I stood, awkwardly, not sure whether I was about to get jumped or not.
An onlooker wouldn’t have seen any reason for the sudden increase in my tension. I was still on the carried platform, still standing amid a bunch of milling, squabbling white clad kids. Nothing had obviously changed.
But, of course, that only meant that what had changed was subtle, less apparent.
Vampire and Oro knew who I was, somehow. They knew at least something of my mission. Their power exceeded my own, exceeded that of my entire Fist, probably. With my cover blown, there was nothing stopping them from taking me out, here and now, with no repercussions.
Wait, something about that thought seemed off, off in a way that resonated with my thoughts on my situation.
What would the repercussions of taking Zilla out have been? Nothing, right? These were the Brides, their authority was next only to that given to Zeus. Perhaps the reason that they weren’t acting like anything had changed was that, to them, nothing had.
Oroboros gave a polite cough, pointed me over to Vampire’s card game. I went willingly, still trying to recover my equilibrium.
I sat down across from her, the Bride who’d formerly occupied that seat giving way eagerly.
I didn’t reach for the cards. I couldn’t tell exactly what game they were playing, and trying to add a random element into whatever was about to happen could only end badly for me. Better to let them direct things, try and roll with the punches.
“Regime, huh?” asked Vampire.
There wasn’t any curiosity in her voice, none of the wonder that she had to be feeling at encountering a denizen of the only place that truly challenged her master.
She just sounded bored, jaded. Old beyond her years, the kind of voice that found the world to be hopelessly tedious and entirely unsatisfying.
“Yes,” I said, simply.
This was a pose, I told myself. No matter how powerful she was, those who surrounded her should be similarly mighty. She was aping at Her posture, the blithe unconcern of the world’s strongest Ultra.
Like all teens, she was the furthest thing from uncaring, at least about the opinions of her peer group. She should be exceptionally insecure, but would die before she showed it.
“You are here to find monsters or something?” she asked. “What’s that about?”
I gave a meaningful look at Oroboros.
“She sees your past and future,” said Vampire, “But, like, the future gets messed up when she tells you about it, I think, so it is better that you tell us. If I ask her I’ll get the version that is there before you hear her talk, and so on.”
I was proud that I avoided choking at that news, though a sort of shiver or tremor passed through my form before I could check myself.
I didn’t think she was boasting or bluffing about the gift, that seemed like exactly the sort of almighty bullshit this group would be packing. But that meant that…
“We’re trying to make monster soldiers for you,” I said. “My Fist leader just had her gift tuned to allow it.”
I was spinning out a bit here, forced to speak without more than an instant to contemplate, all the while trying to wrap my head around what her gift might show her.
My bet was that it didn’t go deep into what other people might do. So if I would one day see monsters from Haunter and the healers, that’s all they’d get, my moments with them, not the fact that these were people who would have little to no interest or capability to help out the Brides in their rampage.
“Why?” asked Vampire. “Doesn’t she want to defeat us?”
It took me a second to realize that she was referring to Prevailer, without the capitals. It was a weirdly world tipping moment to see someone, especially someone so young, just do that.
“She…” I paused, “She doesn’t rely on us to fight. She is like Zeus, She-“
And all of a sudden the atmosphere was different. Glares from every quarter, even Oro’s.
“Not like Zeus,” I corrected myself. “Prevailer does Her own fighting, we aren’t for that.”
Vampire actually laughed, a strange, genuinely joyful sound that made me realize anew just how young she was.
“On this we agree,” she answered, “not like Zeus.”
“So you are here to assist us?” pressed Oroboros. “Your Fist want to join up and fight the Union?”
“Exactly,” I said, knowing that her gift might see straight through this. “They’ve waylaid us, betrayed us, ambushed us at multiple turns. If you’ve really seen our past, then you know that the Union has only ever been our enemy.”
“Five more Brides?” asked Vampire, “In strength at least? We send them in first?”
Oroboros shook her head, frowning dubiously.
“Maybe 2,” she said, “But most of them wouldn’t have qualified for our ranks. This one, in particular, is essentially helpless.”
