I kept on walking after Nirav headed back.
We’d started out on our trek in order to give Preventer and Haunter time to vent, and we’d basically done that, but in the process I’d realized something else.
Nirav was in a great mood, borderline euphoric. I, by contrast, was a big swirling bundle of insecurities. I couldn’t stay around him. I’d be bound to bring him down.
So when he turned towards Preventer’s big house I split off, waving him on. I wasn’t going to stay out long, but I needed to walk alone for a bit. Get my sulk on. Feel sorry for myself.
As I strode along I let the Hook fade out, pulled my sigil off. I didn’t want to be part of Fourth Fist for a moment, didn’t need the pressure or the attention. I wanted to be anonymous, isolated. To really let my bad mood kick me around for a while.
Why had I let Torturer’s memory get to me that way? Why couldn’t I leave it in the past? Nirav had a psycho monster sharing his head and he never let it get to him like this. Haunter literally let someone die every time she fell on her face, and it never seemed to get to her.
Well, that wasn’t true. She was forever teetering on the precipice of some kind of existential plummet, but she always kept on tottering onward, like some kind of wind-up martyr doll. Why couldn’t I just do that?
After all, it was in the past. I was out. Nirav loved me, and the rest of the crew had my back. I didn’t have any reason to be worried that I’d be subjected to Torturer’s gift ever again.
I stopped, slapped my fist against an angled piece of rubble. I’d actually trembled when I’d had that thought. Literally quaked in fear of someone who was locked in a dungeon. Pathetic.
“Don’t do that!” someone called, under their breath.
The dagger kneeling on the stoop was looking up at me with unfeigned terror, his hand fluttering in a ‘get over here’ motion.
It took me a second to realize that he didn’t know who I was. How long had it been since I’d met someone like that?
I walked over to him, not sure whether or not I was going to correct his mistake.
He was a young man, not out of his teens, the beard he was sporting clearly the first of its kind. Dark skin, though lighter than Nirav, with the slight build typical of those who subsisted entirely on the Regime’s protein powder. Poorly off, to judge by the condition of his clothing, or at least not in the service of any important Ultra.
“Are you crazy?” he asked. “Are you not from around here? If you mess with the skulls they will kill you!”
Mess with… I looked back.
There was, indeed, a skull set high up on the doorframe that I’d hit. He must have thought I was trying to jolt it into falling down.
“I wasn’t messing with the skulls.” I told him.
“You want to explain that to the Knights? They’d kill you for seeing you do that! Jeez. When did you get to Shington?”
How long had it been since I’d dealt with a human without invoking the Regime’s authority? It was hard to even recall.
“Just today, just now.” I told him.
I slid the Hook into his shadow, felt quickly through his priorities.
“Oh, wow. You must be wondering about all this shit. Here, let me explain.”
As you’d expect for a resident of the Regime, he put keeping himself safe at the top, along with some other boring stuff. There were a few lower priorities relating to impressing and helping me though. I started boosting them.
“A little while back some KEM guys snuck up and killed one of Her slaves. She got super pissed and had them crack down. You gotta stay away from the Ultras or you will get gacked.”
“Oh…thanks.” I said, giving an expression that was shooting for something between ‘relieved’ and ‘thankful’. “Is that all that’s going on…?”
“It’s Paul, and that’s the biggest thing. I mean, there’s also the ship thing on the Potomac, but that’s not going to be of any interest to you.”
He wouldn’t normally have said that, but right now he was strongly incented to be helpful.
“Ship thing?” I asked, reaching out and taking one of his hands.
He jumped slightly, then spoke in a slightly higher pitched voice.
“Haha, yeah, um, there’s a like a ship that they are building out on the river. It is way too big or something and it keeps sinking and the Knights are all around it and stuff.”
I felt my spirits lift, slightly, at the opportunity to investigate something. It would keep me away from the rest of the group while I worked through this bad mood.
“Thanks,” I told him, and started walking off.
