Indulger 5:1

This time She wanted to talk afterwards.

She lay sprawled across my chest.  A slip of a thing.  Sweaty and slightly warmer than I was.  I had an arm around Her back, my other arm bent back so I could rest my head on it.

“What’s under your skin?” She asked.

She had an ear to my heart, maybe listening to it, and was looking up at me along my chest.  I dug my chin into my throat to look down into Her face.

“Nothin,” I grunted.

Prevailer seemed to like it when I acted brutish, dumb.  She probably knew that I was acting, but my general rule, ever since Redo, was to not worry about what She knew, and just do what seemed to make Her most happy.

She reached a hand up, lazily, and cupped one ear.  She used it as a handle to tilt my head towards Her, painfully digging my chin into my upper chest.

“Kiddo, I can tell when someone is bothered.  I’ve been at this for a little while now.  Lying to me isn’t a great idea.”

“First Fist…” I managed, words hard to get out with my teeth jammed together by the pressure on my jaw.

She let go of my ear, let my head fall back.

“They attacked us, right before I got here.”

She didn’t, as far as I could tell, react.  I could tell a lot, since She was resting on my body.  Not even a twitch.

We’d talked this over.  Haunter had wanted me to tattle right away, first thing.  Try and get Her to kill off First Fist.  Fisher hadn’t thought that would work, and I tended to agree with her.  We’d settled on the ‘see if I can get Her to ask what was up and tell Her in answer to that’ plan.

“How many did they get?” She asked.

“None…” I said.

“Then they didn’t attack you.” She stated.

She said it like She was saying Her name, or that up was up and down was down.  Just speaking a self evident fact.

“They killed one of our…” I trailed off again.

‘Friends’ didn’t work.  Prevailer didn’t really approve of the concept.  ‘Servant’ or ‘Dagger’ led to me pretending to be a much harder person than I could ever really pull off.

“Daggers?” She asked.

I nodded.

She rolled Her eyes.

“Dale, if Karen ever actually tries to kill you, you’ll be dead.  She’s been with me a long time.  You guys have been with me for a few weeks.  You aren’t on their level.  This was just…I dunno, some kind of hazing.  I’ll ask her.”

“Ok,” I said.

There wasn’t really anything else to say.  Remover and her crew backing down after Thui had gotten killed had kept them away from the line of no return.  We couldn’t prove that they attacked us with no damage.

I was also kind of worried about how Prevailer’s chat with Remover was going to turn out.  Remover was really smart, smarter than Her for sure.  She could probably spin the story in such a way that we’d be the ones that Prevailer got mad at.

“Heh, hazing, that reminds me…” She started saying.

I stayed carefully still.  I’d never really seen Her decide to tell a story before, but the obvious thing to do was pay careful attention.  Plus, any movement that I made would jar Her, which wasn’t really safe.

“Way back, way before your time, there was a college.  I didn’t go there, but I lived nearby, and the stuck up little shits that went there were always coming into my bars.  They had lots of money, from their mommies and daddies, so the bartenders loved em.  But what I loved was this one night, early in the semester, that I’d learned about.”

I was having a lot of trouble following this.  I knew what ‘money’ had been, of course.  I was aware of most of the concepts that she was using, or I could figure them out from the words around them, but the whole things wasn’t exactly coming together.

“The girls would come out to this bar, right?  They’d get here and they’d get drunk, and their boys from the frat would be here too.  Everybody drinking.  Then they took out the blindfolds.”

She saw the look on my face.

“No, not for some kind of sex thing.  It was like about trust or whatever.  This was the first time they’d met, and people who liked each other were supposed to find each other blindfolded, just by their voices and what they were drinking or something.”

I still wasn’t really following, but Prevailer around a bunch of blindfolded people didn’t sound like a story that was going anywhere good.

“The point was, people were handing drinks around, giggling and shit, trying to find the right boy or girl to hook up with.  I’d slip in after it had started and just take the drinks they were handing out.”

She slapped my side and chuckled, remembering the faces of people who had been dead for decades.

“Wow, that was smart!” I said.  “You sure got them.”

She seemed to realize that I wasn’t in the spirit of this.  I was being very careful not to let sarcasm get into my tone, but I must have messed up somehow.

“Look, I hated these twerps, right?  And they were all blindfolded.  But, and this is what made me think of this from what’s going on with you and Karen, I didn’t kill them.  I didn’t even rob them, except for the drinks thing.  It was just hazing, get it?  Just play fighting.”

“Ah, I see now.” I said.

She peered at me for a long moment, then turned Her head to the side again, put Her ear to my chest.

“You think you do,” She murmured.  “You can’t possibly.  I’ve tried, from time to time, to tell someone born in my world about the old one.  It just can’t be done.  No matter how I try, you can’t really get it.”

“Try me,” I said.

I’m not sure, exactly, why I said that.  I just sort of ‘felt’ that She wanted me to engage with Her stories at this point.  It felt like I was safer by being an active participant than I would be by passively agreeing that I couldn’t ever understand.

“Ok, sure…let’s see,” she mused.

She traced circles on my side with Her hand.

“The biggest difference is that the strong people weren’t in charge.  I don’t mean Ultras, those weren’t around yet.  I mean, look, the daggers with guns are more dangerous than those without, right?”

I nodded, confident that she’d feel the motion without needing to look at me again.

“So you’d think they’d be in charge, but they’d never admit it.  The cops…do you know what cops were?”

“Knights of Purity?” I guessed.

“No, hah!  The Knights were little bitches back then, they needed cops to protect them from random people whenever they had their marches.  No, the cops were guys with guns.”

“And they were not in charge?” I asked, tying this part to her earlier statement.

“They were, I mean, they had the guns, but they acted like other people were in charge.  It was always changing.  Teachers would tell you what to do, lawyers would, basically anyone.  But these guys didn’t have any guns of their own.  But you had to do what these wimps said or they would call the cops on you!”

“Why did the cops go along with that?” I asked.

I actually knew the answer to these.  I’d talked with enough of Haunter’s shades to have a basic idea of what cops were and how cops worked.  But it was clearly something that She wanted to explain to me.

“They were afraid of guys with bigger guns, soldiers like the Union has.  Those guys were afraid of planes or drones or some shit, I don’t know.  I puzzled about it for a long time, but I never figured out how the weakest people were in charge.”

“Well, You set it right, anyway.” I ventured.

“Mmmm,” she made a sort of humming sound, “I did do that.”

We lay in silence for a moment or two.  She seemed content to be idle, and I certainly wasn’t about to try and prod her into motion.

“Aside from First Fist, though, something is still bothering you.” She said.

I took my time answering that.

“The skulls, I guess.  What’s up with those?  The new Snitcher, this Spyer, he sees through skulls?”

She laughed.

“Nah, no such thing.  Spyer!  Ha!  I haven’t found anyone even halfway qualified to replace Snitcher.  Nobody so far has been anywhere near as useful as he was.”

“Then why…”

She cut me off.

“To make everyone THINK that ‘Spyer’ is watching them.  Make em a little crazy, like I’m always watching.  Keep em from planning anything.”

I tried to figure out how to phrase my dismay at this idea.

“That seems like, hmm, a lot of faith to put in them not figuring it out.  Won’t they eventually get wise?  I mean, after the first time they do something that should make you mad in front of a skull, won’t the game be up?”

She moved her head sideways, tapping the top of it against my collar bone.

“Some will.  Others will still believe, think we are playing a longer game.  A third group will make up something twice as scary as anything we could even come up with.  Nobody will have any facts about it, so there will just be a bunch of people trying to prove how smart and insightful they are by explaining the skulls to everyone else.  It’ll be hilarious.”

“Haha, yeah, you are right.” I said.

I was worrying that this might be too much sucking up, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say in the face of that.

She seemed to sense something about how I felt.

“Hey, seriously.  It is to punish the daggers for letting in the assassins that killed Snitcher.  We can’t let that go, it would make us look weak.”

Greatly daring, I shook my head slightly.

“Nobody will ever think that you are weak.” I said, meaning every word.

That seemed to mollify Her, and She subsided once again, lying against me as though She’d happily stay here forever.

“Dale,” She said.

So much for that.

“Yeah?” I answered.

“This thing with First Fist, can you guys get past it, if you need to work together on something?” She asked.

“I… I don’t think so.  Jane and Preventer, at least, really can’t stand them.  Sorry.”

She looked up again at that.

“Wow.”

I jerked in a convulsive panic, realizing what I’d said.  How long had it been since someone had told Her ‘no’.

