Fisher 2:2

Lara didn’t seem terribly disturbed for someone who was going to be killing a number of her close associates.  To the contrary, she actually seemed excited.

“So, you are going to be pitching in, right Scylla?  None of this standing by and judging nonsense that lets you claim I acted alone if things don’t work out?”

I shook the Lure’s head.

“I wouldn’t have this job if it didn’t let me get my hands wet.  Charybdis would skin me in a week.”

Lara smiled.  She seemed to approve of this response, which meant that I’d calibrated my persona decently well.  I’d been aiming for pompous and bloodthirsty, and it seemed as though that was the right path to take.

“I’ll get the girls,” she said, and floated back up the elevator shaft.

I stood, quiet and unconcerned in a dusty basement.  Ironically, this was just about where I’d been standing when we launched this whole plan.

I wasn’t terribly concerned that she might be gathering a posse to take the Lure out. Partly, this was because I didn’t think they could pull it off if they tried. Indulger’s power unleashed in the confines of a basement didn’t even bear thinking about.  Unless one of her Ultras was much stronger than I had any reason to expect I’d be alright if she confronted me.

The real reason, however, was that I was pretty convinced that she was buying what I was laying down.  Every bit of her demeanor rang true.  Her ambition was becoming reality at last.  Finally, she would be done with biding her time, and let the world see what she could do.

Shortly thereafter Lara and select members of her posse came down, and we got to planning.

It was an eerie mirror of the other basement where Preventer had confronted us earlier.  Same general objective, same battle field.  The big difference was in the group’s dynamic.

Where our Fist was sort of lead by consensus Lara was very clearly in charge of her gang.  There was little to no protest when she revealed that we’d be taking action against her own comrades.  She mentioned my cover story almost off handedly, very pro forma.  The real story here was that she was telling them that the time had come to strike, not that I’d delivered orders from above.  I got the sense, listening to them talk, that I was more of an excuse than anything else.

On reflection, this wasn’t as shocking as it first seemed.  The Pantheon was rife with infighting, with treachery.  Lara had gathered about her like-minded souls, ambitious and black hearted.  She ruled them with a furious, instinctual charisma.  It couldn’t survive being perceived as someone else’s errand boy.  In the planning session she quickly embraced my bogus mission, making it her own and laying claim to the concept.  Her followers were clearly on board.

I’d been prepared for a much harder sell, to be honest.  Haunter had talked up how old world military units had an iron regard for their comrade’s lives, fighting to protect the man beside them.  I’d envisioned a grand verbal battle, pitting their loyalty to Zeus against their loyalty to Thor.  I was relieved to be proven wrong.

The actual planning was, again, easier than expected.  I had the sense that they had thought this out a number of times, probably in preparation for an overture from Krishna.

They zeroed in on Thor and Karen as the two main targets, reasoning that Dozens and Inferno would fall in line once those two were down.  I knew that Lara had a bit of an ulterior motive here, probably wanted Dozens alive to be part of the band that she would take on the Council’s mission after they were done.

I was a bit surprised that they didn’t seem to be planning an early morning attack.  It seemed like catching their foes asleep would be a critical edge, but it wasn’t even brought up.  I couldn’t risk revealing ignorance and compromising my disguise in order to ask, so plans went forward for an evening attack on Karen’s compound.

“Thor sees explosions from over there, he’ll come flying.  He ain’t going to miss a chance to protect his girl.”

Lara put a lot of venom into the word girl.  It hinted at a jealousy that was right in line with what I’d sensed of her.  Someone desperate to prove themselves would naturally loathe someone else who seemed to be advanced unfairly.  The idea that Thor might sense Karen’s loyalty, and Lara’s utterly mercenary nature, wouldn’t occur to her.

“Yeah, that sounds like him.”

I was trying to give the impression, without actually saying as much, that Thor and I were associates from unspecified higher level activities.  It wasn’t out of the ordinary for an Agent of the Leadership Council to have met a front line warlord.  The idea lent my words some prestige, and I was also still feeling that strange enthusiasm.  It was hard to avoid being carried away by the spying.

“Can you take him out?”

It was a question from one of her subordinate Ultras.  She was one of what I’d call the more conservative of the crew.  She wasn’t exactly dubious about the prospect of a battle with Karen’s unit, but she seemed to be approaching this more like a military operation, and less like the grand score settling that the rest seemed to be envisioning.

“If he lands.” I responded.  “I’m not a flyer.”

Everyone around the room had been paying careful attention to that.  It was a delicate dance, getting details on another Ultra’s power.  You couldn’t just ask, but you really, really wanted to know.  We were doing pretty much the same thing in the Fist.  It was idiotic, but unavoidable.

The remainder of the conversation turned around how to take out Thor.  One of the women had the ability to shoot a sort of energy lance that could harm an Ultra tough two opponent.  Another had a disorienting field, which she thought could probably make him crash.  Lara seemed to be surprisingly up for matching her own flight and energy projection against his equivalents.

The plan which prevailed, however, was the obvious one.  They would assault Karen and, with the advantage of surprise, quickly kill or drive off their foes.  Thor would fly over and, seeing only his own Ultras, land.  They’d act confused until, on Lara’s signal, they’d kill him with everything that they had.  It was roughly what I’d come up with in their shoes.

We went back upstairs and Lara’s lieutenants fanned out, gathering the remainder of her followers, or at least those that she felt she could trust.  I should have been nervous, any error at this stage could lead to a clusterfuck, but my odd high spirits continued.

As each one of Lara’s minions returned with a few more of her followers in tow it seemed like the world was talking to me.  It felt like it was cheering me on, confirming over and over again that this would work.  Not one of them had run into resistance.  Not one of them had had one of their followers break off and attempt to communicate with Thor.  Lara gathered her forces without a single hitch.

We split up as we left Lara’s base, several small groups of Ultras wandering away on their own paths.

This too had been planned.  It would be conspicuous for an entire gang of Ultras to walk together, threatening even.  Lara never gathered her followers together and strolled around under normal circumstances, so why take the chance of doing so now.

I stuck with Lara, walking slowly and letting the Hook keep me in contact with the Fist in the traveling tunnel that Indulger was moving beneath us.  We had another four Ultras around us, one of Lara’s larger groups.

Several times on our way over acquaintances and the like called out to Lara.  There were a few catcalls at the Lure, a number of invitations to socialize.  Lara rebuffed each one, feigning a personal errand.  She seemed unstressed by the covert nature of our mission, surprisingly at home with deception.  Ironically, she probably would have actually been a good candidate for this kind of operation, if I’d been a genuine agent of the Pantheon’s leadership.

Karen’s hangout was a ruined subway terminal.  It stood mostly alone in a ruined block, the rubble around it having been cleaned away from a couple of paths.  There weren’t any visible sentries, but Lara had assured me that Karen would have been alerted that we were coming.  Dagger lookouts were in common use among Pantheon Ultras, presumably there had been some runners ranging ahead of us that I hadn’t perceived.

Lara led us through the ruins of the surrounding buildings, drifting just above the ground.  Her flight seemed to be much more controlled that what we’d heard of Thor, she could hover in place or change her velocity at leisure.  It lent her an intimidating air, allowing her to maintain an intimidating lack of motion as she led us forward as well as adding a few inches onto her height.

Another of Lara’s groups, as we’d arranged, started walking in from another side path.  The other two groups would be on nearby parallel streets.  Lara had judged that the coincidence of half her force approaching at once was acceptable, but that more might provoke Karen to gather her own troops.

An Ultra stepped out of the tunnel mouth to greet us.  He was a fat guy, mutated with a strange bone growth on the front of his gut.  His head had sunken down into his neck as though to compensate, leaving him looking kind of like an animate gumdrop.  He raised a hand as we approached.

“Karen,” said Lara “and be quick about it, Weng.”

