Reader Survey

Hi y’all.  Just looking for a bit of feedback.  If you read this on SufficientVelocity, please reply in the discussion thread.  If you read it on the main site, please reply as a comment.  In either case, if you are uncomfortable with others viewing your reply you can send it as an email to me at .

Question 1: Please rank point of views, from most to least favorite (that is, put 1 and other low numbers by the POV’s you’d prefer to see more of)
A: Haunter
B: Indulger
C: Preventer
D: Condemner
E: Fisher
F: 3rd Person (like the Strongboat arc)
G: Adversary (Fidel/Overseer arcs)

Question 2: Please indicate your preference regarding the story’s current balance of background exposition vs. plot movement.  I’ve had some folks indicate that they don’t need to see quite so much discussion of why characters aren’t undertaking alternate plans, and others have given me the opposite feedback.

Question 3: Please let me know how you found out about TFD.  (Top web fiction, link on slatestarcodex open threads, other…?)

Question 4: Just generally anything else you want to let me know.  If there is any feedback you’d like to send me that doesn’t fit into one of those categories feel free to write it up.  I am always eager to see what people think of my work.

Thanks a lot for answering, if you do, and for reading regardless of whether you respond or not.  I was able to get a one update buffer, so hopefully we won’t be missing any more wednesday story updates.

Overseer 1:3

I stared at Ninja’s pooling blood, desperately trying to make sense out of what had happened.

Nothing in Preventer’s file had included any mention of an ability to pierce the Ultra Toughness of others.  Certainly not at range.  She must have been hiding it throughout her career.

She walked back to her side of the table, hopped down into her people.

Even they looked a little appalled and baffled at what had happened.  The big guy’s mouth had fallen open, and they were all clustered around Preventer, presumably asking her how the hell she’d pulled that off.

I turned my head to Ann.

“How do we not know about something like this?” I asked her.

I had no particular reason to believe that she knew the answer, but if anyone did it would be her.  She spent all of her spare time elbow deep in anything about the Regime we could get our hands on.

“We did…” said Annubis.  “This is likely Refiner’s work.  A blessed gun, or blessed bullets, or something.  I’m not sure of the details.”

Refiner, I wracked my brain.  He was in Second Fist, I was pretty sure.

“The Knight leader guy?” I asked.

She gave me a curt nod, but before she could explain in any more detail a shout rose up.

“This is bullshit!” yelled Cain.  “You can’t hurt Ninja with a gun?”

The murmurs around the room, which had been spreading since the brief Contest, died down again as conversation began at the high table.

Preventer raised an eyebrow.

“I guess she’s faking then?  Well, if she gets back up we can go again.”

Cain took a step towards the table, then visibly halted herself.

I could sympathize with the fury she was feeling.  Ninja hadn’t been defeated in a Contest, she’d been executed, and with a human weapon at that.  Shot down like a dog, the exact demise that our position was based on having transcended.  I could imagine no more demeaning fate.

If we attacked, we might well share it.  Preventer’s invincibility was the genuine article, and if their group had bullets that could kill even our most durable Deities then any battle would be the very definition of one sided.

“What do you want?” I asked.

I’d been dancing around that for a while, but the time had come to get it out into the open.  I was strongly leaning towards the ‘stall for Death’ side of my options, and it was time to figure out what I would have to endure in order to delay them.  There were some demands that would destroy our reputation to even entertain, of course, but for the most part I could answer most everything that they could propose with a request for time to consider.

“Very little,” said Haunter, at about the same time that Dale said “Almost nothing”.

They looked at one another, and then the old woman made a ‘go ahead’ gesture to him.  He nodded his thanks.

I worked to settle myself during this interplay.  Looking anywhere away from Ninja’s cooling body.  Anywhere other than the impossible sight of an Overseer cut down by a human weapon.  Mostly I looked at them, waiting for their answer.

“We want to protect you,” said their leader.

He smiled while he said it.  He was probably going for a reassuring look, but missed the mark by a good bit.

“We don’t need your protection,” answered Cain, instantly.  “We have warred with the Union for decades without your help, and we are winning that war.”

“Oh yeah?” he asked, casually, like he was really interested in how that might be possible, “when was the last time you fought them?”

Caine fell silent, looking over at me as though I should answer.

