Haunter 11:1

The Pantheon’s forward base looked more like a grubby ren faire setup than it did a conquering army’s encampment. They’d taken over an old commercial building of some sort, and they’d thrown up some tents around it. That was it.

If it wasn’t for Second Fist’s directions I wouldn’t have given the place a second glance, just mentally set it down as some kind of gang hangout or other and moved the hell on.

I was probably spoiled by my time with the Grand Host, when I’d seen Ultras in their thousands, walking with gifts exposed across battlefields, conquering and levelling cities. The smaller Host we were visiting here didn’t exactly measure up.

“So,” said Preventer, “Couple hundred Ultras, Krishna at the lead. We’ve seen worse, right?”

We had, but it was never a great sign when I was on Preventer’s wavelength.

I pulled the truck over in a u-turn, leaving it pointing back the way we came, then I turned it off.

Preventer and Mario hopped out, but I stayed in the driver’s seat for a moment, breathing evenly and tuning into the Jury’s inner discussion, weighing options and carefully rehearsing my priorities.

There had actually been an argument, a good one, with plenty of support, from the Jury in favor of doing precisely nothing.

Not literally sit down right here on the ground, but not incredibly far from that either. The current variation was to just turn off the road and drive off into the middle of the woods, then stay there.

It was an inevitable consequence of my growing faith that our destiny was under the Forbidding Entity’s control. The points in favor were simple enough. Fate was an argument for fatalism.

If I genuinely believed that Remover’s will would be done, that no matter what I tried and how I struggled her inscrutable agenda would advance regardless…then why get hurt over it?

I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen in there, what demands and challenges the Pantheon’s best and brightest would bring, but the odds had to be reckoned pretty high that I’d lose shades.

Or rather, that I’d lose people. Of late I’d been chiding myself for dehumanizing them, sharing the sin of my allies and enemies alike. I’d successfully gotten the majority of the reserve into bodies during my time overseas. They were humans again, or, in some cases, very smart dogs or monsters, and they would live out their natural lifespans, their destinies once again their own.

Those still in my reserve were similarly alive, similarly deserving of dignity, and if I genuinely believed that the outcome was fixed, then how could I ask them to lay down their lives? Remover’s machinations would find me just as easily in the woods as they would anywhere else, so why not do the safe thing?

I hadn’t been persuaded, but it had forced me to do some clarifying, made me think about exactly what I believed, and what I wanted, and how much I would be willing to pay.

“Let me do the talking,” I told Mario and Preventer, as I got out of the car.

We walked towards the old building, spreading out into an ad hoc formation, Mario and I up front and Preventer taking up the rear.

We only got about twenty feet from the car when I saw movement inside, and a trio of women emerged, hard faced and hostile.

“Fuck off,” shouted one of them, a heavyset brunette. “You don’t want any part of this.”

“We know that you are Pantheon Goddesses-“ I began.

“FUCK OFF,” screeched another member of the crew, a shorter girl. “Last warning.”

Mario and I backed off, matching their pace so that the distance between us remained the same. Preventer would heedlessly up to them.

“You-“ I said, but they were pretty much done talking.

The last of the three, a woman with a profoundly strange haircut, did Preventer’s own trick to her, extending her hand at a measured pace rather than a sudden thrust, trying to close it around Preventer’s throat.

Preventer caught her hand in her own, held it for a long moment.

The other two looked expectantly at her, as did Mario and I.

Preventer wrenched the woman’s fingers in her own, provoking a gasp of pain.

“Why aren’t you-“ asked the shorter one, even as Preventer pulled her victim forward and kicked her in the back of a leg, driving her down on one knee.

“Death touch not working?” guessed Preventer, moving at the same time to take the woman around the neck with her other hand.

“Let her fucking go!” shouted the brunette, pointing an open hand at Preventer.

The one whose fingers she was twisting brought her other hand over, used them both to struggle with Preventer’s arm where she was throttling her.

“You just lost skin contact,” taunted Preventer, “How will your gift save you if you give up on it?”

While she was saying that the one with her arm extended apparently gave her sister in arms up for lost, and blasted a yellowish orange beam over the two of them.

Mario and I scrambled backwards, even as Preventer stood silhouetted in the beam for a moment, before she wrenched the Goddess around to take the brunt of it.

She burned away like flash paper, and then Preventer was moving, rushing directly down the beam towards the brunette, who backed away frantically.

The shorter one shouted something inaudible over the tumult and turned to run frantically back into the building, nearly colliding with the first few people the fracas had drawn out.

They were in time to see Preventer reach the beam Goddess and grab her by the head, the beam cutting off as they began to grapple.

Mario was nearly back at the truck by this point, but I’d stopped on the far side of the road, trying to strike a balance between being near enough to speak and far enough that I’d have a chance to dodge if anyone else started throwing gifts around.

Lots more people, Goddesses probably, were yelling various things, and Preventer was yelling back, having reached something of a standstill in her struggle with the beam Goddess, with both having grabbed each other’s hands.

“On three, STOP” I told the Jury, and then popped out a dozen or so shades, emerging in a triangle formation behind me.

“STOP!” We all shouted, our unanimity allowing us to be heard above the disordered shouting of the Pantheon crew and the struggling pair.

Things died down a bit, as the latecomers looked away from the struggle to where I stood in formation with my shades.

“Who the fuck are you?” asked a particularly tall Goddess. She was wearing a faux leather jacket and had a shovel up on her shoulder.

“Let Aura go!” demanded another, as Preventer hadn’t let up for a second in her struggle with the other.

Preventer wasn’t any stronger than an ordinary person, but she never got even the slightest bit more tired, and had utterly no interest in protecting herself. Wrestling her would be a terrifying proposition, made all the more so by the fact that she seemed to be trying to put her thumbs through Aura’s eyes.

“We’re Fourth Fist!” I shouted back, collapsing the shades back into me and striding confidently towards them. “Her hand in this matter. We are here to speak to Krishna, and perhaps to kill a few more of you, depending on what she says.”

It was a calculated risk to come off that cocky, but these weren’t the Asian Pantheon, used to the endless wars with the Union. These were the warriors who’d faced the Fists before, who understood on a bone deep level that they (or, we, in their minds) were eternal and invincible. I counted on the fact that they wouldn’t throw away their lives to keep me dead for a few hours.

They all looked to one another, none of them making a move, before the tall Goddess spoke up again.

“Where are the rest of you?” she asked. “There should be five in a Fist.”

I laughed at her, and Aura took that moment to start screaming again, as Preventer made some progress in their scrum.

“You think we’d all come out of the city at once?” I asked, when my fake laugh was finished. “For this shit? You barely rate three.”

Preventer shoved Aura away onto the ground and came over to stand beside me, even as Mario finally crossed the street to take up the other side.

“All right,” she said, looking over to where her buddies were attending to the weeping Goddess, “Fine, you can see her. But she’s going to be the one who says if there’s any killing.”

She backed into the building, some of the others going with her, the rest moving warily aside from the door, the clear intention being to come in behind us.

It would have been beneath our dignity to worry about them surrounding us, since the role we were playing was of a Fist that was still Linked, so I didn’t so much as glance at the numbers.

I’d known going in that if this got violent Preventer was the only one of us with a decent shot at making it out alive. One of my strong points, I thought, was not letting the fear that arose as a plan unfolded shake me from the calculations I’d made earlier, when I had time to think carefully.

The first room was a bit of a warren, just a bunch of sleeping cots and such laid out, a bunch of makeshift chairs and furniture scattered randomly among them. It was clearly where the welcoming committee had been hanging out when we showed up.

The tall Goddess lead the way into a deeper room, through a hole that had been simply smashed into a wall.

Another Goddess awaited us there, a striking auburn haired figure with a birthmark on one cheek. She had Goddesses on either side of her in typical guard/escort positions, and she extended a hand to me as we walked up.

“These claim to be Fourth Fist,” said our escort, shifting her shovel from one shoulder to the other.

I didn’t take her hand, simply looking at her and her minions, the Jury polling the reserve frantically.

“This is Krishna,” said the tall Goddess, after a moment of watching me stare at the offered hand like a snake.

I looked over to her for a long beat, then stepped past the woman and over to the short, curly haired guard that the Jury recognized from the Ultra Fight.

“This is Krishna,” I corrected, “Or at least this is the person who claimed to be Krishna last time. Did you really think I wouldn’t recognize you?”

Krishna straightened up just a bit, the slouch falling away and her demeanor taking a sharp turn towards the authoritative. She waved the imposter aside and offered her own hand.

“Sorry,” she said, not sounding terribly sorry, “Didn’t know who’d shown up until you came in the door. Freya plays me for most Regime negotiations, and all they had time to tell me was that a Fist was here. I figured it would be Fifth Fist.”

“At least it wasn’t Her this time,” put in Preventer, “Though I must confess you made an excellent footrest.”

I felt a twinge of disappointment at Preventer changing the subject off of the other Fists, but at least what she’d said was still contributing to our overall energy. A reminder that we’d seen their leader humbled was useful enough.

“I never got to thank your leader for that,” said Krishna, seemingly sincerely, “But he absolutely saved my life when he got Her to cut the show short. Every day since has been a gift, in my mind.”

“That’s uncommonly courteous of you,” I answered, “I’ll be sure to let Indulger know that you appreciate his magnanimity. He’ll pass it on to Her, no doubt.”

Krishna gave a wry smile at that last, as though I’d made a private joke.

“No doubt,” she said, then settled down in an armchair.

She gestured for us to do likewise, and Mario and Preventer did, but I remained standing, looming over her.

“So what are you here for?” she asked. “We managed to avoid conflict in the past, I’m hopeful that your agenda doesn’t entirely foreclose that possibility this time.”

I shook my head slightly.

“We’re here to ask what you’re here for,” I told her. “You are a long way from Redo.”

“True enough,” she said, chuckling, “True enough. There isn’t another Andy here for you to squabble over, I suppose.”

I managed to avoid glaring at Preventer at that reminder, but I could feel myself getting a little hot under the collar at the reminder of that idiotic bit of treachery.

It had taken a boat trip, a nuclear blast and a goddamn war to get me back the opportunity that Andy had represented. Preventer’s spite had very nearly destroyed the future of my reserve.

“Not as far as we know,” put in Preventer, when my fuming kept me from replying in a timely fashion, “But do let us know if you run across another. They are terribly convenient things, after all.”

“We’ve come here for the same reason everyone else has,” said Krishna, “We want to shelter in Her shadow, to ride out a time of instability in the only place it won’t touch.”

“A time of instability?” I asked, trying to figure out what she was referring to.

“The Company’s changed, the Union war is all but over and-“

“No!” shouted Mario, half rising from his chair.

I gave him a cutting glance.

“You hadn’t heard?” she asked.

“No,” I said, “We’ve been a bit out of touch.”

“Word is that the Council moved at last,” she said, “Zeus at their head, they’ve stormed old Europe, killed everyone and everything.”

“Rumors,” I said, dismissively.

“Rumors,” she agreed, “But the Company abandoning their responsibilities is no rumor, and neither is First Fist’s rampage. Things have come to a head, my gift assures me.”

Krishna’s gift was rumored to be Ultra Cleverness, or something similar, some kind of mental gift. I had my doubts.

Ultra intelligence was something that people brought up an awful lot, but I’d been around a long time and I’d never seen it proven. My bet was on some much more mundane gift, Ultra toughness or something, and a long running bluff.

The thought occurred, of course, that she could be fully human. It didn’t really matter, but the idea of the leader of the Pantheon’s Goddesses being am imposter was briefly amusing.

“Of course,” I said, “So you want to switch sides? Join up with the Regime?”

“Is it so surprising?” she asked. “That we’d go with the woman who controls the protein powder instead of going home to grub about over what farmers can be found? It isn’t like the Posture is hard to learn, and I’m sure we could find Sigils.”

“It makes a degree of sense,” I allowed, “But I have to ask myself if this is what you told Subtracter.”

