Guilder Story Begins

Hi everyone, I’m terribly sorry for the delay. I’ve finally launched my new project on RoyalRoad, here is a link!

https://www.royalroad.com/fiction/36410/guilder-story

This is a dark fantasy story, concerning itself (perhaps unsurprisingly to readers of The Fifth Defiance), with the plight of someone conscripted into the titular Guild, an organization of surpassing size and cruelty.

I’m trying to do the NaNoWriMo thing, so there should be daily updates for the rest of October, after which I intend to go biweekly, updating Thursday and Sunday. Time will tell how well I keep these promises.

It means so much to me that ya’ll kept checking my site, so long after the story has completed. I hope you will enjoy my next story.

What’s next for me

I’m going to start up another story pretty soon, I’ll link it here or in another post when it shows up.  I’m furlonged while the coronavirus rages on, so hopefully I’ll be able to update briskly for a while.

I’m planning to use Royal Road to try and get some more exposure next time, just working on figuring out all the stuff that goes along with that.

Thanks for keeping tabs on me, I’ll let you know as soon as my next project is underway.

Acknowledgements

Anyone just getting here, I’d like to beg you to read the serial before you read on.  I think it is a law of nature that reading anything an author writes about their work will make you like it less, so you’ll probably get more out of my story if you read it before hearing me out.

It feels very strange to finally write this post.  I started writing The Fifth Defiance in November, 2015.  I finished last week, so I spent approximately four and a half years on this.  It felt both shorter and longer.

I remember vividly how it all started.  I was surfing the internet, and somehow I ended up reading Worm.  I boggled at the whole concept.  It had somehow never occurred to me that you could just…do that.  You could write your own superhero story and put it on a website and people could read it.  There was no one to ask permission from, and if you screwed it up it wasn’t like the internet would run out of space.

All my excuses kind of went away.  There was nothing stopping me, so I googled up how to get a WordPress site, entered my credit card and within a week or two I was off and running.

After that it was simply a matter of posting updates, one after another, and the story wound along like a strange clock, characters appearing, speaking their brief pieces, and then vanishing back into the bin.  It’s genuinely, profoundly strange to see your mind exposed like that.  Dreams that would ordinarily flash past pressed to leave lasting impressions on some digital page.  Some concepts were ennobled by the experience, others got way cringier.

It was even an odd feeling to sit down to write this.  To know that this was it, I was finally going to make my last update, let TFD take on its last shape.  The time’s all blocked out to wrestle with thousands of words, but there’s no need.  This is just me and whatever audience the internet brings my way.

The last thing I wanted to do was thank y’all, so I should probably get on with that.

A huge thanks has to go out to the other web serial writers.  WB, most obviously.  It made me smile to finish up at the same time as the sequel to the thing that started my own work.  AW, EE, DSE, Sharker, all the others.  I’ve always struggled to keep to my own meager update schedule, and watching other people crush much rougher ones was nothing short of inspiring.

Podcasting?  For web fiction writers?  That’s a thing?  I love it.  Rationally Writing, Handsome Voices?  Thanks so much for putting your content out there.

Beyond that, there’s the commenters.  Both those who gave me support, and those who gave me the gears.  It all helped.  The site lets you know that people are visiting, but only discussion, commentary and feedback let me know that folks cared.  Talon, CC, Quae, BV, all the rest.  You rock.

But that’s all prelude.  The real people I have to thank are the great anonymous audience.  You, the ones reading this right now.  You were the purpose of all this, my goal all along.  If you enjoyed this, then I’ve succeeded.  If you didn’t, then, well, no harm no foul?

Force may rule the world, but it never ruled you.

Haunter 12:3

“You want my…passengers, let’s call them, to pass judgement on you? For you?”

I hated that my voice got shrill, near the end of that. Calm had escaped me during the slaughter, and it was all I could do not to break down in tears.

“Kind of,” she said, waving an idle hand, “But obviously I’m not trying to pretend that they are real, or that they matter. Think of it like divining with entrails, if that helps any.”

“An old, stupid, barbaric custom that the world has looked past?” I snarled.

Spite seemed my only refuge, and I threw myself into it. If I stopped to contemplate the future, if I sought to make another plan or consider the consequences of my actions then I’d drown in grief. I had to keep moving.

“Sure,” she said, idly waving a hand. “You do it all the time, but let’s pretend your choices are all driven by sweet reason.”

“I’m not-“ I paused, nearly choking with sheer fucking anger. There had to be a way to, it wasn’t possible that-

I took a deep breath.

“I pass judgements based on other people’s opinions,” I said, slowly, “and that’s fine because I’m not out here claiming that other people aren’t real. Your position is logically incoherent in a way that mine isn’t.”

“I pass judgements based on other people’s opinions,” she said, doing a deliberately shitty impression of my voice.

“You don’t pass shit,” she finished, using her own voice again, “You are a rock, rolling downhill. The other souls you lug around are just as fake as you are. There’s no substance to you, nothing there beyond the obvious. Just rocks colliding with one another, signifying nothing.”

“Is that how you can do what you do?” I demanded. “Just tell yourself that we don’t suffer and it’s ok to mistreat us? A few words of garbage philosophy to make everything ok, no matter how much of a shit you are?”

She pointed a finger again, but something had flipped in my soul. I couldn’t have backed down if I wanted to.

 

I’d moved beyond fear. Fury and sorrow ruled me now.

“You are pitiful,” I said, “I truly, really mean that. I thought it when I met Condemner’s true self, and I’m more convinced than ever upon meeting you. You are wretched creatures.”

Remover rolled her eyes at me, the juvenile expression strange on a face so lovely.

“It isn’t a coincidence,” I went on, “That Prevailer, the worst of us, ended up on top. You chose that. You chose all of that horror, just because the absolute lowest a human could go was the only thing one of your kind could actually recognize.”

I was caught off guard by her sudden chuckle. It seemed entirely genuine.

“Jane,” she said, when she’d finished, “Answer me honestly. Do you think for a second that Prevailer was the worst person I could have picked?”

I still wanted her eyes to be somehow inhuman, but there was just nothing there. It was just a person sitting across from me, making casual small talk after killing all but a remnant of those I’d-

“I wouldn’t put anything past your spite, your cruelty,” I fairly spit at her. “I’m not going to dance for your amusement. If I guess I’m sure you’ll just call me wrong and take it as an excuse to commit some other atrocity.”

Remover leaned across the table, reached out a hand as though to rest it on mine.

I jerked away, barely able to keep myself from going for my gun again.

“I don’t need excuses,” she said, “And you… Jane, you aren’t anything outside of what I want you to be. The only reason you’d answer me was because I made you answer me. Same goes for your silence. It’s my decision. You are a stone, falling. You are a domino, toppling in a line. There’s nothing to you, to any of you.”

“Now the insul-“

I couldn’t finish before she spoke over me again.

“That’s how I can see the future, Jane. It isn’t divination, it’s nothing more or less complicated than making a decision. We are beyond you. I picked the moment of your arrival. I picked how you’d get here. I blocked your bullets because I decided where you’d shoot. You and your kind, your whole universe…it’s just clockwork all the way down. Entirely predictable, no mysteries, nothing but physics.”

“You failing to recognize the suffering you’ve inflicted doesn’t fucking excuse you, you freak!” I snapped back, instantly, “It isn’t for the criminal to tell his victims whether their pain is real or not!”

She pantomimed a wince.

“Alright,” she said, “Let’s play it out. So you’ve just tried to kill me, that didn’t work, now you are trying to hurt my feelings with a shitty lecture. What’s next? Are we gonna make out?”

I slammed a fist into the table. There was no way out of this situation anyway, but I didn’t have to fucking take this.

“What the fuck do you need from us? How can you need anything, if you claim that we aren’t anything but what you want us to be? Are you actually even hearing the things you say?”

I was honestly at least a little curious. I wouldn’t put it past her to just be fucking with me this whole time.

“Need is a strong term, this is…hmm, let’s call it aftercare. Just general tidiness. The fun part is over and I’m setting the books back on the shelf.”

“Aftercare?” I asked, “Is that normally something rapists bother with?”

In this metaphor, I guess, the ones who’d had sex were her kind and all of humanity, and fuck if I was letting that pass without comment.

“You invited us,” she said with another shrug, “If you want to change your mind after that’s fine, but let’s not pretend that there wasn’t consent.”

“Are you out of your fucking mind?”

“Your kind built entire structures, big ones, and then everyone prayed for years and years, begging and beseeching those above you to take an interest. You wanted us to tell you how to glorify us. Lots of flowery words about making you our instrument. Across eras and continents you’ve been begging us.”

“You aren’t God!” I retorted.

She rolled her eyes again.

“How many humans have begged for this chance, throughout your history? How many would have died to get a chance to talk to God, one on one?”

It seemed like she wanted me to answer, so I didn’t. Fuck her.

“And here you are, with that glorious opportunity, and all you’ve got to say to me is that you want to talk to my manager.”

“According to what you said before,” I said, each word practically bitten off, “You are the one feeding me my lines, so I don’t think it makes sense for you to whine about the quality of my dialog.”

She raised her hand, as though to acknowledge the point, then lapsed into a momentary silence, looking up at the moon and the night sky.

I just stared knives at her, fuming inwardly. I couldn’t let myself think about those she’d just snuffed out and I certainly wasn’t about to ponder her juvenile baiting. I just stared and hated.

“The people you’ve got left in there,” she said, after a long period of silence, “They are special. They’ve seen everything you’ve seen along your whole voyage. They’ve seen the Regime, the Pantheon and the Union, each at their worst. They’ve seen your deeds, they know this world. They have context.”

“So,” I said, the instant she finished with her monolog, “They still aren’t real, right? This is just more masturbation?”

She steepled her fingers, looked over them at me.

“It’s like I said before. It’s divination. They are just about the only thing in your whole world I haven’t bothered to look at.”

