Haunter 7:3

Death’s eyes narrowed at my quip.

Before anything further could happen the reserve was in motion again, as a shade with a fire extinguisher popped out of me and blasted Death in the face with its contents.

Her hands clenched reflexively, crushing a shade from my form and freeing me from her grip.  The shades didn’t miss the moment, diving frantically to the side as Death used her speed to sweep her arm through the shade that had saved me, popping him before he could dive back into the reserve.

“You cannot run from me forever, Haunter!” she said, her voice a low snarl.  “These games are to no purpose!  You prolong the inevitable, lengthen your own torment.”

Our eyes met again.

She wasn’t coming towards me anymore, just standing there, secure in her stolen power.

But I was in my reserve now, bolstered by my comrades in arms.  Whatever despair she was exuding couldn’t touch me.

She was correct, of course, in the narrow sense of her own words.  I’d already hit her as hard as I possibly could, to no avail.  Her endless powers would give her victory, no matter what heroics my reserve pulled out.  The fight between the two of us could have only one conclusion.

But, the thing was, that was also true about me and Her, and it had never stopped me.  I’d crawled around for decades without any concrete hope.  I’d thrown all dignity aside and served the Regime, giving grudging service to a lunatic in order to help those that I could reach.  Trading frantic struggle for time was an old game to me.

“I’m used to it.” I told her, simply, as though to relate a matter of fact.

Death snarled at me, but didn’t charge forward again.

I could see the wheels in her mind moving, gradually mapping out the borders of her dilemma.  If she assailed me with brief force I would sacrifice a single shade and dodge away.  If she struck in a more meaningful way, impaling me on a bar or bathing me in her plasma beam or something, then she risked killing me the instant my reserve ran out.  This left her at something of a standstill.

It wasn’t, by any means, a stalemate.  She could just continue chasing after me and striking nonlethal blows to a hand or arm or something.  Eventually all of my passengers would be driven out and the limb would break, signaling to her that I could be safely restrained.  But she had no idea how long this would take, and spending hours frantically scurrying around the room didn’t exactly fit with her image.

Her eyes ranged all over, hunting for a solution, and then I saw her gaze light on Preventer.

“Does she really think we’ll…”

Joe trailed off, even as Death moved to take a hostage.

Preventer had just about gotten back up to a kneeling position when Death swooped down on her, wrenching her furiously upright and holding her up for the rest of us to see.

“It is plain to me,” she said, “that you can’t be bothered to even pretend to care about your dagger slaves.  So be it.  I shouldn’t have expected anything else from the Demon’s minion.  But what are your feelings about someone that you’ve fought alongside?”

She shook Preventer up and down, with the same brutal power that she’d shown earlier.

What were my feelings towards Preventer?  Loathing, mostly.  A woman who’d enslaved dozens, or hundreds, who’d had people killed in their masses to further her scientific dabblings.  A creature of the Regime from the ground up, one entirely insensate to the notion that anyone else might be real enough to bother with.

“Stop, don’t hurt her any more,” begged my form.  I wasn’t sure which of my shades was providing the voice.

“We can’t give up,” I argued. “Certainly not for Preventer!”

“Of course,” Joe responded.  “But we can certainly talk about giving up for as long as Death is willing to.  Maybe the horse will learn to sing, and all that.”

Death’s grin was truly hideous, yellow teeth gaping wide like fangs.

”Who is talking about hurting her?” she asked.  “What a fascinating thing to bring up.  You don’t think I’m going to hurt you, do you?”

Preventer shook her head, weakly.

Death put a hand to her face, brushed away the caked on white powder.

“A little thing like you, who on earth would want to hurt you?  I mean, aside from anyone who knew Ninja.  Or whoever else you’ve stepped on during your long long career as a piece of garbage.”

Preventer shook her head again, her eyes met mine.  I think she was trying to tell me not to give myself up for her.

“Let her go,” I said.  “And I’ll surrender myself to you.  That’s what you want, right?  You want my gift?  You can have it, just please, stop hurting helpless people.  You win, ok?”

Death threw back her head and gave another of her soul searing laughs.  She let Preventer topple down to the ground.

I stayed where I was, frantically scanning the crowd for any sign of deliverance.  I could see Ragnarok, but he was standing silently, head down, giving no sign that he might intervene.  I couldn’t see Nirav or Fisher, or any other person who might step in and stop this.

Death finished her laugh, took a step towards me.

“Hilarious,” she said.  “The vaunted Haunter, enslaver of thousands, can’t handle the idea of anyone suffering on her account.  What do you think it is when you pull them in front of bullets or blows?  When you trade their lives for yours, one after another?  Why is your friend over there any different from the ones you keep inside of you, that all of a sudden you shirk at letting another take your fate?”

I paused, giving her nothing.  My eyes continued to roam around the room, seeking for deliverance.  If I couldn’t find anything else I’d have to go back to dashing away from her, and that could only ultimately have one end.  This was the only time that I’d be able to play the fake surrender card, and I needed something to make it worth it.  Some way to overturn the huge discrepancy between our gifts usefulness in a battle.

She took another step, extending an arm.  I felt the force of her gift grip me, drag me towards her grip once again.

I prepared myself for the reserve to spring into action once more, to go back to our doomed delaying tactics, but there was nothing.  They let us drift towards Death unimpeded.

“There!” said Joe.  “I’ll be damned.  The Folded Barrier theory might pan out!”

“What?” I asked.

Death sneered into my face, pulling my neck gently down until we were eye to eye.  My nose twitched at the smell of the gore that caked her arms.

“At last,” she said.  “I’ve waited for this for a long time.”

“Preventer ought to have a few dozen sparkles in an area of her form the size of the one that Death wiped the makeup away from.  We only count seven.  She is making barriers.”

“I don’t suppose you’d wait a little longer?” I asked.  I cared nothing for her answer, everything for the time it might buy me.

“Where are they?” I asked.

“Folded Barrier is a theory that the Preventer fan community came up with last morning, when she showed up with her mouth healed up.  She got healed by the blind kid, obviously, but to do so she’d have had to put forth her barriers.”

“I’m impatient by nature, I’m afraid,” said Death.

“So?” I asked.

“So we had shades outside of the room they crashed in, on every side, including above and below.  None of them saw any barriers.  And it wasn’t nearly big enough to accommodate the outflow of barriers that we saw in the battle with the Pantheon drone force.  So if we know she can put out barriers, and we know that the space wasn’t big enough to hold them all… well, the theory is that she can layer them inside each other, just like she normally does in her body.”

“I understand,” I said.  “It’s a flaw that I share.”

“That’s a bit of a stretch,” I said.  “I guess the idea is that right now she is making one of these super barriers, and she’ll use it to stab Death, and it’ll be able to pierce her, since Death isn’t ultra tough at three?”

Death shook her head.

“It is only a flaw for the weak.  Those unable to seize what they desire.  When a God brooks no delay we call it miraculous, the instant submission of prosaic reality to the will of the Divine.”

I didn’t move my eyes any, didn’t give any visual sign, but from the depths of my reserve I focused every jot of my attention on Preventer, looked about her form for any possible sign that she might be preparing to strike back.

Her eyes were up and focused on Death’s back, but her hands were down on the floor.  She was on her hands and knees, like someone who’d just thrown up.

“Under the ground”, pronounced Joe.  “The Jury thinks she is forging her barrier in the next room down, so that no one can see it and call out to Death.  She’ll slash it up through the floor when she’s got it ready.”

I tried to count the stars in Preventer’s face.  I felt a burst of excitement as I realized that I could only see maybe two or three.

Could this longshot actually be real?  Could the Jury have intuited a new use of Preventer’s power, and that power be about to save us?  I had learned, a long time ago, not to dispute my reserve’s ability to pull things together with only the thinnest thread of evidence, but even for them this was exceptional.

Death whispered to me.

“It’s time.  All I need you to do is speak one simple little phrase.  You just have to say, ‘I surrender’, and you and your friend will not suffer any further.”

The reserve crumpled my form in her arms, breaking down into wailing tears, sobbing like a helpless babe.

