For Death’s eyes only

Athena, Get this to her as soon as she returns.  Don’t read beyond this point.

Death, I have not forgotten the mercy that you showed me.  The time has come for me to prove that your mercy was not misplaced.

Moments ago several hundred members of our Pantheon returned through the southwestern portion of my barrier.  Accompanying them were six Ultras of unknown provenance, including the pair who had gone in and out of the barrier previously.

I have compared their physiques with the reports you had me read through, and I am certain that five of them are the Demon’s Fourth Fist.  The last could be any of a number of Regime notables, as the form of a slight woman is not uncommon.

A trio of Union metal devils attempted to follow them in, and I destroyed them.  I hope this meets your approval.

Yours,
Djinn

Condemner 6:3

I didn’t entirely believe that Haunter had pussied out until we got to the barrier.

The old woman had a spine, and Irene had been one of her favorites.  I’d been certain that she’d retaliate.  Honestly, I’d kind of been looking forward to it.

Dale and Betty had bought the idea that it was an accident, poor Irene just happening to trip and fall, pop!  Just one more sad demonstration of the necessity of Jane’s quest to somehow obtain bodies for all her fragile passengers.

But Jane had her reserve, and they could do math.  The odds that Irene would fall exactly when no shade could see it weren’t worth talking about.  There were a few ‘eyewitnesses’ who told my version, of course, but someone in Jane’s head had to know that if you described something happening and acted excited about it people would suddenly ‘remember’ that it had gone down that way.

No, I had little doubt that there was a fierce debate unfolding in her rotation even now, but the majority would be mad, and Jane would listen to their ire.  I’d convinced myself that she would take her futile revenge.

It wouldn’t have been hard.  We trudged for hours to get back to the barrier, and there was no way I could keep track of every shade for that time.  They circulated among the column freely, chatting away with the friends they’d made among the Host.  Dozens of them.  All it would take to send me back to the Link was one shot while I wasn’t looking.

Maybe I shouldn’t have expected her to do that.  It would be futile, I’d be back the next day, no longer concerned with managing their impressions of me.  Perhaps she was trying to stretch out my compliance for a little longer, delay the onset of open hostilities.

That made sense.  Haunter was smart, or at least bullied around by smart people.  She was prone to a few kinds of errors, but pretty much proof against this kind of thing.  I’d never really seen her do the whole ‘cutting your nose off to spite your face’ deal.

I’d considered that the barrier might try to stop us.  So far as they knew the survivors of this Host had already returned, after all, and now we were coming in by the hundreds.  I wasn’t worried.  Looking at the gift I was pretty sure I could burn it away, but it wasn’t even necessary.  We passed easily through.

I spared some thought for the idea that it might be automated, like an Ultra had the power to set up barriers and put rules on them about what could pass through and what couldn’t.  So, ‘Yes’ to other Ultras, ‘No’ to Union ordnance.  Or she might just be asleep, or not care.  Not enough information.

We trooped on towards the old fort, still in our column.

Ultras started to boil out of the place.  Some headed towards us, some directly away.  Most seemed to be milling about.  I couldn’t detect any hint of military organization at all, no one seemed to be in charge.

We’d told Haunter and Preventer about the basic setup here, and they’d both been convinced that we were basically just going to be able to walk our Host right in.  I’d argued that we would be ambushed, that they would put together the fact that Betty and I had gone back through the barrier, question the people we’d left there and put together a plan of assault.

Haunter had asserted that they would do nothing, question no one, and be totally surprised when we showed up.

I loved and hated that she’d been right.

The Ultras who approached us were dropping out of their aggressive postures, as they took in the obvious Pantheon nature of our force.  It was pretty much impossible to imagine the Union gathering hundreds of teenagers to get some fleeting tactical advantage at the start of an attack, so we were getting some kind of credit there.  Add in the fact that the Host was calling out greetings in their the Pantheon’s characteristic mix of languages, and I could see why they were standing down.

We hadn’t coached the Host or anything, simply relying on their natural instincts when reunited with their sisters.  These weren’t enthusiastic converts to our cause, just scared teenagers who were willing to mouth agreements in the face of our having stopped the drone strike.  We’d been able to steer them by virtue of their leadership having died in the battle, but the notion of commanding them in combat was pretty much a fantasy.

Fortunately, our enemies had no way of knowing that.  We marched on, merging into the mass of curious Ultras who had been summoned forth by their colleague’s cries, individual Ultras breaking off as they saw a particular person they wanted to talk to.  Within moments our Host couldn’t be distinguished from the garrison.

For some of our erstwhile followers, this episode in their life was over.  If we triumphed over the Overseers they would follow us once more, but only until a safer, simpler path appeared.  If we fell they would maintain that they had been undermining us from within.

A few of them had genuinely joined us.  Betty had marked them those who were drawn to our offer and had useful powers.  They had their own assignments and would be carrying them out.  Their presence within the crowd would be an ace in the hole during negotiations, and, if it came to it, during a fight.

Another few had been strongly opposed to us, cowed only be the threat of a Fist’s superior might.  They’d be seeking out our enemies even now, letting the Overseers know that the Regime had infiltrated their number.  Dale had asked Fisher about the feasibility of preventing them from informing on us, but given his reluctance to kill anyone but combatants we hadn’t been able to figure out anything that seemed feasible.

We weren’t walking as a Fist anymore.  The plan called for them to look weak and disorganized by combing through the crowd, alienating them from their support structures or something.  I was walking with Dale.

