Regime Quest 55

Day 19:

Morning: Message to Union

Negotiation was a funny thing. There was an old saying that if a bank loaned you a lot of money (by your standards), they owned you. But if they loaned you a lot of money (by their standards), you owned them. It got at the core of the matter, which was how much each party had at stake.

The Union had invested in me, at this point. They’d communicated with me, and I’d delivered. If I survived, they had every reason to believe that I’d keep on crossing names off their list. They had no guarantee that my replacement would be similarly cooperative.

Which was all the long way round to say that I was pretty confident that they’d work with me a bit.

The time for my assault on Phis was growing ever closer. Factoring in the time delay in our communication, and it basically had to be now. I just didn’t have the time to mess around with it anymore.

I had demands, and I wasn’t sure it precisely followed their system, but whatever. They’d accommodate me, or they’d have to deal with my replacement.

What I wanted was, one, them not to target me or my posse for a month. Beyond that, I was looking for a briefing on Phis, and I’d also slipped in a request for a bunch of old credit cards with lots of money on them.

The handoff was old hat at this point. I went into the usual dirty dive, left the ‘briefing’ in the trash once I was done making my coded notes on it. At least this time I saw my contact in the crowd, so it wasn’t another missed opportunity.

Afternoon: Visit Battler

Finding Battler was as simple as letting people know I was looking to get in touch with her. The word came back within a few hours, and we’d set up a meet in Owner’s shop.

She had an arrogant, strutting energy. Short hair, freckles, and a leather jacket without any holes in it. She wore a golf visor for a Sigil, tilted at an angle. She was like a prototypical version of a Regime Ultra, like a mold they’d used to make the rest of us.

“Warlord,” she said, taking up a position against a soda machine.

“Battler,” I answered.

“I hear you want something from me?” she said.

“You gave my predecessor your advice,” I said. “You didn’t think she had Ar Harbour handled?”

She looked to one side and spat, then frowned for a second.

“Obviously not,” she said, “And I’d been kind of worried that the problem might be bigger than just one Warlord.”

“Problem?”

More frowning, she cracked her knuckles for a moment.

“I thought that maybe the stuff you have to do to get to be the Warlord, like, it isn’t the sort of stuff you do once you have the gig, you know? So we were only ever gonna get shitty Warlords, or if we got a good one it’d just be good luck.”

I set my estimation of her intelligence up a notch for her independently coming up with the idea of a structural problem.

“Yeah,” I said, “I get you.”

“But you took care of Ar Harbour,” she said. “You got it done. And you didn’t just get lucky.”

“What do you think I did differently?” I asked.

“You got trucks,” she said, “You got smoke machines. You got guns and trained your Ultras. You didn’t just show up and expect everything to go your way. Some of the people I talked to said you knew the Ultras you’d be going up against, like what their gifts were and such.”

“Scouting,” I said. “It’s a necessity, in my opinion.”

“That’s what I’m talking about,” she said. “Most Warlords don’t do much more than gather up their friends, live it up for a month, and then just hope that they have better gifts than whoever is out there.”

“And you disapprove?”

“I want to see Her enemies crushed,” she said. “I want us to win. Month after month. Year after year, come to that. I want to see a Warlord last in the job, genuinely put some fear into those cretins.”

I let her wind up, just sat back and said nothing.

“You know we used to own everything?” she asked. “People act like it’s normal that we fight and fight against these assholes, but it’s fucking not. We used to have it all, and we are gonna have it all again.”

And a notch down for my estimation of her knowledge of history.

“I like how you think,” I told her, “And I think they were fools to ignore you.”

“Were is the important word there,” she said. “If I’d been working with them, I like to think they’d still be uh…”

She was looking for the concept for ‘present tense’, I thought.

“They’d still be around,” she finished, a bit lamely.

“Well,” I said, “If it isn’t too selfish, I suppose I’m glad they fucked up.”

“Planning on repeating their mistake?” she asked.

“We’ll see,” I told her.

We ended the interview on that note, and I stuck around for a bit, thinking about Battler.

Fairly smart, highly motivated, decent combatant. No real insight into exactly how evil she was, but Regime partisanship wasn’t a great sign. Of course, I could hardly ignore my own situation for evidence that not everyone who loyal actually was.

A definite possibility.

 

Evening: Debrief Posse

“Erupter,” I groaned, massaging my temples, “I thought we went over this.”

“I know, I know,” she said, hands out in front of her in a placating gesture. “I think I’d have been able to get people to sign up this time if it wasn’t for all that shit that went down yesterday.”

“We only have ten days!” I said, voice firm, “We don’t have TIME for these excuses!”

“It’s uncertainty boss! It’s the uncertainty! They need to know if we are going after the Dolls or the Timekillerz, or maybe all the gangs?. People have friends and enemies in the gangs. Signing up to fight strangers is one thing, but the people who want to come on the warband after almost always the Ultras who DON’T want to do gang fights.”

“Erupter,” I told her, “I need Ultras in my warband. It’s not a hard job. Go out there. Tell them to join up. Lead them to the base. Get it done.”

“I’m sure the uncertainty will clear up soon enough,” she said, “But I’ll switch jobs with Owner if you want?”

“No switching jobs!” I yelled. I rarely raised my voice, but this was serious. “You just need to do what I tell you. Stop Fucking Up!”

She subsided into her chair, hurt and sulking.

I looked over to Owner, eyes maybe a little wider and more frenzied than they needed to be.

“Training went great boss!” she said. “After yesterday everyone was extremely attentive, borderline obsessed. That bit of business yesterday put the fear of Her into them.”

“Anyone ask you about that?” I asked.

“Some people tried to kind of get at it indirectly,” she said, “But nobody was brave enough to just come out and ask. You made a bit of an impression, I think, showing up all bloodied and stuff and saving us from a sneak attack.”

I’d probably eventually have to come up with some kind of story for what that had all been about. Anything I heard from two posse members without a common mission was probably pretty important.

Finally, I looked at the last, empty chair at our usual table.

“Anyone know where Replayer is?” I asked.

Headshakes all around.

My first thought was that some Avowed had seized her, my second that maybe she was Avowed. But there were lots of other possibilities.

I grimaced, motioning for them to close in, then gave my orders for tomorrow’s business.

 

Day 20

10 days until next battle

 

Ultra rolodex: (#/#/# is Ultra strength/speed/toughness)

Tracker – Running buddy, 1/0/1, Creates tracks, and can move things on them

Shower – Adder’s protégé, 1*/0/1*, gains strength and durability from witnesses

Echoer – Singer I am a fan of, 1/1/1, can duplicate any action that she sees

Bubbler – Operates Ultra clinic 0/0/?, traps things in bubbles that heal and move them

Sucker — Ultra entertainer, ?/?/?, pulls objects/people towards her at incredible rate

Gunner — 0/0/1, she shoots tracking Ultra Blasts at roughly Ultra Strength One

Chiller — 1/0/1, can freeze any object she touches, leaving them brittle and easily broken

Cutter — 1/1/1, she is a brutal front line combatant

Swimmer — 1/0/1, she can ‘swim’ through solid surfaces

Burner — 0/0/1, she can summon Ultra fire from anywhere that she can see

Maxxer — 0/0/0, she can augment the gifts of other Ultras, pushing their gifts

Puncher — 1/0/1, her strength and speed both go up when she repeats her movements

Maker- Friend, and protégé of Snitcher, 0/0/1, can summon the spirit of things

Clawer – Ultra fighter 2/0/1, melee combatant, deadly hooks for hands

Stopper – partner of Clawer, 0/0/0, steals form’s velocity by looking at them

Sticker – Did dentistry for her brother, 0/0/2, Creates slime, can choose its stickiness

Grower – 0/*0/1, an outside Ultra I sponsored into the Lair, has a bullet blend from me, can rapidly increase the size and mass of objects