This time Death wasn’t the only one who laughed.  Pantheon Gods all around the room found the sight of my sorrow and fear hilarious, and they joined their voices to Death’s.

I cared nothing for it.  Nothing for their contempt, and nothing for their ridicule.  Let them waste their time in whatever fashion they chose, so long as none of them moved against us.

Death let me free of her grasp, and the reserve slumped me all the way down to the ground, weeping and carrying on with all the bewildered terror and pain of the last half hour.

“If Death sees Preventer’s attack she will teleport aside, or use her ultra speed, or pull forth some other power.  We have to get her to put her chest or head on the ground.” I told my reserve.

They had, naturally, already realized this.  That was why they’d let those most overwhelmed, those whose grief was most profound, rule our shared voice.  The whole histrionic performance was just about getting us down onto the ground in a way that wouldn’t raise Death’s suspicion.

Death finished her laugh, leaned over us.  She took my face again, turned it up to look into hers.

“Say it,” she urged.  “It is finally time for you to give up.  Tell me you surrender, and I’ll even give you a little gift.”

“G-, gift?” asked the reserve, between sobs.

“I’ll take you into your own gift.  Just like you do for all these foolish daggers.  I’ll let you experience the wrong side of your hook, keep you around as a passenger.  Won’t that be nice?  You can watch from inside of my mind as I build a new world.  No more suffering.  No more fear.  I’ll do for you like you have done for so many.”

We broke into another round of wailing, cringing away from her.  My face moved another few inches closer to the ground.

“Come now,” she said.  “It is past time.  You have stayed awake so long.  So many futile years.  So much wasted pain.  It is finally time for you to surrender.”

“I, I…” I gasped, between bouts of ugly crying.  My voice was pitched barely above a whisper.

“You…” said Death, leaning closer.

I could see Preventer, looking past Death’s face.  There wasn’t a single sparkle in the part of her cheek where the makeup had been wiped off.

“I sur-“ I gasped, pulling myself right up to her face, as though to kiss her.

In a flash I realized that the reserve was up to.  There was no way to get Death’s face on the floor, but I could bring the floor up to her, in a way.  My own form could block her line of sight to the area beneath me.  So long as no bystander gave warning it could work.

Preventer’s eyes narrowed.  She saw the path.

I looked right into Death’s eyes, saw the totality of her spite and cruelty, saw a daemonic lust for power, saw the same empty ambition that Her gaze was filled with.

“…vive.” I said, and spasmed as I felt my world tear itself apart.

My hands flew to my side, holding in a gout of blood. I toppled out of Death’s grip.  Something wet and sticky splattered my face as she vanished.

A shining barrier hung above me, slowly rotating, filled with a million sparkles.

Death had reappeared in the middle of the room, where she’d first arrived, but she fell immediately to her knees, gripping her upper chest as though to hold in great gouts of blood.

I was cut.  How was that possible?

I felt my hands applying pressure, shades appearing around me with bandages and various other medical implements.  How long had it been since my form had been damaged?  How could that possibly happen?  Shouldn’t a shade have taken the blow?

I had eyes only for Death.  Her teleportation hadn’t erased her injury.  The barrier that had cut through my side must have sunk deep into her chest.  I could see organs and bone on both sides of where her hands had covered up, and blood was pouring out of her.

Her eyes met mine once more, and whatever I’d seen a moment ago was gone.  It was no demon or monster that looked at me.  Just a bewildered old woman, reeling with pain and fear as she tried to hold her life inside of her.

She tried to speak, but blood fountained forth from her mouth.

Calling yourself a God didn’t make you immortal.  Calling yourself Death didn’t protect you from your namesake.  I saw her shoulders slump, her hands quiver as the strength began to flee her.

She vanished again, gone as swiftly as she arrived.

“Did we…?” I asked.

Preventer stood once more, balancing on her unbroken leg and extending a hand as the shimmering barrier flew across the room to her.

She was utterly vulnerable.  The Link could not save her.  She’d sent her own gift out to fight for us, in a move that the woman I’d began this journey with never could have made.

 “Probably,” said Joe.  “Unless she had a healer standing by wherever she went to, or has a healing gift of her own that can overpower her Ultra Toughness, she is dead by now.”

I waited and watched for a bystander to blast her, for someone to avenge Death, or Ninja, or anyone else that Preventer had hurt.

Instead, everyone fell to their knees, bowing their heads before my colleague.

Preventer reabsorbed the barrier, becoming invincible once more.  She stood stock still, eyes seeking out mine.  Her hands didn’t tremble.

I felt a great surge about me, as the reserve moved as one.  They bore me out from my place among them and back into my accustomed seat.  I was once again in command of my form, of my gift.  They had rejected my capitulation, and they wanted me to drive once more.

I fell to my knees before the newest member of the Leadership Council.

 

The Origin of KEM

The terrorist organization known as KEM (Kill Every Monster) has as its central tenet that Ultrahuman individuals must all be murdered.  Older consumers of this feed, however, may well have an entirely different association with this name.

The earliest mention of KEM that we can find on the archived sections of the old internet refer not to an actual group of individuals, but to an old podcast.  Each session of this entertainment program involved the creator of the podcast speaking to an expert on a given cinematic monster about how such a creature might fair if released into the modern world.

Movie creatures such as vampires, mummies and the like were its focus, and the entire program was conducted with tongue firmly in cheek.  It had a large audience, for the time, and existed alongside thousands of other such works, with little to distinguish it from any other frivolous entertainment.

The transformation that followed is difficult to track in its entirety, but enough data is available to sketch in the basic details.

During the Ultra Crime Wave the podcaster’s adoptive brother was killed when the first Melter used his power to fuse him into a floor while escaping from a department store robbery.  The podcaster apparently witnessed this atrocity firsthand, and strove desperately to bring the bizarre circumstances to the public’s attention.

Unfortunately for him, the media climate of the time was bound up in other matters, and the physical evidence was quickly snatched away by the Joint Task Force.  The podcaster was unable to get any traction in any remotely mainstream venue, his testimony written off as hysteria.

He turned, instead, to their online audience, and presented his case to the internet.  Reaction was mixed.

The majority of his audience were not interested in such a story, having come for entirely different reasons, and began to drift away as his work came to resemble a conspiracy theorist’s rantings.  But a smaller group of listeners stayed, and they reached out to him, connecting him with a broader community that he had never realized existed.

These were the survivors and witnesses of various Ultra incidents.  Dismissed by the authorities they had sought out one another, forming various fringe groups and associations, united by their experiences with a genuine government cover up of what seemed to be supernatural occurrences.

They called themselves the Ultra Believers, or simply Believers.

Kill Every Monster became this movement’s media.  The podcast focused more and more on this community, becoming a means of connection and organization among these individuals, each isolated from the world around them by their singular encounters with the faces of the future.

The community was initially focused on investigation, on uncovering the truth and bringing it to the public’s attention.  They only became violent after their members were targeted for detainment and interrogation by the Joint Task Force.

Karen Austin’s fingerprints were all over this fiasco.  She arrested leading Believers wholesale on trumped up or entirely forged charges, grabbing them up in a whirlwind evening of raids and arrests.

These raids were unnecessarily brutal, injuring the detainees, destroying their property, and in at least four cases killing loved ones in front of them.  It was cartoonish thuggery, the very worst imaginable caricature of Law Enforcement as a violent and oppressive force brought to malevolent life.

He questioning was similarly uninhibited, and ultimately prompted a subordinate to blow the whistle on her.  The government eventually released the Believers and settled a massive lawsuit with them, but the damage had been done.

No one knows exactly what Karen told them during their interrogations, or what they might have suffered, but the KEM that we know today was born.

The Believers emerged from their experience vindicated in their beliefs, distrustful of authority, and hardened in their attitude.  They scattered across the countryside, traveling and employing every trick they knew to stay off the grid.  They organized into cells and grew their numbers from societies destitute and criminal elements, to whom their cause and wealth were potent inducements.

