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 meat 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.”
“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.
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.