Weng nodded, as much as his neckless physique would allow, and turned back into the base.  It wasn’t immediately clear whether he wanted us to wait or follow, and Lara seized upon the moment by drifting into the door before he could clarify.

There were a trio of Ultras lounging about in here.  One young woman was reading an old paperback book, another two were making out.  I felt as though the lack of attention that they gave us was deliberate.  They were making a point of some kind.  Not that it mattered.

We stood in awkward silence for a few moments.  Outside Lara’s second group would be drawing closer.  None of Karen’s Ultras spoke to us.  None of us had anything to say to them.  The reader put down her novel, glanced at me with obvious curiosity.  I was an unknown, and something about the Lure made her understand that I was important.

Before she had time to do anything about it Karen came back.  She was with another woman, probably an Ultra by her lack of fear.

‘What’s all this-“ Karen began, but was cut off when Lara shot a green energy blast directly into her chest.

The shot took Karen off the ground and threw her bodily back through the door she’d just come out of, a fantastic spray of blood erupting forth in response.  Lara’s gang threw themselves at Karen’s Ultras.

Here I saw the flip side of the Pantheon’s readiness to destroy itself.  The free shot on Karen was all we got.  Being assaulted by their own comrades was apparently entirely within Karen’s followers world view, and they came up fighting.

Still filled with that bizarre battle lust, I flung the Lure at the reader, who came off the couch swinging.  I checked my lunch before we could actually come to grips, hearing the whistle of her fist through the air before me.  I pulled my shadow out of Indulger’s spy hole and started to manifest the Hook.

Before I could finish an Ultra of Lara’s was barging by me and punching at Karen’s sentry.  They locked arms for an instant and then dropped to the ground, rolling and thrashing.  Terminal floor splintered about them as the collateral damage of their Ultra tussle demolished a section of the building.

Lara forced her way deeper into the complex.  From what I could see without following she started encountering serious resistance over Karen’s prone form.  A group of four Ultras held the path deeper in, momentarily throwing our side back and beheading one of Lara’s own Ultras with some kind of spectral axe.

As Lara’s reinforcements flooded in I held back, Hook and Lure side by side.  My earlier vigor had abruptly deserted me, and I was only too aware of how easy it would be to die here.  I was in the same building as a dozen battling Ultras.  This wasn’t a duel, wasn’t some kind of formalized skirmish.  That Ultra who had lunged at me, the one who’d been reading, had had Ultra Strength.  If the Lure had been a step closer it would have been shattered.

The sounds of battle must have seemed like they were going on for much longer than they actually were.  It felt like approximately a thousand hours, standing in the terminal’s old ticket office, but it could only have been a couple of minutes.  Lara’s third and fourth groups arrived and I pointed them in, following along with the last.

We arrived to a scene of utter chaos.  Karen’s defenders had fought with desperate ferocity, piling bodies into the same hallway that I’d seen Lara start down at the beginning of the fight, and engaging the invaders in a buckle to buckle close quarters battle.  I couldn’t begin to make sense of what it must have been like.

Ultras that close together had no chance to understand or engage one another’s powers.  They just hit and get hit, blows slamming through flesh.  Casualties had been horrific.  Karen was dead, of course, laying on the floor with her chest blown out.  It looked like she actually gotten back up at some point, and the blast that put her down had taken off an entire leg.

Most of Lara’s first and second group were dead.  Karen’s band, or whatever part of it was here, were dead.  Lara herself was clearly injured, her abdomen leaking blood through a wadded up shirt she’d stuffed in there.  And yet, there was a look of victory about her.  The air of one who had at last achieved a dream that they had spent their life working towards.

If it was triumph, it was premature. Her gaze roamed the battle scene until it locked with mine. I shared a meaningful look with her, pointing up towards the roof where blasts had apparently shot holes in it.  She took my meaning immediately.

A fight at one of his lieutenant’s bases wouldn’t go unnoticed, not if energy bursts were rising into the sky.  Thor would investigate.  His leadership was based on his willingness to take the fight to the foe.  He’d be here in moments with whatever he could quickly muster.

Lara and her crew started to move outside, and I found myself caught up in the jostle and rush.  I wasn’t sure exactly how she’d given the order to pull back, or that she’d stay conscious long enough to do it, but we all made it out of the building before Thor showed up.

TFD Glossary

Defiance: A rebellion against Prevailer’s Regime, or a time period where such is occurring.  There have been four recognized Defiances.  The first was the ad hoc resistance of the human military following the American government’s collapse and capitulation.  The second was an Ultra led attempt to roll back the revolution.  The third was an atack on the Regime by one particularly mighty Ultra.  The fourth was a notably unsuccessful large scale assault on the Regime by Pantheon forces operating out of Mexico.

Tally: An Ultra’s Tally is the number of other Ultras that she or he has killed.  There is a strong implication in the phrase that these deaths were ‘fair’, or at least accomplished in battle.

The Union:  The Union is the last remnant of the old world, a pluralistic democracy centered in old Europe.  Humans and Ultras live in strained harmony in the Union, and the technology and organization of the old world still prevails there.  They fight a two front war against the Pantheon and the Regime.

Decimation:  A Regime punishment, consisting of the execution of ten humans from each of the Regime’s cities and towns.  Generally leveled when an assassination attempt occurs on Prevailer.

The Pantheon:  A loose alliance of feuding Ultra led states, occupying those parts of the world which are neither Union nor Regime.  The Pantheon controls approximately 4/5 of the human race.  Its Leadership Council, led by the Ultra known as Zeus, is located in Australia.

The Company: the organization which forms the logistical backbone of the Regime.  The Company mans facilities throughout the known world, allowing any human to roll the dice and attempt to become an Ultra.

Ultras:  A human who has survived the Process is often called an Ultra.  These Ultras remain ordinary in most respects, but possess gifts which transcend the laws of physics.

She/Her:  A regime figure of speech, the feminine pronoun is capitalized in writing, and pronounced in a singular manner when speaking, when it refers to Prevailer.

The Posture:  Someone kneeling with their wrists crossed behind their head is said to be in/assuming the Posture.  Prevailer has given out a general guideline that this is the appropriate way for humans to show respect and pledge allegiance to Ultras.

Company Men:  The staffers at Company Facilities are created by Copyer, and are all identical versions of one man.  These Company Men are unfailing subservient to Regime Ultras, and are generally polite and obedient to humans as well.  They administer the protein paste which keeps the populace from starving, and perform the Process when called upon to do so.

The Process:  A human who undergoes The Process will either die or become an Ultra.  Most will die.  The Process is described as metaphorically reeling in a person’s soul, such that it gets closer to the material world, and can impact it in ways other than simply creating cognition in brains.  Physically, the Process appears to entail drugs and electric shocks.  The details are a carefully guarded secret of the Company.

Knights/Knights of Purity:  A racist hate group in the old world, the Knights were transformed into Prevailer’s underlings when their leader, Refiner, fell under her control.  The irony of a white supremacist movement serving a black woman is lost on them.  Members wear red robes and skull masks, and bear scythes.  All of their regalia is blessed by Refiner’s gift.

Dagger: A racial slur used to describe unpowered humans.  Mostly used by Ultras, for obvious reasons.

Sigil: In the Regime humans are not permitted headware of any kind.  Ultras each have one distinctive hat or head covering, referred to as their sigil.  This is Prevailer’s solution to the problem of humans and Ultras generally looking similar.

Regime:  The governing body of the former eastern United States.  Also used to refer to the Ultras that take Prevailer’s orders.  A dictatorship controlled by Prevailer.

Fists:  Groups of five Ultras, loyal to the Regime.  They are linked by another Ultra’s gift, which resurrects any dead members of the group so long as one of them is alive.  These fists are the Regime’s most dreaded warriors.

Kill Every Monster/KEM:  A human movement to wipe out all Ultras.  This underground organization holds that Ultras are inherently evil, and wants to destroy every one of them.  The extent of this organization’s membership is vague and ever shifting, with a lot more sympathizers than active members at any one time.

