Strongboat 1:4

Banshee and the four Ultras at her heels swept into the hold of the Strongboat.

No surge of water followed them in.  Moses’s power still held the sea in thrall.  They clambered into the outer hull of the Regime vessel bone dry.

It was a long thin room.  There were doors at either end, one heading along the ship’s direction, the other continuing deeper into the vessel.  The room served no immediately apparent purpose.

The Pantheon Ultras had no way of knowing it, but this was due to the haphazard and slipshod nature of the vessel’s agglomeration.  The Strongboat was more like many boats welded together, and they had forced their way into one of the outermost and least used hulls.

Banshee blinked as vision returned to her, holding up a hand to bring the others to a halt.  She wasn’t sure why the Regime Ultras gift had stopped affecting them, but it certainly made it easier to navigate.

She considered erasing a hole in the next wall, and simply continuing directly towards the Strongboat’s core, but ultimately decided to use the passages.  She didn’t trust Moses, and falling into a space between hulls would leave them in her influence again.

The group headed towards the door that led deeper into the boat, even as the sounds of fighting echoed down from up above.  They paid it little mind.  Let their comrades bring Death her offerings, they had bigger game.

Banshee had her own friends in the higher ranks.  She was Named, after all.  She knew the rationale that Death had used to justify this strike.  One of the Inner Circle was on board.

The Ultras who had followed her instead of Gorgon were those who she’d shared this knowledge with.  They’d clustered together while crossing the sea, and even blindness hadn’t split them apart.  Their motive was simple.  Everyone involved in taking down an Inner Circle member would be Named.  Banshee might even be made a warlord.

As they neared the door it swung open, and one of Haunter’s shades dashed into the hold.

It was obvious that he hadn’t expected to find enemies there, he hadn’t even paused to look ahead.  He didn’t get the time to make up for his mistake.

The Ultra nearest the door, Zoe, simply stepped forward and slammed her fist, coated in her characteristic green energy, through the translucent shape. It popped like a soap bubble.  She didn’t even break stride, peering into the next hold.

The inhabitants of this room, some sort of gaming chamber, had clearly seen their fellow’s destruction.  They shrank from the door like it was the mouth of Hell.

Zoe led them into the room, Banshee dissolving the door away as they stepped past it.  Their opposition was pitiful.

A pair of Knights shuddered in fear, holding their scythes up more like talismans than weapons.  A trio of armed shades sheltered behind them, pointing guns at the new arrivals.

Banshee understood English, but didn’t speak it.  She thumped Esha on the shoulder.  Esha had come from the Regime.

“Where are your masters?” asked Esha, “The Fists you serve?”

One of the Knights seemed like he was about to speak, but whatever he was going to say was cut off in a burst of gunfire.

None of the Ultras even flinched as the shades opened fired at point blank range.  Guns hadn’t stopped them on the water, and they weren’t about to now.

Bullets that neared Banshee simply disintegrated, while a shield of a strange green energy flared into being around Zoe with each impact.  Esha’s body sprouted holes in front of each bullet, closing up again after they had gone through.

Neither of the two who brought up the rear had such flashy defenses.  The projectiles simply bounced off of their iron hard flesh.  Marta and Lana were bruisers, and it would take more than guns to slow them down.

Zoe, Marta and Lana advanced into the fusillade, blithely unconcerned about the impacts.  The two Knights stepped forward to meet them.

Marta was overly cocky, the mere idea that a human could harm her by swinging a stick at her angered her.  She hadn’t paid any attention to Esha’s stories of the Regime, and of its Knights.  She didn’t bother to dodge, stepping directly into the swing and reaching out to pull off the human’s stupid skull mask.

The blade sank into her breast like a lightsaber.  Refiner’s blessing proving far stronger than her enhanced endurance.  She toppled to the ground still disbelieving, holding the scythe to her like a lover.

Lana made no such error, stepping back as the cumbersome scythe swung back and forth.  On the second pass she caught the blade, and yanked it out of the Knight’s hands.

One of the ghosts made a run for a door, only to be popped by a blast from Zoe’s energy.  The others kept firing, but things were over very quickly for the humans.

Banshee kept the one who killed Marta, the one who had looked like he was going to talk, alive.  She disintegrated his robe and mask, grabbed his arm and wrenched it back.

“Your leaders, where?” asked Esha.

The Knight wasn’t in any serious pain from the angry woman twisting his arm.  Banshee didn’t have Ultra strength.  It was fear, not anguish, which loosened his tongue.

“Go through that door, then turn right and you will get to Adder’s sickroom.  That’s where they will be, I swear!”

Esha translated this for the others, and Banshee let go with a satisfied grunt.  The Knight barely had time to begin composing himself before Lana kicked his head off.  She and Marta had been close.

Banshee dissolved a hole in the wall next to the door this time, and they practically pounced through it.

The room beyond was clearly an engine room of some kind, with machinery churning away in the middle, extending down into the floor.  Banshee and her crew barely noticed it, making directly for the door to the right.

This was a serious door.  It looked like something that would be more at home on a vault than a ship.  Banshee dissolved it anyway, reducing it to nothingness with an exercise of her gift.

Inside waited the Regime’s Ultras.

Condemner and Consumer crouched behind a small barricade, seemingly purpose built for the task.  Adder waited between them, standing upright.  Preventer stood in front of their line, one hand raised towards the intruders.

“That’s far enough, ladies,” she said.  “I don’t know how you managed to fuck with Sixth Fist’s Link, but whatever it is won’t let you hurt me.  I have Ultra Toughness Three, understand?  Nothing but Her can kill me.”

Banshee had read the briefings, she knew that the tiny figure before her was speaking the truth.  She didn’t care.  She gestured Lana forward.

Lana had also read the briefings.  As Preventer stepped up in response she didn’t waste any energy on punching an invincible woman.  She simply grabbed on to Preventer’s shoulders and tried to shove her aside.

“Nuh-Uh,” said Preventer.

She didn’t move a muscle.  She’d slipped barriers out of her flesh, hidden beneath her shirt, in the moment that Lana had grabbed her.  They stopped her torso from moving, and her invulnerability kept the pressure on her upper body from bending her.

Lana grunted with concern, tried to pull her hands back, but Preventer had already grabbed onto them.

She struggled in silence for a moment, straining with everything she had to get this miniature pest off of her.  It accomplished absolutely nothing.

“The mighty Pantheon,” said Adder gently.  “How She would tremble to see you ALMOST manage to walk through a door.”

Banshee held up a hand as Zoe moved forward, looking like she was going to try and scramble by the two.  It was obvious that Preventer would just grab onto her as well, turning this whole assassination into an idiotic farce.

She’d had enough of this buffoonery.  She put forth her gift, focusing it on the walls on either side of the door where Lana and Preventer were grappling.

Banshee’s gift was incredibly powerful, though simple.  She could cause any matter that wasn’t part of an ensouled form to dissipate, to vanish away.  It wasn’t very long ranged, and it couldn’t destroy living flesh like Remover’s gift could, but there was no ray to dodge, no delay at all.  She simply wished things gone, and they were unmade.

Which made it all the more baffling when the walls stubbornly refused to vanish.

