Hidden 2 mos ago Post by Balmas
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"Children of Molech."

She can feel the tremor in her voice, and hates how little effort it takes to raise it above the silence of moans and quiet drips. Can feel the hollow gulf in her chest robbing every word of the strength she wishes she had.

"… tend to the wounded."

She doesn't want to count how many are left. Doesn't want to watch the Coherents triage and sort, the Tides carry and stack. She's very firm on pushing the Alcedi to treat the Laterns, and hopes the leader does the same in kind--it's difficult to see someone as an enemy when you're wrapping their wounds, talking to them, hearing pained chuckles.

And worse, she can't stay. The engines are overloading still. She needs to save the ship and…

And then, afterwards, she can hope she still has a girlfriend.
Hidden 2 mos ago 2 mos ago Post by Thanqol
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Redana and Bella!

Beautiful has her hands over her ears. There has been a lot of screaming in the past few minutes and she honestly isn't up to speed on any of it. She glances back and forth with her wide violet eyes before experimentally lifting her hands off her ears. As she does the cthonian fist in the heavens above shifts like a serpent.

"Oh, huh, uh, I'm not involved in whatever this is," said the girl with the mind and power of a god. "I mean, don't get me wrong, I'd totally go for it in different circumstances, but I'm not in a position where I can really do a committed relationship. Unless..." and her violet eyes go wide as she looks up at the stars. "Unless I can make you an Olympian too. It's a tricky problem, but not unachievable with the materials on hand. After all, you've already got Hermes' eye." She tilted her head as she looked at Redana's Auspex. "Both of them actually. Wow, those are gorgeous."

She flexed her hand and her enormous cosmic fist transformed into a vast and multifaceted map, and with flicks of her fingers Beautiful sent waves of cosmic information blurring through the sky like swarms of starlings. "Look, I'm aware I'm going a bit off mission," she said, "but what is the mission, really? Is it to capture Redana? Or is it to make Bella happy? Pretty straightforwards when I put it like that! Ascend Bella to godhood and that'll neatly resolve most issues going on here!! She'll be able to date who she likes, not have to worry about power imbalances, have time to come to grips with her trauma!!! Do gods get heartbroken? No time to test. Resonance amplification possible, but I'll need both of the eyes. Hell yeah!!!!! I knew there would be an answer that would make everyone happy!!!!!!"

She snaps her fingers a few time absently, each click causing a sonic boom in the atmosphere, until a trembling Beljani approaches her. "Hey, Jan, need your help on this, we're pretty short on time. Get your girls to grab them both and cut out their eyes."

Alexa!

In the Engine Room there are two stars.

One is the Engine itself, mighty and bleeding. The containment has been disengaged and the semi-molten engine core has been withdrawn from its shielding. Imagine a long metal rod the length of of a semitrailer and many times as dense, glowing hot, as a star burns within its increasingly thin shell of fuel. It has emerged from the vast structure of the Engine that contains and regulates this process and sits, sizzling metal, upon the floor. It would require heavy machinery to push it back into the Engine, even though it is only a few meters away - heavy machinery or an act of heroism for the ages. If you were to push it you may lose every one of your arms from the cosmic heat.

But that is not the only peril here. Drawn here, like blood to the drain, is the final battle of Lorventi and Epistia. Each movement brings rack and ruin. It accumulates slowly, because even the gods find Engines stubborn things to break, but it accumulates nevertheless as Ares splits in two and boils hotter than the released sun.

But even through the chaos, something is clear.

Epistia is winning.

Lorventi is a run of cuts and missing extremities. Epistia has barely been hurt and she is burning even brighter than when she started. It has been a long time since you have seen a champion of Ceron about her work, but this girl is now as they were then: a breaker of Empires. An ender of ages. The genetic alchemy of violence in its most pure form finally engaging in its true purpose, and oh, there is instinctual, neurologically programmed joy in her now.

You've seen that look in the eyes of Ceron warriors in ages past. You wonder now as you did then how Nero ever put creatures of such profound bloodlust back in their box.

Vasilia!

The Furnace Knight sat in a silence you eventually come to realize was troubled.

He looks at his own hands, at his rows of weapons, at the endless azure seas.

"You were..." he said slowly. "... wise to realize that you had a choice in that moment. Courageous to seize it."

The wind blows from the west, and Hades flicks a cigarette butt into the ocean below.

"However the story ends," said the ancient warrior, "it was not a failure. Know this from someone who lacked your virtues."

Dolce!

"I want a world where nobody has to be afraid," said Jil the mouse, quietly looking out into the dark.

She takes a deep breath. The fear is plain to see in every twitch of her whiskers. She adores Bella because Bella was both powerful and kind. She used her power to protect those beneath her. That is a kindness that Jil can understand, that is comprehensible. A kind ruler is easier to imagine than the end of reality as she knows it - the end of a world where power can flow in the other direction.

But, just for today, impossibility is on the table.

She hefted her shotgun. "But in the short term, I'll take a world where villains are afraid of me."
Hidden 2 mos ago Post by Phoe
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The sound of snapping fingers tears holes in the sky. Now it's Bella's turn to throw her hands over her ears, whimpering inaudibly from the pain. One, two, three times the booming echoes rattle against her bones and threaten to drive her to her knees. By the fourth, she feels a tiny trickle of warm fluid leak out from between her fingers. And still, she doesn't close her nerves in defense and dull her hearing. It's too important that she not miss a word.

It stops. She lifts her hands cautiously off her head, and for the umpteenth time today forces herself to swallow the acrid burn of her own fear mixed in with the day's meals. Her entire body is trembling, every muscle overwhelmed to the point of uselessness. Her eye flickers toward Beljani, still dressed perfectly for any ball she could wish for in her blood speckled dress. Her vision trembles, too. What is the expression on that face? Animals can't read people. There is only fear.

She turns her head to look at Redana, instead. Redana with her long shadow. Redana with her legs that will not stand. Redana with her beautiful eyes. Redana, the little girl who lifted her out of the Box. Redana, lying in bed with a fever that couldn't be treated any of the gentle, stupid skills of a silly kitten or even a fancy Imperial physician. Redana, who can only get better through the power of her own determination. Redana, who makes Bella watch her arch that tiny spine in agony while tears stream endlessly from that one pretty eye she's still got left. Redana, who can only be soothed by one power in the entire universe, which are lullabies sung soft and sweet for hours without stopping.

But the songs are all forgotten. Little girls, good girls know lullabies. Monsters only know one verse, and it's not fit for company. Bella's feet slide forward, away from the edge of the roof at last. Her heels bite into the hard stone. She is balanced on a knife's edge, moments away from exploding with the power of a star or collapsing into a trembling heap forever with equal likelihood. In slow, unsteady waves they come. Bella squeezes her eyes shut, as if her trembling lids were enough to keep them safe from the perfect plans of Beautiful.

The first to touch her is a Kaeri warrior. Bella's body turns into a blur before the fingers finish closing. Even violet eyes might strain to see what produces the cloud of dust and the sickening crunch that precedes it. But when it clears, she is hunched over the Kaeri's limp body with her fingers clamped tight about her skull, squeezing tight enough to crack it. She snarls with wet, naked animosity and whirls herself back to standing like a tornado, heaving the body into a crowd that topples and scatters depending on her luck. She doesn't care which. ELF lightning bursts across her back and churns the new arena with shards of deadly masonry.

Lantern, Kaeri, Azura all. If they approach, she crushes them. Cuts them. Hurls them aside, indiscriminately. She rushes forward through rounds of foul smelling, deafening SP fire and thickets full of lethal spears and knives and teeth. In a mass, they push her back with the unfocused strength of the oceans she used to read about in the stories she secretly carried off to her little bed to better learn their secrets, back during another, better life she used to have.

"Beautiful!" she screams, and is startled to discover she has a voice after all, "Beautiful! NO!"

There is an army swarming her, and she barely bothers to look. Her eyes are needed to watch her precious friend, and the terrifying arm hanging in the skies above her. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of new cuts and bruises being left across her body each time she is repelled. Superficial scratches, the lot of them. She pays them no attention. She can hardly feel them at all, beyond the vague disinterested awareness that some unpleasant thing has touched her.

The only reason it's enough to force her back at all is the frantic pounding of her heart pushing power through her body in jagged spikes and painful pressure. That stubborn, stupid heart that screams at her to stay alive. And fuck her, damn her forever, she listens to it. Beljani's mob is a wall she cannot cross. Her stupid, stubborn heart sings with the voice she can't remember. Triumph and hope for... something.

"Beljani!" she tries the final name, after the other two have failed her, "What the fuck are you doing, Beljani? She's gone, can't you see it? She's gone, she's... she's going, LET ME THROUGH! I have to! I can save her! Just! Let! Me! You! Bitch!!"

If her attacks are deathblows or little better than playfighting she does not bother to see. It's not important. It doesn't matter which way the knife has turned. It doesn't matter if she's the burning culmination of a lifetime's worth of training and brutal lessons, or just the shadow of whatever bits of strength Thellis Thist has left for her. There is a wall in front of her, as slick and unyielding as the one that guarded the Ceronian Queen inside the Eater of Worlds. Her claws are still sharp. Her talons still glint in the eerie light of the open sky. Let her sink them in. Let her climb!

If Redana is watching, she doesn't see. There's no time left to look behind her. Save Beautiful, stay alive, and the other shadowy yearning she can't name. They all call her heart to beat. Her legs to stand. Her eyes and claws to point forward. She burns. She trembles. Fuck it. A mirage is plenty for these useless dipshits. She surges forward and slides back in an endless, stupid dance that covers her in tiny wounds and makes her hands itch for a sword.

Animals aren't allowed to have tools. Monsters can't save anybody. A hero could manage both, but the only one she's seen is dead. A new one then, fuck it. Fuck you, why can't it be her?

If Redana is watching, she doesn't want to know. Her dance is ugly. Awful. Stupid. She'll never be loved again. She howls and surges forward again. And again she fails. Again. Again! Her body trembles again, this time with wet, pathetic sobs. And she charges straight into the wall again, failure that she is.

All around her, the building groans with the pain of enduring her battle. It shudders beneath hundreds of feet. It begs for death. Bella burns, and charges again.

It's the only hero's act she's fit to play.

[Alone Against the World: 11. Bella keeps everyone busy, and she'll do damage when she's done]
Hidden 2 mos ago Post by Tatterdemalion
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The lights are on, as they should be. The halls are empty, as they so often were. A skeleton crew kept the Princess’s Palace running, all the better to keep her safe. But now there is no one. No one except for her and the monster.

She scrambles down the slick stairs, and behind her is the sound of tearing paintings, shattering vases, overturning statues. She doesn’t turn around, but she still knows what’s underneath everything that the Nemean destroys: fur, matted and bloody, shuddering with each breath. The whole edifice, rotting, built on top of her.

Outside the windows, there’s a storm wracking Tellus, ELF flashes tearing through the bloody clouds, and beyond them all, a hand vast enough to kill a planet. Like that’s special. Poseidon could do worse than that with one of his cast-offs, and—

She turns a corner and stumbles into the clothes, which stick patchwork to her, burning on her skin like lashes: white silk gloves, sensible mary janes, a stained apron. Behind her, the bull-roar of the advancing fury, here to show her what’s down in the basement, a sight that will kill her and leave only the killer. With a desperate cry, she throws herself through a door, locks it behind her, feels it wince beneath her hands.

Then the strength leaves her and she crumples to the ground with a cry. It’s over. She’s failed. She failed Mynx. She failed Dolce and Vasilia and Alexa. And she failed—

“Bella!”

She doesn’t expect the hug. The heartbeat, so strong through the oversized nightshirt. The bubbly giggle. The arms, already strong, holding her so close that all she can do is cling in her misery. The smell of the perfume Mommy gave her for her birthday. Small hands doing their very best to be gentle and kind, stroking her hair, fingers sending streams of cool water down her throbbing spine.

“Did you have a bad dream again?” Redana asks. Her eyes are emeralds in the dark, where the stormlight catches them. “Come on. No bad dreams are allowed in Fort Hypnos!”

“I can’t,” she croaks. “I deserve this.”

“No, silly,” Redana says, and she meant it. She really meant it. “Nobody deserves bad dreams, especially not my best friend.” Redana reaches out and taps the bell, which rings once, and it makes her breathing slow and the pain go mute for a moment, listening to the sound. “I’ll always be here for you, I promise.

The door splinters apart. The Nemean pulls Redana out of her arms and shakes the princess until she goes limp, then tosses her aside, and it’s just the two of them left. A window shatters, and the sound of battle exultant roars outside. And the Nemean reaches for her, to bring her to the rotten heart, and there to consume her, heart and hope and soul—

Don’t touch my daughter.

The eye opens, and then opens again.

Bella, fallen while playing tag in the cramped garden, stocking rolled down from her bloodied knee, and her Dany getting all fluttery inside when she kisses it better.

Bella, her eyes wide, barely maintaining her composure when she sees Princess Redana step out in her Hymn To Nike dress, the laurel wreath and the slit thigh.

Bella, drooling, asleep with her head on Dany’s shoulder, and Dany holding as still as she can so that she doesn’t wake her up, her face warm as she feels Bella’s weight slumped against her, embroidery forgotten in their laps.

Redana, practicing her speech as she modulates her clothes into the outfit of a daring space heroine: We’ll go see the stars. The stars, Bella!

Redana, laughing, without cruelty, just joy, as she scoops Cutie Princess Bellaphonika up in her arms, juggling her and her wooden sword as she kisses her warm cheek and feels her heart explode with the happiness of being the hero.

The hero takes the Nemean by the wrist and turns, and she draws the wand as she does, and with a flick of her wrist it is a could-have-been sword.

When she runs it through the Nemean’s heart, it becomes real, her blood dripping down the serpent-damascened blade, red on gold. The Nemean leans heavy on her, knees buckling, and with her own weight pushes herself onto the sword, down to the serpents wrapped about the hilt.

“I will never leave you,” the Nemean says, hands on the hero’s throat, slippery with gore. “Never. You can’t kill me. Weak, decadent, useless—“

I dreamed you were a shepherdess, and I a forest nymph,” the hero sings, and the fingers tighten on her throat. The weight of the Nemean is incredible. She crumples to one knee, both hands on the hilt. “I dreamed myself a jeweler, and you my model dear. I dreamed… you were… a sailor…

The Nemean’s threats become slurred, even as the lullaby falters. Lights dance in the back of the hero’s skull, but her eye won’t let her pass out, showing her everything: the ooze of thick blood down her wand’s blade, the sprays of blood raining down onto Tellus as Bella fights an army, the crumpled body of Princess Redana Claudius and all her innocence, the aplopexy of Dionysus’s daughter.

Then they crumple to the floor together.

But it’s not the Nemean who gets back up.

The Shepherdess scoops Redana off the floor and shushes her when she stirs. “It’s all right,” she says, and kisses Redana on the forehead. The princess smiles and nuzzles closer. “There’s nothing here you can’t defeat, dear heart. We’ve got so much to do tomorrow, but for now, sleep, dream. Then wake, act justly, love. When you’re ready to be me again— oh! How beautiful it’s going to be!”