Fisher 2:1

I’d walked around Redo as the Lure before, but this was different.

In a matter of hours, if all went to plan, we’d turn this place into a battlefield.  Not just a battle field, a killing ground.  I was here to set hundreds of Ultras at one another’s throats.  I’d be surprised if there was a single building standing.

For all that, I had a big smile on my face as I strolled down the main drive.

Part of that was due to it being in character.  I was Scylla, agent of the Leadership Council.  I should have a big, cocky grin.  It felt right.  Part of it was that Nirav cared about me.  I’d known it, of course, through my gift, but for some reason hearing him try and get himself assigned to accompany me felt…pleasant.  Mostly, however, it was because I could finally stretch out.

My time in the Pit had accustomed me to folding up my forms inside one another, but it was still incredibly taxing.  This trip had irked me, disturbed my equilibrium.  My gift didn’t allow me to see my own priorities, but I’d imagined that if it did I’d see “Get both forms out” rising slowly and steadily up the ranks.

I didn’t realize how much I’d missed this until it happened.  Manifesting the Hook took a weight off my shoulders that I hadn’t even realized I’d been carrying.  It was like a low grade migraine suddenly going away, like a toothache miraculously vanished.

As I walked the Lure along the streets of the city I took pains to move slowly and deliberately.  Less a march, more of a saunter, a strut.  Beneath me, the rest of the Fist was moving too.

Indulger’s gift allowed him to tunnel, or, more like ground surf.  The rest of them were in a kind of moving cave, pacing me beneath the road.  Indulger felt my foot steps and pushed the cave along.  Within it, I’d placed the Hook.

The shadow that connected us was string thin, a tendril of darkness sliding down through a pinpoint hole that Indulger kept open in the soil.  Both of my selves, joined by this tendril, walked in tandem.  The Lure grinned as the Hook leered.  I felt complete.

I reminded myself not to get complacent as we neared Lara’s camp.  This plan was, to be honest, not at all foolproof. I couldn’t use my gift on the Pantheon troops while I kept my shadow stretched down into the ground.  I was relying on my new comrade’s assistance to make up for it.

I couldn’t make myself heed my own warning, though.  I didn’t feel like I was walking into danger.  I felt great.  Top of the world.  A mad sense of invincibility flowed through me.  It was…intoxicating.

Lara’s compound had been…some kind of human dwelling in an earlier life.  I had the sense that I had once known a word for it.  A place where lots of people lived in one room each, with doors opening onto the outside.  It had a fence around it that had been shoddily repaired, and there was steady traffic going in and out.

I didn’t check my pace as I walked up.  Just strode through the comers and goers like I was the most important person that they’d ever see.  In a certain sense, after all, this was true.

There wasn’t an organized guard arrangement that I could pick out.  I’d come pretty close before when Nirav and I were scoping out Thor’s lieutenants.  But now that I looked important, or rather, like I thought I was important, a pair of Ultras ambled out to challenge me.

They were plump, very dark skinned.  They didn’t have the Asian features that I’d seen on most of the Ultras of Laredo.  Their voices were also different, they spoke their challenge in a language that definitely wasn’t Mandarin.

I gave them a blank smile, posturing for a second while Haunter consulted her shades to figure out what they’d said.

“Islander dialect, we have some people who mostly get it.  They want to know your name, but it is a very disrespectful, derogatory way to ask it.

I could have picked that up from their body language.  Somewhere in the world there is a surly guard master class that everyone attends.  These ladies could teach it.

“SCY-LLA” I told them, loudly and slowly.  It was the way you spoke to someone who you weren’t sure could understand you.  Pompous, and unafraid who thought so.

They switched to English.

“Who are you, hey?  Where you XXXX been from? Yeah?”

I’d been warned that the Pantheon had a wildly diverse lingua.  They picked up words from a dozen languages, used English as the broth and mixed them up.

“I’m from Australia.  You know Australia?  Where your bosses live?”

I kept up the slow, loud tone.  It established that they were beneath me, that I didn’t fear them.

Apparently the obnoxious tone was getting through, because the one on the left, the heavier of the two, drew back her arm for a telegraphed punch.

It was a thug’s punch, not a warrior’s.  A wide, menacing swing, more gesture than anything else.  If I dodged I’d be showing fear.  If I blocked it, the same.  If I let them hit me, that too was a bitch move.

Fortunately, I had another option.  The Hook made the agreed upon sign.

Even as she stepped forward to throw her punch, the ground slid and twisted beneath her feat.  Her step to strike became a sort of skate to fall.  She averted the splits by sitting down hastily.

Indulger was damned convenient.

“Aus-Trail-Ee-ya” I said, looking down on her the way you look down on someone who suddenly falls over.

The one that was standing up looked from her friend, who was wide eyed with fury, to the Lure.  She made the right call, stepping between us and giving an open hand gesture to the fatter guard.

“Oh, you from the bosses? XXXX XXXXX XX?” she asked.

“Just an insult.” Haunter said on the heels of that.

“Do I need to introduce you to Charybdis?” I asked, with a hint of menace, and another hint of eagerness.  Honestly, I wasn’t entirely feigning.  The exuberance that was flowing through me would welcome a fight.

She put up both hands, not in surrender but in an ‘easy, easy’ kind of gesture.  Behind her the other guard climbed to her feat, muttering something I couldn’t understand.

Beneath the Hook made the gesture for ‘give me a cutting put down’, and Haunter began to work a rejoinder out.

“I’d like to see Lara, please.

“Sure thing, lady,” said the thinner guard.  “But you try any of that shit with her and we’ll scrape you off the walls.”

She turned and started walking.  I fell in behind her.

As we passed the stout, hostile guard I murmured the phrase that Haunter fed me.  She blanched, visibly taken aback.

Lara’s area turned out to be on the building’s ground floor, which was a piece of luck.  My connection remained unbroken as Lara led me inside what used to be the commercial area of the old structure.  Couches, tables and miscellaneous furnishings covered the inside, as well as a pack of perhaps a dozen Ultras.

All eyes were upon me as we entered.  The immediate reaction was people rising to their feet, alert and hostile, but a motion from the guard seemed to take them off battle stations.  She steered me over to Lara where she sprawled across a couch, her head in another Ultra’s lap.

Lara was a statuesque woman, shaved head, angry stare.  She was considerably muscular than your typical Utlra.  Not really in Indulger’s category, that is, she probably didn’t spend hours every day lifting weights, but she fundamentally looked strong.  This provided no clues as to whether or not she had Ultra strength, of course, but I somehow had the idea that your more muscular types didn’t typically have it.  Prevailer, for example, hadn’t lifted a weight in Her life.

Lara began speaking in Mandarin, Haunter was much better at translating this.  It came across with just a half second or so’s delay.

“Who are you supposed to be?” she asked.

“Scylla.  Agent of the Leadership Council.” I responded.  Or, I trust that’s what my response was.  Trying to repeat a sentence in a tonal language that you don’t understand is very hard.  We’d rehearsed this one, or the words in it, and I was still certain that I’d have a dreadful accent.

Still, it would be worth it.  The Regime’s Ultras, without exception, spoke English.  She had told everyone that anyone She caught speaking a foreign tongue She’d kill.  Even speaking another language badly would help immeasurably with the notion that I couldn’t be Regime.

“An agent, huh.  Five Oh One Two Three Four Seven.”

Lara still hadn’t really moved, staring me down from a reclining position.  Nonetheless, as she dropped this code phrase on me I had the sense that she was prepared to move, and move fast.

“Orange, Falcon, Tradition.” I responded.  At least we were speaking English again.

This was the response that Preventer had given Valkry when they met.  If the Pantheon had any kind of decent infosec there would be a code for every situation, some kind of one time pad deal.

