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.”