Mario 1:2

We left the lair of Second Fist with a quartet of Knights in tow, directions to the Host’s encampment, and no Dale.

Haunter and Preventer weren’t outwardly affected by his absence. They walked with an air of mild impatience, their demeanor pretty much indistinguishable to how they’d acted when we’d been walking in, despite the fact that their buddy was hostage to their success in a nightmarish scenario.

“Who are you guys?” I asked the nearest two Knights, remembering at the last second to make my voice cold and cruel, trying to channel the Condemner that I’d seen in the files. I wasn’t sure if Second Fist had filled their pawns in on what was going on with me, but as Haunter would point out there was no upside to removing the mask.

“Berta,” came the muffled response from the one on the left, “Dame Berta.”

She sounded young, but it would be hard to tell.

Ordinary Knights of Purity wore full length hooded robes, along with skull masks. It was probably the most famous uniform in the world, and these were their superiors, their elites.

They looked very little like the ordinary Knights. They had very clearly been copying the Union’s style.

They had rigid padding along all of their major limbs and torso, swathed in multiple layers of cloth, all died in the same vivid red as the ordinary Knights. They had full cloth masks that went over their whole heads, like ski masks, instead of the normal hood and front mask setup. The eye and mouth holes were covered over by thinner materials, leaving their faces as suggestions, silhouettes.

I couldn’t see an inch of exposed skin on them, anywhere.

In place of the typical scythes they had stubby little submachine guns, of a make and model I couldn’t identify, which they slung over one shoulder as we hiked.

My understanding that all of these gear was blessed to at least an equivalent of Ultra Strength and Toughness of two. Our escorts were faintly terrifying.

“Sir Darby,” said the other, his voice gruff enough that I was pretty confident he was concealing fear.

“I’m Nirav,” I told them. “Who are the two in front?”

I indicated the ones walking alongside Haunter and Preventer as I spoke.

“That’s Ser Seth,” said Darby, “He used to work alongside Haunter before she was even in the Fist.”

Berta turned her head sharply, plainly surprised that her partner had volunteered that information.

“And the other is Dame Agnes,” she said. “I don’t know her.”

I almost thanked her, before remembering that in the Regime basic decency would prompt suspicion.

I settled for a noncommittal grunt.

We marched on in silence for a while, filing quietly through the Regime’s capital like we owned the place. Ultras and humans alike stood aside as we stomped through, obviously sensing that it wasn’t a good idea to get in a Fist’s way.

“Do we have a ride?” I asked, when I couldn’t take the tension anymore.

Preventer looked back over her shoulder, raising a single eyebrow. I wasn’t sure what she was trying to tell me.

“We’ve got one,” said Darby. “It’s a bit rickety but-“

“That’s fine,” said Haunter.

Agnes took the lead, turning us off at the next hole in the rubble, then pointing to a battered pickup sitting by the side of the road with a few others.

“I usually ride in the back,” said Darby.

There were a few people hanging around the vehicles, with some Ultras among them. Presumably they were here to make sure nobody took off in one of their only functional cars. In Adder’s absence I imagined that those were starting to get a little scarce around here.

“Is there gas?” asked Preventer.

“It’s just down the way, right?” I asked. seemingly unable to stop myself from fucking talking, “Like 20 minutes drive? We don’t need a lot of gas.”

“Fuck off!” yelled Haunter at the people waiting around the vehicles.

They didn’t need to be told twice. People bailed with alacrity, plainly unwilling to offend a Fist that merited an elite Knight escort over some ratty old cars and trucks.

Haunter spawned a few of her shades as we approached.

“Find any keys laying around,” she told them.

That was a bit strange, I thought. The other times I’d seen her send the shades out they’d gotten their marching orders before they appeared.

“We can ride in the back,” volunteered Darby, who was about as bad as I was at the whole ‘strong silent’ thing. “Two of us always have to.”

“You will,” said Preventer.

“Is the truck blessed?” asked Haunter.

“I don’t think so,” said Berta. “I’m not even sure how that would manifest.”

Haunter manifested another group of shades.

“Take the other vehicles,” she told them. “Fan out and start looking for First Fist.”

“What?” asked Seth. “That’s not part of our mission.”

“It’s a side thing,” she told him. “It’s-“

She might have said more, but Preventer tapped her wrist where a watch would be, and Jane stopped talking, then everyone was moving.

The shades tackled the Knights, the ones who’d gone to check on the vehicles coming in from behind even as the ones she’d just spawned grabbed for their arms.