Banshee’s gift was mighty.  It had earned her a Name.  It wasn’t giving her any feedback or resistance.  The walls should be gone.  Instead they were just … rippling a little?

In an instant, she realized what was happening.  The Fists weren’t the only Regime Ultras that she had searched for influence on.  This was Adder’s hand at work.

Without moving, without showing any sign of strain, from twice the distance that she was, from his goddamn deathbed, Adder was undoing her work.  As fast as she deleted the walls he recreated them.

It was a humbling show of power.  Somewhere in the back of her mind Banshee heard the woman that she had once been screaming.

But Death’s hook drove her forwards, along with her own ambitions.  Retreat was unthinkable, whatever this servant of the Demon’s powers were.

“Kill them,” she told Zoe and Esha.  Both moved forward as one.

Banshee kept trying to dissolve the walls, stubbornly pitting her gift against Adder’s.  She knew he had supplied a nation for years.  She had no illusions that he could run out of power or anything, she simply wanted to keep him from conjuring anything to deal with her agents.

Esha stepped ‘through’ the struggling pair.  Her body contorted and ran in rivers of flesh about them, always maintaining a slight distance from the pair.  She didn’t break stride, moving like a hologram through the struggling duo.

Esha was untouchable, save for when she willed it.  Her form would contort and writhe to avoid anything she didn’t expressly permit.

The tall dark-skinned man, the one from Fourth Fist, stood up from behind his barricade and made a motion like he was pitching a ball.  Fire appeared and sailed through Esha’s torso, passing through the gap without making impact.

Banshee actually barked a laugh at that.  THIS was Condemner’s power?  The flame that reports pictured as an inescapable inferno?

Zoe, meanwhile, was pushing her way past where Marta and Preventer were filling the door.  Her energy field sufficed to ward off Preventer’s grasp.

Banshee took a step nearer, decreasing the space between her and the walls.  Her gift was faster the closer she was to her target.  Maybe by getting nearer she could overpower Adder’s ability?  At the very least it might tax him more.

Esha rushed Adder, then slammed directly into a steel pillar.  It hadn’t erupted from the ground or the ceiling, it had simply sprang into being from nothingness.

“Your gift doesn’t prevent you if you are the one causing the impact, I see,” said Adder.  “An unfortunate weakness.”

Banshee took another step closer, practically standing on the door stop now.  Had the walls wavered slightly more when Adder made that pillar?  It was hard to tell.

Esha stepped back, shaking her head slightly, as though to clear it.  She was about to spring again when Adder raised his hands above his head, as though in surrender.

“I don’t wish to fight you.  Can you understand that?  Fighting is stupid.  She would laugh to see us like this, squabbling among ourselves instead of opposing Her.  We are on a mission of peace.”

During all of this babbling, the walls didn’t cease their constant recreation.  The pillar faded away, but Banshee felt like that was more so that he could look Esha in the eyes, rather than any inability to maintain it.

“Of course, you don’t want to fight us.  You don’t want to die,” said Esha.  “But you don’t get to choose when you die.  Your killer does that part.”

Zoe reached her side at this time, and Marta finally got free of Preventer somehow, punting the gnome off into the corner of the room.

“Child,” Adder said. “You are right about that, and She has already picked my fate.  But there is no need for you to accompany me into the next life.  Go back to your homes, back to the men and women who love you.”

The scary part of it was that he sounded totally sincere.  His minions crouched motionless, seemingly content to let this madman speak for them.

Banshee stepped into the room, standing behind the three.

“Kill him,” she said.

She braced herself to unmake anything that he conjured.

Lana charged forward, head down in case of another pillar.  The loss of Marta filled her heart, leaving no room for fear.

A loud explosion sent her flying backward so fast that only Esha’s gift saved her from colliding.  Banshee glimpsed bare bones in a wet red mess.

What had he done?  Banshee’s mind unhelpfully tried to answer the question, telling her what a conjurer might form if he wanted something to detonate.

She focused absolutely on her gift, deleting absolutely everything that wasn’t already there in a tiny radius around her own form.  She clearly couldn’t match his abilities at any kind of range.  She had to hope that her immediate vicinity was safer.

Zoe sent her energy towards him in a thin beam, which was deflected when a wall appeared.  She crumbled to the ground an instant later, sizzling and screaming.

Maybe some sort of acid?  Created inside where her field would intercept?  She couldn’t worry about it now.  It would distract her from her gift, which was the only thing protecting her from being blasted like Lana.

Esha moved up.

“You can’t touch me with anything I don’t choose to touch me.  Your gift won’t hurt me, slave of Prevailer!”

Adder shook his head, still with that gentle sadness.

“You chose to step on the ground, child.  I could have made that a landmine.”

She froze, eyes wide with dread.

“You chose to suck in that air, air I could have filled with nerve gas.”

Esha slumped over.

“I did the nerve gas thing, actually.”

Banshee stood alone.  He had destroyed every one of her colleagues in short order, without effort.

So this was the power of the Inner Circle.  This was the power that Prevailer had set above her Fists.  It was overwhelming, utterly unfair.  She couldn’t even begin to think of a way that it could be defeated.

She moved towards him anyway.

“Your gift…disintegration?  I can’t make anything at all right by you.  Marvelous.”

She didn’t let him shake her concentration.  Continued to exert her gift, destroying absolutely every form that might impact her, taking one step at a time.

She was fit, even if she didn’t have Ultra strength.  He was like a hundred years old.  She could rip him apart if she got her hands on him.

Consumer suddenly blasted a gray beam at her.  Banshee tried to dodge, but it came midstride and she’d been entirely focused on Adder, almost forgetting the others were still there.

The beam hit home, and her gift was leached away.

Her gaze met Adder’s.

“I’m sorry, Goodbye.”

End Zone Dancing

[Hey Readers, Walter here!  Been a while since I begged for votes, so I’m at it again.  Please click on the ‘Vote for TFD on TopWebFiction button on the upper right if you are enjoying this story!  We had 8 votes last week, which is about halfway to the best I’ve ever pulled off.  Thanks!]

 

Dear Diary, you know the drill.

Things looked pretty dark there, for a while, yeah?  Fourth Fist’s maddening inability to be predicted had let them not only survive, but prosper, and actually wrangle an invite back to the center of things.  Back to MY vicinity, where they might suddenly realize that they needed to whack me at any time.

Naturally, that couldn’t last.

There were a few lines to just get Prevailer to kill them off, but I rejected those.  After the Redo debacle I wasn’t super confident in my ability to aim her that precisely in their vicinity, and also another crisis was coming up which would be vastly complicated by the fallout from having Peggy splat them.

I’m referring, of course, to Adder’s end.

Dude is just about out of life, and that is a very serious problem.  Basically She has always been supported by a three legged stool of relationships.  She was Adder’s surrogate daughter, Subtracter’s beloved leader and Snitcher’s owner.  Snitcher’s death wrenched everything out of whack, and now Adder dying was going to force me to intervene nearly constantly in order to keep Prevailer from just kicking the earth out of orbit in a snit fit.

I decided to help these problems solve each other.

I got Her pregant.

The details aren’t important, it is mostly down to Dale’s gift, but the key is that I led Her to realize it before she warped, and due to recent stuff She is finally in the state of mind where She wants to have the kid.

