Strongboat 1:5

The fight on the deck was about to resume when Twister gave a horrific shriek.

Ordinarily a scream wouldn’t have been sufficient to delay this confrontation, but Death’s minions knew what this signified.  The hooks in their souls had gone slightly slack, their master was enjoying this moment.  They hung back a second as their battle lust dimmed.

“Our link…I can’t…”

Blinder slumped to her knees, gasping incoherently.  Tears streamed unheeded from the corner of her eyes as she sought in vain for the forms of her Fist.  It felt like a terrible dream, the senses that she’d grown accustomed to over decades suddenly stripped from her.

“You…Marching…Towards…Die!” said Gorgon, who knew a little English.

“Get up, get up,” muttered the Lure, manifesting alongside Blinder and dragging her to her feet.  “If you let them see we are fucked!”

Haunter’s greatest fear was that the Pantheon Ultras would charge while something was wrong with Sixth Fist.  They didn’t, however, seeming content to stand and wait.  Whatever was going on with Blinder and Twister, they didn’t seem to be worried that it would end soon.

“What’s wrong?” asked Indulger, not taking his eyes off of the enemy.  “Are you ok?”

He said it with a genuine concern that no one else could have summoned up, in that moment.  His was a kind soul, and he responded to Blinder’s unreasoning panic with calm reassurance.

“All…Die!  Forever!” said Gorgon, thumping her fists together.

She wasn’t stalling for no reason.  She knew the longer this dragged out the better the odds that Banshee would finish off the rest of the Regime down below and come up to take her enemies from behind.

Gorgon didn’t have a great opinion of Banshee’s bunch.  As far as she was concerned the best Ultras had followed her.  But Banshee was only up against four Fist members, none of them anywhere near as fierce as the ones who’d shown up on deck.  It seemed like she ought to be done with that before too long.

Gorgon’s knowledge of Adder was hazy, in her mind he was some kind of support Ultra or something.  She omitted him from her battle calculations entirely.

“Jane, Dale,” said Blinder.  “Our Link is broken.  We aren’t a Fist anymore.  I don’t know how they did it, but we can actually die in this fight.”

She was breathing heavily, but the mindless frenzy of a moment ago had passed.  She stood under her own power and faced down the Pantheon.

“Poor…White…Girl…” grated Gorgon.  “No…Continues!”

Her posse gave a raucous chuckle, even as Death spurred them to battle once again.

They rushed forward as one.

The Regime forces shrank back, fighting defensively, their minds still grappling with the fact that their enemy had a countermeasure for the Link.

The fat Ultra grappled with Twister, the spines sinking into her body without dealing any lasting damage.  She was far weaker than her Regime foe, but Twister’s damaged arm and general distracted state allowed her to hold the clinch, keeping Twister from saving her comrades.

The Ultra who controlled her density faced the Hook, and their fight was also fairly even.  It used its longer limbs to keep her away, and with her body so solid and heavy she was unable to close.  Fisher was still keeping the Lure by Blinder, so her Hook didn’t have the strength or speed to do more than evade her antagonist.

The warping Ultra set upon Haunter, passing undeterred through a wave of bullets and striking several heavy blows to Jane’s upper torso.  Each one destroyed a shade, but had no other obvious effect.  Haunter’s retaliation simply caused her to skip in space, each punch and shot only serving to better position her to strike back.  She kept at it, striking again and again, unsure what else to do.

Gorgon swept down upon Blinder.

Blinder, with her ability to steal her opponent’s vision mostly parried by Death’s gift, could only retaliate with another of her beam attacks.  She released her collected energy in a shining bar.  It flashed between them, far faster than Gorgon could even imagine dodging.

Any onlooker would have had to avert their gaze.  The shining bar that connected Blinder’s hands and Gorgon’s chest burned more brightly than the sun at midday.  Even the nearby warriors who were not its target unconsciously shifted their battles away from it.

Gorgon took a step forward.

This wasn’t a case of her being incredibly tough.  In truth, Gorgon’s durability was at the high end of Ultra Toughness One.  Nothing exceptional.  It was just that Blinder’s beams weren’t, at the best of times, all that damaging to another Ultra who had any Ultra Toughness.  Her Fist relied on Charger and Twister to handle those kind of enemies.

The scales on Gorgon’s chest were glowing hot, burning the flesh beneath, but she walked forward anyway.

One step, Two steps.

Blinder tried to back away as Gorgon reached her, then toppled to the ground, a victim of her paralyzing field.  The laser died away as she started to frantically suck in energy for another pulse.  It wasn’t going to be in time.

Gorgon brought her fists down in a massive arc, starting from above her head.  She intended to smash her paralyzed enemy’s torso into paste, or crush her through the deck.  She wasn’t picky.  She could have done it, but stalled at the last second and changed it into a grabbing attempt.  Death wanted Blinder’s gift, badly.

To her amazement, Blinder slid out of the way.  To her shrouded eyes it seemed like the glow of Blinder’s gift simply moved laterally away, despite the impossibility of her body actually propelling her anywhere.

Only when she stopped to take a second look did she see the faint sign of Indulger, his gift nearly invisible to Death while he was far from land.  He had grabbed Blinder as she fell and dragged her away from Gorgon’s blind and groping swipes, taking care to stay out of the range of her paralysis aura.

Meanwhile, Twister had finally worked out a way to harm the fleshy Pantheon soldier who was holding her down.  She worked her functioning arm around her own back, then up her spine and into her enemy’s face.

The Pantheon Ultra, unable to see her enemy’s limbs, had no way to avoid Twister’s plan, even if she could have guessed what it was.  Her gift allowed her flesh to flow like clay around the impact of an enemy’s strikes, but didn’t allow for more exotic body transformations.  When Twister shoved her fingers up her nose and mouth she began to gag and strangle.

Fisher ran out of room to retreat from the dense Ultra, the back of her Hook nearly sliding into Gorgon’s paralyzing field.  She pulled the Hook through her shadow, manifesting it behind the Ultra who had been cornering her.  She sprang at her enemy’s back, finally submerging the Lure and striking with full power.

Her opponent, however, had seen the blur that was her enemy’s gift slide around enough times to have some idea of how fast Fisher could move.  As soon as Fisher stopped registering in front of her she turned her density all the way down, and leapt high into the air.

The tackling Hook passed harmlessly under her.

Haunter finally worked out a way to fight the warping Ultra, calling out a rhythm that allowed her shades to keep their target constantly transitioning, never letting it solidify long enough to land a strike on Jane.

Mortal troops would have run out of ammo in the first few moments of a plan like this, but Jane simply dipped her men into and out of the reserve as fast as they ran out of bullets.  She could keep this up indefinitely.

Gorgon lunged at Indulger, who blocked with his hammer.  It bent beneath her power, and she easily reached past his guard and seized him.

She could have tossed him overboard to Death, but Gorgon was lost to anger.  Her prize had been pulled away from her by this weakling?  His gift was barely visible to Death’s sight, and he had dared to confront her when Blinder was finally in her grasp?

