I kicked an old football around as we headed down the road. I juggled it from foot to foot, occasionally bouncing it off of my head. My Ultra Speed made it an effortless task.
From time to time I would pass it to one of the ‘divinities’ of the Pantheon who Betty had chosen. I would send it to one of the girls and watch them bumble it. Some Gods. Apparently entrance into immortality didn’t bring with it base competence at the most important things in life.
Felah was alright, and Dang might actually have been better than me, but Dulari was hopeless, and I hadn’t learned the rest of their names. There were 14 altogether, along with Betty and myself.
The remainder of the Host was still encamped in the makeshift fortress that Indulger had constructed, giving us time to get ahead of them. One of our Ultras had a gift that let her project and manipulate a sort of disk that we could ride on, and we had taken it for most of a day, nearly reaching our destination. Then we had disembarked, and now we were walking, and I wasn’t totally clear on why.
No doubt Betty had a good reason for it. I didn’t ask. I didn’t really care.
The fortress was shielded behind a great dome of light. It didn’t look to me like it was centered exactly on the place we were headed, more like it was a bigger dome centered further back. It’s size was impressive. It must have been miles wide.
Dang slapped me on the back, then put two hands in front of her, with their backs touching, and pulled them out towards her shoulders, like a person parting a beaded curtain ahead of her.
Betty’s Hook drifted back to the rear of the group, and I could tell that she hadn’t any idea what this thing did. She would watch the rest of us pass through the strange shimmer before heading through herself. I could have told her that she didn’t need to worry.
It was obvious to me that this was an Ultra’s gift that was focused on detection and deterrence. Whoever was operating it, the meat mind anyway, would be able to make a yes/no decision about whether each of us got through, and would get an impression of us to help in that.
It was probably supposed to stop their enemy from just nuking them. These Ultras might have gone through the crucible of a battle with the Union’s forces, but that didn’t necessarily mean they could resist ALL non gift related trauma. Some might have just avoided all the bullets, or have a conscious defense or whatever.
We passed through without any particular incident. It didn’t feel like anything at all, just like stepping through a beam of light or an illusion. The fortress loomed ahead.
‘Fortress’ might have been a bit generous. What made assaulting this place so dangerous wasn’t imposing walls or barricades. It was singularly lacking in those.
It looked like the core of Barad-Dur was an old apartment building or hotel. I could still see the floor structure of it, the way the windows were evenly spaced. One of the walls, on the side facing us, had long since collapsed, and it had been replaced with more modern construction.
They had just piled stones and old bits of scrap up to replace the wall, presumably using Ultra Strength when needful. It lent the front of the structure a menacing post apocalyptic look. It was ramshackle in a way that suggested that the inhabitants prized functionality above all else.
There were a decent number of people outside. Some seemed to be on sentry duty, others just lazed about, apparently taking in the sunshine. All of them were regarding us intently.
A woman left the guard ring and headed into the fortress, even as a squad of Ultras headed towards us. She would presumably fetch some Overseers to come and talk to us.
The ones approaching weren’t terribly powerful. None of their better natures were awake, and they had the thin connections that all of the newer Ultras seemed to have.
Dang spoke for us, jabbering away in some sort of foreign language. Betty’s human form was right behind her, shadow dipping into the kid’s shade. She would probably warn me if we were being given up.
It certainly didn’t look like we were. The fortress Ultras moved up into our little group, embracing some, giving respectful nods to the rest of us.
I made finger guns at a particularly butch looking woman, and took small gratification in the fact that she visibly flinched for a moment.
Betty drew close to a redhead who seemed to be in charge and began to speak with her. I didn’t follow.
My gaze had alighted on a group of male Ultras, over by the side of the building. They seemed to be doing some kind of repair, piling stones against the surface of the fortress. What caught my eye was that one of them was just as awake as I was.
The guards were returning to their posts now, and I acted on impulse, trudging along with them like I was going back.
I moved confidently, as though I had a purpose. I doubted that there was anyone among the onlookers who was counting the visitors, verifying that we all waited for the Overseer or whoever. They welcomed survivors all the time, and I hadn’t ever heard of anyone trying to infiltrate the place. No reason for them to pay me any mind.
Beyond that, I was a male. The guards had barely looked at me when they were welcoming us. No one had tried to speak with me. I got the feeling that these self proclaimed Gods had a bit of a blind spot where dudes were concerned.
It was easy enough to make my way over to the work group. I was wrong about them doing repair. They seemed to be making piles of stones, but they weren’t being added to the fortress. It was likely a game of some kind.
These guys paid attention to me, all right. Conversations fell silent as I entered their group, and I found myself the singular focus of their attention as I walked up to the strongest Ultra among them.
He was a short guy, sallow skin and piebald hair. His gift changed the forms of others, it could reach a little beyond his own form. It was asleep.
The guy I cared about was over on the side, but we couldn’t have our heart to heart while everyone was so focused on me.
“You the boss here?” I asked.
There was a reaction from the onlookers. Some recoiled, one of them actually hissed. The taboo against English was in full force here.
He said something I couldn’t understand, held out his hand as though I should shake it.
No doubt he thought himself clever. If I lacked the courage to take his hand, that would shame me. If I put my form into his gift’s range, then he could do something or other to my form and shame me.
I spiked the football as hard as I possibly could, directly into his face.
My Ultra speed let me see it all. The only reaction he had time to make was to widen his gaze slightly, but he hadn’t even begun turning his head when the ball impacted on his nose, squashing it back into his cheek.
He staggered back, hands cupping his ruined nose.
“Shit!” he swore.
Oh, NOW he spoke English.
