I tried to head back to warn the rest of my Fist immediately, but apparently that wasn’t how this was supposed to go.
Winning a Contest was a big deal, it turned out, and winning three in a row was pretty much unheard of. Everybody wanted to congratulate me, and also each other. Also they were drinking a lot, and basically it became some kind of big social thing, pretty much instantly.
It seemed like it would be very rude to just kind of push people out of the way, so I went along with it. People raised my hands up, they yelled phrases that I didn’t understand, and they asked a lot of questions.
I answered as best as I could. They didn’t ask anything too hard, and I’d had some practice in the Ultra Fight circuit doing this kind of thing. I didn’t feel like I mucked anything up too badly.
“How did I feel?”, got “Proud, and tired.” “Tough fights?” got “My opponents were very strong, and I learned a lot,” and so on. I tried to give as many props as I could without sounding like I was making fun of the guys I’d beaten.
I caught the eye of one of Haunter’s shades on the edge of the circuit, and gave a signal that we’d worked out ahead of time. It didn’t convey any details, but we’d agreed that if any of us gave a big exaggerated wink to one of Haunter’s shades it meant that danger was coming.
She blipped away, presumably back to Jane’s reserve. It would have to do for now.
One of Ragnarock’s closest guys showed up right in front of me, holding his bosses knife. I was getting ready to be stabbed when he swapped it around and gave me the handle part.
“Yours now,” he said, and vanished back into the press.
At least, I thought he said that. His English wasn’t great, and there was a lot of hubbub about us. But that made more sense than anything else I could think of for him to say while handing me a knife.
It made me feel better about the previous fight. The knife probably signified that he was accepting the outcome, and wouldn’t come after me again. Or else it was a promise that he would get me someday, in which case he was minus one knife, so that was good too.
I slipped it into my belt, and promptly scratched myself along the side as someone jammed up against me, babbling wildly in a language I couldn’t process.
I smiled down at her, finally reaching one of the doors. I hauled myself inside.
Two of the Overseers were hanging out in this hallway, chatting casually and holding drinks. I’d have to walk by them to get deeper into the building.
I racked my brain, trying desperately to remember which these two were.
I’d just learned this a few days ago, but I was super bad with names, and these two didn’t have any terribly distinctive marks to differentiate them.
“Hey Indulger,” said the one leaning up against the wall.
I saw the scar by her mouth as she spoke. This one was Lotus. Guess there was a mark after all.
Haunter’s summary of the situation said that she was more like a prize for the main leaders than a leader herself. A decent portion of the Ultras were addicted to stuff that her gift made. She wasn’t supposed to be dangerous unless someone else was prompting her to make a move.
“Hi Lotus,” I said, stopping.
I was in a hurry, but interactions with the Overseers were just about the most important thing right now, and between Nirav having whatever meltdown he was undergoing and Preventer strangling people it was super important to do some patching up.
The outsiders had still been minutes away when I’d stepped inside. I had time for a brief conversation.
“I saw your battles,” she said. “Very impressive.”
She gave me a kind of a half smile as she said it, and a shiver went through me. Somehow, despite their faces looking nothing alike, she had Her leer.
“Ok,” I said. “Bye.”
That wasn’t good. I was supposed to be friendly to these people. I couldn’t go running off just because they made bad memories come up.
“Where are you going?” asked the other Overseer.
This was the angry one, the one that hated us. Annarchy or something like that. She’d done a lot of talking at the big meeting.
“I just wanted to go talk to my friends,” I told her. “Fist stuff, you know. They will probably also want to congratulate me on managing to squeak by those Contests.”
“Squeak by?” she asked, with a sort of a dubious tone in her voice, “none of those boys could give a God of your caliber any trouble.”
“Oh no!” I corrected her. “They were all super tough. The last guy in particular, with the time out room, he almost totally had me.”
They both laughed at that. Lotus laughed kind of like Betty, Ann laughed like a person who just saw another person fall off something high.
“Time out room?” asked Lotus, this time with delight in her voice, “that’s just priceless. Did you know he has called it the ‘World of Blood and Might?”
“The Wolf Age?” supplied Ann.
