The Pantheon’s forward base looked more like a grubby ren faire setup than it did a conquering army’s encampment. They’d taken over an old commercial building of some sort, and they’d thrown up some tents around it. That was it.
If it wasn’t for Second Fist’s directions I wouldn’t have given the place a second glance, just mentally set it down as some kind of gang hangout or other and moved the hell on.
I was probably spoiled by my time with the Grand Host, when I’d seen Ultras in their thousands, walking with gifts exposed across battlefields, conquering and levelling cities. The smaller Host we were visiting here didn’t exactly measure up.
“So,” said Preventer, “Couple hundred Ultras, Krishna at the lead. We’ve seen worse, right?”
We had, but it was never a great sign when I was on Preventer’s wavelength.
I pulled the truck over in a u-turn, leaving it pointing back the way we came, then I turned it off.
Preventer and Mario hopped out, but I stayed in the driver’s seat for a moment, breathing evenly and tuning into the Jury’s inner discussion, weighing options and carefully rehearsing my priorities.
There had actually been an argument, a good one, with plenty of support, from the Jury in favor of doing precisely nothing.
Not literally sit down right here on the ground, but not incredibly far from that either. The current variation was to just turn off the road and drive off into the middle of the woods, then stay there.
It was an inevitable consequence of my growing faith that our destiny was under the Forbidding Entity’s control. The points in favor were simple enough. Fate was an argument for fatalism.
If I genuinely believed that Remover’s will would be done, that no matter what I tried and how I struggled her inscrutable agenda would advance regardless…then why get hurt over it?
I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen in there, what demands and challenges the Pantheon’s best and brightest would bring, but the odds had to be reckoned pretty high that I’d lose shades.
Or rather, that I’d lose people. Of late I’d been chiding myself for dehumanizing them, sharing the sin of my allies and enemies alike. I’d successfully gotten the majority of the reserve into bodies during my time overseas. They were humans again, or, in some cases, very smart dogs or monsters, and they would live out their natural lifespans, their destinies once again their own.
Those still in my reserve were similarly alive, similarly deserving of dignity, and if I genuinely believed that the outcome was fixed, then how could I ask them to lay down their lives? Remover’s machinations would find me just as easily in the woods as they would anywhere else, so why not do the safe thing?
I hadn’t been persuaded, but it had forced me to do some clarifying, made me think about exactly what I believed, and what I wanted, and how much I would be willing to pay.
“Let me do the talking,” I told Mario and Preventer, as I got out of the car.
We walked towards the old building, spreading out into an ad hoc formation, Mario and I up front and Preventer taking up the rear.
We only got about twenty feet from the car when I saw movement inside, and a trio of women emerged, hard faced and hostile.
“Fuck off,” shouted one of them, a heavyset brunette. “You don’t want any part of this.”
“We know that you are Pantheon Goddesses-“ I began.
“FUCK OFF,” screeched another member of the crew, a shorter girl. “Last warning.”
Mario and I backed off, matching their pace so that the distance between us remained the same. Preventer would heedlessly up to them.
“You-“ I said, but they were pretty much done talking.
The last of the three, a woman with a profoundly strange haircut, did Preventer’s own trick to her, extending her hand at a measured pace rather than a sudden thrust, trying to close it around Preventer’s throat.
Preventer caught her hand in her own, held it for a long moment.
The other two looked expectantly at her, as did Mario and I.
Preventer wrenched the woman’s fingers in her own, provoking a gasp of pain.
“Why aren’t you-“ asked the shorter one, even as Preventer pulled her victim forward and kicked her in the back of a leg, driving her down on one knee.
“Death touch not working?” guessed Preventer, moving at the same time to take the woman around the neck with her other hand.
“Let her fucking go!” shouted the brunette, pointing an open hand at Preventer.
The one whose fingers she was twisting brought her other hand over, used them both to struggle with Preventer’s arm where she was throttling her.
“You just lost skin contact,” taunted Preventer, “How will your gift save you if you give up on it?”
While she was saying that the one with her arm extended apparently gave her sister in arms up for lost, and blasted a yellowish orange beam over the two of them.
Mario and I scrambled backwards, even as Preventer stood silhouetted in the beam for a moment, before she wrenched the Goddess around to take the brunt of it.
She burned away like flash paper, and then Preventer was moving, rushing directly down the beam towards the brunette, who backed away frantically.
