The woman’s posture changed as she said it. She stood straighter, raised her gaze to eye level and showed her teeth with a wide smile. Mighty nice teeth for someone who looked like they were on death’s door.
Everyone looked at her, Preventer and Haunter breaking off their ‘private’ conversation. I debated bringing the Hook out, or attempting to link shadows with her, but settled for standing in uncomfortable silence.
“You are only the second group to get that right!” she continued, smiling as brightly as a famine victim possibly could.
I moved back, letting the talky people move towards her. I kept my eye on Jane. She’d been… off … all day. Her priorities had been worrying last time I’d put the Hook in her shadow. Above all else, she sought to preserve, but nearly even with that, she sought to protest. It felt like at any given moment either of those might win out. A fraying, inconsistent list. She was the largest risk to my longevity, and she wasn’t likely to handle surprises well.
Preventer spoke for us, responding quickly.
“Second group, huh, then who was the first?”
Smart, she was giving us time to recall what we’d done while we thought this was Linker, had we somehow gotten ourselves in trouble? What did it mean that this wasn’t really her? Was the Regime backing out on making us a Fist? As we pondered these questions Preventer kept the focus on trivialities, acquiring more information and slowing the scene down.
“Fifth Fist, of course.”
It was eerie to hear such a voice from such a form. This woman was a battered, starved shell. She should barely have been able to croak these phrases, her breath should have caught in her throat with an alarming rattle, but instead her voice was almost bubbly. It ran over with smugness, self-satisfaction.
Safe in my shadow, the Hook’s claws twitched. This woman had deceived me, deceived Nirav and destabilized Haunter’s precarious psyche. If I could bring it about, I’d put her down.
“Of course, can’t fool a prophet, right?” said Preventer, voicing the obvious. She had probably realized who else must have seen through this trick before she even asked, just buying time for us.
“Well…” the woman seemed reluctant to admit that one couldn’t. Then her gaze shifted, going over to Dale’s chest, and then up to his face, in a very exaggerated and obvious pan.
“So, you are the leader, right? I’m Eater.”
“Oh, hi,” said Dale.
There was a moment of silence. Preventer was no doubt wracking her brains for what line to take next. Haunter was probably corralling her internal choir. I caught a glance out of Nirav’s eye. He would be petrified, poor boy. If Condemner decided to throw down with this woman for tricking him…
“So, uh…your name is funny, because of how skinny you are,” said Dale. “Does it talk about your power?”
“Of course,” Eater said. “But I’m not about to describe my power to someone I barely know.”
“You don’t trust us? But we are going to be a Fist. That’ll make us your boss, wont it?”
Eater shook her head.
“Maybe one day, if Prevailer takes a real shine to you lot. This fort and my Ultras aren’t part of the normal command structures.”
My Ultras… Eater wasn’t just a decoy, nor just an Ultra. She was something like Thor, an Ultra who lead other Ultras. A Regime version this time, so likely twice as nasty.
I was suddenly incredibly grateful that Preventer and Haunters little confab had happened before Eater touched us. I had no desire for her dry bone hands to touch either of my bodies. A little shudder ran through me at the thought. Through the Hook, or my idea of it anyway, safe in my shadow, not the Lure, which kept on smiling kindly.
“So what comes next? Or, what was supposed to come next?” asked Dale.
Eater folded her hands together steepling her fingers in a way that made me think they were going to snap.
“If you had believed in this show, if you thought you were Linked, then we’d have just drugged you at dinner, and brought Linker in when you were out.”
Dale didn’t get it.
“So if we fell for your trick you would make it real? What kind of sense does that make? I thought you were going to say that you’d kill us or something.”
She actually chuckled at that.
“Kill you? The whole point is that no one can kill you. The idea behind my trick…well…”
Eater stopped talking until her chuckles had subsided. Everyone but Dale had already figured out what she was about to say, but there was no sense in undermining him or aggravating her by announcing that.
“She likes Her Fists, but She doesn’t trust them much. If you guys thought that I was Linker, it would make the real Linker even safer. Just a bit of spy stuff.”
Dale nodded dubiously, but Preventer was more enthusiastic.