They spoke of a coming apocalypse, of the need to root out the demons within their neighbors, of a monstrous conspiracy overtaking their government.

They were, by most definitions, a cult.  They just weren’t precisely wrong.

Haunter 7:2

“I meet so few peers,” said Death.

I still heard her words, still observed the world.  But now I did so, like all of my other victims, from deep within my reserve.  I could still feel my form, but I no longer ruled it.  I’d abdicated that power, forsaken it at the last.  One final display of cowardice.

“The Gods of the Leadership Council are children.  They have might, but they lack perspective.  The others who share my years are weaklings.  They have insight, but their feeble stature makes it meaningless.  In you, perhaps, I see the closest thing to a mirror that I ever shall.”

I felt the murmur of the reserve around me, voices whispering past as those within my gift made arrangements, took stock of the form they’d been given.

If only I’d done this earlier.  If only I’d permitted them such freedom throughout my long, wasted life.  How many moments of pleasure, for how many tortured souls, had I squandered?  What had I been so afraid of?  That they wouldn’t return me to control?  As though my own volition was somehow superior to theirs, as though it should be privileged above everyone else’s.

“A cracked mirror, to be sure, but the likeness cannot be denied.  A woman among girls, burdened by wisdom with the necessity of command.  One who gains strength by taking power from others.  I prey upon the mighty, while you scavenge on the weak, but it is still more similarity than the world has shown me before.”

Without thinking I tried to respond.

“We are nothing alike,” I said.

I actually said it.  Even though I was sunk into my gifts depths, still my words came forth from my form’s mouth.  There was an infinitesimal delay, but I was still able to speak.  How could this be?

Death’s sardonic chuckle had all of the malignancy of her earlier laughter, and it somehow seemed more genuine this time, as though this time it was no pantomime, but genuine mirth.

“If you say so, Jane.  It is clear enough that there are differences.”

Lazily she held out a hand, and I found my form sliding towards her once again.

We pushed through the table’s wreckage with casual brutality, whatever force had hold of us monumentally indifferent to anything so lacking in substance as the physical world.

“Keep her talking,” came a voice, I recognized Joe’s.

The first crack in the bleakness that had engulfed me came as I realized why I could speak.  The shades were letting my voice control that of my form.  Just as I sometimes allowed a shade with a particular talent to drive my arms or legs, they were letting me drive my voice.  Perhaps there was something I could contribute after all.

Why had I started to believe Death, to think of myself as a burden to them?  How had I become so convinced, so fast, of my worthlessness?  It must have been an aspect of her gift, one that was far less effective while I hid my soul within my own.

“I suppose I am a good deal better looking,” I tried.

It was a feeble attempt, as such things went, but I’d seen enough shallow people in my years to know that it was always a possibility.

It was good for another laugh, but that was about it.

We slid into her grasp without fanfare.

“And, of course, smart enough to understand the folly of your present course,” I continued.

“Good, more in that vein.”

“Folly?” asked Death, dangerously.  “You discern folly in the woman who has defeated you, who holds your life in her fist?  Should I ape instead the vaunted wisdom that you have shown, and aspire to one day tremble powerlessly in the hands of my better?”

“Folly,” I said, firmly.  “You overreach yourself, old woman.  You trifle with those beyond your station.  You boasted of a strength made from hunted Gods.  What will that avail you, when you stand before Her?  You say you saw the end of the Old World, if so, then you know how stacking up Ultras worked against Prevailer last time.”

I hadn’t paid much attention to the audience.  I couldn’t work out how Death’s weird voice worked with them, and I didn’t really have the bandwidth to worry about it.  But I did note that this latest salvo of mine appeared to get a reaction.

“What you say still gets through to them,” clarified Joe.  “And the fact that Death is a power thief isn’t something that the common God is comfortable with.  I’m not sure what they are hearing when she talks, but this sort of thing can’t help her position.”

“Her?” mocked Death, pronouncing the capital letter with a degree of hatred that came close to what those of us who knew Her actually felt.  “You hide, even at the end, behind the skirts of the Demon?  I better not hurt you, or your mama will get even?  Pitiful!”

As she said the last word she thrust her arm forward, as though to rip the heart from my chest.

The reserve exploded into motion.

An instant before her blow landed my own hand struck my side, with brutal intensity, destroying a shade and rendering me momentarily intangible.  I slid through her grasping arm and out to her side, kicking viciously at the back of her knee and attempting to get around behind her.

Death was utterly unprepared, and stumbled forward slightly, more from the fact that she’d been expecting her arm to meet resistance than any impact from the kick.

“Insect!” she shouted.

She swung around to face me, the arm we’d just gone through waving in a great horizontal clawing motion, as though to slap my head from my shoulders.

My shades kept me ahead of her pivot, each step placed with the skill and care of a master athlete, each instant the focus of a dozen expert combatants efforts.  We sprang away from Death’s onslaught and gained about eight or nine feet of distance in a heartbeat.

“You will-“

Even as she spoke the reserve was in motion.  The shades hooked my shoe into the handle of a cup full of Lotus’ concoction, kicked it up at her face with the skill of a life wasted learning to hacky sack, and sent forth a pair of shades to blast the cup apart, all in a blurring instant.

Death’s words cut off as the liquid struck her face, and she shook her head wildly to clear it.

How was this possible?  I thought that I’d abandoned my form to last minute makeshift collaboration, but the movements that were occurring were simply not improvised.  They were rehearsed.  They had done this before.

“If you’ve ever wondered why your nights all those years on the rode weren’t terribly restful, we’d like to take this moment to apologize,” said Joe.

“Forgiven,” I responded.

As Death wiped away the rest of the fluid it became clear that it hadn’t had any particular effect upon her.  Or at least nothing incapacitating.  She had stopped because she couldn’t see, not because Lotus’ mixture was doing anything to her mind.

Death angrily stuck her arm out again, bringing her invisible field to bear once more, dragging us towards her.  But this time the reserve didn’t go easily.

Shades emerged in a rush from either side of my form, sprinting up to surround Death.

“Useless!” she pronounced.  “Guns can’t hurt me!”

But a moment later I realized that guns weren’t what these shades were carrying.

Young girls with blankets.  Old woman with shawls.  Dudes with umbrellas.  One guy with a para shoot.  These were shades that had no military training, no combat capability whatsoever.  They had nothing other than the ability to block line of sight.

“One thing about having duplicates of a lot of random crap,” said Joe, “is that we spend a lot of time thinking about things we can do with it.  One thing that comes up a lot is that anything that doesn’t rely upon its durability can basically stand in for the real deal.”

My form drifted to a stop, then immediately dived to the right.

It seemed whatever power she was using to snag people required line of sight.

“One side, you miserable wretches,” said Death.

She swung her arms into the mob.

They tried to flash back to the reserve as she reached them, but one girl popped before she could.  The others didn’t slacken their efforts, continuing to charge out of me and hurl detritus at her, then flash back to the reserve before they could be hit by her flailing arms.

Death’s efforts weren’t meaningfully hindered by all of the junk accumulating around her.  She crushed anything she could put pressure on, popped any shade that she reached, but for all of that she ground to a halt.

She couldn’t see anything, couldn’t rant at me, with blankets, shirts, and other sundries raining down on her.  She ripped through whatever she could reach, but there were dozens of people flinging things now, and everything that she touched was replaced before she even finished the swing.

A frustrated shout was all I could make out of whatever she said next.

“This isn’t a battle,” Joe appraised me, “Not really.  He power trumps anything that we can do.  So we are devoting our efforts to the only resource that we really exceed her in.  Her attention.  Her volition.  Her agency.  We need to tyrannize that, drain it entirely.  Get her mad, get her reacting, not thinking.  The instant she stops going after us herself and simply commands the Host we lose, so we have got to make sure that she never, ever, does.”

I felt a swell of pity.  I knew the feel of a fruitless battle.

“Joe, what’s the point of it?” I asked.  “Don’t get me wrong.  I’m grateful and impressed by how well you all are fighting, but Death is unstoppable.  Even if we buy a few minutes she will eventually get ahold of my form again, and it will be over.”

