For some reason I’d imagined that Angel dying would make the women around her surrender immediately.
It did not go that way.
Even as Nirav was reaching for me a dozen or so Ultra attacks lashed out from our surroundings. Some sort of energy whip struck him in the midsection, slashing through his body and spraying blood across the sand. I got hit in the shoulders and back with something that burned worse than just about anything I’d ever felt, and I shuddered as the majority of the barrage whistled overhead.
The only reason that I survived was that I’d already been dragging us back into the ground, even as Nirav spoke. I felt him enter the Link as the ground closed over me and Haunter. She had definitely lost a few more shades in that volley.
I pulled us down into the cave, then yanked it laterally as my gift alerted me to a few makeshift shafts following us down, as Pantheon Ultras blasted the ground beneath them.
I formed a wide enough space to talk once we were a few hundred feet away. My gift was healing the burns across my back and shoulders. I tried my best not to let them impact my voice.
“I’m sorry,” I told her. “They aren’t stopping.”
She said nothing for a long moment. In the pitch black of the cave I couldn’t see what expression she was making. I imagined her disappointed.
“That’s alright,” she said. “We knew they wouldn’t give up immediately. We have to take out the rest of the Overseers, then get them at our mercy. Losing Nirav was a blow, but we knew that if he stayed in human form it was a risk. We can still do this.”
I nodded, then realized that she couldn’t see me nodding. Then I thought about Fisher and Preventer, up there doing their best, and I got on with it.
I pulled us along, just under the ground, towards the big grouping on the crest of the hill. I could feel that the back group, where Angel had burned, was sitting still for now, and the melee cluster was still apparently kicking the shit out of Preventer. I didn’t have a clue where Fisher was at.
I pulled myself out of the ground, right in front of the main cluster. I had my mud and rock armor about me, but I was still anticipating that they might let me have it.
Just like in the back, nobody fired. I hoped that meant that the Overseers were here.
I raised my hands in the universal ‘I come in peace’ gesture, and strode towards them. They spread out, looking grateful that the ground had grown suddenly cooperative again.
A few called out in languages that I didn’t understand. I turned my head from side to side, scanning for Mireuk or Cyclops.
They were, if possible, even more ragged than they had looked on film. These ‘gods’ were emaciated, ulcerous creatures. My eye skipped past skinned knees, gaunt visages and the occasional open cut. They pointed guns, and more importantly, hands, and yelled at me in the tongues of another land.
“Where are your leaders?” I asked, almost plaintively. I felt like I should have just been able to pick them out, I’d studied their pictures, but there were hundreds of people here, and I couldn’t seem to find the ones I was looking for among the mass.
They had to be here somewhere, since no one was shooting, but I couldn’t see, wait. I saw Cyclops.
She was standing mostly behind another pair of them, speaking quietly to one of her subordinates.
“Cyclops!” I yelled, pointing at her.
Her head snapped up, and she pushed the other two out of the way, standing braced as though my pointing hand was about to blast her or something.
“Indulger!” she yelled back.
Shit. I guess I wasn’t the only one who could read files.
I wasn’t sure, if I started walking towards her, would they attack? I’d have to wade through a few rows of them to get to her, and I couldn’t really think of a way to do that without looking aggressive. Even popping under the ground was out, as I’d lose track of her in all the footfalls.
I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but whatever it was had girls stepping off to the side and clearing a path between us. She strode up, regal as a queen.
“What the fuck is a Fist doing here?” she asked.
She hadn’t got all the way to me. There was still about thirty feet between us, as well as a few Ultras that I had a feeling didn’t want to be there.
For a sec I wondered why she would want to talk to me after Angel had just died doing the same thing, before realizing that they didn’t have any communication between the clusters. Nobody up here on the ridge would have been able to make out much more than a commotion going on back where our brief struggle with Angel had happened.
It just made me more mad. Going about stuff that haphazardly, and fighting an army of soldiers like the ones that Haunter had was super dumb, even if you had more powers.
“We’ve come to take command of your Host,” I told her. “She sent us from the Regime all the way here.”
I emphasized the caps pronunciation, pretty confident that even a Pantheon person would be able to hear it.
“Take Command? It isn’t a thing you can just steal, Indulger. We command by Divine Right. Ours is a holy mission, a quest to-“
I cut her off.
“Divine Right, yeah? That’s the thing where the strongest Ultras are the biggest Gods? Well, no one is stronger than Her, so knuckle the fuck under.”
I was surprised she didn’t interrupt me in the middle of that. It actually made me nervous, like she had more of a plan for this situation than she ought to.
A few of the other girls chattered to her, she replied with a harsh and commanding tone, and they subsided. If I didn’t miss my guess they were asking to just attack, and she was shutting them down. Or telling them to circle around behind me, or something.
