Hidden 4 mos ago Post by Balmas
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The worst thing about being blindfolded on top of armless is knowing a friend is in need, and being able to do nothing about it. She can hear Mynx, but not see her, not go to her, not find her in the tight, overcrowded quarters of the bridge. Can't risk stumbling and knocking the blindfold off, or tripping against the corner where she knows the palanquin is. She fidgets against the chair, stares around sightlessly as if she could magically triangulate to Mynx without knocking anything important over.

But what could be more important right now? She can hear everything that Mynx isn't saying--the pain, the bitterness, of knowing just how important it is that they get the ship back. No, not the ship, the person inside the ship. Of hearing how much people are stressing over someone else. The other person who grew up with you, who cared for you. You know, the important one.

She doesn't realize how tense she's gotten--how her shoulders clench, her teeth grind, her breath halts in her chest--until a hand gently lands on her shoulder and it's all she can do not to pop out of her chair like an unwinding spring. The hand draws away, startled, but comes back insistently. No fur, no peach fuzz, so not Isty. Mechanical slithering from below. Ramses, then.

She takes a breath, swallows, and manages to bite out a hushed, "Mynx needs--Help me to her. Please." Anything to help tell Mynx that no, you're not alone, you're not invisible, I see you, I hear you, you're important, too.
Hidden 4 mos ago Post by TheAmishPirate
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Alexa slips through the crowd in the periphery of Dolce’s vision, and he offers up a silent prayer of thanks for his friend and her enormous heart. A Captain sees much. A Captain is only one person. And, still, everyone is waiting on him…

“Wisely said, your Highness.” He speaks louder than even he prefers to. Commanding eyes back to himself, and away from Mynx. “As puzzling as the situation is, this, we know these things to be true: One, we must get our ship back. Two, we must, ah, ensure that Molech comes to no harm by the machinations of the Master of Assassins.” A phrase that had been delicately hammered out with Alexa through the discussion of many hypotheticals. “And third, in order to accomplish these first two goals, we must face the Master of Assassins herself. Whatever she may have planned, I see no benefit in reserving our strength. On the contrary, we outnumber her, both in terms of individuals, and in capable officers. I imagine she would be delighted if we removed one of our chief advantages in the name of caution.”

He could end the briefing there. But to refuse to conduct did not mean the absence of a song.

“Before we depart, there is one final piece of our mission we must address. We cannot afford dissent and confusion once underway; not if we hope to survive this. I ask you, all of you, to consider the question carefully, and whatever my decision be, know that I make it in no less than the light of Zeus herself.” A decision that will not be recanted. An objective that, once set, will be struck without fail, as Zeus hurls her lightning. Nothing less will do.

The little Captain folds his hands in his lap. Allows himself one, final breath, before the leap. When he speaks, he will not shame she whose authority he wields. “Bella has, until Salib, led a force of Imperial troops and assassins against us. Though we have faced many troubles, she alone has hounded us wherever we go. Many times, she has hurt us gravely. Many times, she has nearly brought our voyage to ruin. On Salib alone, she relented, abandoning an Ikarani’s master plan and…and in the fighting, she was taken by the Master of Assassins. We will find her on the planet below, though in what state, none can say. I ask you, my crew: What is our mission’s stance as it concerns Bella?”

There is silence. There must be silence. Only a fool would leap to speak under the consideration of Zeus, and no fool would have survived this long.

It is Vasilia who steps forth first. She, who now knows a little more of her heart, and has spent a lifetime in the practice of wielding it. “With all due respect, Captain, why is this even a question? You have said it yourself; Bella has tried to kill or imprison most of the people in this room. If she has had an opportunity to hurt us, she has taken it more than willingly, she has taken it gleefully. I alone have fought her in pitched battle. I have seen the mindless bloodlust that lives in her. Why should we treat her any different, now that she has found a line she is not willing to cross? Give her another Salib, with an hour more on the clock, and she would pull the trigger without hesitation.”
Hidden 4 mos ago Post by Tatterdemalion
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No!

Redana stands and makes to leave the palanquin; Lacedo barely holds her back, on her own orders.

“Dolce— Captain— what she has done is my fault! I have failed her, failed Hera, failed myself! When I thought her dead, I— you know what I did! When I walked with her on Salib, she saved my life and showed her scars, her hurt, her life spent being punished, punished for my imperfections! And now you want— Lacedo, let me go— now you want to, you want me to abandon—?!?”

There is a struggle. Growling. Panting. A hushed compromise.

“I am bound in our chains,” Lacedo finally says for the room, her voice burying agitation under solemnity, under the half-memorized rhetoric of a born naval officer. “If I leave her behind again, if I let her fall, she will drag me into the dark with her. I will be unworthy of both Zeus and Hermes. I have lived with her since I was a girl, and I tell you now: she is not evil, she is wounded, and roars loudest where the thorn pricks her.”

There is a silence. The curtains of the palanquin have fallen still. The shapes within can barely be seen, mere silhouettes, close together.

“Heap punishment on my head, but let us save her if we can. Lock us in cages, but set them together. Make me do penance in her name, shame and denounce me for her crimes, whatever must be done, I welcome it. Only do not make me abandon my oldest, most ill-treated friend.

“Please.”
Hidden 4 mos ago 4 mos ago Post by Thanqol
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The Anemoi!

Jil stood up and quietly moved through the room. She politely tapped Dolce on the shoulder where he sat on the Captain's chair. "Excuse me," she said. "Please take a close look at your chair."

Is that? No, it couldn't be - you stand up as though stung by a scorpion. How did you not see it?

The Captain's chair is made of bones.

In the dim light of the Anemoi a terrible transformation is wrought. Every shadow, every inexplicable shape, is suddenly a corpse. The architecture of death seems to run through everything. Alcedi gasp and hands go to weapons, Hermetics rifle through pockets for charms sacred to Hades. The God of the Dead himself sits atop the discussion table, cigarette smoke pouring from his lips, suddenly immense, and all cower in his shadow.