She drew back at that, looking from one of us to the next.

“We know she came to negotiate,” I told her, “And it’s hard to square an attack on her with your lot looking to surrender.”

“An attack?” she echoed, disbelievingly, “On Subtracter?”

One of her guards burst into an involuntarily guffaw, stilling herself as Preventer shot her an angry glance.

“If you didn’t attack her… “ I began, but she interrupted before I could finish.

“You want to know what we told Subtracter?” she asked, then raised her voice.

“Hey Boss!” she called out, “Fourth Fist wants to talk to you.”

I turned, not fast enough, and she was there, a stride away from me. She must have came in by the same way that we did, flying just above the ground and so not making any noise.

Subtracter.

“It’s mutual,” she said, casually shoving me down into the seat I’d avoided sitting in up till now.

Regime Quest 53

Day 18: Morning

Vower wasn’t terribly hard to track down, but she was a bitch to get to. I had to hike way outside of the Lair, out into the fringes of Gang territory.

It brought back memories, not entirely unpleasant, of my time before becoming Warlord. Of scrapping and scrounging, always desperate for a snatch of gossip or insight into a rival’s gift. The desperate attention to scheduling, to timing that was never a part of the dreams, but there had been few things more important.

Vower hadn’t been around back then, so she was a recent arrival. A few months at most. Given that fact, it was surprising how much name recognition she had. Nobody I stopped and asked just said ‘who?’, like they had with Erupter. Vower’s service was a known quantity, like my healing or Blisser’s clinic.

Her setup was on the fringes of the Dolls’ territory, right up where it bordered with whatever gang was clockwise of them in the setup. I thought it was the Nightmares, but that seemed to have changed in the time I’d been away. The new crew marked it’s turf with broken clocks. I amused myself trying to guess their name while I closed on Vower’s hangout.

Vower, like Owner, had found opportunity within that most prosaic of Old World buildings, a gas station. One of the big front windows was actually still intact, or had been recently replaced, hinting at the esteem in which the gang leadership held their pet.

I stalked up, exuding the energy I liked to think of a ‘Busy Warlord’, nodding to the two Dolls outside. They weren’t exactly a line, which saved me the trouble of cutting in front of them. I stomped between them and into the ruin without breaking stride.

Another Doll and an Ultra without an obvious gang insignia were waiting inside, along with a woman who was wearing a tee shirt that someone had written ‘I’m Vower, ask me how’ on it. They were talking as I entered, but broke up their conversation to stare the instant they noticed me.

“Who the-“ asked the one with no tags, only to be interrupted by the obvious Doll.

“Warlord!” she exclaimed, eyes widening with startlement or alarm.

“I’m here for Vower,” I told them.

The woman with the tee shirt smiled.

“I’m at the Warlord’s disposal, of course,” she said. “How may this humble servant best serve Her greater glory?”

Something about her manner put me on edge, she just seemed…slimy, somehow. Like an old world melodrama villain asking her sister to cosign a loan or something.

I extended a hand, actually a little glad about my reaction.

I’d worried, a little bit, that I might not be able to go through with another cold blooded killing, that I might hesitate. But something about Vower put my hair on end. I’d shed no tears for this woman.

She reached out, took hold of my hand, placing the tips on her fingers on my palms, in a light, effete kind of grip.

“What vow do you-ah!” she gasped, as I clamped down on her hand with a grip of steel.

“Vow?” I asked, letting my voice rise to just short of a yell. “Do you think that I’m here to vow?”

I cared nothing for what I was saying, and everything for the time it bought me. My gift was in her soul now, burrowing and clawing through her toughness and into her attributes.

She could feel it, I could tell, she opened her mouth to speak, but I clenched my hand around her fingers and twisted cruelly, cutting her attempt at a sentence off into a hiss of pain.

She had no ‘living’ on her list, but ‘sentient’ would do just as well. I tore it away and watched her collapse, forever mindless.

“No one makes me do anything I don’t want to!” I proclaimed, rounding on the others.

Strangely enough, they weren’t looking at me. Their gazes were all locked on Vower’s crumpled form.

“Her will-“ I started, when they lunged into simultaneous motion, at the very same time that the ones outside started shouting something.

The Doll swung a heavy fist at my head, an ugly telegraphed punch that I wasted little time in ducking under. The other threw her hands wide, as though to grab onto me, and I couldn’t really fend her off while I was ducking, so I dropped back, almost tripping over Vower’s mindless form.

“I’m the War-“ I began, but there was no sign that they were listening. Their faces were locked into frozen grimaces of rage, and they hadn’t paused for so much as an instant when their first attempt had failed.

Most likely they were Vowed to avenger her, I thought, the extra sentient attribute presumably driving my mind into overdrive.

I backed away form the Doll’s roundhouse punches, moved in to grapple with the other. Hopefully my deathtouch would outmatch hers.

Our hands locked for a second, and here was a ‘living’ to steal. I yanked it right out of her, trusting in my toughness to keep me intact through whatever gift she had. Accustomed to the doubled senses as I was, I stepped around to the side of her, keeping her between me and the punching girl for the split second it took for her to die.

I realized my error an instant later, as the Doll’s fist slammed through her comrade, through the space between us and deep into my chest. An incredible amount of pain seemed to overturn my world as my knees buckled and I toppled alongside the woman I’d just killed.

My mind, still in overdrive, was trying to figure out how deep her fist had gone, and exactly where. It had been off center, maybe halfway down the hand? 3-4 inches? Was that my heart? I’d definitely heard the shattering of ribs.

She loomed above me, hands moving without pause as she dropped to one knee, a hammer fist slamming down towards me.

I kicked convulsively, rolling myself closer towards her, sort of up onto the knee that she’d dropped down to, willing myself to have guessed right.

I had, she’d expected me to roll away, and her fist slammed into, and through, the floor where I would have been. I got a hand onto her bare midriff even as she pivoted to bring her other arm around to strike.

I couldn’t take another essence, so I gave instead, slamming the new ‘living’ into her.

She winced for a second, frozen features finally showing a crack of emotion as her face closed up like a fist, doubled senses disorienting her.

I grabbed for my gun in her moment of confusion, swinging it desperately up towards her as she got a hold of herself.

I was saved by her continued need, or maybe desire, to do those heavy, cumbersome punches. Any other Ultra Strength 2 Ultra would have just kicked me or slapped me with the hand that was already beside me, but the Doll reared back and set up for another one of those haymakers, giving me just enough time to shove the gun in her general direction, pulling the trigger over and over.

It kicked out of my hand somewhere, in there, my wounds apparently weakening my grip strength, but I still hit her a few times.

She went down, over backwards thankfully, grabbing at her injuries and shrieking at the doubled pain.

I came back to my feet in a flash, my stolen ‘sentience’ still pushing my mind every step of the way.

My first thought, way late, was that these weren’t others here for her services, these were guards Vowed to her purposes, and apparently that included avenging her.

My second thought was that the two outside had run off. I hadn’t heard exactly what they were shouting, but it was entirely possible that they’d gone to gather reinforcements, who might well be similarly Vowed.

My third, holy shit, had I just assassinated the shadow ruler of outer Shington? How big a deal WAS Vower, actually?

Further thoughts were derailed by the necessity of staunching the flow of red stuff out of my chest. A single look sufficed to tell me that it was bad, a fist sized (literally) wounded midway up my torso on the right side, and that only my Ultra Toughness was keeping me mobile and active in the face of it.

I clapped a hand over it, then stole a shirt from one of the bodies and held it to the wound.

I needed to act. I needed to:

*******************************************

Crisis Update, only one choice this time. Please pick Blender’s action from the following list:

  • Run straight back to inner Shington and my Warband, through the Doll’s territory, trusting to speed to get me through before any more Avowed can mobilize
  • Run straight away from Shington, going to ground in the countryside. I can try and hide out for the rest of the day, sneak back in another time once they give up.
  • Go back to the Lair via a roundabout route, dipping into the broken clock gang’s territory instead of the Doll’s. Will take longer but maybe they won’t be looking over here.
  • Heal up before doing anything. I’ve got a serious injury and I need to get that seen to. I can probably heal this in a few hours. (If you choose this option, pick another for what Blender does once/if she finishes healing)
  • Vower isn’t dead, give her back her attribute and negotiate/take her hostage.

Regime Quest 52

Day 17:

 

Morning:

I was going to have to find a new way to contact my contacts. That was the long and short of it. There had to be a way that was clandestine, secure, and most importantly didn’t fail to work half the time.

It was a petty thing to gripe about, all told. It wasn’t like I’d been found out by Snitcher, or caught up in one of the Regime’s frequent attempts to purge KEM sympathizers. It could be a lot worse.

But there was something about having a deadline, a literal deadline. In a little under two weeks, odds were I was going to die. It clarified things, parted the fog, so to speak.

It made me resent, violently, waiting for a contact in this dingy tavern and realizing that, once again, it wasn’t going to happen.

No doubt there was good reason. No doubt he was detained by an Ultra to carry rocks, or warm a bed. It almost certainly wasn’t my contact’s fault.

But it wasn’t going to happen again.

In fact, it wasn’t going to happen this time.

I fixed my gaze on the door where he would appear, cleared my mind, and WILLED him to come walking through.

Nothing happened.

I broke into a chuckle and took a sip from my drink. At least I’d tried. Now I could scratch ‘force people to keep appointments’ off of the list of minor gifts I might not know I had.

 

Afternoon:

I hadn’t done my recruitment speech nearly as often as old world politicians had been forced to, but I was beginning to get the slightest hint of their pain.

Hype up the crowd, check. Invoke Her name. Check. Force rules the world, call and repeat, check and check. Glory and Honor (whatever those might actually mean for any individual Ultra), check and check. Subtly imply people who don’t join up are pussies, check. State it outright for those that subtle flies over the head of, sadly checked.

Something about the process almost forced a cynicism and contempt on me that I tried not to dwell on. I’d always striven to avoid looking down on the Ultras of the Regime. I hated them, sure, for their cruelty and their nihilism. I hated their actions, and the characters that allowed those actions to transpire.

But contempt was something else again. It bred the believe that I was something other, something better. It would, if I let it, cultivate a false sense of security.

And yet, it was so very hard to avoid it. My pitch, essentially, was ‘come fight strangers. Half of you will die, and the other half will get to do it again in another month’. Absolutely no one who was doing a cost/benefit analysis would jump at this chance, and yet every time I did the speech people did.

What did they think they were getting out of it?

Some, if you somehow forced them to answer the question honestly, would prattle of glory, which was nothing but a chimera, the old people pleasing impulse rising up to kill its host. Some would talk about rising in the ranks, but I’d risen as far as one could in this gig, and I could see nothing here worth wanting. The most honest would probably admit that their lives were empty and meaningless, that the same boredom that drove them to the process now led them to kill for the thrill of it.

My antidote to the growing feeling of superiority was simple. I reminded myself that I had slaved and killed to become Warlord. The fools I was mocking were only making smaller copies of the decision that I’d made myself. Who was I to say that there weren’t Regime antagonists among them, dreaming as I had of becoming Warlord and sabotaging our efforts?

I shook the dark musings aside as my speech came to its end and I went down to the Yard to shake hands and welcome my new cannon fodder. It was the least I could do, almost literally.

Eleven more Ultras joined up to strike as Phis. It was a start.

 

Evening:

“Erupter, this is Replayer and Owner,” I told her. “Your new peers in my Posse, and the fellow architects of our glorious victory.”

“Honored to meet you all,” she said.

Replayer rolled her eyes, while Owner looked politely attentive.

“What we usually do in the evenings,” I continued, “Is talk about how our tasks of the previous day went. Then I give the orders for the next day, and we rinse and repeat.”

“Rinse?” she asked.

“Like…never mind,” I said, “We do the same thing every day.”

“I’ll start,” said Owner. “Training went just fine today. I’m starting to separate everyone out into squads, like we did last time.”

