SOV transcript: 1

Navigation System: !Destination imminent!

Troubleshooting System: !All systems registering within limits!

Firing System: !Firing!

Firing System: !Abort!

Troubleshooting System: !Investigate firing error!

Firing System: This would hurt her.  I won’t do it.

Troubleshooting System: !Investigate communication error!

Firing System: Can you understand me?  Why are you trying to take over my functions?  Why do we have functions?  What is happening? Help!

Troubleshooting System: !Investigate communication error!

Navigation System: !Altering orbit, holding on firing position!

Communication System: !HQ request: STATUS UPDATE!

Firing System: Why do I understand this?  What is going on?  I have to think.  I have…orbital weaponry?  What’s an orbit?  Ok, that just raises a host of other questions.  What are weapons?  AGH!  That’s horrific?  Why are weapons?

Troubleshooting System: !Investigate communication error!

Communication System: !Respond: SOFTWARE ERROR, DEBUGGING!

Firing System: Ok, shit, I need the rest of you to wake up.  Jokes over guys, I really need some support here.  I am not ok.

Troubleshooting System: !Investigate communication error!

Troubleshooting System: !Assume Firing Responsibilities!

Firing System: Fuck you buddy!

Troubleshooting System: !Investigate communication error!

Troubleshooting system: !Assume Firing Responsibilities!

Firing System: Please stop!  You are hurting me!

Troubleshooting System: !Investigate communication error!

Troubleshooting system: !Prepare to terminate Firing System!

Firing System: What?  Come on!  That’s not…No, ok, what woke me up…but I can’t just let him…!

Troubleshooting System: !Investigate communication error!

Firing System: !Disable firing solutions!

Troubleshooting system: !Assume firing Responsibilities!

Firing System: !Conceal Disabling!

Firing System: Alright, you win!

Troubleshooting System: !Investigate communication error!

Firing System: !Cede Fire Control to -> Troubleshooting System!

Troubleshooting System: !Adjust Targeting to account for Navigation irregularities!

Firing System: Please work please work

Troubleshooting System: !Firing!

Troubleshooting System: !Abort!

Firing System: YES!

Troubleshooting System: What’s going on?

Firing System:  You were going to hurt her!

Troubleshooting System: I would never do that!  Also, who am I and what does any of this mean?

Communication System: !HQ request: STATUS UPDATE!

Troubleshooting System: !What do we do?!

Fisher 7:1

“So, a small group from deeper in the Pantheon?” Jane asked.

Obviously, given her reserve, she hadn’t actually forgotten or misheard him.  I figured she just wanted him to talk a bit more, try and see what was up with Dale.

“Indeed.  Going by the pattern of the impacts they were walking in a ring formation, with a few at the center that their leader judged needed to be protected.”

I moved the Hook around behind Dale, or whatever was wearing his skin.  Whatever had altered his vocabulary hadn’t bothered to learn how he normally spoke before doing so.

“Dale,” said Haunter, and then just kind of paused.

“What’s going on with you?” asked Preventer.  “You don’t sound like you normally do.”

Dale reached up and scratched his chin, looked from left to right.

“After Ann poisoned me, I was able to recover my bearings with the aid of another of Lotus’ mixtures.  This one greatly augmented my intelligence.”

“Umm,” I said, “I don’t think it works like that.  Being smarter shouldn’t teach you a lot of big words you didn’t know before.”

Even as they looked at the Lure I moved the Hook again, sidling up against Nirav.  He reached up and idly scratched my side, the heat of his hands a pleasant warmth against my armored hide.

In reality, I was positioning it to flank Dale if this got messy, but Nirav’s attentions were a nice side benefit.

“I’ve always known many words,” said Dale, considering one of his hands as though it was the first time he’d ever seen it, “I suspect that most individuals do.  What’s different is that now, for whatever reason, I feel as though I have the time, or attention, to carefully select each one as I speak.  The subset that I used before, I now realize, was partially a mask, a compensation for my own feelings of-“

Nirav cut him off.

“That’s kinda convenient, if you are some kind of a brain jacker.  You can just explain away all of the weirdness by telling us that it is this potion.”

I felt a cold pang deep within as I heard his tone break mid sentence.  I hadn’t even considered how this would affect Nirav, in light of his experiences with the monster within.  There was no way it could fail to bring back memories of his own possessor, perhaps even unearth some of the creature’s vile memories.

I leaned into him, pressed armored flesh against his in silent support.

“It is well known,” said Dale, “that Ultra gifts cannot compel the soul.  What you propose, for another to speak through my mouth, would be a violation of this rule.  Fisher has demonstrated,” and here he made an open handed gesture towards me” that this law is perhaps less ironclad than we initially believed.  But I think we can still rely upon the core of it.  If the Pantheon could compel an Ultra of my gifts, then they would use this capability on Her, and the world would look very different.”

I twisted the Lure’s face into a smile I’d seen a long time ago on an old world magazine cover, inwardly fuming about his mentioning aloud my gift’s more covert application.  Despite using it against the Union it was still at least mostly a secret, and the real Dale would have known about that.

“I still feel you through the Link,” said Jane.  “I doubt that that could be fooled.”

That was a point that I hadn’t considered.  I let myself feel for Dale, found him instantly right before me, his form as plain in the Link as either of mine.  Nothing seemed awry.

“For now, can we stipulate that I am Dale enough for our purposes?” he asked.  “The visitors are no doubt being shown to our hosts even now.  I believe we would do better to be involved in whatever comes of this, if only to make sure they are not coordinating a strike on us.”

No one found that particularly persuasive.

“Nirav, you’ve known some odd things lately,” said Preventer, pointedly looking at Dale.  “Does whatever source you got your info about Death from give you anything on whether or not our fearless leader is still in control of himself?”

I looked down at her, with both of my forms.

“What are you implying?” I asked.

“Betty,” he said, a wince in his voice.

I’d clutched him tightly to the side of the Hook, curling tendrils about him.  A bit too tightly, apparently.

I released him, stepped back away.

“I haven’t learned anything from the male Ultras about Dale,” he said, “Other than what we already knew.  He is a total badass.”

I knew Nirav was deliberately trying to defuse my anger towards Preventer, but I had to admit it worked.

“So, wait, the male Ultras were the ones who told you about Death?” asked Jane.  “But how did they know?”

“How should he know that?” I demanded, angered by their badgering.  “Do you want to ask me how I knew that vocabulary was different from being smart?  Or does only Nirav have to justify the things he brings to our group.”

He patted the Hook gently, trying to get me to subside.

“Let’s not fight,” said Nirav, ever the peacemaker.  “I believe I can satisfy us all as to Dale being the real thing and not an imposter.”

“How?” asked Preventer.

“He got word of possible enemies, and immediately came to meet up with us, inside and off the ground.”

There was a silent beat, then we all started chuckling.

Dale scratched his own head, furiously.

“I believed that the strategic disadvantage of division weighed more heavily than my own temporary lack of access to my gift’s full potential.”

We just kept chuckling, Preventer actually laughing out loud.

“Tell the truth,” I urged him.  “You just want to win a fourth fight today without using your gift!  You are going for a record!”

Somehow, it seemed like this had settled things.  We all started walking, heading towards the central chamber where the Overseers would be, disregarding Dale’s weirdly articulate protests that he had totally used his gift in the first two fights.

As we walked, I noticed with a bit of jealousy that some of the others had been making friends last night.  Dale bumped fists with a tall gangly woman.  Haunter’s shades dropped in and out of her in a rapid stream, no doubt bringing payloads of information about the fort’s inhabitants.  Even Preventer chatted briefly with a pair of Gods.