"Since the commissioning of the Anemoi the Lantern tribes were helots to the Kaeri," Jil said, her soft voice terrible in the silence. "A warrior species must hone their skills in peacetime, and that was our purpose. Every inch of this ship is soaked in our blood. We were ambushed, brutalized, terrorized, the raw material for every mind game or martial technique our masters wished to practice."

Her voice does not quaver, her face lit by the lantern she holds above her head. It's a posture laden with meaning, an act of heroism to stand like that in this place.

"And Praetor Bella saved us," she said loudly, a voice that cracked against the plastic walls of the Anemoi. "She broke a reign of shadows and cruelty, made us masters of our own house. And this is our house. You would abandon the Praetor because you fear what she will do? You should fear what we shall do if you turn your faces from the only soul who ever showed us kindness."

Mynx glances back at Alexa. She has the weariness of the sleepness, eyes that do not tell of understanding or acknowledgement. Whatever she wants, it's not you that she wants it from. But you don't see any of that; all you feel is a brief pat-pat against the knee as she acknowledges your presence.

"Did you hear about the Ikarani?" said Mynx, speaking with a dry throat into the silence. "The last time I worked with her she dropped a space station on a city to kill a single target. Millions dead. That's what they do, that's what they're like. Natural disasters and freak accidents are their tools of murder. And yet, on Salib, not a single civilian died. Who told her to care about collateral damage? Who put chains on the earthquake? Because it wasn't the Kaeri, and it wasn't the Master of Assassins."

Beljani!

Seven seconds and you can feel the disappointment set in. Ten seconds pass and you're just about to give up - when suddenly the edge of the egg starts to feel uncomfortably warm. You jerk your hand back just in time to avoid losing a finger - and, to your shock, that was actually something that could have happened. A crisp, sharp, laser-line has burned out of the edge of the eggshell, spectacular blue, and slashed across the workshop. It severs cables, tools, workbenches, and even the immense reinforced walls, burning through them as though they're not even there. And then, from the molten hole, a pathetic little bundle of mucky limbs flops out into the palm of your hand. It flickers - and then solid state brilliant blue light appears in the tangle, causing the membrane to sizzle away into nothing in moments and giving you a clear view of the... laser dragon?

It's a thing of glass and light, crystal prisms arranged into glittering patterns of scales. Its infant wings are projectors, flickering solid-light blue lasers coming on and off in the gaps between the digits of its wings where a membrane might be. It opens its little mouth and a tongue like a chameleon's fails to cross the distance to your fingertips and flops down on your hand.

The Hermetic is staring in what you presume is surprise, frozen halfway through reattaching one of his legs. The expression of shock deepens when the hatchling struggles to spread its wings - and in the space between the wings flickering glyphs start to appear. Writing. It gives up the effort swiftly and curls up in your palm.

"This," buzzed Iskarot in awe. "Came through the Rift. It is the only organic matter confirmed to have made the trip. It has been inert for eighty five years, but it activated immediately upon contact with you."
Hidden 4 mos ago Post by Balmas
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Alexa does not need to see the god of the dead appear to feel the chill in the air, hear the gasp of oaths, feel the press of bodies drawing away from the command table. Is uncomfortably aware, suddenly, of how uneven the bench is, and isn't that strange? Is suddenly glad that she doesn't have hands right now, cannot run her fingers along the bench, feel out the shapes?

Nor does she need to see Jil's face to hear the determination that lives there. What would Alexa do for a leader that had freed her from Molech? No, she doesn't need to answer that, because she already knows: what she's doing right now, for Redana. How far will the Alcedi go for her?

(Oh dear, best unpack that thought later on.)

And she doesn't need to see Mynx's face to know that she's not enough here. Oh, she's welcome, yes. But her help, her acknowledgement, isn't filling the void.

The air clangs with the sudden silence, and she doesn't need to see to feel the pressure of eyes on her.

"Bella has..." She frowns with the weight of thought. "Your forgiveness, Jil, but she has hurt all of us. Nearly killed Mynx once. Nearly killed Vasilia twice.

"I know that 'she could have been worse' is cold comfort in the face of that. Wow, she should receive forgiveness for not murdering all of us in cold blood. But she had three adepts. Three assassins, pardon my saying so, to use. And she didn't. She's held off, held back, hasn't killed us.

"And..."

Alexa sighs.

"I do not want to see her hurt. She's hurt us, yes. But I still find it hard to divorce her now from the friend she was on Tellus.

"Surely, we can afford to show her some mercy, if the chance arises?"
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"Oh yeah? What, did you idiots just not shoot it with big enough lasers this whole time? You probably wasted half that time trying to debate it or something," Beljani rolls her eyes and huffs, "Thanks for the history lesson, Captain Sparky. Obviously it listened to me. It knows who Mommy is. Don't you, cutie?"

The dragon feels warm, curled up in her palm. It's tiny head feels nice on her finger where she rubs it, like brushing glass full of frosted etchings, and the tiny little horns are such a lovely stim that she might actually enjoy it more than the laser dragon does. It makes a sound that's half like a purr before it curls up into a ball and hides behind its glimmering wings, and even that's it's own kinds of mesmerizing. Beljani smiles with the quiet bliss of a first time pet owner. And then her eyebrow twitches, and her jaw clenches, and her spine locks unpleasantly stiff.

Ugh. Gods above, why did she say it like that? Knows who... damn it all, what is she gonna do with a pet? She didn't do anything! She didn't do anything! She just said stuff, just like always, and the stupid thing obeyed! Just like always! It didn't mean anything when it happened, even speaking these stupid ultimatums out loud was a dumb habit. Her virus did everything. This isn't. Doesn't. What is the matter with her? Just because it's from really far away, why should she feel bad about using it until it stops feeling good and then throwing it away? It's not like she's going to be the one putting any work into caring for the stupid thing.

But that thought opens the stupid hole in the pit of her stomach. So that's why, is it?

