It was strange how…vexed I was at the shabbiness of our Redo hideout.
I mean, ultimately, I was invincible. I couldn’t itch, dirt didn’t stick to me if I didn’t want it to…every imaginable effect of the run down basement was effortlessly repelled by my gift. And yet, it bothered me.
Perhaps it was left over from the trek across the Regime. Haunter had insisted that we use her rattling old bus so that she could let her spirits out during the trip. The rest had gone along with her, like they always seemed to. The drive had been a misery.
Being invincible was no protection from being annoyed. The never ending stream of shades spawning from Haunter and chattering feverishly with one another was bad enough. The crummy conditions of the road, which forced frequent stops while Indulger got out and moved the terrain around had been worse. Worst of all was the growing loss of detachment. Somewhere along the line my circumstances had stopped being part of my plan, and the realization that this was my life now had sunk in.
Indulger’s inane curiosity was something that I’d have to live with, forever. Fisher and Nirav’s flirting, Haunter’s sacred collection of daggers…these were part of my existence. They’d be with me as long as the stars shone.
When I’d made my plan getting to be part of the last Fist before Linker died had seemed to be an unadulterated plus. What’s better than being invincible? Being invincible with four mighty allies as your insurance policy. The reality of it was proving somewhat less glorious.
At least I’d found out a lot about them during the trip.
Haunter wasn’t just old, she was old-world. It made sense when I thought about it. Thousands of imaginary friends had kept her from moving on throughout the course of her long, long life. Her shades, on some level, ruled her. A parliament of daggers, too weak to survive on their own, using social pressure to hijack a weak willed Ultra and get another shot at existence.
Nirav was throwing himself into something with Fisher to distract himself from the existential despair that seemed to undermine him ever since we met. He wasn’t nearly as put together as he presented himself.
Condemner remained an enigma. The flames described in my reports had yet to make themselves known. To all appearances Nirav remained a diffident young Ultra, markedly weaker than the remainder of the team.
Indulger suffered from some manner of impostor syndrome, or something. I’d need more time to pinpoint what was going on with him, but he seemed to be taking cues from some kind of script in his head, basing his decisions on unstated criteria that I hadn’t encountered before.
Fisher mellowed out a bit during the trip. She was breezy, pleasant and engaging. I trusted none of it. She was just remembering long lost habits of disguise. Let her fool the rest, for she was no danger to me.
Still, assessments aside, it had been a miserable journey. I’d been forced to sit idle, wasting time, as we rolled across the country. I’d been pleasant to the rest of the Fist, but I felt like they could feel my patience wearing thin.
Sneaking into Redo had been easy enough. We ditched the bus a few dozen miles out of the city, and Indulger brought us there with his gift. We’d slid easily through the ground, an orb of air tunneling at shocking speed, without so much as a rumble through the surrounding earth to give us away. We’d emerged into a ruined basement and promptly set up shop.
The others had insisted that I’d give us away, and they were probably right. My pallor, and should the paste rub off my distinctive shimmer, might well be known to Pantheon sources. At the very least they would mark me as an Ultra, while the remainder of the crew had no such identifying marks.
This had left me sitting alone in a basement.
It was curious, how much different this felt than sitting alone in my home. It was the difference between not desiring company, and not being able to get any. The difference between knowing that I could snap my fingers and get a dozen Knights to attend my wishes, and my brain spinning wild fantasies of abandonment and desolation.
At least the others were getting valuable information. Haunter, invisible to the enemy due to her advanced years and general decrepitude, had told me that she was seeking dissatisfied members of the enemy’s dagger support cadre. In truth, she had almost certainly contacted the local Resistance. When she was more comfortable with me, in due time, she would almost certainly let me know about her contacts. I was content to let the secret sit.
Nirav and Fisher were getting the best information of the whole crew, strangely enough. I’d initially been skeptical of their desire to spy together, but it seemed to be working. They were bringing back impossibly detailed information. Names, ranks and personality profiles on Thor’s forces were accumulating at a preposterous rate. One or the other of them had a power that I didn’t know about.
