We got up early in the morning, I’d barely got to sleep at all. I’d formed up the ground into a kind of a shell over myself down in the basement, and settled down to rest.
But the thing about sleeping with my gift working was that I was always feeling the footsteps of all the people around us, and Shington was a huge city. So my gift kept poking and alerting me whenever anyone walked sort of towards us, even if they were streets away. I kept getting woken up, ready to fight, for stuff that didn’t have anything to do with us.
This hadn’t always been a problem for me.
Back in the day, when I’d slept, I’d just got up on a bed if I was in a city, so my gift couldn’t pester me. If I didn’t have a bed then I was out in the wilderness, making my roads and pulling my wagon, and there wasn’t anyone around to set off my gift.
I tried to tell myself that, tried to say that losing the Link wasn’t a big deal because I’d lived a long time without it, and I could just trust that no one would get me at night like I’d always done in the past. I couldn’t make myself believe it though.
I wasn’t sure if Lotus’s stuff was at fault, or if maybe it was because of the stuff I’d seen recently, or even maybe just that we were in Her city. But for whatever reason I couldn’t make myself trust that I’d be safe in Preventer’s house.
Mario was up second in the morning, he brought me down some rations. The Union’s stuff was way better than protein powder, but we’d been eating it for a while now, and I had a bit of trouble choking it down.
“You ready for today?” he asked me.
I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant. Was it some kind of dig? I didn’t think so, but sometimes I didn’t know what people were implying.
“Yeah,” I told him. “Second Fist are tough, but we shouldn’t have to fight them. I expect it’ll just be the ladies doing a bunch of talking.”
“Do you think they’ll know what we want?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “Stuff never goes right for us.”
“I’m sure that’s not totally true,” he said.
“We once took a boat ride,” I said. “And it ended up with us getting nuked. Has that ever happened to anybody else? Like in the whole world?”
“I’m sure it has,” he hedged. “It must have, right?”
I looked down at the floor, aware that I was being petulant. A side effect from taking the Lotus stuff was that when I was not on any of it my emotions were a little out of whack. It was kind of hard to stay balanced when ‘balance’ meant a different thing depending on what I was taking.
“Everyone sleep alright?” asked Preventer, coming through a door from upstairs and fussing with her hair.
“Yeah,” I told her.
She and Haunter were going to do the talking with Second Fist today, they didn’t need to be bothered with my sleep troubles.
“So what’s our strategy?” asked Mario, and I tuned them out for a bit, stalking back down to the basement to get back in touch with the ground.
Nobody was watching our building, or at least they were up off the ground if they were. The only people my gift could sense were those who’d been there all night, just a few desperate folks sheltering under rubble and some Ultra’s mooks who were standing around waiting for her to get up.
But someone was coming.
As soon as I let my awareness go further out into the city I felt them, a bunch of guys walking in two straight lines, and another person in the middle.
The only people who walked in careful lines like that were Knights, and I was even more sure that that was what they were because they were thumping their scythes on the ground as they walked, like third feet that only stepped every other step.
“Guys! Knights incoming!” I shouted out, throwing the door back up to the middle room open again.
“What? Where?” came Haunter’s voice.
I didn’t answered immediately, putting a hand down to the stones of the basement’s floor to try and get my gift to go a bit farther.
I didn’t sense any extra columns coming, or any other groups that seemed to be headed here.
“How many? Is Second Fist with them?” asked Haunter, as she rushed down into the basement. Preventer and Mario were immediately behind her, Mario buckling a gun to a shoulder holster while he swallowed a biscuit.
“Ten in two lines,” I said, “With a person walking in the middle.”
“Could be someone in their leadership,” guessed Preventer. “I know Knight Lords get that kind of escort when they are doing official things. Could also be one of Second Fist.”
“It would be Destroyer or Choker,” said Haunter, “If it is a Fist member that is. Probably Choker, since they’d want to keep Destroyer close at hand if they are worrying about a conflict with us.”