"Fine then, whatever. If that's how it's gonna be, I'm gonna name you 'Bella'. But you're not allowed to tell anybody, got it? In company it's 'hey dummy' or 'you little twerp', understand?"

Little Bella yawns through a crackle of energy that makes her entire arm uncomfortably warm. Beljani glares at the stupid lizard, but there's no point. It tilts its head curiously and nips at her nose, before it steps backward onto her fingers and spreads its wings to write more nonsense on itself.

Beljani stops and stares in disbelief. The ramifications of life from the other side of the Rift are lost on her. The idea that something could have made it through that yawning nightmare in the sky is so baffling and incomprehensible that she's not sure she even believes it's true. This is probably just some dumb thing a hermetic cooked up in a lab and forgot about when they lost their notes or something stupid like that. Or it's a, a... thing that fell off a spaceship a while back after someone tried to cross the Rift and burned to dust. It's not some new thing, Sparky has no idea what he's talking about, shut up. She's busy. She's busy, ok? There's only one thing that's important right now, and that's what made her go for a walk in the first place.

"No. No. Never mind. Never mind what I said just now. As far as the Empire's concerned your name is Scribe. Scribe, do you understand me? Come on, we're gonna go figure out what you eat. And then I'm gonna work on you until you sparkle. You're gonna shine, little star! My precious darling! My perfect, final apology letter, yes you are, yes you are!"

She spins around as fast as she'd like to imagine she could if she were born a Diodekoi instead of... herself. Her feet are lighter than the air around her. She tears through the room like a blade on the wind, knocking over the Magos and his half-attached legs on her way. What was he thinking, do it it there? She skids to a halt in the hallway, and pokes her head back into the workshop.

"...Get a move on already Sparky! We're doing science over here, and I need someone to tell me how it works! I've wasted so much time already, hurry up or I'm snapping all your limbs for good!"
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“Heap punishment on my head, but let us save her if we can. Lock us in cages, but set them together. Make me do penance in her name, shame and denounce me for her crimes, whatever must be done, I welcome it. Only do not make me abandon my oldest, most ill-treated friend.

“Please.”


"You did not let her do anything." Vasilia counters deftly. "She made her decisions, not you. You have given her more second chances than she’s deserved, and every single time she’s spat in your face. You ask us to risk all of our lives on the chance that this time could be any different. You know we cannot do that."

"And Praetor Bella saved us," she said loudly, a voice that cracked against the plastic walls of the Anemoi. "She broke a reign of shadows and cruelty, made us masters of our own house. And this is our house. You would abandon the Praetor because you fear what she will do? You should fear what we shall do if you turn your faces from the only soul who ever showed us kindness."


The full weight of her attention falls on the mouse, and to her surprise, she stands unmoved. "So either we let her on board, where she can doom us at her leisure, or we leave her behind, and you’ll do it for her. Wonderful! You really do take after her."

"Did you hear about the Ikarani?" said Mynx, speaking with a dry throat into the silence. "The last time I worked with her she dropped a space station on a city to kill a single target. Millions dead. That's what they do, that's what they're like. Natural disasters and freak accidents are their tools of murder. And yet, on Salib, not a single civilian died. Who told her to care about collateral damage? Who put chains on the earthquake? Because it wasn't the Kaeri, and it wasn't the Master of Assassins."


"She has two standards, now, is that it?" The laugh in her voice grows dangerously unplayful. "Why haven’t we stopped to memorialize her tale in song? Saints of her virtue don’t come along every day."

"I do not want to see her hurt. She's hurt us, yes. But I still find it hard to divorce her now from the friend she was on Tellus.

"Surely, we can afford to show her some mercy, if the chance arises?"


Her mouth opens. Her beat arrives. And she cannot make her cue this time. “The friend she - and how much will we put our necks out in search of that ‘chance?!’ The friend you know isn’t there anymore. She is dead. And none of you-”

Dolce rests his hand on hers, and squeezes. Enough to forestall further argument. Enough to remind her that he has heard her, and will not dismiss her. Enough. It is enough, my dear. She makes a show of straightening her jacket as she steps back behind him, taking her place at his right hand.

The arguments have been made. Now it is his turn. All he really had to do was put up his sail, and surrender to the popular result. But was the right choice always the popular one? Should his mind always be changed, if enough people spoke out against him? Would Vasilia accept that there was nothing he could’ve done?

No. No, it was his turn. Or else why even have a Captain?

“When our journey started, I recognized Bella not for who she was, but for the position she found herself in. One with a task assigned to her, and punishments awaiting her should she fail. Punishments worse than those she had already received. What a shame, I thought, that we were all at cross purposes. In those days, I prayed for the opportunity to meet her in a moment of quiet, before the fighting could have a chance to start. Maybe I could, in some way, make her burden a little lighter. Wouldn’t that have been something?” He smiled, wistfully, to remember such bright days. “But that is not what’s happened. To simply say she was thrust, unfairly, into this conflict, and acts only out of hurt, excuses the decisions she’s made. Does a…terrible disservice, to those she has hurt.”

“But, as it so happened, my first impression was entirely wrong. I was wrong about her choice in the matter. And I was wrong about the circumstances she’d found herself in. ‘Unfair’ hardly begins to cover it. I have seen a _glimpse_ of the darkness hanging over the Empire, and I very nearly did not survive it. That she has taken a step - any step - out of line, cannot be understated. She has stayed her hand, even a little, when the consequences for failure are impossibly high, and I cannot ignore that.”

“Which brings us to the present: We have no guarantees that she will take any escape we can offer her. All we have is a chance that she might. All we can do is decide whether we will extend our hand. We are under no obligation to offer her another chance. If we were to turn aside, we would stand well within our rights to do so. The choice is ours, to make as we see fit.”

The breath catches in his throat.