“Fucker!” she said, an English word she knew very well.  She threw him down, then stomped down on his head and popped it like a zit.

Death’s gift twisted in her mind, but she pushed it back, reasoning that no one with a gift so weak could possibly have been part of a Fist.  He must have been some other Ultra, just some random servant that they brought along.

She didn’t give Death long to consider that, and immediately moved towards where Blinder lay.

But Indulger’s sacrifice was not in vain.  The seconds he had bought had been time enough.  Fader rose from the deck before Gorgon.

Gorgon didn’t know who it was that was suddenly before her.  All she knew was that this was a mighty gift, perhaps the strongest she’d ever sensed, and it was fully inside of her paralyzing aura.  She threw out her arms to grab the enemy, and was perplexed when they hit nothing but air.

Fader, for her part, was shaking.  She had started floating up here the instant that she felt that the Link was gone, and still she had only barely been in time to obstruct this creature.  She stood before Gorgon in image form, considering.

“What…you?” asked Gorgon, sweeping another arm uselessly through Fader.  Prevailer herself had failed to harm Fader when she wasn’t material.  No form could touch her unless she made herself real again.

“Angry,” said Fader.  She put her left hand out, superimposing it through Gorgon’s head.  She bit her lip, anticipating the pain.

“Wh-“ began Gorgon, and then she was dead.

Fader had solidified her hand inside of her head, colliding both forms in a way that should never have been possible.  She choked back a scream as her hand was amputated, her ordinary human flesh utterly destroyed as it was forced into the same space as Gorgon’s Ultra Tough form.

Fortunately for Fader, Gorgon’s brain wasn’t as tough as the outside of her body, and suffered fatal damage in the process of whatever reality did to resolve the paradox of both objects existing in the same place.  Fader had tried this on Pursuer once, way back in the day, and had simply lost her limb without harming her foe.

With the death of their leader, the tide turned against the Pantheon.

The fat one was choked out by Twister, her gift unable to protect her from the absence of oxygen.

The dense one couldn’t cope with the Hook once Fisher had put all of her power into it.  She was forced to go totally defensive, making her form so tough and immobile that she resembled a statue of herself more than an active combatant.  Fisher booted her over the side.

The warping Ultra, perceiving how the battle was trending, made her getaway.  No one on deck had any way to harm her as she blinked off.

On the shore Death brooded, drywashing her hands as she felt her pawns fall one by one.

Useless, the lot of them.  She didn’t even know why she bothered.

She took hold of the hook that she’d set in the warper’s mind and yanked, pulling her gift out of her.  She growled with disappointement.

It was a weak thing, inferior in most regards to her current mobility power.  She let it go.

“Moses,” she said.  “I think it is time for us to get our hands dirty.”

Moses groveled, throwing her face to the ground and praying that Death’s attention would be pulled away by something else.  Her dread of her Mistress was such that she barely cared what that something else might be, so long as it would divert Death’s gaze for a moment.

“That means make the ocean a path, once again.  I wish to come before our prey in person.”

Moses, shaking with terror, stretched a hand out towards the surface of the water.  She had nearly reached it when Blinder’s attack struck.

Blinder, on the deck of the Strongboat, utterly paralyzed, had little to do but contemplate the readings of her gift.  Even as Fader had confronted Gorgon she had been analyzing the light, bringing this or that portion to her eyes as she desperately tried to figure out where their assailants had come from.

When she found the two figures standing on the African shore, she knew that she had found the attack’s origin.  She had begun absorbing light, preparing another blast.

Death sensed the oncoming attack before it struck.  Blinder’s rays didn’t actually move at the speed of light.  They were fast, but not that fast.  She had time to summon up a gift to defend herself.

Death was currently Ultra Tough Two, and didn’t know of any projectile that could harm her, but she hadn’t reached her current exalted state by taking chances.  Even as Blinder’s beam crossed the ocean Death was summoning up a swirling vortex in front of herself.  She wasn’t certain that a shield of destructive energy would work against a formless attack, but she didn’t have any time to think of anything else.

The beam slammed into Moses.

Moses, for all of her gift’s undeniable power and flexibility, didn’t have any unconscious defenses.  The only way that her gift could ward away danger was for her to form a sea about her like a shield, and use her control over objects touching it to redirect incoming attacks.  In the absence of water to shield her Moses had no way to resist Blinder’s ray.

She cooked, giving voice a burbling scream as her she fried in the golden beam.  She tried to topple into the water, desperately intent on warping herself back to treatment, but she was dead in an instant, and only her melting corpse kissed the surf.

Death reeled, her gift taxed momentarily as she absorbed Moses’s power.

It was an exotic power, an odd and foreign gift, very different from most of those she had stolen over the years.  It would take time to learn how to use it fully.

Another beam shot out from the Strongboat, this one faltering uselessly on encountering her shield.

Death stared, considering her next action.  There were still, presumably, at least nine Fist members on that boat, as well as Adder.  She might be able to win that fight, but she wasn’t confident.  It wasn’t a risk worth taking.

She had achieved something momentous this day, she had broken the Link.  Prevailer’s deathless soldiers were mortal once again.  It would be ridiculous to risk her life in the midst of such a triumph.

She reached out, mirroring Moses’s dying gesture, and touched her hand to the sea.

Her estimate of Moses’s gift’s degree of complexity hadn’t been off.  She could barely understand all of the things she could do with it.  But what she wanted to do was simple enough.

She sought out the knot of the gift that was snared around the Strongboat, replaying it over and over through the same stretch of water.  She twisted it, turned it violently north.

Let the Union deal with this broken Fist, at least until she could master this new gift well enough to get reinforcements.

In Council

My fellow Divinities, I know it is rare for me to put forward a motion.  I am more comfortable in my position as administrator, far from the spotlight.

Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon me to speak.

We have been handed a gift by Providence.  It would be churlish indeed to allow it to pass idly by.  If you will it, if you permit it, then I shall embody the limb with which we reach out and seize it.

I believe, wholeheartedly, in this ‘Dragon’s’ information.  I believe that the Regime has fatally erred, that the Demon has, at long last, made a mistake.  She is sending her best away from her protection, a meal from which we cannot turn away.

I am prepared to do the work.  I shall destroy these Fists of our infernal foe.  I require of the Council only one thing.  A dispensation, if you will.

Let me take from the Army of Sunset an Ultra of my choosing.  Moses.  Let me put our servant to work.

I know what I am asking.  Even among the Thousand, she stands out.  Her gift is mighty, and versatile.  It is strategically significant, battleplans are built around it.

But it is not irreplaceable.  The Army has six others of similar capacity.  Her loss would be felt, but not fatal.

It does not escape me that certain Council members believe that I have aims other than service to our mighty Pantheon.  Vote in my favor, you skeptics, and I risk my life in battle with our foes.  You rid yourself of the one you believe to be a traitor, or you see the armies of your enemy decimated.

Our labors have occasionally been likened to those of a farmer.  We strike the world so that it will rise and fall as we will it.  Hard work, and difficult.  Always we strive.  Always we sow.

But not this time.