I held my tongue, still organizing my thoughts.

“You were there, were you not?” asked Annubis.  “You came in alongside a Host, so you must have witnessed our heroic young Gods in battle with the heathen scum.”

“Oh, yeah, that,” he said.  “You are calling that a victory?”

“We impressed our will upon them,” answered Annubis, letting her enthusiasm infect her tone.  “We entered their territory and killed their greatest warriors.  Such acts eternally remind them of their weakness, and that they are never safe.”

“Uh, they kicked your asses.  You sent a bunch of kids out there to fight a bunch of killers, and they got worked.  You know this, because it is part of your dumb plan.  I got told all about it.”

His jovial façade had worn away at this point.  The big guy was clearly mad.

It’s funny, I’d been thinking of him as ‘the big guy’ for a while now, but only when he started to show anger did I realize just how big he really was.  He towered like a foot over everyone around him.  It had to be some kind of Ultra gift, one ancillary to his well known earth moving ability.

“You dare to scorn their heroism?” snarled Ann.  “You whose lives are protected by monstrous and devilish artifice dare to cast aspersions on the holy warriors who make up our Grand Host?  Is there no limit to your insolence?”

She was laying it on a little thick, I felt.  But this should go over well with the bystanders, do a little reputational repair for the twin failures of our initial retreat and Ninja’s defeat.

“You are damn right we dare, you-“

Haunter laid a hand on his arm, and the big guy shut up.

“It sounds like we have a dispute here, about the nature of a recent event.  Would you agree that it is most inconvenient that we cannot examine the event itself in order to reach a satisfactory conclusion?”

I took this one.

“Yes.  It is too bad that things in the past are in the past, and consequently we can’t watch them together.” I said, in a tone that made it clear I was addressing a retard.  “But given that all of us have gone through such an experience, you may rest assured that we know what we are talking about.”

“Well…about that,” she said, and one of her ghosts appeared, holding up a ghostly version of some kind of Union computer thing.

“What is this heresy?” asked Ann.  “Are you trying to start a fight?”

Preventer spoke again, having seemingly finished whatever she’d been doing with her gun.

“You mean, another fight?”

After a moment she continued on.

“Our fights don’t usually look like this,” and she gestured around at her surroundings.  “There’s usually a lot more fire and people getting buried.”

While she spoke another four or five shades emerged from the old woman and began to assemble some kind of big flat thing, all out of the same transparent substance that they were composed of.

“Is this…”

I trailed away.

“Just a Union visual reproducer setup,” said Haunter.  “We just happened to get ahold of the Union’s records of one of your victories, seems like since we are a bit in dispute about who won, maybe a rewatch is in order?”

She put an impressive amount of sarcasm into the word ‘victory’.

I looked around, gauging the room.  Most of the people here had only ever seen one battle against the Union, the one where their Host had been culled.  Only us Overseers saw them a few times a year.  We were the only ones with a full understanding of what these fights entailed.

This might be unpleasant.  But it would also be long, and that time might let Death get here.  Plus we would look like we were hiding something if I begged off them showing us their recording.  It was always a bad look to seem to be hiding something.

I hedged a sec, and my gaze returned to the viscera splattered on the table.  Ninja.  She’d been with me minutes ago.  That could be me.

“Yeah, fine.  We can always use another opportunity to witness our triumphs,” I said.

Even as I was saying that I was standing up, striding towards the door.  Damned if I stayed and watched this.  My authority would erode minute by minute as whatever fool thing they’d cooked up played out.  Far better to rally those who weren’t in here, organize them and find out if Death had transported in somehow.

I also just needed a moment to myself.  I had to find my center, get my balance back under me.  Ninja was dead, actually dead.

I stopped as I entered the hallway, confounded by the sight of more of Haunter’s shadows, holding up smaller rectangles.  Minor Deities were clustered around them, and I could hear the sounds of the room that I’d just left playing out from them.

She must’ve sent them out before we even entered the room.  How many of these things could she make?

I halted, uncertainly.  I’d intended to relay my own version of what was going on in there, but obviously everyone already knew.

I fought down a flash of dismay.  I’d thought of the meeting as mostly a formality, taking place for a small and influential group, but ultimately not anything that would bind me.  I could have always claimed that they were lying about whatever went on if it didn’t turn out to our liking.  But this changed everything.

