I tensed up a bit as I dragged us through the shield.
It wasn’t that I was scared. Or, no, that wasn’t right. It was that I was right to be frightened. The shield that surrounded the Great Host’s forts was the real edge of the Pantheon’s territory. From now on we would be inside of the Union’s influence.
And we were still up on the surface.
I stole a glare at Predictor, who was to blame for this stupidity. He had assured everyone that it would be ok if we stayed up on top of the ground, because he would know if we were going to be spotted by drones. I didn’t believe that for a second.
“You don’t like him?” asked Zilla, from down where she clung on to my arm.
I almost jumped. Despite the fact that we were in physical contact I had almost been able to forget that she was here. So much for that.
“He is a strong Fist leader,” I told her, looking away.
She had sort of glomped onto my side as soon as she came up here to the front with me, supposedly because we were supposed to be talking, leader to leader. She had talked an awful lot, but hadn’t really had much to say, if that made any sense.
“That’s not what I asked,” she said. “But we can talk about that instead, if you like. I thought I heard that his Fist was the weakest of them all.”
“That’s not…” I started. “I’m just saying that I like him fine. Why wouldn’t I like him?”
I missed Lotus, or at least what her gift did for me. I had some stashed away with my gear, but I was saving that till we got to the prison.
I had been hoping that Lotus would come along with us, had actually argued for it, but she didn’t want to go. Or maybe Legion didn’t want her to go, I wasn’t sure on how the politics worked there.
“Maybe cuz he is mad smug?” she said. “Or cuz you are the two dudes who lead Fists and there is that whole natural male rivalry for leadership thing?”
I looked down again, to see that weirdly wide grin splitting her face.
“Guys don’t always fight,” I told her. “That is just something you think in the Pantheon. We can work together just fine.”
“Of course,” she said, giving me an exaggerated wink, like she knew that I was lying and was just going along with me.
I didn’t like Zilla. I felt like she was one of those people that everyone either loved or hated, and I’d fallen onto the bad side of that. Maybe everyone felt that way, and we all just tolerated her because we thought that each other thought she was great.
“Does Bull try to take over your job as leader?” I asked.
This wasn’t a perfect comparison. What I was trying to ask was whether or not the men in the central cities were constantly fighting to be unseat whichever of them was an Overseer, but I hadn’t had time to figure out who that was.
“Bull is a Goddess,” she said, looking strangely at me. “That’s just her battle form. You might see her turn back when we are done.”
I looked over at Bull, who looked like a big hairy guy, hunched over and talking to Fisher. He noticed me looking, gave a big wave with a wide grin.
“You serious?” I asked.
She grinned again, hugged my arm tighter.
I looked away, frustrated, letting my gaze roam across the platform of earth I was moving.
The Fist members, both mine and Predictor’s, were basically clumped up in their own groups. Predictor and Slicer were a bit away from the rest, but otherwise there was a clear separation. The Pantheon’s Gods weren’t nearly so disciplined.
I had kind of figured, when we set out, that they would keep to themselves, forming a third contingent. But it hadn’t worked that way at all. They all spoke English just fine, and they seemed to have an endless curiosity about us and the Regime. They hung out with one or the other Fists most of the time, such that there basically wasn’t even as separate Pantheon cluster.
At least the numbers weren’t lopsided. We’d eventually agreed (after Predictor told us that we were going to in the end) on even numbers from each side. So they got ten Gods for our ten Ultras.
I asked him, afterwards, if that was only the agreement BECAUSE he’d said that it would come out that way, and he’d just sort of smugged off.
“Maybe I do wanna fight him, just a bit,” I allowed.
Zilla was the leader of their side, of course. She was going to be part of the first team, the ones who went into the sky jail at the start and set stuff up so the rest of us could do the more overt part. She was, in fact, leading the first team.
The rest of her side were supposed to be very powerful Gods.
