You’d think that the impending arrival of the Grand Host would be the most frightening thing about my situation, but it barely rated. Instead, I was engaged in a frantic struggle against myself, trying without noticeable success to get used to my altered gift.
Andy hadn’t lied. I’d been able to alter my Lure, heck, I could alter my Hook. I’d lost the ability to submerge them into shadow, but gained instead this…elasticity? It had been child’s play to take on a form that approximated Zilla’s.
But what he hadn’t mentioned was that I had no easy way to hold my form still. It took a constant bit of attention to keep myself from running and flowing like wax. With every step I took I had to fight the desire to reshape my foot a little, just to maximize the leverage I could get on this or that particular surface.
It wasn’t exactly hard, per se. I wasn’t like, mentally carrying a weight out at arm’s reach or something, but it was something that I had to keep an eye on, all the time. I told myself it would become second nature in a while, like keeping your fingers from moving while your hands were at your side.
It had, at least, kept me distracted throughout the somewhat stressful events of the previous evening, and of this morning.
Fifth Fist had showed up, we’d bargained with them to let us keep Andy while he finished altering me, then he’d left with them. Dale had brought Bull and the others, aside from the unfortunate Noon, up out of the ground, and I’d given them new marching orders.
With Zilla’s ‘burning’ hair and too wide grin on my newly altered Lure they’d put up no resistance, instantly taking me for their mercurial former master. I’d kept the Hook with the rest of the Fist, letting them think that Fisher was hiding away her girl form for the time being.
After that we’d used Dale’s gift to head out, leaving the captured Pantheon skiff behind. Preventer had advocated for putting it to use somehow, but we weren’t a hundred percent sure that the Union couldn’t monitor and/or detonate it remotely, and it would have been one more thing to explain to the Grand Host on arrival.
“How long are we going to wait here, Loki?” asked Bull.
I held up a hand, making sure that it didn’t waver or change. I hadn’t been sure about going back into Zilla’s weird semi anonymity, but it had been what her minions expected, so I was going with it for now.
“No much longer,” I told her, giving her a weirdly flirtatious wink.
She cringed away, although I couldn’t tell if that was me overacting, something about my face had shifted, or something else entirely.
I settled back to wait, gazing out with equanimity over the rocks and rubble that surrounded us.
Dale had been expecting to catch up and pass the Grand Host almost instantly, but it had actually taken him a few hours at his top speed. They weren’t just marching, they had some kind of gift that was speeding them up.
It seemed to work in fits and spurts, warping them forward every once in a while. We’d tried to time things out such that they came on us in one of the times where they were conventionally walking.
I cheated a look over at Nirav, where he stood with the rest of our group. In a sense, of course, I was standing by him, but the amount of concentration I was spending on making sure the Lure didn’t deviate from my ‘Zilla’ disguise made me kind of center myself in this form.
He didn’t look back, didn’t acknowledge me, but I was sure that he knew I was watching over him. He’d gone without hesitation up onto the jail, after all, trusting in me to watch his back. We’d taken down the original owner of this form together, even without the Link.
I snapped my attention forward as the shield of the Grand Host hovered into view, rising up over a low hill and moving towards us at a walking pace.
It hadn’t been visible from a distance, but it was obviously the same shield we’d passed through on the way to the central fort, and then again on the way out. They were taking the shield Ultra with them, then. More evidence for Haunter’s theory that the healers she sought would be with this army.
If they hadn’t died in the battle, of course. That was always a possibility.
“Wow, they really brought everybody,” said Bull. “Do you think Arena is here?”
I shook my head, giving her another smile that was slightly too wide. I didn’t have the slightest clue, of course.
The enormous colossus, the fake Zilla, had apparently died in the earlier attack, or at least had stopped using whatever gift made her so large. But as for the Ultra who’d created the fort, I had no idea. I could see arguments for them bringing her, or for leaving her to accompany Zeus and the rest of the higher ups whenever they arrived. Very little would surprise me at this point, but the real Zilla probably would have known, so guessing would be unwise.