No, not everything.  That was just me reeling.  I was so off balance, everything happening too fast.  I needed to be smart about this, acting without a plan could see me end up like Ninja.

I stifled the taste of vomit in the back of my mouth at the thought of her body on the table, guts and brains leaking around her.  I put a hand to the wall.

Someone touched me on the shoulder, and I snapped around to face whoever had the gall to interrupt me.

It was the dark skinned guy from the Regime.  Condemner.

He looked mostly like the picture from the files, except for the fact that his eyes were blazing embers.  I recoiled a step as I felt the heat from his gaze.

“I’m so sorry,” he said.  “Such a shame.”

“I don’t accept your apology,” I told him.  “Your group’s intrusion is a violation of everything that…that.”

I suddenly didn’t know how to finish that sentence, as he took another step closer.

I brought my hands up before me, as though to fend him off, frantically searching my memory for whether or not he could harm someone with my gifts.  I didn’t think so, but I took another step back anyway.

“I meant about your friend,” he said, sympathetically.  “It was a tragedy to see her fall before Preventer.  We came here to protect you, after all, and to bring one of you low was never our intent.”

I nearly took the bait.  I almost lashed out at him, smashed his pity and his patronizing face into the far wall.  But I had little doubt that that was just what they wanted me to do.  Lashing out at the winners of a Contest was beneath me.

Yes.  I felt myself grow calmer.  That had been a Contest.  Fate had chosen the demon over Ninja.  It just meant that she had never been righteous.

“I thank you for your kind words,” I told the creature before me.  “But you need not apologize for that.  It is your presence here, and not your accomplishments, which I resent.”

There.  As statesmanlike and calm as any observer could ask for.  If they were somehow putting me on those screens then I’d give them nothing that I’d be sorry for everyone to see.

“As an apology, I’d like to assist you with a problem that you have.  One that you might not even know you have,” he said.

The flames in his eyes burned just a bit brighter, and somehow he’d gotten close to me again.

I couldn’t keep backing up.  It would look weak.  I leaned into his space, brought our heads together.

“What problem is that?” I asked.

“Death,” he whispered.

I blanched, whipped my face away.  My hands rose up in an instinctive warding gesture, before I realized that this wasn’t just his way of starting a fight with a cool line.

“What do you know of Death?” I spat out.

“She attacked us recently, destroyed our fellow Fist.”

I smiled grimly, drawing strength from the this testament of the Gods who stood above even me.

“She shared this story with us.  She brings extinction to your kind.”

He gave a pained smile, scratched the back of his neck.

“But if you knew about her, then why come here?” I asked.

I hadn’t had a moment to think since this whole thing began, but now that I said it out loud that was the only question that mattered.  The Demon’s slaves must know of Death’s triumph.  They’d been witness.  Did they think she’d returned to Olympus?

“When she shared the story,” he hedged, “how detailed was her description?  Did she talk about the Gods she brought with her?”

“Get to the point,” I told him.

“How much do you know about her gift?” he asked.

I didn’t know much of it.  That she had some rapid transit capability was inarguable, given her comings and goings.  She must also have some kind of incredible attack power, in order to defeat two Fists and a member of the Demon’s Inner Circle, but the exact powersets of the Leadership Council were not for the likes of me to know.

I said as much.  He gave a short nod, as thought he’d been expecting that response.

“Her gift lets her take the gifts of others.  She can, hnngh, you lack the words.  Suffice it to say she wraps herself around their gifts and she can yank them away whenever she wants.”

The flame burned brighter in his eyes as he poured out this heresy.

“Unthinkable,” I snarled.  “To transgress against the Divine would be darkest heresy.  None of our leaders would ever do such a thing.”

“Oh grow up,” he snapped.  “How on earth do humans DO it?  Even in linear time it should be obvious that what you just said is utter nonsense.”

“Get thee behind me, devil!” I told him.

I turned away.  If I listened to him slandering beings he was not fit to kneel before any longer I’d strike him, consequences be damned.

“Listen, she’s done it to you,” he said.

That stopped me in my tracks.

I looked back.  His expression was unreadable, eyes once again reduced to tiny embers.

