Condemner 6:1

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.

The Worst Place in the World

Beneath the Lair, beneath the prison, there is a Pit.

Those who are brought here have gained, in some manner, the tyrant’s displeasure.  Whether they failed Her, or assailed Her, their fate is the same.

The wise among them have prepared for this contingency.  With Ultra gifts, or implanted explosives, with poisons or brute circumstance they take their own lives.  Their corpses are thrown in anyway.

Those less wise, or simply less fortunate, experience one of several horrific fates.

The beings who have information that the Regime has interest in find themselves dangled above the Pit, the height adjusted as their defiance transforms into anguish.  Once they cooperate they may be taken above, if further use can be made of them.

The beings who are to become the Regime’s agents undergo a deeper conditioning, dipping in and out of the danger zone in an attempt to associate the concepts shouted at them from the operators with the unsupportable agony.  It is a clumsy and imprecise process, and many perish.  Those who do not become, in theory, living time bombs, their souls primed to take any action in order to avert whatever their trigger condition is.

Occasionally there are people from whom nothing is desired.  Enemies or disappointments of Her, they are simply tossed into the Pit.  The world believes that there is no more painful end than this.

But maybe the world is wrong.

Few thoughts have ever been spared for the plight of Torturer herself.  Her real name forgotten.  Her gentle nature utterly abused and entirely debased.  She languishes in the Pit’s depths, the only voices which reach her the screaming confessions of those above.  The only light which reaches her the brief glimpses of torchlight as another soul is made to suffer her presence.  The only sustenance she can discover is uncooked human flesh.

She was a doctor, once.  She woke from the Process to find the world about her stricken down, and stumbled forth only to find she carried death with her.

She has tried to die.  Many times.  But her Ultra flesh is tough beyond reason.  Starvation pains her, but it does no lasting damage.  She tortures herself, thinking that if she can only last another week, surely she will not awake.  She strikes herself, but her gift gives her no strength, nothing to allow her to damage a being fortified by such a mighty gift.  She screams insults and curses at Her, desperate to provoke the thin skinned fiend into a summary execution, but no one listens to the howls from the depths.

Decades have passed in this way.

Recently, however, she has experienced something new.


No new people have been cast into the depths.  Months have passed, if her hunger can be trusted, since last the Regime saw fit to use her.  Has she been forgotten?

She knows that she is not so lucky.  But she cannot stop herself from hoping.

Finally, the door opens again.  She tenses, awaiting the scream and the thump.  She hates that her mouth is already alive with saliva, hates the part of herself that is already figuring out how long the meat can be made to last.

The thump comes, but with no scream to accompany it.  And far lighter than a corpse.

Torturer knows every inch of her abode.  In a hurried second she is beneath the door, the door which has NOT closed.

Her hand closes over a coil of rope.


It is the triumph of her lifetime, the supreme effort of this wretched soul’s will, that she releases it instantly, and sinks back down onto the floor.

To climb would put her gift in motion, might bring other beings into its radius.  It would be sin without compare.

Resolutely, she sits on her hands, in the worst place in the world.

Dearest Isis

She isn’t dead yet.

I got that out of the way, because I know if I started with anything else you’d just skip down till you got to that part.

We didn’t drive her off.  She didn’t overcome me.  None of the contingencies we considered have come to pass.  She’s done something else, something we never gave serious consideration to.


I was so certain she would strike as we assembled before Olympus, as my Brides passed in review one after another.  Nothing.  We passed through an assembly of the greatest of my Warlords a few days later, a chance to humble me before all who believed in me, nothing.  She does nothing.

At this rate I am starting to believe I may actually end up walking all the way across  the goddamn continent.  What a kick in the teeth that would be.

The Demon, a woman so venal she once crossed the world in order to slay Barabus for stating publicly that she wasn’t afraid of her, is demonstrating patience.  The mind reels.

I remember you mentioning, in passing, that knowledge of mortality is the truth difference between deities like us and the rank and file.  They know that they will die.  We… know that they will die.  And so it comes to pass.  I had always counted the Demon on our side of this spectrum.

But maybe it is not so?  Maybe when she asks her oracular pet what will happen if she comes against us she cringes away from the answer that she receives?  It wouldn’t be the first time someone lauded for their bravery turns coward at the last.