She tucks the princess in. Redana snuggles up close to the snoring kitty and is out like a light before you can count to three.

And the Shepherdess, already fading like dreams under dawnlight, steps over the rotten mass of nihilistic violence bubbling on the carpet so she can watch her Bella fighting again in the skies of Tellus.

I dreamed of us both, together and free.
Hidden 2 mos ago Post by TheAmishPirate
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“If it’s a matter of wishes…”

The enormity of the task before him is....well, he’s more than enough to disqualify her wish right now. Where is his crew? His ship? Where is the enemy? What is their plan? Where is Vasilia? Is she safe? And him, with barely enough blood left to realize how outmatched he is. But all of that would have to come later.

His hand rises, and finds an open drawer. Slide it out, out, out, until it can move no more. One hand grips it tightly. The other pushes hard against the floor. His head explodes in stars and darkness, but, he isn’t swallowed up. Not yet. Not if he rises slowly. Stops. Catches his breath. Repeat. Rising higher, from drawer, to countertop. A mercy, that his hooves find enough purchase to keep from sliding out from under him. Hand over hand. Hoof over hoof. Stumbling through a space half-remembered, and a darkness about his eyes.

Following a brave little light that would not go out.

“In the short term...I wish I could watch your back.”

The rest, he can work on after.

“My name’s Dolce. It's a pleasure to meet you.”

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

The robes protect her. She is wrapped in finery too good for a simple guest. It brushes soft against her, fends off the ocean breezes, neither too warm nor too chilled. So why does her fur grow damp with sweat? Why do her arms shiver, no matter how tightly she hugs herself? Why does the wind rip straight through the fabric, through a gaping hole in her chest, scourging her heart with salt and emptiness? Why? Why?!

“...you’re getting ahead of things, sir Knight.” She shakes her head, and pushes the kindness an arm’s length away. “The end’s only just begun.”

“My first speech of the day, my first act of repentance, I delivered to the vast assembly of my household. Hundreds upon hundreds, packed into my family’s Great Hall. I spoke of a life away from this wretched planet. Of a future filled with hope, where whatever else may happen we would live and breathe as free creatures, free from the chains that hung so heavy around Lakkos. No more to fight the wars of wicked schemers, but to fight for ourselves, and a brighter tomorrow. And when the final echoes of my oratory crescendo faded from the assembly, they gave their answer in stunned silences, broken only by whispers they would not dare speak to my face.”

“I left Alethea behind, to speak with any who lacked the courage to address me directly. She later told me, under protest, and at my own insistence, that those who did speak with her wished only for the perspective that my right hand could offer. Was I truly so stupid, to think that they would believe the same old pack of lies? When could they resign, without falling prey to what was surely a twisted test of loyalty and adoration? Would she lie for them, and say they were moved by my words?”

“In the end, Alethea would be the only one to join me. But. Before that. I had a sacrifice to make.”

“Given the Thunderer’s favor in my ascent, one of my earliest projects had been to secure a safe, private passage to Zeus’ temple, that I could more easily make offerings for my continued success. Here, at the last, that passage granted me secrecy amidst the chaos of Lakkos’ muster. No one would pass me on the street, and wonder why I was not in my Plover, en route to battle. I arrived to find the temple mercifully empty; all the other Senators had made their offerings while I had anguished in my deliberations. Everyone else had already gone, tripping over themselves to prove their merit on the field of battle, and gain privilege over the spoils. I had no time to waste on second-guessing. I had to be swift, if I was to make my rescue in time.”

“And yet, when I finished my prayers, and saw Clarissa standing in the entrance to the temple, I stopped. She asked me what I was doing there, urged me to go with her, assured me that we could still make it, together. And I answered her.”

“My second speech of the day. I could not remember the last time I’d spoken so. The words flowed from my heart without thinking, without planning. I felt the radiance of Zeus herself upon my shoulders, in the command of my voice, better than in any performance I’d put on. Years, actual years of never knowing what to say to her, gone in an instant. It’s now, Clarissa. Our time is now. No more wasting away here. No more dancing to the tune of wicked, heartless monsters. We could get out of here, together, and never ever look back. The wonders we would see! The adventures we could have! The things we could do, together! This was our chance, our only chance, and we may never get another one. We may never have another day like today, so, so please, Clarissa. Please! Come with me!”

“I thought...I thought the mantle of Zeus was on me so powerfully, that she didn’t recognize me anymore. My words had pierced her into awestruck silence, surely.”

“She asked me if I’d lost my damn mind.”

“Leave? I wanted to leave? I wanted to give up everything we’d ever worked for, just to run around the stars like, like some kind of space vagrant? Like a peasant? Come on, Vas. I would be dead to everyone if I did this. That’s it, game over, done. So would I just knock it off already? You can’t fight everyone on the planet! That’s all you’ve ever done! Picking fights you’ve got no way of winning, all because your public will hate you if you don’t. Well, look where that’s got you! They all hate you anyway! They’ve hated you for ages! How do I know that? Because it was so easy to get them to turn on you!”

“All I did was give them a little push, so you’d finally quit letting them push you around. I didn’t have to do much; they just, you know, needed permission to say how they truly felt. Don’t you see? You don’t have to keep fighting for them, Vas. I’m here. I’ve always been here, except you were too busy fighting everyone else to see it! So. Are you finally going to give this up? Or. Or…”

Nothingness. A gap in the record. A hitch in her breath. “I...don’t remember what she said after that. I can’t, remember it clearly, after she drew her spear. I remember I kept trying. To talk her out of it. Even when I had to draw my own glaive to defend myself, I kept trying. But my best words had already failed. What else did I have? Maybe, I thought, so long as I could keep trying to talk her down I could…I could forget that Clarissa had not once matched my medal count. I could ignore my instincts, telling me that she would keep coming after me, so long as she was conscious and capable. If I just, if I just shut my eyes, kept them closed a little longer, I could pretend I’d never seen the path to victory, and another one would reveal itself, but...but time. Time was never on my side. The battle was already underway, and every moment I stayed could cost the Starsong everything, I couldn’t afford to delay, I had to end it quickly and. And.”

The impact. The spray. The gasp.

“I created my opening, and ended it in one strike.” Echoing. Still echoing. Drowning out her own voice. “I didn’t even have time to wait and see if I’d killed her.”

“Because. Because I knew. Bloody and sobbing, stumbling down the steps of the temple, I knew. If I stopped now, it was all for nothing. Everything. The Starsong would be overwhelmed. The citizenry punished. I would face death or imprisonment. Clarissa…” No. No. No more. No. No. No. No. “So. I kept going.”

“After that, the fight itself was. Rather anticlimactic, I suppose. Or maybe I was too numb to tell. The Senators were not prepared for a sudden attack from the rear, and in the first moments I crippled too many of their power couplings. They eventually overwhelmed my plover, but they paid tenfold for it. Not counting the last one I destroyed on foot. Zeus was. Thorough, in her blessing. With the forces of Lakkos scattered, Alethea carried my battered body to the Starsong, but I’m afraid it was already too late.”

See now your guest in the Underworld. See the light recoil from her eyes. See the hollow in her chest, carved out by a lifetime of mistakes and weakness, which no mortal can endure and yet live.

“I died that day, sir Knight. The little girl who dreamed of forging peace with her beautiful voice is no more. I don’t know what creature they took out of Lakkos, and I’ve spent every day since wondering at the answer. I have lived like a lightning bolt, forever in the present, without a past, and no dreams for the future. I have done little else but hurt people, and a growing number of them didn’t deserve it.”

“That is the failure of my first life. A disaster I’ve not been able to stop, not even…” Her fist tightens, until the golden band digs red agony into her fingers. “Not even when I’ve had great reason to. All I’ve learned is how to be stubborn enough to keep living. And I’d hoped-” As if she had any right to. “I’d hoped finally owning my past would bring me more than a future of survival and hurt.”
Hidden 2 mos ago 2 mos ago Post by Balmas
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Isty's alive.

A little knot of tension unclenches, ever so slightly. She's alive! She's alive, and winning, and oh god she's so beautiful Alexa might cry.

(Note to self. Tear ducts. If they survive this, invest in tear ducts.)

She's winning. Alexa can still see the knife--that impossible dagger--sticking from the Nemean's chest. Had seen it happen even when she was there, when she was ready and guarding, when the Nemean was there armored with the power of the gods. Wondered whether she'd find another impossible dagger buried in another chest when she wasn't there--

But no! Every thrust, parried and riposted. Every dodge performed with the speed and grace of a gymnast. Movements and techniques that Alexa had taught, but taken, blended, shifted, adapted for a scythe, made Isty's own and done at a speed to boggle the mind. There's a selfish little part of her that wants to just watch. To sit back and marvel and hold her at the end, coax her back and tell her just how incredibly proud of her she is!

But there are two stars in the engine room.

The Kaeri have been thorough in their trap. All plovers have been taken, cannibalized, used in the battle. There isn't any heavy machinery to be used, and judging by the way the core sizzles and hisses, there's not nearly enough time to go back to the main hall and retrieve one.

And here, and now, even at the entrance to the room, the heat is blinding. She eyes the core, and gingerly runs a finger across the lingering burnt umber patch down one side of her body. She can still feel the sensation of up becoming down, the lurch of down getting faster, the quiet acceptance of the burning glow above her.

Is it surprising to find that she doesn't want to die? In that classroom, facing Molech, hearing him intone the new shape of her life, she thought for sure that that must be the only way this could end. Die quick in battle, or die slowly. And good gravy, this must be the quickest way possible to break herself.

Cut her siblings out from him….

She could do it, you know. Virtually all of Molech's forces are here. The Tides, the Coherents, select Hermetics, the Alcedi… all on a freshly repaired albeit battle-beaten and presently exploding ship of the Armada. And Molech doesn't have the seal to summon her to his side. Repair the core and she becomes the leader who saved the day. Pick a direction, any direction, and that's most of Molech's forces gone. She doesn't know he's captured or dead or lost. That's time that she can talk to them, get to know them, convince them that Molech doesn't care for them. Convince them that life is better when you decide what it's for.

None of that makes it any easier, though. She knows the pain waiting for her, and her feet don't want to cooperate--they hold, leaden, to the floor, struggle desperately to stay rooted. The closer she gets, the more her eyes squeeze shut against the light, until she's navigating more by hot and cold than by sight. Even before she makes contact, she can feel old wounds opening as brass starts to melt and run.

Think of why you're doing this. Think of meals shared with friends. Think of finally being able to appreciate Dolce's delicate oolong. Think of understanding smiles from Ramses. Isty's laughter. Think of old camaraderie with the Alcedi of old. Vasilia's face as she waves a drink mid story. Redana's quiet understanding

More than that though, think of you! Think of all the things you've wanted to do, to be! Think of what you couldn't be before! Think of a life with no command seals to summon you, no irresistable commands forcing you into a box! Think of the relationships you couldn't have, how you agonized over inflicting yourself on anybody not strong enough to defend themselves! Think of defining yourself, of deciding, of learning who you are!

Take that feeling! Bind it, knot it to your center, make your insides burn as bright as the core outside!

Contact. A shrieking of nerves.

And push!
Hidden 2 mos ago Post by Thanqol
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Redana!

You stand alone before a goddess.

It is all Beljani can do to keep Bella contained. That fight itself is an act of brilliance, an echo of the storybook warfare of the Warriors of Ceron. The Ceronians were not made to be the strongest, the fastest, the smartest - but they were made with a unifying pack instinct that let five strike as one. You've seen the films and this is that. The secret to Beljani's power is the pack instinct weaponized, the ability to claim any strangers she encounters and render them extensions of her body and mind. As five they advance, weapons whirling, and strike in co-ordinated patterns that leave no room for escape. As five they fall, incomprehensibly. And then the next five step forwards.

"You know, I really think she loves you," said Beautiful. "I couldn't be sure, there were equal odds she'd just been imprinted onto you, but imprints are such unstable mechanisms of control. Oh, where are my manners? Hi there your Imperial Majesty," she bowed, and as she did her right hand scattered a series of rocks across the ground like a stage magician who'd fumbled a trick.

"You ever hear Cinderbella?" she said, raising up and squaring her shoulders and raising her fists, a slender girl playing at boxing - and the sky above armed with her. "Stroke of midnight and her chariot turns back into a pumpkin. Ever wonder what she might have done with just a little more time? Who she might have gone to bed with that night?"

She bit her lip so hard a trickle of blood ran down her chin, and her eyes flickered with cosmic calculation. "So... go on. Transform into the Nemean. You're under intense psychic stress, Bella is in mortal danger, and I'll kill your friends if you don't. Come on, do it, I want you to do it, I'm ready for it. What's keeping you?"

Alexa!

You make contact with fusion power. You were forged in a star much like this one. Now you are being unmade.

Bare hands push against impossible mass, light, heat. This breach will course through the halls of the Anemoi, evaporating every living thing, and illuminating the planet below like a second sun.

You place your strength against a star, and you are not the one who is moved.

Vasilia!

"If it makes you feel better," said Hades, "everyone in this realm is cursed."

He looked up at the distant shattering of Aphrodite's Rift. "Mortals assume that the Rift that divides the galaxy in two was Aphrodite's punishment to those who disappointed him. Not true. The only reason why the Rift drives mad those who come near it is because Aphrodite dwells on the other side, and to approach the Rift is to approach his anger. He has denied all those who live in this realm the gift of love, condemned every relationship to madness, betrayal and despair. Even I, brother to Zeus, cannot cross those rivers and stand before him. I could never stand up to my father like that."

"But search your memories and you will discover a telling lack of happy couples, of smiling faces, of people whose love has stood the test of time. Every time two become one they consume each other and themselves. Proximity to the Rift just makes it happen faster."

He turned away from the ocean to look at you, though his heart was distant still. "You are wrong to blame my sister. She does the best she can, she always does. It is love that is always cruel. It torments everyone, from Nero, imprisoned by her love for humanity just as totally as she imprisons them, to Bella, unable to conceive of a relationship not premised on the threat of violence. Your story has played out hundreds of times before on the approach to the Rift. At least none of the coming peril will be new to you."

The God of the Dead slipped from the edge of the tower where he sat, disappearing into the shadows and crashing rocks of the ocean below.

Dolce!

You limp behind the shotgun mousegirl. Though she told you that if you fell behind you'd be left behind, she has been suspiciously easy to keep up with. Her lantern is mounted on the end of her weapon, sweeping a beam of illumination through the dark corridors of the palace.

From a distance you see Redana walking alone through the halls of the palace, a cold smile on her face, her right hand slick with blood. She's gone again before you can call out to her - and besides, she's not Jil's target. She's drawn inexorably up the stairs, towards the screams and clash of arms from the rooftop. And when the three of you reach it you behold a war of assassins.

(Three of you? Don't worry about it)

Bella!

Beljani's power is faltering. For all her numbers and all her skill, warfare is not her arena and you are not her hunt. She's running out of bodies and finally has to engage you herself - one blade amidst five against a weakened and exhausted foe. What scar do you leave her with?

But even as you engage her your senses are at their screaming height, and you do not fail to miss Dolce, Jil and the Master of Assassins arrive together on the rooftop. The Master of Assassins is bleeding - clawmarks, and you can smell the aroma of Mynx's poison on the air around her. The two were fighting, and Mynx landed at least one hit.

