“So, a small group from deeper in the Pantheon?” Jane asked.
Obviously, given her reserve, she hadn’t actually forgotten or misheard him. I figured she just wanted him to talk a bit more, try and see what was up with Dale.
“Indeed. Going by the pattern of the impacts they were walking in a ring formation, with a few at the center that their leader judged needed to be protected.”
I moved the Hook around behind Dale, or whatever was wearing his skin. Whatever had altered his vocabulary hadn’t bothered to learn how he normally spoke before doing so.
“Dale,” said Haunter, and then just kind of paused.
“What’s going on with you?” asked Preventer. “You don’t sound like you normally do.”
Dale reached up and scratched his chin, looked from left to right.
“After Ann poisoned me, I was able to recover my bearings with the aid of another of Lotus’ mixtures. This one greatly augmented my intelligence.”
“Umm,” I said, “I don’t think it works like that. Being smarter shouldn’t teach you a lot of big words you didn’t know before.”
Even as they looked at the Lure I moved the Hook again, sidling up against Nirav. He reached up and idly scratched my side, the heat of his hands a pleasant warmth against my armored hide.
In reality, I was positioning it to flank Dale if this got messy, but Nirav’s attentions were a nice side benefit.
“I’ve always known many words,” said Dale, considering one of his hands as though it was the first time he’d ever seen it, “I suspect that most individuals do. What’s different is that now, for whatever reason, I feel as though I have the time, or attention, to carefully select each one as I speak. The subset that I used before, I now realize, was partially a mask, a compensation for my own feelings of-“
Nirav cut him off.
“That’s kinda convenient, if you are some kind of a brain jacker. You can just explain away all of the weirdness by telling us that it is this potion.”
I felt a cold pang deep within as I heard his tone break mid sentence. I hadn’t even considered how this would affect Nirav, in light of his experiences with the monster within. There was no way it could fail to bring back memories of his own possessor, perhaps even unearth some of the creature’s vile memories.
I leaned into him, pressed armored flesh against his in silent support.
“It is well known,” said Dale, “that Ultra gifts cannot compel the soul. What you propose, for another to speak through my mouth, would be a violation of this rule. Fisher has demonstrated,” and here he made an open handed gesture towards me” that this law is perhaps less ironclad than we initially believed. But I think we can still rely upon the core of it. If the Pantheon could compel an Ultra of my gifts, then they would use this capability on Her, and the world would look very different.”
I twisted the Lure’s face into a smile I’d seen a long time ago on an old world magazine cover, inwardly fuming about his mentioning aloud my gift’s more covert application. Despite using it against the Union it was still at least mostly a secret, and the real Dale would have known about that.
“I still feel you through the Link,” said Jane. “I doubt that that could be fooled.”
That was a point that I hadn’t considered. I let myself feel for Dale, found him instantly right before me, his form as plain in the Link as either of mine. Nothing seemed awry.
“For now, can we stipulate that I am Dale enough for our purposes?” he asked. “The visitors are no doubt being shown to our hosts even now. I believe we would do better to be involved in whatever comes of this, if only to make sure they are not coordinating a strike on us.”
No one found that particularly persuasive.
“Nirav, you’ve known some odd things lately,” said Preventer, pointedly looking at Dale. “Does whatever source you got your info about Death from give you anything on whether or not our fearless leader is still in control of himself?”
I looked down at her, with both of my forms.
“What are you implying?” I asked.
“Betty,” he said, a wince in his voice.
I’d clutched him tightly to the side of the Hook, curling tendrils about him. A bit too tightly, apparently.
I released him, stepped back away.
“I haven’t learned anything from the male Ultras about Dale,” he said, “Other than what we already knew. He is a total badass.”
I knew Nirav was deliberately trying to defuse my anger towards Preventer, but I had to admit it worked.
“So, wait, the male Ultras were the ones who told you about Death?” asked Jane. “But how did they know?”
“How should he know that?” I demanded, angered by their badgering. “Do you want to ask me how I knew that vocabulary was different from being smart? Or does only Nirav have to justify the things he brings to our group.”
He patted the Hook gently, trying to get me to subside.
