A heavy blow to my upper back brought me to consciousness with a sudden start. My gift let me know that I was deep down under the ground.
Mireuk must be dead, or no longer excluding my gift then.
I couldn’t tell, for a moment, whether my eyes were open or closed. All was darkness. Someone was shouting in a language I couldn’t understand off to the right. My mouth was full of grit and rocks, and my face was laying on hard stone.
Someone was STILL perched on my back. It had to be the woman who’d been hitting me before I fell, while Mireuk had been interrogating me.
I tried to say something, coughed, and was rolled onto my back.
One of my arms was still broken, and the agony that came from being rolled over let me get out my first successful attempt at communication with the women I had come to rescue.
“FUCK!” I screamed, “fuck Fuck FUCK!”
My gift let me know that whoever was on my back had stepped off as I flipped over. Presumably she had been the one who had rolled me.
A small hand grasped my face, forced the back of my head into the ground.
“You don’t have to push my face into the, gah!” I shouted. “Touching the ground is enough! I’m already healing!”
She responded with something I didn’t understand, and a pair of other voices questioned her from out of the darkness.
I used my gift to take stock of our surroundings. There were ten bodies in the cleft we’d tumbled into, and a total of seven people aside from me who were still alive. One was unconscious, or at least very still, and another was on her knees in a corner crying. The remaining five were clustered around me.
Whatever exchange they’d had hadn’t actually stopped the hitting girl from pushing my head into the dirt. I exercised a slice of my gift, sank the stone beneath my head down, slid soft dirt underneath.
“Stop pushing on my head.”
This time I didn’t shout. I spoke as calmly as I possibly could, given the way my arm was twisted around itself.
She let go.
Another voice, close this time. It tried what sounded like a few different languages, then got to English as I listened.
“… understand me?”
“Yes. I can understand you.” I told her.
Even as I did so I was bracing for the pain, then in a convulsive rush I straightened my broken arm out.
I tried to muzzle my shout of pain, but failed.
My gift let me feel the impact as the women around me leaped backwards, two of them toppling over in the pitch blackness as their feat caught on obstructions. A petty part of me had wanted to trip my tormentor, but I’d refrained.
“Why are you yelling?” asked the English speaker. “Aren’t you a strong God?”
“First, tell the one who keeps hitting me to knock it off,” I said.
A pair of voices addressed the others and received responses. The girl I’d referred to sounded distinctly sulky, which was kind of an impressive emotion to have while trapped under the earth.
“Dang says she won’t hit you again,” the speaker said.
I breathed a sigh of relief, began testing my legs.
“But she lies all the time.”
After a little more healing I was able to stand upright. Dang, if that was the name of the aggressive one, stayed close to me, but she didn’t strike again.
“You bring us back to the world above,” said the Speaker. “We will let you go.”
Mighty generous of them.
“I will bring us back up,” I told them. “But I am not letting YOU go. Your Host is going to be under our command now.”
I reached out with my gift as I said this, feeling for the overall situation. I wasn’t sure how long I’d been unconscious or dead, but it shouldn’t have been that long. There was no sign that anyone had lifted my body off the stone, so I would have been healing the whole time.
My gift showed me the Host in turmoil, knotted together in a big clump around the pit we’d fallen into. To judge by the footfalls it was some kind of big debate or argument, with a few fights going on around the edges.
I felt the distinctive tread of the Hook off to one side, partway down the ridge. Fisher was close enough to observe the situation, but didn’t seem to be in motion. Haunter was still in the cave I’d stashed her in, and a quick check confirmed that the air tunnels were still intact. Nirav, of course, was in the Link, and Preventer… I couldn’t find any trace of Preventer.
“Your sisters, who will they follow, now that the Overseers are dead?” I asked.
A storm of argument passed by me in a foreign language. I didn’t really need to understand what they were saying to know that it wasn’t just a name though. So there was no obvious leader, or there were enough that they had to argue about which one would take over.