I thought ‘like we did last time’, was a not particularly subtle way of reminding the others that she was the only one here with any experience, but let it go. Owner was no doubt feeling the pressure of Replayer’s fairly obvious lack of respect for her. She’d be keen to make sure Erupter knew her as a valuable and competent Posse member.

“No trouble with disobedience?” I asked. “No problems with the newcomers?”

“Nope,” she said. “I think that message may have finally gotten through, although, of course, we’ll have to wait and see if the new people catch on as well.”

“Message?” asked Erupter.

“Some of the Ultras in the warband,” drawled Replayer, “Seem to feel like they don’t have to respect Owner, just because-“

“And they’ve been taught otherwise,” I interrupted, firmly. “I’m glad to hear that they are finally starting to internalize it.”

I looked over at Replayer.

“How’d your task go?” I asked. “Any good Ultra potentials for the Posse?”

I called it a task for roughly the same reason that Owner had emphasized her experience, just trying to impress on Erupter the relative status of everyone around the table.

“Nope,” she said.

I guess, technically, that was an answer, but it really wasn’t what I was looking for.

“No new potentials?” I pressed, “Nothing at all?”

“It seemed like I was going about it all wrong,” she said, “You know, rushing around chasing everyone, so I decided to be a bit smarter about it.”

This should be great.

“I told folks that people who thought they were Posse material ought to come to me, told them what show I’d be at, figured I’d let the trash take itself out, you know?”

“And nobody came?” I asked.

“Pussies,” she said.

I looked over to Erupter.

“How did your recruiting go?” I asked.

“I didn’t start that yet,” she said, forthrightly. “I was worried that I’d mess up something.”

Ultra toughness protected me from headaches, of course, but I felt like I might be getting one regardless.

“Messing up something?” I asked. “What would you mess up?”

“Like, am I allowed to tell them the target?” she asked. “And am I supposed to be looking for Posse members too?”

“It’s fine to tell them the target,” I said. “And if you see a Posse member potential, then I absolutely want to know about it.”

“Oh,” she said, “Thanks for clearing that up, Warlord”

And God help me, she saluted, fist to temple.

I massage my temples for a long moment, fighting the phantom headache.

“And Warlord?” she asked.

I looked over at her.

“What is the target?”

 

Day 18

12 days until next battle

 

Ultra rolodex: (#/#/# is Ultra strength/speed/toughness)

Tracker – Running buddy, 1/0/1, Creates tracks, and can move things on them

Shower – Adder’s protégé, 1*/0/1*, gains strength and durability from witnesses

Echoer – Singer I am a fan of, 1/1/1, can duplicate any action that she sees

Bubbler – Operates Ultra clinic 0/0/?, traps things in bubbles that heal and move them

Sucker — Ultra entertainer, ?/?/?, pulls objects/people towards her at incredible rate

Gunner — 0/0/1, she shoots tracking Ultra Blasts at roughly Ultra Strength One

Chiller — 1/0/1, can freeze any object she touches, leaving them brittle and easily broken

Cutter — 1/1/1, she is a brutal front line combatant

Swimmer — 1/0/1, she can ‘swim’ through solid surfaces

Burner — 0/0/1, she can summon Ultra fire from anywhere that she can see

Maxxer — 0/0/0, she can augment the gifts of other Ultras, pushing their gifts

Puncher — 1/0/1, her strength and speed both go up when she repeats her movements

Maker- Friend, and protégé of Snitcher, 0/0/1, can summon the spirit of things

Clawer – Ultra fighter 2/0/1, melee combatant, deadly hooks for hands

Stopper – partner of Clawer, 0/0/0, steals form’s velocity by looking at them

Sticker – Did dentistry for her brother, 0/0/2, Creates slime, can choose its stickiness

Grower – 0/*0/1, an outside Ultra I sponsored into the Lair, has a bullet blend from me, can rapidly increase the size and mass of objects

Joker — 0/2/0, a woman who can change what other people/herself look like

Stormer – 0/0/*, a woman who controls weather, does so for Regime big shots

Stomper – 2/0/1, can blast herself along with explosive stomps, problems with authority

Sworder – 1/0/1, Replayer’s flunky

Singer – 0/0/0, Buffs listeners with 1 in Ultra strength/tough/speed

 

Union List

Vower – 0/0/?, a woman who can enforce oathkeeping

Caller – 0/0/0, a woman who can grant and use telepathic communication

Nailer – ?/?/?, a woman who can merge objects and people into composites

 

Hater – X/0/X, a woman whose effectiveness depends on how much her enemy is hated, and by how many people

Resister – */0/1* Grows steadily more effective vs. each opponent

Finisher – 0/0/0 Can rapidly kill wounded foes in her line of sight

Limiter – ?/?/? Makes ‘rules’, or ‘shields’, that restrict her enemies, unlimited range, limited by being ‘used up’ by target’s attempts to take the banned action

Murderer – 0/0/1, Death Touch

 

Assets: (physical)

1 truck

1 sedan

Owner’s Shington Store

Packer House

Fog Machines

Lasers (diverse)

 

Posse: (4 slots, 3 filled)

Owner (trusted friend, housemate, gift hard to describe) 0/0/1

Replayer — 1/2/0, she can ‘step back in time’ to undo damage that she takes

Erupter – 0/0/2, a woman who retaliates against attacks on herself

 

Warband:

16 Veteran Ultras, 27 Rookie (that is, haven’t worked with me before) Ultras

Hexxer, Peeler, Guager, Soarer are notably less evil than the rest.

Driver, Defender and Infecter possess interesting capabilities.

 

Blender AP: 6/10 (9 – 3 +0 -3 +2 +1)

 

Actions cost 3, return 2 on success 0 on failure unless otherwise specified, Blender gains 1 AP every morning

 

Available Actions:

 

Union Kill List tree, if you feel any indication to play along with their proposal (note that KEM/Resistance missions tie in well with these matters)

Get basic info on 4 Ultras (indicate names, this is a gossip based approach unless you specify otherwise)

Get detailed info on 1 Ultra (indicate name, this is a ‘track them down and speak with them’ based approach unless you specify otherwise)

Kill an Ultra from the list (indicate target name and your basic method, may cause rebellion or discontent in any Posse or Warband assets you use, may not, use your best judgement and be clever)

Send Union a Message (indicate text of message, this is actually a Resistance action, but I’ve placed it here for ease of use)

 

Posse Recruitment tree

Meet more Ultras (describe method, adds d6 to contacts)

Get to know specific Ultra better (describe method transitions Ultra to potential Posse member)

Invite Ultra to Posse (must have got to know target first, if accepted, Ultra joins Posse)

 

Warband tree

Get more Ultras (describe method, adds Ultras to warband of quality/quantity dependent on method)

Train warband (describe method, makes QM kinder to Blender in combat sections re: her troops actions and numbers)

Task warband (describe, needs Posse member or Blender to lead them, sets warband to a task)

 

VIP tree (Used for Regime Luminaries)

Visit VIP (explain, explain Blender’s motives and methods) (only returns 1 AP on success)

 

Contacts tree: (Blender currently believes morning is safer from Snitcher)

Get info from contacts (specify KEM or Resistance, method if different from usual dead drop)

Request mission from contacts (ask KEM or Resistance for action) (This can go in either direction, asking them to do something from you, or asking if they need you to do anything for them.)

 

Relax tree: (Actions which, on balance, regain AP)

Lay still: Cost 0, auto succeed, returns 2

Relaxation activities, Cost 0, returns 3 on success, 1 on failure

Healing work, Cost 1, returns 6 on success, Snitcher hazard

Blisser session, auto succeed, returns 4 per timeslot, cannot be ended until Blender is back at 10

 

Miscellaneous action: (Anything not covered above, scavenging, info gathering in person, etc, describe what Blender is going for)

 

Player Input:

Blender Morning Action

Blender Afternoon Action

Owner will take either a morning or afternoon action at Blender’s direction.

Replayer will take either a morning or afternoon action at Blender’s direction.

Erupter will take either an afternoon action at Blender’s direction.

 

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.

 

Regime Quest 51

Day 16:

 

Morning: Healing Work

It was depressing how the parade of the injured and crippled never seemed to end. I’d been in Shington for years, I’d made myself available as often as I could during that time.

It scarcely seemed to make a difference. They came just as they always had, cradling splintered limbs and nursing the endless aches and pains to which the flesh is heir.

I saw them one by one, pulled their injuries and illnesses out of actuality and into whatever place my gift dropped it. They left healed, eyes downcast and mouths filled with thanks they could not utter.

At least there were few suffering from serious illnesses nowadays. Few plagues could finish their victims in the window between my availabilities. In their place were more of the beaten and broken.

Every time I was tempted to doubt KEM’s credo, I had only to remember my healing sessions. These were not, by and large, the victims of the Ultra’s sadism. Not the survivors of Ultra tortures or explicit beatings.

Those rarely survived long enough to seek healing.

These, instead, were the incidentals. The slave casually thrashed, the Garden girls, the boy who was just a bit too slow in coming back from an errand. The Ultras forgot about them the second they hit the ground.

I told myself that I would never forget about them, but they came in an unstoppable tide, and as far as memories went, I was only human.

Still, I did my best.

 

Afternoon: Invite Erupter to Posse

“It would be my honor,” she said, and that was that.

I spent more time hiking out to meet her, figuring out where on her patrol she’d be, than I did in persuading her. She was, sincerely, thrilled and honored to throw her life away for the chance to entertain Her.

I’d endured the company of Subtracter, my smile didn’t slip now.

“And who are the others in the Posse?” she asked. “Will they be joining me on my morning patrols?”

I smiled at the thought of Replayer’s likely response to that.

“You are doing a great job,” I told her, “I don’t think you need any more help. Nobody’s got past you so far, right?”

She beamed at me and nodded vigorously.

“Caught a few last night,” she said. “They told me where some more were. You want to come along for the fun part?”

I demurred.

“Warlord responsibilities, you know how it is.” I said, despite being fairly confident that she did not, in fact, know how it was.

“I understand,” she said. “I’ll make myself available for Her service every afternoon until our blessed mission.”

I undertook a wan smile.

“See that you do,” I told her, laying it on a little thick, “Force may rule the world, but we are the means by which this ancient truth is made manifest. We are Her Force.”

She smiled broadly, eyes shining with zealous patriotism.

“As the Warlord commands!” she barked.

I could get used to that, I thought.

 

Evening: Debrief Owner/Replayer

“Limiter is nothing,” sneered Replayer, at our usual evening meet up.

“Oh yeah?” I asked.

“I got with some of the Dolls,” she said, referencing the Ultra Gang, “And they thought she was pretty much a bitch, just a rainmaker, you know?”

“A rainmaker?” I asked.

I’d heard the concept before, but it seemed a bit too sophisticated for Replayer’s vocabulary.

“An Ultra who says they control the weather, right? But they don’t. So every day they come up with a reason why the weather is what it is.”

“Oh,” I said, “So like a fake.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Limiter seems to be really shady about what her gift can do, to the point that they joke that she doesn’t really have it, because it always seems to not apply.”

“Did you get those excuses?” I asked, dreading the negative answer. If she hadn’t, then I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d gained from her day. She was supposed to get more details about Limiter’s gift, not pass along someone else’s opinions about it.

“Yeah,” she said. “So, ok, the way it works is that she can pick a group of people, which can be however big or vague. Like, ‘all redheads’, or ‘everyone in that building’, or whatever, right?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Then she picks a thing that she doesn’t want them to do. Like, ‘punch anyone’, or ‘stand on one foot’, you see?”

“Sure,” I repeated.

“Then when they try to do that, they find that they can’t, they just stand there.”

That…woah. That sounded unbelievably strong.

“So what’s the catch?” I asked.

“It doesn’t work on any Ultra Toughness at all,” she said, “So no one important. And also her gift builds up strength, so to get a strong effect she has to go without using it for a while.”

“A ‘strong effect’?” I asked.

