I don’t know why I expected them to set down the plate when we returned.
I guess it was because there were five of us, or six if you counted my forms separately. It felt like that many people hopping up onto something held at shoulder height, particularly something obviously conveyed at such arduous cost, should have been significant.
But of course it wasn’t. There were already dozens of Goddesses loafing about on the thing. It would have been odd for us to be the factor that shifted it. No doubt a chosen few of the laborers were Ultra Strong, and as the weight increased they pushed just a little bit harder.
Vampire and Ouroboros were waiting for us, which was another small surprise. Not that they were there, exactly, but that they were openly expecting us. I’d been expecting a pretense of indifference, or something similar, but they sat before us on looted office chairs, visibly avid for our return.
“Vampire,” said Jane. “Or should I call you by a title?”
The young Goddess idly waved a hand.
“Whichever,” she said, shortly. “I don’t care.”
She had an odd accent that I hadn’t noticed before. I got the feeling that her English was by way of someone who had themselves learned it late in life.
“We’ve done as you asked,” Jane continued. “I’ve taken the soul of the prisoner, I can tell you what she knew.”
Vampire looked over at her comrade, who looked steadily at Jane.
I couldn’t keep myself from tensing a bit. I was pretty sure that Oro’s gift worked on those she touched, given that she’d gone out of her way to clasp hands with me before my introduction. It wasn’t impossible that that had merely been an affectation, however, in which case we were probably sunk. Her gift probably wouldn’t work on Preventer, and Jane was a tossup, but Dale’s future and past would almost certainly give us away somehow.
“So,” said Vampire, after letting the moment breathe, “do that.”
Preventer gave a significant cough, the kind you gave when you wanted everyone’s attention. We complied, and she looked pointedly around at the loafers and hangers.
“You want privacy?” asked Ouroboros. “Like we should walk or something?”
Jane jumped in before the wounded pride at the end of that sentence could become anything worse.
“Of course not,” she said. “Dale can make us a cave to debrief in. We’ll be secluded and secure under the Grand Host’s feet, and he can convey us back up in an instant if there’s trouble.”
I winced a little at that. We hadn’t been able to talk out a plan, not with potentially hostile ears all around, but if we had there definitely would have been a bit of back and forth over that particular offer. As it was, I could only pray that they took no offense.
“I don’t think it would be wise,” said Oro, “Not to offend, but we don’t know you. Putting us inside your gift strikes me as the sort of foolhardiness that the world sends in the direction of dolts and saps. We’ve been instructed-“
“Sounds cool,” said Vampire. “I’ve never ridden in a grave before.”
Ouroboros’ mouth had snapped shut the instant Vampire had begun speaking. It reminded me a bit of Zilla, and the loyalty that her minions had displayed. I hadn’t really given a lot of thought to what gift the leader of the Brides might have, but seeing this I mentally chalked it down as some kind of instant death ability. Only those who could not be defied, who were entirely unaccustomed to weighing the loyalty of their subordinates, acted like that.
Once again the resemblance to Her jumped out at me. I could see Her doing something like that. Stepping on a subordinates advice to get a dig in on them even though it might change the course of an important decision. Because, really, what WAS an important decision to the all powerful? What couldn’t She walk back if it didn’t work?
Consequences didn’t exist for the likes of Her, not really. The rest of us would be on the hook, but the ones that the Process had chosen never lost.
“Right this way,” said Dale, leading starting back over towards the edge of the platform.
I knew it must have taken him a lot of courage to get up on there. He’d made it clear how sick and tired he was of serious fights with him unable to exercise his gift. He would have had the disasters of the past playing and replaying in his mind, but he’d gone anyway. He’d understood the reasoning, that a united front and the appearance of strength were more important than the actual possibility of outfighting the Brides in the midst of their Host, and so he’d overcome his jittery nerves and stepped up.
People called Dale brave, and he was, but this was the kind of moment when he proved it. Not in a battlefield, not by charging an enemy who was shooting holes out of him. Not just braving death, but pushing himself to reason and trust in a situation like this.
There was a reason that he was our leader, and while this wasn’t it, I liked to think that if we’d known when we first met what each of us would grow into we would still have made the same choice.
Vampire followed, and to my surprise no one came with her. The Bride’s leader positively sauntered after us, strutting with the arrogance of the almighty.
I was about half certain she intended to kill us. It would burnish her legend, it seemed. No one but Zeus had ever taken on a Fist alone, and we were the killers of Death. If she was really a Goddess worthy of commanding this Host then it would make sense for her to have that kind of confidence.
Ordinarily I’d expect our usual bluff, that Preventer was invincible and we were Linked, would prevent such rash action, but Vampire might just not give a shit. It was strange to fear someone for their stupidity, but as we dropped down onto the ground I found myself hoping fervently that she was at least a little smarter than she acted.
