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.
“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.
“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.”