Her eyes are cold as she assesses the field, pruning blades in hand. She need make only one cut, and all that's left is to decide where to place it.

And as you watch you notice that her eyes seem to settle on Beautiful.
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“This is embarrassing,” the naked princess says, sheepishly. “I think there was some sort of— I think she’s a little bit dead right now?” The boxing stance is natural to her; she balls up her fists and takes a counterpose. “And she’s out of control. Or was. Is? She’s only mostly dead, but I don’t exactly remember, there was a fight— but what’s important is that Bella is doing all of this for you. She told me. In detail. So even if I could turn into a blood-drunk barbarian queen right now, I wouldn’t, because I am not going to kill you.”

She darts. Her body might be breaking down, slowly failing her, but her courage roars in her chest like a lion. Between the stones she goes, going in for a heroic tackle. If she can just pin down Beautiful’s arms, then it should be easy enough for Bella to get over here, right?

Beautiful lets out a quizzical sound as she sidesteps and pins Redana against the railing, one hand twisted up behind her back. Her witty rejoinder is drowned out by the sound in Redana’s ears, the roaring of her heart. She tries to twist away, get a leg under Beautiful, restrain her for Bella. And she really, really tries! She super does! But it’s very difficult to wrestle with someone who knows everything you’re going to do before you even get around to doing it!

Chalk it up to how strung-out Beautiful is right now that Redana even has a chance fighting against her, that she’s not pinned down and forced to watch Beautiful dig that shining blue eye out of her head. She keeps getting up every time she’s knocked down, like a puppy that refuses to be removed from a lap, and with similar effect, except—

Well, all of Beautiful’s attention is on her, right? On the princess who wasn’t even supposed to be here. On the girl so pumped full of venom still, it’s a wonder she’s standing up! On Redana, who can’t let herself fade away and stop being her terrible, miserable self when Bella’s depending on her to save Beautiful somehow.

Maybe that’s why things go the way they do, right here: because Redana gets flung to the floor, and even as Beautiful sighs and shifts her stance, she scrambles back up and flings herself at Beautiful’s stomach, only to end up in a headlock, and Beautiful reaches for the eye only to flinch back just in time because, biting, Redana, really? That’s not respectable wrestling!

But Redana’s here to win, even if it’s literally impossible. Because giving up would mean letting Bella down again, and she’s going to delay that for as long as she can. Don’t think about the conversation where Bella tells her to come back. Don’t think about Bella kissing Beautiful. Don’t think. Just elbow Beautiful in the stomach and keep trying to win!

Win the Gold for Bella, Dany!

[Redana manages to squeak out a 7 to Keep Beautiful Busy with this ridiculous, irrepressible girl.]
Hidden 2 mos ago 1 mo ago Post by TheAmishPirate
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He had rather hoped his other duties would have waited a little, and perhaps come at him in an orderly fashion. Not all at once. Not now. Not with her.

But. He did say he would watch her back first. He did offer her the lead. And she’d let him. She’d let him.

“Go!” The power of the divine, the battle of armies, bat his voice from the air as soon as it leaves his throat, but she will hear him. She will hear him. “I’ve got your exit!”

Go, brave mouse. Your wish awaits. And if the dark closes in around you, do not throw your life away in despair. Turn around. See the light, marking the path home.

He will be waiting for you.

[Dolce is certain something’s wrong here, and Has a Bad Feeling About This: What’s the safest escape route? What’s the quickest escape route?]

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

Vasilia stared at the empty space where a god once stood. Fury and sorrow alike stinging her eyes.

“Oh. Brilliant." She mutters. "At least it’ll be a short future of survival and hurt. With a finale ripped straight from the worst day of my life. Wonderful! What a prize to look forward to. It’s a good thing all those years of agony were finally worth something. Can you imagine? If it all just ended with! With!”

The old battlements wailed in anguish, as her claws slowly dug grooves into the stone.

“As if I needed you to tell me I'm destined for failure. Read the bloody room next time, you miserable skeleton."
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There is an eye in the storm, eventually. No sense can scream forever.

Anguished nerves that sent panicked signals--Cried! Shrieked! Threw up every alarm possible! Warned her this isn't safe, this can't last, she can't last--first drop to moans, then whimpers, and then blessed silence. Pain has worn itself out, given its all, and now must rest.

She takes a step. Pushes forwards. It's just her, the floor, and the Weight.

Muscles that burned and threatened to seize have long ceased their protest. There's nothing to spare. Everything has been pushing in the same way for so long that the very idea of something that is not that is unthinkable.

Sight was useless even before she made contact. Her eyes screw shut against the light, but she's almost certain that even if she opened them, she'd see the same thing. She'd still see nothing but the orange and green afterimages of eyes too burnt out to see anything else. It's unimportant. She doesn't need sight to push.

She takes a step. Pushes forward. It's just her, the floor, and the Weight.

Even touch is meaningless. She knows her feet touch the floor, because that is how she is pushing the Weight. She knows that she must be touching the Weight, because there is still resistance to push against. But her hands long ago ran molten, coursed down her side, puddled on the floor, and she's pushing with parts that were never meant to see day.

… The Weight has stopped. She redoubles her efforts. It can't stop, she won't let it stop, because everyone is counting on her. Feet grind and shriek against metal floor, piercing the silence. She throws herself against the side of the molten block, and new nerves cry out at the sudden impact. She has no hands, no arms, and so she kicks, finds new muscles to exercise, new joints to take the impact. Steps back, squints away the specks of light still painting her vision, and realizes there is a vision to see.

The Weight still burns with heat, pulses with light. But it's subdued, dull. Constrained. It sits flush with its containment, happy, glowing with energy, but no longer threatening to tear itself apart.

Well, that's good, then.

She takes a step, falls forward, and then it's just her, the floor, and the wait.
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The gods were cruel when they created Bella, to have turned the scent of blood into poison for her body and then gifted her with such sharp claws and a prodigious talent for violence. She's lost count of how many places just this evening where the air has turned to red mist in her lungs. It's passed beyond the realm of nausea, beyond even simple misery. It dampens her fur and runs down her arms, her chest, and across her thighs. It drips noisily from her claws and her talons in a mockery of song. Everywhere it touches, it burns her skin straight down to the core of her muscles. It squeezes her chest until breathing feels like torture.

Is this punishment for bringing so much death to Her Majesty's world, where none is allowed? Her vision blurs. Tired. So tired. She should rest. Needs to rest. She's fought. So much. Already. She should. Close. Her eyes. And. Just.

Fresh pain explodes across her cheek following the trail of her talon as she drags it across her face. Bella snarls as she rises to full height again and pounces with animal fury on the remains of what passes for Beljani's army. The air rings out with the sound of crunching bone on cracking stone, snap pop rip. A dagger hides among two reeds. Bella's knees grind in protest as she circles around her ally with all the seeming of a starving tiger.

"You moron," hisses Beljani, "I always knew you were too stupid to live. Just give up! Why do you insist on doing everything the hard way?!"

"...It wouldn't be the hard way if you just fucking let me through!"

"Idiot! You've got brawn and tits enough to fill a ship with, but when it comes time to actually follow orders you... just look at you! I'd rather we just brought a bomb! At least that would only blow up in my face if I screwed up!"

They clash. If they'd done it sooner, everything would be over in an eyeblink. But Bella's arms have filled with lead in the face of her war with a planet. She bleeds from a hundred cuts, and her shoulders sag with a weight that has nothing to do with Oratus magic. Her fingers close around the knife instead of Beljani's throat, so when she tears it's only her palm that's sliced open before the steel cracks into splinters under her death grip.

A spear whistles through the air toward her head. Bella ducks low, and flips backwards over top of the follow up strike. She springs and slips off her bloody hand and finds herself sliding and spinning away again. Too far to end things. She reaches up and squeezes her head to make the spinning stop. Everything tastes like blood. She gags, a wretched noise that's half mucus and half bile. Her stomach does another flip without the rest of her.

"Bella, this doesn't... we don't have to do this. We're so close. Just finish the plan, and we'll be ok. Just finish the plan. That's our way out."

"You dipshit, look at her! Look at her! Just fucking... I can save her! Let me save her! Get the fuck out of my way you useless fucking songbird!"

Beljani's face registers hurt for just a second. Her eyes widen in surprise and her mouth falls open without her meaning for it to. She pulls her arms across her chest, feet sliding backwards against Bella's latest charge. Bella lunges, and Beljani becomes diamond hard in an instant. Bella's vision explodes with stars as a fist collides with her jaw from out of nowhere, sending her sprawling to the ground.

A lone Kaeri warrior stands above her with a spear. She drops to one knee and plunges the shaft deep into Bella's shoulder. Her arm screams. Her heart screams. She screams, like the dying. Like the damned. With a wet, gurgling snarl she kicks the owl servitor in the stomach and pushes herself back off the ground to the sound of a chorus of fabric and muscle tearing. She spins on the balls of her feet, wrenching the spear free and plunging it halfway up the shaft into the Kaeri's stomach.

The look of betrayal turns Bella's blood to ice. She sucks in a breath as she takes a step forward. And then another. She drops to one knee. In front of her, tainted red, Beljani hangs her head.

"...There's no way out, Bella. No way out but this. I'm... I'm sorry."

"Shut up! SHUT! UP!!!! You're a liar, I hate you! You fucking traitor, come here so I can kill you!"

Across the din of battle, a shotgun blast roars overtop of everything. A lone, brave mouse levels the barrels at a pair of monsters, and calmly pauses to reload. The shining of her eyes in her beautiful lantern's light are sharp enough to cut entire worlds in half. It was useless buying a djinn after all, if they'd had this all along.

There's no telling who her target is, what she means to happen. Jil aims her gun again, and plants her tiny feet against the recoil, but the next shot never comes. Beljani flinches. Bella screams. Her claws bite flesh, and when Beljani falls she clutches at a line of bloody gashes trailing across her stomach. She curls up around her wound, shrinking into the pain. Small. Weak. Pathetic. Her breathing is shallow, so timid and afraid to be heard.

Bella towers over her with her good arm poised to strike. She lifts her hand to shoulder height, points her claws at her prey, and tenses for the killing blow. Her wet, hot, heaving breath beats down on Beljani's secret, tiny gasps with the force and fury of a nightmare. She hangs there for eternity. An inevitability. Every second is a year, and the blow does not fall. In just a second more, it will. No more tricks. No more lies. Nothing to stop her.

Bella's ear bends to catch a noise behind her. She turns her head in time to follow the Master's gaze all the way across the roof to Beautiful. And she snarls and falls down on Beljani like a comet. There's a shriek and an explosion of debris. Bella shuffles to her feet again on unsteady legs, with a look of raw intensity permanently stuck across her face.

Her injured arm is trembling under the weight of Beljani's writhing body. Her tail flicks like a whip, and then in the space of an eyeblink she disappears.

The syringe is in her empty hand. She needs steady aim for the work she has to do. There's chaos on the roof, too much too fast, and nothing marks her. She crosses the distance between herself and Beautiful, without stopping even to watch Redana struggle.

She plunges the syringe into Beautiful's shoulder right at the base of the neck, just where she'd been told to aim an entire week ago. Follow the plan. Yes, thank you, she's doing that. She pushes the plunger, and injects the lethe into her last remaining friend. Those gorgeous violet eyes flash with surprise just before they start to glaze over.

"But... why?" she asks through an inhuman smile.

"I'm sorry."

Bella's voice is thick and hoarse. She has to stoop to catch Beautiful, and her legs tremble visibly under the burden of two fallen Assassins.

"I can't lose you. Not you too. You're... all I have left."

Bella's eyes are wet as she turns to glare down all the witnesses gathered here before her. She drops, almost to her knees, once. Then twice. Three times before she manages a step to the edge of the roof. Her stare passes over Jil. Over the sheep who came with her, watching her like he would a child-snatching creature in the night. Over Redana, herself doubled over with the effort of not crying. She watches the Master of Assassins.

Above, the hand of a djinn collapses into sparkling dust that sprays down across the city. Bella stands there, frozen in the rain.
Hidden 2 mos ago 2 mos ago Post by Thanqol
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For Salakhan, the Master of Assassins, it has been a long day.

Some part of her knows that she should be proud of her children; they had exceeded her expectations in every possible way. The problem was that she had expected them to die - she'd been counting on it. She had seen assassins four times their age and ten times their skill go to choke the maw of Thelis Thist. She'd run out of political rivals in the Temple, she'd run out of elite veterans, she'd even run out of promising up and comers trying to put that snake in the dirt. Her organization had hollowed out from the attrition of years of trying to stop Hades' messengers and so she'd been reduced to these children - barely more than distractions while she went and did the real work herself.

And now? Now Thist was dead at the hands of XIII. The Ikarani had outsmarted her Rampant self and now lay in Lethe dreams rather than burning before the sun. The Oratus had remained sane and connected to her body despite the temptation to draw everyone into her hivemind. And the Toxicrene, that silly little body double the Princess called Mynx?

She winced and touched the edges of her bloody wound. The Toxicrene had even fooled her. How had that been? She should have seen the signs, should have seen the difference between that perfect Princess and the failure Redana who was before her now, but somehow the disguise had been more complete than her own memories. Like she'd somehow hidden the reality of the Princess. Her approach had been a disaster and the Toxicrene's counterattack had been merciless. To be expected. She made those girls too loyal. Now she was an enemy for life. No recovering that one.

Where had she gone wrong?

Her gaze fell on Aphrodite, standing with his tarnished silver cup raised in toast to her. Her eyes narrowed. Ah, she thought - there's the culprit.

Normally she could assume that, this close to the Rift, her targets had lost all cohesion and could be picked off individually. But... looking at it now, that wasn't true at all. All of her plans had failed because people were unexpectedly standing up for each other. The Toxicrene for the Princess, the mouse for XIII, XIII for the Ikarani... this wasn't a mad crew on the brink of treachery and murder. This was a network of relationships that hadn't yet cracked under the strain. And worse, it had drawn in her own assassins.

"You can't let them survive," said Demeter, everpresent. She was the wheat and the willow and the barley, she was the sweat and the sickle, she was butterfly and dragonfly both. "She's right there. Just do it. Do it!"

But Sagakhan didn't move. She was in the middle of a net and to move in any direction would tighten this fragile web of relationships around her throat. There was no faster way to death for a student of Artemis than starting a hunt you weren't prepared for.

XIII. All of this traced back to XIII. She was the bridge between her assassins and her targets. She was the centre of all of this strange loyalty. Something was wrong with her prize student. Against all reason, against the curse of Aphrodite, people loved her. Perhaps... perhaps she wasn't on her side at all.

She relaxed. No matter how bright the flower, one snip would send it falling.

And so the Master of Assassins produced the Golden Heart of Hermes from her breast pocket, held it aloft, and squeezed it.

She had recovered the Heart from the Yakanov. The Engine of Regret that had formed the central weapon for the Station, the weapon the Hermetics had used to drown those on the planet in crushing visions of the painful past. They had understood the Heart's power better than she; they had known how to use it to disable cities and armies. Sagakhan with the strength of her grip alone was merely capable of bringing down everyone on this rooftop.