“Let’s not fight,” said Nirav, ever the peacemaker. “I believe I can satisfy us all as to Dale being the real thing and not an imposter.”
“How?” asked Preventer.
“He got word of possible enemies, and immediately came to meet up with us, inside and off the ground.”
There was a silent beat, then we all started chuckling.
Dale scratched his own head, furiously.
“I believed that the strategic disadvantage of division weighed more heavily than my own temporary lack of access to my gift’s full potential.”
We just kept chuckling, Preventer actually laughing out loud.
“Tell the truth,” I urged him. “You just want to win a fourth fight today without using your gift! You are going for a record!”
Somehow, it seemed like this had settled things. We all started walking, heading towards the central chamber where the Overseers would be, disregarding Dale’s weirdly articulate protests that he had totally used his gift in the first two fights.
As we walked, I noticed with a bit of jealousy that some of the others had been making friends last night. Dale bumped fists with a tall gangly woman. Haunter’s shades dropped in and out of her in a rapid stream, no doubt bringing payloads of information about the fort’s inhabitants. Even Preventer chatted briefly with a pair of Gods.
According to Jane, she’d strangled them into becoming her allies somehow, which sounded about right.
I’d intended to spend last night similarly, ranging among the inhabitants, dipping my shadow into theirs and building a notion of the values that moved the Gods of the fort. Even without the ability to refashion them, as I had the leaders of the Union embassy, it might have revealed vital information.
But Nirav had needed me.
He’d spent the night weeping, ardently ashamed of Irene’s death. He had beaten himself up about that slip for hours, asking himself desperately if there was any way that he could have saved her.
I had held him. Reassured him too, of course, and argued with him when it seemed like that was what he needed, but mostly just held him.
He was so torn, so damaged. The wounds Condemner had inflicted could fly open at the slightest touch. I shuddered again, thinking of how cavalierly we’d raised the specter of a possessing force, never considering what that might do to Nirav’s fragile soul.
We entered the meeting room, buoyed by the murmur of the crowd. The halls of Barad Dur, I was learning, were many things, but never lonely.
The place was not as packed as it had been during yesterday’s meet and greet. There were fewer Gods around the perimeter, and Legion only had Genie with her to represent the local administrators.
The ones on the opposite side of the table, the visitors, were clearly the main focus of the attention.
Their leader, the one in the middle, was a slim Goddess with short hair, surrounded by a visible aura. It was a sort of pale blue energy, and as I watched it picked up a packet from her side and tossed it over to Legion.
Beside her was another woman, fat, with stringy brown hair. An ugly face, one unashamed of its own hideousness. She had nothing obviously unnatural about her, but her manner was far too proud to be a dagger’s. If I wasn’t misreading things I’d say that this was the strongest member of their group.
The last woman in their delegation waved at us as we approached. Seeing her, I wasn’t so sure that my Lure was the most attractive form in the room anymore. She was tall and slim, aside from her chest, with the kind of long hair that had to take at least an hour to do anything with. She had to be a form changer.
“Ah, my new advisers!” said Legion, making a gesture of welcome to us. “Zilla’s people should meet you, they were just asking about you.”
Zilla, I’d heard somewhere, was the main Goddess in charge of the Pantheon’s Great Host. Legion’s immediate boss.
I kept the Hook just outside the door. If things didn’t jump off I’d pull it into my shadow, then use my gift to find out what these newcomers were about. If a fight did break out, I’d be grateful to have a form hidden outside.
“This is Winter,” said Genie, as she caused a metal arrow to point at the pretty one, “Monster,” and the arrow flew over to point at the fat one, “and Beth.”
She didn’t need to indicate the one in the middle, halo’d in blue energy.
“Beth?” asked Dale.
“Beth,” said the leader. Her aura shifted to a sort of orangeish color.
“Is that a divine name?” asked Preventer.
“You want to do a Contest, get killed over it?” asked Beth.
Preventer shook her head.
I wasn’t sure why she’d turned that down. Surely no one could harm her, and she’d killed Ninja yesterday easily enough. Maybe it was the fear of Death.