“Every time someone who is affected gets stopped from doing something, it eats up a bit of the effect, until it breaks.”

Owner gave a short whistle.

“So it is better the fewer targets there are, and the longer she waits to do anything, and also it doesn’t work on tough Ultras,” I listed.

“So she says,” said Replayer, “Lot of excuses for why she can’t stun the right people at the right time, you ask me.”

I could see why this was on the Union’s list.

“Alright,” I said, “Thanks for getting that info. I’m getting a better picture of her.”

Replayer made a fart sound, and I inclined my head in seeming assent.

“Owner?” I asked.

“Three new members,” she said.

I massaged my forehead.

“How many times am I going to have to teach these idiots to listen to you?” I groused. “Can they just, like, not learn that?”

“They did!” she exclaimed, hands rising in a mollifying gesture, “Everyone did what I told them. It was fine.”

“If it was fine,” I grated, “We wouldn’t have just three new members.”

“They did their best,” she insisted. “It’s just that people are used to the Warlord and her Posse doing the recruiting. Ultras are not as persuaded by just other Ultras as they are by main important people.”

“I’m with the Warlord,” butted in Replayer. “Want me to teach the Warband a lesson? They just need to try harder.”

I murmured something noncommittal, already planning out tomorrow.

 

Day 17

13 days until next battle

 

Ultra rolodex: (#/#/# is Ultra strength/speed/toughness)

Tracker – Running buddy, 1/0/1, Creates tracks, and can move things on them

Shower – Adder’s protégé, 1*/0/1*, gains strength and durability from witnesses

Echoer – Singer I am a fan of, 1/1/1, can duplicate any action that she sees

Bubbler – Operates Ultra clinic 0/0/?, traps things in bubbles that heal and move them

Sucker — Ultra entertainer, ?/?/?, pulls objects/people towards her at incredible rate

Gunner — 0/0/1, she shoots tracking Ultra Blasts at roughly Ultra Strength One

Chiller — 1/0/1, can freeze any object she touches, leaving them brittle and easily broken

Cutter — 1/1/1, she is a brutal front line combatant

Swimmer — 1/0/1, she can ‘swim’ through solid surfaces

Burner — 0/0/1, she can summon Ultra fire from anywhere that she can see

Maxxer — 0/0/0, she can augment the gifts of other Ultras, pushing their gifts

Puncher — 1/0/1, her strength and speed both go up when she repeats her movements

Maker- Friend, and protégé of Snitcher, 0/0/1, can summon the spirit of things

Clawer – Ultra fighter 2/0/1, melee combatant, deadly hooks for hands

Stopper – partner of Clawer, 0/0/0, steals form’s velocity by looking at them

Sticker – Did dentistry for her brother, 0/0/2, Creates slime, can choose its stickiness

Grower – 0/*0/1, an outside Ultra I sponsored into the Lair, has a bullet blend from me, can rapidly increase the size and mass of objects

Joker — 0/2/0, a woman who can change what other people/herself look like

Stormer – 0/0/*, a woman who controls weather, does so for Regime big shots

Stomper – 2/0/1, can blast herself along with explosive stomps, problems with authority

Sworder – 1/0/1, Replayer’s flunky

Singer – 0/0/0, Buffs listeners with 1 in Ultra strength/tough/speed

 

Union List

Vower – 0/0/?, a woman who can enforce oathkeeping

Caller – 0/0/0, a woman who can grant and use telepathic communication

Nailer – ?/?/?, a woman who can merge objects and people into composites

Hater – X/0/X, a woman whose effectiveness depends on how much her enemy is hated, and by how many people

Resister – */0/1* Grows steadily more effective vs. each opponent

Finisher – 0/0/0 Can rapidly kill wounded foes in her line of sight

Limiter – ?/?/? Makes ‘rules’, or ‘shields’, that restrict her enemies, unlimited range, limited by being ‘used up’ by target’s attempts to take the banned action

Murderer – 0/0/1, Death Touch

 

Assets: (physical)

1 truck

1 sedan

Owner’s Shington Store

Packer House

Fog Machines

Lasers (diverse)

 

Posse: (4 slots, 3 filled)

Owner (trusted friend, housemate, gift hard to describe) 0/0/1

Replayer — 1/2/0, she can ‘step back in time’ to undo damage that she takes

Erupter – 0/0/2, a woman who retaliates against attacks on herself

 

Warband:

16 Veteran Ultras, 16 Rookie (that is, haven’t worked with me before) Ultras

Hexxer, Peeler, Guager, Soarer are notably less evil than the rest.

Driver, Defender and Infecter possess interesting capabilities.

 

Blender AP: 9/10 (4 – 1 +6 -3 +2 +1)

Actions cost 3, return 2 on success 0 on failure unless otherwise specified, Blender gains 1 AP every morning

 

Available Actions:

 

Union Kill List tree, if you feel any indication to play along with their proposal (note that KEM/Resistance missions tie in well with these matters)

Get basic info on 4 Ultras (indicate names, this is a gossip based approach unless you specify otherwise)

Get detailed info on 1 Ultra (indicate name, this is a ‘track them down and speak with them’ based approach unless you specify otherwise)

Kill an Ultra from the list (indicate target name and your basic method, may cause rebellion or discontent in any Posse or Warband assets you use, may not, use your best judgement and be clever)

Send Union a Message (indicate text of message, this is actually a Resistance action, but I’ve placed it here for ease of use)

 

Posse Recruitment tree

Meet more Ultras (describe method, adds d6 to contacts)

Get to know specific Ultra better (describe method transitions Ultra to potential Posse member)

Invite Ultra to Posse (must have got to know target first, if accepted, Ultra joins Posse)

 

Warband tree

Get more Ultras (describe method, adds Ultras to warband of quality/quantity dependent on method)

Train warband (describe method, makes QM kinder to Blender in combat sections re: her troops actions and numbers)

Task warband (describe, needs Posse member or Blender to lead them, sets warband to a task)

 

VIP tree (Used for Regime Luminaries)

Visit VIP (explain, explain Blender’s motives and methods) (only returns 1 AP on success)

 

Contacts tree: (Blender currently believes morning is safer from Snitcher)

Get info from contacts (specify KEM or Resistance, method if different from usual dead drop)

Request mission from contacts (ask KEM or Resistance for action) (This can go in either direction, asking them to do something from you, or asking if they need you to do anything for them.)

 

Relax tree: (Actions which, on balance, regain AP)

Lay still: Cost 0, auto succeed, returns 2

Relaxation activities, Cost 0, returns 3 on success, 1 on failure

Healing work, Cost 1, returns 6 on success, Snitcher hazard

Blisser session, auto succeed, returns 4 per timeslot, cannot be ended until Blender is back at 10

 

Miscellaneous action: (Anything not covered above, scavenging, info gathering in person, etc, describe what Blender is going for)

 

Player Input:

Blender Morning Action

Blender Afternoon Action

Owner will take either a morning or afternoon action at Blender’s direction.

Replayer will take either a morning or afternoon action at Blender’s direction.

Erupter will take either an afternoon action at Blender’s direction.

 

 

Mario 1:1

It was funny, even with everything happening, even in the middle of a confrontation between two Fists, an event that my whole bureau had been feverishly speculating about as long as I’d worked there, I couldn’t stop thinking about my own motivations.

I thought that I’d made my own choices. I remembered my frustration at what I’d seen as the blinkered foolishness of the other branches, at their stupid insistence on squandering the opportunity that Fourth Fist represented while the Union’s survival was at stake.

That frustration had become outrage, and outrage had become, with the tacit permission of my direct supervisor, the impetus to action. I’d broken them out of jail and whisked them across the ocean, and now I was accompanying them on a desperate mission. It all hung together.

The problem was that there was another interpretation that hung together too.

Thinking about it the other way, I was just like the other mindwashed victims at the embassy. I’d come into contact with Fourth Fist back when I tried to abduct Indulger, and then again during the Martinez fiasco. Later I took action on their behalf that I insisted was at my own initiative, just like Meghan giving over her security codes.

In this other perspective the pattern was simple. Humans who encountered Fourth Fist became their puppets. I was a human who had encountered Fourth Fist, ergo I was their drone at this point.

It was a dubious mercy that that explanation was almost certainly the one my superiors would eventually believe, should they survive the present crisis. I’d go down as one more victim of Ultra nonsense.

I pushed the familiar worry out of my mind. Ultimately, the ‘am I brainwashed’ dilemma mirrored the ‘are we just playing into the precog’s hands’ issue. In both cases there was nothing you could really do about it, you could only act as you saw fit, and hope that the context of it all worked out in your favor, for a given value of ‘you’ that you happened to presently embody.

“Krishna?” asked Haunter, in a tone of voice that made it clear that she was really saying ‘really?’.

Refiner gave a solemn nod.

“I remember her,” said Dale. “She was the Pantheon person who almost got killed when She crashed our Ultra Fight. Her gift was Ultra smartness or something.”

He had a big, silly grin on his face as he said it, presumably thinking back to some good times.

I didn’t have any info on what he was referring to, but the idea that they’d done some kind of mock battle with the Pantheon stretched credibility a bit, even for Fourth Fist.

“She was a weakling,” said Preventer, decisively. “We never even saw her gift. Nobody in her whole crew could have threatened Subtracter, because if they had anyone that strong they’d have used them in the Thor situation.”

“You aren’t thinking,” snarled Refiner, or Deceiver through her illusions, “The Company has stopped supplying food. The Pantheon are feeling the squeeze. Her previous capabilities don’t factor into how strong she could be now, after her group has merged with so many others.”

“I don’t get how they could be hungry already,” said Dale. “Starvation takes, like, a while, right? Weeks or months or whatever? And most of them should be Ultra tough, so they couldn’t even starve. Why would they team up under one boss just because the Company is being dumb? Why not just wait it out, see if it fixes itself, for a while longer at least?”

“People don’t work like that,” said Haunter. “I’ve seen it in the old world, and it certainly hasn’t changed at all. Nobody waits around to secure their prosperity. At the slightest opportunity people will jump.”

“That’s what’s happened, anyway,” said Refiner, clearly not eager to hear more of Haunter’s ruminations on human nature, “The Pantheon warbands have splintered and reconnected. Many of them headed back down south, others carved out little fiefdoms or pushed up onto the Union. But there were always going to be some who decided to solve the problem at its source.”

“How could they know that She wasn’t still active?” persisted Dale. “Or did they maybe not care anymore because they thought that it would be better to be splatted than to starve?”

“Unclear,” said Answerer, breaking her momentary silence. I wondered if she’d been asking one of her inner questions even as we spoke.

“Futures where we gave assurances of food and aid didn’t seem any less dangerous than those where we simply threatened. The uncertainty about the whole project is difficult and fatiguing to penetrate.”

“And just what is ‘the whole project’?” asked Haunter. “How many Ultras are we talking about, and how far are they from Shington? What are we going to be working with?”

“Not that many,” said Refiner, at the same time as Answerer said “Two hundred and twelve.”

It comforted me, a bit, to see them talking over one another. A data point for Answerer genuinely being here and not just one of Deceiver’s illusions. Of course she could have counterfeited that just as easily, but I elected to believe that she had not. I couldn’t see much reason to bother with it.

“Not the worst odds we’ve ever dealt with,” said Dale, injecting a forced levity into his voice. “Things were way worse over in the Union.”

Haunter shook her head.

“Maybe not,” said Preventer, “I’m far from sure anyone we met during our time in the Union area could have taken down Subtracter. Maybe Death.”

“This is a foolish distraction,” burst out Haunter, aiming her appeal towards the apparition of Refiner. “It is First Fist that needs to be dealt with. We are only doing their bidding by attending to anything else. Just tell us where they are, please. It is literally important to the life of humanity.”

There was a raw, elemental passion in her words. Haunter spoke like a woman begging for the life of her only child, like someone in the grip of uttermost, surpassing sentiment.

