Ever since the meeting with the Union, I had been paranoid about meeting places.
Our report to Subtracter had been a perfect example of the kind of meeting place that someone who doesn’t care about the terrain sets. We’d met up with her on the edges of Shington, along an unremarkable stretch of road. She’d dropped down out of the clouds and listened to our debrief.
Fisher was, if anything, even more cautious than I was. She had her Hook watching behind us even as she put her arm around me. If anything happened, she’d let me know instantly. I wasn’t going to be caught off guard again.
I hadn’t told her, but I knew that she could tell I was worried about her. She’d been sullen and withdrawn since the fight with the Union, and then there was the rather memorable fact that Subtracter had killed her back in the Castle. We clung to one another, tense and frightened, for the duration of that conversation.
It wasn’t a long time to wait. Preventer had given Subtracter a brief account of what went down. Subtracter thought us getting ambushed was funny. Preventer tried to apologize for not getting the peace deal hammered out like we were supposed to, but Subtracter said that She had a rule to never punish people for killing other people.
No one really knew how to take that, and a bit later Subtracter was giving us another assignment. We were supposed to go down and help out on the southern front once again, Pantheon troubles or some such. I didn’t see how that could be, given what my other self and Prevailer had done in Redo, but we knew better than to question Subtracter.
We didn’t even have time to get into the city. Preventer seemed really anguished about this. I think she was planning on talking to friends or something. Jane was tormented, wracked by guilt. I had tried very hard not to think about the souls that Condemner had stolen from her, nor the anger that she must be containing. I stayed out of her way as much as I could.
That was easy enough, the rolling road that Indulger used to shove us along was big enough that we could separate out easily enough. Preventer and Indulger stayed together, as did Betty and me. Haunter sulked alone, everyone understood somehow that she was close to an edge of some kind.
It was looking like this meeting would be another of the bad ones.
Subtracter hadn’t specified ‘how’ we were to pitch in on the southern front. I was coming to realize that specifying how things happened was not really in the Regime’s wheelhouse. Fisher suggested that we ask Third Fist what kind of help they could use, and between Haunter’s despair and whatever Preventer was dealing with her motion had carried the day. We got in touch with Third Fist and they set up a meeting place.
The coordinates that Leveller had sent us led us to the coast, which I think we all saw coming, but I don’t think anyone realized that she’d built an ice palace. I hadn’t even known that her gift let her make water into ice, much less hold so much of it.
The palace was enormous, at least the size of the Castle back up in Shington. It gleamed and steamed in the heat of the Gulf, but stubbornly refused to melt away. Icy tatues of Third Fist stood out from the walls, the warriors of the Regime picked out in heroic poses and shades of blue and white.
An isthmus or sandbar let out to it. The castle proper was actually out in the ocean. The waves parted from the path like the old texts that Elder Tanya had read from, with Moses parting the Red Sea.
A week ago we’d have probably walked right up into their power, crippling Indulger by pulling him from land before things even got started, but we’d all had about enough of that. We conferred a minute, before taking Preventer’s suggestion.
Indulger took a knee, working his hands into the sand of the beach. There was a faint rumbling, as the land responded, and then a much louder rustling, as the beach was crowded out of the way by an emerging stretch of earth.
Stone rose beneath Indulger’s hands, rose beneath us all. A sort of artificial shelf, or whatever you’d call it, like a snake of stone, coiled up beneath us. We rocked a bit, but the ground swayed to compensate, the stone shifting under our feat as it felt us lean one way or another. Soon we were comfortable, and Indulger grunted, causing the peninsula to extend into the palace.
An unholy cracking and tearing sound emerged, as Indulger’s spear of stone unceremoniously tore into the palace floor beneath us, shouldering Leveller’s creation’s elegant flooring aside and driving a crack into the heart of the structure.
I had no fear that we would collapse the place, but it was impossible to deny the chill as I realized that Leveller might. If she took this as an affront, then things would go bad, quickly.