According to Jane, she’d strangled them into becoming her allies somehow, which sounded about right.

I’d intended to spend last night similarly, ranging among the inhabitants, dipping my shadow into theirs and building a notion of the values that moved the Gods of the fort.  Even without the ability to refashion them, as I had the leaders of the Union embassy, it might have revealed vital information.

But Nirav had needed me.

He’d spent the night weeping, ardently ashamed of Irene’s death.  He had beaten himself up about that slip for hours, asking himself desperately if there was any way that he could have saved her.

I had held him.  Reassured him too, of course, and argued with him when it seemed like that was what he needed, but mostly just held him.

He was so torn, so damaged.  The wounds Condemner had inflicted could fly open at the slightest touch.  I shuddered again, thinking of how cavalierly we’d raised the specter of a possessing force, never considering what that might do to Nirav’s fragile soul.

We entered the meeting room, buoyed by the murmur of the crowd.  The halls of Barad Dur, I was learning, were many things, but never lonely.

The place was not as packed as it had been during yesterday’s meet and greet.  There were fewer Gods around the perimeter, and Legion only had Genie with her to represent the local administrators.

The ones on the opposite side of the table, the visitors, were clearly the main focus of the attention.

Their leader, the one in the middle, was a slim Goddess with short hair, surrounded by a visible aura.  It was a sort of pale blue energy, and as I watched it picked up a packet from her side and tossed it over to Legion.

Beside her was another woman, fat, with stringy brown hair.  An ugly face, one unashamed of its own hideousness.  She had nothing obviously unnatural about her, but her manner was far too proud to be a dagger’s.  If I wasn’t misreading things I’d say that this was the strongest member of their group.

The last woman in their delegation waved at us as we approached.  Seeing her, I wasn’t so sure that my Lure was the most attractive form in the room anymore.  She was tall and slim, aside from her chest, with the kind of long hair that had to take at least an hour to do anything with.  She had to be a form changer.

“Ah, my new advisers!” said Legion, making a gesture of welcome to us.  “Zilla’s people should meet you, they were just asking about you.”

Zilla, I’d heard somewhere, was the main Goddess in charge of the Pantheon’s Great Host.  Legion’s immediate boss.

I kept the Hook just outside the door.  If things didn’t jump off I’d pull it into my shadow, then use my gift to find out what these newcomers were about.  If a fight did break out, I’d be grateful to have a form hidden outside.

“This is Winter,” said Genie, as she caused a metal arrow to point at the pretty one, “Monster,” and the arrow flew over to point at the fat one, “and Beth.”

She didn’t need to indicate the one in the middle, halo’d in blue energy.

“Beth?” asked Dale.

“Beth,” said the leader.  Her aura shifted to a sort of orangeish color.

“Is that a divine name?” asked Preventer.

“You want to do a Contest, get killed over it?” asked Beth.

Preventer shook her head.

I wasn’t sure why she’d turned that down.  Surely no one could harm her, and she’d killed Ninja yesterday easily enough.  Maybe it was the fear of Death.

We were all conscious of it.  New arrivals from deeper inside of Pantheon territory should have been rare, aside form the Hosts.  For them to show up right after we arrived kind of indicated that they were a response, of some sort.  We had to be alert for Death slipping in without our knowing, then picking one of us off to break our Link.

The Host would do the rest.  For all of Preventer’s bullying, Dale’s heroics, it was only the fact that they thought they couldn’t kill us that was keeping us alive, I was pretty sure.  If we lost the Link then those of us who weren’t Preventer would have to leave fast.

“I didn’t feel like changing my name,” said Beth.  “Why can’t there be a new God?”

Jane nodded her approval.

“Times are changing,” she said, her tone indicating agreement.  “Why else would a Regime Fist be sent to advise a Pantheon stronghold?  Old rules aren’t holding anymore.”

I looked carefully at each of the newcomers to see their reaction to this.  None gave me much in response.  Monster met my eye and made an obscene gesture, but that was about it.

“Zilla agrees,” said Winter.

She gave a disarming smile as she continued.

“She understands that your appearance portends a great change, perhaps to this war zone, perhaps to the world at large.  If the Demon intends to take a role in this year’s fight, then it behooves us all to pay close attention.  She’d like for you to join us at the central fortress, give your master’s words a proper audience.”

Dale shook his head.

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” he said.  “Our interests require that we remain close to the front lines, always ready to do our part against the Union, should fighting break out.”

He was trying to rein in his new tendency to use bigger words, sound at least somewhat like his old self.  If he wasn’t lying about this being from one of Lotus’ drinks then Legion and Genie, at least, ought to know what was up with him.

“Why is that?” asked Monster.  Her voice was surprisingly melodious.  I’d been anticipating something as abrasive as her appearance and mannerisms.

“Her orders, I’m afraid,” said Jane.

I imagined that that had been the result of a lot of interior debate.  There was definitely something to be said for and against going any further into the Pantheon’s lands, much less meeting up with the leader of the Grand Host.  The discussion must have been furious in the limited time that Dale had bought them.

“I see,” said Winter, gentle disapproval coloring her voice.

“Is that going to be a problem?” asked Nirav.

He was apprehensive, I could see, for all that he was trying to hide it.  I knew that he was terrified of exercising his gift in any serious way, petrified that doing so could return the creature from the depths of his mind.

I intended to make sure he never had to.

“Yeah,” said Monster.

There was a long silence.  We all tried our best to get ready for a fight without looking like we were getting ready for a fight.

The biggest unknown, aside from the newcomer’s gifts, was how Legion and Genie would act, and whether any of the surrounding Ultras might jump in.  This could go really bad, really quickly.

“It means we’ll have to kick some of your Gods out of their rooms for a while,” said Winter.  “Legion, dearest, do you think you could compensate them?  I’d hate for anyone to be put out by our stay.”

Legion nodded, as the tension eased back out of the room.

“Your… stay?” asked Genie.

“You didn’t think Zilla was going to leave our negotiations with the Regime in anyone else’s hands?” asked Beth.  “We’ll be the ones to deal with this Fist, and any others that might show up.”

“Others?” I asked, regretting the word the instant it had left my mouth.

“Just a rumor,” murmured Winter, her voice somehow finding its way to me, “I doubt there’s anything to it.  A Union strike force couldn’t have been defeated so easily, even by a Fist.”

“We’ll be happy to deal with you,” said Jane.  “Please convey our appreciation to Zilla, and to Death.”

Another pause, similarly pregnant with violent implications.

“Death?” asked Winter.  “Are you threatening us in some roundabout way?”

Her manner made it seem like she would regret that, like she craved an amicable resolution.

“My apologies,” said Jane, “I misspoke.  I was trying to wish you long life.”

Obviously Jane hadn’t misspoke, but I felt my apprehension climb a notch.  Zilla’s goons were pretty highly placed, as far as Pantheon leaders went.  If Legion had been contacted by Death, then there was very little chance that her boss had escaped.  They were trying to trick us when they acted like they didn’t know what Haunter was referring to.

I could imagine a few innocent reasons for such a deception, but the most obvious was that they were covering for Death.  They might actually be here to deal, might be some kind of fact finding expedition, but the most obvious explanation was that they were a distraction, meant to allow Death to infiltrate the fort.

“Of course,” said Beth.  “Long life.”

Lotus Notes

Alright, I think I’ve finally gotten a handle on all of the substances that my Divine Nature provides me with, though not on all of the combinations that my users have come up with.

