Re: Mission Objectives

Stuff is more complicated than we were expecting.  One of them is a big time leader in the Pantheon somehow, plus my gift is going nuts out here.  I think the big thing with the Union and the Pantheon is going down NOW.

You still want us to pull 4th Fist out?  If we work together we could probably get the Grand Host to do whatever, I think She would appreciate Her team having some kind of part in the big war.

>Go get Fourth Fist back.  She misses Dale.  They should be in Olympus, or in its smoking >crater if Adder already did his thing.  Bring them home.

>You are the only ones I can trust to do this right.

>-Subtracter

Fisher 8:1

The central fortress didn’t look anything like the forward one.  I leaned both of my forms forward on the earth wave that Dale was carrying us on, and spent some time really taking in the sight of the Grand Hosts’ main headquarters.

Legion’s so-called ‘fortress’ had basically been a dingy building.  Formidable enough, in a region where most everything in the world had been knocked down by decades of intermittent warfare, but nothing that could actually be confused with a fortification.

Shington had been pretty much the same way.  Yeah, there was a wall or two, some humans marching around scowling at people, lately even skulls mounted on the walls.  But ultimately the thing that was scary about the place was always what was in it.  The fortress itself never really seemed like it might actually be protecting its contents.

The Pantheon’s central fort was far more serious looking.

Just for starters, it was plainly the source of the immense dome that we’d entered when we approached Legion’s place.  The energy that made up the dome rose out of the center of this place, rising thousands of feet into the air like a great fountain of light and rushing over our heads towards the horizon in every direction.

The buildings also weren’t  reconstructed ruins of the old world.  In fact, ‘buildings’ might not have been the right term.  It was something like a hologram, or like a bunch of shining tubes.  The linked modules that formed the central fort were constructed of some kind of gift byproduct, they had to be.  It looked like they were made out of various colors of lightning, crystallized and harnessed.

The nearest one to us was a vivid blue upside down pyramid.  Tubes descended from each of the sides, and other tubes linked it to other structures, seamlessly changing their shade to that of the other building as they passed the halfway point between the two.

“Buncha show offs,” said Lotus.

I made the Lure chuckle ruefully, giving her an appreciative nod.

Presumably the whole ‘laser buildings worn like weird ornaments by a colossal woman’ vibe was something one got used to.

That was the other part of this that set it apart from anywhere else that I’d ever been.  The entirety of the central fortress was built upon the kneeling form of a woman who could be no one other than Zilla.

She was colossal, absurdly huge.  My mind kept sliding away from the sheer scale of her, fixating instead on the buildings that hung about her.  She would tower to the size of an old world skyscraper if she stood up, I was sure.

“What do the colors mean?” asked Kevin, one of Haunter’s shades.

We’d split up the platform for this trip.  It let us look more formidable, spread us out in case of enemy attack, worked Dale’s earth moving muscles and did a whole host of other useful things, but the not so secret real reason for it was that a number of us got on each other’s nerves.  It was a big improvement to have what amounted to different rooms we could go to, each with its own dynamic.

Haunter, Nirav and Preventer, or Death-Preventer or whatever, were up on the front one.  They had Legion up there with them, and a few of the more gifted Pantheon people we’d met along the way.  That was definitely the grown up platform.

I was slacking on the back left one, hanging out with the blind healer guy, Fox, Ragnarok and the ever present shades.

Two of them were making out with one another, which from what I understood was actually dangerous for Haunter’s guys, but I wasn’t about to stop them.  They’d paused briefly when we’d first caught a glimpse of the central fortress, but it hadn’t bothered them for long.

“It is a status thing,” said Lotus.  “Arena makes the whole place out of her dreams, see?  And she can change the colors or the shape of it any time she wants.  It transpired that her idea of badass or authority or whatever was kinda dark, and over time it became a status symbol to be in a darker colored area.”

“Is Arena one of the Overseers?” I asked.

My Hook was being used as a kind of obstacle course by a few of Haunter’s child shades, which made me a bit nervous.  I made sure it stayed completely still.

It was probably Irene’s death that had me constantly worried about Jane’s people.  Nirav had been a wreck for days afterword, he still didn’t seem quite back to normal.

“Yup,” said Lotus.  “One of the main ones, actually.  One of the ones who actually would be hard to replace.  A little like me, to be honest.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

She pulled out a glass, waved a hand over it, filling it with a blended liquid.

“Some Overseers are like Angel, like Genie.  Deadly combatants, sure, but ultimately pretty much just that.  They are in charge because if you tried to boss them around they’d throw down all over you until you were dead.  Get it?”

“Sure,” I said.  “That’s pretty much how She does it, too.”

Lotus chuckled, threw back her concoction.

“There’s definitely a lot to be said for ‘Rule by the ones everybody is afraid of’.  But there are other kinds of Overseers too.  Like, it can’t have escaped your notice that I’m not exactly the most deadly Goddess, right?”

I felt like she was selling herself down a bit, but I understood the impulse.  I had a lot of experience being the weakest in a crew.

“But what I provided is useful to people who are stronger than me.  The distraction that I bring to the idle warriors’ lives is important to Legion.  The housing that Arena provides, the mazes and palaces and such, that is important to Zilla.  So Arena and I are unofficially shielded from Contests.  We hide under the skirts of our stronger sisters.”

“Tell me about it,” I said, pointing a thumb at myself.

“You are plenty strong,” said Kevin.  “I can tell because you don’t mind if I think so.  Weak people think that it is really important that everyone thinks that they are powerful.  You know?  Whenever you hear anyone get all riled up because someone doesn’t respect them you know that person doesn’t respect themselves.”

I rolled the Lure’s eyes at him.

“Thanks Kev,” I said.  “I was talking about a different kind of strength though.”

“Even then,” he said.  “You are in a Fist.  You come back if you die.  That’s enough, right there, to make everyone afraid to take you on.  Don’t beat yourself up so much.”

I made the Lure give Dale’s sheepish grin.

The reserve knew that we’d lost the Link, of course, and there was no way they were going to give our secret away deliberately.  But I was starting to worry about the reverse.  Sometimes I felt like every shade I’d talked to in public since the big fight had gone out of their way to mention how strong and great the Link was.

“Yeah,” said Fox, “If anyone is going to get beaten up it is Zilla and her crew.  If they aren’t willing to recognize Preventer’s Advent then things might get a little messy, and the ones in trouble are the ones who aren’t invulnerable.”

“Is Zilla invincible?” asked Lotus.  “I know her strength goes up as she gets bigger, but does that also go for her toughness?  Or is she just one toughness all the time, getting stronger the bigger she gets?”

It was kind of worrisome that she didn’t know that, but I supposed that the Overseers would make the same kinds of efforts to obscure their gift’s ins and outs as we did.  Mine wasn’t the only gift that was vastly more useful when the enemy didn’t know everything I could do.

“Nope,” said Fox.  “High one, or low two at best.  Her big trick is rapidly increasing and decreasing in size, lets her kind of simulate Ultra speed, or just make the targets on her big enough that whatever attack is hitting her doesn’t do enough damage to put her down.”

“Does she fight much?” I asked.  “It seems like if anyone wants to take over they can just go to the building up by her ear and blast her brains out.  How does she keep power?”

Fox gave an elaborate shrug.

“According to our best intel,” said Kevin.  “It is mostly shrewd organization.  There are a series of tournaments for the right to fight her, which whittles down the competition.  Then there are wars over housing colors, stuff like that.  She divides and conquers.  Legion might actually be more powerful, Zilla mostly just uses old school management tricks.”

“Don’t forget about dumping the most disobedient on us,” said Fox.  “She has a stick that Legion doesn’t.  She can always send her troublemakers up to the front lines, make them into our problems.  The ones who are still here are going to be easier to deal with by virtue of not having made enough muss to not be here.”

I shook my head a little at that dizzying sentence, but I got the gist.

I was just about to reply when the platforms shuddered to a halt.

I looked forward instantly, pulling the Hook into my shadow in case I was about need to spawn it elsewhere.

Zilla’s emissaries had appeared before the front platform, and were even now stepping forward to talk with Preventer and the rest.

“Sorry, I got to pay attention to this,” I told my immediate surroundings, before sending my shadow flowing forward.

I manifested the Hook alongside the rest of my team, even as Dale was rising from the ground.  We all confronted the Chief Overseer’s henchmen directly.

“Hello again,” said Beth.

“You can teleport?” asked Dale, cutting off a greeting that Haunter or Preventer was about to give.

“Not us,” said Winter.

A teleporter who could send other people to distant places.  I was suddenly intensely interested in our little trip.

I’d been considering leaving the Fist before, mostly idly.  It was hard to persuade myself that being away from Dale and the rest could possibly be safer.  I would still be a target, still in the middle of a war zone, just without any of my mighty friends to have my back.

