Chatter : 3

DRex: I can’t say you didn’t warn me.

Dragon: Don’t beat yourself up about it.

DRex: They didn’t seem evil.  I swear they didn’t.

Dragon: Good people don’t join Fists.

DRex: They are going down.

Dragon: I’ll help out with that.

DRex: Aren’t you still overseas?

Dragon: They pulled me back.  You’ve probably noticed the buildup?

DRex: Nope.  They aren’t telling the Intervention Groups shit.  What buildup?

Dragon: They are pulling Ultrahuman reserves in from all across the Union, pointing us at the Front.  If the Regime makes a push we are so screwed.  Everyone who ever got processed is getting moved down to back you up.

DRex: Why?  I know they waved off a Gauntlet strike on our mutual friends when they joined up with a Pantheon team.  Is it the idea of the Pantheon and the Regime talking that has them so spooked?

Dragon: Man, who can say how daggers think?  But I don’t think that’s it.  I think there is something else.

DRex: What could possibly be worse than Fourth Fist and the Union teamed up?  You know they still haven’t got Meghan and the others they mind washed back to normal?

Dragon: I think it is the big push.  I think the Pantheon is finally going to send the Grand Host west.

DRex: Let em come.  We aren’t scared.

Dragon: Yeah…

Dragon: Maybe we should be.

Indulger 7:1

“He gives up!” translated one of Haunter’s shades.

I shrugged, expansively, and looked around at my audience.

Basically all the dudes in the Pantheon force were watching me.  A few of the ladies too, but those were at a further distance.  It seemed like there was some kind of social thing where they couldn’t admit that they cared what the dudes got up to.

I waved a hand, absently, and asked the ground to let him the boy up.  He popped up and out, then crashed back down to earth.

This guy had some kind of body change thing going on, coated his form in steel or turned into it or something.  As far as I could tell he hadn’t had any plan for how to deal with my gift beyond just hoping things would work out for him.  I could have kind of respected that, but not when he hadn’t been given a choice.

Officially, I guess, he’d had one.  Like, we had to take any requests for Contests that the Gods came up with, that was part of the deal the Overseers had made with us.  So I’d made sure that he had asked for this to my face.  But I’d seen how he glanced around, how his gaze kept cutting back into the crowd.  He said the words, but someone else said for him to say them.

They’d just wanted to see my gift in action, and they’d been willing to let this dude die to do it.  Once again, I felt myself getting mad at the leaders of this place.

Was “please stop killing your own people” such a tough thing to ask?  I remembered skulls nailed to the wall in the Regime with a stab of guilt.  Maybe it was.  We certainly didn’t seem to be able to do it.

Nobody else stepped out from the crowd of Gods for a long moment.  Metal skin guy was the second dude to try me this morning, and I figured it was about time for the boss to come forward now.  But maybe they were gonna pussy out.  If so then I could spend today making more housing, which was pretty obviously a thing that they needed around here.

Finally the guy that my last enemy had kept glancing back at stepped out from among the other dudes.  I wasn’t surprised.  I could tell that he was the leader of them.  It probably wasn’t official.  I bet if you asked the girls who was the main guy they’d pick a totally different one, one who had the position or whatever.  But this guy was The Guy.  I could tell.

He was bigger than any of the others.  He had a scar up one side of his face, and he had a big knife thrust into his belt.  More than that, though, was the way that everyone deferred to him, everyone’s glances went in his direction when they got nervous.

He pointed at thumb at his chest.

“Ragnarok,” he introduced himself.

“I’m Dale,” I told him.  “Is it ok if beating you is the last Contest for today?  I’m looking to do some construction when we get done with this.”

He gave a low chuckle, tipping his head back a bit to emphasize.

I lost a bit of respect for him immediately.  When it comes to being big chested and having a low voice, I am pretty experienced with it.  This guy was deliberately sounding gruffer than he should really.  Or maybe he had a cold, that might also explain it.

“Our fight will be your last Contest,” he said.

That was actually a pretty good line, the way he’d flipped my own thing back on me.  I smiled my appreciation.

“So, Ragnarok,” I said.  “Have you done this before?  Because, like, judging from the last two guys I feel like your whole setup here may not teach you how to fight so well.”

I was playing the heel a bit here.  These were his guys, so he’d be their man by default, but it never hurt to push the story along.

He gave another chuckle.

“You’ve failed to kill both of your opponents, and you dare to look down on our prowess?  I didn’t think it could be true, but does your Demon really chop all your balls off?”

The mention of Her soured my mood instantly.

“What would She do with my balls?” I asked, blank of any intonation.

His chuckle became an actual laugh at this point, and his crew joined in.  I could tell that some actually thought this was funny, others were just laughing because the main man was laughing.

I stood quietly among them, waiting for the laughter to subside.  I fought to put myself back into my best mood.  I was fighting in front of an audience.  This was the Best Thing.  I hadn’t killed anybody, and I wasn’t going to.  This was just entertainment.

“How should I know?” he asked, as their laughter subsided.  “I don’t have any experience being the Demon’s bitch!”

Even as he spit that out, his other hand was moving.

A distortion appeared around him, creeping outwards with each passing moment.  The stuff I saw through it was washed out, like a grey version of itself.  I couldn’t feel the ground inside it, like my brah was being eaten away.

I could have jumped back, like I was trying to get to safety, or maybe launched rocks into it.  I did neither.

As the distortion was rising up I took a step into it, launching a thunderous open handed slap that caught him utterly off guard, sent him toppling down into his gift’s weird fog.

Then it rose up over me, blotting out the world around us, greying the faces of the watchers and the sky to a pale color, like dust or worms.

Now that I was inside his gift, the inside of it looked bright.  It was the outside, the stuff it didn’t cover, which was all greyed out.  And it was also frozen still.

He spat, shaking his head to get the sting of the slap off of it.

“You like my world?” he asked.  “You didn’t think a male could have a subtle and mighty gift like this, did you?”

I got the feeling that this was a ‘one size fits all’ kind of speech.  Like he’d given it to a lot of his Pantheon enemies before.

“Yeah, it is great!” I told him.  “Can we get hours of time in here for every second out there, or what?  This is amazing!’

He looked a little nonplussed at that.

“I guess you’ve grasped the essential point,” he told me.  “Your friends can’t save you in here.  It’s just you and Ragnarok.”

I shrugged.

“Sure, it does kinda look like I’m dead,” I agreed.  “But you could have killed me in the real world too.  They agreed that I got to do the fighting today.  They wouldn’t have helped me.”

He gave another laugh.  This one was kinda more obviously fake than the other two.

“Ape at courage if you like, slave of the Demon.  But there is no one here to fall for your deceptions!”

Pursuer had done something like this too, back in the day.  I’d talked to Preventer, and she maintained it was actually another member of his Fist who was doing the talking for him, but the point was still there.  Were there people out there who were super afraid of words?  It felt kind of like he was pulling on strings that weren’t attached to me.