“...I have thought long and hard. I have asked all who could tell me about her, and listened to their stories of the Bella they knew. And yet, if I had her here, and could ask her any question, and know that she would tell me the whole truth, I cannot begin to imagine what she would say if I asked her 'why?' Why wasn’t it enough, to have my wife in chains? Why did your mission need you to take her…” To his shame, he could not stop his eyes from watering. Please do not think less of your captain, oh noble crew, if his sleeves are stained. “...why? Why did you have to hurt her so much?”

“I can’t see any benefit to it. I can’t see any sense in it. If I cannot find an answer. If there is no answer. What do I make of her, then?”

“If Redana were here, she would make of her an old, ill-treated friend, still terribly close to her heart. Jil makes of her the one, good Captain she’s ever served under. Mynx makes of her one who still feels mercy, in spite of the peril it could bring her. Alexa makes of her an old friend, who may yet still live. I cannot make myself believe any of it like they do. I can’t ignore my own feelings, my own sight, in favor of theirs. But. Maybe I don’t have to.”

“When the Starsong first found me, huddled in their ventilation ducts, all they knew is that I was a cook and a stowaway. And yet, they welcomed me in. All that I am today, I owe to that one offer of kindness and mercy.” All the way up to the chair he now occupies, the one that demands he choose. “I cannot see why Bella deserves mercy. But I can see what it’s done for me. I can see that my crew, my friends, those that I love, wish to show it now. What answer of Bella’s can change that?”

The choice was his, in the end. To make as he saw fit.

“I. Don’t know what this attempt will cost us. I hardly know what I would do, if I were to see her every day for the rest of this voyage, but we will deal with one matter at a time. If the attempt would cost us our mission, our lives, then there is nothing to be done. Such is the fate we are dealt, and we must find a way to press on. But if the chance exists, then by the name of Zeus I swear, we will not leave Bella in the hands of the Master of Assassins.”

So as the Thunderer hits her mark, so too will they all return in triumph, or not at all.

“We leave in half an hour. Prepare yourselves.”
Hidden 4 mos ago Post by Thanqol
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There are worlds inside these starships. It is easy to forget until you see them deployed in full.

The star Recib might have been a red giant were it allowed to continue along its ordinary life cycle, but to permit that colour amidst the Endless Azure Skies would have undermined the Azura's claim to cosmic domination. Instead, the star burns violet and massive in the heavens, five times the size of what ancient instinct says it should be. The rocky moons of Sahar, nine in total, are all aligned in the heavens above, regolith surfaces reflecting the all consuming violet light. The atmosphere is thin, allowing the swirling stars of a night time sky to be seen even at this consuming day. And even with that, the heavens are not done with their wonders - for in the arid skies above Sahar are the torn lines and battlecruiser shapes of a coming storm. In the distance, thunder, audible even over the tramp of boots and the roar of mighty engines. One, two, three, four, five - the heartbeats between flash and sound.

Two starships have landed in parallel, the miles of sand between them the destined battlefield. There can be no retreat - it would take hours to get one of these ships into the sky again. This long hunt will be settled here once and for all.

The Kaeri number nine thousand in all - nine full legions. Only eight stand at full fighting strength, with the remaining consisting of sages, scribes, administrators, wounded and noncombatants - still dangerous, but not front line troops. They are dressed in blue and silver, Athena and Artemis. Banners long concealed in darkness are now raised high beneath the sun, clattering with the bones of millennia of victims. Beneath the light they are no longer the terrifying shadow warriors they were in the depth of the Anemoi, but they are fearsome nonetheless - these are warrior servitors, fighting legions, conjured from nothing by the will of Empire to stain violet sands red.

Before them stand four thousand in prisoners - Alcedi, Hermetics, creatures of Poseidon, captured when they took the Plousios. Behind them stand fifty mighty battle Plovers, the fishing-lines of cables attaching them to the massive grounded starship at their back. And in their centre, upon a great pyramid altar of stone, built in haste but still towering over the battlefield, is the Master of Assassins and her retinue. She herself is armed and armoured in shining silver, her cane replaced with a lance, fearsome butterfly wings opened behind her back that allow her to gaze down on her foes with six mad prismatic eyes. By her left stands Beljani and the blindfolded suit of armour that contains Bella. By her right stands a giant with a haggard and filthy beard, trembling in pain and crouching double - Molech. Some terrible sickness has overcome him.

Yes, they are fearsome. but they are outnumbered four to one.

A match for them in numbers alone would be the Alcedi - bloodied after their first engagement with the Anemoi's owls but filled today with a fierce desire for revenge. Their first battle was a war of assassins in shadowed corridor, a landscape filled with fear and death, and the kingfishers were humiliated utterly. Now they stand in formations they find familiar on landscapes they understand against foes they can plainly see. This is an opportunity for redemption, to heed the battle-call of their blood and show that they are the true reason why the enemies of Empire should fear the skies.

The Tides of Poseidon took the worst of the fighting on the Anemoi. The Kaeri systematically assassinated the sub-commanders who were so essential to maintaining control of the feral instincts of the battlecrabs, subsequently goading the leaderless Tides into terrible ambushes. The force now is much reduced, perhaps only five thousand, without any of the truly monstrous ancient beasts which make planets tremble before Poseidon. They stand in the vanguard, a brute anvil which cannot be used for anything more than a frontal charge to preserve the lives of more thinking soldiers. Their tattered rainbow banners raise high and the sound of clacking crab claws fills the air.

The Hermetics are likewise only five thousand Coherent and magi. They stand upon the wings, strange and glittering arsenals arrayed outwards. Their role in this battle is to hunt and destroy the Plovers - those fifty war machines represent a massive concentration of force that could tear through infantry formations and only the Order of Hermes has the firepower required to stop them swiftly. Theirs will be a battle of cables and positioning, the threat of charge and counter-charge, and a great deal of the battle will come down to how their engagement works out.

