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 Ultra’s 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.