“Perhaps you shouldn’t have walked into her domain then.”
Condemner had been communicating more and more with me. His voice arising from my subconscious like some imp from Elder Tanya’s tales.
I ignored him, looking around the frozen foyer that we had forced our way into.
There were a trio of doors, one to either side and one to the front. I began to suggest that Indulger expand the stone ramp that we were on when Haunter took action.
A wave of her hand saw three shades dispatched. I caught glimpses of gansters, scavengers and the like. Rough men brought forth to serve the woman who was their home. They approached the doors quickly and carefully, examined them for a moment, and then returned to Haunter. All three saluted, and then sank into her form.
I’d never seen her shades salute her before, but before I could ask what it meant she spoke.
“The doors are fake. Leveller can open anything she wants.”
We stood for a moment after that, digesting it.
“So, we are supposed to be knocking on the doors, and then what?” asked Preventer.
Indulger shrugged. He held up a hand, made a ‘knock knock’ gesture.
The fortress shook, convulsively. Only the ground shifting in counterpoint to it kept us from toppling over.
The shaking died away.
“Let’s not…” I began, when the door ahead of us turned to water and splashed across the floor.
Steam hissed out into the air, haloing Third Fist as they walked out to meet us.
They didn’t break stride, didn’t break ranks. The Regime’s greatest warriors walked straight up and stood arrayed before us.
None of them stepped off the ice. None of us stepped off the rock.
Leveller spoke. Her voice bubbled out of the water that surrounded her, giving it a strange, bass quality.
“We got your message. I whipped up this little display to greet you in surroundings…appropriate… to your newly raised station.”
We’d talked to Indulger about his manner of speaking and it payed off now, as he didn’t respond to this.
“I hope that I didn’t give offense,” Leveller continued.
I tried not to gawk. Third Fist had been openly contemptuous at our tryout, had ultimately sided against us becoming a fist. We’d smashed our way into her castle instead of just walking in, and she was trying to mollify us?
“No.” said Preventer. “No offense was taken.”
“Well, thank Her for that,” said Mover, sarcasm dripping from her tone. She, at least, hadn’t softened her attitude since our previous meeting.
Leveller shot her a look, then regarded us once again.
“I’d like to start things off with you on a new foundation, now that you are a Fist. I’ve been to Redo, seen your work. We clearly underestimated you. I’m sure that you will serve Her with distinction.”
“Yeah,” said Indulger. “That’s what we are trying to do.”
He crossed his arms.
That’s where we were at with Dale. Short sentences when he knew that he was right, and power pose body language, to emphasize his size. Fisher had been working with him.
“Wonderful. Why have you come to see us?” asked Leveller.
Even while she was talking, I was keeping a close eye on the actions of the rest of their Fist. Killer was sitting on a jagged ice section which had splintered when Indulger had knocked. She did finger guns at me when she saw me looking, and I forced myself not to react.
Blaster and Evolver were hanging back, still standing by the door that Third Fist had walked out of. Leveller and Mover were the only two who had moved up to deal with us directly.
“Subtracter asked us to lend a hand on the southern front, and we didn’t want our operations to run up against yours. Do you have anything in particular that you could use our aid with?” Preventer asked.
Mover and Leveller moved together, conversed in low tones. Fisher would be able to hear this, of course. Her Hook had incredible senses. She could tell me what they’d said afterwards. For now I stood my ground and tried to meet the stares of the back three.
There was animosity there. It wasn’t First Fist’s blank and all consuming hatred. It wasn’t even the deranged, damaged ferocity that the Union man had shown. This resembled what I’d seen in the Castle, when the Knights had thought I wasn’t watching. A bone deep contempt.
I’d heard rumors about Third Fist, about the only Fist with no men in it. I resolved never to put myself at their mercy.
“So…like I said, we’ve been to Redo, seen your work.”
I refocused on the main two. Leveller was speaking again.