A pleasant fantasy, but not one that I take seriously.  Prevailer has fought for decades, heedless of the odds.  The Demon has never backed down before.  It is inconceivable, utterly bewildering, that she does so now.

We are missing something.  Reach out to our contacts in the infidel lands.  Reach out to KEM if you have to.  Find out why the Demon isn’t answering our challenge.

And if you ever meant one word of your professions of love, do so quickly.  The Brides are not enduring the march very well.

Fourth Fist: Meditations on Takeover


It’s hard to believe that yesterday really happened.  I’ve spent decades gradually gathering spirits, keeping my head down, striving always to take the road most traveled, to take the least risks.

Even when She drafted me into a Fist, even then we were careful.  Our battles in Redo were waged through guile and cunning.  Our gift from Her we spent on negotiation, seeking to turn a threat into an asset.

Yesterday we hurled ourselves headlong into a foe that outnumbered us a thousand to five, and we emerged victorious.  I didn’t even do all that much.

When I first met Indulger I was awestruck at his gift.  Its utility, its endless capacity for creation.  My mind’s eye glimpsed worlds that might have been, where he strove alongside countless other Ultras to forge a gleaming future for mankind, cities rising effortlessly from the bare rock, islands sliding carefully from the sea.  I didn’t dwell so much on his gift’s potential for destruction, save to note that of course it existed and would be devastating.

I underrated it.  The only reason that there was any kind of struggle at all yesterday was his noble desire to spare our foe’s child soldiers.  If we had simply wanted to destroy them he could have entombed us all and assailed them without respite with the ground itself.

I am shamed, to some degree, by our most recent outing.  Not the action itself, but the fact that I had never attempted anything similar before.  Even when we became a Fist, even after I had realized, in the abstract at least, how much power we commanded, I still clung to the safe route.  Not so Dale.

He saw the evil, saw the dead left to rot on the field, and without hesitation pointed us against it.  When Preventer and I raised our voices in caution he simply overrode us.  And so we acted, against our better judgement.  As a result, we have saved the lives of several hundred teenagers.

Even now I find myself raising caveats and cautions, weighing utilities.  How will we keep them alive?  What does this imply as far as our future capacity to do good, in particular am I putting my passengers at risk?

Does this make me wise?  Am I a technician, who can see that we have merely flung sand into the gears of Her slaughter machine, or am I a cog myself?  Do these massacres go on only because there are too many Janes and not enough Dales?

I cannot dwell too long on these thoughts of the past, however.  The future which confronts us is stark. This Host can survive only in the Grand Host, and we cannot join any portion of that where Death has made her abode.

We cannot trust the Host to keep our presence a secret.  There are too many.

We must send a scout ahead of us, one of our number must infiltrate Barad-Dur and see if Death is waiting.

The scout must speak the languages of the Pantheon.



I am so stoked.

We fought like a thousand people, and we still won.  We are so fierece!  When this story gets around everyone will be like, ‘woah, that Dale guy is mad strong’.

I know that Third Fist is the main one, in terms of how hard they fight.  Mover and Leveller are both super tough.  But I have always thought that my gift was, like, on their level.  I think yesterday showed that that is true.

I am also really happy that Preventer is finally chilling out and not acting like such a cold fish.  I was super surprised when she used her barriers to stop the drone strike, but that is on me.  I shouldn’t have been.  She has been really thawing out a lot since she joined up with us.  She has that crush on Nirav, that rivalry with Jane.  She is basically a real person now.

That makes me mad happy, to be honest.  I had always imagined that no matter how far we got into the future she would just be all evil and stuff, but it seems like she is the kind of heel who sides with the good guys when the chips are down and is mostly just all bleak as a kind of pose.  Makes her feel tough I guess.

People were probably bad to her when she was a kid, and that’s how she got to be that way.  I hope that if we keep being good she will see that it is the right way to be and come around to join up with us, I mean really join up with us.

Another big part of why I am riding so high right now is the awesome gifts that our new friends from the Host have.  I don’t want to sound like a jerk.  We’d have helped them even if they didn’t have any useful gifts or whatever, but I am still happy that they did.

Like, we stepped up because it was the right thing to do, but I knew that Preventer and Fisher didn’t really care so much about that.  The fact that we made friends with people with gifts that open up lots of other doors will let them feel better about this, and maybe make sure they don’t get salty with me for bullying us into doing it.