I was frozen in place for a heart stopping moment, fighting visions of Her tearing me in two.

“Your team can’t stand them, huh?” She asked.

“I didn’t mean.  I mean, of course we…I mean, if you order us to work together then it would be weak to not do what we are able to work…” I was babbling.

She cut me off, resting a finger on my mouth in a ‘shush’ gesture.

“It’s fine.  It’s all right.  If you can’t work with Karen’s gals, that’s useful to know.  I’ll find another group for you to work with.”

I said something or other about that being very considerate of Her, still mentally boggling at my own slip up.

“I don’t have Linker anymore, remember?  If one of my Fists kills another, and I kill the ones who did that, that’s a real pain.  So I’m trying to make sure that I don’t waste you like that.  I can’t just go around making new Fists right now.”

I nodded.  Prevailer admitting that She couldn’t do something was also not a thing that happened every day.  She was being much nicer than She was supposed to be, mixed in with terrifying talk about how putting skulls on walls made sense.  It was making it very hard for me to know what to do.

“Which Fist would y’all be comfortable working with?” She asked.

I froze, suddenly paralyzed by uncertainty.  We hadn’t considered this, hadn’t game it out or anything.  I didn’t have Haunter or Preventer to ask.

“Working with…at what?” I asked.

“Pretty much what you guys tried up north.” She said.  “Diplomacy, talking stuff out.  I want you guys to be my mouth.  You are cute, people will like you.”

There wasn’t a lot to say to that.

Prevailer spoke again.

“I felt bad when your mission was such a crap shoot.  Union didn’t want to talk.  I don’t see any reason we can’t try the opposite, right?  If the Union doesn’t want to chat, maybe the Pantheon will go for it?”

“Uh…” I hesitated, “are you actually interested in having peace with the Pantheon?  I thought the whole thing of the last time was that you wanted to fight the Pantheon alongside the Union.”

She laughed, a surprisingly joyful sound.

“Haha, yeah, you got me there.  But the Pantheon doesn’t know that, right?  So maybe they’ll bite for a cease fire.  They are losing enough people here for it to be an attractive idea, anyway.”

“So we are lying to them?” I asked, trying very hard not to sound like I was judging or anything.  I was trying to give the impression that I just wanted to understand our mission.

“Kind of,” She said.  “It is true that I’d like to not fight them here for a bit, I’m pretty focused on the upcoming big fight between the other two countries.  I’ll probably take them on during that, or maybe before.  You can let them know that if you have a problem with tricking people or whatever.”

“Ok, well, we would probably work best with Sixth Fist,” I said.  “They seemed like they were on our level when we spoke with them during the interview.”

I had been thinking about this while she was talking about Her motives, but hadn’t come up with anything really clever.  Sixth Fist was the nicest Fist, so I’d prefer to work alongside them.  I’m sure it wouldn’t be what Preventer would come up with, but they didn’t seem likely to try and kill us.

“Great! That’s settled then.” She said.

“Your team and Sixth Fist will go and meet with Zeus and his pals, let them know that I’m calling off our fight for a little while.”

“Go and meet the Pantheon leaders?  Are they gonna let us do that?”

She shrugged.

“Tell em you want to talk to the big bosses.  Kill em if they won’t make that happen.”

“But, the Council is in Australia, right?  How are we going to get them to come all the way to the Regime?”

“No,” She said.  “You are going to them.  We are rebuilding an old boat, you just ride that all the way to their capital.  Easy as pie.”

I didn’t try to react, but She read my face again.

“Don’t worry.  Adder will be going with you.”

Asset Recovery Outcome

Marian,

Agent Daria, (ref: The Dragon) has been recovered intact from the crashed remains of Commander Martinez’s Deliverer.

I use the phrase ‘intact’ rather than ‘alive’, because it seems most appropriate.  In order to endure the disastrous fire which wracked the vehicle in it’s final moments (ref: Condemner, ref: most recent Regime truce violation) she must have used her gift on herself.  She was frozen into a state of complete immobility, and thus was unable to be damaged in the destruction.

We have returned her to a nearby Facility, and are monitoring her state closely.  My hunch is that she set her gift’s manifestation on a time limit, and that it will, some day soon, return her to an animate state.

Controlling her information, when she returns to wakeful service, will be vital if we wish to retain the services of this vital asset.  Psych eval yields a 44% chance that she will set out on a suicide mission against the Regime assets (ref 4th Fist) who took the lives of her unit in their treacherous ambush.

I think we both understand that this would be a tragic waste.  I’m given to understand that Agent Daria was once the key member of your personal protection detail.  I’ll send her to you as soon as, and obviously if, she returns to her animate state.  I’m sure you’ll know what to tell her.

–Isaac

 

Preventer 5:1

Jane slammed on the breaks, nearly tipping our confiscated truck with the abrupt force of our stop.

“What’s the big idea?“ asked Dale, but she was already opening the door and jumping out.  We followed in a rush.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

For answer, Jane simply pointed up.

Nailed to a building’s side, about ten feet above the ground, was the unmistakable shape of a human skull.

“The fuck…” exclaimed Nirav, even as I let my gaze go further into Shington.

At the next intersection was another one, at the corner beyond was a third.  I turned my head, peered along the outskirts’ edge, and was easily able to locate four or five more.

“Really?” asked Haunter, in a tone of disbelief.

I couldn’t think of a useful reply to that, so I simply started walking.  We were pretty close to where we’d have to abandon the truck anyway, and if something was going on I wanted us ready to fight, which meant that I wanted Dale on terra firma.

“They are real,” said Fisher, answering a question that none of us had actually been asking.

My first thought was quickly disproved.  I saw a guard peering out from the shadows of one of the buildings, rifle in hand.  He declined to emerge and engage with us, to challenge or otherwise, but it was at least proof that someone was still alive in the ghoulishly decorated capital.

As we moved deeper in we saw more people, clustered in doorways or moving swiftly down the streets on furtive errands.  To a man they seemed hushed, dazed.  Their gaze flinched away from our sigils, and those we drew near to dropped into the Posture.

It was one of these folks, an older black man, that we finally put the obvious question to.

“What’s going on with all the skulls?” asked Indulger.

It was an admirably brief, noncommittal statement.  It didn’t condemn what must have been an exercise of Her authority.  It didn’t box us into punishing this guy if he turned out not to know.  It was simply a request for information.

“The Decimation,” the man said.

We looked at one another.

“Decimation should be just ten, right?” asked Nirav.  “This is…”

He stopped, beginning the process of estimating how many must have fallen to thus ornament the city’s streets.

“It’s a lot,” he finished, a bit lamely.

“She was very angry that Snitcher died.  She is punishing us for our failure and our weakness.”

The words had a rote quality to them, a phrase oft repeated.  No doubt She had Knights and such out and about in the city, driving the point home.

Haunter leaned down, took his hand in hers.

The man trembled, visibly.  He shook and looked frantically at the ground, as though begging it to swallow him up.

“The Regime killed these people, correct?” asked Haunter.

He nodded, jerkily, up and down.

It was a pretty dumb question.  Who else could it have been?

“The Regime did this, right?  Answer me!” pressed Haunter.

“Y-Yes!  They killed them.”

As soon as he agreed Haunter was dropping his hand, turning to face the rest of us.

“We need to be very careful in Shington,” she told us.  “I’ve never heard of anything like this before.  People will be frantic to gain Her favor, and with it some shred of safety.”

I didn’t really want to have a conversation with Haunter about our feelings on Prevailer, and the importance of maintaining Her good regard, on the streets of Shington with a dagger present.

“Let’s go to my place,” I suggested.  “We can rest a bit before we report to Her this evening.”

Everyone agreed, and I started leading us through the city.

The layout hadn’t changed much, which, after Redo, was a bit of a relief.  I never would have thought that I could get used to human skulls staring at me from every corner, but I quickly found them slipping from my attention, becoming just another part of the scenary.

What could they mean?  Her aesthetics had always been blunt, brutalist, but never actively macabre.  Putting human skulls everywhere was like a parody of Her, the kind of thing that Her enemies would tell themselves She was plotting.

If Prevailer had wanted this kind of thing, it would have been this way from long ago.  If She was angry about Snitcher’s death, then She’d be taking revenge on the killers, not on random people.

A twinge of especially fierce pain from my jaw distracted me for a moment.  I clamped my teeth shut firmly and kept walking, trying not to tense my shoulders or allow the others any glimpse of my weakness.