Joker — 0/2/0, a woman who can change what other people/herself look like

Stormer – 0/0/*, a woman who controls weather, does so for Regime big shots

Stomper – 2/0/1, can blast herself along with explosive stomps, problems with authority

Sworder – 1/0/1, Replayer’s flunky

Singer – 0/0/0, Buffs listeners with 1 in Ultra strength/tough/speed

Battler – 2/0/1, Straightforward Combatant

Sniper – 0/0/0, X ray vision and eye beams

 

Union List

Vower – 0/0/?, a woman who can enforce oathkeeping

Caller – 0/0/0, a woman who can grant and use telepathic communication

Nailer – ?/?/?, a woman who can merge objects and people into composites

Hater – X/0/X, a woman whose effectiveness depends on how much her enemy is hated, and by how many people

Resister – */0/1* Grows steadily more effective vs. each opponent

Finisher – 0/0/0 Can rapidly kill wounded foes in her line of sight

Limiter – ?/?/? Makes ‘rules’, or ‘shields’, that restrict her enemies, unlimited range, limited by being ‘used up’ by target’s attempts to take the banned action

Murderer – 0/0/1, Death Touch

 

Assets: (physical)

1 truck

1 sedan

Owner’s Shington Store

Packer House

Fog Machines

Lasers (diverse)

 

Posse: (4 slots, 3 filled)

Owner (trusted friend, housemate, gift hard to describe) 0/0/1

Replayer — 1/2/0, she can ‘step back in time’ to undo damage that she takes

Erupter – 0/0/2, a woman who retaliates against attacks on herself

 

Warband:

11 Veteran Ultras, 23 Rookie (that is, haven’t worked with me before) Ultras

Hexxer, Peeler, Guager, Soarer are notably less evil than the rest.

Driver, Defender and Infecter possess interesting capabilities.

 

Blender AP: 4/10 (5 – 3 +2 -3 +2 +1)

Actions cost 3, return 2 on success 0 on failure unless otherwise specified, Blender gains 1 AP every morning

 

Available Actions:

 

Union Kill List tree, if you feel any indication to play along with their proposal (note that KEM/Resistance missions tie in well with these matters)

Get basic info on 4 Ultras (indicate names, this is a gossip based approach unless you specify otherwise)

Get detailed info on 1 Ultra (indicate name, this is a ‘track them down and speak with them’ based approach unless you specify otherwise)

Kill an Ultra from the list (indicate target name and your basic method, may cause rebellion or discontent in any Posse or Warband assets you use, may not, use your best judgement and be clever)

Send Union a Message (indicate text of message, this is actually a Resistance action, but I’ve placed it here for ease of use)

 

Posse Recruitment tree

Meet more Ultras (describe method, adds d6 to contacts)

Get to know specific Ultra better (describe method transitions Ultra to potential Posse member)

Invite Ultra to Posse (must have got to know target first, if accepted, Ultra joins Posse)

 

Warband tree

Get more Ultras (describe method, adds Ultras to warband of quality/quantity dependent on method)

Train warband (describe method, makes QM kinder to Blender in combat sections re: her troops actions and numbers)

Task warband (describe, needs Posse member or Blender to lead them, sets warband to a task)

 

VIP tree (Used for Regime Luminaries)

Visit VIP (explain, explain Blender’s motives and methods) (only returns 1 AP on success)

 

Contacts tree: (Blender currently believes morning is safer from Snitcher)

Get info from contacts (specify KEM or Resistance, method if different from usual dead drop)

Request mission from contacts (ask KEM or Resistance for action) (This can go in either direction, asking them to do something from you, or asking if they need you to do anything for them.)

 

Relax tree: (Actions which, on balance, regain AP)

Lay still: Cost 0, auto succeed, returns 2

Relaxation activities, Cost 0, returns 3 on success, 1 on failure

Healing work, Cost 1, returns 6 on success, Snitcher hazard

Blisser session, auto succeed, returns 4 per timeslot, cannot be ended until Blender is back at 10

 

Miscellaneous action: (Anything not covered above, scavenging, info gathering in person, etc, describe what Blender is going for)

 

Player Input:

Blender Morning Action

Blender Afternoon Action

Owner will take either a morning or afternoon action at Blender’s direction.

Replayer is missing, no need to specify an action for her.

Erupter will take an afternoon action at Blender’s direction.

 

Haunter 11:2

Subtracter towered over me, glowering down at me with a stern expression. She wouldn’t ordinarily be tall enough for that, but she floated about six inches off the ground, and I’d been forced down into a seated posture.

Each of us, in Fourth Fist, had our own particular bugbears, our own idea about who bore the lion’s share of the responsibility for the nightmare that was the Regime. Mine was Remover, of course, but Dale’s case for Subtracter had been genuinely persuasive.

With Prevailer, you knew that She was smarter than She let on. There was an intelligence there that you could reach out to, sullen and cruel though it might be. Plus she seemed to be genuinely fond of Dale, and I wasn’t a hundred percent sure he didn’t reciprocate, to some degree. But Subtracter was exactly the almighty dolt that she appeared to be, that strange combination of savage cruelty and supreme power that the Process had cursed the world with.

“You’re alive!” I blurted out.

I wouldn’t normally state the obvious like that, but it seemed like it’s what she was looking for, with the childish game of sneaking up behind us and then talking. It was always best to go along with Subtracter as far as you possibly could. This was the woman, along with Prevailer of course, who invented the sky burial.

“No shit!” she said, then slapped me viciously across the face.

I bit back a scream as one of my shades, a hero who’d opted out of a life in the Union in order to accompany me on a mission to save the world, died in an instant to an idiot’s spite. I forced myself not to give her any visible reaction.

The great peril of Subtracter was that defying her whims was suicidal, but going along with them wasn’t necessarily safe. The woman was a fucking plague.

“They- they think you aren’t, back in Shington,” I said. “Second Fist asked us to come here to see how you got taken down.”

“I wanted them to think that,” she explained, thankfully not striking me again, “I got those assholes right where I want them.”

In an ordinary conversation I might venture something of a wisecrack here, but with Subtracter that would only cost me my comrades. I remained silent and waited for her to expound on what she meant by that.

“Who’s this asshole?” she said, abruptly, jerking a finger over her shoulder at Mario.

“We’re using a body double,” I said, instantly, before he could get himself into any trouble. “Didn’t want to put 3 of us into a situation where we were told there was someone who took you on.”

I wasn’t entirely sure she’d go for this, and getting caught lying to her would be incredibly bad, but I’d made the split second decision that this was better odds for us than trying to sell the idea that Mario was Nirav somehow shapeshifted.

She didn’t say anything for a long moment, looking form one of us to another, then over to Krishna.

I started to second guess myself. Maybe we should have stuck with the idea that Condemner was experimenting with his form shifting power, or come up with some other explanation that wouldn’t leave Mario so damn expendable. He’d saved us, and he deserved a lot better than getting splattered because Subtracter wanted to put an exclamation point in one of her sentences.

“Where’d you get him?” she finally asked.

“Just found him around,” said Preventer.

I winced inwardly. She’d been too fast, too nervous. It should have come slower, like we had to think back a bit. Subtracter might be dumb, but she was a bully with a bully’s instincts. She could scent weakness like few others.

She looked back over to Mario, and I could feel his end teetering on a knife’s edge. Was I really going to stand here and do nothing while she took another life, just to prove some inane point?

I spent a fruitless moment cursing my decision to leave the Knights’ weaponry with the infiltrators back in the city. One Blessed Gun right here might let me defy her, or at least try something. Subtracter was incredibly fast, of course, but I didn’t think she was actually bullet fast.

“Whatever,” she said, then looked back to me.

I foundered for a second, trying to figure out what she wanted from me, then defaulted to the usual approach I took with her.

“What do you want me to do?” I asked.

