Hidden 9 days ago Post by Thanqol
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Adila!

You have a plan. It is a terrible plan, but it is a plan that has more of a chance of succeeding than most of the other plans. You need to get up this massive, achingly huge tree without being detected. Dragons are big and tend to be easily detected, but you are the TIME DRAGON, which is crucial for the success of this plan.

Step one: become kitten-sized, hop into Hornet's arms.
Step two: fast-forward to the part where you're standing on the top of Argossa with Hornet.
Step three: immediately find a place to hide and begin reconnaissance.
Step four: identify mission targets (Ourania, fellow princesses, Oberon) and proceed from there.

There is only one problem: you need Hornet to trust you enough to hold on and not let go while you propel both of you forwards through time. It's going to be disorienting and confusing, and if she drops you she risks being lost in the time vortex. You could leave her behind, but you might as well toss her directly to the Garthim to save time if you do that.

This is complicated by the fact that Hornet has gone completely non-verbal, and is huddled with her arms around her knees and her head hidden behind them. What do you say to her, Adila?


She needs to go. She can't risk carrying Hornet with her. She can't risk talking when she might be overheard. She looks up at the branches of Argossa. Even though the pages in her mind are silent now she's still aware of all her predecessor's secret plans for storming this place, defenses and shadowed alcoves, a plan centuries in the making ready and waiting for that moment when she'd need to overthrow the ruler of the world. All she needs to do is make the same decision Adila I would have made and leave Hornet behind. She can save her friends, save everyone -

She closes her eyes.

Despite everything she knows, despite seeing Adila I herself break down in weeping and renounce her own harsh practicality, it's still the thoughts she's accustomed to thinking in. Duty! Mission! Sacrifice! Loneliness! As though she could do this alone! But just as she starts to push back against the thoughts her little light fickers and grows dim against her breast and she realizes with a sick start why it's so easy to think that way.

Because the alternative is fear.

If she steps off the prepared path, if she makes her own decisions, she'll have to confront things like - like, like her friends being captured, like Dandy being captured, like the feel of fingers around her heart, like the knowledge she's weak and can't do this alone. Being a princess means being vulnerable and afraid and heartbroken. And with all of those emotions looming, doesn't it make sense to look for alternatives?

She doesn't give into it, of course. There's no way she could, not after all she's seen, all she's learned, all the strength and support she's been given. All of Argossa's branches are weighing down on her but better that than abandoning a f-friend in need.

She folds her wings. Turns away from the tree, back towards Hornet, and gently nuzzles her shoulder for the first time. +Princess Hornet? It's okay. I'm here. It's okay. Take as long as you need. I'm here.+
Hidden 8 days ago Post by Phoe
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Alina goes limp against her restraints. The only thing keeping her head from slumping down against her chest is Cassian's grip on her jaw, which she's no longer clenching to keep him from stuffing her mouth full of whatever gross gag he happens to have lying around. Her eyes drift shut. She is no longer blazing gold. Her spark isn't burning for anyone to see anymore; the only thing Alina Cascade is in this moment is a prisoner.

So when she suddenly jerks up and thrashes with all her might, it's super easy to headbutt Cassian right in his stupid face. The sound of his surprised grunt is so satisfying! Is this really her? Even as recently as the Gala she would have been too paralyzed by fear to even think about trying something like this. But when she opens her eyes again her eyes are alight with the unconquerable spark of a princess who's got something to protect. Her smile is pure defiance.

"I'm so sad for you," she says with a laugh, "Your sisters all managed to figure it out. Why can't you? Even Azora's carving out a life for herself that doesn't mean she has to hide under your father's legs like you are. And even then... look at you! How much more helpless do you need me to be before you stop shaking? Your poor sisters must be weeping."

That's right, eyes on her, you half-formed princeling. You've got her all tied and all the fight's been pinched out of her everywhere except those bright green eyes of hers. And weren't they different the last time you saw her? Aren't you curious? Come on, pay attention! Take control! And while you're at it, let your guard down, because Alina's betting everything on that flash of pink she saw before she got carried off to here. And if her heart is even half right to still be hoping even now, then neither you nor she is the star of this particular show. That's a lesson that took her a very long time to learn, Cassian. So pay attention now, and let her give you the crash course.

[Keep Them Busy: 7]
Hidden 8 days ago Post by Tatterdemalion
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Adila!

You wrap time around yourself and Hornet. Around you, the darkness leeches away into the water, leaving the debris bobbing on the waves, washing up against the roots. Garthim drop into the water, going limp, letting the waves bob them up and down as they become inactive. You give Hornet the gift of time enough to come to terms with your presence. To let her know that you aren't going to leave.

Finally, she looks up at you through her goggles. "What do you want me to do?" She asks, still guarded, but... but listening. For once, she's listening to you, fully intent.

***

Alina!

This is not how you wanted to meet Oberon again.

The way you imagined it, you and Rita were going to hold hands and then punch him in the face together, while Adila set his stupid cape on fire and Kazelia zapped all of his magic out of him. Then Ourania would send him to Tree Jail until he learned his lesson, and maybe she'd be willing to give you and Rita her blessing, and all of Hyperborea would know that you, yes, you... you saved the world with the love of your life.

The love of your life who you have to believe is still alive. Nemie wouldn't let her drown. She wouldn't let anyone drown.

You are tossed at Oberon's feet when Cassian snaps his fingers, and with your hands bound behind your back, you don't exactly manage to break your fall. At least you don't crack your chin on the marble floor, managing to twist so that instead you smack the side of your head. You bite down on the monogrammed handkerchief and let out a winded grunt through Cassian's cologne-drenched scarf. Accent of Feloria is meant to be dabbed on, idiot.

Oberon puts the toe of his boot under your chin and lifts your head. "Well, well. I hadn't even sent out wedding invitations, but it appears our bridesmaid is already here." He's sitting in an ornate garden chair, and you know, you know whose chair that is. How dare he? "And she brought my disobedient daughter." He tosses an elaborate cube from hand to hand, and a soft sound of singing rises from it. His face twists in irritation as you both register the sound. Then he looks down at you, and his smile is wicked.

***

Kazelia!

The Puzzle-Box clicks open, and you're expelled from its depths: you, Kyouko, and Shiva! A quick survey of your surroundings reveals that you're surrounded by Garthim, that Cassian is standing back but not quite far enough back, and that your father is holding Alina.

She's sitting in his lap, and he has one arm wrapped around her with casual possessiveness. Like she's a new toy, or another one of his artifacts. Something he can do with as he pleases. "I would think twice before doing anything rash," he says, and strokes a finger down Alina's cheek. "My wedding is happening whether you like it or not. Now stop that ridiculous singing and promise to behave, or I will have to put you back in time out and... break your toys."


"Why do you continue to fight for these princesses?" His tone is acidic, and even though you know you shouldn't be listening... "Take this pathetic little brat. She only tolerates you because she thinks you can give her back her gumdrops and tickle fights, or whatever her kingdom had to offer. There's no room for someone like you in her world, Kazelia. It hurts me to watch you struggle for her."

And his words sound so... reasonable? Maybe there's magic in them, maybe he's just trying to offer some twisted parental guidance, but... it's hard, suddenly, not to look at Alina and see a silly cotton candy bit of fluff. Oberon is real. Oberon is solid. Alina could be washed away so easily...

[Erase your Bond. Alina no longer fills you with joy.]
Hidden 8 days ago Post by Phoe
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Tell me. Tell me tell me tell me! Princess, tell me! Tell me how it feels!