I am replacing the three legged stool with a solid block.  Peggy will be consumed by that child, just absolutely enthralled by it.  Instead of managing a trifecta of complicated relationships I’ll only have to handle one.

Moreover, once She had this notion to fixate on it was easy to steer Her into a place where She was willing to let Adder and Indulger go.  (Prevailer has some Daddy issues, and doesn’t  want Her kid to have one.)  I refined the basic ‘boat with a nuke’ mission into a kind of floating deathtrap so ridiculously dumb I actually feel kind of bad about it.

Fourth Fist and Sixth Fist are going deep into enemy territory, at the very time when the Union/Pantheon war is coming to a head.  They think that they are on a mission of peace, when in fact Adder has orders to wipe Australia off the map.  They are staggeringly fucked.

This whole war also serves another important function.  Peggy isn’t going to be warping for nine months, which makes Her more vulnerable than She ever has been.  But no one will take advantage of this, because they will be busy fighting one another.

There are a lot more pluses about this plan that I don’t need to  write out.  The funniest one is that the part of Remover from beyond the Gate won’t be able to stomach being near someone who is bringing new life into this world, so First Fist is going to wander off and fuck with the Union for a while.  I’ll have Her all to myself.

The only downside to my gift is that I can never astound myself.  Having said that, this was fucking slick.

Strongboat 1:3

For all of her incontestable might, Death was an indifferent tactician.

A case could be made for sending her forces up and over the top, onto the decks of the ship.  It would greatly lessen the risk of losing a crucial target to the sea, for one.  It would allow them to take the ship through its stairs and passages, through the paths that the crew took every day, in other words.  The risk of mechanical traps and hazards would be greatly decreased.

A case could also be made to have the Ultra mob just bull through the sides of the Strongboat, sinking everything and smashing their way through all obstacles.  It would avoid the momentary vulnerability of coming up over the side, when the Ultras hands would be occupied.  It would throw the defenders into disarray, and leave them dealing with rising waters as well as the onslaught.

No such case could be made for splitting her forces, and yet that is precisely what unfolded.

The problem was that Death hadn’t named anyone as leader.  She had been too long at HQ, too long away from the front lines.  She was their leader, after all.  She hadn’t bothered with the need to appoint someone for local tactical coordination, too busy with speeches, her attention too consumed by hunger.  The matter had slipped a mind long fixed on its next meal.

Banshee gave an imperious gesture and a door sized hole crumbled away from the Strongboat’s side, succumbing to her gift as all matter must. Gorgon scaled the side like the beast that she resembled.  The rank and file likewise divided, Blinder’s gift still keeping them from meaningful coordination.

Twister, Charger, Blinder, Haunter, Indulger and Fisher defended the deck, even as Gorgon and 8 of her followers scrabbled up over the side.

Twister met them at the edge, seizing one of her foes even as she rose up over the rail.  Twister was often underestimated, compared unfavorably to Pursuer or Slicer as a combat anchor of her Fist.  No one would underestimate her who saw her now.

The Ultra she assailed was bulky and brutish, the planes of her body stiffened, as though rocks had substituted themselves for her subdermal flesh.  The bullets of Haunter’s men had rebounded from these defenses, but Twister’s spines did not.

Her arms, deforming like serpents, lashed out and pinned her prey in a heartbeat, their circular motion sliding her spines along the defensive plates and into the joints between them.  Before the Ultra could even begin to counter they’d stabbed through, piercing the Pantheon soldier at the collarbone, shoulder and elbow on both sides.  A warrior who’d stood strong through multiple engagements perished in an instant, her last thought one of utter disbelief.

Charger met with similar success.  He had shot across the deck like a bolt out of a cannon, turning the motion of his blitz into a smashing straight right, delivered directly to the nose of a cavernous and ghoul-like Ultra.

She could have dodged him easily, save that Blinder’s gift was still snaring their gazes, leaving them to guess at their foe’s movements from the rough dance of the soul-signs that Death’s gift gave them.  The Pantheon’s Ultras could tell where their enemy’s centers were, but they were not shown the movements of striking limbs.

Her flesh had the consistency of wet clay, bullets sank soundlessly into it, like trees sliding into a wet swamp.  Ted’s assault, however, hit like a meteor, well beyond her ability to endure.  Her head didn’t actually explode off of her shoulders, but his fist did make contact with the back of her skull.

Indulger’s attack, by contrast, was far less impressive than either of Sixth Fist’s melee troops.  He had sprinted across the deck alongside Charger, and swung a sledgehammer with brutal force.  But these Ultras were, one and all, bulletproof.  A strong man swinging a hammer, however furious his exertion, was nothing to them.

Indulger’s target blurred as he struck, blinking out of existence at the first touch and reappearing behind him.  She didn’t even seem to notice his attempt, and simply rushed towards the portal where Blinder and Haunter were cowering.

She had ignored him for one simple reason.  Death’s power, which was guiding them, tracked gifts via their exertion.  Indulger’s power, when he wasn’t touching the ground, was utterly dwarfed by her other foes.  The warper ignored the snack, and bore down on the feasts.

Fisher had hung back slightly, and hit her target an instant after Charger and Twister’s strikes hit home.  Seeing how easily they’d triumphed she was utterly unprepared for Gorgon.

The Hook vs Gorgon was a battle of monsters.

The Pantheon Ultra, in her combat guise, was just as inhuman, just as nightmarish.  Gorgon’s form was covered in iron hard scales, her mouth gaping open like a crocodile’s maw.  She didn’t have the snake hair of the mythical beast that she was named after, but she was just as pitiless and lethal.  Fisher had pulled up a leviathan.

The Hook’s claws shot out, grasping ahold of Gorgon’s upper arms as though to wrestle, even as she struck out with lower appendages bearing brutal spines.  She had seen enough of Twister’s struggle to know that their foes were mostly blind, and she was confident in her strength and speed.  Fisher did not, however, submerge the Lure.  Her habitual caution kept her from committing her entire being to the initial strike.

When her grip fell slack, therefore, she was not entirely helpless.  Even as Gorgon pulled her arms from the paralyzed upper graspers and batted aside the lower appendages, Fisher was taking action.  She pulled the Hook down into its shadow an instant ahead of a thrust punch that Gorgon aimed at her center of mass.

Gorgon was strong, true, and she was tough.  Her monstrous flesh was no lie.  But the gift which had earned her a Divine Name was her paralyzing aura.  Anything that came within an arm’s reach was brought to a stop, petrified by her gift.

Blinder struck even as the warping Ultra shot past poor Indulger.  Her gift wasn’t entirely limited to illusions and tricks.  She’d been absorbing light since the battle had begun, and she spent a burst of it now.  A radiant lance of energy slammed into the warper, burning her and blasting her form.

Her gift had seen her through bullet storms and Ultra battle alike, an instant teleport reflexively fired off when a form made unwelcome contact.  But Blinder’s attack, like Zeus’s was formless.  The warping Ultra fried and seared with a dreadful scream, before slamming a fist into her own side to trigger another warp.