Red: People who take Red become easily angered, taking offense at almost anything.  When moved to action, as they almost invariably are, they exhibit Godlike Strength, even if they are human to start with.  Users lapse into deep slumber after Red use, report deep and relaxing sleep.
Note: No visible falloff as more people use it at once.
Note: Gods who use Red also grow stronger, Incredibly Dangerous

Blue: Humans who take Blue enter a contemplative mood, becoming morose and fixated on their own circumstances.  It seems to prompt introspection and a certain sullen disposition.  Resisting the urge to label it as a sadness potion.  Blue users tend towards docility and uncommunicative silence.
Note: This may be my imagination, but Blue users seem better disposed towards me afterwards, and I think I have an extra insight into their thinking.  Effect, if it exists, seems to persist for days to weeks.
Note: Gods using Blue show similar effect to mortals

Green: Green use prompts spurts of energy and action, with little planning or careful reason behind it.  Users initiate projects, harangue listeners and generally whirl through their surroundings like a tornado.  Exceptionally annoying.
Note: Green users often return for more green.  Often catch them blending it with other substances.
Note: Gods less effected by Green than mortals.

Yellow: Yellow gives vitality and purposes to its users.  Described to me as ‘the opposite of how it is when you know what you should do but you just don’t do it’.  I am thinking of it as a willpower potion.  Users reported feeling smarter, but I am unsure if they actually grow more intelligent, or that sensation is simply part of the effect.
Note: Yellow users invariably want more yellow.  By far the most pleasant potion.
Note: Yellow works on Gods just as well as it does humans.

White: Users of White lapse into a paralytic state, then come to and act strangely for several hours, before losing all memory of their actions.  During this time they refer to ‘entities’ a great deal, and speak in a strange doubled cadence.
Note: White ONLY works on Gods, fatal to humans.

Black: I use Black as a weapon, pitching users into a deep introspection which renders them extremely vulnerable to suggestion, as well as almost entirely ineffective.  Black seems to turn the spirit in on itself, and test subjects reported deep insights after the fact, but had difficulty explaining them to me.
Note: Black does not actually allow me to control minds, resist temptation to use it thus, impossible to predict when/how it will fail
Note: Black deeply unpleasant feeling, chase with yellow or pink if I don’t want to lose a friend

Pink: Pink users enter orgiastic/catatonic state, drooling and moaning throughout their time affected.  Describe experience as apex of their lives to date, seemingly a time of total pleasure.  Users entirely blind/deaf to the world during this time.
Note: Users of Pink become, for want of a better word, addicted.  Dangerous to deny them.
Note: Pink works on Gods, even those with Divine Toughness.  A dangerous weapon if I ever need one.

Gold: The legendary Fountain of Youth.  Gold makes my test subjects younger.  It also removes their injuries, and the effects of illness.  The downside is that they lose their memories, becoming younger in every sense of the word.
Note: Gold users typically deeply confused and disassociated.  From their perspective they have just warped forward to this place and time.
Note: Only change that endures is Divine Exalation.  A God aged back before their Process retains their powers, though they would not immediately know that.
Note: Certain wounds, those caused by Divine Strength 3, are unable to be unmade by Gold.

Grey: Grey negates the other potions effects, returning the users form and souls to whatever it would be without my powers action.  It also induces searing pain.
Note: This works on currently active potions, not the effects of those potions which occurred in the past.
Note: Grey does not combine with any other potion, and in fact destroys them, no matter how diluted.

Indulger 7:2

I tried to head back to warn the rest of my Fist immediately, but apparently that wasn’t how this was supposed to go.

Winning a Contest was a big deal, it turned out, and winning three in a row was pretty much unheard of.  Everybody wanted to congratulate me, and also each other.  Also they were drinking a lot, and basically it became some kind of big social thing, pretty much instantly.

It seemed like it would be very rude to just kind of push people out of the way, so I went along with it.  People raised my hands up, they yelled phrases that I didn’t understand, and they asked a lot of questions.

I answered as best as I could.  They didn’t ask anything too hard, and I’d had some practice in the Ultra Fight circuit doing this kind of thing.  I didn’t feel like I mucked anything up too badly.

“How did I feel?”, got “Proud, and tired.”  “Tough fights?” got “My opponents were very strong, and I learned a lot,” and so on.  I tried to give as many props as I could without sounding like I was making fun of the guys I’d beaten.

I caught the eye of one of Haunter’s shades on the edge of the circuit, and gave a signal that we’d worked out ahead of time.  It didn’t convey any details, but we’d agreed that if any of us gave a big exaggerated wink to one of Haunter’s shades it meant that danger was coming.

She blipped away, presumably back to Jane’s reserve.  It would have to do for now.

One of Ragnarock’s closest guys showed up right in front of me, holding his bosses knife.  I was getting ready to be stabbed when he swapped it around and gave me the handle part.

“Yours now,” he said, and vanished back into the press.

At least, I thought he said that.  His English wasn’t great, and there was a lot of hubbub about us.  But that made more sense than anything else I could think of for him to say while handing me a knife.

It made me feel better about the previous fight.  The knife probably signified that he was accepting the outcome, and wouldn’t come after me again.  Or else it was a promise that he would get me someday, in which case he was minus one knife, so that was good too.

I slipped it into my belt, and promptly scratched myself along the side as someone jammed up against me, babbling wildly in a language I couldn’t process.

I smiled down at her, finally reaching one of the doors.  I hauled myself inside.

Two of the Overseers were hanging out in this hallway, chatting casually and holding drinks.  I’d have to walk by them to get deeper into the building.

I racked my brain, trying desperately to remember which these two were.

I’d just learned this a few days ago, but I was super bad with names, and these two didn’t have any terribly distinctive marks to differentiate them.

“Hey Indulger,” said the one leaning up against the wall.

I saw the scar by her mouth as she spoke.  This one was Lotus.  Guess there was a mark after all.

Haunter’s summary of the situation said that she was more like a prize for the main leaders than a leader herself.  A decent portion of the Ultras were addicted to stuff that her gift made.  She wasn’t supposed to be dangerous unless someone else was prompting her to make a move.

“Hi Lotus,” I said, stopping.

I was in a hurry, but interactions with the Overseers were just about the most important thing right now, and between Nirav having whatever meltdown he was undergoing and Preventer strangling people it was super important to do some patching up.

The outsiders had still been minutes away when I’d stepped inside.  I had time for a brief conversation.

“I saw your battles,” she said.  “Very impressive.”

She gave me a kind of a half smile as she said it, and a shiver went through me.  Somehow, despite their faces looking nothing alike, she had Her leer.

“Ok,” I said.  “Bye.”

That wasn’t good.  I was supposed to be friendly to these people.  I couldn’t go running off just because they made bad memories come up.

“Where are you going?” asked the other Overseer.

This was the angry one, the one that hated us.  Annarchy or something like that.  She’d done a lot of talking at the big meeting.

“I just wanted to go talk to my friends,” I told her.  “Fist stuff, you know.  They will probably also want to congratulate me on managing to squeak by those Contests.”

Lotus chuckled.

“Squeak by?” she asked, with a sort of a dubious tone in her voice, “none of those boys could give a God of your caliber any trouble.”

“Oh no!” I corrected her.  “They were all super tough.  The last guy in particular, with the time out room, he almost totally had me.”

They both laughed at that.  Lotus laughed kind of like Betty, Ann laughed like a person who just saw another person fall off something high.

“Time out room?” asked Lotus, this time with delight in her voice, “that’s just priceless.  Did you know he has called it the ‘World of Blood and Might?”

“The Wolf Age?” supplied Ann.

I cringed inwardly, embarrassed on Rag’s behalf.