“Hah, I was right. This isn’t where Linker stays, it is just where you bring her to use her gift. It’s useless for any enemy.”
“Yeah, that’s it. She’ll be by tonight, expecting to find you guys unconscious.”
Nirav made a ‘bullet bouncing off gesture’ at his own chest, then pointed to Preventer.
“Yeah, good point. Those who are unable to be sedated, which in your group ought to just be Preventer as long as we keep Indulger off of the ground, will obviously not be drugged. Instead you get to wear bags over your head while she’s in the room.”
Haunter tensed again, and I had to act. The next seconds might see something stupid if I didn’t head it off.
I put my hand on her shoulder, making certain to do so gently, not hard enough to cost her a shade.
Even as she did so I was putting my other hand on Preventer’s opposite shoulder, making the whole thing a sort of encouraging upper body hug, leaning my head between theirs.
“Wow, you guys figured it out!” I tried to channel Dale with this line, injecting the Lure’s voice with just the same slightly dimwitted enthusiasm as he habitually used. “We would have looked so stupid if you hadn’t.”
Even as I was talking, I was letting the hand on Haunter’s shoulder do the real work. I pushed with my finger, gently enough that there was nothing for Eater to see, a series of presses from my right index finger.
Long short, long short long, and so on. Morse code.
I hadn’t spent the entire bus right back talking with Nirav. I didn’t sleep, so there was plenty of time to myself. I spent most of it talking with Haunter’s passengers. One had taught me this code.
Eater raised her hands like she was going to join in the embrace from the front, then dropped them as we cringed away. She gave that dull chuckle again.
Meanwhile my finger was tapping away. “Haunter, I’ll use my other body to see Linker. Don’t worry, we’ll find out who she is.”
A human probably couldn’t do this, not without it being visible to someone in the same room. There was no way I could hear a response back, either. But with thousands of people inside of her body, every one of them feeling my hand on their shoulder…they’d reconstruct my message. From what the shade, one ‘Joey’, had told me, they would get it pretty quick.
We broke the embrace, and I dipped the Hook into Haunter’s shadow for an instant. Relief rose about me. “Preserve” was her utmost priority once again. She wasn’t about to stand up to Eater and the forces which backed her right now, no matter how frustrated she got.
“Let’s get you to your party,” said Eater. “Sleep is in the gin, so drink it last. Preventer, when everyone else is knocked out and Mangler explains what’s going on, try to act surprised.”
With that, we headed out of the little room. Eater never broke character, shrinking from us as though we’d abused her since childhood, roughly grabbed and whisked away by the Knights who thought their red robes and masks made them figures of fear.
Mangler and Looter were waiting for us in the common area, and a keg was tapped.
Foreign as I was to the human condition, even I knew that midmorning parties weren’t exactly a thing, so I wasn’t surprised that we started things off slowly.
They had a screen with some sort of computer broadcasting to it, put old world sports on. Mangler and Dale renewed their acquaintance. I sat the Lure down on the couch next to Nirav, tried to grasp the old world game.
Lines of knights were running into each other, and a brown ball seemed to be an important part. Nirav didn’t get it either, but it was still fun and exciting to watch.
Forger and Preventer were talking, Jane was berating a Knight, sounded like she was asking him to bring some books or something. I let it all wash over me.
Inside, even as the Lure murmured gentle reassurance to Nirav, I was hard at work.
The Hook’s form was protean, ever changing. It was currently an enormous bruising machine, but there was no reason that that had to remain fixed. The same process that I’d used to regrow the Lure, the steady stream of energy that my gift lent me as long as some light fell upon me, I could use it on the Hook as well.
Gone were the horns. Gone were the fangs. I remodeled my combat form to be as inoffensive as possible. A sickly and wasted shape, so slim as to be nearly two dimensional, so frail as to provoke pity instead of aggression. A paper Hook, which could catch no fish. A tough call, but I had the time.
The day dragged on towards the afternoon. One of the teams won, and the Knights brought out more booze, more food. Nirav got up and pissed at one point. Preventer was making out with one of the boys she’d been with last night. Indulger and Mangler were arm wrestling.