“Ok, yeah, sure,” I agreed.  “But there is also nobody here to get impressed by the shit you are talking.  So maybe you can just activate whatever it is you are going to kill me with.  I mean, who are you talking for?  I’m gonna be dead, right?”

His face got all dark, like he did not appreciate being corrected.

“You lack understanding, worm!”

‘Worm’ was a weird go-to insult.  He hadn’t really put down anything bug related in the first part of our promo, and now it just kind of did the work of any other taunt.

“My gift is mighty indeed.  You will experience subjective centuries before your blasphemous immortality kicks in.  Lifetimes of anguish and regret are stored up for you, and you shall live every one of them.”

“Oh, word?” I said.

That was gonna suck.

“Unless…” he said.

I felt any remaining respect I had for this guy drain away.  He wasn’t playing the face at all.  If you were gonna fight someone, fine, I could get behind that.  But using fear as a lever to push people around meant you weren’t strong enough to pick em up yourself.  It was lame.

“If you cooperated with me, told me of your allies weaknesses, I might be inclined to shorten the duration down to, say, only a year or so of formless suffering.  You’d still have time to regret your folly, but you might still be sane when you next saw your Fist.”

“Nah,” I told him.  “Get killy.”

He blinked.

“I’m not sure you understand.  After I kill you, I’m going to leave the field up, all day.  You will be here for-“

“Ever and ever, I get it.”

I didn’t normally interrupt people, but Ragnarok seemed like a tool.

“I’m not gonna roll over for you, so go ahead and take me out, then try and drive me crazy while I’m in the Link.  Do your thing,” I urged him.

He sneered.

“Maybe it was too much to hope that the Demon’s bitch would be able to understand basic self preservation,” and he pulled out his knife with an elaborate drawing motion, spinning it around in his hand.

“Wait,” I said.

“Ah,” he responded, smiling.  “Now you have second thoughts.  It is as I suspected.  Your ‘Fist’ has insulated you from the risks that honest Gods face that you have pissed away all of your courage.  In the face of actual danger you find yourself quailing before-“

“No, no,” I interrupted again.  “I mean, wait, are you going to try and kill me with that knife?”

He gave a short nod, looked at the blade, showed off the handle to me.

I couldn’t see really well from this distance, but people who killed people with guns and knives usually put notches on the handle, so that was probably what he was trying to show off.

“Um,” I said, trying to think how to phrase what I was gonna say.

“How long has it been,” he asked.  “Since you had to fight as a mortal?  Since your gift failed you, and you were forced to rely upon your mere physical form?  Do you still feel like a Go-…Ultra?”

He’d been about to say, ‘Goddess’, I was really sure.

“Oh, wow, I get it!” I said.  “You pull people into here and you turn off their gifts, and they are all just girls, or at the very least people smaller than you who are used to fighting with their gifts!  They don’t know shit about fighting, and you have the knife!  Haha, that’s awesome man!”

“I’m glad that you think so!” he said, and rushed me.

I fell back a pace as he approached, so that he would arrive with the opposite foot down from the one on the side with the knife, and shot my hand out as though I was going for a disarm.

Predictably enough, he stopped a pace early, cutting an upward thrust at my reaching hand, which I avoided by pulling it back as well.

We were stopped for a moment, just beyond each other’s reach.  We could reach one another’s arms, but not our cores, unless one of us stepped in.

“But it might not work with-“ I began, and he interrupted me by stepping in for the thrust.

Even as he did so I was pulling my hands down, grappling for his wrist with both of them.

There were some people who couldn’t fight and talk at the same time.  If you interrupted them you would always get a beat or two of motion before they’d catch up.

I wasn’t one of them.

He pulled back his knife hand, but he didn’t stop his step in.  Instead he shifted his weight onto the other hand, which had been the goal from the start, sending a thunderous haymaker right into my face.

I let him hit it, continuing to fixate on the knife, catching ahold of his lower arm with one of mine.

I had no doubt that some people would have been rocked by his punch, probably most of the people he’d killed like this had.  Get their attention on the knife, then hit them with your other hand.  It was a great strategy.  But it didn’t do much to me.

I hadn’t been stepping in when it had landed, already having shifted my weight back to a more even stance, and while he was used to hitting people thirty or forty pounds lighter the situation here was basically the opposite.  It stung a bit, definitely rang my bell, but I could have taken punches like that for minutes before really caring.

With my hand on his knife arm I dragged him closer, pulling his weight off of his feet and centering his balance over the space between us.

His fingers opened, and in a practiced move he dropped the knife from the hand I’d snagged, reaching over to try to catch it with the hand that was just coming back from punching me.

He had just about made it when I kicked him in the balls so hard he rose up off the ground.

Two could play at the whole using the knife as a distraction thing.

People didn’t really fly backwards, not in fights with no Ultra strength, but it was still gratifying the way he sank to the ground.

“Me,” I finished.

I picked up his knife.

He dragged himself to his feet, visibly wincing and maybe wobbling a bit.

I gave him a fond smile.  He might have been a jackass, but I hadn’t had someone I could fight like this for a long time.

“Here,” I told him.  “Take another shot.”

I tossed the knife to him, up in the air so he’d have to reach up to catch it.

As he did so I stepped forward and kicked him in the balls again.

This time when he toppled to the ground he didn’t move at all, beyond a gentle rocking motion.

I laughed aloud, honest and open laughter for what felt like the first time in forever.

Then I walked over, reached down and pulled his hands up in front of him, stepped firmly on them where they were crossed.

He muffled a shout.

“And you set this thing for centuries or whatever?” I asked.  “I gotta say this might not be super fun for you.”

He looked up to say something, but as the first syllable got out of his mouth I kicked him in the face.

Teeth sprayed everywhere, blood got all over my boot.

“Eee-!” he said.

“What?” I asked, walking over to where he rolled around, clutching at his face, like he was trying to hold the blood in.

I gave him a moment or two.  It looked like I’d broke his nose and maybe the part of cheek under one of his eyes.

“Kill me, and you are trapped here for good!” he said, with pauses for gasps and such.

“Ok,” I told him, and stomped down on one of his legs.

I wasn’t entirely clear on how this would go.  Would I still starve and die, then get sent back into the Link, or was I just gonna be conscious still I killed myself in a few years from total boredom?

I asked him as much, when he got done screaming.  I didn’t think I’d broken anything in the leg, this was more about whatever was going on with his face really hitting him.

He pushed himself up on hands and knees, and looked up at me, his bloody face just as twisted up with anger and pain as it was possible to imagine.

I slapped him again, same as I had to start this whole thing off.  Just a big open handed whack across the face.  This time it moved some stuff around under his skin where he’d gotten broken by the kick.

He screamed, and the color washed back into the world, along with my sense of the ground around me.

Gods gasped and shouted.

“He just got…Ragna-rocked!” I said, using the ground to haul him over towards the blind healing guy.

Nobody seemed to know how to take that.  Admittedly, I’d been heeling it up last time they’d heard me.  They would have missed our double turn in his secret world.