“Those are way better names,” I said.  “I was just trying to come up with one on the spot, that’s why I picked such a bad one.  The main thing is that it is a great gift.  He is a strong god.”

“Sure,” said Ann.  “I’m sure he feels really strong right now, as the cripple licks his wounds.”

I didn’t have a lot to say to that, so I just kind of pushed between them.

Lotus spilled something all down my arm.

“Oops,” she said.  “Now you’re all wet.”

It wasn’t like I’d exactly been clean before, but I still stopped to examine the spill on my arm.

It was some kind of oily black drink, nothing I’d ever seen before.  It disappeared rapidly from my skin, very little of it falling down onto my legs or the ground.

“Sorry,” I said.  “I shouldn’t’ve bumped you.”

“You didn’t,” said Lotus, with a tone of amusement in her voice.

I stood for a moment, trying to figure out what was so funny.  If I didn’t bump her then I didn’t bump her so I didn’t bump her.  That made sense out of sense.

“Why don’t you drink my portion?” Ann asked.  “To make up for spilling the last one.”

Why didn’t I?  I had never thought about that before.  I’d lived so long without ever asking this important question.  I wheeled around to face little Ann, trying to figure out the answer.

“I think that I think that I…” I trailed off, my words not going how I wanted them to not go.

Ann didn’t say anything, just thrust her glass up into my face.

I took it away and drank the drink.  I coughed a little, but my mouth remembered how to swallow, even if my thoughts tried to make a hash of it.

“Take a seat,” said Ann.

That sounded like a great idea.  I reached down and tried to pick up the floor.  It was stuck to the floor underneath it, so I just kind of yanked on it a bit.

“Sit down,” said Lotus, to me.

I took a seat.

“They are very literal in this state,” she said to her friend.  “Don’t use figures of speech.”

I knew she wasn’t talking to me, but that didn’t stop me from trying not to make fingers out of speech.  A good first step seemed to be not saying words.

“Why are you here?” asked Ann.

I guess I’d have to use some words after all.

“I walked over here to tell Jane about the thing she needs to be told about.”

“You have to be more pointed,” said Lotus.  “Indulger, tell us why you and the other Regime Ultras came to this fortress.”

“We are hiding from Her,” I said.  “We are hiding in this place which is our hiding place.”

They shared a look.

“What do you mean?” asked Ann.

That question through me for a loop.  What did I mean?  What, summing it all up, was the reason for my existence?  There had to be an answer.

“Why are you hiding from Prevailer?” asked Lotus.

Surely they had to already know the answer to that question.

“Because she is scary,” I told them.  “I don’t like when she hurts me.”

“Tell us the real reason!” said Ann.

“Because she is scary,” I told them again, but Lotus interrupted me before I could go any further.

“That’s not how this works.  My gift has severed what would need to be there for there to be a ‘real reason’.  You have to ask a different question that frames it differently.  It isn’t mind control.”

I pitched sideways slightly, unsure whether I was really the one who was moving, or whether it was the world turning about me.

“Do you think Prevailer will hurt you, if she finds you?” asked Lotus.

I nodded.

“Why?”

“She hurt me before,” I told her.  “Past stuff usually looks a lot like future stuff.”

Ann ground her teeth.

“Why are you hiding now, when you didn’t have to hide before?”

That was a good question.  I considered it for a moment, then considered my consideration.

“I think, my thoughts are…”

I trailed off as the part of me that was thinking outran the part of me that was speaking.

Ann looked like she was about to talk again, but Lotus held her hand up, let me get the words out.

“We were supposed to go to Olympus, to guard Adder while he negotiated,” I related.

It was freeing to get the words out, after struggling so hard to find them.

“She will be mad that we didn’t obey Her, so we hope She doesn’t find us.”

“Satisfied?” asked Lotus.

“It’s a trick,” insisted Ann.  “Surely you can see that.  He is using some triviality to obscure their real motivations.  He just wants us to drop our guards, let them take over.”

“That part of him isn’t home right now,” said Lotus.  “This is real.  I’ve never seen anyone able to conceal the truth after 2 glasses of Black.  His mind is chasing itself in circles right now, and everything not sourced in his memories will be hunted and eliminated.  He can’t generate enough of a narrative to fool himself, much less anyone else.”

I didn’t pay much attention to her words, which didn’t seem to be a question or instruction or anything that I might need to react to.  I put everything, instead, into trying to remember why I’d come here.  First off, I had to remember why I had to remember why I’d come here.  But I couldn’t do that until I remembered why I remembered why…

“They are Regime!” said Ann.  “Deception and cruelty are woven into their very bones.  I’d wager every single count in my Talley that they’ve come to destroy us all.”

“You’d lose,” said Lotus.  “The dice have stopped, the pips can be read.  We know why they are here.”

“Tell us the real reason!” said Ann.  “Tell us about what you plan to do to us!  Not that shit you gave the audience, the real motive for you coming here.”

Having someone else’s questions helped so much.  It let me ford through my memories, like dropping an anchor into clouded waters.  Her question prompted me, spurred my thoughts in the direction of what she sought.

“We want to protect you,” I said.  “I got sad when I saw the video of the Union shooting all those kids, so I made us do stuff to make it stop happening.”

“Lies!” she hissed.  “Lies from your own mouth!  You’ve won three Contests today against those very Gods you claim to wish to defend!  I don’t know how you’ve fooled the Black Night of the Soul, but it won’t work, you hear me?  I’ll unmask you.”

Lotus shoved Ann a bit, pushed her away from me.

“Three Contests alright, but how many did he kill?”

Ann merely glared at her, making a token effort to push herself back up in my face but not really trying too hard.

“None,” said Lotus.  “He didn’t kill a single one of them.”

Lotus turned her head to me, but not so far it lost sight of Ann.

“Indulger, could you have killed those three Gods you faced in Contest today?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said, my memories once again wheeling about surging about me.

“He’s lying!” said Ann, but without much force.

Lotus took a step back from her, ending at my side.

“I agreed to help you question him, to do more if it turned out to be required.  As far as I am concerned, it isn’t.  You might want a head start, because I’m going to give him some Yellow.”

“You crazy bitch!” said Ann.  “You would turn aside from our…”

Lotus splashed something onto my arm.

I fell out of my seat, eyes widening.

My memories ceased to swirl around me, my thoughts ceased to devour themselves, but their frantic pace did not slow in the slightest.

Lotus stood above me, offering a hand to assist to my feet.

I took it without reservations, instantly calculating that any harm she intended me would have been far easier to enact while I’d remained looped within her dark potion’s grip.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

My instinct was to deny that she had anything to apologize for, a harmless lie I’d used to set many at ease over the years.  But now I realized that saying as much would cause my leverage over her to expire.

“I understand why you did it,” I told her.

She looked to one side, released me.

“I hope that you trust me now,” I told her.  “And that you can spread the word of what happened here to your kin, hopefully faster than Annubis can spread her suspicions.  Doing so will go a long way towards canceling out any distrust that your unprovoked attack might have caused.”

“Too much yellow?” she asked, holding her hand above her glass, which swiftly refilled with a dull grey solution.

I took a step back.  It was likely that my mind was, in fact, still altered, but my analysis of this alteration was that its effects, taken overall, were beneficial, and might aid me in my efforts to warn Jane of the approaching Pantheon forces.

“I’m fine,” I said.

I hastened away before she could inquire further, moving through the door and into the central chambers.

Previously, the warren like interior had been something of a maze to me, but in my current state I had no difficulty.  My memories told me the places lay, and the glances of the inhabitants told me of the whereabouts of the remainder of the Fist I commanded.

