The bus pulled to a stop in front of the Castle.
I stood and stooped to look out a window, taking the place’s measure. I’ve spent a long time in Shington, long enough to have heard rumors of the Knight’s fortress, but I’d never seen the place in person.
The Castle was a converted mansion, five stories tall and with at least three wings. Outside of a city, it had never been Toppled, and it filled me with a primitive awe.
How many old world buildings of such grandeur had avoided Remover’s wrath? How many had gone on to be tended to, evading the more mundane peril of neglect and collapse? Most of all, how many had withstood or avoided the endemic Ultra battles which had shattered the less lucky of their breed? Perhaps only those in the Union, or select fortresses within the Pantheon’s heartland. Shington itself contained no structures that rivaled the Castle.
There was no subtlety to its design, of course. Its original owner might have been self effacing or vain, but there was no way to tell nowadays. The Regime had an aesthetic all its own, and the Castle gave it full expression.
Great horned skulls were sculpted between floors, their smooth brows serving as impromptu balconies. Spikes and hooks protruded from the wall, with old bodies still dangling from them. The entire building was painted Knight Red, and no doubt Refiner’s blessing was still upon the place.
Haunter spat into a cup that she had apparently just finished drinking out of. Some kind of tobacco. Moments later she sucked in her shades, ending their brief sojourn among us.
I had gotten accustomed to their endless chatter. In their brief periods of freedom they inevitably spoke quickly and often, and they’d filled the bus with a constant din. During our trip I’d often felt oppressed by it, considered asking Haunter to quiet them down. Now I found that I missed it.
The silence as we filed out of the Troubleshooter’s bus was downright ominous.
Dale walked with a heavy tread, his former good cheer entirely missing. The mask that he used for a sigil made it impossible to tell his expression, but if recent days were any indication he’d be sullen, resigned. The battle in Redo had taken something out of him that the trip back had not restored.
Fisher swayed along with her usual exaggerated gait. Borderline pornographic as her persona was it was still comforting to me to see someone else mostly unaffected by our experience. My teammates had become morose and bitter. From their demeanor you couldn’t tell that we were about to become deathless.
Nirav gave me a smile that was probably meant to be comforting as we stepped down. His anxiety, at least, was easy to understand. The Knights might be under the Fists in the Regime’s org chart, but they were still a white supremacist group at heart. Refiner’s minions would see his skin and their scythe hands would itch. That would be enough to make anyone ill at ease, but Nirav’s only method of self defense ran the risk of annihilating his memories, should Condemner feel unkind.
Last, there was Haunter, Jane, I corrected myself. She thought of herself as Jane. She thought of her shades as people. It was for their sake that she endured.
We’d grown a bit closer on the ride back. I’d made a special effort to be accommodating, taking each little statement or question as an opportunity to pry away at the doors of her reserve. She’d opened up about a few things.
Jane was as old as she looked. She’d been in the First Defiance. She remembered the old world. She’d bent her knee only with great regret, thinking not of herself but of her passengers. She had a dream that she wasn’t very specific about, but it seemed to involve them getting their bodies back?
Honestly, as Jane presented herself she was something of a saint. I didn’t entirely buy it, but it seemed like she did, and that was useful. I could work with a saint, certainly much better than I could work alongside someone who coveted my influence over Dale.
As we walked towards the Castle the big double doors opened, and a double file of Knights came out. They marched towards us in step, thumping their scythe butts with each stride. Impressive.
I knew from Knights. I’d used a bunch of them in my experiments. Discipline wasn’t a defining characteristic of the breed. These fellows were of uniform heights, and someone had drilled the idea of all thumping the sticks at the same time into them. These were their elite.
As we walked into the middle of them they stopped and thrust the scythes out, over us. I was a little proud that nobody flinched, even as the augmented blades clashed above us, forming a series of arches. My respect for their drill master rose. Nobody did formality like this anymore. I’d seen Her personal staff, and they didn’t show off to this extent.
Waiting for us at the door were the building’s actual guardians. The Ultras.