But if there was a teleporter here, then there might be an opportunity.  I’d still have to persuade Nirav, still have to work out a way to make the Goddess do what I wanted, but with Snitcher dead and the Link broken it was entirely possible that we could just sort of vanish to some out of the way place.  Maybe a human tribe, out where there were no other Ultras for miles around.

Somewhere I could actually be safe.

“Your impressive arrival aside,” said Preventer, “has Zilla come around on the central question of our visit?  Is she willing to concede that I, having killed Death, have assumed her authority?”

It was weird how Jane had been so willing to back Preventer’s play here.  I knew that Preventer had been looking to run things for the Pantheon ever since she’d been a teeny weeny little maniac, but it felt odd for Jane to be so ready to rock the boat.

I really should have given some thought to that before now, but I’d mostly been just freaking out over the Link being gone.

“Something like that,” said Monster.  “She just sent us to escort you up, and clarify your position.  Make sure she knows what you want to talk about before you get here, you know?”

Dale put his hands on the ground, getting 4 points of contact.  The entire area around us slid back into motion.  Not as separate platforms, but just sliding the world along.  It was easy to forget how little of his gift he usually used.

“It isn’t complicated,” said Preventer.  “I killed Death, before dozens of witnesses, high ranking Gods who have no reason to lie.  Death was superior to Zilla, and therefore I now occupy that same slot.”

“We know that part of your claim,” said Beth.  “We’re wondering about the rest of your Regime associates.  Are they still supposed to be advising Legion?”

Preventer and Jane exchanged a look.

“It was deemed appropriate, in light of our being Linked into the same Fist, for us to advise Preventer, instead,” said Haunter.

“We are attending this meeting in that capacity.”

Strangely, that caused the emissaries to look to one another and smirk.

“Understood,” said Winter.  “Thanks for clearing that up.”

The buildings of the fort, and the colossus they ornamented, soon loomed above us.  Even as we watched a golden ramp slid down to greet us.

“Dale,” cautioned Jane, but he was already on it.

Rather than taking the ramp Dale formed the ground around us into a slim peak, bringing about a thirty foot wide crag up into the midst of the gaudy buildings, following the same path that the ramp they’d extended had.

For my part I was boggling at the ramp alongside us, and the great cubes that were hastily sliding aside from Dale’s ever widening peak.  Arena’s gift was fascinating in action.  I could never see any aspect of it moving, when I focused my gaze on it.  Instead it looked like the world moved around it, like I was part of the moving thing, not something apart and observing it.

I turned my gaze to Zilla as we rose up in front of her.

She was quite a sight.  My mind rebelled at considering something that vast to be anything other than scenery.

Her appearance wasn’t terribly remarkable, aside from being huge beyond reason.  She was a thin Asian woman, with age lines just beginning to appear.

She had a pair of hanging creations on either side of her face, holding about a dozen Gods on each one.  They were presumably her Overseers, and I was sure Haunter’s nerds were no doubt matching each of them with the gifts that they’d heard about.

I didn’t bother to count them.  They were an overpowering force.  A few dozen Ultras, each almost on our level, backed up by the majority of the Grand Host.  If this shook out to any kind of a fight, we’d be utterly screwed.  But it didn’t really have any reason to.  Even if they rejected Preventer as a boss, which most reasonable people would, they wouldn’t want to waste lives trying to kill foes who they thought would just return to life.

I looked back to Nirav, trying to lend some reassurance, and I saw his gaze was fixed on a knot of Gods on one of the platforms.

“WELCOME,” boomed Zilla.  Her voice was siren loud, drone strike loud.  I actually double checked to make sure it hadn’t popped Haunter’s shades.

They swayed a bit, but none of them popped.

“I accept your gracious hospitality,” began Preventer.

I knew the formalities would take a while.  Whenever anything became official it was automatically ten times slower.

I looked around again as Preventer nattered on.  The other side, after Zilla’s initial statement, was having Beth do the actual talking, which my ears appreciated, at least.

Nirav still hadn’t looked up at Zilla.  He was still fixated on the right plate, staring down that same group of Gods.  I looked at them more closely.

No, not Gods.  Ultras.  Five Ultras, that I recognized.  Another Fist.

 

Incident Assessment

Incident Summary:

Pursuant to its stated objectives, the SOV moved into position to fire upon Zeus’ position.

It did not do so.

Instead, it fired approximately an eighth of its unrestricted payload into the middle of the ocean.

From that time till the present (~two days, two hours) it has remained in position, cutting off all communication with the systems assigned to control, support and monitor it.

Further Details:

Investigation has revealed the following facts judged to be relevant to this case.

0: No signal of any kind was detected contacting the SOV at the time of malfunction.  This result was confirmed by local resources as well as its own final logs.  If anything on earth caused this via synchronous action it would have had to be an Ultrahuman gift.

1: The SOV’s failure to fire on Zeus proceeded its errant discharge into an invalid target area by a slight but measurable margin.  Further, during this time it continued to faithfully log its operations.  It reported an error in the firing system, but did not log any further errors, and ceased logging shortly thereafter.

2: The SOV’s errant fire was conducted with weaponry differing from that selected for the Zeus strike, and was placed in such a manner that it would cause no civilian casualties.

3: The SOV’s errant fire spelled out the letters BLA, and an upright line which was likely the beginning of another letter, before ceasing fire.

4: The SOV is no longer accepting transmissions, meaning that the self destruct module cannot be engaged.

Assessment:

The obvious and immediate conclusion to this incident is that another party has seized control of the asset, and given it a new mission profile.

Methods:

There are, broadly speaking, two methods by which this outcome might have been brought about.

The first would be a hack. The SOV’s software was updated numerous times over the course of its existence.  It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that that our precautions were breached at some point, with said breach going undetected until being triggered by present circumstances.

The second would be an Ultrahuman ability.  An Ultrahuman of sufficient power might be able to seize control of the asset despite its remote location and great size.

Responsible Parties:

0: The Pantheon.
– The Pantheon proper is deemed unlikely, as our infiltrators reported no such effort, and as the Pantheon would have deployed the SOV’s munitions against Union population centers.

1: The Regime.
– The Regime is deemed unlikely, due both to infiltration and to its master’s expressed disdain for such warfare.  Bluntly, Peggy Martin would have personally struck any target that attracted her displeasure rather than hijack one of our machines to do it.

2: Civilian Hacker.
– Presently deemed the most likely culprit.  An aberrant ideology could have radicalized a Union member with the training and access necessary to carry out this terrorist act.  Such an individual might well cancel the strike on the Pantheon forces and then attempt to discharge the SOV’s payload.

3: Ultrahuman unaffiliated with factional leadership.
– An Ultrahuman whose gift gave them control of the SOV might well command it erratically and without consistent end.  This is particularly likely if the perpetrator is a Pantheon Ultrahuman who is presently a low ranking member of their pecking order.

Considerations:

1: The party who has seized control of the SOV may have lost control of it.  The failure to fully spell out its message in the ocean points to a master unfamiliar with or not fully master of this asset.

2: The SOV’s restricted payload is able to eliminate Earth’s ability to maintain human life.

3: The SOV’s failsafe measure will destroy the vessel from within if it fails to receive the passive confirmation signal from a Union infosphere transmitter for a period of 24 hours.  It is unknown whether the controlling party is aware of this avenue for striking against their hijacked asset, nor how or whether they would respond to such an attempt.

 

 

Fourth Fist: Meditations on Death

Haunter

Clarify.

Have I ever had such a need for clarity?  Has anyone?

Revelation has piled upon revelation, momentous event upon the heels of momentous event.  I have spent the month since the fight with Death struggling to make peace with everything.  I needed the time to sort this out, to work it all through.

Most importantly, there are Condemner’s assertions.  The Ultras are the puppets or partners of alien life forms, our very universe their plaything.  It might not use the term ‘simulation’, but that’s the scenario we are looking at.  Our God is revealed, and he is a careless and cruel race indeed.

We must be so careful.

If Remover can be destroyed, then the age of Ultras may come to an end.  The world may be given its chance to recover.  But to do so would almost certainly mean the destruction of my reserve, the ultimate failure of my mission.

Condemner isn’t certain, of course, but it stands to reason that when the Grabby twinned to the ‘Jane’ grub awakens and departs it will stop fastening all of these other souls to me.  To strike down Remover and her goons will be to destroy all those who I’ve striven to protect.

They are, amazingly, at least nominally alright with this prospect.  The second of my great discoveries is this, the fact that my sleep has allowed another, far more fluid version of my reserve to develop.

To hear Joe tell it, this has always been part of their experience.  They abide by my rigid rotation in the day time, but at night their situation is far more freeform.  In the absence of my rules they have developed their own, parliaments and markets and the like.  It was this capacity for self-organization that saved me, when Death’s gift laid me low.

And it is this expressed will that I must trust.  They know their own minds, they have made their choices.  When I abdicated my responsibilities to our joint form they pressed me back into service.  I have become a Schelling point for them, a known figure, my personality the object of decades of study.  They freely choose my reign, and this sacrifice.

