Bull gave a triumphant bellow, throwing back her head and roaring her triumph to the entirety of the world.
Nobody really payed her much attention.
“Holy shit,” said Dale. “We…I…I’m sorry that took so-“
“Fuck you ground guy!” shouted Bull, “I’ll kill you for-“
She cut off as the ground under her rumbled, maybe loosened a bit.
“Noon was out of line,” I told her, wrenching my eyes and mind away from the welcome specter of Andy’s survival. “We were defending ourselves.”
She didn’t say anything in response to that, settling for giving us some prime hate filled glare action.
It was easy enough to understand her rationale. Charging a group of three Fist members would be idiotic, but backing down wasn’t really in her wheelhouse. She’d bide her time and wait to tattle on us to Zilla.
Zilla…just the thought of the miniature form changer brought my thoughts crashing back down to earth. The night’s work was far from over.
“What now?” asked Preventer.
“We wait,” I say. “We need to see who survived from the raiding party. They will see the skimmer and head over here.”
I didn’t need to mention how much depended on whether it was Predicter and Slicer, or Zilla and her crew, or both of them. The possibilities branched rapidly depending on who showed up, and in what order.
“Alright, that makes sense,” said Dale.
“Can you at least let the Furies up?” asked Bull, a bit of a plaintive tone creeping into her voice.
I put them out of my mind for the moment, let my team handle the present. The coming encounters would demand a lot of exactitude, and my reserve and I could use this chance to plan them.
So many questions. Should I simply climb aboard the skiff and start my modifications? What actions would cause Zilla to attempt to remote kill me, as she’d done to the rest of Fifth Fist? Was Condemner still alive, and was Fisher? Had she seen through his mask at last? Were they aware of Zilla’s more exotic capabilities? What were those capabilities, or rather, what gift permitted them?
I let a shade drive my form, slid down into deep communion with the reserve. We batted the questions around, focus groups and prediction market equivalents martialed and disbanded in a blur of immensely focused cognition.
I didn’t have Ultra wisdom, I didn’t think anyone did, but back in my day the internet had always guessed the fair twists on tv shows. That wasn’t possible because they were smarter than the mystery writers, it was simply that in a group of basically endless size someone would see the important clues, and someone else would listen. The truth would be confirmed, the false pushed aside.
Science, if I could stretch the terms a bit. Not with beakers and masks, or lab coats and microscopes, but refined down to its elemental form. Predictions and counter predictions, tests giving rise to a new generation based on their results.
The minutes slipped by, resolutions mounting, theories building on theories, models collapsing into simpler models. Questions were answered, others were raised.
Dale brought the Furies up, and Bull as well, before sinking them all down into a cavern, not too far below the surface. They didn’t try to fight, sharing our universal conviction that as awful as being buried alive in a large cavern was, it was absolutely preferable to the version where you were just encased in dirt, left to rot in the depths of the world.
In the near distance, a flame fell to earth from the jail. It was hard to make out in the evening dimness.
Had that been Zilla’s hair? Or had it been Condemner, slamming down to the earth as calamity? Could it have been both, that is, would I have seen Zilla’s hair if it was close to Condemner’s own light?
“Hey, you got him!” yelled a figure advancing towards us.
“There will be a fight,” I murmured to the other three. “Stay ready, no matter what is said. Make absolutely certain that Andy doesn’t come down, and whatever you do stay away from Zilla.”
“I mean, I guess that’s him up there in the little flying box, right?” she cried, gaily, as she walked up on us.
I didn’t see Condemner or Fisher around her, but that didn’t mean that they weren’t nearby. Both could be stealthy when they needed to, and the gloom of early evening had shrouded more conspicuous people in its time.
“Stop!” I called out.
She paused midstep, comically halting with one foot above the ground.
“Jane?” she responded.
I’d stopped her about thirty feet away from us. Near enough that we would still be raising our voices, far enough that we could hopefully avoid reinfection. I didn’t think it would matter, exactly, but if I was right about her abilities I had to take every precaution.
“Zilla,” I answered. “There’s been some misunderstandings, I think. I’d like to clear that up before we all get back together.”
“And who could object to that?” she said, almost before I had finished speaking. “I’m sure my friends are nearby, safe and sound, and the fact that I only see the three of you is just one of those misunderstandings, hmm?”
I shook my head, slowly, back and forth.
“That’s not one of them?” she asked. “I’m disappointed.”
She still hadn’t put her foot down, and now she kind of waved it around while she shrugged.
I paused a second.
“We all came here for a reason, right?” I said. “There’s been some turmoil, neither of us knows the full story, but whatever’s happened, it has to turn on why we are here, right?”
She gave a tolerant nod, flashing that too wide grin.
