The Pantheon’s Great Fortress was even more segregated than it had originally appeared.
I only noticed it after Fox had led me most of the way up into the Blue Cube, where I’d be meeting my first Overseer. Despite her being a foot taller, she was taking maybe one and a half steps for every one of mine.
“What’s going on with the floor?” I asked.
“Arena must like you,” she said. “The ground helps people she likes, slows down those she doesn’t, makes sure everyone can only go where they are supposed to.”
I quashed the flare of approval that I instinctively felt at a Pantheon God according me such respect. That was only one interpretation. I could just as easily be in the process of being sped to ridicule, or to danger.
It was a strange feeling to be so entirely out of my context. I’d always intended to join the Pantheon, to rise in its rankings to the only position of safety left. But it had been an abstract goal, a sort of flag at the end of my run. I’d never been able to visualize what that would actually look like.
This here, this bit where the ground itself carried me along where I wanted to go, this felt right. I folded my arms in front of me and stopped walking, letting the spiraling tube we ascended lift me up. Dale had given me plenty of practice with this mode of transportation.
We moved up into what must have ordinarily been a crowded common room. Tables and chairs, all formed of the same blue light, filled the room’s center. It reminded me a little bit of the Old World restaurants that She occasionally had rebuilt in the center of Shington. High capacity, high uniformity, every table setup like every other.
A Goddess waited for me, lifting a hand in greeting.
She was the first person I’d seen in a long time who was even shorter than me, if I didn’t count her hair. She had hair that had to come from an Ultra gift, it rose up above her head into some kind of spike arrangement, and also plummeted down around her to reach the ground. It was the color of fire, which looked utterly out of place on a woman as dark skinned as this.
“Lobo?” I asked.
She grinned at me, motioned me over.
I walked across the room to her, tables scurrying out of my way as Arena continued to make her favor known. Fox didn’t come with me, she’d assured me that Lobo spoke enough English to get by.
“You are the one,” said Lobo. “You killed the old woman from Olympus, yah?”
I nodded somberly as I slumped into a seat across from her.
“Even Gods must fall,” I said. “But I will take up her mantle and do honor to it.”
She cackled, moving a wrist up to obscure her mouth after a moment.
“Listen to you!” she said. “Playing it off like it was nothing. You killed a member of the Council, pale one. It is ok to be proud of it!”
I was momentarily wrong footed. I wasn’t sure the exact tack to take here.
“Seriously,” she continued. “Did you piss your pants? No judgement here, sister. I about shit myself when that old hag came through.”
“I…look, I didn’t piss myself,” I said.
I couldn’t help but feel that this conversation had gone wildly off the rails.
“Ah well,” she said. “Die now.”
I jumped up from my seat, swinging my hands around in front of me. I didn’t form any barricades yet, just stepped to the right, kicking over a table in the process.
Strangely, I noticed that the table didn’t behave any differently than an ordinary one would have. I’d been half expecting it to stay joined to the ground, but it separated from the floor as it toppled over.
Lobo was still sitting where she’d been, laughing again.
“It’s a saying!” she called out.
“A saying?” I asked, lowering my hand. I considered trying the trick of sending barriers through the ground, but I didn’t have any real idea of how Arena’s creations worked. It didn’t seem like we were actually going to be fighting, anyway.
“Sure,” she said. “It is from the old world.”
I’d hung around with Jane for long enough to call that out.
“Really?” I asked. “How was it used?”
I pulled a chair over, sat back down in front of her.
“It was a long time ago. They used to have sports events, you know sports? Do you have those where you come from?”
“I know sports,” I told her.
“Ok, well they got everyone together and they would compete, and ultimately they’d get down to the best three in the world, and they’d do this for every different kind of sport.”
She spoke fast, fluent English. She moved her hands as she spoke, opening and closing them to emphasize this or that word.
“The Olympics,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s it. So when the second or third guy got up there, everyone would just cheer like normal. You know, clap their hands, whatever. But when the first guy went up, the person who’d just proved they were the best in the whole world…”
“Die now?” I guessed.
