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.