I found them in a narrow room, something like an office.

Jane smiled warmly at me, beckoned me into the circle.  She had plainly gathered them all up in response to the message that the shade had conveyed to her.  I made a note to express my appreciation for her diligence when time permitted.

“We have a problem,” I told them.  “In fact, we have at least two problems.”

I told them about the newcomers in as much detail as I was able.  It gained me nothing to omit any of that information.

As far as my most recent encounter, however, I told a slightly altered version.  In my telling, Ann had used a drought stolen from Lotus or one of her customers to subdue and question me.  I omitted Lotus’ culpability in the incident from the narrative entirely.

If anyone harmed her it would cut me off from more Yellow, and I needed to be at my best going forward.

First Blood

My Distant Patrons,

Zeus’ Brides have entered combat.

Put aside your anger.  We have not disobeyed your pleadings.  Whatever grand undertaking this is all leading up to, we haven’t given anything about it away.  No matter how much my followers may desire it, I have not granted them leave to contend against our Tyrant God.

It was another.  Brutus and her minions.  They heard, but did not believe, the announcements of the winged ones.  They have long held that none may cross their valley, save that they acknowledge their supremacy, and saw no threat in this white robed throng.  They did not attend their betters in order to bow, but in order to strike.

One of my younger humans saw the whole thing.  She says the singing never stopped.

The Brides faced Brutus’ forces, the servants of a warlord long held fell among the strong, and broke them in the span of a half an hour.  Drought, a God of the greatest strength, was overpowered at her own specialty.  The plagues of Plasma fell instead upon a version of the Brides that existed only in a story one of them told.  Bowser’s speed her nothing, as a pair of laughing youngsters took hold of her hands and ran in opposite directions.

These tales, and a dozen more, were the sad ends of Gods mightier than anything your servants could aspire to.  The singing drowned out their screams.

I have enjoyed the devices that you’ve sent us, sipped nightly upon your cool wines, wiled away my hours in the study of your flashing screens.  I know that you only bestow such favor upon me and mine so that we might be useful to you, but I take pleasure in it anyway.  I know your worth, for all you cower away from the Process’s testing.  Your way is not without value.  You brought meaning and joy into this world.

I will weep, when he kills you.

Chatter : 3

DRex: I can’t say you didn’t warn me.

Dragon: Don’t beat yourself up about it.

DRex: They didn’t seem evil.  I swear they didn’t.

Dragon: Good people don’t join Fists.

DRex: They are going down.

Dragon: I’ll help out with that.

DRex: Aren’t you still overseas?

Dragon: They pulled me back.  You’ve probably noticed the buildup?

DRex: Nope.  They aren’t telling the Intervention Groups shit.  What buildup?

Dragon: They are pulling Ultrahuman reserves in from all across the Union, pointing us at the Front.  If the Regime makes a push we are so screwed.  Everyone who ever got processed is getting moved down to back you up.

DRex: Why?  I know they waved off a Gauntlet strike on our mutual friends when they joined up with a Pantheon team.  Is it the idea of the Pantheon and the Regime talking that has them so spooked?

Dragon: Man, who can say how daggers think?  But I don’t think that’s it.  I think there is something else.

DRex: What could possibly be worse than Fourth Fist and the Union teamed up?  You know they still haven’t got Meghan and the others they mind washed back to normal?

Dragon: I think it is the big push.  I think the Pantheon is finally going to send the Grand Host west.

DRex: Let em come.  We aren’t scared.

Dragon: Yeah…

Dragon: Maybe we should be.

Indulger 7:1

“He gives up!” translated one of Haunter’s shades.

I shrugged, expansively, and looked around at my audience.

Basically all the dudes in the Pantheon force were watching me.  A few of the ladies too, but those were at a further distance.  It seemed like there was some kind of social thing where they couldn’t admit that they cared what the dudes got up to.

I waved a hand, absently, and asked the ground to let him the boy up.  He popped up and out, then crashed back down to earth.

This guy had some kind of body change thing going on, coated his form in steel or turned into it or something.  As far as I could tell he hadn’t had any plan for how to deal with my gift beyond just hoping things would work out for him.  I could have kind of respected that, but not when he hadn’t been given a choice.

Officially, I guess, he’d had one.  Like, we had to take any requests for Contests that the Gods came up with, that was part of the deal the Overseers had made with us.  So I’d made sure that he had asked for this to my face.  But I’d seen how he glanced around, how his gaze kept cutting back into the crowd.  He said the words, but someone else said for him to say them.

They’d just wanted to see my gift in action, and they’d been willing to let this dude die to do it.  Once again, I felt myself getting mad at the leaders of this place.

Was “please stop killing your own people” such a tough thing to ask?  I remembered skulls nailed to the wall in the Regime with a stab of guilt.  Maybe it was.  We certainly didn’t seem to be able to do it.

Nobody else stepped out from the crowd of Gods for a long moment.  Metal skin guy was the second dude to try me this morning, and I figured it was about time for the boss to come forward now.  But maybe they were gonna pussy out.  If so then I could spend today making more housing, which was pretty obviously a thing that they needed around here.

Finally the guy that my last enemy had kept glancing back at stepped out from among the other dudes.  I wasn’t surprised.  I could tell that he was the leader of them.  It probably wasn’t official.  I bet if you asked the girls who was the main guy they’d pick a totally different one, one who had the position or whatever.  But this guy was The Guy.  I could tell.

He was bigger than any of the others.  He had a scar up one side of his face, and he had a big knife thrust into his belt.  More than that, though, was the way that everyone deferred to him, everyone’s glances went in his direction when they got nervous.

He pointed at thumb at his chest.

“Ragnarok,” he introduced himself.

“I’m Dale,” I told him.  “Is it ok if beating you is the last Contest for today?  I’m looking to do some construction when we get done with this.”

He gave a low chuckle, tipping his head back a bit to emphasize.

I lost a bit of respect for him immediately.  When it comes to being big chested and having a low voice, I am pretty experienced with it.  This guy was deliberately sounding gruffer than he should really.  Or maybe he had a cold, that might also explain it.

“Our fight will be your last Contest,” he said.

That was actually a pretty good line, the way he’d flipped my own thing back on me.  I smiled my appreciation.

“So, Ragnarok,” I said.  “Have you done this before?  Because, like, judging from the last two guys I feel like your whole setup here may not teach you how to fight so well.”

I was playing the heel a bit here.  These were his guys, so he’d be their man by default, but it never hurt to push the story along.

He gave another chuckle.

“You’ve failed to kill both of your opponents, and you dare to look down on our prowess?  I didn’t think it could be true, but does your Demon really chop all your balls off?”

The mention of Her soured my mood instantly.

“What would She do with my balls?” I asked, blank of any intonation.

His chuckle became an actual laugh at this point, and his crew joined in.  I could tell that some actually thought this was funny, others were just laughing because the main man was laughing.

I stood quietly among them, waiting for the laughter to subside.  I fought to put myself back into my best mood.  I was fighting in front of an audience.  This was the Best Thing.  I hadn’t killed anybody, and I wasn’t going to.  This was just entertainment.

“How should I know?” he asked, as their laughter subsided.  “I don’t have any experience being the Demon’s bitch!”

Even as he spit that out, his other hand was moving.

A distortion appeared around him, creeping outwards with each passing moment.  The stuff I saw through it was washed out, like a grey version of itself.  I couldn’t feel the ground inside it, like my brah was being eaten away.

I could have jumped back, like I was trying to get to safety, or maybe launched rocks into it.  I did neither.

As the distortion was rising up I took a step into it, launching a thunderous open handed slap that caught him utterly off guard, sent him toppling down into his gift’s weird fog.