We doubted that they were that organized.  The idea of Thor and his brutes sitting around and keeping a careful schedule was simply too absurd.  Thus, this response.  I was mostly convinced that Lara didn’t have ANY actual codes and responses memorized.  I was gambling that she was merely stating a challenge, and waiting to see if the response was confident or hesitant.

Lara sat up.

“An agent, huh,” she said again, but this time in a very different manner.  Before she’d been skeptical, sneering.  Now she was intrigued.

“Let’s take a walk,” she said.

We walked across the room, and she pried open some old elevator doors.  She gave me a look about halfway between a sneer and a smile, and she stepped through the doors, dropping down into the basement.

Shit.

I waited for a moment, covering the Lure’s hesitation by giving the assembled Ultras a quick once over.  The Hook, meanwhile, froze.  We were just yards away from Lara.

The light spilling down from the shaft shone on her, and didn’t illuminate the rest of the team, but one move, one noise, and we’d be busted.

“I prefer to take my walks on stairs, if you don’t mind,” the Lure called down, using a voice taut with annoyance.

Lara floated back up the shaft, rolling her eyes at me.  She pointed towards a door midway down a hall.  The Lure stepped aside and made an ‘after you’ motion.  Lara grudgingly floated out and proceeded me down the hall.  Before I left the elevator I sucked the Hook into the Lure.  There was no way I could stretch the shadow if the Fist had to submerge beneath the basement.

As we walked down the hallway, and then down some rusty old stairs, I could only hope that the rest of Fourth Fist was making a quick getaway.  With Indulger’s power it wouldn’t be difficult.

Once on the sublevel Lara led me, floating all the way, down the hall to a door leading back into the room she’d dropped down into earlier.  She pushed it open without knocking, conjuring some kind of lambent green energy on her hands as she did so.  The energy lit up the room in a burst.

Unsurprisingly there was no one there.  Nonetheless I found the Lure breathing a sigh of relief.  Preventer was invincible, and the rest could handle themselves, but I’d found myself…concerned, by the thought of Condemner in battle.  Would my fledgling arrangement with Nirav survive his rewriting by his gift?

Lara turned to face me.

“So…what does the Leadership Council have to say to me?”

She didn’t give away anything with her tone.  It was neither skeptical nor eager.  She would be hard for an ordinary person to read.  But with my gift…

I slipped my shadow around and across hers the moment I began to speak.  The Hook slid easily into her essence, filling my mind with the core truths that made her up.

“They think that your time is now.”

This was what she wanted most to hear.  She had a hunger, a positive need, to have her contributions recognized, her efforts praised.  She wanted to be acclaimed, revered.

Despite the hunger, she played it cool.

“They do, do they?  Is that why they have me cooling my heels, subordinate to a warlord so obviously out of favor that…”

And hear she trailed off into more Mandarin.  Without a way to relay the message to Haunter I had no idea what she was saying.

“Not cooling your heels, Lara.  Biding your time.  Think about it.”

She fell silent, staring at me.  I chose to believe that she was obeying my instructions to consider her situation, and not wondering why I hadn’t responded to whatever she’d said after she stopped speaking English.

“The bad blood between Krishna and Thor, everyone knows of this.  What is the Council to do?  What would happen, if we told Krishna to take care of everyone’s least favorite leader?”

“There’d be war in Laredo,” she said.  “Everyone would throw down.  Thor has told us all to be always careful around Krishna’s folks.  He thinks that she’s going to come for him any day now.”

“Exactly!” I said, “Internecine squabbling.  Which would help only our adversaries.  If the Pantheon fights itself, here on the front lines, who will win but our foes?”

I think a real Pantheon messenger would have known the slang that the Pantheon uses for Regime and Union enemies respectively, but I had no idea what that might be.  I was trying to keep things as formal as possible so as not to accidentally betray that I didn’t know the thousand ins and outs of their organization’s culture.

“So, if Krishna isn’t going to move against Thor…”

I nodded.

“You will take on this mission.  Gather your loyalists.  Take down Thor’s most stalwart patrons, those whose fortunes cannot be pried away from his.  Take down the failure himself, and the remnants of his warband are yours.”

She smiled.

“I like the sound of that.  You guarantee that I won’t end up hailing Krishna when this is all said and done?”

I shook my head.

“The leadership has need of Thor’s forces, if not Thor himself, down south.  You’ll be heading straight to Old Brazil on special assignment.  Krishna will take over here, along with any of Thor’s old unit that you have no interest in taking on.”

“Smart,” she pronounced.  “Would have been a lot of bad blood if Krishna had stepped in.  This way I’m the lightning rod.  Any of Thor’s loyalists who survive will blame me, and I’ll be hundreds of miles away.”

I gave a broad smile.

“Take this as your first task from the Leadership Council.  My partner and I look forward to hearing of your success.”

If this sudden mention of a partner discomfited Lara at all she didn’t show it.

“Hearing?  You’ll witness my success.  I’d like you to come along with me, Agent.”

I nodded, feigning a reluctance that I didn’t feel.

Everything was going according to plan.

1st Fist

Prevailer’s most notorious Fist, and the only one that has been with her from the start, is the infamous First Fist.  Nicknames are too numerous to list here, but the general timbre is the ‘Fucking’ Fist, or ‘Crushing Fist’.  These names speak to First Fist’s bullying and oppressing nature.  This is the Fist which Prevailer uses in order to destroy those incapable of fighting back.

The First Fist are closely aligned with Subtracter, and alongside her form the de facto ‘hawkish’ wing of Prevailer’s inner circle.  They are a restless, brawling bunch, ever hungry for opportunities to strike at Her many  enemies.

First Fist’s operations are about evenly divided between military strikes, which they conduct against Union forces along the Regime’s northern border, and terror strikes, which they wage against civilian centers anywhere in the world.  Even their military strikes tend to cause excessive collateral damage.  Whenever possible they draw their Ultra foes into the midst of unpowered masses, reveling in the death and mayhem which the struggle will provoke.

This is the oldest Fist, the prototype of those which followed after.  Most of its members, most obviously Remover and Averter, were part of Her entourage long before the Fist system came into being.  It was, in fact, Remover’s example and advice which prompted Prevailer to turn upon the American government and overthrow it, although most scholars believe that that was an inevitable outcome in any case.

Averter : Phillip Matthews

Averter is First Fist’s tenuous anchor.  Relentlessly pragmatic and sane he strives to reign in the extravagant hungers that the rest of the team exhibits.  He has the ability to kill any form’s velocity, or at least the portion of it which drives it towards him.  This power operates at range with his conscious effort, and closer to hand reflexively.

In battle Averter primarily serves the Fist by protecting himself, thereby tethering their immortality.  He occasionally stops enemies in order to allow one of his fellows to get a strike in, but that is rare.  If the Fist is taking a battle unusually seriously Averter may allow Remover or Alerter within his gift’s protective embrace.

Averter is unremarkable in appearance.  Dark hair, dark eyes.  He has a penchant for old world sunglasses, and generally apes the appearance of the American Secret Service.

Alerter : August Meyers

Alerter is one of the most vicious and sadistic members of a team already known for those qualities.  Alerter is the fraternal twin of Blinder of Sixth Fist, and is very nearly the opposite of her twin.  Ruled by a monumental insecurity complex, Alerter takes her rage and frustration out on the world.

Alerter’s gifts allow her the same broad absorption and control abilities that her sister has.  However her gift is oriented towards sound rather than sight.  She can hear everything that happens within a large range around her, several miles at least, and possesses at least a limited ability to control what others hear.  Consequently Alerter provides a vast intelligence gathering ability to the First Fist.  She is also a front line combatant, unable to die unless the battlefield falls silent.

Alerter is short, and typically wears camouflage clothing, changed to resemble the areas that the group are preparing to do battle in.  Her hair is long on top, shaved on the sides, and she has a distinct lazy eye.  All details of her appearance fall away, however, and what stays with those unlucky enough to encounter her is an impression of fevered, frenzied strength.

