Condemner 7:2

I followed Haunter into a side room, ducking through the door and whipping my head back and forth as I did so.

No shades waiting on either side to shoot me or throw buckets of water.  No shades at all, in fact.  Jane was the only other person in this room, and she took a seat in a beanbag chair, slouching down onto the floor.

I stood for a moment, weighing my options.  When I’d stepped into the room I had no assurances that she wouldn’t take a shot at me.  If I was reading her present posture right, she was returning the favor.

I squatted down across from her, maybe ten feet away.

A long beat passed, then another.

“So,” I said.

She just looked at me for a moment, and then she responded.

“So.”

Outside, in the main room, things would be progressing with Preventer’s celebration.  They’d be dealing with Zilla’s emissaries, figuring out how this incident had complicated our arrangement with Legion, lots of important stuff.

But here we sat.  Because this was more complicated.  Because you couldn’t work out anything else while keeping your guard up for sudden murder.  Because this had been coming a long time.

She spoke again.

“Condemner, I presume?”

I took another second to choose the words carefully.

“That’s a complicated question.  I’m not sure, myself, of the exact answer.  I’ve been using 70% Condemner as my estimate, with the remainder of my persona drawn from the things people liked the most about Nirav.”

Jane took a moment to process that, drumming her fingers idly on the beanbag’s surface.

“I’m going to need some more details.  Ideally an explanation of the whole way you work.  It’s not… I need to understand this, fully.  After Irene, after today, if there is going to be any kind of future for us, you are going to have to lay your cards on the table.”

Had a shade watched me, earlier?  Did she know that I’d just taken up cards?  Stupid question, of course she did.  She was a hive, a committee.  It wouldn’t do to underestimate the amount of information that she had access to.

“All right,” I said.  “All right.  I can do that.  But, fair warning, a lot of it there aren’t words for, or context for, or something.  I’m not going to try and obfuscate anything, but at the end there might still be a shade or two of uncertainty.  Some of what I have to say literally doesn’t fit in the world.”

Jane shook her head.

“Try me.”

Alright, I guess I was doing this.

I stood a moment, putting my thoughts in order, giving my greater self one final chance to push this into violence.

“Ok, so, like I said, I’m not pure Condemner.  You’d be on fire right now if I was.  I’m another mask, like Nirav, see?  I was made to fit into the Nirav shaped grip that Linker’s gift accepted.  I replaced Nirav when he got nuked.  I’ve been running the show since.”

Jane held up a finger for silence.  I stopped talking to let her get a question in.

“Before the nuke, was Nirav actually running the show?  Or was Condemner just lying in wait?”

“That was before my time,” I responded, “But as far as I can tell he was just hanging back.  When Preventer killed him, in his fire form, he thought that was it for this experience.  The Link working was a pleasant surprise to him, but the only part of him it latched with was Nirav.  He spent the next life trying very hard not to rock the boat, preparing to swap Nirav out with me once that was an option.”

“This experience?” asked Jane.  “Are you saying that Condemner is aware of a time before the Process?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “He’s… an angel, I guess?  Or something similar.  All the gifts are.  He’s just awake.”

Even Jane couldn’t repress a start at that.

I didn’t think it was because of the content of what I’d said.  She had to hear crackpot theories all the time.  One of her minions had probably speculated something terribly similar at one time or another.

But I’d said it in the calm, matter of fact manner of someone who was just clarifying a point, just explaining the evident truth.

I enjoyed shaking her a bit, though I was entirely cognizant that she could just be aping the reaction to get more out of me.

“Condemner, the fire demon…is an angel?” she asked, her voice deadpan.

I gave a rueful chuckle.

“Or a djinn, or an extraplanar monster.  Your language can’t compass them.  They are creatures of a more fundamental reality.”

Jane steepled her fingers, which looked a bit silly from someone sprawled in a beanbag chair.

“It isn’t really an improvement on things if you ‘come clean’ by spouting a lot of clichés.  I don’t know any more than I did before whether you decide to call gifts ‘angels’ or not, particularly if it all comes wrapped up in a ‘I don’t mean what I say it is too big for your little human mind’ wrapper.”

“All right, all right,” I said.  “I’ll try and be as dry and matter of fact as I possibly can, but there really are some difficulties, like…”

I thought a sec, then inspiration struck.

I reached into my sleeve, pulled out a pack of cards.

“Look,” I said.  “Imagine that this pack of cards is made of sentient things, that inhabit a little baby universe, ok?  They just act out the games that we play with them, all day long.  They organize into hands, bid for contracts, take tricks off one another, repeat.  That’s their existence, get it?”

She gave a short nod.

“All right, now you end up in card world, somehow.  You speak to an old card who gathers the souls of her fellows, if I am really driving this analogy home, and she tells you ‘One No Trump, Two Clubs’, which is a request for clarification.”

I had the brief and ridiculous thought that I should explain how bidding for bridge contracts worked, before remembering who I was talking to.

“And the answer that you’d give her isn’t super complicated, right?  You’d say that their warring is arranged for our entertainment, and in order to award small sums of money between us.  You might explain the history of cards, or their manufacture, or whatever, but you could explain what’s up with cards in an hour or so, right?”

Haunter shook her head.

“Not in her language, right?  That’s where you are going with this?”

I nodded eagerly.

“Exactly.  How do I say ‘entertainment’ using only bids?  How can I convey the concept of ‘money’ in a world with no possessions?  The answer doesn’t fit into the universe.  That’s what I’m warning you about.  There might be some of that.”

She got a sour expression on her face.

“I get it.  Proceed.”

“So, the gifts…” I said, “Their victims called them a lot of things, most commonly the Splitters, but their name for themselves translates to something like…the Grabbies.”

No chuckle.  Just a solemn nod.

“The Grabbies are a race of beings from another magisteria, a deeper, more fundamental one.”

“How,” Jane asked,” and this might be a dumb question, but how do they know that theirs is the more real reality, the more true one?  Are they just assuming that because of their ability to bestow Ultra gifts?”

“No,” I said.  “It’s… so, in their world there is something like a grove of trees, or a building full of entertainment feeds, alright?  And each of those feeds is a universe like yours.  Your universe fits inside of theirs.”

“So we are a simulation?” asked Jane.

I shook my head slowly.

“Not in the sense that anyone programmed this, but yes in the sense that they are outside of our existence, and can change it as they like.  They can mess around and watch the changes propagate, whatever they want.”

I let them digest that for a moment.

“Most of these universes are lifeless,” I informed them.  “Or at least thoughtless.  Your kind of reality can’t actually generate volition.  That’s why you could never get AI to work.  It just isn’t possible here.”

More silence from Haunter.  I knew that behind her eyes a whirlwind of shade communication was taking place, but she didn’t choose to fill me in on any of it.

“Humans are,” I groped for the right metaphor, “Ok, so if the universe is a tree, then there are species of things like grubs, that live on trees.”

“Grubs?” she asked.

“Or maybe vines,” I allowed.  “These are souls.  They hang onto universes and alter them such that at some point in their history life develops, and then the souls twin themselves into beings in that universe.  That’s the ‘you’ that I am talking to.  Your brain is the receiver.  The thing that does the thinking, and transmits the thoughts, is a vine in the oververse.”

“Why?” asked Jane.

I was wrongfooted for a moment by that.

“What do the vines get out of it?” she asked.

“Oh…” I said.  “He doesn’t actually know.  Or maybe it isn’t known?  My best guess is that it is about reproduction.  Souls use their avatars in our world to communicate and pair with one another, since their vine forms can’t just talk directly.”

Jane shook her head, more of a ‘it’s not important’ shake than a negation.

“Ultras, then, are made when a Grabby grabs onto one of your soul vine, thingies.  Condemner stayed awake through this deal, but that’s not usually how it works.  The rest of them, bar one or two, are asleep now, letting the vines use the powers and drinking in the experiences.”

“What is his real name?” she asked.

“What?”

“The shades keep clarifying that ‘Condemner’ is just what we are calling him, and we use that name to refer to you as well.  Presumably he isn’t going around calling himself Condemner on the outside, in his own universe.  What is his name?”

“Um…” I said.  “They don’t have names.  They don’t really have identities.”

Her look invited clarification.

“The Grabbies don’t work on the individual level.  They just pile onto one another.  They only act when enough of them have got together that it makes up a coherent being.  Condemner is a pretty common recipe of theirs, its designation would be something like ‘delighting principal’, or ‘enjoying entity’.”

No real change to the inquisitive stare.

“His role is to have experiences and enjoy them.  He is valued for his ability to find joy, or fulfillment or whatever, in their entertainments and such.”

“I guess that explains what he is doing here.  He is basically a tourist?”

“Got it, he is here to have a good time.  He wants fights, conflicts, revelations, that kind of thing.  Anything dramatic.”

Jane sat up in the beanbag chair.

“Are the rest of the Grabbies that are empowering the Ultras Delighting Entities as well?  Are they somehow driving their human hosts to battle?”

“They are unconscious,” I said.  “They aren’t driving anything, just accumulating memories for their components, for the most part.  And they aren’t all Delighting Entities either.  This performance is drawing in a lot of Grabbies who don’t have the exact right role for it.”

Jane said nothing, considering the implications of that.

“Ok, so, there is this role that is highly valued, very rarely ravelled, call it the Inviting Entity.”