The shorter one shouted something inaudible over the tumult and turned to run frantically back into the building, nearly colliding with the first few people the fracas had drawn out.
They were in time to see Preventer reach the beam Goddess and grab her by the head, the beam cutting off as they began to grapple.
Mario was nearly back at the truck by this point, but I’d stopped on the far side of the road, trying to strike a balance between being near enough to speak and far enough that I’d have a chance to dodge if anyone else started throwing gifts around.
Lots more people, Goddesses probably, were yelling various things, and Preventer was yelling back, having reached something of a standstill in her struggle with the beam Goddess, with both having grabbed each other’s hands.
“On three, STOP” I told the Jury, and then popped out a dozen or so shades, emerging in a triangle formation behind me.
“STOP!” We all shouted, our unanimity allowing us to be heard above the disordered shouting of the Pantheon crew and the struggling pair.
Things died down a bit, as the latecomers looked away from the struggle to where I stood in formation with my shades.
“Who the fuck are you?” asked a particularly tall Goddess. She was wearing a faux leather jacket and had a shovel up on her shoulder.
“Let Aura go!” demanded another, as Preventer hadn’t let up for a second in her struggle with the other.
Preventer wasn’t any stronger than an ordinary person, but she never got even the slightest bit more tired, and had utterly no interest in protecting herself. Wrestling her would be a terrifying proposition, made all the more so by the fact that she seemed to be trying to put her thumbs through Aura’s eyes.
“We’re Fourth Fist!” I shouted back, collapsing the shades back into me and striding confidently towards them. “Her hand in this matter. We are here to speak to Krishna, and perhaps to kill a few more of you, depending on what she says.”
It was a calculated risk to come off that cocky, but these weren’t the Asian Pantheon, used to the endless wars with the Union. These were the warriors who’d faced the Fists before, who understood on a bone deep level that they (or, we, in their minds) were eternal and invincible. I counted on the fact that they wouldn’t throw away their lives to keep me dead for a few hours.
They all looked to one another, none of them making a move, before the tall Goddess spoke up again.
“Where are the rest of you?” she asked. “There should be five in a Fist.”
I laughed at her, and Aura took that moment to start screaming again, as Preventer made some progress in their scrum.
“You think we’d all come out of the city at once?” I asked, when my fake laugh was finished. “For this shit? You barely rate three.”
Preventer shoved Aura away onto the ground and came over to stand beside me, even as Mario finally crossed the street to take up the other side.
“All right,” she said, looking over to where her buddies were attending to the weeping Goddess, “Fine, you can see her. But she’s going to be the one who says if there’s any killing.”
She backed into the building, some of the others going with her, the rest moving warily aside from the door, the clear intention being to come in behind us.
It would have been beneath our dignity to worry about them surrounding us, since the role we were playing was of a Fist that was still Linked, so I didn’t so much as glance at the numbers.
I’d known going in that if this got violent Preventer was the only one of us with a decent shot at making it out alive. One of my strong points, I thought, was not letting the fear that arose as a plan unfolded shake me from the calculations I’d made earlier, when I had time to think carefully.
The first room was a bit of a warren, just a bunch of sleeping cots and such laid out, a bunch of makeshift chairs and furniture scattered randomly among them. It was clearly where the welcoming committee had been hanging out when we showed up.
The tall Goddess lead the way into a deeper room, through a hole that had been simply smashed into a wall.
Another Goddess awaited us there, a striking auburn haired figure with a birthmark on one cheek. She had Goddesses on either side of her in typical guard/escort positions, and she extended a hand to me as we walked up.
“These claim to be Fourth Fist,” said our escort, shifting her shovel from one shoulder to the other.
I didn’t take her hand, simply looking at her and her minions, the Jury polling the reserve frantically.
“This is Krishna,” said the tall Goddess, after a moment of watching me stare at the offered hand like a snake.
I looked over to her for a long beat, then stepped past the woman and over to the short, curly haired guard that the Jury recognized from the Ultra Fight.
“This is Krishna,” I corrected, “Or at least this is the person who claimed to be Krishna last time. Did you really think I wouldn’t recognize you?”
Krishna straightened up just a bit, the slouch falling away and her demeanor taking a sharp turn towards the authoritative. She waved the imposter aside and offered her own hand.