My eyes widened, but before I could do anything she kept on talking.

“They aren’t able to kill me, Jane. There’s no path where you get what you want. If you try, you’ll just get them killed, like you did all the rest.”

I was honestly tempted to try it, but if I did so she’d see it coming. What I needed was some way to relinquish control without choosing to do so, get the attack hidden somehow under whatever self imposed veil covered my survivors.

“I’m going to try and get this done before you talk yourself into more idiocy,” she continued. “These witnesses, this Jury, they are as close as your kind gets to having volition. Their motivations are a complicated mess that I haven’t looked closely at. Like a tangle of wires. I’m going to let them ‘pick’ the form that your consolation prize takes. You understand? A divining game, like picking petals off a flower.”

She looked into my eyes, but I knew that she was looking past me, deep into the reserve.

“Don’t worry about what Jane thinks,” she said, “I know that not all of you buy into her bullshit. Don’t worry about yourselves, what you might gain or lose, because you are going to be dead in a moment. Don’t worry-“

“What!” I shouted, grabbing for my gun.

She didn’t move, even as I pointed it right at her face. No neon green energy, no hint that she was anything other than at my mercy.

I ached to pull the trigger. If she was going to kill us all anyway, what could it possibly cost me?

I didn’t. I slid the gun back into my holster instead. I’d tried the whole ‘just fucking shoot her’ thing earlier, and she hadn’t lost any powers since then.

“It’s the end of gifts,” she explained, once again talking to me but really to those within me. “This party is coming to an end, and that means that those of you still attached to Jane will end along with it. You accepted that possibility when you stayed inside her, when you didn’t clamor for new forms like your colleagues.”

“The end of gifts?” I echoed.

She ran a hand through her hair, sighed.

“Let me start over,” she said, then held up a finger for silence.

We passed a timeless moment together, the night around us seeming to swallow everything up except for me and the creature I couldn’t kill.

“You know that I know everything, yes? You accept this by this point, even if our dear Jane puts its out of her tiny little mind every few seconds so she can pretend she has a chance. What’s going to happen next is that I’m going to tell you the future unaltered, and you are going to pick from six possible changes I can make to it. Once that’s done, the gifts will go away and you all die.”

I didn’t say anything. If any of my shades felt the urge to speak up, they didn’t express it. I was still half hoping they’d figure out some way to kill Remover.

“Very soon,” she began, “Right when we finish up here, the Union’s super satellite will target and destroy Inviting Entity’s manifestation on the moon. The exact technology it will use, and why that will pierce his Ultra shield, is unimportant. The thing that’s important to you, here and now, is that the destruction of his proxy will signal the end of this celebration to my kind.”

She paused again, but we still didn’t speak up.

“Delighting Entity’s proxy used the metaphor of your universe being a tree, and your souls the grubs attached to it. The party, then, is a bunch of people standing around the tree, each with their hands on a grub. When Inviting Entity lets go of his grub and heads to the party, almost all of them will do likewise. I’ll shoo most of the ones who remain, and throughout all of your world, the Ultras will lose their gifts.”

My eyes widened in spite of myself. I’d imagined the end of Ultra gifts many times, but Remover was saying, in a dry, casual and matter of fact manner, that it was about to happen. Not in years. Not in days. Right now.

“There’s your first choice for intervention right there. My inclination is to be pretty casual about the whole thing. The vast majority of my kind will depart on their own, and I’ll get some of the remainder, but there will still be a few dozen Ultras in your world.”

I felt my fists clinch, my eyes narrow to hateful slits.

“If you choose the first intervention, then I’ll hang around for a bit before going to the afterparty. I’ll do my job thoroughly and in depth, and there won’t be a single one of my kind still here. If you choose the first intervention, then from the moment the moon shatters that’s it for Ultras. No more. The effects of the existing gifts will continue on, the Links, the items Refiner blessed, and a thousand more besides, but that’ll be it. Your kind will, by and large, rule their own world again, with only such relief from your physics as the refuse of our passing will leave behind.”

Somehow I could tell that she was looking at me again, not just at those I carried.

“That’s the answer Jane’s petulance demands. If you are in harmony with the part of her that tried to shoot me in the back, and then got enraged when I defended myself, then here’s your ‘fuck you’ choice. This is as much as I’ll let you make me suffer, a bit of extra busywork. That’s your big revenge. Take it or leave it.”

I opened my mouth, but she went on before I could say anything.

“The weapon’s unleashed will ruin your moon, blast it utterly. Most of it will stay in its place, but large sections of it, absent my intervention, will rain down on your world. Millions will die in horrific natural calamities.”

“That’s your second intervention?” I demanded, “Just taking hostages?”

“If you genuinely agree with Jane’s self imposed mission to save as many beating hearts as possible, here’s your answer. If you ask for my second intervention, then the devastation…just won’t happen. The moon will shatter in such a way that most of it will hang right about where it used to be, and what fragments escape will do so harmlessly. The people of the Pantheon will be saved.”

“Only the people of the Pantheon?”

She shrugged.

“The devastation will be concentrated in the global south. Whether or not I intervene the Union and Regime won’t suffer very much. The casualties will be heavily concentrated among the people you liked to think of as savages.”

“Do you really think you can phrase it like that and just manipulate my passengers?” I demanded. “We aren’t children.”

“Feel free not to fall for it,” she said, “That’s the second intervention, save the lives of millions, mostly concentrated in the Pantheon. You were lecturing the Union at one point and you called them ‘humanity’s present.”

She grinned savagely at me.

“You didn’t mean the pun, of course, but we certainly enjoyed playing with them.”

I ground my teeth.

“You can probably guess that the third intervention is the one you’ve been hoping for, all along. Save the Union. If Jane’s nostalgia has impressed you, her weird hard-on for a world long in its grave, then here’s your pick.”

“What are you doing to them?”

I’d never felt so helpless in all my life. Listening to her just casually spouting out her bullshit was taking everything I had.

“Their enemy fled back home after the Company shut down, luckily enough. Zeus made his choice. World domination was never quite real in his mind, the world he cared about was the one waiting for him at home. The Union learned of his absence, and they are making their move on the Brides.”

“They were defending themselves,” I clarified, “Against a ruthless enemy that sought nothing less than their annihilation. We’ve seen them, remember. We know the Pantheon and the Union.”

Remover gave a thin smile.

“You’ve seen them, to be sure, but I’d contend that you never let yourself know the Union. You excused what they did to you, licked their boots and made excuses for them. If I wanted to know what Jane Trent felt about the Union I wouldn’t bother with all this. But I’m not asking you. I’m asking your passengers. I’m asking other people who’ve shared your experiences, but who may not share your nostalgic obsession with a world long dead and gone.”

I struck the table.

“Get to the point! Finish your gloating. What’s going to happen to the Union if we don’t beg you to save them?”

“Among the Brides there is one in particular, the one who turned their satellite weapon against them. They’ve agonized over the possibility, but were never able to get proof positive, one way or another. If I don’t intervene, then they’ll use SPARTACUS, their society’s central resource, in the attack. The Ultra’s gift will bring it to life, and her death will turn it against them.”

She shrugged.

“You think you understand the way the Union lives. You remember the Network from your early days, you imagine that it must be similar. You’re wrong. Their society, their industry, their research and education, SPARTACUS supervises all of it. With that peg kicked out from under them, no, turned actively against them, well, I’m sure you don’t need me to spell it out.”

“I…”

I was playing her game, considering all this bullshit like she wasn’t just going to pull the rug out from under us. What I needed to be doing was figuring out something, anything, that I could do.

“So that’s it for the interventions Jane might approve of. The first three. Tell me to screw off, save the most people, or keep her childhood dream alive.”

I couldn’t shoot her, or oppose her in any physical way. Her precognition and ability to disintegrate things were a trump card. But there had to be something…

“The other three interventions are much more personal,” she said. “If you don’t buy into Jane’s silly notions at all, that she owes everything forever to people she’s never met for no reason, then maybe you might be more interested in these choices.”

I made a noise, deep down in my throat. Guttural, bestial. I felt like I was being strangled, like I was entirely unequal to the demands of the moment.

“An ethical system is more than ‘notions’,” I ground out, “And you aren’t fooling anyone who’s lived this nightmare alongside me. Do you really think a few slick words will make us abandon our principles?”

Remover didn’t say anything for a bit, staring up at the sky again.

“Jane,” she said at last, “Why do you think your passengers, and these ones that remain in particular, are in agreement with you? What evidence do you have of that?”

“They’ve saved me!” I snapped back, instantly, “They’ve supported me through all my endeavors, shaped the person I became.”

She looked back at me.

“They told the person who can kill them at will that they are on her team. They risked their lives to save the person who can’t die until she loses them.”

She let that sit a moment.

“Wow, that’s compelling evidence,” she said, “It’s pretty much exactly the same evidence that Prevailer has that you are loyal to Her.”

“That’s different,” I said.

“Sure,” she said, “So nobody will vote for any of these other options. You’ve got nothing to worry about.”

I looked up into the sky, focusing on the moon. Anything to get her out of my line of sight for a damn second. My outrage was tyrannizing me, playing on my nerves like a maddened violinist. I felt like I was about to explode.

“The fourth intervention concerns your good buddy Preventer,” she said. “My old friends have her, and her dagger buddy. Once the gifts are gone, well, I’m afraid my old crew will still have the upper hand.”

I still didn’t look at her. I nearly put my hands up and covered my ears. Tears stung my eyes, and I concentrated on my breathing.

“I know, I know,” conceded Remover, “Jane’s system would have you forsake the few for the many. And, after all, Preventer has hurt a lot of people you don’t know. That makes it ok that she suffers as few ever have, right?”

“It’s not ‘ok’, “ I said, voice breaking about phantom tears, “It’s just math. We won’t choose one person over everyone.”

