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.
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.