Genie had also come along, she was going to be the one who lifted everyone up onto the flying jail. Her gift let her move metal around, so they were all going to ride a metal disk that she could push along. I was currently keeping it embedded in the ground underneath her, but I had instructions to pop it up if something happened unexpectedly.
Bull was supposedly the most powerful combatant on their side of things. He, or she from what Zilla just said, was just a pure brute. Apparently about as powerful as Pursuer in terms of raw strength. We were saving her for the second strike, when Andy would already have been removed to safety, and collateral damage wouldn’t be such a big deal.
Then there was Dusk, who seemed to blink or warp around. They said that she was as fast as the speed of dark, but I didn’t know what that meant. Haunter had explained it to me that her location was not absolute, like she was something stuck to everyone’s eyes or something. I didn’t understand it, but everyone acted like she was going to be really dangerous if she threw down. I had just kind of decided to treat her like she had Ultra speed two, and let whatever the difference was work out in our favor.
Noon was our emergency plan. She could destroy the prison and everything for miles around if that became necessary. They described her power as making the sun set on things, but from how she talked about it I thought she actually was just a very powerful blaster. Obviously in that case we wouldn’t get Andy, so that was a last resort.
The rest of the Pantheon side of things was a squad called The Furies. They had individual names and gifts, but I had been having trouble memorizing things by that point, and I’d kind of left them for later. They were basically fighters, good gifts for close combat and short blasting. From watching a bit of their drills they seemed kind of like the gals that Death had brought for her attack on the boat.
“They actually fight though,” said Zilla, startling me again. “I have stronger teams on paper, but the Furies are the only ones who sortie consistently. I have faith in them.”
Had she known what I was thinking?
“Did you just think, ‘how did she know what I was thinking?” she asked.
“No,” I lied.
She chuckled and let me go.
“You don’t get to run the whole war effort for as long as I did if you can’t tell a bit about what is going on in another God’s mind,” she said.
“Oh,” I said. “I guess that makes sense. You have probably had a lot of missions like this one, huh?”
“Nope!” she said. “This is the first time I’ve been out of the Arena in a very long time. I’m enjoying myself.”
I looked nervously over the countryside, trying to spot the very tiny drones that were no doubt relaying our position to the enemy.
“Yeah,” I said. “Me too.”
That was a lie, of course, but She had taught me that it is really important for people to think that you are strong. It isn’t like real strength. Rocks don’t care if you act like you can lift them, only if you have actually put in the work to get able to. But with people somehow seeming like you can do it IS the work of being able to do it, or something.
“I never thanked you,” she said.
“Huh?” I replied, and she grabbed onto my arm again.
“For capturing my fort,” she responded. “If you’d been five or ten minutes slower the C man would have been lynched, and everyone would be worrying about where their next meal was going to come from. I owe you, big time.”
“Alright,” I said.
She didn’t say anything.
“Oh, well, you know…” I said after a second, feeling a bit flustered. It was kind of rare for a person to say things like that directly. Most people in the Regime just played it off when you did them a favor, or, like, said it was a crappy road and they didn’t want it anyway.
She didn’t say anything in response to that, and we drifted a long for a bit in silence while I racked my brain.
“Actually, I think you could pay me back,” I said.
“How?” she asked.
“Let me take us underground.”
I turned to face her directly, pulling my arm back as I did so.
“I know that you guys were worried that it was all a trick or whatever, that I would have more power over you when you were trapped in a cave that I controlled, but I swear we aren’t trying to mess around like that. It is really all about hiding from the Union’s spy drones.”
She gave a much more ordinary smile, just as wide as her mouth.
“You realize, of course, that that’s exactly what you would say if you WERE planning on ambushing us in this cave, correct?”
I missed my gold drinks at that moment. I felt for sure that there was something wrong with the idea that I had to compete with what I would say if I was trying to get someone to do what I was really trying to get them to do but for bad reasons.