“I can see it.  Part of how my gift works.  She has her hook in you, where your human soul meets what you’d call the divine essence.  She can snatch your power loose at any moment, or use her gift to press on your soul, make you do what she wants.”


“When she was here, did she touch you?  Maybe while getting you to say something that felt a bit off?  Laugh, or agree, or whatever?  It looks like…”

He peered at me with his unsettling gaze, but not directly at me, he peered over my shoulder.

How could he know about the loyalty oath?  We had been entirely alone.  I remembered the honor I felt in her presence, the sense that something unearthly had placed its hand upon me.

“You seek to sow dissension, dismay.  I refute you,” I told him.

Was it my imagination, or did I feel something even now?

“I can save you,” he said.  “I can save your gift.  I can burn her hook away, maybe destroy her.  Just stand still, and you can be free.”

I swung a hand in his direction, spawned a pair of replicas which stood between us.

Everything was happening so fast.

“I don’t believe any of this.  I’m certainly not about to let you burn me.”

His shoulders slumped, and he turned away.

“You don’t have much time,” he said as he started leaving.  “As soon as she gets here and sees your forces aren’t attacking us she’ll condemn you as traitors, steal the useful gifts she scouted when last she was here.  You won’t have any warning.”

“A feeble attempt to divide us,” I told him.

He walked away, heading back to the meeting room, back where the rest of the Fist was.

I’d prevailed.  My faith had been tested, but I’d held firm.

He opened the door.


Disposition of the SOV

Throughout the vast and murky channels of the Union’s leadership a silent war was being waged.

For long decades mighty Restraint had ruled their councils, imposed its iron demands upon their efforts.

Restraint so that Prevailer would not be provoked, and the fragile Earth preserved.  Restraint so that Zeus would not march, and their borders remain inviolate.  Restraint so that their own creations would pose no danger, and remain forever within launch bays and bunkers.  Technology after technology, the Union had always been unalterably committed to a policy of Restraint.

They were done with Restraint.  They knew they would not survive the march of Zeus, and one after another they found the notion of dying with their hands tied, merely to ensure Prevailer’s temper was not tested, unsatisfying.

Through the systems and meetings which made up their leadership the arguments raged.  What to unleash first?  Who to strike, and with which weapon?  The Intervention Group’s ability to effortlessly cull the Pantheon’s yearly assaults had allowed backup plans to pile up one after the other, and now they would be sent forth.

In a time of heated arguments, one particular debate stood out.

The SOV was the Union’s greatest space ship.  It had been developed alongside countless other orbital weapons platforms, but delays in its manufacturing and design had seen it sit idle in its great hanger, even as all the other efforts at deploying Super Orbital Vehicles had failed in the face of the Regime’s furious blockade.

It swiftly became apparent, as First Fist, Subtracter and Prevailer struck again and again, that the Regime’s ability to detect and destroy launch efforts was beyond their ability to counteract.  The Union, ever pragmatic, redirected its efforts, and the SOV lingered earthbound, a relic of a time when man dreamed of the stars.

During the chaos of the Fourth Defiance, as the Regime bent all of its efforts towards its war with the Pantheon, the SOV was launched without fanfare, and without detection.  It slid into the night sky and immediately went dark, using its array of stealth devices to veil itself from earthly detection.

It’s controllers waited for the day when they would read of its destruction, sure that Answerer, or whatever other augur Prevailer consulted, would allow the tyrant to strike at it.  But such a dark day never came, and the SOV remained on standby, ready to direct its entire complement of devastating weaponry the instant it was called upon.

Now, the time had come for it to strike.

But where?

One camp, perhaps the majority, spoke strongly of the Army of Sunset as the only possible target for the SOV.  Zeus’s vanity parade could not last forever, and they would never be concentrated again.  They hoped that SOV’s power would shatter those Ultras who were able to be affected by earthly weapons, cutting down the ‘glass cannons’ of the Pantheon and greatly weakening the Host of Hosts.

Another camp had an entirely different objective in mind.  This camp, claiming as its greatest champion the intelligence operative known as Defeater, argued for a strike on the Lair.  The tyrant had ceased to venture forth from her den.  Perhaps a weakness had somehow manifested?  The SOV had already avoided her diviners once before.  The partisans of the second school of thought believed it might do so again, and put her Ultra Toughness to the test without giving her the instant’s warning she would need to warp away.