Finally, there are the Lanterns - twenty thousand of them, blinking under the light of the first sun they have ever seen, uncertain on the first sand they have ever stepped upon. For as long as their legends run they were prisoners and slaves within the Anemoi, bound to the ship and the dark masters that reigned therein. Now they are free for the first time, with weapons in their hands, a sun in the sky, and their ancient tyrants across the field from them. The hymn that arises from their throats is in praise to Apollo, in whose name they have been patient, in whose name they have been brave. Now their lanterns are but embers before the true light they see in the sky and they know that if they die this day it will be beneath their god's sight.

They are the least organized force upon the battlefield, moving in clan-groups, arranging themselves wherever their leaders direct them. Their arms are salvaged and poorly made, their armour is improvised, and everywhere they slip on unsteady sand and glance fearfully at the thundering sky. Depending if they hold or break they could be decisive - or a liability.

The heroes of this army are no less mighty than the dark array who stands by the side of the Master of Assassins. Princess Epistia of Ceron stands surrounded by fifty meters of empty space, no one daring to come closer than that to her hellforged scythe. The Assistant Secretary of Fear and Doubt has his palanquin atop the back of the largest of the battlecrabs, surrounded by signal flags and the octopi needed to operate them. Jil of the Lanterns and Lacedo of First Fleet are close together at the join between Lantern and Alcedi lines, discussing even now how to best engage the Kaeri.

And above all of this reigns mighty Zeus, a shadow in stormclouds. One, two, three, four - closer now, the thunder is coming. All of this battle, as has every battle in history, sits within the hand of Zeus. She alone will decide who wins and who loses, who rises and who falls, who takes the field at the end of the day. The battlefield is thick with gods and each of them will protect their favorites, but when Zeus raises her hand and passes her judgement then one side will break and the other will have the field and not all the wailing of the cosmos could gainsay her.

So, to each of you: how have you adorned yourselves for war this day?
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Don't speak. Don't speak. Don't speak. Kaeri roll their eyes and ask for condescending favors. Imperials wave their hands as if to pat her head and name a person they want dead or humiliated, and then assume the work is done from there. Menials and slaves throw themselves at her feet and twist themselves into knots to pleasure her. But the Master is the Master. She alone makes demands. She built the cage of pampering and sweets that holds Beljani prisoner, and when she opens it to demand tricks, she doesn't worry that her pet will run off or refuse. She does not fear her children's teeth. After all, the only thing worse than living in her cage is leaving it.

Don't speak. Don't speak. Don't complain. Don't whine. Her armor feels flimsy as she stares across the sands at the horrifying and huge army lined up against her-- against the Master. Against her. She plucks at the black fabric stretched over plates of quadranix alloy laid across her stomach. One of those spears is going straight through this flimsy piece of crap, she just knows it. Don't say it, don't speak. It pinches and chafes too, especially around the bust and butt. She's going to need an expert and very intimate massage at the end of all of this, and that if she's lucky enough to live. She wishes she had a helmet. It's silly, but she'd feel safer with something covering her face. No good; she can't spread herself if she's sealed inside some battle suit like Odysseus of old. And then they'd make her be a warrior instead, and that was three, no, four times worse than being exposed. But still, she wants it. Don't speak.

She wishes it could be more fashionable, too. More comfortable to boot. To say nothing about the pinching, who the frig does a suit like this in full black on a sun-blasted ball of desert? It's hot and miserable and it's functional before it's pretty, which is the worst crime of all. Heavy thug boots and thick pants with plated knees do nothing for her hips. The belts and vest were baggy and obscuring and bulky, it felt like she was wearing an extra person. The billowing cloak was a nice touch, if nothing else, but she couldn't help worrying it made her look too much like a commander and she wasn't looking forward to being focus fired, not one bit. She didn't care that the sweat made it easier to spread her virus, she'd had a taste of descending into war zones wearing slinky, beautiful dresses and she wanted more of it. But don't speak, Beljani. You'll die if you do. Or even worse, you won't.

Her eyes fall on Bella for the umpteenth time today. Her fingers dance nervously across Scribe's spine. Even through these thick gloves, the stimming sensation is wonderful. Her little dragon chirps, and falls asleep. Little b-- jerk. Back to Bella. Her heart sinks. Don't speak.

"Look, they sent the Lanterns. Can you believe that?"

She wills herself to sound haughty and dismissive. Inside she feels smaller than the smallest of their lot. But, she's speaking, and if she's going to break her only rule the last thing she needs is for it to come out sounding soft.

"It's pathetic. Don't you think? Their whole army looks like a ratty old quilt already, and then they go and shove a bunch of maids and cooks at our front? Oh, no offense B-- T-Tredecima. But you're a bit... beyond that now, and they're barely fit to be bait. Almost seems cruel, don't you think?"

She laughs. It's better than letting anybody see how badly she's shivering, despite all this heat. Gods, what did she do to deserve this? What was the Master thinking?! She didn't have any business on a field like this! A thousand ways to kill a person, even a whole ship of people, and here she is using the least, the, she can't be serious! Beljani's left hand drops and digs into the fabric around her thighs. Her head turns toward her own side now, up to the Master with her terrible, invincible-seeming visage, and back down to the other side of her and whatever in Olympus' name was there in the shape of Molech. Molech. This time, she doesn't bother to hide her shudder. She's allowed to be repulsed by the giant, nobody can blame her for it. She slides a half step away from him, as the platform allows without sending her plummeting into a swarm of owls down below, and hides behind Bella.

"Sister..." she breathes, less almost than a whisper.

Not quiet enough. Scribe perks up eagerly and spreads its wings with a wave of practiced glyphs in a dazzling, beautiful apology and outpouring of all her deepest feelings. Beljani hisses and stuffs the dragon behind her back before it can get to the "I told you so"s and, vastly worse, the bit where she thought "you deserve better than this" would be a good thing to say to anyone, at all, ever. But especially to Bella.