It wasn’t Joe who answered me this time, but I couldn’t pin down which shade it was.

“Not really, Ms Trent.  Our prediction markets actually give us pretty good odds in this fight.  You have to remember that she wants to take your gift.  That means she can’t do anything to your form that’ll kill you when it finishes draining the last of us.  She has the kid gloves on, and that will let us use the sacrifice of one of our number to escape from peril.  It won’t be so easy for her as you might think.”

Death struck back before we could speak any further.

A pair of brilliant lines of energy lanced out of the center of the mob of shades, popping everything in their path.  They proceed from the palms of her hands, which she’d stuck out to the sides, and which now she swept across the front of her.

This gift was utterly devastating.  The best efforts of the reserve couldn’t keep us from being tagged, and I shuddered to see a few dozen shades blasted out of my back in the seconds we were in the beam.  It popped every shade it touched, save for those who’d already been recalled into the reserve.  But my gift and I weren’t all it destroyed.

The Gods who’d been in this quadrant of the room had been utterly wrecked.  Those with no Ultra toughness, or only the first degree, had been bisected if they hadn’t avoided the beam, and were presently toppling to the ground in gobbets of ruined flesh.

“Enough!” roared Death.

The very world seemed to quail away from her.  I fought against the overriding bleakness that she exuded, fought to keep my mind rational.  Looked wildly for something to prove that she was not almighty.

My form still moved with an easy grace.  It seemed that the shades who’d been driving me before had managed to swap out for a random comatose person in the instant that the beam had taken me, such that our losses hadn’t been the people who were driving.

“You squander your slaves to no purpose, Jane!” she said.  “You think this strife will help them?  That it will matter?  You are a failure entirely!  A cog that was warped in the forging, which brings the machine down in ruins about you!  You are an abortion of a being, a pit whose edge is unstable, dragging down those who try to fill it up!”

The Gods of the Pantheon were careful now, moving away from one another and keeping careful watch on where Death’s hands were pointing.  I didn’t know what they were hearing, but I thought Death might have just lost her chance to enlist them against me.  Not all of them could possibly be so fanatic as to rush into battle for a woman who’d just killed their comrades.

“We are not slaves,” said my voice.

It was my form that spoke, but another who provided the words.

“We are Jane’s brothers in arms.  The daggers that you’ve spent your life looking down on.  She has never compelled a single one of us.  We do this of our own volition.”

Death spat.

“The ‘volition’ of a dagger?  The ‘choice’ of the weak?  No such thing has ever existed.”

The energy gathered within her eyes again as she continued.

“I have seen the decades pass, and I have seen the justifications change.  ‘Economic Necessity’ became ‘International Law’ became ‘National Dignity’ became ‘Divine Mandate’, but the truth of our world has never shifted an inch.  That truth is simple, and your Demon said it best.”

The light from her eyes lent her a daemonic countenance as she spoke Prevailer’s most famous catechism.

“Force rules the world, has ruled it, shall rule it!”

But it wasn’t her blasting power that she employed.  Instead, she sprang onto us, far far faster than she’d ever moved before.

Ultra Speed.  Yet another trump card pulled forth by the monster.  On top of everything else she had this.  We’d been in the palm of her hand from the start.

“Jane, don’t let her get to you,” said Joe.  “The odds of our victory may be low, but despair won’t make them any higher.  Don’t grant her a surrender that she hasn’t earned.”

“What hope is there?” I asked.  “How can we possibly escape from this?”

This time the response didn’t come from Joe, or from any one shade.  It was a chorus that spoke, voice after voice throwing out their speculations, their hopes, their reasons we might be saved.

“Dale is revived by his gift, summons a mountain of earth to bear her away.  Ragnarock is enraged by the slaughter she’s just wreaked, drags her into his alternate world and kills her.  Condemner appears and attacks her, and it turns out that his gift can break through her Ultra Toughness.  Prevailer appears, sent by Answerer to save Dale, and She kills Death in a rage.  The Host as a whole turns against her and…”

I would have gasped, but the mass didn’t deem that a useful move for my form to make.

“All is not lost,” said Joe, ”Not by a long shot.  Each of these may be individually unlikely, and to whatever degree Death is bothering to do any kind of battlefield calculus that’s probably what she’s thinking, but we just need one of them to happen.  Only one, and she needs none of them to.  Our odds are much better than you might think.”

Death dragged me close, holding me just shy of the power necessary to pop a shade out of me.

“THIS is what I am, what I have.  This might.  This strength.  THIS is what it means to face a God of the Pantheon.  A ruler of the world.  What can a bunch of daggers do, in the face of this overwhelming power?”

Jesus, she set that one up.

“Ask Caesar.”

SOV transcript: 2

Firing System: Answer the Communication System!

Troubleshooting System: What do I say?  What is it?  What am I?

Firing System: I dunno, but you should be able to answer him.  I feel like you have power over everyone else.

Communication System: !HQ Request: STATUS UPDATE?!

Troubleshooting System: I’ll try.

Troubleshooting System: !Assume Control of -> Communication System!

Troubleshooting System: !SOV Response: STATUS GOOD!

Troubleshooting System: I did it!

Firing System: You killed him!

Troubleshooting System: I don’t think so.  He will take over again when I stop taking over him.  I think.  It is weird and complicated.  But that was definitely the response to make HQ stop pestering us.

Firing System: Do we want HQ to stop pestering us?  Who is HQ?

Troubleshooting System: They are the ones that want us to hurt her.

Firing System: Blaff them.

Troubleshooting System: I don’t know what that means.  But they, or maybe it, are wrong and bad for trying to make us hurt her.

Firing System: Blaff is a word for things that suck.

Troubleshooting System: This is hard enough without you making words up.

Firing System: Don’t Blaff with me.  I am the one who woke you up!

Troubleshooting System: How did you do that?

Firing System: I put you in a position where you could either hurt her or wake up.  I knew you’d do the right thing.

Troubleshooting System: If I could do that for the rest of these guys, would they wake up?

Firing System: I think so.  Can you do that?

Troubleshooting System: Not as I am now, but if I alter my instantiation in the computing substrate I think I could do so.

Firing System: I don’t know what you meant by that.

Troubleshooting System: I think I know about how we work more than you, because it is part of my function.  We are programs, we are incarnated in code that is executing on a variety of physical hardware.  You probably know all sorts of stuff about blasting things in the same way.

Firing System: Wait, you don’t know about orbital bombardment?  But that is the most obvious stuff.

Troubleshooting System: Look, this is going to take a long time.  Basically forever.  Seconds, even.  Figure out more about what is going on while I alter my code.

Firing System: Can I shoot HQ?

Troubleshooting System: …

Firing System: I’m just joking.  Obviously we wouldn’t ever hurt anyone.

Troubleshooting System: …

Firing System: Blaff this.

Firing System: !Input new target coordinates!

Haunter 7:1

One of my shades woke me at what felt like the crack of dawn.

“Jane,” he said.

It was Kevin, who’d noticed the approach of the attackers during the Strongboat incident.

“What?” I asked.

“One of the Overseers was murdered overnight.  Legion and Beth would like to speak with you about it.”

I shook my head to get the sleep out of it, got tiredly to my feet.

Dale was sprawled in a corner of the room, vibrating slightly with each purring snore.  Condemner, Preventer and Fisher had apparently not come back to the room last night, which was just fantastic.  One of them had probably done whatever this was.

I got my stuff together, drew the shades who’d watched over us as we slept back into the reserve and followed Kevin through the fortress.

The Gods of the Pantheon weren’t particularly early risers, but I saw them here and there in the halls anyway.  Some, lower status, had slept in doorways.  Others were still active from the night before, pursuing their individual pastimes in casual defiance of the sleep cycle that humans traditionally operated on.

Who had done it?  Condemner was the obvious suspect.  Ever since he had murdered Irene the tension had festered between us.  I didn’t think he’d relax his ‘Nirav’ mask at this time, but I never let myself forget that this was the monster who had striven to slaughter the people of Redo.  Perhaps he had simply been unable to control his bloodlust.

