Haunter 12:1

I’d imagined the Knight HQ collapsing in flames countless times over the years. It was a symbol of fear and pain, of an evil that had lingered long past its time. It felt right that I’d been the one to bring it down, one relic taking care of another.

Preventer had gotten it into her head that our bomb was a nuke, but that was vastly overstating its power. We’d done our best, but it was still a conventional explosive, akin to the sort of thing a missile would deliver, or an old school truck bomb.

We’d debated fiercely, but inconclusively, on what the outcome would be. Had Refiner blessed the entire building, or just the cloths draped along the outer walls? Was the building we’d seen even a close relative of the true structure, or had Deceiver been running some long game on everyone, all the time? Would it collapse in on itself, rupture outward, fall to one side, or simply stand proud and defiant?

Demolition, in the old world, had been settled science. Experts, of the kind still retained within the reserve, could make a building fall in just about any way you desired, given the proper preparation.

With an unknowable target structure, built to no plan and augmented in inexplicable ways, and factoring in an undependable and jury rigged device, the experts turned out to be just as divided in their estimates as the laymen.

The debate was only put to rest as the building tumbled in front of us. It had been a composite ruin, walls frozen in the act of falling against one another, and the blast shattered whatever equilibrium the Knights had been able to enforce. It crumbled in upon itself in the wake of the blast, belching a huge cloud of dust and grit out onto the street.

Mario and I were down the road a ways, peering around a corner.   We ducked back as the cloud engulfed us, holding improvised cloth masks across our faces and shielding our eyes.

I reached out to my gift, pulling the shade we’d left with the Pantheon back into the reserve, and starting our clock. If Subtracter believed our signal she’d be on her way. If she hadn’t lied about her flight speed, and she started right away, then we had on the order of five minutes to find Dale.

We’d argued about whether or not to leave the signal for a little later, or whether to give it before the bomb actually went off. A case could be made, had been made, for either, but ultimately we’d decided that simple was best. The plan was to scoop Dale out before Second Fist, or whatever was left of it, managed to get themselves out from under the rubble, then leave them to fight it out with Subtracter in a race we had no horse in.

I gave no visible signal, just clenched my teeth, and the reserve leaped into action. Dozens of shades rushed out of my form, careful practice and discipline ensuring none crashed into one another as they swarmed out and into the street.

I followed immediately in their wake, leaving Mario behind. He’d wanted to be in on this part, but the sad truth was that there wasn’t anything for him to do. He’d be one more body, one more form struggling through the dust and murk. It was better for him to lurk back in the dubious safety of the middle distance. If the worst occurred he could at least try and contact his former superiors and wrangle some kind of makeshift solution in what little time we had left.

‘Opportunity triage’, he’d termed it. A kind euphemism for pure desperation, for the kind of effort you put in when the world was literally about to end and you were stuck doing idiotic street fighting.

The shades fanned out as they swarmed ahead of me, each team heading towards its assigned objective. Spotters called out destinations for reserves, and yet more shades exited my form. The reserve were doing their best to construct a map of the fallen structure, trying to assign everyone to proper areas even as they were dispatched, but the murk and the gloom made it an uphill struggle.

In a perfect world, or at least a world where we’d been unreasonably lucky, the ground would start shifting under my feet almost instantly. If Dale had been blasted into a location in contact with the ground and not damaged beyond his ability to remain conscious, then that would happen any second now. He could tell my footprints apart from the others by the fact that I was the shade’s origin point, and he’d know to get in touch.

I covered thirty more feet, forty. Unsurprisingly, we weren’t living in a perfect world.

Dale was not conscious and touching the ground. Logically speaking, this meant he was either unconscious, still up off the ground, or, worst case, both. In the real worst case he was dead, perhaps vaporized by the bomb.

We’d done our best to insure that that wouldn’t be the case. The plan had called for Preventer to seek him out, which would hopefully ensure Deceiver took her far from him, but force Deceiver herself close to the epicenter to keep Preventer in her gift’s range. We’d been hoping that Dale would be far enough away to be, at worst, thrown about and concussed, but not killed.

I heard some gunfire from the edges of the blast zone, saw brief flashes through the omnipresent cloud of dust.

I ignored them. Almost none of the Knights had firearms, which meant that those were most likely shades shooting, driving back bystanders or finishing off injured Knights. Nothing for me to worry about.

