The Lure clung to me as Genie hauled us into the sky. She nibbled at my ear, and I grinned in response, turning and kissing her wildly.
One of the Furies hrrumphed at my side, and I casually reached out and slapped her across the head.
That got Fisher off me in a hurry, as the packed platform roiled in response. The Fury that I’d slapped leaped backwards into another, who lashed out in response with a violent shove. In the turmoil Fisher brought the Lure over to stand with her Hook, which was a pity.
“A man who knows how to enjoy life,” commented Zilla, from where she stood, slightly behind me. “More of my Gods should share your humor.”
I craned my neck around, looked down at her. My victim hadn’t made any more moves towards me, once she worked out who’d hit her.
“Shhh” I said, putting a finger to my lips. She grinned more broadly than a human should be able to, and rolled her eyes.
Across the platform, not all of my so-called allies shared my mirth. The 3 Furies we’d brought were all hard stares and sullen silences, the scowling faces of humans trying hide the fact that their lives are ridiculous carnivals of suffering. Jenny, the shade that Haunter had sent up for computer stuff, looked appalled, terrified. She clung to the Hook so tightly I thought she might pop herself on one of its spines. Slicer just looked bored, though she had the good grace to give me a slight smile for my antics, and Genie was too busy steering us to pay much attention.
Her attention was monopolized, of course, by Predictor, who stood by her side and kept up a nonstop stream of orders, guiding the platform on a torturous path that he said would keep us from the prison’s notice, even as we rose up beneath it.
He hadn’t been terribly clear about exactly how that was. It didn’t seem like there should be a path that you could take in order to get up onto their flying fortress without being sensed, but maybe there were different kind of sensors, and he was picking the parts covered by the ones that wouldn’t get us? Human tech didn’t make much sense to me, honestly. Just matter folded on other matter, like that could ever really matter.
The prison wasn’t much to look at from the underside. It was, at least, slightly more interesting than the last Union flying cube we’d seen, but only slightly. This one was four cubes, touching at the edges, outlining an absent, fifth cube in the middle. It looked a little like a blocky ring.
The way it just hovered in the air was kind of impressive, though. There were no obvious engines, no noises that I could hear, nothing whatsoever to indicate what was holding it up. If this wasn’t ‘Team Dagger, I’d have figured they just had an Ultra with a lifting gift, but these guys would naturally do it in a much more complicated and fragile way.
I looked across it, catching a glimpse of Dusk skidding about, hook to someone’s vision or other. Predicter had sent her up right away, and she was presumably hard at work at whatever job made it necessary for her to be on the bottom of this thing. Maybe she was sabotaging sensor systems? That might explain how he’d thought that we’d be undetected.
Not that I doubted him, exactly. If I understood his gift correctly, he had had basically endless runs at this, or any other static hazard with no Ultra gifts invovled, in the privacy of his mind. He would have tried every possible thing to get us up here, and if we were going for this, then it must have at least a chance of working.
It was more that I hated him, so I wanted him to be wrong. I hadn’t forgiven Fifth Fist for what they’d done to Nirav, and I fully intended to settle that score, soon enough.
I grinned at the thought. Let the others fret and worry over Andy. Let them mutter and ponder over whether or not Zilla and Predicter would keep their words, or whether this was only a prelude to something else. I’d been onboard with this plan as soon as I heard those two magic words, ‘Ultra Prison’.
I shivered just thinking of it. Cell after cell of warehoused potential, the avatars of dozens of other Entities, ripe for the burning. I was going to feast as I never had before, as soon as we got up there. The world had forgotten Condemner, I sometimes felt. But I would remind them, teach them the fear of my gift that they should by nature be inclined to.
I looked back over the rest of the crew, noting their own postures, their own concerns.
Jenny, and by extension Jane, was simple enough. She wanted to rescue Andy so that her mistress could give bodies to her shades. Haunter needed to keep Predictor from snatching up Andy or Dale, needed to keep Zilla mollified so that we could keep squatting in her fortress long enough for the shade body plan to work.