We were all conscious of it. New arrivals from deeper inside of Pantheon territory should have been rare, aside form the Hosts. For them to show up right after we arrived kind of indicated that they were a response, of some sort. We had to be alert for Death slipping in without our knowing, then picking one of us off to break our Link.
The Host would do the rest. For all of Preventer’s bullying, Dale’s heroics, it was only the fact that they thought they couldn’t kill us that was keeping us alive, I was pretty sure. If we lost the Link then those of us who weren’t Preventer would have to leave fast.
“I didn’t feel like changing my name,” said Beth. “Why can’t there be a new God?”
Jane nodded her approval.
“Times are changing,” she said, her tone indicating agreement. “Why else would a Regime Fist be sent to advise a Pantheon stronghold? Old rules aren’t holding anymore.”
I looked carefully at each of the newcomers to see their reaction to this. None gave me much in response. Monster met my eye and made an obscene gesture, but that was about it.
“Zilla agrees,” said Winter.
She gave a disarming smile as she continued.
“She understands that your appearance portends a great change, perhaps to this war zone, perhaps to the world at large. If the Demon intends to take a role in this year’s fight, then it behooves us all to pay close attention. She’d like for you to join us at the central fortress, give your master’s words a proper audience.”
Dale shook his head.
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” he said. “Our interests require that we remain close to the front lines, always ready to do our part against the Union, should fighting break out.”
He was trying to rein in his new tendency to use bigger words, sound at least somewhat like his old self. If he wasn’t lying about this being from one of Lotus’ drinks then Legion and Genie, at least, ought to know what was up with him.
“Why is that?” asked Monster. Her voice was surprisingly melodious. I’d been anticipating something as abrasive as her appearance and mannerisms.
“Her orders, I’m afraid,” said Jane.
I imagined that that had been the result of a lot of interior debate. There was definitely something to be said for and against going any further into the Pantheon’s lands, much less meeting up with the leader of the Grand Host. The discussion must have been furious in the limited time that Dale had bought them.
“I see,” said Winter, gentle disapproval coloring her voice.
“Is that going to be a problem?” asked Nirav.
He was apprehensive, I could see, for all that he was trying to hide it. I knew that he was terrified of exercising his gift in any serious way, petrified that doing so could return the creature from the depths of his mind.
I intended to make sure he never had to.
“Yeah,” said Monster.
There was a long silence. We all tried our best to get ready for a fight without looking like we were getting ready for a fight.
The biggest unknown, aside from the newcomer’s gifts, was how Legion and Genie would act, and whether any of the surrounding Ultras might jump in. This could go really bad, really quickly.
“It means we’ll have to kick some of your Gods out of their rooms for a while,” said Winter. “Legion, dearest, do you think you could compensate them? I’d hate for anyone to be put out by our stay.”
Legion nodded, as the tension eased back out of the room.
“Your… stay?” asked Genie.
“You didn’t think Zilla was going to leave our negotiations with the Regime in anyone else’s hands?” asked Beth. “We’ll be the ones to deal with this Fist, and any others that might show up.”
“Others?” I asked, regretting the word the instant it had left my mouth.
“Just a rumor,” murmured Winter, her voice somehow finding its way to me, “I doubt there’s anything to it. A Union strike force couldn’t have been defeated so easily, even by a Fist.”
“We’ll be happy to deal with you,” said Jane. “Please convey our appreciation to Zilla, and to Death.”
Another pause, similarly pregnant with violent implications.
“Death?” asked Winter. “Are you threatening us in some roundabout way?”
Her manner made it seem like she would regret that, like she craved an amicable resolution.
“My apologies,” said Jane, “I misspoke. I was trying to wish you long life.”
Obviously Jane hadn’t misspoke, but I felt my apprehension climb a notch. Zilla’s goons were pretty highly placed, as far as Pantheon leaders went. If Legion had been contacted by Death, then there was very little chance that her boss had escaped. They were trying to trick us when they acted like they didn’t know what Haunter was referring to.
I could imagine a few innocent reasons for such a deception, but the most obvious was that they were covering for Death. They might actually be here to deal, might be some kind of fact finding expedition, but the most obvious explanation was that they were a distraction, meant to allow Death to infiltrate the fort.
“Of course,” said Beth. “Long life.”