Pandemonium reigned on the Strongboat in the aftermath of the attack.
Both Fists, minus Indulger and Charger, had assembled on deck. Haunter’s shades aided the crew in searching every inch of the vessel, frantically checking for any remaining Pantheon members. Adder was repairing the damage that Banshee had caused on her way in, and receiving unspecified medical treatment.
“What the fuck WAS all that?” asked Fisher’s Lure. “Those assholes came out of nowhere!”
“Pantheon attack,” guessed Blinder. “You hear how the scaly one sounded? Union troops are much better at English.”
“Also, no robots,” said Haunter.
“They might have been really small. They might STILL be really small,” said Preventer, looking around nervously as she did so.
She didn’t really think that tiny Union drones were any threat, not to her gift, but the idea was unsettling anyway.
“Definitely Pantheon,” confirmed Haunter. “Some of my shades heard them speak to one another, and they had names from old religions like the Pantheon does.”
“Weren’t we supposed to be negotiating with the Pantheon?” asked Consumer. “Didn’t She tell them we were on our way?”
There was always a slight pause when Consumer spoke before anyone could answer. She was the only one on either team with any real loyalty to Her, and everyone had to calibrate what they were saying so as not reveal their own sentiments.
“Perhaps She thought that we should be permitted to take care of that, as it would let us choose the most advantageous way to broach the matter,” suggested Preventer.
“Advantageous way to ask for a peace summit? Can you elaborate on what that might be?”
Preventer gave Haunter an urgent ‘help-me-out-here’ look.
“I’d planned to let them know when we were just a few days out of Olympus,” said Haunter. “Give them less time to plot treachery.”
“How am I going to get my fucking hand back?”
Fader’s question cut through the back and forth.
“The Link is gone. It died with Charger. So we can’t do the suicide and be brought back thing anymore. How do I…” and she held up the stump, “FIX this.”
Fader didn’t bleed when she was transformed into an image. She felt no pain, had no connection to her form at all. Even the movements of her mouth were a reflex, a sort of mental twitch. Her gift was what was making the sounds.
“The Link isn’t gone!” said Twister. “It can’t be! Nothing can break the Link. If the Pantheon had anything that could do that they would have used it back in the Fourth Defiance! Remember Swick? They would have won that one, might have had their shot at Her, if they could have broken Predictor’s crew’s Link.”
“They probably didn’t get it until recently,” interjected Haunter. “Maybe they didn’t even know that it would really work. They have been stockpiling their best Ultras for a while now. Probably a lot of their best abilities haven’t been tried out on an actual battlefield, just so that no one learns what they can do.”
“They didn’t get it recently,” said Twister, “because they didn’t ‘get it’ at all! There is no way to break the Link. Our Link is NOT BROKEN!”
She growled this last, the pain of her burnt arm driving her voice into a near shriek.
Twister’s ultra toughness included a regenerative ability, fortunately for her. It was slow, however, and in the case of burns, exquisitely painful. Every inch that her spines regrew, every strand of flesh that emerged from the charged wreck of her arm brought new nerves to send forth new waves of shattering pain.
Ordinarily, she would have simply offed herself in the aftermath of a battle. With wounds this severe there would be no reason to endure. Fader was invincible, so the Link would bring her back, without any battle damage, on the next morning.
“Esther…” said Fader, in a gentle tone.
Twister clenched he teeth, stifling an oncoming moan. Tears poured from her eyes.
“It is totally broken,” said Preventer.
Every eye turned to her. Haunter’s lips clenched into a thin line.
“Let me talk with her for a second,” she said, and dragged Preventer off a few steps.
“Blinder can still just read my lips,” said Preventer, in the same flat tone of voice. “Moving me didn’t actually do anything.”
“Are you defective?” asked Haunter. “What on earth is the matter with you? Are you suddenly too cool to read a room? They don’t need to hear from you on this!”
“I’m right, though,” insisted Preventer. “If they can’t sense Charger in the Link, then he isn’t coming back. He’s dead.”
A thump brought their attention back to the rest of the group. Blinder had just struck the wall with her fist.
Haunter walked back over, shooting Preventer a killing glare which was answered with a smirk and a shrug.
“Sorry about that. I was just telling Preventer that we have been Linked for a much shorter period of time than you gals, and we defer entirely to your expertise. Whatever needs to be done to get your Link back, we are here to help.
Preventer, mercifully, didn’t have any contributions to make to that statement, and the group sank into silence for a moment, broken only by Esther’s occasional sobs.
It lasted right up until Adder made his way to the deck.
