“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!”
“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.”
“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.