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.