Give Moses to Death, and we shall reap.

Strongboat 1:4

Banshee and the four Ultras at her heels swept into the hold of the Strongboat.

No surge of water followed them in.  Moses’s power still held the sea in thrall.  They clambered into the outer hull of the Regime vessel bone dry.

It was a long thin room.  There were doors at either end, one heading along the ship’s direction, the other continuing deeper into the vessel.  The room served no immediately apparent purpose.

The Pantheon Ultras had no way of knowing it, but this was due to the haphazard and slipshod nature of the vessel’s agglomeration.  The Strongboat was more like many boats welded together, and they had forced their way into one of the outermost and least used hulls.

Banshee blinked as vision returned to her, holding up a hand to bring the others to a halt.  She wasn’t sure why the Regime Ultras gift had stopped affecting them, but it certainly made it easier to navigate.

She considered erasing a hole in the next wall, and simply continuing directly towards the Strongboat’s core, but ultimately decided to use the passages.  She didn’t trust Moses, and falling into a space between hulls would leave them in her influence again.

The group headed towards the door that led deeper into the boat, even as the sounds of fighting echoed down from up above.  They paid it little mind.  Let their comrades bring Death her offerings, they had bigger game.

Banshee had her own friends in the higher ranks.  She was Named, after all.  She knew the rationale that Death had used to justify this strike.  One of the Inner Circle was on board.

The Ultras who had followed her instead of Gorgon were those who she’d shared this knowledge with.  They’d clustered together while crossing the sea, and even blindness hadn’t split them apart.  Their motive was simple.  Everyone involved in taking down an Inner Circle member would be Named.  Banshee might even be made a warlord.

As they neared the door it swung open, and one of Haunter’s shades dashed into the hold.

It was obvious that he hadn’t expected to find enemies there, he hadn’t even paused to look ahead.  He didn’t get the time to make up for his mistake.

The Ultra nearest the door, Zoe, simply stepped forward and slammed her fist, coated in her characteristic green energy, through the translucent shape. It popped like a soap bubble.  She didn’t even break stride, peering into the next hold.

The inhabitants of this room, some sort of gaming chamber, had clearly seen their fellow’s destruction.  They shrank from the door like it was the mouth of Hell.

Zoe led them into the room, Banshee dissolving the door away as they stepped past it.  Their opposition was pitiful.

A pair of Knights shuddered in fear, holding their scythes up more like talismans than weapons.  A trio of armed shades sheltered behind them, pointing guns at the new arrivals.

Banshee understood English, but didn’t speak it.  She thumped Esha on the shoulder.  Esha had come from the Regime.

“Where are your masters?” asked Esha, “The Fists you serve?”

One of the Knights seemed like he was about to speak, but whatever he was going to say was cut off in a burst of gunfire.

None of the Ultras even flinched as the shades opened fired at point blank range.  Guns hadn’t stopped them on the water, and they weren’t about to now.

Bullets that neared Banshee simply disintegrated, while a shield of a strange green energy flared into being around Zoe with each impact.  Esha’s body sprouted holes in front of each bullet, closing up again after they had gone through.

Neither of the two who brought up the rear had such flashy defenses.  The projectiles simply bounced off of their iron hard flesh.  Marta and Lana were bruisers, and it would take more than guns to slow them down.

Zoe, Marta and Lana advanced into the fusillade, blithely unconcerned about the impacts.  The two Knights stepped forward to meet them.

Marta was overly cocky, the mere idea that a human could harm her by swinging a stick at her angered her.  She hadn’t paid any attention to Esha’s stories of the Regime, and of its Knights.  She didn’t bother to dodge, stepping directly into the swing and reaching out to pull off the human’s stupid skull mask.

The blade sank into her breast like a lightsaber.  Refiner’s blessing proving far stronger than her enhanced endurance.  She toppled to the ground still disbelieving, holding the scythe to her like a lover.

Lana made no such error, stepping back as the cumbersome scythe swung back and forth.  On the second pass she caught the blade, and yanked it out of the Knight’s hands.

One of the ghosts made a run for a door, only to be popped by a blast from Zoe’s energy.  The others kept firing, but things were over very quickly for the humans.

Banshee kept the one who killed Marta, the one who had looked like he was going to talk, alive.  She disintegrated his robe and mask, grabbed his arm and wrenched it back.

“Your leaders, where?” asked Esha.

The Knight wasn’t in any serious pain from the angry woman twisting his arm.  Banshee didn’t have Ultra strength.  It was fear, not anguish, which loosened his tongue.

“Go through that door, then turn right and you will get to Adder’s sickroom.  That’s where they will be, I swear!”

Esha translated this for the others, and Banshee let go with a satisfied grunt.  The Knight barely had time to begin composing himself before Lana kicked his head off.  She and Marta had been close.

Banshee dissolved a hole in the wall next to the door this time, and they practically pounced through it.

The room beyond was clearly an engine room of some kind, with machinery churning away in the middle, extending down into the floor.  Banshee and her crew barely noticed it, making directly for the door to the right.

This was a serious door.  It looked like something that would be more at home on a vault than a ship.  Banshee dissolved it anyway, reducing it to nothingness with an exercise of her gift.

Inside waited the Regime’s Ultras.

Condemner and Consumer crouched behind a small barricade, seemingly purpose built for the task.  Adder waited between them, standing upright.  Preventer stood in front of their line, one hand raised towards the intruders.

“That’s far enough, ladies,” she said.  “I don’t know how you managed to fuck with Sixth Fist’s Link, but whatever it is won’t let you hurt me.  I have Ultra Toughness Three, understand?  Nothing but Her can kill me.”

Banshee had read the briefings, she knew that the tiny figure before her was speaking the truth.  She didn’t care.  She gestured Lana forward.

Lana had also read the briefings.  As Preventer stepped up in response she didn’t waste any energy on punching an invincible woman.  She simply grabbed on to Preventer’s shoulders and tried to shove her aside.

“Nuh-Uh,” said Preventer.

She didn’t move a muscle.  She’d slipped barriers out of her flesh, hidden beneath her shirt, in the moment that Lana had grabbed her.  They stopped her torso from moving, and her invulnerability kept the pressure on her upper body from bending her.

Lana grunted with concern, tried to pull her hands back, but Preventer had already grabbed onto them.

She struggled in silence for a moment, straining with everything she had to get this miniature pest off of her.  It accomplished absolutely nothing.

“The mighty Pantheon,” said Adder gently.  “How She would tremble to see you ALMOST manage to walk through a door.”

Banshee held up a hand as Zoe moved forward, looking like she was going to try and scramble by the two.  It was obvious that Preventer would just grab onto her as well, turning this whole assassination into an idiotic farce.

She’d had enough of this buffoonery.  She put forth her gift, focusing it on the walls on either side of the door where Lana and Preventer were grappling.

Banshee’s gift was incredibly powerful, though simple.  She could cause any matter that wasn’t part of an ensouled form to dissipate, to vanish away.  It wasn’t very long ranged, and it couldn’t destroy living flesh like Remover’s gift could, but there was no ray to dodge, no delay at all.  She simply wished things gone, and they were unmade.