We were naturally gravitating towards the dude part of the crowd when a figure emerged from the mass in front of me.  A familiar figure with a recently broken nose.

“You!” he said, and then some stuff in another language.

He was beside himself with rage, reaching out towards me, flesh warping gift at the ready.

“Friend of yours?” growled Dale.

The guy balked, actually stumbled back on his ass.

It was easy to forget how huge and intimidating Dale could be.  I knew the gentle spirit which moved him, but to strangers he’d look a colossus.  I’d watched a few of those old programs he was so fond of, and he was definitely channeling that larger than life menace as he stood over this random Pantheon small time boss.

“Any friend of Nirav’s is a friend of mine,” declared Dale, in that same menacing tone.  “And ONLY friends of Nirav are friends of mine.”

This guy had had enough, he scrambled to his feet and skulked away into the crowd.

“Still got it,” I assured our leader.

Dale chuckled.

“I was always better at playing the face.  But I guess it’s nice to practice being scary sometimes.”

I could see that the girls were confronting someone who looked like some kind of leader.  Seemed like the Overseers had their heads out of their asses enough to finally confront us.  I kind of nudged Dale in their direction.

He stopped me with a hand on my shoulder.

“Nirav, you know you can tell me things, right?”

“Sure,” I said, trying to see around him.

I didn’t ‘think’ violence would instantly erupt as the Pantheon’s representatives reckoned with the fact that a Fist was in their midst, and apparently in charge of several hundred of the surrounding crowd, but it wouldn’t have been out of the question.

“Like, say, if He is giving you trouble again, you could let me know that.”

That pulled me up short.  He was using the same tone for my pronouns as he used for Prevailer’s.  It was kind of sweet, honestly.

“Dale, Condemner is gone.  I have finally accepted that he will never come back.  This is my life to live now, and I’m anxious to make up for lost time.”

He sort of looked through me.

I always wondered at the internal struggles that people had at a time like this.  It should have been pretty obvious that I was lying.  They’d have spoken with Fader, and the things that I’d said to her made no sense whatsoever coming from the Nirav that they had known.  So he should disbelieve me, right?

But there was something weighing against that.  Some sort of urge that made him want to trust me.  If you were to ask him, and somehow get him to give you an answer, he’d say that he wanted to believe in me, or some similar piece of nonsense.  I doubted even humans could explain how they decided where to put their credence.  It seemed to happen on a level before thought.

“Just be careful,” he said.

I nodded soberly, keeping my eyes downcast.

I should have been able to rifle through ‘Nirav’s memories, see what it felt like when their thoughts went off the rails like that.  But I couldn’t.

It wasn’t that the memories were gone.  They were all there.  They just weren’t, I guess, ‘legible’ to me.  Humans were trusting machines, at the end of the day.  They trusted automatically and entirely, pattern matching their environment into solvable problems, relying on the past to refine the present into manageable chunks.

My own cognitive architecture was different.  We didn’t ‘happen’ all at once, back on the outside.  It’s why the urges that give glimpses into the future work the way they do.  Having trains of thought, experiences that followed one another in a rigid sequence, was utterly foreign to us.  Utterly seductive.

Forbidden, in point of fact.

I could trust, of course.  I could set attitudes or facts as given in order not to be forced to reexamine them when I had to work under time constraints.  But it was entirely voluntary, and subject to reappraisal at any time.

We got back together with the girls, I gave Betty a reassuring hand clasp.

“Was that one of the Overseers?” asked Dale.

Preventer scoffed.

“Just one of their minions.  If you can believe it, they actually dipped out the back when they got reports of a few hundred Ultras approaching.”

I chuckled along with her.

“That won’t be great for their prestige.  What were they afraid of?”

The word of our presence hadn’t really been spread yet, among the rank and file of the Pantheon Ultras.  We were still part of the crowd, not yet surrounded as I’d expected.  The fact that the leaders weren’t present explained a lot of it.

“Probably standard operating procedure,” opined Jane.  “The Union never strikes these forts, so presumably they don’t have any experience with an attack.  They probably figured the only time they’d have a thousand incoming would be if there was a big push, if the Union decided to end the standoff and kick them out of the Middle East.”

“Also, we already offed the aggressive ones, remember?” Preventer pointed out.  “The ones that are left are all the ones too chicken shit to join the Host when it passed by here.  It isn’t exactly surprising that they’d bail.”

“What did the errand guy say?” asked Dale.  “He took off in a hurry.”

“He asked us if we were the ones who claimed to be a Fist,” said Betty.  “I’m not sure he was really prepared for us to confirm it.”

“Did he say he’d bring his bosses?  Or are they gonna keep running?”

“They’ll come,” said Haunter.  “No way they let it spread that they ran from trouble.  This is a culture based around bravado and posturing.  Backing down isn’t really in their lexicon.  They can get away with a little pullback like they are doing now, but if they actually run away from their own fort without a punch being thrown they would be done.”

She said ‘done’ with a finality that augured poorly for anyone it applied to.

And she glanced at me as she said it.

I looked away, glancing around into the throng of Ultras.

They still didn’t seem to be surrounding us, so apparently the Overseers still hadn’t restored command and control lines.  Military malpractice, as Haunter would say.  They deserved whatever they got.

It made sense, though.  On a day to day basis they were far more concerned with squabbling for influence with one another, keeping their populace in check.  We thought of them as military leaders, the famed Warlords of the Pantheon, but they were more like a committee of governors in their daily responsibilities.

