever your plan is, I have no doubt you’ve seen this coming too. So, if you really do need me, you better do something about this.”
It was one of the hardest things I’d ever done to walk back towards Torturer. The memory of the pain of a moment ago was still fresh in my mind.
I took a step, then another, then more beyond that.
At each one I expected to walk headlong into the edge of the zone, to pass instantly beyond where my will could control my form and enter an abyss of agony. But there was nothing.
I looked to the side. I was well past the point where my hand had encountered her gift, just moments ago.
I reached out again, nothing.
I couldn’t believe that had fucking worked.
I broke out in a cold sweat a moment after the realization.
This was actually happening, it had actually really gone just like I’d imagined it. She was here, almost certainly. This was the endgame. I’d finally found her.
The woman who’d Toppled America, who’d brought down the old world and brought about the deaths of literal billions. The creature who’d betrayed us all, making a perfect monster out of Her. The leader of First Fist. Forbidding Entity.
I didn’t know why she’d brought me here, brought us here, but I knew why I’d come.
I’d spent a lifetime bowing and scraping to evil in order to preserve the spirits entrusted to me. A lifetime flattering these assholes and pretending they weren’t garbage. I was fucking sick of it. I wouldn’t back down before these maniacs even one more time. I’d crossed the fucking earth to put a stop to this jackass.
Bitch was going down.
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