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.