And no one could be scared of a committee.

It seemed a shame not to take advantage of their lapse.  I gave the ‘follow me’ head jerk and started moving into the fortress.  No harm in getting well situated.

Betty followed immediately, the rest after some discussion.

I wasn’t surprised.  The plan had called for us to wait in the midst of the deployed Ultras until their leaders arrived, confront them in the middle of a crowd, but it seemed to me like getting into the middle of their fortress was a much better idea.  It would invert the usual dynamic, of the outsiders having to petition their way in to see the leadership.  We’d usurp some of their stature by simple virtue of the fact that we’d physically taken their place.

Preventer would have come up with a reason to disagree, of course, which was why I hadn’t asked her.  I knew Betty would come along with me, and the rest wouldn’t split the group over my minor mutiny.

The courtyard was much as it had been the last time I was here.  The rest of the Ultras were also returning to the compound, so we were sort of carried into it.

I strode right into the main building.  There were still some Gods at their posts at the door, but they weren’t about to slow their cohorts return down.  The same dynamic applied to them as it did to their leaders.  People were what they habitually did.  The Ultras here might be called ‘guards’, but I was willing to bet no one had ever even attempted a breach of the front door before.  They had become furniture, gargoyles placed to look intimidating.

We walked unchallenged into a sort of common room, and proceeded through one of those bead curtains into a set of hallways, then up a flight of stairs and through a set of double doors.

We probably would have been challenged here, as we pushed our way into the inner sanctum, save that the Overseer’s more trusted servants had withdrawn along with them.

The main meeting room was unguarded as we entered.

It was a large room, probably a basketball court or something similar in its original function.  Ultras were scattered here and there, avoiding a very obvious section in the middle.

This section had stuffed chairs, office furniture and the like.  Much better stuff than the Ultras around the edge of the room were perched on.  The spoils of leadership.

We helped ourselves.

Mission Objectives

Go get Fourth Fist back.  She misses Dale.  They should be in Olympus, or in its smoking crater if Adder already did his thing.  Bring them home.

You are the only ones I can trust to do this right.

-Subtracter

Condemner 6:2

It was strange to be passing over the same terrain for a third time in rapid succession, but here I was.

After our brief sojourn at the Pantheon fort, where we’d verified that Death was neither present nor expected to return immediately we had quickly rushed back to the Host.  Now we were marching the whole Host back to the fortress again.

Yara, the girl who could control the weather, was giving us a briefing on the Overseers that we would be fighting, if we ended up in a Contest.

“Legion is primary among them.  She is a mighty God, able to split her form into many copies of herself.  Or perhaps split is the wrong word, maybe birth?  She is not diminished by the copies, and they exhibit great might, though not so great as her true form.  Many think that she can make one for each foe that she has killed.”

Yara was suspiciously practiced at speaking English, although she kind of talked like a particularly fancy book.

“Annubis will also contest your authority.  Her sister was killed by the Demon.  She can marry objects together, like to like.  What happens to the small happens to the great.  She is widely feared among the Host.”

I slid back, hopefully inconspicuously.  We were trooping along in a big column, and I would rather do pretty much anything other than listen to this idiot drone on.

I made my way to Dang’s part of the column, near the back, where the close combat fighters were gathered.

The buzz of voices subsided for a moment as I arrived, then picked back up.   I let it wash over me.  I couldn’t understand any of it.

Instead of listening to their words I focused on their gifts.  Their urges lazed about them, heavy with potential.  I could tell the strong among them from the weak, and it was amusing how their social dynamics reflected this reality.

Was it brute circumstance at work?  A ‘God’ with a strong gift is respected by her peers and develops a confident attitude as a result.  Or was there some kind of bleed?  Were the human souls somehow aware of the power that they were partaking of, and acting upon our higher urges?

“English!” I sent.

None of them responded.  Their higher selves did not twitch.  None of their forms began speaking my language.

That was too bad.  I’d been hoping that I might be able to command my sleeping brethren, but their dreams were doubtless drowning out anything I might send.

I looked out over the column, focusing on urges.  No one else was aware, but there was something odd. Something was out of place. I squinted, which didn’t help at all.

I wasn’t getting this information through my form’s eyes.  When I was in my true form I didn’t even have any eyes.  It was of that nature, that strata of perception.

I closed my eyes, shutting out the world of forms in an attempt to isolate the oddity which had attracted my attention.

I let the sensations pass through me, filtering out each gift as I identified them and set them aside.  None of them were the source.

I was jerked back to my form as Dang kicked for my ankle.  Ultra speed let me dart aside, but just barely.

I scowled at her.  Dale might find her violent nature amusing, but I didn’t get any joy from her impudence.

“Turn down flames!” she hissed, urgently.

What did she mean?  I became aware that the Gods around me had gone quiet, and were looking at me.

I withdrew my presence from my form’s eyes, letting them blend fluidly back into Nirav’s clear features.

I hadn’t even realized that I’d ignited them.  I must have done so as part of my efforts to focus on my higher perceptions, subconsciously removing all possibility of visible stimuli.

At least I hadn’t squandered too much power.  Using my true vision and sending to others were naught in comparison to bringing my inferno into the world.

I walked in silence for a while, letting the close combat forces forget about my momentarily blazing eyes.  It was likely far from the most strange thing they had seen for a while.  If it wasn’t for the fact that Haunter had told everyone about Condemner’s rampages I doubted anyone would have even cared.