I don’t want to do that again.  Invoking the way I am the leader like that felt a lot like it did when we used my relationship with Her against First Fist.  I don’t want our strength to come from Her.  I want us to be strong separately.

I am going to try and go back to running things by talking it out till we are all on board.  It is the right thing to do, and as long as we end up doing the things we ought to do I don’t care all that much how we get there.



I have decided that I cannot blame my tactical errors on value drift.

It was tempting.  It would allow me to lay my own inadequacies at the feet of the Link, or of Fisher, or of any other convenient excuse, but that way lies a recursive hell.  For, should one wish to be consistent, one must doubt not only the values at the time, but even those one is presently operating under, which are urging that very doubt.

I have seen Meghan’s conversion, witnessed an intelligent woman rationalize herself into betraying that which she had once stood for.  I saw nothing which indicated that it was enabled by a lack of cunning on her part.  I don’t believe that there were thoughts she could have had, or arguments she could have given herself, which would have preserved her old morality even as the weight she put on the values was adjusted.

No, if I am being tampered with, then the version of me who existed pre alteration is already long gone, and I would achieve nothing by mourning her.  Fisher’s words, that the easiest way to think of her gift was that she didn’t so much change minds as summon other versions of people into their flesh, were salient to me.

So far as I can tell, I have continuity.  I continue to place the highest priority on retaining my agency and my safety.  I continue to eschew the staid morality that Jane espouses, striving instead with the clear understanding that Her success has put the lie to the old world’s notions of karma.  I will proceed as though I remain unaltered.

Condemner and Fisher are the obvious choices for our reconnaissance party.  The real question is which to send, and who to send with them.  This choice blends neatly with the story we will instruct our agents to proceed under.

The obvious alibi for our scouts is that which hews as close to the truth as possible.  They are survivors of a battle with the Pantheon, returning to take their place within the Grand Host.  So long as they make no mention of Regime interference this should prompt no particular interest.

There are a few sticking points, however.  The first is that the number of survivors we can send will be necessarily lower than they might expect.  It is common for up to a hundred Ultras to escape from the Union’s traps.  We cannot trust nearly so many not to disclose our presence.  Fisher has picked out a bare dozen or so whose priorities hint that they will not betray our activities to their old masters.

The other, of course, is that Fisher and Condemner are not among the Ultras who passed through on their pilgrimage.  An alert individual might well jump to the appropriate conclusion.

I believe that Fisher can present herself in beast form, as the conjuration of one or another of the returning Ultras, while Nirav has indicated that he can hide himself as a flame, perhaps on a makeshift torch or similar.

It is well that Condemner’s original spirit has been extinguished.  Nirav is far more powerful and useful when we can utilize his gift to its full measure.



I died again.

It barely stings nowadays.  I feel almost as comfortable within the Link as I do in my own flesh, or in the flames that I have stolen from my deceased master.

The others cling to their mortality, as though they still enjoyed the lives they lived prior to becoming a Fist.  It strikes me as absurd.  Like a man who goes about on his belly, afraid to rise to his feet lest he topple over.

All the better.  Let my timid colleagues tremble from temporary death.  All the more opportunities shall fall to me, as the only member of our merry band with the courage to seize them.

The wild exhilaration that I felt when I first began to allow myself to believe that Condemner was gone for good has finally blown itself out.  In its face is a new spirit, a new consciousness of my existence, and of my gift.

I feel as though every inch of my flesh, every last portion, is trembling with suppressed might.  As though the fires of Condemner lie latent, awaiting my will, at all times.  It is not revelation that my gift is always available, of course, but I had suppressed it so long that it almost feels so.

I am flame, and man.  Soul, and flesh.  An Ultrahuman who grows stronger the higher my Tally rises.  A fire which seeks its own fuel.  Anchored by a Fist, spurred on by Betty’s admiration, tempered by the struggle with Condemner, I make myself anew with every breath I draw, a being of unlimited possibility.

If the truth be told, I could have saved myself from my most recent death.  I could have remained in flame form as Dale was drawing us back into the earth, fueling myself in the barren ground with the soul of the Overseer I had slain.

I did not.  On some level, I wanted to dwell as spirit.  I wanted the greater union that it occasions, when flesh is left behind.  I am changed each time I emerge, made anew and greater with every pass through the crucible of the Link.