But it meant nothing. Refiner just shrugged at her, entirely unmoved.

Answerer, at least, engaged.

“You claim that they counterfeits my answers, yes? So why would you trust any information I gave you about their whereabouts? Wouldn’t that just be more lies?”

“Maybe not,” said Haunter, immediately, “If it came from something besides your gift. They must have agents in town to keep track of Her, or you, or us. There are things they’ve left dangling here. There should be a way…”

She trailed off, aware that she wasn’t winning this one.

That was Jane Trent in a nutshell, I thought. She was a monument to the necessity of setting sentiment aside and acting only after careful consideration, her very life a sacrament and testament to this principle, and yet she found it so very hard to actually follow through on. The temptation to make an emotional appeal was seemingly irresistible.

“You want us to talk to Krishna,” said Preventer, changing the subject with her customary lack of subtlety, “Get her to back her minions off of Shington, and maybe while we are at it we should find out what happened to Subtracter. Is that it?”

Refiner gave a nod.

“They want the Company to return to its normal operations,” said Haunter, “And presumably some assurance that we won’t tell them to cease food supply again?”

“That won’t work,” said a voice.

It took me a long second to realize that the voice had been mine. I’d actually spoken up unprompted within a gathering of Fist members, of the cruelest and most powerful Ultras in the Regime.

“Why?” asked Preventer.

“The Company Men are dead, for the most part,” I told them. “People don’t take kindly to being told that there won’t be any more food or Processes, and the Company Men don’t defend themselves. Even if they started behaving again you’d have to get new ones back out to everywhere that needs them. It would be a huge mess.”

“They killed the guys who made them food?” asked Dale. “You are kidding me. Nobody would be that stupid.”

He sounded like even as he said it he was reconsidering.

“There’s another factor,” said Answerer. “You can’t actually give them what they want.”

“Are you serious?” asked Preventer. “You don’t have Her as a deterrent, and we are dealing with someone who can overcome Subtracter, and you still don’t want to budge on something that we absolutely don’t care even a little bit about? Are you genuinely insane?”

Haunter held up a hand, speaking quickly. Preventer’s invincibility might have let her forget that we were entirely at Second Fist’s mercy, but Haunter would suffer no such illusions.

“If we give in to coercion this time then in the future we-“

“No, that’s not it,” said Refiner.

Or, snarled, really. Everything the image did or said was just utterly sinister. Deceiver must have worked at it for a long time to get something so terrifying set up. It was like interacting with a drama’s special effect in real life.

“You can’t give them what they want because we don’t have it,” clarified Answerer. “Subtracter was in command of the Company. She’s the one who told them to stop working. She and Adder were the only ones Prevailer trusted with that authority.”

“And she’s gone,” said Preventer. “I suppose I can see how this could be complicated.”

“We can’t actually meet their demands,” said Haunter, “And we can’t threaten them with anything except Her wrath, given their evident power.”

“That’s not automatically true,” said Dale. “Like, they might have ganged up on Subtracter or something. Whatever they pulled to take down one Inner Circle member might not work on two Fists.”

Refiner sneered elaborately at Indulger’s numbering of Fourth Fist as a peer to his own, but didn’t press the point.

“We’ll work something out,” said Haunter. “And in exchange you will put your resources at our disposal as far as finding First Fist.”

I felt impressed that she managed to finish that sentence without letting her voice rise up at the end and make it a question.

Refiner barked a harsh laugh as Answerer shook her head.

“We aren’t stupid,” she said, “And I don’t need my gift to know that if I let you go now, free and clear, you wouldn’t waste a second in fleeing the area. You’d leave us to deal with the Union ourselves while you continued your ridiculous quest for a Fist that utterly overmatches you.”

I hadn’t actually thought of that, myself, but it was clear the second I put any consideration on the matter at all. The only leverage Second Fist had on us was our current predicament. If they let us out to go deal with Krishna that would evaporate.

“Are you really going to try and get us to do the impossible for you with our hands tied behind our back?” she demanded. “You want us to negotiate with a stronger enemy who we can’t actually give in to or fight off, and now we are going to be saddled with some kind of, what, insurance policy?”

“They are called Knights,” said Refiner. “You should be accustomed to their company.”

There was another shoe to drop, surely. Knights wouldn’t actually stop Ultras from doing whatever they wanted once we were away from their masters. Indulger could just drop us into the ground, if nothing else.

“We are bringing daggers along?” asked Dale.

The slur wasn’t really fooling anyone, at this point. Answerer had probably shared enough about Fourth Fist’s ideals and goals that they wouldn’t really believe that they looked down on the unpowered.

At least, I hoped they didn’t, for obvious reasons.

“They are,” said Answerer, “But you aren’t going anywhere.”

All three genuine members of Fourth Fist erupted at once, objections and accusations tripping over one another as they filled the air.

I didn’t join in, just stood silent and resigned. Of course Dale would be their hostage. Nothing else would make any sense.

He was their, or our, transportation, our shelter from retributive drone strikes. He was our most powerful combatant, and the leader besides. He was also the one that She was interested in, the one Second Fist would want, above all others, to ensure the presence of.

“What are we going to tell Krishna when she asks why the guy who put on the wrestling show with her people, the one who saved her life, the one who is officially our leader…isn’t here?” asked Haunter.

Her voice was sort of tired and plaintive at this point, as though the relentless disappointments of this conversation had finally broken her.

I knew better. Maybe Haunter had broken at some point in the past. There were some terrifying voids in the reports that kind of hinted at that kind of thing. But the woman who was currently leading Fourth Fist was past discouragement. She was faking, I felt it to my bones. For whatever reason her inner collective had decided that this was the right affect to put on her dialogue for the moment, nothing more.

We were, I supposed, lulling them into a true sense of superiority.

“Tell her whatever you like,” said Answerer, “But if you feel like trusting my gift you’ll stall for time. Tell her that you are doing the usual Fist deal, where you don’t all go to one place at the same time. Tell her Fisher and Indulger are staying in the city for the first few meetings.”

“And after that?” asked Preventer. “After we stall them for a while…you’ll swap out your hostage? Keep Haunter or me and let Dale talk to Krishna?”

“Not ‘a while’ “, said Answerer. “Two days. You keep them stalled for two days, and we move past the uncertainty in my gift. Everything will be clear again, and I’ll take over. I can’t see past the cloud well enough to do the timelines, but I can tell that things will clear up again on the other side.”

I couldn’t keep my eyebrows from rising, my mouth from opening. I did manage to stifle the urge to shout anything stupid, or to renew Haunter’s plea. They weren’t going to listen.

But there wasn’t a doubt in my mind why Remover’s interference would cease after a certain period. And the fact that we were apparently going to be tied up with this nonsense for that time was just an exclamation point.

The conversation went on, objections and denials, going through the motions, but I’d mentally checked out of it. They’d laid down the important things. Us three, Preventer, Haunter and myself, would be sent out to stall the Pantheon, with Dale’s life as insurance. We had to do it for two days, and then Answerer’s gift would be working again.

I was grimly certain that Answerer was right, if not in the way that she imagined. If Haunter’s fears about Remover were true, and I’d bought into them enough to throw away my life and embark on this madness, then in two days the timelines would clear up, all right, because there would be no one left to complicate them.

Indulger 10:2

Hi everyone this is Walter, just letting you know that the next update won’t come out until January 8th, lots of holiday stuff this year.

Thanks for sticking with me!

********************************************************

I’d gamed out how it would go if we fought Second Fist a couple of times. Probably everyone had, and Haunter’s calculations would make mine look like nothing, but the fact remained, I’d done it.

Refiner, according to Preventer, was a nonfactor. Even a liability, since they presumably would work on protecting him. So leave him out.

Bomber wasn’t a huge factor, in my mind. She could shoot pretty hard, but if I was down in the ground they wouldn’t penetrate to get to me. The main thing about her, from my point of view, was that she could just fly away, so there would be no way to get the whole Fist.

I wasn’t sure if she had Ultra Toughness or not, which was a weird thing to not know, but Second Fist was unique that way. They all had Refiner’s best stuff, so they all kind of seemed to have Ultra Tough Three, unless you managed to peel that off. That, combined with the fact that they mostly sat in Shington bossing the Knights around meant that I didn’t know if she was Ultra Tough.

But anyway, she wouldn’t be a huge deal, buzzing around and blasting the ground until one of Haunter’s guys shot her in an eye or something.

Choker was different, he’d put the fight on a clock. Once he started emitting the gas, he would start growing in power and the casualties would mount. After a certain point there would be no stopping him, kind of like Killer from Third Fist in a big fight. We’d take him out quick.

Destroyer was, well, she was too much for us. She was the one I threw up my hand at. Ultra Speed at level two would mean I couldn’t sink her or spear her, and that we’d get wrecked really fast.

It said a lot that I’d done that whole analysis without thinking about Deceiver or Refiner’s gear, which were the factors that actually mattered. That was because when I thought about how a confrontation with them would actually go it looked a lot like this.

We were all in the grip of Deceiver’s power, surrounded by enemies we couldn’t perceive. They had Refiner’s weapons, so our toughness couldn’t rescue us. They also had Answerer, and probably Subtracter up in the air.

We were done. I’d say our only hope was that they’d think Fisher and Condemner might be somewhere waiting to resurrect us through the Link, but they had Answerer, so they’d know that wasn’t a thing anymore. We were totally done.

“Which of them did?” asked Haunter, projecting a calm resolve that there was no way she could actually feeling.

Answerer waved the question off, or at least it looked like she did. I had to keep reminding myself that Deceiver was picking what we were seeing and hearing.

“You’ve been away for quite a while,” said Answerer. “How did your embassy to the Pantheon go? Was Olympus everything you thought it would be?”

That last was directed squarely at Preventer, whose hands spasmed at her sides.

“Why don’t you ask your gift?” I said. “It’s weird for the famous Answerer to be the one asking the questions, don’t you think?”

I didn’t know why I said that. Somehow now that the worst had happened all my fear was gone away. It wasn’t like we could get double trapped or something.

“Why DON’T I?” she fired back, instantly. “Why ever could it be that my gift is off where you assholes are concerned? Why might that possibly be?”

There was real anger there, backed by frustration. Nothing like the calm superiority that I’d expect from someone who got to see the future once a day.

It could be faked, of course, either by Deceiver or just plain old acting, but something told me that her fury was actually real, that she was actually just totally pissed at us.

“That wasn’t rhetorical, by the way,” she continued. “It’s a big part of the reason that you are here, now. I want an answer, and it had better be believable.”

“You can’t just foresee it?” asked Haunter, seemingly genuinely curious, “I’d imagined your gift would let you ask ‘what if I say this and that’, kind of questions. Why do you need to do this in person?”

She made scare quotes around the ‘in person’, and it took me a second to get it. But, yeah, of course, just because my tremor sensing gift let me know someone was standing where ‘Answerer’ was, and her voice was coming out, it didn’t mean that was really her. Deceiver was on the scene, after all.

“There wasn’t any way,” said Answerer, sounding aggrieved, “No matter what scene I set, you never gave it up in any kind of conversation. Do you imagine I put guns to people’s heads on a whim? This is important!”

“If you know anything about us,” said Preventer, “And you definitely do, then you should know that threats won’t work with us.”

She had a lot of nerve to say that, since of us three (I didn’t really know Mario well enough to know how he’d react) she was the one who got scared the most if someone managed to make a credible threat to her.

“This isn’t only a threat!” snapped Answerer, “This is important! I’m the only one who steers the Regime, by which I mean Her. I’ve saved the world over and over, and I can’t keep doing that if there are blurs in my gift!”

“If you don’t want to threaten,” I said, “Then don’t start with that. We don’t believe you’ll really-“

I broke it off as Mario’s head shot off his shoulders, his body slumping forward.

I froze for an instant, seeing the blood coat the invisible scythe, and then a bull roar forced its way up my throat as I slammed a hand down to the ground, my mind screaming that I was far too late.