And I was still struggling.
I was attached to the Hook in a way that I hadn’t been to the Lure. Time in the dark, time and the folding of my mind…the Hook was my body in a way that the Lure could never be. When I thought of myself I pictured the shadow that connected the two as the part that was most completely ‘me’. When I feared for my life, however, when I pictured Prevailer smashing me, or bringing me back to the place I MUST NOT GO…it was the Hook that I feared for.
This wasn’t going to work. As evening approached I had to admit that I couldn’t remake the Hook in a day. Perhaps if Thor had smashed it. Perhaps if I was all alone, in an environment that was less distracting. Perhaps if the Lure wasn’t drunk as a skunk.
I had deceived Haunter. I felt an unexpected pang at the thought. I’d intended to push out the Hook before taking the drugs with the Lure, hide it away in a corner of the room and remain partially aware when they brought the real Linker in. But if I brought out the Hook and couldn’t hide it they’d just force me to drink with it as well, or put a sack over its head if the poison didn’t affect it.
I chuckled, making Nirav stir a little.
A bag over the Hook’s head wouldn’t do at all. So many eyes on that thing. I pictured them finding a huge sack, a twelve foot sack, and bagging the whole thing.
An instant later I sat bolt upright. Luckily, one of the teams ran the ball into the goal zone at just about that moment. I cursed angrily at the screen, subsided again.
Could I do it? I forced my mind to the Hook’s form once again, revisualizing it as it truly was. The horns, the spikes, the eyes…my Hook.
Then, instead of changing any feature, I focused on its overall size. A Hook that could fit in a sack. Could I shrink it?
The answer turned out to be yes, and without much trouble. I could get the Hook down to cat sized, to hand sized. A little imp instead of a battle demon. Not good for much, but perfect for this.
The gin showed up a few hours later, and the garrison made a point to make sure that each of us got some. We didn’t resist, playing our roles as we’d been instructed. I guess in a way this was us showing trust to our bosses, but the truth was much simpler. She could kill us whenever, so if She wanted us unconscious, then we weren’t about to fight the order.
Idly, I wondered how much of the Regime was just exactly that. Obedience through fear, transmitted down a pyramid structure. Puppets afraid of puppets, thousands fearing one. No wonder we never got anything done.
Even as I mused about this, even as I put the gin to the Lure’s lips, I acted. I slipped the Hook out of my shadow, manifested it under the couch and neatly flipped up onto the bottom.
Minutes went by, and our group swooned to the ground. Haunter laid the book on her chest and sank into the big chair. Nirav and the Lure nestled together on the couch I was hiding under. Dale dropped off a stool and onto the floor with a tremendous crash.
Preventer must have done something, because I saw one the boys with her hit the ground, a red river gushing from a slit throat.
“What the fuck?!” she shouted.
“Woah, woah!” shouted Mangler, even as her Knights were taking up battle positions. “Just a little thing we got to do, Preventer.”
“What the fuck is happening to my team?” she yelled, stepping over the guy on the ground and walking across the floor towards them.
I felt that she was laying it on a bit thick, but my gift made this kind of thing easy. For someone without it I guess she was doing fine.
“Her orders,” said Raper. “You guys go through this ceremony, or you are the shortest lived Fist in history.”
“She ordered this?” asked Preventer, presumably looking from one of them to the next.
I couldn’t see anything from folk’s knees up, due to the Hook’s angle, but I imagined that they were nodding.
“Well, why didn’t you say so?” she said, and began to cooperate.
The next few moments were a whirl. They hustled the guy out of the room, dead or dying. They put a bag over Preventer’s head. She accepted without fear, even though she’d just killed one of them. Invincibility must be nice.
Then they went around checking that all of us were really out. They took pulses, slapped people, whatever. They took some liberties with the Lure that would have pissed Nirav off if he were awake to see it. They knocked a few of Haunter’s shades out of her with rough handling.
Ultimately they were satisfied, and they brought in someone else.
I’d been prepared to risk the Imp in order to see who Linker was. I didn’t need to. The voice was instantly recognizable.