It occurred to me that even if Haunter’s dream came true her new shades would be embodied in the middle of a warzone, surrounded by hostile Gods, but I trusted that she and her minions would have worked something out for that. Or rather, I didn’t care if they had.
Zilla’s minions were also easy. They were terrified of their master, and they obeyed her without question. Predictor’s crew was on the same level, they’d outsourced their agency to their leader long ago.
Zilla herself, she was a tougher nut to crack. Her interests were in this mission at least hurting the Union in a way that she could brag about, and I didn’t see why she would care about Haunter’s side mission, or our own conflict with Fifth Fist.
I had a suspicion, actually, that she intended to kill Fifth Fist as soon as the mission was over. If she did that, then she would be the God who had rescued the captive Gods of a Union prison and defeated a Regime Fist. I didn’t know exactly how the Pantheon’s leadership process worked, but that sounded like ‘elevate this person in rank’ kind of stuff to me.
Predictor was the other hard part. I believed him when he said that he was here to rescue Andy. I knew that he’d know about Zilla’s potential treachery. I knew he might have other missions. It seemed likely that his gift wouldn’t handle this tangle of agendas perfectly, given what I knew about Entities and how they effect cognition, but he had still plunged himself into it. There had to be a reason for his confidence that I couldn’t see.
I kicked myself mentally. I’d almost forgotten Her. That would never do. She was a factor that could never be discounted.
Snitcher was dead, so She probably wasn’t just looking out of Predictor’s eyes, but that was how the situation had been when we left. It had been a few months, it wasn’t out of the question that She might have found some manner of replacement.
If She was watching, then all that that meant was that we needed to keep things action packed, and that Dale should probably make it through this ok. Both things I’d been planning on anyway.
“Nirav,” said Predictor. “You and Fisher will be entering through the Anterior Aperture. Take two of the Furies with you. You’ll encounter surprise at first, then some resistance. No reason to leave anyone alive.”
“Word,” I said.
I was annoyed by him calling me by Nirav’s name, and he was a giant tool, but I couldn’t be too mad about this particular request, since it was basically what I wanted to do anyway.
We stepped over to one side of the platform, while everyone else crowded over to the other side.
I peaked over the edge. We were really far up. I know that at one time humans had made buildings that went this high, but it was kind of hard to actually imagine that. What if they fell? It still seemed like a ridiculous idea to me.
Below us there was no sign of the others, who were secured in a cave below ground. There was also no sign of the nearby Union camp, possibly because of some kind of stealth system, and possibly because I wasn’t sure which direction I should be looking for it in.
Fisher’s hand came down on my shoulder, holding tight as our platform separated away from the main one. I hadn’t been in any danger of falling, of course, but the thought was appreciated.
I turned back to the two Furies as our platform began to rise, the main platform we’d split off from remaining stationary below.
They were basically identical. Dark skinned women, shorter than me and the Lure. They had on the usual Pantheon outfit, which was basically just civilian garb. Their gifts were, if I was recalling this correctly, blasting from one and Ultra strength from the other, with the latter having maybe a little Ultra durability thrown into the mix.
“What are your names?” I asked.
“Arrow,” said the first one, the blaster.
“Ox,” said the second one. Her voice cracked and whined as she said it, and she clamped her mouth shut.
“Alright you two,” said Betty’s Lure. “We are going to be infiltrating here. We want to be as quiet as we can, for as long as possible. Let me take the lead.”
They nodded in unison. It wouldn’t surprise me if they’d timed that out. I bet they spent a lot of time getting orders and nodding along.
It was baffling. Humans could really make these kinds of decisions. They could take their absurdly finite lives and actually commit themselves to future activities, and even mean it. They pared away their miniscule portion of life, spending hours of it obeying others or dully following through on some words that they’d said in their past.
We slid into place beneath the bottom of the box. It was a strange experience, to stand in the sky beneath a ceiling stretching far beyond reach in every direction, without a single wall nearby.
I reached up and rested a hand against it. The metal was cool, with none of the shaking that I’m imagined.
“I’ll melt us a way in,” I said. “Stay out of the way when this stuff drops.”