The nearest corner of the fortress still stood, to some degree. The collapse had created a sort of triangular rampart, a series of flooring and support beams avalanched upon one another that spilled out into the surroundings.

I looked to the shades that had proceeded me, one of whom was indicating a particular section of rubble. I pulled a few dozen shades into my form and started heaving on it.

This was the reason that I needed to put myself into the situation at all, instead of just acting as a command and control node to the shades. I, or rather my Ultra gift’s ability to allow us to combine our efforts, was the only way we could exert greater than human force in hard to reach sections.

The stone section of roofing I was working with crumbled away in my hands, forcing me to dodge back a step as the rubble resettled itself. I couldn’t be bold, couldn’t press my luck. Almost nothing would be worth taking the chance of being struck with so many of my colleagues inhabiting my form.

I shifted another layer of the junk, heart leaping as I spied a crushed form beneath.

We’d never taken the time to pin down Dale’s gift’s interactions with loose piles of rubble. It had been on a to do list that the Jury’d come up with, long ago, but the timing had never been right. We’d been fighting over the first disaster with the Union, or something like that.

The consequence was that I wasn’t sure exactly what would constitute ‘the ground’, as far as his gift was concerned. A building’s floor wasn’t the ground, but if he was walking along and there happened to be a rock embedded in the dirt beneath his feet, it wasn’t a problem. Which of those situations was a collapsed pile of masonry more like, in the eyes of whatever Entity was making the adjudication?

The figure wasn’t Dale, too small and with hair too long. They also had a Knight’s uniform wrapped around them.

“Jane!” came a shout from further into the smog, from somewhere down in the main pit that the building had turned into.

I looked down and immediately saw what the shades were drawing my attention to. A section of the rubble was heaving and roiling, boulders rising up as other ones rolled in around the sides.

It wasn’t Dale, I realized almost instantly. His gift would make short work of this predicament, and in fact had done so on numerous occasions, as he sank us into or rose us out of his makeshift caves. This was just someone with Ultra Strength, heaving and thrashing against the stones they were surrounded by.

Most likely it was Destroyer, the most deadly member of Second Fist, and no one I had any shot against in a fight. Subtracter would see to her, ideally, but the timing on this was rather unfortunate.

I looked around carefully, maintaining my perch on the upraised section of rubble, unwilling to flee the whole area just yet. Destroyer only had Ultra Strength One, it should take her a bit to burrow her way out. I couldn’t just run away without locating either Dale or Preventer.

I saw broken stone, clouds of dust and smoke, and, beyond the immediate tumult, the night shrouded streets of Shington. There was no sign of the earth moving in accordance with Dale’s gift. No barriers making arrows to show where Preventer might be. Just ruin and debris, and the angry roiling where a foe was coming to the surface.

I willed his form to coalesce out of the night, for me to suddenly pick him out somewhere that all the shades had somehow missed, but there was nothing. Just more night and more dust.

I had the self control not to curse, as I dropped back down to the ground, but it was a near thing. There’d been nothing to fight, no dramatic turnaround. I’d just…failed. I hadn’t been prevented or thwarted, I’d just been unable to find Dale.

I felt bitterly frustrated, but I didn’t let that stop me from retracing my previous steps, putting distance between myself and the upcoming confrontation between whatever Regime forces could dig themselves out and Subtracter’s coup attempt. They were welcome to their fight.

A terrible howl split the night, cutting through the distant screams and the gunfire with an awful suddenness.

Everyone in the Regime, hell, probably just about everyone everywhere, knew what that sound meant. That long, wailing screaming, which bore only the faintest resemblance to a true wolf’s howl, had signified just one thing for decades now.

First Fist was on the hunt, and all who heard it were their prey. It was a challenge, a threat. It let the listener know that there was an excellent chance that they’d be dead within the hour, and that those who fell might be the lucky ones.

Movement drew my eye to a building across the way from me, where a trio of Knights had just broken cover in abject flight. A nightmare shape barreled after them, catching one by the ankle and hurling him upwards into the night sky.

Pursuer’s howl peeled out again, even as the beast, which bore only the faintest resemblance to an actual wolf, lurched towards another victim, teeth and eyes gleaming in the night despite all the yards between us.