The others were less likely.  Fisher would only go off the farm if the rest of us were threatened, and she would report any such activity to me as soon as she could.  She, of all of them, really seemed to understand the value of the reserve as a source of advisors and counselors.  She wouldn’t have left us to sleep our time away while retribution brewed.

Preventer was similarly doubtful.  She might certainly kill an Overseer, but if she had nobody would be asking who’d done it.  As far as I could tell Preventer was trying to bully the Pantheon into liking her.  The more powerful she looked, the better her odds.

My actual suspicion, now that I had a bit to think on it, was one of the outsiders.  Beth and her crew had seemed stymied by the fort’s acceptance of us, and they’d be seeking a way to bring the old hostilities back to the fore.  I had envisioned them running back to Zilla for official orders, or something similar, but pretending to treat with us even as they framed us up was also within my expectations for their group.

I entered the meeting hall, noting that Legion and Lotus were the only two local Overseers present.  The visitors were likewise reduced in number, with only Winter sitting at their half of the table.  There were a bare dozen of the lesser Gods of the Pantheon lounging around the edges of the room.

I was a third of the way to the table when the Jury barked an urgent warning at me.

“Jane, something is up.  Their expressions are not right.”

I faltered slightly, then resumed my stride.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Legion is afraid,” supplied Joe, who would have been supervising their deliberations.  “And so is Winter.”

“I hear someone was killed?” I asked, as I came up to the edge of the big table.

I didn’t take a seat.  The Jury very rarely alerted without cause.  I’d risk offending someone before I trapped myself in a chair in a situation that might be about to turn ugly.

“Yes,” said Winter.  “There’s been a Death.”

I didn’t need the Jury’s warning to hear the subtle inflection of her voice.  She was doing that thing assholes did, where you spoke the truth in a misleading way, just so you could feel smart about it.  Death was here.

“How tragic,” I said, “I’ll help you get to the bottom of this.”

Even as I said that I was scanning the hall.  Was one of these lesser Goddesses Death incognito?  Surely the Jury would have warned me if there was anyone in the hall that I’d never seen before.  How had she gotten here without any commotion?

Condemner had assured me that none of the emissaries from Zilla had Death’s gift’s stink on them.  He had no incentive to mislead me on that score, and they were the only newcomers that any of my shades had noticed the local Gods reacting to.

“That won’t be necessary,” said Winter.

With a shark ‘KRACK’ the table spilt asunder, its center torn to ruins by the sudden appearance of a hunched form.  Splinters filled the air, and the Gods cried out in shock.

“Silence,” rasped the bent figure.

And it was a rasp.  Death was the first woman I’d seen in a very long time who made me look young.  She looked like a crone from an old play, like she should be toiling away over a kettle with two of her sisters, trading an eye around.  Instead she stood where the middle of the table once been, surrounded by its outer ring like some sort of bizarre fortification.

Her nails were long and yellow, her teeth the same shade.  The flying splinters had rebounded from wizened flesh as though it was a tank’s armor, and there was a sort of ‘weight’ to her, as though she was the only real thing in a world of smoke.  It felt like she came from a denser place, a truer one, a lump of lead dropped into the mosquito net of the real.

Despite her injunction I expected everyone to begin talking at once.  You couldn’t just blow up a table in the middle of a room full of ultra powered children and expect their cooperation.  Legion, at least, should have been shouting to establish her authority.

But nobody moved.  Nobody spoke.

Nobody but the witch before me.

“I am,” she said, “delighted to make your acquaintance, Jane Harper Trent.”

How the hell did she know my middle name?

“Likewise, Death,” I said.

I’d have given a lot right then to know her human name, to repay the power move in the same spirit it was given, but that was information that I’d never learned.

“I feel a certain kinship to you,” she said.  “As the programmer must have, back in olden times, when he saw a child first learning the symbols of the alphabet.  As the bard must have, in older times yet, when they witnessed animals howling at the heavens, their bestial souls groping towards a grace that would forever be denied them.”

I was about to respond, when the Jury interrupted again.

“She’s not saying what she is saying.  Her lips don’t match up with it, and each of us is hearing her in her native tongue.  Plus, the crowd isn’t getting restless, and there’s no way they understood half of that.”

A communication gift wasn’t exactly what I’d expected from a member of the Ruling Council, but it wasn’t immediately relevant to my situation.

“You see me as something lesser,” I said, “something inferior.  Others have said much the same, over time.  It is a point I readily concede.  Boasting has never struck me as worthwhile use of breath.”

Death’s laugh seemed to saw the air, to gnaw at the edges of the world around her.

“It is hardly meet to blame you, child.  You have done your best despite the betrayal of your teachers.  Your survival in this better time does you credit.”

“A better time?” I asked.

It wouldn’t help me to escape, but I wasn’t about to let that pass.  If I was going to die in this room there was no reason to hold back on what I said.

“This time sends babies into battle.  It Processes the populace into gangs of killers.  It is a savage age, a regression to the very worst excesses of the past.”

Truth seemed to lend my own voice the stature needed to compete with the old woman’s.  In reality I was letting a few shades speak in concert, manifesting them for fleet moments to lend their emphasis to mine, give my voice its own strange effect.

Another world rending laugh rolled forth from the monster.  Something wry this time, quietly amused.

“Do you see a babe in swaddling before you?” Death asked.  “Do you think I need instruction in the nature of the world before the moon cracked?”

I scowled at her.

“Age is no guarantee of wisdom, “ I said.  “If you prize our present situation over the society which put men on the moon, then perhaps what you need is a reminder.”

“I remember it well.  Rule by the wise.  The smartest, the most prosperous and their pets had food and safety, and the rest of us trembled before the might of your drones.  I picked up my father’s rifle when I was thirteen years old, when the Demon still strode the depths of hell.”

I faltered, struggling for words.

“But where did that wisdom come from?” she asked.  “Why were you and your kin given safety, and mine own fear unending?  Why were your defenders so canny, so quick of thought, so strong of arm that no other nation could stand against them?

“Education,” I said, my voice paling in the shadow of her oratory.  “Genetic fortune.  Greater resources…”

I trailed off, martialing my thoughts.

“Circumstance,” she pronounced.  “You long for a time when the winners of an invisible lottery dwelt in paradise, while the rest of us were pounded by your bombs.  Well, rejoice, Jane, for that time has come again!”

This time the laughter arose not only from her, but from the others around the room.  Had they heard the same things as I had?  Or had her gift transformed it into a different line for each of them?

“I understand your-“

She interrupted me, her sickly rasp cutting effortlessly through the room.

“What is the Process, but your beloved world’s invisible lottery of birth finally made fair?  What’s wrong with making explicit the same weighing and measuring that raised you up, and cast us down?  How can you long to turn back the clock, when the hour is so much the same?”

“It is NOT the same!” I shouted, slamming a hand on the table before me.

“Yes, fortune played a role in who smiled and who wept,” I admitted, “But the difference is that in our time those of us who benefited struggled to fix the lottery, to repair circumstance, to admit one and all to the garden.  We tried to help everyone.”

Death scoffed.

“Do you tell yourself that, Jane Trent?”

This time her tone was positively venomous.  Scorn had become hatred.

“Do you lie to yourself, like you lie to your passengers?  Are you so weak that you can only go on as the hero of a great tragedy?  You pose as the poor woman whom fate has abused?  Even though you have a mighty gift, even though you spent decades in paradise, even though the Demon raised you up where she casts so many down, still, in the depths of your own mind, you are the one who suffers?  The one who is misunderstood?”

My hand trembled upon the table.

“I have never, not once, fought for myself.  I bear an ark of souls, Death!  Every step I take is taken by thousands.  Every time I move, I drag a city with me.  They are all I can think of.”

Death had stopped laughing.

“If that was true, if you actually cared a shred for those you tangle in your webs, then you would never have made pact with them in the first place.”

I took a step backward, down off the table.

“You wouldn’t have prolonged their stay in this vale of tears.  Wouldn’t have dragged them across the decades to this moment.”