“Yeah, that’s what they’d chant. Die Now, because life will never be this good again. It’s like, go out at the top, right?”
I was pretty sure that they hadn’t done that, but it didn’t seem like arguing about it would get me anywhere.
“Ah,” I said. “So you were saying that I’d peaked when I killed Death.”
She smiled, showing more teeth than seemed possible.
“It seemed plausible, you got to admit.”
I gave a small chuckle. It seemed like she was trying to be friendly.
“I dunno,” I drawled. “I think I might find a way to top it. No telling what the future holds, yeah?”
“Not for the likes of us anyway,” she answered. “But your friend from back home could probably tell us all about it, right?”
There weren’t any hard and fast rules against revealing another Fists’ abilities, but it still seemed in poor taste. On the other hand, I didn’t really like Fifth Fist, and with a name like Predictor I had to imagine he didn’t mind people knowing.
“Yeah, but then we’d have to talk to him.”
Her turn to chuckle.
“He did seem like, well, for a God he seemed like quite the man, if you take my meaning.”
The emphasis she put on ‘man’ made me think she was emphasizing his sex.
“Did he do the thing with the note cards?” I asked. “Tell me he did it.”
She nodded eager confirmation.
“Right to Zilla’s face!” she crowed. “Took out that little square of paper with what she was gonna say written on it. Most pompous thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
I took a moment to consider my reply.
“Right to Zilla’s face?” I asked. “Are you saying that you are not Zilla? Or are we past that part of the conversation?”
Her face fell for a moment, then the smile came back in full force.
“Wahaha! How’d you know?” she asked.
That had been a bit of a gamble, actually.
“It doesn’t make any sense for a giant who is stuck in the middle of the city to be the Boss. There are too many instant kill gifts, too many kids without sense. Someone would have wanted to take over.”
“Ok,” she said, slowly, “But how’d you get to me? I don’t look anything like the big form.”
“Well,” I paused, considering how much of my reasoning to lay out.
“I figured that if I was right about the real Zilla being an ordinary Ultra, most everyone who mattered would know about it. I mean, in order to serve the role of deterring up and comers from destroying your big decoy they would kind of have to. If I was right about that, and it was an open secret, then you’d know I’d find out as soon as I got to talking with folks. So I figured you’d be the first person to speak with me.”
She tapped her hands lightly together, a very quiet kind of clapping I hadn’t heard before.
“Nice,” she said. “I thought you saw this hair and just jumped to the idea that I was a form changer.”
I felt kind of stupid for missing that, actually.
“A form changer?” I asked. “You must pair that with some serious physical gifts to keep power in a place this big.”
She smiled again, and this time I could actually see her mouth widening slightly. I’d been right before about it being a bit too wide.
“Smart and cute,” she said. “Definite improvement on the crone.”
One of my hands flapped before I could still it. Did she mean that she would support my bid? Cute?
“It would be good for you too,” I said.
She raised an eyebrow, once again just a bit more than any ordinary person could actually do.
Wait, she thought I meant…
“If I were the replacement for Death,” I said, hastily. “You would have someone who has seen the front line on the Council. That has to be good for you. To have.”
She slid forward, onto the front of her seat, hair wrapping about her.
“It’s not the right question,” she said. “Whether or not I support you. Can you tell me why?”
She was serious again, looking straight into my eyes, speaking slowly and calmly.
I thought for a moment.
“Because,” I said, before I realized I didn’t have anything to follow that up with.
She just kept looking at me. Her hair ‘burned’ behind her, the yellows and reds chasing one another up it as thought it was an actual fire.
I got it a moment later.
“Because whether you did or not, you’d tell me that you did. I have no reason to believe your pledge of support, since if you didn’t support me it would still be in your interest to let me think you did.”
She tapped her nose with her finger.
“Got it in one. I haven’t lasted this long by antagonizing powerful Goddesses.”
