Our visitors didn’t arrive all at once, but they trickled in over the course of the afternoon, humans and weak Ultras, delicately trying to assure themselves of our intentions and endear themselves to a Fist newly returned to town.
I could tell that Dale and Haunter were chafing to be off somewhere, but in the absence of any actual destination they were content to leave things to me. Mario was kept mostly in the background, passing quickly by doorways or hallways, letting our visitors believe that Condemner was here without giving them the chance to interact with him.
I did the lion’s share of the work, slipping easily back into my old role, wheeling and dealing like the big shot Ultra that I’d always been. I promised nothing, demanded everything, and generally ordered people around like I always had, throwing Fourth Fist’s weight around and disrupting the local scene with aplomb.
I’d missed it, I realized with some surprise. This was where I’d come up, and the careful social dancing of Regime Ultras was to some extent my native tongue. The bluntness of things in the Pantheon had been something I resigned myself to, something I was willing to endure if it meant getting out from under Her thumb, but I was a creature of Shington at heart.
I culled the truth together from a tidbit here, a snippet there. I didn’t ask anyone anything directly, but over the course of the afternoon I was able to glean a pretty complete picture of what was understood, by the Ultra on the street, to be happening in Shington.
After night fell we gathered in a central basement room to talk the matter through, using my barriers and Dale’s ability to move earth to take what precautions we could against eavesdropping.
“Mario’s reports seem to have been accurate,” I started, nodding towards where he was sitting at a table. “Prevailer is completely secluded from public life. She hasn’t been seen in months.”
Haunter, of course, showed no reaction to that. It must be nice to be able to delegate your facial expressions to some random lackey. Dale certainly looked shocked though.
I couldn’t blame him. I’d been quietly skeptical when we’d first heard about Her absence. It was impossible to think of the Lair without thinking of Her, to an almost ridiculous degree. Shington without Prevailer was just a random ruined city, after all.
“Sorry for doubting you,” said Dale.
Mario gave a grateful nod, and I silently made a mental note that Dale probably wasn’t using his aggression potions tonight. That wasn’t exactly surprising, since with Lotus gone he’d be naturally forced to ration them.
“Who is running things?” asked Haunter.
“Second Fist,” I said, “With some help from the Inner Circle members who are still around. But mostly Second Fist. They’ve turned heavily to the Knights for organization and manpower.”
“They were the ones who got all those skulls?” asked Haunter. “I’d assumed as much, given that an Ultra like Subtracter would have gotten bored long before finishing a task like that.”
“Yep,” I said, “I expect the average skin color in all of the nearby cities is trending paler. Second Fist is all in on this Watcher thing.”
“Do we think she’s real?” asked Dale. “Watcher that is, I know that at the beginning it was just one of First Fist’s sick games, but they’ve had like half a year since then. Do you think they could have gotten the Company to maybe make an Ultra who can see out of these things?”
“Our visitors were definitely convinced that they could,” I said. “The people around here are constantly performing for the skulls, and they seem to think the ones the Knights wear as helmets are similarly used.”
“That is weak evidence in favor of them being real,” said Haunter, “The easiest explanation for the people being afraid of surveillance is if they have witnessed the Knights and other enforcers reacting to things the skulls have seen.”
“It’s probably not really the skulls,” said Dale.
I looked at him, askance.
“You know how She is,” he said, “You know how the Company is. I don’t think they could get an Ultra with exactly the gift that they want so easy, or She would have had lots of Adders long ago. They might have an Ultra with a gift that lets you watch far away, but I don’t believe it is actually connected to the skulls.”
I nodded, slowly.
“Say Watcher’s gift is really that they can hear you when you talk under an open sky, or see you if you are standing on one foot, or whatever. Now the Regime has an Ultra with a sensing gift, and they’ve already prepared the grounds with all these skulls. I think you are right.”
“In that situation,” Mario finished, “There would be no incentive for them to ease up on the skulls. Rather, they would be very helpful as camouflage. People think that avoiding the skull’s gaze will keep them safe, but really the rule that Watcher’s gift works on is something else.”
