Jane slammed on the brakes, 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.
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.
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 nights 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.