With the clarity thus provided I can see my old hatred of Condemner, my terror and my rage, as something almost laughable.  An absurd notion.  As well be afraid of my name, or the air that I breathe.  Fearing my gift robbed me of this joy for months.

I believe that I am devouring what remains of him, with each trip through the Link.  I am integrating what was worthwhile of the old Condemner into the framework of my self.  That is the most reasonable explanation for my new attitudes.

If he felt like this all the time, alive with such joy, then I can almost empathize with the old monster.  Watching me crawl around like a worm, cowering and simpering in my human form, must have been almost unendurable for such a wild angel.

I am through with crawling.  I was born to burn.



To all appearances my fellows are in the best of spirits, but this feels more like fever strength than true fitness to me.  Our true situation is nothing to be elated about.

We have shackled ourselves to a crowd of hundreds.  Hundreds of ill trained Ultras who, absent our aid, would be unable to defeat the Union’s dagger onslaught.  Hundreds who would turn on us at the drop of a hat, indoctrinated with the belief that doing so will make them divine.

And we cheer this.  Dale can’t stop smiling.  Even Jane gives the occasional wry grin when she forgets to look constantly martyred.

The truth of the matter is far more grim.

We are at war with the Union.  They will not forgive the ministrations I subjected their people to.  We have squandered the surprise of my gift’s true utility, and are unlikely to get such use of it again.  They could send more drones at any moment, and once we are exposed and alone they could dispatch the Gauntlet to destroy us.

We are at war with the Pantheon.  Our assault upon their Overseers, once known, will see their leadership rise against us.  Even if the rank and file remain uninvolved, and I think everyone is taking that for granted, we will still face three forts worth of Overseers, with Death behind them.

We are at war with the Regime.  She told us to go to Olympus and safeguard Adder during his negotiations.  We have not done so.  She is not notorious for Her understanding.

So there we stand.  We have a few hundred new pawns.  Some of them have useful gifts.  Some of them have values that will drive them to aid us.  This is an asset.  All it cost us was everything.

Every hand is potentially turned against us.  We should be desperately treating with the mighty, but instead we congratulate ourselves upon our embrace of the meek.

Nirav and I are being sent out ahead of the remainder of the Fist.  We will take some Pantheon Ultras that I pick, and head into this fort, with an eye towards discovering whether or not Death is in residence.

Well and good, so far as it goes.  Nirav, bless his heart, thinks that he is being sent because the Pantheon pays less attention to males.

The truth is darker.  We are the two who can die.

If Death is present, then she must not take a member of our Fist.  It only took Charger being captured for Sixth Fist to end.

Indulger can’t kill himself.  His gift will bring him back to life if he touches land.  Haunter would have to slaughter her whole reserve.  Preventer is invincible.  Only Nirav and I are mortal, so to speak.

If Death is not there, we will send word back.  If Death is there, and she seizes us, we will take our own lives before she can live up to her namesake.

Joe’s notes on new Ultra Friends (combatants)


Power: Generates orbs which each have their own power
Details: One orb shoots out a beam (roughly baseball speed.  Dodgeable, but only just) which makes what it contacts immaterial.  The object or person becomes an image, basically like Fader.  People rendered immaterial cannot move on their own, but can be transported by Gann moving where the beam is aiming.  Materializing a form within another is only damaging to the form being rematerialized, it cannot harm an existing form directly.  Another orb shoots out a beam (same speed), and generates a copy of whatever form it touches.  The copy appears in contact with the original.  If the original is alive then Gann mentally controls the copy.  The copy has no Ultra powers.  It has all other characteristics of the original, so far as she knows.  Her third orb shoots out a beam that pushes the form it hits away from itself, or pulls it towards itself, in either case with the same speed as ordinary gravity (which is suspended during the time the beam is on you).  Her fourth orb shoots out a beam that makes the form it hits disintegrate.   No one knows if this works on Ultra tough targets or not.  Her fifth orb causes the form it hits to lose its history.  She was vague about the details, but it apparently causes amnesia in the living, and somehow alters objects such that their provenance becomes unknown.  She declined to tell us about her sixth orb.
Fisher’s Assessment: Timid girl just wants safety for herself and her brother

Cu Xi:

Power: Teleports herself or others along their history
Details: She can teleport any object which she touches back to any place it has previously been.  She can place herself in a state where this happens reflexively to any object that comes into contact with her.  She can also teleport herself back to any place she has been, though this must be a conscious decision.  Her teleportation does not create a new form, and does not allow her to displace existing matter.
Fisher’s Assessment: Pantheon believer, wants to rise in the ranks


Power: Ultra Strength 1, Ultra Speed 1, Ultra Toughness 1, Shoots force from her eyes
Details:  Her powers are linked to another factor, which she has not shared.  1 is an average power level, gossip is that she is sometimes powerless, and other times essentially as capable as subtracter.  The projectile is invisible kinetic force.  It sends forms flying into other things rather than damaging the targets directly.
Fisher’s Assessment: Minion, will do as she is told as long as that seems safer than the alternative.