I had, by dint of good fortune, avoided the worst case scenario.  The unending hell that would be a complete inability to heal my jaw had not come to pass.  But what had happened instead was almost worst.  I had long periods of numbness, followed by the occasional jarring spike of agony.

I had no idea about the metaphysics of it.  In a burst of sublime irony I’d sent the only one who probably could have figured out what was going on away.  Andy was on his way to the Pantheon now, and that left me to guess and grope about how the interplay of my gift and Hers had created this fiasco.

Maybe Her gift was constantly wearing at mine, provoking these flashes of anguish whenever it wavered?  Perhaps it was my gift whose power varied, occasionally wearing down at the effort of compensating for Her torture and allowing me to feel its full brunt, before rallying and rushing to my defense once again?  No way to know.

The fit passed a few seconds later, to my immense relief.  They never lasted long, but I’d had one last for almost a full minute once.  I’d considered trying to time them, figure out if they were growing longer or shorter, but that seemed like a sure ticket to madness.

Jane stopped us once again in a busier intersection, near the Lair’s actual gates.  She grabbed a young woman by the hand, looked into her eyes.

“Can you tell me what is going on?” she asked.

The woman shook her head, but Jane didn’t let go.

“You aren’t in danger,” she said, then corrected herself.

“You aren’t in danger from us.  Tell me what has happened, why are there all these heads stuck up on all these buildings?  Is it First Fist?”

“Yes, No…” the woman said, obviously panicking.  “We are being punished for Snitcher’s death, for our failure and our weakness.”

This time Jane didn’t relent at the catch phrase, peering down at the woman as though she could see into her soul.

“What failure?  What weakness?” she asked.

“We failed to stop Snitcher, who saw through the eyes of the living.  We were too weak to see when the enemy came among us.  Now the dead do the watching.”

Still Haunter did not relent.

“These,” and she indicated the skulls with a wave of her other hand, “are watchers?”

“Yes!” gasped the woman.  “They watch for killers come to harm Her.”

Jane let her hand go, turned to the rest of us.

“A new Snitcher?” asked Nirav.  “One who can only see out of dead people’s skulls?  That sounds kind of…”

“Convenient,” I finished, making sure to leave no opening for any of them to criticize our leaders while we were surrounded by what might well be their listening devices.

“Huh?” asked Indulger.

“Very convenient,” I stressed “that we will be able to watch anywhere in the city, thanks to the new Snitcher.  That will be very useful for protecting the Inner Circle while we are in Shington.”

He still didn’t get it.

“Why does the Inner Circle need our-“

He cut off as Fisher stepped on one of his feet.

“Because,” she said, emphasizing the ‘cause’ “of the humans’ failure and weakness.  Didn’t you hear them?”

Dale finally seemed to understand that we might have an audience, and he fell silent as we continued to make our way to my house.

I felt a burst of nostalgia, seeing the place.  It was spoiled by the guests awaiting us on my porch.

First Fist had come to greet us.

Pursuer had made himself a sort of nest out of what had once been my hammock. He’d mashed and crushed and burrowed himself half way into the porch, leaving his head and shoulders protruding out and peering in my direction.  Remover was standing on the steps, one hand placed lightly on a railing and the other one extended in a jaunty wave.  The lesser three were in a group off to one side, tormenting some poor guy.

“Heya!” called out Remover.

None of us called back, but we trotted up to meet her.  We all knew the necessity of keeping ourselves under tight control before the eyes of the Regime’s foremost killers.

At least I hoped we did.

Haunter had been on edge, again.  Woman was damn flighty.  Maybe this was the day her martyr complex would take hold.  Indulger was a danger of the other sort.  He might just blurt out something inconvenient without thinking twice.

“Karen,” I greeted her.  “Thanks for coming out to meet us.”

Using her old name was a small verbal jab, a way of getting her focused on me.  Obviously I didn’t really want her focused on me, but it was narrowly preferable to letting her attention wander to the others.

“Preventer, the mighty duelist, good to see ya!” she said, false cheer streaking her tone like veins of inferior material in a stone column.  “We wanted to be the first ones to welcome you back to Shington!”

“Thanks Remover,” said Indulger, matching her tone.  When he did it the same sound somehow didn’t sound fake at all.

“Is Alerter recovered from her thrashing?” I asked, trying to score a few more points.

“Which one?” asked Remover.  “The poor thing is a bit battered lately.”

I began to reply, but was distracted, as Pursuer grunted at me, and began to shake back and forth.  His shoulders moved in repetitive back and forth motions that left little doubt about what his arms were up to, underneath the porch.

I blanched before I could control myself, and Remover gave a small chuckle.

“I’m sorry, so sorry.  He’s just… I think he really likes what you’ve done with your mouth.”

I wasn’t the only one who could score points.  I clenched a fist and only narrowly kept myself from doing something dumb.

“Hey, what are you all doing?”

Haunter, behind me, had drifted away from where I was talking with Remover and was approaching the other three members of First Fist.

I stepped back, so I could keep Remover and Pursuer in my field of vision as I looked over at Jane.  My heart sank.

The man they had captive between them was battered and ruined, but he was also unmistakably Thui.

“Just havin some fun,” said Alerter.

“We told your boy that he could live till you got back.” Her voice hissed in my ear, carried to me by her mastery of sound.  “If you hadn’t come back he’d have stayed alive.”

“Fun?” asked Haunter.  “You are torturing a Regime citizen for your own amusement?  How wasteful.”

I strove for rationality as my heart raced within me.  Thui, here.  At the mercy of First Fist.  I fought off the impulse to beg, to threaten.  Any reaction would weaken me, would let them portray us as soft.  I had to be stone.  I had to.

“Aaaagh!”

His voice filled my ears, as Alerter’s gift serenaded me with what must have been his past screams.

“Not just for fun,” said Averter.  “We are looking for info on who killed Snitcher.  This guy might know.”

“You expect me to believe that you picked Thui up at random, just because…” I was relieved that whoever was talking trailed off, before I realized that it was me.

“You know this guy?” asked Remover, a small smile spreading across her face.

According to rumors, this was the expression that she’d worn when she Toppled New York, when she returned from the dead in the Second Defiance and hit the Allied Forces’ field hospitals.  The smile of a demon, relishing the suffering that she was causing.  The smile of someone who’d found a weak point, who was about to drive home the knife.

“That one was from when we tore his balls off.” Alerter sent.  “He regretted shooting me in the Court after that, you can fucking bet.”

Jane advanced on Thui, on the three of them.  She reached out and took his forehead, pulling his broken face up to where he could meet her gaze.

“You don’t know who killed Snitcher, do you?” asked Jane.

Thui mouthed something in response.  I couldn’t catch it.  Maybe Alerter was blocking his voice from me, or maybe he was just too far off.  I could see how his jaw moved when he tried to speak though, broken for sure.

I didn’t even flinch as my mouth released a fresh gout of agony.  Not with Thui, broken before me.

“He doesn’t know, so this is a waste of time?” asked Haunter.

Remover moved her hand, and one of her disintegration tendrils extended from it, slowly lazily extending down towards Thui.

“Now what could stop that?  What could stop Remover’s beam from reaching this dagger?  Only something that was basically invincible…”

I swayed to my feet, took a step towards the beam.

Dale’s hands closed on my shoulders, holding me fast.

The neon green tendril drew closer to Thui, slowing as it did so.

”Well, if he has persuaded you that he doesn’t know…” drawled Remover.

I didn’t need to look to know that the grin was back in full force.

I could see it all happening before me.  I’d throw myself into her beam, perhaps I’d die.  I’d never tested my gift against hers.

My death would leave my Fist without an anchor, without someone who could survive Pursuer’s wrath.  First Fist would kill us here, tell Her we were traitors or whatever.

“Aaaagh!”

Alerter serenaded me with the sound of Thui’s anguish, left inaudible whatever words of encouragement Indulger might be trying to give me.

I took a step, shrugging out of Dale’s grip.  I couldn’t…

Haunter tossed Thui into the beam.  He fell in two halves, a fountain of blood erupting onto the lawn.

I dropped to my knees, my shriek of rage imprisoned within my chest, utterly unable to process what had just happened.

”We done here?” asked Haunter, utterly cold.  Utterly callous.  Without a care in the world.

“Not quite,” said Remover.

This didn’t change anything, it didn’t…they could still just attack, Remover was close enough that she’d get me with a beam before I could…

“We better hurry up,” said Dale.  “Peggy told me to come straight to her once we got back.  She was real serious about it.”

Remover’s hand dropped to her side.  Pursuer stopped shaking.  Alerter’s gift stopped ringing in my ears.