Indulger, our glorious leader, had been learning very little. He’d wandered out and started doing brute labor. I wasn’t sure whether he thought that the Company Men knew something worth learning, or he just liked it, but as long as he kept away from the Pantheon Ultras I was content.
Info was coming in, but the picture it painted was increasingly grim.
Our original plan, a sneak attack on Thor’s army, capitalizing on the fact that the Regime would never stoop to a covert strike, had had real merit. I was surprised that Haunter had been able to come up with it. But chance had forestalled us.
According to our info Thor was engaged in something of a leadership struggle with another Pantheon leader, Krishna. She had as many Ultras as he did under her, and she also had something more important. She had the leadership’s faith. Word on the street was that Zeus and Co. were backing her play. Thor would have to back down, ultimately.
In the meantime, however, he was bullying his forces into an alert posture every evening. The Regime might be above effective tactics, but this Krishna was emphatically not. In fact, according to Haunter’s snooping, Krishna was preternaturally cunning, generating optimal tactics and maximizing odds of victory almost reflexively.
I didn’t really believe in Ultra cunning, or Ultra intelligence, or whatever you wanted to call it. Lots of Ultras had claimed it over the years. But an Ultra genius, above all, should WIN, and She had crushed them one by one. Nonetheless, fraud or not, Krishna’s presence complicated our tactical situation immeasurably.
If fighting a hundred Ultras was lunacy, fighting two hundred was an outright farce. Should we try to take them on directly we’d be obliterated. Or rather, the other four would be obliterated. Beyond that, any attack on one of these warbands would probably bring the other one running, so anything that we did with Thor would have to be done quickly, before Krishna had time to react.
I enjoyed puzzles, but I wasn’t sure that Redo had a solution. This miserable flyspeck of a sun baked town, this accursed basement, they might well be a problem that I lacked the force to solve.
It was a galling admission. I was glad to be distracted from it by the coded knock on the upstairs door, and the rustling of feet as my Fist descended towards me.
They still looked much the same as they had back in Shington. No Sigils, slightly dustier, but we were fundamentally still the same group that had talked our way past the other Fists. Reminding myself of that triumph helped me steel myself a disclosure that I hadn’t been hoping to make until after we were Linked.
“Pre, sorry for leaving you down here so long,” said Indulger. He looked kind of hang-dog, apologetic. Why had he…I smelled something strange.
“It’s fine. We agreed that I needed to stay below, make sure that we aren’t recognized. How did your scouting go?”
Haunter was looking at me strangely.
“You don’ … don’ know whaz up?”
She was slurring her words.
“Is that…beer?” I couldn’t believe it. I literally hadn’t let myself recognize the smell. A sudden tightness in my chest. Rage.
“You left me in that hole while you all went out for drinks?”
Not rage, maybe shame? My voice had risen at the end of that sentence, which was lunacy. I clenched my hands, fought for control.
“Sorry,” rumbled Indulger again, looking at his feet.
“You” (didn’t invite me), “You risked our cover just to…”
Fisher spoke up.
“The best time to observe people is when they are relaxing. We went to the Company Facility, milled among the populace. There weren’t many Ultras there.”
“Weren’t many?” I said, working carefully to keep myself on an even keel. These idiots had risked my plan. Risked MY LIFE.
“3 of them. I don’t think they noticed us.”
Fisher had none of the slur, none of the exaggerated motions that the rest of them were showing. She was as she always was. Perhaps her power somehow protected her?
“I don’t care what you think-“
I stopped, took a moment to get myself under control. Anger, or whatever this was. It wouldn’t help anyone. I took a deep breath and continued.
“If they saw you. If any of you did anything conspicuous, then they know new Ultras are in town. They might have followed you.”
Haunter sat down heavily. She seemed the worst off of the bunch. Inebriants seemed to be one thing that her shades didn’t endure for her. I took an unworthy and savage pleasure in seeing her thus degraded.
“They won’t tell anyone,” said Fisher.
“Look, Preventer, we won’t do it again. We knew it was dumb as soon as we were there.” Indulger paused and gave a tremendous belch. “Excuse me.”