Which made it all the more baffling when the walls stubbornly refused to vanish.

Banshee’s gift was mighty.  It had earned her a Name.  It wasn’t giving her any feedback or resistance.  The walls should be gone.  Instead they were just … rippling a little?

In an instant, she realized what was happening.  The Fists weren’t the only Regime Ultras that she had searched for influence on.  This was Adder’s hand at work.

Without moving, without showing any sign of strain, from twice the distance that she was, from his goddamn deathbed, Adder was undoing her work.  As fast as she deleted the walls he recreated them.

It was a humbling show of power.  Somewhere in the back of her mind Banshee heard the woman that she had once been screaming.

But Death’s hook drove her forwards, along with her own ambitions.  Retreat was unthinkable, whatever this servant of the Demon’s powers were.

“Kill them,” she told Zoe and Esha.  Both moved forward as one.

Banshee kept trying to dissolve the walls, stubbornly pitting her gift against Adder’s.  She knew he had supplied a nation for years.  She had no illusions that he could run out of power or anything, she simply wanted to keep him from conjuring anything to deal with her agents.

Esha stepped ‘through’ the struggling pair.  Her body contorted and ran in rivers of flesh about them, always maintaining a slight distance from the pair.  She didn’t break stride, moving like a hologram through the struggling duo.

Esha was untouchable, save for when she willed it.  Her form would contort and writhe to avoid anything she didn’t expressly permit.

The tall dark-skinned man, the one from Fourth Fist, stood up from behind his barricade and made a motion like he was pitching a ball.  Fire appeared and sailed through Esha’s torso, passing through the gap without making impact.

Banshee actually barked a laugh at that.  THIS was Condemner’s power?  The flame that reports pictured as an inescapable inferno?

Zoe, meanwhile, was pushing her way past where Marta and Preventer were filling the door.  Her energy field sufficed to ward off Preventer’s grasp.

Banshee took a step nearer, decreasing the space between her and the walls.  Her gift was faster the closer she was to her target.  Maybe by getting nearer she could overpower Adder’s ability?  At the very least it might tax him more.

Esha rushed Adder, then slammed directly into a steel pillar.  It hadn’t erupted from the ground or the ceiling, it had simply sprang into being from nothingness.

“Your gift doesn’t prevent you if you are the one causing the impact, I see,” said Adder.  “An unfortunate weakness.”

Banshee took another step closer, practically standing on the door stop now.  Had the walls wavered slightly more when Adder made that pillar?  It was hard to tell.

Esha stepped back, shaking her head slightly, as though to clear it.  She was about to spring again when Adder raised his hands above his head, as though in surrender.

“I don’t wish to fight you.  Can you understand that?  Fighting is stupid.  She would laugh to see us like this, squabbling among ourselves instead of opposing Her.  We are on a mission of peace.”

During all of this babbling, the walls didn’t cease their constant recreation.  The pillar faded away, but Banshee felt like that was more so that he could look Esha in the eyes, rather than any inability to maintain it.

“Of course, you don’t want to fight us.  You don’t want to die,” said Esha.  “But you don’t get to choose when you die.  Your killer does that part.”

Zoe reached her side at this time, and Marta finally got free of Preventer somehow, punting the gnome off into the corner of the room.

“Child,” Adder said. “You are right about that, and She has already picked my fate.  But there is no need for you to accompany me into the next life.  Go back to your homes, back to the men and women who love you.”

The scary part of it was that he sounded totally sincere.  His minions crouched motionless, seemingly content to let this madman speak for them.

Banshee stepped into the room, standing behind the three.

“Kill him,” she said.

She braced herself to unmake anything that he conjured.

Lana charged forward, head down in case of another pillar.  The loss of Marta filled her heart, leaving no room for fear.

A loud explosion sent her flying backward so fast that only Esha’s gift saved her from colliding.  Banshee glimpsed bare bones in a wet red mess.

What had he done?  Banshee’s mind unhelpfully tried to answer the question, telling her what a conjurer might form if he wanted something to detonate.

She focused absolutely on her gift, deleting absolutely everything that wasn’t already there in a tiny radius around her own form.  She clearly couldn’t match his abilities at any kind of range.  She had to hope that her immediate vicinity was safer.

Zoe sent her energy towards him in a thin beam, which was deflected when a wall appeared.  She crumbled to the ground an instant later, sizzling and screaming.

Maybe some sort of acid?  Created inside where her field would intercept?  She couldn’t worry about it now.  It would distract her from her gift, which was the only thing protecting her from being blasted like Lana.

Esha moved up.

“You can’t touch me with anything I don’t choose to touch me.  Your gift won’t hurt me, slave of Prevailer!”

Adder shook his head, still with that gentle sadness.

“You chose to step on the ground, child.  I could have made that a landmine.”

She froze, eyes wide with dread.

“You chose to suck in that air, air I could have filled with nerve gas.”

Esha slumped over.

“I did the nerve gas thing, actually.”

Banshee stood alone.  He had destroyed every one of her colleagues in short order, without effort.

So this was the power of the Inner Circle.  This was the power that Prevailer had set above her Fists.  It was overwhelming, utterly unfair.  She couldn’t even begin to think of a way that it could be defeated.

She moved towards him anyway.

“Your gift…disintegration?  I can’t make anything at all right by you.  Marvelous.”

She didn’t let him shake her concentration.  Continued to exert her gift, destroying absolutely every form that might impact her, taking one step at a time.

She was fit, even if she didn’t have Ultra strength.  He was like a hundred years old.  She could rip him apart if she got her hands on him.

Consumer suddenly blasted a gray beam at her.  Banshee tried to dodge, but it came midstride and she’d been entirely focused on Adder, almost forgetting the others were still there.

The beam hit home, and her gift was leached away.

Her gaze met Adder’s.

“I’m sorry, Goodbye.”

End Zone Dancing

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Dear Diary, you know the drill.

Things looked pretty dark there, for a while, yeah?  Fourth Fist’s maddening inability to be predicted had let them not only survive, but prosper, and actually wrangle an invite back to the center of things.  Back to MY vicinity, where they might suddenly realize that they needed to whack me at any time.

Naturally, that couldn’t last.

There were a few lines to just get Prevailer to kill them off, but I rejected those.  After the Redo debacle I wasn’t super confident in my ability to aim her that precisely in their vicinity, and also another crisis was coming up which would be vastly complicated by the fallout from having Peggy splat them.

I’m referring, of course, to Adder’s end.

Dude is just about out of life, and that is a very serious problem.  Basically She has always been supported by a three legged stool of relationships.  She was Adder’s surrogate daughter, Subtracter’s beloved leader and Snitcher’s owner.  Snitcher’s death wrenched everything out of whack, and now Adder dying was going to force me to intervene nearly constantly in order to keep Prevailer from just kicking the earth out of orbit in a snit fit.

I decided to help these problems solve each other.

I got Her pregnant.