“Peggy?” asked Remover.

“She told me it was ok to call her that when we were making love a few night ago” said Dale.

There was a long, frozen moment.

Karen was Prevailer’s best friend.  She could probably get away with destroying another Fist.  She would definitely not survive box blocking Her.

“We’ll just be going,” said Remover.

Transcript: 4

P: Hey, you remember Andy?

R: No.

P: The doc’s doll?

R: Oh, yeah, I remember now.  It fixed my gift back in the day.

P: I killed her again.

R: What do you mean?

P: She was alive, locked in a basement.

R: Wow, that’s crazy

P:I know, right?  From what she says the doc made a bunch of bodies for her.  Could be more.

R: Shit, that would be super useful.

P: Huh?

R: We could catch it and make it tune our gifts.  Averter sucks.

P: I don’t trust her.

R: Use hostages or Torturer or something, it’s a pussy.

P: I’ll think about it.

 

Fourth Fist: Meditations on Redo : 2

Haunter

I am prey to a dark suspicion.  I put it aside, long ago.  I told myself, errantly, that Prevailer’s coming had, if nothing else, entirely disproven this idea.

We get what we deserve.

Such a small crumb of consolation to wrest from the jaws of apocalypse.  Such a nugget of worth, a tiny silver lining on a storm that has raged for decades.  We can’t possibly be being judged, assessed or measured, because no one could possibly be vile enough to merit Her.

And yet it returns.

When I spoke with Andy, I could almost see Her there.  Almost hear Her porcine voice, speaking with unearned authority the well rehearsed lines of tyrants past.

“You know best.  Use his gift, who cares what your followers want?  It is YOU who matter!  You who decide!”

I quashed those phantoms, pushed Her image aside and dealt with the matter exactly as I ought.  I took my time, took every precaution.  I reassured myself of his intentions, gathered knowledge of what he could do, and where he came from.  I searched the situation thoroughly for pits and snares before I stretched forth my hand.

I queried my passsengers.  I set up a poll, I let them have their say.  I tallied their thoughts, the wishes of those that I save from destruction.  I spent days doing so.

And then, as my careful pace finally brought me near to the conclusion, the goblet was snatched from my lips.

Krishna displayed the deranged savagery of the outside world, same as the Union commander.  Her attack had little merit, whatever Condemner’s complicity, gained her nothing.  It was executed without care or forthought, placing her person in savage jeopardy.  It worked anyway.

The world, once again, smiled upon the bigots, the savages.  They have inherited our beautiful countryside, and turned it into smoking ruins.  They have made their nests in the buildings that we called home, and smeared them with filth and rutting chaos.

Prevailer was here.  Hours ago.  She stood before me.  The fiend Herself.

She stood, and She turned aside.  She watched, drunk with profane lust, as Dale sported for Her amusement.  Unconscious of any peril She toyed with Preventer, torturing her as a spitful child torments an insect.

She turned Her back on me.

If I had only acted on my own instincts, earlier.  If I had only told Andy to imbue me, at whatever cost, with the ability to channel all of the fury of my reserve into one strike…  I could have done it.  Her back was turned.

One blow through the back of Her head, dreadlocks flung aside by the force of my strike.  Her skull shattering, Her brain, and the connection to Her monstrous gift, obliterated in an instant.  The rape of my world, the death of my people, avenged.  I can see it still, in my imagination.

Instead I stood, and did nothing.  My caution had served me well.  I was in no danger.  I stood at Her side as She tortured one of my friends, and prepared to rape another.  I did nothing.

We get what we deserve.

Indulger

She talked to me, after.

She said so many things, murmuring threats and pleas, muttering Her way around what sounded kind of like rehearsed phrases.

I couldn’t follow all of it.  I wasn’t sure if She knew that I was awake, so I was staying super still.  Part of the reason that I couldn’t make out Her speech was that She wasn’t talking loudly.  I think She was mostly talking to Herself.

But another part of why I couldn’t get it was that it didn’t really make sense.  She was obsessed with being strong, with being powerful, it sounded like.  Lots of talk about crushing your weakness and stuff.  But all of the strong people that I’ve ever met don’t act like that.  They don’t think about being strong, they just are that way, automatically.

From what She was saying She doesn’t see strength as a thing with complications, or nuance.  There is just people who are strong, which she likes, and those who are weak, which lets her hurt them and somehow makes it ok.

I think She knows that’s wrong.  It’s not exactly that She’s stupid, it is more like She is a kid, fingers in her ears and shouting so the grown ups can’t contradict Her.

It is super scary, to hear Her with no filter on.  To know that the strongest Ultra on the face of the world is so insecure, so frightened. I’d almost rather that She was the untouchable queen that She wants everyone to think She is.

I was proud to let Krishna get away.  Proud to let her Ultras escape from Prevailer.  I’m still proud of that even though we might end up fighting them some day.  I feel like, for some reason, we are all kind of on the same side now.  Like they are on my side, or I am on theirs.

I thought that my spirits would lift when Prevailer went away, but they didn’t.  I just lay there, trembling.  I knew She’d be back.  She’ll come back whenever She wants to.  I’ll never be safe again.

I tried to tell myself that that wasn’t true, tried to drop off to sleep, safe in the knowledge that She might have warped to anywhere.

I woke with Her hands on my head, picking me up to deliver a message.  She wants us to go back to Her Lair, to Shington, to the center of the Regime.

Krishna and the Pantheon can’t help us there.  Preventer and Jane can’t be smart enough there.  I’m going to be with Her there, with all of Her anger and all of Her fear and all of Her sadness.

I don’t feel anything about that, not really.  I’m not letting myself feel angry or frightened.  I chose this, there in the ring.  It was the price of getting Krishna away.  It might be that distracting Her can help more people.  I don’t feel anything about this.

If I tell myself that enough times it will be come true.

Preventer

My fucking lip!

I can still feel the pain, still feel Her fingers rooting carelessly through soft tissue to grasp my teeth.  Still feel the ache as She yanked them out.

This isn’t a metaphor or a figure of speech, I am still hurting.

My gift should be protecting me.  I shouldn’t have to suffer this.  Even if it couldn’t stop Her from tearing my mouth apart it should be within my gift’s capabilities to numb the pain.

Her gift hasn’t acted on me for hours.  Its lingering echo can’t possibly be stronger than Ultra Toughness three, can it?

Can it?

I focus on my ire on that prospect, that Prevailer’s might so far outmatch my resilience that it will take hours to heal from any wound she inflicts, in order to distract myself from a far more terrifying possibility.

Perhaps my indestructible form CANNOT heal.  Perhaps my perfection, unmarred since I emerged from the Process, is a form of stasis.  If so, then there may be no mechanism for returning to a prior, undamaged condition.  Why would I need it, after all?  If I cannot be harmed, what need have I for healing?

If this is how my gift operates, then I will need to become accustomed to this pain.

The thought repels, but I will not let it appall.  I am no beast, to be ruled by emotion.  No animal, to be goaded by the whip.  Reason alone defines my path.  Reason alone brought about this victory.

Let Prevailer take my lip, afflict me with this torment.  Let me lose the teeth from my head.  What of it?  For, even in Her very shadow, I have achieved the beginning of Her end.

I had to kill Condemner, to silence the fool, before I could verify the report, but I know of no reason why the plan should have gone awry.  Condemner, more than likely, delivered Andy intact to Krishna’s forces.  Even now the false man is being trundled across the distance, ever closer to the heart of the Pantheon, ever closer to those who can properly utilize his bizarre meta-gift.

And all of this achieved without the slightest bit of knowledge from the fools that surround me.  Beneath their very eye, and my hand moves unseen and unchecked.  They even thank me for taking care of Condemner, gave me their thanks for silencing the only person who could have given me away.

Fisher has rendered me her strange gratitude.  Nirav’s return, in the absence of his terrifying controller, is all that she has desired.  Jane extends me her sympathy, powerless to resist the impulse to wipe away every tear, to comfort the one who suffers.  And Dale, when he returns, will surely regard me with the same bland benevolence that he gives to all.  Perhaps he’ll even be grateful that my suggestion, the Ultra Fight, worked out.

Yes, a triumph.  This is an unmitigated triumph.  I would be a fool to regret what has come to pass, merely because of the anguish which clenches my jaw and makes mud of my thoughts.

I have willed this.

Nirav

He was like a sound that I didn’t know that I was hearing.  Like a ringing in my ears which had grown so customary that I had ceased to register it at all.  That was how he crept up, how he took me without raising an alarm.