When you thrash and you struggle and you strain, and all you do is shiver? Tell me how it feels!
When your heart pounds fierce inside your chest, and no one even knows? Tell me how it feels!
When the warmth of your love grows cold again, grows cold again
You promised that it never would, but grows cold again? Tell me how it feels!
When your power and your pride can be stuffed inside a bag? Tell me how it feels!

Don't! You! Snivel!
Don't You! Cry!
How dare you dare you dare you, how dare you be so weak?

When you're diamond and invincible, but all you do is cry? Tell me how it feels!
When you make so many promises, but can't even keep them for yourself? Tell me how it feels!
When your shining light is gumdrops, tickle fights, is tickle fights
You promised that you understood, and still you're tickle fights? Tell me how it feels!
When your dreams and your bonds are just stupid shattered glass? Tell me how it feels!

Tell me. Tell me, tell me, tell me! Princess, tell me! Tell me how it feels!


Why can't she stop crying? Oh, this is so pathetic. Hadn't she promised? In the sea by Argossa, hadn't she promised? Not a dozen other times before, hadn't she promised she'd be better? Stop crying!

STOP CRYING! STOP IT, STOP BEING WEAK!

Kazelia, please! Kazelia, you have to believe her! Kazelia no, these sounds aren't what they seem! She's not just squeaking like a tiny useless doll, she's not! She's trying to tell you, but her mouth is stuffed with acrid cloth! It's so dry she can't even drool! It burns, and that's why it sounds like she's whimpering and crying like some silly pet!

But she's trying to... to tell you... to be strong! To be strong, Kazelia! You're so loved, so precious! You're so loved, Kazelia! You're an irreplaceable friend!

S-so... don't. Please. Don't. Don't... don't look at her like that. Don't make that face, don't use those eyes. Please don't... you have to believe her. But she can't even... it's so cold. She's so cold, Kazelia. She can't even say the words.
Hidden 8 days ago Post by Thanqol
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Adila!

You wrap time around yourself and Hornet. Around you, the darkness leeches away into the water, leaving the debris bobbing on the waves, washing up against the roots. Garthim drop into the water, going limp, letting the waves bob them up and down as they become inactive. You give Hornet the gift of time enough to come to terms with your presence. To let her know that you aren't going to leave.

Finally, she looks up at you through her goggles. "What do you want me to do?" She asks, still guarded, but... but listening. For once, she's listening to you, fully intent.


+I'm going to do...+ Adila flailed about looking for an expeditious explanation of the true nature of time. +... something really dangerous. I've never done it deliberately before, or with another person, and there's a lot that can go wrong. But it's the only way we can catch up with the others without...+

She swallows. She's nervous. She's really nervous. She doesn't like any of this.

+You might see visions of the past. Or the future. I might see them too, and I'm sorry if I see anything private. But no matter what you see I need you to hold on tightly to me, okay?+ she resists as best she can the urge to over-emphasize that last point. She doesn't know how to talk to Princess Hornet at all but... she's smart, yeah? If nothing else she's smart. She shouldn't treat her like a child.
Hidden 7 days ago Post by Anarion
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Kazelia swallows. This hadn't been how she'd wanted to meet him. Surprise would have been...good maybe? Dropping in on the wedding. She hadn't expected this. And her song, she had felt his heart, that cold barren nothing, but it hadn't shaken him, not like before. She thought, she didn't know what she thought. It just, it just hurt. She knew what he was saying shouldn't be right, but with Alina struggling there and all of this, Oberon lording it over her, it felt like maybe nothing would change, like it was all a dream.

Kazelia shook her head and tried to look at something else. There wasn't much, Cassian's idiotic smirk, a horde of garthim, Oberon. He'd been in this form on the ledge too, in fact, hadn't he broken that sling he was using? And he'd thrown the puzzle box. He had no want of artifacts, but it was odd that he hadn't intervened in a more aggressive way. The calculating part of Kazelia's mind is going full steam all of a sudden. Comparing how Oberon fought today with those years ago when they'd first entered Hyperborea and he had approached Argossa and fought Ourania in a shapeshifting duel. Was it possible that...

Kazelia looks at Oberon, not Alina, and instead of engaging in his conversation, she asks him a question. "Father. When was the last time you shapeshifted?"

[Evil's Bane means his shapeshifting stat is damaged. I'm also invoking my once per scene free Heart of Fire (comes with the "We are not the same" move). I'd like him to tell us something valuable here. Bond also struck off. Bastard.]
Hidden 7 days ago Post by Tatterdemalion
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Kazelia!

Your father sneers. His mechanical moth may have brought the box to you, flung from a sling, but why didn’t he? It’s an angry sneer, full of wounded pride.

“Why should I?” Always spinning it back. Always deflecting. “After all, what form could be better than this one?” He stands, cradling Alina in one arm as if she were an exhausted toddler, before handing her casually off to one of the Garthim. “Take her to meet the bride,” he says. “And the fox, too.”

Then he holds his hands behind his back and waits for you to approach him. You know what you are meant to do: to go for a walk with him. It might be your best opportunity to stop this and help... well, Adila. And Ourania! And, you suppose, Alina, too. (Your heart feels frozen when her distress drifts across your mind.)

But his words are cold. And he has so much to say.

“You can’t win,” he says, conversationally, as the Garthim scuttle away. “By the time the wedding bells ring, I will have made Argossa my own.” He taps his foot, and you notice that the stone-like wood under his feet has tendrils of cold rot running through it. And now that you’re looking carefully, you can see them spreading in the corners of the room. Your father is going to tame Argossa or (more likely) kill it. The thought of a dead, rotten tree at the heart of this beautiful world... how does that make you feel, Kazelia?

***

Alina!

As Kazelia makes her choice, you’re already being carried off by a stinking, wet, gross Garthim. Kyouko hisses, and then there’s the sound of a smoke bomb going off behind you, but she doesn’t come save you. Maybe she can’t. Maybe she just doesn’t want to.

And Cassian escorts you, smirking, doubling down on his arrogant self-assurance, to the Bridal Suite.

It used to be Ourania’s salon, but now it’s been transformed. Magical constructs made out of iron and ice weave together a bluish-white wedding gown for the bride, who sits shackled to her chair. But the sight of Ourania, proud and defiant even with a midnight-black scarf wrapped over her face, isn’t the worst thing in the room.

It’s Diana.

She’s lying on the floor, one ankle shackled to the wardrobe, her breath shallow and her cheeks pale with fever. When the Garthim push you down next to her, she stirs weakly, and raises her head.

“Hey, Alina,” she rasps. “I’m sorry. I tried...”

“Shut up,” Cassian says, rolling his eyes as he tosses your lights on a side table. (They rattle about and fight against the strangely absorbent silk. Another of his father’s toys.) “I don’t want to hear you whine about losing your magic any more.”

The look Ourania gives him would wither stone, and he beats a hasty retreat after making sure your ankles are shackled to that same wardrobe, leaving the Garthim standing watch. Diana coughs, and gestures for you to wiggle closer. “I can’t do much,” she says (with the earnestness of someone who is used to being able to do everything), “but let me see if I can help with that gag...”

***

Adila!

It’s... not what you expected. As you fast-forward, you see flashes of Hyperborea from above. You see devil-fortresses, and the first sun and moon. You see the Shadow War, as Eupheria’s nightmare army spreads whimsy and misrule across the land. You see Ouroboros wrapping herself around the world, seizing her tail in her mouth, shoring it up against the black and endless sea beyond. You see rainbows and the growth of mountains and fireworks and...

You see a cold and desolate wasteland, Argossa split down its trunk with black rot, its limbs drooping and broken. The sun and moon are gone. The stars shine unnaturally bright over the frozen desolation that once was a sea.