“Wait a sec,” said Betty. “Let’s try knocking instead.”
I looked over, wondering what she meant, in time to see the Hook reach up and, using its Ultra sharp talons, carefully slice out a circle of the ceiling.
I grinned a her. She ‘knew’ that using my gift was draining, and that I’d need to recapture that energy from living beings. She was, in her own way, trying to be helpful.
The opening above us went into a lighted space, a hallway or a room or something. The walls and ceiling were painted a pale blue, and the light was coming from strips of glowing stuff that followed the junctions between walls and ceiling.
“Up you go,” said Fisher, and the Hook boosted up each of our crew in turn, starting with Ox and ending with me. That done, she sent the Lure up, and then moved the Hook up to join us through her shadow.
We were, in fact, in a hallway. It stretched a good distance to our left and right, with nobody else visible in it. At either end there was a heavy door, one ajar and one shut tight. There were no doors along the walls, however, which disappointed me. I’d imagined popping up right into the midst of the prison, finding the first inmates instantly upon arrival and starting my feat right then.
My eyes were drawn to a screen set high into the wall, with ‘Emergency’ flashing across the majority of it. There were smaller words beneath, but I didn’t want to take the time to read them.
“Are we discovered?” I asked the Lure, moving carefully closer to the Hook’s concealing bulk. It wouldn’t do to come all this way and then be immediately shot down by some guard I didn’t see.
“No,” she said, looking more carefully at the monitors. “Something is wrong at the camp, or somewhere else. Let me…”
And she was off, not bothering to finish the sentence. She sank into shadow and was gone, the Hook taking several strides towards the closed door before doing likewise.
“Where’s she going?” asked Arrow.
“Boring,” I said. “Let’s talk about something more interesting. What is Zilla’s gift?”
They looked to one another, thrown.
“Where is Fisher going?” asked Arrow, again.
I sighed, stepped forward and reached out a hand, as though to tap her lightly. Midway through the gesture I resumed my true form, and fell across her as fire.
She was gone instantly as I engulfed her, body rendered immediately down to vapor, soul falling into my gift’s abyss.
Ox raised a fist, then stepped away, shielding her eyes from the heat and light.
I took a human form again, standing exactly where Arrow had been a moment earlier.
“What is Zilla’s gift?” I asked again.
Her eyes were wide, whites showing all the way around. She raised her fist, I raised my hand, as though to reach out for another slap.
She looked to the other door, the open one, then back to me.
“Look, if you are going to try and run, you’d do a lot better to go for the hole. But you wouldn’t make it there either. Ultra speed, remember?”
“What,” she said, her voice cracking a bit. “What, did she, did you…”
“You either tell me what Zilla’s gift is,” I told her, “or I burn you up like I did your girlfriend.”
“You kill me anyway,” she said, stronger now, with a little bit of confidence.
“Why would I do that?” I asked. “I need you to help me fight these Union guys. Even if I’m some kind of maniac who kills my own teammates, I wouldn’t have any motivation to take you on right now, would I?”
I noticed that the ‘Emergency’ had been joined on the signs by the word ‘Fire’.
“She is a form changer, like you know,” she said. “She can make herself be anything.”
“That’s not enough,” I said. “It doesn’t explain why you guys are so frightened of her, or why I can sense her infecting everyone. With how handsy she is, I figured she has to have one of those gifts that works off touch.”
“Just changing!” she insisted, voice rising a bit.
“There’s no way that she ran the Pantheon’s Grand Host without a gift that absolutely wrecks in combat. I’m trying to work out if I need to worry about it. Tell me what she can do.”
Her mouthed closed. I sighed, produced a flame from one of my fingers.
“She…she can do anything! She knows if people speak bad about her, even when she isn’t there! She can kill anyone she doesn’t like, just snaps a finger and they fall down dead. She will kill you, fire man!”
“Get out of here,” I told her.
She looked at me for an instant, then ran towards the hole.
As soon as she was turned away I took on fire form and flowed over her. It turned out that she did have a bit of Ultra durability. She lasted long enough to scream.