“You gonna go back into Shington, then you kill Deceiver. I’ll take the rest of their crew out once I can trust my own eyes.”

I ground my teeth, seething inwardly.

Back before the end of the world, of the old world, I mean, I used to play video games a little. One conceit of the old games was that when you were messing around on side quests the game would never just end because you ignored the main thing.

Reality, of course, suffered no such constraint. Second Fist wanted us to do their bidding here, now Subtracter wanted us to go back there, and all the time Remover’s endgame was presumably rolling onward.

“Won’t She be displeased about that?” Preventer asked. “The Fists aren’t supposed to fight one other, and whoever wins we’ll be depriving Her of our strength.”

Blink-quick Subtracter was across the room looming over Preventer, hands curled into fists of her own.

“She’s dead!” Subtracter snarled. “I’m in charge now.”

It said a lot about how indoctrinated I was, how beaten down I’d been by Her reign that I’d never really considered this. Even now my first thought wasn’t ‘how’d She die’, but rather ‘how did Subtracter convince herself that Prevailer was dead’.

“She’s dead?” I asked. “How did that happen?”

There were two reasons I was daring to question her now. The first was that she was over by Preventer right now, which meant that if she got heated she might just fly back over and loom again instead of striking. The other was that I was asking for a clarification, letting her be the center of attention by enlightening us, rather than asking her to change her mind.

“Torturer,” she said, “I dunno why she didn’t just warp out, but the zone swallowed up her sanctuary when it moved.”

I nodded solemnly, mind racing.

Prevailer only had Ultra Toughness One. She could live on the edges of Torturer’s halo, but only the very fringes. If She’d been unwilling to teleport away then She could certainly have fallen to Her own servant, but it made no sense on just about every level. Even if She wouldn’t use her gift, why not just walk away?

In any case, if She was dead or just not communicating…the implications were limitless. Subtracter was moving against Second Fist in full confidence of Her absence, and whoever won that fight the Regime would be down a major asset.

It dawned on me, after a second’s contemplation, that there was no Regime, not really. The Third Defiance had proven that it was bound up in Her person, that She could reconstruct it from scratch if need be. The opposite would also stand to reason.

“Yeah,” I said, mind only half on my words, absorbed with the implications of Subtracter’s message, “Nobody can survive Torturer’s gift.”

And all of a sudden I had it. The pieces fit together.

We were here looking for Remover. We expected that she’d be in Shington because that was where she needed to be to taunt Preventer with Thui, and because that’s where the old world communications tech was that she might be repurposing to make her broadcasts to the Union’s satellite.

Say that was all true, and that she was in Shington. Why had no one seen her? Change the question up. Why had the Union moved Torturer? It seemed a clumsy piece of tradecraft virtually guaranteed to provoke awe inspiring retaliation.

But they’d done it, and Mario had just reminded me that the Union was likely acting on precog orders, at some level. And Remover was hacking the precogs. So assume that Remover had been behind the relocation of Torturer, in a more direct way than my usual habit of assuming that she was behind everything.

‘Nobody can survive Torturer’s gift’, I’d said. But my working assumption was that Remover was like Condemner, not really a person so much as a person shaped glove. What if a being like that didn’t really feel pain? No soul to torment? Or maybe it could warp Torturer’s gift like it did the precogs.

I didn’t need the details. I had the gist of the thing. Remover was sheltering inside of the no go zone created by Torturer. All I had to do was figure out how to survive in there and I could finally confront the author of all this horror.

“You link back up with Indulger,” said Subtracter. “You hit Second Fist, get Deceiver. I’ll finish them off.”

I wrenched my attention back to the present with alacrity. Revelations would have to wait until I was away from this maniac.

“We’ll take care of it,” I said, “But the Knights will be a really hard problem. Can your Pantheon friends here help out?”

My off the cuff calculation here was that getting to show off by bossing around the Pantheon would be pleasing to her to a greater degree than us asking for help would be annoying, and that therefore this request would generally make her more favorable towards us.

“Huh?” she asked.

Or not.

“We can take them, Fist to Fist,” said Preventer. “But they’ve got all those fucking daggers around. It won’t be a fair fight if they swarm us. We’ve got to up the numbers on our side.”

I didn’t think this was as much an attempt to appeal to Subtracter’s reason as it was a simple distracting of her attention onto someone she couldn’t hurt. Nevertheless, I felt a brief surge of gratitude.

“You are going to be my Fist,” snarled Subtracter, “When I tell you do something I don’t want you to turn around and tell me to give you things. I want you to do the thing!”

“And we will,” said Preventer, “We are your fist. No debate there. But when you pick something up you sometimes use both hands, right? You’ll get a better outcome if you use all the tools at your disposal.”

Krishna shot her a killing glance at being called a ‘tool’ in a fashion that she wasn’t able to reply to, and I could feel where she was coming from. You had to be invincible to be so petty at such a perilous time.

“What can our Host members do about the Knights?” asked Krishna, “Don’t you know that these are the serious ones? The ones with blessed guns? It won’t help for us to walk into bullets for this.”

Subtracter held up a hand.

Silence fell as we waited on her pleasure. I could see her lips moving a bit, her face doing the blur twitches that meant that she was using her enhanced speed to give herself time to think.

This was, honestly, one of the abilities of Ultra Speed that I most envied. I felt like sometimes the reserve sort of pushed past my ability to follow them. It would have been nice to be able to have the time to devote myself to each one of their arguments.

“A fight between you and Second Fist,” she said at last, “Should be all about Indulger burying them from outside of their ability to fight back. His gift goes for miles, right? So just crush them from far away, grind up the land like a grinder until they are gone. Once Deceiver goes then I’ll take care of the Knights, and we are all good.”

I blanked for a second, as my mind put together the missing piece of my plan. Dale’s gift outranged Torturer’s. He could shuffle her off somewhere out into the wilderness, or down into the ground if there were people all around her. With his help I could search her zone, find Remover and maybe stop her.

“You are going to kill the Knights?” asked Preventer.

“I’ve always hated those bitches,” said Subtracter, “Daggers that front like they matter. I’ll take them apart as soon as they don’t have Deceiver to hide where they are aiming from me.”

I wasn’t about to waste any tears on the Knights, a racist organization at least two centuries passed its time, but I did think Subtracter might be underestimating the degree of danger they posed. She dodged bullets, as far as I knew, by dodging where people were aiming, not by actually side stepping while they were in flight. If she thought that Deceiver was the only reason it would be hard to take on the Knights then she was kidding herself.

Her new Pantheon buddies could have told her something about the effectiveness of firearms, if she’d bothered to listen to them. They’d been getting slaughtered by combined human/Ultra forces for a generation.

“I understand,” I told her. “I’m sorry, I was confused before. We’ll cut through Second Fist and take out Deceiver, then signal you, and then you mop up whatever remains. I get the plan now.”

“You won’t need my followers?” asked Krishna

“MY followers,” reminded Subtracter.

“Of course.”

“No,” said Preventer, “We’ve got this. It’s time those idiots learned who the real power around here was.”

The real power in the Regime, not counting Her of course, should be Third Fist. When they got back this whole power struggle would have to happen again, if Remover hadn’t turned the board entirely upside down by then.

“How long do you think that’ll take you?” asked Subtracter, at almost exactly the same time I asked “How should we signal you when it’s done?”

We paused for a moment, I could see Mario tensing up, petrified that she’d take that as insolence and execute him to dunk on us.

“Leave a ghost here,” she said, after a long moment, “And zap it back into yourself when Deceiver hits the floor. She can’t fake that, since you are the only one who can make the ghosts return.”

Subtracter knew the details of our gifts, naturally, and this was a typically gift centric way of overcomplicating a signal. It would serve well enough, however.

“We should have it done by evening,” I said, “Might be sooner, depending on how on the ball they are, but it won’t be later.”

