Overseers 1:1

It took twenty minutes to gather at the rendezvous point.  And that was with me sending replicas to fetch the stragglers.

This wasn’t because of any particular distance.  The rally zone was barely a half mile outside of the fort.  It wasn’t because of unfamiliarity.  I’d insisted that we practice a fallback drill as a way to show off how organized we were when Death was hanging around.

It was because my fellow Gods fell laughably short of the divine standards that we were supposed to set.

Genie had no shirt.  My replica was practically dragging her over.  Cain was obviously hung over, staggering and being supported by a few of her Named.  Yaga and Ninja had to be called back, as they were already heading off towards the horizon.  It was a total mess.

“Get it together!” I hissed as my fellow Overseers fell into place around me.  “This is serious!”

I probably didn’t need to say that last part.  For once, none of us were laughing this off.

It was normally an enormous struggle to get my colleagues to take their jobs seriously.  They preferred, with one or two exceptions, to enjoy the perks of their position instead of doing their duty to our people.  I tolerated it because I saw no alternative, and I had the sinking feeling that today I’d pay the price for that laxity.

“What’s goin on?” asked Lotus, her voice a little slurred.

Lotus was one of my older colleagues, and she’d been doing this for a long time.  Her gift let her secrete a sort of fluid which had a variety of pleasant or useful effects to a God brave enough to imbibe it.  It was not normally a gift that would be sufficient to keep this post, but it turned out that having a good fifth of the army addicted to your piss gave one a certain degree of influence.

She was great for morale, and generally easy to bully.  One of my favorite peers, if only she wouldn’t indulge in her own supply.

“Ann gave the Regime signal,” I responded.  “Maybe she can tell us why she did that, and where they are?”

So far no smoke was rising from the base, and I couldn’t see any signs of conflict.  The newcomers were drifting back into the campus just like any other band of survivors.  Only their numbers, hundreds instead of dozens, was unusual.

“We have a Fist in our midst,” said Annubis.  “Fourth Fist, if you’ve kept up with the briefings.  The new one.”

No need to ask why Annubis could recognize them.  She was obsessed with the enemy overseas.  She studied every scrap of information about the Demon’s slaves with manic intensity.  I wouldn’t have spread the alarm for anyone else, but I couldn’t believe that Ann could be wrong about the Regime.  It was her whole life.

Annubis had lost someone to one of the Demon’s early strikes, and undergone the Process in order to take revenge.  She had a power that could achieve it, too.  She could make models, and by affecting them affect the things they represented.  I didn’t know too many details, but I knew that she needed part of a God’s form in order to control one of our kind.

Mostly I respected her because she seemed like a fellow adult, someone else in my life who understood the seriousness of our mission.

“Those are, like,  the ones that have the rock controlling guy, right?” asked Cain.  “The guy who like burned down that one city they had that fight in?”

No need to ask where Cain had pulled that information from.  The girl was just seventeen, and an inveterate gossip.  All of my lectures about the need for a respectful distance between us and our lessers just washed off her.  Whatever spark of divine energy had found its home in her form had plainly done nothing to clarify her character.

I quashed the errant thought, begging our pardon for the blasphemy.  Cain might seem like a silly child sometimes, but she was Ultra strong, and grew more so the more pain she suffered.  She had the same wild divinity within her as I did, and would doubtless show destiny’s hand if given the opportunity.

Genie, her typical partner in crime, was at least looking kind of concerned.  She probably wouldn’t contradict Cain’s statement, but I could see that she knew the absurdity of a rock guy being known for burning down a city.

“Maybe he had help from the guy with the fire powers?” she suggested.

I’d caught the two giggling over one of the briefing photos of Fourth Fist not too long ago.  They’d drawn heart shaped circles around the picture of the ‘guy with the fire powers’, if I was recalling correctly.

Genie pulled a deposit of metal out of the ground with her gift, wrapped it around her bare upper torso like armor.  I’d told her over and over to keep a supply of the substances her gift could move on her at all times, but she complained that it was too heavy and uncomfortable.  If this had been a real sneak attack then one of the strongest of our number would have died frantically digging for something to fight back with.

“Are any of your replicas going to be reporting back?” asked Yaga.

I’d shared the details on my ability not too long ago.  They all knew that my replicas had no independent mind, and only had about half of my own strength.  The real question Yaga was asking was whether I’d ordered any of them to watch over our followers in our absence, and obviously I had.

I gave her a tight nod, confirming that we’d be getting more information shortly.

Yaga, at least, had the sense to keep her wargear always on hand.  Her gift let her rapidly decrease the temperature of anything in her immediate vicinity, and control the motion of anything once it had gotten colder than some certain point.  She made it a point to keep various things chilled just for moments like these, and I could see that a wide variety of knives and bullets were floating in a protective orbit around her.

“I can go check it out.  We have to get moving,” said Ninja.