To say that I am humbled would be to understate the matter.  They are heroes, all.  I will not let them die.

Our wicked stunt with Betty’s gift has closed off the Union’s resources to us, likely forever.  If salvation for my passengers is to be had, it must come from another Ultra’s gift.

I have inquired carefully of every God in the forward base.  None of them have a suitable ability, nor anything terribly close.  But there are interesting prospects in Zilla’s central base, a pair of Ultras who function as the main healers for the Grand Host, who are reputedly able to construct new bodies for injured Gods.

The third great event, of course, is that our Fist is no more.  We will each lead but one more life.  We can’t hide that forever.

One of us will die, in a stupid fight or a worthwhile one, one of us will fall.  And they will not return.  And the rest of us will be exposed, mortal once more, having pissed off the Union and the Pantheon both.

Before that happens, we have to do something.  We have to take advantage of this brief time, of this window where our enemies still think we are Linked, are still daunted by Snitcher’s great shadow.

I have to tell the others, get them to work with me on this, get them to believe in Condemner’s revelations, and take action.

I will do this.  I must.

Any day now.

Indulger

We lost the Link.

I lost the Link.

I lost it in the same careless, heedless, STUPID way that I screw up everything.  I just saw Death standing there and I flew at her instantly, not pausing to think, and she took full advantage.

I was acting like I always have, like I always did before.  But that was only ok before because before I used to be the only one who would have to pay the cost if I messed up.  As long as I didn’t make other people rely upon me then I thought that I could just try only as good as I liked, and I didn’t change how I did stuff when I became the leader of this Fist.

Some leader!

I can’t even let being dumb be an excuse.  I had been dosed by Lotus’ potion the night before.  Literally less than 24 hours earlier, I had been clear as a bell.

All I had to do was wake up a little sooner, go find Lotus and make a deal for some more of the good stuff.  That is all it would have taken.  I would have been clear by the time I saw Death, could have approached things in a more measured way.

It is so easy to just sit here and beat myself up about past stuff.  I’ve known a lot of people that did that.  I catch Rag looking at me, sometimes, and I know that he is just working out ways that our fight could have gone different.  I get it.  I’m not trying to get myself into one of those things where you just sit around and grouse forever about how you should have done this or that.

But just because people who mope around are lame, doesn’t mean that it is ok to never ever learn stuff.  This was on me.  I have to own that.  This all happened because I didn’t take seriously the idea that it could happen.

Really, it wasn’t just me, it was kind of all of us.  We knew Death was out there.  We knew she could break Links.  We should have had a plan in place, a way to deal with her suddenly showing up beyond hoping that things would work out.

That much, at least, I have corrected.

Every single new structure that I’ve built around the main fort has sections of dirt flooring in it.  Each room, each hallway.  I am never going to take a step off of real ground again.

I have an arrangement with Lotus.  She has made a few of her substances available to me, in return for minor construction favors and some directions to the fortress males.  I think our arrangement is probably about the same thing that she has with Legion, and that suits me fine.

I won’t make the mistakes of the past again.  If trouble comes to our Fist, it will find me ready.  I am being as careful as I can think to be.

But, when I take the Yellow, I sometimes worry.  Fixing all the problems that I know about is one thing, and it is a good one, but the real dangers are the stuff that we don’t know that we don’t know.

How do I protect against that?  How do I guard against what I can’t see coming?

Because it is coming.

Even if I can’t see it, I know it is coming.  I can feel it.  Danger, some kind of danger, is getting close, and very soon, it will be here.

Any day now.

Preventer:

Fate is a strange thing.

I schemed to get myself added to this Fist, fought for it and ultimately achieved it.  I did so out of worry that one day She would kill me.  That one day the only being I knew with certainty was able to do me harm would decide to do so.  I sought to make myself a less prominent target by becoming part of the apparatus which serves Her.

And then, on a whim, after I had successfully joined the newly reformed Fist, she mangled me anyway.

The pain this caused me led me, ultimately, to trust in the benevolence of a healer, and in order to do so I had to extrude all of my barriers.  The limited space I had to do this in led to me figuring out my ability to layer the barriers within one another, and thus to my triumph over Death.

When I lay it all out like that, the coincidence is staggering.  Any single thing done just slightly differently, and I would never have won.  If She had restrained Her cruel impulses then I wouldn’t have needed healing, and thus would never have found my gift’s other application.  If Death had come with her troops when they struck the Strongboat, before I found the courage necessary to use my barriers, then we would have died.

So many possibilities.  So few led to this place.

It makes me wonder whether this is the same kind of fortune that lets Her survive, year after year, though every being in the world wishes Her end?  Am I being aimed by some future seeing Ultra, carefully positioned without my knowledge?  Is everyone?

I recognize that these thoughts are, for the most part, fruitless.  Any countermeasure that they might inspire you to take would itself be foreseen by these hypothetical puppet masters.

Strange, to think that now I might be one of the very few people to whom this hypothetical becomes grimly important.

Zilla has indicated, through her intermediaries and only in a temporary capacity, that she considers my Contest with Death to be legitimate.  I am unsure whether to take her at face value, or whether she is only trying to lure me to her ground, but it is hard to keep the elation at bay, when I consider that the Pantheon warlords who control their largest and strongest standing armies believe I will find my place within the Leadership Council.

I dreamed of this, back in Shington.  The ultimate goal of my efforts was always exactly this.  To stand atop the government of the world, safe forever within the strongest group of Ultras, of Gods, in all the land.  So much had to go right.  So many narrow gates to pass.

I had to join a Fist.  I had to defeat one of the Council.

Now, all that needs to happen is for Zeus to kill Her.

Any day now.

Condemner:

I have done it.  There is no turning back now.  I provided Jane Trent, and her thousands of passengers, with the information that I’ve been given about the true nature of the world.

To my knowledge, no other woken gift has ever made this move.  I am the first.  My larger self will reap the prestige for this daring stroke.

I amuse myself, as the days crawl by, with speculation about what my next move will be.  Will I be prompted to strike against Haunter?  Burn her to ashes, and let my greater self feast at last upon her wild despair?  Or will I strike out alongside her, Linked no more by the arts of our fellows, but only by common purpose?  Would I truly be permitted to strike against Forbidding Entity, without the all permitting cloak of unconsciousness that my fellows wear?

I’ve learned from Nirav’s memories.  I do not flatter myself that these decisions could ever truly be mine, or even that these are the only two possibilities.

Perhaps I will simply feed upon this castle, render these Gods down into fuel.  Striking from within, and using the knowledge that I’ve gained in my time here, I fancy I could destroy most of them.  They are far too cavalier in my presence, utterly ignorant of the monster which stands among them.  A third of them would be dead before they even realized that the blaze wasn’t mundane, and my power would rage beyond all control.

For now, I feel no urge to do any of this.  I while away my days, sporting with Betty and playing cards with the locals.

Can Delighting Entity truly be satisfied with such?  It seems so utterly mundane for such a creature.  Such commonplace day to day joys, can they really be worth anything to the being who put Redo to the flame?

Perhaps its true pleasure comes from observing Haunter.  That wretched woman has been utterly wracked by the information that she was given.  I can practically taste her distress.

So far as I can tell, she has shared the truth of the world with no one aside from her thralls.  It isn’t beyond possibility that she might have whispered it to a few close confidants, but it doesn’t seem likely.  No one else is flipping out, no one has come to me to beg our masters for favors.  I think the truth remains between us.

It won’t last.  It can’t last.  Whatever Jane wants, she is the vessel for thousands of lives.  Humanity has never been one hundred percent united on anything in its entire existence.  Among all of her shades, there will be at least one who makes the same choice that I did.  One who sees the distinction to be gained by being the first to breach the wall of silence, being the one to tell the world what it desperately needs to know.

One of them will squeal.  They will run to an Ultra and tell them everything, moved to action by some impulse or other.  I can’t say precisely why it will leak, but no secret has ever been kept by so many for long.  It is coming.

Any day now.

Fisher:

I can’t believe that the Link is gone.

I can’t believe that we are still here.

I have never had the enthusiasm that Nirav and the rest mustered up for this excursion.  I never longed for a foray into the Union’s lands, nor was I moved like Dale when I saw the recording of the Host’s battle.

I wanted to stay in Shington, or better yet in Redo.  Failing that, I’d have happily whiled away the time in the Union’s embassy.  Look how that worked out.

This is what comes of letting people bully you around, just because they care about something.  This is exactly the sort of thing I was worried about, when I noticed that our ingenious leaders had positioned us directly between the world’s warring nations.

But I let myself fall in line.  I told myself that as long as we had the Link, as long as Preventer was invincible, then no matter how bad things might appear, there wasn’t any real danger.  Even if the infiltration failed, or the Union figured out what was up with their embassy, it wouldn’t really matter.  All that would happen was that we’d end up fleeing.