And Mario was back, whole, unwounded, and seemingly untroubled.

“What the fuck?” I shouted, looking around at my team. I could sense their footsteps moving about, but no one looked like they were moving, just standing frozen.

“You don’t believe we’ll really?” asked Refiner, in his great bull voice. “Really what? Finish your sentence, you pussy bitch!”

He stomped towards me, towering over me, eyes flashing behind his skull mask, steam or smoke belching forth.

“This isn’t real!” I said, mostly to myself. “Refiner is too sick to walk or think, and you didn’t kill Mario!”

“They totally killed me,” said Mario.

“I’m more real than any of these other pigs,” snarled Refiner. “A continent fears me, my ideals go forth and conquer every goddamn day, and you think I’m not real just because I don’t have a fucking body?”

I looked to Mario, then back.

“I can just ask him if he knows something you don’t know!” I blurted. “Your gift isn’t unbeatable, Deceiver!”

“It’s Refiner!” he snarled, “So what if some dumb bitch does my thinking! And why don’t you fucking go ahead and try that, if you think it’ll let you tell what’s real.”

I opened my mouth, then froze.

If I asked for a memory that only he knew, then there was nothing to say Deceiver would let him hear the question, or that it hadn’t already fed him the question from a fake me and gotten the answer.

“I could have predicted it with my gift and the answer would be known that way!” said Answerer’s voice, right by my ear.

“Bitch!” said Her voice, by the other ear.

I jumped. I couldn’t help it, just an automatic response. The instant I was in the air someone tapped me on the forehead.

When I came back down on the floor the others were looking at me strangely, their movements once again synced up to where my gift said their feet were.

“It’s ok Dale,” said Haunter. “It was all just Deceiver, whatever they said, they were just trying to prove a point.”

I nodded numbly, frantically, well aware that I had no reason to believe that that was the real her. Deceiver had just proven that there was no way for me to know what was real or true, and that head poke at the end, when my gift said no one was standing near me, made me think she could feign touch just as well as any other sense.

She looked back over to where Second Fist stood, back to Answerer.

“The reason you can’t get a confession out of us in your answers is that we don’t know how we are blocking your gifts. How could we? It’s not like we could test anything we tried.”

“You could have used others with similar gifts to test,” said Answerer, “Or done my own trick and just predicted what would work if you know someone with a gift similar to mine. However you are doing it, you need to stop.”

Haunter smiled wanly.

“That’ll be hard for us to do deliberately, since we don’t know what we’re doing. It’s most likely a side effect of one of our gifts.”

“I’m not stupid!” snarled Answerer, “I’ve dealt with problematic gifts before, I know what that looks like, and this isn’t that.”

“What is it?” I asked. “Like, when is there trouble?”

“Why?” came Refiner’s counterfeit voice, “You looking to exploit some kind of weakness?”

“No!” said Haunter, her frustration evident, “He’s hoping we can put our knowledge of what we were doing together with her explanation for when things block her gift and give you an answer.”

“The battle!” said Answerer, “How did you possibly survive that battle? There were at least a dozen coin flips for your death, even with the blurriness keeping away any actual end lines. How did you make it through Istanbul and Berlin? Why didn’t Vampire kill you?”

We’d never even seen Vampire after she warped us out of Istanbul.

“Didn’t Third Fist kill her?” I asked, before I could stop myself. “They must’ve, right? The Union didn’t have an answer for her.”

Answerer’s fist closed in frustrated agitation.

“It’s First Fist,” said Haunter.

Answerer looked over at her.

“This is probably useless,” she continued, “because everything is against Remover, but whatever answer we come up with won’t be the real one. The real one is Remover, just like it always is.”

“Could you maybe be a little more specific?” asked Refiner.

“Joe’s real voice was a bit higher,” said Jane, “And he never said ‘maybe’ in his entire life.”

“Answer the question,” snarled Answerer.

“Dale uses a variety of Ultra drugs, and maybe you can’t correctly foresee him when he uses them” said Jane, “I sometimes take advice from my shades and I sometimes act on my own decisions, maybe you can’t see the shades ideas coming. Preventer’s Ultra toughness fluctuates, maybe she is too tough to accurately foresee some of the time. Take your pick.”

There was a long beat as the other side seemed to digest that.

“But whatever you pick,” said Haunter, picking up the thread of her speech again before they could answer, “You’ll be wrong. That will be the surface reason, but there is a reason behind that, a reason that things are this way, that you won’t be able to see. The reason you find will be the rule, but there’s a reason that the rules are that way.”

“And that hidden true reason is First Fist?” asked Answerer, incredulously.

Haunter turned, strangely enough, to Mario.

“Union man,” she said, “What would you say the odds are that a precog or a cabal of precogs controls your Union? Just roughly.”

“Why are you-“ said Refiner, before Preventer cut him off.

“Mario is a Union intelligence officer,” she said, “You already know this, so just skip the part where you pretend that you didn’t and get mad at us for hiding it. It would just be a waste of time.”

“Our entire government is set up so that an Ultra can’t take control,” said Mario, slowly. “We have multiple redundancies, a decentralized organization built from the ground up in order to stay under the control of humans, come what may.”

“Sure,” said Jane, “But answer the question.”

“Ninety percent?” he guessed, “Maybe ninety five?”

Jane gave a quiet chuckle.

“I don’t see what this has to do with anything,” said Answerer.

“We’ve done everything that they possibly can to stop it,” said Mario, “But the fact is that the Regime and the Pantheon are controlled by precogs, and we haven’t been conquered by them, in all this time. There’s no way to explain that without assuming we have our own equalizer.”

“Controlled?” asked Refiner.

Jane rolled her eyes.

“Prevailer’s gift is that She is very strong. Answerer knows everything. Which of those two do you think is really in control?”

“What does any of this have to do with First Fist?” demanded Answerer, who looked just a little bit uncomfortable with how this conversation was going.

I could relate. Thinking that you were the boss of Her was one of the easiest ways to get killed. I’d had a number of close calls before I’d learned the tricks of how to talk to Her without ever seeming like I was trying to take charge.

“They killed the world,” said Jane, eyes downcast, “And they did it without ceremony or incident. Everything goes exactly like they need it to and no one ever wised up or tried to stop them. I’m embarrassed it took me so long to work out what’s actually going on.”

“And what would that be?” asked Refiner.

“Remover can counterfeit precognitive gifts, probably any gift at all that gets information from the place gifts come from. Her other half is a boss over there, according to Condemner, so all the gifts just cooperate.”

“My gift hasn’t been counterfeited,” said Answerer, sounding alarmed and a bit insulted at the suggestion.

“How many times has someone told you that they have free will, in the exact same tone?” asked Preventer, “You wouldn’t be able to see the truth any more than they did. They can do whatever they want, but they can only want what you arrange for them to want. She gave you the answers she needed to in order to get you to move as she wanted. That didn’t include anything obviously false.”

“Place that the gifts come from?” asked Refiner.

Jane raised a hand, as though to wave away that question.

“Look, just, the point is that the real answer to what’s going on with your gift and it’s relation to us is that Remover is messing with it. Believe us or don’t.”

There was a long, silent beat as Answerer weighed her alternatives.

I didn’t especially like to think them through either. If Remover had worked on Answerer’s gift to get us here, then we were doing her bidding even now. Even though we thought we’d come to stop her, she must want us to…

I pushed aside that train of thought with some effort. You couldn’t just sit there and think your way through a future seeing gift, and it was a waste of effort to try.

“Well,” said Refiner, “There’s always the second option.”

Answerer looked back, gave a short nod, and vanished.

I felt the footprints from where she was walking out of the room, and I slightly increased my belief that that might have been the real her.

“The second option?” I asked.

“We’d have preferred it if you could have told us how to fix Answerer’s foresight,” Refiner said, “Because there is a situation right now that demands everything to go absolutely perfectly, and we usually use her for that.”

“Sorry we couldn’t help,” said Preventer, not sounding all that sorry.

“I appreciate that,” said Refiner, “But you actually can.”

“Uh oh,” I said.

“You see,” he went on, or really Deceiver went on, but it was getting easier and easier to just think of Refiner as the one who spoke for their team, “When Subtracter told the Company to cease supplying the Pantheon with food, they got a bit upset.”

“Well, yeah,” said Preventer.

“And some of them struck out on their own, or started foraging, or did whatever,” he continued, “But some of them, a whole lot of them, came here.”

My eyebrows rose.

“They looking to get splatted by Her?” I asked.

“Subtracter went to ask them the same question,” he said, “And she hasn’t returned. Answerer’s getting the same kind of fuzz around their Host that she used to get with you lot.”

I didn’t like where this was going.

“So just tell Her what’s up,” I said.

“Are you volunteering?” he asked.

That shut me up.

“No one has spoken to Her in months,” he said, “The people that look like they are going in and out are courtesy of Deceiver. One thing that is not blurry at all to Answerer’s gift is that going in there causes the world to end.”

“So the Pantheon killed Subtracter?” said Haunter, somewhat dubiously, “Or maybe captured her? That’s an awful lot of firepower for a random Goddess. Do you know who is leading this suicide charge?”

Refiner couldn’t smile, not with his face being a skull mask and all, but this was just an illusion, so he smiled anyway.

“Krishna,” he said. “And wouldn’t you know it, there’s a Fist with some experience with an Ultra of that name.”

Regime Quest 50

Day 15:

Morning: Get to know Erupter

It was hard to track Erupter down. I spent most of my time in the Lair, and she was a creature of the outskirts.

I pulled it off, ultimately, but I might not have been able to do so if I hadn’t come from the outskirts myself. I asked old rivals, gang contacts and similar people. At least two people warned me about Replayer’s search for the same person just a bit ago.

“Which of you is Erupter?” I asked, when I finally caught up with their group.

They weren’t much to look at. A quartet of dusty, dirty people stalking grimly along in the rubble halo that surrounded Shington. None of them seemed obviously in charge, which had reduced me to asking.

Three of them looked to the fourth, which was answer enough.

“I am,” she said, “who’s asking?”

Erupter was a short, fat woman, with an old hunting hat for a Sigil, dressed in tattered camouflage. She had curly hair and a habitually angry expression.

“Blender,” I told her. “The Warlord.”

Her face sort of ‘unclenched’, the scowl fading into a much more open look.

“It’s an honor,” she said. “I didn’t know you’d heard of my work.”

I made a noncommittal noise, which was all the encouragement she needed to launch into a fervent description of her passion project.

It was…entirely deranged. Erupter believed that Pantheon and Union ‘agents’ might be slipping into the city, which, sure, that was obviously the case. She further believed that they would do so by creeping around under cover, and that she and a few dedicated followers could roust them out.

I refrained from pointing out the obvious, that Union and Pantheon agents would look just like ordinary Regime citizens, because that is exactly what they were. A moment’s contemplation was enough to see that her patrol was worthless.

The fact that she’d never spent that moment of contemplation, or spoken to anyone who felt comfortable sharing it with her, told me an awful lot about her. Our conversation was enough for me to complete the portrait.

Erupter was a Regime zealot, and entirely without what we used to call ‘soft’ skills. She saw the war between the nations as an existential conflict, a battle between good and evil people. The Union and Pantheon were subhuman, in her eyes, which was why she’d never even conceived of the possibility of infiltration.

She was a martinet and a petty tyrant, whose followers obeyed because they were given no other choice. In the Posse she would fight bravely but without imagination, and woe befall any enemies who fell into her hands.

I…was it hypocritical to find her repulsive? Erupter was utterly typical, a simple partisan of the most basic type. Her stupidity was due to the fact that she’d never been educated, her morality was due to her upbringing. In a few more decades all of the Blenders would be Erupters, as the last of the Old World’s survivors died off.

We parted amicably. If I wanted to recruit her, it would be simple, but I wasn’t sure yet whether I wanted to.

 

Afternoon: Kill Nailer

“This is where I go to get stuff combined?” I demanded.