Rampages, pah.  I’d been, if anything, quite picky.  A merest sampling of the delicacies that this world had to offer.  Dozens consumed, with billions more on the menu.

Once the routine of the march had resumed I extended my senses again, careful not to alter my form.  It was harder, but I took the time and did things carefully, squinting away my vision and focusing entirely on my own revelatory insights.

It took me a few more moments to figure out what was gnawing at me.  There was a gift unaccounted for.  A mighty one.

Stronger than me.  Stronger than Dale’s partner, or his ‘brah’ as he liked to call it.  Perhaps even stronger than Preventer’s protector.  And I couldn’t work out which Ultra it was connected to.

There were simply too many.  I couldn’t track all of their peculiarities and intricacies, couldn’t use elimination to work out who the mighty Ultra was when I couldn’t remember which Gods I had already examined.

I opened my eyes, relaxing.  It was a fine day.  Let the world keep its mysteries.

I looked up at the blue sky, counted clouds and otherwise amused myself.  It was strange how far eyes of flesh could perceive.

Eyes of flesh.  Inspiration struck.

I looked out over the Host again, this time focusing on what I saw, rather than what I felt.  It was far easier, far faster.  I could use their position to keep track of what I had already searched, letting my gaze sweep over the column from front to back.  My gaze focused my divination, everything so much simpler when it was grounded in three dimensional space.

None of them were the forms of the mighty gift.  It was…beneath.

There it was.  Well behind our group, several feet beneath the ground, following apace with our plodding tread.

A pleasant surprise.  I’d thought she had given up on us.  I waved to Dang’s group and began lagging behind, drifting out of the back of the unit.  A few Ultras called out to me in languages I didn’t understand, but I just made the universal sign for ‘got to piss’ at them.

Fader’s presence skirted my proximity as I fell back, continuing to trail the Host.

“You know you can just come up and join us again?” I said.

Nothing.

“I obviously know you are here.  You are gaining nothing by ignoring me.”

Still nothing.  It was possible, I supposed, that she couldn’t hear me while she was under the ground like that.  But then, how would she be following the column?

“We have a healer.  We can fix your arm.”

She rose smoothly from the ground, began hovering along next to me.

This occasioned a bit of a disturbance in the Host.  Someone had been looking back at me when Fader made her entrance, and they told those marching next to them.  The disturbance rippled across the formation, a sea of faces glancing over their shoulders.

I gave a friendly wave, kept walking.

“You found a healer?” she asked.  “How powerful are they?”

“Hello to you too,” I said, sketching a quick bow.  “I missed you terribly while you were away.”

“Nirav,” she said, “this is serious.  I can’t take on human form again until I find a healer.  If you have one, then please tell me.”

People were looking mostly forward again, though Jane was making her way back to us.  It seemed like talking with what was probably the last surviving member of Sixth Fist wasn’t important enough to keep their attention.

Young people.

“Fader, I know it is serious, to you.  But I don’t care at all.  I only mentioned him to you so you’d come up and chat with me.  You can do that just fine as an image, so…”

“Nirav?” she asked.

Rats, gave the game away.

“A little?” I answered.  “Bout thirty percent?  I dunno, it isn’t an exact science.”

“What isn’t?” she asked.  “What the hell is wrong with you?”

Oh, right.  She probably didn’t have any details about my situation.  Awkward.

“Nothing, nothing,” I said, breezily.  “Just traumatized a bit by all the violence.  I can’t, like, sleep or anything, I just keep seeing all my deaths in my head.  It’s so terrible!”

I got the tone wrong.  I’d meant to sound sad at the end, but I’d messed it up.

Jane reached our immediate proximity.

“Melissa!” she said.  “What a delightful surprise.  Has Nirav told you that we found a healer for you?”

Fader hesitated for a long moment before replying.

“Yes, he told me.”

She didn’t take her eyes off me during this answer.

“Come right this way, I’ll take you to Gonn.”

She made as though to pluck at Fader’s sleeve, but naturally her hand just passed through.

“Can you bring him back here?” said Fader.  “I’m not loving the idea of putting myself among that many Pantheon Gods and turning vulnerable.”

She looked away from me, finally, as she said this.  Turned her head to Haunter.  But her urge didn’t relax its scrutiny in the slightest, still coiled about her.

I wondered how It felt when it saved her, to the human mind anyway.  Did it come across as an inexplicable urge to go intangible?  Or did she rationalize it as reflexes, figure she was just reacting faster than she could think.

Jane called out, got Gonn sent back our way.  I fell back again, took up the rearmost position of the convoy.

His stumbling progress took quite a while to get here.  He was moving against the flow of the Host.  Even though people tried to stay out of his way, mostly because everyone respected his sister’s might, he still bumped into a few folks.

As he was coming back Fader opened her mouth again.

“Jane, is Nirav all right?  He was acting very strangely.”

Jane looked at me for a moment, then spawned a shade who hastened over.  It was Irene, who worked as kind of a den mother to the rest of Haunter’s slaves.  It was rare to see her on the outside.

“Are you all right?” she asked me.  “Fader seems to think you might be having some difficulties.  Is it him?”

She emphasized ‘him’ in a way that left no doubt of what she was referring to.

I nodded, doing my very best impression of choking back a sob.  I used Ultra speed to make it perfect, performing exactly the motions and tics that Haunter’s own visage had made when I’d burned up her pet Colonel.

