She didn’t kill anyone during the other audiences before mine. The lady who wanted to settle somewhere got a sullen nod. The other guy’s idea, something about an official integration of TroubleShooters into city structure, was roundly ignored. The Ultra wanted to name his kid after Her, which he got permission to do. That surprised me a bit.
As the Ultra scrabbled up the side of the pool, stupid hat nearly toppling from his head, I took a deep breath and headed down the short slope into the deep end. I clasped my hands firmly behind my back to keep them still, looked from left to right.
She was still slouched on the diving board, gazing with subdued boredom down at me. No expression at all, which was good. I’d made a study of Her expressions and the behaviors that they portended and the inscrutable look was the second safest, behind smiling. Adder met my gaze and gave a short nod. Subtracter sneered and mimed a spit. The First Fist were paying little attention, other than Alerter, whose face was twisted in a rictus of anger. The Second Fist appeared to be more attentive, but with Deceiver in the mix who really knew? The Third Fist were talking quietly among themselves, aside from Killer, who regarded me with interest.
“Prevailer,” I began, and launched into my speech.
It hadn’t changed much from lunch, a simple proposal to establish a sporting league for humans. I cited as benefits that it would keep their minds off of their wretched circumstances, and speculated that we’d gain a spectacle to offer us much needed diversion. I didn’t mention costs. I’d observed many such proposals through the years, and mentioning anything but the positives didn’t appear to be worth it. She might take umbrage at the slightest thing.
I wasn’t interrupted while I was talking, and from everyone’s expressions they appeared to be hearing what I was actually saying. I wasn’t entirely surprised at this, but a decent part of me had believed that Alerter wouldn’t be able to wait for me to finish, and would take action immediately. Nothing untoward occurred, however, and I wrapped the talk with the usual begging, taking the Posture and genuflecting before Prevailer.
She didn’t respond immediately, but Subtracter did.
“Daggers and balls? That’s what you think’ll help with our rebel problem? Bitch, you dumb as shit.” She practically spat the words out.
An utterly predictable objection from an utterly predictable woman, it nonetheless had to be handled with care. I couldn’t do it myself. Yelling up to her would make me look weak. The strange protocol of Prevailer’s court in effect prohibited Ultras proposing things from defending themselves. Thus, my favor from Adder.
“Humans make up our rebel problem, Subtracter” he said, his calm tone cutting through her angry imprecations. “If they are powerful enough to make a problem, might they not have something to contribute to the solution?”
“That’s different!” Subtracter retorted immediately. Then she stalled a second. I’d observed this pattern from her before. She could speak off the cuff and then use her Ultra speed to come up with justification later on. It was how everyone’s mind worked, of course, but on Subtracter you could almost see it happening.
“It’s easier to wreck stuff than to fix it,” Subtracter said. “Dagger power be ok for breaking shit, but when it comes time to organize or do anything that means anything we can’t rely on em.”
Adder started to respond when Prevailer interrupted him.
“Anybody got a serious problem with it?” She asked.
I was already turning when Alerter slid down into the pool.
I saw Remover start, caught by surprise by her subordinate’s action. This was also what I’d predicted. Remover mostly saw her followers as apparel, or pets. Alerter’s inferiority complex would be something that she knew of, but disregarded. Since she hadn’t heard my earlier provocation, she wouldn’t be thinking about it in connection with the present moment. She’d expected Alerter to wait for instructions, as she usually did.
Since the incident earlier today I’d been terribly worried that Pursuer would be the one to drop into the Pool. Intellectually, of course, I knew that he wouldn’t. Prevailer had made it clear that she didn’t like him doing all the fighting, and he’d taken on a Union prisoner two days ago. Still, the thought had continually gnawed at my mind, and having it banished was a relief.
Alerter smiled at me menacingly, and cracked her wrists. It was meaningless posturing. She couldn’t hurt me with her wrists, probably couldn’t hurt me at all. With a smarter foe I’d be wondering what she could possibly be thinking but Alerter was almost a feral creature. She wasn’t thinking at all, acting purely on anger and the contempt she felt for the tiny noncombatant who’d used a note to get out of what they’d planned for me earlier in the day.