I indulged in a brief moment of regret. If I’d only come up with my theory about Remover being in Torturer’s zone before we went to see Second Fist all this stupidity could have been avoided, but now we were entangled in this nonsense.

“We won’t fail you,” said Preventer.

I ran through the complexity of the situation ahead of us in my mind.

Second Fist, with Answerer in charge, was waiting on us to deal with the Pantheon, in particular to get rid of whoever got rid of Subtracter. They had Indulger, who we needed to get to Remover. They wouldn’t give him up unless we convinced them we’d done their bidding. Subtracter, by contrast, was willing to take on Second Fist, so long as we did the hard part up front. Both parties knew very little about the other, and they both had backup, from the Knights/Pantheon respectively.

Floating around this clusterfuck was the possibility of First Fist taking action against us, which might be an opportunity or a game over, depending on the action and our state when it hit, and Third Fist returning from their previous mission. The perverse part of me suspected that they’d immediately grab us and give us yet another set of orders.

“That’s You” said Subtracter.

I carefully didn’t roll my eyes.

“We won’t fail You” I promised.

Regime Quest 54

Day 18 continued

 

Morning: Crisis

First things first. I shot Vower in the head a few times, the impact knocking it back and forth on her shoulders.

Probably hadn’t killed her, no time to check. I’d been heading towards the door while I shot, and I paused for only a second to check for more guards.

None were in evidence, so I pushed out into the street, left hand clamped on my wound, right holding my gun. I dashed immediately down the way, hearing the shouts of the two guards in the distance.

I didn’t retrace the path that I’d taken to get here, nor cut directly towards the warband’s barracks. There was no way for a wounded person to outrun a pair of people who left a minute before her, so I had to assume that the Dolls would get the message before or right as I got to their headquarters.

If there was no downside for Vower to setting up these conditions, then I could be walking into a meat grinder in any confrontation with the bulk of a gang. There could be literally dozens of Ultras irresistibly compelled to avenge their master. There were some Ultras who could take on a mob of their lesser brethren, but I had never been one. Getting caught by a pack of the Avowed (the name I’d picked out for Vower’s forces), would see me killed in short order.

I took a corner at a run, pushing through a shattered fence and over a pile of miscellaneous rubble. No one else was on the street, which would have been ominous if I hadn’t already known the drill.

The gangs owned their areas, just about absolutely. When their hue and cry went up, anyone they saw was prey. This street might have been bustling a few seconds ago, but the instant the shouts had started the humans had fled.

I pushed onward, forcing myself to ignore the pain from my chest and the ever increasing wetness sliding down towards my waist. I pushed myself into a veritable sprint, legs pounding the turf with mad enthusiasm, vision narrowing to the next archway, the next crumbled barrier.

Despite my mad dash, my mind was completely clear, even distractingly so. The extra ‘sentient’ kept my thoughts flying at an incredible pace, making it hard to keep myself moving, hard to ignore the temptation to plop on down and think everything through.

I’d chosen the path through the Broken Clock’s territory, or the ‘Timekillerz’ as their actual name turned out to be, for two simple reasons.

First off, Vower might not have her hooks in them. I didn’t think it terribly likely, if I had her gift I would make it a point to spread my influence far and wide, but the possibility was there. Never underestimate Regime stupidity, and all that.

The other factor was that I doubted that EVERYONE would be controlled. If I was pursued by Dolls Avowed, as seemed entirely probable when I made the plan, then some of the Clocks would presumably see them charging into their territory, and they might well make enough of a commotion that I could slip away in the confusion.

Best I could do, anyway.

I didn’t start as I heard the first signals going up all around me. I’d been prepared for this. Humans who lived in a gang’s territory would have no choice at all, not if they wanted to live. Anyone running on the street now was an enemy, and the faster I was tracked down and taken care of the less angry the gang would be.

Every gang’s calls were different. I didn’t know why they bothered, however. They were basically calling out the name of the street that I was on. The only information that they needed to convey was where I was, and where I was headed. In a pinch ‘over here’ would have accomplished much the same thing.

The Dolls went with bird calls, for whatever reason, and so a great hooting and whistling rose up around me. I didn’t pay it any heed, just raced on anyway. I’d heard that some people had tried, from time to time, to scare everyone into shutting up, but I didn’t think there was any way to outfrighten a gang of Ultras in the minds of the people they tyrannized. Even if you were scarier than they were, they would always be closer.

I heard the first sound of pursuit as I hit the edge of the Clock’s territory. Not footsteps, but collapsing buildings and tumbling walls. A glance over my shoulder gave me a glimpse of at least four Ultras, one of whom had just run straight through a building. They were maybe a couple hundred yards back, but I doubted I could keep that far ahead for long.

Terror gave me wings as I spilled through the archway and into the Clocks’ territory. I turned immediately, then again the opposite way, heading deeper in by an indirect path.

Vower’s gift bound the Dolls to kill me, sure, but I doubted it gave them any extra sense of where I was. If I could lose them for a few moments in an area where they didn’t know the local calls, they might well bump into their rivals and lose track of me entirely.

Worth a shot, anyway.

The Clocks’ territory apparently hadn’t gotten the message that they needed to be off the streets yet, as I saw a trio of people without Sigils going briskly about their business. Perhaps they thought the ruckus from the Dolls side of the border was going to stay there.

I didn’t bother to puzzle over it, well aware that my running energy was pretty close to giving out. Instead I kept running along this street, my attention wholly engaged with the alcoves and openings in the buildings along the way.

After a few more strides I saw one that looked promising, and I ducked quickly inside. It was a low crevice, leading into a room formed by walls collapsed upon one another, a dim triangular refuge.

I stepped immediately out of the door’s view and collapsed against a wall, hyperventilating and clutching my wound. This was it. I needed a few minutes to breathe and rest before I went any further, far longer than it would take them to catch up.

If they didn’t miss me in here, then I would have to fight them. As wounded as I was, it would be brief.

I prayed quietly that the humans hadn’t seen me, or didn’t understand the situation, or just hated the Dolls. I prayed that the Clocks had intercepted the enemy in force. I prayed for anything and everything to salvage the situation, my accelerated mind unable to do anything but continuously leap from one hypothetical to another.

All too soon I heard what I’d dreaded, the humans in the area calling out code.

No code phrases this time, simple “She went this way!” kind of calls, presumably because the pursuing Ultras weren’t a part of their particular gang.

I dragged myself erect, leaning heavily against the wall. I didn’t have any particular confidence in my ability to win this fight, but I wasn’t going out on my knees. I’d try and pull an attribute from whoever touched me first, hope for something that was a game changer.

A few seconds passed before I realized that the calls were coming from another street, and then spreading yet further away.

I felt a warmth within me that my wound couldn’t banish. The people of the Regime were shielding their healer. Every Monster, apparently, didn’t include me just yet.

I sank back down onto the ground, listening to my pursuers’ clamor as they passed by, a good dozen or more by this point. They followed the shouts down the street and through an opening, then presumably continued on after it.

It was tempting to stay here. To just sit down and rest for a few hours, let the gangs chase one another’s tails through the streets. But I couldn’t.

Every minute I hid from my enemy was another that Snitcher might decide to check in on me. The Warlord couldn’t hide from her enemies in a hole.

I slipped back out onto the street a few minutes later, as recovered as I was going to be without spending some serious quality time with my healing gift.

This time I didn’t run. I paced myself, putting foot in front of foot, stride after stride. I put my trust entirely in the people, forcing myself to believe that they wouldn’t change their minds and pinpoint me for my pursuers.

It worked.

Step by step, the outer barrens of Shington faded away, becoming the more familiar inner wards. Step by step those inner wards grew ever more familiar, until I was approaching the Warband’s barracks, where Owner would be training my followers.

I had the horrific thought that they might have gone out of the city to train maneuvers or something, but it was quickly banished. No profit in worrying about things I could do nothing about.