I reached out with my gift, took hold of the base of the shaft I’d dropped us in, began to gently elevator us on up.
Dang hit me between the legs.
I folded instantly, toppling to the ground in a spasm of pain.
“Aaaagh!” I screamed. I’d done a lot of that today.
This time I wasn’t alone in my shouting. All of her comrades were haranguing Dang, but I probably couldn’t have understood them even if they’d been speaking my language. I was in a world of pain, writhing around as my healing gift attempted to compensate for the fact that a malevolent demigod had taken a random nut shot at me.
“She is sorry. She felt the ground shake,” said the talking one.
“What the…Aaaagh…What’s that got to do with…why would…” I couldn’t make my words work together, debilitated by my body’s spasms.
“Sorry, bad translation.”
I reached out to one of my hips, pushed it inward, which seemed to be what needed to happen.
“She felt the ground shake, so she hit you!” said the translator, sounding proud that she’d gotten it right this time.
“That’s not better!” I protested. “That’s the same-“
Distant explosions cut me off, along with a violent protest from my gift.
Heavy impacts were slamming into the ground throughout the cluster above. I felt bodies hit the dirt, some taking cover, and some forever still.
I reacted instantly, or my gift did. Our gentle ride up from the depths became a shuddering rocket ascent, the force of our rise pressing us against the ground.
Mercifully Dang didn’t take this as another sign from the universe to kick me.
Just before we broke the surface the blasts died down, or at least stopped hitting the cluster of Ultras.
I tried to look around and see what was happening, only to gasp as my eyes shut tight, watering and blinded with the brightness of the surface world after my time in the lightless cave.
I could still hear the explosions, the impacts and the Ultra gifts being fired off. But the majority of it was somehow muted. The Ultras shouting at each other was the loudest thing around me.
A pair of Host members approached us, yelling something. Dang turned to me in response and I braced myself for another kick.
Instead she took my hand and pressed it into the ground.
I managed to get my eyes open, took a look around. My mind boggled at the sight that met my gaze.
The Host was in shambles, craters and bodies sprawled unevenly throughout the clustered hundreds. I could barely make out the whizzing drones which had rained this hell down, because they were obscured by an enormous, sparkly shield, which was even now cracking and shuddering under continuous impacts.
I saw her at last, tied to a big stick and hanging between a pair of Ultras. Her makeup had smudged away, revealing a face speckled with lights like the starry sky. She’d torn one hand loose of the impromptu bindings, and was pointing it up at the great dome she’d crafted above us.
Barriers whisked out of her wrist at an incredible rate, rising and flying up to support the larger barrier anywhere the enemy seemed to be concentrating their fire. The little ones merged into the great dome and repaired the fissures and cracks that the enemy’s bullets and bombs were opening up.
She’d been holding out on us. I had never seen her exert her gift like this. I hadn’t the slightest idea that she could pull something so big off. I doubt she had either.
The thought broke the spell, and I put my own gift to work. Along the outside of Preventer’s dome the land rose up in a great surge, shrouding her ethereal ward in endless waves of sand and dirt.
The Ultras who’d been shooting out from gaps in her construct recoiled, apparently thinking it was some fresh attack, and one of them spun around in panic, pointing a deadly hand my way.
A great gout of some fluid splashed towards me, and I was already raising up the ground between us when Dang punted me out of the way.
I rolled across the ground, bowling a pair of Pantheon Ultras over. I lost control of the earth dome, but fortunately enough it had already risen up into a sort of circular hill around us that its collapse only lost us a couple of feet of protection.
The Ultras I’d knocked over came up screaming, and those around quickly joined in the argument. The bombarding drones were disregarded in favor of pointing at one another and trying to yell the loudest.
This was a farce. I had to bring order, but no one could understand me.
That thought triggered a better one, and I set about moving Haunter’s cave this way, simultaneously repairing the gap that had begun to develop in the dirt redoubts I’d surrounded us with.
An Ultra stood above me, a dusky creature with some kind of shoulder pads fastened onto the usual rags.
