It was strange to be back in the Lair once more. I’d risked everything to leave this place, done my damnedest to put these streets forever behind me, and here I was. It all felt unreal, somehow.
The last time I’d been here, we’d been a full Fist, with our Link intact. Haunter had been a lot less bossy, Dale hadn’t yet warped his mind with these idiot elixirs, and I’d been filled with the anticipation of my defection to the Pantheon.
My return felt more like a dream or a vision than it did a part of my actual life. The streets were subtly different from my memories, locations having grown more prominent and well maintained or less so over months of our absence.
The skulls that we’d cringed at had become ubiquitous, nearly every building now mounted one on every side. When last we were here the ‘Watcher’ who was supposedly looking out them had been a bluff, a way to make the Resistance think that Snitcher had been replaced. I wasn’t sure whether or not the grisly sentries were a genuine threat now, and I felt a prickle crawl across my skin as I met their blank gazes.
I wasn’t unaware of how others might view me. The Union, Haunter, they didn’t have a terribly high opinion of me. The Gardens that I’d used to join the Shington elite would forever damn me in their eyes. I’d wondered, from time to time, whether it might not be my gift that estranged me so from my peers, whether the guilt or empathy they went on about weren’t considered weaknesses that I needed to be shielded from.
But I would never have done something like this. I felt like you couldn’t be human and do something like this, although if I said that out loud I was sure Haunter would start yammering on about how ancient history proved me wrong.
First Fist’s grisly program must have killed thousands, maybe tens of thousands. Every skull was human, nearly all of them entirely unblemished, and they were everywhere. The sheer waste necessary for such an endeavor was mind boggling.
Or maybe it wasn’t really waste. If Haunter’s idea, that Remover was some kind of devil, was true, then maybe this was a declaration of victory. An, “I’ve grown so skilled at making your kind kill one another that now I have you doing it for decorations!” kind of thing.
Thinking of First Fist was a mistake. I pasted a ghastly sneer on my face as I followed along behind Dale, clenching my hands behind my back to keep them from flapping.
Thui was in First Fist’s hands. He wouldn’t be waiting for me at home.
I was surprised how much the thought hurt. I’d known, when we left, that we were parting. It had been the plan from the get go, when I first realized that Her service was incompatible with a long life. I had never imagined that I might take a human with me into the Pantheon’s leadership.
But there had, of course, never been a need to tell HIM that, and so our arrangement had persisted. He’d been a bed warmer, a loyal right hand, and most importantly a source of confidence when I was being indecisive. I could never show fear in front of him, and with him kept close by that had allowed me to become, to all appearances, fearless, a far cry from the cowering creature that I’d been before the Process.
Dale seized a passerby in a granite grip, the ground rising up and clenching around the poor woman. He barked questions at her, then guided us onwards. It looked like we were headed back to my old house, which meant it was not in Torturer’s new radius.
It was odd to see Dale like that. I knew the people that he was doing his best impression of, had grown up around their sort. It was anger deployed to hide fear, aggression substituting for confidence. If we started walking in a spiral, and we somehow didn’t meet any other Ultras, we would come across a dozen tiny human gangs in an hour, and every one of their leaders would be acting just like that.
I’d grown up in such a gang, a runt even then. I’d learned, early on, that fetching and scavenging were the safest chores to take on, and that the bigger ones would take anything I found that was worth it. I’d learned to hide the shaking of my hands, to lean into punches so that the bruises would show to better advantage, and a hundred other priceless lessons. I could probably throw a stone and get it to bounce off two or three of my former selves, from any place in all of Shington.
Mario stood out.
It wasn’t anything concrete that he was doing, he had apparently been at least a little trained on how we conducted ourselves in the Lair, it was, hmm, hard to say. All I knew was that back in the day I’d have marked him instantly as someone who would stop after giving the first kick, no matter what he caught you doing.
“Stop looking around, you freak.” I muttered to him.