“So we should assume Second Fist has some kind of surveillance capability,” said Haunter, “They are using that and the Knights to project their power, keep the town from erupting in Her absence. Makes sense.”
“Did anyone say where Answerer was?” asked Mario.
“We didn’t get that lucky,” I answered. “Subtracter is with Second Fist most of the time, but nobody seems to know where Answerer is. Most people assume that she is closeted with Prevailer, and maybe Watcher.”
“Makes sense,” said Dale. “Even if She wants to stay out of sight, She will still get bored. Having Watcher and Answerer around would give Her something to do.”
“The final possibility,” I said, “Is that she’s gone to ground somewhere unknown to us. Perhaps with First Fist, helping to nail down contingencies to whatever they are up to, or perhaps just holed up in a safe house. My understanding is that she can only answer one question a day, but that would still be more than enough, over years, to work out an escape plan.”
“If that’s the case,” said Haunter, “We’ll have to move forward in another way. We committed to doing the things that only we can do, and that doesn’t include combing the countryside for a precog who doesn’t want to be found. Let’s refocus. Our goal is to find First Fist. What, or who, in the city can help us with that, considering only those whose locations are clear to us?”
“There’s obviously Her,” said Dale. “Remover and that crew know Prevailer’s power better than anyone. If they aren’t at the absolute end of their final moves they’ll drop whatever they are doing and come running if She calls. You don’t live with Her that long and not understand the importance of sucking up.”
“We know where Prevailer is,” said Mario, “Even if She hasn’t stirred lately Subtracter still makes regular reports to Her. We could go there, I suppose.”
He didn’t sound terribly enthusiastic, which made sense if he was a top Union spy guy. A big part of his job had probably been to read reports about people who went in after Her getting fucked up.
“There’s also Second Fist,” I said, “and I’ve made no secrets about the fact that I think they are our way forward. First Fist will have objects that Refiner has blessed, he can tell us where they are.”
“I don’t think Refiner knows anything,” said Haunter.
We all looked at her.
“Joe Ludd, the Grand Potentate of the Knights of Purity, that guy? He’s, what, a hundred and twenty by now?”
“The Link can cheat death,” I told her, remembering another conversation about the same subject with Remover of all people, way back when we’d been starting out as a Fist. “He doesn’t have to age if he’s living the same day over and over again.“
Mario didn’t react to this revelation, which was a little disappointing. It made sense that the Union would have figured it out too, if nothing else watching First Fist not aging should have given it away, but I’d nursed a little hope that nobody else would have figured it out.
“If he figured that out,” said Haunter, “And he didn’t. He was never a brain trust, and it wasn’t like anyone around him had any incentive to tell him. Trust me, the guy’s trapped on death’s door, hopelessly senile and a few hours away from his end. He gets resurrected every day only to die again.”
“I’ve spoken to him,” I objected. “He seemed lucid.”
“You spoke to Deceiver,” said Haunter. “She can counterfeit senses, like Blinder or Alerter but for everything. Her only limitation is the number of her targets, she’s the reason Second Fist don’t do large scale battles, but are always successful at the small stuff.”
“Your ghosts saw through it?” I asked. “Deceiver can’t fool them?”
Haunter gave a simple nod.
“Refiner sits drooling. The reason all of his blessings work off skin color isn’t ideology, they just can’t make him understand anything else. Deceiver hides it from everyone, but she’s the leader of that Fist.”
Now I saw Mario’s surprise, mirrored no doubt on my own face. Refiner a puppet, a fake! It was a strange and terrifying thought.
Not for its content, exactly. It was all the same to me whoever led Second Fist, but for the sheer scale of the deception. I thought back to a dozen conversations, two dozen, during my rise to power. Refiner had been a rival, a power broker, and, apparently, entirely fictitious.
It did something, changed something within me, for such an obvious and unexamined fact of my life to shift under my feet. An inner chasm loomed, no doubt a revelation or some other thing I didn’t have time for. Whatever. So some people were apparently wholly fake. It couldn’t bother me if I refused to care.
“Deceiver, then,” I said, “Can she just pull the information out of him somehow?”
“No way to know, of course, but my suspicion is that she can’t. If he was coherent enough to ask such things to she could talk him round to giving out tailored blessings again. You wouldn’t have to wear that makeup when you use your gun.”