Her jaw clenches. Her back straightens. Her puts her free hand on the invincible, armored shoulder of the sister she'd never wanted to know. The one that was ruining her life just by standing there. Bella sighs in response, her helmet converting the gesture into a hiss of blistering steam. Beljani's hand jerks away before it can burn, sliding roughly down the armor's ridged and spiny back. Her fingers brush by ceremonial seals and prayer slips, clenching not quite tight enough to ruin the delicate lines of power that make a Diodekoi invincible.

She's thought about this a lot, Master. It's your fault for not giving her any other choices. She clears her throat and starts again, louder this time. As she speaks, she gathers up the wild tangles of Bella's hair spilling out of her helmet and starts tying them into the kind of clumsy braid that happens when a person who's watched a lot of hairstyling happen to and around her but never lifted a finger to try it herself goes and does it anyway. It's ugly and amateur, but she wills herself not to blush and works until it's finished anyway.

"Sister. I wanted... I tried my best to save you on Salib. It. We had a plan. I stuck to it, when nobody else would. It should have worked. But instead, you're the reason I'm here now. And I'm the reason you're awake at last. Precious sister, child of Artemis, I swear by our Mother of the Hunt that I will not fail you today.

"May my tongue be plucked from my mouth if I do not speak truths to you. May my eyes be gouged from my head if I do not guide you well. This battle will run its course, Zeus will declare what victors she sees fit, but I swear by Moon and by Empire and by my own beating heart, I will see you through to the other side. I will take you to the... I'll bring you to the place that you were always meant to be. The place you yearned for, all this time. Even if you didn't know it. I promise, sister."

Her heart jackhammers against her ribcage, as Scribe clamors up her arm and perches on her shoulder, flashing all kinds of writing with every beat of its glimmering, lasery wings. If you're watching, Artemis, if you care at all you'll send poor Beljani enough sweeties that she'll sink into bliss on the spot just for the raw will and nerve she shows you now in not turning her head back to glance nervously up at the Master. Which of course would have ruined everything.

Not for the last time, she steels herself for what's coming. Not for the last time, she wishes she was braver. Or anywhere else in the entire universe. But she's been thinking about this a lot, lately. There's been nothing else to think about, you see. Beautiful had a plan. She'd bet on Bella. And all Beljani had to do was see that bet through to the end.

Win or lose, it's the only way she'd ever feel happy again.
Hidden 4 mos ago Post by TheAmishPirate
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For the entirety of his piracy career, Dolce has operated in the shadows of brighter heroes. An unseen hand, ever-vigilant, ever-careful, possessed with an impeccable sense of timing and a nigh-unnatural ability to slip from awareness, his was the role to elevate others to greater heights, with hardly anyone noticing what he’d done, and that suited him fine. But today he leads a war, as a Captain, and it will not suit anyone to search long for him on the field.

Ahead of the host he stands, clad in a thick suit of densely-woven material, dyed stormcloud-grey against the pale sands. No one on the field wears its like, for only he knows the ways of shearing and spinning. The wool of the Manor can, in the right hands, turn to purposes other than luxury. Do not rub your eyes, oh Lanterns, you have not been blinded by Apollo’s light. Sparks dance within the depths, static charges swirling about him, guided by slight nuance of step and gesture. No blade or shot will be stopped, but many will find their blows frustratingly turned aside. Vital points hidden in a maze of fabric, body obscured by purposeful asymmetry. Atop his head, he wears a matching cap, adorned with his badge of office, complete with earflaps tied around his chin to better spare his ears from the cacophony of battle.

And beside the stormcloud, stands the lightning.

Where her husband stands solemn and sure, Vasilia seizes eyes and demands their full attention. See her body, powerful, strong, wrapped in countless tiny links of sparkling mail. Trace the thunderbolts around her chest, colored in shining gold; the pride of pirates everywhere. No scarf or cape to tangle her limbs. She is free, to fly, to draw any of the numerous weapons hanging from her belt and back, and strike devastation wherever she lands. Steel your hearts, o foes, that when the glittering whirlwind bursts forth from the poisonous smoke, you might not be instantly annihilated.

Together they stand at the fore. Together they are among the best skirmishers to grace the Starsong Privateers. Together they sweep the enemy lines, and neither of them see the one they are looking for.
Hidden 4 mos ago 4 mos ago Post by Balmas
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How she hates the blindfold.

It wasn't so bad in the bridge. But here, as she hears conversations stop and breaths catch in throats! If it weren't for safety's sake--if it weren't for Molech's injunction!--she could look around. Could see whose words falter, whose eyes can't help but trace her as she goes!

And if she's moving her hips a bit more than usual, so the gown has a chance to move, catch the light, listening for the sharp inhales of breath when a hint of thigh flashes through the slit up the side, well...

How she'd gasped, when she'd first seen it! Admired the way each movement sent ripples and shimmers across the fabric! Each motion is a wave of sequins and silvered threads, each hem a crest of seafoam against the lapis and cerulean of the dress! Blushed and stammered when she saw herself in the mirror! How she'd sat, and wondered, and marveled, and again decided that she needs tear ducts! What a world, where she can have things as nice as this!

She shivers, and can't resist, even now, giving a little twirl of joy.

(Behind her, a Coherent chokes on her rations.)

Her back still aches, just a little. The Coherents had listened to her embarrassed description, looked at each other, and nodded. Then one had picked up their chisel, and another had heated up a crucible. The stylized dove's wings down her back, though, are worth the pain. The gold filigree gleams between the panels of the backless dress, a delicate gold pattern flying over a sea of blue.

Wings, for freedom. A dove, for Aphrodite. A reminder for herself once she makes it out of this.

She wears the sea on her front, the future on her back, and around her neck, the present: a silver chain, each link a symbol of those around her. A scarf. A tail. A tentacle. A scale. Reminders of friends, comrades, past and present. They sit against her, constantly close to her heart, a reminder of how and why and for whom.

For love. For her friends. And for herself.

And thus attired, Alexa goes to battle.
Hidden 4 mos ago Post by Tatterdemalion
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War begins in the heart and emanates outwards by degrees. First master your heart; then master your thought; then master your sinew. This triumvirate, united, overcomes all. The challenge of war, then, is of inducing disunity.

