Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Tatterdemalion
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Adila!

You have your orders! They’re good orders, which you are good at. You are to protect Azora and make sure nobody interrupts her while she opens the clocktower.

It’s difficult work! For her, that is. Somebody made this face of the clock very difficult to access, and the mystic lock is taking all of her concentration. You are sitting next to her on a lawfully commandeered Clock Restoration and Preservation Society gondola lift, trying not to take up the whole thing. The wind ruffles your pretty, lacy headdress that Eska helped tie on just behind your horns.

Something deep inside you is screaming, but all that’s coming out is a weird little tap tap tap you’re doing with your claws.

Dandy sits next to you, still struggling to break free and unleash her Iluminan-inspired treachery. Don’t let her interrupt all those mystic sigils and wheels Azora is carving into the very air, crackling with energy as she tries to align the energy of her spell-key just so.

Even a dragon as stupid and clumsy as you can be trustworthy and look after both Dandy and Azora. You’re going to do your very, very best. That’s what Eska trusts you to do! And for her sake, and for Dandy’s, you’re going to be the goodest little dragon in the whole wide world and not push Azora off the gondola on accident on purpose.

***

Alina!

You expected the arrow. It comes hurtling out at you the minute you hit the Via Tempora, and you catch it effortlessly with your lights. Really, Eska? Really? You’re getting predictable.

Then there’s a puff of confetti and the scroll unwinds from around the shaft. It’s Eska’s looping, swooping cursive.

“Isolde says hello.”

Damage your Sense.

***

Kazelia!

“I wouldn’t come any closer if I were you.”

The space around the clock itself is a wide, decorated plaza, full of tourists and visitors and cafes. And, unfortunately, a lot of innocent people gasping at the sight of Eska Glinteye dangling an Iluminan dancing-girl off the clock’s scaffolding by her wrists, her boot on the knife placed precariously next to the ropes holding her up.

“We don’t want to make a scene, after all,” she yells at you. “Just stay out of this and nobody needs to get hurt!”

Nobody needs to get hurt. Knowing Eska, she’s not just talking about her hostage: she’s hidden her backup and prepped some nasty traps for anyone trying to follow her up, and she does not care about any of the civilians in the plaza below.

But also, making a scene like this? She’s going to bring both the Watch reserves and the King of the Bazaar down on her head. So she’s either got another escape plan ready, or a backup plan, or she’s got some scheme unfolding and this is all a trap.


***

[Kazelia]

Kazelia felt like she’d barely had time to warm her skin in the hot desert sun. It felt different than before. She wasn’t sitting on the deck of a ship slipping on ice of her own accidental creation; she was letting the midday sun warm her and actually feeling it. She thought that she might even get sunburned if she stayed out long enough. She even had the distinct impression of Mother, appearing like nothing so much as a fat, lazy cat curling up in a sunbeam beneath a window and it was a truly sublime vision.

But that wasn’t to be at all. Instead it was Eska up to her old tricks: taunting Alina, holding Adila hostage, and probably setting a million traps. It was anyone’s guess whether her goal here was to spur Kazelia and Alina into sudden action only to spring something on them before reinforcements arrived, or if her whole goal was merely to stall for time.

“Alina do you see anything odd? Something here isn’t as it seems” Kazelia says. She’s standing, summoning a sandy wind to blow across Eska’s position and divert any immediate arrows shot straight at them as she looks for a sign of what’s out of place.

[Rolling Look Closely, with the help of some magical wind and sand to maybe reveal or trigger something safely. I rolled with hope on the assumption that Alina will help at least enough to count as working together, whatever else she might do as well in her post. I’m also assuming Kazelia had the chance to share a meal on the way over and heal her stats.

5+6+0=11.
1. Is there something hidden or out of place? If so, what looks suspicious?
2. Tell me about Eska here. What’s she doing? What will she do next?
3. What will happen if I jump in and start a fight to free Isolde?]


***

[Adila]

Princess Adila leaps from the gondola.

It's a terrifying sight when a dragon comes right at you, especially if you're a former-Rider and were raised on bedtime stories of terrifying monsters of judgement who can smell a Princess who hasn't eaten her broccoli from ten miles away. Those wings, that speed, all that strength and power and worst of all, it's not your friend behind those eyes any more...

+Princess Kazelia!+ Adila says, swooping down and pulling her friend into a hug. +I've missed you! Oh, I am so glad you came, your sister is absolutely wonderful. I can't believe you never told me about her!+

Okay, maybe it is Adila back there still.

+I'm so glad you caught up with us - I'm sorry I left without saying anything but we were in a really big hurry - Dandy is in danger, you see. I sent you a letter explaining everything! Did it arrive? Oh, hey Alina! Wow, you look amazing in that armour!+

You did, in fact, receive a letter from Princess Adila right before you entered the city. It read like the diary page of the recently smitten, with hearts everywhere, and full of incredibly detailed little observations about Princess Eska, how cool she was, and all of her plans.

[Princess Adila is using teamwork to give Princess Kazelia Hope on her Look Closely roll]


***

[Alina]

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I take it back! Let me take it back! I’m sorry!!”

Little Alina had never been this desperate in her entire life. She’d tried everything she could think of, and none of it was working. She checked every room in the castle. Then she checked them all again in case she’d missed one. She’d run to every single person she could find and told them she was sorry, but nobody would accept her apology. They wouldn’t even tell her she was being silly and that Momma was on a trip to Axonia or anything like that! Freesia slammed the door in her face, Jessamine was too young to be any help, Lexi didn’t know what was happening, even Mommy wouldn’t fix it!

Mommy stroked her hair and made soft noises and said a lot of stuff, but all of it was wrong. She said this wasn’t Lina’s fault, she said that Momma loved her very much. She said that everything was gonna be ok. But it wasn’t! And it was all her fault!! Momma was gone and nobody knew where and she wasn’t coming back and it! Was! All! Her! Fault!

She didn’t mean it! She didn’t! Good princesses aren’t supposed to think that one mom is prettier than the other one. They’re not supposed to like getting snuggles from one more, they’re not supposed to turn to turn to the other when the first one says no. She didn’t mean to do any of it! She didn’t mean to fall asleep during her glass blowing lesson! She was a bad girl who didn’t love her Momma enough and now she was gone forever and she just wanted everyone to believe that she was sorry!

Alina buried her face in Momma’s pillow and cried the entire day away. It took hours for Mommy to find her and hold her until she ran out of tears. And it wasn’t until she saw the tears in Mommy’s eyes that she realized she needed to be brave and strong and beautiful for everybody that was still there.


Over time, even the shape of Momma’s face had started to fade from Alina’s memory. It wasn’t gone, but it wasn’t sharp and clear the way that Freesia’s still was. And she’d guessed that meant it wasn’t supposed to happen. When even Ourania had refused to say anything about King Isolde, Alina had completely given up hope on ever finding her. She’d told herself that it was ok; the long years with just the one mother had taught her how to handle the disappointment. Wherever Momma was, if she was even still alive, she must have at least been happy, and that was enough. Alina had a big important mission now and an entire Kingdom counting on its Princess-Promised much more than the return of its King.

And now… and now… Momma! Momma!! Alina’s eyes are glassy and unfocused, and she doesn’t so much as flinch when Adila came swooping down to join them. The only thing that’s in her sight is that clocktower, is Eska, is the hostage being dangled in front of them. If Eska meant to keep her away like this, then she’d outsmarted herself for sure. If she meant to trick Alina into jumping up through some gauntlet of genius traps, well… that was pretty short sighted of her too. Gold burns atop her tiara and fills her breastplate with its light.

Momma! Your daughter loves you, Momma! Just wait, just one more minute, and she’ll finally show you how much.


***

Kazelia!