The details aren’t important, it is mostly down to Dale’s gift, but the key is that I led Her to realize it before she warped, and due to recent stuff She is finally in the state of mind where She wants to have the kid.

I am replacing the three legged stool with a solid block.  Peggy will be consumed by that child, just absolutely enthralled by it.  Instead of managing a trifecta of complicated relationships I’ll only have to handle one.

Moreover, once She had this notion to fixate on it was easy to steer Her into a place where She was willing to let Adder and Indulger go.  (Prevailer has some Daddy issues, and doesn’t  want Her kid to have one.)  I refined the basic ‘boat with a nuke’ mission into a kind of floating deathtrap so ridiculously dumb I actually feel kind of bad about it.

Fourth Fist and Sixth Fist are going deep into enemy territory, at the very time when the Union/Pantheon war is coming to a head.  They think that they are on a mission of peace, when in fact Adder has orders to wipe Australia off the map.  They are staggeringly fucked.

This whole war also serves another important function.  Peggy isn’t going to be warping for nine months, which makes Her more vulnerable than She ever has been.  But no one will take advantage of this, because they will be busy fighting one another.

There are a lot more pluses about this plan that I don’t need to  write out.  The funniest one is that the part of Remover from beyond the Gate won’t be able to stomach being near someone who is bringing new life into this world, so First Fist is going to wander off and fuck with the Union for a while.  I’ll have Her all to myself.

The only downside to my gift is that I can never astound myself.  Having said that, this was fucking slick.

Strongboat 1:3

For all of her incontestable might, Death was an indifferent tactician.

A case could be made for sending her forces up and over the top, onto the decks of the ship.  It would greatly lessen the risk of losing a crucial target to the sea, for one.  It would allow them to take the ship through its stairs and passages, through the paths that the crew took every day, in other words.  The risk of mechanical traps and hazards would be greatly decreased.

A case could also be made to have the Ultra mob just bull through the sides of the Strongboat, sinking everything and smashing their way through all obstacles.  It would avoid the momentary vulnerability of coming up over the side, when the Ultras hands would be occupied.  It would throw the defenders into disarray, and leave them dealing with rising waters as well as the onslaught.

No such case could be made for splitting her forces, and yet that is precisely what unfolded.

The problem was that Death hadn’t named anyone as leader.  She had been too long at HQ, too long away from the front lines.  She was their leader, after all.  She hadn’t bothered with the need to appoint someone for local tactical coordination, too busy with speeches, her attention too consumed by hunger.  The matter had slipped a mind long fixed on its next meal.

Banshee gave an imperious gesture and a door sized hole crumbled away from the Strongboat’s side, succumbing to her gift as all matter must. Gorgon scaled the side like the beast that she resembled.  The rank and file likewise divided, Blinder’s gift still keeping them from meaningful coordination.

Twister, Charger, Blinder, Haunter, Indulger and Fisher defended the deck, even as Gorgon and 8 of her followers scrabbled up over the side.

Twister met them at the edge, seizing one of her foes even as she rose up over the rail.  Twister was often underestimated, compared unfavorably to Pursuer or Slicer as a combat anchor of her Fist.  No one would underestimate her who saw her now.

The Ultra she assailed was bulky and brutish, the planes of her body stiffened, as though rocks had substituted themselves for her subdermal flesh.  The bullets of Haunter’s men had rebounded from these defenses, but Twister’s spines did not.

Her arms, deforming like serpents, lashed out and pinned her prey in a heartbeat, their circular motion sliding her spines along the defensive plates and into the joints between them.  Before the Ultra could even begin to counter they’d stabbed through, piercing the Pantheon soldier at the collarbone, shoulder and elbow on both sides.  A warrior who’d stood strong through multiple engagements perished in an instant, her last thought one of utter disbelief.

Charger met with similar success.  He had shot across the deck like a bolt out of a cannon, turning the motion of his blitz into a smashing straight right, delivered directly to the nose of a cavernous and ghoul-like Ultra.

She could have dodged him easily, save that Blinder’s gift was still snaring their gazes, leaving them to guess at their foe’s movements from the rough dance of the soul-signs that Death’s gift gave them.  The Pantheon’s Ultras could tell where their enemy’s centers were, but they were not shown the movements of striking limbs.

Her flesh had the consistency of wet clay, bullets sank soundlessly into it, like trees sliding into a wet swamp.  Ted’s assault, however, hit like a meteor, well beyond her ability to endure.  Her head didn’t actually explode off of her shoulders, but his fist did make contact with the back of her skull.

Indulger’s attack, by contrast, was far less impressive than either of Sixth Fist’s melee troops.  He had sprinted across the deck alongside Charger, and swung a sledgehammer with brutal force.  But these Ultras were, one and all, bulletproof.  A strong man swinging a hammer, however furious his exertion, was nothing to them.

Indulger’s target blurred as he struck, blinking out of existence at the first touch and reappearing behind him.  She didn’t even seem to notice his attempt, and simply rushed towards the portal where Blinder and Haunter were cowering.

She had ignored him for one simple reason.  Death’s power, which was guiding them, tracked gifts via their exertion.  Indulger’s power, when he wasn’t touching the ground, was utterly dwarfed by her other foes.  The warper ignored the snack, and bore down on the feasts.

Fisher had hung back slightly, and hit her target an instant after Charger and Twister’s strikes hit home.  Seeing how easily they’d triumphed she was utterly unprepared for Gorgon.

The Hook vs Gorgon was a battle of monsters.

The Pantheon Ultra, in her combat guise, was just as inhuman, just as nightmarish.  Gorgon’s form was covered in iron hard scales, her mouth gaping open like a crocodile’s maw.  She didn’t have the snake hair of the mythical beast that she was named after, but she was just as pitiless and lethal.  Fisher had pulled up a leviathan.

The Hook’s claws shot out, grasping ahold of Gorgon’s upper arms as though to wrestle, even as she struck out with lower appendages bearing brutal spines.  She had seen enough of Twister’s struggle to know that their foes were mostly blind, and she was confident in her strength and speed.  Fisher did not, however, submerge the Lure.  Her habitual caution kept her from committing her entire being to the initial strike.

When her grip fell slack, therefore, she was not entirely helpless.  Even as Gorgon pulled her arms from the paralyzed upper graspers and batted aside the lower appendages, Fisher was taking action.  She pulled the Hook down into its shadow an instant ahead of a thrust punch that Gorgon aimed at her center of mass.

Gorgon was strong, true, and she was tough.  Her monstrous flesh was no lie.  But the gift which had earned her a Divine Name was her paralyzing aura.  Anything that came within an arm’s reach was brought to a stop, petrified by her gift.

Blinder struck even as the warping Ultra shot past poor Indulger.  Her gift wasn’t entirely limited to illusions and tricks.  She’d been absorbing light since the battle had begun, and she spent a burst of it now.  A radiant lance of energy slammed into the warper, burning her and blasting her form.

Her gift had seen her through bullet storms and Ultra battle alike, an instant teleport reflexively fired off when a form made unwelcome contact.  But Blinder’s attack, like Zeus’s was formless.  The warping Ultra fried and seared with a dreadful scream, before slamming a fist into her own side to trigger another warp.