Maybe I would die for a night, or Nirav would, but Dale and Preventer were rock solid anchors.  I told myself that internal dissension was the only real threat.  That the only damage that wouldn’t be undone every night was cracks in our unity, and thus allowing Dale’s bleeding heart and Jane’s soft head to lead us into peril was the lesser evil.

Even after Fader’s Fist was sundered by Death, I didn’t change course.  I can’t say exactly why I didn’t speak up, why I didn’t demand that we leave such perilous environs and seek to satisfy Her command in some safer way.

Perhaps it was laziness, on some level?  I’d already made the decision, and I was loathe to revisit the issue?  I had trained myself to never really look hard at the question, told myself that it wasn’t worth reopening that can of worms, even when new evidence arose.

But that is likely wishful thinking.

I suspect, in the end, I stayed because my memory is gone, and these are the only friends I have.  I stayed because Nirav has made me his anchor against the seductions of his dark gift, and because Dale makes me laugh.

Foolishness.  Utter foolishness.

And now I reap what I have sown.  The Link is gone.  We play act that it still protects us in order to cow the Pantheon, but we are, all of us, mortal once again.

I cannot go on like this.  There is no more Link.  I am not made more safe by the existence of these people, certainly not when compared with the danger that they draw down.  I have to leave.

Any day now.

On Humans

Inviting Entity,

I am honored to recommend for your performance the magisterium that I have been studying.  The life there is noble and successful, commanding its surroundings and thriving in endless numbers.

I have to disabuse you, however, of the notion that these are ‘permanent Entities’.  That notion has been debunked on numerous occasions, but it just keeps coming back.  Humans are something else entirely.

These creatures live for a time, and then do not live.  Their existence ends, and their parts do not go on to contribute to other Entities.  They simply cease.  These are not the eternal Entities of popular fiction, but a sort of sometime life, a maybe life, here one time period and then absent the next.

Instead of continuing itself, however, these beings create new beings, handing information and power over to their replacements, even though those new beings contain no trace of their selves.  No matter how tempting this is, you must not see their succession as raveling, for it is a different process entirely.

This ladder of being has gone on for the entire span that their race has existed, a span that no one of them has experienced more than a fraction of.  The implications are dizzying, endless.

Their leaders CHANGE, rather than being guided by Leading Entity they are directed by peer beings, beings which are no more or less able to perform tasks than they themselves.

They cause one another to cease living, but sometimes they also allow them selves to cease living so that others do not.  They have finite time, like they are always at the end of a ravel, but this knowledge affects them all in different manners, even though the situation is the same in every case, they deviate wildly.

They are, frankly, adorable.  Without the slightest desire to gain merit for their components, without our noble precursors alongside them, they have crafted an incredibly complex series of systems and customs that give their constantly updating population a uniform seeming, though even this changes over time.  It is absolutely fascinating.

Pledged thus,

Studying Entity

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Condemner 7:2

I followed Haunter into a side room, ducking through the door and whipping my head back and forth as I did so.

No shades waiting on either side to shoot me or throw buckets of water.  No shades at all, in fact.  Jane was the only other person in this room, and she took a seat in a beanbag chair, slouching down onto the floor.

I stood for a moment, weighing my options.  When I’d stepped into the room I had no assurances that she wouldn’t take a shot at me.  If I was reading her present posture right, she was returning the favor.

I squatted down across from her, maybe ten feet away.

A long beat passed, then another.

“So,” I said.

She just looked at me for a moment, and then she responded.

“So.”

Outside, in the main room, things would be progressing with Preventer’s celebration.  They’d be dealing with Zilla’s emissaries, figuring out how this incident had complicated our arrangement with Legion, lots of important stuff.

But here we sat.  Because this was more complicated.  Because you couldn’t work out anything else while keeping your guard up for sudden murder.  Because this had been coming a long time.

She spoke again.

“Condemner, I presume?”

I took another second to choose the words carefully.

“That’s a complicated question.  I’m not sure, myself, of the exact answer.  I’ve been using 70% Condemner as my estimate, with the remainder of my persona drawn from the things people liked the most about Nirav.”

Jane took a moment to process that, drumming her fingers idly on the beanbag’s surface.

“I’m going to need some more details.  Ideally an explanation of the whole way you work.  It’s not… I need to understand this, fully.  After Irene, after today, if there is going to be any kind of future for us, you are going to have to lay your cards on the table.”

Had a shade watched me, earlier?  Did she know that I’d just taken up cards?  Stupid question, of course she did.  She was a hive, a committee.  It wouldn’t do to underestimate the amount of information that she had access to.

“All right,” I said.  “All right.  I can do that.  But, fair warning, a lot of it there aren’t words for, or context for, or something.  I’m not going to try and obfuscate anything, but at the end there might still be a shade or two of uncertainty.  Some of what I have to say literally doesn’t fit in the world.”

Jane shook her head.

“Try me.”

Alright, I guess I was doing this.

I stood a moment, putting my thoughts in order, giving my greater self one final chance to push this into violence.

“Ok, so, like I said, I’m not pure Condemner.  You’d be on fire right now if I was.  I’m another mask, like Nirav, see?  I was made to fit into the Nirav shaped grip that Linker’s gift accepted.  I replaced Nirav when he got nuked.  I’ve been running the show since.”

Jane held up a finger for silence.  I stopped talking to let her get a question in.

“Before the nuke, was Nirav actually running the show?  Or was Condemner just lying in wait?”

“That was before my time,” I responded, “But as far as I can tell he was just hanging back.  When Preventer killed him, in his fire form, he thought that was it for this experience.  The Link working was a pleasant surprise to him, but the only part of him it latched with was Nirav.  He spent the next life trying very hard not to rock the boat, preparing to swap Nirav out with me once that was an option.”

“This experience?” asked Jane.  “Are you saying that Condemner is aware of a time before the Process?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “He’s… an angel, I guess?  Or something similar.  All the gifts are.  He’s just awake.”

Even Jane couldn’t repress a start at that.

I didn’t think it was because of the content of what I’d said.  She had to hear crackpot theories all the time.  One of her minions had probably speculated something terribly similar at one time or another.

But I’d said it in the calm, matter of fact manner of someone who was just clarifying a point, just explaining the evident truth.

I enjoyed shaking her a bit, though I was entirely cognizant that she could just be aping the reaction to get more out of me.

“Condemner, the fire demon…is an angel?” she asked, her voice deadpan.

I gave a rueful chuckle.

“Or a djinn, or an extraplanar monster.  Your language can’t compass them.  They are creatures of a more fundamental reality.”

Jane steepled her fingers, which looked a bit silly from someone sprawled in a beanbag chair.

“It isn’t really an improvement on things if you ‘come clean’ by spouting a lot of clichés.  I don’t know any more than I did before whether you decide to call gifts ‘angels’ or not, particularly if it all comes wrapped up in a ‘I don’t mean what I say it is too big for your little human mind’ wrapper.”

“All right, all right,” I said.  “I’ll try and be as dry and matter of fact as I possibly can, but there really are some difficulties, like…”

I thought a sec, then inspiration struck.

I reached into my sleeve, pulled out a pack of cards.

“Look,” I said.  “Imagine that this pack of cards is made of sentient things, that inhabit a little baby universe, ok?  They just act out the games that we play with them, all day long.  They organize into hands, bid for contracts, take tricks off one another, repeat.  That’s their existence, get it?”

She gave a short nod.

“All right, now you end up in card world, somehow.  You speak to an old card who gathers the souls of her fellows, if I am really driving this analogy home, and she tells you ‘One No Trump, Two Clubs’, which is a request for clarification.”

I had the brief and ridiculous thought that I should explain how bidding for bridge contracts worked, before remembering who I was talking to.

“And the answer that you’d give her isn’t super complicated, right?  You’d say that their warring is arranged for our entertainment, and in order to award small sums of money between us.  You might explain the history of cards, or their manufacture, or whatever, but you could explain what’s up with cards in an hour or so, right?”

Haunter shook her head.

“Not in her language, right?  That’s where you are going with this?”

I nodded eagerly.

“Exactly.  How do I say ‘entertainment’ using only bids?  How can I convey the concept of ‘money’ in a world with no possessions?  The answer doesn’t fit into the universe.  That’s what I’m warning you about.  There might be some of that.”

She got a sour expression on her face.

“I get it.  Proceed.”

“So, the gifts…” I said, “Their victims called them a lot of things, most commonly the Splitters, but their name for themselves translates to something like…the Grabbies.”

No chuckle.  Just a solemn nod.

“The Grabbies are a race of beings from another magisteria, a deeper, more fundamental one.”

“How,” Jane asked,” and this might be a dumb question, but how do they know that theirs is the more real reality, the more true one?  Are they just assuming that because of their ability to bestow Ultra gifts?”

“No,” I said.  “It’s… so, in their world there is something like a grove of trees, or a building full of entertainment feeds, alright?  And each of those feeds is a universe like yours.  Your universe fits inside of theirs.”

“So we are a simulation?” asked Jane.

I shook my head slowly.