”Eska is a mechanical genius and I am honored to be in her presence. She’s just like Hornet! Instead of making her machines look like you again, though, she’s made them look very non-representational. They have lots of legs and self defense crossbows, and all the bolts have a proprietary poison blend on them! Get hit and you’re going down peacefully! I wonder if she’ll consider selling them to the watch? I really hope she will! <3”

There they are, just like Adila described them. The clockwork marvels look like a cross between a scorpion and a gecko, clinging to wherever they could find a shadow. The wind and sand, of course, are intended to clog up their workings and make it harder for them to target you, but charging forward into the kill zone? You’re going to get shot by a bunch of bolts, you’re going to get bystanders hit by bolts, and while it won’t kill anyone... it’ll cause a lot of panic and, also, you’ll end up flat on your face with your muscles all slack, drooling onto the tiles while Eska grinds her heel into your back and Azora claims the Caduceus. That’s bad.

“I know you have fought Eska a lot, but she told me that if you don’t try to attack her sister, she’d be happy to leave you alone! In fact, if you really wanted to make her happy, which you should, because she’s really amazing, you could just go see the House of the Zodiac and let her claim whatever’s inside the clocktower. If I was as smart as Eska and wasn’t a dumb, useless ditz, I’d guess that this has something to do with figuring out where the tomb of Princess Eupheria is and disturbing her forever resting place and claiming the dark power of the Devil staff which consumed her when she fell and I did nothing!!! And Eska says that’s a good thing and I shouldn’t worry about it at all, so you shouldn’t either!”

You should probably do the opposite of that. The trick’s going to be getting height, right? Eska has the high ground, and she has the advantage in both range and time. All she needs to do is pin you down or buy time, and then she can whistle for Adila and fly off with her and Azora.

Adila!

“Adila!” Eska sounds angry. Did you do something wrong? “What did I say? I trusted you to do one thing! Don’t you trust me, too?”

Look after Azora and Dandy. You can do that and be with your friends, right? Just don’t let them interfere and you can hang out with them as much as you like!

Alina!

You’re not alone. Rita is making her war yowl next to you. If you dive forward, she’ll follow right behind you. If Eska tries to drop Momma, she’ll be right there helping you catch her. You are a team, and nobody can defeat the magic of kiss buddies. Nobody!

Go. You can do it. Go save Momma and punch Eska in the face and, as a finishing trick, stop Oberon’s daughters from disturbing the tomb of Eupheria, wherever her final resting place truly is.


***

[Kazelia]

Kazelia’s attention is suddenly torn in several directions all at once.

“Oh Adila! Hi! We were...” she’s looking at Alina charging in, remembering Adila’s letter and all the robots that Eska had set up here, that would only have their aim slightly slowed by the wind she’d kicked up.

“...were uh coming to find you. And I think my other sister Azora might do something really bad if we don’t reach her first. And Eska...” think Kazelia! You need to not start a fight with Adila right now and you need to do something about all those robots. Her hand, which was waving to Adila, suddenly crackles with an arcing, almost electrical white light and the wind quickly picks up much harder, scouring from rooftop to sparkling, gem-studded Jedadi rooftop. At this speed it will pick up the sand that naturally collects among market stalls and desert roads. It will fill gears with sand, send bolts off course, and generally stop up the clockwork things with grit. It won’t completely stop them, but if she’s lucky, it will damage them and weaken their bolts.

[Doom roll 1+6+2=9. Damage one stat in trying to drive off the robots, lose current advantage.]

“...Eska doesn’t know! Yeah. She’s very smart, but she’s used to doing whatever Azora tells her. I was too. Azora is the oldest and she’s always liked ordering people around. Oberon has been giving her the best magic for years too, and she’d probably try and turn Eska into a ferret or something if they argued...” okay there’s Alina diving forward, Rita hot on her heels. Hopefully, she’d slowed the robots enough to help.

“...a-anyway we uh, we need to go down there and uh, help Alina free her Momma and tell Eska she’s in danger from Azora right away!”
Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Thanqol
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That was a compelling argument. After all, despite what she sometimes said, Princess Eska didn't trust Princess Azora Howl at all. And Azora Howl honestly gave Adila the creeps. Wait a moment! Was... was it possible that Princess Azora Howl had hypnotized Princess Eska!?!

She didn't know why her brain had made that leap, or why she fixated on it so hard. She also didn't care! After all, Princess Eska had told her to not focus on weird contradictions like that too hard - the last time that it'd happened she'd almost hurt herself. But luckily, this time Princess Adila knew exactly what to do because Eska had told her - she didn't need to think at all! +Don't worry Kazelia, I'll take care of this,+ she thought confidently.

She spread her wings and hurled herself back up to the platform with Princess Eska, heedless of the hidden ambush-bots. +Princess Eska,+ said Princess Adila. +I have reason to believe that Princess Azora Howl has hypnotized you.+
Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Phoe
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They were probably going to blame this on her, too. Alina Cascade, come back to Jedad in full war gear, and then all of a sudden a weird sandstorm kicks up and a bunch of even weirder mechanical bug-newts start filling the streets with bolts or darts or whatever they are? Yeah, they're probably already saying this has her written all over it.

Not that she particularly cares right now. She'd have a whole lifetime of chances to make up for the troubles she's caused (well, the ones she didn't mean to, at least). She'd have plenty of time later to catch up with Adila and help her get her head on straight again, or to deal with the fact that she'd just sort of left her friends standing there without having said so much as a word. They would understand. She only had this one chance to save her Momma, and she had to take it.

Warm golden light spreads across her entire body as she dives into the streets with Rita no more than half a step behind her. It's like being wrapped in a blanket that smells just like her mother. It's like getting a hug from all of her sisters and Rita and Kazelia and Adila all at once. It's like... being Ourania. And just like any of those things, it promises Alina that she'll be safe, no matter what. Nothing bad can happen with Gold here to help her.

In the sand and wind it's almost impossible to see more than a couple feet in front of her, but it's plenty enough to go by. She runs full out with her leaping deer gait, and not so much as a grain of sand touches a single hair on her head. Bolts come raining down on her from rooftops and stalls only to splash off of her like water rolling down feathers. When she twists or leaps or flips across the winding alleyways of the Bazaar, it's not for her own safety but so that she can keep Rita's path every bit as clear. Together they cut through Eska's defenses as if they weren't there.

Alina's own Orange snaps to her wrist and latches onto a nearby rooftop as she grabs Rita by the waist. Silver flickers sparkle by her legs and when she leaps, it's with the strength of a dragon. Together, invincible kiss buddies go sailing high into the air. They could hardly do better if they had wings of their own. There's just enough time to savor the look of surprise on Eska's face before they reach the crest of the swing and start falling toward the Clocktower. Alina curves backwards like a bow. For a moment, she seems frozen in time. Then she snaps back while Rita leaps out of her arm, and she unleashes an enormous burst of light in all five colors on her crown that she truly feels are hers. There's an audible crack in the air as the light hurtles at Eska like a spiraling lance...

That crashes against the side of the tower maybe four or five feet to the right of where the clever sniper is standing. Eska's face twists into a sneer, despite the sweat beading on her forehead.

The boot goes down onto the knife. The knife cuts through the rope. Isolde, Momma, falls.

It's at this moment that a couple of things happen almost all at once. Firstly, Alina pulls into a swan dive and dips back down into the swirling sands after Isolde with her golden halo still wrapped around her. Secondly, Adila of the Watch comes flying up to the tower, projecting her thought-warnings and being the best friend-dragon any princess could ask for. She's so lucky, that Eska.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, all parties concerned will now notice that Alina did not, in fact, miss those few moments earlier. Rather, what she'd done is make a rainbow light-bridge, which is now anchored solidly to the ledge of the Clocktower's roof and is carrying the lovely Princess Rita von Catabas toward them with all of the grace and agility you could ask for from the princess of Askaia.