“Ravel?” she asked.

“Opposite of unravel,” I said.

She rolled her eyes.

“Inviting Entity is a celebrity, a beloved figure.  When it is instantiated things are gonna get good.  So it was surprising when it came to this grove.”

“Why is that surprising?” asked Jane.  “You said observing universes like ours was an entertainment for their kind.”

“Sure,” I said.  “But it was like bird watching.  It was a niche hobby, that few Grabbies bothered with.  There wasn’t much point to it, and it certainly wasn’t cool.  Nothing that Inviting Entity should waste its time on.”

I shifted my weight from one foot to another, considering how to phrase this.

“Some Delighting Entities followed.  It was Inviting Entity, after all, but the overall feel was disappointment.  Like, this was a pretty lame thing to waste Inviting Entity’s manifestation on.  Imagine if you summoned the most talented possible celebrity, and he decided to spend your lifetime playing an obscure instrument that nobody liked.”

That wasn’t the best possible way to phrase that, but Haunter and her thralls would understand well enough.

“And then he invited everyone in?” she guessed.

I nodded.

“Exactly.  He didn’t just make one manipulation and then invite everyone to watch the resulting timeline.  He stepped inside and started boosting souls up for everyone to latch onto, letting everyone help to create the content.”

“Revolutionary,” she guessed.

“Very much so.  Each Grabby is getting the memories of its Ultra.  This performance is as many performances as there are Grabbies attached.  It is almost certainly the greatest performance in Grabby history.”

“And nobody wants to miss out,” she said.

“Just so.  Grabbies whose roles have nothing to do with delighting are latching on.  Their experiences, their congruities, won’t have as much value as a real Delighter’s, of course, but it is still worthwhile.  Grabbies are mobbing the studio, filling up the grove, everyone crowding around this one tree.”

“That’s why the Process is still working,” she said.  “The Process, the Inviting Entity, lifts up a soul for a Grabby to latch onto.”

“Yep,” I said.  “And there are plenty of Grabbies.  That’s why Remover…”

Shit.  I hadn’t intended to say that.

“Remover?” she asked.  “Is she another awake Grabby?”

I gave a grim smile.

“She’s…think of a Boss, or one of the Regime’s enforcers.  She is twinned to Forbidding Entity, a Grabby whose role is to put a stop to dangerous or unprofitable activities.”

“In the old world we had something called a Fire Marshal,” said Jane.  “They shut down parties that got too rowdy.”

“Perfect,” I said.  “Yes.  It is like a mighty Marshal of Fire.”

“Then why did it twin with a soul?” asked Jane.  “Why wouldn’t Forbidding Entity just tell the Grabbies that the party is over?”

“Politics,” I said.  “Or their equivalent.  Nobody wants to be the killjoy.  If it ends the experiment forcefully there will be a lot of resentment, a lot of annoyance.  The components that make it up will have stigma, and spend more time before being raveled into something else.  It has a different plan.”

“Push the universe’s timeline past the part with life in it,” she said, slowly.  “Take us all out, and the party ends on its own.  Plus the Grabbies that make it up have those experiences to pass around.”

I was impressed.

“That’s it exactly.  Remover’s endless quest to wipe out all human life is just Forbidding Entity doing its duty.  She aims to wipe us out.”

“And Condemner, or the Delighting Entity, would prefer to keep the party going?” she guessed.

I shrugged.

“If possible,” I admitted.  “But I think this experiment has about run its course, one way or another.  If Remover is destroyed then Forbidding Entity will probably just suck up the reputational hit for shutting the performance down in the oververse.”

Jane gave me a look that I’d never seen on her face before.  It took me a second to recognize hope on that soul weary visage.

“If we kill Remover, the Ultra powers will go away?” she said.

I shrugged.

“Maybe, or maybe it just twins with another human undergoing the Process and tries again.  But I don’t think it has that kind of time.  Your teeming billions are pulling more and more Grabbies away from their duties.”

“And Condemner will help us do that?  Presumably defeating the Forbidding entity would make its memories the most valuable of all, make its components the most prestigious?”

I felt my greater self’s hand on my soul, his urges curling my face into a positively demonic smile.

“I’d be delighted.”

Strike Request Declined

Your request for a strike on the Regime asset designated as Fourth Fist is denied, and you will receive that response through official channels, but I also wanted to communicate with you directly, and let you hear clearly my rationale.

First off, I understand exactly where you are coming from.  These bastards profaned the very sanctity of our people’s souls.  Meghan and the other victims show no sign of returning to their former selves, and can never be trusted again.  Promising careers ended, beloved friends and colleagues replaced by traitors strangers behind their faces.  It was an atrocity, a violation of all that we hold dear.

But, and it pains me to write this, that is kind of par for the course as far as the Regime is concerned.

The particular nature of these atrocities are new, to be sure, but First Fist made someone eat their own baby.  We’ve been angry at these individuals for a very long time.

When we decline to expend assets against Fists it isn’t because we don’t share your anger.  It isn’t because we don’t wish them gone.  It is because bitter experience has told us that trading lives with people who are returned to life every day is foolhardy.  Increasing the number of their victims won’t bring back those they have already taken.

Fourth Fist, in particular, is an almost impossibly hard target.  Haunter, the soul monger, has a million lives.  Fisher is as hard to kill as a shadow.  Indulger cannot be killed unless we lay waste to the very earth about him, and Condemner thrives on the lives he takes.  And none of those are even the squad’s anchor.  Preventer is simply invincible, absent the direct intervention of certain Gauntlet assets, and even that would be a roll of the dice.

Beyond this, current intelligence puts them in the middle of the Pantheon’s Grand Host, presently the strongest conventional enemy asset known.  Any and all engagement with the Fourth Fist would be complicated by an enemy more numerous and tenacious than any other.

There will come a day where we can make these monsters pay for the lives that they have ruined, but it will not be today.  Devote yourselves to your duty.

Condemner 7:1

“Two no trump,” said my partner.

I plastered a smile on Nirav’s face at that, even as I frantically searched my memory for the right convention.  I had a fairly strong hand.  Could we make game?

The best thing about humans, or one of the best at any rate, was that when they found out something that they were totally garbage at they would immediately start trying to get good at it.  A few would even make it the focus of their brief existences.

Bridge was a great example.  It was a game that was all about looking at your own cards and trying to win an auction on behalf of yourself and your partner.  It was, therefore, ultimately about predicting the future.  But, of course, in this magisteria that wasn’t possible, so humans who wanted to know what would happen tomorrow had to take a good long look at today.

My partner, Aladdin, grinned back.  He was a big black guy, very dark skin, definitely from somewhere on the south side of the world.  He’d been impressed at my spiking the ball into Ghoul’s face, the first time I showed up.  He’d sought me out last night and got me an invite to this morning’s game.

“Double,” said Weir.

She was considerably younger than anyone else in the room, and overcompensated for it by trying to give off an aggressive kind of atmosphere.  It grated in the way that insecurity always grated, and consequently she’d slipped down the rungs in the society of the fort, until ultimately she’d ended up hanging around the males.

Had she doubled because she genuinely had some cards that could mess us up, or was this just more of her puffing herself up?  I had no way to know.

“Give yourself away!” I sent to her gift, to whichever of my kind was attached to her.  It looked like she had a very light degree of Ultra Strength, and something related to moving physical objects about.

She didn’t react at all.  I still wasn’t sure how much sending stuff to people’s gifts actually affected them.  Backing Ghoul down back when I’d first shown up might have just been coincidence.  My experiments since then had been pretty inconclusive.

“I’ll bid…” I drawled, letting my voice die away.  Even as I did so I was reaching for the ‘bid’ part of the token set, rather than the pass part.

I looked around the little room, as though searching for inspiration.  That wasn’t too far from the truth.  What I was really hoping to see was a tell, on someone.  Just some hint of what they felt when they saw me about to bid.  Some hint that I was doing the right or wrong thing.

Nothing.  They weren’t letting anything show on their face, not even my Ultra Speed let me see anyone reacting.

“Three no trump,” I said.

“Bidding game, eh?” said Shenk, the last member of our table.  He was right across the table from Weir, and was one of my opponents.  He’d been the one to teach me the rules.

Before I had time to respond I heard shouting and commotion rising from the center chamber.  Everyone froze, then looked at the door.

“Should we…?” asked Aladdin.

I shook my head.

“They’ll call for us if they need us,” I said.  “Isn’t like there’s much call for our kind in the big room anyway.”

None of the others looked particularly persuaded by this.

Weir stood up, started heading towards the door.  I caught a glimpse of a few black cards as she set her hand down, in particular the king of clubs, which I’d been hoping Aladdin had.

Before she could get there, an excited human, an honest to goodness unpartnered one, not a God, shoved it open and barged in.  They kept a few around for servants and such.

“It’s Death!” she said.  “Death from Olympus is here!”

I covered a smile with my cards.  It had taken long enough.

I’d seen her on the way in, of course.  Her gift’s particular signature was unmistakable, after burning it off Legion and her crew.  She had crept in alongside the emissaries from the central fort, drifting off from their posse and pulling the same trick that we had.  Just blending into the Ultras, one more God in a building more than stuffed with em.