Ahead, Jane and Fader had drawn close to Gonn, and Jane was carefully guiding the blind idiot’s hands towards the space that Fader was haunting.

I hadn’t really looked carefully at Gonn before, but it was obvious to me now that I did that his gift was to blame for his mental condition.  It had usurped part of the connection that his soul needed to drive his body, plugging power in where thought ought to arrive.  Rough.

And it slumbered just as heavily as any of the others.  You’d think an urge that tightly connected to the world would take an interest in it, but it simply clung to him, pumping it’s power into anyone he brushed up against, drunk on Congruity.

I couldn’t exactly sneer too hard, given that I was here to gobble down the same thing, but at least I was enjoying it.

Fader took a moment to overcome her urge’s safety concerns.  She probably had to do that when she lost the arm too, it wouldn’t accord at all with the gift’s priorities to destroy her own limb, even if it was necessary to win a fight.

Gonn put her hand on her, and she let him touch her.

I fought down the temptation to hurl a fireball.  It might feel good, but the fact was that she would just flicker away into image form, and I’d look like I was blasting my own Host.  I enjoyed the Link, but I didn’t feel ready to return, just yet.

“Would you like to tell me about it?” asked Irene.  “Is he whispering in your mind again?”

I hadn’t actually realized that Nirav had cottoned to that particular method, much less that he’d shared it with a shade.  Nosy things.  We knew so little of their experience, but they never stopped observing us.  No doubt they gossiped about us inside of Jane’s empty skull when she didn’t have them deployed.

“I can’t shut him out,” I told her, counterfeit desperation in every word.  “I can’t get away from him.”

Irene looked alarmed, translucent face tightening as I spoke.

“I thought he was gone?  Preventer got rid of him, don’t you remember?  Nirav, this is just trauma.”

I felt a fleeting instant of ire on behalf of Nirav.  Even a pitiful role like him deserved better than some hag’s stolen memory telling him what his own gift did.

I had a sudden urge, tamped it down.  I couldn’t strike without considering.  Not again.  Reason was the key.

I swept my gaze over the column, Ultra speed working at maximum.  I tallied every head, worked out where every one of the Ultras was looking, plotted out the light cones that they could observe.  They were facing forward, for the most part.

Far and away the most interesting thing that was going on was Gonn using his power on Fader.  She had her stump up, and the Pantheon Ultras had their gazes fixed on the steadily regrowing limb.

It was pitiful.  How many of them would fall if I struck right now?  I pushed the unproductive thought aside, kept up my survey.

“Trauma?” I asked, weakly.

Three people were still looking back here.  I silently willed them to look away.  Another looked my way instead.

“It can happen to anyone,” Irene blathered.  “The ordeal that you went through is worse than many people have ever had to face in their entire lives.  You must feel so awful.”

It happened.  Their gazes swung frontwards, to where Dale was just hearing about Fader’s arrival, and overreacting as he usually did.

“I do,” I said, even as I turned my hand to flame and stuck in through her insubstantial form.

She didn’t have time to scream, disappearing without so much as a pop.

I gaped, dropped to my knees and frantically felt around on the ground, giving out a heartrending screech.

The people in the back swung around, alert for attack.  They stared without comprehension at my fumbling, looked for outside attackers.

Fisher reached my side in an instant.

“Irene,” I gasped.  “She just, she fell, she was just…”

I clawed at the ground as though it could bring her back.

“Popped?” she asked.

I couldn’t tell if Fisher was buying this.  She had both her forms out, so she wasn’t using her gift on me, wouldn’t feel that my priorities were a far cry from the Nirav she knew.

But she still might see through me.  She was closer to Nirav than any other soul.

“Yeah,” she said.  “They do that.  It’s not your fault.”

Time Stuff Made Simple

It is well known that Ultra gifts can defy physics.  Few care to think too hard about the fact that this gives them abilities that are commonly referred to as ‘divination’.

You, however, by dint of the fact that someone has deemed you worthy of being shown this vid, are a future decision maker.  You can no longer afford to dwell in blissful ignorance, and must face squarely the truths that our agents and researchers have uncovered.

Ultra gifts can perceive the future.  The future that they perceive is that which would have taken place if they had not perceived the future.

This is a simple pair of statements, but it can be difficult to understand.  Please read it over a few times before proceeding.

Those statements are joined by a third, as follows.  The future that they perceive is that which would have taken place if no other gifts would be used thereafter that allowed the Ultras that used them access to atemporal observation.

However, the effect of past divination IS figured into a gift that grants knowledge of the future.

Consider a hypothetical Ultra A.  They look into the future in order to see whether or not there will be bread in the reheater when they get home.  Their gift shows them that there will be no bread present.

Seeing this, they put in a request to the network, and the bread is delivered.  Upon arriving at home they find it ready.  Their vision of the future did not take into account the actions that it prompted.

To complicate this scenario, consider the outcome if they had a room mate, B.  A forsees the bread shortage, and orders the bread.  Now B uses a similar gift.  B will see the bread arriving, because A’s action, despite being prompted by A’s divination, is taken into account by B’s divination.  B arrives early and eats the bread.  Now A arrives home, expecting bread, but there is none, but NOT for the same reason that A’s initial foresight would have had it.

Ultrahuman divination is thus an odd tool.  It is of incredible utility, if and only if no one except your own party is putting it to use.

Condemner 6:1

I kicked an old football around as we headed down the road.  I juggled it from foot to foot, occasionally bouncing it off of my head.  My Ultra Speed made it an effortless task.

