“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.
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.