As fast as Twister’s initial success had been, it hadn’t been quite fast enough.  From either side of her victim another enemy came, and before she could draw herself back they were upon her.

The Ultra to her left seized her left arm even as it was uncoiling from her first victim, somehow perceiving it despite the lack of light.  She squeezed with bone crunching power, and yanked as though to tear her arm from her socket.

But Twister’s arms joined at no socket, and had no bone to crunch.  In response to the vicious tug her arm simply stretched a little farther, and the minor compression of the squeeze didn’t inconvenience her a bit.  She simply wrapped the arm around this new target, spines already finding their way towards flesh.

The attack from the right was more severe.  Her opponent seized her arm in two hands, and channeled immense heat into the captive limb.  Twister’s right arm spasmed in agony as it baked, and the Pantheon soldier poured on the heat.

Many Ultra Fights took long minutes to end, but this was an Ultra War, and no one could afford to test their foe’s resilience, or ramp up their assaults.

Twister had served in a Fist for a long time.  She’d died in battle on numerous occasions, and she struck with every ounce of that experience.  Her smoking arm wrapped around the source of its burning pain, driving spines into the very creature that was incinerating her.  Her gamble paid off, as the spines struck true before they ignited, impaling the fire wielding Ultra through its upper chest and face.

The other foe, however, had a moment of opportunity as Twister’s attention was turned away.  She squandered it, simply crushing the limb before her with all of her force.  Blinder’s veil kept her from seeing how little impact her efforts were having, and before she could realize the truth Twister finished with the fire Ultra and turned her full attention upon her.

This soldier of Death was hardier than her flaming comrade, and the lack of her right arm meant that it took long moments before Twister managed to work a spine up through her mouth and bring her down.

Charger had no room to get back up to speed after his first strike.  He was still pulling his fist back when an enemy Ultra grabbed him around the waist.

He swung his left hand in a wild haymaker, calculated to make her dodge.  He hadn’t yet figured out that the enemy couldn’t see anything other than their centers of mass.  The bones in his fist shattered on the side of her head.

This enemy had simply walked through the bullets, their puny mass insufficient to harm her.  Her gift had turned her density up to the point that very very little could do her any harm.

Charger’s extensive wartime experience saved him in this moment.  It would have been easy to lose himself in the anguish of his shattered hand, but he had perished dozens of times.  Pain was an old and unwelcome guest in the halls of his mind.  He didn’t stop moving for an instant.

Even as his ultra dense foe moved to turn her loose grasp around his waste into a bear hug he was in motion, reaching down and working his good hand into her grip.  She didn’t seem to be Ultra strong, just incredibly heavy and tough.  He bet his life that he could wrench her grasp apart, and was rewarded.

The two separated, as he thrust her hands away and scrambled backwards.

Indulger engaged another Ultra, a vastly obese woman.  His hammer sent waves of flesh rippling away from the point of impact, but otherwise make no impact whatsoever.  He used the greater reach of his weapon and her blindness to keep back and away from her grasping arms, desperately conscious that he would be very unlikely to survive close combat.

The final Pantheon soldier was intercepted by Haunter.  She held out her hands and the soldiers who had once defended the deck issued forth, firing a furious salvo of translucent lead into the Ultra from point blank range.

The bullets twisted wildly, their vectors veering sharply away from their target.  Not one struck the Ultra who strode towards Haunter.  They buried themselves in the deck at her feet, whipped by her sides or shot up into the sky.

She grinned horribly, and held out a hand.  The next salvo of bullets bent even more wildly, orbiting her for an instant and then spraying back towards their targets.  A trio of veterans who’d been with Haunter since she began her mission were lost a hail of their own gunfire, and another dozen shades were ripped from her reserve as bullets flashed through Haunter’s form and clattered against the hall behind her.

Fisher, for her part, simply abandoned the battle with Gorgon, and brought the Hook instead to Haunter’s aid as her telekinetic foe continued its advance.  Only its limbs had been frozen, thanks to a timely exit.

The Hook’s monstrous form didn’t much mind the bullets that slammed into it as she grappled with the Pantheon member, and the gift that had stopped bullets didn’t do anything to keep the Hook’s fangs at bay.

This had left Gorgon with an opportunity, however, and she seized it.  No one was there to impede her as she charged forth.

Charger was just getting away from the dense enemy, thinking about building up speed again, when Gorgon caught him.  He might have escaped her grasp if he’d been moving at speed, but at rest his gift couldn’t match up with hers.  He slumped into stasis as she seized him around the head and shoulders.

It would have been a simple matter to kill him, but Death had decreed otherwise.  Gorgon hurled him into the sea, where Moses’s gift awaited him.

On the deck a momentary pause, as the two sides took stock.

The Regime’s forces were largely intact, if ragged.  Twister, their heaviest hitter, had an arm hanging scorched and useless.  The Hook’s limbs were still twitching and sluggish as they recovered from their brush with Gorgon’s gift.  Haunter was down several shades, while Blinder and Indulger was entirely intact.

Death’s forces had been brutally diminished.  Gorgon still stood strong, but many of her followers had perished.  She still had the obese Ultra, the Ultra who could control her own density and the warping Ultra at her side.

Reason would have directed her to flee, but Gorgon and her followers came on undeterred.  They could feel Death’s hook in their minds, her knife at their throat.  They would fight until they died.

Meanwhile, on the shore, another conflict was taking place.

The waves vomited Charger forth, Moses’s gift having cheated the distance.  Death hobbled down the strand to where he lay, only just beginning to recover from Gorgon’s aura.

She moved with purpose, with energy.  Her stolen gifts pumped vitality into her as she finally, finally, put her hands on one of the vaunted Fists of the Demon.

THIS was what had protected Prevailer for all of these years?  THIS was what it took to stand atop the world?  Charger’s neck slumped in her grasp, his body spasming as he fought make it move.

Death felt his gift.  It was a puny thing, unworthy of her reserve.  She dismissed it from consideration, focusing her gift on Linker’s legacy, the great golden chain that bound the Fist together.

His gift had been strong beyond all reason.  He was from the original generation of Ultras, Processed before the collapse.  It had lasted through the decades.  It had lasted through his own demise.  His gift was anchored in the souls of the five, drawing them back into the world so long as one of them should survive.

She tore through it like a bullet fired through tissue paper.

In just a moment, a heartbeat, the Link that bound Sixth Fist to life was gone.  She seized it with the hook of her gift and tore it apart, leaving them mortal for the first time in years.

Charger looked up at the hag above him, his mind reeling as he lost the sensations that had linked him to the remainder of the Fist.  The last of Gorgon’s paralysis left him, even as he suddenly realized that this could be, at long last, the end of his life.

“Please don’t kill me!” he begged, a sob breaking through his voice.  Even he couldn’t believe it.

Death reached, almost gently, into his chest and crushed his heart in her fist.

 

Threat Briefing: Death

The Pantheon’s number 4, Death is a comparatively long standing member of their Leadership Council.

She is primarily responsible for non military operations, and is thus likely to be less of a combatant than Zeus and the other leaders.  The Pantheon has a history of getting its heaviest hitters into roles where they can exercise those talents, so the fact that she remains in administration points towards her gifts being unsuited for battle.