Maybe that was part of it. Maybe he was too obviously interested in everything around him, when a genuine denizen of the Lair knew that everything outside of your own situation was none of your business.
Haunter dropped back alongside me.
“Second Fist’s old domain is in Torturer’s new zone. Can you guess where they might have moved to?”
Second Fist held some of the leaders of the Regime’s various institutions. They commanded the Knights, and interfered a lot more with the Warlord situation than any of the other Fists did. Them being displaced would matter a lot more than us or Third Fist being moved.
“Look for Knights, I guess,” I answered, “Refiner and his crew won’t be hiding. We shouldn’t stumble across them without knowing it. Maybe the skulls around their hangout zone will all have antlers?”
If we got back to my house and my Knights hadn’t wandered off we could ask them. I’d always found it useful to keep a number of them around, and they had served as emissaries to Second Fist more than once. If Haunter’s ‘find Answerer’ plan didn’t work out, then I’d probably put them to use in that capacity again.
We clambered over some rubble and through a cleft between two buildings, emerging into the Lair’s innermost sanctum, or at least where it had formerly been. These were the old government buildings, the ramshackle remnants of Haunter’s world, where its conquerors squatted and sniped at one another.
My place was still standing, with no one obviously occupying it. I could make out a skull above the front door, but that was about all I could tell from here.
“Stop,” I murmured to the others, drawing them off to the side of the byway.
“What’s up?” asked Mario, but I was more focused on Dale, who was frowning quizzically at me.
“We need to give them time to get out of there,” I muttered. “Unless you feel like slaughtering whatever squatters might have moved in.”
Haunter, whose bullshit mind gift had no doubt given her a similar idea, gave a quiet nod of agreement, and so we loitered for a moment, leaning dangerously against a random wall and scowling at any passersby who got too close.
It was just like old times.
When guys like Mario thought about gang life, particularly in the Lair, they probably pictured furious fights, every day scrambling around in mortal peril. What it actually involved was a lot of this, just standing around looking tough.
You weren’t always in a conflict, you knew what Ultra was running your particular territory and you sucked up to her. You knew which solos you could boss around, and you harassed them when you could. You knew where the other gangs’ territories started, and you stayed carefully on your side. That left a lot of time.
The report I’d written for Her, way back when, about why our morale was so low, had been based on personal experience. The Regime was all bread, no circuses. There was an overwhelming shortage of anything interesting to do.
Thui had helped with that, at least.
I succumbed to a moment of nostalgia, then. I clearly had the past on my mind, and maybe it was better to just rip the bandage off entirely.
I had graduated, when I grew up enough to be desirable, from scavenger and street runner to an Ultra’s minion. I’d been too short to be a Snitch, but I’d spent a comfortable decade as one of Slaughterer’s ornaments. Thui had picked me up when she got tired of me.
He was a human gang leader back then, someone who Slaughterer had given a few tasks to. He had a calmness to him, a formal way of speaking that was somehow intimidating to those around him. He seemed like someone who didn’t care whether or not you thought he was strong, which was exactly how the strong people had seemed.
Watching Thui had been the first time that I realized that confidence was just a way that you acted. The reason that I’d never been able to fool anyone was that they could all tell that I was trying to fool them, and caring about whether they were fooled was a lot like caring what they thought of me.
Thui wasn’t any more confident than anyone else, I ultimately realized. He simply acted as though he was, and I could do that too. It was the first time I understood that my flapping hands were traitors, that looking down and muttering was actually hurting me. I took the first step to becoming Preventer back when I was still human, when I first decided to change myself into a leader.
I’d been forced to betray him, of course. In order to become a leader I had to stop being a minion. I’d tried to make it look like he was undermining Slaughterer, like he was trying to curry favor with another Ultra.
I’d been found out, of course. Looking back on it now I could see the amateurish conceit of my first scheme, the way that I’d just assumed that everyone would believe what I told them, and most importantly wouldn’t talk to each other.
Any other leader would have killed me. Made a big thing out of it, used me as a lesson to inspire the others.