He looked bad. His eyes were sunken, his mouth seemed to have collapsed about a point. None of it seemed to be battle damage from his confrontation with the Pantheon Ultras, just the ravages of whatever the old man was dying of.
“I must congratulate you on your victory. A splendid showing. She would be delighted.”
His voice showed displayed none of the damage that showed on his countenance. It was still rich and deep, a last remnant of the life he’d had before She had destroyed his world.
“Thank you,” gushed Consumer. “But I only helped. You were the one who did most of the work down below. Your power is incredible! I’ve never seen such a display from any save Her.”
“Yeah,” said Blinder. “You are the one who ought to be congratulated. You stopped half of them and repaired the boat. I don’t know if you Inner Circle types compare Tallies, but at the very least you have a story for the next time you are in Shington.”
Adder made a feeble gesture with one arm, as though to wave off the comments. Fader jumped back as a sort of stand took shape in front of her.
“For your arm, dear,” he said.
Company men moved up to the stand, duplicating the bandages and drugs which appeared in their grasps.
“A tourniquet?” she asked.
“Among other things,” he responded. “You need to take advantage of my power while you have access to it. If I falter here you will need to rely upon the Company Men’s abilities, which will greatly restrict you.”
She stayed in her image form, seeming hesitant.
“Of course,” he continued. “I am proceeding as though your Link’s destruction is indeed permanent. Do we have any idea as to how our opposition managed that, and why they did not target Fourth Fist’s as well?”
Blinder spoke up.
“I think it was an Ultra on the beach. She did something to Ted, and that’s when we lost our Link. Afterwards she killed him.”
“A Pantheon Ultra who can destroy the Link?” asked Haunter. “What did she do?”
“She grabbed him around the neck, kind of lifted him up like she was going to strangle him. It didn’t take long, she barely had him for a moment before the Link broke.”
“What did she look like?” asked Adder.
Blinder took her time about answering.
“She was asian, and very old. Bent over. She was wearing some kind of outfit with robes, I dunno what you’d call it.”
“Old like Haunter?” asked Preventer, “Or old like Adder?”
Blinder turned her hand sideways in the universal ‘in between’ gesture.
“Did she seem to have any weapons?” asked Nirav. “Or, like, something to go with the robes? Thor had his hammer, after all.”
“Yes, she had a stick with a weird blade on it, but she wasn’t using it. It was just propped up on a rock beside her.”
Adder started to say something at that, then lurched into a coughing spasm. Consumer and the Lure moved to support him.
His gift was mighty, to be sure. He could make anything he could imagine. But it was useless to unmake the mass that obstructed his breathing. He coughed like any other man.
“Was it,” he said, and he gestured.
A scythe flashed into being in the midst of the group. Not one of the streamlined combat scythes that the Knights carried, but a rugged old farming tool.
“Yes, that’s it!” exclaimed Blinder. “That’s basically what she had.”
Adder’s face fell, as did Haunter’s. They both knew what that meant.
“Death,” said Adder.
Some of the Fist members who were slower on the uptake looked from one to another. Indulger would normally voice a question like this, but his corpse was cooling on the deck.
“Is that a Pantheon general?” asked Consumer. “One of those wannabe Gods who defy Her greatness?”
“Worse,” said Adder. “She is one of the Ruling Council. One of the people we are supposed to be negotiating with.”
“Holy shit,” said Blinder.
Preventer actually sat down, folding her legs up under her and sinking as though the world could no longer bear her weight.
“What’s so big about that?” asked Nirav. “Aren’t there a whole bunch of those clowns? We can still negotiate with the rest of them, even if this one doesn’t seem to be too friendly.”
It was easy to forget, sometimes, that Nirav was only a few months old. He hadn’t grown up in the world, didn’t know a lot of the background knowledge that the rest of them had.
“The Ruling Council NEVER come to the front line,” said Haunter. “The only instance of it I have ever heard of is when Zeus…”
She trailed off.
“When he killed Fourth Fist,” finished Blinder. “Shit, that’s a bad omen.”
“Death is not Zeus,” responded Adder. “He is a singular threat. She is no doubt mighty, but let’s not exaggerate our peril.”
“What do you mean, ‘a singular threat’” asked Preventer. “He is just an uncommonly strong Ultra, right?”
Adder shook his head.
“Impossibly strong, with the Gate’s current settings. His gift is beyond what should be able to enter this world. It is comparable to Hers.”
Everyone looked at each other in confusion.
“Gate?” asked Haunter.
Adder waved a hand.
“I’ll explain later. We need to focus on the present task. Blinder, can you tell me what she is doing now?”