Attacker : Doa Hideo

Doa is a refugee of the Ultra gangs that would ultimately make up the Pantheon, a late addition to First Fist.  She is probably the lowest in their particular pecking order.  She takes this out on those who fall into her clutches. Attacker and Alerter are widely thought to be a couple.

Attacker’s powers resemble those of a video game protagonist.  Damage done to her doesn’t injure her form, depleting instead an undetectable store of vitality.  When this vitality runs dry Attacker becomes as mortal as any human.  She is able to recharge or expand this power, however, by actions of spectacular ultra violence.  The energy that she gains, her ‘score’ can also be expended to purchase other Ultra abilities, extra lives or conjure various accessories.

First Fist typically allows her to roam and strike at will during their battles.  Attacker requires a difficulty curve to strike at her full potential, gaining power from weak foes and using it to overcome stronger enemies, thereby making still more profit.  When First Fist anticipates a difficult struggle they will often bring along victims for Attacker to power up on before the genuine battle commences.

Pursuer: Grep Hasp

Pursuer is the notorious dogman of First Fist.  A nightmarish figure to the Fist’s enemies, Pursuer is the gold standard of the front line Ultra.  He is believed to have Ultra strength and toughness at three.  It is also possible that he has other, less obvious, gifts.  Some evidence suggests that he can sense fear, or track opponents in a manner that would move beyond what would ordinarily be possible.

Pursuer’s daunting powerset is frustratingly inconsistent, however.  He has definitely been seen to display these powers.  At other times he seems to lack them, or only have them to lesser degrees.  A wide variety of theories have been floated to explain this, the most popular being that Pursuer feeds on fear, and grows weak in its absence.

Pursuer is the Fist’s wrecking ball, leading the way in every battle.  His deformities make his identity obvious to every foe, and those who confront him in battle do so at immense peril.  Pursuer’s depravities are infamous, he is a monster, a cannibal and a torturer.  Nothing is beyond the pale for this beast.

Remover: Karen Austin

What more can be said of Remover?  The woman who toppled the old world.  The woman who turned Prevailer away from her old loyalties.  If the world today is a crime scene, then Remover is Peggy Martin’s bloody hand.

Remover generates slow moving neon green energy streams.  Any form touched by these forms is eaten away, ceasing to exist, dwindling away and vanishing.  Any form, without exception.  Mithras, confident in his invulnerability, lost his hand to this gift.  The skyscrapers of the old world fell, their bases cut away by this power.

In battle Remover sends these streams towards her foes.  What they lack in swiftness they make up in quantity.  Those who confront First Fist must avoid, at peril of obliteration, these deadly green bands.

Outside of combat, Remover is First Fist’s absolute master.  The ageless horror musters and directs the remainder of her Fist, glutting their appetites and slaking their monstrous thirst for atrocity.  As for her own passions?  No one knows, but her monumental and ever mounting death toll renders all such questions moot.  Mankind may not survive Remover.

Preventer 2:4

I paused, looking around the table.  To my annoyance, none of them asked any kind of leading ‘how will we do that’ kind of questions.  Instead, they were mostly nodding their heads.  Indulger looked flummoxed, but that wasn’t necessarily in response to anything going on.  He often looked that way.

“Interesting…” said Haunter, making a ‘go on’ gesture with one hand.  That would have to do.

“Look, it is common knowledge that Krishna and Thor are on the outs with one another.  Common knowledge to the point that we knew about it in Shington.  Obviously, their forces know about it too.”

“Yeah,” said Indulger “Everyone is on edge.”

“So, we just need to provide the spark, set everything off.”

“It won’t be quite that easy,” said Haunter.  “The Pantheon has been at this for a while.  If getting their units to fight one another was that easy the Union would be doing it already.  They are going to be alert for this kind of thing.”

I shook my head.

“On the Union front, you’d be correct.  But can you imagine a Fist trying what I’m describing?  Can you imagine Her stooping to intrigue?”

Somber nodding.  It felt a little strange to be using Prevailer’s obtuseness as a point in my favor.

“I’d wager that the Regime has, in point of fact, NEVER tried to pull off the kind of false flag approach that I’m suggesting here.  I’ve certainly never heard of it.”

“That doesn’t necessarily mean that it hasn’t happened, “ Nirav spoke up.  “I mean, fundamentally, if this works, it would look really bad for them.  The Pantheon would probably brush it under the rug with some kind of cover story.”

Before I could respond Haunter fielded that one.

“Without endorsing Preventer’s plan, I can say that we can’t go around assuming that we don’t know what has happened with regards to the Pantheon.  If we start doubting our knowledge, presuming some kind of elaborate conspiracy, then we’ll never get anywhere.  I’m not necessarily agreeing with Preventer, again, but ‘maybe there is a whole class of historical events that we don’t know the truth of’ isn’t a fair objection.”

I wished that she hadn’t emphasized so hard that she wasn’t on board, but that was basically what I’d been about to say as well.

“Can you elaborate, spell out exactly how this would go down?” asked Nirav, looking significantly at Indulger.  “I’m not sure that we all have the same thing in mind.”

I seized upon the question.

“I haven’t set anything in stone yet.” I pointed out.  “But the fundamental idea would be to approach someone in the Pantheon forces and tell them something that gets them to start fighting the other side.  The fighting spreads and in the confusion we hit Thor’s hq cadre.  After killing our main targets we get out of town, go home and tell Her that we killed Thor and all his gals.”

“But…” Haunter used a hand to head off everyone else’s objections, get hers out first. “Thor’s unit wouldn’t all be dead.  There would almost certainly be survivors.”

I nodded.

“Yeah, but She is more of a creature of narratives than details.  Thor gone, his unit gone.  Those are the beats She cares about.  The fact that we didn’t personally kill them all, that some of them ended up in Krishna’s unit…those will be less important.”

“Are you sure?” asked Fisher, dubiously.

“I’m sure that we can’t kill them all, so we need to proceed as though I’m right.” I shot back.

Everyone was silent for a moment.

“Is there,” said Haunter, rubbing her chin and not so coincidentally covering her mouth. “something that you’d like to tell us, Preventer?”

I’d actually been hoping not to, save it a bit, but there was really no way to get them on board with this plan but to let them in on it.  Haunter’s appallingly accurate guesses didn’t really surprise me anymore.  Anyone could do as well when they could crowd source their thoughts.

Carefully, I brought my barriers out.  Everyone scampered back, but I just used them to form a glittering map of Redo in the center of the room, over the table.  It wasn’t very good, but it didn’t have to be.

“Everyone, look at the map, look straight at it.” I said.

There was a chorus of agreement, followed by murmured corrections, mostly from Indulger and Fisher.  I ignored them for the moment, spoke over them.

“As long as we all look at the map, keeping each other out of our field of vision, Snitcher won’t be able to see anything that we are about to say.”

This was mostly theatrics.  I was 99% sure that Snitcher wouldn’t even be up now, much less watching boring people standing around in a circle talking.  He had hundreds of people he could watch, and some of them would have to be fighting, fucking, or doing something else he cared about.

“Why do you care what he sees?” asked Indulger, guilelessly.  “I thought that we were on his side?”

“As some of you may have guessed.” I began, not directly answering that. “I have had prior contact with non Regime elements.  All of you have too.”

A chorus of denials, none particularly vehement.

“I more or less put this team together.  I influenced Adder and Subtracter, got you all picked.  The key element, alongside power, that I was looking for was rebellious tendencies.”

“What would make the Regime think that any of us would be against it?” asked Haunter.  I hoped that was rhetorical.

“The Regime knows a lot more than it lets on.” I responded.  “She doesn’t care about what you think, as long as you kill in Her name.  But some of us do care, and we’ve tracked risk factors for each of you.”