Thui, instead, had seemed somehow proud, in a way that he never had when I’d been loyal. I think it was the joy of the teacher, the way Adder had sometimes got, where he saw something, or thought he saw something, of himself in me.
He’d sent me to the Process, instead. Told me that if I wanted to be in charge, there was only one way to make that happen.
When I survived I’d returned, and his gang had formed the core of my retinue. I’d spared him right back and he had stayed on as my chief servant, then, unofficially, as something like my coach.
I had been unsure of myself, at first. Rebeccah with Preventer’s gifts, just a mask. I’d needed someone to emulate, someone who saw me and approved. Thui had been that someone, right up until First Fist had killed him in front of me.
Killed a copy, I reminded myself sternly. I was going to get the real one back from them.
I gave a crooked grin as I saw a few people begin to discreetly bail out of my house. No doubt they’d been planning on going out the rear, and realized only too late that that door didn’t actually open.
If I’d ever had to flee I would have just stepped out a window, of course, but one of the big perks of being invincible was that that would never happen. I’d sealed the rear door thoroughly a long time ago.
“Let’s go,” said Haunter, after they’d disappeared around a corner.
Haunter, no doubt, thought that I was acting from sentiment here. That the idea of Thui in First Fist’s hands had forced me to act against my interest, abandoning my plan of sanctuary in the Pantheon in order to accompany her on this foolhardy assault on Remover.
She wasn’t entirely wrong, but the truth was a little more complicated. I was as clear headed as I had always been, I thought. The Pantheon was simply no longer viable, not now that there food had been choked off, and the Union wasn’t about to accept me. I’d left the Regime because Her instability had threatened my life, and I was returning now because She was less unstable than the world at large.
I hadn’t lost sight of my goal. I was still true to myself, still acting in the way that would let me see the most tomorrows. New information had inspired a new course of action, was all.
We arrived at last at my door, and everyone stood aside for me, the unspoken and ancient ways of hospitality asserting themselves at last. I hesitated a moment.
Some part of me thought that Remover would be just inside, sitting in my chair and drinking a cola out of Thui’s skull. Another part thought it would be Second Fist, forced into our path by the whatever pattern of fate had seen us work alongside Sixth, skirmish with Fifth, and then face Third in battle.
I opened the door, the foyer stood vacant and looted.
I swept inside, unsurprised. If any fragment of me had expected my things to keep during an absence of months it had been dispelled when we’d seen the squatters fleeing. Shington wasn’t so tidy of a place, where the reputation of the mighty could keep the gangs out in their absence. Even a Fist’s dwellings would, in time, be put to use.
And that looked to be what had happened. Rude bedding had been lined up on my immaculate floors, glyphs of gang ownership had been scratched into the furniture I’d had scavenged and carefully matched.
My immediate instinct was to perform outrage, the gut fear arising that to be seen to be injured in this way and not react immediately would look weak, and my ambitions would depend upon immediate retribution.
But that was old thinking. I controlled myself.
I had much more immediate worries now. I was no longer that person, and as much as I might enjoy the reminiscing, the dangers that confronted me wouldn’t show any mercy for such distraction.
“Fuckers,” snarled Dale, jerking his chin in the direction that the squatters had fled in.
“Should I…?” he asked, looking to me for approval.
I shook my head. I was pretty sure Dale couldn’t actually use his gift right now, with a basement between him and the ground, but in any case we had no time for punishment.
Every second we were here was another chance for something to go wrong. For Prevailer to send for Dale, or for the Union to decide Mario was defecting and take a shot at silencing us.
“People will be coming by shortly,” I told him, “They’ll want to know how long we are back for, and they’ll be looking to ingratiate themselves to a new Fist in town. Our appearance upsets their power balance, and they’ll all see the opportunity to one up their rivals by getting on our side first.”
“They’ll want to be helpful,” said Mario.
“The help I need right now is the locations of our targets,” I said, “And keeping track of the Inner Circle and the Fists is a survival skill around these parts.”