When she leaps, it's joyful. When she spins through the air, it's like watching an Illuminan ballet. When she whips her foot straight into Eska's chest, it's with the extremest of prejudices and near abouts heedless of the fact that Adila is right there watching it happen. This is the part that Lina would've messed up, by the way. Her head's not on quite straight just now. But Rita?

Well, she bounces from foot to foot with glee and flashes Adila a sharp toothed and shameless little grin the way that only a cat (or a cat/girl, one supposes) can.

"Hey Adila!" she chirps, "Don't worry about this, Lina and I are expert counter-hypnotists."

[Alina uses the power of the Golden Warrior and rolls to Finish Eska with Grace: 7. Paying her Bridge spell as the price for acting against a Threat, and damaging Courage as the cost of rolling while armored by Gold]
Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Tatterdemalion
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Eska Glinteye!

These blasted Hyperboreans! You’re dangling the crybaby’s mother over a perilous drop, and instead of falling on her knees and pleading, here she is charging at you, glowing with that same terrible radiance. The one that makes all your arrows useless against her. Well, she’ll have to choose between dealing with you and saving her mother, and no Princess would ever—

+I have reason to believe that Princess Azora Howl has hypnotized you.+

Gah! Your train of thought derails completely. This stupid dragon! Every time you think she’s been as unhelpful as possible, she finds a new way to screw things up. Well, you’ll show her. You wheel around, furious, intending to order her in no uncertain terms, as her “friend” (blech) that she needs to go back to Azora now, and that’s how the little cat princess manages to hammer you right in the sternum.

You go down. Hard. The scaffolding sways dangerously underneath you. You need a little more time. You need Adila to be useful for once. You need to shut up this stupidly cheerful little cat. You need—

Then the clocks begin to chime. Every last one of them.

Damage your Sniper stat, clap your hands over your ears, and run for it.

***

Alina!

It’s close. Too close. For a moment, you have the panicked thought that you’re not going to make it. You have to make it. Your world narrows down to the way Momma twists in the air, looking up at you, her scanty silks fluttering in that terrible rush of air.

Then you wrap your arms around her, and you wrap Gold around her, and when the two of you hit the ground a second later it’s like falling onto goosefeather pillows. You bounce out, Eska’s nasty little bots still shooting at you uselessly, and end up rolling into a small cactus garden. Each little spine pokes your skin, but refuses to pierce; it feels like being hugged by hedgehogs.

You reach up and tug down the black silk over her mouth, and the first thing that comes out of Momma’s mouth is filled with so much pride.

“You’ve grown so much.”

Then the clocktower starts to chime. Gold muffles the sound, stops it from being deafening, but you can still feel the vibrations of the tiles underneath you. Your Momma’s face goes slack with dread.

“Lina,” she says, hoarsely, “you can’t let her open the tomb.”

***

Adila!

Eska is saying something at you, but you can’t hear her. Your head is bells. +WHAT?+ She yells louder, as Rita covers her ears and opens her mouth in a soundless yowl. There is a bell and it is trying to crack your skull open. +I CAN’T HEAR YOU!+

Eska rolls her eyes, her hands clapped over her ears, and then rolls easily to her feet and runs up the scaffolding, to where you can see Azora Howl dragging Dandy into the clock to help save her, the two of them vanishing from sight as they pass inside.

Unless... Azora Howl hypnotized Eska into telling you that she could help Dandy and really she’s going to go hypnotize her! Oh no!!

You have to save Dandy, Adila!!

***

Kazelia!

Mother Void eats the sound of the bells. For a moment, you can hear the great and terrible sound of the bells, and then— silence. You can see the vibrations, see people reacting to the awful sound— behind you, Kyouko is caterwauling and curling up into a silky fluffy ball— but it’s gone. It’s just gone.

Which means you can see, clearly, Azora dragging Dandy into the swirling portal that has opened in the clocktower, the face of the clock she was enchanting having folded neatly to either side. That looks ominous. Deeply, deeply ominous.

And Mother Void, inside you, doesn’t seem to know a thing about what that is. So it’s not a doorway into her. It’s a doorway to somewhere else.

(Or, given what you saw of Eska’s notes... somewhen else...)
Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Anarion
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Kazelia hovers in her unique stillness. It's not dissimilar to watching the world from outside of it, which she's done, what, twice now? Once astride Shiva when she was a great star-filled steed of the night, watching the fight between Oberon and Ourania from a perch in the night sky. And then once again when she had slipped Oberon's clutches and gone outside. Funny, Ourania had been there too, and she and Oberon had fought again, with Ourania's resplendent soul on full display for the viewer who stood on the outside of the veil.

This, then, made for quite the pity. She wasn't truly outside and Ourania was very much not here, she was simply enveloped in a unique silence that offered her clarity in the moment. That single moment hung suspended in the air like a crystal chandelier: the bells striking the whole world, Alina landing in the cactus patch full of joy, Adila hovering with her paws up in that oddly helpful way that put Kazelia in mind of a friendly puppy.

Then the moment shattered, and Kazelia was moving as fast as she had ever moved in her life. She leaped from the balloon and kicked Shiva forward with a rainbow glimmer of crystal wings. The winds were all at her back now and she was less a rider on a Pegasus than she was her own miniature sandstorm hurtling into the clock tower with the oddly light tinkling of sand flying past glass, though it's anyone's guess if a single other person besides Kazelia can hear anything right now.

She's chasing Azora, flying in headfirst to where or...whenever that portal was going. To Eupheria? To many Eupherias? She tried to remember what Ourania had said, and she remembered too that Hyperborea had its special share of impossible things: devil manses and sealed tombs, and that she should not think this so odd in such a world.

She trusted the others would follow. She trusted them, more than she'd trusted anyone. At least since...since the first time, since she had once trusted Azora, years ago, worlds ago, in a time when they'd both danced in sun dappled groves and even Oberon hadn't truly known himself yet.
Hidden 5 mos ago 5 mos ago Post by Thanqol
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Princess Adila flinches when Princess Rita steps out in front of her with cat smiles and self confidence and having just committed a spooky act of violence that meant nothing to her but she knows she could do again three times in the time it takes you to turn around and run away. It had been easy for her to dismiss Princess Alina but even in the heights of ego Princess Adila had never underestimated Princess Rita. A long childhood of being tormented by Jedad's criminal feline element had burned a deep paranoia into her heart. Cats were dangerous. Cats were sadistic. Cats were mean. She didn't really know how dragons fit into the food chain but in her heart of hearts she suspected it was below cats.

Princess Adila thought there was a reason why all the cats were quarantined on an island blanketed in calming incense, and did not think it was a coincidence that island had been the first place Oberon had attacked after Illumina. It wasn't that she wasn't happy for Princess Alina finding a girlfriend, it's just that when Eska had told her that Alina had fallen and she had done nothing she'd kind of suspected that romantic involvement with Rita might have been a contributing factor.

So when the bells start chiming and Rita starts yelling with an open mouth with those wicked cat teeth that make her tail reflexively coil around her leg just to make sure no second cat is sneaking up behind it to pounce it like it's a snake and poor fragile Eska is hurt on the ground already, Princess Adila is already primed and ready to run. But for a moment she's frozen still - she knows any motion will provoke a reflexive bat from the claws, and she knows that if Rita fights anything like Alina she'll be all over her before she can blink.

Only one thing snaps her out of it - Dandy! With a sudden surge of terrified motion, not caring about how many times Princess Rita bites her tail, Adila snatches up Eska, holds her against her chest, and surges up to the portal to pursue Azora Howl as swiftly as she can. Adila has breached the veil of time before and flashed from point to point on lines of devil-lightning, but you've never seen her run away from something before.