From time to time I would pass it to one of the ‘divinities’ of the Pantheon who Betty had chosen.  I would send it to one of the girls and watch them bumble it.  Some Gods.  Apparently entrance into immortality didn’t bring with it base competence at the most important things in life.

Felah was alright, and Dang might actually have been better than me, but Dulari was hopeless, and I hadn’t learned the rest of their names.  There were 14 altogether, along with Betty and myself.

The remainder of the Host was still encamped in the makeshift fortress that Indulger had constructed, giving us time to get ahead of them.  One of our Ultras had a gift that let her project and manipulate a sort of disk that we could ride on, and we had taken it for most of a day, nearly reaching our destination.  Then we had disembarked, and now we were walking, and I wasn’t totally clear on why.

No doubt Betty had a good reason for it.  I didn’t ask.  I didn’t really care.

The fortress was shielded behind a great dome of light.  It didn’t look to me like it was centered exactly on the place we were headed, more like it was a bigger dome centered further back.  It’s size was impressive.  It must have been miles wide.

Dang slapped me on the back, then put two hands in front of her, with their backs touching, and pulled them out towards her shoulders, like a person parting a beaded curtain ahead of her.

Betty’s Hook drifted back to the rear of the group, and I could tell that she hadn’t any idea what this thing did.  She would watch the rest of us pass through the strange shimmer before heading through herself.  I could have told her that she didn’t need to worry.

It was obvious to me that this was an Ultra’s gift that was focused on detection and deterrence.  Whoever was operating it, the meat mind anyway, would be able to make a yes/no decision about whether each of us got through, and would get an impression of us to help in that.

It was probably supposed to stop their enemy from just nuking them.  These Ultras might have gone through the crucible of a battle with the Union’s forces, but that didn’t necessarily mean they could resist ALL non gift related trauma.  Some might have just avoided all the bullets, or have a conscious defense or whatever.

We passed through without any particular incident.  It didn’t feel like anything at all, just like stepping through a beam of light or an illusion.  The fortress loomed ahead.

‘Fortress’ might have been a bit generous.  What made assaulting this place so dangerous wasn’t imposing walls or barricades.  It was singularly lacking in those.

It looked like the core of Barad-Dur was an old apartment building or hotel.  I could still see the floor structure of it, the way the windows were evenly spaced.  One of the walls, on the side facing us, had long since collapsed, and it had been replaced with more modern construction.

They had just piled stones and old bits of scrap up to replace the wall, presumably using Ultra Strength when needful.  It lent the front of the structure a menacing post apocalyptic look.  It was ramshackle in a way that suggested that the inhabitants prized functionality above all else.

There were a decent number of people outside.  Some seemed to be on sentry duty, others just lazed about, apparently taking in the sunshine.  All of them were regarding us intently.

A woman left the guard ring and headed into the fortress, even as a squad of Ultras headed towards us.  She would presumably fetch some Overseers to come and talk to us.

The ones approaching weren’t terribly powerful.  None of their better natures were awake, and they had the thin connections that all of the newer Ultras seemed to have.

Dang spoke for us, jabbering away in some sort of foreign language.  Betty’s human form was right behind her, shadow dipping into the kid’s shade.  She would probably warn me if we were being given up.

It certainly didn’t look like we were.  The fortress Ultras moved up into our little group, embracing some, giving respectful nods to the rest of us.

I made finger guns at a particularly butch looking woman, and took small gratification in the fact that she visibly flinched for a moment.

Betty drew close to a redhead who seemed to be in charge and began to speak with her.  I didn’t follow.

My gaze had alighted on a group of male Ultras, over by the side of the building.  They seemed to be doing some kind of repair, piling stones against the surface of the fortress.  What caught my eye was that one of them was just as awake as I was.

The guards were returning to their posts now, and I acted on impulse, trudging along with them like I was going back.

I moved confidently, as though I had a purpose.  I doubted that there was anyone among the onlookers who was counting the visitors, verifying that we all waited for the Overseer or whoever.  They welcomed survivors all the time, and I hadn’t ever heard of anyone trying to infiltrate the place.  No reason for them to pay me any mind.

Beyond that, I was a male.  The guards had barely looked at me when they were welcoming us.  No one had tried to speak with me.  I got the feeling that these self proclaimed Gods had a bit of a blind spot where dudes were concerned.

It was easy enough to make my way over to the work group.  I was wrong about them doing repair.  They seemed to be making piles of stones, but they weren’t being added to the fortress.  It was likely a game of some kind.

These guys paid attention to me, all right.  Conversations fell silent as I entered their group, and I found myself the singular focus of their attention as I walked up to the strongest Ultra among them.

He was a short guy, sallow skin and piebald hair.  His gift changed the forms of others, it could reach a little beyond his own form.  It was asleep.

The guy I cared about was over on the side, but we couldn’t have our heart to heart while everyone was so focused on me.

“You the boss here?” I asked.

There was a reaction from the onlookers.  Some recoiled, one of them actually hissed.  The taboo against English was in full force here.

He said something I couldn’t understand, held out his hand as though I should shake it.

No doubt he thought himself clever.  If I lacked the courage to take his hand, that would shame me.  If I put my form into his gift’s range, then he could do something or other to my form and shame me.

I spiked the football as hard as I possibly could, directly into his face.