I had been gulled into tranquility, a victim of Condemner’s patience and subtlety.  He moved on our shared soul not as a conflagration, but as a spark.  He took my volition, my awareness, all of my being, one step at a time.

Long before my eyes became his flames he had been influencing my movements, easing himself into my consciousness and evicting me, little by little.  The possession was effortless, subtle.  I had no warning, no way to fight back.

I have few memories of his actions, little recollection.  I recall him smiling my smile, speaking my words.  I recall him and Andy, him and Rebeccah… him and Betty most of all.  But I have difficulty remembering which actions occurred in which context.  Which betrayal was committed against who?

I strive to push these flashes aside.  Betty’s voice breaks as she assures me that it’s over, that he’s gone.  The Link never included him, and now he has fallen into the Hell that always awaited him.  I nod and assent, but I’m not so sure.

If he was really gone, then wouldn’t I be gone with him?  I’m…a way that he sometimes is, a mask or a role that he invented to keep his human form safe.  I’m a way of thinking, a set of relations with other people.  I’m as false as my flesh.

If Condemner was gone, really, truly gone, then I should be dead.

He’s here.  He has to be.  Putting everything else aside, I’m simply not lucky enough for him to stay vanished.  He’s hiding, lurking.  Behind my eyes like always.

I can’t feel him, can’t hear his words, but that means less than nothing.  He’s always been capable of subtlety, this last experience has reinforced that lesson, if I’m ever tempted to forget it.

Perhaps he sleeps, perhaps he bides his time.  But I will not succumb again to the delusion that I am the master of this conjured flesh.  I will not fool myself, nor those around me, with assertions of sanity and friendship that I cannot back up.

I will fix, as the unalterable pole of my thought, as my Guiding Star, this simple principle.  Condemner watches.  He is present, observing me and testing me, awaiting the opportunity to once again usurp my place in the world.

I am never alone.  I am never safe.  I will never be fooled again.  Condemner is here.

Condemner is here.

Fisher

I did it.

Preventer did it.

Whoever gets the credit, the fact is simple.  Nirav is saved.  He’s finally free.

I’m not simple minded.  I know, from bitter experience, how linked the movements of body and soul may be.  Strip me of my war form, and I’m a doll.  Strip me of my Lure and I’m a beast.  I understand that Nirav, the mind that accompanies the flesh I’ve come to prize, is not a soul entire.

He will be wounded, his sentience torn by the loss of the deeper mind which has been stripped from him.  He will be traumatized, suspect.

But that will pass.

The Link has torn his soul, perhaps, or maybe just rotated it so that the pleasant portion is the part that protrudes into our world.  Snitcher’s gift, mighty beyond all reason, functioning as do-it-yourself therapy.  Who’d have thought it?

I’m not a fool, of course.  I know that this might not be as simple as I’m making it out to be.

If his soul is rotated, whatever I might mean by that, then it may one day rotate around again.  If it is torn, then there is nothing to say that it will not knit itself together again.  No one knows how any of that works.

I don’t place my faith on this miracle.  This doesn’t have to be happy ever after.  I don’t need anything more than I’ve already received.

I’ve learned the basics of his condition, and even if his present state is only an oasis in a much more desolate terrain I still know enough to keep him here.

When Condemner takes hold of him, I can sense it through my shadow.  I can feel the creature’s warped objectives, the strange hungers that drive it.

When that happens, I can bring Nirav back to himself by slaying his body.  The Link is eternal, forever anchored to the moment of its creation.  Whatever may come to pass in the future, we can always pull Nirav back to this state, free of the beast’s grasp.

I say ‘we’, but the truth of the matter is that, beyond our partnership, I am more unsure of the rest than ever.  Preventer, newly maimed, has shown herself ready to slay one of us at my say so.  Jane is sulking again, no doubt bewildered by this fresh betrayal.  And Dale… Dale is Hers.

I know Her ways.  She will bring him to Shington, to Torturer.  He will be conditioned, as I have been.  His spirit, the odd innocence about him, will crumble away.  I will see the change to his priorities, witness the resolution never to approach that dread being again rise to the forefront of his thoughts.

It is inevitable.

But for all this looming uncertainty, I feel more centered, more grounded, than I have in a while.  I have faced the loss of the Hook.  I have faced the loss of Nirav.  I have been tested, weighed and measured.  And I have been found fit.

The Hook is returned, Nirav is redeemed.  I am safely Linked with mighty comrades.  I will not fear this uncertain future.  I will not dread tomorrow.

And, if I am fortunate, and Condemner is as banished as this moment implies, tomorrow will not dread us.

 

Satellite Coverage

It is a hotly contested question, among the Union’s enemies, to what degree the last nation of the Old World maintains a presence in the orbital arena.

There is no question of either of the other two ultrapowers commanding such advanced technology, of course.  During the First Defiance the mass exodus of the intelligentsia stripped the Regime of America’s scientific caste, and the Pantheon’s bellicose beginnings performed a similar function.

The brief reign of the so called Space King is thought to have brought about the destruction of all assets in place in 2155, so any Union satellites would have had to either survive his mania or have been launched since.

There is no question that the Union has the technology to put things in orbit.  Equally, there is no question that no foreign spy has ever observed a launch, or found any information that would suggest that such a thing has taken place.

The Union’s government, of course, is silent on the subject.  There is no advantage to be gained by boasting of such assets, after all.

Thus, the dilemma runs as follows.

The case for:

The Union MUST have satellites, because their scouting ability would confer an exceptional advantage, and the Union needs all the advantages that they can get.  As for the the lack of observation, that merely means that they’ve developed a different, less conspicuous means of deployment.  Perhaps an Ultra just flies them up.

The case against:

The Union MUST NOT have satellites, because they display no sign of satellite capabilities.  They don’t launch orbital strikes, don’t seem to know the movements of their foes at all times, etc.  Further, the reports which make no mention of satellite capabilities include the type of grade A intelligence assets that you’d think would be correct.

Such a consensus as there is, in this regard, is narrowly in favor of secret orbital devices.  It is marginally easier to believe in an impossibly proficient Union than it is to believe in one so dim as to ignore the obvious advantages that the ultimate ‘high ground’ would offer.

If this is the case, one must wonder what reserves the Union is saving these devices for?  The moon is a testament to their foe’s ability to strike the heavens, but if the Union is willing then there is no reason that the sky can’t strike back.

Prevailer 2:1

I let Dale collapse into the ruins of the Ultra Fight ring and walked away into Redo.

I didn’t have a particular purpose in mind.  If there had been anywhere I really wanted to be I’d have just warped there, but there wasn’t.  I was just stretching my legs.

Dale had been more enthusiastic than skilled, but he’d improve in time.  I was usually impatient about folks who took so long to get over being scared, but on him it was kind of cute.  I’d allow it.

The night was warm and lazy.  Dawn was still a couple hours off.  Pleasant memories drifted through my mind as I trudged along.  I stretched, languidly.

I felt a need for distraction, acted to forestall it.

I embraced Redo with my gift, took it into my soul’s eye and peered about.  People were mostly asleep, some cowering.  The Fist was…what?

Preventer, Haunter and Fisher had killed Condemner, or someone else had.  He was in the Link, and they were lurking in a basement, still awake.  They were shouting at one another.

I considered trying to make out what they were saying by lip movements, but it would kill my mood.  It wasn’t really important, anyway.  If they wanted to use First Fist’s anti aging trick they were welcome to do so.  If this was something else I’d hear about it in due time.

I came to a stop as awareness of another person I recognized registered.

Andy, of all people.  She was here.

Which was super weird, given that she’d been put too close to Torturer a long time ago, and had died of pain.

I rubbed my thumb across the palm of my other hand, focused my gift on Andy.  It was definitely her all right.

She was chained in the basement of a building that was basically just a pile of rubble.  No one was within hundreds of yards of her.  How the fuck had that gone down?  How was she even here?

I’d sensed her body with my gift, back when she died.  We didn’t have any way to get stuff out of Torturer’s inner radius, so it had been in my range right up till it was eaten.  The bones had been stacked in a corner with a bunch of others  And yet here she was.

This needed taking care of.

I thought through a few options.

I could just smash the ground, hard enough to destroy the city.  But was that any more likely to keep her dead than getting eaten by Torturer?

I could warp to her, tear her apart.  My gift was stronger than anything the modern Process could produce, so normally I’d be totally confident that no gift could bring her back from it, not if I went all out.  But Andy was a product of the original process, she was an Ultra of my level.  There was no reason she couldn’t have a rebirthing power that was greater than my strength.