As the talking started up again I stared away, distracted.

Someone was headed towards the fort, maybe twenty or thirty people by their footfalls, and they were coming from deeper in Pantheon territory.

Death’s Reserve

  • Death’s own gift, which allows her to form connections with the gift of other Ultras by bodily contact and the victim submitting to her.  It holds these other gifts in a reserve for her use, and also has a variety of other minor effects.

Gifts maintained for long periods of time, which she has grown fluent in and is comfortable with.

  • An ultra strength gift that rises the longer she remains in an area, topping out at three after several hours of remaining in the same general location.
  • An ultra toughness gift that sits right on the cusp between two and three.  It also allows her to reflect a percentage of the damage she would have otherwise taken.  It is weak(er) to repeated strikes than to single attacks.
  • An ultra speed gift which is normally inoperative, but puts her at a very high two if she plans out her maneuvers ahead of time.  (That is, she maintains a course of action in her mind, and on command her form will execute that plan far faster than she can perceive or sense)
  • A gift which allows her to drag anyone within her line or sight towards her at Ultra Strength one.  This gift can be used on multiple people at once, but cannot drag lifeless forms, or drag her towards others.
  • A gift which allows her to return instantly to any location where she has killed.  This gift can be used offensively with planning, as she compares her toughness with anyone occupying the space she arrives in, with the tougher one surviving the juxtaposition and the other being torn asunder.
  • A gift which allows her to attack with an energy blast from her hands or eyes, which impacts only on living forms.  It strikes with roughly Ultra Strength two, and is sustainable for long periods.  Essentially a plasma firehose that only hurts people, plants and animals and goes through other stuff like they are holograms.
  • A gift which permits her to enhance the emotional reaction of another individual or group of them.  It does not grant any innate insight into what that emotion presently is, or allow her to change or create one that does not already exist.  It basically just turns whatever they are feeling way up.

Gifts obtained recently, which she is not terribly attached to, and which she doesn’t mind replacing.  She is far less skilled in the use of these gifts. and is still learning their ins and outs.

  • A gift which allows her to see through and manipulate smoke.  She’s also noticed that if she forms the smoke into shapes that indicate function it seems to actually perform that function.  That is, a smoke gun would fire smoke bullets, a smoke clock would tell the time, etc.
  • A gift which allows her to summon to her presence the most recent person she has had sex with.  The person she stole it from indicated that it filled them with the desire to defend her, but Death has not verified whether or not this is true.
  • A gift which allows her to kill by eye contact, but which does not work on anyone with an Ultra gift.  Death has tested that it does not work on images of her eyes or the targets, and seems to need genuine eye contact.  The form is not harmed by this method of death.

Beyond this, Death retains another dozen individuals who she has her hook in, whose gifts can be stolen if need be.  She has left her last two slots open, in case she gets her hands on someone with a gift worth stealing.

Preventer 8:2

“Don’t answer that,” I told Fox.

She nodded and, ignoring the pounding on the door, continued to carefully apply my makeup.

I’d commandeered one of what seemed like the better rooms in the fort.  It was dry, had just one window, and a beehive.  Shofo had assured me that the Bee Room was some kind of status symbol, and my current read on her was that she was too cowed to try and put anything over on me.

No one had bothered us over the course of the night.  I hadn’t exactly been surprised.  If Legion and her girls had the kind of organization necessary to put together an attempt on taking a Fist out in one night they would never have succumbed to our little coup in the first place.  Tomorrow night they might try something, but I was very confident that they’d spent last night shouting at one another in pointless recrimination.

The knock came again, and Jane’s voice along with it.

“Preventer!”

I looked over at the door, gestured to Shofo.

As she walked over to open it I assessed my appearance.  I was mostly decent, as far as I could tell.  They’d pressed the gore out of my clothes as well as they could manage, and Fox had been applying my paste long enough that I should be mostly covered.

It was a pity there was no mirror in here.  I’d have to remedy that today.

Shofo opened the door, Haunter strolled in.

I’d been Linked to her long enough that I could tell when she was angry, and this was definitely one of those times.  There was no visual cue, however.  It must be nice to have a gift that let you control your form as perfectly as hers did.

“We agreed to meet this morning,” she told me.  “That would have been an hour ago.”

I looked over at my new minions.

“Go get me a mirror,” I told them, “then find me something to replace my face powder.  I’m running out.”

They gave agreeable nods and set to pulling on clothes and preparing for departure.

Haunter just stared at me.  I knew she was getting ready to let me have it, but there was no way she was going to talk about anything important in front of these two.

“Fill me in on what I missed?” I asked her, feigning innocence.

She smiled back with equally false sweetness.

“Nothing at all,” she said.  “We figured we could reschedule for your convenience.”

Shofo and Fox walked out, and Haunter manifested a shade who closed the door behind them.  I didn’t recognize him as being one of her more important ones.

“What the fuck?” she asked.

I waited for her to elaborate, but she didn’t.

“I don’t have a clock,” I reminded her.  “I didn’t know you all were up and around yet.”

“Bullshit,” she responded, crisply.  “You could have felt our motion through the Link, or you could have just, you know, stayed with the rest of us.”

I rolled my eyes, and felt as I did so that I’d be doing a lot of that in this conversation.

“Jane, when you conquer a place you have to let them know they are conquered.  If we hide ourselves away in a little sanctuary it looks like we are afraid of them.  Going out and sleeping among them was a power move.”

“A power move,” she repeated, dubiously.

I gave a short nod.

“I’m not going to talk any further on that topic, other than to note that if you wanted advice on that sort of things you should maybe have consulted with me.  My reserve has a lot of corporate movers and shakers, we could…no, I’m not getting distracted here.”

She paused for a short moment, took a deep breathe.

“We haven’t ‘conquered’ this place, Preventer.  We are their guests, advisors and ambassadors.”

I scoffed at that.

“Jane, for someone so old you sure seem young at times.  That was just some words that got said.  It doesn’t have anything to do with the truth of the situation.”

I stood as tall as I could, put my hands out in front of me, parallel to one another.  This was how Thui had looked when he’d broken things down to our gang.

“Between any pair of people, or any group of people, there are two roles.  One is the boss, the other is the bitch.  When Legion and her crew backed down, and instead of fighting us they agreed that what we said was right, that made them the bitches.  Everyone, except you apparently, gets that.”

It was her turn to silently boggle.

“Preventer,” she said, talking slowly “that is…insane.  It’s an enormous simplification of a terribly complicated field of study.  I…you…”

She trailed off.

I was content to wait for her to put her thoughts in order, or poll her reserve, or do whatever she was doing.  This had been coming for a long time, but I was hopeful that when I set her straight this time we would finally be on the same page.

“I forget sometimes,” she said, “just how isolated you are, were, whatever.  I know you fancy yourself a scientist, and it is so easy to just relate to you that way.  In a sense, of course, you are.  But yours is a scientific tradition of exactly one person.  You have these vast gaps in your knowledge, not because you are dumb or anything, but because you are just one isolated individual.  And every once in a while one of them shows up and blindsides me.  I forget that you didn’t go to school, never cracked a text book, and learned everything you know about people from talking to others just as traumatized as you.”