The last camp, by far the smallest, found its adherents in the Union’s scientific leadership.  It argued for the SOV to turn away from earth entirely, and bring its resources to bear upon the moon.  They believed that a device critical to the operation of the Process could be found there.  Analysis of such a thing could open up possibilities that their peers could not even conceive of.  Directing the outcome of the Process, or taking its function hostage in order to back down the invaders, might all be in the realm of possibility.

The argument raged throughout committee after committee, board after board.  And ultimately the decision which was reached was what an outside observer might have expected.  The day had been won by compromise.

The SOV would strike the Army of Sunset, and then the Lair, and finally carry out whatever operation awaited it on the moon.

Incident/Threat report


My investigation of the ‘ambassadorial’ misconduct perpetrated by Fourth Fist is revealing information of such import that I believe waiting for the usual channels to process it would risk calamity.

The Regime’s Fourth Fist has a mind control power of some variety.

I shared my findings with Investigator Ruth, tasked with the Intervention Group investigation, and she concurs.  The circumstances being relayed to her are equally unbelievable.

It seems as though shortly after entering close contact with the Regime forces our assets endured an abrupt and seemingly permanent alteration in character, such that they immediately and without remorse betrayed their previous loyalties.  Meghan and her staff apparently disclosed any and all information that their interrogators requested, and also volunteered access to such confidential systems as they had under their control.

I say ‘permanent’, because even now that they have been relieved of their duties and held for questioning they continue to affirm the rightness of their counterfeit beliefs.  They have made attempts to persuade their guards and interrogators of this, imploring us to join them in service to the genocidal Ultrahuman nation they betrayed us to.

Ruth and I have narrowed down the possible possessors of this power, presuming its range is as limited as most Ultrahuman gifts are, to Preventer and Fisher.  Only they had access to both the Intervention Group and the Kriti Garrison.  Consequently, they are the only ones who might have brainwashed them.

I understand, of course, that Regime Fists have kill orders on them by their very nature, but if there exists some higher sanction I beg you to pronounce it upon these mind rapists.  The tyrant can only kill our bodies.

No update this week

I think I have to admit at this point that my usual writing time is well and truly borked.  When this many ‘one time’ things happen it is clear that this is a systematic problem.  I’m going to move my writing to another time during the week (will still post Wednesday night though), hopefully that will let me make more than every other update.


Union Top Level Leadership

It cannot escape the attention of the discerning observer of the benighted lands across the sea that nobody speaks of the executive leadership of the so-called Union.  This is not a coincidence.

At one time the Union’s leadership was fairly convention.  The ‘European Human/Ultrahuman United Alliance’ had an elected leader and a large and functioning congressional body beneath her.  Then Prevailer killed her.

Her replacement was savaged by a Pantheon warlord out to make a name for herself, and the poor fool that was elected to replace her was killed by the exact same warlord.  Something clearly had to change.

The Union couldn’t ape the other great nations and simply put the strongest Ultra in charge.  They had their marker immovably fixed on ‘democracy’.  But an unpowered leader in charge of their greatest enemy was an irresistible temptation to their adversaries.

The three part system, of ministers, commanders and ultras, was the original answer.  Every operating theatre had a trio of commanders, none of whom could truly be said to be in command, and none of whom would provide the desired dramatic impact to an enterprising foreign Ultra if they were killed.

This couldn’t operate at the highest level, however.  Even a joint leader would be too tempting to their foes.  The Union’s solution has occasionally been called an ‘obscurocracy’.

Among the ministers, each and every one of them elected by the people, one is the true leader.  Among the generals, one is chief.  Even their Ultras no doubt have one to whom all the others look for leadership.  But none of this is public.

Ministers take their orders from the system.  Generals receive assignments from it.  Spies feed information into it.  But nobody visibly commands it.  Rather, the system runs on its own, spawning an ever agglomerating mass of committees and databases, often with conflicting and overlapping responsibilities.

The whole point of the thing is to make things too confusing, too boring, for any foreigner to pinpoint the actual leader.  To repair the flaw of being unable to protect their head of state by rendering their state headless.  The press has occasionally termed it a ‘committee of committees’.