Blinder nodded, and concentrated, shutting her eyes and furrowing her brow in a rather theatrical frown.
After a moment she opened them again, gasping audibly.
“No doubt off to secure more reinforcements to come at us again. We’ll need to-
Blinder cut her off.
“No, not just her. Africa is gone!”
The group passed around another blank look. They peered out over the side, but could make out nothing but ocean all around them.
“What do you mean?” asked Preventer.
“We are nowhere near Africa.” Blinder pointed north. “Somehow, we are very close to Greece!”
Everyone immediately started looking over the other way, but there was still nothing to see but night and the water.
“How is that possible?” asked Haunter. “We were nearly hugging the southern coast, so as to avoid Union attention.”
“Don’t ask me!” said Blinder. “I’m just telling you what the light around here is bouncing off of, and it is definitely north.
“Hard turn south,” ordered Preventer. “We have to stay away from the Union.”
The Company Men nodded, and one of them scurried down the stairs.
Adder stroked his chin.
“Not necessarily,” he murmured.
“You think it is safer to fight the Union than a member of the Ruling Council?” asked Fader.
She still hadn’t resumed her human form. She was fairly sure that whatever they were going to do about her hand would hurt, and after being protected by the Link for so long she had little taste for risk.
“Possibly,” said Adder. “No one knows what they keep in reserve, but it is hard to imagine that it is anywhere near as powerful as the Ultra who broke the Link.”
“Good thinking sir,” she said, with little enthusiasm. Even after the Fidel debacle Haunter had no appetite for conflict with the Union. She had pinned her hopes on their technology as her means to restore her shades to the world for a long time before meeting Andy, and the positive feelings lingered.
“I was just answering your question,” he said. “I do think we would be safer fighting the Union than the Pantheon, but that’s not why I’m unsure about going south.”
Nirav was about to ask about that when a fresh burst of cursing arose from Blinder.
“What is it?” asked Fader.
“We just warped. We are basically on top of the land now.”
She gestured over the rail.
“Warped?” asked Esther.
Her damage had mostly repaired itself. She was still holding the burnt arm rather gingerly, but she’d got it comfortably wrapped around her torso and was able to ignore it for the time being.
“Not just us. The whole ocean, miles around. We are miles to the north of where we were. I didn’t notice before, but we must have been jumping this whole time. It must be Death’s gift.”
“A woman has the power to move things on water, and they name her Death?” asked Nirav. “It feels like there might be a religion with a water god or two. Were all those names taken?”
Everyone ignored him.
“How do we stop-“ Haunter began, when Adder cut her off.
“As I was saying, I’m happy to beach the boat in Union territory. Our mission is going to be somewhat altered, in light of this new information.”
“What information?” asked Blinder.
“The Ruling Council are attacking us directly. Our mission, to negotiate with them, is plainly impossible. We must abandon Her plan.”
“She’ll kill us,” breathed Haunter, like someone who couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing. She’d always known that Adder wasn’t exactly loyal to Her, but it was still a shock to hear a member of the Inner Circle speak such blatant sedition.
“Indeed, which is why we will seek shelter with the Union.”
Adder was about to say something more, when Consumer took action.
Under ordinary circumstances Adder would have remembered that she had been conditioned by Torturer, that she was Sixth Fist’s leash. The pain of his condition, as well as the stress of the battle, had driven it from his mind, leading him to speak freely in front of her.
Under ordinary circumstances, he would have seen her attack. But the beams of her power were dim things, that shed little light, and when she released it from the hand that she was supporting his shoulder with there was no space for the beam to be revealed in. She was pressing her hand against his flesh.
Under ordinary circumstances, he would have felt her attack with his gift. As his battle with Banshee had shown, he had a complete understanding of every Form around him. Long ago this had let him figure out Her sensing gift, which was a much stronger version of a similar power. But it did not detect energy, and it took him a fateful few seconds to realize what she was doing.
Under ordinary circumstances, Consumer would have spoken out. She would have grandstanded, or tried to negotiate. But Her instructions had been clear, all of those years ago, and the terror of Torturer was still upon her. Consumer put his gift into action the instant she had a speck of it.
Under ordinary circumstances, the earth would have been destroyed. Adder’s gift had more than enough power to accomplish it, but Consumer had little idea of its capacities. She knew nothing of antimatter or the whole horrid output of the twenty first centuries research into superweapons. Her idea of ultimate destruction was a nuke.
She put the origin between herself and Adder, and felt nothing as energy poured forth. The remainder of the fists had the smallest of warnings, but none had the Ultra Speed necessary to take any action before destruction reached them.
Union sensors recorded the mushroom cloud.