She is not good at it.

[Get Away to try and reach Princess Dandy quickly: 5]
Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Phoe
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"Momma... oh, Momma! I missed you so much! Why did you? Where did you? Oh, it doesn't matter, there's so much I want to tell you! I'm so glad I found y--"

Alina clings to her Momma and holds her tight, like she's afraid that if she lets go she'll lose her all over again. There's so many things to say, so many questions to ask, so much hugging that needs catching up on. Years and years and years of it! But that chiming is so loud and so awful that it rattles her soul and cuts off her words even with Gold softening the impact of the bells.

She wants to cry. Why is it always like this? Why is it always like this? Don't they understand how hard this has been? With Jessamine she barely got a moment before everything tried to crumble on her and she had to fight and claw just to stop from losing her twice in the same day, and then the hurt ran so deep it got them both kidnapped. Freesia had been so cold to her at first, and then there had been so much stuff that needed doing that they never got to sit together and just try being sisters by themselves again. She barely got a day with Mommy after they'd worked so hard to save her! There was always something, something, something, some emergency or desperate mission Hyperborea never asked for or deserved and she knows it's for her and she knows she needs to fix it and she'd never leave her friends to fend for themselves with Oberon still looming over everything but couldn't she just once, just once, just once could she please find someone special and then be given the kind of time she needs to have a proper reunion?

Momma still has those same long arms that are even better for hugging than Mommy's are. She still feels so firm and solid, like she doesn't need a magic like Gold to be your shield at night, like you could always cling to her in a storm and everything would turn out ok. She still smells... warm, and safe, like a willow tree on a sunny day. And the way that she's holding Alina is life itself. But the bells are shaking them apart. This is just another moment Alina doesn't get to have. She turns her head and looks to the sky. She doesn't let go.

Be brave, Alina. This is the job Ourania gave you. But when she opens her mouth to speak, she can't keep her voice from shaking:

"W-will you... stay with me?"
Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Tatterdemalion
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Alina!

Your mother's hand is calloused. This isn't Rider's work, mind you; she's just had to do a lot with those hands. The two of you were apart for so long! She's had strange and wonderful and painful adventures without you, and hurt for them, too. Maybe she knows better than Halcyon what your life has been like ever since the day you poured water over a stranger's head with a joyful laugh and an invitation to come and dance. Your mother's hand is calloused, and it is holding yours so carefully that she might never let you go.

"Of course," she says, and gives you a reassuring squeeze, even as (your shoulders shuddering with the weight) Gold dissipates and returns to your crown once more. She stops to whip a gauzy tablecloth off an abandoned table, not even disturbing the curry bowls abandoned when the square cleared in a panic, and ties it around her shoulders. Not the most dignified look, but she pulls it off.

[King Isolde has joined your party, with the stat Mysterious Wanderings!]

And together, you leap up after your friends, your Red flaring powerfully, and Rita charges in alongside you. Into the depths of the Time Dragon's clock. Into Hyperborea's time, compressed and filtered and gone strange under the influence of Eupheria...

***

Kazelia!

"Tch. Worthless."

You drive your heel harder into the back of the sniveling elf under your boot. He deserves to be punished if his observatory doesn't have anything for Azora, your teacher and your superior. Let the others strive and scrape to try and surpass her in father's eyes: you know where your place is, you and your entire flight. Your soldiers rip books and hinges off walls, wherever Azora's eye falls, in an attempt to find anything of worth here.

But there isn't. And this elf has wasted your time.

How dare he?

***

Adila!

Time twists strange, pulling and stretching at itself. Even you cannot remain unmuddled as all of the time of Hyperborea runs through you like a sieve, and it is so much worse for you than it will have been for your friends, whose fates are entwined with yours, you see clearly for a moment, a flash in the torrent pouring through you.

Damage your Sense, then tell us: where you do find yourself, as your mind slips away into more familiar times to escape the crushing weight of history?

***

Alina!

When you wake up, Mommy is playing with your hair. Her fingers run through your violet locks slowly, carefully, the way you would stroke the fur of a cat if you wanted to make sure she wouldn't be disturbed from her nap. For a moment, you close your eyes and snuggle closer, trying to ignore the light beginning to shine through the windows.

You're in the headquarters of the Iluminan Resistance, in the biggest bed that could be found. None of the rooms in the castle felt right, even now; there is so much cleaning that still needs to be done. But Freesia knows how to make a house feel like home, and more important than having any of the beds at home is having this. It's been a very long time since you got to sleep over with Mommy; you've all been such big, grown-up girls, after all. But not even wild horses could have dragged you away, not now. Not now that she's back.

The blankets are warm, and heavy, and slightly fuzzy. Jessamine is draped awkwardly over Mommy's legs and, on the other side of her, Freesia is snoring. You are cuddled up so close, so warm. The moment opens up into forever. Then Mommy shifts, and cups her hand against the back of your head.

"Thank you, Lina," she says, so softly. She leans in and kisses the top of your head, so carefully. Ever since she was unthawed, she's moved like she was made of glass, trying not to stumble and break into pieces. But she has nothing to fear. You've buried the bed in pillows and stuffed animals and blankets, and there's nothing here that could possibly harm her. Not with her three brave girls here to protect her.

But you can't keep the moment, can you? Not forever. Eska's out there, with both Dandy and Adila in her clutches. After all you went through to be held one more time by your mother... it's almost time to say goodbye again.

But almost isn't hardly the same as is, is it? You have this. You have now. You have your Mommy. You have the soft light shining through the window, and her hand on your head, and her heartbeat going thump, thump thump, thump next to yours. You have this. You have now, this now, and nobody can take it from you.
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Kazelia gives the elf a kick and then uses her newly positioned toe to unceremoniously roll him over. He curls up in his brown cloak, instinct leading him to try and shelter himself in the only way he still can. Kazelia frowns in disgust, but doesn't kick him any further. If he blacks out, he'll be of even less value than he current is, if such a thing were even possible.

"I cannot for the life of me understand how these people can call you a 'sage' when all you've got are a handful of spyglasses and a few shelves of dusty books. You haven't even managed to map the void correctly, and this list of so-called 'constellations' is worthless. I can only assume you're hiding something, so I'm going to give you one last chance to tell me what you've really been doing here. I hope for your sake that you've got something to offer. My sister is far less kind than I am, and you'll wish I'd simply stabbed you long before she's done."

Azora had always been creative. In her punishments, of course, but really in everything. Kazelia didn't really remember a time before traveling in service to Oberon, but somehow she knew that Azora had been the first of them to learn how to cook own and for a time she had done all the cooking for the whole family because she was a wizard in the kitchen. She kept coming up with new combinations of spices and making all sorts of cakes and pies that even delighted Oberon. Kazelia couldn't have told you this now, but it was one of the few times that he had genuinely smiled in those days, a strange delight in the actual thing mixed with a sense of possession in this, a most ingenious daughter who was completely his lighting up his face in those moments. Briefly, of course. Oberon was never content with his things.

That vague memory just made Kazelia more frustrated here. Azora was busy directing the searchers and Kazelia was confident her sister would find something of value in this idiotic observatory. The idea that Azora could have directed them somewhere that was a waste of time didn't even cross Kazelia's mind (it might have a few hundred years prior, but after spending a month with only one arm while the other sat perfectly preserved in the freezing void she had been convinced never to think it again). Instead, Kazelia's rising worry was that she would fail to produce anything useful and Azora would have to be the one to find value in the place herself. That would lower Kazelia in her sister's estimation, perhaps even cause her to lose favor as the second-best in favor of Eska or perhaps Morgina. Azora had always liked Morgina for her loyalty. That wasn't acceptable when Kazelia was this close to another lesson on matter-shaping from such a master.