“If She were here,” said Cyclops, “I would waste no time telling her to drink of my knife. I am the Sword of Zeus, demon, and your master holds no terror for me.”
I managed not to gawk, my mind instantly going to Her for a second. Cyclops was either brave as the Colonel, or totally fucking insane.
“Well,” I said. “It sounds like we have a difference of opinion. Do you guys have a way for two Ultras to settle that kind of thing?”
Mireuk strolled out from behind another clump of Ultras. She had a dude carrying a fucking umbrella trailing along behind her, holding it up over her head. On a fucking battlefield.
“As it happens, we do. Cyclops, would you be willing to engage our beloved visitor in a Contest?”
Well, that was super convenient.
“I win, you have to fight next,” I told Mireuk. “She wins, my Fist surrenders.”
“No need for you to surrender, chump. After I beat you I’m bringing your ass to Death. She’ll turn off your come back to life power.”
That was where she’d gotten her info about us. This was one of Death’s stooges. Just when I thought I couldn’t want to fuck someone up any more.
“Get these hands, bitch” I told her.
Despite the taunt I wanted her to move first. She had her people all around me, and if they suddenly decided that I’d jumped off ahead of the starting gun or whatever things would get real bad, real fast. The backup to something like that going down was supposed to be Nirav going full Condemner, but that was obviously out for now.
Cyclops walked towards me, hands dropping to her sides and flexing.
For want of an obvious attack to block I just kind of stood there, but I started making an enormous empty space down under the ground, extending it gradually up towards the surface. I also positioned some rocks near each other and took a fighting stance.
She stepped closer, seeming to soak up the stares of her followers. I could see it in her, she lived for this shit. No wonder she wasn’t just having her troops mob me. She wanted them to watch her beat me, to grow her legend just that much more.
How many others had died for that purpose? I thought of Her again, who at least killed for honest hatred.
I moved, swinging my arm in a broad arc like I was throwing something, even as I used my gift to send a stone spear flying through the earth towards the bottom of her feet.
She stepped aside, as though I as throwing something, and then, just before my spear reached her, she suddenly went ghostly and shot towards me like she was on a train or something.
It was my turn to dodge aside, relying primarily on my gift to skate myself out of the way. I wasn’t fast enough, as she passed through my arm, rock armor and all.
My strafe turned into a stagger, as anguish lanced from my shoulder. I couldn’t feel anything at all in the arm that she had passed through, but where it joined the rest of me it felt like I was on fire.
“Aaaagh!” I couldn’t stop myself from giving voice to my pain. It really hurt.
She had come to a stop, resuming her solid form once again on the other side of me.
“How’s that, big guy?” she asked. “You want another hug?”
Even my healing was having trouble with this. I could feel my shoulder writhing around, but it didn’t seem like life was seeping back down my arm or anything. It felt more like I was trying to regrow the limb, pushing the existing one out of the way. Her gift must have killed every bit of flesh she passed through.
I waved my undamaged arm at her, send my gift out again. I raised a great wall in front of her, then collapsed it down onto her. Maybe she couldn’t stay ghost form for a long time, I could get her by holding rock through her location until she ran out.
Before my earth wave could swallow her she had phased again, transforming into a silhouette and sliding forward, up and through my wave without the slightest care.
I tried to hold it back to stay superimposed over her, but her angle was too high, and she passed through my medium and up into the sky.
This time I had a better look at her transition. She became living flesh again a few moments after she passed the last of the stone, and gravity immediately took hold of her. She only fell for a split second before she became a wraith , angling straight towards me at a phenomenal speed.
I cast myself aside once again, using earth to basically hurl myself. I let my useless armor crumble away around me, as it wouldn’t protect me at all from her attack.
This time I was able to dodge, mostly because her angle was very shallow. It seemed like she couldn’t change direction in her attack form, so presumably she wasn’t interested in passing into the ground while I was in the area. The shallowness let me get under and around her, and we parted without me getting tagged.
“Get it?” she asked. She was phasing rapidly in and out now, making a tiny triangle in the air. “Everything I touched dies. She can’t hit me. You can’t bury me.”
That was it? That was the gift that she thought made her stronger than Her?
Strangely, the thought calmed me. I had been most heated when I thought of the Overseers as puzzle masters, wasting the next generation of the world’s youth for their schemes. But if they were mostly like Cyclops, then they were just like their minions a few years down the road. A bit smarter, a bit stronger, but not nearly enough to have set up a system of atrocity like the one that was going on here. They were victims too.
“You…gnnnrr…you want to give up?” I asked. It was still hard to talk, my shoulder was still paining me awfully. I had to give her the chance though, if I were going to think of her as just another one of Zeus and Peggy’s sacrifices then I had to make the effort.
“Ha ha ha!” she spoke-laughed. “You are the one who will be given up…to Death!”
She flashed forward again, not towards me directly, but like she was going to move right by me on the right.