“Haunter, I’d be amazed if you aren’t a rebel.  You have the minds of survivors from the old world trapped in there, right?  You want me to believe that they are cool with you working for the ones that killed them?  You are Adder’s favorite Troubleshooter, but you are a Regime loyalist?  Come on.”

Haunter didn’t respond to that, and I pivoted.

“Indulger, you spend your time helping people.  Road construction, building repair, the list goes on.  No way are you ok with being a part of something that kills them.”

“Well….” He drew out the word.  I forged on before he could finish.

“Condemner, you aren’t willing to be subordinate to anyone.  A chance to take on Her, and have a shot at winning?  You’d be in in a heartbeat.  Your file has multiple examples of you exploding rather than letting someone get one over on you.”

Nirav seemed nonplussed at hearing me address his master so bluntly, but hopefully last night had taught him that Condemner was always watching and listening, even if it wasn’t making its presence felt.

“Fisher-“

“I get the picture.” She cut me off.  That was for the best, because all I had on her was that most of the Ultras who came up out of the Pit weren’t terrifically stable.

“And for me?  Well, I’m a bit of a coward.”

Haunter scoffed.

“The woman who is trying to lead a Fist in revolt against the Regime is a coward?  Pull the other one.”

“Prevailer is the only one who can kill me.  One day, She will.  Whether because we mess up on a mission, or just because She finishes messing around and kills everyone.  Prevailer is my death.  So I’ve been thinking, as one does, of ways to avert this fate.”

A long period of silence.  Even though I’d picked them, pretty specifically, for having had thoughts like these before, it was still sobering to air sedition.  Then again, no one was really pushing back.

“The reason that I’m bringing this up NOW,” I stressed, “rather than at some future time is because of one of the precautions that I’ve taken.”

Now I had their attention.  Or at least, I thought I did.  It was hard to read people with a barrier map between us.

“I’ve been in contact with the Leadership Council of the Pantheon.”

There, it was out.  My treason, aired and shared.

“Do you mean…” Indulger trailed off.

“Yes, Zeus and his crew.  I’ve spoken to Valkry, their representative.  I met her on a hill outside of Shington.”

“Thrilling, to be sure,” said Nirav, diffidently, “but I’m still not certain that I see the relevance to the immediate situation.”

“I have been in direct contact with an emissary from the Pantheon’s leadership.  I know their recognition codes, or at least one, and I know more generally how they act.  I think I could do a decent impression of one.”

That got their attention.  I could see shoulders hunch forward, silhouettes nodding along.

“THAT has some potential,” said Haunter.  “If we can impersonate an emissary from their bosses we could probably kick off the fighting without too much trouble.”

“And that’s GOT to be better than trying to kill them all ourselves.” I chimed in.

Murmurs of appreciation and agreement went around the map.  I soft of zoomed it in on Thor’s fortress, mainly to give the impression that we were still talking about it, provide cover in case Snitcher was getting suspicious.

“So, all that’s left is figuring out the details.  Who do we contact, what do we tell them, and when does this all go down?”

“I think you are forgetting something,” said Haunter.  She spoke in a kindly, grandma-has-candy kind of way.  Much less abrasive than I was used to from her.  Maybe I was worth something in her eyes now that I’d admitted my rebel sympathies.

“I’m sure I am, what is it?”

“You are probably not the best person to impersonate anyone.”

I was a bit affronted at that.

“I’ll have you know that I can act a part when needed.  I was able to fool Her high command into letting me choose all of you, wasn’t I?”

“It’s not that, Pre.  It’s…well, you are so tiny.”  Indulger’s rumbling voice distracted me for a moment.

“What does that have to-“ I started to snap at him, before realizing what he was getting at.

“Like, a lot of people probably know about the tiny woman who sparkles and is invincible, right?  I mean, I’d heard of you, and I spent most of my time out in the woods.”

The big guy had a point.  And one that applied to more than me.

“Haunter is a Troubleshooter.  If the Redo forces have even a little bit of intel they’ll know about here.  She’s got a very distinctive gift, and it’s the sort of thing that sticks in your mind.”

Haunter nodded, conceding the point.

“If nothing else works I can probably try and get a shade to do something,“ Haunter said.  I must’ve looked as confused as I felt because she went on.  “Just because we know that a translucent person is a soul that I’ve brought back with my gift doesn’t mean that everyone does.  I’ve got some actors in here, some spies.  They could pass themselves off as an Ultra with a projection ability, or the power to go mostly intangible, or something.”

“Let’s keep that in reserve.”

I looked around the room.

“Nirav, I don’t want to offend you when I say that Condemner, while certainly powerful enough to represent the Pantheon’s leadership, isn’t exactly the most social of beings.  I don’t think you are exactly right for this.”

Indulger spoke up.

“I could do it.  I’m strong, so they would think I work for their leaders, who are also strong.  I could make rock monsters if that would help.”

I mentally marked ‘find out all about Indulger’s gift’ up several notches on my schedule.  Rock monsters?

“I’m afraid that ever since you beat Pursuer in that fighting league thing, people have been talking about you.  You are, I’m afraid, at least as physically distinctive as I am.”

He was probably more, in fact.  There were a few other short Ultras around, but I didn’t know of any other body builders.  Even Thor, every inch the barbarian warlord, would look miniscule next to Indulger.

“Oh, ok,” he said.

“That just leaves me,” said Fisher.  “No reason that I can’t do it, right?”

I signaled assent uneasily, making my motions exaggerated enough that they could see it through the translucent map.

I hadn’t wanted Fisher to do this, or anything else that split her off from the group, until after we were Linked.  My best guess at her motivation was that she’d do anything not to be returned to Prevailer’s custody.  It seemed to be a common thread with folks who had been in the Pit.  But I didn’t know any more details than that, and if she just up and joined the Pantheon we’d all be entirely out of luck.  I didn’t know if that would fulfill her goals or not.

Asking was pretty much out of the question, because I didn’t have any way to tell whether or not she would tell the truth.

While I was thinking, Haunter spoke up.

“That’s a great idea, Fisher.  You aren’t famous, or at least I hadn’t heard of you until I met you.  You have that gift that lets you know what people want, which should be exceptionally useful in a situation like this.  You are the obvious choice.”

I squirmed.  There wasn’t really any objection that I could make to this.

“Alright, so Fisher will be carrying the message. Let’s-“

“No!”

We all looked over Nirav’s way.  His interruption had been very close to a shout.

“I mean…maybe I ought to go with her?” he said, sort of hopefully.

Sweet, of course, but…

“I don’t think that would be a very good idea.” I said.

He’d only known her for a few days, and he was ready to risk his life for her?  Did she have some sort of gift which allowed her to influence people?  That couldn’t happen, according to my understanding of Essence Theory.  People’s thoughts, their souls for lack of a better term, or at least Ultras, weren’t something that a gift could affect.  I was pretty sure.

“We need you with us, Nirav.  You are a big part of our combat power.”

Ah!  Haunter had, no doubt aided by some shrinks among her captive souls, grasped the key point.  Nirav could risk his life because he didn’t value it, barely believed in it.  He needed to be mollified, reassured.

“Haunter is quite correct.” I said.  “Without your power, and I’m not just talking about Condemner now, we will be at a crushing disadvantage.  Nirav, with Fisher gone you are the only member of this team who can react at Ultra speed.  We are entirely reliant on you to intercept any enemies who have that power set, and it is a pretty common one.”

I was laying it on a bit thick.  All of us could handle foes with Ultra speed one in one way or another.  But it was what he needed to hear.  A way that he could contribute.  Most importantly, a way that he could contribute that wasn’t Condemner related.

He relented, lapsing back into his seat with a sullen nod.  I’d take it.

“Alright, now let’s figure out who Fisher will approach, and what line she’ll use.”

The Regime’s Birth 2

Peggy Martin awoke, the first Ultra in the world.