And then you’re in Hornet’s arms, and she’s holding you like she never intends to let you go. You’re on the edge of the wedding preparations, which are being made (slowly and clumsily) by Garthim on sorcerous autopilot. As long as you are very, very careful... you won’t activate their deep predatory instincts.

But Hornet’s just standing in plain sight, not moving a muscle, squeezing you tighter and tighter as one of them lumbers past, trailing white lilies from a large bag in its claws.

***

Rita von Catabas!

“I love you,” Alina says, and her lips meet yours. You feel so full of love, you’re drowning in it. You nip playfully and gently at her, and her lips taste like salt under your teeth. You can’t breathe, your heart is so full it’s going to burst, and you need this moment to go on forever but the longer you kiss the more it feels like something has to—

You roll over and lose your hairballs. They’re a wet, soggy mess, just like you. What’s going on?

“—and you’re sure that Alina wasn’t drifting dead in the water? You can tell me, it’s fine. I don’t actually care about her, except insofar as she’s useful to our mission.”

Azora, I’m sure you’re just all discomposed because of nearly drowning, so I’ll let you retract that,” Dandy says, cold as turf in midwinter and just as yielding.

You open your eyes and everything is pastel corals. You’re in a Mermaid’s Shell, for visitors from above the waves. Which means...

“Where’s Alina?” You croak, and turn back to the princess who just resuscitated you, whose smile shatters like glass. You’re sorry, Nemie, you really am, but... “Please, where is she?”

“Oberon has her,” Nemie says, and strokes your forehead. “I’m so sorry, but...”

“Then we’re going after her.” You close your eyes and try to will yourself back into being human, and only too late realize that it’s too much too soon and the blackness sweeps back over you as Nemie calls your name from far away...
Hidden 7 days ago Post by Anarion
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Damn him. Argossa itself, just damn him. The way Kazelia feels is that she wants to ram her spear into him and twist it, filling him so deeply with fire that there's nothing left of him. Rage burns in her heart that he would do this. Bereft of his daughters, his magic (she saw him change the subject), and his armies, he'd simply take everything with him. What would it gain him to turn Argossa to ice? Another vibrant world turned to cold and stillness. He wouldn't even have anyone left to boast about it to, it was doubtful Cassian would even survive the loss of Argossa if he were on it. Honestly, she's not even sure Oberon himself would survive it. If he can't shapeshift, there's a good chance that some of the essence of Argossa has influenced him and he'd be signing his own death warrant in the process of corrupting it.

Damn bitter, spiteful old man.

Kazelia doesn't fly at him in a rage though. She gathers herself, hands together behind her back, posture stiff and upright like she's inspecting a battalion instead of a horde of Garthim. If she wastes her chance now, with no friends around, no other princesses at all, and surrounded as she is by Garthim and Oberon's full attention, she'll simply squander the opportunity. She has to stall and gather information. Her friends will come, there will be a moment, she's confident. That's the blessing of Hyperborea, that they will come and she won't have to be alone.

"Why do you even want all this?" she asks him, trying to pass the time. "You can't stand the games they play here, you're cut off from Mother. Does it bring you such pleasure simply to wreck and ruin?"
Hidden 6 days ago 6 days ago Post by Phoe
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It's cruel of her to fight like this. To sag her head and squirm the way she is right now. Her muffled grunts of pain are like vicious little daggers in the back of the person who least deserves it in all the world. But why not? Why not be cruel? Everything already hurts so much Alina feels like she's going to tear herself in two. So why can't she be selfish and delay this final horror one more minute?

How is this possible? How can she be the same girl who stared down her literal nightmares all alone in the cold and the rain and told them that she loved them? How can she be the same person who was able to hold, and then more importantly let go of the Caduceus? Had she really saved Askaia from the Slaugh? It didn't feel real anymore. A princess who caused so much needless pain and doomed Hyperborea on her way couldn't possibly have done all those things. She goes slack, and her gag comes out. Now she needs to talk, too.

"Oh, Diana. I..."

She doesn't have another crystal growing in her heart to punish her this time. No magical muteness to hide behind, no excuses for her weakness. Ourania could probably turn her into a portrait or something, even now, but of course she's only sitting there. Watching. And gag or no gag, she most certainly hasn't explained things to Diana, either. This is her real punishment. This moment, right here. Alina's vision goes blurry with tears, and she makes no effort to stop them anymore. What would be the point?

The only good thing in all of this is that Cassian had to swap her handcuffs to chain her legs to this wardrobe. The Garthim watch her every move, but at least she's free to wrap herself around the bravest witch in the whole world and give her the hug she deserves. She strokes Diana's pale hair with loving tenderness, the way she wishes someone would do to her, and holds the trembling girl steady. Her words are all choking up her throat, so stalls for time just that little bit extra by slowly easing Diana back into a lying position, with her head cradled in Alina's lap. She tries to smile, but her face is only misery. One hand be caresses Diana's cheek.

"I promise, I'm going to..."

This time she does have to stop and wipe away her tears. She can't say that! She can't! All she's doing right now is getting this poor girl's face wet. She sniffles, and wishes her heart would just stop, just stop, just for one second stop breaking.

"I'm so sorry!" There it is at last. Alina's shaking almost as feverishly as Diana, but now that she's found her voice the words just keep tumbling out like a waterfall, "I'm so sorry! I'm so, so sorry! This never should have happened! It's all my fault! I was so selfish! I'm such a coward! Oh Diana, did they really take your magic? Did they... oh no, no no no that's so... that's just... that's how he got in here, isn't it? It's all my fault!

Shh, no, don't say anything, you don't understand! We never... I never actually needed a spy! I didn't have a plan, I lied to you! I knew exactly what kind of person he is and what he's capable of and I threw you to him anyway! I, I, I used you! I pushed you in front of me like a selfish brat because I was too scared and too weak to face him myself like I should have! And if I'd just... if I'd just hurried, maybe I could have... b-b-but I... I couldn't even manage that! I still don't have a plan! I never learn! I just, just hoped everything would turn out ok because I'm just the kind of sparkle brained ditz he said I was! I'm sorry, Diana! I'm so, so..."

And then there's no more space for words because all she's got left are hot, stinging tears. Alina cries her heart out, not even daring to look Diana in the face because she can't bear to see her looking up with that same cold distance and disdain she saw on Kazelia's face. She just can't, ok? She's a coward, she already said so! So just... just let her keep holding Diana, ok? Let her offer these meager comforts until the end. She deserves so much more, but without her lights, without a miracle, without the Caduceus in her hands anymore, what is she supposed to do?

"I'm... I p-promise I'm going to fix this, ok? I, I'm not sure what I... but, please, let me try. Please please please, let me try. Whatever I can do, from now until forever, just ask and I'll do it! I promise, ok? I know that's not worth anything, but I, but still I..."
Hidden 6 days ago Post by Thanqol
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Adila!

It’s... not what you expected. As you fast-forward, you see flashes of Hyperborea from above. You see devil-fortresses, and the first sun and moon. You see the Shadow War, as Eupheria’s nightmare army spreads whimsy and misrule across the land. You see Ouroboros wrapping herself around the world, seizing her tail in her mouth, shoring it up against the black and endless sea beyond. You see rainbows and the growth of mountains and fireworks and...

You see a cold and desolate wasteland, Argossa split down its trunk with black rot, its limbs drooping and broken. The sun and moon are gone. The stars shine unnaturally bright over the frozen desolation that once was a sea.