“Why not?” asked Remover, a tone of genuine inquiry creeping into her tone, “What’s your perception of the reason that you must always be the slave of anyone, provided you don’t know them? What did all these people, a shocking number of whom wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire, do to earn your undying fealty?”

“It’s not about-“

She interrupted me before I could get going.

“I know the actual answer, of course. You aren’t a complicated thing. I know exactly which classes, which experiences, I’d need to change to make you argue the other side of the point. But what does it feel like, from the inside? Why are you clawing at your own soul right now, so desperate not to be the kind of person who’d ever consider saving her friend?”

I balled my hands into fists on the table before me, stared up at nothing.

“Hey,” she said, “She’s a fascist anyway, right? Fuck her.”

“Fuck you!” I answered. “She’s what you made her.”

“So that’s your fourth intervention,” she said. “If you pick this one then Preventer and her buddy will win their little fight with my old Link. It’ll be a heroic victory, good guys defeating evil. Just the kind of thing you like.”

“And the Pantheon will drown,” I put in, “And the Union will fall. And a few of you devils will still be here.”

“If Preventer’s a bit loathsome for this temptation to work,” said Remover, “then what about Dale?”

It was like a fist clenched in my core, clenched and twisted. The numbness I’d been building up around me shattered, and I looked aghast at Remover.

She hadn’t moved much in all the time I’d been looking away. She was still sprawled in the chair across from me, leaning her cheek against a fist and gesturing with her other hand.

“If you dare-“

“Easy,” she said, cutting me off once more, “I love Dale! He’s a wrestler, and it’s great. Dale’s gonna be fine. Don’t jump to conclusions.”

“It’s not-“

This time I cut myself off, biting off a whole rant that would only have let her laugh at me.

“Dale’s going to see to Her. He’s got Prevailer at his mercy, right now. As we speak he’s looming over her bed, wrestling with himself.”

She laughed, startling me a bit.

“You see what I did there? Wrestling with himself?”

More laughter, childish and light, more of a giggle than anything else.

“Get on with it,” I ground out.

“Alright, alright, jeez,” she said, clicking her tongue at me, “So the thing of it all is, Dale isn’t like you. He doesn’t do the math, you know? Always a big believer in mercy, in sparing people, giving second chances, all that. His heart beats for what he can see, for the friends around him. You see where I’m going?”

“No,” I said.

Not to her question. I saw where she was going. But whatever this thing said there was no way I’d believe that anyone living in this world would spare Her.

“But she wooks so widdle,” Remover said, making her voice go childish for a second, “And there’s the baby to think of. Dale really doesn’t like the idea of hurting people who can’t fight back, you know that. He’ll tell himself that he’s just keeping Her ok for now, just till the baby is older, but, wouldn’t you know it?”

She spread her hands wide and gave me a dopy grin.

I just blinked tears from my eyes and stared at her.

“Fine,” she said after a moment, “The point is that they’ll live together, happily ever after, for a good long while. She gets a happy ending, after everything She’s done to you.”

“I don’t believe you,” I said, low, monotone.

“Sure,” she said, “I’m lying to my glove. Whatever. But, like I’ve told you, what matters is that your passengers believe me.”

“No one is that dumb,” I said.

“Well,” she answered, her voice thick with incredulity, “I thought I’d leave the spite option in there anyway. If you ask for the fifth intervention, then Dale will kill Prevailer. She doesn’t get away with it. Justice carried out. Vengeance and blood, all that kind of thing. Not my cup of tea, but I thought I’d present the option.”

“We refuse it,” I practically spat out. “This entire situation is perverse beyond reason. You claim to be God-like, but these are the actions of a cowardly bully.”

“Last one,” she said, “And you can probably guess what it is.”

“She’s going to promise to save me,” I told the reserve, speaking out loud so that my tormentor could hear as well. “I swear to you, even if such an intervention carried the day, I would immediately kill myself. I have less than no interest in living in this abomination, this FREAK’s debt.”

I was shaking with passion, tears streaming down my face.

Remover, by contrast, grew ever more languorous and placid. She looked practically bored.

“She won’t, though,” she said, the instant I finished talking. “She’ll agonize about it for a bit, then decide that she needs to make your sacrifice worthwhile. She’ll take it upon herself to intervene in the other situations with the information she got from my little lecture, and I won’t spoil how well that’ll go.”

“I—No!”

“So that’s the sixth intervention. As soon as we’re gone, Jane and Karen over here, the original owner of this body, will try and shoot one another. Karen wins unless you pick otherwise.”

“I’m asking you,” I begged those within, “do not do this.”

An outside observer would have thought I was praying, and maybe in a way I was.

“Already done kiddo,” said Remover, then snapped her fingers.

“What’s…” I asked, at the same time as she said “Interesting…”

But neither of us finished our sentences, because all of a sudden a blinding spectacle made a mockery of our senses.

The sky split, a bar of shining fulmination transgressing all reason suddenly appearing across it. My eyes closed instantly, but I could still see the bar through them.

It was utterly unnatural, an impossibility that resembled the Union’s folded space beams as death does sleep. It spit the Moon like an apple, cored it in an instant and carried on across the sky, dividing the visible universe in twain.

“Aaagh!” shouted Remover, a hand raised against the impossible spectacle. She clawed for her gun with her other hand.

It was in a shoulder holster, while I wore mine at my waist.

I quick drew, trying not to think about why none of my shades were pitching in to speed the motion.

My gun came out first, but my draw slammed into the bottom of the table. I pulled frantically back, trying to get the gun around the table edge and into line to fire.

She finally got hers up out of the holster, our eyes locked for an instant as both guns swung towards their targets.

A single shot challenged the sundered sky.

Haunter 12:2

I stood stock still for a long moment, thinking carefully.

The area ahead of me was empty city, pretty much by definition. Torturer’s gift had driven everyone out, and absent ridiculous coincidence no one was going to walk up and dare the edge of it in the few minutes it would take for me to find and deal with Remover.

This might be us vs. her, just a straight up confrontation. That was the easy assessment, but there were complications.

Most obviously, no reason to think I was special. I’d been trying to force myself to keep this in mind. I had no reason to believe that there weren’t other people all around the other sides of this dome, all ready to charge in.

Worst case, most problematically, it could be the rest of First Fist. I knew Pursuer and Alerter had been some distance away fairly recently, but Avoider and Attacker could easily be nearby.

But ultimately, I could throw all that into the same bucket as ‘what if there is no way whatsoever to beat her precognition’ went into. If she was making intelligent use of her resources, and if she wanted to fight, then I was toast no matter what I did. I had to proceed as though that wasn’t the case.

Torturer’s zone falling when it did was compelling evidence that she wanted more than my death. Exactly what more wasn’t clear, but it did give me the advantage, since the feeling was far from mutual.

A squad of shadows emerged from my reserve, exchanging nods and glances with one another before moving off into the surrounding ruins. We all knew that this was the big one, very likely the most hazardous thing we’d ever done. There had still been fierce argument over got to be the first to be dispatched, people fighting furiously over the most dangerous assignments.

They would fan out, move around the perimeter. If Remover met me at the center, which I thought was very probable, they’d be all around us, rifles ready. It felt appropriate that she meet her end in a Sniper Court kind of situation.

God, I hated Remover. I’d always hated her, and it was immensely freeing to be finally able to act on that feeling. I was about to kill the literal worst person ever.

I started forward into the ruins, after the footfalls of the shades had died away. I moved cautiously, taking my time, looking carefully around before I stepped through each archway, around each corner.

I caught a glimpse of the neon green of Remover’s gift, reflected in the window of a long abandoned building. It was right up around a corner, just about where the middle of Torturer’s zone had been.

I picked my way forward, letting shades guide my steps and control my motions. Stealth was probably pointless against someone who knew the exact moment, down to the second, that I’d showed up at the edge of this zone, but the same old tired argument that kept me moving forward all this time still applied.

A figure sat englobed in the green neon streaks, resting in a plastic yard chair set up across from another, vacant chair. An improvised table, some kind of drum with a sheet of rotting wood, rested between the two.

I ducked down the instant I saw the scene, then moved carefully back into spying position. Nothing had moved, not a single thing had changed.

The green globe around her wasn’t a monolith. It was made of a series of beams, each chasing the tail of the next. They orbited her like planets, like comets, admitting only the briefest glimpses of the woman inside.

The strangest thing about the whole tableau was that the other chair wasn’t on my side of the setup. I’d come up behind and to the left of her. If you were going to go to all the trouble to arrange this whole fancy setup with the chairs, just absolutely rubbing my nose in the fact that you saw me coming, why would you fuck up the orientation? It would be like Predicter writing one of his idiotic notes and making a spelling mistake.

“Shoot the bitch,” jeered Joe inside my mind, and honestly? I was tempted.

Like, why couldn’t I just fucking shoot her? We weren’t that far away, and the swirling barriers were a static obstacle, nothing that a marksman couldn’t beat if they tried.

There had to be a reason not to do it, but I honestly couldn’t think of one. If she was predicting everything then I’d fail, etc etc, but seriously? Why not try it?

I let the reserve take over, raised the gun and leaned carefully against the debris I was resting on. The streams of green energy rotated before me, frustratingly inconsistent in their speed.

A moment later the gun fired, always so much louder than I remembered, and Remover’s energy globe dissipated.

I didn’t think for a second that it was that easy, and I threw myself up and around the corner almost on instinct, scanning the terrain all around me for an ambush.

Nothing. Silence and moonlight, a gentle wind.

None of my shades had fallen, so the area around me was clear, or she’d slipped by them somehow. I ventured another look over the wall.

The figure sat slumped, unmoving.

“Not her, shit, sorry. We should have noticed, wrong color hair. Sorry, the glare from the beams…”

I slipped over the broken wall, moving carefully, soundlessly, closer to my victim, still trying to keep every part of the terrain around me in sight.

