The central fortress didn’t look anything like the forward one. I leaned both of my forms forward on the earth wave that Dale was carrying us on, and spent some time really taking in the sight of the Grand Hosts’ main headquarters.
Legion’s so-called ‘fortress’ had basically been a dingy building. Formidable enough, in a region where most everything in the world had been knocked down by decades of intermittent warfare, but nothing that could actually be confused with a fortification.
Shington had been pretty much the same way. Yeah, there was a wall or two, some humans marching around scowling at people, lately even skulls mounted on the walls. But ultimately the thing that was scary about the place was always what was in it. The fortress itself never really seemed like it might actually be protecting its contents.
The Pantheon’s central fort was far more serious looking.
Just for starters, it was plainly the source of the immense dome that we’d entered when we approached Legion’s place. The energy that made up the dome rose out of the center of this place, rising thousands of feet into the air like a great fountain of light and rushing over our heads towards the horizon in every direction.
The buildings also weren’t reconstructed ruins of the old world. In fact, ‘buildings’ might not have been the right term. It was something like a hologram, or like a bunch of shining tubes. The linked modules that formed the central fort were constructed of some kind of gift byproduct, they had to be. It looked like they were made out of various colors of lightning, crystallized and harnessed.
The nearest one to us was a vivid blue upside down pyramid. Tubes descended from each of the sides, and other tubes linked it to other structures, seamlessly changing their shade to that of the other building as they passed the halfway point between the two.
“Buncha show offs,” said Lotus.
I made the Lure chuckle ruefully, giving her an appreciative nod.
Presumably the whole ‘laser buildings worn like weird ornaments by a colossal woman’ vibe was something one got used to.
That was the other part of this that set it apart from anywhere else that I’d ever been. The entirety of the central fortress was built upon the kneeling form of a woman who could be no one other than Zilla.
She was colossal, absurdly huge. My mind kept sliding away from the sheer scale of her, fixating instead on the buildings that hung about her. She would tower to the size of an old world skyscraper if she stood up, I was sure.
“What do the colors mean?” asked Kevin, one of Haunter’s shades.
We’d split up the platform for this trip. It let us look more formidable, spread us out in case of enemy attack, worked Dale’s earth moving muscles and did a whole host of other useful things, but the not so secret real reason for it was that a number of us got on each other’s nerves. It was a big improvement to have what amounted to different rooms we could go to, each with its own dynamic.
Haunter, Nirav and Preventer, or Death-Preventer or whatever, were up on the front one. They had Legion up there with them, and a few of the more gifted Pantheon people we’d met along the way. That was definitely the grown up platform.
I was slacking on the back left one, hanging out with the blind healer guy, Fox, Ragnarok and the ever present shades.
Two of them were making out with one another, which from what I understood was actually dangerous for Haunter’s guys, but I wasn’t about to stop them. They’d paused briefly when we’d first caught a glimpse of the central fortress, but it hadn’t bothered them for long.
“It is a status thing,” said Lotus. “Arena makes the whole place out of her dreams, see? And she can change the colors or the shape of it any time she wants. It transpired that her idea of badass or authority or whatever was kinda dark, and over time it became a status symbol to be in a darker colored area.”
“Is Arena one of the Overseers?” I asked.
My Hook was being used as a kind of obstacle course by a few of Haunter’s child shades, which made me a bit nervous. I made sure it stayed completely still.
It was probably Irene’s death that had me constantly worried about Jane’s people. Nirav had been a wreck for days afterword, he still didn’t seem quite back to normal.
“Yup,” said Lotus. “One of the main ones, actually. One of the ones who actually would be hard to replace. A little like me, to be honest.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
She pulled out a glass, waved a hand over it, filling it with a blended liquid.
“Some Overseers are like Angel, like Genie. Deadly combatants, sure, but ultimately pretty much just that. They are in charge because if you tried to boss them around they’d throw down all over you until you were dead. Get it?”
“Sure,” I said. “That’s pretty much how She does it, too.”
Lotus chuckled, threw back her concoction.