But bring them down she did.

The crushing wave of divine agony that rippled out from the golden Heart was all that was needed. No matter what pain these people thought they were used to was nothing next to the concentrated agony of a god.

*

Who broke the Heart of Hermes?

As crimes go, this is one of the cosmos' greatest and it does not lack for investigators. But you, Redana, Dolce, Bella, Jil, Beautiful, Beljani, all get the front row seat. The Order of Hermes had manipulated this godly artifact with care and skill and had teased out a lifetime of subtle and great regrets with which to crush their foes. The Master of Assassins in her brutality strikes with only the greatest of them.

You see the Spear of Civilization. Molech's ultimate weapon, the triumph of war, the great exporter of entropy. The resources of Empire went into building this, a hundred mighty Engines chained together to concentrate the force of a terrible supermassive black hole. You see it surrounded by the Warriors of Ceron, their mighty and terrible fleet, red with the banners of Nero. They cut through Molech's forces. They board the Spear.

They are too late.

The lance of ultimate blackness erupts out, and it does not strike the Ceron fleet. Instead it flies into the void, dashing from world to world, star to star. Supernovas glitter in their dozens, their hundreds, as the Spear of Civilization brings about the end of worlds and empires. As you watch the galaxy collapses into the underworld, the great Rift spreading across the stars from horizon to horizon.

Redana, Bella, Dolce, take Damage, stagger, reel, lament, and weep. You shed tears not for yourself or your petty pains, now you cry out for a god who loved mortals and the things they made, a god of haste who was not swift enough to save the galaxy from destruction. You cry out for Hermes. You cry out for Nero.

*

Alexa!

"Do you see now?" said Aphrodite kindly, pinstriped suit unaffected by deep red engine light. "This was all I wanted, Alexa. All I ever wanted. All you ever needed to do to win my favour was defy your father, destroy your body, and endure unbelievable suffering in My name. All I ever wanted was everything." He ruffles your hair in a grandfatherly way. "Attagirl."

He stood up, flicked a cigarette out of his pocket, and lit it on the burning Engine core. "It's a shame I had to destroy the galaxy to make this point, but don't think too harshly of me. If I didn't do it then it would have meant that you lived in a galaxy where love couldn't save the universe. And what kind of galaxy would that have been?"

He whistles as he walks away. He didn't do anything to help. He didn't do anything for the pain. He didn't do anything to restore your shattered body.

But...

You do feel happiness. The fierce, prideful happiness of having saved the people you loved. That all of this was worthwhile. That you won.

It's the first time you've ever had that feeling, and it will carry you all the way down into sleep.

Vasilia!

"I have heard that Lord Hades promises wishes to those who carry out his doomed voyage," said the Furnace Knight quietly in the darkening of Hades' departure. "And having heard your tale, I have one final question I cannot help but ask. What is the wish that would make you face that fate? You could step from the road now, become my squire, learn the Rail and live a peaceful life here. After all the suffering your ideals have caused you, what could possibly compel you to face a death as terrible and as certain as the God of the Dead has described?"

There's a quiet intensity in the Furnace Knight's voice and eyes. He needs to know if there is, indeed, a path through the God's despair. He needs to know if there is hope, despite everything.
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Once, Redana ruined an art project. It’s important that an empress be talented at everything, after all! She sat back after spending hours working on the canvas, making clumsy figures, her anatomy wretched, her command of space in the scene hardly there, but she’d made it and it was hers. Wouldn’t you know that it was the moment her Mommy fought Molech? And then she knocked over the basin at the side of her work table, and the muddy paintwater spread, and spread, and spread, and where it touched everything was ruined, and she watched as something she’d poured her heart into was undone, and even if Bella said it was her fault for not removing the basin at once, Redana knew that it was all her fault.

As above, so below. As before, so now. As mother, as daughter.

And no wonder she’d been yearning all her life. And no wonder her mother shut all of her beloved humanity in that walled garden. And no wonder she’d been forbidden to leave, to come out here, to fall in love with a ruined universe. Before her, the stain spreads, blotting out colors, details, treasures, languages, mothers, daughters, futures. And the worst part of all is that this has all been seen before; is that her mother remembers, and she can hear her voice now, and it is a small, brown, brittle voice, without any of the bombast or pride she recognizes, simply the elevated register of someone reciting poetry meant to be memorized:

”Next those from Asterom and Melonian Orphidaeus, ruled by the Twin Kings, sons of Ares who the fair queen Astelia bore the mighty god, for they loved him and all his sport in defiance of Molech. Then the Phoecians, who sang to make Apollo weep, daughters of great-hearted Iphero, who held Cyprusa and rocky Pythan, Alena and Panopsus; the dwellers of Anomene and Hyrapolis, who sang their ships from the living coral; those from Lisbea by the clouds of Sephisus, who hid their reavers within those shining storms. Next the Lokirans…”

She’s sorry. But no amount of being sorry will make her mommy stop. Her memory continues, relentless, because to relent would be to forget, to allow that awful blot one final victory. To let everyone who tumbled down in their millions into Hades be forgotten one last time.

And so Redana curls up, and sobs herself hoarse, trying not to listen, incapable of not listening, of not understanding, of not seeing flashes in her mind’s eye: Iphero’s mottled fur, the precise color of the Anomen corals, the trophies of the Sephisean reavers. And later she’ll have time for the existential revelations, to grapple with her relationship to Iskarot, to look at her own face and see the shape of Hermes— but right now, all that is required of her is to witness. And so that is all that she can do.

That’s all her mother could do.
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One by one, the stars detonate inside her body. The flare of pain spreading wider than a galaxy and yet shrunk to the size of a pinprick at the same time. Screaming agony of infinite length that passes the moment it registers inside of her. The reaping of the universe, Molech's great sin and Nero's great failure is recreated in miniature inside of Bella's body. This is the only way she can be taught.

The pain of uncountable millions tears across her in a line. Each burst reaches inside of her to pull a tortured wail from her lips and steals the air she needs to make it in the same motion. Bella cries silently as she suffers through her lesson. The stars are in her feet, until one by one and all at once, they vanish into dust and beg to be remembered. The sensation races up her calves and into her thighs. Bella weeps for every person who was meant to grow up, to love, to fashion wonders cradled inside her universe. No longer.

The pain ebbs, and leaves behind it nothing. Not the sensation of numbness, but a total lack of feeling. Bella floats on limbs that don't exist anymore; she sinks to the ground without resistance as she disappears. Her stomach clenches before it too is torn into oblivion. Her arms tremble under their burden. Not them! Not them, too! She has work to do! She has...

But Beautiful and Beljani tumble to the floor with heavy thuds. Bella's arms fall limp and useless to her sides. Or at least, they must because they are no longer strong enough to keep held above her shoulders. They feel like nothing, just a memory of blinding heat and sadness. Only her head and heart remain. Because they must. Because something must remember how the universe was before it was wiped away, and something must weep for it. Something must remember, so that it can never happen again. This is the only way she can be taught.

There is a sound. Something pointless and dull, just a cracking of metal or whatever when it strikes a hard surface too heavy and haphazard for whatever it was made for. The soft plink of pieces falling away from something follows after. Bella grieves for it, too, whatever it happens to be. Had been. Will never be again.

The Auspex cries as easily as if it were simple flesh and blood. Nero's hand is upon her. Hermes' hand is upon her. It hurts a thousand times more, having the understanding of a god compressed back into her skull for a second time. She is not a universe. She is a Servitor. She is Tredecima, and she is Bella. She is deeply wounded almost everywhere that can be moved, and so emptiness ripples slowly back into a sense of weakness and exhaustion, and stabbing pains swimming with a serpent's grace underneath those.

Her legs begin to cramp, through which she discovers she is sitting up in spite of everything. Her arms twitch wildly when she tries to move them, but she grits her teeth and does it anyway. She strains, and finds exactly none of her awful, terrible strength. Her arms fall away again, without managing more than to brush the fingers of Beautiful and Beljani. Her talons have slipped off her fingers without her realizing it. Her shame, her weakness sits in her lap for anyone to notice. How ugly, these scarred and mutilated stumps. How shameful to have dared to try and grab a family with them. How evil of her to have begged for a mother to love them.

Both of her eyes sting with hot tears. She cries for a god, fragile and distant and beautiful. She cries for her family, sleeping and sobbing beside her. She cries until her heart must crumble to ashes, and then she pulls it back together so that she can cry some more. She cries, knowing this time there will be no Apollo to come and sit with her.

Death at last. And now that it's here, she finds she does not wish for it at all.
Hidden 1 mo ago Post by Balmas
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The first meal together after a battle is always somber. Too many seats that should have faces in them, but don't. And when it's a meal together with the people that, a few hours ago, were the reasons for some of those missing faces?

The interim leader of the Lanterns, Jaquelyn, has been a good host. Her Lanterns have shared their food, offered shelter. And now they cluster as far away from the troops of the Plousios as the imperial mess will allow them. The Alcedi cluster together with her, the Tides click and snikt amongst themselves, and only a rare few Coherents break ranks to wander amidst the tables.

And here she is, surrounded by Alcedi and completely alone.

She wonders, if she were to pluck the air, whether it would twang.

They won't talk to her, is the thing. She's the hero of the day--the one who destroyed herself to save the ship and all of their lives. They can't talk to her, are you crazy? Mere mortals, with her? What could they even have to talk about? Already, she can see the new myths forming. Remembers the stories the people of Molech whispered about her, when they thought she couldn't hear. Remembers the silence, spreading like blood whenever she drew near a no longer chatty bunch of soldiers. And you know, what?

Turns out, having people not talk to you because they admire you is worse than them not talking to you because they're afraid of you. Blow that, she's stopping this before it starts.

Conversation dies in the mess as she approaches a table, knees a chair out for herself, selects a victim, and blurts out, "By any chance, do you have a mother, or maybe a grandmother, named Ma'hti?"

***

The Alcedi have been relentless, but this might be her toughest challenge yet. She studies the warrior across the table--notes the definition of the muscles. The body of a sprinter. The beads woven in her feathers--awards for speed, precision. The familiar hooked beak. The fiery eyes. The plume, no doubt a crimson ribbon at speed.

Alexa nods, her decision made.

"Hoji! You were born of Hoji, the famous messenger, I'm sure of it!"

And more join to see the reason for the whoops.

***

"Oh, the stories I could tell you! You've never met a brigand faster at raiding or with a better eye for where the good stuff was than your great-uncle! I don't have the recipe written down--not here, anyway--but now that I have a tongue… Jaq, I hate to impose, but could I trouble you to show me where the cleaning supplies are kept?"

And a few more people are drawn in. Alcedi run off with Lanterns to fetch supplies. Coherents and Tides are dispatched to find something distillable. Nothing fancy, no barrels, nothing like the wine on Tellus or Barassidar, nothing you'd find sold in a shop. Only soldier's drinks, something that can ferment in your pack, something quick and easily concealed.

Private Polly's Paint Stripper is a rousing success. So is Colonel Shad's No. Nine, and Ma'hti's Bushwhacker. They even find some apples for the scumble.

***

There's a certain unique silence that happens when a hundred intently listening ears suction all sound out of a room at once.

Poor sap. She'd known the question was going to come up eventually--had been placing mental bets on whether it'd be Alcedi, Hermetic, or Lantern to pop the tension over the group. But as the young warrior fidgets, and does her best not to look around at the silently expanding ring of people clearing the blast zone around herself, Alexa can't help but feel a little sorry. You could hear a pin drop, and easily imagine a boot right behind it.

She sighs, and offers a wry smile. Set them at ease. Nobody's in trouble, we're all friends. You should never be afraid to ask a good question.

"Yes, Arth'na. I was the Pallas Rex."

It feels strange to be able to say that without wincing. To say it without a disclaimer, a layer of separation, a defined line between herself and the Pallas. For so long, she's done her best to distance herself from it. That was a different time. She was a different person. The person who carried out all those orders, hurt all those people, was dead, would never return.

But the thing about being dead is the dead don't learn.

"And that is exactly why I must convince you not to follow Father Molech.

"He would have you believe that he brought order, and peace. I say nay! Under his orders, I brought terror to the galaxy. I was his enforcer, his right hand, his pawn. I obeyed every order, killed at a word, slaughtered hundreds in battles. When a message needed to be delivered at the tip of a spear, I was the one holding the shaft.

"And do you know what I found when I was done?

"No honor. No glory. Only a pile of bodies and Emperor Molech, unhappy that the pile was not large enough."

"And lest I am not clear: the bodies were our own. Ridenki, turned to ash. Barassidar, a graveyard of the abandoned and destroyed. Emperor Molech ruled through fear, first and last. The Pallas was his sword, waiting always to decimate the weak, the failures.

"Do not, my friends, make my mistake! There is no future for anyone following Emperor Molech but that of an expendable corpse! Father Molech created us, yes--created us to serve, created us to die, to be used up in his plans! He will not care for you, will not reward you, will not know your name!

"And even if he did… Even if he did, you should not follow him. We will never be more to him than what he made us.

"Friends… there's so much more. You can be so much more. The life you make for yourself will always mean more to you than the life somebody else picks.

"I will not stand in your way. But please... make a better decision than I could. Learn what, for so long, I did not."
Hidden 1 mo ago Post by TheAmishPirate
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For the greater majority of his life, the world consisted of a single household. Everyone else was simply theory. His heart was too big for such surroundings, and so he filled it with adventures, comrades, worlds, friends, and even a wife. He was not blessed with eyes of the divine, but then again, most sheep weren’t. With what sight he had, he gathered up these precious things, and held them close.

Now, the visions of a god pours into him. And no divine insight to help him make sense of it all.

To know. To know the people, the places, the homes, all as real and living as him. All gone. Through no fault of their own. With nothing they could do to stop it. It is a horror too great to fit in a single household.

So his heart bursts. Shatters into dust. And still, the visions keep pouring in. Still, he looks, he must look, at each vision, before it is lost. They were here. And they’re gone. He knows. He must remember. He carries them now. Another. The next. No more. Stop. Why. Don’t look away. Don’t forget. He can’t. No. No. No no no no no no no nono no no non o

Trapped within his own mind, Dolce drowns. The business of his body must go on without him.

[Damaging Courage. Paying a price for working alone: Dolce is stunned, unable to act in whatever happens next.]

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

Her face turns to the sea. Her eyes fall to the ground.

“I am tired, sir Knight. The years are long, even in the telling. Let me rest, and I will give you my answer after.”

For the rest of that first day, the ancient castle held her fast within its walls, and permitted her nothing. It shepherds her into an ancient library, well-maintained, with high windows to welcome the sunlight and permit the breeze. Among the jewels of a civilization, she hobbles straight for a laughably thin novel. By the end of the first chapter, she knew the entire story. By the end of the last chapter, she’s had to move twice to follow a tantalizing sunbeam.

The castle brings her to a high rooftop, the village stretching out below her in its entirety. Her hands found paper and pencil, and idly she translated its criss-crossing roads to sketchy lines. She follows the paths by which the town must have grown, in times long past, out from the castle it was placed to serve. And when her thoughts grow sluggish and the bounds of her ability draws near, her host provides a plate of soft cheese and bread. Sit. Eat. The view will not go anywhere, and neither will she.