“Not long now,” I said, as the first of the Grand Host filed up over the rise.
They looked nothing like a conquering, divine army. They didn’t even really look like Ultras, although by now I was mostly used to the Pantheon not going by our Sigil tradition. They just looked like a few dozen hikers, a bit tattered and dusty from travel.
I’d imagined a number of possibilities for the Host catching sight of us. I’d imagined them attacking instantly, which we’d parry with Indulger’s ground manipulation and Preventer’s barriers. I’d imagined them falling back and calling for the Brides, which had its own contingencies.
One thing I hadn’t bothered to game out was what to do if they saw us and didn’t really react, just kept on trudging forward.
That was what happened.
The first few dozen became a hundred, then several hundred. They didn’t hold any real formation, didn’t seem to be particularly being led by anyone. It was just a milling group of people, stomping gamely towards a distant horizon.
I suppose, from their perspective, there was no need to react to such a small group. If we were Pantheon, we’d just fold into their numbers. If we were Union, well, they’d just seen off a host of the Union’s best troops, they weren’t going to fret about ten more.
“Loki!” cried one of the Ultras in the throng. “Is that you?”
I bounded in her direction, pouncing up on her and nuzzling at her neck as she laughingly fended me off.
“Easy, easy there!” she said, pushing at my shoulders.
The real Zilla, of course, would have reinfected her there, but there wasn’t any way for her to know that.
I didn’t recognize this person, which wasn’t a huge shock, since I hadn’t spent a lot of time in the central fort, but something about her bearing screamed ‘best girl’, or ‘right hand’ to me, and I decided to treat her as such.
“In the flesh,” I told her. “And I’d like to thank you for saving me the trip back.”
Using the Hook’s gaze I could tell that this interaction had satisfied the rest of the Host that this new group was part of its number. They moved up and engulfed us without any further comment. The Pantheon folks immediately set to finding old friends, while the Fist waited nearby.
I wasn’t terribly concerned about someone noting the shadow connecting ‘Zilla’ and the Hook. It would be a worry in a bright room, but in the cloud of dust that the tread of thousands kicked up it would take an eagle eye to spot it, and even then I could just come up with an explanation.
She gave a nervous laugh, covering it up with a hand, like a princess character on one of Dale’s wrestling vids had.
‘Number One’, as I was thinking of her, was tall and dark skinned, with a nose that had been broken a long time ago. I couldn’t see any particular sign of what her Ultra gift might be, but until proven otherwise I figured no one in Zilla’s immediate orbit would have touch delivered gifts.
“The Brides get what they want,” she said. “And they wanted the Crusade to move out.”
“I understand,” I said, mostly to set her at ease. My experience with the real Zilla suggested that Number One had spent this whole trip worrying that she’d be instantly slaughtered by death worms inside her or whatever the second I found out that the Host wasn’t where I’d left them.
“Legion is here,” she said, quickly, “Everyone is here. If you want to talk to-“
I cut her off with a wave of my hand.
“I’ll talk to everyone, in due time,” I said. “For now, are the healers here?”
She looked puzzled for a moment.
“Yess..” she said, slowly, “Aesop and Patra are, of course, part of everyone.”
The Hook saw Haunter give vent to a rare expression of joy, the smallest possible fist pump.
“Do you need healing?” she continued.
I laughed out loud.
“Have I ever?” I asked.
From what I understood of Zilla’s body she couldn’t really have been injured. She could have lost mass, but as far as injuries went she’d just shapeshift her body back into its normal mode.
I wasn’t sure that the same would hold true of me, I hadn’t really had a lot of time to experiment on my form before bringing Bull and the others up. I intended to act as though I could be injured, and accept it as a happy surprise if I could somehow plaster it over with shape changing.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to imply-“
I cut her off again, this time by shaking a finger.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “They are for someone else. For my part, I should probably talk to whoever was in charge until I showed up, right?”