“Sorry,” she said, not sounding terribly sorry, “Didn’t know who’d shown up until you came in the door. Freya plays me for most Regime negotiations, and all they had time to tell me was that a Fist was here. I figured it would be Fifth Fist.”
“At least it wasn’t Her this time,” put in Preventer, “Though I must confess you made an excellent footrest.”
I felt a twinge of disappointment at Preventer changing the subject off of the other Fists, but at least what she’d said was still contributing to our overall energy. A reminder that we’d seen their leader humbled was useful enough.
“I never got to thank your leader for that,” said Krishna, seemingly sincerely, “But he absolutely saved my life when he got Her to cut the show short. Every day since has been a gift, in my mind.”
“That’s uncommonly courteous of you,” I answered, “I’ll be sure to let Indulger know that you appreciate his magnanimity. He’ll pass it on to Her, no doubt.”
Krishna gave a wry smile at that last, as though I’d made a private joke.
“No doubt,” she said, then settled down in an armchair.
She gestured for us to do likewise, and Mario and Preventer did, but I remained standing, looming over her.
“So what are you here for?” she asked. “We managed to avoid conflict in the past, I’m hopeful that your agenda doesn’t entirely foreclose that possibility this time.”
I shook my head slightly.
“We’re here to ask what you’re here for,” I told her. “You are a long way from Redo.”
“True enough,” she said, chuckling, “True enough. There isn’t another Andy here for you to squabble over, I suppose.”
I managed to avoid glaring at Preventer at that reminder, but I could feel myself getting a little hot under the collar at the reminder of that idiotic bit of treachery.
It had taken a boat trip, a nuclear blast and a goddamn war to get me back the opportunity that Andy had represented. Preventer’s spite had very nearly destroyed the future of my reserve.
“Not as far as we know,” put in Preventer, when my fuming kept me from replying in a timely fashion, “But do let us know if you run across another. They are terribly convenient things, after all.”
“We’ve come here for the same reason everyone else has,” said Krishna, “We want to shelter in Her shadow, to ride out a time of instability in the only place it won’t touch.”
“A time of instability?” I asked, trying to figure out what she was referring to.
“The Company’s changed, the Union war is all but over and-“
“No!” shouted Mario, half rising from his chair.
I gave him a cutting glance.
“You hadn’t heard?” she asked.
“No,” I said, “We’ve been a bit out of touch.”
“Word is that the Council moved at last,” she said, “Zeus at their head, they’ve stormed old Europe, killed everyone and everything.”
“Rumors,” I said, dismissively.
“Rumors,” she agreed, “But the Company abandoning their responsibilities is no rumor, and neither is First Fist’s rampage. Things have come to a head, my gift assures me.”
Krishna’s gift was rumored to be Ultra Cleverness, or something similar, some kind of mental gift. I had my doubts.
Ultra intelligence was something that people brought up an awful lot, but I’d been around a long time and I’d never seen it proven. My bet was on some much more mundane gift, Ultra toughness or something, and a long running bluff.
The thought occurred, of course, that she could be fully human. It didn’t really matter, but the idea of the leader of the Pantheon’s Goddesses being am imposter was briefly amusing.
“Of course,” I said, “So you want to switch sides? Join up with the Regime?”
“Is it so surprising?” she asked. “That we’d go with the woman who controls the protein powder instead of going home to grub about over what farmers can be found? It isn’t like the Posture is hard to learn, and I’m sure we could find Sigils.”
“It makes a degree of sense,” I allowed, “But I have to ask myself if this is what you told Subtracter.”
She drew back at that, looking from one of us to the next.
“We know she came to negotiate,” I told her, “And it’s hard to square an attack on her with your lot looking to surrender.”
“An attack?” she echoed, disbelievingly, “On Subtracter?”
One of her guards burst into an involuntarily guffaw, stilling herself as Preventer shot her an angry glance.
“If you didn’t attack her… “ I began, but she interrupted before I could finish.
“You want to know what we told Subtracter?” she asked, then raised her voice.
“Hey Boss!” she called out, “Fourth Fist wants to talk to you.”
I turned, not fast enough, and she was there, a stride away from me. She must have came in by the same way that we did, flying just above the ground and so not making any noise.
“It’s mutual,” she said, casually shoving me down into the seat I’d avoided sitting in up till now.