“I should hope not.” I tried to make my voice as stern and commanding as possible, which wasn’t as easy as it should have been. “The witnesses…”
Out of the others’ sight, Fisher make the ‘throat-slit’ gesture.
Had she killed them? Ultras? With the rest of the Fist none the wiser? Or was she proposing that she kill them. Haunter and Indulger would never go for it if the witnesses weren’t Thor’s…
“Regardless, you’ll be good for nothing tonight. Get some rest, everyone.”
They filed past me, nodding as they passed. Fisher didn’t give me any kind of sign or signal about what she’d meant by that gesture, and it would be extremely suspicious to pull her back now. Haunter may have been drunk, but my understanding was that her army watched from her eyes. She wouldn’t miss anything.
Nirav stopped, let the rest pass on into the cave that Indulger had cut into the basement for us.
“It was my fault.”
That wasn’t very plausible, but maybe he wanted to protect Haunter.
“No, It’s not. What we did was stupid.” He looked down into my eyes. His were bleary, bloodshot. It wasn’t just the drink, he hadn’t been sleeping well.
“I’m just so tired of being afraid. You’ve got it so good. You never have to be afraid.”
Was that what he thought?
“Nirav, I’m afraid ALL THE TIME.” I stressed the last three words for emphasis.
“No, look.” I held up a hand. Naturally, no flapping right now. Count on my body to disappoint.
“Nirav, just because there is only one person who can hurt me doesn’t mean that I’m not scared. That one person is our boss now. You lot can get away from her. You can die. I’m the one on the hook.”
“At any moment, any time of any day, Condemner could take me. When I’m just getting up in the morning. When I’m taking a crap. When I’m with Fisher. Any instant could be my last one. He could just get sick of sitting around and decide to set everything on fire. When he does that, I’m done. I can’t fight him. No one can save me from him. Preventer I’m so sick and tired and scared of it. I just can’t take this.”
Tears were falling from his eyes. He was sucking in and out each breath, pouring his heart out.
“That’s true for all of us.” I tried to argue. I’ve always been a sucker for arguing with someone about the feelings that they ought to have. It never works but I just can’t stop doing it.
“Tomorrow isn’t promised today. Even for me. Prevailer could appear right behind me and slap off my head, just because she’d think it was hilarious.”
He didn’t seem mollified at all.
“I just can’t take this,” he repeated. “You don’ know what it’s like, Preventer. You don’t get it. I’m not re-“
I put a hand over his mouth. It was less to stop him from talking and more to interrupt his flow. He was in a place where he could be shouting, giving away our position to all and sundry, in an instant or so. He reflexively bit my hand, and gagged in surprise as his teeth found no purchase on my flesh.
“Condemner” I said, looking into his eyes. “You’ve had your fun with little Nirav here. But this is too much. You are scaring the poor boy.”
Nirav’s eyes widened as he realized what I was doing, and he jerked convulsively. He was stronger than me, but a little known aspect of my Ultra toughness is that I can take attempts to move me as though they were trying to hurt me when I want to, if I’m ready for it. He could more readily have freed himself if he were pinned under a mountain.
“This is me telling you this. Preventer. The girl you can’t burn. If you hurt a hair on Nirav’s head, if you don’t put him back together just like this when you are done fighting. I’ll put you out, and there is nothing you can do about it.”
Nirav’s eyes got even wider, until it seemed as though they were going to burst from his head. He pointed his hands away from me, as though they were about to spit fire. An instant later, they did.
Flames burst from his palms, curled around his arms and then onto my own hands where I gripped his shoulder. Nirav’s face went slack as the fire poured forth, an inferno raging with mounting force as it consumed my upper body.
I didn’t move. Let the clash come. I had absolute faith in my gift.
An instant later, so did Condemner. The fire had nothing to feed on, no souls to consume and nothing really to burn down here. Without fuel it would be extinguished. He knew it, I knew it. It raced back into Nirav’s body, recreating his arms and shoulders as it did so. I hadn’t budged an inch, hadn’t looked away from Nirav’s eyes.
“Get some sleep.” I told him. “I’ve just thought of a plan, tomorrow morning we start the operation.”