Power: Ultra Strength X, Ultra Toughness 2
Details: Her Ultra Strength increases based on other Ultras presence.  On her own she has no strength at all.  With a few dozen to a few hundred Ultras around she has Ultra Strength at one.  In the midst of thousands of Ultras she reaches Ultra strength 2.  Presumably this will continue to scale.
Fisher’s Assessment: Minion, will follow orders


Power: Sarah is able to destroy the Ultra gift of other Ultras
Details: This destruction is permanent.  She effectively removes the Process.  No one knows how she triggers this ability, the most common guess is that she can do so by sight or by choosing to do activate her gift anyone that she has touched before.
Fisher’s Assessment: Fisher has declined to attempt to use her gift on Sarah.

Joe’s notes on new Ultra Friends (noncombatants)

[Note from author, this is Sunday’s update.  Have to put it up early, as I’ll be out of town on vacation.  Shouldn’t stop me from getting next week’s story update out on time though.]

Lynn (Lin?)

Power: Ultra Devices
Details: Can make ‘contraptions’ that themselves exhibit low grade Ultra powers.  Pack that gives Ultra Strength 1, ‘laser gun’ that is an Ultra Blast at 1, etc.  Can keep up to 6 active at once.  Anecdotal evidence that having less ‘inventions’ active makes each one more powerful.
Fisher’s Assessment: Follower, will take orders

Wei Void

Power: Banishment
Details: Can cause objects that she sees and focuses on to vanish into some personal pocket dimension.  Does not work on living matter.  Can return objects at will, unable to displace existing forms.  All objects returns when/if she sleeps.  Objects not temporally suspended during time in void.
Fisher’s Assessment: Wishes personal safety, will run or stay as the situation develops


Power: Healing
Details: People who make form to form contact with Gonn regress towards an ideal state, healing injuries and recovering from trauma (???).  Cannot affect someone with Ultra tough 2 or higher.
Fisher’s Assessment: Mental disorders render him illegible.  Seems gentle and friendly.


Power: Weather Control
Details: Yara can cause precipitation and wind within a large radius around herself.  She does not control individual instances of these phenomena, but can rapidly increase or decrease their rate of arrival.  Several miles range, with knockoff effects extending for indeterminate distances.
Fisher’s Assessment: Follower, will take orders.  Very grateful not to be dead.


Power: Memory Renewal (Alteration?)
Details: On making form to form contact Natasha can cast another person into their own memories, causing them to relive events as they previously occurred.  During this time the victim’s body is paralyzed and unaware.  Unreliable reports indicate victims can choose differently than they actually did, with the dream playing out the likely responses that would have occurred. (What determines this?)
Fisher’s Assessment: Pantheon fanatic.  Kill her or keep her away from us.


Power: Transforms into animals
Details: Animal in question must be real, change is full form conjuration, heals all wounds. (Mostly, apparently she just has one of every animal form, and they stay wounded if they are hurt.  So shoot her as a person and she can change to a healthy dog, but her human form is still damaged)  Retains human sapience in every form.  Smallest forms fist sized, largest elephant.  No Ultra strength/toughness
Fisher’s Assessment: Hate’s Pantheon, glad to work with us.


Power: Looks different to everyone
Details: X has the ability to control everyone’s perception of her.  Does not include touch, but sight/smell/sound fully falsified.  Can ‘throw’ her image a few feet from herself, but not very far, must have some overlap between image and reality (typically real form foot to image heel)  Can also cancel out image entirely for invisibility/inaudibility rather than disguise.
Fisher’s Assessment:  Follower, will take orders.  In love with one of the bruisers, mistreating her partner might prompt rebellion. Amnesia.

