Nirav was already shaking his head.
“It doesn’t work like that. I told you. Condemner …. he comes out when HE wants to. I can’t just fetch him on command.”
The Jury felt that he was probably telling the truth, none of the telltale twitches or mannerisms of a liar. They’d been wrong before though.
“Stop lying,” said Fisher.
“I’m not lying!” he protested. “I really can’t control when he comes out. It isn’t me that does it!”
Fisher didn’t change her expression, still smiling pleasantly.
“That’s not how Ultra powers work. You can control it. If you need to, you can use your powers.”
She spoke in a calm monotone, stating facts. It wasn’t so much that she was trying to convey a lack of alarm, I gathered, as the fact that she was unpracticed at conversational interactions. She’d mentioned that she was imprisoned somewhere. Must have been solitary or close to it.
“More importantly,” I overrode them, “we can’t exactly have Condemner burning inside the Lair. Subtracter is close by, and Her. I’ve never seen him in action, but I take it that Condemner does a lot of collateral damage?”
I directed this last at Nirav. It was a softball, right down the center. Fisher had been winding him up, and that would be no good to anyone. Giving him a question that he could answer should get his confidence back up.
“To say the least. I would venture to guess that Condemner deliberately spreads the impact of his battles out. I can’t speculate as to his reasons. Perhaps he draws strength from the devastation?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Preventer spoke up.
I turned to look at her. She didn’t look like she was experiencing the same borderline panic that I felt when I thought of Nirav petitioning Refiner. What did she know?
“What do you mean, Pre?” asked Indulger.
“Refiner…isn’t in charge of Second Fist?” I guessed. That didn’t exactly make any sense. I’d spoken to Refiner and his crew several times. It had been his sponsorship, purchased by tolerating Seth and company on my rounds, that got me into this group.
Indulger shushed me, absently. I raised my eyebrows involuntarily. It had been decades since that had happened. Maybe not since I became an Ultra?
“You could say that. You could say a lot more, actually. Refiner isn’t in charge of Second Fist anymore…because he’s completely senile. He lost his marbles a few years back, totally checked out. I think he’s actually died a few times. The Link keeps bringing him back, and they can make his powers work, but the lights aren’t on, and nobody’s home, if you take my meaning.”
That didn’t mesh with my experience of the man at all. Joe Ludd, Refiner, had been old, sure, but leathery and tough, with the same raspy voice that I remembered from the old tv broadcasts. For all his age, it had looked as though he was vital still. Certainly his eyes were clear and he had no difficulty following our conversation.
I trailed off. I didn’t want to offend Preventer any more than I already had, but how to finish that question? Sure? Positive? Crazy? They would all be decent choices.
“Is it Deceiver?” asked NIrav.
“Got it in one. She uses her illusions to make gullible folks “, and here she glanced in my direction, “think that the Knights still have their commander. She can make people see and hear things, remember. Ruling from behind the scenes is more comfortable to her.”
It was plausible, barely. I still didn’t buy it though. Refiner had been engaged, present, active in our meetings. Every little detail spot on. The Jury had been watching the whole time, and none of them had noticed any illusion.
Before we could argue about the matter any further we heard that tramping thud of figures approaching down the hall.
I spared a second to try and figure out where everyone was waiting. It wouldn’t do to have these Fists run into each other. Many of them despised one another. How did each come in turn? Maybe they were all holed up in little offices? It was a funny mental image.
Refiner shoved the door open, and Second Fist surged into the room.
It was an energetic and serious performance. The Jury registered its approval as we watched them each dart through the door and cover a portion of the space inside of the room. They were using old world tactics, a breach and clear that they must have cribbed from some old world entertainment show. It was a far cry from the other Fist’s lackadaisical entrances.
Refiner stood front and center, proud and tall in his Knight raiment. His thrice blessed robe swathed every inch of him. His skull mask, embossed with bull horns, only just peaked out of the garment that he’d famously worked with his power. His scythe clanged at his side as he strode. He was a picture of wrathful authority.
He was also, if Preventer was to be believed, an utter fraud, concocted by the inconspicuous woman standing off to one side.
