“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.”
“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.”