I’d said nothing.  Haunter and the rest had chosen to rely on my ability to sniff out Death, without ever actually pressing me on how or why I could do that, and they were going to pay for it.

Aladdin started towards the door, but I stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.

He looked at me quizzically.

“The Ruling Council,” he said, as though that should explain it all.

“Nothing to do with us,” I responded.

“Don’t you think she might be here to…” said Weir, letting her voice trail off.

I shook my head.

“Play the game!” I sent.

“I’m sure it is nothing much,” I told them.  “The ladies will let us know if they need some scut work done, right?”

That got a chuckle or two, and everyone kind of eased back down into their seats.

I had no interest in approaching Death, at least not immediately.  That was a job for anyone else.

Nobody else really had any interest in the game, as we finished up the bidding and moved into play.  Shenk made a few mistakes, either due to her mind mostly being on whatever was going on in the main room, or maybe some misplaced pity for a rookie she’d just taught the rules to.

I didn’t mind.  I’d take any win I could get.  My time in this dream might be coming to an end, and there was no sense in leaving any experience to rot on the vine.

Just as we finished taking the second trick, I felt my Link come to an end.

The part of me that was Nirav tried to pitch my form forwards, grappling with the sudden loss of my sense of the other four, but I ruled here.  I kept myself upright, my smile wide and predatory.

“Play the queen,” I told Aladdin, who was dummy this round.  This was a neat finesse on Weir’s king, illustrating the virtue of taking full advantage of every opportunity.

Before he could do a terrible clamor rose up from the room next door, like someone had blasted a cannon ball through it.

There was no keeping the game intact this time.  We all piled out into the hall, stopping to gape amid a rapidly growing crowd.

The walls of the room had been smashed apart, as had those leading into the main meeting room.  A mangled human form was embedded in the outer wall, all the way over on the outside corridor.

Dale.  He’d been slammed through two walls and cratered into a third.  I wouldn’t have even been able to recognize him, save for the familiar gift hovering desperately around the pulverized carcass.

I clicked my tongue in irritation.  Dale dying had always been a possibility, but I’d kind of hoped he’d stick around after Haunter was gone.  I liked Dale.

I pushed my way through the crowd towards him, the Gods falling back and clearing me a path as they recognized me.  This accomplished two things.

First, it got me closer to Dale’s body.  Given his gift, it might still be possible to save him, if I could push him through the wall and let him touch the ground outside.  The other factor was that going over here kept me hidden within the crowd, against the possibility of Death looking out of the hole that she’d bashed.

Betty joined me as I got to Dale.

She embraced me with a sob, pushing her face into my shoulder.

I hugged her back, but didn’t really break stride, carrying her Lure along with me as we knelt down over Dale’s form.

“The Link,” she whispered to me.

I didn’t respond directly, instead speaking right out loud so everyone could hear me.

“Nice try Indulger!  No way am I letting you skip out on another day of boring meetings.”

The Hook manifested on the other side of Dale, I looked up into one set of her eyes.

“Betty, can you our fearless leader outside and put him into the ground?  He doesn’t get to hide in the Link while the rest of us do all the work!”

Fisher got it immediately.  The Link being down was bad, from her point of view, but the real catastrophe would be the garrison finding out about it.

As long as they thought we were linked, we almost were.  No one would come after one of us if they thought we’d rise again the next day.  Preserving the illusion of the Link could keep us almost as safe as the real thing.

It was nonsense, of course, since Death was presently slaughtering Haunter, and everyone would observe that she didn’t come back from that, but Fisher didn’t necessarily know that, or at least didn’t know that I knew that.

As I expected, she leapt into action.  The Lure sank into shadow, and the Hook grabbed up Indulger’s center of mass and bounded out of the building.

I grinned.

Betty wouldn’t be interfering in Haunter’s current difficulties.  Not if she stuck around down there to make sure Indulger’s regeneration went off without a hitch.  Death would have time to do her work.

Once Fisher was gone, and the rest of the mob turned back towards the central room, I just lingered.

There was nothing to be gained by hurrying.  Haunter’s gift wouldn’t protect Death from me, and if I was really lucky she might be mid rant when I finally made my appearance.  Timing could always sweeten the narrative.

It was a few minutes before the tenor of the buzzing and clamor of the middle room changed.  I looked back in that direction, keeping myself tangent to the actual opening, such that I could see the spectators but not the object of their scrutiny.

They were kneeling, eyes dropping away from the center of the room.  They no longer felt threatened then, meaning that Death had finished up.

Time for the hero to make his appearance.

I walked smoothly towards the kneelers, my ears alert for one of Death’s rants.  Ideally, I’d like to time my appearance for the perfect dramatic moment.

Instead I heard Legion.

“Magnificent!  I never thought I’d see the day!”

Others were speaking as well, voicing similar sentiments.

I sped up, walked around the corner and into the room.

Immediately I was aware that things had not gone according to plan.  My earlier thoughts about how poor humans were at discerning their future echoed in a mocking chorus within my mind.

Instead of Death it was Preventer at the center of the adulation.  Preventer, the thirstiest, most cowardly creature who had ever…

I tamped down on Nirav’s anger, forced myself to think.  It would be incredibly easy to blow everything here, to make a foolish move and bring my play to an ignominious end.

My wandering gaze found Haunter.

She was looking straight back at me, her expression unreadable.

I gave her a faint smile, trying to project worry and relief, all that the same time.  If she wanted to read shame into that too it would be ideal, but I was pretty sure at this point that Haunter was on to me.

I looked around the room again, trying to count the shades, making sure that none were drawing a bead on me or getting into position to drench me and block my shift.

None were.  That wasn’t exactly surprising.  Haunter wouldn’t want to make her play at this particular moment.  As far as the fortress knew, we were still Linked.  If she destroyed me, and then I was never seen again, they’d know that something was up.  She needed to take care of me in private, then claim that I was away on assignment or something like that.

Assuming that she was even after me.  Assuming that she’d realized that I had known Death was coming for her, and had abandoned her to be destroyed.  A lot of assumptions there.

It was so easy to do that.  To confuse what one person knew with what I knew, to lose track of exactly what information any given entity had access to at any point in time.  Humans had a certain native cleverness, a facility with this kind of modeling that made it seem easy for them.

I forced myself over to Jane, pressing my way through the crowd and deflecting the murmured praise and questions.

“Nirav,” she greeted me.

“Stupid cunt” I sent her.

“Jane,” I said, and stepped forward to embrace her.

She didn’t go rigid, didn’t resist for a second.  We embraced for all the world as though we were the joyous teammates that everyone would expect, clinging to one another in the wake of a difficult battle.

I pulled back a moment later, beamed into her face.

“We need to talk,” she said.  “Private meeting.”

I gave a brief nod, never pulling my eyes away from her form, alert at every second for the shades to pour forth and try to take me out before I could take on my true form.

“Betty should be bringing Dale back in a minute or two,” I said.  “Then we can assemble.”

I saw something then, a small twitch of the shoulders.  A slight easing perhaps.  I wouldn’t have bid on the strength of it, but my initial read was that Haunter hadn’t known if Dale had survived or not, and that my assertion had caused her to update slightly in favor of him still being alive.

“I meant just us two,” she said.

“Two?” I asked, automatically, before I had time to process.

“Just you and me,” she said.  “And me and me and me and…”

She walked away while she was speaking, letting her words dwindle to nothing in the hubbub of the crowd and she trotted off towards the same side room that I’d been playing cards in.

I grimaced, scratched at Nirav’s face, mindful of the chaotic swirl of Gods, and the careful scrutiny of Haunter’s shades.

Was she calling me out?  I didn’t think so.  Haunter had never struck me as someone who warned people that she was going to kill.

My mental model of her, and of her slaves, still had a lot of uncertainty about me.  She couldn’t know for sure that I’d killed Irene, couldn’t know for sure that I’d let Death by.  She was still an old worlder, at heart, and she wouldn’t act until she was absolutely certain, not with the complication of the broken Link hanging above us all.  Innocent until proven guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt, or whatever.

No, this wouldn’t necessarily be a fight.

If my read was correct, this was about ending the uncertainty.  She would have realized that peril that not understanding what was going on with me had put her in, and without the Link to preserve me it had become feasible to compel some answers.

What would I tell her?  The truth was out of the question, but it was hard to think of any kind of story that would fool her and her mass mind.

I paused a second at that.

Why was the truth out of the question?  I didn’t know of any other awakened gift that had just explained the way things were to a human, but why not?  It would be the simplest way forward, and if it spread and spoiled everything then I’d have been at ground zero.  I’d have the story of the start of the ending.

Dale stumbled back in, Betty  at his side.

I waved them over to Preventer, and trotted off after Haunter.

Dearest Zeus

I scarcely know how to begin.

Events swirl thick about our cause these days, but none bring themselves close for examination.  There is no resolution, only an endless array of unforeseeable occurrences and baffling circumstances.

I do not know who blew up the ocean.  The Heathen would have directed such an attack against your Host directly, and the Demon would no doubt have struck once again at the moon.  The great waves and distant shaking seem a poor prize for what must have been a vast expenditure of resources and powers.

I do not know who killed Death.  I found her dead outside my audience chambers.  Calliope viewed her past, and informs me that her killers were a mob of strong Ultras, not Linked, not any of our warlords.  I can only surmise that in her zeal she confronted the Union directly, and fell to the strongest among them.