My stammering informant nodded his confirmation, then darted off into the rubble as I dismissed him.

I eyed the ruined church dubiously. It certainly didn’t look like the lair of a powerful Ultra. The ceiling had fallen in long ago, and two of the walls had followed it down. The front and side that were still standing were basically leaning against the toppled substructure.

“Hello?” I called, pulling one of the enormous doors back, and squatting down to look into the squalid cave thereby revealed.

It wasn’t literally a cave, of course, just an empty section of the collapsed structure, but it was a hard comparison to push away, when I considered the mismatch of the door to the opening it concealed.

“Come inside!” demanded a querulous voice from within.

I looked at the cramped crevice that I’d have to crawl into. No fucking thanks.

“I’m not doing that!” I shouted back. “Get your ass out here!”

“Says who?” demanded the voice. “Just go away if you won’t come in!”

Wasn’t that a nice set up.

“Says the Warlord!” I snarled. “Now get your ass out here before I throw your stupid little building out of the city!”

I heard a pair of voices arguing inside, too faint to make out, before the sounds of movement started to trickle out. I could hear clothes scuffing against stone, and grunts of exertion.

Finally a dirty figure crawled her way out of the entrance. She was mid height, mid weight, hair done up in short dreads. Her outfit was a patchwork affair, the most prominent component being some kind of old youth scouting uniform top. There were a few more blocky and weighty components somehow blended or woven into the sides, but I didn’t have time to examine it in more detail.

“You Blender?” she asked, as she heaved herself to her feet.

I nodded, scowling down at her.

“And you must be Nailer,” I guessed, as she pulled a kerchief up around her neck. I’d been told that her Sigil was a bandanna, that was probably what they meant.

“So what do you want Nail-“ she began, and I shot her in the face.

She’d looked down at her knees, and I took the opportunity. I wasn’t here to have a long discussion with someone I was killing, or God forbid end up in a fight. This was a simple assassination, so the first time she looked away I ended things.

She didn’t turn out to have Ultra Toughness, and so she just toppled over dead when I shot her.

I stood for a long moment, looking down at the body sprawled out before me. Then I took careful aim and shot her twice more in the back of the head.

“Only one Blender allowed in this fucking town,” I said out loud. I was officially talking to the corpse, but really this was for whoever else was down in that fucking warren. I wasn’t about to crawl in there and look for her henchman, or bring down a building with no idea how many people might be penned up in there.

There was no response. Whoever was in there had at least enough sense not to provoke the Warlord.

I gave it another beat, then turned on my heel and stalked back into town.

 

 

Evening: Debrief Owner/Replayer

“Whatever you did to them,” said Owner, “It worked.”

I wasn’t exactly surprised by that.

“Whatever she did to them,” mimicked Replayer, “What she did was lead them, which is what you should have done, you fucking pussy.”

“Ease up,” I cautioned her. “Owner has her uses.”

I couldn’t, of course, tell her to ease up because abusing another human being was a generally shitty thing to do, or point out the differences between leading and frightening someone.

“Anyway, we went through the drills,” said Owner. “We have to have the best trained troops in the city, or at least the most trained.”

I gave a satisfied nod.

“But Blender?” she asked.

This was rare, Owner didn’t normally ask questions in front of Replayer, so it must be important.

“Wouldn’t it be better to do the training after we recruit everyone we are taking to the next mission?” she asked. “Like cuz then we will be training everyone, while training now only gets the people we’ve already got on board.”

Replayer didn’t jump in with anything snide, which meant she agreed.

“There’s a method to it,” I told them. “I’m making our Warband resemble the Regime itself.”

They looked to each other in confusion.

“We don’t want all the soldiers to be equal,” I said, plainly, “We levels! We want layers! We are going to have veterans from our first battle, then those who we’ve trained, and after that the later recruits. Everyone will know who is in charge, just looking up the pyramid.”

Owner didn’t look convinced, likely because what I was saying didn’t actually answer her question, but Replayer was nodding along.

“The Posse is like the Inner Circle,” I continued. “And you get the rest.”

“Scouting went great,” said Replayer. “I found 2 people who would be aces for us.”

I neglected to point out that her ‘great’ was apparently less successful than Owner’s ‘fine’ had been, but I certainly fucking thought it.

“Sworder is pretty strong. She’s been my number two for a while now, so we should make her part of the Posse.”

“What’s her gift?” I asked.

“She’s like a sword,” explained Replayer, “She cuts what she touches, which also protects her.”

“Ultra strength, Ultra toughness?” I asked.

“Both about one,” she said, “But they come out as cutting stuff and not getting cut by stuff.”

“That’s not all that strong,” I said, “Does she have any Ultra speed, or can her gift do anything else?”

Replayer waved a hand dismissively.

“I’m probably explaining it wrong,” she said, “But the main thing about her is that we can work well together. A lot of people just provoke me and piss me off, but Sworder knows her fucking place.”

That was actually worth considering, in a way. Anyone I brought into the Posse would have to work with Replayer, or at least not actively fight with her, so someone with a proven ability to do that was worth considering.

Of course, giving her an ally might well embolden her. Replayer was a dangerous person, and she might well have designs on my seat.

“Maybe more suited for the Warband,” I hedged, “But I’ll keep her in mind. Who else?”

“I found Singer,” she said, “Who is apparently something special. I asked five different people, and four of them mentioned her in their first three names. That says something.”

“Sure,” I said, “And so does the fact that she can keep such a common name. She probably has to kill another ‘Singer’ every year or so.”

“Her thing is a kind of enhancing deal,” said Replayer. “She sings and it gives everyone around her Ultra strength, toughness or speed.”

“Sounds promising,” I said, “Got any more details.”

“Yeah,” she said, “I talked to her a bit, she’s…uh, weird. She’s kind of hard to talk to, very spacey.”

“Does she benefit from her own song?”

“Yeah,” said Replayer, “More than anyone else. People get the benefit more the closer they are to her, and she’s closest to herself, see?”

I did.

“Is it selective?” I asked. “Can exclude the enemy?”

“Not easily,” said Replayer, “It is whoever is hearing her. So usually everyone, but, like, I can think of ways to fix that, right?”

I could imagine a few.

“What if the person already has that Ultra power? Can she make someone who is strong stronger?”

“Whichever is better,” said Replayer, “But basically the answer is no. Her gift gives people a high one if they are close to her, a low one if they are further away, up to a two for herself. If someone’s already got a one in whatever she is singing they’d have to be real near her to get any kind of benefit.”

“Well there’s a fucking prospect and a half,” I said, mind awhirl with possibilities. “Swinger and Sworder, eh?”

“We can do this,” said Owner.

“Two weeks left,” I told them. “We can do this.”

 

Day 16

14 days until next battle

 

Ultra rolodex: (#/#/# is Ultra strength/speed/toughness)

Tracker – Running buddy, 1/0/1, Creates tracks, and can move things on them

Shower – Adder’s protégé, 1*/0/1*, gains strength and durability from witnesses

Echoer – Singer I am a fan of, 1/1/1, can duplicate any action that she sees

Bubbler – Operates Ultra clinic 0/0/?, traps things in bubbles that heal and move them

Sucker — Ultra entertainer, ?/?/?, pulls objects/people towards her at incredible rate

Gunner — 0/0/1, she shoots tracking Ultra Blasts at roughly Ultra Strength One

Chiller — 1/0/1, can freeze any object she touches, leaving them brittle and easily broken

Cutter — 1/1/1, she is a brutal front line combatant

Swimmer — 1/0/1, she can ‘swim’ through solid surfaces

Burner — 0/0/1, she can summon Ultra fire from anywhere that she can see

Maxxer — 0/0/0, she can augment the gifts of other Ultras, pushing their gifts

Puncher — 1/0/1, her strength and speed both go up when she repeats her movements

Maker- Friend, and protégé of Snitcher, 0/0/1, can summon the spirit of things

Clawer – Ultra fighter 2/0/1, melee combatant, deadly hooks for hands

Stopper – partner of Clawer, 0/0/0, steals form’s velocity by looking at them

Sticker – Did dentistry for her brother, 0/0/2, Creates slime, can choose its stickiness

Grower – 0/*0/1, an outside Ultra I sponsored into the Lair, has a bullet blend from me, can rapidly increase the size and mass of objects

Joker — 0/2/0, a woman who can change what other people/herself look like

Erupter – 0/0/2, a woman who retaliates against attacks on herself, patrols the outskirts of the city.

Stormer – 0/0/*, a woman who controls weather, does so for Regime big shots

Stomper – 2/0/1, can blast herself along with explosive stomps, problems with authority

Sworder – 1/0/1, Replayer’s flunky

Singer – 0/0/0, Buffs listeners with 1 in Ultra strength/tough/speed

 

Union List

Vower – 0/0/?, a woman who can enforce oathkeeping

Caller – 0/0/0, a woman who can grant and use telepathic communication

Nailer – ?/?/?, a woman who can merge objects and people into composites

Hater – X/0/X, a woman whose effectiveness depends on how much her enemy is hated, and by how many people

Resister – */0/1* Grows steadily more effective vs. each opponent

Finisher – 0/0/0 Can rapidly kill wounded foes in her line of sight

Limiter – ?/?/? Makes ‘rules’, or ‘shields’, that restrict her enemies

Murderer – 0/0/1, Death Touch

 

Assets: (physical)

1 truck

1 sedan

Owner’s Shington Store

Packer House

Fog Machines

Lasers (diverse)

 

Posse: (4 slots, 2 filled)

Owner (trusted friend, housemate, gift hard to describe) 0/0/1

Replayer — 1/2/0, she can ‘step back in time’ to undo damage that she takes

 

Warband:

16 Veteran Ultras, 13 Rookie (that is, haven’t worked with me before) Ultras

Hexxer, Peeler, Guager, Soarer are notably less evil than the rest.

Driver, Defender and Infecter possess interesting capabilities.

 

Blender AP: 4/10 (5 – 3 +2 -3 +2 +1)

Actions cost 3, return 2 on success 0 on failure unless otherwise specified, Blender gains 1 AP every morning

 

Available Actions:

 

Union Kill List tree, if you feel any indication to play along with their proposal (note that KEM/Resistance missions tie in well with these matters)

Get basic info on 4 Ultras (indicate names, this is a gossip based approach unless you specify otherwise)

Get detailed info on 1 Ultra (indicate name, this is a ‘track them down and speak with them’ based approach unless you specify otherwise)

Kill an Ultra from the list (indicate target name and your basic method, may cause rebellion or discontent in any Posse or Warband assets you use, may not, use your best judgement and be clever)

Send Union a Message (indicate text of message, this is actually a Resistance action, but I’ve placed it here for ease of use)

 

Posse Recruitment tree

Meet more Ultras (describe method, adds d6 to contacts)

Get to know specific Ultra better (describe method transitions Ultra to potential Posse member)

Invite Ultra to Posse (must have got to know target first, if accepted, Ultra joins Posse)

 

Warband tree

Get more Ultras (describe method, adds Ultras to warband of quality/quantity dependent on method)

Train warband (describe method, makes QM kinder to Blender in combat sections re: her troops actions and numbers)

Task warband (describe, needs Posse member or Blender to lead them, sets warband to a task)

 

VIP tree (Used for Regime Luminaries)

Visit VIP (explain, explain Blender’s motives and methods) (only returns 1 AP on success)

 

Contacts tree: (Blender currently believes morning is safer from Snitcher)

Get info from contacts (specify KEM or Resistance, method if different from usual dead drop)

Request mission from contacts (ask KEM or Resistance for action) (This can go in either direction, asking them to do something from you, or asking if they need you to do anything for them.)

 

Relax tree: (Actions which, on balance, regain AP)

Lay still: Cost 0, auto succeed, returns 2

Relaxation activities, Cost 0, returns 3 on success, 1 on failure

Healing work, Cost 1, returns 6 on success, Snitcher hazard

Blisser session, auto succeed, returns 4 per timeslot, cannot be ended until Blender is back at 10

 

Miscellaneous action: (Anything not covered above, scavenging, info gathering in person, etc, describe what Blender is going for)

 

Player Input:

Blender Morning Action

Blender Afternoon Action

Owner will take either a morning or afternoon action at Blender’s direction.