There is much debate within the Union itself about how effective and desirable this system is, but it seems to have, at least, achieved its objective in preventing high profile Ultra strikes on the individual or individuals who govern the Union.


Overseer 1:2

“I thought I was pretty clear,” said Haunter.  “We want to make a deal with your forces, one that might be mutually beneficial.”

I retracted my replicas, programmed another to go and fetch me my backup throne, and sent it forth.  I wasn’t about to treat with these fiends while I stood around like a servant.

“What do you mean?” asked Cain.  “You work for the Demon.  What do you think we want from you?”

I’d never insisted that the other Overseers let me do the talking.  I often found it useful to let them interject.  When we argued with Zilla’s crew in the central fort they were often able to put our opposite numbers off balance.

“We don’t work for ‘the Demon’,” said the pale one, the one who was supposedly invincible.  “We work for Prevailer, and She is no ridiculous religious fiction.”

I’d never seen someone do the Regime pronunciation in real life.  It was weird, like something out of the entertainment feeds Genie had stolen from the Union a while back.  I took it as a reminder of the stakes.

“I don’t think it is worth arguing about what your leader is.  What we care about is that she is our leader’s enemy.  We work for the Leadership Council, and you don’t.  What’s there to talk about?”

I walked a fine line with that speech.  I had to cover my ass, because the spectators would be reporting all of this to Death, assuming that we didn’t all die in the next hour or so.  So I had to drop the party line.  But I didn’t want to fight them right now, thus the invitation at the end to contradict me.

“A little simplistic, don’t you think?” said the old woman.  “You are enemies with the Union, and you’ve made a tidy little covenant with them.  Why can’t you extend us, who are at the very least fellow Gods, the same courtesy?”

“You aren’t Gods!” shouted Annubis.  “It takes more than a Process to become one of our number.  You serve the very fiend of the pit.  You prey on our choirs and strike down the righteous.”

She’d lost her temper.  I slapped the table in front of her, bringing her rant to a stop.

“How odd for creatures that stay dead when they are killed to tell those of us who rise again on the next day that we are not Gods, and they are,” remarked Condemner.  “I’m impressed you could utter something so stupid, so publicly.”

He fell silent as some of the Named around the room called out, but the point had been made.  It left a certain awkwardness lingering in the air.

I covered it with action, dropping myself into the ornate chair which my replicas had finally fetched, taking a swig out of some of Lotus’ concentration formula that I’d left in a bottle in one of the armrests.

“I think I see what the misunderstanding is,” I said, after some moments had gone by.  The rest of the Overseers had found places to lounge as well, booting Named out of seats if necessary.  Ninja was the only exception, she would continue pacing back and forth until the fighting actually broke out.

“You mentioned our having reached an accord with the heathens to the West, and assumed that because of this you might be in for similar treatment.  You are sadly mistaken.”

The Regime Ultras leaned over to one another and had a brief discussion.  I took the moment to look around and get a sense of things.

What did I really want from this negotiation?  I’d been kind of winging it, but I had to come to a decision at some point.  Ass covering was all well and good, but I couldn’t just quip and snipe forever.  Calls had to be made, and I was the one who would make them.

In my heart of hearts, the human portion of me, I wanted them gone.  I just wanted them to walk out of my life with no collateral damage, and let me resume the existence that I had enjoyed before their coming.

But I was better than human.  I was divine.  And when I thought of the obligations that my gift had placed upon me the answer leapt out.  To let these heathens depart unmolested would be to shirk my place among the armies of heaven.  The Regime was the enemy.  They should be destroyed.

I was moderately sure that if I just leaped up and attacked them I wouldn’t do so alone.  The other Overseers would back me.  The Named would back us, and the rank and file would ultimately be swept into the combat.  There were a few dozen in here, we’d have numbers, and we weren’t Overseers because we lacked personal power.

I felt little temptation for this course of action.  To strike another who had come to parley was unworthy of our Pantheon, of course, but we had certainly done the occasional sinister deed in the past.  More telling was the notion of what it would look like if Condemner or Indulger lashed out with the powers that I’d read that they had, right in the midst of my forces.  We might lose hundreds of Gods.

I would be forgiven such losses if we actually destroyed the Fist, of course, but I was far from certain that that was on the table.  Preventer was, by all accounts, invincible.  Squandering dozens of my Named against monsters who would only return the next evening would be utter folly.  I needed a neutralizer for their anchor before I could begin any conflict.