If she did, then the fact that I’d warped straight to her would make it pretty obvious that I knew she was there.  She’d be at large, somewhere in the world, with knowledge that might let people know about my secret sensing gift.  Bad plan.

Plus, it would involve touching her.  I wasn’t really sure how long her power took to take effect, and I wasn’t eager to test it.  She’d always said hours, but if it was instant I could have my gift all jacked up in the time it took to punch her head off.  That’d be a stupid way to lose my war.

I pondered it, savoring the unfamiliar sensation of a puzzle that didn’t have an obvious solution.

I needed stuff other than my gifts for this.  A gun and a baby ought to do the trick.  I cast about with my gift, located a building that had what I needed.

A short warp, letting my old body disintegrate soundlessly, took me right outside of the door.

I gave my trademark knock, loud soft loudest.

They were asleep inside, but bolted upright when they heard that.  The guy stood up, moved towards the door, then stopped.  The woman just sat on the bed.

I knocked again, same pattern but with each part raised just a bit, just a little bit louder.

The man found his balls and walked over, opening the door.  In the next room his lady friend was dropping into the Posture.

“Hey,” I said.

He fell into the Posture, his heart racing so badly I thought it might actually kill him.

He made an unintelligible noise, just a sort of verbal shitting that didn’t actually mean anything.

I reached down, put a hand on his face, wrenched it up so we were looking into each other’s eyes.

“Hey,” I said again.

“Y-Yes?” He said.

“You know who I am?” I asked.

This wasn’t a real question.  Everybody basically knows who I am, but I wanted this guy to collect himself a bit, get the control he needed to not try and jump me or run away.  Talking helped steady lots of people.

“Yes, Boss,” he said, his gaze flinching away from my face.

His girl had gotten up from the posture, and was peeking around the inner door at where we were standing.  Tears were streaming down her face.

I walked into the room, pushing him aside as I did so.

“I need something from you, ok?”

He hastened to assure me that that was, indeed, very ok.

“You got a gun?”

In fact he had it on him, stuck in the crotch of his pants.  It took him a second to remember that, a few seconds longer to have it out and hand it to me.

“Sweet, and there’s something else.  I need somebody to witness something.”

Give him this, dude had a pair.  He didn’t even look into the back room, where his gal was frantically shushing the baby.  He just swallowed once, then nodded.

“You want to do it?  Is that what that nod means?”

It was actually harder to confirm a brave thing than it was to do it the first time, for this guy anyway.  He hesitated for a few seconds before nodding.

“I hate to waste a good worker like you, anyone else live here?”

I walked over to the door to the back room, opened it.

The women inside collapsed into the Posture.  Her eyes met his, and they were probably communicating a lot of stuff that was important to them with that look.

“Oh, shit, you guys have a kid?” I asked, stepping over to the crib.

There are some moms out there, some dads, who would have lost it at this point.  Just jumped me and died right there.  But these were my people.  They were the sons and daughters of people that I’d bossed around, that I’d taught the way of things.  They understood the truth of the world, or as much of it as daggers ever got.

They could have another baby.

They stood mute as I picked him up, held him in my arms like I’d seen women do.

“What’s his name?” I asked.

Behind me, the woman spoke for the first time.

“Hector,” she said, a slight Spanish accent polluting her voice.

I shook my head.

“Now it’s Randy.  That’s a much better name.”

I turned back to them, looking down at them.  My people.

“Randy can be your witness.  You two get to stay.”

I walked by them, ignoring their trembling, the eyes showing whites all the way around.

I turned back in the doorway, acting like I’d just been struck by a thought.

“Since babies are dumb, he won’t be talking.  So I guess I can bring him back after this.  If you are here when I get back, and you are smart enough not to go blabbing about what happened, all three of you get to live.”

I left them on that note.

Randy was a warm bundle in my arm, and was blessed with some innate understanding that crying out right now would be a mistake.  He made soft baby noises, gnawed on a knuckle I gave him.

I had never really used my gift on a kid’s mouth before.  He was super close to getting his first tooth, and the second was right behind.

“You can do it, come on.” I encouraged him as we walked.  I decided, on the spur of the moment, that if he managed to get his tooth out by the time I was done I’d keep him alive.

The basement where Andy was chained wasn’t far, a couple blocks, but it was still definitely the longest stretch that I’d walked in decades.  I strode into the ruin, down the stairs.

I set Randy down around a corner, wadded up a part of his clothes and put them in his mouth.  He was way too little to be able to move anywhere.  I put the gun next to him.

I stepped around the corner, pushed the door in.

The basement room was lit only by the moon filtering through a crack in the ceiling.

Andy rolled to her knees, rose to her feet, struggling desperately with the chains that restrained her arms.  She peered wildly into the darkness, frantic to discover who had come.

I walked towards her, letting the moonlight fall across my Sigil.

Recognition dawned.  She collapsed back down to her knees.

“What the fuck?” I asked, “are you doing here?”

“Hi Peggy,” she said.

I pushed the anger down, didn’t rise to my old name.  Instead I took a seat on some rubble, just across the moonlit patch from her.

“Been a while since anyone called me that.” I said.

“I imagine it has, “ she said.  “Maybe you should stop committing quite so many murders, and people will be more likely to call you by your Christian name.”

I gave a sour chuckle.

“How are you alive, Andy?  Torturer got wicked diarrhea from eating your action figure ass.  You ought to be gone.”

She chuckled, quietly.

“Too bad I know you so well, Peggy.  If I didn’t, you could say that you’d let me go if I told you, or let me live or whatever.  But we both know that’s not in the cards.”

“Does this have anything to do with my Fist killing each other?  Are they arguing about what to do with you?”

I didn’t expect her to answer, but I was hoping her heart would kick a little or something.  I’d gotten pretty good over the years at using my gift as a lie detector.

She answered my question with another question.

“When your probation officer raped you, was that when you lost your mind?  You still blaming your behavior on Officer Morris?  Or have you gotten around to admitting that you were shit from start to finish?”

I couldn’t control the flinch, the clenching of my fists.  She probably couldn’t see, with us both in darkness.

“Struck a nerve, did I?  Dead for forty years and he is still your master?”

I was on my feet before she finished, walking forward with death on my mind, but I checked myself.

“I get it, I get it, you are just trying to piss me off.  I’m not stupid, Andy.”

She shook her head, the chains making a clinking noise.

“Yeah you are,” she said.  But she said it without heat, recognizing that she wouldn’t be able to get me to kill her so easily.

“Wait here,” I told her, then warped out.

I didn’t go far, just around the corner to where I’d left Randy.

Andy didn’t even scream, just lay in the room like someone already dead.

I counted to a couple hundred, trying to figure out an amount of time where I could have plausibly gone to fetch a hostage.  Eventually I went back in, carrying Randy on my shoulder, gun in my pants.

“Oh, fuck you Peggy.  Even for you that’s fucking low.”

I turned around so Randy and Andy could lock eyes, then took my seat again.

A long time ago, I’d learned the only real lesson of the world.  Punches that land on someone else don’t hurt you.  It was super simple, but nobody fucking got it.  Even smart people got tripped up by it.  But it was super true.  Your nerves were only connected to your own form.

“Andy, meet Randy.  He’s a couple months old, loves eating and shitting, and will be back home if you tell me what I wanna know.”

She sighed, sounding more weary than defeated.

“Ask,” she said.

I got her story, piece by piece.  How she’d just woken up in a new body, how she’d wandered around.  How she’d tuned the Pantheon’s inner circle.

That actually explained a lot.  Zeus and company were much meaner than they had any right to be, given the power level they’d been Processed under.

She was in this basement because Condemner had ordered her down here, then chained her up.  He told her not to call out, told her that she’d be working for him now, that everyone else would think she was dead.

“What did he want?” I asked.

“Help in some kind of internal war?” She guessed.  “He didn’t go into details.”

“Well, they killed him, so I guess his lies got found out.  He’ll be back tomorrow though, so I’m not sure why they bothered.”

Andy shrugged.

“Is it time for me to die again?” she asked.

It was.

I stepped over to her, she looked up at me.

“One last thing, before I go?”

I didn’t say anything, just started down at her.

“You are out here because Lawrence got whacked, just killing time till your new Snitcher shows up, yeah?”

I didn’t confirm, just looked at her.

“You get the dilemma, though?  No way can you make another Snitcher with the Process in the current state.  Take it from me, there’s no way that’s going to work.”