Her actual area of control seems to be based around ensuring the continuation of the Pantheon’s flow of reinforcements, dividing the output of her breeding camps into sub-streams, headed for various destinations based upon their granted gifts.

Actual details on her gift remain unclear, save for a few notes that seem to further the enigma, rather than collapsing it.  She reportedly doesn’t use a translator, despite the vast array of languages that her subordinates speak.  She has survived a number of assassination attempts, but has never been recorded using her gifts during these operations.  Indeed, she seems to be difficult to record in an absolute sense, with her part of intercepted communications being incomprehensible gibberish.

So far as it can be inferred, Death’s counsel seems to suit her name.  She has long argued for the Pantheon to make its Grand Push into our territory, and her votes are always cast in favor of the option with the most aggressive and warlike posture.  She is a hawk, and only Isis’s more measured faction has kept her kind at bay.

Death keeps the company of an unusually large number of close subordinates.  Presumably she guarantees the loyalty of these Ultrahumans by conditioning them to servitude in the waning days of their camp training.  Whatever the method, she is unusually willing to rely upon the support of others for a Pantheon warlord, and none of them have proven receptive to inducements to betray her.

Analysts are split on whether this reliance on, and trust in, her followers is a measure of the faith that she places in their loyalty, or a sign of an absolute belief that she has in her gift, to protect her in case of betrayal.  A third possibility is that she has no care for her own life, and would embrace her namesake with the same eagerness that she shows when bestowing it upon others.

Strongboat 1:2

“It is there.  Just like you said.”

The kneeling woman didn’t look up as she spoke, didn’t take her gaze away from the sand and surf before her.  Despite the chill of the evening and the pain that her hunched over posture was causing her, she didn’t move a muscle after she had finished speaking.

Wild beasts had a sense, a sort of ability to tell them to freeze in place as danger drew near, if there was any chance at all that it might pass by.  In humans it had all but atrophied, but its distant descendant held the Ultra named Moses clenched in position as her master contemplated her words.

Better fatigue and chills, come to that, better torture, than to draw Death’s eye for a moment longer than one had to.

Death, for her part, smiled.  She had taken a chance with this venture.  Leaving Isis and her stooges an opportunity to gnaw away at her control of the camps wasn’t something that she did readily.  It took a great lure to draw her from her position at the apex of the system’s pyramid, from her feeding position.  But such a lure had come.

She didn’t know why the Union agent had made contact.  Didn’t care.  The reason for this ‘Dragon’s’ grudge was immaterial to Death.  She cared only for the message’s contents.

“Two Fists will escort a member of the Inner Circle through the Mediterranean,” it had read.  “They will voyage upon a fantastic ship, and seek the Leadership Council of the Pantheon.”

The only other information that the message had contained was a date.  Death had consulted her reserve, selecting a gift which allowed her to see the omens, and they had swirled auspiciously indeed around this missive.  She had decided to take the chance.

“Bring our friends,” she breathed to her slave.

Despite the noise of the midnight tide, Moses heard her words as though her master was stooped over her and whispering into her ears.  With a shudder, she complied.

She thrust her hands into the sea before her, putting forth her gift.  The oceans, or perhaps their essence, twisted under her thrall.  ‘Here’, became ‘There’, or rather a composite thing.  ‘This beach’ became another, and waiting soldiers shuffled through.

An outside observer, if there had been one, would have seen the men of the Pantheon suddenly walk out of the waves, crossing the fathoms in a single stride.  A dozen, two dozen, and then more.  Hundreds of soldiers waded from nowhere onto the shore where Death waited.

The men’s bows and gestures of fealty lacked Moses’s shuddering immediacy.  They were merely human, their souls not worthy of her hook.  All that they knew was that she was of the Leadership Council, and hence their master.

A few among them were not human.  A few demigods stood in their ranks, women marked out from their peers by a respectful distance in the jostling crowd.  Banshee was there.  Gorgon too, and a dozen others who had yet to win their divine names. Their groveling had the proper edge to it.  They all felt her grasp around their gifts.

The Ultras did not push or curse their way through the throng.  They did not have to.  A way opened up around them as the soldiers shifted aside, and they moved towards Death as though dragged by a magnet.

“You do not face the effete Union today, my children.”  The hag’s voice was thin, but every Ultra heard it as though it spoke within their own heads.  “Our foe does not harbor the delusion that humans and Ultra are in any way equal to one another.”

The men didn’t cheer yet, they simply shifted closer and listened carefully, striving to make out the quavering voice that was marring the evening’s stillness.

“Nor is our enemy a group of our countrymen, foolishly attempting to betray the revolution by fragmenting our numbers and our will.  No, this is a noble battle indeed.  You face the forces of the Regime!”

Death’s words were a polyglot hiss.  The languages of her many meals, taken over the course of decades, moved like composite rivers through the landscape of her intent.

And yet she was understood.  Some trick of the gift she was using drove her meaning into the brains of her listeners, impressing upon them every ounce of her malice and sincerity.  Hands gripped the stocks of rifles, or the handles of blades.  Eyes shone in the night, white all the way round as the minds of their owners were stoked to a roiling ferment by the poisonous oratory of Death.

“Long have these war demons, these deathless slaves, reaped a bloody toll from among our numbers.  Long have we been forced to bow our heads and bear their rampages, to rend our garments and bury their victims.  Long has this reckoning been in the coming.”

Her voice lacked sincerity.  None of the listeners, enthralled as they were by her gift, could tell this, but Death felt nothing for the losses that her voice called up.  She felt nothing for the slain of the past.  She was indifferent to anything that had already fallen.  Her interest was in those who still lived, whose gifts were still in her reach.

“Their vaunted ‘Link’, the armor that protects the Demon’s slaves, it is nothing to me!  Fall upon them in your numbers!  Drag one screaming to me, and the Link shall be broken forever!  This night the Regime learns again the fear of Death!”

They rose to their feet as one, Ultra and human both.  Moses gestured, and drove her hands into the surf once again.  Death pointed, and they charged into the teeth of the tide.

The Strongboat’s guardians had failed to notice Moses’s power take effect.  This wasn’t due to any particular deficiency in security, so much as the power’s subtlety.

The Strongboat drifted forward, as it always had.  The night lay placid and unchanged about them.  The only way that someone would have noticed that they were passing through the same stretch of ocean, over and over again, was if they had been peering at a fixed reference point, a star or something, and none of the shades on duty had any interest in celestial phenomena.

Instead, Haunter’s men spent their time gazing across the ocean, playing cards or killing time in any of a hundred other well honed ways.  They were here primarily to honor their mistress’s paranoia, her sullen determination that the events of the Union ambush would never repeat.  None had any inkling of the doom that marched ever closer.

Then one of them, a shade named Kevin, saw the Pantheon troops approaching.

It was incredibly fortunate, borderline miraculous.  Kevin simply happened to be looking towards land, and spied the oncoming force as they raced across a particularly tall wave.  This was less of a credit to his training, and more to the shade’s delight in moving under their own power, which had led him to pace restlessly across the deck, peering ever deeper into the night.

Kevin’s frantic shouts brought his unit commander to his side.  He wanted to make certain that he wasn’t simply going mad, but his superior saw it too.  It was plainly apparent once you looked for it.