I’d always figured Haunter had understood the purpose of that.
“So, we want to find First Fist, or a diviner like Answerer, someone with a gift such that finding them is identical to finding First Fist,” said Mario, smoothly intervening to avert rising tensions between Jane and I. “So Answerer or, potentially, Watcher, if they exist. And what we know about are Second Fist, Subtracter and Her, in terms of main powers in the city.”
“Our options are going to Second Fist,” said Jane, ticking them off on her hands as she spoke, “Going to Her, trying to catch up with Subtracter as she’s out and about, or something we haven’t mentioned yet.”
“We could try the Company,” I supplied, “And we could lean on old contacts, the people I know who were shot callers, the old troubleshooters you knew…”
“I don’t think the Resistance could know,” said Dale, “Because they’d have probably told Mario’s friends.”
“Condemner’s friends,” insisted Jane, “And I agree, if the Resistance knew, the Union would know.”
“We could also…do nothing,” I said.
Everyone looked at me, 3, or innumerable, depending on how one counted Jane’s spirits, sets of eyes fixed on my face in confusion.
“We’ve already made our return public. Everyone who is anyone knows that we are here, right? That may well include First Fist, depending on how total their isolation is.”
“So what?” said Dale, “I don’t think they are about to walk up and ring the bell.”
“They might,” I responded, deadpan. “I don’t think it is outside of the realm of possibility at all.”
“Explain,” said Jane, though I figured she’d already guessed where I was going with this.
“You all sold me on the idea that the Thui who was…killed, in our last confrontation with First Fist,” I kept my voice carefully even, held my hands without trembling before me, “was just a duplicate, or a fake of some kind. If so, then they’ve been keeping him hostage for months.”
Mario looked like he wanted to say something, but he had the sense to keep his mouth closed.
“I buy what you’re selling,” and here I indicated Jane, “about Remover being the devil. But the rest of them are the same small time bullies that they’ve always been, right? If they have a hostage…”
I trailed off, letting them fill the rest in.
“They are going to want to use it,” said Dale. “They’ll be bored and sick of the whole thing by now, they aren’t going to want to wait a second longer than they have to.”
“I’m not sure Alerter and Pursuer are THAT reckless,” hedged Mario.
“Alerter fought me in the Sniper Court,” I told him.
“But you’re invin…”
“So it sounds like we have 3 courses of action here,” said Jane, “Contact Her, contact Second Fist, or contact no one and wait for First Fist to contact us.”
I saw what she was saying immediately.
“It’s a false dilemma,” I said. “We can do them all in combination with each other. They’ll contact us just as easily if we are talking with Second Fist or not.”
“Maybe not ALL,” hedged Dale, “If we go to Her I expect we’ll be occupied for the foreseeable, if we survive.”
Nods of agreement all around at that.
“So,” I said, “tomorrow we send out feelers to Refiner’s, excuse me, Deceiver’s Fist and see if we they’ll just tell us where First Fist is? Remember, they might not think it is a big deal. We’ll stay here in the meantime, in case First Fist is trying to get in touch with us.”
Haunter frowned, thumbing her chin as she pondered.
“Would it be better to head over there tonight?” she asked. “Just from the principle that we want to give Her the minimum amount of time to do anything horrific.”
I shook my head.
“It would make us look like supplicants, if we go immediately, like we just got in town and the first thing we are doing is running over. Their guard would go up, I think. Much better to make it natural, casual. We are still hoping to get First Fist’s location out of them without them realizing how much we care, right? Then we want them as relaxed as possible.”
“Or fixated on something else,” said Mario, “Manufacture an issue of prestige or territory or something, get them all riled up not to let you have that, and get what you care about as an aside.”
“And also it gives First Fist tonight, if they are gonna call on us. I think Preventer mostly cares about that.”
Dale, as always, said the quiet parts loud.
“Well,” said Jane, “I suppose I’d rather not walk past all those goddamn skulls in the dark, right?”
Was that a look of pity on her face? I had to be imagining that. Haunter had about a Union level of pity in her for the likes of me.
“On that we can agree,” I said.