And, finally, I do not know why the Demon does not stir.  Our agents have confirmed that her torpor is not confined to your Great Pilgrimage, however.  She goes forth to her own territories no longer, and remains, so far as the public is permitted to know, cloistered within her Lair.

I might choose to believe that she feels your tread upon the earth, that she knows her days draw to a close, and frets away the hours until your arrival.  But I do not.  We both know that ignorance is never victory’s herald.

I propose the following:

You have written to me of the difficulties that you face maintaining control of the Brides in the face of the tedium and endlessness of the march.  I believe, in the face of the Demon’s inactivity, that you should allow them a little exercise.

Choose the most rambunctious and rebellious of that lot.  Let her win your favor by leading a strike team of her sisters against the Union.  Send the malcontents forward.

Not too many.  Not enough to meaningfully weaken the Army of Sunset.  Just a hundred, or two hundred.  Enough to destroy the Union, if the Demon does not act.

Send alongside them one or two with the power to alert you to their fate.  If they conquer, well and good.  If they fall, then the strength we take from learning how will make up for their absence on the field of battle.

You know my only thought is of the billions in our keeping.  The waves are far from the worst that could be turned against them.  Only you have the might to save mankind.  Only your gift can keep schism at bay.

Crush our enemies and come back to me.

Haunter 7:3

Death’s eyes narrowed at my quip.

Before anything further could happen the reserve was in motion again, as a shade with a fire extinguisher popped out of me and blasted Death in the face with its contents.

Her hands clenched reflexively, crushing a shade from my form and freeing me from her grip.  The shades didn’t miss the moment, diving frantically to the side as Death used her speed to sweep her arm through the shade that had saved me, popping him before he could dive back into the reserve.

“You cannot run from me forever, Haunter!” she said, her voice a low snarl.  “These games are to no purpose!  You prolong the inevitable, lengthen your own torment.”

Our eyes met again.

She wasn’t coming towards me anymore, just standing there, secure in her stolen power.

But I was in my reserve now, bolstered by my comrades in arms.  Whatever despair she was exuding couldn’t touch me.

She was correct, of course, in the narrow sense of her own words.  I’d already hit her as hard as I possibly could, to no avail.  Her endless powers would give her victory, no matter what heroics my reserve pulled out.  The fight between the two of us could have only one conclusion.

But, the thing was, that was also true about me and Her, and it had never stopped me.  I’d crawled around for decades without any concrete hope.  I’d thrown all dignity aside and served the Regime, giving grudging service to a lunatic in order to help those that I could reach.  Trading frantic struggle for time was an old game to me.

“I’m used to it.” I told her, simply, as though to relate a matter of fact.

Death snarled at me, but didn’t charge forward again.

I could see the wheels in her mind moving, gradually mapping out the borders of her dilemma.  If she assailed me with brief force I would sacrifice a single shade and dodge away.  If she struck in a more meaningful way, impaling me on a bar or bathing me in her plasma beam or something, then she risked killing me the instant my reserve ran out.  This left her at something of a standstill.

It wasn’t, by any means, a stalemate.  She could just continue chasing after me and striking nonlethal blows to a hand or arm or something.  Eventually all of my passengers would be driven out and the limb would break, signaling to her that I could be safely restrained.  But she had no idea how long this would take, and spending hours frantically scurrying around the room didn’t exactly fit with her image.

Her eyes ranged all over, hunting for a solution, and then I saw her gaze light on Preventer.

“Does she really think we’ll…”

Joe trailed off, even as Death moved to take a hostage.

Preventer had just about gotten back up to a kneeling position when Death swooped down on her, wrenching her furiously upright and holding her up for the rest of us to see.

“It is plain to me,” she said, “that you can’t be bothered to even pretend to care about your dagger slaves.  So be it.  I shouldn’t have expected anything else from the Demon’s minion.  But what are your feelings about someone that you’ve fought alongside?”

She shook Preventer up and down, with the same brutal power that she’d shown earlier.

What were my feelings towards Preventer?  Loathing, mostly.  A woman who’d enslaved dozens, or hundreds, who’d had people killed in their masses to further her scientific dabblings.  A creature of the Regime from the ground up, one entirely insensate to the notion that anyone else might be real enough to bother with.

“Stop, don’t hurt her any more,” begged my form.  I wasn’t sure which of my shades was providing the voice.

“We can’t give up,” I argued. “Certainly not for Preventer!”

“Of course,” Joe responded.  “But we can certainly talk about giving up for as long as Death is willing to.  Maybe the horse will learn to sing, and all that.”

Death’s grin was truly hideous, yellow teeth gaping wide like fangs.

”Who is talking about hurting her?” she asked.  “What a fascinating thing to bring up.  You don’t think I’m going to hurt you, do you?”

Preventer shook her head, weakly.

Death put a hand to her face, brushed away the caked on white powder.

“A little thing like you, who on earth would want to hurt you?  I mean, aside from anyone who knew Ninja.  Or whoever else you’ve stepped on during your long long career as a piece of garbage.”

Preventer shook her head again, her eyes met mine.  I think she was trying to tell me not to give myself up for her.

“Let her go,” I said.  “And I’ll surrender myself to you.  That’s what you want, right?  You want my gift?  You can have it, just please, stop hurting helpless people.  You win, ok?”

Death threw back her head and gave another of her soul searing laughs.  She let Preventer topple down to the ground.

I stayed where I was, frantically scanning the crowd for any sign of deliverance.  I could see Ragnarok, but he was standing silently, head down, giving no sign that he might intervene.  I couldn’t see Nirav or Fisher, or any other person who might step in and stop this.

Death finished her laugh, took a step towards me.

“Hilarious,” she said.  “The vaunted Haunter, enslaver of thousands, can’t handle the idea of anyone suffering on her account.  What do you think it is when you pull them in front of bullets or blows?  When you trade their lives for yours, one after another?  Why is your friend over there any different from the ones you keep inside of you, that all of a sudden you shirk at letting another take your fate?”

I paused, giving her nothing.  My eyes continued to roam around the room, seeking for deliverance.  If I couldn’t find anything else I’d have to go back to dashing away from her, and that could only ultimately have one end.  This was the only time that I’d be able to play the fake surrender card, and I needed something to make it worth it.  Some way to overturn the huge discrepancy between our gifts usefulness in a battle.

She took another step, extending an arm.  I felt the force of her gift grip me, drag me towards her grip once again.

I prepared myself for the reserve to spring into action once more, to go back to our doomed delaying tactics, but there was nothing.  They let us drift towards Death unimpeded.

“There!” said Joe.  “I’ll be damned.  The Folded Barrier theory might pan out!”

“What?” I asked.

Death sneered into my face, pulling my neck gently down until we were eye to eye.  My nose twitched at the smell of the gore that caked her arms.

“At last,” she said.  “I’ve waited for this for a long time.”

“Preventer ought to have a few dozen sparkles in an area of her form the size of the one that Death wiped the makeup away from.  We only count seven.  She is making barriers.”

“I don’t suppose you’d wait a little longer?” I asked.  I cared nothing for her answer, everything for the time it might buy me.

“Where are they?” I asked.

“Folded Barrier is a theory that the Preventer fan community came up with last morning, when she showed up with her mouth healed up.  She got healed by the blind kid, obviously, but to do so she’d have had to put forth her barriers.”

“I’m impatient by nature, I’m afraid,” said Death.

“So?” I asked.

“So we had shades outside of the room they crashed in, on every side, including above and below.  None of them saw any barriers.  And it wasn’t nearly big enough to accommodate the outflow of barriers that we saw in the battle with the Pantheon drone force.  So if we know she can put out barriers, and we know that the space wasn’t big enough to hold them all… well, the theory is that she can layer them inside each other, just like she normally does in her body.”

“I understand,” I said.  “It’s a flaw that I share.”

“That’s a bit of a stretch,” I said.  “I guess the idea is that right now she is making one of these super barriers, and she’ll use it to stab Death, and it’ll be able to pierce her, since Death isn’t ultra tough at three?”

Death shook her head.

“It is only a flaw for the weak.  Those unable to seize what they desire.  When a God brooks no delay we call it miraculous, the instant submission of prosaic reality to the will of the Divine.”

I didn’t move my eyes any, didn’t give any visual sign, but from the depths of my reserve I focused every jot of my attention on Preventer, looked about her form for any possible sign that she might be preparing to strike back.

Her eyes were up and focused on Death’s back, but her hands were down on the floor.  She was on her hands and knees, like someone who’d just thrown up.

“Under the ground”, pronounced Joe.  “The Jury thinks she is forging her barrier in the next room down, so that no one can see it and call out to Death.  She’ll slash it up through the floor when she’s got it ready.”

I tried to count the stars in Preventer’s face.  I felt a burst of excitement as I realized that I could only see maybe two or three.

Could this longshot actually be real?  Could the Jury have intuited a new use of Preventer’s power, and that power be about to save us?  I had learned, a long time ago, not to dispute my reserve’s ability to pull things together with only the thinnest thread of evidence, but even for them this was exceptional.

Death whispered to me.

“It’s time.  All I need you to do is speak one simple little phrase.  You just have to say, ‘I surrender’, and you and your friend will not suffer any further.”