It was over in an instant, more and more shades pouring out of Haunter and piling in around the Knigths, swarming and seizing them.

“What’s-“ I asked, but Haunter took my hands and turned me away.

“It’s alright,” she said, “Just look into my eyes and breathe.”

Behind me I heard muffled struggling. I could imagine easily enough what was going on, imagine the mob of ghosts pulling at the blessed uniforms until flesh could be exposed, imagine ghostly knives sliding in and out.

Bile rose in my throat as I tried to look back, but Jane had me by the temples, keeping my eyes locked on hers.

“In and out,” she said, “Easy breaths. Nothing’s stopping you.”

I hadn’t stopped breathing, had I? I let out a breathe and was surprised to find that it was a hoarse gasp. Were the Knights gasping out their last behind me?

“In and out,” she said again.

“I’ve seen violence before,” I told her. “You don’t need to coddle me.”

She took a step back, releasing my head.

I turned around, unsurprised to see that the Knights were shapeless masses of red fabric, strewn across the ground, while the shades stood over them, reaching down to strip off their gear.

“Darby, Agnes, Seth and Berta,” she said, pointing to a quartet of shades whose body types basically mimicked those of the Knights they’d just killed. “Get your gear on, get the bodies into the bed of the truck. We’ll dump them a few miles out.”

“Wait,” I said, “Are you going to try and fool the Knights? Don’t they probably have passwords or something?”

“Shut up,” said Preventer, absently and without heat, already striding towards the truck.

Haunter rolled her eyes at her.

“We are probably not going to be coming back here,” she said, “But there’s no point in closing that door. If Krishna and the Host don’t know what we need, then we’ll have no choice.”

That made sense but…

“Then why?” I asked, pointing to Seth, Darby and the others.

Haunter steered me towards the truck as we spoke.

“We need freedom of speech and action,” she said. “Time is very short now, did you catch that? I’m operating on the assumption that the interference with Answerer clearing up is their endgame. I don’t know what we’ll need to say to Krishna, but it might easily be something the Knights couldn’t hear, and I don’t have time for anything fancy.”

I settled into the middle seat, despite being bigger than Preventer by a good bit. Jane took the wheel herself.

“They are going to be able to tell the Knights apart,” I said again, “They’ll have a password or something. We’ve tried to infiltrate the Knights before, and they’ve got Answerer.”

I shut up, aware that I was babbling a bit.

“Probably,” said Preventer, “But like she said, we might not come back here. This is just a contingency.”

“We have to come back here,” I said, “To get Dale, right?”

Neither of them answered.

“You are kidding me,” I said.

I settled back in the seat as they didn’t answer.

I’d known the man for barely any time at all in comparison to them, but it still rubbed me wrong to think of abandoning him to Second Fist’s mercy, or lack thereof.

“Earth may be destroyed in twenty four to forty eight hours,” said Haunter. “Dale would understand.”

I sat back, suddenly focusing on the fact that Haunter had just killed four people without batting an eye, to possibly save some future time.

Preventer had told me to shut up, had that been her way of asking Haunter to kill me, would they do that just to save the few minutes it would take to keep me up to speed, or to make sure I didn’t blow their cover?

I kept my breathing steady and even.

“We are going to go and speak with Krishna,” said Haunter, “But I’m sure you understand that what we care about in here is whether anyone in the Pantheon knows where our targets are, correct?”

“Right,” I said. “That’s why the Knights had to go. You aren’t going to be working to get them not to attack Shington, you are going to be interrogating them about where First Fist is.”

“We’ll modify our approach based on what we find,” said Jane, nodding. “But that’s our priority. If they know, then we dial in on getting them to tell us.”

“But don’t we also need to stop them from attacking?” I asked, “Just so they don’t provoke Her?”

“Yes,” said Preventer.

“So that’s two primary objectives then?” I said, “Both absolutely, fate-of-the-world level important?”

“Yes,” she grated out again.

“I’ll shut up now,” I said.

“It’s fine if you keep talking,” said Jane, immediately, “The Jury is saying a lot of the same things. You can trust me, still. We aren’t about to kill you.”

Had they somehow read that I was worried about that in my body language? I knew Haunter’s ghosts had a lot of skill in reading people, and also that she let people over and under estimate just how effective that was.

We pulled out of the parking lot, driving down the road at a medium pace.

It felt strange to ride a car after so long with a skiff at my beck and call. Even Indulger’s cave based travel method hadn’t felt quite like this. The land rolled past the windows, but we didn’t rise up into the sky, and everything went so slowly.