“Not in the sense that anyone programmed this, but yes in the sense that they are outside of our existence, and can change it as they like.  They can mess around and watch the changes propagate, whatever they want.”

I let them digest that for a moment.

“Most of these universes are lifeless,” I informed them.  “Or at least thoughtless.  Your kind of reality can’t actually generate volition.  That’s why you could never get AI to work.  It just isn’t possible here.”

More silence from Haunter.  I knew that behind her eyes a whirlwind of shade communication was taking place, but she didn’t choose to fill me in on any of it.

“Humans are,” I groped for the right metaphor, “Ok, so if the universe is a tree, then there are species of things like grubs, that live on trees.”

“Grubs?” she asked.

“Or maybe vines,” I allowed.  “These are souls.  They hang onto universes and alter them such that at some point in their history life develops, and then the souls twin themselves into beings in that universe.  That’s the ‘you’ that I am talking to.  Your brain is the receiver.  The thing that does the thinking, and transmits the thoughts, is a vine in the oververse.”

“Why?” asked Jane.

I was wrongfooted for a moment by that.

“What do the vines get out of it?” she asked.

“Oh…” I said.  “He doesn’t actually know.  Or maybe it isn’t known?  My best guess is that it is about reproduction.  Souls use their avatars in our world to communicate and pair with one another, since their vine forms can’t just talk directly.”

Jane shook her head, more of a ‘it’s not important’ shake than a negation.

“Ultras, then, are made when a Grabby grabs onto one of your soul vine, thingies.  Condemner stayed awake through this deal, but that’s not usually how it works.  The rest of them, bar one or two, are asleep now, letting the vines use the powers and drinking in the experiences.”

“What is his real name?” she asked.

“What?”

“The shades keep clarifying that ‘Condemner’ is just what we are calling him, and we use that name to refer to you as well.  Presumably he isn’t going around calling himself Condemner on the outside, in his own universe.  What is his name?”

“Um…” I said.  “They don’t have names.  They don’t really have identities.”

Her look invited clarification.

“The Grabbies don’t work on the individual level.  They just pile onto one another.  They only act when enough of them have got together that it makes up a coherent being.  Condemner is a pretty common recipe of theirs, its designation would be something like ‘delighting principal’, or ‘enjoying entity’.”

No real change to the inquisitive stare.

“His role is to have experiences and enjoy them.  He is valued for his ability to find joy, or fulfillment or whatever, in their entertainments and such.”

“I guess that explains what he is doing here.  He is basically a tourist?”

“Got it, he is here to have a good time.  He wants fights, conflicts, revelations, that kind of thing.  Anything dramatic.”

Jane sat up in the beanbag chair.

“Are the rest of the Grabbies that are empowering the Ultras Delighting Entities as well?  Are they somehow driving their human hosts to battle?”

“They are unconscious,” I said.  “They aren’t driving anything, just accumulating memories for their components, for the most part.  And they aren’t all Delighting Entities either.  This performance is drawing in a lot of Grabbies who don’t have the exact right role for it.”

Jane said nothing, considering the implications of that.

“Ok, so, there is this role that is highly valued, very rarely ravelled, call it the Inviting Entity.”

“Ravel?” she asked.

“Opposite of unravel,” I said.

She rolled her eyes.

“Inviting Entity is a celebrity, a beloved figure.  When it is instantiated things are gonna get good.  So it was surprising when it came to this grove.”

“Why is that surprising?” asked Jane.  “You said observing universes like ours was an entertainment for their kind.”

“Sure,” I said.  “But it was like bird watching.  It was a niche hobby, that few Grabbies bothered with.  There wasn’t much point to it, and it certainly wasn’t cool.  Nothing that Inviting Entity should waste its time on.”

I shifted my weight from one foot to another, considering how to phrase this.

“Some Delighting Entities followed.  It was Inviting Entity, after all, but the overall feel was disappointment.  Like, this was a pretty lame thing to waste Inviting Entity’s manifestation on.  Imagine if you summoned the most talented possible celebrity, and he decided to spend your lifetime playing an obscure instrument that nobody liked.”

That wasn’t the best possible way to phrase that, but Haunter and her thralls would understand well enough.

“And then he invited everyone in?” she guessed.

I nodded.

“Exactly.  He didn’t just make one manipulation and then invite everyone to watch the resulting timeline.  He stepped inside and started boosting souls up for everyone to latch onto, letting everyone help to create the content.”

“Revolutionary,” she guessed.

“Very much so.  Each Grabby is getting the memories of its Ultra.  This performance is as many performances as there are Grabbies attached.  It is almost certainly the greatest performance in Grabby history.”

“And nobody wants to miss out,” she said.

“Just so.  Grabbies whose roles have nothing to do with delighting are latching on.  Their experiences, their congruities, won’t have as much value as a real Delighter’s, of course, but it is still worthwhile.  Grabbies are mobbing the studio, filling up the grove, everyone crowding around this one tree.”

“That’s why the Process is still working,” she said.  “The Process, the Inviting Entity, lifts up a soul for a Grabby to latch onto.”

“Yep,” I said.  “And there are plenty of Grabbies.  That’s why Remover…”

Shit.  I hadn’t intended to say that.

“Remover?” she asked.  “Is she another awake Grabby?”

I gave a grim smile.

“She’s…think of a Boss, or one of the Regime’s enforcers.  She is twinned to Forbidding Entity, a Grabby whose role is to put a stop to dangerous or unprofitable activities.”

“In the old world we had something called a Fire Marshal,” said Jane.  “They shut down parties that got too rowdy.”

“Perfect,” I said.  “Yes.  It is like a mighty Marshal of Fire.”

“Then why did it twin with a soul?” asked Jane.  “Why wouldn’t Forbidding Entity just tell the Grabbies that the party is over?”

“Politics,” I said.  “Or their equivalent.  Nobody wants to be the killjoy.  If it ends the experiment forcefully there will be a lot of resentment, a lot of annoyance.  The components that make it up will have stigma, and spend more time before being raveled into something else.  It has a different plan.”

“Push the universe’s timeline past the part with life in it,” she said, slowly.  “Take us all out, and the party ends on its own.  Plus the Grabbies that make it up have those experiences to pass around.”

I was impressed.

“That’s it exactly.  Remover’s endless quest to wipe out all human life is just Forbidding Entity doing its duty.  She aims to wipe us out.”

“And Condemner, or the Delighting Entity, would prefer to keep the party going?” she guessed.

I shrugged.

“If possible,” I admitted.  “But I think this experiment has about run its course, one way or another.  If Remover is destroyed then Forbidding Entity will probably just suck up the reputational hit for shutting the performance down in the oververse.”

Jane gave me a look that I’d never seen on her face before.  It took me a second to recognize hope on that soul weary visage.

“If we kill Remover, the Ultra powers will go away?” she said.

I shrugged.

“Maybe, or maybe it just twins with another human undergoing the Process and tries again.  But I don’t think it has that kind of time.  Your teeming billions are pulling more and more Grabbies away from their duties.”

“And Condemner will help us do that?  Presumably defeating the Forbidding entity would make its memories the most valuable of all, make its components the most prestigious?”

I felt my greater self’s hand on my soul, his urges curling my face into a positively demonic smile.

“I’d be delighted.”

Strike Request Declined

Your request for a strike on the Regime asset designated as Fourth Fist is denied, and you will receive that response through official channels, but I also wanted to communicate with you directly, and let you hear clearly my rationale.

First off, I understand exactly where you are coming from.  These bastards profaned the very sanctity of our people’s souls.  Meghan and the other victims show no sign of returning to their former selves, and can never be trusted again.  Promising careers ended, beloved friends and colleagues replaced by traitors strangers behind their faces.  It was an atrocity, a violation of all that we hold dear.

But, and it pains me to write this, that is kind of par for the course as far as the Regime is concerned.

The particular nature of these atrocities are new, to be sure, but First Fist made someone eat their own baby.  We’ve been angry at these individuals for a very long time.

When we decline to expend assets against Fists it isn’t because we don’t share your anger.  It isn’t because we don’t wish them gone.  It is because bitter experience has told us that trading lives with people who are returned to life every day is foolhardy.  Increasing the number of their victims won’t bring back those they have already taken.

Fourth Fist, in particular, is an almost impossibly hard target.  Haunter, the soul monger, has a million lives.  Fisher is as hard to kill as a shadow.  Indulger cannot be killed unless we lay waste to the very earth about him, and Condemner thrives on the lives he takes.  And none of those are even the squad’s anchor.  Preventer is simply invincible, absent the direct intervention of certain Gauntlet assets, and even that would be a roll of the dice.

Beyond this, current intelligence puts them in the middle of the Pantheon’s Grand Host, presently the strongest conventional enemy asset known.  Any and all engagement with the Fourth Fist would be complicated by an enemy more numerous and tenacious than any other.

There will come a day where we can make these monsters pay for the lives that they have ruined, but it will not be today.  Devote yourselves to your duty.