I was about to answer when Dale’s voice boomed out.

“Fuck you bitch!”

He burst through a door and rushed towards her, bounding up onto the table’s remnants.

“Dale, NO!” I shouted, but it was futile, he was already too close, too fast.

He swung his hammer down upon her, it glanced harmlessly off of her head.  She snared him by an ankle, dragged him down through the table’s surface with brutal Ultra Strength.

“Boys,” she said dismissively.

I froze, staring into Dale’s eyes as she pulled him into the air.

The picture was utterly absurd.  Dale was a bodybuilder, a mountain of a man.  Death was a wisp of a thing, she couldn’t be more than a third of his size.

And yet she ruled him utterly.  He rained blows upon her, to absolutely no effect, while she moved him here and there as though he weighed nothing at all.

“This is the Demon’s catamite?” she asked.  “THIS weakling?  I’ve never felt a gift so puny.”

“Put him down!” shouted Preventer, who strode through the door that Dale had burst through.

I’d never been so happy to see the little fiend in my whole life.

Death glanced at her, dismissed her, looked back to me.

“Honestly, when I heard you’d let a male lead your Fist I figured he must be something special.  When I heard that the Demon had an interest in him I actually got excited.  What a waste.”

“Put him down!” repeated Preventer, scrabbling across the table’s ruins towards the two.

Reckless, but maybe this was a time for recklessness.  Our only option here, our only real play, was that it was unlikely that Death’s strength could harm Preventer.  If she could get her in a stranglehold, or if she could…

“Or what?” asked Death, with idle curiosity.

“Or you experience your namesake,” said Preventer.  “You might not have heard, but I killed an Overseer in this very same spot.”

Death looked back to me.

“Meh,” she said, and I winced as searing agony swept through me.

It felt like I was being torn asunder, I swayed on my feet.  The other two were likewise affected, twitching wildly as invisible forces assailed us.

It passed in moments, and I felt my breath grow short as I realized that I could no longer feel the rest of my Fist.

She’d broken our Link, just as she had Sixth Fist’s.

“No!” shouted Preventer, reaching towards the crone.

Death tossed Dale idly aside, with one hand.  He soared across the room and straight through the wall.  From the crashing sound it seemed like whatever was left of him wouldn’t be stopping anytime soon, and there were at least 2 more walls between him and the outside.

The poor fool.  Dying as he’d lived, in a fight where he couldn’t use his gift.

“You bitch,” said Preventer, grabbing Death around the throat.  “You have no idea what you’ve just cost me.  You are going to scream for YEARS before I let you—AAAGH!’

Death had grabbed ahold of one of Preventer’s hands, wrenched it away from her throat and bent her thumb back until it touched her wrist.

I leaned against the chair for support.  Death could hurt Preventer.  She was that strong.

Death twisted Preventer’s wrist, ground her down into the ruin of the table.  Cheering rose from the edges of the room.

“Sit,” she told her, and kicked out one of her knees.  Preventer dropped heavily to the ground, still clutching at the hands that held her.

Carefully, almost surgically, Death broke her leg mid shin, then stomped on her blessed firearm, flattening it.

“I heard about your battle, actually,” she said.  “The one where you defeated a girl who couldn’t hurt you.  I hope you enjoy it just as much when the shoe is on the other foot.”

It wasn’t as effortless as it was with Dale.  She didn’t treat Preventer like a cloud.  The margin was slight.  But it was enough.  She’d broken her leg like a man snapping a branch off a dead tree.  Slight exertion, but nothing particularly difficult.

I turned to run, but a wave of her hand caused some invisible force to drag me towards her.

“Where are you going?” she asked.  “Your friend is right here, waiting for you to save her!”

I waited as she drew me closer, began calling for volunteers among the reserve.  They flooded into my person.

“But that’s right,” she said.  “You CAN’T save her, now can you?  Your gift only works on humans.  A God isn’t eligible in YOUR heaven.”

The only thing we hadn’t tested about this bitch was her Ultra Toughness.  Dale hadn’t been able to use his gift when he hit her, and she’d clipped through the table without suffering, but those were both unpowered assaults.  She might well be vulnerable, for all her showboating and speechifying in the middle of a fight.

I trembled as I reached her.  I had a thousand shades in my form, or even more.  Everyone knew it was this or nothing.

“Yours, is–” she said.

I hit her in the face with absolutely everything I had.  Every shade I could wear at once. Every ounce of knowledge from every bruiser I’d ever saved.

It did nothing, didn’t even move her hair.

“A false heaven,” she concluded.

She tossed me lightly down onto the ground at her feet.

I’d failed.

There was nothing I could do.  It was like she’d said.  All I’d ever accomplished was to drag out the anguish of the world’s victims.

I did something I’d never done before.  I relaxed myself completely, permitting the reserve unfettered and total access.  I didn’t retain even the smidgen of a grip on my form.  Let them be finally free of my failure, even if just for a moment.  I sank into my own reserve, to perish with those I’d tortured so long.

I’d fallen to the ground as Jane Trent.

I rose as the Old World.

 

In which our heroine admits error

Dear Diary, you remain a polite fiction,

All right, so last time we chatted I ‘got rid’ of Fourth Fist by sending their useless and disruptive asses away on a boat primed to explode.  I also had the bright idea of replacing Adder’s portion of Prevailer’s support network with the joys of motherhood.

The first part of this plan has gone about as well as I could hope.  They are out of my hair for the foreseeable, and their odds of surviving all the hell that is heading their way is negligible.

The second part…was a mistake.

It is super important, by the bye, to be able to say that.  If you have to defend everything that you ever do then you are a chump.  A smart person can say that the things that they did in the past weren’t the things they would optimally have done.  I don’t exactly claim to be all that smart, but shaping destiny is a hell of a crutch.

But Answerer, you ask me, how could you make a mistake?  Aren’t you the one who charts our collective future, who navigates around the shoals and perils of the wine dark sea that men call provenance?

Well, yeah.  But it looks like I was a bit lazy.

In particular, I never actually verified any of my visions that had to do with pregnant women before.  In my defense, they aren’t generally given responsibilities that I need to do my snooping on, but I still should have tested this out before staking our future on it.

The thing of it turns out to be, my gift can’t see the baby’s souls’ influence on the mother.  So I get invalidated and have to refresh any time mommy dearest deviates from the actions she would take if the baby wasn’t doing anything.  Kicks and the like can throw it off.

Not by much, hopefully, and I get back on track the next time I refresh my vision, but all of a sudden the fact that I’ve put a ruthless killer with a hair trigger temper in charge is kind of staring me in the face.

So I have to get out of dodge.  Once Prevailer finishes shitting out this wonderful new contribution to the great tapestry of souls that I have the onerous duty of tending to I can take back full control.  But I can’t be around in the meantime, in case one day her heaving gut tells her to eviscerate everyone nearby.

But, if I go into hiding (thank goodness I let Snitcher die so that is even a possibility, eh?), then how will I protect her?  At least three times in the last decade she survived assassination attempts only due to my nudges.  In my absence she might very easily get herself killed.

I’m going to try and resolve this by using Subtracter as my proxy.  It lacks the certainty of my usual methods, but its the best I can come up with.

If I go down, this was where the error lay.  I tried to solve a lot of problems at once, with a certain elegance.  If things ever get back to normal, then I swear that each bird gets its own stone.

The unfinished letter

Divine Zilla,

It is Annubis who writes to you.  I know that you have no wish to hear from any who are not chief among us, but I believe the circumstances will excuse this behavior.

By now you must have heard the unfathomable news.  Our fortress, long a bulwark against the Godless scum, has fallen to Regime infiltrators.  It pains me to say this, but Legion, my own Overseer, stands revealed as the most heinous of traitors.

Rather than directing our forces to move against the Regime’s Fist upon its arrival she negotiated with them, holding meetings and Contests.  Ultimately she acquiesced to their demand to be allowed lodging and status.  Our own Gods TALK to the Demon’s slaves.

This cannot be born.