Preventer had mocked my Ultra Fight experience, but here it let me know what she was going to do before she did it. She’d shown me straight dives twice now, and she was angling towards my side. She’d expect me to strafe away again, which is why she was going to solidify for a second and change angle, get herself pointed directly after the way I was going so that I couldn’t dodge fast enough.
I let her see what she was expecting, moving away, but more slowly than I had to. At the split second before she got to me I smashed those rocks together, beneath the ground behind her.
Blam, blam BLAM!
Prevailer’s signature noise. Loud soft louder.
I was already swinging my arm. In my minds eye I’d seen it, her fake courage crumbling under the sound of Her arrival, the fatal transition back into her human form for just long enough to turn her angle away.
It happened exactly like that. The noise made her turn her head away. In her mind I was dodging, so there was no need to be worried about transitioning back to flesh for a second as she searched the scene frantically for Prevailer. She slipped back into her human form, and I hit her in the head with my rock covered arm. Her skull staved in down to the shoulders with a sickening crunch.
Her body toppled at my feet.
I turned my gaze to Mireuk, doing my very best ‘slow and ominous’. Everyone would have seen that Cyclops died panicked and afraid. I should be at my most intimidating, blood and brains dripping from a rock armored arm.
Mireuk slow clapped.
Behind her, a string of her gift joined with its own tail, forming a great ring around the area. Excluding something.
My armor fell from my body. My new arm ceased to grow, leaving me with an awkward stub on the side Cyclops had hit. I toppled to my knees at the sudden overbalancing.
She had excluded my gift.
I steadied, popped back to my feet.
“Now you!” I shouted, fiercely. If they stopped fearing me I was done for.
Mireuk laughed, pointed to another exclusion around her. This one was a small cylinder around her feet.
“It blocks everything, I’m afraid, and it moves along with me. You can’t harm me, so our duel would seem to be unnecessary.”
“We’ll see about-“
She cut me off, barking an order in whatever language their battle cant was mostly made of.
Ultras rushed towards me from all sides, eyes alight with cruelty.
I swung my good arm once, before being slammed down on my face in the dirt. One of them held me around the shoulder, another slammed my knee awkwardly into the ground.
My power wasn’t fully blocked, I could tell. It just couldn’t affect anything inside of the cylinder she’d excluded it from. Thus, I couldn’t heal, or stab them with knives from the ground, or anything.
“So much for Indulger,” she mused. “Fourth Fist’s mightiest member. I suppose the poor girl being strung up out there is Preventer?”
I strained against my captors, but at least one of them had Ultra Strength. The muscles I’d rigorously trained were utterly useless against a power that came from outside our world.
The girl holding my upper body cuffed me about the face, and my head rang.
“Did you really think you could overthrow our divine reign?” Mireuk asked, more to herself than me. “Did you imagine that you could succeed where the Union failed?”
She walked up, squatting in front of me. The girl holding my head forced my face down into the dirt, breaking something in my cheek in the process.
“You sought to bring us down? To cast divinities into hell? Who put you up to such foolishness?”
I spat to clear my mouth of dirt, focused on sucking in a breath.
Cast them into hell. Inspiration struck.
They were holding me against the ground, I could call upon my gift so long as what I manipulated was outside of her excluded zone. I reached down, down into the depths, and began to widen the great pit I had begun earlier.
The woman holding my head back reached a hand down and yanked my face up out of the dirt, turning my gaze to meet Mireuk’s.
“Who ordered this? I can take Preventer to Death instead of you if you cooperate. Did She send you, or is this of your own recognizance?”
I gasped, stifling a cry of pain.
“She sent us. No one else could-“
I cried aloud. Partly to stall, but also because the girl on my back was digging some kind of spike into my mini arm. It hurt immensely.
Mireuk spent a long moment looking into my eyes.
“Stay here”, I thought. “There is no urgency. Just stay here and gloat a little while longer. Don’t you want to impress your followers?”
“I’m trying to decide if I believe you,” she said. “I suppose I have to. What a disappointment.”
I felt the last of the rocks beneath the excluded cylinder slipping out of the way, soil moving frantically around. We were held up now only by the cross pressure of dozens of feet of earth holding us from outside of the zone, poised above a sinkhole greater than any found in nature.
“Did they tell you that you were powerful?” I asked. “That you were s-“
Another punch to my ribs from the girl on top of me. She was rapidly moving from ‘innocent victim that I wanted to rescue’ to ‘arch nemesis’.
Mireuk made a motion, let me keep talking.
“That you were strong? That you might one day match Her?”
She started to answer.
“Did you always know they were lying?” I asked.
Her eyes narrowed. I pulled the soil around us away, let the exclusion zone tumble downwards. Dozens of feet of earth, me, Mireuk, that harpy on my back, and a half dozen or more Ultras who had drawn close to gawk were in the zone.
We fell together into fathomless darkness.