She was practically vibrating in place.  Walking in short, tight circles, moving her arms around like she was visualizing taking someone on, or perhaps inventing a style of interpretive dance.

Ninja got stronger, faster or tougher as she moved.  It reset when she fell asleep, and there was some kidn of diminishing returns to the whole deal, but the basic gist was that she was a physical combatant who was really tough as long as she hadn’t just woken up.

She’d just woken up.

“Fine, go check,” I told her.  She raced off towards the fortress.

Normally I wouldn’t have split our forces, but there was still no sign of distress from the fort.  In fact things seemed to be returning more or less to normal.  Whatever the First was doing, it hadn’t made any visible impact.

“We look weak, hiding out here,” chided Ann.  “The rank and file need to see the leadership.”

That was certainly true, but I didn’t need to hear it from her.  Ann was barely a believer.  I’d caught her mocking the notion of our divinity at least twice.  The only reason she cared about our forces morale was that it would help her kill the Regime’s Fist, which in turn might somehow annoy the Demon.  Not a complicated woman, Ann.

“Ann, we could die.”

Yaga had a commendably realistic attitude about the whole situation.  Zeus’s victory was preordained, but I’d seen thousands of his servants fall in our war.  We could easily join them.

“Yag’s right,” I told her.  “We have to be careful.  These are the Demon’s Fists.  The strong hands with which she batters the righteous.  We must tread very carefully indeed.”

That said, I split a pair of replicas off, giving them basic scouting instructions and sending them after Ninja.

I felt a pang of irritation.  Angel still hadn’t gotten back, and she would have made this whole thing a hundred times easier.  You never missed being flown about until you found yourself trudging.

I busied myself arranging our Named about us as we waited on the return of the scouts.  My cohort readied themselves for battle.  I’d only had time to bring the Gods I thought of as ‘my’ retinue out from the fort when I’d received the warning, but that would have to be enough.

“They may be attempting to negotiate,” said Yaga.  “It would explain the lack of obvious combat.  I’ve thought on the matter, Lee, and I think Ann might have the right of it.  We have to get back in contact with our forces, now.”

She suited action to words, walking off towards the fort.

The rest of us bustled along with them, our escorts hurrying to make a circle around us.

I’d been just about to order something similar.  Whatever Ann’s warning had been about, it apparently hadn’t portended an immediate strike, meaning that there was no need to scamper for cover.  The priority now was reestablishing contact with our lieutenants, and getting a full understanding of the situation.

If the Fist really was here to talk, then things would be far easier.  We could stall them while we got word to Death, and she would take care of things.  The old crone’s bragging about having destroyed a Fist had been tiresome, to be sure, but I hadn’t gotten any sense that she’d been lying.  She seriously seemed to believe that she was the equal of any five of the Regime’s Devils.

Ninja met us about three fourths of the way back, practically on the outskirts of the fort.  We slowed to take her report.

“All the new girls are talking about it!  They say that this Fist saved the Host from a Union attack, that they want to help us and keep us safe.”

Ninja stopped talking to take a few breaths, bending over and breathing heavily.  Excitement had gotten to her where fatigue could not.

“The Host has betrayed us?” asked Annubis.  “Is this a mind control gift, at last?”

The notion of a gift that could control Ultra’s minds was an old bugbear, but I doubted that was what was going on here.  We had descriptions of all of Fourth Fist’s powers, and they were a sort of off brand version of mine, rock powers, fire powers, being invincible and a summoned monster.  None of those seemed likely to have any extra abilities to take control of a few hundred of our younger and more impressionable divinities.

“Just desperate children,” I told her, “taking any strong hand offered them.  If they were able to drive off Mireuk and her posse then I have no doubt the rest would have followed.  Think of how unsure you were back when you first went on a Pilgrimage.”

It wasn’t a pleasant memory for most of us.  The Union’s strike, the infighting in the aftermath…the story would be the same in just about every Overseer’s case.  A crucible through which only those destined for greatness could pass unscathed it might be, but no amount of sacrament made the memories any less bitter.

“They are, like, not fighting with the Fist?” asked Cain.  “I thought we were supposed to be on the other team from them.”

“Nobody knows there is a Fist here for sure, or who they are, or anything,” clarified Ninja.  “People are just getting fragments of the story from whichever of the new people they are talking to.  It is totally disorganized.  I even saw some of the males scuffling among themselves.  Everyone is all stirred up, but nobody but us knows what is going on.”

I refrained from pointing out that we barely knew what was going on, instead gesturing sharply at our escorts to get us back into the central bunker.

“We’ve got to get back to the announcement system,” I told them.  “Our people are only talking with these heathens instead of fighting them because we weren’t here to order them into battle.  We take control, turn this around.”

We were actually fortunate that the broadcast machinery was working.  It hadn’t for the longest time, but during Death’s visit she’d repaired it somehow.

We moved through the building in a rush, guards rushing to secure entrances while I took the Overseers straight to the main meeting room.

It was already occupied.