“You did an excellent job of taking out the enemy. We could hardly have done better…”
“But?” asked Betty, taking the cue with a natural grace that made the situation seem much more like a civil conversation and less like a hostile negotiation.
“You also took out a lot of the daggers.”
I looked away from the other side for a moment, searching my comrades to see if any of them knew what that meant. From their faces, no one did.
“Subtracter told us that it was always going to be fine to just kill everyone.” I said. It felt like invoking Subtracter’s authority strengthened our position somehow.
It was Mover who spoke.
“Sure, sure, but that doesn’t get you out of fixing the consequences of your mistakes.”
“Mistakes?” asked Preventer. She didn’t give the words any particular threatening inflection. Still, the question was unquestionably a bit pointed.
“So, you are the Pantheon. You want to get back at us for the loss of Redo. What do you do?”
Mover asked the question like we were particularly dense children. Seemed like Leveller’s newfound civility hadn’t extended as far as Mover.
“I strike back, take down one of our Fists and teach the Regime the consequences of messing with it.” said Preventer.
Leveller shook her head.
“It is comparatively rare that an enemy will actually strike at a Fist. I take it you got attacked up north, but that that’s not common at all. The women in charge of the Pantheon’s movements aren’t dumb. They prefer to expend their grunts on people who stay dead when killed.”
“That makes sense,” said Preventer, “but I don’t see what that has to do with our work in Redo.”
“Would you attack Redo now?” asked Mover. “Kick some sand around, bounce some rubble?”
I saw it, all of a sudden. We’d killed the Pantheon’s Ultras in Redo, true, but as far as everyone knew we’d also killed the civilian populace. Haunter had only ‘saved’ them in a very particular sense so that was even mostly true.
By doing so we’d eliminated Redo as a point of contention. The Company Facility wouldn’t be reoccupied if there was no one there, and the city would join dozens of other such settlements dwindling away in the desert.
“Of course, nothing has REALLY changed,” stressed Leveller. “The enemy could always have moved east around Redo and struck whatever they chose, just as they can now. The Pantheon, however, generally prefers to attack the outermost target, likes to conquer land like they are peeling an onion.”
Haunter spoke, startling all of us. Her voice was hoarse and low.
“When we were sent to Redo, you expected us, not yet immortal and outnumbered twenty to one, to capture it intact?”
Leveller gave her a pained smile.
“I expected you to die, to be honest. I didn’t think much of you at that time. I certainly didn’t think that you’d succeed well enough that She would intervene, and we’d end up with a big hole where there once was something to pass back and forth.”
Preventer coughed, delicately.
“Now that we understand the main point, what might we do to rectify the situation? As we mentioned, Subtracter has dispatched us to the South. You are the acknowledged experts in this field. If our actions have brought about a difficulty, then perhaps you could let us in on how we might provide relief?”
Mover gave a sharp nod.
“Now you are getting it. What we’d like you to do is very simple, and eminently within your power.”
Considering that I didn’t think Third Fist knew that we’d had most of the enemy in Redo fight each other, and Prevailer’s backup for the last part, I wasn’t too confident in her estimate of our power.
“We can fill the city back up, right?” asked Haunter.
As soon as she said it, the matter was obvious. Cities in the Regime were just places that there were Company Facilities. There were plenty of little places outside of them where people kept their heads down and tried to live as their ancestors had. They lived in dread of a knock on the door, the knock that we would bring.
“We hate to work so far from the sea, but with Indulger’s power you are no doubt unfettered by such limitations. If you are looking to be of use on the southern front, then the best thing that you can do for us is round up a few thousand daggers and get to work on rebuilding Redo.”
“It will be a pleasure,” said Indulger, “to help the citizens of the Regime embrace the better life that the cities offer.”
“Sure, but mostly I just want the Pantheon to have something to attack when they come for payback. Could you guys fight them off if they come while you are there?”
That wasn’t really a question. Leveller knew that Her view on Fists that ran from the enemy was extremely dim.
“It will be a pleasure,” said Indulger again.
This time it didn’t sound like he meant it.