I had less than zero desire to actually fight a leadership challenge here, not least because there was no possible way that I could win it, but the ‘Zilla’ role demanded at least the pretense. I’d simply have to back down once I saw the Brides’ terrible power.
Number One blanched.
“Vampire is in charge,” she said, hastily, the words stumbling over one another. “You can talk to her right over there on the carried platform.”
I was turning away even before she was finishing.
Zilla had been, so far as I could tell, a figure of fairly absolute power and fear in her organization. She could kill anyone at will, knew things that she shouldn’t have been able to, and never seemed to take any damage. So far as I could tell, her own people had never figured out the gimmick behind it all, so she should still be thinking of me as this veritable Goddess.
And, given all that, she was STILL more afraid of Vampire. That was fucking ominous.
People gave way before me as I pushed my way through the mob, pausing here or there to glomp onto someone who seemed a bit familiar with my persona. Zilla, or Loki, or however that worked, was still respected enough that no one tried to bar my passage.
It was easy enough to tell where I was going, too. She hadn’t lied about there being a carried platform.
A number of the Ultras were stumbling along, hefting a slab of Arena’s weird neon colored material, on which a bunch of Goddesses in white were lounging about.
It wasn’t hard to guess at the ranking here. The people in earth tones, the ones averting their gaze the instant they saw my fire hair, they were Zilla’s minions, the Ultras of the Grand Host. The girls in white, kids, really, they were the ones in charge, the Brides of Zeus.
I vaulted up onto their platform, the sudden increase in weight making one of the bearers flinch.
That was interesting. They weren’t using people with Ultra Strength then.
“Nice hair,” called one of the Brides, her tone making a mockery of the phrase.
“You like?” I asked, taking a quick step closer, and letting my tight control of my form slip just a bit.
I cycled the hair rapidly, blue then green then yellow then back to fire. I never broke stride.
“Or is this better?” I asked, leaving it ‘burning’ down with a pale blue flicker.
The Bride who’d spoke rolled her eyes, and lazily raised a hand to point at me.
Before anything could escalate further another one of them spoke up.
“Zilla, right?” she said, and the sound of her voice was enough to make the one who’d been pointing lower her arm again.
I put a finger to my lips, but nodded as I did so, letting my hair burn back to its normal color.
For all Zilla’s faux affectionate behavior, I understood that getting handsy with this crew could see me killed in short order.
“I’m Oroboros,” she said. “Oro for short. I help Vampire not MAKE SO MANY MISTAKES!”
She’d yelled the last part, over her shoulder at one of the younger Brides, one who seemed to be the focus of a good deal of attention, she was playing a card game with some of her cohorts.
“Nice to meet you,” I said. “I love what you’ve done with my crew.”
Oro held out a hand for a shake.
The challenge was clear, and there could only be one possible response. Like so many other situations in our ridiculous world, to show weakness would be the worst possible answer.
We clasped hands for a brief moment, then she turned and presented me to the younger Bride, who was presumably Vampire.
“I’m Vampire,” she said, so yep, good guess there. “I’m in charge, unless you want to be dead?”
She said this in kind of a bored monotone, like whichever fork of this tree I went down was fine for her.
A lot of people liked to do this kind of a bored, threatening vibe. But for some reason this kid struck me as somehow less of a poser than most. Something about her attitude said that she fundamentally didn’t see a difference between a future where she fought Zilla right here and one where I worked for her, going forward. It was a matter of supreme indifference.
Oro cut me off before I could finish.
“This is Fisher, from the Regime. She’s pretending to be Zilla, who her boyfriend killed earlier this morning. She and her crew are infiltrating us as part of some dumb scheme to make monsters or something.”
The only sign I gave of my incipient panic was my eyes widening just a bit. There was no possible way that she could know that, aside from a gift just fucking telling her.
But of course, that must have been what had happened. These were the strongest Ultras in the world. Why shouldn’t they have a gift that lets them see the past? What had I presumed I’d-
“Cool,” said Vampire, already looking back down to her card game.