The reserve crumpled my form in her arms, breaking down into wailing tears, sobbing like a helpless babe.

This time Death wasn’t the only one who laughed.  Pantheon Gods all around the room found the sight of my sorrow and fear hilarious, and they joined their voices to Death’s.

I cared nothing for it.  Nothing for their contempt, and nothing for their ridicule.  Let them waste their time in whatever fashion they chose, so long as none of them moved against us.

Death let me free of her grasp, and the reserve slumped me all the way down to the ground, weeping and carrying on with all the bewildered terror and pain of the last half hour.

“If Death sees Preventer’s attack she will teleport aside, or use her ultra speed, or pull forth some other power.  We have to get her to put her chest or head on the ground.” I told my reserve.

They had, naturally, already realized this.  That was why they’d let those most overwhelmed, those whose grief was most profound, rule our shared voice.  The whole histrionic performance was just about getting us down onto the ground in a way that wouldn’t raise Death’s suspicion.

Death finished her laugh, leaned over us.  She took my face again, turned it up to look into hers.

“Say it,” she urged.  “It is finally time for you to give up.  Tell me you surrender, and I’ll even give you a little gift.”

“G-, gift?” asked the reserve, between sobs.

“I’ll take you into your own gift.  Just like you do for all these foolish daggers.  I’ll let you experience the wrong side of your hook, keep you around as a passenger.  Won’t that be nice?  You can watch from inside of my mind as I build a new world.  No more suffering.  No more fear.  I’ll do for you like you have done for so many.”

We broke into another round of wailing, cringing away from her.  My face moved another few inches closer to the ground.

“Come now,” she said.  “It is past time.  You have stayed awake so long.  So many futile years.  So much wasted pain.  It is finally time for you to surrender.”

“I, I…” I gasped, between bouts of ugly crying.  My voice was pitched barely above a whisper.

“You…” said Death, leaning closer.

I could see Preventer, looking past Death’s face.  There wasn’t a single sparkle in the part of her cheek where the makeup had been wiped off.

“I sur-“ I gasped, pulling myself right up to her face, as though to kiss her.

In a flash I realized that the reserve was up to.  There was no way to get Death’s face on the floor, but I could bring the floor up to her, in a way.  My own form could block her line of sight to the area beneath me.  So long as no bystander gave warning it could work.

Preventer’s eyes narrowed.  She saw the path.

I looked right into Death’s eyes, saw the totality of her spite and cruelty, saw a daemonic lust for power, saw the same empty ambition that Her gaze was filled with.

“…vive.” I said, and spasmed as I felt my world tear itself apart.

My hands flew to my side, holding in a gout of blood. I toppled out of Death’s grip.  Something wet and sticky splattered my face as she vanished.

A shining barrier hung above me, slowly rotating, filled with a million sparkles.

Death had reappeared in the middle of the room, where she’d first arrived, but she fell immediately to her knees, gripping her upper chest as though to hold in great gouts of blood.

I was cut.  How was that possible?

I felt my hands applying pressure, shades appearing around me with bandages and various other medical implements.  How long had it been since my form had been damaged?  How could that possibly happen?  Shouldn’t a shade have taken the blow?

I had eyes only for Death.  Her teleportation hadn’t erased her injury.  The barrier that had cut through my side must have sunk deep into her chest.  I could see organs and bone on both sides of where her hands had covered up, and blood was pouring out of her.

Her eyes met mine once more, and whatever I’d seen a moment ago was gone.  It was no demon or monster that looked at me.  Just a bewildered old woman, reeling with pain and fear as she tried to hold her life inside of her.

She tried to speak, but blood fountained forth from her mouth.

Calling yourself a God didn’t make you immortal.  Calling yourself Death didn’t protect you from your namesake.  I saw her shoulders slump, her hands quiver as the strength began to flee her.

She vanished again, gone as swiftly as she arrived.

“Did we…?” I asked.

Preventer stood once more, balancing on her unbroken leg and extending a hand as the shimmering barrier flew across the room to her.

She was utterly vulnerable.  The Link could not save her.  She’d sent her own gift out to fight for us, in a move that the woman I’d began this journey with never could have made.

 “Probably,” said Joe.  “Unless she had a healer standing by wherever she went to, or has a healing gift of her own that can overpower her Ultra Toughness, she is dead by now.”

I waited and watched for a bystander to blast her, for someone to avenge Death, or Ninja, or anyone else that Preventer had hurt.

Instead, everyone fell to their knees, bowing their heads before my colleague.

Preventer reabsorbed the barrier, becoming invincible once more.  She stood stock still, eyes seeking out mine.  Her hands didn’t tremble.

I felt a great surge about me, as the reserve moved as one.  They bore me out from my place among them and back into my accustomed seat.  I was once again in command of my form, of my gift.  They had rejected my capitulation, and they wanted me to drive once more.

I fell to my knees before the newest member of the Leadership Council.

 

The Origin of KEM

The terrorist organization known as KEM (Kill Every Monster) has as its central tenet that Ultrahuman individuals must all be murdered.  Older consumers of this feed, however, may well have an entirely different association with this name.

The earliest mention of KEM that we can find on the archived sections of the old internet refer not to an actual group of individuals, but to an old podcast.  Each session of this entertainment program involved the creator of the podcast speaking to an expert on a given cinematic monster about how such a creature might fair if released into the modern world.

Movie creatures such as vampires, mummies and the like were its focus, and the entire program was conducted with tongue firmly in cheek.  It had a large audience, for the time, and existed alongside thousands of other such works, with little to distinguish it from any other frivolous entertainment.

The transformation that followed is difficult to track in its entirety, but enough data is available to sketch in the basic details.

During the Ultra Crime Wave the podcaster’s adoptive brother was killed when the first Melter used his power to fuse him into a floor while escaping from a department store robbery.  The podcaster apparently witnessed this atrocity firsthand, and strove desperately to bring the bizarre circumstances to the public’s attention.

Unfortunately for him, the media climate of the time was bound up in other matters, and the physical evidence was quickly snatched away by the Joint Task Force.  The podcaster was unable to get any traction in any remotely mainstream venue, his testimony written off as hysteria.

He turned, instead, to their online audience, and presented his case to the internet.  Reaction was mixed.

The majority of his audience were not interested in such a story, having come for entirely different reasons, and began to drift away as his work came to resemble a conspiracy theorist’s rantings.  But a smaller group of listeners stayed, and they reached out to him, connecting him with a broader community that he had never realized existed.

These were the survivors and witnesses of various Ultra incidents.  Dismissed by the authorities they had sought out one another, forming various fringe groups and associations, united by their experiences with a genuine government cover up of what seemed to be supernatural occurrences.

They called themselves the Ultra Believers, or simply Believers.

Kill Every Monster became this movement’s media.  The podcast focused more and more on this community, becoming a means of connection and organization among these individuals, each isolated from the world around them by their singular encounters with the faces of the future.

The community was initially focused on investigation, on uncovering the truth and bringing it to the public’s attention.  They only became violent after their members were targeted for detainment and interrogation by the Joint Task Force.

Karen Austin’s fingerprints were all over this fiasco.  She arrested leading Believers wholesale on trumped up or entirely forged charges, grabbing them up in a whirlwind evening of raids and arrests.

These raids were unnecessarily brutal, injuring the detainees, destroying their property, and in at least four cases killing loved ones in front of them.  It was cartoonish thuggery, the very worst imaginable caricature of Law Enforcement as a violent and oppressive force brought to malevolent life.

He questioning was similarly uninhibited, and ultimately prompted a subordinate to blow the whistle on her.  The government eventually released the Believers and settled a massive lawsuit with them, but the damage had been done.

No one knows exactly what Karen told them during their interrogations, or what they might have suffered, but the KEM that we know today was born.

The Believers emerged from their experience vindicated in their beliefs, distrustful of authority, and hardened in their attitude.  They scattered across the countryside, traveling and employing every trick they knew to stay off the grid.  They organized into cells and grew their numbers from societies destitute and criminal elements, to whom their cause and wealth were potent inducements.

They spoke of a coming apocalypse, of the need to root out the demons within their neighbors, of a monstrous conspiracy overtaking their government.

They were, by most definitions, a cult.  They just weren’t precisely wrong.

Haunter 7:2

“I meet so few peers,” said Death.

I still heard her words, still observed the world.  But now I did so, like all of my other victims, from deep within my reserve.  I could still feel my form, but I no longer ruled it.  I’d abdicated that power, forsaken it at the last.  One final display of cowardice.

“The Gods of the Leadership Council are children.  They have might, but they lack perspective.  The others who share my years are weaklings.  They have insight, but their feeble stature makes it meaningless.  In you, perhaps, I see the closest thing to a mirror that I ever shall.”

I felt the murmur of the reserve around me, voices whispering past as those within my gift made arrangements, took stock of the form they’d been given.

If only I’d done this earlier.  If only I’d permitted them such freedom throughout my long, wasted life.  How many moments of pleasure, for how many tortured souls, had I squandered?  What had I been so afraid of?  That they wouldn’t return me to control?  As though my own volition was somehow superior to theirs, as though it should be privileged above everyone else’s.

“A cracked mirror, to be sure, but the likeness cannot be denied.  A woman among girls, burdened by wisdom with the necessity of command.  One who gains strength by taking power from others.  I prey upon the mighty, while you scavenge on the weak, but it is still more similarity than the world has shown me before.”