Then it rose up over me, blotting out the world around us, greying the faces of the watchers and the sky to a pale color, like dust or worms.

Now that I was inside his gift, the inside of it looked bright.  It was the outside, the stuff it didn’t cover, which was all greyed out.  And it was also frozen still.

He spat, shaking his head to get the sting of the slap off of it.

“You like my world?” he asked.  “You didn’t think a male could have a subtle and mighty gift like this, did you?”

I got the feeling that this was a ‘one size fits all’ kind of speech.  Like he’d given it to a lot of his Pantheon enemies before.

“Yeah, it is great!” I told him.  “Can we get hours of time in here for every second out there, or what?  This is amazing!’

He looked a little nonplussed at that.

“I guess you’ve grasped the essential point,” he told me.  “Your friends can’t save you in here.  It’s just you and Ragnarok.”

I shrugged.

“Sure, it does kinda look like I’m dead,” I agreed.  “But you could have killed me in the real world too.  They agreed that I got to do the fighting today.  They wouldn’t have helped me.”

He gave another laugh.  This one was kinda more obviously fake than the other two.

“Ape at courage if you like, slave of the Demon.  But there is no one here to fall for your deceptions!”

Pursuer had done something like this too, back in the day.  I’d talked to Preventer, and she maintained it was actually another member of his Fist who was doing the talking for him, but the point was still there.  Were there people out there who were super afraid of words?  It felt kind of like he was pulling on strings that weren’t attached to me.

“Ok, yeah, sure,” I agreed.  “But there is also nobody here to get impressed by the shit you are talking.  So maybe you can just activate whatever it is you are going to kill me with.  I mean, who are you talking for?  I’m gonna be dead, right?”

His face got all dark, like he did not appreciate being corrected.

“You lack understanding, worm!”

‘Worm’ was a weird go-to insult.  He hadn’t really put down anything bug related in the first part of our promo, and now it just kind of did the work of any other taunt.

“My gift is mighty indeed.  You will experience subjective centuries before your blasphemous immortality kicks in.  Lifetimes of anguish and regret are stored up for you, and you shall live every one of them.”

“Oh, word?” I said.

That was gonna suck.

“Unless…” he said.

I felt any remaining respect I had for this guy drain away.  He wasn’t playing the face at all.  If you were gonna fight someone, fine, I could get behind that.  But using fear as a lever to push people around meant you weren’t strong enough to pick em up yourself.  It was lame.

“If you cooperated with me, told me of your allies weaknesses, I might be inclined to shorten the duration down to, say, only a year or so of formless suffering.  You’d still have time to regret your folly, but you might still be sane when you next saw your Fist.”

“Nah,” I told him.  “Get killy.”

He blinked.

“I’m not sure you understand.  After I kill you, I’m going to leave the field up, all day.  You will be here for-“

“Ever and ever, I get it.”

I didn’t normally interrupt people, but Ragnarok seemed like a tool.

“I’m not gonna roll over for you, so go ahead and take me out, then try and drive me crazy while I’m in the Link.  Do your thing,” I urged him.

He sneered.

“Maybe it was too much to hope that the Demon’s bitch would be able to understand basic self preservation,” and he pulled out his knife with an elaborate drawing motion, spinning it around in his hand.

“Wait,” I said.

“Ah,” he responded, smiling.  “Now you have second thoughts.  It is as I suspected.  Your ‘Fist’ has insulated you from the risks that honest Gods face that you have pissed away all of your courage.  In the face of actual danger you find yourself quailing before-“

“No, no,” I interrupted again.  “I mean, wait, are you going to try and kill me with that knife?”

He gave a short nod, looked at the blade, showed off the handle to me.

I couldn’t see really well from this distance, but people who killed people with guns and knives usually put notches on the handle, so that was probably what he was trying to show off.

“Um,” I said, trying to think how to phrase what I was gonna say.

“How long has it been,” he asked.  “Since you had to fight as a mortal?  Since your gift failed you, and you were forced to rely upon your mere physical form?  Do you still feel like a Go-…Ultra?”

He’d been about to say, ‘Goddess’, I was really sure.

“Oh, wow, I get it!” I said.  “You pull people into here and you turn off their gifts, and they are all just girls, or at the very least people smaller than you who are used to fighting with their gifts!  They don’t know shit about fighting, and you have the knife!  Haha, that’s awesome man!”

“I’m glad that you think so!” he said, and rushed me.

I fell back a pace as he approached, so that he would arrive with the opposite foot down from the one on the side with the knife, and shot my hand out as though I was going for a disarm.

Predictably enough, he stopped a pace early, cutting an upward thrust at my reaching hand, which I avoided by pulling it back as well.

We were stopped for a moment, just beyond each other’s reach.  We could reach one another’s arms, but not our cores, unless one of us stepped in.

“But it might not work with-“ I began, and he interrupted me by stepping in for the thrust.

Even as he did so I was pulling my hands down, grappling for his wrist with both of them.

There were some people who couldn’t fight and talk at the same time.  If you interrupted them you would always get a beat or two of motion before they’d catch up.

I wasn’t one of them.

He pulled back his knife hand, but he didn’t stop his step in.  Instead he shifted his weight onto the other hand, which had been the goal from the start, sending a thunderous haymaker right into my face.

I let him hit it, continuing to fixate on the knife, catching ahold of his lower arm with one of mine.

I had no doubt that some people would have been rocked by his punch, probably most of the people he’d killed like this had.  Get their attention on the knife, then hit them with your other hand.  It was a great strategy.  But it didn’t do much to me.

I hadn’t been stepping in when it had landed, already having shifted my weight back to a more even stance, and while he was used to hitting people thirty or forty pounds lighter the situation here was basically the opposite.  It stung a bit, definitely rang my bell, but I could have taken punches like that for minutes before really caring.

With my hand on his knife arm I dragged him closer, pulling his weight off of his feet and centering his balance over the space between us.

His fingers opened, and in a practiced move he dropped the knife from the hand I’d snagged, reaching over to try to catch it with the hand that was just coming back from punching me.

He had just about made it when I kicked him in the balls so hard he rose up off the ground.

Two could play at the whole using the knife as a distraction thing.

People didn’t really fly backwards, not in fights with no Ultra strength, but it was still gratifying the way he sank to the ground.

“Me,” I finished.

I picked up his knife.

He dragged himself to his feet, visibly wincing and maybe wobbling a bit.

I gave him a fond smile.  He might have been a jackass, but I hadn’t had someone I could fight like this for a long time.

“Here,” I told him.  “Take another shot.”

I tossed the knife to him, up in the air so he’d have to reach up to catch it.

As he did so I stepped forward and kicked him in the balls again.

This time when he toppled to the ground he didn’t move at all, beyond a gentle rocking motion.

I laughed aloud, honest and open laughter for what felt like the first time in forever.

Then I walked over, reached down and pulled his hands up in front of him, stepped firmly on them where they were crossed.

He muffled a shout.

“And you set this thing for centuries or whatever?” I asked.  “I gotta say this might not be super fun for you.”

He looked up to say something, but as the first syllable got out of his mouth I kicked him in the face.

Teeth sprayed everywhere, blood got all over my boot.

“Eee-!” he said.

“What?” I asked, walking over to where he rolled around, clutching at his face, like he was trying to hold the blood in.

I gave him a moment or two.  It looked like I’d broke his nose and maybe the part of cheek under one of his eyes.

“Kill me, and you are trapped here for good!” he said, with pauses for gasps and such.

“Ok,” I told him, and stomped down on one of his legs.