The Fist was waiting for us, lounging in our own thrones.

I was first through the door, and froze on the threshold, my mind churning as I took in the impossible sight of the Demon’s slaves occupying the very same furniture I’d wiled so many days away on.  Cain bumped into me, jostled me forward.

We sort of surged through the door, each of us in turn seeing what awaited us, each pushed aside by the next in line.

Even from this distance I could see the little pale one’s shoulders rise in a suppressed chuckle.  We looked like fools.

Choler blew away the fear that clouded my mind.  I strode towards the interlopers, my replicas splitting out with every step.

I kept the exact number of copies I could produce a secret.  I got them by taking God’s lives with my own hands, and my gift currently held twenty.  I pushed 8 of them out from my sides with simple obey orders.

Even as I did so the Fist was sending someone to meet me.  An older woman, I’d have said ancient if I’d seen her before I saw Death.  She wore ragged patched clothes, and had on a wide brimmed hat.

And she was mirroring my gift.

Every step I took saw a pair of my mighty servants stride forth.  Every step she took another set of insubstantial apparitions emerged from her sides, mocking my sacred entourage.

This must be Haunter.  I’d read about her.  Her gift preserved what was low in man, the animal nature, where mine used the souls of humans as vessels for my divine energy.  I controlled my disgust.

“Legion, right?” she asked.

She was using English, which we were ordinarily discouraged from speaking, but I judged the situation sufficiently important to assay a violation of that rule.

“Yes.  You must be Haunter.  To what do we owe the honor?”

It was fortunate that the mindless trappings of civility actually touched on the question that I most wanted answered.  What were they doing here?  What could they possibly be thinking?

“We’d like to negotiate with you and the other Overseers,” she said.  “We believe that there is ample reward available for those with the wit to compromise with us.  We can help each other.”

She certainly sounded sincere.  She was practically pleading with me, in fact.

I fought my urges, controlled my beast impulses.  It would be easy to lash out at these filthy creatures, to lead my cohort in righteous battle.  But there was Preventer’s gift to consider.

The Demon’s Forth Fist was undying, to the likes of me anyway.  Starting a fight right now would do nothing to the wicked, but might very well cost us greatly.  Better to talk.

Death would take time to arrive.  She was days away, even if she had an instant travel power the message would need to reach her in order to prompt her to use it.

Whatever nonsense this Haunter was peddling, I needed to at least pretend to consider it.  I had to buy time.

“Tell me more,” I said.

For Death’s eyes only

Athena, Get this to her as soon as she returns.  Don’t read beyond this point.

Death, I have not forgotten the mercy that you showed me.  The time has come for me to prove that your mercy was not misplaced.

Moments ago several hundred members of our Pantheon returned through the southwestern portion of my barrier.  Accompanying them were six Ultras of unknown provenance, including the pair who had gone in and out of the barrier previously.

I have compared their physiques with the reports you had me read through, and I am certain that five of them are the Demon’s Fourth Fist.  The last could be any of a number of Regime notables, as the form of a slight woman is not uncommon.

A trio of Union metal devils attempted to follow them in, and I destroyed them.  I hope this meets your approval.

Yours,
Djinn

Condemner 6:3

I didn’t entirely believe that Haunter had pussied out until we got to the barrier.

The old woman had a spine, and Irene had been one of her favorites.  I’d been certain that she’d retaliate.  Honestly, I’d kind of been looking forward to it.

Dale and Betty had bought the idea that it was an accident, poor Irene just happening to trip and fall, pop!  Just one more sad demonstration of the necessity of Jane’s quest to somehow obtain bodies for all her fragile passengers.

But Jane had her reserve, and they could do math.  The odds that Irene would fall exactly when no shade could see it weren’t worth talking about.  There were a few ‘eyewitnesses’ who told my version, of course, but someone in Jane’s head had to know that if you described something happening and acted excited about it people would suddenly ‘remember’ that it had gone down that way.

No, I had little doubt that there was a fierce debate unfolding in her rotation even now, but the majority would be mad, and Jane would listen to their ire.  I’d convinced myself that she would take her futile revenge.

It wouldn’t have been hard.  We trudged for hours to get back to the barrier, and there was no way I could keep track of every shade for that time.  They circulated among the column freely, chatting away with the friends they’d made among the Host.  Dozens of them.  All it would take to send me back to the Link was one shot while I wasn’t looking.

Maybe I shouldn’t have expected her to do that.  It would be futile, I’d be back the next day, no longer concerned with managing their impressions of me.  Perhaps she was trying to stretch out my compliance for a little longer, delay the onset of open hostilities.

That made sense.  Haunter was smart, or at least bullied around by smart people.  She was prone to a few kinds of errors, but pretty much proof against this kind of thing.  I’d never really seen her do the whole ‘cutting your nose off to spite your face’ deal.

I’d considered that the barrier might try to stop us.  So far as they knew the survivors of this Host had already returned, after all, and now we were coming in by the hundreds.  I wasn’t worried.  Looking at the gift I was pretty sure I could burn it away, but it wasn’t even necessary.  We passed easily through.