I forged ahead, continuing at my slow and steady pace, glancing nervously over my shoulder from time to time, listening for any sounds of pursuit.

None came. They were still off on their wild goose chase, or the gangs had crossed paths and were now trying to sort things out.

I couldn’t know, and didn’t care. All that mattered was that they’d missed their chance at me. I stepped across the threshold into the barracks, bursting through the main door that led to the lecture hall.

At least half the warband was here. I felt an overwhelming feeling of relief. I’d made it. Absent yet more complications I wasn’t going to die today.

“Lecture over!” I shouted. “Get your asses outside and kill anyone who attacks!”

There was a tumult of curious questions that I ignored, stepping off to the side of the door and leaning back against it as though I was too cool to be bothered with the whole thing.

Leaning was better than standing, and miles better than walking. I made a mental note that I should do more leaning, and to investigate the nearly holy possibility of sitting as soon as the situation allowed.

Soarer was the first to stop in front of me, as the rest moved on by, it looked like she was about to ask me something.

There’s a way of looking at someone that I consider to be ‘the Regime stare’, where you convey exactly how little you care for their existence and how readily you would slaughter them. I used it now.

She didn’t finish her question, and instead, wisely, joined the rest in their scurry out the doors.

I took a beat inside, alone.

I hadn’t intended for Owner to join the rest, but here we were. I hoped she’d be ok out there.

I pulled on my healing gift, just a bit, doing what I could for my wound. In just a minute I’d have to go out there and lead my forces to victory, but I could pause for as long as I could make Snitcher, and maybe Her by this point, think that I wasn’t hiding.

To that end I dragged myself down to the lectern, where Owner had been going over the fundamentals of Ultra combat, and looked through her rather sparse materials. I thumbed a page or two aside, nodded approvingly and kind of grunted a bit, and all the while I kept my healing gift flowing.

This was going to suck. My forces should be superior to the gang members on a one for one basis, in that my gals were the people who’d left the gangs to enter the Yard, and those tended to be the strongest among their number.

But, on the other hand, the Dolls and Timekillerz each outnumbered my warband alone. Taken together they could probably mob us under, though at horrific casualties.

I wasn’t terrified, because I just didn’t find it to be plausible. I hadn’t heard Vower’s name a few months back when I was going up. There was no way that she’d had time, in the brief spring of her ascendance, to Vow every member of both gangs. She would have taken the leadership, sure, but they’d only have the backup who were down for both teaming up with their hated rivals and attacking the Warlord’s forces, all with no warning or prep time.

Gang morale also wasn’t the greatest. Even if they did show up in their full numbers, they’d probably break and run once the casualties got heavy, especially if the Avowed, the only ones who were enthusiastic about the whole fight, couldn’t stop themselves from leading the way.

A clamor from outside, shouting and explosions, broke my concentration.

I turned away from the lectern and stalked back out towards what sounded like an ongoing battle, still clutching my wound and pouring on my healing gift.

When I got to the door I flung it open, but didn’t step through immediately, instead peering out into the plaza and taking cover in the archway.

Ultras were slamming one another all over the opening, letting loose with the full fury of their gifts. I flinched back behind the doorframe as some kind of sonic thing went off, one of the Ultras who’d had her arm ripped off screaming like a banshee.

It seemed like we were winning, as far as I could tell, but of course we didn’t exactly have a uniform, and the gang colors weren’t incredibly clear in all the dust and the tumult.

“Get the traitors!” I shouted into the confusion, hoping Owner had found herself a pocket of safety. “Kill them all!”

I glimpsed a pocket of the enemy pushing forward, their way fronted by a Doll with striking read hair, and I threw myself out into the scrum.

I couldn’t just stand back and command. If Snitcher was watching, then I had to be more than triumphant, I had to be dominant.

I charged forward, pushing through a pair of my own who were hanging back and lobbing their gifts at the enemy, then into the midst of the fight.

A pair of my Ultras were grabbing at the red haired Doll, but she’d avoided their arms and flung her hands around one of their heads, which was rapidly aging in her clutches.

I took advantage of the moment, stepping off to her side and slapping a hand onto the back of one of her hands, activating my primary gift in the second of contact.

She had no Ultra toughness to work through, and it was the matter of a bare moment to slam Vower’s ‘sentient’ into her, afflicting her with the same runaway thoughts I’d been battling.

She pulled her hand away before I could steal another attribute off of her, but she seemed groggy, hesitant, in the half second I could observe before the other friendly Ultra caught up with her and bludgeoned her down into the ground.

I took a step back, eyes darting from left to right, trying to make sure no one else was rushing me. It looked like I had a moment.

There was still a knot of fighting behind where the red head had been charging, and another off to the other side. I drifted between the two, furiously pointing towards one and then the other, shouting inaudible commands.

The nearby knot of the enemy collapsed a minute or so later, our numerical advantage proving to be too much. My Ultras didn’t waste any time celebrating the victory, instead running over to join the fight on the other side.

Maybe Owner’s days of training was worth something after all.

The end came not long after that, as the numbers were simply too great for the remaining gang members. We took full command of the plaza within a few more minutes, the last of the enemy fleeing, broken and in full retreat.

“Listen up!” I shouted, taking immediate charge, before anyone else could take the chance.

Heads turned in my direction, a half ring quickly coming into being as my forces rallied to their leaders call.

“Everyone see to the wounded!” I continued. “Anyone who is dead, we need to know who that is. Anyone who is fucked up, we need to know how long till they get better. Watch for more enemies! I want people up on those buildings!”

I pointed at a few nearby structures.

“If I hadn’t warned you we’d have been caught completely flat footed!” I went on, letting the momentum carry me along, “You need to understand that you are the Warband now! We are ALWAYS on war footing! Always ready! I never want to see us caught unprepared again!”

Heads were nodding, and people were scrambling to obey.

“Owner,” I called, heart in my throat.

She moved out from behind a line of Ultras, the gun Builder’d made for her in her hands. She seemed unharmed.

“Yes Warlord?” she asked.

“Take care of the rest of this. I’m going to go brief Her.”

People looked down at the dreaded pronoun, and no one questioned any further as I slunk off to dubious safety of the Lair.

 

Afternoon: Healing my wounds:

I’d blocked off this time to expand the Warband, and after the casualties that we’d taken this morning I needed to do so badly, but that would have to wait.

There was simply no way I could function as the Warlord in my current condition. My enemies would smell blood, and my allies would be disheartened by my damaged state. It would be suicidal to carry on with my previous plans.

Instead, I holed up in the Packer House and worked on healing my form.

I’d been hoping that the Avowed would act a lot more zombie like than they had. I’d even dared to imagine them being cut down without resistance by my allies, if their single minded focus on obeying their imperatives had not permitted them to pay attention to their attackers. That hadn’t happened, which left a disturbing possibility.

There might be more of them out there, ones with more sophisticated Vows, or maybe just more room to interpret them. Her outside guards had ran off to raise the alarm while her inner ones had immediately tried to kill me, after all, so there was precedent for their obedience to take different forms.

I’d have to be careful, from here on out, for their efforts. My current thought was that they’d thought Vower was dead, and some kind of ‘avenge her’ vows had triggered, driving them to do something as suicidal as attacking a Warlord. All of that crew should have been cleared out, but the odds were pretty good that she wasn’t actually dead.

I’d left her mindless and battered, splayed on the floor of her own office, but eventually someone would probably get around to checking on her. If she had another set of contingency people set aside for the possibility of her becoming incapacitated, then this might not be quite done.

They’d need my cooperation to restore her, which I wouldn’t willingly give, but if their Vows didn’t permit them to give up…

I sighed, pondering hostages taken and the like, as well as the Union’s reaction. More stuff I’d have to keep an eye out for.