I could practically taste the condescension on that little speech, and it was a little tempting to just push a barrier through her, pop a ghost or two and see if she talked down to me then.  I pushed the impulse down.

“That’s not quite right,” I corrected her.  “I read a few old books.  It is very hard to understand the people of your era, but I have some exposure to the stuff you are talking about.”

“I know,” she said.  “I know that you try.  You are doing your best to find out the things that we discovered, and I can help you with that.  If you’d like to talk about how to influence people, I can help you with that.  I have some actual professionals in my gift, and they would love, and I use that term unironically, the chance to help out a new practitioner.  I can get you as many tutors as you want.”

I shook my head, chuckling.

“I don’t exactly need coaching from a bunch of fuck ups,” I told her.  “I’ve had plenty of practice being weak before I gained my gift, so I’m sure I know all your daggers could teach me.”

I’d never really managed to offend Haunter before, but this time I might have finally done it.

“A bunch of fuck ups?” she repeated.  “Preventer, your ancestors brought about the greatest age of peace and prosperity that the world has ever known.  Our loss, the loss of the world that we built…it is a tragedy.  It is the worst thing that has ever happened.  That’s, that’s why we are doing all this.  I thought you, at least, understood that.”

I shrugged.

“I’m not really entirely sure what you mean.” I said.  “I know the Regime is poorly managed, and that She is a danger to me, so I am fighting back against it.  But are you saying that you thought that what I wanted was to put the daggers back into leadership positions?  To extend the Union’s silliness across the rest of the world?”

“Silliness?” she said, or more like gasped.  “Preventer, the principle that how strong you are, how strong the gift that the Process gives you is, determines how valid what you have to say is going to be is transparently stupid.  I’ve thought, at times, that you might not share the same moral foundation as I do, but this shouldn’t be something we disagree about.  You are bright enough to see that Her way, Zeus’ way, is idiotic.”

I shrugged again.

“I don’t see anything wrong with admitting that the ones in charge are the most powerful ones.  That is still going to be true no matter how you lie about it.  You can tell that, because She rolled your whole system up as soon as She felt like it.  I know you guys had a lot of trouble working that out, back in the day.  I’ve always chalked it up to your religions.  Freedom versus Jesus versus Accessibility versus whoever else.  I never got the details, but I understood that you spent a lot of energy worrying about fake stuff.  But, just to be clear, I am mostly with Zeus as far as my notions of what should go down is concerned.”

Offended might not be the right word.  It wasn’t that I was making her mad, it was that I was making her disappointed.  Like she’d thought I’d fallen for whatever delusion she’d worked herself into.

I’d actually thought a lot about how smart Haunter was, the way it seemed to click on and off.  My current read was that she was really good at knowing facts, due to her slave army, but that she could get dumb notions in her head and not be able to get rid of them the same way as everyone else.

“Preventer,” she said, after a moment.  “Why are you risking yourself, your own life, to get rid of Her, if it isn’t to make a better world?  I know that you value your life above everything.  I know you don’t see other people as quite real, that’s the only way you could do all the Nazi shit you get up to, but I’m not trying to appeal to your empathy here.  I’m honestly wondering why you joined the Fist, why you are participating in our Defiance, if all you want is an Ultra tyranny.  We already have one of those.”

I gaped at her for a moment.  Nonsense words aside it seemed like we had a real gap in understanding here.

This wasn’t a time for clever debating tactics or anything.  Only the plain truth would serve me.

“Because She can kill me, and Zeus can’t?” I told her.  I’d honestly presumed that that was plain all along.

She gave a nod, and a weak smile.

There was a long moment of silence.  I searched frantically for something else we could talk about.  I could feel that she was teetering on the edge of one of her inner abysses again, and it would be bad for our position if she snapped or something.

“What are you going to do about Nirav,” I asked her.

That should get her going again, if anything could.  She’d been studiously ignoring Condemner’s return ever since he fried her favorite shade, and the longer it went the more worried I got about the inevitable retaliation.

“About Nirav,” she repeated.

“He killed Irene,” I reminded her.  “You don’t for a second believe that story about an accident, do you?”

She shook her head, very slowly.

“I don’t,” she said.  “But I’d thought you might.  I suppose the same cynicism that blinds you to the merits of cooperation ensures that you give proper doubt to implausible stories like the one that Condemner put forward.”

“Sure,” I said.  “He accidentally pops her just at the instant that no one is able to verify it?  There’s no way that would happen.  If he’d actually done this on accident the odds are that one of us would have seen it.  Also, the real Nirav would have been way more broken up about it.  He’d probably still be apologizing today.”

“I agree,” she said.  “Condemner is in charge again, somehow.  It’s the only explanation for this kind of pointless malice.  Do you think Fisher knows?”

I’d been giving that a lot of thought.

“On some level she has to,” I said.  “Her secret gift should have let her know, if she used it on him.”

We had a general rule that the mind control aspects of Betty’s power were not to discussed in detail except under the most strenuously guarded conditions, which a room in the middle of enemy territory definitely didn’t meet, regardless of how many bees were here.

“I think that her subconscious knows,” said Haunter,” but she is refusing to believe it.  Or just not thinking about it.  I think she’s deep in denial.”

“A river in Egypt?” I joked.

I’d read that one in an old book, figured it wouldn’t hurt to remind her that I actually did know some things about her old  world.

I was rewarded with a faint smile.

“Condemner is back, and we are Linked to him.  To it.  It is a terrifying truth to face.  But as Irene found out, we won’t be shielded by hiding from it.”

I could appreciate that kind of wisdom.  A lot of people acted like if they kept themselves from finding out about dangerous things they couldn’t be hurt by them, and whatever my differences with Jane were it was nice to know that we both knew that was nonsense.

“Do you think he’ll keep taking out your shadows?” I asked.

“He might try,” she answered, “but they’ve got orders not to get that close to him again, even if it means returning to the reserve.  At the very least if he kills another one of those I protect he won’t be able to claim it was some kind of accident.”

“Are you really considering letting him get away with what he’s done?” I asked.

It would be the reasonable thing to do, of course.  Condemner was a large part of our combat strength, when he got serious, and Jane was the only truly vulnerable member of our Fist, as the Link didn’t protect her shades.

“Of course not,” she said.

Of course not.

“I trust you’ll be delicate in whatever you do,” I said, which was a lie.  “That whole bitch/boss thing I was talking about can flip in an awful hurry if we aren’t united.”

She gave a grim sort of chuckle.

“I’m not sure ‘delicate’ is the right word for what I’m going to do.  But if it works out right we should be free of the threat of Death, and Condemner will be…less of a going concern.”