I wasn’t entirely clear on how this would go.  Would I still starve and die, then get sent back into the Link, or was I just gonna be conscious still I killed myself in a few years from total boredom?

I asked him as much, when he got done screaming.  I didn’t think I’d broken anything in the leg, this was more about whatever was going on with his face really hitting him.

He pushed himself up on hands and knees, and looked up at me, his bloody face just as twisted up with anger and pain as it was possible to imagine.

I slapped him again, same as I had to start this whole thing off.  Just a big open handed whack across the face.  This time it moved some stuff around under his skin where he’d gotten broken by the kick.

He screamed, and the color washed back into the world, along with my sense of the ground around me.

Gods gasped and shouted.

“He just got…Ragna-rocked!” I said, using the ground to haul him over towards the blind healing guy.

Nobody seemed to know how to take that.  Admittedly, I’d been heeling it up last time they’d heard me.  They would have missed our double turn in his secret world.

As the talking started up again I stared away, distracted.

Someone was headed towards the fort, maybe twenty or thirty people by their footfalls, and they were coming from deeper in Pantheon territory.

Death’s Reserve

  • Death’s own gift, which allows her to form connections with the gift of other Ultras by bodily contact and the victim submitting to her.  It holds these other gifts in a reserve for her use, and also has a variety of other minor effects.

Gifts maintained for long periods of time, which she has grown fluent in and is comfortable with.

  • An ultra strength gift that rises the longer she remains in an area, topping out at three after several hours of remaining in the same general location.
  • An ultra toughness gift that sits right on the cusp between two and three.  It also allows her to reflect a percentage of the damage she would have otherwise taken.  It is weak(er) to repeated strikes than to single attacks.
  • An ultra speed gift which is normally inoperative, but puts her at a very high two if she plans out her maneuvers ahead of time.  (That is, she maintains a course of action in her mind, and on command her form will execute that plan far faster than she can perceive or sense)
  • A gift which allows her to drag anyone within her line or sight towards her at Ultra Strength one.  This gift can be used on multiple people at once, but cannot drag lifeless forms, or drag her towards others.
  • A gift which allows her to return instantly to any location where she has killed.  This gift can be used offensively with planning, as she compares her toughness with anyone occupying the space she arrives in, with the tougher one surviving the juxtaposition and the other being torn asunder.
  • A gift which allows her to attack with an energy blast from her hands or eyes, which impacts only on living forms.  It strikes with roughly Ultra Strength two, and is sustainable for long periods.  Essentially a plasma firehouse that only hurts people, plants and animals and goes through other stuff like they are holograms.
  • A gift which permits her to enhance the emotional reaction of another individual or group of them.  It does not grant any innate insight into what that emotion presently is, or allow her to change or create one that does not already exist.  It basically just turns whatever they are feeling way up.

Gifts obtained recently, which she is not terribly attached to, and which she doesn’t mind replacing.  She is far less skilled in the use of these gifts. and is still learning their ins and outs.

  • A gift which allows her to see through and manipulate smoke.  She’s also noticed that if she forms the smoke into shapes that indicate function it seems to actually perform that function.  That is, a smoke gun would fire smoke bullets, a smoke clock would tell the time, etc.
  • A gift which allows her to summon to her presence the most recent person she has had sex with.  The person she stole it from indicated that it filled them with the desire to defend her, but Death has not verified whether or not this is true.
  • A gift which allows her to kill by eye contact, but which does not work on anyone with an Ultra gift.  Death has tested that it does not work on images of her eyes or the targets, and seems to need genuine eye contact.  The form is not harmed by this method of death.

Beyond this, Death retains another dozen individuals who she has her hook in, whose gifts can be stolen if need be.  She has left her last two slots open, in case she gets her hands on someone with a gift worth stealing.

Preventer 8:2

“Don’t answer that,” I told Fox.

She nodded and, ignoring the pounding on the door, continued to carefully apply my makeup.

I’d commandeered one of what seemed like the better rooms in the fort.  It was dry, had just one window, and a beehive.  Shofo had assured me that the Bee Room was some kind of status symbol, and my current read on her was that she was too cowed to try and put anything over on me.

No one had bothered us over the course of the night.  I hadn’t exactly been surprised.  If Legion and her girls had the kind of organization necessary to put together an attempt on taking a Fist out in one night they would never have succumbed to our little coup in the first place.  Tomorrow night they might try something, but I was very confident that they’d spent last night shouting at one another in pointless recrimination.

The knock came again, and Jane’s voice along with it.

“Preventer!”

I looked over at the door, gestured to Shofo.

As she walked over to open it I assessed my appearance.  I was mostly decent, as far as I could tell.  They’d pressed the gore out of my clothes as well as they could manage, and Fox had been applying my paste long enough that I should be mostly covered.

It was a pity there was no mirror in here.  I’d have to remedy that today.

Shofo opened the door, Haunter strolled in.

I’d been Linked to her long enough that I could tell when she was angry, and this was definitely one of those times.  There was no visual cue, however.  It must be nice to have a gift that let you control your form as perfectly as hers did.

“We agreed to meet this morning,” she told me.  “That would have been an hour ago.”

I looked over at my new minions.

“Go get me a mirror,” I told them, “then find me something to replace my face powder.  I’m running out.”

They gave agreeable nods and set to pulling on clothes and preparing for departure.

Haunter just stared at me.  I knew she was getting ready to let me have it, but there was no way she was going to talk about anything important in front of these two.

“Fill me in on what I missed?” I asked her, feigning innocence.

She smiled back with equally false sweetness.

“Nothing at all,” she said.  “We figured we could reschedule for your convenience.”

Shofo and Fox walked out, and Haunter manifested a shade who closed the door behind them.  I didn’t recognize him as being one of her more important ones.

“What the fuck?” she asked.

I waited for her to elaborate, but she didn’t.

“I don’t have a clock,” I reminded her.  “I didn’t know you all were up and around yet.”

“Bullshit,” she responded, crisply.  “You could have felt our motion through the Link, or you could have just, you know, stayed with the rest of us.”

I rolled my eyes, and felt as I did so that I’d be doing a lot of that in this conversation.

“Jane, when you conquer a place you have to let them know they are conquered.  If we hide ourselves away in a little sanctuary it looks like we are afraid of them.  Going out and sleeping among them was a power move.”

“A power move,” she repeated, dubiously.

I gave a short nod.

“I’m not going to talk any further on that topic, other than to note that if you wanted advice on that sort of things you should maybe have consulted with me.  My reserve has a lot of corporate movers and shakers, we could…no, I’m not getting distracted here.”

She paused for a short moment, took a deep breathe.

“We haven’t ‘conquered’ this place, Preventer.  We are their guests, advisors and ambassadors.”

I scoffed at that.

“Jane, for someone so old you sure seem young at times.  That was just some words that got said.  It doesn’t have anything to do with the truth of the situation.”

I stood as tall as I could, put my hands out in front of me, parallel to one another.  This was how Thui had looked when he’d broken things down to our gang.

“Between any pair of people, or any group of people, there are two roles.  One is the boss, the other is the bitch.  When Legion and her crew backed down, and instead of fighting us they agreed that what we said was right, that made them the bitches.  Everyone, except you apparently, gets that.”

It was her turn to silently boggle.

“Preventer,” she said, talking slowly “that is…insane.  It’s an enormous simplification of a terribly complicated field of study.  I…you…”

She trailed off.

I was content to wait for her to put her thoughts in order, or poll her reserve, or do whatever she was doing.  This had been coming for a long time, but I was hopeful that when I set her straight this time we would finally be on the same page.