Deceiver showed little trace of the hippy that she had once been. She looked like a crone nowadays, and coming from me this meant something. She was positively ancient, stick dry limbs jutting from a withered and hunched form.
It was another illusion. I had some experience with the aches and pain of old age, whenever I stopped wearing any shades I felt them all too keenly. Deceiver hadn’t bothered to include the mannerisms of an old woman in her guise, so she had a kind of hideous vitality. A hag with the mannerisms of a maiden. A monster from the oldest stories.
Choker was much more straightforward.
He’d rolled into a corner and was now watching us carefully, presumably alert for any signs of aggression. His trademark black gas billowed and eddied about him, but he was keeping it reined in for the most part. It didn’t leave a small area around him, as though his storm was stopped up inside of an invisible phone booth.
Across from him stood Bomber. She crouched warily, energy spheres glowing from her palms. The overall impression was of a race car, revving its engine. She was just waiting for go time. Positively relishing the thought of conflict.
Destroyer took point. She walked in without the tactical pretensions of the rest of the gang, strode right up to Indulger. It obviously galled her to look up at him. She was a tall woman. That couldn’t have been something that she needed to do all that often.
Destroyer was a mountain of muscle, clearly displaying a form that had certainly required a long time in the gym in order to craft. In any company save Indulger’s she’d be the biggest person present by a large margin. The body builder, however, made even her look diminished, and she plainly wasn’t enjoying it. If I had to take a stab at the difference, I’d say that Destroyer lifted for strength, while Indulger did it for size.
“Hi!” said Indulger, and extended a hand for Destroyer to shake.
She took it almost despite herself, just reflexively responding to the offered handshake. She held him for a moment, and then brought their locked hands up and down, once.
Plainly, both were squeezing and testing one another’s strength. Equally plainly, if she got serious, Destroyer could crush every bone in his hand to powder. She had Ultra Strength Two. The size of their respective forms didn’t matter.
She didn’t do that, however, instead releasing him after what seemed to be a testing of some kind.
“Hey” she responded.
That seemed to exhaust the meat heads’ conversational menu for the moment, so we all just stood there. Everyone was too cool to be the one to break the silence. I resigned myself and spoke up.
“The Ruling Fist. It’s so pleasant to see you again.”
I pitched my voice and angled my face towards Refiner, or his semblance at least. His skull mask pivoted slightly, and his reedy old voice emerged.
“Haunter. The Ark of the Past. What a pleasure to see you again. My Knights have told me of your doings. Honestly, this appointment couldn’t possibly fall to a more worthy candidate.”
Alright. If Preventer was right, and this was all Deceiver’s puppet work, then why was she playing along? I decided to move forward with the conversation as though I was actually talking to the Knight Commander.
“I’m glad to hear you say that.”
Before I could go any further, Fisher spoke up.
“You are in charge of the Knights, right?”
Refiner’s mask pivoted over to face in her direction. His eyes narrowed.
“I have that honor.”
“You did a great job training them, really! I’ve always wanted to meet you.”
Fisher approached him, holding out her hands as though to clasp his.
Refiner backstepped, and Destroyer intercepted Fisher, simply barging into her path and standing insolently before her.
“Easy there, Barbie. No need for you to get all handsy with my squishier teammates.”
Even as I started to move over to smooth over whatever this was, Preventer was talking to Deceiver.
“Do you really need to do the whole puppet show? We are going to be one of your fellow Fists, you know. Surely you can let us behind the curtain.”
I couldn’t hear Deceiver’s response over Destroyer and Fisher talking. Destroyer was continuing in the same vein as before, remonstrating with her and instructing her to stay back. Fisher was apologizing, attempting to mollify Destroyer. I had the sense that Fisher’s form, apparently optimized for attractiveness to guys, was hurting her with Destroyer.
I had to make a choice. Let Preventer communicate with Deceiver, unobserved, or let the Destroyer/Fisher interaction go on. I decided to put my trust in Fisher. Surely, she could handle a trivial manners dispute. I headed across the room to Deciever and Preventer.
Deceiver looked up as I approached, rheumy old eyes meeting mine.
“Pleased to see you again, Jane,” she said. “We didn’t get to talk much the last time that you came by. I feel like that was a loss. Two Ultras like ourselves, who have experienced so much of what the world can dish out… I feel sure we would have found common ground.”