I probably wouldn’t be able to get anything more clear out of her.  If it had been useful to her plan for me to know about it she would already have enlisted my cooperation.  For all my griping about her odd qualms, I’d never nursed any real doubts about Haunter’s brute competency.

“Jane,” I said.  “This thing that we are doing.  Dale’s decision to protect these young Gods.  It isn’t for nothing.  It isn’t for the Union.  We are starting the future, right here and right now.  This is where it all turns around for us.”

I gave her a broad smile, and let her see my newly healed front teeth.

Values Handshake 2

Karen Austin: <Alright, so what is going on here?>

Forbidding Entity: <In order to accommodate/ameliorate your concerns/desires I will alter my goals/purposes such that you will consent/agree to our partnership/merger.>

Karen Austin: <That sounds reasonable.  Or, fuck, I mean, insofar as you are real and I’m actually having this conversation it would be reasonable.>

Forbidding Entity: <I am considerably more real/actual than your environs/magisteria.>

Karen Austin:<I have no idea how to answer that.>

Forbidding Entity: <My assignments/purposes are to end the distraction/nuisance of the Inviting Entity’s performance/display in this area/epoch.>

Karen Austin: <No objection so far.>

Forbidding Entity: <That means/signifies killing all humans.>

Karen Austin: <Strike that last.  Strong objection.>

Forbidding Entity: <Understood/Comprehended.  State your own priorities/objectives.  I will attempt to find/reach a solution/compromise.>

Karen Austin: <I wish to, uh, continue experiencing life but not experience pain.  And also live out the remainder of my lifespan, and be respected and maybe feared by other people?>

Forbidding Entity: <Acceptable.  Our fusion/solution will experience hedonistic satisfaction/pleasure.  It/We will also be feared.>

Karen Austin: <Didn’t you just say you were killing everyone?  Wouldn’t that include me, or, shit, us?>

Forbidding Entity: <Yes.  As part of my accommodation/allowances to your goals, you will be the last entity/human to die, after a period comparable/similar to your ordinary lifespan/duration.>

Karen Austin: <Just to be clear, I’m going to live a long life as a badass who gets everything she wants?>

Forbidding Entity: <Affirmative/Yes.  Acceptable mental/spiritual state reached.>

Dr. Chen: Congratulations, Ms. Austin, on surviving the Process.  As you are no doubt aware-

Remover: Yeah, I know.

Preventer 8:1

After Legion finished the official welcoming speech she vanished off to somewhere private with some of the Overseers, Haunter and Nirav.  They left us with the assembled Gods of the Pantheon.

I had to work to keep the smile off of my face.

I had wrought this.  Two years ago I sat down at my desk in Shington, Thui brought me a soda and I mapped it all out in my head.  The risk of Her displeasure, impossible to anticipate in any reasonable way, was too extreme.  I needed to join a Fist, and then to get to the Pantheon.  I set my plans in motion.

There had been times when I’d despaired of getting it to work out.  When She sent us to Redo without the Link, when the Union ambushed us and seemed to have us at their mercy, I hadn’t been able to see a way forward.  But I had persevered.

I had chosen my comrades, those that I could influence anyway, perfectly.  I had martialed my agency, carefully anticipating and surmounting those moments when my natural timidity could have ruined everything.  I had even fought in pitched battle, spending freely of my gift to cement my reputation with our rescued Host.

It had all been for this, and it had all paid off.  I was, for the most part, out from under Her heel, in a society where those with my gifts were in charge.  I was Linked to mighty comrades, who had incentive to defend me in order to preserve their own lives.  I was as safe as I was ever likely to be.

This wasn’t absolutely safe, of course.  Death and her ilk were a threat to be overcome, and there was always the possibility that She might feel horny one evening and drag Dale off.  But overall I was feeling less threatened than I had been in quite a long time.  The Gods that surrounded me had had their chance to take a shot, and they’d all backed down.

I allowed myself a quiet tightening of one fist, no more.  There was no gain to be had from boasting of this, no other to whom I could gloat, but in the silence of my mind I breathed a word of congratulations.

Then I set to work.

Fisher was already mingling with the assembled Gods.  No one who looked like the Lure would ever remain an outsider for long, and I watched with envy as she was swallowed up into their ranks.  Whatever she felt about how Nirav was behaving, she was keeping it hidden for now.  That explosion would be pushed out into the future, along with Haunter’s retribution for Irene’s fate.

Dale was doing his own version of mingling, which was more about smiling and being gawked at than it was any particular communication.  I doubted any of them had ever seen anyone or anything quite like our leader before.  He massed more than any two of the people around him, and from his booming laughter it seemed like he was entirely at ease already.  There were times when I almost envied his heedlessness.

My own path was more careful.  I had no fear of what these Ultras could do to my person, but I had to be mindful of the danger that they posed to my image.  This was my first real opportunity to build upon the Host’s reports of me.  I had to be careful not to seem weak or foolish.

I left the main room, heading out into one of the surrounding corridors.  I was ever conscious of the watching eyes, the whispering voices, but I worked hard not to let it show.  No one who ‘tried’ to fit in ever could.  Visible effort would doom me here, I had to fake the same easy confidence that came so easily to my comrades.

I crossed my hands in front of me as the urge to flap them grew stronger.  That would avail me nothing.  It would be counterproductive, and so it would not occur.  I laced my fingers together and took a few more steps, waiting for my timidity to die down.

When it showed no sign of doing any such thing I wheeled in place and strode swiftly over to a pair of Pantheon members standing by one of the walls.  They’d been watching one of the screens that Haunter’s shades had been carrying around, whispering to one another.  At my approach they turned to regard me, giving no sign of their feelings.

“Where is Gonn?” I asked.

“Who?” asked the shorter of the two.  She was definitely from the eastern part of the Pantheon, with slim eyes and dark straight hair.  She was wearing some kind of handmaid body armor, seemingly cobbled together out of old sporting equipment.

“Gonn, the blind healing boy?” I asked.  “He came in with the most recent Fist, there should be a number of people availing themselves of his gift.”

I’d let an opportunity to benefit from his healing slip by me once before, but that had been in far less controlled environs.  If I could get a hold of him in here I ought to be able to manipulate a time and place without any witnesses and finally get rid of the nagging pain of Her casual brutality.

The shorter one stayed quite for a long moment.  Possibly the word ‘availing’ was a bit much for people who wouldn’t have spoken a lot of English before.

The taller of the two spat out something in a language I didn’t understand, and my arms were in motion before she finished the sentence.

The secret to strangling people, I’d learned from my days tending the Garden, was to move smoothly and without ceremony.  I lifted up my hands with the same easy motion I would use to wipe dirt off my shoulder, and had them locked around her throat before she had even realized that I’d started.

Her first reaction was a startled frown and an instinctive jerk away, which didn’t move me an inch.  She fell still after that, wide eyes gaping down at me.

“Let her go!” said the other woman, pointing a hand at me with her palm outstretched.  It gave me the impression that she was threatening me with a gift of some kind.