And what of the great weapons, you may ask— what of the fire that descends, what of the titan who stalks the battlefield, what of the gods themselves? Simplicity: standing before them is a fault in one member of the triumvirate. Where the world comes unwoven, stand not there.
[1]

The hilt of the sword in Redana’s hand is the most real thing in the universe.

Her long gloves fit neatly against it, their material conforming to her need: to not have the hilt slip, to hold it firm, to use it as the fulcrum point of the world. The sword itself was a close-quarters cutlass when it found its way into her hands. It was easy enough to remake it, to make the metal fit another mold: long, double-edged, wickedly sharp. It might as well be the sister of the dueling swords she learned to fight with back at home, down to the elaborate, rose-patterned guard at the hilt. The body remembers this kind of sword. She could fight with it if she were walking through a dream; she could move through a battalion of Kaeri like a gale whipping through willows, disarming, undoing, disarming, never killing, always removing from play.

Match point goes to the Princess. Reset; take your positions.

The thunder rolls. She adjusts the scarf again, burrows her face deeper into it. Roses, pink as roses, light and shimmering, yet opaque and clinging. It felt better than wearing a full-face mask. Leaves her full field of vision open, too. That’s important. It’s a flimsy way to hide her identity, but it makes her happy in a way she would struggle to articulate out loud. In some ways, Redana is simple: it makes her happy, so she doesn’t question it. She simply indulges without asking herself further questions.

After all, the aesthetic is the principal consideration in choosing armor, for Redana Claudius is human. Humans do not wear armor because they are afraid of death; humans wear armor because Athena wears armor. Would armor have saved Jas’o? Not so. Would armor stop the Master of Assassins from stopping Redana’s heart? Not so. Do the Kaeri have any hope of killing Redana, a genetic juggernaut, by force of arms? Not so.

The breastplate is cherry-pink, inlaid with silver, a cuirass hung with tassels and Athenian talismans and bells, silver bells, small and sweet. The half-cloak falls to the small of her back. The skirt sighs as she moves, many-segmented, studded down the length of each strip. The greaves and vambraces gleam over her long gloves, her long stockings. Beneath them all, the black bodysuit holds her tight, a second skin from throat to ankles, patterned in subtle arabesque, as if her very skin is mailed.

Her hair, too, is pink: vivid at the roots, fading to pale tips at the end of her ponytail. Aesthetic is everything. Commit in total, and feel your heart swell to meet the challenge. Instead of a ribbon, however, or a simple tie, her hair is bound by an Alcedi charm: bright-feathered, golden, a promise of victory.

It is not much of a disguise, but it is an assertion nonetheless. Who could this figure be, among the kingfishers, who fights like an Imperial duelist? Who could she be, this human, small and compact and dangerous? There is no disguise that could stop her from being recognized by her enemies, but she is not disguised as this mysterious heroine for their sake. Rather, so that Alexa can say: everyone knows Redana Claudius is blonde, that she wears black and sometimes gold, that she patterns her clothing after that of sailors. Clearly, then, I cannot tell you who she is, this mysterious heroine.

Thunder rolls, closer now. Redana’s fingers tighten about the hilt. About her, Lacedo sees to her honor guard, hand-picked for the duty of keeping pace. Redana will cut through the enemy like the slug of a Hermetic railgun to get to their champions and undo them, and she needs fleet-footed companions on either side.

She isn’t ready. If all was fair and kind in the world, she’d have had more time to rest. More time to let her body mend from what she did to it on Salib. Determination will have to serve for all, then. Because she’s not going to let anything stand between her and this second chance to prove to herself, most of all, that the Nemean was wrong. That she can be there for her Bella. This time. This time. It will all be fixed this time. And nothing will stop her.

Not even that hulking brute in garishly ugly armor standing at the side of the Master of Assassins. She’ll carve through them. Her palm is sweaty, but her grip doesn’t slip even a hair’s breath. Even that monster, dredged up from some Assassin-temple. It will fall.

Any other thought would lead her back to that black despair on the bridge of the Plousios. Therefore, she has no other thought. Just the grip on her white sword, the crunch of sand beneath her boot as she adjusts her stance, and the sensations of her body as the sinew remembers how she has used it so often before.

***

[1]: The Tactics of the Parynesshian, Vol. 1.
Hidden 4 mos ago 4 mos ago Post by Thanqol
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The Master of Assassins takes a step forwards, raises one hand to the sky - and bellows. Her shout rolls clear across the battlefield and up towards the distant sky. Her hands are raised in a royal gesture that has been depicted since since the first slave put paint on a clay pot. She matches, exceeds the distant thunder and hears it roar in return. It is a simple secret but when one wishes to address Zeus Most High, it is best to do so loudly.

"Master of Thunderstorms!" bellows the Master of Assassins. "I am Sagakhan! It has been three hundred years since I ascended the Papaveraceae Throne! I have not forgot you in my libations! I have not forgot you in my administration! I was a parent to those who had none! I was a saviour to those ill-treated by their masters! Behold, my justice! I have captured Molech, whose sins were unspeakable, who in word and deed reflected your tyrant father! To him I have bought suffering unimaginable. Behold, my mercy! Before me stand prisoners, the ill-treated captives of my Kaeri servants! To them, I bring freedom! Before your sight and before this battle, I turn them loose - four thousand strong right arms who I will not even ask not to raise a hand against me! Even though I am outnumbered four to one I freely add to my enemy's ranks, and I would give them another ten thousand had I ten thousand more to give!"

Lightning flashes in the distance. One, two, three.

"I seek your blessing, O Zeus, as kings have done since there were kings!" she cries. "I do not ask for an easy victory! I do not ask for your thunderbolt! All I ask for, Zeus Cloudgatherer, here on the field of Sahar so many miles from home, is your rain!"

Zero.