I wasn’t surprised to hear him call out to me as I moved away, I might have juiced him a little too hard. I waved a hand over my shoulder at him and he got the message though, settling back down into his door frame.
I moved through the city once again, but this time with a purpose.
I’d never actually gone towards the docks on the outer part of Shington. I just figured it was pretty much the same as the rest of the ruins around the Lair. I was surprised to find that it was much more lived in than the other parts of the city’s outskirts.
People thronged on every block, their numbers dwarfing anything I’d seen in any of the Regime’s outlying cities. It made sense. People sought the capital, then fled the Lair, and ended up here. The abundant Company Facilities and the safety that came from hiding under Her shadow let them prosper.
The skulls mounted on the buildings reminded me, of course, that that prosperity was dependent on a madwoman’s whim, but it had apparently been real enough to fill the outlying areas with people.
I started having to weave between folks, the streets were legitimately crowded.
I passed the kind of buildings that you rarely saw in the rest of the Regime. Purpose built structures that weren’t just repurposed ruins. People had actually come together and erected these houses, and they were well maintained and looked after. It honestly wrong footed me a bit.
The actual waterfront was more abrupt than I figured it would be. There weren’t beaches or anything like that, just rubble dropping down to the river’s surface. People were fishing, so I definitely wasn’t near anything restricted yet.
I moved down to the water’s edge, looked up and down the river. It wasn’t hard to pick out what the guy had been talking about. There was a large boat like thing about a half mile to my right, away from the Lair.
I started down the shore towards it, seeing more details as I got closer.
I didn’t know too much about boats, but this one didn’t look like any that I’d ever heard of. It was boxy, for one, rather than narrowing to a point it sort of just sat in the water. It looked more like a building’s top floor, resting firmly on the hidden supports, than it did anything floating.
There were walls rising up around the edges, and some kind of horn things, decorations I presumed, coming from each corner towards the middle. The entirely thing looked vaguely ramshackle, bolted together in a way that made me deeply suspicious as to its seaworthiness.
Knights barred my way as I pushed along the water’s edge, the nearest holding up a hand to half my progress.
“Her orders say no dag-“
He trailed off as the Hook manifested above him.
I smashed him aside and continued, the other Knights rushing to his aid as he skidded across the ground. Refiner’s power would shield him from harm, probably.
They hadn’t verified that I belonged here, but they still wouldn’t try to stop me now. Knights were for bossing around daggers. Without an Ultra to command them, they wouldn’t dare to move against me.
With both bodies, and having gotten a little closer, I could see the ship better. It actually had a prow, or whatever you call the front of a ship, I’d just been viewing it on edge before. It was still a fat ugly scow though. The disparate pieces that made it up seemed to come from a bunch of different boats, and probably some buildings. I couldn’t tell how they’d been fixed together, but surely the comically oversized rivets had to be just for decoration.
The next person to try and stop me was an Ultra, leaping up out of the water.
I was caught off guard by this, my attention had been fixed on the boat. She landed right between my forms and slapped the Hook sprawling into the dirt.
“Wait, hold on!” I yelled, even as the Lure jumped into the water. Even as I spoke the Hook was rising again, and she was bearing down on it.
She was just as big as the Hook, and nearly as monstrous, with long tendrils for arms that swiftly entangled the Hook. I struggled, but with both forms out I wasn’t nearly as strong as her, and she had the Hook pinned down in a moment.
I swam the Lure up against the side of the land, hiding it behind some rubble. I was just about to drop the Hook into my shadow and try to escape when I heard a familiar voice crying out.
“Stop bullying Fisher, Twister.”
At that, the woman pinning me down went limp, allowing the Hook to get away.
Twister…shit, she was from one of the other Fists.
I pulled the Lure into my shadow, then remanifested it alongside the Hook, facing Twister.
It was definitely her. She was a distorted woman, arms and legs much longer than they ought to be, with blade-like spines running along the edges. Even her neck was a foot long, and as I watched she began to sort of ‘coil’ these various appendages back in, shrinking her size down to something like a big person’s, rather than the ten foot battle form she’d confronted me with.