I hadn’t really thought about it, but that made a lot of sense.

“But if you open the Eye of Heaven back up, then who knows who gets born into the world?  You might find yourself in a fair fight?  And you are way too fucking cowardly to let that hap-“

*Bang*

I shot her in the head, let her collapse to one side on the floor.

Shit, she was right.

Snitcher wasn’t coming back, not unless I was willing to take a chance that I’d avoided taking for a long fucking time.

Randy cried out at the gunshot noise, his first loud sound of the night.

I rocked him, distractedly, and then started to trudge back to his parent’s house.  He hadn’t actually managed to wear his teeth through his gum, but I decided to let him live anyway.

I set him on his parent’s doorstep, knocked in my cadence, warped back to the ring.

Dale was still sleeping in the wreckage, just where I’d left him.  Somehow he kind of reminded me of Randy.

I reached down, picked him up by his head and kissed his forehead, even as he came awake in a spastic flinch.

“Bring your Fist back to Shington,” I told him.  “I want you close.”

He tried to nod, couldn’t overcome the pressure of my hands.

I brought his mouth to mine, kissed him thoroughly, then warped away.

I appeared on a hill at the outskirts of town, feeling him topple over through my gift.

I’d think of something for them to do when they got back.

I started the serial warps back to Shington, pondering Andy’s words.

Questions about the Protagonists

Hi readers, today I’m answering some questions folks have asked about the powers of each of the members of Fourth Fist.  I couldn’t think of a good way to phrase this as an in-world message, so I’m just writing to you directly.

Haunter:

What determines what items her shades have when they manifest?

If you imagine that you made an action figure of the person, the shade will have anything that would be included on that action figure.  The core trait, as far as Jane can determine, is that the person in question thought of the item as part of their identity/self image.

How long do her shade’s accessories stick around?

The items last as long as she keeps the shade manifested, and share the same durability issues that the shade has.  They work the same as a real item in all ways, save for the fact that a jolt will pop them.

Indulger:

How can Indulger die?

You have to kill him and keep his body from touching the ground for a while, long enough that his gift loses its grip.  Alternately, be strong enough to overpower his healing.

Does Indulger’s power work on things on the ground, or just the ground itsef?

It depends.  In general, objects that are not part of the ground, that you can pick up and put elsewhere, don’t count.  Buildings, etc.  Things like roads, on the other hand, things that are basically part of the terrain, those he can control.

Preventer:

What are Preventer’s barriers basically like?

They are translucent, and they move slowly enough that folks can dodge them.  You can crack and break them by striking them.  It takes more times the larger the barrier is.  The edges are sharp, and they move with enough force to cut people.

What does Preventer’s invincibility protect her against?

Much more than is obvious.  First off, there is no way (other than a more powerful gift) to damage her.  Less apparent, it is very hard to confine her.  Buildings will tend to crumble, locks will open, etc.  She is similarly immune to being compelled, entranced, etc.  You can imagine a mighty genie, much much stronger than any of the other laws of physics, dedicated to making sure that she can take action with full agency at any given point in time.

Condemner:

Does Condemner’s fire feed on actual fire fuel, or the souls of his victims?

Both!  He can spread on flammable substances, and they nourish him.  He grows wildly in power and ferocity, however, if he is able to kill someone.  This is interpreted as ‘feeding on their souls’, but there isn’t really a way to measure that.  What is certain is that burning people make’s Condemner’s flames much more powerful, the why is still unknown.

How fast is Condemner’s Ultra Speed?

Condemner is less able to move fast than he is to react fast.  You can imagine what it would be like if the world slowed down when important stuff happened.  It’s pretty hard to get the drop on him, because of this.  As far as land speed goes, when he is in person form he isn’t much faster than human top speed.  As a fire his speed is mostly dependent on what he is spreading across.

Fisher:

How does Fisher’s 2 body setup work?

She has 2 bodies, monster and lady.  She can either have both of them out, connected by her shadow, or she can pull either of them down into the shadow.  She can pull small items with her, but they come out again when that body emerges.  She cannot pull other people into the shadows.  She cannot have both bodies in the shadow at once.

How far does her shadow stretch?

This depends on the lighting, brighter light gives her longer range, and she can also resist, to some extent, the shadow shrinking when the lights dim.  It doesn’t get much further than 20 yards.  Pitch darkness traps her with the form out that she currently has.

Fisher 4:4

Nirav, or Condemner, supported me, helped me limp down the street.

I knew that no matter who was driving, Condemner was ultimately in charge.  Knew it.  If he could take command for whatever he’d been up to earlier he could take over now.  I tried to raise the Lure’s hands, tried to do more than just go along with him, but I failed.

It wasn’t just the pain of that bitch in the robes killing the Hook.  The pain was subsiding, gradually.  My bodies were resilient.  No, this paralysis was all down to me lacking the Hook.

Last time I’d been in Redo I’d lost the Lure.  I’d gone feral, shredding Indulger and attacking Preventer’s barricades.  I’d been an animal, savaging everything around me.

This was worse.

I could think clearly, reason lucidly.  I could put names to faces, tell you everything about the situation that we found ourselves in.  It was my WILL that was missing.  My drive to do anything.  My ability to make decisions.  It was just gone.

“I’ve got you, Babe.  I’ve got you,” he murmured.

The shade led us back into the heart of Redo.  Presumably the others were waiting on us, maybe with Her.  They would have no idea that Condemner was in play, would think that this was still Nirav, still my guy.

I strove to speak, managed a halting gasp.

He stopped, still propping me up, and looked right at the Lure’s face.

“What, what is it?  I’m sorry, I couldn’t catch that.”

He sounded, for all the world, like Nirav.  Sounded exactly like he was genuinely apologetic, and desperate to make out what I was trying to say.

“Noth-nothing.” I managed.  It wasn’t that I had difficulty talking, the pain was much less than it had been.  It was that I had difficulty committing to meaningful speech, difficulty deciding to change things.

If I called him out now, if I told him that I’d tasted his soul, knew that he’d been Condemner earlier, while still looking like Nirav, then things would never be the same.  The group would change forever.

I could reason as I liked, could tell myself all of the reasons that this had to happen, but the part of me that would let me actually take that step, actually make that change, was lost with the Hook.

The shade cleared his throat apologetically, Nirav tore his gaze away from my face.

“Right, sorry, I know we are in a hurry.”

He resumed his stride, more bracing me than outright carrying me at this point.  I could walk pretty well unaided.

“When you are ready,” he whispered to me as we trudged.

The shade took us back to the building that we’d been holing up in, then flashed away.  Haunter must have pulled it back in.

Nirav looked at me, searchingly, for a moment, as though to give me a chance to speak.  When I stayed silent he led me into the building.

Preventer and Haunter were both on the ground floor, we interrupted them mid argument.

“Fisher, Nirav, She’s in town,” said Haunter, as soon as we appeared.

“What the fuck happened to your face?” asked Nirav.

He was talking, unbelievably, to Preventer.

One of her lips was torn, and she was missing both of her top front teeth.  The blood was flowing nonstop from that impossible wound, mixing with the caked on makeup that she wore in a ghastly fashion.

“What do you think?” she hissed.  “What could possibly hurt me, keeping in mind that you’ve just learned that She is in town?”

Nirav opened his mouth, then closed it again.  It had been a pretty dumb question, actually.

“Where is She?” I asked.  Questions were much easier.  They didn’t entail a desire to alter the current state, instead just elaborating on my understanding of matters.  Far simpler.

“Back at the Ultra Fighting ring,” said Haunter.  “Indulger is stalling Her.”

Nirav scoffed.

“He’s ‘stalling’ Her?  How does that work?  She can teleport!”

Preventer held up one hand, made an O of her thumb and forefinger, then rammed her other hand’s thumb into it.

“Oh,” said Nirav.  “Stalling her.  I get it.”

“We were just talking about what we were going to tell her in the morning, once She and Indulger are done,” said Haunter.  “She didn’t realize that Krishna and her crew were Pantheon, they got away.”

“We were fighting Pantheon in the city,” said Nirav.  “Three of them, mingled among the humans they sent to ‘tie up loose ends’ in Redo.”

“Shit!” said Haunter and Preventer, almost at the exact same time.

I wanted to pipe up here, to let them know that it had been me doing the fighting, that Nirav had been leading Krishna’s men to their target, but I couldn’t make myself.  Doing that would fracture our Fist, and I couldn’t make that decision.

“You didn’t…” asked Haunter.

Nirav shook his head.

“Never again.  That beast will never rampage among the innocent again.”