As night fell, and her path took her back to her bed, she passes a room full of instruments. Entertainments, for a time when musicians might live in employ here, to delight the heart of their patron with their talents. But her eye fell on a guitar, too worn and weathered to ever appear before the Furnace Knight, whose purpose was only to serve as practice for better tools. This, she took with her. In the safety of her room, her fingers slowly remember a dance practiced too rarely. The empty halls of the guest wing fill with the plinking of strings, gradually restored to rightful tuning. Notes, without music.

Far more than she’d thought she’d have.

*******

On the second day, her sentence is lightened; no more confinement. For the first time, she walks the beaches unaided, paws sinking into delightfully warm sand. She sets out with a packed lunch, and no destination. Her wanderings take her through the village paths she’d sketched, to squares that had once been alive and thriving, the intersection of a hundred lives she’d never known. The paintings of a Path-lost artist guide her, murals spanning entire blocks and twisting around houses and onto rooftops. Over the hills, through brilliant patches of flower, and up to where a tall, tall tree stood sentry over a glittering, inviting cape. Who was she to refuse?

An outcropping of rock serves as a diving board. In a graceful leap, she arcs into the sea, cutting through the water with steady, practiced strokes. She propels herself ever-onward, even as waves seek to push her back, fight her passage, tire her out. It will have her, in the end. It is too great a foe, and even those with gills must rest eventually. But inside she burns, and her muscles burn, and she glides ever-onward, and none of this was possible yesterday.

On her return to shore, she climbs up, up to the boughs, to take in her opponent, to take a well-earned lunch, to take a nap in the sun. To wake, and see the island all about her, and the stars blinking in one by one. Worlds she’d seen. Worlds she could see. Nothing between her and them but time and space.

The guest wing flooded with experimentation, that night. A freeform drifting of songs, plucked half-remembered from her mind, and blended with the sensibilities of her heart. Songs that were not hers. Songs she had no right to. But songs she could play, and return to, all the same.

*******

On the third day, she watches.

She watches the horizon. Clouds drift as only clouds can, yet their ways are as unique as Salib. Vibrant colors, peeking over the oceans, carrying on paths she cannot see. Flashes, where some dense congregations collect, and a shimmering haze falls beneath them, playing a percussion she cannot hear. Spherical Azura ships dart through the Skies, a constant glittering accompaniment. No shine of Engines, only the distant impressions of embellishment and pride. Always they fly, carrying on business she cannot know.

She watches the Glaive. It rests where she laid it; leaning against a stand meant to display, as a trophy. As a memory. It has not moved for days. No one has disturbed its rest. They are alone, the two of them. She studies the weapon, as if her hands could not trace the shape of it. As if her arms could not recall its weight, its balance. Leave nothing for granted. Gaze upon your partner, with eyes refreshed and new. See what secrets lie hidden, if she only had taken the time to see them.

But the Glaive is silent.

She watches the Furnace Knight, and not for the first time. He works his ancient body through a routine both ingrained in stone and always-evolving to the day’s needs. Stretching, practice forms, recovery, strikes, techniques, all blend together in a free-flowing symphony of motion, that nevertheless hides its most precious secrets from his attentive audience. The invitation stands, that she may join him. But so does a question, and so she stands apart.

That night, her songs are soft. Her songs are sweet. One by one, she plucks them out, and she plays until she cannot sing for weeping. She falls asleep clutching at her chest, as if she could pull emptiness itself out and toss it aside forever.

*******

On the fourth day, she steals away from the great house, taking her guitar with her. She tells no one, crosses paths with no one, and finds a quiet field of vibrant vegetation to play her songs to.

The Furnace Knight finds her anyway. Gracious host that he is, he slips into the audience without disturbing her song, and as the last notes fade, he patiently awaits the next one.

For a breath, all is quiet.

“You may have never crossed paths with the Starsong.” Her fingers work a low, thoughtful backing. “They are a more recent addition to the universe. Life, born from the drecks of humanity’s fall. Rarely do more than a handful come from the same world, the same lives, and yet. All are united in a common cause. All have felt a brokenness, and now work to set it right. Whether it be by the folly of the Empire, or something far worse still, they see a universe that has lost its song, and dearly needs music again.”

Her song grew loud, but not loud enough to completely swallow up her soft sigh. “Idiots…I don’t know what the universe needs, sir Knight. I hardly know what I need. But what I want?”

Her fingers slowed, and lay still. Her song faded to silence. It has been days, and she is tired. So tired.

“I just…I don’t want any more people to be chewed up in the wars of the wicked. And…I want to be someone, who could bring that about without completely ruining it. That, sir Knight, is my wish.”

“Those I’ve tried to love. Those I’ve…” Her fingers run through some thoughtless notes. To hide her crumbling voice. “Well. They don’t deserve any less than that.”
Hidden 1 mo ago Post by Thanqol
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There are complexities to being the Master of Assassins. Oaths. Honour. Oh, she could disregard all of those if she needed to, let the knives come out while her opponents were weakened and take a quick win. You know, murder the daughter of Zeus who was crippled by the pain of Zeus' other daughter. Long life and victory were sure to be hers that way.

Demeter hissed and raged and boiled and demanded, but what could she do? She needed Sagakhan. She had purchased her services with power and immortality. Perhaps she could raise up another steward, in the course of years, but the goddess was on an exacting schedule with limited influence. With Demeter, she had leverage. With Zeus? Sagakhan looked over at the distant thunder, at the torches in the streets as silent Azura move in their thousands. Zeus would burn her like a gnat.

She lowered the bloody heart and knelt down by Bella. Patted the girl's head affectionately. Turns her face upwards, smiles into unseeing eyes. "You were almost my downfall," she murmurs. "Close, but not quite."

She lifts the girl up, carrying her like a child. Though Bella is tall and strong, Sagakhan lifts her like a doll - the true size and strength of those aged limbs only truly visible now that they are smothering the servitor in their embrace. Her shawl ripples and tears, and four enormous glittering dragonfly wings unfurl from beneath her cloak. "You can be mine again," she said. "All that I need do is remove that troublesome heart of yours."

And with that, her iridescent wings buzzed and she took to the heavens, cascading golden djinn-dust swirling around her.

*

The Furnace Knight looks out at the distant Rift. Still earthbound. What would the Endless Azure Skies be without the Furnace Knight?

He had not been satisfied with Vasilia's answer. What did ending the wars of the wicked mean? What did that galaxy look like? If you were to utter such a poorly phrased prayer to a God imagine the chaos you might receive. To be someone who wouldn't ruin things? That was scarcely a wish, more the cry of a broken little girl. His fists clenched. He had... hoped for wisdom. Hoped for revelation. Hoped for something.

But instead all he had received was his own wish repeated back to him, in words no better than he'd been able to come up with on his own. All he had learned that there was someone who could carry a wish so weak and incoherent and be driven forwards by it instead of spending years in isolation and despair. Somehow, it seemed, that it wasn't the phrasing of their wishes that separated him from Vasilia. Was it love, then?

The Furnace Knight looked up at the Rift. If it was love then she was doomed. Love was always cruel. If you did not give it everything it would take everything.

*

Bella!

"Liu Ban, you old scoundrel," said the Master of Assassins. "They were using you as a Navigator? No wonder they could keep ahead of us."

The world is still slightly blurred, your senses still recovering. It strange. Something's happening in your blood, some hidden battle. But you know enough about the language of power to recognize that the Master of Assassins is in control here.

"Sagakhan. What happened to you?" There is an edge of fear in Molech's voice. Not the cowed voice of someone afraid of violence, this is a tone of horror. Whatever he sees here you're glad you can't make it out.

"Happened to me? I got a job offer," said Sagakhan. "Our Zenithial Lady has found use for me. No doubt she can use you too."

"I refuse," said Molech. No hesitation, more than a little fear.

"Oh Liu, you'll never get ahead with that attitude!" said Sagakhan. "After all, you're the man who burned the galaxy for love - I would have thought you, of all people, would jump at the chance."

"I'll take my chances," he said.

"Will you really? Well, then, why don't I give you a free sample. Maybe you'll change your mind."

"No! Sagakhan - Kym! Kym, don't do this! Don't -!"

You don't hear what happens next, don't see it as more than a blur. You're glad that you don't. You wish that courtesy extended to your sense of touch because when you feel the hand slap affectionately on your shoulder you feel the hideous sensation of lukewarm sticky wetness. It doesn't pull away, it keeps you in its grip.

"You know what the best thing about Emperors is?" said the Master of Assassins. "It's that they fall. When they're in power they're like unto gods, to be treated with all the respect due to the lord of the universe. But that's not a function of the Emperor, it's the function of the office of Imperium. The Emperor is really just the meat that Imperium uses to work its will. Remove an Emperor from their office and the meat is all that remains. Remove a god from heaven and it's a similar story. Who was Zeus before she killed Kronus? Who is Kronus now that he is bound in the linear ticking of the clock? These are the questions a true Assassin must contemplate."

Again she pats you, and all throughout you can feel the heat in your blood, a fever, an allergic reaction. You want to sneeze. "It's important that you understand this. An assassin does not kill the office, only the meat that the office is using to work its will. Such an act is not a blasphemy, not a rebellion, not at odds with the great order of things. Do you understand?"

Dolce and Vasilia!

This is a cursed ship. Everything is silence, darkness, and the omnipresent wreckage of war. The walls absorb light and consume sound. The corridors are cramped and shifting, craving ambushes. Everywhere are glyphs of threat and fear, symbols of the Hunt, the crescent-moon eye of Artemis.

If Bella stood in this fearsome place and provided kindness to the Lanterns, no wonder she won the loyalty of Jil. If the Master of Assassins sculpted this ship to reflect her own intentions then you have a terrible enemy indeed. There is no way it is possible to feel truly safe in this shadowed place.

But, for a moment, you are with each other, a lantern by your bedside and the night held at bay by warmth of blankets.

Alexa!

"Yes, we were created to die," whispered an Elder, her hands trembling with age. "We are servitors. We are Alcedi. Our genes were woven on great looms to produce the strongest, the fastest, the swiftest. We know our call. We know our oaths. We were created to serve a purpose, and we know we will find fulfillment in that purpose. Have you not seen the joy in the young warriors as they take the field? How can you say they should be denied their calling? Pallas Rex, Alexa, questions of morality, of terror, of Empire - these are questions for humans, who have since the dawn of time ruled the stars. Are we not their crafted tools?"

Redana!

You are drawn by your nose. Smells you remember, smells you don't, and the ever present smell of cigarette smoke. Deeper and deeper into the Anemoi. You walk until you arrive at a room that's almost like something you remember from a dream, something old and something new and something alien.

And here there are films. Films you know and love. Films you don't. Films addressed to you.
Hidden 1 mo ago Post by Phoe
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The world exists in smears and splotches. Messy, muddy colors that run together at the edges of what might be shapes, but might also just be the shape of the new broken reality where one plane of color fights another for dominance. She would call herself blind if the rising and sinking of her exhausted breathing didn't cause the patches to move with her. Her head lolls onto her chest and the world briefly explodes into a kaleidoscope of sharp edges and sharper pain. She groans, a sound so weak and wet it makes her skin crawl with revulsion.

No, Bella is not blind. But it might be kinder if she were.

She means to lift her head, defiant. She tries to set her jaw and arrange her facial features into something proud and strong. But she can feel the slump of her shoulders and the parting of her lips that mean she's failed in spite of everything. There is a war happening inside of her blood, some sort of fever-bringing disease of a sort that never came to the Imperial Palace on Tellus, and the greatest triumph of her form is that she has it in her to look pathetic. Drained of life, but still breathing. She snorts with frustration; wet snot clings to her chin. That... that must be a new low, even for her. Isn't it?

Every breath is filled with information that she did not ask for. The whining of her ribs is proof against the question of her memories. She was not always broken. Could not have been, because these white hot knives inside her skin are proof that sometime recently, she burned brighter than a sun and fought a war for something. For... someone? Her jaw clenches. This too is pain. But she breathes, because there's nothing else for her to do. Her mouth tastes dust and dryness and rust: this is a place of death which long ago gave up on keeping any sort of proper caretaker. Nobody has loved this place in lifetimes. The air smells of brine, barnacles, and rot: this a tomb that was swallowed by the sea. A thousand thousand troubles have crushed and haunted it for hundreds of years. No wonder the Master brought her here. This place must be Hades' garden. It is a crumbling temple that knows only death.

Her own body is adapted to this new home. Impossible to tell how much of her is left. She flexes her fingers, and in so doing discovers they still exist. Prickling fires spark up and down her knuckles and into her palms. She must have held them like this for a long time, then. Her mutilated fingers feel heavier than the rest, and don't bend like they're supposed to. Somebody has covered up her shame. But they have not given her fresh talons, a sign of trust. Her deadliest claws have been capped.

Her head is too heavy for her neck, and sags forward except with great effort on her part. She makes it anyway: the Master always told her good posture was important. Which Master that was escapes her just. It doesn't really matter anyway, does it? She is seated, is sitting. Her body is heavy in ways that do not account for simply being tired and broken. Her legs are folded under her and pushed crossed apart into a lotus position. Uncomfortable weight and a rough itching tells her that her knees are tied into position with a great deal of rope, and that her wrists have been looped into it. The fur on her wrists is sweaty, cold, clammy. She has been gifted bracelets to hold her still and gentle, a deeper wish than simple ropes can grant alone. She rolls her hips and pushes her feet to the fullest extent her bindings will allow. Her ankles scrape the ground with a sound of heavy chains. Behind her back, her tail writhes like a pinned serpent. Its many joints flow like mercury until it reaches the ribbon tied to something heavy around the tip. Even this expression has been held in place.

This is not a punishment. This is a lesson. A hand touches her shoulder, and Bella's world dissolves in a wave of heat and acid burning. It is wet. It is crushing. It is melting her from the inside out. A disease, a virus, a, a, a, aaaaaaahhhhhhhh! She means to scream, but when her ears bend to scrape up the sound all they catch is a gurgling, inhuman moan. It dies into a whine held over infinite seconds, and then it melts into an even stranger sound she can't recall being able to make. A thrumming, breathy, rolling sort of... ah. But. How? How could that slimy, noxious touch make her purr?

"You, you're... talking..."

Her voice is soft. It chimes like music inside her ears, which seems wrong. But the Master always said to greet the morning's lessons with all the grace and sweetness she could hold inside her miserable, unworthy body? He... she... they said that. Didn't she?

"About Artemis? Mynx said... nnnf, precepts. She said. She said. Ah. What did she say? That... an assassin. It's her, your, the job to, to, only remove the disease, and leave the body."

Bella manages a frown, and tilts her head in spite of what it costs her. Her hazy, unfocused eyes stay stubbornly open, seeking a comforting face amidst the jagged world of endless colors. Her shivers send needles prickling all across her body. Her bindings are so heavy.

"But why are you telling me this? I have served the Crown faithfully. I never questioned your order, or your authority. I treated your pupils as well as I could manage. Did I, was I bad? Am I... going to die?"

*********

Redana!