The one who seemed to be in charge was a virtual amazon, a woman with a physique like Dale’s. She was big, burly, and wore a Knight’s robe and scythe. Only the skull mask was different, worn askew on her forehead at a jaunty angle. I knew her by reputation. With Refiner tied up in Second Fist, this had to be the Knight’s deputy leader, Mangler.
Dale nodded to her, the two obviously knowing one another. Maybe there was some kind of muscle club that I didn’t know about. Mangler and her deputies stepped aside as we walked into the foyer.
If there was really some kind of elite group of strong people, then neither of Mangler’s assistant Ultras looked like they’d be part of it. One of them was an albino with glasses and a French braid. She wore the robes, but for her sigil she’d chosen a tiara. Raper, if I recalled correctly. The other had her face mostly obscured by an elaborate shark tattoo, but still somehow managed to show off inhuman fangs. That would be Looter. Her sigil was a ten gallon cowboy hat.
Mangler spoke as we got inside.
“Welcome to the Castle. She told us that you’d be coming to visit Linker.”
I saw Jane twitch, just a bit. I nearly twitched myself. Linker, at long last. I’d fought hard to get to this point. Challenged First Fist, dared Her attention to win my position, survived a baptism of fire in Redo. Against all odds I’d succeeded. Soon I would be safe, at long last.
I’m not entirely illogical. I recognize that, with Ultra Durability 3, I’m already safer than the vast majority of the world’s populace. But somehow that never seems to matter. I was always afraid. Maybe with a Link the fear would go away. It wasn’t the main point of all of this, but it was never far from my mind.
“Yeah, we are Fourth Fist. We are here to get Linked.”
Dale spoke for us. He was the leader, after all. It also seemed that he had some kind of rapport with Mangler, which could only serve to assist us.
“Good on you, ‘Dulger,” Mangler said. “Great to see you finally stepping up. When I heard that you beat Pursuer I knew that you’d do great things. And now look at you, leading your own Fist.”
“I dunno about great. Honestly, Mangs, I felt like what I was doing was more important when I was just building roads. We had a fight recently, and I…” Dale trailed off.
“No way!” responded Mangler. She had a slightly higher pitched voice than you’d think in such a large woman. Not soprano or anything, but it wasn’t the raspy growl that I’d been subconsciously anticipating.
“Being in a Fist, that’s a big deal. You’ve leapfrogged over me, that’s for sure. I’ll be here guarding Linker while you are out there smashing Her enemies.”
Dale nodded vaguely, noncommittally. He needed to get better at deception, but that was probably asking too much.
Mangler started to walked as she chatted, her aides falling into step. We hurried along with them, accompanied by a flood of Knights. They seemed to be everywhere. There probably weren’t more than a couple dozen in the building, but their identical uniforms made it feel like there was a host of them.
Before too long we arrived at our destination. There was one of those long tables that you see at cafeterias, or really rich people’s houses. It had 8 places set out, and it was clear that we were to be seated.
We took our places, sorted easily enough by the fact that the cups had our names written on them. I was at the bottom of the table, well away from where Mangler and Dale were placed. That suited me fine.
As soon as we were seated the Knights started bringing food in. Plates of delicacies were passed between them with a swift formality, letting us reach out and grab whatever we wanted.
I scored an intact candy bar, some meat and some small things that looked like vaguely sugar-ish. I popped one in my mouth.
I gasped as the taste registered. I’d never had anything quite like this.
“It’s a jelly bean,” said Looter, who was sitting across from me. She was ripping into a potato with her shark’s teeth. “Old world sweet. We get the good stuff when a Fist comes by.”
I was happy that Looter was the one who ended up talking to me. Mangler seemed to be much more on Dale’s wavelength, and Raper had gotten her name for the obvious reason. Looter, though, I hadn’t heard anything dreadful about. She was one of Refiner’s cronies, but other than that I knew nothing of her other than that she was a decent combatant.
“It’s great,” I said. “Did you rustle this stuff up?”
She grinned, surprisingly endearing despite her fangs. “Did my name give it away?”