He wasn’t actually howling. Alerter must be creating it, using her sound control to make it spring up from nowhere in particular.

I’d been intending to pull my shades back to me as I withdrew, but I left them to make their own escapes instead. My only protection from Pursuer right now was that I was just one more shape in the mist. Anything that drew him to me, anything that singled me out among their number, would be my end.

I ran headlong away from the ruin of the Knight’s headquarters, just like everyone else who could was doing. Dale would have to wait. If he was still alive, then maybe whatever horrific and seismic events were about to occur when Destroyer, Pursuer and Subtracter clashed would see him brought into contact with the ground.

As for Preventer, well, she should be safely buried. If not, I’d grown at least a little fond of the Regime’s most amoral midget, but the truth was that the world wouldn’t miss one more war criminal among the ashes of the Regime. I’d considered killing her before, I wasn’t about to throw the lives entrusted to me away to save her now.

I felt a shade destroyed, then another in rapid succession. Somewhere out there in the dust, my people were being hunted. It might have been Pursuer, or Knights, or just the side effects of some Ultra’s escape efforts, heck maybe the rest of First Fist was here. Nothing I could do.

I realized, of course, that if Remover was here then I was desperately fleeing from the woman I’d been trying to catch up to for days now, but there was nothing for it. The opportunity I was looking for was one where I confronted her in favorable circumstances, ideally one where I killed her. Fighting alone against First Fist wasn’t such an opportunity, it was just a longer, more complicated form of suicide.

Another shade perished as I got around a corner, another soul lost to this catastrophe. I didn’t deviate, kept my jaw clenched. Alerter could hear everything in a wide radius, the last thing I wanted was to let her recognize my voice.

I wasn’t headed back to Mario, just away from this clusterfuck. We’d both be safer if we didn’t meet back up anywhere near First Fist. He might not know about Alerter, might say my name before I could put him wise.

I didn’t lose any more shades as I took another corner, and I finally felt safe to pull all my outlying shades back into the reserve. If they were tracking me at this point then they were already on the right track, and there was nothing I could do about it.

I jogged on as the Jury took stock of the situation, tallying everyone’s accounts and trying to work out if anyone had seen anything of import. It was the kind of task that the reserve’s limited bandwidth hampered, where normally I’d release the shades to talk it out in the open air, but the possibility of Alerter dissuaded me.

I crouched against a wall as the debrief went on. A few of my people had seen a large form sort of embedded into a section of building across the way. Dale might have been blasted clear across the street, but before they’d been able to get closer and examine the situation in more detail Pursuer had come crashing out of that building very same building.

I clenched a fist, bit back a snarl. It stank of precognition, the whole attack did. First Fist arriving exactly when we threw Second Fist into disarray couldn’t be coincidence. They were either watching or else Remover was just doing what Answerer no longer could, pulling moves directly out of wherever gifts came from.

“Listen up!” snarled a voice out of the air, low and mean spirited.

I practically jumped out of my skin, looking frantically around, seeing nothing but the anonymous building I’d taken shelter in.

“We got Preventer, you bitches!” the voice continued. Alerter, obviously, and if she thought there were many of us then she didn’t know I was on my own right here. Most likely she was simply speaking to everyone in a wide radius, not knowing which of us were Fourth Fist members.

“She ain’t about to have the best of times,” Alerter continued, “But you can’t say we didn’t warn her about it. Told her all the way back what would happen to her one day, and today’s that day.”

First Fist was exactly petty enough to randomly tell people the sort of horrors they were about to inflict, but I sensed this was more. I was about to get an ‘unless’.

“Unless,” she said, “You want to settle our situation now? Come to the Garden where y’all met her and we’ll slaughter you cunts.”

I wasted no time in running again as the transmitted voice faded away, doing my very best impression of any random refugee who’d heard that ominous declaration, my mind whirling a million miles an hour.

I took refuge again shortly thereafter, ducking into a wrecked Company Facility and slamming the door behind me. I needed to take stock.

The part of the plan devoted to destroying Second Fist had gone off without a hitch. I’d seen no activity from them beyond a churning that suggested that something was digging out of their headquarters. Assuming Deceiver’s gift hadn’t been at work, they were done. Subtracter or First Fist would take care of whatever remnants of their organization were still active.