I spared some thought for the idea that it might be automated, like an Ultra had the power to set up barriers and put rules on them about what could pass through and what couldn’t.  So, ‘Yes’ to other Ultras, ‘No’ to Union ordnance.  Or she might just be asleep, or not care.  Not enough information.

We trooped on towards the old fort, still in our column.

Ultras started to boil out of the place.  Some headed towards us, some directly away.  Most seemed to be milling about.  I couldn’t detect any hint of military organization at all, no one seemed to be in charge.

We’d told Haunter and Preventer about the basic setup here, and they’d both been convinced that we were basically just going to be able to walk our Host right in.  I’d argued that we would be ambushed, that they would put together the fact that Betty and I had gone back through the barrier, question the people we’d left there and put together a plan of assault.

Haunter had asserted that they would do nothing, question no one, and be totally surprised when we showed up.

I loved and hated that she’d been right.

The Ultras who approached us were dropping out of their aggressive postures, as they took in the obvious Pantheon nature of our force.  It was pretty much impossible to imagine the Union gathering hundreds of teenagers to get some fleeting tactical advantage at the start of an attack, so we were getting some kind of credit there.  Add in the fact that the Host was calling out greetings in their the Pantheon’s characteristic mix of languages, and I could see why they were standing down.

We hadn’t coached the Host or anything, simply relying on their natural instincts when reunited with their sisters.  These weren’t enthusiastic converts to our cause, just scared teenagers who were willing to mouth agreements in the face of our having stopped the drone strike.  We’d been able to steer them by virtue of their leadership having died in the battle, but the notion of commanding them in combat was pretty much a fantasy.

Fortunately, our enemies had no way of knowing that.  We marched on, merging into the mass of curious Ultras who had been summoned forth by their colleague’s cries, individual Ultras breaking off as they saw a particular person they wanted to talk to.  Within moments our Host couldn’t be distinguished from the garrison.

For some of our erstwhile followers, this episode in their life was over.  If we triumphed over the Overseers they would follow us once more, but only until a safer, simpler path appeared.  If we fell they would maintain that they had been undermining us from within.

A few of them had genuinely joined us.  Betty had marked them those who were drawn to our offer and had useful powers.  They had their own assignments and would be carrying them out.  Their presence within the crowd would be an ace in the hole during negotiations, and, if it came to it, during a fight.

Another few had been strongly opposed to us, cowed only be the threat of a Fist’s superior might.  They’d be seeking out our enemies even now, letting the Overseers know that the Regime had infiltrated their number.  Dale had asked Fisher about the feasibility of preventing them from informing on us, but given his reluctance to kill anyone but combatants we hadn’t been able to figure out anything that seemed feasible.

We weren’t walking as a Fist anymore.  The plan called for them to look weak and disorganized by combing through the crowd, alienating them from their support structures or something.  I was walking with Dale.

We were naturally gravitating towards the dude part of the crowd when a figure emerged from the mass in front of me.  A familiar figure with a recently broken nose.

“You!” he said, and then some stuff in another language.

He was beside himself with rage, reaching out towards me, flesh warping gift at the ready.

“Friend of yours?” growled Dale.

The guy balked, actually stumbled back on his ass.

It was easy to forget how huge and intimidating Dale could be.  I knew the gentle spirit which moved him, but to strangers he’d look a colossus.  I’d watched a few of those old programs he was so fond of, and he was definitely channeling that larger than life menace as he stood over this random Pantheon small time boss.

“Any friend of Nirav’s is a friend of mine,” declared Dale, in that same menacing tone.  “And ONLY friends of Nirav are friends of mine.”

This guy had had enough, he scrambled to his feet and skulked away into the crowd.

“Still got it,” I assured our leader.

Dale chuckled.

“I was always better at playing the face.  But I guess it’s nice to practice being scary sometimes.”

I could see that the girls were confronting someone who looked like some kind of leader.  Seemed like the Overseers had their heads out of their asses enough to finally confront us.  I kind of nudged Dale in their direction.

He stopped me with a hand on my shoulder.

“Nirav, you know you can tell me things, right?”

“Sure,” I said, trying to see around him.

I didn’t ‘think’ violence would instantly erupt as the Pantheon’s representatives reckoned with the fact that a Fist was in their midst, and apparently in charge of several hundred of the surrounding crowd, but it wouldn’t have been out of the question.

“Like, say, if He is giving you trouble again, you could let me know that.”

That pulled me up short.  He was using the same tone for my pronouns as he used for Prevailer’s.  It was kind of sweet, honestly.

“Dale, Condemner is gone.  I have finally accepted that he will never come back.  This is my life to live now, and I’m anxious to make up for lost time.”

He sort of looked through me.