I nodded. It had been a spur of the moment guess, but I’d have lost nothing if it was wrong.
“I make a trip out away from the cities from time to time. Shake down the independents, look for old buildings that might have something good laying around. You can find a surprising amount of useful shit by digging through the old world.”
I nodded. That was self-evidently true. The meat was a bit gamy, but good. Not that my gift would have let me get food poisoning, but it didn’t actually made bad tasting things taste good.
“Odd habit for a Knight to have.”
I let the statement just sort of hang in the air, waiting to see what she’d do with it. On one level, I was insulting her. Regime Ultras were served by Knights, we certainly didn’t join them. On another, it was a request for information, trying to get her to tell me what this place’s deal was. Ultras generally only defended Company Facilities by choice. What did she think was going on here? Did other people know that Linker was here? Was Linker here all the time? I was mostly fishing.
She just grunted, not really giving me anything. After a moment she looked up, as though she was about to speak. Her mouth actually opened before…
She was cut off, by the clang of scythes. At the head of the able, Mangler was raising a can of soda in a ‘toast’ gesture.
“TO FOURTH FIST! LONG MAY YOU SERVE!!”
Her booming voice seemed to shake the hall. It didn’t help that Dale had joined in. Those two were loud individually, but together they were a cacophony.
“Long may we serve!” we chorused back. It wasn’t exactly the motto, but we got the idea.
It wasn’t possible to chat with Looter anymore after that. The toasts came hot and heavy, as we went around the table. We toasted our success, our enemy’s failure, and everything between. We toasted Her, our service to Her, and basically everything that Peggy Martin had ever said or done. It was a bit forced, but enjoyable if you went in for that sort of thing.
After the toasts were done Mangler addressed us all.
“Tomorrow, you take your place among our greatest leaders.”
She gestured behind her, and a set of Knights that I hadn’t noticed held up pictures of the other Fist’s leaders. Predictor and Leveller, Refiner and Remover, even Fader smiled out at us from a bronzed frame. I couldn’t help but notice that the old Fourth Fist was absent.
The message was clear. Only the present was great. Only those who still fought were venerated.
“Tomorrow, our Master will welcome you into the company of Her immortals, those who sit at Her right hand, who drink the blood of Her foes and spill their own in Her service.”
This was surprisingly eloquent. Could Mangler actually mean it? I’d never really met a Regime patriot, other than Subtracter, but there wasn’t any reason that there couldn’t be one. It seemed dubious, but the Regime was a big organization. Surely in all the Ultras at their command they could find one who was an honest partisan of ‘our’ cause.
“Tonight, you sleep the sleep of the victorious. The sleep of the mighty. Rest and relax, for tomorrow you become a Fist.”
That meant that Linker was close by, or the Regime had a lot of confidence in some travel method that I didn’t know about. Linker’s location was basically the only secret that She had any care of, so far as I knew. If we were to be Linked, tomorrow, then…
I felt a small surge of pleasure. Ultra Strength couldn’t save Her now.
If Prevailer was letting us know Linker’s whereabouts, and by telling us when Linker’d be here She basically was, then She trusted us.
It was almost preposterous. Haunter was basically what you’d see if you did a web search for ‘traitor’, and Dale would betray anything to help someone who was crying in front of him. And yet Prevailer had decided to bring us in. Dumbass.
I stopped myself there. Underestimating Her had killed a lot more dangerous Ultras than me. Maybe She had contingencies. Maybe Linker would be moved after we had encountered her. Maybe this was a setup. There was no reason to let down my guard, not this close to success.
Thus I admonished myself, as we moved up the stairs to the room that we’d be sharing. And yet it didn’t entirely take. I couldn’t stop the warm glow from spreading throughout my body.
Tomorrow, I sang to my spirit. All of my efforts were finally going to pay off. Tomorrow we’d be Linked. We’d be a Fist. We’d be on the inside, at last.
I knocked on wood as I thought that last. Thui had taught me that superstition. I felt a sort of pang at the thought of him.
Then we entered our apartment and I saw the partners that they’d found for us. I put Thui out of my mind.