But everything else had been a failure. I hadn’t seen a single sign of Dale, had quite possibly blown him up. I hadn’t seen a sign of Preventer, who was either buried under rubble or snatched up by First Fist in the aftermath. I’d even lost Mario. The reserve and I had no independent allies left.

I kicked irritably at the door I’d slammed, frowned ferociously down at myself. I raked fingers through my hair, trying to force a calm I was far from feeling.

If I could believe Alerter, and, famously, it was unwise to do so, then Preventer and First Fist were back at the Garden. If I wanted Remover, that was where I needed to go.

But, and this wasn’t exactly rational, Fuck me if I was going to face down ANOTHER Fist for ANOTHER hostage, immediately after this goddamn disaster. There had to be another play here.


Preventer 12:1

It was dusk when I got back to Second Fist’s sanctuary. The moon was full and bright, the evening air cool and crisp. The city’s buzz seemed muted and washed out in the twilight, like the world was drawing in a breath before getting down to some serious screwing.

I’d created a pair of short, thin barriers, which were presently supporting a hefty plastic crate that was floating along behind me. We’d found it in an abandoned commercial structure a few miles into the city.

I was alone. Mario and Haunter were a few blocks away, waiting on my mission’s success or failure. Haunter’s part in this could be played from anywhere, all she had to do was withdraw the shade she’d left with Subtracter. Mario, of course, could do nothing. Aside from his part in initial planning, and certain other contributions, he’d been forced to partake of the passive helplessness that was every dagger’s lot.

I didn’t have a lot of sympathy. He’d had his whole life to get Processed, and he’d pussied out. So he could get comfy over there on the side lines.

“Hey!” shouted a Knight, as I walked up, “Stop there!”

A pair of them trotted out of the front door, just the ordinary ones with the scythes and robes. Low rankers, then. I could see a few more just like them were watching me out of various crevices and windows in the irregular structure.

“What?” I asked him, “Your bosses wanted us to come back and give them a report once we understood the situation over there.”

“What?” he asked back.

“She’s in Fourth Fist,” said the other one, a woman by the sound of it, “They are working with…”

Her voice dropped in the last half of the sentence, and I couldn’t make out the rest of what she said.

“A Fist?” said the first. He sounded dubious. “Where are the rest of you?”

He was a little too far away to do the sudden throat grabbing trick, so I just walked towards him, sneering nastily.

“What’re you…?” he asked, and then I grabbed him by the throat.

“I don’t know why daggers-“ I said, unmoved by his frantic efforts at escape.

“Stop it!” shouted the other Knight. “Let him go!”

“…Think they can ask me fucking questions…” I continued.

She tried to bring her scythe around, but I just stepped closer to her, inside her reach, standing right up against her as I throttled her partner.

That left some space between me and my victim, of course, and he managed to thunk his scythe against my arm.

His eyes, already wide with alarm, filled with panic when it glanced off harmlessly.

“Let him…” she said again, dropping her scythe and grabbing for my strangling arm with both hands, adding her strength to his in their desperate, doomed effort to move something more immutable than the sky itself.

I kept my eyes on the archway behind them as they struggled in vain against my gift. I wouldn’t necessarily see a more serious response incoming, with Deceiver in the mix, but it didn’t hurt to try.

I let their protestations wash over me. I had a strong fucking prejudice against listening to people who only talked after they’d already tried to kill me. Missed that fucking boat, yeah?

I let a half a minute go by before I let go. Not nearly enough to actually do any permanent damage, but roughly an eternity in fight time. Time enough, by a long shot, to show that it was my mercy, and not anything that they were saying and doing that was causing me to back down.

When I released my grip the guy I was choking had been in the middle of pushing his foot against my stomach and shoving with all his strength. The sudden absence of anything to fight against left him rocketing away from me, he’d tossed himself down onto the ground and into the edge of the doorframe.

The other Knight danced back, hands up in a conciliatory gesture. Her mask had gotten a bit twisted around in the scuffle, such that the mouth part wasn’t immediately aligned with her actual mouth, and what she was saying was a bit jumbled, but I got the gist.

I swept imperiously past the pair before they could get their bearings again, crate drifting serenely along in my wake.

There were a few more Knights in the first room, but they all took distance as I entered, backing up against walls and down hallways and such.