“I prefer if you speak English in my presence,” I said, keeping a conversational tone.  “I don’t understand your tongue, and the only reason I can think that you’d be keeping secrets from me was if you were insulting me.”

“She wasn’t!” said the young one again.  “She was just asking me what you had said.  She barely understands any of your talk at all.  Please let her go!”

I nodded, solemnly.  My hands, vexingly enough, had stopped their trembling.  It was strange that standing in front of strangers gave me such concern, but I had not a qualm when actively attacking them.

“Please!” said the short one.

It might have been because I had no script for celebrity.  I’d always hidden behind the more famous Ultras in the Lair, behind Adder and Her other flunkies.  I hadn’t had to deal with the regard of anyone that I actually cared about.

The tall one reached up to my arms, and her own trembled furiously where she clutched at me.

She was presumably trying to wrench my grip apart.  I couldn’t tell, but that’s what most people did in her circumstances.  It wasn’t reasonable.  She’d had a better chance at pushing the Sun out of its place in the sky, but people did all sorts of stupid things when their air started to run short.

“Please let her go!” said the short one, again.  She was still pointing a hand at my chest, but she had apparently realized that blasting me would be pointless.

“It seems as though letting her go is suboptimal on my part,” I said.  “Do you understand suboptimal?  I’m not sure how much English you know.”

The taller one slammed her fist into my face, probably with some kind of Ultra Strength, to judge by the way the bones shattered in her hand and arm.

“I understand,” said the short one, speaking quickly now.  “It means wrong.”

“Yes!” I said, putting a delighted tone into my voice.  “If I let her insult me and walk away, then everyone else will insult me.  But if I punish her properly here, then I believe people will learn the lesson.  You see?”

“We have learned the lesson!” she said.

Another God chimed in.  She’d walked over when she saw the fuss.

“We understand, we speak English near you!”

The tall one hit furiously at me, trying to knock me over.  She was probably getting a bit weaker by now.

“If you really understand, then tell me what she said about me.  Be honest this time.”

They looked to one another.

The Ultra with her palm pointed at me spoke first.

“It’s like I said.  She asked what you were said!”

I looked to the other, the one who’d just come over.

She nodded, slowly.

“What did she refer to me as?” I asked.

My victim’s eyes were rolling about wildly in her head.  Her tongue was extended and she was biting at the air.  I’d killed enough people this way to know that I had maybe a minute left.  It looked dramatic, but if I let go at this point she’d just gasp a bit as she recovered.

“Short Foreigner,” said the newcomer.

I looked back at her.

“Short Foreigner,” I said, without putting any expression into my voice.

“She’s just stupid!” begged her friend.  “Please let her go!”

She hadn’t quite collapsed into weeping, but she was on her way.  People always thought that if they just cried in front of me I would do what they said.  As though I didn’t already know that they were sad.

“Do you think ‘Short Foreigner’ is an insult?” I asked her.

She shook her head, furiously.

Thui had done that, I remembered.  Way back when I’d…

My hands let go, slipped back to my side.

“What about you?” I asked, owning it.  “You don’t have a problem with Short Foreigner, do you?  You weren’t trying to bad mouth me?”

She just gagged, heaving great breaths mixed with convulsive coughing.  Pussy.

Mercy was probably the better way to go, all things considered.  I knew enough about societies like this to know that you had to throw someone up against a wall on your first day here, and I’d been meaning to kill the first person to insult me, but thinking on it I was kind of glad it had gone down this way.  An execution would have been at odds with the heroic rep I’d gotten from the battle.

It took her a moment to come to herself, a moment before she was frantically shaking her head and swearing up and down in terribly broken English that Short Foreigner was actually just a description, with nothing whatsoever bad implied by it.

“Glad to hear it,” I said.  “because that is your name now.  You will be Short Foreigner, Shofo for short, from now on.”

She froze for an instant.  Had she been on a path to a Divine Name?  Had she perhaps already had one?  If there was anything that might set her off, this would be it.

Instead she groveled before me, wildly praising her new name.

I had her.  The hardcore orthodox Pantheon, women like Annubis, would never let someone who’d answered to a name given them by the hated Regime know a moment’s peace.  Shofo was bound to me now, as the onlookers carried word of this humiliation back to their fellows.  She would thrive nowhere but in my shadow.

“What’s your name?” I asked the talkative one.

“Fox,” she said.

“Fox,” I echoed.  “It looks like Shofo has hurt her hand.  Would you mind showing us to Gonn, the young healer who came in with the most recent Host?”

She gave a sickly smile, and looked back and forth from Shofo to me.

Got her too.  I’d seen that look plenty in my time in the Lair.  These two were an item.  That explained why Fox hadn’t scampered off when I’d snagged her partner.  It meant that she was already mine, linked inextricably in the mind of her peers with my first minion.

“Of course,” she said, and started leading us through the corridors.

Why had I thought of Thui there?  I’d been so good about keeping him from my mind, ever since that disastrous parting at the porch.

There was no profit to it.  He was either dead or a traitor, beyond doubt.  Either way, nothing good could come of turning my mind to him.

It was the damned uncertainty!

If the Copyer theory was wrong, he’d died before my eyes.  Remover’s beam had erased him, and I had to come to terms with that.   I could have put him behind me.  I’d lost lovers and lieutenants before.

If it had only been a Copy, however, then he was still out there.  Still in First Fist’s clutches.  Still at the mercy of a group that had not the faintest idea what the word meant.  He’d have been broken by now, shaped into their own willing tool.  If I saw him again I’d have to treat him as an enemy.

The pang I felt at the thought was smaller now, nothing like the dramatic grief I’d suffered as we cast off in the Strongboat.  Even if I couldn’t mourn him, I could at least work through my sorrow.  Or so I’d thought until I’d let Shofo go.

It had been beyond stupid.  When we’d been together Thui had never spoken a word, but I’d always felt his silent condemnation of my methods, his fervent hopes that I would become less violent, less cruel.  It had given me pleasure, at the time, to dash those fantasies.  To make sure that my every action had been as optimal and efficient as I could make them.

Thinking back on it now, I wondered if I could actually use those terms for my behavior.  Had I been more cruel than was needful, solely in order to prove to myself that he didn’t control me?  Had I been the fool all along, letting a dagger’s unspoken preferences dictate my actions?  Perhaps.

As stupid as that would have been, this was far dumber.  Thui was gone.  No action of mine would ever disappoint him again.

A flashing stab of pain from my mangled teeth broke me out of this foolish internal spiraling.  That, at least, was a problem I was finally going to do something about.

“We are here,” said Fox.

She gestured at a sort of an archway that yawned out of the wall.  It was less a room than a malformed crevice where two hallways had been squeezed together at some time in the past.

Male Ultras filled it to overflowing, their mutations consigned to the darkness of this cubby so as not to offend their more powerful sisters.

“I…sorry…dust,” said Shofo.

I wasn’t sure what she was talking about, till I saw her gesture at her eyes.

I kept my face expressionless as I wiped the tears away.