She said some things I couldn’t understand, and then grabbed ahold of an ankle.
I tried to stay focused on my gift, even as she started binding my legs together with the same kind of improvised ties they’d used on Preventer.
An instant later I got it, she was going to have me hoisted up just like Rebecca. I would lose contact with the ground, with my gift.
I cried out in protest even as another Ultra grabbed my arms.
Dang showed up, I could tell it was her from her voice, and the fact that she immediately kicked the Ultras binding me away and shoved my hand into the ground.
I accelerated Haunter’s progress, and soon she was rising up in the midst of the Ultras.
I’d tried to place her in a position where no one was paying attention, but there wasn’t really such a thing, and she instantly drew the eye as she rose from the ground, Sigil firmly on her head.
Hands and voices were raised in a throng about her, but she was already dispensing her shades. Their voices rose in answer, a dozen languages or more.
The Ultras about her subsided, even as her more militant shades were making their way to the edge of the formation, where Preventer’s barrier dome rose from my more mundane dirt barricades.
I formed firing ports wherever I saw a rifle, and the shades began to return fire.
I wasn’t actually sure how that would play out. The drones had a lot of advantages. They were far smaller targets, for one, and presumably their computer aiming was better than a person’s could ever be. Their weapons were also way more advanced than the old army stuff that Haunter’s guys had.
On the other hand, Joey had told me that the stuff they’d read on the Union’s computers had included a lot of data on the drones. These weren’t the top of the line for the Union, rather these were the ones that they didn’t mind if the Pantheon got its hands on. They were older models, sufficient to deter Hosts but not necessarily built for battle against enemies with high quality firearms and the training to use them.
It felt weird to think that, to put Ultras and humans on a battlefield scale and come out with the humans the more dangerous, but really it was all about what kind of threat you were trying to deliver. Ultras were good at hitting ‘hard’, in terms of breaking Ultra Toughness. Low power Utlras like the ones the Pantheon put in Hosts were mostly strong versus other Ultras.
We’d seen in the video how it went when that kind of force went up against a modern army. Their power didn’t gain them anything when they took fire from outside their range. The drones or Union troops just picked them off.
But Haunter’s men were a different target entirely. They shot back at the same range as their enemies, didn’t need to close in to do their damage. They were also behind good cover, and the Drones had probably wasted lots of their ammo on the wall already.
I couldn’t think of a way to help. I made a few waves of earth out in the field beyond, shot the occasional stone spikes skyward, but I doubted I’d caught any of the Union drones. Mostly I just lay there, wincing whenever one of Haunter’s men popped.
Suddenly, with a great crack, the top of our protective structure fell away. Preventer had ceased to send out the barriers, and the big one that had hung over us this whole time had finally fallen away. We were open above.
I called out to my gift, demanding the walls rise up to form a dome. Even as I did so I knew it wouldn’t be fast enough. The drones would get a missile or two in here, finishing what they’d started with the Host. It had all been for nothing.
Even as I despaired the Host was acting. Someone opened some kind of portal across a large section of the top, and another Ultra grew to an enormous height, filling a section with her Ultra Tough flesh. Someone’s hair grew out into a dense matting, and another Ultra began emitting silhouette versions of herself, which rapidly began to assemble into some kind of protecting wall.
If they could do this kind of thing why hadn’t they… and then I saw the common denominator in all of the effective responses.
Haunter’s shades stood at the demigod’s shoulders, providing adult supervision, clarity and direction. They had been talking during the whole time the other shades had been firing, organizing the Host into defending itself when Preventer’s shield failed.
I looked over at Preventer. She’d been lowered down from where they’d hung her, and now sat slumped against the ground. Her face was still streaked with the smidges of her paint, and no sparkles twinkled behind her visage. A Pantheon Ultra was hugging her legs, shuddering with the enormity of whatever emotion she was trying to convey.
I had never seen Preventer at a loss for words before, but this did it.
She didn’t speak, even when the drone force flew away about ten minutes later.