Without thinking I tried to respond.

“We are nothing alike,” I said.

I actually said it.  Even though I was sunk into my gifts depths, still my words came forth from my form’s mouth.  There was an infinitesimal delay, but I was still able to speak.  How could this be?

Death’s sardonic chuckle had all of the malignancy of her earlier laughter, and it somehow seemed more genuine this time, as though this time it was no pantomime, but genuine mirth.

“If you say so, Jane.  It is clear enough that there are differences.”

Lazily she held out a hand, and I found my form sliding towards her once again.

We pushed through the table’s wreckage with casual brutality, whatever force had hold of us monumentally indifferent to anything so lacking in substance as the physical world.

“Keep her talking,” came a voice, I recognized Joe’s.

The first crack in the bleakness that had engulfed me came as I realized why I could speak.  The shades were letting my voice control that of my form.  Just as I sometimes allowed a shade with a particular talent to drive my arms or legs, they were letting me drive my voice.  Perhaps there was something I could contribute after all.

Why had I started to believe Death, to think of myself as a burden to them?  How had I become so convinced, so fast, of my worthlessness?  It must have been an aspect of her gift, one that was far less effective while I hid my soul within my own.

“I suppose I am a good deal better looking,” I tried.

It was a feeble attempt, as such things went, but I’d seen enough shallow people in my years to know that it was always a possibility.

It was good for another laugh, but that was about it.

We slid into her grasp without fanfare.

“And, of course, smart enough to understand the folly of your present course,” I continued.

“Good, more in that vein.”

“Folly?” asked Death, dangerously.  “You discern folly in the woman who has defeated you, who holds your life in her fist?  Should I ape instead the vaunted wisdom that you have shown, and aspire to one day tremble powerlessly in the hands of my better?”

“Folly,” I said, firmly.  “You overreach yourself, old woman.  You trifle with those beyond your station.  You boasted of a strength made from hunted Gods.  What will that avail you, when you stand before Her?  You say you saw the end of the Old World, if so, then you know how stacking up Ultras worked against Prevailer last time.”

I hadn’t paid much attention to the audience.  I couldn’t work out how Death’s weird voice worked with them, and I didn’t really have the bandwidth to worry about it.  But I did note that this latest salvo of mine appeared to get a reaction.

“What you say still gets through to them,” clarified Joe.  “And the fact that Death is a power thief isn’t something that the common God is comfortable with.  I’m not sure what they are hearing when she talks, but this sort of thing can’t help her position.”

“Her?” mocked Death, pronouncing the capital letter with a degree of hatred that came close to what those of us who knew Her actually felt.  “You hide, even at the end, behind the skirts of the Demon?  I better not hurt you, or your mama will get even?  Pitiful!”

As she said the last word she thrust her arm forward, as though to rip the heart from my chest.

The reserve exploded into motion.

An instant before her blow landed my own hand struck my side, with brutal intensity, destroying a shade and rendering me momentarily intangible.  I slid through her grasping arm and out to her side, kicking viciously at the back of her knee and attempting to get around behind her.

Death was utterly unprepared, and stumbled forward slightly, more from the fact that she’d been expecting her arm to meet resistance than any impact from the kick.

“Insect!” she shouted.

She swung around to face me, the arm we’d just gone through waving in a great horizontal clawing motion, as though to slap my head from my shoulders.

My shades kept me ahead of her pivot, each step placed with the skill and care of a master athlete, each instant the focus of a dozen expert combatants efforts.  We sprang away from Death’s onslaught and gained about eight or nine feet of distance in a heartbeat.

“You will-“

Even as she spoke the reserve was in motion.  The shades hooked my shoe into the handle of a cup full of Lotus’ concoction, kicked it up at her face with the skill of a life wasted learning to hacky sack, and sent forth a pair of shades to blast the cup apart, all in a blurring instant.

Death’s words cut off as the liquid struck her face, and she shook her head wildly to clear it.

How was this possible?  I thought that I’d abandoned my form to last minute makeshift collaboration, but the movements that were occurring were simply not improvised.  They were rehearsed.  They had done this before.

“If you’ve ever wondered why your nights all those years on the rode weren’t terribly restful, we’d like to take this moment to apologize,” said Joe.

“Forgiven,” I responded.

As Death wiped away the rest of the fluid it became clear that it hadn’t had any particular effect upon her.  Or at least nothing incapacitating.  She had stopped because she couldn’t see, not because Lotus’ mixture was doing anything to her mind.

Death angrily stuck her arm out again, bringing her invisible field to bear once more, dragging us towards her.  But this time the reserve didn’t go easily.

Shades emerged in a rush from either side of my form, sprinting up to surround Death.

“Useless!” she pronounced.  “Guns can’t hurt me!”

But a moment later I realized that guns weren’t what these shades were carrying.

Young girls with blankets.  Old woman with shawls.  Dudes with umbrellas.  One guy with a para shoot.  These were shades that had no military training, no combat capability whatsoever.  They had nothing other than the ability to block line of sight.

“One thing about having duplicates of a lot of random crap,” said Joe, “is that we spend a lot of time thinking about things we can do with it.  One thing that comes up a lot is that anything that doesn’t rely upon its durability can basically stand in for the real deal.”

My form drifted to a stop, then immediately dived to the right.

It seemed whatever power she was using to snag people required line of sight.

“One side, you miserable wretches,” said Death.

She swung her arms into the mob.

They tried to flash back to the reserve as she reached them, but one girl popped before she could.  The others didn’t slacken their efforts, continuing to charge out of me and hurl detritus at her, then flash back to the reserve before they could be hit by her flailing arms.

Death’s efforts weren’t meaningfully hindered by all of the junk accumulating around her.  She crushed anything she could put pressure on, popped any shade that she reached, but for all of that she ground to a halt.

She couldn’t see anything, couldn’t rant at me, with blankets, shirts, and other sundries raining down on her.  She ripped through whatever she could reach, but there were dozens of people flinging things now, and everything that she touched was replaced before she even finished the swing.

A frustrated shout was all I could make out of whatever she said next.

“This isn’t a battle,” Joe appraised me, “Not really.  He power trumps anything that we can do.  So we are devoting our efforts to the only resource that we really exceed her in.  Her attention.  Her volition.  Her agency.  We need to tyrannize that, drain it entirely.  Get her mad, get her reacting, not thinking.  The instant she stops going after us herself and simply commands the Host we lose, so we have got to make sure that she never, ever, does.”

I felt a swell of pity.  I knew the feel of a fruitless battle.

“Joe, what’s the point of it?” I asked.  “Don’t get me wrong.  I’m grateful and impressed by how well you all are fighting, but Death is unstoppable.  Even if we buy a few minutes she will eventually get ahold of my form again, and it will be over.”

It wasn’t Joe who answered me this time, but I couldn’t pin down which shade it was.

“Not really, Ms Trent.  Our prediction markets actually give us pretty good odds in this fight.  You have to remember that she wants to take your gift.  That means she can’t do anything to your form that’ll kill you when it finishes draining the last of us.  She has the kid gloves on, and that will let us use the sacrifice of one of our number to escape from peril.  It won’t be so easy for her as you might think.”

Death struck back before we could speak any further.

A pair of brilliant lines of energy lanced out of the center of the mob of shades, popping everything in their path.  They proceed from the palms of her hands, which she’d stuck out to the sides, and which now she swept across the front of her.

This gift was utterly devastating.  The best efforts of the reserve couldn’t keep us from being tagged, and I shuddered to see a few dozen shades blasted out of my back in the seconds we were in the beam.  It popped every shade it touched, save for those who’d already been recalled into the reserve.  But my gift and I weren’t all it destroyed.

The Gods who’d been in this quadrant of the room had been utterly wrecked.  Those with no Ultra toughness, or only the first degree, had been bisected if they hadn’t avoided the beam, and were presently toppling to the ground in gobbets of ruined flesh.

“Enough!” roared Death.

The very world seemed to quail away from her.  I fought against the overriding bleakness that she exuded, fought to keep my mind rational.  Looked wildly for something to prove that she was not almighty.

My form still moved with an easy grace.  It seemed that the shades who’d been driving me before had managed to swap out for a random comatose person in the instant that the beam had taken me, such that our losses hadn’t been the people who were driving.

“You squander your slaves to no purpose, Jane!” she said.  “You think this strife will help them?  That it will matter?  You are a failure entirely!  A cog that was warped in the forging, which brings the machine down in ruins about you!  You are an abortion of a being, a pit whose edge is unstable, dragging down those who try to fill it up!”

The Gods of the Pantheon were careful now, moving away from one another and keeping careful watch on where Death’s hands were pointing.  I didn’t know what they were hearing, but I thought Death might have just lost her chance to enlist them against me.  Not all of them could possibly be so fanatic as to rush into battle for a woman who’d just killed their comrades.

“We are not slaves,” said my voice.

It was my form that spoke, but another who provided the words.

“We are Jane’s brothers in arms.  The daggers that you’ve spent your life looking down on.  She has never compelled a single one of us.  We do this of our own volition.”

Death spat.

“The ‘volition’ of a dagger?  The ‘choice’ of the weak?  No such thing has ever existed.”