The elf groaned and Kazelia used a magical wind to lift him up, not deigning to touch him herself. "Tell me now, or you will greatly regret it."
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"Mmmmmmmmmmnnnnn..."

Thump, thump, thump, thump. Mommy's softer than any pillow. Thump, thump, thump, thump. Her heartbeat is sweeter than any song. Thump, thump, thump, thump. Alina squeezes her eyes shut and snuggles closer. Thump, thump, she feels the beat drumming through her body. Through her eyelids, her world is orange and pink. Mmmm, the gentle sleepy moan escapes her lips to mingle with the sounds of soft breathing. Her head rises with her Mommy's chest, then they sink again in time. Up, and down, and up again, with fingers massaging through her floofy purple hair. Her world is blankets so heavy they feel like a hug from some wonderfully downy animal. Her world is a tangle of sisters pinning her in place. Her world is the softest of kisses from Mommy and her words that make her trust herself enough to open her eyes again because this is real, this is real, this is real.

Her world is a room too small and too simple to be so perfect. But that's exactly what it is. Down by her feet, Jessamine snores as she rolls and flops onto her belly across the bed and all its occupants. Typical Jess, how'd she even get out from under all the blankets? Like this, her pastel pink camisole and matching shorts feel even more like a brazen defiance of the cold still lingering over the kingdom than they did when she insisted on putting them on last night. She never gives an inch, silly Jess. She reaches behind her to scratch her thigh and then immediately drops back into a deep sleep. Like this, it's easier to see the lean, sharp muscles cut across every inch of Jessamine's slinky body. All that training, all that effort, bearing fruit. She's so beautiful, thinks Alina, the most beautiful thing in the world.

On the other side of the bed, Freesia is so deeply asleep that Alina wonders whether she'd even move if fireworks went off in the room. Her lanky, maybe not so awkward as Alina remembers it after all, body is half curled into a ball, and her face is buried in a combination of Mommy's side and a tangled mess of her own hair, which has gone every which way during the night and apparently decided it was going to stay that way. Somehow, her prim and prissy nightgown is absolutely immaculate. It's a good look for her, like a ballgown that's been optimized for sleep and snuggles, but poor thing, however long she's had it she's never found the time to treat the silks like you're supposed to. The star burst patterns that run all up and down the material are just exploding with too-sharp colors in every shade an Illuminan princess could possibly imagine. Freesia... Sunless no longer. The colors she'd sworn off of wearing until this moment seem overeager to make up for missed time. And she's so beautiful, thinks Alina, the most beautiful thing in the world.

Alina stretches, but just a bit. She has to be careful not to disturb Mommy. Not that she's asleep, but since she... got better, she's been flinching at any sort of too big or too fast motion. So she has to content herself with just sitting up a teeny little bit to roll her shoulders back while she wills her legs to stretch themselves while still trapped under Jessamine. And she's sure to settle right back down where she was, so that Mommy won't think she's trying to leave. She couldn't, right now, even if she wanted to. Even though she'll have to. Soon. But not yet. She suppresses a yawn. No more sleeping, no more wasting this precious time. She sneaks one sea green sleeve out from under the blankets and lifts it up to her face to rub the sleep from her eyes. And then stops when she feels the crystal there. Oh, right. She makes a show of doing it anyway, then wraps her arm around Mommy.

"Good morning, Mom."

Her voice feels too quiet, but it's a morning just for the pair of them right now. Eventually her sisters will wake and then there will be an absolutely perfect moment full of life and love and light... but then that moment will end and Alina will have to leave again. Not yet. Not yet. Right now is just the two of them, because that will last longer. Her eyes drink in her mother, who despite so many years still looks to Alina like a bigger and more perfect her. If only she could be that beautiful. If only she could move like...

She tilts her head up to watch a little more. She's careful to keep a smile on her face, keep a light in her eyes, but... but Queen Halcyon doesn't move with grace this morning. The fingers keep stroking her hair, it never stops feeling wonderful, but underneath it is a current of energy that Alina is too familiar with. There's a, a, a coldness to all her little motions, like her beautiful, perfect mother is fighting with every part of herself not to shiver in the blankets of this soft, warm bed. The happy little fire in the fireplace won't help her. The girls around her will help more, but still.

Alina knows what fear looks like. Alina knows what having ice inside you feels like.

"Does it still hurt too much? Would you like me to do another treatment before I... I mean, today?"
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Princess Adila hunted cats. It was scary work but she was a brave dragon and could handle it. It was a much more fair fight than she'd imagined it would be when she thought of cats as those cute little sprawls of fur who spent their days lazily shifting between sunbeams. She had claws! She had wings! She even had a little badge! And there was nothing she wanted more in the world than to be useful to her friends in the Watch.

But cats. She had claws? So did they. Cat claws were perfectly capable of scratching through her baby scales and they had the reflexes of greased lightning. She could fly? So could they. Better than she could - she'd been floored the first time she'd seen a cat run up a vertical surface. Was that something people could do? Was that something she could do? She'd learned the answer to that one very quickly. She had a little badge? They had a little princess, with a little crown, and a little kingdom of various kitty-exiles - scumbags and rogues just as capable of using teamwork as the Watch, and just as capable of laying an ambush for proud little dragons.

She remembered the swirl of time, forwards and backwards. The Clock and the Eye and her failure. Each connection was like a thread tied to her and as she fell through broken time they wrapped around her, forwards and back, tying and binding her until she couldn't move, and still tighter they pulled. She grabbed at one of the knots and tried to untangle it, and as soon as she touched it and the thread that connected to it she knew that it was the most important thing in the world.

Ropes wrapped her into a ball, an egg, but still she clung to that strand as it began to unravel...


She was here to hunt the princess of cats. It was the scariest part of a scary job, but it was the most important thing in the world. She needed to, with stealth and cunning, lure her out of the narrows to the open where the waiting Watch would be able to finally capture her. Once the Princess was in captivity the city's cats would be brought to their knees, and the Watch would issue a terrible demand for her release: The mandatory bathing and medical examination of every single cat in Jedad, a procedure that would in the Captain's estimation eliminate a seasonal fever from the city entirely.

No force less than the capture of their princess would bring the defiant cats to the negotiation table. And so little Adila stalked into the darkness. It was scary, but it was a small fear, of a small world, when everything was still small and manageable enough to fit into the boundaries of her perception.
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Kazelia!

The elven sage groans and whimpers and generally acts like a great big baby, just because your chill winds are wrapped around his body, chafing him painfully. As you press and push and threaten, you notice his eyes flickering over to one wall. Jackpot.

Then you’re grinding his face against the wall, stone against skin, playing “thaw or freeze” with him. Thaw means farther away, freeze means you’re getting closer, naturally.

When he finally sobs “frozen! frozen!” you let your winds drop him and claw at the wall until it yields its prize.

“Well done, Kazelia,” Azora says, gliding over to you. She doesn’t touch the ground if she doesn’t have to; that’s the one spell she’s only shared with Father. Imagine how wonderful it would be to fly under your own power! One day, you’ll convince her to share it with you. One day.

“I was wondering when you’d figure it out,” she adds, smugly. Had she really figured it out before you had? You never can tell, with her. She always claims to know what she’s doing, and she loves to play with and test her inferiors, you included. It’s... entirely possible, and not worth challenging.

She reaches into the hollow hidden within the wall and unearths the sage’s hidden prize...

What was it?

***

Alina!

“I can handle it,” your mother says. Which is not the same as saying it’s not too painful. Which is not the same as refusing treatment. It’s a way to reassure you, but... she’s the one who needs to be reassured now, isn’t she?