Bo Ri

Power: Bind living beings into gestalts
Details: Can bind beings and machines together, essentially by shoving one into the other.  He chooses which gains control.  Can merge humans, Ultras, and / or machines with one another.  Ultra Toughness One or higher blocks his gift.
Fisher’s Assessment: Desperate to survive.  Likely to attempt escape.


Power: Conjure future objects
Details: Objects move through time, not space, must be taken from future of her position within Earth’s frame of reference.  Objects disappear in the event of timeline disruption (whether due to their own use or another Ultra’s interference), but their effects do not.  Has instinctive knowledge of what is available at any given spot, and roughly how far in the future it is.
Fisher’s Assessment: Cold fish, pragmatic and sensible.  Negotiate.


Preventer 7:2

We met back up as night fell, after a day of reorganization.

In the aftermath of the Drone strike the Host had dug in, then counted its dead and complied with our requests for information.  Haunter’s slaves had circulated among them, endlessly questioning.  Dale and I had tried our best to look mighty, and Fisher had made her appearance once I’d started making barriers again.

Shades circulated around us, keeping the Pantheon Ultras at a decent distance.  The four of us sat in the middle of the encampment, within a barrier cell that I’d built to hopefully keep our conversation from being overheard.

Dale leaned back and let out a huge sigh as the barriers finished forming.  This couldn’t have been easy on him.  Looking stern came naturally to me, and Haunter was ever in perfect control of her form, but Dale was made for smiles and joking.  Having to swagger around like someone who thought they were a God would wear on him.

“So,” I said.  “Where are we at?”

Jane manifested Joe, the fat shade who she used most often to represent the main group.

“Give us a briefing,” she said.

Joe nodded.

“Ok, we are going to cover three areas here.  First off, I’ll give our best guess as to what is going on with the Union.  Then I’ll cover the powersets and disposition of our new Host, lastly I’ll talk through our new knowledge of the Pantheon’s situation here.”

Dale closed his eyes, rubbed his forehead.

For my part I simply made a ‘get on with it’ gesture.

“Ok, the Union.  So, obviously, there was that drone strike.  You were all here for that.  But we’ve actually seen a much worse sign from them.”

“Worse?” asked Dale, still with his hand over his eyes.

“No communication, whatsoever, from Meghan and company.  Not just no response to their passing on our offer of cooperation, literally no messages at all.  The Union is either jamming their transmitting tech or has arrested them.”

“Which is more likely?” I asked.

“We think the most likely scenario is that they’ve stumbled on at least an intimation of what Fisher’s power can do.  They are quarantining anyone who has had contact with us.”

“How could they do that?” asked Fisher.  “I’m not saying that the people I altered wouldn’t tell, mind you.  I can’t give that kind of guarantee.  But other than Meghan, they don’t know, and they can’t confess what they don’t even know themselves. I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t have broken that fast.”

Joe spread his hands.

“This is just speculation, but our guess is that we missed some monitoring or recording bit of tech along the way.  They might have a list of everyone who meets with the Intervention Group’s commanders, or something like that.  I know you had them delete records of you, but all it would take is one recording device that they don’t know about.”

I nodded, remembering the lecture about technological societies that Haunter had given us all.

“Once they suspect it,” I interjected, “however they get there, it will all come together.  Who is acting strange?  The delegation we met and the Intervention Group we sent you to.  What’s the common element?  Fisher.”

Betty spat on the grass.

“I really hope you are wrong about this.  I was having visions of taking over the whole Union.  If the one place my gift really shines is on the lookout for me it will suck.”

“It is only a possibility.  The facts are these.  We have no feedback from Meghan regarding the overture she was instructed to make about the possibility of our new Host helping them with the Grand Host.  We were also hit with a drone strike, which must have been launched by one of the other Intervention Groups after the nearest one refused sortie orders.”

“Do we think they knew we were on site when they ordered the drones in?” I asked.  “Or were we just unlucky enough to be active when they struck?”

“If they didn’t know at the beginning,” said Haunter.  “They knew by the end.  Remember that feed we watched of them hitting the First Host.  They would have been getting a similar thing for this one, and they only called it off once we had dug in enough that they weren’t getting anything out of it.  They aren’t worried about provoking the Regime by going against us.”

“Ok, so, the Union,” said Joe.  “Hostile, but we are unsure whether they are going to strike again.  They usually let the survivors of a confrontation limp back to Barad-Dur or another fort.  This group is larger than usual, but they may keep to their usual pattern.”