Common ground with an enthusiastic supporter of the Regime. I didn’t think so.
“I have no doubt about it.” I responded. “And we’ll have plenty of time to get to know one another, provided that your band votes to approve us.”
“Hmm…” she drawled out the word. Preventer seemed to take that as an invitation to butt in.
“I know that you don’t want our help. I know that you don’t want anything that we can give you. I know you aren’t afraid of a threat that we could subdue, or greedy for a prize that we could win. Honestly, I’m at my wit’s end. What is it going to take to get you to assist us? Can you just tell me?”
The whole speech was delivered in a whispered monotone. I doubt it was audible beyond the three of us.
Deceiver laughed, delightedly. It was the first time that I actually felt like she was just an illusion. She laughed like the young woman that she was. Enthusiastic chortling, nothing held back. It was an odd feeling.
I mean, it was one thing to be told that your senses might cheat you. Another entirely to hear a geriatric near my own age suddenly giggling like she just got told that there’d be no homework on the fieldtrip.
“Preventer, please. I told you that I wouldn’t commit to a yes or a no. I’ve told you that ten times. But that doesn’t mean that I’m wedded to yes. It was always going to depend on whether I felt that we could trust you to have our backs. You don’t need to intrigue or bargain for our approval. We are following the process as She laid it out. We’ll find in your favor if we think you’ll be a good fist, and not otherwise.”
Preventer looked like someone had just farted in her face. She backed away, leaving me alone with Deceiver, or at least somewhat alone. The others were conversing around us, but none of them seemed anxious to interrupt the two old ladies in the midst of our chat.
“Anything I can tell you to help you make that decision?” I asked. “Not offering a bribe here, just saying that if you are trying to find out about us, I’m more than ready to help with that.”
She grinned, face folding up like a worn old quilt.
“Actually I did have some questions, for you in particular, Haunter.”
No more Jane, huh? I braced myself.
“What criteria do you use, in order to determine who you will save in that marvelous soul cage of yours.”
Deceivers manner was relentlessly casual, which assured me that this query was anything but. I decided to go with a version of the truth.
“I need body contact, as well as their agreement…“
She was already shaking her head.
“Not how you do it. I don’t care about that. We are going to be on the same side. I don’t need to look for weaknesses in your power.”
She looked me right in the eyes.
“I’m asking you WHY you do it. Why do you take someone into your refuge, hold them for tomorrow? Why not the person next to them?”
I thought for a moment. The Jury fell silent, wanting to hear this answer as well.
The truth of the matter was that I took just about anyone. If I could get a hook in someone’s soul I usually did. After all, it was a strictly superior arrangement to an ordinary life and death. If a shade ever wanted to go to their rest I let them. Those who wanted to remain in this valley of sorrows got their chance, limited as the shade’s existence necessarily was.
I was tempted to speak a noble lie. Tell her that I was taking the brave, or the cunning, or those chosen by fate. Just about anything would sound cooler than my calm practicality. But this was an audience, a woman, who had no problems letting the rest of her team take the spotlight. A woman who, if Preventer was to be believed, ruled entirely through the puppet Refiner’s mannerisms. Sounding cool would be the least of her concerns.
“I take anyone I can. Why them? Why not the person next to them? The answer is that I take them because I can. Because we all deserve a second chance. And I take the person next to them if it is at all possible.”
Deceiver didn’t react to my statement, even as my passion made my speech just a bit louder than the private conversation that we’d been having. She faded into the background for the rest of their visit.
We talked to Second Fist for more than half an hour. Longer than the other Fists all put together. Destroyer was belligerent, and a little bit attracted to Indulger. Choker and Bomber were ciphers, saying little and communicating less. Refiner was every inch the charismatic leader that he was built up as by the Knights. Deceiver had apparently found out everything that she was wondering about.
When the visit was over, they confirred briefly, and my heart was in my hands as they stepped forward to announce it.
“We think you’ll do great things, guys.” Said Refiner. “Let me be the first to congratulate you.”
We all shook hands. Deceiver gave us a last bit of encouragement.
“Good luck with Her, Fourth Fist.”