The other men hadn’t reacted to my original spike, but a few were on their feet now. They had been ready for their leader to cow me. They had been ready for an Ultra fight to erupt. But they didn’t seem to know quite how to react to someone making a fool out of him.
The leader reached out for me with a convulsive, clawing gesture. His gift boiled in the air around him, but his eyes were filled with tears of pain, and his movements were ragged and unbalanced.
I stepped aside, chuckling out loud.
“Stop” I ‘told’ his gift.
I wasn’t sure how I did that. It was like how I’d once communicated with my own human form. It took up a little fuel. It definitely didn’t involve my mouth or any other part of my form.
He lurched to a halt, wiping tears from his eye, wincing as he touched his broken nose.
How had that felt to him? Just a sudden urge to cease motion? How much could a sleeping gift understand, and did it compel his human form?
“Yes, I am the boss,” he snarled. “Try another stunt like that, new guy, and I will kill you!”
He had a thicker accent than most of the other Pantheon Ultras I’d heard. It might have been the nose that caused it though.
“Sorry,” I said, smirking. “I thought you could catch it.”
A few of the others were smiling along with me. Most of them were more neutral, and a few, those who had stood up to support this guy, still seemed angry.
I walked over to the building, leaned against the wall. It put me as part of the ring, signified that I was taking my place among them.
There was a bit of a pause, and then they seemed to accept that. They’d seen my speed, would know me for a fellow Utlra. That was pretty much all it took in the Pantheon, it seemed. A bit of chutzpah, a working gift, and I could be one of them.
The game turned out to be some kind of tower construction thing. I couldn’t follow along without understanding their languages, but they were split into sub teams which were each taking their turn at balancing the rocks upon one another. It felt like the highest tower team would win, but there was also some other components.
The other woken gift moved its form over to mine.
“What are you doing?” it asked.
I felt no compulsion to answer it. Apparently this method of communication didn’t actually exert any kind of control. Or maybe it only worked on sleeping gifts.
“Browsing the menu” I told him.
Did he have to spend his power to speak like this? Or had he been integrated with his human form for long enough to figure out some other way to feed.
“You have been over the sea,” he said. “Have you seen the forbidder?”
It wasn’t words we were using, more like concepts, but I knew who/what he meant. Remover’s gift was awake as well, and it was trying to close the party down.
“Sure, “ I said. “It’s flailing. Can’t solve the human dilemma with just its power, and the inviter is out of its reach. We’ve got decades.”
He gave me a thumbs up at that.
“Is Death one of us?” I asked.
“No,” he said out loud. “Just another mighty sleeper.”
I’d been a bit worried about that. Her gift apparently had something to do with other gifts, so it had been kind of plausible that she could be awake.
“Is she here?” I asked.
“Why do you want to know?” he answered.
His form pulled out a makeshift cigarette, lit it up.
He had to know I worked with flame. It was a gesture of confidence and friendship.
I decided to respond in kind.
“My Fist is taking over. If she is here things will get complicated.”
He looked like he was about to respond, then glance over his shoulder, and abruptly headed back to his group’s tower.
I looked where he’d indicated, saw Betty’s human form striding towards me.
For once her lovely form occasioned no matching surge of lust from me. I was irked instead. Vexed liked a child that it was time to go.
I met her at the edge of the group, acutely aware that the other males were paying close attention to us.
She gave a broad smile, pulled my form into her Lure’s embrace.
With her lips close by my ear she hissed.
“What are you doing?”
I patted her on the back, then responded in kind.
“Gathering information. Death isn’t here. We can just wait for the others.”
She pulled back from the embrace, a slight frown furrowing her brow.
“That wasn’t the plan,” she hissed. “We are supposed to go back and tell them the lay of the land, let them know what they are walking into.”
Looking at her now, it was hard to see what I had glimpsed in her. Had I been blinded by her form’s carefully crafted aesthetics?
“Sorry,” I said. “Let’s go.”
She looked at me for a moment longer, seemingly unsure what I meant, then shrugged and turned away. I started following after her.
I think she’d been confused that she had been able to change my mind, as though she expected me to fight harder. It was hard to read her reaction, somehow.
A burst of words I couldn’t understand brought me spinning around.
The leader of this gang of Ultras was walking towards me again, holding a cloth against his broken nose.
I could somehow understand the gist of what he meant. It was a variation on ‘You come here, you hurt me, and now you are leaving before I get a chance to get you back?!”
This was kind of a reverse of the situation with Betty. Inexplicable comprehension rather a sudden difficulty in relating. Was it part of the same phenomenon?
Betty said something in the same language, holding up a hand and speaking imperiously.
I wasn’t sure if he’d back down. Surely something about her pronunciation would be off, would clue him in that she was speaking without understanding. That was weakness, and he’d lose status backing down in front of weakness.
On the other hand the males were subordinate around here. He might be a pack leader, but he didn’t know her status. He might choose the better part of valor, rather than accidentally piss off an Overseer’s main girl or some such.
I helped him make up his mind, making a very obvious dribbling motion.
The other Ultra I had been speaking to laughed out loud, somewhere behind the leader’s back.
That did it.
“You fuck! Where you think you go? I kill you if you go!”
The accent was definitely due to the nose. I could hear air whistling through it as he emphasized each of his phrases.
“Who is this guy?” asked Betty.
I didn’t answer, stepping up just in front of the guy, and manifesting flames in the palms of my hands.
“I am going to be nice,” I told him. “I am going to give you two choices, and you pick whichever one you like.”
He looked down at my hands, back up at my face. One of his followers put a hand on his shoulder, seemed like a sort of warning or restraining gesture.
“One, we walk away.”
Behind me Fisher brought out her Hook, let it loom up over the both of us.
He scowled into my eyes, but made no move.
“Two, ONLY we walk away.”
He made the right choice.