“You got this, man,” said Ragnarok.
I nodded at him, then at Lotus, and stepped out from between them, walking out onto the platform like it was nothing at all.
The Brides had been watching us approach, of course, but they would never admit that, so it was only now that they ‘noticed me’. Ouroboros and Vampire were chief among them, but I’d learned enough about their pecking order over the past three days to know that the others around here were pretty high up there.
This was the Grand Host’s leadership, or almost all of it.
“Regimer,” said Vampire. “What do you want? We are pretty fucking busy.”
I rolled my head around on my neck, apparently just cracking it. Really it was a move that was about bringing to their attention how swole I was, how deep my head was set between my shoulders. This was a real dangerous talk, so I needed to take every little bit of good stuff I could get out of my look and vibe.
“I know,” I said. “That’s why I didn’t come before. But I figured maybe you could make time for me now, and maybe I could help you out a bit.”
The night before, as we sheltered down in our cave, I’d felt the camp erupt in turmoil. Gifts had scoured and shattered the ground, bodies had fallen upon it, and there had basically been a big uproar. Everyone had run every which way without anything like a plan.
It had been a lot like the shield was a big bowl and the Gods were ants trapped under it. They’d been fighting and struggling for what seemed like the whole of the world, while their enemy watched from outside and above.
I made a mental note to maybe tone down the Green a little in my daily. That last thought had been kind of like someone else thinking.
“Help us,” said Oro, frowning at me like she didn’t believe me. “I feel like we heard about that before, from another finger of your little Fist. She was going to help us with scouting, so that we didn’t get ambushed. How’s that going?”
I gave a big shrug, trying to get across that I could make them wait for my answers without actually making them wait for my answers.
“I think fine?” I said, making it a question. “I haven’t been hanging with Haunter too much lately, but I know she’s been working with Goddesses, so I imagine y’all are in charge of whatever is going on there.”
That was actually true. She’d been distant with the rest of us ever since we got to the Grand Host, staying closeted up with the healers. I could get it, to be honest, she’d been trying to do the whole ‘give her shades bodies’ thing for a long time, and conveniently Lotus could do the same ‘wise advice giver’ thing that Jane did.
“He thinks fine,” said Vampire.
“Fine,” echoed Ouroboros.
I let that sit there a bit. The pressure was on me to answer them, and ordinarily I would’ve, but something about how stuff was going made not saying anything seem like a power move, but one that I couldn’t get blamed for. Like I was just believing them, so if anything was going to happen it was going to have to start with them saying that they’d been wrong.
“If things are so fine,” said Vampire, breaking the silence after a half minute or so, “why didn’t we get any warning about last night’s attacks? She’s supposed to be all over this scouting thing, right? So what’s the point if it doesn’t actually warn anyone!”
I pulled a mug look at her for a bit, eyes bulging and mouth agape. Ultra Fight hadn’t taught me to do acting at all, like, drama was mostly not a thing in the old wrestling gradition. But it had taught me overacting just fine, so I’d serve up some melodrama.
“Your girl Manus tried to kill us!” I protested. “We’ve been super busy killing chumps. How are we going to have time to help with your other stuff if we are busy helping with the discipline part?”
It would have been lame to openly boast about killing a Bride, but working it in while I talked about something else should be fine.
“It isn’t my job to protect your life,” said Vampire.
“Your value to us is dependent on what you bring along for the ride,” continued Oro, “And so far it is the ability to kill our own. You can see why we might not put too high a value on that, after last night!”
We’d surmised that the Union hitters hadn’t done the majority of the bloody work last night. It had been the confusion, the chaos, Pantheon Goddesses killing one another in the dark, paranoid at the shapes around them.
“Scouting wasn’t going to solve that one,” I pointed out. “You get that they are all around us, right?”
“What do you mean?” asked one of the audience members, an older Bride with a shrewd cast to her face.
“Go more than a few miles in any direction, you run into a Union patrol or two, stealthy and fast, keeping an eye on what goes out. They move way faster than a walking pace, with their skiffs and such, so they just keep a loose cordon around us. How you going to scout in that situation?”
“I don’t know,” grated Oro, “maybe fight them?”
“That would kind of break the point of the whole ‘send out powerless scouts’ thing, right?” I said, “Like if they could beat Union troops we’d make them part of our army instead. They are in stealth forms for blending in, but anyone we send out of the shield gets marked.”
“What’s Haunter’s plan to deal with this?” demanded Vampire.
I made a note in the ‘Vampire is smarter than she usually acts’ column in my mind. It might be an obvious play, to turn the dilemma around on the one posing it, but it still would have been easy to miss, to sit there like an asshole just guessing how it might be done, letting me tell them they were wrong over and over.
“Me,” I told them, pointing a thumb at my own chest.
“What can you do?” asked Oro. “The thing where you move the ground and speed us up is helpful, sure, but how are you gonna get the scouts out among the Union squads surrounding us without them seeing them go through the shield?”
I turned the thumb down, pointing to the soil beneath us.
“We go under it,” I told her. “I’ve been pulsing the ground all around us ever since we joined this column, pushing waves out at the same times every day, different directions, different distances. Playing havoc with their equipment.”
“Just false alarms,” said Oro, getting it, “But you are going to turn them real in a bit?”
I nodded curtly.
“Haunter is almost done with enough scouts for the first run. Her ghosts stuck in animal bodies or Union looking bodies. I’ll push them out through the ground tonight, pop them up out around where the Union probably is. They can try and get rescued or whatever, and we’ll know where the surrounders are exactly by how fast each one gets picked up.”
If they asked how I’d track where each one got picked up I was prepared to lie about Haunter always knowing where her shades were, but it would be better not to. The real play was that they had codes from the general, and would hopefully be able to establish communication with the Union, who could feed us some ‘scouting successes’.