“There’s definitely a lot to be said for ‘Rule by the ones everybody is afraid of’. But there are other kinds of Overseers too. Like, it can’t have escaped your notice that I’m not exactly the most deadly Goddess, right?”
I felt like she was selling herself down a bit, but I understood the impulse. I had a lot of experience being the weakest in a crew.
“But what I provided is useful to people who are stronger than me. The distraction that I bring to the idle warriors’ lives is important to Legion. The housing that Arena provides, the mazes and palaces and such, that is important to Zilla. So Arena and I are unofficially shielded from Contests. We hide under the skirts of our stronger sisters.”
“Tell me about it,” I said, pointing a thumb at myself.
“You are plenty strong,” said Kevin. “I can tell because you don’t mind if I think so. Weak people think that it is really important that everyone thinks that they are powerful. You know? Whenever you hear anyone get all riled up because someone doesn’t respect them you know that person doesn’t respect themselves.”
I rolled the Lure’s eyes at him.
“Thanks Kev,” I said. “I was talking about a different kind of strength though.”
“Even then,” he said. “You are in a Fist. You come back if you die. That’s enough, right there, to make everyone afraid to take you on. Don’t beat yourself up so much.”
I made the Lure give Dale’s sheepish grin.
The reserve knew that we’d lost the Link, of course, and there was no way they were going to give our secret away deliberately. But I was starting to worry about the reverse. Sometimes I felt like every shade I’d talked to in public since the big fight had gone out of their way to mention how strong and great the Link was.
“Yeah,” said Fox, “If anyone is going to get beaten up it is Zilla and her crew. If they aren’t willing to recognize Preventer’s Advent then things might get a little messy, and the ones in trouble are the ones who aren’t invulnerable.”
“Is Zilla invincible?” asked Lotus. “I know her strength goes up as she gets bigger, but does that also go for her toughness? Or is she just one toughness all the time, getting stronger the bigger she gets?”
It was kind of worrisome that she didn’t know that, but I supposed that the Overseers would make the same kinds of efforts to obscure their gift’s ins and outs as we did. Mine wasn’t the only gift that was vastly more useful when the enemy didn’t know everything I could do.
“Nope,” said Fox. “High one, or low two at best. Her big trick is rapidly increasing and decreasing in size, lets her kind of simulate Ultra speed, or just make the targets on her big enough that whatever attack is hitting her doesn’t do enough damage to put her down.”
“Does she fight much?” I asked. “It seems like if anyone wants to take over they can just go to the building up by her ear and blast her brains out. How does she keep power?”
Fox gave an elaborate shrug.
“According to our best intel,” said Kevin. “It is mostly shrewd organization. There are a series of tournaments for the right to fight her, which whittles down the competition. Then there are wars over housing colors, stuff like that. She divides and conquers. Legion might actually be more powerful, Zilla mostly just uses old school management tricks.”
“Don’t forget about dumping the most disobedient on us,” said Fox. “She has a stick that Legion doesn’t. She can always send her troublemakers up to the front lines, make them into our problems. The ones who are still here are going to be easier to deal with by virtue of not having made enough muss to not be here.”
I shook my head a little at that dizzying sentence, but I got the gist.
I was just about to reply when the platforms shuddered to a halt.
I looked forward instantly, pulling the Hook into my shadow in case I was about need to spawn it elsewhere.
Zilla’s emissaries had appeared before the front platform, and were even now stepping forward to talk with Preventer and the rest.
“Sorry, I got to pay attention to this,” I told my immediate surroundings, before sending my shadow flowing forward.
I manifested the Hook alongside the rest of my team, even as Dale was rising from the ground. We all confronted the Chief Overseer’s henchmen directly.
“Hello again,” said Beth.
“You can teleport?” asked Dale, cutting off a greeting that Haunter or Preventer was about to give.
“Not us,” said Winter.
A teleporter who could send other people to distant places. I was suddenly intensely interested in our little trip.
I’d been considering leaving the Fist before, mostly idly. It was hard to persuade myself that being away from Dale and the rest could possibly be safer. I would still be a target, still in the middle of a war zone, just without any of my mighty friends to have my back.