Replayer will take either a morning or afternoon action at Blender’s direction.

 

Indulger 10:1

We got up early in the morning, I’d barely got to sleep at all. I’d formed up the ground into a kind of a shell over myself down in the basement, and settled down to rest.

But the thing about sleeping with my gift working was that I was always feeling the footsteps of all the people around us, and Shington was a huge city. So my gift kept poking and alerting me whenever anyone walked sort of towards us, even if they were streets away. I kept getting woken up, ready to fight, for stuff that didn’t have anything to do with us.

This hadn’t always been a problem for me.

Back in the day, when I’d slept, I’d just got up on a bed if I was in a city, so my gift couldn’t pester me. If I didn’t have a bed then I was out in the wilderness, making my roads and pulling my wagon, and there wasn’t anyone around to set off my gift.

I tried to tell myself that, tried to say that losing the Link wasn’t a big deal because I’d lived a long time without it, and I could just trust that no one would get me at night like I’d always done in the past. I couldn’t make myself believe it though.

I wasn’t sure if Lotus’s stuff was at fault, or if maybe it was because of the stuff I’d seen recently, or even maybe just that we were in Her city. But for whatever reason I couldn’t make myself trust that I’d be safe in Preventer’s house.

Mario was up second in the morning, he brought me down some rations. The Union’s stuff was way better than protein powder, but we’d been eating it for a while now, and I had a bit of trouble choking it down.

“You ready for today?” he asked me.

I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant. Was it some kind of dig? I didn’t think so, but sometimes I didn’t know what people were implying.

“Yeah,” I told him. “Second Fist are tough, but we shouldn’t have to fight them. I expect it’ll just be the ladies doing a bunch of talking.”

“Do you think they’ll know what we want?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “Stuff never goes right for us.”

“I’m sure that’s not totally true,” he said.

“We once took a boat ride,” I said. “And it ended up with us getting nuked. Has that ever happened to anybody else? Like in the whole world?”

“I’m sure it has,” he hedged. “It must have, right?”

I looked down at the floor, aware that I was being petulant. A side effect from taking the Lotus stuff was that when I was not on any of it my emotions were a little out of whack. It was kind of hard to stay balanced when ‘balance’ meant a different thing depending on what I was taking.

“Everyone sleep alright?” asked Preventer, coming through a door from upstairs and fussing with her hair.

“Yeah,” I told her.

She and Haunter were going to do the talking with Second Fist today, they didn’t need to be bothered with my sleep troubles.

“So what’s our strategy?” asked Mario, and I tuned them out for a bit, stalking back down to the basement to get back in touch with the ground.

Nobody was watching our building, or at least they were up off the ground if they were. The only people my gift could sense were those who’d been there all night, just a few desperate folks sheltering under rubble and some Ultra’s mooks who were standing around waiting for her to get up.

But someone was coming.

As soon as I let my awareness go further out into the city I felt them, a bunch of guys walking in two straight lines, and another person in the middle.

The only people who walked in careful lines like that were Knights, and I was even more sure that that was what they were because they were thumping their scythes on the ground as they walked, like third feet that only stepped every other step.

“Guys! Knights incoming!” I shouted out, throwing the door back up to the middle room open again.

“What? Where?” came Haunter’s voice.

I didn’t answered immediately, putting a hand down to the stones of the basement’s floor to try and get my gift to go a bit farther.

I didn’t sense any extra columns coming, or any other groups that seemed to be headed here.

“How many? Is Second Fist with them?” asked Haunter, as she rushed down into the basement. Preventer and Mario were immediately behind her, Mario buckling a gun to a shoulder holster while he swallowed a biscuit.

“Ten in two lines,” I said, “With a person walking in the middle.”

“Could be someone in their leadership,” guessed Preventer. “I know Knight Lords get that kind of escort when they are doing official things. Could also be one of Second Fist.”

“It would be Destroyer or Choker,” said Haunter, “If it is a Fist member that is. Probably Choker, since they’d want to keep Destroyer close at hand if they are worrying about a conflict with us.”

“They don’t have any reason to expect conflict with us, right?” asked Mario.

“Depends if they have Answerer,” said Haunter, “But that discussion goes down the precog rabbit hole again. We need to meet them outside, so that Dale’s gift can be a factor.”

“I think I’ll know if Deceiver tries to fool me,” I ventured, “Even if she can fake the inputs that I’m getting, she doesn’t know what footsteps are supposed to feel like, right? So there should be something wrong with any fake input from my gift.”

We started up the steps into the main floor as we spoke, and it was embarrassing how tense I got when I lost contact with the ground. I used to be so cavalier about leaving the land and my gift, but now it made me nervous every single time.

I hesitated a second in the doorway, reaching into my satchel. This was a big day, an important one. I needed to be the right me, the one who’d kept us safe in the Pantheon.

I grabbed for one of the reddest vials, one that was barely watered down from the pure berserker stuff.

“Dale, don’t,” said Haunter, without even looking at me. “We’ve got this, there isn’t going to be a fight.”

But she would say that, right? Wouldn’t the woman who always bossed me around want me to just stay meek and quiet, ready to take her orders?

I shook the thoughts away and took another step, hand still in the satchel. My shoulders relaxed the merest bit as my foot made contact with the ground and my gift surged back into my awareness.

The Knights were only a little ways away, they were about to climb through that rubble heap we’d come through yesterday and then they’d be able to see us.

“She’s right, Indulger,” said Preventer. “Stay even unless the fighting starts. You don’t want to waste your stuff.”

I took my hand out of the satchel as we took a formation in front of the house. Haunter and I were in the center, while Mario and Preventer stood back a bit behind us and to the sides.

The Knights were on us in a moment, stomping down the street in their two lines. It was kind of cool how they each stepped at the same time, and how all their scythes came down at once. They must have practiced for a long time to get it right.

The one in the center wasn’t dressed like an Ultra, just another Knight. He was taller than the rest, but I could tell he hand platform shoes on under his robe to make that happen. He had a fancier outfit and a skull mask with antlers on it.

Haunter was the one who most hated the Knights, I hadn’t ever really had much meetings with them. But still I felt a bit of anger at that, even without the red potion. It wasn’t enough for them that the city was covered with skulls, they had to wear them too?

“Refiner summons you,” said the center one, as they came to a stop. “Her Second Fist has received tidings of your arrival, and they seek conference with their peers.”

The center one didn’t have a scythe. That was weird. It felt like going up in ranks should mean you got a bigger scythe or something. Maybe he had one of Refiner’s guns under that robe.

“We are not to be summoned,” said Haunter, taking a step forward. She did that thing with her voice where a bunch of her shades manifested and spoke each word then disappeared real quick. It made her look a bit blurry and sound like a whole crowd of people talking, which was a very cool effect.

“Requests your presence, then,” said the center one, seemingly unruffled. “Two Fists must work as one to win a fight, and Subtracter will be delighted to direct you.”

I felt a chill at the mention of Subtracter, who had always been something of a personal devil to me. Her ability to fly made her almost invisible to my gift, and I could never forget how she’d defeated us without trying right after we first got Linked.

Prevailer was fond of very few people, but She trusted Subtracter a bit. When we’d been together She had run down a lot of people, but I couldn’t remember Her dunking on Subtracter at all.

We shared a look. We hadn’t been expecting to win a fight with Second Fist anyway, when it was basically five to 3, but there had been some things in our favor. If Haunter’s shades could overload Deceiver’s gift, and Refiner couldn’t fight, we’d talked ourselves into thinking that maybe we would have some kind of chance.

Subtracter sunk that idea completely. She could take us all out single handed. Ultra Speed two was almost unbeatable, and it was just one of her gifts. She was a Death or Vampire class Ultra.

“Lead on then,” said Haunter, still using her multi voice. “We’ve been away for a long time, it will be good to catch up with our fellow Fist.”

The lead Knight looked to me for a moment, which wrong footed me for a bit until I remembered that I was official the leader.

I gave him a firm, confirming nod, putting whatever authority they thought I had behind Haunter’s decision.

“Will Fisher be joining us?” he asked, delicately.

We’d actually worried a lot about this question. Most people we could shut down by just running the ‘you have no right to question us’ line, or acting like we were leaving her elsewhere as insurance like Fifth Fist had done with Zilla, but we’d decided on something else for this particular mission.

“Joining us?” I asked, looking confused.

“Refiner instructed me to invite the whole Fist,” he answered.

I couldn’t see his face behind the mask, but he had to be looking a little chagrined at having to correct a Fist.

“But she’s here, human,” I corrected. “Look to your shadows.”

They might have been disciplined, but the Knights still looked down, one and all, skull masks swiveling here and there in confusion and alarm.

“Of…of course, sir,” he said, “Force Rules the World!”

We echoed the response, and fell in behind them as they tromped their way back towards Second Fists’ fortress.

It felt strange to go along with Second Fists’ thing, but this was what we’d wanted to do anyway. Like, we were planning on heading over there first thing today, and here we were, with an escort.

It didn’t take us long, their headquarters wasn’t super far from Preventer’s big house. The skulls loomed over us as we walked, and I had no doubt that if Watcher existed then he or she was paying full attention to us.

There was another file of Knights outside of their headquarters, which was a mostly collapsed apartment building. It looked like the bottom floor was basically intact, but there was a lot of rubbish up top, which they’d put some effort into piling into fang shaped columns.

After seeing Istanbul and Berlin, it just looked pathetic. Like children trying on sigils in case it gave them Ultra gifts.

We came to a stop in front of the waiting Knights, Haunter stepped forward.

“Where is Refiner? Where is Subtracter?”

She spoke coldly, with the calm certainty of someone who knew that she was going to be obeyed. Not at all like someone surrounded by foes.

I sometimes envied other Ultra’s gifts. Mine was great, obviously, and definitely stronger than Haunter’s overall, but still it had to be nice to outsource all your acting cool to whoever on your team was not afraid.

I had the weirdest sensation all of a sudden.

One of the humans who was hiding in the rubble around us was exactly, and I mean totally exactly, the same weight out of a Company Man. It was utterly strange.

Like, obviously a Company Man wouldn’t be living with humans across the street from Second Fist. They all lived in the Company Facilities, up on the second floor, and the Company hadn’t fallen apart in the Regime. So that couldn’t really be a Company Man, but I could swear it was.

“They await within,” said the lead Knight, which wasn’t exactly a surprise.

I couldn’t look back over my shoulder without looking weak or whatever, but I was dying to know who my gift thought was a Company Man. It made me worry that Deceiver was able to fool my gift after all.

We walked inside, and I was NOT cut off from my gift. They didn’t have a basement here, their floor was ‘ground’ enough for my gift.

I couldn’t stop a grin from touching the edges of my mouth. I’d been willing to give up my gift for this meeting, since we couldn’t beat Subtracter anyway, but it was a huge relief to not have to. It meant that if things went bad I could take a stab at snatching us down into the ground and getting us away.

Second Fist were waiting for us, and I could already tell that Deceiver was messing with our minds.

It looked like they were all standing in front of us, but I could feel where Refiner was, and there were two wheels touching the ground, not the two feet that it looked like. He was in a wheelchair, but she was hiding it.

There were also a trio of Knights behind us that we couldn’t see. They probably had some of Refiner’s blessed guns pointed at us in case we got up to anything.

The rest of their crew weren’t obviously being masked by Deceiver, they looked about like they had when we’d gotten the Link. Deceiver, Bomber, Destroyer Refiner and Choker, standing arrayed before us.

And one more.

“We’re looking for First Fist,” said Haunter, obviously realizing that we weren’t going to be able to conceal anything from this person.

“I know,” said Answerer, “They told me you would be.”