“Where are they?” I demanded, not bothering to specify that it was Second Fist and Answerer I’d come to meet. It wasn’t as though it was plausible that I was here to confer with some random Knights, particularly after I’d just choked some.

They indicated one of the doorways, and I moved on through without breaking stride. Pace was key, and I wasn’t about to relinquish it.

Somewhere else inside the fortress, Answerer and Deceiver would be getting briefed. They’d be hearing about my arrival, and the scuffle at the door. They’d be trying to figure out why I was here, what it meant about Subtracter’s situation.

I wanted them unbalanced, but not panicked. Rattled, but not threatened. It was a tough balance.

A quartet of the higher ranking Knights, the ones with the modern looking gear, met me in the next room. They looked, in most ways, like the ones that had been sent with us, the ones Haunter had killed.

“Preventer, what’s in the box?” asked the first one, her voice making her gender clear.

If I didn’t miss my guess, at least one of these Knights was really an Ultra, one of the incredibly rare members of our kind content to take orders and wear a uniform. Probably not someone who could hurt me, but it wasn’t impossible. Deceiver’s Fist had been at this a long time, long enough to accumulate all sorts of useful pawns.

“We asked the Pantheon where Subtracter was, just like Refiner wanted us to,” I told them. “They were evasive, then dramatic, ultimately violent. But we’re a Fist, so we got what we wanted in the end.”

“What’s in the box?” she asked again.

“It wasn’t one Ultra who got Subtracter,” I said. “Not the way they described it going down. They had one who paralyzes people she looks at, another one to shield her while her gift was taking effect, and so on. Team effort.”

They stepped out of one another’s way, aimed their guns.

“The box!” she demanded.

I flipped the lid open, wincing as the stench of dirt and shit wafted out of it. Ultra Toughness, or my variant of it anyway, didn’t care about my preferences nearly as much as it did my safety and agency.

Their eyes were riveted, as we’d planned, on the gleaming skull embedded in the soil, the visage of death come suddenly among them.

“Here’s Subtracter,” I lied, “We cleaned the flesh off so she got a good view of all the negotiations. Refiner can debrief her at leisure.”

If the other side was so desperate to fool everyone about being able to see out of skulls, then why not make that deception our own? Why not pretend to be fooled?

It had been Mario’s idea, actually. He’d done some infiltration stuff before, and one thing he’d pointed out was that the way to survive in the Regime was to make sure you were always cooperative, always doing what they wanted you to.

If they gave an open ended order, or a lie big enough, then you could hide your whole plan right inside it, and their own goddamn arrogance would keep you hidden.

They looked to one another, plainly unsure. The speaker stepped back into their lineup, tapped a hand to her ear like she was turning on a microphone of some sort.

“Box has a skull in it,” she said, “She brought it for Watcher to link with, says that’s how the info is stored.”

I’d have given a lot to be on the other side of the line, just a fly on the wall hearing them argue.

Should they front like Watcher can only see stuff after she’s already linked to the skull? Should they act like they didn’t have access to her? But wouldn’t that be admitting weakness? Did we already know that Answerer was all the Watcher that there was, or was there something to be gained in running out the scam?

I’d been part of a Fist for a year now, I knew how questions like these, with a thousand possible points you could grab them by, would tear up a team’s dynamics. Everyone would have their own viewpoint, everyone would be thinking not just about how to get what they wanted out of it, but what them winning or losing the debate would do to the team’s dymamics, to their relationship with the only people they would share eternity with.

When we’d been considering the prison job, or when we’d been thinking about the embassy situation, we’d had discussions like this. Soul destroying arguments, waged with utmost sincerity. They were engaging, brutal things.

Most of all, they were distracting.

I took the skull (which actually belonged to the late, unlamented Sir Seth), and tossed it casually to the Knight who’d originally spoken, the one who was now talking over their communications thingy.

“Hey!” she said, catching it, bobbling it, nearly dropping it. The jawbone came away in her hands.

“I’ll see Dale now,” I told her, “We did some more negotiating after we packed Subtracter’s bits up, stuff only our Fist needs to know about.”

They looked quizzically at me.

“Indulger, I mean,” I corrected myself.

More fuel for the fire. More things to think about. What were our secret agreements with the Pantheon? Should they let me speak with Dale? Did it change depending on what they decided to go with for Watcher?