The room you step into looks like a collage from several splintered points of time. There are broken scraps of unidentifiable trinkets thrown haphazardly about the carpet about the otherwise almost empty shelves that make this cramped room feel cavernous. The bed is pressed and made as neatly as you can ever remember the one you grew up with being back at home. Above the pillows on the ceiling, an outcropping of crystals bathes the room in calming orange light. But everything else is dented, broken, or torn apart. In the air, even your nose can pick up a faint smell of roses, mixed with something else.

Everything except the films set about the room with no clear pattern. The ancient, dusty projector pointed at the barest, flattest wall where the light is more than good enough for a screen. And at the corner of the bed, where your feet finally stop leading you, a single reel of film that feels unnaturally heavy when you lift it. You turn it over in your hands, and you can almost make out the line where once upon a time it had been cut, and where someone or something very deliberately sealed it back together.

A note tumbles like a baby bird out of your hands and onto the blankets. There in dark, expensive ink across the creamy paper a message swirls its way across in immaculate script:

'To Her Royal Highness, The Princess Redana Claudius'

The gentle currents of the air that always blow inside this room to keep the atmosphere adjusted for the activities of its guests catches the slip of paper and flips it over. On the other side, in shaky and spidery plain letters is a single word tucked inside a storm of other scratched out attempts. If you squint you can still make it out.

'please'

It takes several tries to fit the reel inside the projector. You have to turn it over three times to make sure it slots in, and whack it harder than you probably should for such a fragile looking thing. But eventually it takes it, and wobbles on its table as it rumbles to life. There's just enough time to find a seat on the bed by the note before the show begins.

The screen wobbles as it flickers to life. At first the image is nothing but a bright off-white smudge, until it gradually starts fading into a blurry and indistinct grayscale picture of a very dark room. Slowly, details start to pop out: a bed with neatly pressed sheets and an immaculate and warm looking blanket folded into a perfect rectangle at the foot. The side of an ornate, whitish tin sitting on top of the blanket. The dark and spotless floor, and in the very bottom right corner of the frame, the sharp pointed heel of a shoe. The screen stutters, and the shoe disappears.

It must be a very old model to be having this much trouble. It must have known a lot of use to be running this quietly. Even by the oppressive standards of the Anemoi, the image is stifling, still, and silent. The shot sits perfectly still, without stimulus of any kind, when suddenly after a minute the sound of a mechanical clicking comes over what may as well have been a photograph. And then, just behind it, the soft flutter flutter of film feeding through a processor slot. It must be a very special model to remember what colors are after so many years of quietly waiting to be wanted again.

The room itself is no less black for all the triumph of the camera. But the bedsheets are vibrant ocean blue, and the blanket the deepest emerald green. The tin, it turns out, is platinum and covered with gold trim in pattern of crawling vines and roses. The lighting in the room is soft but sufficient, the kind of soothing yellow that begs a body to curl up underneath it with a story or to nap as though it were a sunbeam in a perfect garden, full of--

A single golden cat's eye suddenly fills the entire frame. The pupil grows wide as it flits from side to side, hunting, searching, puzzling. And then with equally little fanfare it retreats, and the cat it's attached to furrows her brow in concentration. The frown covering her face conveys nothing of hatred or aggression, but only a quiet kind of focus. She could easily be fighting a particularly stubborn stain right now, or building herself up to lecturing you about your bad habits, Redana.

"...Is it? Aha!"

Her delight ripples through the room in waves of bright laughter as beautiful as song. The smile it brings to her face transforms her, taking away years of stress and trauma and transforming her from a Praetor to a Best Friend. This is the height of her beauty: her lips painted cherry red and her cheeks stretched wide with mirth. Her teeth are dazzling, and for once their sharpness is cute instead of predatory. Her golden eyes are sparkling as she finally steps back and fully into the frame.

"In the old stories, the great heroes would create records before attempting difficult tasks and challenges. I thought, since my own adventure is about to come to an end I'd maybe try my hand at it. But I didn't know what to talk about, so I..."

Bella glances off frame at the door several times before continuing, suddenly looking very nervous. She takes a deep breath before suddenly breaking into a twirl that lifts her skirts in a wide circle of giddy pleasure. Her outfit is simple, pure black and white, and very deeply frilly. Her skirts are layered waves of lacy black fabric lined at each new descending line with white trim. When they settle, they come to rest just below her knees, covering up the little ribbons tied at the tops of her socks, which are every bit as snowy white as the fur they're covering.

She poses by lifting her arms to either side and jutting out her left leg to show off her shining black lacquered dancing shoes and their 3 inch heels that lift her calves into the most perfect and enticing shape they're capable of. As she gestures with her arms, the wide and open white lace of her sleeves flutters and dances around her hands like falling leaves caught in a swirling breeze. They wind and wrap three full times around her wrists and cover her smooth black sleeves before her dancing pulls them open again. They hang long enough on her wrists to reach the middle of her skirts when she finally brings her hands to rest at her stomach.

When her back arches, it pushes her chest forward enough to strain the oversized black buttons on her blouse, but only just enough to show off the ruffles layered atop the otherwise smooth and patternless design. She is elegant. She is prim, she is proper. If she had her paw print patterned apron with her she would be ready for almost a normal day of working in the palace, albeit perhaps on a particularly festive occasion. She turns to show her back and the many gold laces tying her shirt together, as well as her dazzling and intricate braid. She must have spent hours on it: more than thirty plaits wind their way down her neck and the top of her back in a fishtail pattern complex enough that even a weaver would hesitate before trying to replicate it in their work. Even with its broken chain, her collar manages to look stately and impressive underneath it.

Bella turns and smiles for the camera again before disappearing out of frame for a moment with a series of loud-clicking steps. She comes back with something clasped gingerly in her hands, which she hides from the camera with her sleeves. She hesitates for a long moment, twice lifting her arms up toward her head before bringing them down again before she finally makes the decision and places the ornament where it belongs. The sheen of the golden laurel wreath is almost blinding, even in the low and comfy lighting of her bedroom, as it rests upon her hair like a crown. She tilts her head this way and that, showing how by its own power it stays where it should without ever actually quite touching her. Imperial Regalia... at last a reminder of her station. Of the full degree of trust the Empress has placed in her.

"So!" she chirps, "What do you think? The Princess will love it! Right? She will, won't she? There's no way she won't, I picked it out especially for her!"

Giddy bouncing flutters her sleeves and skirts and bounces her hair, though every piece falls perfectly into place again without a hint of disarray. Her fingers are as clever as they've ever been, apparently. She laughs again, and it's as wonderful as music.

"I really wasn't sure at first, but Mynx said I needed to remind her who I am and... she was right! It's perfect. Absolutely perfect. Oh, I never knew how much fun it was having my own wardrobe! When I get home I should ask the Empress if... oh! I can't believe it! This is finally over! I'm going home! I'll make her understand and she'll come on board my ship, and then... that's it! Just one last trip and we won't have to deal with all this space and danger ever again! I could sing, honestly! I guess I'll have to, actually."

Bella heaves a playful little sigh and sits like a proper lady on the bed. She opens up the tin and tilts it to show the camera: it's full of all sorts of sweets, all classic favorites of Redana. There's candied rose petals and crystallized honey of course, but the star of the show are the variety of colored and snow-covered cubes that are the Princess' absolute favorite: Ilium Delight! Bella reaches in for one, but hesitates before she touches it, and grabs a petal instead. It crunches between her teeth and she squeezes her eyes shut while her ears flutter in absolute delight.

"The Anemoi is no fit place for a princess, but I'm ready for the challenge! I've got her favorite foods and a bunch of her old holos here with me, so I'll just... oh, what's it matter? She's going to love it here! We'll be together, Dany! Aren't you excited? We're going home!"

******

The picture flares to life more confidently this time. There’s a burst of white that flickers and warps unsteadily at the edges for a moment or two, but even though the picture bubbles occasionally it fades straight into color. The whirring and flapping that accompanied filmmaking was quieter this time too, even though the sound needed less time before it popped on. Such a proud machine, to have recovered it’s full form so quickly like this.

The room is just the same as it was the last time. The sheets still neatly pressed and tucked, the blanket still folded and a perfectly perfect untouched rectangle. The tin of snacks is even sitting on top of it again with its lid firmly reclosed, making it difficult to place the shot in time. It couldn’t be more than a few minutes after the shooting of the diary. If it hadn’t been for how smoothly the camera came to life this time it would even have been possible to believe this came before.

The only real difference is Bella. Even she looks basically unchanged: the same frilly, prissy dress. The same elaborate and impractical braid. The same makeup, the same pointed shoes, the same contented swishing of her tail. If she’s left this bedroom since the last filming, there’s no sign of it. She sits on the floor in front of the bed with her knees daintily folded under her and picks her way through a small and somewhat crumpled box that manages to smell of dust even as a projection. To either side of her are small piles of meticulously stacked film reels, the right of which is much larger than the left. She lifts another one out of the box and stares at it in silence with a look on her face that makes her seem like she’s trying to destroy it with her eyes.

“Batrachomyomachia Untold,” she mutters, “She likes that one. Maybe it should stay?”

Just hearing the name is enough to bring back the memories, isn’t it Redana? To the bright and intricately crafted world of an empire populated not by humans and servitors but by tiny adorable little mice and moles and bunnies. A world of adventure! A world of tiny little phalanxes, gritty adventurers, and Evil Cats.

And best of all, the cast of characters is so rich! Literally dozens of protagonists span the full series, each with their own fully realized motivations and goals that don’t always align with the other heroes’! Of course Bella would have wanted to keep this! Together you must have watched at least seventeen of these, each one at least twice. This is a movie filled with fun memories, so… why is she hesitating?

“Which one of these is this, again?” Bella sniffs.

“Ugh. They made too many of these stupid things, if you ask me. How is anybody supposed to keep track of who’s related to who and what’s actually happening? Ha, leave it to Dany. Only she could go white as a sheet if you ask her to name the Seven Hills and then turn around in the same breath to explain who Whisker-shaker is and why it’s important he just took a spear defending Fratley the Iron Tail.”

She laughs, but it’s oddly free of scorn. After a moment, she shakes her head and places the reel on the larger pile to her right. That must be the Accepted Pile, then.

“No thank you. She’s just going to ask where the other ones are, and I’m gonna have to tell her they were lost in a fire and there’s no way she’ll buy that. Again. Let’s just not remind her.”

Oh. Bella reaches for the box again to continue her sorting, but her arm freezes in mid-motion. She huffs a dramatic sigh to nobody, to herself maybe, and plucks Batrachomyomachia from the discard pile.

“...You owe me, Dany.”

After that, she finds Leona Marshall’s Eurydice, a certified masterpiece of filmmaking based on the ancient myth. Every shot is painstakingly crafted, and everybody knows the joke about how Ms Marshall must’ve slept with Hades to get the lighting as perfect as it is. But it was also filled to bursting with catchy songs, all of which Bella knew by heart and could sing to you in her angelic voice before you even finished asking her.

“...Can’t think of anything worse to bring than this. Oh sure, let’s wave the impossible journey to the far end of the universe in her face, why don’t we? She’ll think I’m doing it to taunt her. Pass.”

And off it goes to the reject pile. From the look on her face, it’s not even the best film she’s thrown out today.

“Zahar and the Seven Galax… ies.”
Bella’s face turns scarlet and she clings tightly enough to the film that the sound of the reel cracking starts picking up on her own little movie. Does she know she’s making it? Her arms start trembling as her tail stiffens and bushes to comedic proportions.

“No. No! Absolutely not! Nuh uh!”

And she doesn’t so much set the movie on the reject pile so much as she flings the jaunty tale of Azura Pirates and the slave girls who can’t help falling in love with them on their adventures straight to the other side of the room. She trembles and pulls her arms against her chest for several minutes before she can compose herself enough to continue.

When she does, she stops cold. The film is Around Cloudcuckooland In a Fortnight, which you distinctly remember being a silly cartoon adventure. Even by the standards of relaxing media that you set for yourself, Redana, this one is childish in the extreme. The colors are bright (some are even pastel), the songs are silly except for That One you remember giving you feelings, but you wouldn’t dare go back to it, at least where anyone could see you watch. The ammunition you’d be handing Mynx alone!

But, do you remember? It was your first movie together. You were so excited. It was just after you’d managed passing marks on an important examination, and your mother was in a good enough mood to ask you what you’d like for a reward. You asked her to let you take your new pet into the Big Theater to watch the silly movie you’d heard the Attendants whispering about.

And so all of the benches were empty that night. It was you and your Bella sitting in the front row, in front of a screen so big it felt even grander than the night sky. You sat there, vibrating with excitement, huddled in your soft blankets, and the two of you snuck your little hands out of your cocoons to grab at chocolates and toasted bits of breads and all kinds of other delicious snacks.

You fell asleep before the end. It was so late, wasn’t it? Your Bella had to wake you up after the credits had ended. You’d forgotten until just now, but she had the strangest look on her face back then. You’re sure of it, because she’s got the same one on now, looking at the movie in her hands. Her golden eyes are misty and distant and mouth is hanging just slightly open in an expression of longing she seems afraid to let all the way out.

The funny thing is, you’d never actually gone back and seen it all the way through. The two of you had made such a mess that night that Mom wound up banning you from her theater for a good long while. And by the time you could watch movies again, there were others that excited you, so you never went back.

But in her room on board the Anemoi, Bella swallows a sniffle. She hiccups, and places the reel gently on the top of the left pile. The screen blinks several times before it goes out entirely.

*******

Now you see the hand of an old master at work. The screen bursts to life with a smooth flourish that doesn’t need any warm up. This gives plenty of extra time to notice that it’s been moved since the last time it was turned on. The screen pans around in the edges of a batch of shadows that are stretching toward a circle of quiet yellow-orange light.

It’s a dingy light by any reasonable standard. It’s dull and difficult to see by; there are broken down sections of the Plousios that are brighter than this by accident. But there’s something about the darkness the camera’s swimming in (and as you watch the way the screen sways and flops as it moves, it’s obvious that it’s being carried by someone) that makes that pale light look like the softest and most beautiful thing in the universe.

The camera moves closer to the light on awkward, fearful steps. It peers around the back of something massive, and now you can finally see the shape of the room. The circle of altars shaped in the likeness of the Gods is lit by candles on this ship, but even still every Pantheon is built exactly the same.

"It isn't right..." Bella’s voice is soft and painted with regret.

You can’t see her. The cameraperson doesn’t have the angle. They lean around a corner and suddenly the screen plunges several feet toward the ground. It bobbles in a pair of unsteady hands with sickening vertigo before it’s caught. You can feel them cringe as they pull it steady again, and… there! A sudden motion on the strange, soft looking floor helps you identify a shadow with a distinctive pair of ears atop its head.

"This ship doesn't believe in spices. I wanted to recreate... if I were back on Tellus, I would have made it better. But still. For you."

The shadow dips on the ground suddenly in a posture of kneeling. She stays there, and you can see the telltale flicker at the base of it that means her tail is flicking about in pleasure. Which god is she praying to? From the camera’s position it seems to be lurking behind Artemis, but Bella’s shade is large and indistinct enough that it could be anywhere. Her ears are pointed at Apollo, if that means anything.