A mob of figures were jogging across the ocean towards them from the south.

Kevin flashed back to the reserve, leaving the other shades to deal with the problem while he brought the Ultras.

The shades took cover behind the Strongboat’s railing and its rowboat, aiming rifles into the night.  Steven, the commander, agonized for a moment over whether or not he should order them to open fire on an unknown force.

He didn’t hesitate for long.  Friendlies wouldn’t attempt to board under cover of night, and to have any chance at all of defeating people who could walk on water they would need every advantage that they could get.  He ordered the remainder of the watch to open fire.

The first salvo didn’t have much impact.  There were several hundred Pantheon troops, and only 8 shooters.  A few men fell, but the rest gave no thought to falling back or taking cover.  They simply surged forward, their steady jog becoming a heedless sprint.

The next volley had more impact.  Haunter’s men had American rifles, for the most part, and their fire was accurate and continuous.  Bullets hurtled from the Strongboat into the night, and Death’s men toppled over with cries of agony.

The rush stalled, as individual men stopped to return fire, or dived down to cower behind waves.  Bullets cut back and forth as the ambush dissolved into an uneven firefight.

Haunter’s men had much the best of this.  Their elevated position gave them excellent cover, and their weapons were predictably superior to the scavenged pieces that Death had given her troops.  The only thing that stopped the massacre from being entirely one sided was the Ultras.

A large reptilian Ultra stomped forth from among the masses of the Pantheon troops, her scaled form impervious to gunfire.  A shorter woman forged ahead, each bullet that struck her causing her to blur and displace, every time appearing closer to the target.  Yet another one crafted a rolling barrier of light, which deflected every shot aimed her way with a gaudy flash.

Fire thought they might, Haunter’s men could not slow the advance of the Ultras.  This was unsurprising, as Death had conscripted for this operation the survivors of a battle with a Union drone force.  No one could survive such an encounter who was vulnerable to conventional projectiles.

Blinder was the first of the defending Ultras to make the deck.  She cracked open a door and reached forth with her gift, sucking in light from across the battlefield and getting a picture of what was going on.

It only took her an instant to get the basic tactical situation, and another instant to change it.

Blinder returned light to the battlefield, or at least to one side.  Haunter’s men found that their opponents were outlined in shining auras, standing out against the dark of the sea.  Meanwhile the Pantheon troops were rendered entirely blind, their eyes forsaken by all illumination.

Ordinarily, Blinder might have tried something clever, deceiving the enemies into attacking one another or similar.  But her gift had also revealed the two figures on the distant shore, and something about them struck all desire to take risks from her mind.

Blinder’s fears were confirmed an instant later.  The human soldiers of the Pantheon were certainly blinded.  They fired wildly into the dark, ran blindly out of Moses’s path and into the sea, or simply cowered where they were.  Exactly the behavior that Blinder had seen a hundred times.  But the Ultras, one and all, moved forward as though unaffected.

Death’s hooks in their mind guided them forwards.  Their eyes might deceive them, but her gift showed them the fire of their opponent’s souls, burning golden before them.  It was enough to keep them going in the right direction.

The remainder of Sixth Fist reached the deck then, even as Haunter drew back her shades.  They went grudgingly, resenting the loss of the opportunity to strike at the hated foe, but they went.  Even the Colonel would have had them retreat before a dozen bulletproof Ultras, particularly when there were friendly Ultras ready to counter them.

Blinder’s gift showed small arrows in front of each of her colleagues, tiny indicators that pointed them towards where they would be most useful.  She rarely bothered with this level of effort, but a battle where all of the enemy could see would be something of a novelty for Sixth Fist, and demanded every precaution.

Twister and Charger surged out onto the deck, ready to fight.  Blinder might need to fear bullets, but they did not.  Two on twelve might seem like insane odds, but death held no fear for Sixth Fist, and they were also hoping that the rookie Fist might pitch in.

Consumer stalked the lower halls, pointed to the area where the Ultras would enter if they didn’t both climbing up onto the Strongboat and just tore through a wall.  She was joined by Nirav and Preventer, and together they formed a defensive line in the hall outside of the chamber where Adder lay recovering from his most recent surgery.

Fader moved to an isolated and unimportant section of the ship, and transformed into her image form.  She intended to remain there until the battle was over.  Ordinarily she would be more active in a combat, but Blinder was taking no chances.  Fader would anchor their Link, no matter what.

Fourth Fist wasn’t quite so organized.  Indulger ended up above decks, joining the bruisers with a heavy hammer that he’d found somewhere.  Without his gift he would be useless against an enemy that rifle bullets bounced off of, but he intended to do his best to be a distraction.

Haunter had woken the others, and organized them.  She sent Fisher up top to aid Sixth Fist and gather some intelligence on how they comported themselves in a fight.  Preventer and Nirav she sent to Adder’s chamber.

It was a hard call to forsake their usefulness in the main fighting, but Haunter had a vague idea of what She might do if Adder were to be killed.  Her primary concern had to be his protection.

Haunter herself ended up deployed much as Blinder had, crouching by a deck door, ready to go below or above as the situation demanded.  Her shades might not be able to accomplish much against these Ultras, but she could channel their strength into a killing blow if the situation called for it.

Death, back on the beach, gave a long, rasping chuckle.

She was using a gift that let her see the souls of her foes, visualizing them as threads of various sizes and color stretching out from their forms.  It was one of her favorites.

She had seen, as she expected, the golden glow of Linker’s gift.  The Ultras waiting for her puppets on the boat’s deck were lousy with it.  They were bound, one to the next, by his characteristic thick chains.  These chains could hold a soul, if one of the Fist’s bodies were destroyed.  They made safe the gifts of the Demon’s slaves, gifts that Death wanted very much to plunder.

What she hadn’t expected was the shine she’d seen earlier, around the projections that had been shooting at her minions.

Each of them had a shining cord, a bright white line, stretching back into the ship.  These human-from projections had acted independently, laying down fire, taking cover, reloading, etc.  Death was an expert on the subject, and could recognize when she encountered a kindred talent.

The chuckle had been the realization, as they fell back, that these souls had no gifts!  Her opposite number’s gift preserved the worthless part of the soul, the volition and memories and such, but not the power.

Somewhere on that boat was her antithesis, an Ultra who could hook into a human’s soul and preserve everything that Death discarded, while losing the miraculous gifts that she craved.

“What a worthless gift,” she mused.

Moses cowered in fear, but she was, for the moment, forgotten.

The thought that followed her condemnation was a familiar one to Death, it was a craving that she’d been feeding for decades.

“I want it.”

 

Character Description: Prevailer

Prevailer is a little shorter than average, slightly pudgy.  She is dark skinned and has dark hair, tied up in short dreads.  Her face is generally unremarkable, She wouldn’t look out of place swiping a credit card at a grocery store.  Her pronouns are capitalized.

She wears the clothes of the determined petty criminal that She once was.  Beat up jeans, worn out sneakers, and a top that generally references a sports team from the old world.  Her warping power recreates Her clothing, so She rarely bothers to change or wash it.  She often has a gun stuck in the belt of Her pants, and used to carry around a baseball bat.