The reserve had dubbed this part of the plan the ‘drawing room scene’. The basic idea was that I was going to stall for long enough for our allies to get here, while also getting everyone on the same page.
The fact that I was going to look like a genius was entirely besides the point.
“Preventer first,” I said. “Why are you here?”
Preventer looked a little surprised to be asked.
“You both know that. I’m working for the good of the Pantheon, mostly to convince any doubters that I really do belong on the Leadership Council.”
“Right,” I said, then, to Zilla, “And you are supporting her in this, right?”
“Sure,” she said. “Anyone who kills Union stooges is all right in our book.”
“No you aren’t,” I answered, “But let’s table that for now. So Preventer wants to destroy the jail, bring Andy back. Let’s go to me.”
Now Zilla looked a little interested.
“The story is too boring to go into,” I said, “but I need my gift adjusted, so I needed to get ahold of Andy. I’m also supporting Preventer’s ambitions.”
Zilla raised a finger, almost quizzically.
“Yes,” I said, anticipating her question, “The change will last even though we are linked. It is our forms that are restored, not our souls. That’s why memories stick around, and so forth.”
She put the finger down, I wasn’t sure if I’d actually guessed her question, or if she was just letting me have this.
“So that takes care of us. Now let’s talk about you.”
“Ooh, ooh,” she said, sounding like a little kid, “that’s my favorite thing!”
She’d actually sounded younger there, not just in intonation but in the voice itself as well. Just one more reminder of her constantly shifting form.
“You are here to strike a blow against the Union, sure, and taking Andy for your followers is icing on the cake.”
“Got it in one,” she said. “Whatever these misunderstandings are, they are taking quite a while to show up.”
She took a step towards us, and I stepped instantly backwards, keeping the space the same. Dale and Preventer followed suit.
“So why is Predicter here?” I asked, looking around in case he chose this moment to show up.
It wasn’t terribly likely, of course, but with someone who could actually see the future it was worth the shot.
“Was,” corrected Zilla.
“You killed him?” I asked.
She shook her hand side to side, in the ‘eh’ sort of way, mirroring the gesture with the foot that she still hadn’t set down.
“He died,” she said. “We’ll decide it if was me or some Union mooks based on how the rest of this goes, ok?”
She finally put her foot down, glared at me. It was hard to make out, in the dimness, but it seemed like I’d actually made her mad.
Had it been doubting her? No, she wasn’t quite so arrogant. It was more likely the open derision. She’d ruled for a long time, and her minions were utterly servile. She couldn’t be all that used to confrontation.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just…well, First Fist tried to kill Fifth Fist. They did so twice. These are the people who killed, essentially, the Earth. Their leader is quite literally the devil. Predicter and his crew are still around.”
The reserve registered a protest at that, but I didn’t think anyone was about to derive the truth of our gift’s origin from one offhanded reference.
“No,” she said. “They are not.”
I paused, trying to find the right words to say, and also because every extra second was more time for Condemner and Fisher to get back.
It might, of course, be more time for anyone from her crew who’d gone up and survived to come back, but in a battle with Dale on the field I didn’t figure that was as much of a danger.
“I killed them,” she continued. “I have another gift, which I don’t talk about as much, and I used it to deprive your comrades of their lives.”
She was positively glaring now.
“It is something that I do, from time to time, to groups of people that offend me.”
I held up my hands in mock surrender, then dropped one down, leaving me with one hand up in the classic ‘well, actually’ position.
“Do you have another gift?” I asked. “Really?”
“I’d have thought you’d have seen it in action,” she replied, “if you were with Fifth Fist when they died.”
I forced out a chuckle.
There’s something of an art to faking laughter believably, but fortunately, as with nearly everything, there were a few people in the reserve who were experts at it.
“That was your shapeshifting, though.” I said. “I wouldn’t count that as ‘another’ gift.”
I didn’t make air quotes for ‘another’, but I was absolutely imagining them.
“What?” asked Dale and Preventer almost simultaneously.
“She’s…” I looked back to Zilla, “Do you mind if I explain?”
She’d frozen, mouth slightly open.
I could almost feel for her, what would one even say in that situation? To say no would be to give the game away, but obviously letting me ramble on would do the same.
“I’d appreciate it more if-“
I cut her off.
“Thanks,” I said. “There’s this thing people like to do, right? Anybody gets a chance, they’ll pull this number, just about everyone, just about every time.”
Dale looked back and forth between us, but Zilla had fallen silent, didn’t seem to be moving or anything.
“Lying with the truth,” I pronounced. “It is almost irresistible. When you can tell the truth, and have your enemies believe that you are lying, it’s just the best, right?”
I pitched the question at Zilla, not really caring if she was going to respond. I’d thrown myself into it now, letting the rhythm of my words carry the scene.
