“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 bother 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 her gift to 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 the less obviously powerful applications of her gift, but 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.”