And then you’re in Hornet’s arms, and she’s holding you like she never intends to let you go. You’re on the edge of the wedding preparations, which are being made (slowly and clumsily) by Garthim on sorcerous autopilot. As long as you are very, very careful... you won’t activate their deep predatory instincts.

But Hornet’s just standing in plain sight, not moving a muscle, squeezing you tighter and tighter as one of them lumbers past, trailing white lilies from a large bag in its claws.


Princess Adila feels very small.

The enormity, the weight, the meaning of Argossa... everything it's seen, everything it means. She's known that the mysterious little island that she visited a [thousand years/months] ago had a connection to its roots, but this is the first time she's really gotten a glimpse as to what that means. This is the axis around which the world turns, already ancient when the devil-grandmothers first beat the concept of time into the scales of the young earth. She couldn't bring it down if she gnawed upon its roots for the rest of time, but Oberon might do it within the week...

+Hornet?+ she murmurs, as small as she feels, wrapped up like a wyrmling in Hornet's arms. +Princess Hornet?+

There's no response. Oh no.

She screwed it up. She'd done exactly what she'd told Hornet not to do - she'd gotten distracted by the visions of the cosmos and had let go. She'd let the fate of the world distract her from her friend (surely the scale justifies -)

She doesn't let herself finish the thought before diving right back the way she came, closing her mind against the visions of midnight futures.
Hidden 6 days ago Post by Tatterdemalion
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Kazelia!

"I'm in love," your father says, and somehow doesn't burst into flames. Your Mother stirs inside you, a roiling wrath. Lies. Lies. Lies. The number of lies, one wrapped in another! The lie that he is in Love, that he is nobly pursuing his heart, rather than just wanting and wanting and wanting, and not being able to let go when his desire is denied. The lie that this justifies anything that he will do in pursuit. The lie that his desires are more important than hers, that anyone who would get in his way just doesn't understand his cause...

All these lies he is telling to himself. Undo. Unmake. Take apart. He has never had the truth told to him, his lies dismantled and torn apart. It would be dangerous. Those lies are what are keeping him on track with a wedding, are what keep him from lashing out at you, are what stop him from crumbling apart. Your Mother is selfish in her own way; she rages and roars in your chest, itches your palms and your fingers with the desire to disassemble, to lay him bare and show him that he is layering his true and beautiful Want inside so many lies--

No. That's her thought. His Want may be pure, but it is pure like the hunger of a sea monster cutting through the water. It is True, but it is not Good, and it is not Beautiful at all. There is more to life than just Truth.

Your father touches your cheek, and this too is a lie. The gentle look he gives you, an errant lock of silver hair hanging over his temple, is a lie. They are lies that say: I will forgive you completely. All that you need to do is obey me, and help me devour this world, and together the two of us, no, the three of us will go on and see things you haven't even dreamed of yet.

The name of this lie is: I love you, snowflake.

And the ugly truth looming behind it is that he will have you cheering him on at his wedding. He doesn't know it yet, but you can see the shape of his Want. He will have you in your proper place as his daughter, and he does not care whether your mind comes along.

***

Alina!

Diana's voice is dead and even. "You didn't need a spy." You don't even need to look at her. This wasn't even Oberon's doing, there's no question as to whether he did something to make Kazelia's heart go cold. This was all on you. This was your fault. You did this. "He asked you to acquire me, didn't he?" She's burning up under your hands. When she tries to push away from you, it's like having a newborn kitten bat at you.

"Oberon pulled my magic out of me," she says, and her voice is sharp as a glass knife, as crisp as fresh snow. "He ripped it out. There is a hole inside me where it was, and there's nothing left. I can't feel our world. I can't hear the crystals. I can't even do something as simple as..." She coughs, and it goes on too long. She's too light. She's too light. "...potion concoction," she concludes. Is that simple? Apparently! Haha! That's a thing to focus on! Just think about, wow, you didn't know that making potions was simple, or maybe you just need the bare minimum of magic you get from being born in Hyperborea? The magic that Diana doesn't have any more? Oh, whiskers. Now you're back at the bad thoughts.

She goes quiet, and you hold her closer, and she is too still, and you're so afraid until her chest rises ever so gently, and breath mists on her lips.

She doesn't have the strength to speak any more, but you can feel her glazed eyes, blue as a lake, tearing through you. There's nothing to arrest them. You're a hollow princess, and Oberon was right. You're nothing. Nothing but fluff and cotton candy and tickle fights and betrayal.

"HMMMMMNNUHH!" You jerk your head up, your vision fuzzy with tears. Ourania is glaring at you. And you deserve it! You failed her, and you failed Diana, and now she knows, and... why is she jerking her head over at the wall?

The wall.

You're inside Argossa. And it's tainted and corrupted and terrible, but... but it's also the wellspring of Hyperborea's magic. You don't have your lights, you don't have any protection, you don't have any formal training as a witch, but... but Diana is going to die. And you made a promise. You can give her more time.

***

Princess Hornet!

It is the first time you have ever been at the Bazaar and it is too loud. It is disorganized. But that's okay! You are fixing it.

+Excuse me, um.+

You look down through your goggles. And, oh. your. gosh. There's a dragon there! Fascinating! She just spoke directly into your mind! Wouldn't it be nice if you could do that? You should start researching dragon telepathy, so that you can just let people see what you're thinking. Like, right now, you're thinking about how the Bazaar will look once it has been sorted and organized. Everybody is going to stop screaming and they'll thank you for making its urban planning logically consistent. Is the dragon telepathical node inside the brain, the heart, or the liver? It would make sense for it to be more centrally located, given the inefficiency of having the vocal cords so relatively exposed.

(It is Carnival, and you are brushing Axonian lacquer over your Best Friend Contract, using precise and even strokes. It is the first one you have ever had signed. No one back home will sign a friend contract with you, citing concerns that you are a princess, and none of the princesses will, for a variety of reasons you hypothesize boil down to "you are Hornet, and we don't like you." But you have one, and it's your favorite princess of all time.)

"Can I see your brain??"

+What? No! I mean. I'm here to issue a citation.+

Curses. You'll have to construct a theoretical model of a dragon instead. She's so... she's so much of her! Her biological design is so efficient, so streamlined. You consider what it would be like to be a dragon. You would need to construct fine manipulators, possibly telepathically-powered, in order to assist with construction, but you would be able to use all four limbs for walking. That just feels natural! Two legs are, frankly, not enough legs. Anybody who's anybody knows that.

"Oh. Am I in trouble?"

+Kind of? You're rampaging through the Bazaar.+

Rampaging, ha! You're not rampaging. That's what other people do. Still, she might have a point in that nobody seems to be appreciating your Unstoppable Bazaar Organizer. If only you had built in a stop lever, but that would have been ridiculous! You don't need to stop an Unstoppable Bazaar Organizer. It's in the name!

(Your Fascinatingly Avid Printer is chugging along, and as usual, you can't look away. It's Fascinatingly Avid, after all! The way it uses those little brushes you spent weeks picking out hairs for, the tiny pincers that assemble the sticker sheet, and the design, well. You drew it yourself. You drew her yourself. #1 Lab Assistant. This is what having a Best Friend means. It has to be.)

+Please come down!+

And maybe it's because you feel the desperation and confusion in her please, the one that's so familiar, because you feel it all the time talking to people, that you hop off the Unstoppable Bazaar Organizer and into her talons.

"Hi," you say, over the sound of reconstruction. "I'm Hornet! I'm a princess. Are you a princess too?"

Please say yes, you think, hoping she can hear you.
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"I didn't need a spy."