Which isn’t how a queen is “supposed” to be. The role of a queen is to be strong for her kingdom, to care for them like a mother, and to guide her princesses into full bloom. (There are, naturally, exceptions to the ideal: warrior-queens who took to the field alongside their princesses, for example. And Wicked Queen Eupheria, who... okay, maybe she’s not the best example right now.) That’s the role your mother’s played all your life: encouraging you, being strong for you, offering advice and praise. But right now, what she needs more than anything is reassurance that you will be strong so that she will not have to. That she raised you right and you grew into yourself on this quest, that you won’t need her to follow behind at a safe distance like she did on your very first quest against the Naughty Jackdaws of the East.

It’s not unknown for a queen to abdicate, you know. Sometimes, a queen just wants to have a quiet retirement in Feloria or Askaia while her successor revitalizes the land. The Konkon have turned this into an art, with queens being encouraged to step down by their rivals constantly. But you never thought of it being a thing that your mother might ever do.

Maybe she won’t. Maybe when you come back, she’ll be strong and hale and laughing again. That cold in her bones will have thawed with Oberon’s defeat, and you can return to being a carefree adventurer and princess, dashing all across Hyperborea with your dearest friend!

But you have had that scar for so long. And for all you know, you’ll have it for the rest of your life. Maybe it won’t ever really go away, for all that you’ll find ways to mitigate it. Or maybe...

Do you even want to go back to being a princess, Alina? Does the thought of your mother stepping down and yielding the crown fill you with fear or determination?

What is the next step for Princess Alina Cascade? Other than insisting that you know what it feels like and that you can help, without drawing her attention to your eyes any more than you have to. And rescuing Adila and Dandy, of course, that part goes without saying.

***

Adila!

Oh, yes, how could you forget what it was like, to be like this? Crossing the city was an epic adventure! The rooftops of the Bazaar were a mysterious realm of rickety bridges and deep chasms full of danger and intrigue, the streets and markets huge and chaotic and all too happy to sweep you along, and the alleyways full of cats. So, so full of cats.

How could you forget chasing Nine-Tom Lily down the Via Piazza? How could you forget being interrogated on the roofs of the docks by Big Kitten Teresa, trying to keep your cool with her claws tickling under your chin? How could you forget hiding under the incense wagon with your tail curled up, claws digging into the wood to keep yourself from falling onto the cobblestones below as you were brought into the presence of Rita von Catabas?

How did that case end, anyhow? Did you manage to catch her and ransom her at such high price, or did she nimbly evade you, give you a scratch or two, and run away with a wicked little laugh? Or did you talk her into surrendering peacefully while being lowered into a vat of incense meant to leave you a drooling, blissed-out mess lost in your own dreams? Or were you found in the incense vat later, sleeping peacefully on top of an illusionary hoard of impounded contraband?
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She was silent. She was still. Her eyes were open unblinking as the incense wagon rumbled ahead, pulled by a poor and tormented horse forced to bear the slumbering bodies of half a dozen cats in addition to its normal load. She had this edge, at least. No self respecting cat would be diligent enough to bend her head to check underneath a wagon. Why would they, when reptilian scales gave no scent to trigger perilously sensitive noses, no motion caused majestic whiskers to so much as twitch, no light reflected from scales robbed of their shine by powdery coal dust. Nothing betrayed her but her rushing heart.

She was the only one who could do this. Fifty Watchers stood ready, all of them waiting to move on her signal. She was the tip of a shadowed spear. Not only were they betting their time today upon her, the untested little dragon, they were betting weeks of scouting, preparation - and not to mention all the bribes. Some of the elders had loudly complained about betting the farm on a little dragon that, really, was just a mascot - and whatever the jokes from the rank and file, was definitely not a real princess and certainly not an Adila.

That's what was at stake for her. If she couldn't defeat Princess Rita then she'd never be a Princess herself. The Captain had waved them off in the end but that just meant that it was her trust at stake as well. She resolved to fight with all her hopes, all her dreams, for everyone who believed in her and who'd given her a chance. She would prove herself!

But in the end, what are hopes and dreams and love compared to the spiteful fury of a cat who does not want to take a bath?

The battle had been epic. Pounce and scamper. Charge and skitter. Paw and jump. Climb and roar. Frozen moments where dragon and kitten stared with unblinking eyes waiting for the other to make a move and explode everything into motion once more. Every twist and turn of the conflict was watched by staring cats atop every rooftop.

And during the lightning flashes of scale and fur a few more of those cats disappeared - wrapped in thread and dragged away before they could let out so much as a meow.

In the end, Adila had wound up upside-down over that vat of incense. Princess Rita had dunked her in time after time and then reeled her back up until her head was spinning and all of the royal kitten's questions got answers. But each time she went under and came back a few more cats were missing. And when she finally broke and admitted that the plan had been for her to defeat Princess Rita in single combat the cat laughed. A foolish plan! To rely upon proving better than a cat in a battle of grace, of speed, of prowess? Only a fool would have imagined such a thing would work! How had the Watch been so simple to imagine that this untested little dragoness could defeat her alone?

To which the Captain had answered, "We weren't," and picked up Princess Rita by the scruff of her neck.

She had given in to the incense then. Her dreams had been thick and tangled and happy, fat with victory. She had known then that she had lived up to both her names. She had served with skill and secrecy in the finest traditions of Adila, and her victory had come while bound and upside down just like a true princess.
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"Mom, I..."

Alina's voice hitches. The air in her mouth tastes bitter. It steals down her throat and fills her lungs like smoke, swirling and twisting and seeping deeper and deeper inside of her as it fills her insides with a sick and awful sensation of being full of something prickly and cold. She can feel her stomach drop, then turn. Then after that, her skin comes alive with a burning sensation that she knows without being told is called shame. She can't get the words out. And what's more, she won't.

"I know." she finishes instead, because she has to say something. Because the alternative is looking scared and needing Mommy and that's the opposite of what has to happen right now. Be strong, Alina.

She reaches up and takes her mother's hand. Her hand, but not her burdens. Not her worries. Certainly not her crown. It should be such a simple thing, the duty of a daughter and especially of a Princess-Promised. But just thinking about saying the words makes her skin crawl, makes her feel like vomiting. She can't. She can't! And she won't!

Alina sits up, which is difficult under all the blankets and sisters and her mother trying gently to keep cradling her head, but she rises with perfect grace anyway. Like this, the pair of them are nearly equal. Alina's lips are pressed together tightly. Her face is strained. She stares into her mother's deep green eyes with an intensity that reaches through to her core, and for the moment doesn't care how much her Mommy stares back and sees the crystals she views the world through now. It's better for her to know. It's better she ask the questions here and now. And if she says nothing, then... Alina needs to know. If that's still really Mommy she's looking at.

Her long and tumbling lavender hair is just the same. Her perfect brow, her nose, her daughter-kissing lips, the way she keeps her head raised high even when she's obviously tired, it's all the Halcyon that Alina remembers. The woman she idolizes. But the eyes. The eyes are... they're, they're... she doesn't know how to shape the thought. Mommy's eyes are carrying something extra that they should never ever have. There is love in there, and kindness, laughter, and the deep wisdom of someone you'd trust to carry a kingdom on her graceful shoulders, but there's something else besides. Unnatural fatigue, and... and a, a shock even bordering on terror. And a hope that makes Alina sick to see.

She knows that hope. That's the ugly, nasty, childish hope that turned Alina's entire body to crystal, almost forever. 'I hope that someone else will do this thing. I hope she'll take my place, and let me rest. I just want to rest. Didn't I do enough? Didn't I?'

Alina's face softens. She smiles at her mother, and turns to look out the window.

"The... the sun's really pretty this morning, isn't it Mom? I bet it'll be much warmer today."