“Alright,” I said. “So I have your support as long as it remains your safest path. I can relate to that, actually.”
“Yeah?” she asked.
I considered a moment before deciding to elaborate. She seemed like the type to respect someone for speaking frankly, or at the very least the type to give me props for this kind of decision.
“The Demon is, hazardous is I guess the best way to put it. Being around Her was too dangerous. That’s why I started out on this path in the first place. The things I’ve done have been dangerous too, sure, but I still think I’ve always taken the safest way.”
That was probably like sixty percent true. Behind my back I felt one of my hands quiver a bit, to be so honest with someone I’d just met. I ran back over my words in my mind to make sure I hadn’t said anything openly disloyal.
“Doesn’t that make us just the most inept pair of cowards,” she said. “We’ve fled danger right to the center of the biggest warzone in the world.”
“Hey!” I protested. “It’s not like we are…”
I trailed off as she gave another one of her giant grins.
“I’m just messing with you,” she said. “I understand what it means to hide under the lighthouse.”
It took me a sec to process that reference. It made sense what I thought about what a lighthouse did though.
“I suppose for that other Fist everywhere is as safe as everywhere else, eh?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Gambling is easy when you know what the dice are going to roll.”
She looked me in the eye for a long moment.
“Will you help them?” she asked.
“Help them?” I said.
I hated to mirror her words back, hated to admit ignorance, but I honestly didn’t know what she meant.
“With their mission,” she said.
When she saw no reaction on my face she continued on.
“Didn’t they tell you about that?”
I shook my head.
As I did so I noticed how close she had come, I slid my chair back a bit.
“We haven’t had the chance to speak. If Predictor has told us anything, he didn’t choose me to talk with. What mission?”
She leaned back as well.
“He is here to fetch someone back to your leader. But his team can’t do it on their own. He needs your crew’s help to pull it off.”
I silently cursed Dale’s relationship with Her. It had saved us with First Fist, but I’d known even then that it would lead to trouble.”
“We aren’t going back just yet,” I said. “Our mission isn’t over yet.”
She twisted a hand through some of her hair, yanking at it for a moment.
“I’m sure that they can handle the transport,” she said. “I think they just need your team to help with the extraction.”
“Oh,” I said. “I see.”
A silence fell.
They wanted our help kidnapping or rescuing someone then. Not Dale, but someone else. And with Zilla involved, it couldn’t really be someone from the Pantheon. That just left the Union, which didn’t make an awful lot of sense. Was one of my assumptions bad?
“You can just ask me who it is,” said Zilla, giving another one of her broad smiles.
I felt a little sheepish about that.
“Who are they here for?”
“Someone named Andy,” she said. “Some kind of meta God.”
“Oh,” I said. “Him.”
I stilled the initial panic. All of that Andy stuff had worked. He’d been seized and dragged away, hadn’t he? But why would he be here, and not in Olympus?
“Who has him?” I asked.
“Union,” said Zilla. “Predictor was talking about some kind of secret laboratory in their territory, about them doing experiments on her and such. It was really hard to pretend to care.”
Perhaps the Union was trying to make more artificial people? Or maybe they were just putting Andy’s gift to work, refining their soldiers and such. I didn’t think he would balk at assisting the Union.
“He wants us to go into Union territory with them?” I asked.
She didn’t have to answer, obviously he did. If Predictor needed help with this the base must be incredibly heavily guarded.
“He’s out of his mind,” I said, not caring much about how she might react to that.
She nodded amiably.
“He seemed pretty sure that your crew would go for it. Our deal actually pretty much assumes you guys go with them.”
I’d already assumed that Zilla and Predictor would have made a deal, so this wasn’t that much of a shock.
“Did he give you any reason why he thought we might agree to this?” I asked. “I mean, if he is doing his future seeing thing then he must already know how he is going to phrase this to make us join in this insanity.”
“Yeah,” said Zilla. “He’s going to offer you everything you desire.”