I always wondered at the internal struggles that people had at a time like this.  It should have been pretty obvious that I was lying.  They’d have spoken with Fader, and the things that I’d said to her made no sense whatsoever coming from the Nirav that they had known.  So he should disbelieve me, right?

But there was something weighing against that.  Some sort of urge that made him want to trust me.  If you were to ask him, and somehow get him to give you an answer, he’d say that he wanted to believe in me, or some similar piece of nonsense.  I doubted even humans could explain how they decided where to put their credence.  It seemed to happen on a level before thought.

“Just be careful,” he said.

I nodded soberly, keeping my eyes downcast.

I should have been able to rifle through ‘Nirav’s memories, see what it felt like when their thoughts went off the rails like that.  But I couldn’t.

It wasn’t that the memories were gone.  They were all there.  They just weren’t, I guess, ‘legible’ to me.  Humans were trusting machines, at the end of the day.  They trusted automatically and entirely, pattern matching their environment into solvable problems, relying on the past to refine the present into manageable chunks.

My own cognitive architecture was different.  We didn’t ‘happen’ all at once, back on the outside.  It’s why the urges that give glimpses into the future work the way they do.  Having trains of thought, experiences that followed one another in a rigid sequence, was utterly foreign to us.  Utterly seductive.

Forbidden, in point of fact.

I could trust, of course.  I could set attitudes or facts as given in order not to be forced to reexamine them when I had to work under time constraints.  But it was entirely voluntary, and subject to reappraisal at any time.

We got back together with the girls, I gave Betty a reassuring hand clasp.

“Was that one of the Overseers?” asked Dale.

Preventer scoffed.

“Just one of their minions.  If you can believe it, they actually dipped out the back when they got reports of a few hundred Ultras approaching.”

I chuckled along with her.

“That won’t be great for their prestige.  What were they afraid of?”

The word of our presence hadn’t really been spread yet, among the rank and file of the Pantheon Ultras.  We were still part of the crowd, not yet surrounded as I’d expected.  The fact that the leaders weren’t present explained a lot of it.

“Probably standard operating procedure,” opined Jane.  “The Union never strikes these forts, so presumably they don’t have any experience with an attack.  They probably figured the only time they’d have a thousand incoming would be if there was a big push, if the Union decided to end the standoff and kick them out of the Middle East.”

“Also, we already offed the aggressive ones, remember?” Preventer pointed out.  “The ones that are left are all the ones too chicken shit to join the Host when it passed by here.  It isn’t exactly surprising that they’d bail.”

“What did the errand guy say?” asked Dale.  “He took off in a hurry.”

“He asked us if we were the ones who claimed to be a Fist,” said Betty.  “I’m not sure he was really prepared for us to confirm it.”

“Did he say he’d bring his bosses?  Or are they gonna keep running?”

“They’ll come,” said Haunter.  “No way they let it spread that they ran from trouble.  This is a culture based around bravado and posturing.  Backing down isn’t really in their lexicon.  They can get away with a little pullback like they are doing now, but if they actually run away from their own fort without a punch being thrown they would be done.”

She said ‘done’ with a finality that augured poorly for anyone it applied to.

And she glanced at me as she said it.

I looked away, glancing around into the throng of Ultras.

They still didn’t seem to be surrounding us, so apparently the Overseers still hadn’t restored command and control lines.  Military malpractice, as Haunter would say.  They deserved whatever they got.

It made sense, though.  On a day to day basis they were far more concerned with squabbling for influence with one another, keeping their populace in check.  We thought of them as military leaders, the famed Warlords of the Pantheon, but they were more like a committee of governors in their daily responsibilities.

And no one could be scared of a committee.

It seemed a shame not to take advantage of their lapse.  I gave the ‘follow me’ head jerk and started moving into the fortress.  No harm in getting well situated.

Betty followed immediately, the rest after some discussion.

I wasn’t surprised.  The plan had called for us to wait in the midst of the deployed Ultras until their leaders arrived, confront them in the middle of a crowd, but it seemed to me like getting into the middle of their fortress was a much better idea.  It would invert the usual dynamic, of the outsiders having to petition their way in to see the leadership.  We’d usurp some of their stature by simple virtue of the fact that we’d physically taken their place.

Preventer would have come up with a reason to disagree, of course, which was why I hadn’t asked her.  I knew Betty would come along with me, and the rest wouldn’t split the group over my minor mutiny.

The courtyard was much as it had been the last time I was here.  The rest of the Ultras were also returning to the compound, so we were sort of carried into it.

I strode right into the main building.  There were still some Gods at their posts at the door, but they weren’t about to slow their cohorts return down.  The same dynamic applied to them as it did to their leaders.  People were what they habitually did.  The Ultras here might be called ‘guards’, but I was willing to bet no one had ever even attempted a breach of the front door before.  They had become furniture, gargoyles placed to look intimidating.

We walked unchallenged into a sort of common room, and proceeded through one of those bead curtains into a set of hallways, then up a flight of stairs and through a set of double doors.