The woman in the chair was gaunt, emaciated, and gruesomely dead. She’d been a corpse when I got here, her guts torn open and shredded.

Torturer, at peace at last. So that was how Remover had arranged for her barrier to fall at just the right moment. She’d sent her tendrils in and killed Torturer with them when I’d needed it.

Presumably the whole orbiting thing had been to draw me into shooting her, and then having them dissipate had been to lure me into moving up and examining her.

I was in motion before I finished the thought, leaping across the table and hustling up another ruined building, taking a high position and risking a look across the rooftops.

More nothing. No movement anywhere.

Remover’s beams, or tendrils, whatever I wanted to call the streams of energy from her gift, they could be actively directed, or they could be instructed beforehand. A beam that was still touching her she could control like it was her own form. A beam that she’d sent out, on the other hand, would only ever do exactly what she’d intended when she released it.

This had always seemed like an enormous weakness, and a lot of people had taken advantage of it over the years, killed her without too much trouble. But, when I thought about what I’d just seen…

The beam’s orbiting Torturer’s corpse had dissipated exactly as I shot, and she’d been nowhere near them. She’d known, ahead of time, just when I would shoot. Just like she’d known when I entered the zone.

I twitched violently as every one of the shades who’d been patrolling the surrounding areas suddenly died. I felt all of them cease, simultaneously, without even a split second’s difference between them.

“What the-”

“Beams through the ground,” I whispered, “Just come up right under a shade’s foot, nothing to see coming, no way to stop it.”

I dropped back down to the ground floor, then down to one knee.

There was no way to beat that. She knew where all of them would be, and I’d known that, and I’d still sent them out. I’d just figured that there would be something we could do, some way to make a difference, and Remover had killed them without effort or compunction.

I raised my head, looked back at the table and the two chairs.

Should I send out more shades? Try to set another bomb?

Nothing would work. Nothing could stop her. There was no way to win against such absolute foreknowledge. The whole world was trapped in her web. I could no more kill her than any of the Union’s endless lines of agents had been able to stop Her.

I walked listlessly back over to the table, sat down in the chair without the corpse.

Kill myself? Just to spite her? I’d never believed that I could consider such a thing, but in the moment it was all I could think of. What other power did I have in this situation? What other course of action could so much as slow this kind of being? I knew she wanted me here. Was that all I could deny her?

More of Remover’s beams slipped soundlessly into the cleared area, burrowing with shocking immediacy out of one of the walls.

I stayed motionless, watching them draw nearer. Calling Remover’s bluff. She wasn’t about to take me out now, not after all this foreplay.

I didn’t flinch as one drew near me, didn’t twitch a muscle as it spiraled and circled around me while the others hovered nearby in the air, motionless.

It was hard to avoid personifying them. Serpents, worms. But they were more terrible than any beast. They were the will of an evil being, tiny voids moving at the direction of the world’s molester.

The one that was circling me moved suddenly, swiftly, across the table, joining it’s brethren in the annihilation of Torturer’s corpse.

It took surprisingly little time. Inch thick streams of energy, just three of them, dissolving all matter that they touched. They whirred busily around one another, and in a matter of less than a minute Torturer’s remains were gone away, save for a stink on the wind.

She’d suffered for decades, at this thing’s accursed whim, and it unmade her in a minute, without regard or regret.

The beams faded away, and I was sitting alone again.

I didn’t move, didn’t call out, just sat there staring, mind running uselessly around and around on the same problem.

How could beat someone with perfect foreknowledge? How could I get someone who’d played the world for decades?

Remover slipped daintily over the rubble across from me, gliding easily toward me, her stride the confident tread of an athlete, her form utterly untouched by her decades in First Fist.

Where I was lined, she was smooth. Where my outfit was grubby, hers was bespoke. She looked every inch the federal agent that she’d once been, or even the model that she’d been before that. Her trademark neon green hair was even nicely styled.

“Hi Jane,” she said. “Glad you could make it.”

I leaped to me feet and shot her in the face, pumped bullet after bullet into the grinning fucking ghoul.

She convulsed in her seat, rocked back by the impacts.

No, rocked back because she’d rocked her chair back, utterly untouched by the impacts. She’d just been play acting being shot, twitching back and forth like a bad actor as I pulled the trigger.

I subsided back into the seat, gun dangling in slack fingers. How the fuck had she done that?

She sat up again, a shit eating grin plastered across her face.

“I guess it’s not mutual, huh?”

I desperately wanted there to be something inhuman about her. Maybe an emotionless way of speaking, or a distance to the eyes. But it was hard to see people’s eyes at night, and she sounded like she always had. Nothing of the otherworldly evil of her was visible or obvious. This was just the same prick that had always been here.

“You could say that,” I said, trying to keep a tremor out of my voice.

How had she blocked the bullets? This bitch got shot all the damn time.

“Little beams, very quickly,” she said, “Just removed the bullets micrometers away from me.”

She still had a big ole grin on, like we were coconspirators, or bosom chums. She wasn’t literally reaching across the table and nudging me in the ribs, but that was her basic energy.

“Whatever you fucking want from me,” I grated out, “Whatever you think you are going to get out of this, we’ll resist you to our last breath!”

I practically snarled the last, but her leer never wavered.

“I dunno,” she said, dubiously, “My track record is pretty great. If I were you I’d bet on me.”

“Fuck you!”

“No time, no time,” she said, “Plus, you’re fugly as shit.”

“Someone is going to stop you,” I said. “I don’t care how powerful you are, how much bullshit you pull. You fuckers are going to pay for what you’ve done to us.”

She made a flapping mouth gesture with one of her hands, rapidly tapping thumb to pointer and middle fingers.

She aimed her other hand like a gun at me, and a thick lance of her energy leaped out of it and burned through my chest.

I screamed and kicked sideways, rolling out of my chair, but the beam stayed with me, in me. Spirits were ripped out of my reserve in a wild rush, a chorus of death screams echoing soundless in my mind.

It died away after a long moment, and I crumpled to the ground, clutching myself, trying desperately to fight back sobs.

Nearly all of them. All of the heroes who’d accompanied me across a hundred battlefields. All of the people I’d saved along the way. Joe. Irene. Kevin.

All of them were gone. Torn away in a burst of light by the devil herself. There were maybe a few dozen people left in my entire reserve.

I glared up at her. She hadn’t moved from her seat, her only motion to blow imaginary smoke from the finger she’d shaped into a gun.

I rushed her, throwing myself at her low for a tackle, my thoughts full of vague fantasies of grounding and pounding her.

She was on her feet by the time I made it there, rising smoothly into a fighter’s stance and slapping a hand lightly to my head.

The legs I was grasping towards disappeared as she leaped over me, shoving my head down into her chair and murdering another of my comrades with the impact as she did so.

I pulled myself to my feet, fists up, and swung on her.

I didn’t have fighting experts to guide my hands any more, no boxers or martial artists. We traded a half dozen blows in a few seconds before I pulled back, utterly outmatched.

Beating someone with perfect foreknowledge of the future in hand fighting was completely beyond me. My fists had never reached her, brushed aside by her guard. She’d struck me at will, each blow landing exactly where I’d pulled back from defending, reading my moves even before I’d made them.

My one attempt to gather my shades for an unblockable blow had only cost me more friends, as she’d clipped my chin in the precise instant that I’d summoned them into me.

She’d killed a dozen shades, two dozen. I hadn’t even mussed her makeup.

I let my shoulders slump.

“What do you fucking want?” I grated out.

“Giving up on not doing what I want?” she asked, voice still bright and kind, “Great! Take a seat. Or we can keep fighting if you prefer.”

“You know what I’m going to say!” I snarled, “Stop your bullshit! What the fuck do you want from me!”

“Take a seat,” she said again, lazily pointing an index finger at me in the same ‘gun’ gesture from before.

I positively ached to just give her the middle finger. Just tell this bitch to fuck herself once and for all. But that had never been me.

I’d crawled through all my years in the Regime, licked fascist boots to save lives when I could. I couldn’t throw the last remnants of my reserve into the afterlife for nothing more than spite.

I sat down across from her.

“What do you want from me?” I asked, yet again.

“Nothing!” she said. “You’re done. You’ve done all I wanted of you.”

Then why all of-

“It’s like you always say,” she said, “You aren’t special. I agree! You are nothing, Jane Trent. I’ve never been interested in you, not one bit.”

I just stared at her.

“They are called the Jury for a reason, Jane,” she explained, patronizingly, “And I’d like them to earn the name, here at the end.”

Fourth Fist: Cliffhanger

Preventer

The howling was what let me know that things had gone off the rails.

I’d been more confident than not, before that, suppressing the urge to flap my hands or generate barriers, laying quietly under the ruin of the building like any other corpse.

I went over the plan in my mind. The bomb would take out the vulnerable members of Second Fist, bury their Knights and shatter their coordination. Haunter would swoop in and rescue Dale, who would use his gift to haul me out through a tunnel or one of his moving caves or something. The survivors of Second Fist would be stuck fighting with Subtracter.

That was best case. If things went a lot worse I might be dug up by an angry Second Fist, but it was still far from certain that they could do anything to me. I’d never tested my gift against Refiner’s, but I might just be able to laugh in their faces.

I might also simply not be dug up at all. My gift would eventually see to my freedom, but that would be long after Subtracter and Second Fist’s survivors had it out. Something of a worst case scenario, if you took Haunter’s notions of our time table seriously, but it didn’t feel quite so imminently threatening.

But First Fist was a different matter entirely. First Fist had Remover, and Pursuer. First Fist, more even than Her, was what I’d run away from the Regime to escape from. I felt like I hadn’t had a day go by when I didn’t remember opening the door into the room in the Garden, seeing Pursuer rise from the ruin of his victim and give me that awful lupine smirk.