“Alternately,” I said.  “They may strike again, this time intending to destroy us, as a Fist, rather than just the Host.  That would entail, at the minimum, another large scale drone strike, and they would probably also have to send in a LOT of Ultras to have any kind of a shot, including someone who they think might be able to harm me.”

“The point is,” said Dale.  “They are not biting on our offer to work together against the Pantheon forts.”

“Should we try to reopen negotiations?” I asked.

Haunter and Joe exchanged a look.

“I…doubt that will ever happen,” said Haunter.  “I think you are not sufficiently accounting for what they will be feeling if they found out about what we pulled with Fisher.  It was everything they are afraid of, wrapped up in a treachery sandwich.  I don’t think they will ever sit down with us again.”

I was going to debate the point, but stopped myself.  Proving Haunter wrong never made her like me more, and we’d find the truth of the Union’s stance out ourselves sometime soon.  She wouldn’t actually oppose attempts to  talk to them just to make herself correct.

“As far as the Second Host goes,” said Joe.  “I am ready to give an account.”

No one said anything, so he went on ahead.

“We count seven hundred and eleven Ultras.  We’ve been classifying them all day, and I think we can give you a good picture of what we are dealing with.”

Haunter extruded a shade with a whiteboard and marker, and Joe started to write down brief summaries as he spoke.

“Out of those seven hundred eleven, there are two hundred and eighty five who have essentially no military application.  They might have Ultra Strength One, or Ultra Toughness One, and that is it.  Or they have a noncombat ability that is extremely limited in scope.  But basically these are people who are no use on a battlefield, even if the enemy are only armed humans.  These Ultras carry guns, and mostly amount to poorly trained human infantry.”

More than a third of our forces were worthless.  That wasn’t great, but it was about what I’d figured.  The Pantheon sent mostly dross this way, after all.

“Another three hundred and fifty eight are, well, moderately effective, in our estimation.  They have Ultra tough one and some kind of offensive power, or they have an offensive ability of great strength and flexibility.  These are the ones who would have gone down fighting if the Union attack had gone as planned, might have taken someone with them.”

“Like the ones who hit us on the Strongboat?” asked Dale.

Joe shook his head.

“No, that’s the next category.  These are Ultras who are basically walking tanks, or one man squads.  Ultras with some battlefield effectiveness against humans, but nothing that they couldn’t overcome.”

We’d need to sift that category a bit.  Some of those people might be only alright at fighting humans, but very dangerous to Ultras.  We needed every edge.

“Next up,” said Joe.  “We have fifty four Ultras who we are convinced would have survived the Union’s attack, or at least only died to the Union Ultras.  Genuine Ultra warriors, like the ones Death sent after us on the Strongboat.  The kind of Ultras who took over the world.  The kind the Pantheon is sifting for.”

These were the Ultras who would be making up the majority of the Grand Host, and therefor of the Pantheon’s overall combat power.  Ultras that might not be given Divine Names, but who could go toe to toe with most anyone.

“And beyond them?” asked Haunter.

Naturally she’d been keeping track of the number, or having some of her passengers do it for her.

“Of the remaining 14, we have nine that we are categorizing as non combat assets.  There is a woman who can make devices that do miraculous things, a woman who can banish objects to a sort of imaginary space and bring them back whenever, a guy who can heal any wound short of death, a woman who can control the weather, a woman who can let someone relive any of their own memories, a woman who can transform herself into any animal within a fairly broad size range, a woman who can seize control of the form of anyone she touches, a woman who can control how she looks to every onlooker, a guy who can bind objects together into gestalts that continue to function and a woman who apparently can borrow objects from the future.”

These were the people that we’d come here to free.  The Ultras with the power to change the world, but not necessarily survive the bullet hell that was a pilgrimage.

“Borrow objects from the…”

Joe cut me off.

“The last five are borderline Fist level combatants.  Gann is the Ultra with the orbs, Cu Xi is the one who teleports back.  We think those two were probably on track to be overseers or better.  Felah has Ultra Strength, Toughness and Speed at one, and apparently also has some kind of projectile.  Nzech is an Ultra whose strength increases the more Ultras are around her, and who is a solid Ultra Tough Two.  Lastly we have Sarah, who everybody seems to be afraid of.  Apparently she is the reason they only had three overseers.”