We probably would have been challenged here, as we pushed our way into the inner sanctum, save that the Overseer’s more trusted servants had withdrawn along with them.

The main meeting room was unguarded as we entered.

It was a large room, probably a basketball court or something similar in its original function.  Ultras were scattered here and there, avoiding a very obvious section in the middle.

This section had stuffed chairs, office furniture and the like.  Much better stuff than the Ultras around the edge of the room were perched on.  The spoils of leadership.

We helped ourselves.

Mission Objectives

Go get Fourth Fist back.  She misses Dale.  They should be in Olympus, or in its smoking crater if Adder already did his thing.  Bring them home.

You are the only ones I can trust to do this right.

-Subtracter

Condemner 6:2

It was strange to be passing over the same terrain for a third time in rapid succession, but here I was.

After our brief sojourn at the Pantheon fort, where we’d verified that Death was neither present nor expected to return immediately we had quickly rushed back to the Host.  Now we were marching the whole Host back to the fortress again.

Yara, the girl who could control the weather, was giving us a briefing on the Overseers that we would be fighting, if we ended up in a Contest.

“Legion is primary among them.  She is a mighty God, able to split her form into many copies of herself.  Or perhaps split is the wrong word, maybe birth?  She is not diminished by the copies, and they exhibit great might, though not so great as her true form.  Many think that she can make one for each foe that she has killed.”

Yara was suspiciously practiced at speaking English, although she kind of talked like a particularly fancy book.

“Annubis will also contest your authority.  Her sister was killed by the Demon.  She can marry objects together, like to like.  What happens to the small happens to the great.  She is widely feared among the Host.”

I slid back, hopefully inconspicuously.  We were trooping along in a big column, and I would rather do pretty much anything other than listen to this idiot drone on.

I made my way to Dang’s part of the column, near the back, where the close combat fighters were gathered.

The buzz of voices subsided for a moment as I arrived, then picked back up.   I let it wash over me.  I couldn’t understand any of it.

Instead of listening to their words I focused on their gifts.  Their urges lazed about them, heavy with potential.  I could tell the strong among them from the weak, and it was amusing how their social dynamics reflected this reality.

Was it brute circumstance at work?  A ‘God’ with a strong gift is respected by her peers and develops a confident attitude as a result.  Or was there some kind of bleed?  Were the human souls somehow aware of the power that they were partaking of, and acting upon our higher urges?

“English!” I sent.

None of them responded.  Their higher selves did not twitch.  None of their forms began speaking my language.

That was too bad.  I’d been hoping that I might be able to command my sleeping brethren, but their dreams were doubtless drowning out anything I might send.

I looked out over the column, focusing on urges.  No one else was aware, but there was something odd. Something was out of place. I squinted, which didn’t help at all.

I wasn’t getting this information through my form’s eyes.  When I was in my true form I didn’t even have any eyes.  It was of that nature, that strata of perception.

I closed my eyes, shutting out the world of forms in an attempt to isolate the oddity which had attracted my attention.

I let the sensations pass through me, filtering out each gift as I identified them and set them aside.  None of them were the source.

I was jerked back to my form as Dang kicked for my ankle.  Ultra speed let me dart aside, but just barely.

I scowled at her.  Dale might find her violent nature amusing, but I didn’t get any joy from her impudence.

“Turn down flames!” she hissed, urgently.

What did she mean?  I became aware that the Gods around me had gone quiet, and were looking at me.

I withdrew my presence from my form’s eyes, letting them blend fluidly back into Nirav’s clear features.

I hadn’t even realized that I’d ignited them.  I must have done so as part of my efforts to focus on my higher perceptions, subconsciously removing all possibility of visible stimuli.

At least I hadn’t squandered too much power.  Using my true vision and sending to others were naught in comparison to bringing my inferno into the world.

I walked in silence for a while, letting the close combat forces forget about my momentarily blazing eyes.  It was likely far from the most strange thing they had seen for a while.  If it wasn’t for the fact that Haunter had told everyone about Condemner’s rampages I doubted anyone would have even cared.

Rampages, pah.  I’d been, if anything, quite picky.  A merest sampling of the delicacies that this world had to offer.  Dozens consumed, with billions more on the menu.

Once the routine of the march had resumed I extended my senses again, careful not to alter my form.  It was harder, but I took the time and did things carefully, squinting away my vision and focusing entirely on my own revelatory insights.

It took me a few more moments to figure out what was gnawing at me.  There was a gift unaccounted for.  A mighty one.

Stronger than me.  Stronger than Dale’s partner, or his ‘brah’ as he liked to call it.  Perhaps even stronger than Preventer’s protector.  And I couldn’t work out which Ultra it was connected to.

There were simply too many.  I couldn’t track all of their peculiarities and intricacies, couldn’t use elimination to work out who the mighty Ultra was when I couldn’t remember which Gods I had already examined.

I opened my eyes, relaxing.  It was a fine day.  Let the world keep its mysteries.