There are tears beading up against her eyes. Alina blinks them away, and watches through the window with a determination she doesn't understand. It's early in the day, hardly even time for breakfast, but already she can see dozens of Illuminans out and working, trying to clean snow off of the glass roads, or picking up pieces of broken tools and treasures, or diligently counting heads and trying to figure out who is missing. Alina knows, the answer is too many.

The tears stream down her face without caring how often she moves to wipe them away. She stops trying after only a moment. She knows. Without being told, she knows. This is her last big adventure. She's going to have to apologize to Kazelia: there's not going to be a Great Jedadi Heist. Work restoring the castle alone would take months, maybe even years, and there's an entire country just as broken beyond that. More, even. It's got nothing to do with being a Queen or a Princess, this is her home. These are her people. This is her place. If Oberon and Eska weren't still lurking in the shadows with Adila and Dandy in their clutches and the threat of the Caduceus hanging over the world, she might not even be willing to leave this time.

Her mind drifts back to Feloria and the company who had so fiercely defended her from herself before that night in the lashing rains. Their silly little circus and the delight they brought to children's faces simply by believing their Princess still shined for them. The word would be out soon. Would they hear it? Would they learn that Illumina was calling out to them again? And if they did, would they come? Would they bring their brave smiles and invincible hopes back to their struggling homeland, or would they choose to stay among the flowers and plenty they'd already run to? Did they want to rest? Like Mommy did?

No. They would rush straight back. And if Alina wasn't there to welcome them, then... she'd die of shame right immediately, wherever she happened to be at the time. On the windowsill, Alina finds a little guest. The first starling she's seen in years hops on its little bird feet and trills the first few hopeful notes of Spring.

"Look, Mom!" She's not keeping her voice down anymore. There's an irritated grunt from Jessamine, and Freesia is running fingers through her hair with a worried look on her face, but Alina carries on without acknowledging either of them, "I love starlings, don't you? Y-you know... their song saved Jessamine. They brought her back to us from an awful spell, just them and the sun. You have to make sure to tell them thank you, ok?"

Jess isn't glowering anymore. She's sitting up on the bed and listening so intently you'd think her life depended on it. If it weren't for that lullaby, and Ourania's miracle, could they still be a family today? Brave, stupid Jess ran right back into the most dangerous place on earth because someone had to save Mommy. Alina hadn't done it. She'd run. She'd run just like she was told, and...

There are hugs and tears enough to fill this little room this morning. Alina squeezes tighter and sobs harder than anyone. Mommy could have fought him. She could have arrayed her precious daughters against the evil king and made him claw and scrap for every inch of Illuminan soil. She had Gold, she had her daughters and her knights and all of Alina's rainbow sisters, and her own adjutants besides. If they'd fought, really, honestly fought... maybe they would even have won. Maybe they could have matched Oberon's monstrous daughters and his armies and his treasures and stopped him from ever getting a foothold in Hyperborea.

Maybe...

But then, maybe not. Mommy made the braver play by far. She tried to take all of the risk onto herself, without putting a single precious treasure in harm's way. She trusted her daughters to find themselves and be the biggest, strongest, bravest girls and fix whatever she couldn't stop from breaking. That's why she hid Gold. She... Mommy was so brave. She was so strong. The greatest Queen Illumina's ever had, better than Marina or even Aurora who tamed the Roc. If she gave up now, it'd...

Alina's tears burn hot on her cheeks. No! NO! She can't say the words! And she won't say the words! Even with a heart full of ice, that's still her Mommy! Taking her burden right now won't make her happy! It won't make her better! So she... so she... she... she can't, ok? That's why the words won't come out. Because her Mommy is the bravest and most beautiful woman Illumina has ever had on its throne, and she deserves a happier ending than for her daughter to help the ice inside her freeze forever.

Her hand brushes against her mother's soft, pale cheek. She lifts herself up to plant the warmest of kisses on Mommy's forehead, where he crown and her Gold should be shining right this second.

"Don't worry, Mommy. I'm going to fix it, ok? I'm going to fix everything..."
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It was...another book. Hidden in a secret compartment. Kazelia looks disappointed. “Another book? You’ve got an entire library, and yet you went ‘oh I know, I’ll stick something in my secret compartment because I’m just out of room for books now?’” Kazelia rolls her eyes, kicks the elven sage again for good measure and picks up the book to take a look at what the big deal is, since she’s standing right there.

“No dont!” Azora shouts, but Kazelia has already flipped it open, too late, too late. You see, the sage was doing a better job than Kazelia had been giving him credit for. He had been napping the stars every night for a long time on his little world. Where they were. And...where they weren’t. This book was a book of absences, a chronicle of the spaces in the void. And as such it was an attempt to give shape to the shapeless, to map the nothingness that was and was not Mother void all at once.

When this had happened the first time, Kazelia had found herself standing before Mother. This had been the moment when she had lost the stars, traded them for a piece of that great darkness that she could call her own. Her magic had grown here, moved past parlor tricks to that great and terrible darkness that had sat within her all that time. And then Azora had snatched the book from her hands before she learn more, had sent Kazelia flying away from that book and pinned her to a wall with invisible bonds of force. She had left Kazelia like that, arms and legs splayed out in a V shape above and below her. Then Azora had murdered the elf and wiped the minds of every member of Kazelia’s unit present there. She had left her sister alone in that place for a full nigjt, until her magic had worn off with the wan, pale sunrise on that dying world.

Things might be a little different this time though. After all, Mother is already here and Kazelia’s heart and soul are different. Perhaps nothing happens when she touches that book. Or perhaps she relives that memory and she’s ready for Azora this time, conscious of herself in two different planes at once. Or perhaps she knows better than to pick it up at all this time and bows subserviently to her sister at the last moment instead. What do you think?
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Adila!

Strictly speaking, there’s nothing in the rules that says you can’t be a racer, as long as you don’t touch the ground. And that’s not a problem, given your whole wing situation.

Demon Gulch is one of the Bazaar’s more dangerous tourist attractions, a swelteringly hot crevasse dug into the earth for over a mile. It goes deep. Nobody knows exactly how deep. The Bazaar being what it is, there are a bunch of speciality saunas built on either side, heated entirely by the gulch.

The Gulch Race is an officially unofficial race. Racers, with specialized gliders, launch from the clock tower and try to make it down to the belches of hot air rising from the gulch. It’s thrilling and so, so dangerous. Sure, there are carpets on standby to save anyone who falls in, but every year there’s always at least one contestant who ends up looking like a lobster by the end.

It even makes a little thrill of excitement run up your spine when you get too close, making you wonder if there might be something in this world that burns like a dragon’s flame.

Officially, you’re off-duty and stretching your wings. Unofficially, you are allowed— encouraged, even— to bring down as many gliders as you can before you hit the gulch, and then floor it and get to the finish line on the beach as soon as you can.

How you feeling, hotshot?

***

Alina!

“I know you will.”

There is still some unyielding crystal inside your mother, Alina. Just like Argossa spreads its roots all throughout this world, so your mother has in her soul an unbreakable faith, and her faith is this: she has the honor of loving the most special princesses in the whole wide world.

When she fought Oberon, bereft of her Gold, she knew that one day you would come back for it. When she refused to break, it was because she believed in you. You and Jess and Free, working together, each one playing their part...

Who on Hyperborea could even hope to stop you?

Your mother wipes away your tears carefully, making soft and soothing sounds, like you were a little girl again needing to be comforted. She has her three wonderful daughters holding her; she is strong enough for this. She is tired, and the shadow of the ice is heavy on her heart, but she loves you. She loves you. That is enough.

“I am willing to... to lend you Gold again,” she says, carefully. She won’t be selfish. She won’t force you into the crown. It’s just a loan if that’s what you want, little Lina. “You will need its help when you fight him again.”