As fast as Twister’s initial success had been, it hadn’t been quite fast enough.  From either side of her victim another enemy came, and before she could draw herself back they were upon her.

The Ultra to her left seized her left arm even as it was uncoiling from her first victim, somehow perceiving it despite the lack of light.  She squeezed with bone crunching power, and yanked as though to tear her arm from her socket.

But Twister’s arms joined at no socket, and had no bone to crunch.  In response to the vicious tug her arm simply stretched a little farther, and the minor compression of the squeeze didn’t inconvenience her a bit.  She simply wrapped the arm around this new target, spines already finding their way towards flesh.

The attack from the right was more severe.  Her opponent seized her arm in two hands, and channeled immense heat into the captive limb.  Twister’s right arm spasmed in agony as it baked, and the Pantheon soldier poured on the heat.

Many Ultra Fights took long minutes to end, but this was an Ultra War, and no one could afford to test their foe’s resilience, or ramp up their assaults.

Twister had served in a Fist for a long time.  She’d died in battle on numerous occasions, and she struck with every ounce of that experience.  Her smoking arm wrapped around the source of its burning pain, driving spines into the very creature that was incinerating her.  Her gamble paid off, as the spines struck true before they ignited, impaling the fire wielding Ultra through its upper chest and face.

The other foe, however, had a moment of opportunity as Twister’s attention was turned away.  She squandered it, simply crushing the limb before her with all of her force.  Blinder’s veil kept her from seeing how little impact her efforts were having, and before she could realize the truth Twister finished with the fire Ultra and turned her full attention upon her.

This soldier of Death was hardier than her flaming comrade, and the lack of her right arm meant that it took long moments before Twister managed to work a spine up through her mouth and bring her down.

Charger had no room to get back up to speed after his first strike.  He was still pulling his fist back when an enemy Ultra grabbed him around the waist.

He swung his left hand in a wild haymaker, calculated to make her dodge.  He hadn’t yet figured out that the enemy couldn’t see anything other than their centers of mass.  The bones in his fist shattered on the side of her head.

This enemy had simply walked through the bullets, their puny mass insufficient to harm her.  Her gift had turned her density up to the point that very very little could do her any harm.

Charger’s extensive wartime experience saved him in this moment.  It would have been easy to lose himself in the anguish of his shattered hand, but he had perished dozens of times.  Pain was an old and unwelcome guest in the halls of his mind.  He didn’t stop moving for an instant.

Even as his ultra dense foe moved to turn her loose grasp around his waste into a bear hug he was in motion, reaching down and working his good hand into her grip.  She didn’t seem to be Ultra strong, just incredibly heavy and tough.  He bet his life that he could wrench her grasp apart, and was rewarded.

The two separated, as he thrust her hands away and scrambled backwards.

Indulger engaged another Ultra, a vastly obese woman.  His hammer sent waves of flesh rippling away from the point of impact, but otherwise make no impact whatsoever.  He used the greater reach of his weapon and her blindness to keep back and away from her grasping arms, desperately conscious that he would be very unlikely to survive close combat.

The final Pantheon soldier was intercepted by Haunter.  She held out her hands and the soldiers who had once defended the deck issued forth, firing a furious salvo of translucent lead into the Ultra from point blank range.

The bullets twisted wildly, their vectors veering sharply away from their target.  Not one struck the Ultra who strode towards Haunter.  They buried themselves in the deck at her feet, whipped by her sides or shot up into the sky.

She grinned horribly, and held out a hand.  The next salvo of bullets bent even more wildly, orbiting her for an instant and then spraying back towards their targets.  A trio of veterans who’d been with Haunter since she began her mission were lost a hail of their own gunfire, and another dozen shades were ripped from her reserve as bullets flashed through Haunter’s form and clattered against the hall behind her.

Fisher, for her part, simply abandoned the battle with Gorgon, and brought the Hook instead to Haunter’s aid as her telekinetic foe continued its advance.  Only its limbs had been frozen, thanks to a timely exit.

The Hook’s monstrous form didn’t much mind the bullets that slammed into it as she grappled with the Pantheon member, and the gift that had stopped bullets didn’t do anything to keep the Hook’s fangs at bay.

This had left Gorgon with an opportunity, however, and she seized it.  No one was there to impede her as she charged forth.

Charger was just getting away from the dense enemy, thinking about building up speed again, when Gorgon caught him.  He might have escaped her grasp if he’d been moving at speed, but at rest his gift couldn’t match up with hers.  He slumped into stasis as she seized him around the head and shoulders.

It would have been a simple matter to kill him, but Death had decreed otherwise.  Gorgon hurled him into the sea, where Moses’s gift awaited him.

On the deck a momentary pause, as the two sides took stock.

The Regime’s forces were largely intact, if ragged.  Twister, their heaviest hitter, had an arm hanging scorched and useless.  The Hook’s limbs were still twitching and sluggish as they recovered from their brush with Gorgon’s gift.  Haunter was down several shades, while Blinder and Indulger was entirely intact.

Death’s forces had been brutally diminished.  Gorgon still stood strong, but many of her followers had perished.  She still had the obese Ultra, the Ultra who could control her own density and the warping Ultra at her side.

Reason would have directed her to flee, but Gorgon and her followers came on undeterred.  They could feel Death’s hook in their minds, her knife at their throat.  They would fight until they died.

Meanwhile, on the shore, another conflict was taking place.

The waves vomited Charger forth, Moses’s gift having cheated the distance.  Death hobbled down the strand to where he lay, only just beginning to recover from Gorgon’s aura.

She moved with purpose, with energy.  Her stolen gifts pumped vitality into her as she finally, finally, put her hands on one of the vaunted Fists of the Demon.

THIS was what had protected Prevailer for all of these years?  THIS was what it took to stand atop the world?  Charger’s neck slumped in her grasp, his body spasming as he fought make it move.

Death felt his gift.  It was a puny thing, unworthy of her reserve.  She dismissed it from consideration, focusing her gift on Linker’s legacy, the great golden chain that bound the Fist together.

His gift had been strong beyond all reason.  He was from the original generation of Ultras, Processed before the collapse.  It had lasted through the decades.  It had lasted through his own demise.  His gift was anchored in the souls of the five, drawing them back into the world so long as one of them should survive.

She tore through it like a bullet fired through tissue paper.

In just a moment, a heartbeat, the Link that bound Sixth Fist to life was gone.  She seized it with the hook of her gift and tore it apart, leaving them mortal for the first time in years.

Charger looked up at the hag above him, his mind reeling as he lost the sensations that had linked him to the remainder of the Fist.  The last of Gorgon’s paralysis left him, even as he suddenly realized that this could be, at long last, the end of his life.

“Please don’t kill me!” he begged, a sob breaking through his voice.  Even he couldn’t believe it.

Death reached, almost gently, into his chest and crushed his heart in her fist.

 

Threat Briefing: Death

The Pantheon’s number 4, Death is a comparatively long standing member of their Leadership Council.