I took off my sigil and placed it with deliberately mincing movements off to the side. Feminine and delicate, that was the way to play it. Alerter’s attitude, the army clothes and the short hair, were all about projecting power. If I displayed vulnerability, and she couldn’t hurt me, it would make her look all the weaker.
I took off a glove and placed it in my mouth, biting down on it. Her brow furrowed as she saw me do this, confusion plain upon her face. There was no real mystery to it though.
I’d pondered this battle at length ahead of time. I’d watched videos of Alerter fighting, considered everything from her point of view as well as my own. One of the obvious outs for her was to get me facing away from Prevailer and then create my voice saying something that would enrage Her. A plea for mercy, a clueless taunt, the possibilities were endless. By gagging myself I cut her off from this avenue of action.
It was important to remember that as dim as Alerter was she’d been in a LOT of fights. She was primarily a support Ultra, but First Fist deployed constantly. I was facing an enemy who had overcome the odds, and been overcome by them, hundreds of times. I could see no way for her to prevail, but that didn’t mean that I could take any shortcuts.
“Do it, “ said Prevailer.
Without further preparation Alerter shot across the Pool towards me, hands extended like she wanted to throttle me. I had barely begun to raise my own arms when the sound hit, a disorienting pulse of pure volume slamming into my ears and through my bones like a bomb had gone off.
It didn’t hurt, exactly. I was proof against deafness as I was against all harm, but I was disoriented, and it made my barriers slow to emerge. She was almost at me when I shot the first glittering rectangles out of my palms and arcing towards her face.
She ducked without difficulty, but her forward motion was arrested. As the barriers slid by her she turned her own palms towards them, and they crumpled and shattered beneath her sonic projection.
Seen from the side, there was a sort of shimmer in the air where she pointed it. A vaguely conic projection of what looked like heat haze had extended from her towards my barriers an instant before they came apart. Way too fast to dodge.
But it hadn’t hurt me the first time. As she faced me again I threw my hands out wide, and sent barriers on arcing paths towards her. As each one slid out of my flesh I mastered my pang of concern. No one knew about it, but my barriers fueled my invincibility. As each sparkle left my flesh and became a barrier I became just a bit more vulnerable. It would take dozens before I dropped to a level where I could be harmed, but it was still a chilling feeling.
Faced with two barriers on wide arcs towards her Alerter stole a second to turn her cone downwards. She echoed it off the floor of the Pool, absorbing the noise as it bounced back up to her.
She got back more power than she expended, from what I’d heard. I’d have to make certain not to allow her to do too much of that. Even as the pair of wide barriers closed in I pointed my hands directly towards her and got ready for my next attack.
I’d been expecting her to attempt to duck the wide pair, but she surprised me by stepping quickly forward. I didn’t have a good enough turn radius to keep up, and the barriers crossed behind her. She reached back with a hand and tapped one as it went past, giving me that wide, menacing smile again.
I bit down harder on the glove and stopped playing around. I sent a pair from each hand directly towards her, and simultaneously sent another pair sliding out of my face in the wider arcs. There wasn’t anything special about the skin on my hands, and I didn’t have any particular limitation on how many barriers I could control.
With barriers coming in directly from me and from both sides Alerter was forced to get serious about her defense. She blanketed the left side with her sonic attack, shredding those barriers even as they neared her. Then she jumped into the hole that she’d just blasted in my attacks, moving to my left with alacrity as the barriers I’d sent straight and right crossed themselves where she’d been standing.
She clapped sardonically as the barriers arranged themselves for another run.
The First Fist joined in, as did the Third. This was cunning. The noise they were making would strengthen Alerter, but it wasn’t overt enough to seem like cheating. Still, we were well within my projections. I had three more ways to end this fight. I put the first into effect.