Somewhat surprisingly, the afternoon passed quietly, with no one coming by to demand an explanation or drag me off to Her. I finished healing my wound and got ready to head to the evening’s meeting.

It was incredibly tempting to skip it, or postpone it by a day or something, but Her timetable wasn’t going to waver. I still had to hit Phis, and that meant keeping my Posse working each and every day.

 

Evening: Debrief Posse:

“Training go alright?” I asked Owner, wryly.

She grinned a bit, looked away to hide a chuckle.

“I think they learned some things,” she told me. “Definitely not a boring day.”

“Did you two work together today?” asked Replayer. “I’ve had that thought a couple of times, that maybe the Warband needs to see us all as a unit. I dunno if the extra benefit would be worth losing out on us each doing things separately though.”

“I could teach the Warband?” asked Erupter, surprise obvious in her voice, “But I haven’t yet smote Her enemies myself.”

“What’s the damage?” I asked Owner.

“We lost 13,” she told me. “Most of those are killed, a few crippled too bad to fight. It was a real shitshow.”

“You don’t have to tell me,” I reminded her. “I was in the middle of it.”

“What went down?” asked Erupter, frowning dubiously at us, clearly trying to imagine a training session that killed a dozen people.

“Gangs came at us,” I told her shortly, “We slaughtered them.”

“The gangs attacked the warband?” asked Replayer. “I’ve never heard of that happening before. Do we know why?”

“Vower sent them at me,” I simplified, “I took her out for it. Hell of a fucking morning.”

Erupter gave a lot whistle.

“Damn boss!” she said, “Your eagerness to take out Her enemies puts me to shame. I’ll have to work harder at that shit! I didn’t know we could use the Warband before the attack.”

“I can,” I cautioned her, “Your role is just to do what I tell you. How’d that go today, anyway?”

“Four recruits!” she said, proudly, “And I can vouch for every one of their smartness and honesty. They are great.”

I sat in silence for a second.

“Are they,” I asked, “Are they perhaps the women who previously formed your patrol?”

She nodded rapidly.

“I see,” I said.

I didn’t have the energy to fight about it, I turned to Replayer instead.

“Got any Posse prospects for me?” I asked.

“I did,” she said, “But I’m kind of concerned you keep fucking killing them. If you just want me to find targets I wish you’d tell me, it’d be a lot less work.”

“Ha ha,” I said, drily.

“We have Battler, first up,” she said. “Bitch tried to join up with the last Warlord for the Ar Harbour strike, didn’t make the cut because she doesn’t play well with others. Strong as shit though, and hardcore dedicated. She tried to chase the Warband out into the countryside, only came back when she got lost.”

“What’s her gift do?” I asked, warily.

“Ultra strength two, Ultra toughness one,” she said. “Just basic fighting stuff, but you pare that with somebody who is absolutely ready for this shit, someone who lives and breathes to take down Her enemies.”

“She sounds fantastic!” agreed Erupter, enthusiastically.

I thought she sounded a lot like another Smasher, but there was possibility there.

“Who else?” I asked.

“There’s also Sniper,” she said. “She can look through stuff with her gift, and has some kind of shooting attack that goes along with that.”

“How do you mean?” I asked.

She made a circle with her finger and thumb, held it in front of her eye.

“When she does this she can see through things,” she said, “Like she has another eye out in front her that is flying forward. I think she turns her hand to move it forward or backward.”

“Is it just for aiming?” I asked, “Or can she use it for whatever she wants?”

It would be just like the Regime to have someone with an amazing spying gift and fixate on using it to shoot people.

“I don’t know,” she said, “But she has an eye beam gift, and she’s mostly known for using it to target that at her enemies. She made it to the Lair without Ultra toughness, so she must be pretty smart.”

“How?” I asked.

“Worked with the Knights, I think”, she said, “Though my informants weren’t clear on whether that was a thing that was still happening, or a one time deal in the past.”

I reflected, not for the first time, that Replayer’s people skills left a bit to be desired.

“All right,” I said, “Any more?”

She shook her head.

Two prospects was a bit on the light side, but at least she didn’t completely strike out this time. Really it was hard to care too much about it when I’d only narrowly escaped with my life.

But that had only been a stay of execution. I still had the looming deadline of the attack on Phis to prepare for. I forced myself to focus.

“Alright,” I said, “Here’s what we’re going to do tomorrow…”

 

Day 19

11 days until next battle

 

Ultra rolodex: (#/#/# is Ultra strength/speed/toughness)

Tracker – Running buddy, 1/0/1, Creates tracks, and can move things on them

Shower – Adder’s protégé, 1*/0/1*, gains strength and durability from witnesses

Echoer – Singer I am a fan of, 1/1/1, can duplicate any action that she sees

Bubbler – Operates Ultra clinic 0/0/?, traps things in bubbles that heal and move them

Sucker — Ultra entertainer, ?/?/?, pulls objects/people towards her at incredible rate

Gunner — 0/0/1, she shoots tracking Ultra Blasts at roughly Ultra Strength One

Chiller — 1/0/1, can freeze any object she touches, leaving them brittle and easily broken

Cutter — 1/1/1, she is a brutal front line combatant

Swimmer — 1/0/1, she can ‘swim’ through solid surfaces

Burner — 0/0/1, she can summon Ultra fire from anywhere that she can see

Maxxer — 0/0/0, she can augment the gifts of other Ultras, pushing their gifts

Puncher — 1/0/1, her strength and speed both go up when she repeats her movements

Maker- Friend, and protégé of Snitcher, 0/0/1, can summon the spirit of things

Clawer – Ultra fighter 2/0/1, melee combatant, deadly hooks for hands

Stopper – partner of Clawer, 0/0/0, steals form’s velocity by looking at them

Sticker – Did dentistry for her brother, 0/0/2, Creates slime, can choose its stickiness

Grower – 0/*0/1, an outside Ultra I sponsored into the Lair, has a bullet blend from me, can rapidly increase the size and mass of objects

Joker — 0/2/0, a woman who can change what other people/herself look like

Stormer – 0/0/*, a woman who controls weather, does so for Regime big shots

Stomper – 2/0/1, can blast herself along with explosive stomps, problems with authority

Sworder – 1/0/1, Replayer’s flunky

Singer – 0/0/0, Buffs listeners with 1 in Ultra strength/tough/speed

Battler – 2/0/1, straightforward combatant

Sniper – 0/0/0, X ray vision and eye beams

 

Union List

Vower – 0/0/?, a woman who can enforce oathkeeping

Caller – 0/0/0, a woman who can grant and use telepathic communication

Nailer – ?/?/?, a woman who can merge objects and people into composites

 

Hater – X/0/X, a woman whose effectiveness depends on how much her enemy is hated, and by how many people

Resister – */0/1* Grows steadily more effective vs. each opponent

Finisher – 0/0/0 Can rapidly kill wounded foes in her line of sight

Limiter – ?/?/? Makes ‘rules’, or ‘shields’, that restrict her enemies, unlimited range, limited by being ‘used up’ by target’s attempts to take the banned action

Murderer – 0/0/1, Death Touch

 

Assets: (physical)

1 truck

1 sedan

Owner’s Shington Store

Packer House

Fog Machines

Lasers (diverse)

 

Posse: (4 slots, 3 filled)

Owner (trusted friend, housemate, gift hard to describe) 0/0/1

Replayer — 1/2/0, she can ‘step back in time’ to undo damage that she takes

Erupter – 0/0/2, a woman who retaliates against attacks on herself

 

Warband:

11 Veteran Ultras, 23 Rookie (that is, haven’t worked with me before) Ultras

Hexxer, Peeler, Guager, Soarer are notably less evil than the rest.

Driver, Defender and Infecter possess interesting capabilities.