Certainly, she didn’t show it as Dale started to entomb us. We slid into the ground as she looked idly around, the ditch we sank into rapidly transforming into one of Dale’s shallow caves.
Dark closed in around us. It occurred to me, a bit late, that her gift might have something to do with darkness. It didn’t make a lot of sense, really, no one whose gift didn’t work all the time could possibly hold a position like that, but the name hinted at a gift that related to either night or blood.
“Vampire,” said Jane, “I’m going to trust you.”
It was a bit of an unorthodox way to start, but I had to trust that she knew what she was doing.
“Yeah?” she asked.
“What we are going to say to you, the discussion that we need to have…it’s going to be a little different. I’m going to genuinely try and impress you, change your mind on some things. I need you to be open, to consider seriously what I’m saying, alright?”
“Just get on with it,” came the answer.
I was starting to wish that Dale had put some holes in the top of the cavern, let some light in. It was eerie to sit in the blackness, creepy to hear Vampire’s strange accent rising up out of the dark before me.
It was tactical, of course. Jane’s ghosts could keep track of where people were, Dale’s gift would tell him, etc, but that didn’t really reassure me. We had no idea what Vampire’s gift was, only that Zeus had chosen her to lead his Brides, only that out of everyone gifted in the Pantheon over the past decades, she was the one who had risen to the top.
“All right,” said Haunter. “We did what you wanted, and I’ve taken the General’s soul. I can answer your questions.”
“What are the Union’s plans?” asked Vampire, not missing a beat.
“Is it alright,” asked Jane, “If before I talk about the Union’s future, I talk a bit about their past?”
“Huh?” asked Vampire. “What do you mean?”
“I’m trying to make a point, I just want to make sure you are ok with it.”
“Fine,” said Vampire.
I couldn’t see her face, but I imagined her frowning. This was a dangerous woman to keep waiting.
“The important thing, up front, is that we weren’t there for the big battle, all right? We didn’t see your war with the Union, didn’t talk to anyone who did, I’m coming at this blind, ok?”
“Why does that matter?” asked Vampire. “That’s already done with.”
“I’m trying to show that we know what’s up, that you need us, ok? I’m going to be weirdly right, and I’m hoping you compare me to how you thought things were going to go before the fight. I’m hoping it’ll show us in a good light.”
“Alright, it went down like this. You were marching along, then you got hit by their force, which had less Ultras than you, who were overall less powerful. They still kicked the shit out of the Host up until the Brides stepped up. How am I doing?”
I could hear the tension, the worry, in Haunter’s voice. I wasn’t sure if she’d put it there as part of an act, or if she was genuinely feeling the same apprehension that I was.
“So what?” asked Vampire. “Everyone knows the Host are pussies.”
“So are the Union!” snapped Preventer. “You had more Goddesses, more powerful ones, and you still had to step in, right?”
I’d almost forgotten that everyone else was down here.
“They cheated!” snapped Vampire. “Just bullshit sissy cheating. Whatever you think you are proving with this, it isn’t helping you.”
“Ok,” said Jane, “Then let me do one more. I’ll tell you about the next battle, the one where you fight with their main army.”
“You like Oro now?” she asked. “You are gonna see the future? You know that shit doesn’t work with lots of strong Goddesses all together, right? It gets all jumbled or whatever.”
“I don’t have a gift like that,” said Haunter. “None of us do. I’m going to do it the same way I did the first battle, by understanding how the other side thinks, and how you think.”
“Just so you know,” said Vampire, “I’m not dumb. I know how you knew about the other fight. You got it from the general’s soul.”
I was reasonably sure that she had not, in fact. Haunter’s gift didn’t let her control her shades, to my understanding, so the General was probably just reciting her name, rank and serial number inside Jane’s mind.
“Your plan goes like this,” Haunter continued. “You are going to continue advancing right up to the Union’s closest city, a couple more weeks but what do you care? You will fight anyone who attacks you, but you expect that they have learned their lesson about sending weak stuff against you, so they’ll be massing for the big fight. You figure that’ll happen right in front of their city, the rest of their military will come against you.”
Vampire didn’t say anything, but I could almost sense her shifting uneasily in the dark.
“And then you use your gift, and take them all out in an instant. The Union are broken forever, you become Zeus’ favorite. That sound about right?”
Vampire still didn’t answer, but this time I read anger in her silence. Now we would see if Haunter’s hopes about her intelligence would pan out.
Jane didn’t speak up either, just let the silence brood. She’d put her marker down, made her prediction. It only remained to turn over the cards.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, Vampire spoke.
“How did you decide that?” she asked. “You will tell me what you think and speak. You will tell me now.”
Her accent was back, phrasing slightly off.
Jane’s answer was immediate.