“They don’t have any reason to expect conflict with us, right?” asked Mario.
“Depends if they have Answerer,” said Haunter, “But that discussion goes down the precog rabbit hole again. We need to meet them outside, so that Dale’s gift can be a factor.”
“I think I’ll know if Deceiver tries to fool me,” I ventured, “Even if she can fake the inputs that I’m getting, she doesn’t know what footsteps are supposed to feel like, right? So there should be something wrong with any fake input from my gift.”
We started up the steps into the main floor as we spoke, and it was embarrassing how tense I got when I lost contact with the ground. I used to be so cavalier about leaving the land and my gift, but now it made me nervous every single time.
I hesitated a second in the doorway, reaching into my satchel. This was a big day, an important one. I needed to be the right me, the one who’d kept us safe in the Pantheon.
I grabbed for one of the reddest vials, one that was barely watered down from the pure berserker stuff.
“Dale, don’t,” said Haunter, without even looking at me. “We’ve got this, there isn’t going to be a fight.”
But she would say that, right? Wouldn’t the woman who always bossed me around want me to just stay meek and quiet, ready to take her orders?
I shook the thoughts away and took another step, hand still in the satchel. My shoulders relaxed the merest bit as my foot made contact with the ground and my gift surged back into my awareness.
The Knights were only a little ways away, they were about to climb through that rubble heap we’d come through yesterday and then they’d be able to see us.
“She’s right, Indulger,” said Preventer. “Stay even unless the fighting starts. You don’t want to waste your stuff.”
I took my hand out of the satchel as we took a formation in front of the house. Haunter and I were in the center, while Mario and Preventer stood back a bit behind us and to the sides.
The Knights were on us in a moment, stomping down the street in their two lines. It was kind of cool how they each stepped at the same time, and how all their scythes came down at once. They must have practiced for a long time to get it right.
The one in the center wasn’t dressed like an Ultra, just another Knight. He was taller than the rest, but I could tell he hand platform shoes on under his robe to make that happen. He had a fancier outfit and a skull mask with antlers on it.
Haunter was the one who most hated the Knights, I hadn’t ever really had much meetings with them. But still I felt a bit of anger at that, even without the red potion. It wasn’t enough for them that the city was covered with skulls, they had to wear them too?
“Refiner summons you,” said the center one, as they came to a stop. “Her Second Fist has received tidings of your arrival, and they seek conference with their peers.”
The center one didn’t have a scythe. That was weird. It felt like going up in ranks should mean you got a bigger scythe or something. Maybe he had one of Refiner’s guns under that robe.
“We are not to be summoned,” said Haunter, taking a step forward. She did that thing with her voice where a bunch of her shades manifested and spoke each word then disappeared real quick. It made her look a bit blurry and sound like a whole crowd of people talking, which was a very cool effect.
“Requests your presence, then,” said the center one, seemingly unruffled. “Two Fists must work as one to win a fight, and Subtracter will be delighted to direct you.”
I felt a chill at the mention of Subtracter, who had always been something of a personal devil to me. Her ability to fly made her almost invisible to my gift, and I could never forget how she’d defeated us without trying right after we first got Linked.
Prevailer was fond of very few people, but She trusted Subtracter a bit. When we’d been together She had run down a lot of people, but I couldn’t remember Her dunking on Subtracter at all.
We shared a look. We hadn’t been expecting to win a fight with Second Fist anyway, when it was basically five to 3, but there had been some things in our favor. If Haunter’s shades could overload Deceiver’s gift, and Refiner couldn’t fight, we’d talked ourselves into thinking that maybe we would have some kind of chance.
Subtracter sunk that idea completely. She could take us all out single handed. Ultra Speed two was almost unbeatable, and it was just one of her gifts. She was a Death or Vampire class Ultra.
“Lead on then,” said Haunter, still using her multi voice. “We’ve been away for a long time, it will be good to catch up with our fellow Fist.”