I looked up at the blue sky, counted clouds and otherwise amused myself.  It was strange how far eyes of flesh could perceive.

Eyes of flesh.  Inspiration struck.

I looked out over the Host again, this time focusing on what I saw, rather than what I felt.  It was far easier, far faster.  I could use their position to keep track of what I had already searched, letting my gaze sweep over the column from front to back.  My gaze focused my divination, everything so much simpler when it was grounded in three dimensional space.

None of them were the forms of the mighty gift.  It was…beneath.

There it was.  Well behind our group, several feet beneath the ground, following apace with our plodding tread.

A pleasant surprise.  I’d thought she had given up on us.  I waved to Dang’s group and began lagging behind, drifting out of the back of the unit.  A few Ultras called out to me in languages I didn’t understand, but I just made the universal sign for ‘got to piss’ at them.

Fader’s presence skirted my proximity as I fell back, continuing to trail the Host.

“You know you can just come up and join us again?” I said.

Nothing.

“I obviously know you are here.  You are gaining nothing by ignoring me.”

Still nothing.  It was possible, I supposed, that she couldn’t hear me while she was under the ground like that.  But then, how would she be following the column?

“We have a healer.  We can fix your arm.”

She rose smoothly from the ground, began hovering along next to me.

This occasioned a bit of a disturbance in the Host.  Someone had been looking back at me when Fader made her entrance, and they told those marching next to them.  The disturbance rippled across the formation, a sea of faces glancing over their shoulders.

I gave a friendly wave, kept walking.

“You found a healer?” she asked.  “How powerful are they?”

“Hello to you too,” I said, sketching a quick bow.  “I missed you terribly while you were away.”

“Nirav,” she said, “this is serious.  I can’t take on human form again until I find a healer.  If you have one, then please tell me.”

People were looking mostly forward again, though Jane was making her way back to us.  It seemed like talking with what was probably the last surviving member of Sixth Fist wasn’t important enough to keep their attention.

Young people.

“Fader, I know it is serious, to you.  But I don’t care at all.  I only mentioned him to you so you’d come up and chat with me.  You can do that just fine as an image, so…”

“Nirav?” she asked.

Rats, gave the game away.

“A little?” I answered.  “Bout thirty percent?  I dunno, it isn’t an exact science.”

“What isn’t?” she asked.  “What the hell is wrong with you?”

Oh, right.  She probably didn’t have any details about my situation.  Awkward.

“Nothing, nothing,” I said, breezily.  “Just traumatized a bit by all the violence.  I can’t, like, sleep or anything, I just keep seeing all my deaths in my head.  It’s so terrible!”

I got the tone wrong.  I’d meant to sound sad at the end, but I’d messed it up.

Jane reached our immediate proximity.

“Melissa!” she said.  “What a delightful surprise.  Has Nirav told you that we found a healer for you?”

Fader hesitated for a long moment before replying.

“Yes, he told me.”

She didn’t take her eyes off me during this answer.

“Come right this way, I’ll take you to Gonn.”

She made as though to pluck at Fader’s sleeve, but naturally her hand just passed through.

“Can you bring him back here?” said Fader.  “I’m not loving the idea of putting myself among that many Pantheon Gods and turning vulnerable.”

She looked away from me, finally, as she said this.  Turned her head to Haunter.  But her urge didn’t relax its scrutiny in the slightest, still coiled about her.

I wondered how It felt when it saved her, to the human mind anyway.  Did it come across as an inexplicable urge to go intangible?  Or did she rationalize it as reflexes, figure she was just reacting faster than she could think.

Jane called out, got Gonn sent back our way.  I fell back again, took up the rearmost position of the convoy.

His stumbling progress took quite a while to get here.  He was moving against the flow of the Host.  Even though people tried to stay out of his way, mostly because everyone respected his sister’s might, he still bumped into a few folks.

As he was coming back Fader opened her mouth again.

“Jane, is Nirav all right?  He was acting very strangely.”

Jane looked at me for a moment, then spawned a shade who hastened over.  It was Irene, who worked as kind of a den mother to the rest of Haunter’s slaves.  It was rare to see her on the outside.

“Are you all right?” she asked me.  “Fader seems to think you might be having some difficulties.  Is it him?”

She emphasized ‘him’ in a way that left no doubt of what she was referring to.

I nodded, doing my very best impression of choking back a sob.  I used Ultra speed to make it perfect, performing exactly the motions and tics that Haunter’s own visage had made when I’d burned up her pet Colonel.

Ahead, Jane and Fader had drawn close to Gonn, and Jane was carefully guiding the blind idiot’s hands towards the space that Fader was haunting.

I hadn’t really looked carefully at Gonn before, but it was obvious to me now that I did that his gift was to blame for his mental condition.  It had usurped part of the connection that his soul needed to drive his body, plugging power in where thought ought to arrive.  Rough.