 

There is nothing obviously Ultrahuman about Prevailer, when She is not warping.  When She warps, the new body simply pops into existence, as though the rendering engine for reality just decided to draw in an extra tyrant.  The old form explodes, with a degree of violence ranging from ‘huge bomb’ to ‘harmless pop’, depending on Her decision.

Prevailer’s attitude is one of comprehensive entitlement and cruelty.  She considers the entire earth to be Her property, and every living being Her slave.  She is curt and without compassion in communication, accustomed to getting Her way instantly and intolerant of any delays.

Prevailer is thoroughly evil, by most any moral system that can be applied.  She kills without hesitation, takes without need and displays no remorse for Her actions.  She is thoroughly contemptuous of Her people’s cowardice and ignorance, even though it was Her atrocities that created this attitude.

Everyone is afraid of Prevailer.

Strongboat 1:1

[I’m experimenting with a third person narration.  Let me know how you think this works, vs. my usual first person stuff.]

“Crusher”, said Fisher.

She leaned back with a smug smile, craning her neck around one of the many extraneous pillows that all of the furniture in the Game Room seemed to come with.

It was a great pick.  Not too strong, but definitely good enough to handle Smasher.  Best of all, she doubted that her opponent had ever seen him.

Blinder, for her part, just mirrored the motion, leaning back into her own chair and drumming her fingers on the arm of her seat.  Or, at least, that’s what it looked like she did.  It had only taken a few pranks before Fourth Fist had developed a healthy skepticism for visual evidence when Blinder was around.

Nirav wasn’t part of the game, and he kept on talking to Joey.  The two were seated at a nearby table, not nearly as opulent as the chess area where the Ultras were having their match.

“You used to deal cards?  That was an actual job?” he asked the shade.

“Yeah, you’d be surprised how long the casinos stayed open, in one form or another.  I dealt for most of my life, now that I think about it.  Poker and blackjack, they outlasted America.”

“That’s, wow.  That must have been a weird life.”

Joey rolled his eyes.

“This, coming from a guy who sublets his body with some kind of fire demon.”

Nirav gave a big grin.

“Not anymore!  Condemner got the boot, didn’t you hear?”

“I heard, but tell me, what do you think will happen, the next time you have to take fire form?  Condemner saved everyone when the Union betrayed us.  You might need that same trick when we talk to the Pantheon.”

Nirav lapsed into silence, considering.  Before he could speak up Blinder made her next move.

“What are her powers?” she asked.

Fisher gave a smug smile.  You only got 4 questions, and this was Blinder’s third.  She still had 3 left.

“His powers, actually.  Crusher is a dude.  He has tentacles, like Twister, or me, but they are much longer and stronger.  They seem to be basically all he has going on.”

“So…stronger than Smasher, and has reach as well.  Yeah, he could beat her, fair pick.”

“How much longer you think this goes on?” Joey asked Nirav.

He spoke in a hushed tone, so as not to distract the two Ultras.  They weren’t terribly far away, a more conversational tone might have been overheard.

It was an old Ultra game. You take turns naming an Ultra who can beat the person that the other one named.  Whoever gets to Her first loses.  If you name someone that can’t beat their choices, or are wrong about who’d win, you’d take a shot.

The game had been going on for a while. Both Fisher and Blinder had a short row of glasses between them, sitting on the chessboard where the pieces would have been.

Neither of them were terribly affected by alcohol, in truth, as long as Blinder had a light source and Fisher wasn’t drinking with both bodies at once.  The game was mostly about killing time.

“Condemner,” said Blinder, making finger guns at Nirav.

He looked back at Joey.

“We are, what, a third of the way there?” he asked.

Joey shook his head.

“I’m not sure.  We are still in the Atlantic, though.  Plan is to go through the Mediterranean and then down the canal.  We have a long ways to go yet, and we are getting slower every day.”

“I can’t say I mind, but it immensely weird to have time off like this.  Like, we’ve been more or less struggling at one objective or another since we got Linked.  Now we just sit around on a boat and wait for Adder to talk to some Pantheon clowns?”

Nirav was voicing something that the whole Fist was feeling.  They hadn’t really had downtime like this before, not in such luxury anyway.

“Didn’t you guys spend some time in the Lair?  Why is this so different?” asked Joey.

“She isn’t here, for one.  But it more than that.  We don’t have First Fist creeping around, or the possibility of suddenly getting told to do some random crazy thing.  We are just kind of vegging out, and I’m not used to it, if that makes any sense.”

Joey gave his best dealer’s nod, the one he reserved for players telling him their unbeatable system, and turned his attention back over to Fisher and Blinder.

“Queller,” said the Lure, looking over at them.

Complicated feelings welled up in Nirav.  On the one hand, it was nice that she remembered the story of how Fifth Fist had captured him.  On the other, well, it wasn’t a terribly flattering story.  He hoped she wasn’t going to spread that around.

“I might’ve-, “ he began, but was cut off when a door slammed open.

Indulger and Twister stomped into the game Room, chuckling at some joke that they’d just shared.  They were both sweat stained and disheveled.  Nirav figured they’d either been sparring or Indulger was just asking Her to kill him.

“You can’t be serious,” said Twister.  “Blinder, tell me this guy isn’t serious.”

“Probably not,” allowed Blinder.  “Esther, quick, which of us killed Queller?  He was yours, yeah?”

“I’m serious!” protested Dale.  “I think we are going to get attacked by another boat.  Piracy is a classic!  No way this whole trip goes off without us getting boarded.”

Nirav suddenly remembered that Indulger didn’t have his power out on the water, so if he’d been sparring then he’d done it without getting hurt.  Looking at Twister’s spines, that didn’t seem terrifically likely.

“I’ll take that action,” said Joey.  “Two favors to one it’s a plane that attacks us, or one of those weird flying boxes like we saw when the Union jumped us.”

“You guys got jumped by the Union?” asked Blinder.  “Shit, that’s crazy!  Preventer is Ultra Tough Three, right?  What were they hoping to achieve?”

“We never found out,” said Fisher.  “I think the plan was to freeze her, there was this crazy strong cold powered Ultra.  They were going to interrogate and kill the rest of us, put her on ice somewhere or something.  We didn’t get the details.”

“I’m kind of surprised that the Union did that,” said Twister.  “They are good guys, right?  Jumping either of our Fists isn’t so much a blow against the Regime as it is help in disguise.”

“I think the main dude was just off his rocker,” said Dale.  “Can happen to anybody.  We shouldn’t judge the Union by that one clown.”

“Sure,” said Blinder.  “And I’ll say Twister, for beating Queller.  We took her down a while back, and I think she got the kill shot.”

Twister nodded her confirmation, snatching up a shot glass and pouring herself a round.

“Wait, what?” asked Fisher.  “How the heck did Esther beat Queller?  You are Ultra strong and tough, sure, but she has a death field!  I call bullshit!”

Blinder gave a quiet chuckle.

“Why don’t you guys try and figure it out as a group?” she asked.  “Call it a friendly test from your adoring upperclassmen.  Don’t think too hard, it isn’t anything special.”

Dale moved over to where Nirav was, and Fisher joined them.