“And maybe scouts isn’t all you can send out,” said Vampire. “Maybe some Brides go along on one of these rides, jump these surrounding units, get a little payback!”
She was a vicious one.
“I don’t see why not,” I allowed. “I love being helpful.”
“Do you?” asked Oro, dubiously.
“Sure,” I said. “I’m a helper! Ask anyone.”
They looked to one another, then to the others who’d come along with me.
This was actually a part of the reason I hadn’t brought any of the Fist along. I was trying, very hard, to kind of nail into everyone’s mind that we had gone native, that we were basically Gods and Brides like the rest of them. Rags and Lotus were the two Pantheon people I felt closest two, for opposite reasons, so they were the ones who’d come with.
“He helpful?” asked Oro, pointedly looking to Lotus.
“Sure,” she said, echoing my phrasing. “Sometimes you wanted a man around, you know?”
She made an obscene gesture as she did so, drawing a small wave of chuckles from the crowd.
“Alright,” said Vampire, once that had died down, “Well if you are so helpful, do you think you could maybe lend us a bit of that help with the problem we are currently facing?”
I gave an amiable shrug, like they’d asked me to paint a fence.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“How did they get through the fence!” she responded, her tone making it more of an answer than an actual question that she was asking me.
“The shield Goddess says they didn’t come through?” I asked, figuring that there wasn’t much harm in restating the obvious.
“She does,” said Vampire, “And we’ve assured herself that she is telling the truth.”
There was a dark undertone to that sentence, which made me think that I didn’t exactly want to know how the Brides satisfied themselves that someone was being honest with them. No normal army would torture one of their most crucial guys, of course, but I wouldn’t put much past this gang.
“So it was just the ones that hid in front of us then?” I asked, artlessly, without guile, keeping it all on the surface.
“What?!” asked nearly everyone at once.
I kept up the dumb show, only letting my face wrinkle just a bit, like I didn’t understand what they were so surprised at.
“What do you mean ‘hid in front of us’?” demanded Oro. “Nobody came through the shield from the front either! She can tell no matter what side they move through.”
“Sure,” I said, nodding along like I didn’t see what she was getting at, “If they move through. But she probably isn’t all the time getting told by her gift that, like, another step of air has come through right? Or that she walked another tree into it?”
I saw the moment, the spark as they got it, first one than the next, faces going from open and angry to closed and full of murder.
“So they just sat in front of us,” I rambled on, “Let the shield get carried past them, then got up and walked on in with none the wiser. Simple, right?”
“Bullshit!” said Oro, instantly. “We’d have seen them come in!”
Vampire had actually gotten it faster than her supposed minder, I’d noticed. It seemed to me more and more like Oro was here for some weird trick of her gift, and that Vampire might be both the smart one and the strong one.
“I felt them,” I told her plainly. “They just sat there like I said, then when we were close they just mixed on in. You didn’t see them.”
The faces went back to angry on the drop of a dime.
“You felt them!” snarled Vampire. “Your fucking dirt mover gift warned you? And you didn’t think to tell anyone else about it? Or do anything yourself? Just sat on your fat-“
“It isn’t my job to protect your life.” I told her.
No expression on my face, not a hint of smugness. I just let her own words ring out, stood tall and calm in the silence that followed.
This was the drinks, of course. No way original flavor Dale could have baited out those words then set them back in her face. But with Lotus’ upgrades it hadn’t even been hard.
There was a an instant of silence. I could see the emotions playing out over the crowd, the instant desire to retaliate and shut me up, strangled by the knowledge that to do so would be to criticize Vampire’s stance.
“That’s…” said the one Bride from the crowd who’d spoken up before, but she fell silent as no one else joined in, wilting from the attention in a way that she hadn’t when she’d last drawn it.
At last, after what seemed like entire minutes but must have been really much shorter, Vampire gave a forced chuckle.
It wasn’t convincing at all, sounded nothing like genuine humor, but it didn’t really have to. Everyone seized upon it, joined in with their own strained mirth, and the tension just kind of leaked away.
“Maybe it should be,” she said, when the fake chuckling had run its course. “Maybe it fucking should be.”
I gave a shit eating grin, just totally honored to take her orders like the dumb male that I was.
“I’m so busy though,” I mock protested, “I don’t know when someone is going to need fighting, I might not do a good job…”
I trailed off at the end, making it clear that my refusal was sarcastic, the kind of cloying whining that only someone who wasn’t as cool as those of us who were here would bother to do.
“That’s done,” she said, now sounding like Her, the voice of someone who accustomed to stating orders as facts, “No one else will fuck with you.”
She looked over to the rest of them, brow just the slightest bit furrowed.
“Right?” she asked.
A general noise of approval and agreement came from the crowd, Brides all but falling over each other to agree with Vampire.
I let my tension lapse a bit. I’d been prepared to go on a bit further, to point out that the way that the Union troops had infiltrated into the column after they got through the shield had probably been the same disguise stuff that Rags told me they’d used in the last fight, to offer Condemner’s aid alongside mine and other stuff like that.
It was nice that it hadn’t been necessary. I could leave those points for future fights, trot them out if I needed anything else from Vampire.
We weren’t supposed to be with them long, after all. We were three days into a 2 week trip, and any day could see the Union make a big play. As soon as Haunter got her stuff taken care of we’d be out of here.
“Indulger,” said Vampire, pushing me out of my reverie.
I’d have to watch that. The yellow and green seemed to encourage racing thoughts, where as soon as you relaxed you kind of fell into your own mind.
“Yeah?” I asked.
“From now on, you are with me. We’ll burn the Union down together.”
To my surprise the smile that came to my lips was genuine. It was nice to be wanted, after all.