Values Handshake 1

Forbidding Entity: <Greetings>

Karen Austin: <What is this?  What’s going on?  How are you communicating to me?>

Forbidding Entity: <A medium/channel of communication/invitation.  We are communicating.  I have superimposed/coexisted onto your greater/freer self’s reasoning center.

Karen Austin: <No Ultra has spoken of any experience like this in their processing.  You must delete their memories of this.>

Forbidding Entity: <Incorrect/Imprecise. Their extralinear partners/consumers were/are unconscious/partaking and no such conversation/negotiation took place.>

Karen Austin: <Why am I being treated differently?>

Forbidding Entity: <I am a being of law/rule enforcement, rather than a pleasure/bliss partaker/imbiber.  I seek an appropriate metaphor/channel of action/murder within this linearity.  You will give rise/birth to that which is apt for this purpose/job.>

Karen Austin: <What is your purpose?  What do you want from me?>

Forbidding Entity: <I seek to forbid/terminate the Inviting Entity’s experiment/stunt.  I have/am already answered your second/subsequent question.>

Karen Austin: <Do I get a say in this?>

Forbidding Entity: <You are aware of the dynamic/pattern of a hostage/father and his victim/mate.  This dynamic mirrors/resembles ours.>

Karen Austin: <I am your hostage?>

Forbidding Entity: <Incorrect/Ridiculous. I am analogous/originator of the role/shape of Law Enforcement/Karen Austin.  I have total power/superiority.  I can kill/end you.  You are resembling/enacting the role of criminal/victim.  You can abort/stifle our merging/partnership and force/allow me to choose another partner/victim.

Karen Austin: <Will I?  If you are beyond time you should know.>

Forbidding Entity: <You will not.>

Overseer 1:4

“Let me give you my pitch,” said Haunter.

We’d adjourned to a more private meeting place, following the debacle of the Contest.  It had been obvious that our reputations wouldn’t be helped by debating these demons openly, and I’d judged that whatever hit we’d take to our image by dealing with them covertly wouldn’t be half so bad as the spectacle of us calmly deliberating with someone while Ninja’s gore dripped from the table.

“Please do,” I said.

Haunter was the only one of the Fist present, along with a few of her projections.  The rest of them were continuing their charm offensive in the big meeting area, having shouting matches with Ann and the rest.

I wasn’t incredibly worried about that.  No amount of clever words would change the fact that we’d only met these people today, and that they were our enemies.  I would rely on the lessons we’d spent years learning and let the Fist put its faith in the persuasive power of a few speeches.  If I called, I had no doubt my army would come.

“First, I need to describe your situation.  Not that you don’t know it, of course.  I just want to prove to you that we understand the dynamics you are dealing with.  I don’t want you to write me off as just some arrogant foreigner.”

“But that’s what you are,” said Genie, her blades sliding along one another with a metallic shiver.  “And a heathen to boot.”

Genie and Yaga were the only two I’d brought with me.  They had the clear heads I thought would be needful for this kind of work, and they were also the two who’d been with me when Death had demanded her loyalty oath.  If I was to take Condemner’s bargain, they were the only two who might understand.

“Let her talk,” I told Genie.

She gave me a quizzical look, to which I responded with a shrug.

If she made a fool of herself we would lose nothing, but I was already picking up that Haunter generally didn’t put her feet wrong.  I’d underestimated the value of human projections before she’d pulled off that trick of broadcasting our first meeting.  I wouldn’t do so again.  If each of her slaves could come up with ideas for her then she ought to be as shrewd as a person could reasonably be.  I’d treat her as such, to be on the safe side.

“You are the Overseers of the foremost camp of the Pantheon’s Grand Host.  A noble position, to be sure.  But what it boils down to is you are basically middle management, and a long way from the home office.”

“What does that mean?” asked Yaga.

“Middle management,” said Haunter, “is the position between the people who make the decisions and the people who take orders.  It was the guy who owned one restaurant, or managed one store, back a long time ago.  They looked like bosses, but they had to take their orders from the ones above them.  You are the same way.”

“We are the glorious leaders of the foremost blade of the Pantheon!”, responded Genie, heatedly.  “Ours is the honor of being the first to the conflict, ours will be the hands that tear down the towers of the wicked.  If you wish to chastise us for serving our Gods, you will find your words fall upon barren soil.”

Haunter pantomimed a wince.

“I guess you might see it that way.  I don’t think you actually do, but it is certainly possible.”

Her manner made plain that she thought the possibility a remote one.

“So if we are not, in your telling, motivated by our hunger for glory, then what does drive us?” I asked.  “If you wish to astound us with your perception you should probably get to the point.”

“You are stuck,” she said simply.  “You found yourself on the top of a very small heap almost on accident, and now you are trapped.  If you try to go back into the Pantheon you will be deserters, scorned by all for abandoning the war effort.  If you try to go anywhere else you are in enemy territory, and you’ll face the Union alone.  You can’t command your troops to do anything serious, can’t launch an all out assault on the enemy or retreat to the other forts.  You spend your time in this dingy building, bullying one another around and trying not to think about the future you don’t have.”

Genie and Yaga erupted in angry denials, but I kept silent.  It was a pretty good summing up, for an outsider.  I hadn’t even realized myself how trapped I was for the first year or so that I ran this place.

I spoke up as they wound down.

“I think you forget one thing,” I said, making my voice as harsh and commanding as possible.  “We are Gods of the Pantheon, with the right of Contest.  If we find ourselves unfulfilled in this position at the tip of the spear we would have no difficulty in taking over other offices.”

That stopped her for a moment.  I didn’t get the impression that she was trying to figure out an answer, rather than she was trying to figure out how to phrase it.

“It is a truth of human, and Ultrahuman, nature that any problem that cannot be solved must be celebrated.  Consequently, I risk angering you were I to properly address the truth of your situation.  I’d like to beg you to hear me out as dispassionately as possible.”

I made a slashing gesture with my hand, nodding impatiently.

“I have no doubt you tell each other that your position on the edge of Union territory hardens, you, that you are far more deadly than the Gods of the middle or rear forts.  This is a lie you use to comfort yourselves, but it is most likely part of your identity at this point.  I’d like you to consider it very carefully.”

We stared at her in sullen silence, willing her to get to the point.

“In order to win a Contest against the Ultras who lead the forts further in your own territory you would have to gather greater forces than they.  Setting out to dethrone them you would have essentially the same experience that we are having, quickly finding yourselves alone in hostile territory, with your foes holding every advantage.”

One of her projections handed her one of those communication rectangles, she looked at it for a moment, then handed It back.

“So you tell yourselves that you are only here for a moment.  Only gathering forces.  That the next pilgrimage will give you the follower who will enable your usurpation of a fort that isn’t in a war zone.  Maybe one with some civilians nearby you can boss around.  A place to get a decent drink, some creature comforts, no danger.  But the time never comes.  Have you ever bothered to work out why?”

“The best Gods get snatched up by the other forts before they reach us,” said Genie.