What was her state of mind?  How did she make sense of her incredible power?  Was she already almighty at that time, or is there some grain of truth to the rumors of her undergoing the Process multiple times.  No one knows the answers to these questions.

What IS apparent is that she fell immediately and naturally into Dr. Chen’s orbit.  For a rock bottom social deviant the prospect of a roof over her head and steady income, along with a supply of the chemicals she had been dependent on, was apparently too much to ignore.  Alternately, she decided to suck up to the guy who could make Ultras.  Alternately, daddy issues.  Once again, no one knows the reason.

It is useless, but traditional, to lament that our world was kicked over by seemingly the only resident of that time period who didn’t use social media to record their every thought.  Alas.

In any case, Dr. Chen now had his validation.  Peggy had Ultra strength.  His Process worked.  So why didn’t he immediately go and rub it in the Westen board’s face?  We have only speculation to go by.

The traditional answer is that he had just been burned before.  Remember, he thought that his lecture had been convincing.  He himself wouldn’t believe something if he wasn’t convinced by the reasoning behind it, so why would anyone who didn’t understand what he told them be convinced by Peggy lifting a car?  Recall, the good professor had some interpersonal difficulties.

I’ve never been persuaded by this line of thinking myself.  Yeah, some people might doubt, but a living Ultra, just one black swan, would prove physics to be false.  Once you’ve got Peggy pushing over a mountain it becomes obvious that there is something fundamental missing from our understanding.  Even Dr. Chen should be able to get that.

I believe that it was something else that held him back.  His comic book consumption.  He’d read tons of 21st century pablum.  Masked heroes.  Vigilantes, all that jazz.  I think he was seduced to some degree by the mystery of the thing.

Then, too, it is very likely that he killed someone.  I mean, the Process works 1/30th of the time on women.  So the odds that he gets 2 in a row are grim.  Picture it.  Afire with vindication the Professor gets someone to undergo the next dose.  And they die, switched off.  Can he go public with this?  He’d be a murderer!

In any case, for whichever one of these reasons seems most convincing to you, dear reader, Dr. Chen didn’t immediately tell the world that he’d created an Ultra.  He started looking around for other test subjects, women he could augment, whose lives would be improved by their new abilities.  Women who wouldn’t be missed, who might be saved by Ultra powers.  He sent Peggy Martin out to fetch terminally ill patients.

Knowing little of his ward, and, once again, possessing a somewhat skewed idea of how the world worked, he no doubt expected her to obey.  But, obviously, Peggy didn’t know anyone who had a terminal illness and was dying in hospital.  The local hospitals knew her as a frequent flyer on their ‘fake emergency in order to get inside and then swipe a bunch of drugs’ lists.  She knew a lot of crooks though, and plenty of them would do what she said if she twisted their arms.

Thus Dr. Chen, all unknowing, entered the period that would give rise to the initial Ultra crooks.  He began to administer the Procedure to ‘terminal’ patients that Prevailer would bring him.  Those who survived the doc allowed to depart in peace, thinking that he was seeding the world with new heroes.  He was likely striving to reduce the Process’s fatality ratio before bringing it to the world’s attention.  It hardly mattered.

The Ultra Crime Wave had begun.

Preventer 2:3

I spent the night thinking, carefully considering every angle of the upcoming briefing.

Actually, that wasn’t quite true.  I spent the first part of the night seething with rage, getting myself ready to tear all four of them new assholes for being irresponsible jagoffs.  They had endangered my life, which was actually quite hard to do, for some pitiful entertainment.

I really enjoyed a good rage.  Given a reason to bear a grudge I’d hunker down and carry it to my grave.  But gradually, as the long night wore on, my sanity reasserted itself.

These were the other members of my Fist.  They would be with me for the foreseeable future.  If Linker worked her magic they would be my extra lives.  If I scolded them, justified as I would be, they’d close ranks against me.

I’d seen it happen before.  Knowing better than other people, and being compelled to prove it, had been my curse even before I got my gift.  I could win every argument, unless the other party was aggressive and my disordered mind betrayed me, but somehow when it ended up I’d have gained nothing of worth and I’d have lost another friend.

I’d built up this Fist in my mind, long before starting down this road.  I’d told myself that the reason was the unsustainability of the status quo, and that was definitely a big part of it.  But a substantial portion of the ‘why’ of me taking this risk was to be part of a group.

Ultra Toughness, as pitiful as the thought was, hadn’t protected me against loneliness.  I was bad at reading people.  I couldn’t take the chance that they’d unite as a group and merely tolerate me.  I resolved to say little, or nothing, about the previous night’s irresponsibility.  They’d gotten away with it, after all.

I didn’t actually need to sleep, anyway.  I enjoyed sleep.  It passed the time, and waking up was pleasant, but my gift protected me from any effect of its absence with the same faultless vigor that it used for poison or kinetic energy.

As the morning came around I was pleased to hear the remainder of the Fist stirring and preparing for action with no prompting required.  This was actually a bit surprising to me. My knowledge of intoxication was mostly based on media, and according to movies and such they should have been hung over and useless on the next day.

Instead, everyone just seemed a bit slow, bleary eyed and yawning.  We gathered together in the central dugout, Indulger widening it as we all crowded in.  One old lightbulb provided our illumination, one of Haunter’s ghost’s accessories, to judge by its translucent nature.

One day I’d have to ask her about that.  How, exactly, did the material duplication work?  Could we get anything we wanted just by having a dagger claim it and letting Haunter grab his soul?  I put the matter aside for now.

“Ok, so what do we have?” I asked.  I tried to make my voice a little higher pitched than usual, in case any of the cinema tropes about hearing sensitivity and hangovers were true.  No scolding didn’t mean no consequences, after all.  None of them winced though.

Haunter, unsurprisingly, started off.  Over the past days I’d developed an appreciation for the mind behind that wrinkled visage.  Or, minds, rather.  Haunter and her shades were as smart as anyone I’d ever seen, given time to prepare and come to a consensus.  Many heads, light work, I guessed.

“I haven’t got much information, as of yet.  I’ve laid the groundwork to learn quite a bit, but so far I mostly know the general stuff.  Krishna’s unit is stronger and more favored by the Council, or whatever passes for it out here.  Thor is on the outs and worried about it.  The two bands have had several near clashes recently.”

“What do you mean by ‘groundwork’?” I asked.

“I’ve used my gift on some of the locals.  If they die anytime soon, and in a Pantheon town it wouldn’t be a surprise if it happened at any moment, I can interrogate their souls, learn everything they know.”

Haunter seemed aware that this wouldn’t really cut it even as she spoke.  Still, it was better than I’d been able to do, hiding away like a mole in a burrow.  The friendly thing to do would be not to press on this point, at the moment.

“You told them about your gift?” I was never very good at being friendly.

“No, humans can’t tell when I put my hooks in.  I just talked to a few folks, all across town, and when we were done talking we shook hands, slapped five, whatever.

“Is that ok?” asked Indulger.

“Of course it’s –“ I didn’t finish the sentence before Haunter cut me off.

“I’m not sure.  I think so.  If they want to go on to wherever the dead go I’ll let them.  But almost nobody has ever done that.  Dead people don’t want to pass on.  Give them the chance of living on behind some old lady’s eyes and, most of the time, they jump at it.”

Indulger seemed mollified.  He spoke up next.

“I mostly got that same info from the laborers that Haunter is getting.  Thor is in trouble, his girls are scared.  Some might want to jump ship to Krishna, but nobody knows if she’ll take them on.  All the builders and carriers are worried that we’ll get caught up in the trouble if the Ultras throw down.”

“Anything else?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’ve been using my gift a bit, you know, seeing what is under ground.”

I hadn’t considered that his power could be used that way, but it made a lot of sense.  His talent seemed to be a gift with no limit.  Transport, combat, and now information gathering.  How could moving the ground around help so much?