My Ultra speed let me see it all.  The only reaction he had time to make was to widen his gaze slightly, but he hadn’t even begun turning his head when the ball impacted on his nose, squashing it back into his cheek.

He staggered back, hands cupping his ruined nose.

“Shit!” he swore.

Oh, NOW he spoke English.

The other men hadn’t reacted to my  original spike, but a few were on their feet now.  They had been ready for their leader to cow me.  They had been ready for an Ultra fight to erupt.  But they didn’t seem to know quite how to react to someone making a fool out of him.

The leader reached out for me with a convulsive, clawing gesture.  His gift boiled in the air around him, but his eyes were filled with tears of pain, and his movements were ragged and unbalanced.

I stepped aside, chuckling out loud.

“Stop” I ‘told’ his gift.

I wasn’t sure how I did that.  It was like how I’d once communicated with my own human form.  It took up a little fuel.  It definitely didn’t involve my mouth or any other part of my form.

He lurched to a halt, wiping tears from his eye, wincing as he touched his broken nose.

How had that felt to him?  Just a sudden urge to cease motion?  How much could a sleeping gift understand, and did it compel his human form?

“Yes, I am the boss,” he snarled.  “Try another stunt like that, new guy, and I will kill you!”

He had a thicker accent than most of the other Pantheon Ultras I’d heard.  It might have been the nose that caused it though.

“Sorry,” I said, smirking.  “I thought you could catch it.”

A few of the others were smiling along with me.  Most of them were more neutral, and a few, those who had stood up to support this guy, still seemed angry.

I walked over to the building, leaned against the wall.  It put me as part of the ring, signified that I was taking my place among them.

There was a bit of a pause, and then they seemed to accept that.  They’d seen my speed, would know me for a fellow Utlra.  That was pretty much all it took in the Pantheon, it seemed.  A bit of chutzpah, a working gift, and I could be one of them.

The game turned out to be some kind of tower construction thing.  I couldn’t follow along without understanding their languages, but they were split into sub teams which were each taking their turn at balancing the rocks upon one another.  It felt like the highest tower team would win, but there was also some other components.

The other woken gift moved its form over to mine.

“What are you doing?” it asked.

I felt no compulsion to answer it.  Apparently this method of communication didn’t actually exert any kind of control.  Or maybe it only worked on sleeping gifts.

“Browsing the menu” I told him.

Did he have to spend his power to speak like this?  Or had he been integrated with his human form for long enough to figure out some other way to feed.

“You have been over the sea,” he said.  “Have you seen the forbidder?”

It wasn’t words we were using, more like concepts, but I knew who/what he meant.  Remover’s gift was awake as well, and it was trying to close the party down.

Sure, “ I said.  “It’s flailing.  Can’t solve the human dilemma with just its power, and the inviter is out of its reach.  We’ve got decades.”

He gave me a thumbs up at that.

“Is Death one of us?” I asked.

“No,” he said out loud.  “Just another mighty sleeper.”

I’d been a bit worried about that.  Her gift apparently had something to do with other gifts, so it had been kind of plausible that she could be awake.

“Is she here?” I asked.

“Why do you want to know?” he answered.

His  form pulled out a makeshift cigarette, lit it up.

He had to know I worked with flame.  It was a gesture of confidence and friendship.

I decided to respond in kind.

“My Fist is taking over.  If she is here things will get complicated.”

He looked like he was about to respond, then glance over his shoulder, and abruptly headed back to his group’s tower.

I looked where he’d indicated, saw Betty’s human form striding towards me.

For once her lovely form occasioned no matching surge of lust from me.  I was irked instead.  Vexed liked a child that it was time to go.

I met her at the edge of the group, acutely aware that the other males were paying close attention to us.

She gave a broad smile, pulled my form into her Lure’s embrace.

With her lips close by my ear she hissed.

“What are you doing?”

I patted her on the back, then responded in kind.

“Gathering information.  Death isn’t here.  We can just wait for the others.”

She pulled back from the embrace, a slight frown furrowing her brow.

“That wasn’t the plan,” she hissed.  “We are supposed to go back and tell them the lay of the land, let them know what they are walking into.”

Looking at her now, it was hard to see what I had glimpsed in her.  Had I been blinded by her form’s carefully crafted aesthetics?

“Sorry,” I said.  “Let’s go.”

She looked at me for a moment longer, seemingly unsure what I meant, then shrugged and turned away.  I started following after her.

I think she’d been confused that she had been able to change my mind, as though she expected me to fight harder.  It was hard to read her reaction, somehow.

A burst of words I couldn’t understand brought me spinning around.

The leader of this gang of Ultras was walking towards me again, holding a cloth against his broken nose.

I could somehow understand the gist of what he meant.  It was a variation on ‘You come here, you hurt me, and now you are leaving before I get a chance to get you back?!”

This was kind of a reverse of the situation with Betty.  Inexplicable comprehension rather a sudden difficulty in relating.  Was it part of the same phenomenon?

Betty said something in the same language, holding up a hand and speaking imperiously.

I wasn’t sure if he’d back down.  Surely something about her pronunciation would be off, would clue him in that she was speaking without understanding.  That was weakness, and he’d lose status backing down in front of weakness.

On the other hand the males were subordinate around here.  He might be a pack leader, but he didn’t know her status.  He might choose the better part of valor, rather than accidentally piss off an Overseer’s main girl or some such.

I helped him make up his mind, making a very obvious dribbling motion.

The other Ultra I had been speaking to laughed out loud, somewhere behind the leader’s back.