Condemner 7:1

“Two no trump,” said my partner.

I plastered a smile on Nirav’s face at that, even as I frantically searched my memory for the right convention.  I had a fairly strong hand.  Could we make game?

The best thing about humans, or one of the best at any rate, was that when they found out something that they were totally garbage at they would immediately start trying to get good at it.  A few would even make it the focus of their brief existences.

Bridge was a great example.  It was a game that was all about looking at your own cards and trying to win an auction on behalf of yourself and your partner.  It was, therefore, ultimately about predicting the future.  But, of course, in this magisteria that wasn’t possible, so humans who wanted to know what would happen tomorrow had to take a good long look at today.

My partner, Aladdin, grinned back.  He was a big black guy, very dark skin, definitely from somewhere on the south side of the world.  He’d been impressed at my spiking the ball into Ghoul’s face, the first time I showed up.  He’d sought me out last night and got me an invite to this morning’s game.

“Double,” said Weir.

She was considerably younger than anyone else in the room, and overcompensated for it by trying to give off an aggressive kind of atmosphere.  It grated in the way that insecurity always grated, and consequently she’d slipped down the rungs in the society of the fort, until ultimately she’d ended up hanging around the males.

Had she doubled because she genuinely had some cards that could mess us up, or was this just more of her puffing herself up?  I had no way to know.

“Give yourself away!” I sent to her gift, to whichever of my kind was attached to her.  It looked like she had a very light degree of Ultra Strength, and something related to moving physical objects about.

She didn’t react at all.  I still wasn’t sure how much sending stuff to people’s gifts actually affected them.  Backing Ghoul down back when I’d first shown up might have just been coincidence.  My experiments since then had been pretty inconclusive.

“I’ll bid…” I drawled, letting my voice die away.  Even as I did so I was reaching for the ‘bid’ part of the token set, rather than the pass part.

I looked around the little room, as though searching for inspiration.  That wasn’t too far from the truth.  What I was really hoping to see was a tell, on someone.  Just some hint of what they felt when they saw me about to bid.  Some hint that I was doing the right or wrong thing.

Nothing.  They weren’t letting anything show on their face, not even my Ultra Speed let me see anyone reacting.

“Three no trump,” I said.

“Bidding game, eh?” said Shenk, the last member of our table.  He was right across the table from Weir, and was one of my opponents.  He’d been the one to teach me the rules.

Before I had time to respond I heard shouting and commotion rising from the center chamber.  Everyone froze, then looked at the door.

“Should we…?” asked Aladdin.

I shook my head.

“They’ll call for us if they need us,” I said.  “Isn’t like there’s much call for our kind in the big room anyway.”

None of the others looked particularly persuaded by this.

Weir stood up, started heading towards the door.  I caught a glimpse of a few black cards as she set her hand down, in particular the king of clubs, which I’d been hoping Aladdin had.

Before she could get there, an excited human, an honest to goodness unpartnered one, not a God, shoved it open and barged in.  They kept a few around for servants and such.

“It’s Death!” she said.  “Death from Olympus is here!”

I covered a smile with my cards.  It had taken long enough.

I’d seen her on the way in, of course.  Her gift’s particular signature was unmistakable, after burning it off Legion and her crew.  She had crept in alongside the emissaries from the central fort, drifting off from their posse and pulling the same trick that we had.  Just blending into the Ultras, one more God in a building more than stuffed with em.

I’d said nothing.  Haunter and the rest had chosen to rely on my ability to sniff out Death, without ever actually pressing me on how or why I could do that, and they were going to pay for it.

Aladdin started towards the door, but I stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.

He looked at me quizzically.

“The Ruling Council,” he said, as though that should explain it all.

“Nothing to do with us,” I responded.

“Don’t you think she might be here to…” said Weir, letting her voice trail off.

I shook my head.

“Play the game!” I sent.

“I’m sure it is nothing much,” I told them.  “The ladies will let us know if they need some scut work done, right?”

That got a chuckle or two, and everyone kind of eased back down into their seats.

I had no interest in approaching Death, at least not immediately.  That was a job for anyone else.

Nobody else really had any interest in the game, as we finished up the bidding and moved into play.  Shenk made a few mistakes, either due to her mind mostly being on whatever was going on in the main room, or maybe some misplaced pity for a rookie she’d just taught the rules to.

I didn’t mind.  I’d take any win I could get.  My time in this dream might be coming to an end, and there was no sense in leaving any experience to rot on the vine.

Just as we finished taking the second trick, I felt my Link come to an end.

The part of me that was Nirav tried to pitch my form forwards, grappling with the sudden loss of my sense of the other four, but I ruled here.  I kept myself upright, my smile wide and predatory.

“Play the queen,” I told Aladdin, who was dummy this round.  This was a neat finesse on Weir’s king, illustrating the virtue of taking full advantage of every opportunity.

Before he could do a terrible clamor rose up from the room next door, like someone had blasted a cannon ball through it.

There was no keeping the game intact this time.  We all piled out into the hall, stopping to gape amid a rapidly growing crowd.

The walls of the room had been smashed apart, as had those leading into the main meeting room.  A mangled human form was embedded in the outer wall, all the way over on the outside corridor.

Dale.  He’d been slammed through two walls and cratered into a third.  I wouldn’t have even been able to recognize him, save for the familiar gift hovering desperately around the pulverized carcass.

I clicked my tongue in irritation.  Dale dying had always been a possibility, but I’d kind of hoped he’d stick around after Haunter was gone.  I liked Dale.

I pushed my way through the crowd towards him, the Gods falling back and clearing me a path as they recognized me.  This accomplished two things.

First, it got me closer to Dale’s body.  Given his gift, it might still be possible to save him, if I could push him through the wall and let him touch the ground outside.  The other factor was that going over here kept me hidden within the crowd, against the possibility of Death looking out of the hole that she’d bashed.

Betty joined me as I got to Dale.

She embraced me with a sob, pushing her face into my shoulder.

I hugged her back, but didn’t really break stride, carrying her Lure along with me as we knelt down over Dale’s form.

“The Link,” she whispered to me.

I didn’t respond directly, instead speaking right out loud so everyone could hear me.

“Nice try Indulger!  No way am I letting you skip out on another day of boring meetings.”

The Hook manifested on the other side of Dale, I looked up into one set of her eyes.

“Betty, can you our fearless leader outside and put him into the ground?  He doesn’t get to hide in the Link while the rest of us do all the work!”

Fisher got it immediately.  The Link being down was bad, from her point of view, but the real catastrophe would be the garrison finding out about it.

As long as they thought we were linked, we almost were.  No one would come after one of us if they thought we’d rise again the next day.  Preserving the illusion of the Link could keep us almost as safe as the real thing.

It was nonsense, of course, since Death was presently slaughtering Haunter, and everyone would observe that she didn’t come back from that, but Fisher didn’t necessarily know that, or at least didn’t know that I knew that.

As I expected, she leapt into action.  The Lure sank into shadow, and the Hook grabbed up Indulger’s center of mass and bounded out of the building.

I grinned.

Betty wouldn’t be interfering in Haunter’s current difficulties.  Not if she stuck around down there to make sure Indulger’s regeneration went off without a hitch.  Death would have time to do her work.

Once Fisher was gone, and the rest of the mob turned back towards the central room, I just lingered.

There was nothing to be gained by hurrying.  Haunter’s gift wouldn’t protect Death from me, and if I was really lucky she might be mid rant when I finally made my appearance.  Timing could always sweeten the narrative.

It was a few minutes before the tenor of the buzzing and clamor of the middle room changed.  I looked back in that direction, keeping myself tangent to the actual opening, such that I could see the spectators but not the object of their scrutiny.

They were kneeling, eyes dropping away from the center of the room.  They no longer felt threatened then, meaning that Death had finished up.

Time for the hero to make his appearance.

I walked smoothly towards the kneelers, my ears alert for one of Death’s rants.  Ideally, I’d like to time my appearance for the perfect dramatic moment.

Instead I heard Legion.

“Magnificent!  I never thought I’d see the day!”

Others were speaking as well, voicing similar sentiments.

I sped up, walked around the corner and into the room.

Immediately I was aware that things had not gone according to plan.  My earlier thoughts about how poor humans were at discerning their future echoed in a mocking chorus within my mind.

Instead of Death it was Preventer at the center of the adulation.  Preventer, the thirstiest, most cowardly creature who had ever…

I tamped down on Nirav’s anger, forced myself to think.  It would be incredibly easy to blow everything here, to make a foolish move and bring my play to an ignominious end.

My wandering gaze found Haunter.

She was looking straight back at me, her expression unreadable.

I gave her a faint smile, trying to project worry and relief, all that the same time.  If she wanted to read shame into that too it would be ideal, but I was pretty sure at this point that Haunter was on to me.

I looked around the room again, trying to count the shades, making sure that none were drawing a bead on me or getting into position to drench me and block my shift.