“They’ve got a bunch of tunnels.  I was surprised, because none of the builders or carriers told me that they’d been made to make tunnels.  But then I felt dead bodies in the ground and decided that the Ultras probably killed their workers when they were done.”

He said this surprisingly matter-of-factly for someone as soft hearted, and soft headed, as he was.  It suggested depths to our Glorious Leader that I would have to explore at some point.

“Thanks Indulger, would I be correct in assuming that you can get us into these tunnels if need be?”

He simply nodded.  I probably didn’t need to ask, but this wasn’t anything to take a chance on.  I didn’t see a need for entering enemy tunnels in my current plan, but any time you had a capability that the enemy didn’t know about it was worth it to hold the fact in your mind.

Fisher started talking.

“I’ve been focusing on Thor’s lieutenants.  He has four.  Karen, Inferno, Lara and Dozens.”

She ticked them off on her fingers as she counted.

“Karen is his right hand gal.  She’s been with him ever since he started out.  Vietnamese, I think.  She’s got some kind of Ultra fighting capabilities, and she also seeps acid when she’s mad.  She handles interrogations, assassinations, that kind of thing.  Nasty customer.”

I thought she’d move onto the next, but she knew a bit more about Karen.

“Karen’s main goal is keeping Thor alive.  Her own safety comes a bit later.  She’s devoted, to the point of mania.  If we kill Thor and not her, she’ll come after us, even once we are linked.”

“Alright, how do you know that?” I burst out.  I was heartened to hear Haunter saying something similar.  It was high time to get to the bottom of Fishers abilities.  Or at least near the bottom.  We still hadn’t seen this shadow monster.

To my surprise, she actually answered.

“When I get close to people, I can see…not their thoughts, exactly.  It’s more like a sense of what their priorities are.  Think of a chalkboard, with an ordered list.  Food, shelter, loved one, etc.  It doesn’t exactly give me information, but if I already know a bit about a person I can usually fill in the gaps.  The items in the list…point, towards things, is I guess the way to put it.  Karen’s list has a #1 priority that is leagues ahead of the rest of it.  That’s a mentor/leader figure, and it connects to my notion of Thor.”

I wasn’t sure exactly how much of this to believe.  On the one hand, it was detailed and plausible, given the little I knew of Essence Theory.  She’d be reading the body’s response to its soul’s movements, not the soul itself.  On the other, if there was anyone in this crew I’d be worried about lying to my face, it would be Fisher.

I stifled the impulse to demand that she tell me what her gift told her about me.  Eventually I was sure that I’d give in and ask about that, we all would, but now was not the time.

I nodded, as though satisfied by that answer, and bade her continue.

“Inferno is mostly with him because she’s pissed off all the other leaders in South America.  She’s a loose cannon.  Anger issues, insecure.  Her first priority is making sure no one thinks they are better than her.  Her second is getting praised.”

“With a name like that, I presume she has fire related abilities?” asked Haunter, at roughly the same time as Indulger said “She burns stuff?”.

It seemed oddly appropriate that the fire user would be a literal hothead.  I spent a moment in regret for the research that I’d never get around to now.

“Lara is her own woman.  She has flying, blasting powers, and no particular loyalty to Thor.  She is presently with him because she hasn’t gotten a better offer.  If Krishna beckons, she’ll jump ship.”

“Then why hasn’t Krishna offered?” I asked.

“I don’t know.  I haven’t gotten anywhere near Krishna’s circle yet, and also…why isn’t really a thing that my gift picks up on.  Lara wants power and respect, and those desires aren’t connected to a particular person.  I’m interpreting that to mean that she’d jump ship, if the opportunity came up.  I can’t really speculate beyond that.”

I nodded again.  Fisher continued.

“Dozens is an extremely interesting Ultra.  She has a bunch of bodies, splits them into and out of one another whenever she wants to.  Like Jane’s shades, but with her mind in control of them all.  They aren’t powerful, I’m not even sure that each body is more powerful than a baseline human, but she seems to be able to make as many as she wants of them.”

Haunter started, head turning quickly and slamming a hand down on a table.  Everyone jolted a bit at the sound, thought it wasn’t all that loud.

“Bodies…without souls?” she asked.

Oh, yeah.  I’d forgotten about Haunter’s goal.   I tried to head off the complication.

“Bodies with one soul.”  I said.   “I know what you are thinking, and I don’t think jamming them into a Pantheon warlord is going to be the incarnation that your shades are looking for.”

She subsided, without arguing with me.  I had no illusions that I’d just persuaded her of anything, but if she wasn’t going to talk about it there wasn’t a lot I could do to address the point.

“Last night, you said you had a plan?” asked Nirav.  It might be my imagination, but he was looking a bit better this morning.  Maybe my efforts at putting a scare into his alter ego had worked out.  It would be nice if something did.

“Yeah.  I’ll say the obvious.”

I turned around the room, looking each of them in the eye.

“We are screwed.  We couldn’t fight a hundred Ultras.  We damn sure can’t fight two hundred.  And we can’t run from the Inner Circle.”

Nobody answered me, immediately.  Haunter had furrowed her brow, trying to work out where I was going.  The rest of them were just sitting silently, waiting for me to make my point.  I’d always wanted to do the drawing room scene.

“Our idea in Shington,” I held up a hand to prevent Haunter form interrupting. “A sneak attack, that is.  That’s not going to work.  It never really was.”

“It won’t be an attack, precisely,” said Fisher.  “I’m thinking more of a series of executions.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said.  “I’ll never understand what drives people to brag about how ruthless they are.  It isn’t exactly a quality in short supply.  I got the point way back when it was first raised.  You are talking about killing them in their sleep.  Have you ever actually done that?”

“Killed an Ultra in her sleep?” asked Fisher.  She gave a sidelong look at Indulger, who was frowning with vast disapproval.  “Sure.”

Nirav seemed a bit startled by this, perhaps he was finally beginning to understand what a viper he’d taken to bed.  That wasn’t the main point of this, but it would be a useful side effect.  I didn’t precisely disapprove of their relationship, but it seemed healthier if everyone involved knew what they were getting into.

“Not killed ‘an Ultra’ in her sleep.  Killed a hundred in their sleep.  Ever done that?”

Fisher was silent, not seeming to get it.

“Step up to the first one, is anyone else awake in the room?  Do they scream, or just ask what’s going on and wake the target?  If no, when you strike them, how hard do you hit?  Hard enough to kill Ultra Tough victims?  That’ll make noise if they aren’t, you’ll demolish a whole part of the room?  Hard enough to kill a dagger?  That’ll just wake up and annoy them if they are Ultra Tough.”

From everyone’s faces, they were getting it.  Their mental models were going from “of course you can kill someone if they are asleep”, to “repeating a task with any kind of possibility of failing a hundred times means that it will fail, probably way before you are done.”

“And that isn’t even considering that they might have sentries.” I went on.  “I sure did.  Couple of Knights had the night time shift, stood around my bed making sure no one snuck up.  Yeah, I might have been paranoid, but what makes you think that of a hundred targets no one there will be similarly paranoid?”

“You’ve made your point,” Fisher allowed.  “I guess I hadn’t thought this entirely through.  Do you have an alternative?”

I nodded.  Haunter gave me a smile which I took to mean that she had figured it out, but wasn’t about to steal my thunder.  Nirav was still looking at Fisher, but Indulger was giving me his full attention.  Ah well, still a good try at a drawing room scenario.

“Look.  We all agree that we can’t beat one hundred enemies.  Even if we could, we certainly can’t beat a second hundred in easy reinforcement range.  And we can’t get away.  This has to work for us to have any shot.  So, let’s reason backwards.”

I took a deep breath.

“The only people in this setup with the power to kill the Pantheon forces are the Pantheon forces, and I don’t think it’ll be too hard to arrange.”