I cringed inwardly, embarrassed on Rag’s behalf.
“Those are way better names,” I said. “I was just trying to come up with one on the spot, that’s why I picked such a bad one. The main thing is that it is a great gift. He is a strong god.”
“Sure,” said Ann. “I’m sure he feels really strong right now, as the cripple licks his wounds.”
I didn’t have a lot to say to that, so I just kind of pushed between them.
Lotus spilled something all down my arm.
“Oops,” she said. “Now you’re all wet.”
It wasn’t like I’d exactly been clean before, but I still stopped to examine the spill on my arm.
It was some kind of oily black drink, nothing I’d ever seen before. It disappeared rapidly from my skin, very little of it falling down onto my legs or the ground.
“Sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t’ve bumped you.”
“You didn’t,” said Lotus, with a tone of amusement in her voice.
I stood for a moment, trying to figure out what was so funny. If I didn’t bump her then I didn’t bump her so I didn’t bump her. That made sense out of sense.
“Why don’t you drink my portion?” Ann asked. “To make up for spilling the last one.”
Why didn’t I? I had never thought about that before. I’d lived so long without ever asking this important question. I wheeled around to face little Ann, trying to figure out the answer.
“I think that I think that I…” I trailed off, my words not going how I wanted them to not go.
Ann didn’t say anything, just thrust her glass up into my face.
I took it away and drank the drink. I coughed a little, but my mouth remembered how to swallow, even if my thoughts tried to make a hash of it.
“Take a seat,” said Ann.
That sounded like a great idea. I reached down and tried to pick up the floor. It was stuck to the floor underneath it, so I just kind of yanked on it a bit.
“Sit down,” said Lotus, to me.
I took a seat.
“They are very literal in this state,” she said to her friend. “Don’t use figures of speech.”
I knew she wasn’t talking to me, but that didn’t stop me from trying not to make fingers out of speech. A good first step seemed to be not saying words.
“Why are you here?” asked Ann.
I guess I’d have to use some words after all.
“I walked over here to tell Jane about the thing she needs to be told about.”
“You have to be more pointed,” said Lotus. “Indulger, tell us why you and the other Regime Ultras came to this fortress.”
“We are hiding from Her,” I said. “We are hiding in this place which is our hiding place.”
They shared a look.
“What do you mean?” asked Ann.
That question through me for a loop. What did I mean? What, summing it all up, was the reason for my existence? There had to be an answer.
“Why are you hiding from Prevailer?” asked Lotus.
Surely they had to already know the answer to that question.
“Because she is scary,” I told them. “I don’t like when she hurts me.”
“Tell us the real reason!” said Ann.
“Because she is scary,” I told them again, but Lotus interrupted me before I could go any further.
“That’s not how this works. My gift has severed what would need to be there for there to be a ‘real reason’. You have to ask a different question that frames it differently. It isn’t mind control.”
I pitched sideways slightly, unsure whether I was really the one who was moving, or whether it was the world turning about me.
“Do you think Prevailer will hurt you, if she finds you?” asked Lotus.
“She hurt me before,” I told her. “Past stuff usually looks a lot like future stuff.”
Ann ground her teeth.
“Why are you hiding now, when you didn’t have to hide before?”
That was a good question. I considered it for a moment, then considered my consideration.
“I think, my thoughts are…”
I trailed off as the part of me that was thinking outran the part of me that was speaking.
Ann looked like she was about to talk again, but Lotus held her hand up, let me get the words out.
“We were supposed to go to Olympus, to guard Adder while he negotiated,” I related.
It was freeing to get the words out, after struggling so hard to find them.
“She will be mad that we didn’t obey Her, so we hope She doesn’t find us.”
“Satisfied?” asked Lotus.
“It’s a trick,” insisted Ann. “Surely you can see that. He is using some triviality to obscure their real motivations. He just wants us to drop our guards, let them take over.”
“That part of him isn’t home right now,” said Lotus. “This is real. I’ve never seen anyone able to conceal the truth after 2 glasses of Black. His mind is chasing itself in circles right now, and everything not sourced in his memories will be hunted and eliminated. He can’t generate enough of a narrative to fool himself, much less anyone else.”