“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t recognize you.”
I was mostly trying to buy time and settle down. I hadn’t run into someone who overpowered me quite so handily since Subtracter had jumped back by the Castle. Twister had overcome me utterly.
She didn’t say anything, but looked over to the side where Blinder was walking towards us.
I couldn’t tell if Blinder was using her gift to distort what I was seeing or not. It was depressing to think that she could fool me even when I was scrutinizing everything I was seeing, but it was also depressing to think anyone could look quite that put together while they were stationed on guard duty in a wharf.
Blinder looked perfectly composed, her tuxedo flawlessly pressed and carefully tailored to fit. Her sigil was a beret, and she wore an armband with a great big 6 on it. There wasn’t a spot on anything, not a single speck out of place.
I could never really sympathize with Alerter, who was, of course, a maniac, but the rumors that she’d been driven over the edge by trying to compete with her elder sister made a bit more sense when I confronted her in person. She positively radiated competence and a serene confidence that made me want to hit her with a brick.
“Fisher, so good of you to drop by. I thought you’d still be getting settled in after your trip,” she said.
I tried to keep the embarrassment out of my voice. Bad enough to get jumped and thrashed, but to have it happen in front of another Fist was just the worst.
“Oh, wow. You know me?”
What was I saying? Of course she knew me, from the interview.
“I’ve been reading all about your adventures.” She said. “Subtracter has been filling us in on them.”
I managed to avoid flinching at the mention of Subtracter, but I couldn’t stop myself from quickly scanning the sky around us. No sign of Her attack dog, but of course with Blinder around I couldn’t really trust my eyes.
“Reading?” I asked.
“We get reports. Back when Snitcher was active they were much better, of course, but even now they are pretty comprehensive.”
I chuckled, as though I was amused at the idea of an Ultra as mighty as Blinder reading about us. Inside I was shaken. Who was reporting on us to Sixth Fist? Was it some kind of Regime system that I could be tapping into to read about the others, or something special about us?
“Why…here?” asked Twister, her voice a metallic rasp.
“I was just going to check out the boat.” I said, once again responding before I thought better of it. I was pretty sure that if I could check my own priorities ‘impress Blinder’ would be climbing to an unhealthy level.
“That makes perfect sense!” declared Blinder. “We are going to be shipmates, so of course you would want to check it out. Do you have any ideas about what to call it?”
“Shipmates?” I asked.
“Dumb…name” rasped Twister.
“Wha…no, I didn’t mean for-“
“Esther, it is NOT a dumb name.” scolded Blinder. “Don’t be so down on the newbies. Naming boats isn’t something you can do wrong.”
I mumbled something under my breath, even as I registered more fully what she’d been saying.
What did she mean we’d be shipmates? Prevailer was putting two Fists on a boat? What possible purpose could that serve?
“Bad…Name…” insisted Twister.
“I mean, what did you mean that we are going to be shipmates?” I clarified, the Lure flushing slightly.
“You will have to ask Fader about the details,” she said. “We are going to be sailing around the world, assuming we can get the boat to stop sinking.”
I took that in for a moment. Sailing around the world with Sixth Fist. What possible reason could She have for making us do that?
“I’ll ask her.” I said.
Even as I watched, a section of the boat, one of the strange horns that overhung the main deck, clattered down in ruins. Shouting could faintly be heard from across the water as people rushed over to it and tried to do something.
“We are going in that?” I asked. I tried to keep the skepticism from my voice.
“Yeah“ said Blinder, with a breezy lack of concern that I kind of envied. “It is being built big, so that it can handle whoever the Pantheon sends to talk.”
“The Pantheon are going to be talking with us…on a boat?
This was insane. They knew that Indulger needed the ground under him in order to do anything. I wasn’t really any better in water. None of us were, honestly. We had zero experience in aquatic environments.
Why not send Third Fist? Leveller’s power made her supreme out on the ocean.
“Not…with…us,” buzzed Twister, her voice cutting through my thoughts. “They…talk…with…Adder.”