She is primarily responsible for non military operations, and is thus likely to be less of a combatant than Zeus and the other leaders.  The Pantheon has a history of getting its heaviest hitters into roles where they can exercise those talents, so the fact that she remains in administration points towards her gifts being unsuited for battle.

Her actual area of control seems to be based around ensuring the continuation of the Pantheon’s flow of reinforcements, dividing the output of her breeding camps into sub-streams, headed for various destinations based upon their granted gifts.

Actual details on her gift remain unclear, save for a few notes that seem to further the enigma, rather than collapsing it.  She reportedly doesn’t use a translator, despite the vast array of languages that her subordinates speak.  She has survived a number of assassination attempts, but has never been recorded using her gifts during these operations.  Indeed, she seems to be difficult to record in an absolute sense, with her part of intercepted communications being incomprehensible gibberish.

So far as it can be inferred, Death’s counsel seems to suit her name.  She has long argued for the Pantheon to make its Grand Push into our territory, and her votes are always cast in favor of the option with the most aggressive and warlike posture.  She is a hawk, and only Isis’s more measured faction has kept her kind at bay.

Death keeps the company of an unusually large number of close subordinates.  Presumably she guarantees the loyalty of these Ultrahumans by conditioning them to servitude in the waning days of their camp training.  Whatever the method, she is unusually willing to rely upon the support of others for a Pantheon warlord, and none of them have proven receptive to inducements to betray her.

Analysts are split on whether this reliance on, and trust in, her followers is a measure of the faith that she places in their loyalty, or a sign of an absolute belief that she has in her gift, to protect her in case of betrayal.  A third possibility is that she has no care for her own life, and would embrace her namesake with the same eagerness that she shows when bestowing it upon others.

Strongboat 1:2

“It is there.  Just like you said.”

The kneeling woman didn’t look up as she spoke, didn’t take her gaze away from the sand and surf before her.  Despite the chill of the evening and the pain that her hunched over posture was causing her, she didn’t move a muscle after she had finished speaking.

Wild beasts had a sense, a sort of ability to tell them to freeze in place as danger drew near, if there was any chance at all that it might pass by.  In humans it had all but atrophied, but its distant descendant held the Ultra named Moses clenched in position as her master contemplated her words.

Better fatigue and chills, come to that, better torture, than to draw Death’s eye for a moment longer than one had to.

Death, for her part, smiled.  She had taken a chance with this venture.  Leaving Isis and her stooges an opportunity to gnaw away at her control of the camps wasn’t something that she did readily.  It took a great lure to draw her from her position at the apex of the system’s pyramid, from her feeding position.  But such a lure had come.

She didn’t know why the Union agent had made contact.  Didn’t care.  The reason for this ‘Dragon’s’ grudge was immaterial to Death.  She cared only for the message’s contents.

“Two Fists will escort a member of the Inner Circle through the Mediterranean,” it had read.  “They will voyage upon a fantastic ship, and seek the Leadership Council of the Pantheon.”

The only other information that the message had contained was a date.  Death had consulted her reserve, selecting a gift which allowed her to see the omens, and they had swirled auspiciously indeed around this missive.  She had decided to take the chance.

“Bring our friends,” she breathed to her slave.

Despite the noise of the midnight tide, Moses heard her words as though her master was stooped over her and whispering into her ears.  With a shudder, she complied.

She thrust her hands into the sea before her, putting forth her gift.  The oceans, or perhaps their essence, twisted under her thrall.  ‘Here’, became ‘There’, or rather a composite thing.  ‘This beach’ became another, and waiting soldiers shuffled through.

An outside observer, if there had been one, would have seen the men of the Pantheon suddenly walk out of the waves, crossing the fathoms in a single stride.  A dozen, two dozen, and then more.  Hundreds of soldiers waded from nowhere onto the shore where Death waited.

The men’s bows and gestures of fealty lacked Moses’s shuddering immediacy.  They were merely human, their souls not worthy of her hook.  All that they knew was that she was of the Leadership Council, and hence their master.

A few among them were not human.  A few demigods stood in their ranks, women marked out from their peers by a respectful distance in the jostling crowd.  Banshee was there.  Gorgon too, and a dozen others who had yet to win their divine names. Their groveling had the proper edge to it.  They all felt her grasp around their gifts.

The Ultras did not push or curse their way through the throng.  They did not have to.  A way opened up around them as the soldiers shifted aside, and they moved towards Death as though dragged by a magnet.

“You do not face the effete Union today, my children.”  The hag’s voice was thin, but every Ultra heard it as though it spoke within their own heads.  “Our foe does not harbor the delusion that humans and Ultra are in any way equal to one another.”

The men didn’t cheer yet, they simply shifted closer and listened carefully, striving to make out the quavering voice that was marring the evening’s stillness.

“Nor is our enemy a group of our countrymen, foolishly attempting to betray the revolution by fragmenting our numbers and our will.  No, this is a noble battle indeed.  You face the forces of the Regime!”

Death’s words were a polyglot hiss.  The languages of her many meals, taken over the course of decades, moved like composite rivers through the landscape of her intent.

And yet she was understood.  Some trick of the gift she was using drove her meaning into the brains of her listeners, impressing upon them every ounce of her malice and sincerity.  Hands gripped the stocks of rifles, or the handles of blades.  Eyes shone in the night, white all the way round as the minds of their owners were stoked to a roiling ferment by the poisonous oratory of Death.

“Long have these war demons, these deathless slaves, reaped a bloody toll from among our numbers.  Long have we been forced to bow our heads and bear their rampages, to rend our garments and bury their victims.  Long has this reckoning been in the coming.”

Her voice lacked sincerity.  None of the listeners, enthralled as they were by her gift, could tell this, but Death felt nothing for the losses that her voice called up.  She felt nothing for the slain of the past.  She was indifferent to anything that had already fallen.  Her interest was in those who still lived, whose gifts were still in her reach.

“Their vaunted ‘Link’, the armor that protects the Demon’s slaves, it is nothing to me!  Fall upon them in your numbers!  Drag one screaming to me, and the Link shall be broken forever!  This night the Regime learns again the fear of Death!”

They rose to their feet as one, Ultra and human both.  Moses gestured, and drove her hands into the surf once again.  Death pointed, and they charged into the teeth of the tide.

The Strongboat’s guardians had failed to notice Moses’s power take effect.  This wasn’t due to any particular deficiency in security, so much as the power’s subtlety.

The Strongboat drifted forward, as it always had.  The night lay placid and unchanged about them.  The only way that someone would have noticed that they were passing through the same stretch of ocean, over and over again, was if they had been peering at a fixed reference point, a star or something, and none of the shades on duty had any interest in celestial phenomena.

Instead, Haunter’s men spent their time gazing across the ocean, playing cards or killing time in any of a hundred other well honed ways.  They were here primarily to honor their mistress’s paranoia, her sullen determination that the events of the Union ambush would never repeat.  None had any inkling of the doom that marched ever closer.

Then one of them, a shade named Kevin, saw the Pantheon troops approaching.