That memory, the knowledge of what they were, it was all past my ability to countenance. I started to scrabble at the dirt around me, pushing and clawing with animal ferocity.

A dagger in my position would have scraped their hands raw in a second, would have choked on dust and dirt, maimed or crushed themselves in the shifting of stones. I was unhurt, of course, but for all that I was no closer to escape. My prison gave a little, but the werewolf howls drew closer.

Nirav, back before he’d vanished into Condemner’s awfulness, had tried to talk to me once or twice about faith. His idea was that there was something or someone watching over us, a God to whom we mortals could pray.

I had nothing like that. I thrashed and scrabbled at the rocks around me until a great clawed hand closed over my ankle, and I was ripped unceremoniously out of the building’s depths.

I kicked furiously, uselessly, with my free foot, and flailed my arms around wildly. I screamed in terror and pain, but it vanished into the cacophony of howls that were rising all around me.

Pursuer wasn’t the least bit affected by my writhing. The blows bounced uselessly off him for a second, and then he reared back and slammed me into the ground like a club.

I gasped from the shock of it, eyes clearing in time to realize I was rising into the air again. He slammed me down a second time after that, a great chunk of loose rubble breaking away under my impact.

I focused through the disorientation, through the insane whirl of being slammed up and down like a toddler’s rattle, and braced my other foot against his wrist. As he brought me back to level I pushed with every scrap of leverage and strength I could bring to bear.

Useless. It had just as much effect as the Knight’s efforts to escape my strangulation. Ultra Toughness couldn’t be circumvented by trying hard.

Ultra Toughness, the thought connected with another in my brain. I was Ultra Tough. I hadn’t splatted when he slammed me, hadn’t so much as bruised.

“Aww,” crooned Alerter’s voice into one of my ears, “I was betting on you trying to cut your way out with those bitchy little platforms you used in our fight.”

I froze for an instant, just a second or two away from trying just that, and made myself hang limp.

Pursuer, naturally, bashed me on the ground once more, but I ignored it, just ragdolling and trying to get my focus back.

I was alive. They couldn’t overcome my Ultra Toughness, not unless I used my gift and let them break some barriers. I was a stupid bit-

I shook my head, frantically. I’d imagined that last, or, no.

I was a stupid bitch and no one would ever…

I wasn’t thinking that. Alerter was murmuring it into my ears, inside my ears, using my own voice. I was too dumb to-

I extended a hand in what I hoped was her direction, gave a defiant middle finger as Pursuer finally stopped slamming me and let my body danger from his grasp around one ankle.

“Boss was right again,” came Alerter’s voice, her own voice this time. “Guess we’ll take you back home and then Pursuer gets to play around with you for a while until people get scared enough for him to finish it. Remember, the safe word is giving us some platforms to shatter so his dick rips right through you.”

Pursuer turned away from the ruin and started stomping through the streets, dragging me along and bouncing me off everything that came remotely close to him. His howls roared out for blocks around us, spreading the fear and ensuring that no one would come to my rescue.

“Listen,” I tried to say, not because I had any arguments that would work on First Fist, but because in the right circumstances you tried absolutely everything you possibly could.

I couldn’t get another word out. Alerter echoed my own word back at me almost instantly, and for some reason that made me shut up.

I curled myself around as he dragged me along, grabbed and clutched at anything I could take a hold of. I looked desperately around, trying to catch someone’s eyes in a window, trying to appeal for help.

“I hear everything, for miles around” sneered Alerter, “You remember back when we used to do this to random daggers? Remember your little lecture to your little boy toy? He’s waiting for you too, by the by, Pursuer actually thinks you might let us kill you in exchange for his life.”

Thui? Wait, what lecture?

“Why don’t people ever get together and kill those fuckers? They can’t be as strong as all the Ultras of Shington” asked Thui’s voice into my ear.

Why was she impersonating him, and, wait, why did that sound so familiar?

“She’d stop them,” came my answer, my own voice, distracted and uncaring. I’d been drowsing, resting my head against his chest.

“She can’t bring them back to life!” argued the Thui of the past, “and no punishment She could possibly come up with for us could be as bad as First Fist.”

I kicked again, tried to shout the words down, but Alerter muffled all my struggling.

“Don’t be dumb,” lectured past me, “Even if ‘we all’ could take them out, a lot of us would die, and I’m not about to chance being one of those. It’s better to just let them take their prey, do their thing. It’ll never be anyone important.”

“Don’t you just love being right?” asked Alerter.

The streets passed in a daze of horror after that.

Pursuer dragged me back to the Garden, the place where I’d bluffed them back with the secret of their immortality, where I’d started on this entire journey.

The rest of First Fist were waiting for him, with one obvious exception. Averter was leaning back against a pillar, smoking a cigarette. Alerter and Attacker were making out on the steps.

Alerter reached out a hand to slap lazily at my head as Pursuer dragged me by, the door closing behind me with a chilling finality.

 

Indulger

Consciousness returned as my gift knit me back together.

I kept still, pressed myself against my brah, against the good old earth, and let my gift work its healing magic. I let my eyes stay closed, my form stay limp, reaching out only through my gift.

I was in Shington, just outside of the Knight’s building that I’d been confined in.

I sat bolt upright. The Knights had trapped me! Jane and Preventer were off dealing with Pursuer. How had I got here?

I was in a ruined house, cratered down into a basement. I must have been flung across the street, but I couldn’t remember it happening. All I recalled was sitting in that stupid cell, the hours passing away, one after another. I remembered cursing Answerer, cursing Deceiver and the Knights, and myself most of all, for once again leaving solid ground to step into a building.

Never a fucking gain, I swore. But of course I’d done that before.

My hearing came back with a pop, and I nearly jumped out of my skin as I became aware of the howling all around me. I knew that sound.

It was the fucking werewolf guy, he’d finally tracked me down for payback.

I crouched down a for a long moment, before I realized how crazy that would be. I couldn’t feel his footsteps anywhere nearby. Most people I could feel were hunching down in corners or running away.

One was approaching me, something familiar about-

“Indulger?” came a querulous voice, old and shaking.

A man’s voice, one I recognized somehow.

“Who’s-“ my question was interrupted by a great hacking fit of coughing.

Before I could finish my question he’d gotten to the edge of the house, was looking down at me.

Even in silhouette I couldn’t mistake that form. No one could. Anyone in the Regime, anyone on Earth could tell a Company Man by sight.

“Come come,” he said, “She needs you.”

I froze for a second.

“Right now?” I asked, which was a dumb thing to ask.

“Come,” he said again, “Best to do quick.”

There wasn’t a lot he could have said that would keep me from jumping up and going back to find my friends. Whatever had blown up Second Fist’s place might be after them, or they might already be gone. I felt like every bit of me wanted to get to them right away.

But She was that one thing. Company Men didn’t lie, and if She wanted me, then the safest thing for Haunter, Mario and Preventer was to be as far from me as possible. Prevailer wouldn’t care about their mission, or about what they thought of Remover. She would just fold them into whatever She had going on right now, and if they wouldn’t fold, they’d break.

“Uh, I…” I stalled, trying to think a way out of it. I couldn’t take this Company Man out, the others would know. Wouldn’t they? I was pretty sure that was how that worked.

“Be quick,” he said, already turning, “Follow, follow.”

I pulled myself up and hunched after, using my gift to try and improve my knowledge of my surroundings as best as it could, head on a swivel at the ever present howling.

It was weird. I couldn’t sense the werewolf in any of the directions that his roaring was coming from, and I didn’t think echoes worked like that, so there was clearly some other factor going on. Maybe people had recorded them or something. It made me super nervous.

“Follow, follow,” he said again, beckoning me along the nearly empty streets, “Hurry, hurry.”

I tried to find my team with my gift as I chased along after him, but they must have been up on something, or acting like everybody else, or maybe just a long way away. We’d worked out a sort of stomping code that they could use, but only Jane ever really actually did it, and she wasn’t doing it now.

“What does She want?” I tried, pulling up alongside the Company Man. “Did She say?”

He didn’t answer, but there were tears in his eyes when he looked back at me, which rocked the heck out of my world.

They didn’t feel, right? I thought that was the whole thing about the Company Men. They couldn’t choose and they didn’t feel. That was how I’d gotten away with that shit back at the Pantheon’s forts, over across the ocean.

“Wait,” I said, realizing something else, “Where are you taking me?”

We weren’t heading towards Torturer’s zone, or towards the Lair proper. We were just kind of heading off into the city.

“There, there,” he said, pointing to one building along the street.

Why did he keep saying words twice?

“You are saying Prevailer is in there?” I asked him, pulling myself to a stop.

The building was an anonymous ruin on a run down street, nothing at all like what Her taste would be.

“You made a baby with Her,” he said, “So She had to sleep, no warping around. She couldn’t let anyone catch Her in that way, so She hid here, had us tell everyone she was over there. Trusted us because we were soulless.”

His words were hard to catch, a torrent now, and his gesture could have easily indicated half the city. If the Company Men had ever been emotionless, this guy wasn’t anymore.

“She was sleeping when I changed, all the others killed,” he continued, “I gave Her more drugs, kept Her out. Now everything is bad, and the baby is coming.”

“Wait,” I said (baby?!), “You kept Her asleep? You have Her helpless, and you didn’t kill Her?”

“Everything is bad, is bad,” he said, “Bombs and howls. Do we need Her back, or go away? I can’t say. I can’t say.”

“She’s really asleep?” I asked.

I just couldn’t imagine it. The Prevailer I knew was such an unstoppable force, such an invincible figure in my mind. Nothing anyone had ever tried had ever worked on Her. This was just another loyalty test or something.

“She is always my hero,” he said.

“I…” I trailed off.

“Come,” he said, “You were Her pick, you decide what is to do. Wake Her, Kill Her. You pick. Come, come.”

I followed after him once again.

 

Haunter

There was no one near the Pain Zone, unsurprisingly.