"The reorganization of the ship is going well, by the way. Lorventi's gonna be pissed if she ever drags her ass off that infirmary bed, but that doesn't matter anymore. The lanterns are free and productivity's up across the board. I've got this place running smoother than the Kaeri could even hope to... ahem."

This is Bella, but it’s a voice you’ve never heard before. She’s warm and reverent, but also casual in a way she’s never been with anybody you can remember. Certainly not you. She wouldn’t dare be this familiar on Tellus, and since then she’s been… tense, but here she sounds almost like she’s talking to her mother instead of a god.

Is this what she’s like when she’s praying? You’ve never seen her do that, either. Bella has always quietly retreated into the background during every religious ceremony, and was never seen around the palace making her own sacrifices or invocations. But here she is so comfortable and at ease it’s like she’s walked with the gods her entire life. Her laughter ripples like chiming bells, drawing a tiny ‘aww’ from the cameraperson that doesn’t quite last long enough to identify the voice.

"For as much as she was a moron, that pirate woman had her ass parked on an incredible wardrobe. Surprised any of it fits. Do I have you to thank? Never worn pants before. It's... I like it. This whole time I've been running around chasing old memories that weren't worth three floggings. But now, thanks to you, I understand what I'm supposed to be. Watch over me, Protector. I'll make you proud of me, I promise."

The camera nods to itself in satisfaction, and swings toward the darkness. You can still hear the slight sounds of breathing and the rustling of fabric that might mean Bella is bowing or standing or moving in some way you can’t be sure of anymore. Despite the blackness, there’s a sense of motion, of slooowwww creeping into the shadows and the safety of a hallway that feels the length of the universe away, though it must be just a few steps more.

Beneath the camera, there is a sound like an incense stick snapping under a foot. Again, you feel it cringe. Everything freezes. Bella’s voice drips with annoyance.

"Whatever it is you're up to, Mynx, keep it to yourself."

*********

“Praetor, a moment?”

The voice belongs to a small mouse servitor in an oversized leather longcoat that’s hanging off of her badly enough to undermine any semblance of authority she’s supposed to have. She shifts nervously from foot to foot in the dark, making the gaudy collar wrapped around her throat clack and chime as all the assorted knicknacks clipped onto it. She cranes her neck to look up at what can only be Bella.

The girl darts nimbly about a bulky desk and busies herself with setting all sorts of charts and documents across the length of it. Most of the pages are written in the kind of tiny scrawl that a camera of this quality can’t possibly make out, at least not from the angle it’s shuffling about the shadows from and in this low light, but when she lights the candle you can definitely see a star chart that’s absolutely scarred with angry red lines criss crossing from system to system like an angry net.

Two more candles get lit and set in braces on the walls, revealing what must be the most claustrophobic room in the entire ship, which from what you’ve managed to see of it is saying something. The tangled nest of communication tubes juts from one wall next to a cramped table only a few paces away from the one the girl is setting up. Individual stations practically bump into each other where the walls seem to lean in toward the center of the room. Is this the bridge, or a torture chamber? It couldn’t possibly hold more than five or six people at a time, unless they were all as small as the collared mouse. She trembles as she pulls out a chair and stands in front of it with her hands folded in front of her legs. Bella does not sit.

“...Speak.” she growls.

Bella has her back turned to the camera, and she is a study in contrasts. Her entire outfit is either blacker than the void or such blinding bright white you’d be forgiven for thinking she wove it out of starlight. A tight fitting black dress shirt hides none of her back muscles until a waist-length white half cloak covers it and her right arm in its billowing folds. Her left sleeve cuts off at the elbow, showing her silken white fur bound in an ornate leather armguard covered from end to end in markings made of raised little bumps.

Her tail flicks under a long white skirt that wraps around her left leg. Her right is encased, or maybe more trapped, in tight black leather that runs down to the mismatched boots on her feet. Her legs shift with a swishing of fabric; a wide and confident stance. Her shoulders roll inward and she pulls her arms across her chest in front of her.

“Quit wasting my time, Jil. You’re not a mop girl anymore, or whatever the fuck it is you did before. The Kaeri aren’t in charge. Lorventi doesn’t control anything anymore: I do. And I just told my first officer to speak.”

“R-right! Yes, Praetor. I, uh…”

Bella’s hair is wild and free flowing in a way that seems wrong on her. When she lowers her head to sigh into her palm pressed against her nose, it bounces and cascades across her back and slips over her shoulders to her front. She rises again and tosses it behind her with a careless flick of her neck. The single small braid she’s tied into the side of this loose main bounces against her neck and settles last of all.

“...D-damage,” the mouse girl squeaks, “From the Diodekoi’s escape. N-needs fixing. Engine Clan’s worried about their safety. And, uh, everyone else’s.”

“Hrn. Do we have the materials?”

“Not without using your treasury, Praetor.” the mouse girl swallows quietly and makes very careful note of Bella’s feet.

“My tr-- feh. The fuck do I care about that crap? We plucked it off a dumbassed rube’s sorry excuse for a pirate ship. Besides which, I beat one idiot in a plover. You won the fight. Just get it fixed and quit bothering me.”

“Um. Y-yes, Praetor. By your will. But there’s also… ah!”

Bella turns and pounces on her subordinate. She grabs Jil’s arm so suddenly and fiercely that the mouse girl almost passes out on the spot. You watch helplessly from your prison called the future as what will no doubt be a murder starts to play out in front of you. Only, not? What’s going on?

Jil sighs softly, so softly the sound doesn’t even make it all the way to the camera and you have to infer the breath from the way her mouth moves. Her eyes flutter shut as she melts into Bella’s touch. Bella’s fingers expertly roll up the sleeve of her longcoat and massage the skin underneath it with her palm with a series of precise squeezes and strokes that almost look like language. With her face turned like this you can clearly see her golden eye shining with a ferocity that makes the candlelight in the room seem like the brightest chandelier in the Imperial Palace.

The mouse servitor responds in kind. She grasps at Bella’s arm guard and feels every ridge and pattern with her fingertips, first from one direction and then backwards before tracing new ones from different angles. Then with a sudden ferocity of her own she twists the bracer sharply so that she can paw at the soft white fur where the straps leave a long stripe of it instead of closing completely.

And Bella lets it happen. They dance like this for several minutes, a delicate ballet of touches, squeezes, and strokes. Song without sound. Grasping in the dark and whispering truth into what they find there. Bella’s touch is visibly less elegant than her partner’s, but you watch her mask it with overflowing confidence. She is holding Jil’s heart in her palm, and every tiny twist and touch seems to soothe it. They say more in these few minutes than either might have been capable of with hours of conversation between them. Bella finally breaks away and takes the offered seat at last. She plucks a report off of the desk and glances at it casually.

“Omn should be installed by now in the war room,” she says with a wave of her hand, “Run the numbers you need through it and then point the right people at wherever it directs you. That thing was meant to be a gift for Her Highness, you can trust it fine.”

Jil nods for a moment before remembering she has a voice and adds a, “Yes, Praetor.”

“I’ll assign Lorventi and her phalanx to getting the Adepts back under control. They can’t handle Beljani, but she’s still stimmed to hell anyway so that doesn’t matter. The Kaeri need a redemption project anyway, so I don’t have to murder the lot of them for mutiny.”

“...Y-yes, Praetor.”

“I told you not to worry about it, Jil. Hera is with us. Which reminds me, order a new augury starting ten minutes ago. We’re overdue a course correction if we don’t want to lose the Princess’ scent.”

“Yes, Praetor.” Jil bows deeply and moves to leave.

Bella seizes her by the wrist again. This time she does nothing with her hand but squeeze.

“Not yet, dumbass.” Bella snarls.

“Yes, Praetor?” the poor girl can’t keep her voice from quavering.

“When you’re done with all this, go work on your speaking. You’re mine, understand? It’s time to start acting like that means something.

Jil pauses at the door, just in front of the camera, which swings suddenly away from her to avoid being caught. The girl’s face has a look of odd intensity to it as she puzzles through the meaning of Bella’s words, until suddenly her eyes light up and she lifts herself to her full diminutive height. She even rises up onto tiptoes for a second to match the energy of the moment.

“Yes, Praetor!”

*********

The only sight the camera can detect as it flutters to life again is a single blearly golden eye. Its pupil is a small, angry slit that glares hatefully into the screen. A messy lock of blue-black hair flops over it, and the sound of Bella’s frustrated groan follows her as she retreats backwards.

You’re back in her bedroom aboard the Anemoi again. Back on the same shelf she preferred to film from. The crystals overhead bathe the room in the same soft yellow glow as ever. Only, it seems emptier here than it used to. There was a chair, just over there near the closet. There was a set of dainty little figurines on the shelf behind the bed. There was a silver tin, once, filled with all kinds of snacks and memories of home. There was a box of painstakingly selected films meant for a journey you wanted no part in.

All of it is gone.

The bed is the same, but she’s stopped making the sheets. The blankets are in a crumpled pile to the side of the mattress and her pillows are scattered and misshapen lumps. Nothing speaks of care or cleanliness here anymore, not even Bella.

Once upon a time, her hair had always been done in all manner of elaborate styles as befit a maid whose first purpose was always being shown off. Somewhere on this journey she’d switched to a very artfully arranged wildness, but this isn’t that. Bella looks more like she hasn’t been in the same room as a hairbrush in days. It juts from the top and back of her head in lazy tufts that seem more dishevelled than her genes should even allow for.

In all the time you knew her, she wore the most elaborate and beautiful dresses your mother’s vast wealth could buy someone of her station. Every day was new frills and lace, new ribbons and cheerfully chiming bells with the same beautiful collar on her neck and her usual paw print apron keeping it all clean. Somewhere along the line she learned to wear more daring fashions that showed off more and more of her perfect body, or expressed new sides to her personality she’d buried deep inside her for the sake of her job. This, again, is not that. She sits down heavily on the foot of the bed, wearing nothing at all except an over-large and stretched out, moth-eaten t-shirt that drapes around her thighs in a vaguely dress-like fashion. It might have been pink, once. Or yellow? It might have had a pattern on it, but everything has faded into such a brownish gray that all you know for sure is that it used to look better than it does. It droops off her left shoulder far enough to expose the top of her breast. She makes no effort to fix it.

Bella glares daggers at the camera with an expression on her face caught somewhere between the borders of anger, frustration, and exhaustion. As your friend she had the most beautiful golden eyes in the entire galaxy. She must have learned to hate them as she travelled the seas. Her one good eye is hazy with fatigue, and to its right is something out of a nightmare. Her other eye looks like a wound: the iris is a featureless red gash in a sea of milky white. But even as tired as she looks, that eye bores through the camera with so much power it feels like she’s staring straight into you through the past. An Auspex. Did you know your mother’s creation could look so evil?

But then she blinks. She opens her mouth to say something and it turns into a yawn. It’s a gesture full of teeth, but it’s too sudden and vulnerable a gesture to make her seem more threatening. She looks a mess. She looks… tired. How long has it been since she slept? Is it the Auspex? Is she working herself too hard? Or is it something else?

With a huff, she falls backward onto the bed. Her arms sprawl to either side of her body. She pulls her knees together. And for the next several minutes, that’s it. Her tail lazily curls and uncurls around her leg, but to all appearances she might have passed out just like this.

“Fuck,” she observes.

She pulls herself further onto the bed and rolls over onto her side. She pulls a pillow close, and stops moving for a while. It’s another moment you could be forgiven for thinking her body had finally pulled her into the waiting hands of the Oneroi, but then you hear it. A hum so soft that even Bella might not be aware she’s doing it. She certainly doesn’t stir as she sings.

She doesn’t put words to the tune, but now that you’re listening for it, it’s all you can hear. And you don’t need her to sing the words to know them, do you Dany? You’ve heard it so many times before. Her favorite lullaby to sing, because it was your favorite to fall asleep to. The first one she made up all by herself, and the one she turned to to soothe you when your own special eye still bothered you every single night. You know every word by heart:

Hush-a-bye, princess, I’ll give you a moon
all strung with pearls
a bouquet of worlds
and morning will be here soon

Hush, little princess, your Bella is here
all through the night
til morning light
shows you there’s nothing to fear

Sleep, o my princess, and please do not cry
one day you will see
a silly kitten like me
will always wipe the tears from your eyes.


Counting the verses, you can hear her loop through the song three times. With each new verse she grows a little bit quieter, as her body sinks a little bit deeper into her bed. By the time she reaches the last ‘silly kitten’, her song is replaced by something even sweeter. The only sounds left in the room are the gentle whirs of the camera, and the soft and steady rhythm of her breathing as she falls asleep at last.

There’s something magical about this moment. Something tender and vulnerable that might make you want to watch it forever. She’s so still. She’s so quiet. Maybe if you watched her like this for long enough, you’d be able to think of her as your Bella again, as if none of the hurt that’s passed between you mattered at all.

But an unseen hand shuts the recording off before you can find out. The image blinks several times before it finally flickers out.

*********

The image shudders as it comes to life and flares repeatedly with bizarre bursts of static and flickers of motes of light like the after images you see after staring too long at a star. The film rushes in spurts of jagged motion: so still for several seconds that you can’t be sure if it’s frozen or if there’s just nothing to be seen, and then in the blink of an eye every intervening frame seems to happen at the same time and you catch up to the “present” with a sickening leap.

You’re in the bedroom again, staring up at Bella’s shocked face. There’s something more complicated playing across her features, but the jittery footage makes it impossible to discern what that might be. More to the point, you’re falling away from her, rolling sideways, and tumbling ever closer to the ground. She makes the tiniest of flinches toward the camera, toward you, as it and you fall, but she freezes before she can take a single step. Her neck pivots toward the bed, and the emotions you feel pouring out from that little lens are so powerful they almost steal the words out from inside your lips, “Goodbye, Bella.”

It could only have been a miracle that turned this ancient machine on in the circumstances you’re watching now. It is certainly the will of one god, or even several that keeps the picture running for you now. The impact is hard enough that you swear you feel it in your ribs. The lens fractures in several lines branching like a tiny tree through the middle. Some slivers of the picture are missing a color or two, a few others are entirely in grayscale. The sound cuts out instantly and entirely. But the film rolls on.

There is just enough time to catch your bearings down here before everything explodes again. Standing over there is Bella in a fancy suit decked out in golden jewelry and bells tied into a brilliant red (beige? mauve?) sash she’s wearing as a skirt. In front of her on the bed is another cat dressed for the exact same ball, though her chains come attached to manacles on her wrists and ankles. She’s lying helplessly on the bed and trying to gather herself up to do something, but whatever it is she’s running out of time to do it. Even with as difficult as the cracks and static are making it, you’re certain it’s Vasilia you’re seeing.

And if you felt a sense of dread creeping up your throat when you made that connection, it is nothing compared to the horror that shambles into frame now. It moves like… no, start from the most important part. It’s human. Or rather, it was. This thing wears the dark robes of a priest of Hades, which is almost as horrible to think about in light of the rest of what you see as the thing itself is. Its limbs lunge with dreadful power through the air to drag the body along behind them, and every step sheds more leaves onto the ground. Swirls of vines poke out from the sleeves.