It was incredibly fortunate, borderline miraculous.  Kevin simply happened to be looking towards land, and spied the oncoming force as they raced across a particularly tall wave.  This was less of a credit to his training, and more to the shade’s delight in moving under their own power, which had led him to pace restlessly across the deck, peering ever deeper into the night.

Kevin’s frantic shouts brought his unit commander to his side.  He wanted to make certain that he wasn’t simply going mad, but his superior saw it too.  It was plainly apparent once you looked for it.

A mob of figures were jogging across the ocean towards them from the south.

Kevin flashed back to the reserve, leaving the other shades to deal with the problem while he brought the Ultras.

The shades took cover behind the Strongboat’s railing and its rowboat, aiming rifles into the night.  Steven, the commander, agonized for a moment over whether or not he should order them to open fire on an unknown force.

He didn’t hesitate for long.  Friendlies wouldn’t attempt to board under cover of night, and to have any chance at all of defeating people who could walk on water they would need every advantage that they could get.  He ordered the remainder of the watch to open fire.

The first salvo didn’t have much impact.  There were several hundred Pantheon troops, and only 8 shooters.  A few men fell, but the rest gave no thought to falling back or taking cover.  They simply surged forward, their steady jog becoming a heedless sprint.

The next volley had more impact.  Haunter’s men had American rifles, for the most part, and their fire was accurate and continuous.  Bullets hurtled from the Strongboat into the night, and Death’s men toppled over with cries of agony.

The rush stalled, as individual men stopped to return fire, or dived down to cower behind waves.  Bullets cut back and forth as the ambush dissolved into an uneven firefight.

Haunter’s men had much the best of this.  Their elevated position gave them excellent cover, and their weapons were predictably superior to the scavenged pieces that Death had given her troops.  The only thing that stopped the massacre from being entirely one sided was the Ultras.

A large reptilian Ultra stomped forth from among the masses of the Pantheon troops, her scaled form impervious to gunfire.  A shorter woman forged ahead, each bullet that struck her causing her to blur and displace, every time appearing closer to the target.  Yet another one crafted a rolling barrier of light, which deflected every shot aimed her way with a gaudy flash.

Fire thought they might, Haunter’s men could not slow the advance of the Ultras.  This was unsurprising, as Death had conscripted for this operation the survivors of a battle with a Union drone force.  No one could survive such an encounter who was vulnerable to conventional projectiles.

Blinder was the first of the defending Ultras to make the deck.  She cracked open a door and reached forth with her gift, sucking in light from across the battlefield and getting a picture of what was going on.

It only took her an instant to get the basic tactical situation, and another instant to change it.

Blinder returned light to the battlefield, or at least to one side.  Haunter’s men found that their opponents were outlined in shining auras, standing out against the dark of the sea.  Meanwhile the Pantheon troops were rendered entirely blind, their eyes forsaken by all illumination.

Ordinarily, Blinder might have tried something clever, deceiving the enemies into attacking one another or similar.  But her gift had also revealed the two figures on the distant shore, and something about them struck all desire to take risks from her mind.

Blinder’s fears were confirmed an instant later.  The human soldiers of the Pantheon were certainly blinded.  They fired wildly into the dark, ran blindly out of Moses’s path and into the sea, or simply cowered where they were.  Exactly the behavior that Blinder had seen a hundred times.  But the Ultras, one and all, moved forward as though unaffected.

Death’s hooks in their mind guided them forwards.  Their eyes might deceive them, but her gift showed them the fire of their opponent’s souls, burning golden before them.  It was enough to keep them going in the right direction.

The remainder of Sixth Fist reached the deck then, even as Haunter drew back her shades.  They went grudgingly, resenting the loss of the opportunity to strike at the hated foe, but they went.  Even the Colonel would have had them retreat before a dozen bulletproof Ultras, particularly when there were friendly Ultras ready to counter them.

Blinder’s gift showed small arrows in front of each of her colleagues, tiny indicators that pointed them towards where they would be most useful.  She rarely bothered with this level of effort, but a battle where all of the enemy could see would be something of a novelty for Sixth Fist, and demanded every precaution.

Twister and Charger surged out onto the deck, ready to fight.  Blinder might need to fear bullets, but they did not.  Two on twelve might seem like insane odds, but death held no fear for Sixth Fist, and they were also hoping that the rookie Fist might pitch in.

Consumer stalked the lower halls, pointed to the area where the Ultras would enter if they didn’t both climbing up onto the Strongboat and just tore through a wall.  She was joined by Nirav and Preventer, and together they formed a defensive line in the hall outside of the chamber where Adder lay recovering from his most recent surgery.

Fader moved to an isolated and unimportant section of the ship, and transformed into her image form.  She intended to remain there until the battle was over.  Ordinarily she would be more active in a combat, but Blinder was taking no chances.  Fader would anchor their Link, no matter what.

Fourth Fist wasn’t quite so organized.  Indulger ended up above decks, joining the bruisers with a heavy hammer that he’d found somewhere.  Without his gift he would be useless against an enemy that rifle bullets bounced off of, but he intended to do his best to be a distraction.

Haunter had woken the others, and organized them.  She sent Fisher up top to aid Sixth Fist and gather some intelligence on how they comported themselves in a fight.  Preventer and Nirav she sent to Adder’s chamber.

It was a hard call to forsake their usefulness in the main fighting, but Haunter had a vague idea of what She might do if Adder were to be killed.  Her primary concern had to be his protection.

Haunter herself ended up deployed much as Blinder had, crouching by a deck door, ready to go below or above as the situation demanded.  Her shades might not be able to accomplish much against these Ultras, but she could channel their strength into a killing blow if the situation called for it.

Death, back on the beach, gave a long, rasping chuckle.

She was using a gift that let her see the souls of her foes, visualizing them as threads of various sizes and color stretching out from their forms.  It was one of her favorites.

She had seen, as she expected, the golden glow of Linker’s gift.  The Ultras waiting for her puppets on the boat’s deck were lousy with it.  They were bound, one to the next, by his characteristic thick chains.  These chains could hold a soul, if one of the Fist’s bodies were destroyed.  They made safe the gifts of the Demon’s slaves, gifts that Death wanted very much to plunder.

What she hadn’t expected was the shine she’d seen earlier, around the projections that had been shooting at her minions.

Each of them had a shining cord, a bright white line, stretching back into the ship.  These human-from projections had acted independently, laying down fire, taking cover, reloading, etc.  Death was an expert on the subject, and could recognize when she encountered a kindred talent.

The chuckle had been the realization, as they fell back, that these souls had no gifts!  Her opposite number’s gift preserved the worthless part of the soul, the volition and memories and such, but not the power.

Somewhere on that boat was her antithesis, an Ultra who could hook into a human’s soul and preserve everything that Death discarded, while losing the miraculous gifts that she craved.

“What a worthless gift,” she mused.

Moses cowered in fear, but she was, for the moment, forgotten.

The thought that followed her condemnation was a familiar one to Death, it was a craving that she’d been feeding for decades.

“I want it.”