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.