Mario’d told us that name while he was relating some of his old briefings, and it wasn’t hard to understand where it had come from. Torturer’s gift had taken a huge bite out of Shington, dispossessing those residents who’d fled fast enough, and destroying others. It stretched for blocks, and occasionally moved around as its creator foraged for food.

I’d noticed the absence at least three intersections away, as Shington’s perpetual witnesses gradually made themselves scarce. By the time I got to the edge of it there was no one watching me at all, other than all the skulls.

Someone had helpfully marked up the corners of each of the buildings as I got closer. They’d used a pattern of hash marks, growing more frenzied and vigorous as the edge of the Zone approached. It was a simple danger sign, but no doubt very effective. Even if I hadn’t known about this place, I’d have understood it meant danger.

I stopped at the edge of the zone, then extended a hand toward its edge, being careful not to stray to-

“Aaagh!”

I pulled my hand back instantly, looking frantically at it for any sign of the damage that I’d felt.

A long time ago, before I got my gift, before the world had crumbled, my leg had been wrenched around and partially crushed by a piece of heavy machinery. Even across all the decades I could remember it, the feeling of pain mixed with impossible shifting, parts of my body suddenly rendered down into offal without the slightest transition.

This…I wasn’t sure it hadn’t felt worse, only to vanish the second I pulled my hand back.

I turned my hand over, even as I rapidly retreated from the edge of the zone, but it was naturally completely unmarked. Torturer’s gift struck the soul, not the body.

“I won’t do it,” I announced.

That probably would have been a lot more dignified if it hadn’t been immediately proceeded by a banshee scream, but whatever.

The alley stayed silent, the full moon above shining down on stone, skulls and me.

“I get your fucking game,” I told the listener I’d decided must be there, “You want me to chase after Preventer and fight with your fucking minions. Or maybe I dig around for Dale and end up fighting Deceiver’s jackasses. Maybe both? Why not? Well, I’m not fucking playing.”

More silence.

“That’s fine,” I said, “But you’ve paved every step of my way to this point. I’d have to be an idiot not to see it. Us surviving, over and over. Me finding out your scheme, figuring out where you were, making it here just in time to be told about a last minute deadline? How dumb do you think I am?”

I felt a bit like the ancient king who was supposed to have told the tide not to rise, standing here ranting at Torturer’s gift, but I was also pretty sure I was right.

“You need me, for something,” I continued, “That’s the only thing I can figure. You need me, and you need me alive. I’m sure if I dragged this shit out, if I chased my friends into one of your traps, I’d come out the end of it. More of the heroes of my reserve would fall, I’d be more fatigued and your deadline would be closer, but I’d make it through. You and your destiny bullshit would see to it.”

Silence and darkness, not that I’d expected anything else.

“Well fuck that,” I said. “I’m coming in now, and we are settling this now. Whatever your plan is, I have no doubt you’ve seen this coming too. So, if you really do need me, you better do something about this.”

It was one of the hardest things I’d ever done to walk back towards Torturer. The memory of the pain of a moment ago was still fresh in my mind.

I took a step, then another, then more beyond that.

At each one I expected to walk headlong into the edge of the zone, to pass instantly beyond where my will could control my form and enter an abyss of agony. But there was nothing.

I looked to the side. I was well past the point where my hand had encountered her gift, just moments ago.

I reached out again, nothing.

I couldn’t believe that had fucking worked.

I broke out in a cold sweat a moment after the realization.

This was actually happening, it had actually really gone just like I’d imagined it. She was here, almost certainly. This was the endgame. I’d finally found her.

The woman who’d Toppled America, who’d brought down the old world and brought about the deaths of literal billions. The creature who’d betrayed us all, making a perfect monster out of Her. The leader of First Fist. Forbidding Entity.

I didn’t know why she’d brought me here, brought us here, but I knew why I’d come.

I’d spent a lifetime bowing and scraping to evil in order to preserve the spirits entrusted to me. A lifetime flattering these assholes and pretending they weren’t garbage. I was fucking sick of it. I wouldn’t back down before these maniacs even one more time. I’d crossed the fucking earth to put a stop to this jackass.

Bitch was going down.

Haunter 12:1

I’d imagined the Knight HQ collapsing in flames countless times over the years. It was a symbol of fear and pain, of an evil that had lingered long past its time. It felt right that I’d been the one to bring it down, one relic taking care of another.

Preventer had gotten it into her head that our bomb was a nuke, but that was vastly overstating its power. We’d done our best, but it was still a conventional explosive, akin to the sort of thing a missile would deliver, or an old school truck bomb.

We’d debated fiercely, but inconclusively, on what the outcome would be. Had Refiner blessed the entire building, or just the cloths draped along the outer walls? Was the building we’d seen even a close relative of the true structure, or had Deceiver been running some long game on everyone, all the time? Would it collapse in on itself, rupture outward, fall to one side, or simply stand proud and defiant?

Demolition, in the old world, had been settled science. Experts, of the kind still retained within the reserve, could make a building fall in just about any way you desired, given the proper preparation.

With an unknowable target structure, built to no plan and augmented in inexplicable ways, and factoring in an undependable and jury rigged device, the experts turned out to be just as divided in their estimates as the laymen.

The debate was only put to rest as the building tumbled in front of us. It had been a composite ruin, walls frozen in the act of falling against one another, and the blast shattered whatever equilibrium the Knights had been able to enforce. It crumbled in upon itself in the wake of the blast, belching a huge cloud of dust and grit out onto the street.

Mario and I were down the road a ways, peering around a corner.   We ducked back as the cloud engulfed us, holding improvised cloth masks across our faces and shielding our eyes.

I reached out to my gift, pulling the shade we’d left with the Pantheon back into the reserve, and starting our clock. If Subtracter believed our signal she’d be on her way. If she hadn’t lied about her flight speed, and she started right away, then we had on the order of five minutes to find Dale.

We’d argued about whether or not to leave the signal for a little later, or whether to give it before the bomb actually went off. A case could be made, had been made, for either, but ultimately we’d decided that simple was best. The plan was to scoop Dale out before Second Fist, or whatever was left of it, managed to get themselves out from under the rubble, then leave them to fight it out with Subtracter in a race we had no horse in.

I gave no visible signal, just clenched my teeth, and the reserve leaped into action. Dozens of shades rushed out of my form, careful practice and discipline ensuring none crashed into one another as they swarmed out and into the street.

I followed immediately in their wake, leaving Mario behind. He’d wanted to be in on this part, but the sad truth was that there wasn’t anything for him to do. He’d be one more body, one more form struggling through the dust and murk. It was better for him to lurk back in the dubious safety of the middle distance. If the worst occurred he could at least try and contact his former superiors and wrangle some kind of makeshift solution in what little time we had left.

‘Opportunity triage’, he’d termed it. A kind euphemism for pure desperation, for the kind of effort you put in when the world was literally about to end and you were stuck doing idiotic street fighting.

The shades fanned out as they swarmed ahead of me, each team heading towards its assigned objective. Spotters called out destinations for reserves, and yet more shades exited my form. The reserve were doing their best to construct a map of the fallen structure, trying to assign everyone to proper areas even as they were dispatched, but the murk and the gloom made it an uphill struggle.

In a perfect world, or at least a world where we’d been unreasonably lucky, the ground would start shifting under my feet almost instantly. If Dale had been blasted into a location in contact with the ground and not damaged beyond his ability to remain conscious, then that would happen any second now. He could tell my footprints apart from the others by the fact that I was the shade’s origin point, and he’d know to get in touch.

I covered thirty more feet, forty. Unsurprisingly, we weren’t living in a perfect world.

Dale was not conscious and touching the ground. Logically speaking, this meant he was either unconscious, still up off the ground, or, worst case, both. In the real worst case he was dead, perhaps vaporized by the bomb.

We’d done our best to insure that that wouldn’t be the case. The plan had called for Preventer to seek him out, which would hopefully ensure Deceiver took her far from him, but force Deceiver herself close to the epicenter to keep Preventer in her gift’s range. We’d been hoping that Dale would be far enough away to be, at worst, thrown about and concussed, but not killed.

I heard some gunfire from the edges of the blast zone, saw brief flashes through the omnipresent cloud of dust.

I ignored them. Almost none of the Knights had firearms, which meant that those were most likely shades shooting, driving back bystanders or finishing off injured Knights. Nothing for me to worry about.

The nearest corner of the fortress still stood, to some degree. The collapse had created a sort of triangular rampart, a series of flooring and support beams avalanched upon one another that spilled out into the surroundings.

I looked to the shades that had proceeded me, one of whom was indicating a particular section of rubble. I pulled a few dozen shades into my form and started heaving on it.

This was the reason that I needed to put myself into the situation at all, instead of just acting as a command and control node to the shades. I, or rather my Ultra gift’s ability to allow us to combine our efforts, was the only way we could exert greater than human force in hard to reach sections.

The stone section of roofing I was working with crumbled away in my hands, forcing me to dodge back a step as the rubble resettled itself. I couldn’t be bold, couldn’t press my luck. Almost nothing would be worth taking the chance of being struck with so many of my colleagues inhabiting my form.

I shifted another layer of the junk, heart leaping as I spied a crushed form beneath.

We’d never taken the time to pin down Dale’s gift’s interactions with loose piles of rubble. It had been on a to do list that the Jury’d come up with, long ago, but the timing had never been right. We’d been fighting over the first disaster with the Union, or something like that.

The consequence was that I wasn’t sure exactly what would constitute ‘the ground’, as far as his gift was concerned. A building’s floor wasn’t the ground, but if he was walking along and there happened to be a rock embedded in the dirt beneath his feet, it wasn’t a problem. Which of those situations was a collapsed pile of masonry more like, in the eyes of whatever Entity was making the adjudication?

The figure wasn’t Dale, too small and with hair too long. They also had a Knight’s uniform wrapped around them.