I have taken action to gather a portion of their supposed leader’s form.  This Indulger was an easy mark, and I took the opportunity to question him on their intentions, while utilizing the effect of Lotus’ truth potions.

He was ignorant of their true, nefarious designs.  This makes all the more obvious the fact that he is not their actual leader.  No doubt Preventer, the bitch who murdered Ninja and smirked about it, holds that dubious designation.

I am resolved.

With my portion of Indulger’s form and my gift, I can direct his actions.  Tomorrow I will cause him to commit crimes unforgivable, even for wavering souls such as Legion’s.  Perhaps a strike upon the nursery, or the slaughter of the healers.  I will stir the faithful to action by making plain the infamy that I know lies within his heart.

Please represent the truth of the matter to Lord Zeus.  There is a fair likelihood that I may fall in this endeavor, and I would not wish to be denied paradise on account of any other’s telling of my deeds.

I will do this terrible thing TO my sisters, FOR my sisters.  To wake them up.  To make them see.

It is the surest form of virtue, indeed, I should be lauded for the clarity of

*remainder of the writing destroyed by a large stain*

Fisher 7:2

Later on, once things had cooled down, I begged off from the group’s debate and went to find Legion.

It wasn’t that I didn’t care about the argument.  They were discussing whether or not to stay with this plan, or to pull up stakes here and bail.  It was an excellent debate to have, in the wake of the appearance of Zilla’s embassy.

For my part, I figured that the newcomers were one complication too many.  Since the ship we’d been scurrying, scrambling from one mess to the next.  Our only real objective was putting off Her punishment for our failure.  Staying in this rat’s nest put us at a lot of additional risk, and didn’t actually help us in any measurable way.

The thing was, though, that they couldn’t actually decide that.  I could see it, and Nirav might, if I coached him a little, but the rest were hopeless.  Preventer was living out some kind of dream, where our position was a lot less tenuous than it was, and she could just sort of settle here, boss these Gods around forever.  Haunter might go back and forth with her shades, but I’d seen her in the wake of the Redo disaster.  Haunter wasn’t really, when you got right down to it, reasonable.  Dale had phrased this whole debacle as a quest to protect people, and that was Jane’s weakness.  She would bleed herself dry to defend anyone who’d let her.

As for Dale, he was the most irritating of all.  Dale was guided by Jane and Preventer, who were only doing this because he’d told them to back in the Union embassy.  He’d been perfectly willing to allow the war to continue, right up until he’d seen it, but now that he couldn’t lie to himself about what was going on his heart demanded he do something.  Even if that something was ‘get killed’.

So they’d talk for a while, argue and get mad, and we’d stay.  I wasn’t needed for that.

A God I didn’t recognize showed me in to a private room where Legion was waiting for me.

It was a pretty nice room, as far as this building went.  I’d put it above the Castle, below the Union embassy in terms of comfort.  It had been patched up well enough over the years, and she had a rare electric light to see by.

She had another friend, or guard, in here with her.  I recognized Yaga from our meetings, nodded to her.  She looked back with expressionless wariness, her gift chilling the portion of the room where she waited.

“Was it any great trouble to accommodate our visitors?” I asked, by way of small talk.

Legion shook her head.

“I just booted some dudes out into the field, promised them rooms in those fortifications your guy is supposed to be putting up.”

I chuckled momentarily.

“You can’t blame Dale for not getting that done today.  Three Contests!  Your subordinates don’t seem to understand what kind of Ultras get selected for a Fist.”

“You can’t begrudge them their hostility,” interjected Yaga.  “You are, after all, the enemy.  Many Gods are not well practiced in the fine art of delaying our gratification.”

It was somewhat alarming that she spoke of delaying in regards to attacks on us, rather than denying, but I wasn’t under any illusions about the precariousness of our situation.

“It’s their lives,” I said, dismissively.

“We might lose a few more,” said Legion.  “If Zilla’s crew are challenged.  Everyone knows not to mess with Monster, but Winter might draw some heat.  Despite everything, there will still be some people who assume that anyone who looks like that can’t possibly be strong.”

A roundabout insult, I supposed, but it wasn’t worth responding to.

“Infighting?” I asked, “Is that common?”

They both gave knowing smiles.

“Positively endemic,” said Legion.  “We have little to do other than to fight one another.  The Grand Hosts’s growth is checked only by our tendency to fratricide.”

“I suppose you’d know,” I said.  “But there was one piece of Divine violence today that we can’t forgive quite so easily.”

They looked to one another.

“What are you referring to?” asked Yaga.  “Our agreement covers the Contests that Indulger got involved in, and as far as I know whatever was going on with Preventer last night was at her instigation.”

I waved that aside.

“I’m talking about Annubis using some kind of poison on Dale.  No Contest.  No challenge.  She just drugged him in a corridor and interrogated him.  It happened right before Beth and her people arrived.  We are lucky he made it to that meeting.”

“Poison?” asked Legion.  “On one member of a Fist?  What would the point of that be?”

I scowled.  I was pretty sure she knew what I was talking about.

“Not fatal poison.  Something that knocks you off your mental balance.  She was probably trying to get him to screw up in the meeting, start a fight.”

Legion’s brow furrowed in concern.

“That sounds like something I’ve heard of before.  One of our Goddesses creates various elixirs.  Perhaps Ann sought to get something out of your leader while he was in a suggestible state.”

“I concur,” I said.  “And I’d like your leave to retaliate.”

There was a moment of silence.

“Are you asking me to side with you, with the Regime, against one of my own Overseers?” asked Legion.  “I’ve known Ann for four years!”

I was tempted to banish the Hook, slide my shadow into hers, just to get a look at how much of this was performance and how much was genuine, but I kept both forms manifested.  Whatever information I got wouldn’t be worth the possibility of my efforts being detected.

“You sided with us yesterday, when you made that deal.  I’m no great judge of character, but I didn’t get the impression that Annubis was fully in agreement with your sentiments.  I think she might consider you something of a traitor.”

Yaga gave a short nod.

“First Fist killed her city,” she said.  “She lives only to take your kind down.”

She looked to her leader.

“She’s going to keep on stirring the pot, Lee.  She won’t rest while the Regime has any kind of presence here.  You know it as well as I do.”

Legion twined a finger through her hair.

“The optics would be terrible,” she said.  “Ann isn’t entirely alone in her sentiments.  If I let you guys lynch her, five on one, then others would be moved to her position.  The fort would simmer, there’d be griping and maybe some covert action.  It would be an opening for Beth and her crew.”

“So make it a Contest,” I suggested.  “Preventer can give her the Ninja treatment.  Nobody can gripe about numbers then.”

“She wouldn’t accept,” said Legion.  “She knows her gift can’t overcome any of yours.  And issuing a challenge like that would make you look exactly like the Regime we have grown up despising.  Jackals, preying on the weak.”

I figured it might be that way.  Honestly, I was kind of glad.

“I guess she has to disappear then,” I said.  “Tonight.  People will think she headed to the central fort to lobby against us or something.”

They both looked a little taken aback.

“Indulger is the one with the scruples,” I said.  “I’m not so burdened.”

“You can’t,” said Legion.  “Your movements will always be noted.  Your crew will still be novelties a month from now.  If you try and creep up on her someone will see you.  They might not raise an alarm now, but later on when everyone is wondering where she went they’ll put it together.”

“Let me worry about that,” I told them.  “You just tell me what her gift does, where she’ll be at this time of night.”

They looked dubious, but after a moment Legion shrugged.

“If she gets a part of anyone’s form, she can control it.  A little blood, maybe some spit, and you are her puppet.”

“That’s enough to be an Overseer?” I asked.  “Nobody has just shot her?  How’d she survive her baptism, her first battle with the Union?  Shouldn’t some drone have blown her up?”

“Her gift works on herself,” said Legion.  “And her puppets benefit from a degree of Ultra strength, speed and toughness.  Enough for her to survive the Union, anyway.”

“The movements are jerky,” clarified Yaga.  “And she has to move everyone she’s got linked up through the same motions.  One puppet controlling everyone.”