She can barely get the words out. Her shoulders heave and there's nothing to wipe her nose on, but she can't let that stop her. Her eyes sting from all the tears, but she has to sniffle out the apology anyway. This is a thousand times worse than last time. She wishes there was... no, she doesn't. This is what she deserves. No punishments to fall back on, nobody to love her enough to make it better. This time she has to be strong. And honest, the way a princess is supposed to be.

Even though, even though it means...

"I, I, I didn't need a spy!" Alina's voice quivers. No no no, stay with her Diana! Don't die, you can't die! Alina's fingers are trembling, but she brushes them through Diana's hair anyway, "That was... I, he told me that... I, I! It was... just, j-just something I said to make myself feel better! I thought! I thought if I... I was just, t-too much of a coward. Too scared to even be selfish without an excuse to hide behind. I'm sorry, Diana. I'm sorry. I'm sorry!"

All the rest of her words turn into choking sobs and horribly ugly sniffles. She sits there, helplessly holding this beautiful, brave, and... dying girl. She can't say she didn't know what Oberon would do. Other than his daughters, did anyone else in the whole world know better than she did? She can't say she did it for her family. They would have abandoned her if they knew. And even then it takes a special kind of monster to trade one life for another. She can't say she was scared. Diana was around him this whole time, wasn't she? And she still found the courage to face him so bravely that he broke her forever!

Because she believed it was for a purpose. Because she trusted her friend to tell the truth. Alina lifts her head and looks miserably at Ourania, looking for the coward's way out yet again. Please, do something! Punish her, save Diana, do something she doesn't have to watch her friend die in her arms! Just do... just...

The... wall? The wall! Argossa! This is still Argossa!

"H-hang in there, Diana! I'm going to..."

But she pulls up short. Now that she's stopped crying, the only sound in the room is the rotted, bubbling breath of the Garthim standing guard around her. She looks at the wall again and her whole body goes cold. All of that, that rot. Just look what he's done to this place already. If she makes a mistake, then!

It's no good. Ourania's plan won't work. Alina is no witch. She doesn't understand the first thing about real magic! Even when she toured the Academy she played hooky in all but one of her scheduled classes, and let's face it even then she spent the entire time doodling adventure plans to go on with Rita. It's hopeless. She's useless.

She cradles Diana against her chest, so careful not to squeeze too hard, and finally finds the courage to look into those infinitely deep blue eyes. They look so glassy now, but even then there's a hardness there, and an anger. Alina can see it all clearly. She's run herself out of tears. That's ok. That's ok, she thinks, go on and blame her. She's sorry, ok? Above anything else, she's sorry that she's so worthless.

...Unless.

Something draws Alina's eye to the bag sitting on the table, out of her reach. A wild, fantastic hope fills every corner of her body. Her lights! She may not understand proper witch magic, but if there's one thing she does know it's exactly what her little lights are capable of. She can do it! Here, bolstered by Argossa itself she can..!

Be brave, Alina. You're the only one who can fix this.

It all comes back to Feloria, in the end. It always had to, right? Sooner or later, she was going to need to pay the price. So many people insisted for so long that she wasn't to blame for what happened to Illumina, and maybe they were even right about it. She was a silly little girl back then who knew nothing outside of tickle fights, what was she supposed to have done? This was the part that really was all her fault. It's only fitting that she answers for it here at the end.

She laughs when she looks at them, in spite of everything. It all comes back to Feloria, in the end. Including these throwing knives Asteria decorated her outfit with back then. She's sorry for calling you useless, little knives. The first one clatters harmlessly against the far wall. Just noise to draw the Garthim's attention away from her work, if only for a moment. The second one hurtles right at the bag and glances off of it, leaving a small but superficial tear.

Her lights pound frantically against the inside of their prison. Alina takes a deep breath. She's got one more shot at this. She wraps her fingers around Diana's hand, and she throws. The dagger seems to hang suspended in time. She forgets how to breathe or move, nothing more than a helpless doll waiting to be played with. The blade catches on her first tiny tear and rips a proper hole in its side. Then everything happens at once. The Garthim screech, sensing magic. Her lights zip straight forward into her outstretched hand. She closes her palm around Blue.

And then all around her, a wall of rainbow light erupts. It's a barrier of pure magic, nothing but a feast for the Garthim, but that's exactly what she's after right now. She needs time, but this can't look like an escape attempt. Oberon is sure to punish her by hurting Diana, instead. She smiles, because that's what a brave princess is supposed to do for somebody who's hurting all over.

"It's going to be ok, Diana. You don't have to forgive me, ok? Not ever ever ever. I'm a selfish monster and I don't deserve it anyway. B-but I'm not gonna let you die, ok? And I'm not gonna let you be a cripple, either. Just leave, just leave everything to me..."

Oh. She's found more tears after all. Her lights swirl all about her as her body blazes golden once again, but for just one last moment, all she does is cry.

"I'm going to miss you," she chokes, "So much. Y-you... you be g-g-good. Ok?"

There are lines of rainbow light winding between Alina's hand and Diana's heart. She can hardly see what she's doing anymore, but that's all right. She can hardly miss from this range. She places her palm against Diana's chest and squeezes her eyes shut tight.

First is Red. The color of Power that controls physical might. Her gift from Adila that she's only just finally made all her own. How is this so hard already? It's not fair. The room fills with the heat of dragon fire as red light overtakes the other colors for a moment. Alina can feel Diana's body grow cooler, just a tiny bit, as if her fever was being drawn out of her and into the air. The Garthim pound and nibble on her wall, which swirls with six colors of the rainbow. Her red crystal goes dull, and drops to the floor with an empty clack.

Next comes Orange. The color of Prowess that controls physical skill. This little light's been with her since the very beginning. Such an aggressive fellow, but so playful. And as loyal as any princess could ask for! Haha, there's so many memories she wants to cling to right now! Like, haha, how Shazari used to always swing for Orange first whenever they would duel, because she thought it would make Alina worse at swordfighting. The 'cheating light', she called it. It's saved her life so many times, Alina's completely lost count. Goodbye, friend. And thank you. Her orange crystal goes dull, and drops to the floor with an empty clack.

Now it's Yellow's turn. The color of Wisdom that controls magical might. Another newborn, barely given any time to share adventures with her princess. The color all her other lights turn to when they're scared, so they can find the courage to be heroes in their own right. And, and born right here, remember? The last time Alina came to Argossa with this same betrayal hanging over her heart. The light born directly from her love for Rita. The proof she can't cling to anymore. Farewell, little one. You've been such a wonderful helper. Her yellow crystal goes dull, and drops to the floor with an empty clack.

Next is... next is Blue's turn. The color of, the color of Chivalry that guards the innocent. Where would she even be right now without this light? How many stupid plans has it protected her from the consequences of? It... haha, oh no she's laughing again. What is wrong with her? But it's just so! She... she had her armor shaped just after she'd fled Illumina. Maybe a month or two before she approached Hobling Keep about the possibility of forging Pearlion. She'd stumbled across a small refugee camp and spent two entire weeks with them before guilt finally dragged her away. They made that beautiful armor as a gift for their princess! To keep her safe! And in the entire time since... Blue you silly light! It hasn't let a single thing put a scratch on that armor! Even once! Thank you, you beautiful idiot. Thank you so much. Don't worry about her anymore, ok? The blue crystal goes dull, and drops to the floor with an empty clack.

