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 kind 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 Fourth 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.