 

Blender AP: 5/10 (Trauma Reset to 4+1)

 

Actions cost 3, return 2 on success 0 on failure unless otherwise specified, Blender gains 1 AP every morning

 

Available Actions:

 

Union Kill List tree, if you feel any indication to play along with their proposal (note that KEM/Resistance missions tie in well with these matters)

Get basic info on 4 Ultras (indicate names, this is a gossip based approach unless you specify otherwise)

Get detailed info on 1 Ultra (indicate name, this is a ‘track them down and speak with them’ based approach unless you specify otherwise)

Kill an Ultra from the list (indicate target name and your basic method, may cause rebellion or discontent in any Posse or Warband assets you use, may not, use your best judgement and be clever)

Send Union a Message (indicate text of message, this is actually a Resistance action, but I’ve placed it here for ease of use)

 

Posse Recruitment tree

Meet more Ultras (describe method, adds d6 to contacts)

Get to know specific Ultra better (describe method transitions Ultra to potential Posse member)

Invite Ultra to Posse (must have got to know target first, if accepted, Ultra joins Posse)

 

Warband tree

Get more Ultras (describe method, adds Ultras to warband of quality/quantity dependent on method)

Train warband (describe method, makes QM kinder to Blender in combat sections re: her troops actions and numbers)

Task warband (describe, needs Posse member or Blender to lead them, sets warband to a task)

 

VIP tree (Used for Regime Luminaries)

Visit VIP (explain, explain Blender’s motives and methods) (only returns 1 AP on success)

 

Contacts tree: (Blender currently believes morning is safer from Snitcher)

Get info from contacts (specify KEM or Resistance, method if different from usual dead drop)

Request mission from contacts (ask KEM or Resistance for action) (This can go in either direction, asking them to do something from you, or asking if they need you to do anything for them.)

 

Relax tree: (Actions which, on balance, regain AP)

Lay still: Cost 0, auto succeed, returns 2

Relaxation activities, Cost 0, returns 3 on success, 1 on failure

Healing work, Cost 1, returns 6 on success, Snitcher hazard

Blisser session, auto succeed, returns 4 per timeslot, cannot be ended until Blender is back at 10

 

Miscellaneous action: (Anything not covered above, scavenging, info gathering in person, etc, describe what Blender is going for)

 

Player Input:

Blender Morning Action

Blender Afternoon Action

Owner will take either a morning or afternoon action at Blender’s direction.

Replayer will take either a morning or afternoon action at Blender’s direction.

Erupter will take either an afternoon action at Blender’s direction.

 

Scheduling update

Hi all.

Things really got away from me this week (by things I mean furious posting on the internet and the usual kind of stuff, not anything serious), I’m my usual brand of very sorry about that, which is apparently sorry enough to express, but not actually enough to fix.  I’m meta-sorry that that isn’t terribly useful.

The Regime Quest update is about 80% finished, it’ll go up this Sunday, and the next week’s The Fifth Defiance update is about 30% done, barring more slack on my end it should go up on Wednesday.

Thanks for your forbearance, and, as always, for reading.

Haunter 11:1

The Pantheon’s forward base looked more like a grubby ren faire setup than it did a conquering army’s encampment. They’d taken over an old commercial building of some sort, and they’d thrown up some tents around it. That was it.

If it wasn’t for Second Fist’s directions I wouldn’t have given the place a second glance, just mentally set it down as some kind of gang hangout or other and moved the hell on.

I was probably spoiled by my time with the Grand Host, when I’d seen Ultras in their thousands, walking with gifts exposed across battlefields, conquering and levelling cities. The smaller Host we were visiting here didn’t exactly measure up.

“So,” said Preventer, “Couple hundred Ultras, Krishna at the lead. We’ve seen worse, right?”

We had, but it was never a great sign when I was on Preventer’s wavelength.

I pulled the truck over in a u-turn, leaving it pointing back the way we came, then I turned it off.

Preventer and Mario hopped out, but I stayed in the driver’s seat for a moment, breathing evenly and tuning into the Jury’s inner discussion, weighing options and carefully rehearsing my priorities.

There had actually been an argument, a good one, with plenty of support, from the Jury in favor of doing precisely nothing.

Not literally sit down right here on the ground, but not incredibly far from that either. The current variation was to just turn off the road and drive off into the middle of the woods, then stay there.

It was an inevitable consequence of my growing faith that our destiny was under the Forbidding Entity’s control. The points in favor were simple enough. Fate was an argument for fatalism.

If I genuinely believed that Remover’s will would be done, that no matter what I tried and how I struggled her inscrutable agenda would advance regardless…then why get hurt over it?

I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen in there, what demands and challenges the Pantheon’s best and brightest would bring, but the odds had to be reckoned pretty high that I’d lose shades.

Or rather, that I’d lose people. Of late I’d been chiding myself for dehumanizing them, sharing the sin of my allies and enemies alike. I’d successfully gotten the majority of the reserve into bodies during my time overseas. They were humans again, or, in some cases, very smart dogs or monsters, and they would live out their natural lifespans, their destinies once again their own.

Those still in my reserve were similarly alive, similarly deserving of dignity, and if I genuinely believed that the outcome was fixed, then how could I ask them to lay down their lives? Remover’s machinations would find me just as easily in the woods as they would anywhere else, so why not do the safe thing?

I hadn’t been persuaded, but it had forced me to do some clarifying, made me think about exactly what I believed, and what I wanted, and how much I would be willing to pay.

“Let me do the talking,” I told Mario and Preventer, as I got out of the car.

We walked towards the old building, spreading out into an ad hoc formation, Mario and I up front and Preventer taking up the rear.

We only got about twenty feet from the car when I saw movement inside, and a trio of women emerged, hard faced and hostile.

“Fuck off,” shouted one of them, a heavyset brunette. “You don’t want any part of this.”

“We know that you are Pantheon Goddesses-“ I began.

“FUCK OFF,” screeched another member of the crew, a shorter girl. “Last warning.”

Mario and I backed off, matching their pace so that the distance between us remained the same. Preventer would heedlessly up to them.

“You-“ I said, but they were pretty much done talking.

The last of the three, a woman with a profoundly strange haircut, did Preventer’s own trick to her, extending her hand at a measured pace rather than a sudden thrust, trying to close it around Preventer’s throat.

Preventer caught her hand in her own, held it for a long moment.

The other two looked expectantly at her, as did Mario and I.

Preventer wrenched the woman’s fingers in her own, provoking a gasp of pain.

“Why aren’t you-“ asked the shorter one, even as Preventer pulled her victim forward and kicked her in the back of a leg, driving her down on one knee.

“Death touch not working?” guessed Preventer, moving at the same time to take the woman around the neck with her other hand.

“Let her fucking go!” shouted the brunette, pointing an open hand at Preventer.

The one whose fingers she was twisting brought her other hand over, used them both to struggle with Preventer’s arm where she was throttling her.

“You just lost skin contact,” taunted Preventer, “How will your gift save you if you give up on it?”

While she was saying that the one with her arm extended apparently gave her sister in arms up for lost, and blasted a yellowish orange beam over the two of them.

Mario and I scrambled backwards, even as Preventer stood silhouetted in the beam for a moment, before she wrenched the Goddess around to take the brunt of it.

She burned away like flash paper, and then Preventer was moving, rushing directly down the beam towards the brunette, who backed away frantically.

The shorter one shouted something inaudible over the tumult and turned to run frantically back into the building, nearly colliding with the first few people the fracas had drawn out.

They were in time to see Preventer reach the beam Goddess and grab her by the head, the beam cutting off as they began to grapple.

Mario was nearly back at the truck by this point, but I’d stopped on the far side of the road, trying to strike a balance between being near enough to speak and far enough that I’d have a chance to dodge if anyone else started throwing gifts around.

Lots more people, Goddesses probably, were yelling various things, and Preventer was yelling back, having reached something of a standstill in her struggle with the beam Goddess, with both having grabbed each other’s hands.