She's already reached Indigo? It's all happening too fast. The color... of Daring. That. That controls... technical skill. You know, maybe more than any other color, this one was probably the hero of the Labazaar. After all, it's the light that figured out how to properly channel her grappling beam technique. Alina couldn't have grabbed the Caduceus without Indigo's help. She might never have even made it to the heart of the labyrinth before succumbing to the curse of Mittens if she hadn't had this clever friend helping her navigate the mazes and the pitfalls. Maybe the Nightmare Roc would have just tossed her down that pit and had done with it. But she made it. Everyone's alive today because Indigo was there for her when she needed it. And now... now it. N-now she's done needing it. That's all. That's all. Thank you. And sorry. Goodbye. Alina's wall is a tattered wreck that can barely hold the Garthim at bay anymore. But it still shines with two colors of the rainbow. The indigo crystal goes dull, and drops to the floor with an empty clack.

Well then, that makes it Violet's turn. Beautiful light. Precious light. The color of Adaptability that controls fine manipulation. When she was a kid, you know, just a stupid little kid, Alina thought her Violet was the dumb and useless light. It didn't do anything! It just copied what the other lights could do, but weaker! She thought maybe it was just there to round out the set because having a full rainbow was important for a Princess-Promised. She never... hated it, but they never quite bonded, either. Not until she broke, and lost her first Red and Yellow. That's when, after all her other lights became confused, scared, and adrift, that she realized how special Violet really was. They practiced together for months and months and months, shaping keys and lockpicks, knives for cutting food, blankets when it got too cold at night, little birds when the walks got too lonely. It could do so much! She'd never known! So much time she'd wasted neglecting it. So many regrets. They didn't have enough time together. But now... there wasn't any more. Don't... hey, little light, don't cry. Don't cry, ok? Good girl. The violet crystal goes dull, and drops to the floor with an empty clack.

That's all of, that is, six is... enough. Right? Alina can't be a princess anymore if she doesn't have a light. Gold isn't hers to give, because it's not hers to keep. If she, when she gives it back to Mommy, then... maybe she'll name Jess her successor. It'll... it'll be... oh, Green. She's so sorry! The color of Compassion that controls the art of healing. But more than that it's also, did you know? When little Alina first got her lights, none of them would listen to her. They practically tried to dart off on their own every chance she got. She could hardly sleep because every time she tried they'd all sneak off and hide all over her room. The only one she could get along with at all was Green. So in a way, you could say it was her first light. The one that eventually brought all of the others to her. Her favorite, even though she's not supposed to have those.

And also... the light to suffer in Feloria, just like Diana is now. The light that became Alina's eyes after her guilt robbed her of her own. Little healer, warmest hug, oldest friend. Precious little Green. Oh, she's so sorry. She's so sorry for how everything turned out. But you're needed, now more than ever. Your friends will be so lonely without you. Alina's hand flinches just slightly, only for a moment, before she presses it back down firmly. The green crystal goes dull, and drops to the ground with an empty clatter.

Alina's wall is hazy and indistinct. Colorless. It drifts apart like mist, and the Garthim crowd back in around them. But there's no more magic for them to feast on right now. Gold has hidden itself in Alina's breast, and seven hollow crystals roll listlessly to gather at Diana's feet. The pair of them are still chained to the wardrobe, just the way they were left. Ourania is still sitting in her chair, staring more intensely than ever. Alina is still sobbing and holding Diana close to her. Everything's just the way it should be.

"Be ok, be ok, be ok, please please please, be ok..."
Hidden 5 days ago 5 days ago Post by Anarion
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Do you know what would be easy? Giving herself to Mother. Taking Oberon by surprise in this moment of quiet conversation. Showing him how much more his daughter has become. It would be so simple to turn on her heel and reach her hand, her careful, thoughtful always tapping hand inside him, right through his chest and grasp the core of him. To tear apart all these lies. Pulling, pricking, testing, teasing, unwinding and unbending until there's nothing left of him but his petty little Truth. Pure, ha! What is Want when you have nothing? What is Want when your plans are shattered, your minions lost, your treasures broken? Nothing but a pathetic child whining into the night that it's cold and dark and scary. It would be so easy to join with Mother and fill those pricking fingers with just a little fire, to burn away the dross and scatter that scared little boy to the four winds. Not even so much ash. To let her fire burn away everything. To race through the roots of Argossa like a scouring, righteous flame and burn and burn and burn and burn and burn until there's nothing left of him and everything could go back to being as it was. As it is supposed to be.

It would destroy her. Shiva's eyes would turn red and she would go mad amongst the Garthim and topple them from the tree. Oberon's cold would wrap itself all about this frail body she's inhabiting. She would give her everything. Sacrificing first her magic. Then her strength. Then her empathy, so dearly bought. And last of all her courage that held fast in a frozen heart for a thousand years. She would give it all up and become part of Argossa and beyond Argossa until she had burned through every inch of Hyperborea and wrapped it in her warmth. Maybe, forever afterward, people would remember her as that which turned away the last of the Riders, the last of the visitors from beyond the world so that all the princesses could be true and loving. Maybe nobody would ever know, save perhaps Ourania, if she were inexplicably to mist up a bit more than before at princess weddings.

She would never get a chance to say goodbye. Maybe it was that, of all things, that made it just a little less easy. A little less simple to let it all go. A bit tricky to give in to a thousand years of rage at this man who could not see ANYTHING outside of his own ego. It burned within her. But she wouldn't get to say goodbye. Not to her wonderful friends, so many of whom she still needed to know better, the way Alina and Adila knew them from a lifetime of games, contests, and joyous hugs. Not to Rita, who deserved all the happiness and warm sunbeams in the world. Not to Adila, who was just starting to flourish and embrace herself. Not to Alina, who couldn't see how beautiful and wise she had become. Not even to her favorite little fox princess who she was going to marry in a special little magical Konkon ceremony with a Rider princess twist.

So Kazelia did the hardest thing in the entire world right now. Maybe the hardest thing she had ever done. Even harder than when she went out into the snow and left her real mother, harder by far than facing Oberon in Feloria or at Hobling Keep. She nodded and said "Ah, love. Maybe this world really has gotten to you, Father" and she took his hand and let him lead her towards the ceremony. She did it all without trembling even, or maybe she trembled a little, but it was only right that a daughter be appropriately afraid of her father.
Hidden 5 days ago Post by Thanqol
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+Princess Hornet you need to come with me -+ Princess Adila is thinking when she abruptly stops. This is so hard! The transitions happen because of thought and memory, which means that she can't shift without getting lost in the moment. She also has no idea how this works - is it a vision, a memory, or is she actually here? Aaah! She should just drag Hornet back to the -

She stops and takes a deep breath. Come on Adila. You need to be better than this.

+Well... it's complicated,+ said Adila. +My, ah... kingdom was disbanded. It wasn't perfect, and I wasn't much of a princess... there is so much to being a good princess that I'm only just starting to figure out, even now it's too late.+

Adila sits down and puts Hornet down next to her. +I was thinking about being a Captain instead! But my boat, ah, crashed, so maybe I'm not cut out for that either. I'm still figuring it out. It's hard.+

She's quiet for a moment, then looks up at the Organizer, crashing away in the distance. She decides - impulsively, defiantly - that this is not her problem today. +So, Princess Hornet, I never actually asked... what is that thing meant to do?+
Hidden 5 days ago 5 days ago Post by Tatterdemalion
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Alina!

Diana breathes easily. There is a rosy flush to her cheeks, and every part of her is more vivid, more unreal, as if a master painter had prepared the finest paints in all of Ilumina to depict her, in your arms. There is no doubt now. She will live.

Maybe she won’t ever forgive you. Maybe she’ll wake up and tell you that you only saved her to salve your own conscience, and that she will never trust you again, you lying, selfish princess.

But you can live with that. Because she’ll be alive. And that’s what matters.