None were.  That wasn’t exactly surprising.  Haunter wouldn’t want to make her play at this particular moment.  As far as the fortress knew, we were still Linked.  If she destroyed me, and then I was never seen again, they’d know that something was up.  She needed to take care of me in private, then claim that I was away on assignment or something like that.

Assuming that she was even after me.  Assuming that she’d realized that I had known Death was coming for her, and had abandoned her to be destroyed.  A lot of assumptions there.

It was so easy to do that.  To confuse what one person knew with what I knew, to lose track of exactly what information any given entity had access to at any point in time.  Humans had a certain native cleverness, a facility with this kind of modeling that made it seem easy for them.

I forced myself over to Jane, pressing my way through the crowd and deflecting the murmured praise and questions.

“Nirav,” she greeted me.

“Stupid cunt” I sent her.

“Jane,” I said, and stepped forward to embrace her.

She didn’t go rigid, didn’t resist for a second.  We embraced for all the world as though we were the joyous teammates that everyone would expect, clinging to one another in the wake of a difficult battle.

I pulled back a moment later, beamed into her face.

“We need to talk,” she said.  “Private meeting.”

I gave a brief nod, never pulling my eyes away from her form, alert at every second for the shades to pour forth and try to take me out before I could take on my true form.

“Betty should be bringing Dale back in a minute or two,” I said.  “Then we can assemble.”

I saw something then, a small twitch of the shoulders.  A slight easing perhaps.  I wouldn’t have bid on the strength of it, but my initial read was that Haunter hadn’t known if Dale had survived or not, and that my assertion had caused her to update slightly in favor of him still being alive.

“I meant just us two,” she said.

“Two?” I asked, automatically, before I had time to process.

“Just you and me,” she said.  “And me and me and me and…”

She walked away while she was speaking, letting her words dwindle to nothing in the hubbub of the crowd and she trotted off towards the same side room that I’d been playing cards in.

I grimaced, scratched at Nirav’s face, mindful of the chaotic swirl of Gods, and the careful scrutiny of Haunter’s shades.

Was she calling me out?  I didn’t think so.  Haunter had never struck me as someone who warned people that she was going to kill.

My mental model of her, and of her slaves, still had a lot of uncertainty about me.  She couldn’t know for sure that I’d killed Irene, couldn’t know for sure that I’d let Death by.  She was still an old worlder, at heart, and she wouldn’t act until she was absolutely certain, not with the complication of the broken Link hanging above us all.  Innocent until proven guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt, or whatever.

No, this wouldn’t necessarily be a fight.

If my read was correct, this was about ending the uncertainty.  She would have realized that peril that not understanding what was going on with me had put her in, and without the Link to preserve me it had become feasible to compel some answers.

What would I tell her?  The truth was out of the question, but it was hard to think of any kind of story that would fool her and her mass mind.

I paused a second at that.

Why was the truth out of the question?  I didn’t know of any other awakened gift that had just explained the way things were to a human, but why not?  It would be the simplest way forward, and if it spread and spoiled everything then I’d have been at ground zero.  I’d have the story of the start of the ending.

Dale stumbled back in, Betty  at his side.

I waved them over to Preventer, and trotted off after Haunter.

Dearest Zeus

I scarcely know how to begin.

Events swirl thick about our cause these days, but none bring themselves close for examination.  There is no resolution, only an endless array of unforeseeable occurrences and baffling circumstances.

I do not know who blew up the ocean.  The Heathen would have directed such an attack against your Host directly, and the Demon would no doubt have struck once again at the moon.  The great waves and distant shaking seem a poor prize for what must have been a vast expenditure of resources and powers.

I do not know who killed Death.  I found her dead outside my audience chambers.  Calliope viewed her past, and informs me that her killers were a mob of strong Ultras, not Linked, not any of our warlords.  I can only surmise that in her zeal she confronted the Union directly, and fell to the strongest among them.

And, finally, I do not know why the Demon does not stir.  Our agents have confirmed that her torpor is not confined to your Great Pilgrimage, however.  She goes forth to her own territories no longer, and remains, so far as the public is permitted to know, cloistered within her Lair.

I might choose to believe that she feels your tread upon the earth, that she knows her days draw to a close, and frets away the hours until your arrival.  But I do not.  We both know that ignorance is never victory’s herald.

I propose the following:

You have written to me of the difficulties that you face maintaining control of the Brides in the face of the tedium and endlessness of the march.  I believe, in the face of the Demon’s inactivity, that you should allow them a little exercise.

Choose the most rambunctious and rebellious of that lot.  Let her win your favor by leading a strike team of her sisters against the Union.  Send the malcontents forward.

Not too many.  Not enough to meaningfully weaken the Army of Sunset.  Just a hundred, or two hundred.  Enough to destroy the Union, if the Demon does not act.

Send alongside them one or two with the power to alert you to their fate.  If they conquer, well and good.  If they fall, then the strength we take from learning how will make up for their absence on the field of battle.

You know my only thought is of the billions in our keeping.  The waves are far from the worst that could be turned against them.  Only you have the might to save mankind.  Only your gift can keep schism at bay.

Crush our enemies and come back to me.

Haunter 7:3

Death’s eyes narrowed at my quip.

Before anything further could happen the reserve was in motion again, as a shade with a fire extinguisher popped out of me and blasted Death in the face with its contents.

Her hands clenched reflexively, crushing a shade from my form and freeing me from her grip.  The shades didn’t miss the moment, diving frantically to the side as Death used her speed to sweep her arm through the shade that had saved me, popping him before he could dive back into the reserve.

“You cannot run from me forever, Haunter!” she said, her voice a low snarl.  “These games are to no purpose!  You prolong the inevitable, lengthen your own torment.”

Our eyes met again.

She wasn’t coming towards me anymore, just standing there, secure in her stolen power.

But I was in my reserve now, bolstered by my comrades in arms.  Whatever despair she was exuding couldn’t touch me.

She was correct, of course, in the narrow sense of her own words.  I’d already hit her as hard as I possibly could, to no avail.  Her endless powers would give her victory, no matter what heroics my reserve pulled out.  The fight between the two of us could have only one conclusion.

But, the thing was, that was also true about me and Her, and it had never stopped me.  I’d crawled around for decades without any concrete hope.  I’d thrown all dignity aside and served the Regime, giving grudging service to a lunatic in order to help those that I could reach.  Trading frantic struggle for time was an old game to me.

“I’m used to it.” I told her, simply, as though to relate a matter of fact.

Death snarled at me, but didn’t charge forward again.

I could see the wheels in her mind moving, gradually mapping out the borders of her dilemma.  If she assailed me with brief force I would sacrifice a single shade and dodge away.  If she struck in a more meaningful way, impaling me on a bar or bathing me in her plasma beam or something, then she risked killing me the instant my reserve ran out.  This left her at something of a standstill.

It wasn’t, by any means, a stalemate.  She could just continue chasing after me and striking nonlethal blows to a hand or arm or something.  Eventually all of my passengers would be driven out and the limb would break, signaling to her that I could be safely restrained.  But she had no idea how long this would take, and spending hours frantically scurrying around the room didn’t exactly fit with her image.

Her eyes ranged all over, hunting for a solution, and then I saw her gaze light on Preventer.

“Does she really think we’ll…”

Joe trailed off, even as Death moved to take a hostage.

Preventer had just about gotten back up to a kneeling position when Death swooped down on her, wrenching her furiously upright and holding her up for the rest of us to see.

“It is plain to me,” she said, “that you can’t be bothered to even pretend to care about your dagger slaves.  So be it.  I shouldn’t have expected anything else from the Demon’s minion.  But what are your feelings about someone that you’ve fought alongside?”

She shook Preventer up and down, with the same brutal power that she’d shown earlier.

What were my feelings towards Preventer?  Loathing, mostly.  A woman who’d enslaved dozens, or hundreds, who’d had people killed in their masses to further her scientific dabblings.  A creature of the Regime from the ground up, one entirely insensate to the notion that anyone else might be real enough to bother with.

“Stop, don’t hurt her any more,” begged my form.  I wasn’t sure which of my shades was providing the voice.

“We can’t give up,” I argued. “Certainly not for Preventer!”

“Of course,” Joe responded.  “But we can certainly talk about giving up for as long as Death is willing to.  Maybe the horse will learn to sing, and all that.”

Death’s grin was truly hideous, yellow teeth gaping wide like fangs.

”Who is talking about hurting her?” she asked.  “What a fascinating thing to bring up.  You don’t think I’m going to hurt you, do you?”

Preventer shook her head, weakly.

Death put a hand to her face, brushed away the caked on white powder.

“A little thing like you, who on earth would want to hurt you?  I mean, aside from anyone who knew Ninja.  Or whoever else you’ve stepped on during your long long career as a piece of garbage.”

Preventer shook her head again, her eyes met mine.  I think she was trying to tell me not to give myself up for her.