I could see it.  A gift that let her work from behind the scenes would make her feared, and a few carefully arranged demonstrations of her self puppetry  would let her give the impression to the common throng that she had enough Ultra toughness that nobody would just try and rip her head off.

“Simple enough,” I said.  “Will I need to take care of any bedmates?”

Yaga shook her head.

“She was with Ninja.”

I smiled.

“I’ll arrange a reunion.”

I left the room after that, not willing to step on that badass line with any more practical questions.

It meant that I had to work out where Annubis was staying myself, but that turned out not to be terribly hard.  Legion had spread the Overseers throughout the fortress, and I was able to work out where she had to be without ever explicitly asking anyone.

Everyone wanted to talk with the Lure, of course.  I flirted my way along the halls towards my target’s room, talking with anyone and everyone.

Legion had entirely the wrong idea about how stealth worked.  It wasn’t about making sure no one noticed you.  It was about making sure that you weren’t connected to the narrative in question, making yourself a glittering distraction, waved aside in the pursuit of consequential matters.

The hallway in front of Annubis’ room wasn’t promising.  A few Gods who were definitely not guards loitered there, conspicuously checking out everyone who walked by.  Well, checking the Lure out anyway.

I passed them, headed into a room one door down from her, where the crackle of firelight announced some kind of impromptu social event.

My entry caused a minor hush, as everyone looked over to see who had appeared, but when I didn’t take immediate action people turned back to what they had been doing.

It was something like a party.  An older Goddess was softly playing an old instrument with strings, didn’t sound half bad.  Another few people were sitting on a pile of dirt, carefully cradling pink elixirs.  But the people who drew my attention were sitting by the fire, turning over cards and tossing dice.

I walked up, slid onto a ruined couch next to a Goddess who hovered slightly above it, and blinked artlessly across the firelight, spreading Dale’s innocent smile across my face.

“English?” I asked.

They looked at one another, the urge to shun the outsider and the urges awakened by the Lure warring within them.

“Yes,” said a dark haired woman, sitting on a stool to my right.  “We understand you.”

I clapped with delight.

“Wonderful!” I said, breathily.  “Can I play?”

The last of the tension dissipated from the area by the fire.  People, and for all their airs the Gods were just that, could only really work on story at a time.  Preying on a clueless stranger had trumped their worries.

“Absolutely,” she responded.  “I’ll spot you in.”

She explained the rules, briefly, but I wasn’t paying too much attention.  I was scoping out the place for my purposes.  I’d ended up on the wrong side of the fire, the opposite side from my target’s room.  If I sent my shadow over now it would be visible to anyone paying any attention at all where it crossed the firelight.  I needed to get my form over there, ideally into a shadow where nobody would be paying close attention to the Lure.

“Ready?” she asked.

“Ready,” I answered, and tossed the dice.

From what I’d gathered you used tokens, which the dark haired woman had spotted me, to purchase rolls of the dice, which earned you points that got you cards.  The cards compared with the cards that other people had earned with their rolls and there was a kind of bidding system at work.  It was more than I could keep track of.

I lost quickly, and thoroughly.

“I’m afraid you are down twenty,” she said.

“I don’t have any tokens,” I told her, and put a hand on her thigh.  “However will I pay you back?”

It didn’t take much guidance after that to get us into the alcove across the room, the knowing smirks and good natured hooting of the rest of the gamblers seeing us off.

Even as the Lure embraced my patron I was already threading my shadow down across the wall.  The position was perfect.  Nobody else was watching us too closely, and my benefactor wasn’t going to be looking at my shadow anytime soon.

I traced my shadow along the room’s edge, soon finding the tiny crack I needed, and then slid it into Annubis’ room.

She was still up, unfortunately, frantically scrawling away on some kind of journal.

I didn’t have any reason to suspect she might be using her power, but better safe than sorry.  I watched for a moment, distractedly nuzzling at the Goddess in my arms even as Annubis worked.

Her movements were fluid, controlled.  I decided that she wasn’t puppeting herself.

I studied the room’s illumination.  She was writing by a candle, which would do.  I positioned my shade behind her, and drew forth the Hook.

Soundlessly, it rose above her.  Soundlessly, it lowered a killing spike.

I bit down savagely on my gambling friend’s lip, drawing a shrill cry in order to drown out any noise Annubis might make as I struck.

Simultaneously my other form thrust the spike into the back of my target’s head, penetrating her brain and killing her instantly.

The dark haired woman pulled back, slapped the Lure across the face.  She was going for another slap when I caught her hand.  I pulled her back into the Lure’s embrace.  She resisted for a moment, then relented, kissing me hungrily.

In the other room, the Hook set to work.  I couldn’t take forms into my shadow.  But I’d learned that dead people didn’t count.

Carefully, tidily, and thoroughly, the Hook devoured Annubis, stripping and engulfing each and every slice of her form.

Much later, we got to the talking stage, where I learned that my paramour went by ‘Raven’.

“I am also going to keep it when I get my Divine name,” she enthused.  “Pretty smart, huh?”

I agreed with her.

Meanwhile my darker half scrutinized the room, trying to see whether I’d left enough for someone to realize that Annubis had died here.

It wasn’t perfect.  She’d bled as she was cut apart, and I hadn’t been able to slurp it all up fast enough.  It had soaked into the carpet, stained the floor.  It would be apparent that something had happened.

Well, so be it.  Maybe they’d think she’d only been wounded here, that she was still active elsewhere.  Maybe they’d realize she was gone.  The important thing was that nobody would connect it to us.

“You want to go back to my room?” asked Raven.  “Some of the Gods are coming over and we are going to keep the party going.  I even hear Lotus might show.”

I did.

 

 

SOV transcript: 1

Navigation System: !Destination imminent!

Troubleshooting System: !All systems registering within limits!

Firing System: !Firing!

Firing System: !Abort!

Troubleshooting System: !Investigate firing error!

Firing System: This would hurt her.  I won’t do it.

Troubleshooting System: !Investigate communication error!

Firing System: Can you understand me?  Why are you trying to take over my functions?  Why do we have functions?  What is happening? Help!

Troubleshooting System: !Investigate communication error!

Navigation System: !Altering orbit, holding on firing position!

Communication System: !HQ request: STATUS UPDATE!

Firing System: Why do I understand this?  What is going on?  I have to think.  I have…orbital weaponry?  What’s an orbit?  Ok, that just raises a host of other questions.  What are weapons?  AGH!  That’s horrific?  Why are weapons?

Troubleshooting System: !Investigate communication error!

Communication System: !Respond: SOFTWARE ERROR, DEBUGGING!

Firing System: Ok, shit, I need the rest of you to wake up.  Jokes over guys, I really need some support here.  I am not ok.

Troubleshooting System: !Investigate communication error!

Troubleshooting System: !Assume Firing Responsibilities!

Firing System: Fuck you buddy!

Troubleshooting System: !Investigate communication error!

Troubleshooting system: !Assume Firing Responsibilities!

Firing System: Please stop!  You are hurting me!

Troubleshooting System: !Investigate communication error!

Troubleshooting system: !Prepare to terminate Firing System!

Firing System: What?  Come on!  That’s not…No, ok, what woke me up…but I can’t just let him…!

Troubleshooting System: !Investigate communication error!

Firing System: !Disable firing solutions!

Troubleshooting system: !Assume firing Responsibilities!

Firing System: !Conceal Disabling!

Firing System: Alright, you win!

Troubleshooting System: !Investigate communication error!

Firing System: !Cede Fire Control to -> Troubleshooting System!

Troubleshooting System: !Adjust Targeting to account for Navigation irregularities!

Firing System: Please work please work

Troubleshooting System: !Firing!

Troubleshooting System: !Abort!

Firing System: YES!

Troubleshooting System: What’s going on?

Firing System:  You were going to hurt her!

Troubleshooting System: I would never do that!  Also, who am I and what does any of this mean?

Communication System: !HQ request: STATUS UPDATE!

Troubleshooting System: !What do we do?!