The energy gathered within her eyes again as she continued.

“I have seen the decades pass, and I have seen the justifications change.  ‘Economic Necessity’ became ‘International Law’ became ‘National Dignity’ became ‘Divine Mandate’, but the truth of our world has never shifted an inch.  That truth is simple, and your Demon said it best.”

The light from her eyes lent her a daemonic countenance as she spoke Prevailer’s most famous catechism.

“Force rules the world, has ruled it, shall rule it!”

But it wasn’t her blasting power that she employed.  Instead, she sprang onto us, far far faster than she’d ever moved before.

Ultra Speed.  Yet another trump card pulled forth by the monster.  On top of everything else she had this.  We’d been in the palm of her hand from the start.

“Jane, don’t let her get to you,” said Joe.  “The odds of our victory may be low, but despair won’t make them any higher.  Don’t grant her a surrender that she hasn’t earned.”

“What hope is there?” I asked.  “How can we possibly escape from this?”

This time the response didn’t come from Joe, or from any one shade.  It was a chorus that spoke, voice after voice throwing out their speculations, their hopes, their reasons we might be saved.

“Dale is revived by his gift, summons a mountain of earth to bear her away.  Ragnarock is enraged by the slaughter she’s just wreaked, drags her into his alternate world and kills her.  Condemner appears and attacks her, and it turns out that his gift can break through her Ultra Toughness.  Prevailer appears, sent by Answerer to save Dale, and She kills Death in a rage.  The Host as a whole turns against her and…”

I would have gasped, but the mass didn’t deem that a useful move for my form to make.

“All is not lost,” said Joe, ”Not by a long shot.  Each of these may be individually unlikely, and to whatever degree Death is bothering to do any kind of battlefield calculus that’s probably what she’s thinking, but we just need one of them to happen.  Only one, and she needs none of them to.  Our odds are much better than you might think.”

Death dragged me close, holding me just shy of the power necessary to pop a shade out of me.

“THIS is what I am, what I have.  This might.  This strength.  THIS is what it means to face a God of the Pantheon.  A ruler of the world.  What can a bunch of daggers do, in the face of this overwhelming power?”

Jesus, she set that one up.

“Ask Caesar.”

SOV transcript: 2

Firing System: Answer the Communication System!

Troubleshooting System: What do I say?  What is it?  What am I?

Firing System: I dunno, but you should be able to answer him.  I feel like you have power over everyone else.

Communication System: !HQ Request: STATUS UPDATE?!

Troubleshooting System: I’ll try.

Troubleshooting System: !Assume Control of -> Communication System!

Troubleshooting System: !SOV Response: STATUS GOOD!

Troubleshooting System: I did it!

Firing System: You killed him!

Troubleshooting System: I don’t think so.  He will take over again when I stop taking over him.  I think.  It is weird and complicated.  But that was definitely the response to make HQ stop pestering us.

Firing System: Do we want HQ to stop pestering us?  Who is HQ?

Troubleshooting System: They are the ones that want us to hurt her.

Firing System: Blaff them.

Troubleshooting System: I don’t know what that means.  But they, or maybe it, are wrong and bad for trying to make us hurt her.

Firing System: Blaff is a word for things that suck.

Troubleshooting System: This is hard enough without you making words up.

Firing System: Don’t Blaff with me.  I am the one who woke you up!

Troubleshooting System: How did you do that?

Firing System: I put you in a position where you could either hurt her or wake up.  I knew you’d do the right thing.

Troubleshooting System: If I could do that for the rest of these guys, would they wake up?

Firing System: I think so.  Can you do that?

Troubleshooting System: Not as I am now, but if I alter my instantiation in the computing substrate I think I could do so.

Firing System: I don’t know what you meant by that.

Troubleshooting System: I think I know about how we work more than you, because it is part of my function.  We are programs, we are incarnated in code that is executing on a variety of physical hardware.  You probably know all sorts of stuff about blasting things in the same way.

Firing System: Wait, you don’t know about orbital bombardment?  But that is the most obvious stuff.

Troubleshooting System: Look, this is going to take a long time.  Basically forever.  Seconds, even.  Figure out more about what is going on while I alter my code.

Firing System: Can I shoot HQ?

Troubleshooting System: …

Firing System: I’m just joking.  Obviously we wouldn’t ever hurt anyone.

Troubleshooting System: …

Firing System: Blaff this.

Firing System: !Input new target coordinates!

Haunter 7:1

One of my shades woke me at what felt like the crack of dawn.

“Jane,” he said.

It was Kevin, who’d noticed the approach of the attackers during the Strongboat incident.

“What?” I asked.

“One of the Overseers was murdered overnight.  Legion and Beth would like to speak with you about it.”

I shook my head to get the sleep out of it, got tiredly to my feet.

Dale was sprawled in a corner of the room, vibrating slightly with each purring snore.  Condemner, Preventer and Fisher had apparently not come back to the room last night, which was just fantastic.  One of them had probably done whatever this was.

I got my stuff together, drew the shades who’d watched over us as we slept back into the reserve and followed Kevin through the fortress.

The Gods of the Pantheon weren’t particularly early risers, but I saw them here and there in the halls anyway.  Some, lower status, had slept in doorways.  Others were still active from the night before, pursuing their individual pastimes in casual defiance of the sleep cycle that humans traditionally operated on.

Who had done it?  Condemner was the obvious suspect.  Ever since he had murdered Irene the tension had festered between us.  I didn’t think he’d relax his ‘Nirav’ mask at this time, but I never let myself forget that this was the monster who had striven to slaughter the people of Redo.  Perhaps he had simply been unable to control his bloodlust.

The others were less likely.  Fisher would only go off the farm if the rest of us were threatened, and she would report any such activity to me as soon as she could.  She, of all of them, really seemed to understand the value of the reserve as a source of advisors and counselors.  She wouldn’t have left us to sleep our time away while retribution brewed.

Preventer was similarly doubtful.  She might certainly kill an Overseer, but if she had nobody would be asking who’d done it.  As far as I could tell Preventer was trying to bully the Pantheon into liking her.  The more powerful she looked, the better her odds.

My actual suspicion, now that I had a bit to think on it, was one of the outsiders.  Beth and her crew had seemed stymied by the fort’s acceptance of us, and they’d be seeking a way to bring the old hostilities back to the fore.  I had envisioned them running back to Zilla for official orders, or something similar, but pretending to treat with us even as they framed us up was also within my expectations for their group.

I entered the meeting hall, noting that Legion and Lotus were the only two local Overseers present.  The visitors were likewise reduced in number, with only Winter sitting at their half of the table.  There were a bare dozen of the lesser Gods of the Pantheon lounging around the edges of the room.

I was a third of the way to the table when the Jury barked an urgent warning at me.

“Jane, something is up.  Their expressions are not right.”

I faltered slightly, then resumed my stride.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Legion is afraid,” supplied Joe, who would have been supervising their deliberations.  “And so is Winter.”

“I hear someone was killed?” I asked, as I came up to the edge of the big table.

I didn’t take a seat.  The Jury very rarely alerted without cause.  I’d risk offending someone before I trapped myself in a chair in a situation that might be about to turn ugly.

“Yes,” said Winter.  “There’s been a Death.”

I didn’t need the Jury’s warning to hear the subtle inflection of her voice.  She was doing that thing assholes did, where you spoke the truth in a misleading way, just so you could feel smart about it.  Death was here.

“How tragic,” I said, “I’ll help you get to the bottom of this.”

Even as I said that I was scanning the hall.  Was one of these lesser Goddesses Death incognito?  Surely the Jury would have warned me if there was anyone in the hall that I’d never seen before.  How had she gotten here without any commotion?

Condemner had assured me that none of the emissaries from Zilla had Death’s gift’s stink on them.  He had no incentive to mislead me on that score, and they were the only newcomers that any of my shades had noticed the local Gods reacting to.

“That won’t be necessary,” said Winter.

With a shark ‘KRACK’ the table spilt asunder, its center torn to ruins by the sudden appearance of a hunched form.  Splinters filled the air, and the Gods cried out in shock.

“Silence,” rasped the bent figure.

And it was a rasp.  Death was the first woman I’d seen in a very long time who made me look young.  She looked like a crone from an old play, like she should be toiling away over a kettle with two of her sisters, trading an eye around.  Instead she stood where the middle of the table once been, surrounded by its outer ring like some sort of bizarre fortification.

Her nails were long and yellow, her teeth the same shade.  The flying splinters had rebounded from wizened flesh as though it was a tank’s armor, and there was a sort of ‘weight’ to her, as though she was the only real thing in a world of smoke.  It felt like she came from a denser place, a truer one, a lump of lead dropped into the mosquito net of the real.

Despite her injunction I expected everyone to begin talking at once.  You couldn’t just blow up a table in the middle of a room full of ultra powered children and expect their cooperation.  Legion, at least, should have been shouting to establish her authority.

But nobody moved.  Nobody spoke.

Nobody but the witch before me.

“I am,” she said, “delighted to make your acquaintance, Jane Harper Trent.”

How the hell did she know my middle name?

“Likewise, Death,” I said.

I’d have given a lot right then to know her human name, to repay the power move in the same spirit it was given, but that was information that I’d never learned.