“Jane!” came a shout from further into the smog, from somewhere down in the main pit that the building had turned into.

I looked down and immediately saw what the shades were drawing my attention to. A section of the rubble was heaving and roiling, boulders rising up as other ones rolled in around the sides.

It wasn’t Dale, I realized almost instantly. His gift would make short work of this predicament, and in fact had done so on numerous occasions, as he sank us into or rose us out of his makeshift caves. This was just someone with Ultra Strength, heaving and thrashing against the stones they were surrounded by.

Most likely it was Destroyer, the most deadly member of Second Fist, and no one I had any shot against in a fight. Subtracter would see to her, ideally, but the timing on this was rather unfortunate.

I looked around carefully, maintaining my perch on the upraised section of rubble, unwilling to flee the whole area just yet. Destroyer only had Ultra Strength One, it should take her a bit to burrow her way out. I couldn’t just run away without locating either Dale or Preventer.

I saw broken stone, clouds of dust and smoke, and, beyond the immediate tumult, the night shrouded streets of Shington. There was no sign of the earth moving in accordance with Dale’s gift. No barriers making arrows to show where Preventer might be. Just ruin and debris, and the angry roiling where a foe was coming to the surface.

I willed his form to coalesce out of the night, for me to suddenly pick him out somewhere that all the shades had somehow missed, but there was nothing. Just more night and more dust.

I had the self control not to curse, as I dropped back down to the ground, but it was a near thing. There’d been nothing to fight, no dramatic turnaround. I’d just…failed. I hadn’t been prevented or thwarted, I’d just been unable to find Dale.

I felt bitterly frustrated, but I didn’t let that stop me from retracing my previous steps, putting distance between myself and the upcoming confrontation between whatever Regime forces could dig themselves out and Subtracter’s coup attempt. They were welcome to their fight.

A terrible howl split the night, cutting through the distant screams and the gunfire with an awful suddenness.

Everyone in the Regime, hell, probably just about everyone everywhere, knew what that sound meant. That long, wailing screaming, which bore only the faintest resemblance to a true wolf’s howl, had signified just one thing for decades now.

First Fist was on the hunt, and all who heard it were their prey. It was a challenge, a threat. It let the listener know that there was an excellent chance that they’d be dead within the hour, and that those who fell might be the lucky ones.

Movement drew my eye to a building across the way from me, where a trio of Knights had just broken cover in abject flight. A nightmare shape barreled after them, catching one by the ankle and hurling him upwards into the night sky.

Pursuer’s howl peeled out again, even as the beast, which bore only the faintest resemblance to an actual wolf, lurched towards another victim, teeth and eyes gleaming in the night despite all the yards between us.

He wasn’t actually howling. Alerter must be creating it, using her sound control to make it spring up from nowhere in particular.

I’d been intending to pull my shades back to me as I withdrew, but I left them to make their own escapes instead. My only protection from Pursuer right now was that I was just one more shape in the mist. Anything that drew him to me, anything that singled me out among their number, would be my end.

I ran headlong away from the ruin of the Knight’s headquarters, just like everyone else who could was doing. Dale would have to wait. If he was still alive, then maybe whatever horrific and seismic events were about to occur when Destroyer, Pursuer and Subtracter clashed would see him brought into contact with the ground.

As for Preventer, well, she should be safely buried. If not, I’d grown at least a little fond of the Regime’s most amoral midget, but the truth was that the world wouldn’t miss one more war criminal among the ashes of the Regime. I’d considered killing her before, I wasn’t about to throw the lives entrusted to me away to save her now.

I felt a shade destroyed, then another in rapid succession. Somewhere out there in the dust, my people were being hunted. It might have been Pursuer, or Knights, or just the side effects of some Ultra’s escape efforts, heck maybe the rest of First Fist was here. Nothing I could do.

I realized, of course, that if Remover was here then I was desperately fleeing from the woman I’d been trying to catch up to for days now, but there was nothing for it. The opportunity I was looking for was one where I confronted her in favorable circumstances, ideally one where I killed her. Fighting alone against First Fist wasn’t such an opportunity, it was just a longer, more complicated form of suicide.

Another shade perished as I got around a corner, another soul lost to this catastrophe. I didn’t deviate, kept my jaw clenched. Alerter could hear everything in a wide radius, the last thing I wanted was to let her recognize my voice.

I wasn’t headed back to Mario, just away from this clusterfuck. We’d both be safer if we didn’t meet back up anywhere near First Fist. He might not know about Alerter, might say my name before I could put him wise.

I didn’t lose any more shades as I took another corner, and I finally felt safe to pull all my outlying shades back into the reserve. If they were tracking me at this point then they were already on the right track, and there was nothing I could do about it.

I jogged on as the Jury took stock of the situation, tallying everyone’s accounts and trying to work out if anyone had seen anything of import. It was the kind of task that the reserve’s limited bandwidth hampered, where normally I’d release the shades to talk it out in the open air, but the possibility of Alerter dissuaded me.

I crouched against a wall as the debrief went on. A few of my people had seen a large form sort of embedded into a section of building across the way. Dale might have been blasted clear across the street, but before they’d been able to get closer and examine the situation in more detail Pursuer had come crashing out of that building very same building.

I clenched a fist, bit back a snarl. It stank of precognition, the whole attack did. First Fist arriving exactly when we threw Second Fist into disarray couldn’t be coincidence. They were either watching or else Remover was just doing what Answerer no longer could, pulling moves directly out of wherever gifts came from.

“Listen up!” snarled a voice out of the air, low and mean spirited.

I practically jumped out of my skin, looking frantically around, seeing nothing but the anonymous building I’d taken shelter in.

“We got Preventer, you bitches!” the voice continued. Alerter, obviously, and if she thought there were many of us then she didn’t know I was on my own right here. Most likely she was simply speaking to everyone in a wide radius, not knowing which of us were Fourth Fist members.

“She ain’t about to have the best of times,” Alerter continued, “But you can’t say we didn’t warn her about it. Told her all the way back what would happen to her one day, and today’s that day.”

First Fist was exactly petty enough to randomly tell people the sort of horrors they were about to inflict, but I sensed this was more. I was about to get an ‘unless’.

“Unless,” she said, “You want to settle our situation now? Come to the Garden where y’all met her and we’ll slaughter you cunts.”

I wasted no time in running again as the transmitted voice faded away, doing my very best impression of any random refugee who’d heard that ominous declaration, my mind whirling a million miles an hour.

I took refuge again shortly thereafter, ducking into a wrecked Company Facility and slamming the door behind me. I needed to take stock.

The part of the plan devoted to destroying Second Fist had gone off without a hitch. I’d seen no activity from them beyond a churning that suggested that something was digging out of their headquarters. Assuming Deceiver’s gift hadn’t been at work, they were done. Subtracter or First Fist would take care of whatever remnants of their organization were still active.

But everything else had been a failure. I hadn’t seen a single sign of Dale, had quite possibly blown him up. I hadn’t seen a sign of Preventer, who was either buried under rubble or snatched up by First Fist in the aftermath. I’d even lost Mario. The reserve and I had no independent allies left.

I kicked irritably at the door I’d slammed, frowned ferociously down at myself. I raked fingers through my hair, trying to force a calm I was far from feeling.

If I could believe Alerter, and, famously, it was unwise to do so, then Preventer and First Fist were back at the Garden. If I wanted Remover, that was where I needed to go.

But, and this wasn’t exactly rational, Fuck me if I was going to face down ANOTHER Fist for ANOTHER hostage, immediately after this goddamn disaster. There had to be another play here.

 

Preventer 12:1

It was dusk when I got back to Second Fist’s sanctuary. The moon was full and bright, the evening air cool and crisp. The city’s buzz seemed muted and washed out in the twilight, like the world was drawing in a breath before getting down to some serious screwing.

I’d created a pair of short, thin barriers, which were presently supporting a hefty plastic crate that was floating along behind me. We’d found it in an abandoned commercial structure a few miles into the city.

I was alone. Mario and Haunter were a few blocks away, waiting on my mission’s success or failure. Haunter’s part in this could be played from anywhere, all she had to do was withdraw the shade she’d left with Subtracter. Mario, of course, could do nothing. Aside from his part in initial planning, and certain other contributions, he’d been forced to partake of the passive helplessness that was every dagger’s lot.

I didn’t have a lot of sympathy. He’d had his whole life to get Processed, and he’d pussied out. So he could get comfy over there on the side lines.

“Hey!” shouted a Knight, as I walked up, “Stop there!”

A pair of them trotted out of the front door, just the ordinary ones with the scythes and robes. Low rankers, then. I could see a few more just like them were watching me out of various crevices and windows in the irregular structure.

“What?” I asked him, “Your bosses wanted us to come back and give them a report once we understood the situation over there.”

“What?” he asked back.

“She’s in Fourth Fist,” said the other one, a woman by the sound of it, “They are working with…”

Her voice dropped in the last half of the sentence, and I couldn’t make out the rest of what she said.

“A Fist?” said the first. He sounded dubious. “Where are the rest of you?”

He was a little too far away to do the sudden throat grabbing trick, so I just walked towards him, sneering nastily.

“What’re you…?” he asked, and then I grabbed him by the throat.

“I don’t know why daggers-“ I said, unmoved by his frantic efforts at escape.

“Stop it!” shouted the other Knight. “Let him go!”

“…Think they can ask me fucking questions…” I continued.

She tried to bring her scythe around, but I just stepped closer to her, inside her reach, standing right up against her as I throttled her partner.

That left some space between me and my victim, of course, and he managed to thunk his scythe against my arm.

His eyes, already wide with alarm, filled with panic when it glanced off harmlessly.

“Let him…” she said again, dropping her scythe and grabbing for my strangling arm with both hands, adding her strength to his in their desperate, doomed effort to move something more immutable than the sky itself.