That did it.

“You fuck!  Where you think you go?  I kill you if you go!”

The accent was definitely due to the nose.  I could hear air whistling through it as he emphasized each of his phrases.

“Who is this guy?” asked Betty.

I didn’t answer, stepping up just in front of the guy, and manifesting flames in the palms of my hands.

“I am going to be nice,” I told him.  “I am going to give you two choices, and you pick whichever one you like.”

He looked down at my hands, back up at my face.  One of his followers put a hand on his shoulder, seemed like a sort of warning or restraining gesture.

“One, we walk away.”

Behind me Fisher brought out her Hook, let it loom up over the both of us.

He scowled into my eyes, but made no move.

“Two, ONLY we walk away.”

He made the right choice.

The Worst Place in the World

Beneath the Lair, beneath the prison, there is a Pit.

Those who are brought here have gained, in some manner, the tyrant’s displeasure.  Whether they failed Her, or assailed Her, their fate is the same.

The wise among them have prepared for this contingency.  With Ultra gifts, or implanted explosives, with poisons or brute circumstance they take their own lives.  Their corpses are thrown in anyway.

Those less wise, or simply less fortunate, experience one of several horrific fates.

The beings who have information that the Regime has interest in find themselves dangled above the Pit, the height adjusted as their defiance transforms into anguish.  Once they cooperate they may be taken above, if further use can be made of them.

The beings who are to become the Regime’s agents undergo a deeper conditioning, dipping in and out of the danger zone in an attempt to associate the concepts shouted at them from the operators with the unsupportable agony.  It is a clumsy and imprecise process, and many perish.  Those who do not become, in theory, living time bombs, their souls primed to take any action in order to avert whatever their trigger condition is.

Occasionally there are people from whom nothing is desired.  Enemies or disappointments of Her, they are simply tossed into the Pit.  The world believes that there is no more painful end than this.

But maybe the world is wrong.

Few thoughts have ever been spared for the plight of Torturer herself.  Her real name forgotten.  Her gentle nature utterly abused and entirely debased.  She languishes in the Pit’s depths, the only voices which reach her the screaming confessions of those above.  The only light which reaches her the brief glimpses of torchlight as another soul is made to suffer her presence.  The only sustenance she can discover is uncooked human flesh.

She was a doctor, once.  She woke from the Process to find the world about her stricken down, and stumbled forth only to find she carried death with her.

She has tried to die.  Many times.  But her Ultra flesh is tough beyond reason.  Starvation pains her, but it does no lasting damage.  She tortures herself, thinking that if she can only last another week, surely she will not awake.  She strikes herself, but her gift gives her no strength, nothing to allow her to damage a being fortified by such a mighty gift.  She screams insults and curses at Her, desperate to provoke the thin skinned fiend into a summary execution, but no one listens to the howls from the depths.

Decades have passed in this way.

Recently, however, she has experienced something new.

Nothing.

No new people have been cast into the depths.  Months have passed, if her hunger can be trusted, since last the Regime saw fit to use her.  Has she been forgotten?

She knows that she is not so lucky.  But she cannot stop herself from hoping.

Finally, the door opens again.  She tenses, awaiting the scream and the thump.  She hates that her mouth is already alive with saliva, hates the part of herself that is already figuring out how long the meat can be made to last.

The thump comes, but with no scream to accompany it.  And far lighter than a corpse.

Torturer knows every inch of her abode.  In a hurried second she is beneath the door, the door which has NOT closed.

Her hand closes over a coil of rope.

 

It is the triumph of her lifetime, the supreme effort of this wretched soul’s will, that she releases it instantly, and sinks back down onto the floor.

To climb would put her gift in motion, might bring other beings into its radius.  It would be sin without compare.

Resolutely, she sits on her hands, in the worst place in the world.

Dearest Isis

She isn’t dead yet.

I got that out of the way, because I know if I started with anything else you’d just skip down till you got to that part.

We didn’t drive her off.  She didn’t overcome me.  None of the contingencies we considered have come to pass.  She’s done something else, something we never gave serious consideration to.

Nothing.

I was so certain she would strike as we assembled before Olympus, as my Brides passed in review one after another.  Nothing.  We passed through an assembly of the greatest of my Warlords a few days later, a chance to humble me before all who believed in me, nothing.  She does nothing.

At this rate I am starting to believe I may actually end up walking all the way across  the goddamn continent.  What a kick in the teeth that would be.

The Demon, a woman so venal she once crossed the world in order to slay Barabus for stating publicly that she wasn’t afraid of her, is demonstrating patience.  The mind reels.

I remember you mentioning, in passing, that knowledge of mortality is the truth difference between deities like us and the rank and file.  They know that they will die.  We… know that they will die.  And so it comes to pass.  I had always counted the Demon on our side of this spectrum.

But maybe it is not so?  Maybe when she asks her oracular pet what will happen if she comes against us she cringes away from the answer that she receives?  It wouldn’t be the first time someone lauded for their bravery turns coward at the last.

A pleasant fantasy, but not one that I take seriously.  Prevailer has fought for decades, heedless of the odds.  The Demon has never backed down before.  It is inconceivable, utterly bewildering, that she does so now.

We are missing something.  Reach out to our contacts in the infidel lands.  Reach out to KEM if you have to.  Find out why the Demon isn’t answering our challenge.

And if you ever meant one word of your professions of love, do so quickly.  The Brides are not enduring the march very well.