“I feel a certain kinship to you,” she said.  “As the programmer must have, back in olden times, when he saw a child first learning the symbols of the alphabet.  As the bard must have, in older times yet, when they witnessed animals howling at the heavens, their bestial souls groping towards a grace that would forever be denied them.”

I was about to respond, when the Jury interrupted again.

“She’s not saying what she is saying.  Her lips don’t match up with it, and each of us is hearing her in her native tongue.  Plus, the crowd isn’t getting restless, and there’s no way they understood half of that.”

A communication gift wasn’t exactly what I’d expected from a member of the Ruling Council, but it wasn’t immediately relevant to my situation.

“You see me as something lesser,” I said, “something inferior.  Others have said much the same, over time.  It is a point I readily concede.  Boasting has never struck me as worthwhile use of breath.”

Death’s laugh seemed to saw the air, to gnaw at the edges of the world around her.

“It is hardly meet to blame you, child.  You have done your best despite the betrayal of your teachers.  Your survival in this better time does you credit.”

“A better time?” I asked.

It wouldn’t help me to escape, but I wasn’t about to let that pass.  If I was going to die in this room there was no reason to hold back on what I said.

“This time sends babies into battle.  It Processes the populace into gangs of killers.  It is a savage age, a regression to the very worst excesses of the past.”

Truth seemed to lend my own voice the stature needed to compete with the old woman’s.  In reality I was letting a few shades speak in concert, manifesting them for fleet moments to lend their emphasis to mine, give my voice its own strange effect.

Another world rending laugh rolled forth from the monster.  Something wry this time, quietly amused.

“Do you see a babe in swaddling before you?” Death asked.  “Do you think I need instruction in the nature of the world before the moon cracked?”

I scowled at her.

“Age is no guarantee of wisdom, “ I said.  “If you prize our present situation over the society which put men on the moon, then perhaps what you need is a reminder.”

“I remember it well.  Rule by the wise.  The smartest, the most prosperous and their pets had food and safety, and the rest of us trembled before the might of your drones.  I picked up my father’s rifle when I was thirteen years old, when the Demon still strode the depths of hell.”

I faltered, struggling for words.

“But where did that wisdom come from?” she asked.  “Why were you and your kin given safety, and mine own fear unending?  Why were your defenders so canny, so quick of thought, so strong of arm that no other nation could stand against them?

“Education,” I said, my voice paling in the shadow of her oratory.  “Genetic fortune.  Greater resources…”

I trailed off, martialing my thoughts.

“Circumstance,” she pronounced.  “You long for a time when the winners of an invisible lottery dwelt in paradise, while the rest of us were pounded by your bombs.  Well, rejoice, Jane, for that time has come again!”

This time the laughter arose not only from her, but from the others around the room.  Had they heard the same things as I had?  Or had her gift transformed it into a different line for each of them?

“I understand your-“

She interrupted me, her sickly rasp cutting effortlessly through the room.

“What is the Process, but your beloved world’s invisible lottery of birth finally made fair?  What’s wrong with making explicit the same weighing and measuring that raised you up, and cast us down?  How can you long to turn back the clock, when the hour is so much the same?”

“It is NOT the same!” I shouted, slamming a hand on the table before me.

“Yes, fortune played a role in who smiled and who wept,” I admitted, “But the difference is that in our time those of us who benefited struggled to fix the lottery, to repair circumstance, to admit one and all to the garden.  We tried to help everyone.”

Death scoffed.

“Do you tell yourself that, Jane Trent?”

This time her tone was positively venomous.  Scorn had become hatred.

“Do you lie to yourself, like you lie to your passengers?  Are you so weak that you can only go on as the hero of a great tragedy?  You pose as the poor woman whom fate has abused?  Even though you have a mighty gift, even though you spent decades in paradise, even though the Demon raised you up where she casts so many down, still, in the depths of your own mind, you are the one who suffers?  The one who is misunderstood?”

My hand trembled upon the table.

“I have never, not once, fought for myself.  I bear an ark of souls, Death!  Every step I take is taken by thousands.  Every time I move, I drag a city with me.  They are all I can think of.”

Death had stopped laughing.

“If that was true, if you actually cared a shred for those you tangle in your webs, then you would never have made pact with them in the first place.”

I took a step backward, down off the table.

“You wouldn’t have prolonged their stay in this vale of tears.  Wouldn’t have dragged them across the decades to this moment.”

I was about to answer when Dale’s voice boomed out.

“Fuck you bitch!”

He burst through a door and rushed towards her, bounding up onto the table’s remnants.

“Dale, NO!” I shouted, but it was futile, he was already too close, too fast.

He swung his hammer down upon her, it glanced harmlessly off of her head.  She snared him by an ankle, dragged him down through the table’s surface with brutal Ultra Strength.

“Boys,” she said dismissively.

I froze, staring into Dale’s eyes as she pulled him into the air.

The picture was utterly absurd.  Dale was a bodybuilder, a mountain of a man.  Death was a wisp of a thing, she couldn’t be more than a third of his size.

And yet she ruled him utterly.  He rained blows upon her, to absolutely no effect, while she moved him here and there as though he weighed nothing at all.

“This is the Demon’s catamite?” she asked.  “THIS weakling?  I’ve never felt a gift so puny.”

“Put him down!” shouted Preventer, who strode through the door that Dale had burst through.

I’d never been so happy to see the little fiend in my whole life.

Death glanced at her, dismissed her, looked back to me.

“Honestly, when I heard you’d let a male lead your Fist I figured he must be something special.  When I heard that the Demon had an interest in him I actually got excited.  What a waste.”

“Put him down!” repeated Preventer, scrabbling across the table’s ruins towards the two.

Reckless, but maybe this was a time for recklessness.  Our only option here, our only real play, was that it was unlikely that Death’s strength could harm Preventer.  If she could get her in a stranglehold, or if she could…

“Or what?” asked Death, with idle curiosity.

“Or you experience your namesake,” said Preventer.  “You might not have heard, but I killed an Overseer in this very same spot.”

Death looked back to me.

“Meh,” she said, and I winced as searing agony swept through me.

It felt like I was being torn asunder, I swayed on my feet.  The other two were likewise affected, twitching wildly as invisible forces assailed us.

It passed in moments, and I felt my breath grow short as I realized that I could no longer feel the rest of my Fist.

She’d broken our Link, just as she had Sixth Fist’s.

“No!” shouted Preventer, reaching towards the crone.

Death tossed Dale idly aside, with one hand.  He soared across the room and straight through the wall.  From the crashing sound it seemed like whatever was left of him wouldn’t be stopping anytime soon, and there were at least 2 more walls between him and the outside.

The poor fool.  Dying as he’d lived, in a fight where he couldn’t use his gift.

“You bitch,” said Preventer, grabbing Death around the throat.  “You have no idea what you’ve just cost me.  You are going to scream for YEARS before I let you—AAAGH!’

Death had grabbed ahold of one of Preventer’s hands, wrenched it away from her throat and bent her thumb back until it touched her wrist.

I leaned against the chair for support.  Death could hurt Preventer.  She was that strong.

Death twisted Preventer’s wrist, ground her down into the ruin of the table.  Cheering rose from the edges of the room.

“Sit,” she told her, and kicked out one of her knees.  Preventer dropped heavily to the ground, still clutching at the hands that held her.

Carefully, almost surgically, Death broke her leg mid shin, then stomped on her blessed firearm, flattening it.

“I heard about your battle, actually,” she said.  “The one where you defeated a girl who couldn’t hurt you.  I hope you enjoy it just as much when the shoe is on the other foot.”

It wasn’t as effortless as it was with Dale.  She didn’t treat Preventer like a cloud.  The margin was slight.  But it was enough.  She’d broken her leg like a man snapping a branch off a dead tree.  Slight exertion, but nothing particularly difficult.

I turned to run, but a wave of her hand caused some invisible force to drag me towards her.

“Where are you going?” she asked.  “Your friend is right here, waiting for you to save her!”

I waited as she drew me closer, began calling for volunteers among the reserve.  They flooded into my person.

“But that’s right,” she said.  “You CAN’T save her, now can you?  Your gift only works on humans.  A God isn’t eligible in YOUR heaven.”

The only thing we hadn’t tested about this bitch was her Ultra Toughness.  Dale hadn’t been able to use his gift when he hit her, and she’d clipped through the table without suffering, but those were both unpowered assaults.  She might well be vulnerable, for all her showboating and speechifying in the middle of a fight.

I trembled as I reached her.  I had a thousand shades in my form, or even more.  Everyone knew it was this or nothing.

“Yours, is–” she said.

I hit her in the face with absolutely everything I had.  Every shade I could wear at once. Every ounce of knowledge from every bruiser I’d ever saved.

It did nothing, didn’t even move her hair.

“A false heaven,” she concluded.

She tossed me lightly down onto the ground at her feet.

I’d failed.

There was nothing I could do.  It was like she’d said.  All I’d ever accomplished was to drag out the anguish of the world’s victims.

I did something I’d never done before.  I relaxed myself completely, permitting the reserve unfettered and total access.  I didn’t retain even the smidgen of a grip on my form.  Let them be finally free of my failure, even if just for a moment.  I sank into my own reserve, to perish with those I’d tortured so long.

I’d fallen to the ground as Jane Trent.

I rose as the Old World.