As my next set of projections arced towards her I shredded the soles of my boots with another pair, which sliced their way, much more slowly, through the ground towards her. I didn’t slacken the rain of horizontal projectiles as the burrowers came towards her, pushing her attention left right and straight on with barrages of glittering bladed walls.
She didn’t seem to realize that they were coming, wholly absorbed in the meticulous shredding of my onslaught. She swayed this way and that in the center of a glittering hurricane of barriers, blasting clear spaces an instant before she needed to occupy them, ducking and weaving through the golden energy fields when she had to. It was an awe inspiring display.
I brought it to an end, bringing the burrowers up beneath her and slashing into her legs and feet. She dropped and rolled, but before I could slam the horizontal barriers into her and bring matters to an end she was on her feet again, wounds healing before my eyes.
She’d been saving up the power she’d absorbed during the fight. She hadn’t used it to power up her blasts, instead saving it in order to heal up if I caught her off guard. I hadn’t imagined that she could be so cunning.
My moment of realization slowed me for a second, and she extended both hands towards me, tossing me off my feet with a ferocious sonic attack. I skidded and slid into the wall of the pool, crumpling the edge before dropping to the ground.
Immediately I started rolling. Inactivity, passivity, even for a moment, could be death in this place. Prevailer was watching, and she had no patience for weakness. Even as Alerter sent her cone at me again I switched tactics, bringing my barriers together to form a single large wall, splitting me off from her.
It was her turn to be taken aback. She blasted the great wall, but it held fast. Another thing folks didn’t know about my barriers was that they grew stronger the larger that they were. She’d have to power up her beam before it could harm my barrier, and I saw no reason to give her the time.
She seemed to come to the same conclusion, and leapt back to echo her energies off the wall and floor. I sent the wall towards her, but in addition to growing stronger my projections become more sluggish the larger they were. It shuddered and slid through the air towards her at a sedate walk.
I couldn’t give her this kind of time. I broke it apart along horizontal lines and sent it at her as a series of wide thin blades. A flash of inspiration hit me, something about the way she’d tapped the barriers that had missed her earlier, and I sent them in in sequence, from bottom to top.
As I hoped, she took the flashiest possible dodge. As each barrier approached her she hopped up onto it, rising into the air above me as though she were ascending a ladder, simultaneously charging herself against my very own projections. It was an amazingly cool, almost awe inspiring move.
It was also idiotic. A dozen rifles rang out as she rose above the edge of the pool, and several of them struck home. She pitched off the side of the platform with all the grace of a felled stag, dropping to the ground in a heap.
Before she could heal herself I shredded her with the barriers, pulling apart the great walls and stabbing into her with the footwide fragments I’d used earlier. I slammed them into her core, sliding into her ribs and shoulder blades with my projections. Blood sprayed everywhere.
I looked up into Remover’s beautiful face and I returned their earlier applause. With each loud and mocking slap of hand on hand another jet of red fountained out of Alerter as the sound attempted to regenerate her despite the blades holding her apart. She couldn’t scream, but the pain must have been excruciating.
Things happened very fast then. Pursuer launched himself off the side at me. I froze in panic as he grew closer, but then he was knocked off his trajectory and sent flying through the air as though he’d been hit by a giant tennis racket.
She was before me, appearing in Her distinctive teleport. Prevailer had slapped the dog man clear across the Court.
I trembled as the audacity of my actions caught up with me. I knew that showing fear in front of Her was worse than dumb, but I couldn’t help myself. If She hadn’t stopped him…
“You’ll die,” said Prevailer. “Fist Fist’ll do ya in a day or two. They don’t take this kind of shit.”
As she said it she looked up at them. Remover didn’t move. Averter maintained his characteristic dispassionate stare. Attacker looked daggers at me.
“That’d be a waste,” She said. “I like you. I’m forming up the Fourth Fist again. How’d you like to be in charge of it?”
Alerter wasn’t the only person in the court who was utterly predictable.