“On three, STOP” I told the Jury, and then popped out a dozen or so shades, emerging in a triangle formation behind me.

“STOP!” We all shouted, our unanimity allowing us to be heard above the disordered shouting of the Pantheon crew and the struggling pair.

Things died down a bit, as the latecomers looked away from the struggle to where I stood in formation with my shades.

“Who the fuck are you?” asked a particularly tall Goddess. She was wearing a faux leather jacket and had a shovel up on her shoulder.

“Let Aura go!” demanded another, as Preventer hadn’t let up for a second in her struggle with the other.

Preventer wasn’t any stronger than an ordinary person, but she never got even the slightest bit more tired, and had utterly no interest in protecting herself. Wrestling her would be a terrifying proposition, made all the more so by the fact that she seemed to be trying to put her thumbs through Aura’s eyes.

“We’re Fourth Fist!” I shouted back, collapsing the shades back into me and striding confidently towards them. “Her hand in this matter. We are here to speak to Krishna, and perhaps to kill a few more of you, depending on what she says.”

It was a calculated risk to come off that cocky, but these weren’t the Asian Pantheon, used to the endless wars with the Union. These were the warriors who’d faced the Fists before, who understood on a bone deep level that they (or, we, in their minds) were eternal and invincible. I counted on the fact that they wouldn’t throw away their lives to keep me dead for a few hours.

They all looked to one another, none of them making a move, before the tall Goddess spoke up again.

“Where are the rest of you?” she asked. “There should be five in a Fist.”

I laughed at her, and Aura took that moment to start screaming again, as Preventer made some progress in their scrum.

“You think we’d all come out of the city at once?” I asked, when my fake laugh was finished. “For this shit? You barely rate three.”

Preventer shoved Aura away onto the ground and came over to stand beside me, even as Mario finally crossed the street to take up the other side.

“All right,” she said, looking over to where her buddies were attending to the weeping Goddess, “Fine, you can see her. But she’s going to be the one who says if there’s any killing.”

She backed into the building, some of the others going with her, the rest moving warily aside from the door, the clear intention being to come in behind us.

It would have been beneath our dignity to worry about them surrounding us, since the role we were playing was of a Fist that was still Linked, so I didn’t so much as glance at the numbers.

I’d known going in that if this got violent Preventer was the only one of us with a decent shot at making it out alive. One of my strong points, I thought, was not letting the fear that arose as a plan unfolded shake me from the calculations I’d made earlier, when I had time to think carefully.

The first room was a bit of a warren, just a bunch of sleeping cots and such laid out, a bunch of makeshift chairs and furniture scattered randomly among them. It was clearly where the welcoming committee had been hanging out when we showed up.

The tall Goddess lead the way into a deeper room, through a hole that had been simply smashed into a wall.

Another Goddess awaited us there, a striking auburn haired figure with a birthmark on one cheek. She had Goddesses on either side of her in typical guard/escort positions, and she extended a hand to me as we walked up.

“These claim to be Fourth Fist,” said our escort, shifting her shovel from one shoulder to the other.

I didn’t take her hand, simply looking at her and her minions, the Jury polling the reserve frantically.

“This is Krishna,” said the tall Goddess, after a moment of watching me stare at the offered hand like a snake.

I looked over to her for a long beat, then stepped past the woman and over to the short, curly haired guard that the Jury recognized from the Ultra Fight.

“This is Krishna,” I corrected, “Or at least this is the person who claimed to be Krishna last time. Did you really think I wouldn’t recognize you?”

Krishna straightened up just a bit, the slouch falling away and her demeanor taking a sharp turn towards the authoritative. She waved the imposter aside and offered her own hand.

“Sorry,” she said, not sounding terribly sorry, “Didn’t know who’d shown up until you came in the door. Freya plays me for most Regime negotiations, and all they had time to tell me was that a Fist was here. I figured it would be Fifth Fist.”

“At least it wasn’t Her this time,” put in Preventer, “Though I must confess you made an excellent footrest.”

I felt a twinge of disappointment at Preventer changing the subject off of the other Fists, but at least what she’d said was still contributing to our overall energy. A reminder that we’d seen their leader humbled was useful enough.

“I never got to thank your leader for that,” said Krishna, seemingly sincerely, “But he absolutely saved my life when he got Her to cut the show short. Every day since has been a gift, in my mind.”

“That’s uncommonly courteous of you,” I answered, “I’ll be sure to let Indulger know that you appreciate his magnanimity. He’ll pass it on to Her, no doubt.”

Krishna gave a wry smile at that last, as though I’d made a private joke.

“No doubt,” she said, then settled down in an armchair.

She gestured for us to do likewise, and Mario and Preventer did, but I remained standing, looming over her.

“So what are you here for?” she asked. “We managed to avoid conflict in the past, I’m hopeful that your agenda doesn’t entirely foreclose that possibility this time.”

I shook my head slightly.

“We’re here to ask what you’re here for,” I told her. “You are a long way from Redo.”

“True enough,” she said, chuckling, “True enough. There isn’t another Andy here for you to squabble over, I suppose.”

I managed to avoid glaring at Preventer at that reminder, but I could feel myself getting a little hot under the collar at the reminder of that idiotic bit of treachery.

It had taken a boat trip, a nuclear blast and a goddamn war to get me back the opportunity that Andy had represented. Preventer’s spite had very nearly destroyed the future of my reserve.

“Not as far as we know,” put in Preventer, when my fuming kept me from replying in a timely fashion, “But do let us know if you run across another. They are terribly convenient things, after all.”

“We’ve come here for the same reason everyone else has,” said Krishna, “We want to shelter in Her shadow, to ride out a time of instability in the only place it won’t touch.”

“A time of instability?” I asked, trying to figure out what she was referring to.

“The Company’s changed, the Union war is all but over and-“

“No!” shouted Mario, half rising from his chair.

I gave him a cutting glance.

“You hadn’t heard?” she asked.

“No,” I said, “We’ve been a bit out of touch.”

“Word is that the Council moved at last,” she said, “Zeus at their head, they’ve stormed old Europe, killed everyone and everything.”

“Rumors,” I said, dismissively.

“Rumors,” she agreed, “But the Company abandoning their responsibilities is no rumor, and neither is First Fist’s rampage. Things have come to a head, my gift assures me.”

Krishna’s gift was rumored to be Ultra Cleverness, or something similar, some kind of mental gift. I had my doubts.

Ultra intelligence was something that people brought up an awful lot, but I’d been around a long time and I’d never seen it proven. My bet was on some much more mundane gift, Ultra toughness or something, and a long running bluff.

The thought occurred, of course, that she could be fully human. It didn’t really matter, but the idea of the leader of the Pantheon’s Goddesses being am imposter was briefly amusing.

“Of course,” I said, “So you want to switch sides? Join up with the Regime?”

“Is it so surprising?” she asked. “That we’d go with the woman who controls the protein powder instead of going home to grub about over what farmers can be found? It isn’t like the Posture is hard to learn, and I’m sure we could find Sigils.”

“It makes a degree of sense,” I allowed, “But I have to ask myself if this is what you told Subtracter.”

She drew back at that, looking from one of us to the next.

“We know she came to negotiate,” I told her, “And it’s hard to square an attack on her with your lot looking to surrender.”

“An attack?” she echoed, disbelievingly, “On Subtracter?”

One of her guards burst into an involuntarily guffaw, stilling herself as Preventer shot her an angry glance.

“If you didn’t attack her… “ I began, but she interrupted before I could finish.

“You want to know what we told Subtracter?” she asked, then raised her voice.

“Hey Boss!” she called out, “Fourth Fist wants to talk to you.”

I turned, not fast enough, and she was there, a stride away from me. She must have came in by the same way that we did, flying just above the ground and so not making any noise.

Subtracter.

“It’s mutual,” she said, casually shoving me down into the seat I’d avoided sitting in up till now.