It would have been the perfect moment to make some kind of badass move, just level her and leave no doubt in everyone’s mind that I was the furthest thing from helpless, but there was nothing I could do. The Brides who surrounded me outclassed me in ever respect, and with my Hook off with the others I had substantially no combat capabilities.
“None of us are helpless,” I rejoined, because the perception of weakness could sometimes be more dangerous than the real thing, “As Death could report, if we hadn’t killed her.”
Vampire raised an eyebrow, looked over to Oro, who gave her a solemn nod.
“Wow,” she said. “I didn’t expect that. We don’t really have a lot to do with the Council, where we are trained. I think of them as, like, Brides who have jobs or whatever? They are supposed to be strong, though, so if you guys could kill her…”
She trailed off, gnawing on a knuckle.
“We can be useful,” I said, emphasizing the last word. “We have a different training than you, a different set of gifts. There is a lot that we can do for you, and it doesn’t cost you anything.”
She gave a skeptical look at a Bride that hadn’t been introduced to me, looked over to Oro.
“A test,” I proposed.
The random Bride scoffed.
“You are going to fight one of us?” she guessed.
I shook my head.
“You’ve got plenty of fighters,” I responded. “But not so many you need to be losing them in trivial stuff like this. We’ll prove ourselves to you another way.”
I cast an appealing glance over at Oro and Vampire, trying very hard not to look like I was begging. I wasn’t sure exactly how I was trying that, but that was the basic energy I was going for, a sort of an ‘I can’t be bothered to come up with this but I’m game for whatever’ face.
They looked at one another.
“They could do the questioning,” suggested Oro. “I saw that pretty clear, so I it is definitely a thing they could pull off.”
Vampire sort of perked up, seeming to fully invest in the conversation for the first time.
“Hey, yeah, that sounds fine.”
She looked me in the eye.
“We caught the Union general after the battle. Break her, get any info she has, and we’ll let you guys stick around, go first into fights and stuff.”
With the greatest of efforts I managed not to shriek.
The universe was fucking with me. A mission to interrogate a human the instant I’d forsaken my ability to alter their values? It wasn’t remotely fair. Had I pissed off any prophets lately? Was this Predictor’s work?
“No problem,” I told them. “We’ll break her in the hour.”
I turned on a heel and stalked off, not giving them any more time to think about it. The idea that this would actually establish us as useful or loyal didn’t make any real sense, and it wouldn’t stand up to the flimsiest argument. I had to get out of there, get back to the team and regroup.
Nobody tried to stop me, or seemed to follow me. I let my shadow guide me to the others, mind whirling a mile a second the whole time.
Could we stay here, with our cover blown? We would have to if Haunter was going to pull off her plan, get bodies for all her guys. There were thousands of them, it would take days and days.
I focused my attention on my Hook form, directing the group back towards the Lure, having to practically haul Haunter away from her conversation with Lotus.
There was a ‘trouble’ gesture for the Hook that we’d worked out, but I didn’t want to use it. Oro had apparently seen my future, which would now be my present, and it seemed like it might somehow hurt her current impression of me (based on the her in the past seeing the me at this time, which would have been my future) to look worried.
Or something. I hated time gifts. Everyone did, who didn’t have them.
We converged quickly enough, making our way through the milling throngs and coming back together, all of us, with both my bodies leading.
“Loki,” said Preventer, raising a hand in greeting.
I shook my head and walked closer, lips pursed tightly together.
“They know,” I said, when we were standing in a tight formation. “We are busted.”
“How?” asked Preventer, at the same time as Haunter and Dale asked “What?”
They glared around, but I’d made sure no one was standing close by before talking. Someone might have an eavesdropping gift, of course, but I was willing to bet none of Zilla’s minions would dare anything like that with her.
“Everything,” I answered, looking to Dalefirst. “They know just about everything. There was a Goddess there, one of the Brides, who just plucked the information out of the air with her gift. They know we are Regime, my real name, and at least a general description of our gifts.”
Dale looked around.
“I guess they are too cool?” I responded. “Or maybe they are getting a kill party set up? I was able to talk them into giving us a task to prove ourselves, but I pretty much made it up, and I have no idea if they’d actually honor us for accomplishing it.”
“Did they accept my elevation?” pressed Preventer. “Can we play the ‘Killed Death’ card?”