The lead Knight looked to me for a moment, which wrong footed me for a bit until I remembered that I was official the leader.
I gave him a firm, confirming nod, putting whatever authority they thought I had behind Haunter’s decision.
“Will Fisher be joining us?” he asked, delicately.
We’d actually worried a lot about this question. Most people we could shut down by just running the ‘you have no right to question us’ line, or acting like we were leaving her elsewhere as insurance like Fifth Fist had done with Zilla, but we’d decided on something else for this particular mission.
“Joining us?” I asked, looking confused.
“Refiner instructed me to invite the whole Fist,” he answered.
I couldn’t see his face behind the mask, but he had to be looking a little chagrined at having to correct a Fist.
“But she’s here, human,” I corrected. “Look to your shadows.”
They might have been disciplined, but the Knights still looked down, one and all, skull masks swiveling here and there in confusion and alarm.
“Of…of course, sir,” he said, “Force Rules the World!”
We echoed the response, and fell in behind them as they tromped their way back towards Second Fists’ fortress.
It felt strange to go along with Second Fists’ thing, but this was what we’d wanted to do anyway. Like, we were planning on heading over there first thing today, and here we were, with an escort.
It didn’t take us long, their headquarters wasn’t super far from Preventer’s big house. The skulls loomed over us as we walked, and I had no doubt that if Watcher existed then he or she was paying full attention to us.
There was another file of Knights outside of their headquarters, which was a mostly collapsed apartment building. It looked like the bottom floor was basically intact, but there was a lot of rubbish up top, which they’d put some effort into piling into fang shaped columns.
After seeing Istanbul and Berlin, it just looked pathetic. Like children trying on sigils in case it gave them Ultra gifts.
We came to a stop in front of the waiting Knights, Haunter stepped forward.
“Where is Refiner? Where is Subtracter?”
She spoke coldly, with the calm certainty of someone who knew that she was going to be obeyed. Not at all like someone surrounded by foes.
I sometimes envied other Ultra’s gifts. Mine was great, obviously, and definitely stronger than Haunter’s overall, but still it had to be nice to outsource all your acting cool to whoever on your team was not afraid.
I had the weirdest sensation all of a sudden.
One of the humans who was hiding in the rubble around us was exactly, and I mean totally exactly, the same weight out of a Company Man. It was utterly strange.
Like, obviously a Company Man wouldn’t be living with humans across the street from Second Fist. They all lived in the Company Facilities, up on the second floor, and the Company hadn’t fallen apart in the Regime. So that couldn’t really be a Company Man, but I could swear it was.
“They await within,” said the lead Knight, which wasn’t exactly a surprise.
I couldn’t look back over my shoulder without looking weak or whatever, but I was dying to know who my gift thought was a Company Man. It made me worry that Deceiver was able to fool my gift after all.
We walked inside, and I was NOT cut off from my gift. They didn’t have a basement here, their floor was ‘ground’ enough for my gift.
I couldn’t stop a grin from touching the edges of my mouth. I’d been willing to give up my gift for this meeting, since we couldn’t beat Subtracter anyway, but it was a huge relief to not have to. It meant that if things went bad I could take a stab at snatching us down into the ground and getting us away.
Second Fist were waiting for us, and I could already tell that Deceiver was messing with our minds.
It looked like they were all standing in front of us, but I could feel where Refiner was, and there were two wheels touching the ground, not the two feet that it looked like. He was in a wheelchair, but she was hiding it.
There were also a trio of Knights behind us that we couldn’t see. They probably had some of Refiner’s blessed guns pointed at us in case we got up to anything.
The rest of their crew weren’t obviously being masked by Deceiver, they looked about like they had when we’d gotten the Link. Deceiver, Bomber, Destroyer Refiner and Choker, standing arrayed before us.
And one more.
“We’re looking for First Fist,” said Haunter, obviously realizing that we weren’t going to be able to conceal anything from this person.
“I know,” said Answerer, “They told me you would be.”