“No,” I said. “Look, I just, I mean…”
I stalled for a sec, looking around and trying not to imagine bad guys creeping up on us. How could I persuade her?
“We don’t need any advantage to take you.”
The words sounded strange as they came out, much harsher and colder than I naturally talked. I was using my heel voice for this, trying to antagonize an imaginary crowd.
“Take me?” she said, voice rising at the end, like it was just a big joke.
“There are TWO Fists here, Zilla.” I told her. “We crushed a Host with just one. We are ten of the most powerful Ultras in the world, and we come back to life every day.”
She laughed instantly, delightedly, nearly before I was finished talking.
I sort of recoiled a bit from her, she actually had to bend over, gasped for a second and kind of waved a hand at me.
“Take ME?” she said again, but this time with the emphasis on the second word. “As in, defeat me? Kill me?”
She nearly had to laugh again.
“I’m serious,” I said. “We are very powerful, and you don’t gain anything by staying up here on the surface. Let me pull everyone under, you are in our power whichever way, but down below you don’t have to be scared of the Union.”
“Alright,” she said. “Makes sense.”
“You have to…” I trailed off. Had she just agreed?
“You are ok with it?” I asked. “I can use my gift to let us travel underground?”
Somehow I hadn’t actually expected her to get persuaded by my words. That didn’t usually happen.
“Sure,” she said. “For all those reasons you gave, you’ve brought me around. We are way safer underground, and we’ll be out of the sun.”
She didn’t have to tell me twice.
I called out to the rest of the crew, let them know that we’d be diving. Our Fist was already familiar with how this worked, and Predictor’s crew seemed like they’d been ready for this all along. It was only the Gods who needed to have it explained to them.
I didn’t have to do any of that, though, because Zilla went over and started talking to them. I figured she was probably making sure that they didn’t think I was attacking when I pulled everyone down into the ground.
“How’d you get her to bend?” asked Preventer.
“Bwah!” I snapped out, nearly jumping into an evasive roll.
How had she snuck up on me? I looked down, saw her standing on two small barriers, floating inches above the ground.
“Not like that,” she said, eyes widening. “I mean how did you get her to agree that we can go underground.”
“You just startled me,” I said. “I knew that’s what you meant. What else would you have meant?”
“Never mind,” she said. “Just answer the question.”
“It was because…” and here I paused a moment.
I’d been about to finish with, ‘I threatened her’, but that wasn’t right.
I know that the threat was the last thing that I’d said. Or, it wasn’t exactly a threat, but it had kind of felt like one, and it had been the last thing before she agreed. But I didn’t think that’s what had done it. I felt like the real reason she went along with me was the thing with the Company.
“Um, I just kind of explained stuff,” I said.
I wasn’t sure if Preventer knew that I’d technically conquered Zilla’s base before we set out. She probably did, but it wasn’t certain, and I didn’t want to talk about it now.
I stretched my arms out to the sides, dug my feet into my brah and called upon my gift.
Without ceremony or anything fancy our whole traveling slab just kind of sank into the ground, the stone above us slid smoothly into place, and we were in one of my usual traveling cave setups.
“Thanks Dale,” said Preventer. “I feel better-“
She clammed up as Zilla bounced back over.
“Hey Venter,” she said.
She grabbed for Preventer’s hand with both of hers, but Preventer took a quick step back, and sort of to the side, so I was between them.
“Hey,” she said.
I turned so they were on my left and right sides, rather than in front of and behind me. It was weird that I was worried about being surrounded by the two tiniest women I’d ever met.
There was a moment of silence. I had the crazy impression that Zilla was trying to figure out whether going around in front of me or behind me would get her to Preventer fastest, like they were kids playing a keep away game.
“Keep away, huh?” said Zilla.
“What?” asked Preventer.
“What?” said Zilla.
I called upon my gift again, sank myself into a separate cave under the main cave where the rest of them were held.
This was going to be a long trip.