More irrelevancies, quicksand for a mind utterly out of shape for this kind of thing.

It was Answerer we were really targeting. She was the one who made them a perfect target for this kind of thing. A Fist would have a particular rhythm, a primacy hierarchy. Five wasn’t too many people to get organized, or four in Second Fist’s case.

But they were working with Answerer now, and that would throw sand in everything. She was used to complete certainty, to guarantees. She’d be shooting holes in everything anyone brought up, demanding degrees of confirmation that the world simply didn’t provide.

“One second,” said the lead Knight, continuing to listen to her ear thing. She handed Seth’s skull off to one of the others.

I put a friendly arm on her shoulder.

“One,” I said, loud enough for it to be heard by whoever she was talking to.

“This way,” she said, after a bare second’s hesitation.

“Lead the way,” I said, and she suited action to words, walking back into the archway they’d come out of.

I followed immediately after, crate floating along behind me. One of the other Knights followed along in my wake, her Blessed gun carefully not trained exactly on me.

The other two, including the one with the skull, left by a different path.

I was pretty confident I knew what had happened. They hadn’t had time to come up with a decision, and they’d bit on the apparently low cost, high value option. Let me talk with Dale, learn our supposed secrets, figure out what to do about the whole Watcher dilemma in the meantime.

We took a turn in the next room, then entered a staircase leading down into a basement.

The crate was my assurance that this was genuine. Deceiver could counterfeit our senses completely, but she couldn’t make our gifts lie. She couldn’t fool me about my own barriers, their relative position was something that I just knew, in a way that wasn’t really part of any of a human’s senses.

They were really putting me down in the basement, just as we expected. It was the obvious move.

If you had to hold Indulger, you put him on the top floor, as far away from ground as you could get. It was obvious. If he ever got to dirt you were fucked. So they were sending me to a different part of the building entirely.

The low risk option, once again. They were going to have Deceiver fake Dale to me, and fake me to Dale. That way they’d learn whatever we said, and they could cut off anything that they didn’t want to get through, on a word for word basis.

It also guaranteed, in their minds, that I couldn’t rescue Dale. He wasn’t even going to be in the room with me.

They would be continuing with the Watcher debate all during this, the vital seconds that they could have saved themselves in squandered on pointless squabbling over a future they would never see.

We moved through a dimly lit basement room, then through another room that wasn’t real at all, just some kind of illusion. We really walked around in a circle, but if I didn’t have my barriers I’d have sworn I was walking straight.

They’d put Dale’s imaginary cell at the end of this fake room, a sort of cubby dug into a wall with bars across the front, carefully several feet up off of the ground.

“Hey man,” I told him.

Dale himself looked beat up, maybe not physically pummeled, but certainly put through the ringer. There was a weariness to him, a listlessness to his posture. He looked despairing, defeated, like someone had told him that they’d destroyed all his old fake wrestling props.

He sat there sullenly for a second before answering back, which I’d also seen coming. Deceiver was most likely repeating what I said after I said it, then listening to his answers, then repeating them back to me. The conversation would be a bit stilted, and the easiest way to hide that was to make Dale seem to be a bit out of it, a bit confused.

“Preventer,” he said. “What happened with Subtracter?”

“Same old story,” I told him. “Same thing that happened when we fought with Death on the Strongboat.”

I was gambling a bit here. They probably knew something about our mission’s outcome, but I was hoping that they didn’t understand the significance of me moving the confrontation’s location, or didn’t even realize that I’d done so.

The message was twofold. The first part was to remind Dale of the battle with Death, how he’d been killed and only revived when his body hit the ground.

“How exactly was it the same?” he asked.

I was fairly uncertain whether it was actually him asking, to be honest. Felt like Deceiver might have stopped echoing and just put her own words in his mouth.

The second part of the message, of course, was that we were about to get fucking nuked again. Hopefully along with the first he understood that he needed to get himself into whatever the best position was to maximize his odds at survival.

I removed the third barrier that I’d been maintaining, the one inside the dirt and shit packed in the crate, which had been keeping certain components apart, components that Haunter’s old world specialists and Mario’s advanced training had allowed us to gather or conjure over the course of a frantic afternoon.

“We won,” I told him, or maybe her, my words barely getting out before the world was torn away from me by our bomb’s deafening roar.