“When you have an enemy, and they are proud of something, it is easy to go around to the other side, and declare that the thing that they are proud of is actually a weakness, and your own side are stronger for not partaking in it. If the enemy are big and strong, your culture will change so that it thinks that strength is not just useless, it is actually counterproductive, and what matters is something else. If they are proud of their literacy, you will come to hate books. This has happened time and again, throughout history.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” came the answer.
“Your enemies pride themselves on their mercy, their humanity. They pat themselves endlessly on the back about how equal their team is, how good they are about caring about everyone on their team. So naturally your side goes all Social Darwinist. If you don’t have a proverb along the lines of ‘The Strong are Strongest Alone’ I’ll eat my hat.”
“Strength in numbers, but the greatest strength is in the number one,” supplied Vampire, almost involuntarily.
“Given this, it is likely that your plan will rely on ruthlessness. You will look for a way to win not just in spite of not caring about your minions, but exactly BECAUSE you don’t care about them. That’s the kind of plan that would be irresistible to Zeus. A way for him to win the war and the argument at the same time.”
“These are just words,” said Vampire. “Why are you making that guess about my gift?”
“She’s trying to explain,” said Dale, “But she forgets we don’t all have shadow armies in our brains. Maybe get to the point Haunter?”
“Sorry,” said Jane, “The short version is that you let the last battle happen so that you could keep your gift a secret, and you intend to show it in the main battle that you think is coming.”
“So what?” asked Vampire. “That’s it? You just guessed?”
“Twice now,” I said. “I was right about the battle that already happened, and I’m pretty sure I was right about the plan you had for the next one. But that’s it. No more guessing now, I’ll just tell you what they are going to do.”
Which was all well and good, except that unless General Greggs had suddenly come around she was about to do nothing BUT guess.
“It is essentially the opposite of what you want them to do. Within a few days they are going to start picking at us. Long range attacks with Ultra support, hit and fades, that kind of thing. They will be trying to go for attrition, for, uh, tiring us out. They will have all the information from the last battle processed, and anyone who used their gift in that fight will find that they have a plan for them.”
“Nobody got away,” said Vampire.
There was a long moment of silence.
“I mean almost nobody, probably,” she said. “Shit.”
“It doesn’t matter,” responded Haunter. “They were linked to their network during the fight, it saw everything. They probably had satellites, long range sensors, Ultras with far seeing gifts, all sorts of things.”
“That’s some shit from a bull,” said Vampire. “How does your general know all that?”
“It is basic,” said Jane, not giving an inch. “Your crews are warriors. Your enemies are soldiers. It is a whole different mindset. They never give battle without their whole rig being in place, and that means that while we are talking they have a huge crew going through recordings of that battle, making entries on each one of your gifts, looking for weaknesses.”
“We are the Brides, though! We aren’t warriors, we are Goddesses. We don’t have weaknesses!”
Vampire had finally started to sound her age, a sort of plaintive whine creeping into her tone. She would never have let that happen up in front of her subordinates, but apparently we didn’t rate the full performance.
“They were punching above their weight in that last combat, right?” asked Jane, her voice patient now. “Before the brides stepped in? The Grand Host would have been rolled up and slaughtered by an inferior force, because they were using tactics and intelligence against you. They’ll do the same this time, picking away at you all along the whole march.”
“Whatever,” said Vampire again. “They won’t get anyone who matters.”
“They already did,” answered Jane. “This General is quite smug about it. Some kind of resurrecting Ultra?”
I heard a sharp slapping sound from the dark, someone’s flesh banging against the unyielding stone of the wall.
Another long silence. I braced myself for the end.
“Point,” said Vampire, finally.
I could almost see Jane’s relieved smile.
“The constant hit and runs will be just the start. It will all go like that. When you get to the city, at long last, you will find it evacuated. It will probably explode. They will keep picking away at you. You’ll discover that all their attacks up till now have encouraged division in your ranks, that certain subleaders have met far more success than others, and they have their own opinions about how to do things. You’ll put your gift out there, trying to crush what seems like a swarming onslaught of enemies, only to discover that they are just a semblance, some kind of trick or illusion, just to bait out your gift so they can study it.”
“Stop, stop,” I said Vampire. “This is more bovine shit. She can’t know all this.”
“But I can,” said Jane. “I said before that these guys are giving you trouble because they are good soldiers, right? Well I’m twice the soldier any of them are. My shades have been warring for hundreds of years. We’ve seen every Defiance. Just like they can predict you, we can predict what someone would do who predicts you.”
“Turn it around on them?”
Vampire sounded skeptical, but I felt the tension in my chest finally start to slip.
“Exactly!” said Preventer.
There was one final pause, longer and deeper than all the rest, as Vampire mulled over our fate.
“Can’t hurt to try.”