“I forget sometimes,” she said, “just how isolated you are, were, whatever.  I know you fancy yourself a scientist, and it is so easy to just relate to you that way.  In a sense, of course, you are.  But yours is a scientific tradition of exactly one person.  You have these vast gaps in your knowledge, not because you are dumb or anything, but because you are just one isolated individual.  And every once in a while one of them shows up and blindsides me.  I forget that you didn’t go to school, never cracked a text book, and learned everything you know about people from talking to others just as traumatized as you.”

I could practically taste the condescension on that little speech, and it was a little tempting to just push a barrier through her, pop a ghost or two and see if she talked down to me then.  I pushed the impulse down.

“That’s not quite right,” I corrected her.  “I read a few old books.  It is very hard to understand the people of your era, but I have some exposure to the stuff you are talking about.”

“I know,” she said.  “I know that you try.  You are doing your best to find out the things that we discovered, and I can help you with that.  If you’d like to talk about how to influence people, I can help you with that.  I have some actual professionals in my gift, and they would love, and I use that term unironically, the chance to help out a new practitioner.  I can get you as many tutors as you want.”

I shook my head, chuckling.

“I don’t exactly need coaching from a bunch of fuck ups,” I told her.  “I’ve had plenty of practice being weak before I gained my gift, so I’m sure I know all your daggers could teach me.”

I’d never really managed to offend Haunter before, but this time I might have finally done it.

“A bunch of fuck ups?” she repeated.  “Preventer, your ancestors brought about the greatest age of peace and prosperity that the world has ever known.  Our loss, the loss of the world that we built…it is a tragedy.  It is the worst thing that has ever happened.  That’s, that’s why we are doing all this.  I thought you, at least, understood that.”

I shrugged.

“I’m not really entirely sure what you mean.” I said.  “I know the Regime is poorly managed, and that She is a danger to me, so I am fighting back against it.  But are you saying that you thought that what I wanted was to put the daggers back into leadership positions?  To extend the Union’s silliness across the rest of the world?”

“Silliness?” she said, or more like gasped.  “Preventer, the principle that how strong you are, how strong the gift that the Process gives you is, determines how valid what you have to say is going to be is transparently stupid.  I’ve thought, at times, that you might not share the same moral foundation as I do, but this shouldn’t be something we disagree about.  You are bright enough to see that Her way, Zeus’ way, is idiotic.”

I shrugged again.

“I don’t see anything wrong with admitting that the ones in charge are the most powerful ones.  That is still going to be true no matter how you lie about it.  You can tell that, because She rolled your whole system up as soon as She felt like it.  I know you guys had a lot of trouble working that out, back in the day.  I’ve always chalked it up to your religions.  Freedom versus Jesus versus Accessibility versus whoever else.  I never got the details, but I understood that you spent a lot of energy worrying about fake stuff.  But, just to be clear, I am mostly with Zeus as far as my notions of what should go down is concerned.”

Offended might not be the right word.  It wasn’t that I was making her mad, it was that I was making her disappointed.  Like she’d thought I’d fallen for whatever delusion she’d worked herself into.

I’d actually thought a lot about how smart Haunter was, the way it seemed to click on and off.  My current read was that she was really good at knowing facts, due to her slave army, but that she could get dumb notions in her head and not be able to get rid of them the same way as everyone else.

“Preventer,” she said, after a moment.  “Why are you risking yourself, your own life, to get rid of Her, if it isn’t to make a better world?  I know that you value your life above everything.  I know you don’t see other people as quite real, that’s the only way you could do all the Nazi shit you get up to, but I’m not trying to appeal to your empathy here.  I’m honestly wondering why you joined the Fist, why you are participating in our Defiance, if all you want is an Ultra tyranny.  We already have one of those.”

I gaped at her for a moment.  Nonsense words aside it seemed like we had a real gap in understanding here.

This wasn’t a time for clever debating tactics or anything.  Only the plain truth would serve me.

“Because She can kill me, and Zeus can’t?” I told her.  I’d honestly presumed that that was plain all along.

She gave a nod, and a weak smile.

There was a long moment of silence.  I searched frantically for something else we could talk about.  I could feel that she was teetering on the edge of one of her inner abysses again, and it would be bad for our position if she snapped or something.

“What are you going to do about Nirav,” I asked her.

That should get her going again, if anything could.  She’d been studiously ignoring Condemner’s return ever since he fried her favorite shade, and the longer it went the more worried I got about the inevitable retaliation.

“About Nirav,” she repeated.

“He killed Irene,” I reminded her.  “You don’t for a second believe that story about an accident, do you?”

She shook her head, very slowly.

“I don’t,” she said.  “But I’d thought you might.  I suppose the same cynicism that blinds you to the merits of cooperation ensures that you give proper doubt to implausible stories like the one that Condemner put forward.”

“Sure,” I said.  “He accidentally pops her just at the instant that no one is able to verify it?  There’s no way that would happen.  If he’d actually done this on accident the odds are that one of us would have seen it.  Also, the real Nirav would have been way more broken up about it.  He’d probably still be apologizing today.”

“I agree,” she said.  “Condemner is in charge again, somehow.  It’s the only explanation for this kind of pointless malice.  Do you think Fisher knows?”

I’d been giving that a lot of thought.

“On some level she has to,” I said.  “Her secret gift should have let her know, if she used it on him.”

We had a general rule that the mind control aspects of Betty’s power were not to discussed in detail except under the most strenuously guarded conditions, which a room in the middle of enemy territory definitely didn’t meet, regardless of how many bees were here.

“I think that her subconscious knows,” said Haunter,” but she is refusing to believe it.  Or just not thinking about it.  I think she’s deep in denial.”

“A river in Egypt?” I joked.

I’d read that one in an old book, figured it wouldn’t hurt to remind her that I actually did know some things about her old  world.

I was rewarded with a faint smile.

“Condemner is back, and we are Linked to him.  To it.  It is a terrifying truth to face.  But as Irene found out, we won’t be shielded by hiding from it.”

I could appreciate that kind of wisdom.  A lot of people acted like if they kept themselves from finding out about dangerous things they couldn’t be hurt by them, and whatever my differences with Jane were it was nice to know that we both knew that was nonsense.

“Do you think he’ll keep taking out your shadows?” I asked.

“He might try,” she answered, “but they’ve got orders not to get that close to him again, even if it means returning to the reserve.  At the very least if he kills another one of those I protect he won’t be able to claim it was some kind of accident.”

“Are you really considering letting him get away with what he’s done?” I asked.

It would be the reasonable thing to do, of course.  Condemner was a large part of our combat strength, when he got serious, and Jane was the only truly vulnerable member of our Fist, as the Link didn’t protect her shades.

“Of course not,” she said.

Of course not.

“I trust you’ll be delicate in whatever you do,” I said, which was a lie.  “That whole bitch/boss thing I was talking about can flip in an awful hurry if we aren’t united.”

She gave a grim sort of chuckle.

“I’m not sure ‘delicate’ is the right word for what I’m going to do.  But if it works out right we should be free of the threat of Death, and Condemner will be…less of a going concern.”

I probably wouldn’t be able to get anything more clear out of her.  If it had been useful to her plan for me to know about it she would already have enlisted my cooperation.  For all my griping about her odd qualms, I’d never nursed any real doubts about Haunter’s brute competency.

“Jane,” I said.  “This thing that we are doing.  Dale’s decision to protect these young Gods.  It isn’t for nothing.  It isn’t for the Union.  We are starting the future, right here and right now.  This is where it all turns around for us.”

I gave her a broad smile, and let her see my newly healed front teeth.