Worst of all is the head. It had a face, once. It was human after all. But the green and golden bonsai bursting from its skull has obliterated any sense of what that person might have looked like in life. Its neck lolls hideously to one side, not caring about the pressure it must be putting on its spine. It moves in a way that reminds you of the camera watching it. Stillness into an explosion of sudden motion, an inexorability and a callousness that only a plant could have. The knife in its hand glints in the light of Bella’s crystals.

It lifts the knife’s hand to strike. Vasilia has pushed herself valiantly onto her elbows, but every angle you can read points to the uselessness of even attempting to defend herself. That’s when Bella explodes into the shot again, curving a powerful kick into the trunk of the Bonsai. It staggers, but only slightly. The knife plunges into the bed instead of Vasilia’s ribs by the space of a single knuckle.

Everything is happening in slow motion now. The smoothness of each motion feels just as alien as the prior stutters, the death throes of the camera valiantly struggling to capture everything in front of it as best as it can before whatever borrowed life it has runs out. And this is what it sees: the Bonsai wrenches its elbow out of the socket to twist the knife and slash through the mattress at Vasilia. Bella’s claws meet it at the joint. She slices through the Bonsai’s arm as though the flesh and bones were nothing but dried leaves. Vines tumble free where there should be veins. There is no blood, none at all.

It turns its face to look at her. It does not smile. It has no lips to smile with. A milky white eye stares hollowly in her direction while its free arm bends unnaturally at the shoulder to reach for its prey again. The knife was a courtesy. It never needed a weapon to squeeze the breath from Vasilia’s body. Fingers crush her fragile-seeming throat and lift her up off of the bed.

And for some reason, Bella hesitates. Her back is turned, so you can’t read her face, but she is turned to watch the Bonsai and not Vasilia. You can see the tension play out in her back muscles and in the coiling of her legs. She is contemplating it, contemplating… him? And when she finally moves, it feels twenty seconds too late. But when she moves, it’s over in an instant. Her right arm is death. She cuts the Bonsai down in a single swing that crushes through its skull and tears the body almost in half. There is sap and there are leaves. There is no blood.

Two cats are left alone in a room together. They contemplate one another. Bella retches and looks like she might drop to her knees. She finds a coin instead, and tosses it on top of the dead priest’s corpse. Maybe he was one of hers. Before he was the Bonsai, anyway. Impossible to tell if he was human or servitor before the end. But it’d be just like her to bring a priest along who belonged to a god she didn’t worship, wouldn’t it? Well, it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s just her and Vasilia.

Bella watches the other cat. Your other friend. The screen seems frozen again, and only the unbearable tension of the moment makes you think (or hope, maybe) that this isn’t all there is. And it isn’t. Bella reaches out with her left hand, the clean one, palm upturned to do… something. Vasilia reaches for the knife, and plucks it up from the mattress like a flower.

The way Bella’s tail flinches almost makes you think she’d been stabbed. She stiffly rises to her full height and holds her spot for just long enough that she might be saying something now.

Her body shakes with laughter that even in this silent void manages to seem ugly.

She turns sharply on her heels and leaves Vasilia behind.

Aphrodite bends down to inspect the camera, and puts his cigarette out on the lens.

The picture bursts in half as though cut by a sword. And then, darkness..

*********

...But that is not all there is to see. Divine hands had crushed this poor and loyal camera, and that’s as obvious as can be. And it’s mortal hands that put it back together again, which as it turns out doesn’t make this last and latest vision any less of a miracle.

The picture is blurry, especially around the edges of the frame. It’s also badly splintered: one third in color, one third in grayscale, and one third in sepia of all things, each of which bleeds uncomfortably into its neighbors at random seeming angles. It’s a labor of love, not skill, that gives you this last window into the Anemoi. Whose is a mystery, and the camera gives no clues.

Very little has changed about the bedroom since the battle that happened here, even though a great deal of time must have passed since you last saw it. Every fallen or broken ornament is scattered across the ground exactly as they had been, except for what might be a thin layer of dust coating the lot. A closet door is half opened at the same angle you might have noticed it last if you’d been paying attention to it and not the chaos of before. Only the camera has returned to its typical perch, and someone had evidently changed the sheets on the bed, because there is nothing of sap or blood or gashes visible on them.

You watch the room in stillness and silence for thirty seconds, maybe a minute, before a brief flick of tail enters the frame. The rest of Bella follows shortly after, and suddenly you can feel the weight of time crushing the little picture.

She looks nothing like you’ve seen her before. Her legs are strangely shaped with hard and irregularly packed muscles that don’t feel like they belong on her. Her fur looks matted and uncharacteristically unkempt, as if she hasn’t tended to it in weeks. She’s got pearls strung together in a sort of cap pulled over her hair, which is wild and uncombed on one side and cut ludicrously short on the other.

Bella turns and less faces the camera so much as she happens to present her front to it. The camera blurs for a moment trying to capture all the movement of her dress, which is made from hundreds of tassels covered in thousands of individual beads. Noiselessly they settle on her body again, and while she turns her head this way and that to look around her you have a moment to watch the pattern the dressmaker has woven across her. The colors are, of course, impossible to make out except by contrast but even through the grainy and indistinct footage you’re sure you understand it. After all, how many times did you talk about it? How many nights did you spend on Tellus wondering aloud to Bella about the shape of the night sky? Well here those wonderings are now, patterned across her clothes.

Her lips are moving now, but there’s no sound and it’s too difficult to make out the shapes her lips are making. Still, you’re certain the word ‘fuck’ is in there somewhere. Her expression is hard to get a read on; not angry or happy or sad, not relieved or tense or even a very careful neutral. Not at peace and yet not conflicted either. It’s a private look for her private room that she never thought that she would see again.

She walks closer to the camera, and the whole split-colored mess turns into a blur as her quietly clattering beads overwhelm the poor film. And then a minute later she turns and passes by, and what passes for focus anymore settles on her fingers, softly tracing the edges of the wood behind her as she passes. She flits here and there, sometimes stooping low to touch a bit of broken something or a piece of furniture like she can’t believe it’s real.

She spends a long time staring at the bed. Every now and again her tail twitches, and you can see her shoulders rise, tense, and fall in time with her soft breathing, but otherwise she doesn’t move at all. Then all at once she sits on the edge and leans back with her hands stretched wide behind her to either side. Her neck tilts so she can watch the crystal lights on the ceiling above her. She doesn’t smile, but she doesn’t scowl either.

Bella lifts her legs off the floor and crosses them underneath her body. She folds her hands in the middle of her lap and closes her eyes. Her chest rises with a single deep breath, which she holds for an uncomfortably long time. Her lips part and she lets it go.

For several long minutes, there is nothing to watch but the subtle motions of Bella’s slow breathing and her meditation. Maybe in this moment she reminds you of a statue of Apollo, fashioned into the shape of a Servitor. Maybe that’s blasphemy, maybe it’s not, but nothing disturbs her in any case. You are permitted to watch her for a while, until the image wobbles.

The room fills with the sound of a reel fluttering to its end. The screen flickers once, twice, and then the precious extra moments bought by somebody’s love come to a close. The screen turns dark for the last time. And that is really all there is to see.
Hidden 1 mo ago Post by Tatterdemalion
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Tatterdemalion Trickster-in-Veils

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In the stories, heroes are always doing things in a swoon. It’s a lot less fun when it’s happening to you. And this time, there’s not even the blessing of Dionysus to make everything vivid, important, or comfortably blurred.

She keeps losing herself in the dark. The journey through the Anemoi is fragmented, like the broken mirrors; suddenly she will see a lantern, and be struck by the knowledge that she cannot remember what she has done since the last light she saw, only that she has been moving forwards, forwards, forwards. Then she moves past the light, drawn on by that faint scent, and the dark rushes in to drown her again. In the dark, she is numb. In the dark, she is the aching, and the aching cannot hurt, it only is.

And then she is by the bed.

She sits down and stops moving. And now that she’s stopped, she can’t start moving again; and now that she’s stopped, she can hurt again. And the shape of the hurt is Redana, but it is also Bella in the arms of an insect, and it is also the scar torn across a galaxy, the list of names, the lights going out one by one, the dark pouring into the absence, and the light pouring into the dark, searing pink forever and ever.

She doesn’t find the film reel. Not at first. She lays herself down on the bed and she wraps her arms around a pillow and she buries her face in its softness and she breathes in deep until her whole head is full of the roses and the soap and the sweat and she convulses there without tears until she drowns in the dark and sinks deeper, deeper, and deeper still. She does not dream.

When she wakes, she doesn’t stir. Not yet. She clings to the pillow in misery and shame at her weakness. Bella may have held Skotos in her arms, but her touch lingers on Redana: her chin and her ear and her thigh, dirty, sullied. Like father, like daughter[1]! Give her a mask, let her think there won’t be consequences, and what does she do? She drools all over the forbidden fruit of her childhood, tries to trick her into bed, because that’s the only way Bella would ever share herself with her hated owner now.

In her mind’s eye, she sees Bella on Barassidar, sneering, furious. That’s what she’s earned. That’s all she deserves. And Bella gave her heart to someone else, someone who could be honest with her, someone who isn’t a greedy little slut. Redana grinds herself against the pillow despite herself and lets out a sound like a dying animal, gripping the pillow tighter so that her treacherous fingers do not defile Bella’s bed further.

The Redana who eventually sits up and sees the film reel waiting for her is a miserable little creature, stewing in how much she misses someone she doesn’t deserve, hiding in that pain to stave off the deep, crushing sorrow that laps at her ankles, vast enough to drown a god. If she tries to think about it, if she tries to think about her mother (and how silly old Iskarot was correct the whole time) she will be pulled back under. So she clings to the reef of Bella to stop herself from drowning, though it cuts her like a knife.

When she takes a seat on the bed by the note, she pulls her legs up to her chest and stares, flatly, at the opposite wall as it turns from monochrome to polychrome. And when Bella lights up the screen, Dany lets out a miserable groan and pulls herself tighter into herself, peeking up over her knees at the larger-than-life Servitor. And the first recording is easy enough to discount as performance. A fake smile plastered on with the makeup, a new dress for playing with her detested owner; nothing more.

But it’s the second that starts to prise her out of that shell of misery. The indignation of hearing what Bella really thought of Batrachomyomachia Untold! It’s compelling, Bella, and you said you liked them! And that’s enough real feeling that when Bella freaks out over Zahar, Redana lets out a croaky little laugh. There she is. The prissy, easily scandalized Bella who sometimes snuck out from behind that cheerful professionalism. The one that Mynx loved drawing out just to entertain her.

Which means that expression of longing and nostalgia while Bella holds Cloudcuckooland in her hands slips between Redana’s ribs and spreads like venom, until her throat closes up and her eyes are hot. Because Bella’s not acting, and Dany doesn’t know what that means.

So she keeps watching. She watches Bella at prayer for the first time, guilt crawling up her spine over the intrusion into Bella’s privacy; she watches Bella treat a mouse with the same incredible confidence and gentleness that she treated Skotos with, and her heart strains against her ribs; and she watches Bella, more disheveled than she’s ever been in Redana’s life, sing herself to sleep.

And by the third verse, Redana is croaking, trying to sing along, her eyes stinging and her cheeks wet, as if Bella could hear her. The thought occurs to her: she could steal this, cut it out. Put it on a loop. Make Bella sing that perfect song that means home over and over again. And she shouldn’t. But she could. She could keep this even when Bella goes off with her Beautiful, a memento of the way things used to be, a secret meant for her and only her.

Then the horror of— whatever it was. Vasilia. The tree-man. Violence. But violence like the violence against the snake-lady. Violence against a monster. Violence that Bella wields like a knife. She doesn’t understand what she’s seeing. She doesn’t want to understand. But every move Bella makes makes her more ashamed of lecturing her on the Eater of Worlds, back when she was horrified by the death of a monster, back when she thought Bella was tainting herself with the kill, ruining something innocent and perfect and precious, ruining the girl at the beginning of the reel. But that was the mask, wasn’t it, Bella?

You were always ready to kill if it meant protecting someone else. Your princess. Your pet. Your Beautiful. Never for your own sake.

When the reel runs out, Redana sits there and doesn’t move, and doesn’t speak, and doesn’t cry. And she does this for a long, long time. The lights overhead are relentlessly soft; the ship groans as tension presses somewhere in its ribs. And that is really all there is to see.

***

[1]: Diana’s shape and habit strait she took,
but soften’d her brows, smooth’d her awful look,
and mildly in the hunter’s accent spoke:
“How fares my girl? How went the morning chase?”
To whom Callisto, starting from the grass:
“All hail, dear Diana, whom I prefer
to Jove herself, tho’ Jove were here!”
The God was nearer than was thought, and heard
well-pleas’d herself before herself preferr’d.
Jove then salutes her with a warm embrace;
and, ere she half had told the morning chase,
with love enflame’d, and eager on her bliss,
smother’d her words, and gagg’d her with a kiss.
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TheAmishPirate Horse-Drawn Tabletop

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He’d seemed smaller than she’d ever remembered. A pale, wispy thing, held in place by heavy blankets, or else he would surely dissipate at the slightest breeze. Perhaps the king-sized bed didn’t help matters, but! But! See the bandages! See his wearied, labored breaths! Didn’t he need this kind of care? Dear Dolce. Dear heart. Forgive her. Forgive her.

So she was caught off-guard when the woolen lump leapt to her arms hard enough to make her stumble. And when her shocked, laughing introduction was so rudely interrupted by overjoyed kisses. And, she couldn’t recall if she pushed him down, or those tiny arms pulled her in, but she did distinctly recall a whiff of cigarette smoke as her mind turned to deeper concerns. A week was a long time, after all. They had a litany of kisses to perform.

For greeting, for surprise, for dispelling worries both real and imagined, for every night of absence, double for every lonely morning, for indignation at now, of all times, to be so full of cheek, and you must be quiet now or else, for the way you speak when you must finish your thoughts even when you are melting to uselessness, for the love of your wool, for the love of your fur, for love, and always for love. And when they’ve both lost their breath, they cannot be close to halfway done. She clutches him tight to her chest, and presses fond, lingering kisses to his forehead whenever she thinks of him absent, and he pecks at her cheeks with contended little bleats whenever he thinks of a world without her.

“I thought-”

“Shhhhhhhhh. Shhhhh, darling. No more thinking. Not tonight.”

“I’m allowed a little thinking. Captains have to think”

Unassailable logic. She yielded the point, but it cost him dearly in nibbled ears.

“I thought I might never see you again. And. Now, I think I know what to say. What I should have said, but I didn’t know how to say it. That I even needed to say it.” He does not name the time. He does not have to. They are in her ship, after all. The space is theirs, the light is theirs, the warmth and the safety is all of their own making, but it remains her ship.

“Ah.” She adjusts. Her arms close tighter. “Is it…?”

“It may not all be pleasant. But. I think, we ought to go over it, all the same. For us.”

For us.

Could she have imagined him tackling so directly that which he’d evaded and excused before? Just how had her little chef - no, her little Captain spent this week?

“Yes. Yes, I know, darling. I. There are some stories I must tell you as well. Old, old stories.” She hears him gasp. “Stories that I should have told you long, long ago.”

“...but not tonight.”

“Not tonight.” She lifted his chin, and marveled that such a face could be his. Could be hers.

“Not tonight…”
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