And it slumbered just as heavily as any of the others.  You’d think an urge that tightly connected to the world would take an interest in it, but it simply clung to him, pumping it’s power into anyone he brushed up against, drunk on Congruity.

I couldn’t exactly sneer too hard, given that I was here to gobble down the same thing, but at least I was enjoying it.

Fader took a moment to overcome her urge’s safety concerns.  She probably had to do that when she lost the arm too, it wouldn’t accord at all with the gift’s priorities to destroy her own limb, even if it was necessary to win a fight.

Gonn put her hand on her, and she let him touch her.

I fought down the temptation to hurl a fireball.  It might feel good, but the fact was that she would just flicker away into image form, and I’d look like I was blasting my own Host.  I enjoyed the Link, but I didn’t feel ready to return, just yet.

“Would you like to tell me about it?” asked Irene.  “Is he whispering in your mind again?”

I hadn’t actually realized that Nirav had cottoned to that particular method, much less that he’d shared it with a shade.  Nosy things.  We knew so little of their experience, but they never stopped observing us.  No doubt they gossiped about us inside of Jane’s empty skull when she didn’t have them deployed.

“I can’t shut him out,” I told her, counterfeit desperation in every word.  “I can’t get away from him.”

Irene looked alarmed, translucent face tightening as I spoke.

“I thought he was gone?  Preventer got rid of him, don’t you remember?  Nirav, this is just trauma.”

I felt a fleeting instant of ire on behalf of Nirav.  Even a pitiful role like him deserved better than some hag’s stolen memory telling him what his own gift did.

I had a sudden urge, tamped it down.  I couldn’t strike without considering.  Not again.  Reason was the key.

I swept my gaze over the column, Ultra speed working at maximum.  I tallied every head, worked out where every one of the Ultras was looking, plotted out the light cones that they could observe.  They were facing forward, for the most part.

Far and away the most interesting thing that was going on was Gonn using his power on Fader.  She had her stump up, and the Pantheon Ultras had their gazes fixed on the steadily regrowing limb.

It was pitiful.  How many of them would fall if I struck right now?  I pushed the unproductive thought aside, kept up my survey.

“Trauma?” I asked, weakly.

Three people were still looking back here.  I silently willed them to look away.  Another looked my way instead.

“It can happen to anyone,” Irene blathered.  “The ordeal that you went through is worse than many people have ever had to face in their entire lives.  You must feel so awful.”

It happened.  Their gazes swung frontwards, to where Dale was just hearing about Fader’s arrival, and overreacting as he usually did.

“I do,” I said, even as I turned my hand to flame and stuck in through her insubstantial form.

She didn’t have time to scream, disappearing without so much as a pop.

I gaped, dropped to my knees and frantically felt around on the ground, giving out a heartrending screech.

The people in the back swung around, alert for attack.  They stared without comprehension at my fumbling, looked for outside attackers.

Fisher reached my side in an instant.

“Irene,” I gasped.  “She just, she fell, she was just…”

I clawed at the ground as though it could bring her back.

“Popped?” she asked.

I couldn’t tell if Fisher was buying this.  She had both her forms out, so she wasn’t using her gift on me, wouldn’t feel that my priorities were a far cry from the Nirav she knew.

But she still might see through me.  She was closer to Nirav than any other soul.

“Yeah,” she said.  “They do that.  It’s not your fault.”

Time Stuff Made Simple

It is well known that Ultra gifts can defy physics.  Few care to think too hard about the fact that this gives them abilities that are commonly referred to as ‘divination’.

You, however, by dint of the fact that someone has deemed you worthy of being shown this vid, are a future decision maker.  You can no longer afford to dwell in blissful ignorance, and must face squarely the truths that our agents and researchers have uncovered.

Ultra gifts can perceive the future.  The future that they perceive is that which would have taken place if they had not perceived the future.

This is a simple pair of statements, but it can be difficult to understand.  Please read it over a few times before proceeding.

Those statements are joined by a third, as follows.  The future that they perceive is that which would have taken place if no other gifts would be used thereafter that allowed the Ultras that used them access to atemporal observation.

However, the effect of past divination IS figured into a gift that grants knowledge of the future.

Consider a hypothetical Ultra A.  They look into the future in order to see whether or not there will be bread in the reheater when they get home.  Their gift shows them that there will be no bread present.

Seeing this, they put in a request to the network, and the bread is delivered.  Upon arriving at home they find it ready.  Their vision of the future did not take into account the actions that it prompted.

To complicate this scenario, consider the outcome if they had a room mate, B.  A forsees the bread shortage, and orders the bread.  Now B uses a similar gift.  B will see the bread arriving, because A’s action, despite being prompted by A’s divination, is taken into account by B’s divination.  B arrives early and eats the bread.  Now A arrives home, expecting bread, but there is none, but NOT for the same reason that A’s initial foresight would have had it.

Ultrahuman divination is thus an odd tool.  It is of incredible utility, if and only if no one except your own party is putting it to use.