When you look up, through a crack in the fetid black shells that surround you, your eyes meet Ourania’s. Her eyes are wet, and full of pride in you. And if she could speak, she would say something like: even now, after all these centuries, I can be moved by the heart of a princess. Isn’t that marvelous? Isn’t that wonderful?

What do you say to her, while it is just the two of you, in the heart of occupied territory, as you do your best to breathe through your mouth and not touch any of the still, waiting, hungry constructs around you?

***

Kyouko!

The Garthim hunt by sensing magic. To this end, you have been leading them on a merry chase, tossing your smoke bombs one way and your lively coils another, seeking out the weak point: Prince Cassian Fleet.


You have a very particular set of skills. Unfortunately (and this is your greatest weakness, the curse of your arts, never to be revealed to an outsider), you must declare your intention to woo and marry Cassian for your skills to work on him at all. And you haven’t quite worked up the courage to do something that hideously gross.

So. While your girlfriend is menaced by her father... what do you do, Kyouko of the Apricot Clan?

***

Adila!

“I’m so glad you asked!” Hornet chirps delightedly, her tail’s fluffy tip wagging. “It is an Unstoppable Bazaar Organizer, and it’s going to make everything neat, and put up signs and labels so that nobody gets lost, and make the streets wider so that people stop shoving me, and assign loud zones where people can be loud if they want to be, so that I don’t have to go there!”

The famous Souk of Ropes is pulled down, a knotted and tangled mess of black market stalls and hideouts dangling between three spires. There are quite a few screams as the Organizer begins feeding ropes and black marketeers into its Automatic Sorters.

“And once it’s done,” she says, almost wistfully, her manic energy suddenly petering out, “everyone will see how much better it is and want to be my friend because I helped.

That’s... true. Pretty much every one of Hornet’s inventions was designed to help people, even if sometimes you have to turn your head and squint to figure out where she started from and how she ended up with a giant scorpion that makes people invisible by stinging them.

(“Thank you,” Tashanna says, laughing, squatting on her haunches to look Hornet in the eye. Hornet is marveling at the precise curve of Tashanna’s winged eyeliner. “Truth be told, it takes quite a bit of time to put on every day, but that’s the price of beauty!” She laughs and ruffles Hornet’s hair, not noticing the infinitesimal way that Hornet tenses up, dimly aware she’s being patronized. “If only we all got to be invisible now and then!”)

Hornet’s looking up at you through her goggles, her tiny body nestled up to you. “Can I make anything for you, Best Friend?”

***

Jessamine!

Shiva knickers testily as you shift your weight. You have Rita cupped in one arm, check. Dandy has her arms wrapped around your waist, check. Azora is secured side-saddle on Shiva’s rump by bands of dark magic, check.

“Okay, girl,” you whisper in her ear. “Let’s go save Kazelia.”

Immediately Shiva’s shining glass wings flare out, and with a gallop and a few strong beats, she soars up from the roots of Argossa.

Maybe Oberon will figure out you’re coming, but that’s a risk you have to take. The stairway up is impossible to avoid detection on, and you don’t have time to climb for days. You soar up on the back of the fastest pegasus in Hyperborea, silently pleading for your sister to be all right...
Hidden 5 days ago 5 days ago Post by Thanqol
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Adila sits for a moment and watches it work. It's got a different energy when viewed without adrenaline. The churning machinery, the multiple looping slides, the prefabricated market-stalls dropped in afterwards... When she'd first seen it she'd thought it was the most terrible thing to be unleashed on the Bazaar, but that seems almost quaint now. The new Labyzaar could actually use something like this. Actually...

+I think I understand... I know a thing or two about trying to make friends by helping people,+ thought Adila. +I thought that if I could just be the best Watcher of all the Watchers, and that was how I'd earn my title of princess. I wanted to be useful so badly... and then I got too big and started causing more problems than I solved. And then I wasn't useful any more, and...+ she wanted to trail off into a vague gesture but Hornet didn't actually know - and leaving it as inference wasn't fair to her. +I was asked to leave. And then, kind of... we all were.+

Adila turned her head to look down at Hornet. +Gratitude isn't the same as friendship, Princess Hornet.+
Hidden 4 days ago Post by Phoe
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She's alive! Oh thank goodness. Oh... oh rivers and raindrops and, and whiskers and sunshine and rainbows and... whatever, she's going to be ok! Oh, oh... oh.

Alina rests her head against the wardrobe and shivers. It feels like her entire body is uncoiling all at once, as if she was a knot of ribbon that just got tossed in a lake. If you told her she could get up and walk out of this room right now and Rita would be there waiting for her with kisses and an Askaian spiced custard... she's not sure that she could do it.

"I guess I'm going to have a lot of extra time on my hands pretty soon, huh?" she asks Ourania, "Do you think Freesia will do better in the next selection ceremony? I hope so. I'm not sure that Jess is... she's going to want to be an adventurer, I mean."

She flinches. Then she glances down at Diana, and her expression softens again. No, this was worth it. Her family would be mad, but if she explained... they'd be even madder. And then they'd understand. What kind of queen would she have been, anyway? Princess Alina put Diana into this horrible situation. It took ordinary, nobody-Alina to be brave enough to save her. And hadn't it been a dancing girl who saved Helya and Jessamine in Jedad? And a cat in a suit who'd done all those amazing things in the Labyrinth? Being a princess hadn't helped at all. So it was fine. This was fine.

But, still.

"Hey, um," her voice is trembling in spite of everything, "Do you think... Rita will mind? Having me as a, a trophy wife, I mean?"

There's no answer, of course. Ourania just watches her from her chair prison with an inscrutable expression in her eyes. Alina sighs and leans back as much as she can without dropping Diana, and closes her eyes.

The sweet smell of incense is always so rich and thick on hot summer days like this. The winds tickle your face and tug on your skirt, and help make the bright sun a little easier to handle. The sky is a sparkling blue without even a hint of clouds, and everywhere you look the air is filled with the sound of birdsong.

It's a perfect day for laundry.

Alina has to stretch a little to get the pristine white sheets up on the line, but she's got this down to an art form. The way she spins and extends as she pins the fabric in place is like a dance. No, it is a dance. It's her new dance. She hums happily as she frolics from line to line, the tune of an Askaian marching song she still hasn't learned all the words to. But that's ok too. Just hearing it makes her happy.

She pauses to wipe the sweat off her brow, and admires her handiwork. Not bad at all, Lina. She smiles, and dances her way inside the house. The oven should be hot enough by now! She kicks off her shoes and nudges the door shut behind her with her butt, peeling off her too-warm shirt before it's even all the way closed. One hand reaches up onto a shelf and fetches a hair band, while the other expertly combs through her floofy purple hair and pulls it into a cute ponytail. Step two three, and twirl two three, and leap! The beautiful ballerina, prize of the greatest kitty queen the world's ever seen, dances her way into the kitchen. She snatches up a knife with practiced grace and slips into her apron in the same motion. The black cloth is still stained with flour from her last trip in here, but it doesn't bother her. You can still see the pink gingham trim and the little paw prints walking all the way up her chest, and that's good enough for her.

Her knife sings its own song as it tap tap taps its way through the rhubarb. She hums her song again as she dices up the strawberries. Her voice melts into silly giggles while she mixes them with just so, so, so much sugar, and carefully wraps them in the pastry she'd spent all morning preparing. No one does pies like Askaia. No one better than Alina von Catabas. Or, well, give her another year of this, and she'll be there. Promise.

There's a knock on the door frame, and she lights up like a lantern boat to see the most beautiful princess in the entire world standing there all decked out in her feathers and her adventuring cap, with a little kitten purring in her arms and mischievously mussing with her shockingly pink hair that is definitely not supposed to be that color, please and thank you.