“What do you think the odds of this working are?”

“Zero,” said Preventer, “But also kind of good.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Haunter shot her an unfriendly glance.

“You established that the Union didn’t know where Remover and her crew were,” she said, “And it doesn’t seem like the Regime does either, based on what Second Fist said back there.”

“Although they could totally be lying,” I put in.

“As could you,” said Preventer, “Come to that.”

I bit back an angry retort. If betraying my civilization and freeing them from prison didn’t demonstrate my good-

“I’m kidding, man,” she said. “Ease up.”

“So you are saying that they may have sought refuge with the Pantheon?” I asked.

“There are a few factors arguing for it,” said Haunter. “How did the Pantheon suddenly defeat Subtracter? How is Krishna, an Ultra of no particular power, suddenly in charge? Why did they come together in a Host, and why did they move on Shington? They wouldn’t normally do any of those things.”

“They’ve tried to mass before,” I objected, “Back in the Fourth Defiance.”

“How’d that work out for them?” asked Preventer, with a cruel snigger. “Even the dumbest Pantheon commander knows nowadays that gathering in huge groups is an invitation to be shattered, by Her or Third Fist or Subtracter.”

“So if they are massing now, you think it might be because they have an assurance that all those factors won’t be here to stop them.”

“It’s about adding the factors up,” she said, “About covering all the bases. It’s still more probable, in my eyes, that First Fist is back in the Lair, but conflict with Second Fist means we can’t be the ones to check on that.”

I looked back into the bed of the truck, suddenly realizing the implications of that.

Sure enough, the fake Knights hadn’t got on with us, just loaded the naked corpses of the real ones in.

“They are going back into the city,” she said. “They’ll investigate as well as they can. I wish it was us, but this is the best I can do for now.”

I hadn’t thought about it, but of course a full body covering would let a shade masquerade as a normal person.

“Can they stay out of your reserve for that long?” I asked, “Your file says-“

“It changed recently,” interrupted Preventer.

I almost asked after that, which sounded utterly fascinating, but geeking out over the weirdness of Ultra gifts fell pretty squarely in the ‘after the world is saved’ category.

I was forgetting something, I replayed the conversation back a bit in my mind, trying to remember what I’d been about to ask about.

“Wait, ‘zero and also kind of good’?” I quoted. “How does that make sense.”

Haunter heaved a long suffering sigh.

“Zero because Remover’s pitched a perfect game this far, and there is absolutely no reason to think that we are any different from anyone else who struggled in their webs over the years.”

“But you’ve got all the shades,” I said, “They aren’t even in the world, so their interactions can’t be observed.”

I looked over to Preventer.

“And you are invincible,” I continued. “Wouldn’t your shield you from whatever they are doing?”

They looked at one another for a beat, then looked back to the road.

“We have a difference of opinion,” said Preventer. “But what Jane doesn’t want to say is that she thinks we are not immune to them, which I agree with, but thinks that we will find them, which I think is dumb.”

“Huh?” I asked.

“Look,” said Jane, “If I flip a coin and get heads, what’s the odds that it’ll be heads the next time I flip it?”

“Fifty Fifty,” I said, knowing this particular fallacy.

“Sure, and if I flip it a hundred times in a row, and it is heads every time, the odds it’ll be heads the next time?”

“Still fifty fifty,” I said.

“Come on,” said Preventer, “Imagine if I did this in front of you. You’d really put your money down after seeing that?”

When she put it that way…

“Wait, does the coin even have a tails side?” I asked. “A fair coin can come up heads a hundred times, but I’d think you were cheating at that point.”

“Exactly,” said Haunter. “Modified Watchmaker argument.”

“You think they want us to find them?” I asked. “But why wouldn’t they just-“

“See why she doesn’t want to have the argument out loud?” jeered Preventer. “Even the dagger sees how stupid this is.”

“What’s stupid,” said Jane, “Is imagining that we are the only ones who saw through their plan because we are just that clever. Or imagining that we, the only ones trying to find them, get a countdown conveniently telling us when we have to find them by.”

“You’re saying…”

“Look,” she said, “You buy that they manipulated the whole world, that they are fooling the precogs, right? That’s why you busted us out?”

The words poured out of her.

“So why wouldn’t she be able to manipulate us? Why would you think we aren’t still doing exactly what Remover, what Forbidding Entity wants?”

“But why would-“

Preventer chuckled.

“I don’t fucking know,” said Haunter.


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