The only neutralizer I could imagine was Death, and I had no idea when she would show up.  So I had to stall.

But stalling, if it entailed keeping them here, would have its own dangers.  They had rolled up with what amounted to a whole Host of admirers, who might even now be influencing my own followers.  I shouldn’t have harbored any doubts about my fellow God’s loyalties, of course, but I’d seen them err and stray on too many occasions.

My Overseers and I dominated our fort by might and inertia.  Injecting a new center of power into this situation would have unforeseeable effects.  It was not beyond possibility that a schism could occur.

The urges, to send them away, to strike them down, and to embrace their desire to negotiate, warred within me.  I came to a conclusion, then instantly reversed myself, looping endlessly about the immediate future.

Every path seemed to lead perilously near a cliff, every instinct counter to another.

“You are claiming,” said Haunter.  “that the Pantheon’s serial defeats are not the result of an agreement with the Union?  That you are genuinely unable to push aside a bunch of humans?”

I glared at her.

“We could smite those fools in an instant!” stormed Ninja.  “They exist only on our say so.  When Zeus gives us the word we will crush them!”

I winced.

“So, Zeus hasn’t given you the word yet?” said the big dumb guy.  “You are supposed to not attack them right now, and that is why you are just sitting here?”

“I don’t want to talk tactics with our enemies,” I said, attempting to head off this direction.  I could see where this was leading up to.

“Tactics?” echoed the hot one.  “You have to fight all enemies, so you can’t talk to us.  But you don’t fight the Union, because nobody told you to.  So I guess you did get told to attack us, and that’s the difference?  We just happened to show up while you were packing to attack?”

She had a heck of a voice, people would have listened even though that was a pretty long schpiel to deliver without letting someone else talk.

“Didn’t Mireuk explain this to you?” I asked, grasping at straws.  The longer we talked about whether or not we were free to fight or not fight them, without actually fighting them, the weaker we’d look.  We’d be seen as hiding behind the Ruling Council, while the Fist was clearly free to step to whoever.  I needed to focus this back on them, and Mireuk would help with that.

“She didn’t make it,” said Indulger.  “She died in the fight with the Union.”

I scoffed.

“Mireuk is invincible,” I told them.  “I don’t know how you separated her from her command, but she certainly wasn’t killed by any Ultra weak enough to side with the Union.  Now where is she?”

“Which one was she?” asked Indulger, to his comrade.

I couldn’t hear her answer, but I saw the big man’s face light up with comprehension.

“Oh, Mireuk was the one with the barriers, right?  Yeah, she’s dead.”

“She wasn’t, ‘the one with the barriers’, you oaf,” I told him.  “She was shielded by divine energy from every form of attack, even other gifts.  No power she excluded could come near her, not formed or formless.  She was invincible.”

Preventer reacted to that.

“As someone who actually is invincible, I’ve gotta say that is insulting.  Mireuk died like a chump.  You’d never catch one of us whose power actually does shield them fully going out like that.”

I practically snarled at that.  Mireuk was one of my better allies, and, truth be told, a friend.

“Did you ambush her without her barrier?” I asked.  “Kill her with stealth like a skulking coward?”

“They dropped her in a hole,” said a Named on their side of the room.  Or maybe not a Named, just an Ultra.  Judging by her travel stained appearance she must have been part of the recent arrivals.

“A…hole?” I said, a little weakly, thinking swiftly.  I knew Mireuk could stop Ultra generated gravity, or maybe the gift that made it, but I had never actually seen her exclude preexisting parts of the world.  That could have worked.

“She had her ‘invincible’ barrier up too,” said Preventer, not bothering to hide a chuckle.

I almost exploded.  Ninja actually did.

“You and me!” she shouted.  “Right here, right now.  You dare to laugh at Mir’s invincibility?  We are putting yours to the test!”

My gaze snapped to her, an instant too late.  The challenge had been made.  To call it back now would make us look weak.

The Demon’s slave shrugged.

“If you want.”

Named moved in from the edges of the room, pulling the table into its arena configuration.  This entailed fitting legs into slots in the floor, sliding benches underneath it so Gods wouldn’t fall through, and similar measures.  It also gave me some time to talk with my colleague.