“Zilla tells everyone that she’s a shapeshifter, that she has Ultra strength and toughness. Then she lets them beat themselves up looking for her last mystery gift, even though she’s already told them everything that she can do.”
“Jane,” said Preventer, in a warning tone, “I think you are upsetting our guest. Let’s not forget what happened to the last people who upset her.”
I scoffed again.
“Preventer, if she was going to take us on she would have,” I said. “But we are basically the only group in the world that she no interest in fighting. That’s almost certainly the reason Fifth Fist pushed us together. They are looking for us to complete their mission for them.”
“Wait,” said Dale. “Zilla just said that they are dead.”
“Cold dead,” she affirmed.
“Yes,” I said. “I believe that the five people who showed up at the fort, who came along with us, are currently dead. But how sure are you that those five people are all the real members of Fifth Fist?”
There was a silent beat.
“Come on,” I said. “I’m Predicter, I see the future. I take my whole team, which everyone knows has no anchor, into the middle of the Grand Host? Or do I take four members and a lookalike?”
“How would-“ asked Preventer, before I cut her off.
“It doesn’t really matter,” I said. “Maybe they have a tame disguise Ultra. Maybe Gardener can just make a tree act just like him from miles and miles away. I don’t know how they did it, but are any of you willing to bet that Predicter won’t show up later on with more of his obnoxious notes?”
Nobody responded for a moment, and I went on before they could find something to say.
“When you killed him,” I asked. “Did you find a cryptic note on his person? Something snide? He has a hard time not doing that. Or did he maybe put it in one of your pockets?”
Zilla practically snarled.
“That proves nothing,” she said. “Nothing except that his ego was as big as his dick was small. He probably carried that note around for years!”
“Alright,” I said. “It doesn’t really matter, let’s accept for the moment that they are dead. Where was I?”
I hadn’t actually forgotten, of course, but time was time.
“You were talking about my gifts,” said Zilla. “Which apparently are just the obvious, and which allowed me to kill Fifth Fist at my leisure.”
She pointed a hand at me, miming a gun.
“Which allow me to kill ANYONE, at my leisure.”
I faked another chuckle, hoping that she didn’t decide to rend a spirit out of me to prove the point. I’d lost so many souls in that idiotic fight with Dragon, and I was so close to completing my mission, it would be hard to take any more losses.
“Anyone that you’ve infected, right?” I asked. “Anyone whose guts you are riding around in?”
I’d rarely seen an expression as pure as the shock that crossed Zilla’s face.
“It was easy once I decide to believe you. Given that you are a shapeshifter with Ultra strength and toughness, how could you possibly have maintained control of the Grand Host for all these years? It didn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
Everyone seemed content to let me ramble, so I went on.
“You can change your form, sure, and you have some Ultra Toughness, but still, never, in all that time, did anyone with Ultra Strength 3 decide to just walk up and tear your head off? Everyone was fooled by the decoy giant? It just didn’t make any sense.”
I tapped my forehead.
“Until I considered that you weren’t necessarily limited to one form at once.”
She’d fallen absolutely still, or at least the part of her that we could observe.
“But if you can have many bodies, then its trivial, right?” I pressed. “It explains so much. You spread yourself around, cover your subordinates with tiny critters that are also you, tiny worms, lice, maybe even germs. And these little guys still have your Ultra strength and toughness.”
“Holy shit,” said Preventer.
“That’s why she’s so small, why she’s so handsy” I told her. “She’s been rubbing tiny pieces of herself on everyone around her for years now.”
“And here I thought you really loved me,” she said to Zilla, sardonically.
“Anyone who wants to take you out has to ask around to find out who the real boss is. While they are doing that you approach them in some innocuous form and spread your gunk. Then, if the fight goes against you, you just tear their hearts out of their bodies, or something similar.”
Dale shuddered visibly, a full body motion, as he came to the obvious realization that she was almost certainly all over him.
“No one can plot against you, because you are all seeing, all hearing. No one can fight you, because you’ve infiltrated their very forms before the battle even starts. A nearly perfect power.”
“Nearly?” asked Zilla, her voice grown suddenly cold.
“Nearly,” I replied. “It would be perfect with just a little change or two. That’s why you are really here, right?”
I pointed up at the skiff where Andy was lurking, no doubt using its sensors to listen in on all of this.
“You didn’t come out here just to count coup, you bit at the only bait that could possibly make you leave your center of power. You came to get Andy, to take away whatever weaknesses in your gift have kept you from killing Zeus, or Her.”
Dale threw up, just up and tossed his cookies all over his feet.
There was a long beat of silence after that.
“You have to admit,” said Zilla, finally, “It was a hell of a plan.”