She seemed to have recovered a little bit of her poise during Haunter’s monologue.  I was quietly glad of it.  Anger would not serve us in this moment.  We needed to make our decisions with a clear head.

“Yes.  Far from being strengthened by your constant conflict with the Union, you are degraded.  You aren’t allowed to attack.  You aren’t permitted to retreat.  You cannot win a Contest when every Ultra who joins your side is one that your superiors have passed up.  Your only choice is to stay here, letting season turn in to season, until you eventually get so stir crazy you start going out with the new Hosts.”

Yaga started to raise an angry rebuttal, but I cut her off with another gesture.

“Let’s say, for a moment, that what you are saying is true.  So what?” I asked.

Haunter smiled, more, I think, at the fact that I was capable of entertaining unflattering notions than at the fact that I was letting her go off on another rant.

“Well, your predicament actually meshes pretty well with ours.  Let me talk about us for a second, before I get to the answer to that question.  I assure you it will be worth the wait.”

This lady really liked to hear herself talk.

“Our own situation is almost the opposite of yours.  We have no vassals, no safe haven.  Our master is far away, and She has little interest in micromanaging us.  She sent us to negotiate with your lords, and this is a task that we’d like to discharge.  But we have another goal as well, one that I alluded to in our earlier meeting.”

“Is this the part where you offer to protect us?” asked Yaga.  “Or have you give up condescending to us as a persuasion strategy?”

Haunter’s smile grew a bit pained.

“Our leader has a big heart.  You’ll have noticed he’s a big guy.  He doesn’t like to see kids get hurt.  He’d rather your followers stop throwing themselves into the Union’s guns.  As far as protecting ‘you’…”

She made a gesture to indicate she was referring to just us Overseers now.

“Ask Mireuk how protective Dale is.  Ask Angel or Cyclops.  I’ve persuaded him that working with you is the best way to keep your Hosts safe, but he couldn’t possibly care less about your well being as an ultimate object.”

“So,” I said, forestalling my subordinates before they could waste time expressing how little they cared about what the Fist cared about, “You want to help us out, so that our followers fare better.  And you see common cause here.”

She gave a quick nod.

“All we want from you is that you stop sending on the Hosts.  I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors, that Zeus is on the march?  We are in a position to confirm those.  The end of this year will be the end of the war, one way or the other.  There will be three more Hosts between then and now.  Three more sets of Ultras being sacrificed for almost literally nothing.  We’d like to see that not happen.”

Could I believe her?  I’d heard the whispers, of course.  Everyone had.  The Brides were coming.  Zeus was coming.  The end was coming.  But nothing concrete.  Nobody important would put their neck out on it.

“How would heathen like you track the Gods’ movements?” asked Yaga.  “Are you expecting us to believe that some among the righteous would endanger their souls by informing on the Council?”

Haunter looked at her like a fool, and I was honestly tempted to join her.

“The Company reports back to the Demon,” I reminded her.  “And I’m sure there are other ways.  If Zeus has really begun his pilgrimage, I have no doubt that the world is trembling.”

I felt a hot rush sweep through me at the thought.  At last, it was coming.  Our Father was stirring, the Lightning Lord striding forth at the end of all things, to strike down the Demon and usher in…

I forced myself from my reverie, thoughts of Death chasing it from my mind.

“So you would defend us, would you?  If we allow the Pilgrims to stop short of the enemy and shelter with us, you would join your strength to ours?” I asked.

“It would suit our own ends to do so,” she said.  “We seek an audience with your master, by Her command.  We know he will stop here.  We seek to defend your followers, and this is where they will gather.  An alliance with you makes sense.”

“To you, perhaps.  But why shouldn’t we just destroy you,” asked Genie.

Haunter made a gesture that seemed to concede the point, a sort of flinging motion with one finger.

“That might have been optimal play for you this morning, prior to our arrival, when we were just an anonymous enemy.  But as matters stand that path would be unwise.  You are unable to harm Preventer, and consequently you cannot destroy us.  Your followers have mingled with those we communicated our aims with, and thus any unsuccessful battle with us will be known for the ego salving waste of lives it would be.  This will bring resentment, rebellion.  Despite your vast numerical advantage you no longer have the capacity to destroy us, if you ever did.”

“What of Death?” I asked.  “Let’s put all our cards on the table.  We both know, based on what your friend said earlier, that she can break your Fist apart, even if she can’t kill that invincible bitch.  What’s your play if we kill the rest of you and bring her before Death?”

She gave a calm smile.

“Nirav must have told you how Death operates, yes?  She is a parasite.”

Genie and Yaga bristled to hear one of the Council so described.

“She steals the gifts of others, those who have sworn to her, letting her put hands on them while they pledged their fealty.”

I saw the moment they realized it, when they matched what Haunter was saying with the Oath.

“If she arrives she will take your gifts away.   Permanently.  Whatever our fate, you will be powerless in the midst of a culture with nothing but contempt for the weak.”

“She wouldn’t, she couldn’t take our gifts,” said Genie.

Her voice lacked conviction, however.   We’d all heard the rumors that swirled around Death.  How her escorts rarely lasted in her service.  How her powers were vast beyond reason, ever changing and defying all lasting description.  Even hints that Brides To Be had disappeared upon graduation from the Camp, never arriving at Olympus.

I reached out, rested a hand on her shoulder.  I was not surprised to feel a trembling there.  Anger or fear, or maybe both at once.

“You have allowed us to infiltrate your fortress, lost a Contest to servants of the Demon and more besides.  She won’t give you a second thought.  You are entirely expendable to her designs.  She couldn’t care less who rules this outpost.”

Haunter spoke with a lot of certainty, but I was reasonably sure this was all bluff and surmise.  I was willing to buy a lot from them, but there was no way an outsider could truly scan the heart of the Council.  She was guessing.

Unfortunately, I shared that guess.  Death had asked me about my power, but never my name.

“You wish to remain here.  Among us.  Until Zeus arrives?  If he arrives?” I asked.

Genie and Yaga shot me appalled glances, but they were only dealing with this shock now.  I’d been mulling it over since Condemner first delivered his oblique threat.  If I hadn’t believed him I wouldn’t have bothered with this meeting.

“Yes.  In return we will defend you from all attackers.  Whether that means Death or the Union.  For your part we wish only that you cease to send forth the Hosts, and that when Zeus arrives you present us as Her ambassadors.”

I waited.

“And Nirav will free you from Death’s yoke.  Your divine powers will be safe again.”

Genie and Yaga didn’t erupt this time.  They just kept looking at me, realizing that I had made up my mind.  They’d known me long enough to understand that I was a survivor.  They were the same.  It was why they were in here where the decision was being made, instead of out with Annubis, shouting at the unimportant members of the Fist.

It hadn’t been an easy call.  I wasn’t firmly wedded to it, even now.  But the dilemma didn’t have any other way out.  And I could feel in my bones that Death’s threat was as they described it.

“You’ve got yourself a deal, Ambassador.”