But if there was a teleporter here, then there might be an opportunity. I’d still have to persuade Nirav, still have to work out a way to make the Goddess do what I wanted, but with Snitcher dead and the Link broken it was entirely possible that we could just sort of vanish to some out of the way place. Maybe a human tribe, out where there were no other Ultras for miles around.
Somewhere I could actually be safe.
“Your impressive arrival aside,” said Preventer, “has Zilla come around on the central question of our visit? Is she willing to concede that I, having killed Death, have assumed her authority?”
It was weird how Jane had been so willing to back Preventer’s play here. I knew that Preventer had been looking to run things for the Pantheon ever since she’d been a teeny weeny little maniac, but it felt odd for Jane to be so ready to rock the boat.
I really should have given some thought to that before now, but I’d mostly been just freaking out over the Link being gone.
“Something like that,” said Monster. “She just sent us to escort you up, and clarify your position. Make sure she knows what you want to talk about before you get here, you know?”
Dale put his hands on the ground, getting 4 points of contact. The entire area around us slid back into motion. Not as separate platforms, but just sliding the world along. It was easy to forget how little of his gift he usually used.
“It isn’t complicated,” said Preventer. “I killed Death, before dozens of witnesses, high ranking Gods who have no reason to lie. Death was superior to Zilla, and therefore I now occupy that same slot.”
“We know that part of your claim,” said Beth. “We’re wondering about the rest of your Regime associates. Are they still supposed to be advising Legion?”
Preventer and Jane exchanged a look.
“It was deemed appropriate, in light of our being Linked into the same Fist, for us to advise Preventer, instead,” said Haunter.
“We are attending this meeting in that capacity.”
Strangely, that caused the emissaries to look to one another and smirk.
“Understood,” said Winter. “Thanks for clearing that up.”
The buildings of the fort, and the colossus they ornamented, soon loomed above us. Even as we watched a golden ramp slid down to greet us.
“Dale,” cautioned Jane, but he was already on it.
Rather than taking the ramp Dale formed the ground around us into a slim peak, bringing about a thirty foot wide crag up into the midst of the gaudy buildings, following the same path that the ramp they’d extended had.
For my part I was boggling at the ramp alongside us, and the great cubes that were hastily sliding aside from Dale’s ever widening peak. Arena’s gift was fascinating in action. I could never see any aspect of it moving, when I focused my gaze on it. Instead it looked like the world moved around it, like I was part of the moving thing, not something apart and observing it.
I turned my gaze to Zilla as we rose up in front of her.
She was quite a sight. My mind rebelled at considering something that vast to be anything other than scenery.
Her appearance wasn’t terribly remarkable, aside from being huge beyond reason. She was a thin Asian woman, with age lines just beginning to appear.
She had a pair of hanging creations on either side of her face, holding about a dozen Gods on each one. They were presumably her Overseers, and I was sure Haunter’s nerds were no doubt matching each of them with the gifts that they’d heard about.
I didn’t bother to count them. They were an overpowering force. A few dozen Ultras, each almost on our level, backed up by the majority of the Grand Host. If this shook out to any kind of a fight, we’d be utterly screwed. But it didn’t really have any reason to. Even if they rejected Preventer as a boss, which most reasonable people would, they wouldn’t want to waste lives trying to kill foes who they thought would just return to life.
I looked back to Nirav, trying to lend some reassurance, and I saw his gaze was fixed on a knot of Gods on one of the platforms.
“WELCOME,” boomed Zilla. Her voice was siren loud, drone strike loud. I actually double checked to make sure it hadn’t popped Haunter’s shades.
They swayed a bit, but none of them popped.
“I accept your gracious hospitality,” began Preventer.
I knew the formalities would take a while. Whenever anything became official it was automatically ten times slower.
I looked around again as Preventer nattered on. The other side, after Zilla’s initial statement, was having Beth do the actual talking, which my ears appreciated, at least.
Nirav still hadn’t looked up at Zilla. He was still fixated on the right plate, staring down that same group of Gods. I looked at them more closely.
No, not Gods. Ultras. Five Ultras, that I recognized. Another Fist.