“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.
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 road 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.”
“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.