“What were her powers?” asked Fisher.  “I know she had a Death Field that was stopping you from burning her.  Was there like a weak spot or something?”

Nirav shook his head.

“No, it was a big bubble around her.  She could reshape it to reach out to someone, but I can’t imagine that she’d ever pull it off enough of herself to let someone get to her.  It stopped something I threw at her, too, so Twister can’t have just used a gun.”

Joey piped up, calling across to Blinder and Twister.

“Were you fucking with her vison at the time?  Maybe made her not see Twister?”

Blinder shook her head, lazily, and snatched a shot glass away from Twister, who had apparently worked up a heck of a thirst.

“Nope, it was one on one.  Queller called Twister out, accused us of being Union spies.  She wanted to go one on one with Esther.”

“She should have picked Ted, if she did it at all.” said Twister.  “Fighting a single member of a Fist is idiotic, though, so there was probably more to the story.”

“You had a sword!” said Indulger.

Blinder golf clapped, Twister rattled her quills, which presumably served the same purpose for her.

“A club, actually.  I dodged her aura and slapped her in half with it.  My strength beat whatever the kill field was trying to do to the beam’s momentum.”

It was easy to forget that Fader and her gang were a Fist.  Their easy demeanor and general pleasantness was the furthest thing from First Fist’s lunacy.  Something always brought it back up, though.

“Welp, can’t argue with what actually happened.  So…someone to take down Twister, huh” mused Fisher.

“Ooh, TallyPath?” asked Dale.  “How long has this been going?”

“Maybe fifteen minutes,” said Joey.  “They play pretty slow though, so it isn’t as many names as you’d think.”

“I play carefully,” corrected Fisher as she slipped into the chair at the chessboard again.  “Blinder plays slowly.”

Blinder stuck out her tongue.

“Put up or shut up, Miss Carefully.”

Fisher held up a hand.

“Wait a sec.  Does my pick have to take down your whole Fist?  Or is killing Esther enough for the win?”

“Queller couldn’t have beaten all of us,” Nirav pointed out.  “Fists aren’t counting in this game.”

Blinder nodded agreement.

“Yeah, Fists don’t factor in here.  Just pick a name to beat Twister.”

“Easy enough,” said Fisher.  “I’ll go with Pursuer.  He’s got more strength, more toughness.”

She looked over at Twister.

“No offense.”

Twister shrugged.  “It’s true.  No use in denying it.”

Dale gave an involuntary snort of laughter.

“What?” asked Twister.

“I’ve fought you both,” he told her.  “You’d rip him apart, wouldn’t even be a contest.  The dog man would do better to play dead than go one round with you.”

Twister and Blinder looked at each other, then back to Dale.

“Uh, we’ve fought,” said Twister.  “He literally tore my head off.  I’ve seen him knock over a skyscraper.  He is absolutely, quantitively, provably stronger than me.”

There was a moment of silence.

“So…what you are saying, is that this is a righteous pick, yeah?” asked Fisher, breaking the tension.

Twister chuckled.

“Yep, fair cop through and through.  Tough one for you, eh Blinder?”

Blinder shook her head.

“Eh, I’ll go Remover.”

“I dunno,” hedged Joey.

“Yeah, I’m not buying this one,” said Betty.  “Pursuer might be tougher than her power can affect, in which case she’s totally hosed.  Even if she can get him, he’s plenty fast.  He can just dodge those energy beams and shoot her or whatever.  She’s basically a human.”

Blinder nodded this time.

“You’d think that, but, wait, do you guys know about the immortality thing that First Fist does?” she asked.

“Yeah, Preventer told us about it,” said Nirav.

Blinder made a ‘there you go’ kind of gesture.

“Ok, so, fine, we he’s not too tough for her power.  He could still dodge them or something,” objected Fisher.

Blinder gave an appealing look to Joey, who seemed for some reason like sort of the unofficial judge of this contest.  He thought about it for a moment, then nodded.

“Can’t bet against Remover.  She’s killed basically everyone.  I gotta figure she wins a fight against her own guard dog.”

Blinder and Twister did a quick high five.

“Gah, we are basically back at the beginning again,” said Fisher.  “Anyone with a gun can kill Remover.  She dies all the fucking time.”

“Want to call it a draw?” asked Blinder.

“I guess,” said Fisher.  “No point in going another round.  You guys want to tag in?”

Indulger shook his head, as did Nirav.

“I guess that’s that,” said Blinder.  “But it did bring up something I’m curious about.  Do you guys do the immortality trick like my little sister’s Fist?”

Fisher and Nirav exchanged glances, weighing their options.  Indulger just spoke up right away.

“Nah, it wouldn’t work for us.  Also, it is sort of creepy.”

“What do you mean?” asked Twister, even as Blinder was nodding her comprehension.

“They’d have to kill Haunter’s whole reserve to get it done, with the way her defense works, and they don’t have anyone who can kill Preventer.”

“Do you guys?” asked Indulger.

Now it was Sixth Fist’s turn to exchange significant glances.

“Sometimes…” allowed Blinder.  “We don’t do it as religiously as Remover’s gang, but we do it about half the time.  It Isn’t as risky for us as it is for them, because Fader is a much better anchor than anyone in First Fist.  She was the best of us all, until you guys got Preventer.”

Fisher waved her hand in negation.

“She can kill Preventer.  No one can kill Fader.  You guys are more immortal than us.  Shit, ‘more immortal’, what a weird concept.”

Nirav was nodding in agreement.

“And Preventer can get, like, shot into space or sunk in the ocean or whatever.  Fader is totally safe.  You guys are still the best Fist at surviving.  We aren’t trying to take that from you.”

Esther looked like she was about to go into a discussion of the relative merits of each anchor, but Blinder shut her down with a hand on her forearm.

“Let’s just agree that we are, jointly, the two best anchored Fists.  None of the others have anyone near as unkillable as ours.”

Joey raised a hand, as though toasting with an invisible cup.

“How does First Fist survive without someone like Preventer, anyway?  Aren’t people trying to kill them all the time?”

“My little sister is hard to kill,” said Blinder.  “The slightest sound is enough to start her healing up again.  Averter is the same way.  You need a specially prepared plan to get that guy.  Then there’s Pursuer.  He’s been variously reported as Ultra tough two or three.  He’s no Preventer, but he is still damn hard to put down.  The three of them, jointly, have kept that crew safe.”

Esther cut in.

“Also, they hide under Her skirts a lot.  When they go out on missions they are always on the offensive, blasting into towns or whatever.  It is hard to get them on the defensive like people can do for us.  They mostly hole up in the Lair.”

“Yeah, we ran into em,” said Fisher.  “Damn near threw down, to be honest.  You can ask Preventer if you want the details, she has a real mad on for that Fist.”

“Who doesn’t?” asked Nirav.  “They don’t exactly attract fans.”

“She doesn’t, unfortunately,” said  Joey.  “And that’s the one that matters.  They are like a big dog with a bigger owner.  Can’t do nothing about the little problem until you come to terms with the big one, you know?”

There was a lot of nodding, a lot of solemn looks.

“Well, anyway, not much point in talking about what group is the most immortal now, is there?” asked Blinder.

“This mission will probably give us the answer.”