"You'll never guess who got into the wishing pools again." says Rita with a weary sigh and an even livelier smile.

Alina bounds over to kiss them both and there is nothing in all the world but laughter and the smell of gently baking pie, and there is nothing left in the world that could trouble her ever again.


Alina's eyes flutter open again. She lifts one exhausted hand to brush a lock of hair off of Diana's face.

"Not so bad," she says with a tiny smile, as fresh tears wash gently down her face, "Not so bad at all..."
Hidden 4 days ago 4 days ago Post by Anarion
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Uuuuuuuugh! Cassian is the perfect target. If she could steal the amulet off the little brat, or just chase him out of the venue, the stupid lobsters would all follow and she'd free up the wedding. But...but, oh Ourania, she couldn't do it! Oberon's little brat was just too pathetic and gross! At least with Oberon himself, she could make an argument for the value of the conquest (even though she totally believed Kazie-wazzie that he was a spirit of corruption that couldn't remain in Hyperborea). And of course she was going to interrupt the wedding itself with a classic Konkon flash bomb that she'd use as cover to establish herself in a dominant position for marriage to Ourania in addition to Kazelia. Forcibly marrying Ourania (symbolically of course, she had to remain on Argossa) was the pinnacle of a Konkon wedding, but it hadn't been done since Kyouko's great-great grandmother Sayako. Sayako had managed to trick Ourania into traveling to Konkon with false reports of an Argossian crystal causing giant-sized plant growth and then used her (entirely hand-cultivated!) giant Axonian princess traps to ensare Ourania long enough for the ceremony. Konkon queens still told that story to their little princesses before bed as inspiration for their future weddings! Why, Kyouko's room back home still had her Ourania doll complete with rope set and miniature giant Axonian princess trap decorating one of the shelves.

But, back to the situation at hand, she just couldn't. Cassian was the worst and he was pathetic and she could not picture herself ever marrying him even in jest. At best he'd be the little ringbearer at her wedding with Kazelia and they could dress him in a fancy suit with lace neck ruffles and wrist ruffles. She had just the pattern for her fox seamstresses to put something like that together. But, again, not marrying him! Urgh. Maybe she could alert the others. Where was...ah Adila and Hornet. Perfect, they'd easily be able to dart in and snatch or destroy the amulet, there was no way Cassian could defend himself. She just had to...uh, huh, why were they just standing there, and with very unfocused eyes at that. Oh dear, oh dear, some kind of magic ritual? She didn't recognize this one, which meant it would be dangerous to snap them out of it. Oh bother. She'd have to hide herself nearby and direct them the second they snapped to, perhaps distract any Garthim wandering nearby. Kazelia would manage for a little while longer yet. She had every confidence in her blushing bride to be to know the perfect moment to act!
Hidden 4 days ago Post by Tatterdemalion
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Adila!

Unravel. Unwind. Jump. You skip from situation to situation like a broken illusion, which means... well, you’re not sure if there’s a technical term, but your gut instinct says that this is very bad. “Lose Hornet’s mind to the timestream forever, temporally unmooring her, dooming her to mix up past and future for the rest of her life” bad.

“Friendship: data point,” she says, opening up a Science Journal. You’re sitting at her thirteenth birthday party. There are seats for twelve princesses. Hornet is sitting alone in front of a cake shaped like interlocking gears. “Adila, my Best Friend, has informed me that Hypothesis #17 is incorrect, and that friendship is not gratitude. Data points from Charts C7 and F4 support this interpretation.”

A jump. Iron Star is on your back and Hornet is looking up at you, her mother’s loving hand on her shoulder, as you prepare to go and show off for your crush. “After the dramatic failure of both the Friendship-Generating Spleen and the Friendship-Attracting Appendix,” she says, rubbing her side, “and in light of this new data, I am forced to conclude that Hypothesis #18 is, in fact, correct.”

A shiver. The cold immediately begins to destroy you. Frost forms a rime on your scales. Your wings freeze into useless place. The sky is huge and black; all around are snow-covered lumps the size of goblins, and lightless, heatless generators. Your eyes begin to fail, stinging with the sharp pain of absolute cold, but still you see Hornet sitting in a Marvelous Ambulatory Armchair, ice creeping up her tiny body.

“Namely,” she says, into the still and bitter air, “that Princess Hornet is a friendship null zone, incapable of interacting with its chum matrix or the fondness array, uniquely flawed and unviable for further residence in Hyperborea.” The Best Friend contract slips from one hand and shatters into a thousand pieces of ice when it brushes against the snow.

“It makes sense,” she says, as you become nothing more than another dead statue in this wound-down pocketwatch fortress. “I was the flaw in the data all along.”

You can’t stay here. You’ll be lost, too. Everyone will understand; it’s just Hornet, after all. How will anyone be able to tell the difference? She’ll just not make any sense, as usual. No one will blame you, Adila. It’s better than losing yourself here, too, in the dark future of Oberon’s victory, in the empty wasteland of Hornet’s forlorn heart.

It’s done. Let go.

***

Kazelia!

Your father hands you a pin and expects you not to stab him with it.

The flower is delicate and clear, a bloom of frost to go on the lapel of his wedding suit. The suit is perfectly fitted; he is leaner and sharper than you remember. Maybe he is melting here, too slowly to be noticed. Maybe, here, he cannot hide his heart any longer. His eyes are a smoky grey, and reveal nothing.

“Did you think that you could win?” The pin is too heavy in your fingers. Don’t drop it. Don’t lunge forward. “I am forever. I am inexorable. And I am so much bigger than this world. Your new stepmother was content to stagnate here, but she will grow vast and beautiful once I show her the worlds beyond. She is the only one to ever complete me.”

She is the only one to ever complete me. He’s said this before. He’s married before. And his brides never meet his impossible expectations. What do you remember, Kazelia?

***

Alina!

When Cassian comes back in, it’s in a sharp black suit with white gloves, his hair slicked back and the amulet heavy and leaden on his chest.

“Right,” he says, with a wicked smirk. “Now that I’m finally prepared... let’s get you lovely ladies ready for the ceremony!”

You are doomed.
Hidden 4 days ago Post by Thanqol
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The rain beats down.

Adila has been here before.

She's holding Princess Hornet's hand still but it's cold and limp and it feels like they couldn't be further apart. I don't know the way home. She's watching a heart freeze over, a despair that has been growing for years and years beneath a mask that's finally slipped. There's no place for me in Hyperborea anyway. She didn't know - nobody knew, nobody cared to look. There is something wrong with me for wanting what I can't have. And worst of all, Princess Hornet doesn't even have a little light to guide her through the storm. This is how it was always going to happen.

Her vision flashes with blinding silver.

BE HER LIGHT.

Their fingers had been drifting apart - so close to being lost. And then Adila's grip tightens, full of determination.

+I have been a terrible friend,+ thought Adila. +I've always been so lost in my own head and my own problems that I haven't noticed anyone around me. I wanted friends so badly while somehow not ever seeing that I was blessed enough to have a best friend besides me all along. I've been selfish, Princess Hornet, and distant, and mean - and the worst of all the princesses. I thought I had a duty and that meant putting rules above people...+

She finally picks the silver Watch badge off her cloak. She holds it for a second, looking at it - all the emotions, the ambitions, the striving for a piece of metal that didn't mean anything any more. She held it like she might crush it - but instead she gently lowered it down and put it in Princess Hornet's other hand.

+I don't know what I'm going to do now that I'm free of it all. But I know that I want to be a better friend to you, if you can forgive me.+
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