Lying through his damn teeth.  Or, wait, did he just not know?  Maybe Nirav had no idea that Condemner had used his body for a while.  But he’d had to have noticed the missing time, wouldn’t he?

“What are we going to do about Prevailer?” asked Preventer, holding up a hand stained with the blood from her mouth.  “She can’t just BE in the fucking city.”

We all kind of looked at her.

“Sure she can,” said Nirav.  “She can be anywhere She wants to be.  What are we going to do about it?”

“That’s what I’m asking you!”

I’d never seen Preventer this put out, this enraged.  Losing her teeth was affecting her.  Perhaps she hadn’t felt pain in years, and couldn’t take it.

In a flash I realized that that wasn’t quite right.  It wasn’t pain that was destroying her composure, it was terror.  Preventer wanted away from Her like a burned man shying away from fire.  It wasn’t so much a reasoned decision as it was a panicked reaction.

“Calm down,” said Jane.  She was probably relishing this.  “There is nothing that we can do about Her presence.  You yourself are exhibit A as to why mouthing off to Her is a bad idea.”

“I didn’t ‘mouth off’!” snarled Preventer.

“Ladies, calm down, calm down…” Nirav said, placatingly.  He did the thing people do with their hands when they want someone else to be calm.

Mistake.

They both focused on him, two pairs of gimlet eyes boring holes right through him.

“You said that you fought with Pantheon soldiers tonight.  Why did you provoke them?  Didn’t you hear Her arrival?  The last thing we need is a fight while She is around!”

Preventer’s voice cracked like a whip.

“No, no, that’s not how it…look, they were already hostile!  They rolled up on us!  I didn’t put them up to anything!”

I couldn’t make myself contradict him.  Couldn’t bring myself to speak.  It was like trying to stand on a phantom limb.  I had all of the facts, all of the facilities, but no way to externalize them.  Exposing Nirav’s lies, or Condemner’s lies, or whatever, would require making a decision, and I lacked the agency to do that.

“Sure,” said Jane.  “They just rolled up on you, at the exact same time the rest of their squad was socializing with us, while Krishna was under our guns, and decided to make random trouble.  That makes tons of sense.”

Nirav spread his hands in a conciliatory gesture.

“I don’t make their plans.  Don’t ask me to explain why they did it, I’m just telling you what happened!”

They paused for a second, then Haunter looked to me.

“It’s just like he says, just exactly like he says.  They attacked us.”

It was my voice, my mouth speaking.  My head even nodded enthusiastically.

Nirav looked back to me, a grateful expression in his eyes.  I felt myself smile in response, even as my thoughts curdled in rage.

“What the fuck could they have been thinking?” asked Haunter.  “If Prevailer hadn’t fucked everything up they’d be in some serious hot water when we found out that they were making trouble in Redo.  Krishna bet her life on this, and for what?”

“I’m not sure she did.” Preventer responded.  “Think about the timing.  Do we actually hear about this before they leave?  I think the plan was for their assault team to do its work while we were kept at the fight, then be gone before we found out.”

“Still a risk,” Jane retorted.  “Still a damn risk, and for no gain.  Even if their trio beat Betty and Nirav, what would they get out of it?”

“Maybe…” I managed.  “Maybe we weren’t the target.”

I cheered inwardly, I’d finally managed to initiate something.  My will was coming back.

“You mean that they might have been targeting the Processing Center?” asked Preventer.  “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“No.”

Haunter spoke just the one word, frozen, with her eyes widening.  She’d guessed the awful truth.

“Alright, not the Processing Center, then-“

Jane cut Preventer off.

“They were after Andy, weren’t they?”

Nirav looked as though he was suddenly coming to a realization.  Gasping, etc.

“Yeah, that must have been it!  That thing died in the fight.  They must have been after that from the start!”

Preventer looked like she wanted to strangle him.  Haunter just looked poleaxed, like she’d been shot.  She crumpled into a seat, slowly.

This was my moment.  All I had to do was tell them that Condemner had done this, had usurped Nirav’s body and led the Pantheon hit squad to Andy.  I had to do it now, or my silence would be seen as conspiracy.  I opened my mouth.

“A-“

Preventer ran over my words.

“You stupid mother fucker.  You tell us this now!  You sit around bullshitting and you only remember to mention that Andy is dead at the end of the fucking conversation, when we call you out on it?”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Nirav said, his hands still held up before him.

It was a funny visual, Nirav was like a foot taller than her, but he was almost literally cringing away from Preventer, who had never looked less intimidating than she did now, wincing every time her jaw moved.

“I knew this.  I knew this was going to happen.”

We all turned our attention back to Haunter, who was sitting, woodenly, where she’d collapsed.

“The second that I decided to ask the reserve for a vote, I was already seeing this.  I’d do the right thing, like I always do.  The world would fuck me for it, like it always does.  There wasn’t a single question in my mind.  I did what the Colonel would have done, I let the people speak, and while they were talking Andy was taken away.”

We fell silent for a moment.

“You were going to let him alter your gift?” asked Preventer.

Jane nodded, mutely.

Preventer shook her head, apparently at a loss for words.

“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.  I just, there was fighting, we didn’t think that they might be targeting someone in particular, we just, we just fought.”

Nirav kept spewing that bullshit, but I was getting more and more sure that he bought what he was selling.  His gift had bewitched him, false memories or something.  Nirav simply wasn’t this good as a liar.

“Yes, we are sorry.” I managed to say.  “We didn’t know you were going to be having your gift altered.”

Haunter looked up, all of the weariness in the world somehow crammed into her eyes.

“Would you understand, would you get it, if I said that it shouldn’t matter whether or not I was going to make use of him?  Would you comprehend if I told you that someone under our protection should be kept safe, regardless of whether we got any benefit out of it?  Fisher, please say you get that.  Please.”

I was struck silent for a moment.  I just stared at her.

“Please,” she said again.  “I need this.  I need to know that I’m not alone.  Tell me what you think of Andy’s death, what it means to you.”

I dropped down to one knee, wincing a little as my chest gave a burst of pain, and took one of her hands in both of the Lure’s.

“Of course it means something.” I told her.  “Andy’s death is a tragedy, a pointless, worthless waste.  Krishna’s thugs killed someone who could have helped fix the world, for no reason at all.  It was odious.  It was evil.  Nirav is Condemner.”

“What?” asked Nirav, panicked.

I’d slipped it out.  I hadn’t been sure that I could do it, but sliding it into another sentence, another thought, had let me say the words.  Maybe it was the Hook’s gradual repair, or just my soul resettling itself somehow.

“What do you mean?” asked Haunter.  “We all know that.”

“Yeah, Baby, what are you saying?” asked Nirav, frantically.  “I’ve got him contained.”

I looked him in the eyes, possible for the last time.

“You can stop hiding it, Condemner.  You took him over earlier in the day, led those goons to Andy.  You’ve betrayed us.”

Condemner was fast.  He flashed into a sheet of flames and shot towards Haunter, and the limitless power that she represented, far faster than any of us could have stopped him.

But Preventer had started acting the instant I’d told her that Nirav was Condemner.  Her barriers had been creeping along behind him, across the floor, and now they rose in a great cloud to shield Jane.

Condemner’s flame burst through the first layer, foundered on the second, but he had no fuel.  He surged back towards the Lure, but the barriers had circled around him as well.  The flames beat and raged at the inside of Preventer’s shields.

“Traitor,” said Preventer, spitting a mouthful of blood on the ground.

Inside the barrier Condemner formed a daemon’s visage for a moment, howling soundlessly inside of Preventer’s prison.

“Traitor,” said Haunter.  I knew that she wasn’t referring to a betrayal of the Fist, of the Regime.  Haunter’s ire had deeper roots.  In her eyes Condemner had betrayed the whole world.

The face reformed again, a mask of flame, and its eyes sought me out.  Nirav’s eyes appeared for an instant, his face mouthing words I’d never hear.

I opened my mouth to echo the others, but I couldn’t.  I reached out and touched the barrier.

“Beloved.” I whispered.

Preventer closed her fist, and the barriers contracted.  Condemner died in an instant, starved of fuel and given no space in which to burn.

We felt Nirav pass into the Link, hopefully leaving Condemner’s wretched soul behind.  I felt a great surge of relief.

Nirav would be free of the demon when he came back.  I had to believe that.

“What did he say, there at the end?” asked Jane.

Preventer caught my eye, her fist opening and closing again.

“Just more lies.” I told them.  “We’ve taken care of the traitor in our midst.”