Dale whistled softly.

“Felah is like a mini Subtracter, flight aside.  That’s an amazing powerset.  We are damn lucky.”

“Did you have time to get more details out of Cu Xi?” I asked.  “Teleportation is always important.”

Joe nodded.

“Yes, and they aren’t great.  She can’t teleport living things other than herself, and her own teleportation doesn’t form a new body for her like Prevailer’s, she brings her wounds along with.”

Too much to hope for more, I supposed.

“How much can we trust these people?” asked Haunter.

That was the important question, after all.

All eyes turned to Fisher.

“I’ll have to get with Joe to work out which girl had which powers, but I can give you guys some overall impressions.  I’ve been sensing value sets pretty much from the moment I got back, so I can at least do some averages.”

I made a ‘go ahead’ gesture.

“Ok, the thing you need to understand is that for most of these women the questions you are asking are just entirely out of their frame of reference.  Like, the idea of ‘loyalty’ to anything or anyone isn’t a concept that they get introduced to in the camps.  They just do the next thing they are expected to do, and then there are more tasks.  They don’t particularly care where those tasks come from.  It is a victim’s mentality.  They haven’t really internalized that they aren’t under anyone’s boot anymore.  They just do what they are told.”

I didn’t object to the ‘not under anyone’s boot’ comment, even though we were currently contemplating giving them orders.  Experience had taught me that pointing out my comrade’s hypocrisies would not endear us to one another.

“By percentage?” I asked.

“Probably two thirds,” said Betty.  “Split the remainder about evenly between people who care about the Pantheon’s whole belief system, who aren’t thrilled with current affairs, and those who want to escape it, who are our biggest fans.”

That was a bit better than I’d been expecting.

I was about to try to get more clarifications when Haunter cut me off.

“And the Pantheon?” she asked.  “What have you got about them?”

Joe swapped back into her reserve, Irene coming out.

“The nearest fortress, the one that the Union calls Barad Dur, is actually named the Dawn Gate.  It is a sprawling collection of smaller fortresses and bunkers, loosely ringed by a few miles of rubble.  That’s where this Host passed through, so we got a lot of details about it.”

She took up the marker, turned the whiteboard around and wrote out parts of what she was saying.

“There are around eight thousand Ultras there.  They are probably split evenly between people like Joe’s second group, that is, the Ultras who are worthy combatants in an all out battle, and people like his third group.”

“So fighting is out,” I said, somewhat wryly.

“Absent Union cooperation, yes,” she responded.  “Your Host, even if it would take the order to do so, would be hitting an enemy that outnumbered it heavily, which was also composed of higher quality Ultras.  You might do some damage, with surprise or treachery on your side but ultimately they’d win.”

“What about our utility Ultras?” asked Haunter.  “Do they have anyone like that, so far as the Host knows?”

Irene nodded.

“We should assume that they have a number of novel non combat abilities.  The Hosts are culled before being sent out, and presumably a few of the Overseers have the imagination to see that they could be much more useful alive.”

“How many Overseers?” I asked.  “And how strong are they, in comparison to the ones Dale took down?”

“Eight Overseers,” said Irene.  “Which is really quite a lot for one of their fortresses.  The Host speculates that this is because this is the most common last step on the Pilgrimage, which makes it a plum assignment.”

“Can we challenge them?” asked Dale.  “Take them on and take over their soldier’s loyalty, just like we did here?”

Haunter nodded, slowly.

“Yes and no.  There is a definite tradition in the Pantheon of fighting one on one to take over.  From what you said your second fight was apparently a version of that.  But it requires both sides to risk their lives.”

Indulger didn’t seem to get it.

“They aren’t going to let someone from a Fist do it,” I told him.  “Who’d put their life on the line against someone else who was going to get resurrected at the start of the next day?”

“What about five on five?” he asked.  “We’d be equally at risk then.  Could we play to their desire for fame, get them imagining how much acclaim they’d get if they could take down a Fist?”

I shook my head.

“Fists have a monstrous reputation.  They aren’t going to be willing to go five on five with us.  But they might go eight on five.”

I was speculating, of course, but it didn’t feel entirely undeserved.

“I doubt-“ said Haunter, before Irene cut us off.

“Death is there.”

We all fell silent at that.

“Or, at least, she was when this Host passed through.”