“What were you thinking?” I hissed to her.

The bustle would cover the sound of our speech, so long as we were careful.

Ninja looked over at me without ceasing her pacing, smiled brightly.

“I’ve figured out why you aren’t just having us attack them.  You are worried about the one I called out, right?  The team’s anchor?”

“Aren’t you?” I asked.  “There’s no way you’ve been active long enough to hurt her.”

“You got me there,” said Ninja.  “But I’ve been putting all my improvement into toughness, except for a bit of speed.  She can’t hurt me either.  I’m gonna grab her and haul her over to Lotus, and we’ll give her some Bliss.”

Now that was an idea.  Bliss was one of Lotus’ better mixtures, and it left you totally incapacitated.  More to the point, it didn’t seem to count as ‘harm’ to any of the Ultra Tough individuals who I’d seen drink it.  Their gifts let it work on them.

There wasn’t time to talk much more about it.  The arena was almost ready.

“Get her for Mir,” I told her.

Ninja blew me a kiss and hopped up onto the table.

There was some kind of delay over at the Fist’s end.  Preventer was mucking around with what looked like a gun.

I scoffed.  Ninja may not have had much time to prepare for this, but she was certainly bullet proof.  Even the idea of using such a toy in a Contest with an Overseer was absurd.

“You all know of my deeds,” called Ninja to the onlookers.  “You’ve all seen me at work.  You’ve seen what my gift can do.  Does anyone want to bet on me?”

A number of our Named raised their hands, calling out tokens or favors.  Ordinarily this would be the whole point of a Contest, but right now it was just a way to raise morale a bit.  Make up for the fact that we’d started this whole affair off by retreating from the fort in the face of the enemy.

For her part, the enemy just kept on plugging away at her gun.  The big guy next to her watched Ninja rile up the crowd with what looked like a professional interest.

As Ninja got to the end of one of her longer taunts he shouted up for himself.

“Preventer has fought in the Sniper Court.  She has fought First Fist under Her eye.  She fought a Union drone force just a few days ago, saved hundreds of your children.”

He was shouting in English, but everything he said was echoed by Haunter’s replicas, each speaking a different language, doing the translation nearly simultaneously with his original speech.

“But I’ve never seen her mad.  I can’t wait to see what she does to this Overseer, this slaver who sends kids out to die at the guns of humans.”

Ninja shouted a response, but it was cut off as Preventer clambered up onto the table, seemingly finally ok with the condition of her gun.

“Took you long enough,” said Ninja.

Preventer just shrugged.

“You in some kind of hurry to d-“

Ninja cut her off, reaching down and hurling a chair at her.

Preventer leaned into it, and it bounced off of her face and upper torso, down onto the table in front of her.

I knew what Ninja was thinking with that attack.  She was trying to establish whether or not the Demon’s pawn could be moved.  Different Gods had different kinds of immortality, in addition to different strengths.  Some couldn’t move other than by their own will.

Preventer propped the chair back up, plopped herself down in it, gun dangling loose in her hand.

Ninja stalked towards her, hands in a fighting posture.  How was she going to get Preventer over to Lotus…and then I saw the bottle stashed in the back of her outfit.

She’d bring the Bliss to her foe, if she couldn’t be moved.  A simple tactic, but one that should work, particularly as Preventer was showboating and had placed herself into a totally immobile posture.

Preventer brought the gun up, almost absently, and shot at Ninja.

I wasn’t sure how long Ninja had to walk in order to avoid bullets, but she didn’t bother trying to avoid this one.  I couldn’t tell exactly where it hit her, but it didn’t change her momentum any.

She took another step towards Preventer, just about reaching her, then sank to one knee, clutching both hands to her belly.

A red stain expanded across her back, and she gave an anguished scream.

I held out a hand, as though it would stop what was coming, as Preventer carefully shot her again, this time in the head.

I saw it clearly this time.  Ninja’s head snapped back, her forehead shattered and spurting.  Preventer hopped to her feet to avoid the mess as she slumped to the ground.

It was impossible.  Ninja had been walking for an hour.  Bullets couldn’t hurt her at this point.  Preventer’s files included no notes on any gift that would allow her to pierce Ultra toughness.

It was impossible.  It had also happened.