I kept my eyes on the archway behind them as they struggled in vain against my gift. I wouldn’t necessarily see a more serious response incoming, with Deceiver in the mix, but it didn’t hurt to try.

I let their protestations wash over me. I had a strong fucking prejudice against listening to people who only talked after they’d already tried to kill me. Missed that fucking boat, yeah?

I let a half a minute go by before I let go. Not nearly enough to actually do any permanent damage, but roughly an eternity in fight time. Time enough, by a long shot, to show that it was my mercy, and not anything that they were saying and doing that was causing me to back down.

When I released my grip the guy I was choking had been in the middle of pushing his foot against my stomach and shoving with all his strength. The sudden absence of anything to fight against left him rocketing away from me, he’d tossed himself down onto the ground and into the edge of the doorframe.

The other Knight danced back, hands up in a conciliatory gesture. Her mask had gotten a bit twisted around in the scuffle, such that the mouth part wasn’t immediately aligned with her actual mouth, and what she was saying was a bit jumbled, but I got the gist.

I swept imperiously past the pair before they could get their bearings again, crate drifting serenely along in my wake.

There were a few more Knights in the first room, but they all took distance as I entered, backing up against walls and down hallways and such.

“Where are they?” I demanded, not bothering to specify that it was Second Fist and Answerer I’d come to meet. It wasn’t as though it was plausible that I was here to confer with some random Knights, particularly after I’d just choked some.

They indicated one of the doorways, and I moved on through without breaking stride. Pace was key, and I wasn’t about to relinquish it.

Somewhere else inside the fortress, Answerer and Deceiver would be getting briefed. They’d be hearing about my arrival, and the scuffle at the door. They’d be trying to figure out why I was here, what it meant about Subtracter’s situation.

I wanted them unbalanced, but not panicked. Rattled, but not threatened. It was a tough balance.

A quartet of the higher ranking Knights, the ones with the modern looking gear, met me in the next room. They looked, in most ways, like the ones that had been sent with us, the ones Haunter had killed.

“Preventer, what’s in the box?” asked the first one, her voice making her gender clear.

If I didn’t miss my guess, at least one of these Knights was really an Ultra, one of the incredibly rare members of our kind content to take orders and wear a uniform. Probably not someone who could hurt me, but it wasn’t impossible. Deceiver’s Fist had been at this a long time, long enough to accumulate all sorts of useful pawns.

“We asked the Pantheon where Subtracter was, just like Refiner wanted us to,” I told them. “They were evasive, then dramatic, ultimately violent. But we’re a Fist, so we got what we wanted in the end.”

“What’s in the box?” she asked again.

“It wasn’t one Ultra who got Subtracter,” I said. “Not the way they described it going down. They had one who paralyzes people she looks at, another one to shield her while her gift was taking effect, and so on. Team effort.”

They stepped out of one another’s way, aimed their guns.

“The box!” she demanded.

I flipped the lid open, wincing as the stench of dirt and shit wafted out of it. Ultra Toughness, or my variant of it anyway, didn’t care about my preferences nearly as much as it did my safety and agency.

Their eyes were riveted, as we’d planned, on the gleaming skull embedded in the soil, the visage of death come suddenly among them.

“Here’s Subtracter,” I lied, “We cleaned the flesh off so she got a good view of all the negotiations. Refiner can debrief her at leisure.”

If the other side was so desperate to fool everyone about being able to see out of skulls, then why not make that deception our own? Why not pretend to be fooled?

It had been Mario’s idea, actually. He’d done some infiltration stuff before, and one thing he’d pointed out was that the way to survive in the Regime was to make sure you were always cooperative, always doing what they wanted you to.

If they gave an open ended order, or a lie big enough, then you could hide your whole plan right inside it, and their own goddamn arrogance would keep you hidden.

They looked to one another, plainly unsure. The speaker stepped back into their lineup, tapped a hand to her ear like she was turning on a microphone of some sort.

“Box has a skull in it,” she said, “She brought it for Watcher to link with, says that’s how the info is stored.”

I’d have given a lot to be on the other side of the line, just a fly on the wall hearing them argue.

Should they front like Watcher can only see stuff after she’s already linked to the skull? Should they act like they didn’t have access to her? But wouldn’t that be admitting weakness? Did we already know that Answerer was all the Watcher that there was, or was there something to be gained in running out the scam?

I’d been part of a Fist for a year now, I knew how questions like these, with a thousand possible points you could grab them by, would tear up a team’s dynamics. Everyone would have their own viewpoint, everyone would be thinking not just about how to get what they wanted out of it, but what them winning or losing the debate would do to the team’s dymamics, to their relationship with the only people they would share eternity with.

When we’d been considering the prison job, or when we’d been thinking about the embassy situation, we’d had discussions like this. Soul destroying arguments, waged with utmost sincerity. They were engaging, brutal things.

Most of all, they were distracting.

I took the skull (which actually belonged to the late, unlamented Sir Seth), and tossed it casually to the Knight who’d originally spoken, the one who was now talking over their communications thingy.

“Hey!” she said, catching it, bobbling it, nearly dropping it. The jawbone came away in her hands.

“I’ll see Dale now,” I told her, “We did some more negotiating after we packed Subtracter’s bits up, stuff only our Fist needs to know about.”

They looked quizzically at me.

“Indulger, I mean,” I corrected myself.

More fuel for the fire. More things to think about. What were our secret agreements with the Pantheon? Should they let me speak with Dale? Did it change depending on what they decided to go with for Watcher?

More irrelevancies, quicksand for a mind utterly out of shape for this kind of thing.

It was Answerer we were really targeting. She was the one who made them a perfect target for this kind of thing. A Fist would have a particular rhythm, a primacy hierarchy. Five wasn’t too many people to get organized, or four in Second Fist’s case.

But they were working with Answerer now, and that would throw sand in everything. She was used to complete certainty, to guarantees. She’d be shooting holes in everything anyone brought up, demanding degrees of confirmation that the world simply didn’t provide.

“One second,” said the lead Knight, continuing to listen to her ear thing. She handed Seth’s skull off to one of the others.

I put a friendly arm on her shoulder.

“One,” I said, loud enough for it to be heard by whoever she was talking to.

“This way,” she said, after a bare second’s hesitation.

“Lead the way,” I said, and she suited action to words, walking back into the archway they’d come out of.

I followed immediately after, crate floating along behind me. One of the other Knights followed along in my wake, her Blessed gun carefully not trained exactly on me.

The other two, including the one with the skull, left by a different path.

I was pretty confident I knew what had happened. They hadn’t had time to come up with a decision, and they’d bit on the apparently low cost, high value option. Let me talk with Dale, learn our supposed secrets, figure out what to do about the whole Watcher dilemma in the meantime.

We took a turn in the next room, then entered a staircase leading down into a basement.

The crate was my assurance that this was genuine. Deceiver could counterfeit our senses completely, but she couldn’t make our gifts lie. She couldn’t fool me about my own barriers, their relative position was something that I just knew, in a way that wasn’t really part of any of a human’s senses.

They were really putting me down in the basement, just as we expected. It was the obvious move.

If you had to hold Indulger, you put him on the top floor, as far away from ground as you could get. It was obvious. If he ever got to dirt you were fucked. So they were sending me to a different part of the building entirely.

The low risk option, once again. They were going to have Deceiver fake Dale to me, and fake me to Dale. That way they’d learn whatever we said, and they could cut off anything that they didn’t want to get through, on a word for word basis.

It also guaranteed, in their minds, that I couldn’t rescue Dale. He wasn’t even going to be in the room with me.

They would be continuing with the Watcher debate all during this, the vital seconds that they could have saved themselves in squandered on pointless squabbling over a future they would never see.

We moved through a dimly lit basement room, then through another room that wasn’t real at all, just some kind of illusion. We really walked around in a circle, but if I didn’t have my barriers I’d have sworn I was walking straight.

They’d put Dale’s imaginary cell at the end of this fake room, a sort of cubby dug into a wall with bars across the front, carefully several feet up off of the ground.

“Hey man,” I told him.

Dale himself looked beat up, maybe not physically pummeled, but certainly put through the ringer. There was a weariness to him, a listlessness to his posture. He looked despairing, defeated, like someone had told him that they’d destroyed all his old fake wrestling props.

He sat there sullenly for a second before answering back, which I’d also seen coming. Deceiver was most likely repeating what I said after I said it, then listening to his answers, then repeating them back to me. The conversation would be a bit stilted, and the easiest way to hide that was to make Dale seem to be a bit out of it, a bit confused.

“Preventer,” he said. “What happened with Subtracter?”

“Same old story,” I told him. “Same thing that happened when we fought with Death on the Strongboat.”

I was gambling a bit here. They probably knew something about our mission’s outcome, but I was hoping that they didn’t understand the significance of me moving the confrontation’s location, or didn’t even realize that I’d done so.

The message was twofold. The first part was to remind Dale of the battle with Death, how he’d been killed and only revived when his body hit the ground.

“How exactly was it the same?” he asked.

I was fairly uncertain whether it was actually him asking, to be honest. Felt like Deceiver might have stopped echoing and just put her own words in his mouth.

The second part of the message, of course, was that we were about to get fucking nuked again. Hopefully along with the first he understood that he needed to get himself into whatever the best position was to maximize his odds at survival.

I removed the third barrier that I’d been maintaining, the one inside the dirt and shit packed in the crate, which had been keeping certain components apart, components that Haunter’s old world specialists and Mario’s advanced training had allowed us to gather or conjure over the course of a frantic afternoon.

“We won,” I told him, or maybe her, my words barely getting out before the world was torn away from me by our bomb’s deafening roar.

Delayed again

I actually got the update done this week, but reading back over it I’m doing the author thing where we sometimes just have to rewrite everything.  Sorry about this!  It’ll be done (better) next week.