“I don’t think you want these people thinking of you as strong, being among them…” I trailed off for a second.
“I can’t describe it. That many Brides, so many people who could all end your life instantly. Even the Sniper Court doesn’t compare. I didn’t just have Vampire to fear, I felt like anyone might have just decided to kill me, at any time.”
“It’s a consideration,” said Haunter. “I appreciate that it must be a deadly environment. But you’ll have to go back there.”
I guess she could see from my face what I thought of that idea.
“To announce our success,” she continued. “We will do the Bride’s dirty work, hope against hope that they are smart enough not to throw away something useful to them.”
“They seem,” said Dale, pausing a second, “very smart. I’m sure they will do what is best for their mission, and for their Divine Father.”
He clearly thought we were being observed. I wasn’t so sure myself. It was certainly not beyond their capabilities, Brides might have any damn gift, but my guess was that most of them were focused on battle. Oroboros had probably been some kind of minder or coach, but the majority should be more like Vampire or the belligerent one. Just brutes, kids with too much power and too much fear.
“There is a captured Union general,” I said. “They want us to break her, grab all the info that she knows.”
We exchanged meaningful looks. They knew the bargain that I’d made with Andy, what I’d given up for my ability to shift my forms around so fluidly.
“No problem,” said Nirav. “Let me at em.”
That was, of course, just a bluff. Nirav wouldn’t take the chance of burning an innocent in a situation like this, it would be like calling out for Condemner to return. But he was wisely playing up the tougher side of himself, probably doing the same thing that I was, trying to retroactively fool Oroboros’ gaze.
“That won’t be necessary,” said Preventer. “Or remotely wise.”
Dale flagged down a passerby, asking for quick directions to the Union prisoners, and we were away.
I was dismayed to see that they were being kept in the heart of the throng. It made a lot of sense, but I’d still been just hoping that for some reason they’d be on the edge, where I could imagine slipping away from this perilous situation.
I’d never realized just how much I’d counted on my ability to rapidly swap between forms, hiding myself in my shadow. It had become something like a security blanket, and now that I was deprived of it, forced to move both of my forms manually, I was realizing just how much I missed it.
The place we were heading was marked by a circle of Ultras, Goddesses I suppose, no Brides among them. They were shoving a bound woman back and forth across the midst of them, laughing cruelly as she stumbled.
They fell instantly silent when they saw the Lure’s flame hair. I wasn’t sure if Vampire had bothered to circulate my true identity, but if she had it certainly hadn’t gotten to this part of the march yet.
Haunter caught the general, if that’s who the battered figure was, just as she started to tumble, turned her around like they were dancing.
Dale reached down and casually ripped the gag off of her mouth, freeing her to take a series of shuddering gasps. It must have been agony to march with something like that restricting your airflow.
When she finished gasping she looked up at Haunter, eyes almost vacant.
“Jerry Greggs, General, Serial Number Eight Seven One-“
Haunter cut her off.
“Jerry Greggs, Gen-“
“General?” Jane asked again, putting hands to her head.
Something like reason seemed to return to her eyes.
“Yes,” she said, “Serial Number Eight”
I jumped at the sound of the pistol shot. Haunter’s shades’ guns sounded just like the real thing, and they did the same damage.
General Greggs clutched at her killer, eyes widening as red gushed from her throat.
Wolf whistles rose from the gang around us, appreciative clapping and stomping along with it. I acknowledged their support with a wave of my hand, trying to ape Zilla’s distinctive nonchalance.
They didn’t know the half of it. Haunter would never have killed someone so casually. It simply wasn’t in her to do something like that. Which meant that this wasn’t a killing.
Jane thrust her away, letting the dying form drop like a manikin to the ground. She didn’t even break stride.
She must’ve used her gift on the woman, taken her into her reserve. She’d been willing to do this, to kill her form without hesitation or compunction, because she was certain that the reserve were finally about to be returned to life.
It might solve our problem. She could get information out of the General, I had little doubt. Her training wouldn’t have covered whatever hells Jane could conjure up in the place where shadows dwelled. It also made us look lethal and ruthless, which was a big plus.
All told, a big step forward.
I just wished I wasn’t so convinced it was down the wrong path.