There’s no fear. Her voice does not tremble. When you see yourself reflected in her eyes, for a moment, it’s hard to recognize yourself. Rita may have grown on this trip, but she’s not the only one. You’re so silly, Lina. You can see how Jess and Free grew, but not yourself?

The next time you meet Oberon, he’d better have his running boots on. Because you’re going to beat him.

Jess puts her hand on yours, and Free puts her hand on Jess’s. They’re willing to help you with the magic again. More than willing, even. Eager. Ready to give as much as they can to help.

And when you come back... you’ll have thought of something. Figured out how to properly heal your mother’s heart. You will. You have to.

What does it feel like to pour your magic into your mother? Is it like wrapping up someone who got caught outside all night in a warm blanket? Is it like pouring hot water on ice, like when all those brave lava sharks thawed the castle basement? Or is it like the warmest hug in the whole wide world?

***

Kazelia!

The little girl stumbles into you without even an invitation. You are observed. You are drawn forth, the shadow cast by the light, surging forth full of hunger without a name and an urge to find the Truth.

No one ever has much Truth inside them. They are pale, faking things, assemblies of their environments and connections and memories and when you pluck them out of that context, there is nothing left at the bottom. You are so good at explaining this.

That girl is you. You remember being here. But that’s not where you are now. That’s the you that was, but that’s not the you who is, to put another way.

There are stars falling in her eyes. There are always stars falling here, into the waters on the deep, where they shine to fall again.

She’s jealous, isn’t she? Jealousy of things that aren’t True is a false emotion. But you will let her make a defense, anyway. It’s only fair before you disassemble her and show her all the false parts inside her. Maybe she will even be interesting, and make this disruption of your innocence of your loneliness fleetingly worthwhile.

How do you invite the observer of false reality inside yourself, Mother? And how disorienting is it to lose yourself in the role of another, Kazelia?
Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Thanqol
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Thanqol

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She leaves the time fragment of youth with a wrench. She doesn't want to go, doesn't want to lose track of that innocent and smaller world, doesn't want to have to turn her back on creeping and pouncing and riding along on peoples' shoulders forever. It was a shelter from the falling fragments of time in the wake of the opened Clock but with the crashing storm around her she can't endure there long (although...)

But then the rush of fire soaks into her and, just like it did before, it hypnotizes her. She blossoms. There is no gangliness, no awkwardness, no imbalance of hormones or even lack of confidence. She grows like a jaguar - sleek and fast and already optimized for predatory hunting. It's not that she's invincible. It's that she's capable of anything.

So she stalks the starting line as a hunter, sizing up and staring down the competition. She's painted her racing number, 012, directly onto the scales of her neck in red where it shines still-wet. She's sizing up the competition - they all feel like prey to her, all these gorgeous, fearful humans about to launch themselves into her domain of air and fire. She knows instinctively that beauty and danger are the same thing, so she seeks the greatest prey amidst the flock.
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"...I would be honored to borrow Gold," Alina's choosing her words and her tone just as carefully as her mother, "I promise, I'll bring it home without a scratch. You'll hardly have time to miss me."

There, keep it all nice and official sounding, a Princess to her Queen, without any sort of presumption or request for Mommy to worry about. If it's time, then it'll be time. But before that... before that, she'll have to figure out what medicine she's missing. But if she's made it this far, and done this much, she can make it the rest of the way. Alina smiles and joins hands with her sisters.

Alina is her Green, and her Green is her. Is it any wonder, then, that when she pours her magic into the room it feels like water? Not a cold drizzle or a chilly waterfall, but the warmest summer rain. The kind of warmth and wetness that seeps through the top of your head and sinks through the rest of you, from your neck down to your heart and then from there down your legs until it reaches your toes and there's nothing but the pleasant damp, the summer warmth, and the clinging of silks.

And then, just when it's about to be too much, the magic changes and the sensation shifts. It invites you in from the rain with a hug and the fluffiest towel ever. From head to toe again, Alina's love is the feeling of getting dry after being so perfectly soaked, filled with closeness and affection and maybe soon after a hot mug of tea. Jasmine perhaps, or a simple earthy black mixed with cream and sugar and...

Alina kisses her Mommy on the cheek. With all of that ice inside her there's no way that this will last, but if it buys her even a day, even a couple of hours of feeling like herself then it's worth every ounce of magic in her body.

"Ok!" she chirps with a chipper confidence she's not sure really belongs to her, "Who wants breakfast? Free, do you wanna help me in the kitchen?"
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Kazelia must have been very good at going places that she didn't belong, I thought. She certainly wasn't supposed to be here with me now. She was under Oberon's protection. He was very dashing. A bit much sometimes, I thought, quite loud, but he was the embodiment of one of those pieces of truth in the universe and that made him someone special. It doesn't matter to me, of course, whether that truth is the unbridled arrogance of the cold and the dark that believes it owns something or whether it's a shining heart that believes bonds of friendship and light transcend all worlds. At least, I don't think it matters to me? It feels like maybe it will start mattering sometime soon, as I sit here and watch myself, or watch Kazelia moving about lost in the dark.

Back then, you see, her heart was still buried. She was so subsumed in Oberon's truth that it was hard to reach anything else. The only reason I could do that at all was that she had come here unannounced, without the usual entourage that Oberon brought with him, and without his regalia of power to fix his will into all the travelers.

But without that, I got to look into Kazelia. Really look. I'm very good at seeing all the falseness of people, you see. She was full of jealousy when she wandered in here, but all I had to do was pick at one little thread to see that jealousy was nothing but the product of living with Azora and Oberon for so long. It was hardly core to Kazelia, and as soon as you pulled that tiny gauze of association off of her, it was gone like so much dust blown away on a sunless wind.

It was odd though. I hadn't seen a case like this one in a very long time. I was all ready to tell her that there was simply nothing to her at all. I'd picked apart her loyalty (magically induced, worthless) and her training (nothing but drills). I enjoyed the taste of her wanderlust, but that had been imposed on her and she had not, at least at that time, adopted it in her heart, there was no joy in it yet you see, and so it wasn't real. But right when I thought I was done, there was something that my searching little fingernail bounced off of. That was rare, you know. Less than one in a thousand who visited me. But it happened. This though, it was an odd case. Kazelia didn't know she had it, you see. Normally I receive some kind of defense. There's a dialogue, I pick apart the threads, and the person sees that core of themselves and lets me glimpse their truth, if they have one. But Kazelia, she had one without knowing it herself. That must have been Oberon's influence. Her passion was buried beneath his shadow.

Hmm, yes, that seemed a cruelty even to me. Truth should not be hidden, it was a rare enough thing without trying to stamp it down. I really didn't like that. I don't like that. I believe in passion and freedom you see. I do now. Maybe I always have. I knew that the girl there needed something special. She needed to feel something to unlock that passion within her. Ah how rare indeed for me, of all things in the universe, to think about adding something to a person. And yet, I knew that she needed to feel and few emotions were permitted to her. So I took away the stars from her. I do that for many riders, but they see the falling stars in their eyes, the strange light and darkness of the void. From Kazelia, I took them all, a sight robbed from her that would leave a keening pain in her heart.

I cannot say that I can see the future, but then again, this is the past so it's not at all a difficult vision. She would feel that pain, that loss dearly. She would ask her father about it, and Oberon, who did love his favorite daughters in his way, would promise her that she could get them back. He would plant a seed for her, a seed that would become anger and frustration. She would go somewhere full of magic and expect more and she would see her father fail and realize that he was not everything to her, could never be everything to her. Nourishment for a seed within a heart that would admire a flame and beat an ancient song. I could hear it, can hear it now, so gentle and so strong. Pulsing with the flame in our heart.

I took her stars and sent her back, even as her sister thought to tackle her and remove the book from her hands. And the rest, as we say, is history.
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