“Let her go,” I said.  “And I’ll surrender myself to you.  That’s what you want, right?  You want my gift?  You can have it, just please, stop hurting helpless people.  You win, ok?”

Death threw back her head and gave another of her soul searing laughs.  She let Preventer topple down to the ground.

I stayed where I was, frantically scanning the crowd for any sign of deliverance.  I could see Ragnarok, but he was standing silently, head down, giving no sign that he might intervene.  I couldn’t see Nirav or Fisher, or any other person who might step in and stop this.

Death finished her laugh, took a step towards me.

“Hilarious,” she said.  “The vaunted Haunter, enslaver of thousands, can’t handle the idea of anyone suffering on her account.  What do you think it is when you pull them in front of bullets or blows?  When you trade their lives for yours, one after another?  Why is your friend over there any different from the ones you keep inside of you, that all of a sudden you shirk at letting another take your fate?”

I paused, giving her nothing.  My eyes continued to roam around the room, seeking for deliverance.  If I couldn’t find anything else I’d have to go back to dashing away from her, and that could only ultimately have one end.  This was the only time that I’d be able to play the fake surrender card, and I needed something to make it worth it.  Some way to overturn the huge discrepancy between our gifts usefulness in a battle.

She took another step, extending an arm.  I felt the force of her gift grip me, drag me towards her grip once again.

I prepared myself for the reserve to spring into action once more, to go back to our doomed delaying tactics, but there was nothing.  They let us drift towards Death unimpeded.

“There!” said Joe.  “I’ll be damned.  The Folded Barrier theory might pan out!”

“What?” I asked.

Death sneered into my face, pulling my neck gently down until we were eye to eye.  My nose twitched at the smell of the gore that caked her arms.

“At last,” she said.  “I’ve waited for this for a long time.”

“Preventer ought to have a few dozen sparkles in an area of her form the size of the one that Death wiped the makeup away from.  We only count seven.  She is making barriers.”

“I don’t suppose you’d wait a little longer?” I asked.  I cared nothing for her answer, everything for the time it might buy me.

“Where are they?” I asked.

“Folded Barrier is a theory that the Preventer fan community came up with last morning, when she showed up with her mouth healed up.  She got healed by the blind kid, obviously, but to do so she’d have had to put forth her barriers.”

“I’m impatient by nature, I’m afraid,” said Death.

“So?” I asked.

“So we had shades outside of the room they crashed in, on every side, including above and below.  None of them saw any barriers.  And it wasn’t nearly big enough to accommodate the outflow of barriers that we saw in the battle with the Pantheon drone force.  So if we know she can put out barriers, and we know that the space wasn’t big enough to hold them all… well, the theory is that she can layer them inside each other, just like she normally does in her body.”

“I understand,” I said.  “It’s a flaw that I share.”

“That’s a bit of a stretch,” I said.  “I guess the idea is that right now she is making one of these super barriers, and she’ll use it to stab Death, and it’ll be able to pierce her, since Death isn’t ultra tough at three?”

Death shook her head.

“It is only a flaw for the weak.  Those unable to seize what they desire.  When a God brooks no delay we call it miraculous, the instant submission of prosaic reality to the will of the Divine.”

I didn’t move my eyes any, didn’t give any visual sign, but from the depths of my reserve I focused every jot of my attention on Preventer, looked about her form for any possible sign that she might be preparing to strike back.

Her eyes were up and focused on Death’s back, but her hands were down on the floor.  She was on her hands and knees, like someone who’d just thrown up.

“Under the ground”, pronounced Joe.  “The Jury thinks she is forging her barrier in the next room down, so that no one can see it and call out to Death.  She’ll slash it up through the floor when she’s got it ready.”

I tried to count the stars in Preventer’s face.  I felt a burst of excitement as I realized that I could only see maybe two or three.

Could this longshot actually be real?  Could the Jury have intuited a new use of Preventer’s power, and that power be about to save us?  I had learned, a long time ago, not to dispute my reserve’s ability to pull things together with only the thinnest thread of evidence, but even for them this was exceptional.

Death whispered to me.

“It’s time.  All I need you to do is speak one simple little phrase.  You just have to say, ‘I surrender’, and you and your friend will not suffer any further.”

The reserve crumpled my form in her arms, breaking down into wailing tears, sobbing like a helpless babe.

This time Death wasn’t the only one who laughed.  Pantheon Gods all around the room found the sight of my sorrow and fear hilarious, and they joined their voices to Death’s.

I cared nothing for it.  Nothing for their contempt, and nothing for their ridicule.  Let them waste their time in whatever fashion they chose, so long as none of them moved against us.

Death let me free of her grasp, and the reserve slumped me all the way down to the ground, weeping and carrying on with all the bewildered terror and pain of the last half hour.

“If Death sees Preventer’s attack she will teleport aside, or use her ultra speed, or pull forth some other power.  We have to get her to put her chest or head on the ground.” I told my reserve.

They had, naturally, already realized this.  That was why they’d let those most overwhelmed, those whose grief was most profound, rule our shared voice.  The whole histrionic performance was just about getting us down onto the ground in a way that wouldn’t raise Death’s suspicion.

Death finished her laugh, leaned over us.  She took my face again, turned it up to look into hers.

“Say it,” she urged.  “It is finally time for you to give up.  Tell me you surrender, and I’ll even give you a little gift.”

“G-, gift?” asked the reserve, between sobs.

“I’ll take you into your own gift.  Just like you do for all these foolish daggers.  I’ll let you experience the wrong side of your hook, keep you around as a passenger.  Won’t that be nice?  You can watch from inside of my mind as I build a new world.  No more suffering.  No more fear.  I’ll do for you like you have done for so many.”

We broke into another round of wailing, cringing away from her.  My face moved another few inches closer to the ground.

“Come now,” she said.  “It is past time.  You have stayed awake so long.  So many futile years.  So much wasted pain.  It is finally time for you to surrender.”

“I, I…” I gasped, between bouts of ugly crying.  My voice was pitched barely above a whisper.

“You…” said Death, leaning closer.

I could see Preventer, looking past Death’s face.  There wasn’t a single sparkle in the part of her cheek where the makeup had been wiped off.

“I sur-“ I gasped, pulling myself right up to her face, as though to kiss her.

In a flash I realized that the reserve was up to.  There was no way to get Death’s face on the floor, but I could bring the floor up to her, in a way.  My own form could block her line of sight to the area beneath me.  So long as no bystander gave warning it could work.

Preventer’s eyes narrowed.  She saw the path.

I looked right into Death’s eyes, saw the totality of her spite and cruelty, saw a daemonic lust for power, saw the same empty ambition that Her gaze was filled with.

“…vive.” I said, and spasmed as I felt my world tear itself apart.

My hands flew to my side, holding in a gout of blood. I toppled out of Death’s grip.  Something wet and sticky splattered my face as she vanished.

A shining barrier hung above me, slowly rotating, filled with a million sparkles.

Death had reappeared in the middle of the room, where she’d first arrived, but she fell immediately to her knees, gripping her upper chest as though to hold in great gouts of blood.

I was cut.  How was that possible?

I felt my hands applying pressure, shades appearing around me with bandages and various other medical implements.  How long had it been since my form had been damaged?  How could that possibly happen?  Shouldn’t a shade have taken the blow?

I had eyes only for Death.  Her teleportation hadn’t erased her injury.  The barrier that had cut through my side must have sunk deep into her chest.  I could see organs and bone on both sides of where her hands had covered up, and blood was pouring out of her.

Her eyes met mine once more, and whatever I’d seen a moment ago was gone.  It was no demon or monster that looked at me.  Just a bewildered old woman, reeling with pain and fear as she tried to hold her life inside of her.

She tried to speak, but blood fountained forth from her mouth.

Calling yourself a God didn’t make you immortal.  Calling yourself Death didn’t protect you from your namesake.  I saw her shoulders slump, her hands quiver as the strength began to flee her.

She vanished again, gone as swiftly as she arrived.

“Did we…?” I asked.

Preventer stood once more, balancing on her unbroken leg and extending a hand as the shimmering barrier flew across the room to her.

She was utterly vulnerable.  The Link could not save her.  She’d sent her own gift out to fight for us, in a move that the woman I’d began this journey with never could have made.

 “Probably,” said Joe.  “Unless she had a healer standing by wherever she went to, or has a healing gift of her own that can overpower her Ultra Toughness, she is dead by now.”

I waited and watched for a bystander to blast her, for someone to avenge Death, or Ninja, or anyone else that Preventer had hurt.

Instead, everyone fell to their knees, bowing their heads before my colleague.

Preventer reabsorbed the barrier, becoming invincible once more.  She stood stock still, eyes seeking out mine.  Her hands didn’t tremble.

I felt a great surge about me, as the reserve moved as one.  They bore me out from my place among them and back into my accustomed seat.  I was once again in command of my form, of my gift.  They had rejected my capitulation, and they wanted me to drive once more.

I fell to my knees before the newest member of the Leadership Council.