“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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 splayed everywhere, blood got all over my boot.
“ee!” 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.