I didn’t pay much attention to her words, which didn’t seem to be a question or instruction or anything that I might need to react to. I put everything, instead, into trying to remember why I’d come here. First off, I had to remember why I had to remember why I’d come here. But I couldn’t do that until I remembered why I remembered why…
“They are Regime!” said Ann. “Deception and cruelty are woven into their very bones. I’d wager every single count in my Talley that they’ve come to destroy us all.”
“You’d lose,” said Lotus. “The dice have stopped, the pips can be read. We know why they are here.”
“Tell us the real reason!” said Ann. “Tell us about what you plan to do to us! Not that shit you gave the audience, the real motive for you coming here.”
Having someone else’s questions helped so much. It let me ford through my memories, like dropping an anchor into clouded waters. Her question prompted me, spurred my thoughts in the direction of what she sought.
“We want to protect you,” I said. “I got sad when I saw the video of the Union shooting all those kids, so I made us do stuff to make it stop happening.”
“Lies!” she hissed. “Lies from your own mouth! You’ve won three Contests today against those very Gods you claim to wish to defend! I don’t know how you’ve fooled the Black Night of the Soul, but it won’t work, you hear me? I’ll unmask you.”
Lotus shoved Ann a bit, pushed her away from me.
“Three Contests alright, but how many did he kill?”
Ann merely glared at her, making a token effort to push herself back up in my face but not really trying too hard.
“None,” said Lotus. “He didn’t kill a single one of them.”
Lotus turned her head to me, but not so far it lost sight of Ann.
“Indulger, could you have killed those three Gods you faced in Contest today?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said, my memories once again wheeling about surging about me.
“He’s lying!” said Ann, but without much force.
Lotus took a step back from her, ending at my side.
“I agreed to help you question him, to do more if it turned out to be required. As far as I am concerned, it isn’t. You might want a head start, because I’m going to give him some Yellow.”
“You crazy bitch!” said Ann. “You would turn aside from our…”
Lotus splashed something onto my arm.
I fell out of my seat, eyes widening.
My memories ceased to swirl around me, my thoughts ceased to devour themselves, but their frantic pace did not slow in the slightest.
Lotus stood above me, offering a hand to assist to my feet.
I took it without reservations, instantly calculating that any harm she intended me would have been far easier to enact while I’d remained looped within her dark potion’s grip.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
My instinct was to deny that she had anything to apologize for, a harmless lie I’d used to set many at ease over the years. But now I realized that saying as much would cause my leverage over her to expire.
“I understand why you did it,” I told her.
She looked to one side, released me.
“I hope that you trust me now,” I told her. “And that you can spread the word of what happened here to your kin, hopefully faster than Annubis can spread her suspicions. Doing so will go a long way towards canceling out any distrust that your unprovoked attack might have caused.”
“Too much yellow?” she asked, holding her hand above her glass, which swiftly refilled with a dull grey solution.
I took a step back. It was likely that my mind was, in fact, still altered, but my analysis of this alteration was that its effects, taken overall, were beneficial, and might aid me in my efforts to warn Jane of the approaching Pantheon forces.
“I’m fine,” I said.
I hastened away before she could inquire further, moving through the door and into the central chambers.
Previously, the warren like interior had been something of a maze to me, but in my current state I had no difficulty. My memories told me the places lay, and the glances of the inhabitants told me of the whereabouts of the remainder of the Fist I commanded.
I found them in a narrow room, something like an office.
Jane smiled warmly at me, beckoned me into the circle. She had plainly gathered them all up in response to the message that the shade had conveyed to her. I made a note to express my appreciation for her diligence when time permitted.
“We have a problem,” I told them. “In fact, we have at least two problems.”
I told them about the newcomers in as much detail as I was able. It gained me nothing to omit any of that information.
As far as my most recent encounter, however, I told a slightly altered version. In my telling, Ann had used a drought stolen from Lotus or one of her customers to subdue and question me. I omitted Lotus’ culpability in the incident from the narrative entirely.
If anyone harmed her it would cut me off from more Yellow, and I needed to be at my best going forward.