The lightning bolt strikes the centre of the battlefield, the impact casting a vast spray of sand into the air that is molten and fused instantly into a jagged sculpture of glass. And then comes the thundering, pounding rain, falling thick and heavy against the desert soil of Sahar.

And beneath the desert, something stirs.

The surface breaks. Thin green shoots, tender and young, budding with flower. Thicker grasses, wooden branches, the first saplings of trees. And then - a hand.

The desert blooms with the living dead.

Sagakhan, Master of Assassins, has been waging her war against Hades for the better part of three hundred years. In this time she has murdered the crew of the Plousios a great many times. Sometimes she destroyed the ship through sabotage, sometimes through treason, sometimes by walking step by step through the corridors personally stabbing each wretched and suffering soul herself. But after each kill she bent low to slip a tiny seed into her victim's ear before moving on. And at the end of each year she collected the piles of the dead and carried them here. To Sahar.

In the absence of water, in the scorching heat of this lifeless desert, corpses mummified and biological activity ceased. But the seeds waited. All they needed was a single storming rain and they'd sprout and grow, roots entangling and sustaining the victims brains and nervous systems. Now the true garden of the Master of Assassins sprouts: half-tree monsters, bonsai growing wild. They still wear their arms and armour, their captains uniforms, their marks of championship, their innumerable banners raised lurchingly high. The tree branches burst through skin and sprout with blossoms, fingers tear asunder to make way for jagged wooden splinter talons. They are beautiful, in their way.

Where once it was four to one now it is forty to one.

Demeter's keening laugh drips out of those lips still capable of making the sound. It reverberates against the Master's laugh, just as mad, the cackles harmonizing hideously together.

To cross this desert you must defeat all those who came before.
Hidden 4 mos ago Post by Phoe
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Within seconds she's soaked through to her bones; half with rain and half with sweat. It is the most miserable Beljani has ever felt in her life. And also the most awake. It's like being dropped into a tank of water while still half-groggy from a nap she kept trying to prolong. She has never felt less of an urge to spread herself and melt away like honey. To disappear, yes. To bury herself in a hole and never ever come back out, or to turn and with a flash and a crack disappear forever into some oasis where nobody would find her, yes yes. But in this moment she is one body. She thinks as one body, one mind, one will, that begins at the tips of her ears and ends where her toes dig into her boots. No sweeties required.

Because she is completely, utterly alone. There is nobody here to help her. Nobody. Nobody at all. All of those slaves, the Lanterns, the Alcedi, and the weirdo band of misfits who'd somehow brought them all together? They weren't company. They weren't safety. They were the dead, still in the process of discovering they wouldn't need to breathe anymore. Where was the hope in becoming ten thousand corpses?

The Kaeri were likewise useless. For all of their gaudy terror tactics and preening, and every stupid little pissing match they got into with absolutely everything they came across, Humanity had built them from the ground up to be one of their 'warrior races'. That made them puppets, more useless than a hand crank as far as potential allies were concerned. Give them an order and they'd obey, as long as their precious chain of command was in play. There's a reason Bella was able to snap her fingers and flip who was running things between them and the mice. They were dancing in the palm of the Master now, and the most horrifying part of that idea is that they probably weren't even ignorant about it. They wanted this. And there'd be no forcing them out of it except by killing them, and she wouldn't be the least bit surprised to learn they'd all willingly swallowed death seeds before the fighting started. Disgusting. Horrible. Awful. Non-persons. Useless.

"...Bella? Bella please, I'm scared. Take me with you when you go. I can't keep, I... don't want to, I won't, I... please. See, I'm asking nice! Me! Haha, come on, laugh! Say something, insult me, I don't care! Please! Are you in there, Bella?! Answer me!"

"Ksssshhhhhhhaaaaaah."

And now, Beljani knew true hurt. Now her body aches, not just from uncomfortable, chafing armor and the cold sting of this cruel rain, but from the pressure of the scream building inside of her. And the needle burying itself in her heart. Alone. Alone, alone, alone, all alone. Even Artemis wasn't listening. Bella was gone, all that was left was a stupid Diodekoi. Her eyes sting with hot tears, and the only thing around to comfort her was the idea that in this awful rain there was no need to bother wiping them dry.

"You idiot! Fine then, I hate you! Go! Leave! Fu... Fuuu... F-fuck you! I never want to see you again!"

She screams as loud as she wants to, now. She pounds her fists against "XIII's" armor, and screams even louder when the heat and the spines hurt her hands. There's no point in holding back. There's no point in acting the good girl anymore. She knows, ok! She's not stupid! When you're the only one your so-called mother didn't bother tying strings to, that said everything that needed saying. So now she was allowed to scream. Now she was allowed to cry and curse and say anything she felt like. Not like it would kill her any deader. Not like death could be any scarier, now that this awful garden had sprouted.

"What are you doing, you stupid idiot weapon? Look, the meat's all over there you moron! Go claw it to pieces! Go, just... just go! What are you waiting for?! Does mommy need to point her finger before you get the message? Rrrrgh, just... get... away! From! Me!"

A sudden bolt of lightning sends her shrieking and falling to all fours. No no no no no, please Mother no, don't kill her! Artemis, Artemis! She's sorry, no no no no please she hasn't forgotten! She didn't go and forget her oath, she swears! She promises ok? She's sorry she didn't put it in writing like you prefer, but you've seen her handwriting haven't you? Just, just, something, anything, here, just... just!

Scribe squawks and nips her on the cheek. Her wings flutter with beautiful glyphs as she puffs herself up importantly and spits deadly lasers that carve markings into the stone platform they're all still standing on. Beljani's eyes open wide, and she dives to cover the dragon before the Master could turn from her insane cackling long enough to notice the little wonder her useless daughter had brought with her to the battlefield. She doesn't even stop to think about how stupid and dangerous a thing it is to do, how she's absolutely about to lose one or even all of her limbs to her own damn pet. Just cover, cover, protect!

She smells something burning, and it takes her a moment of sniffling and whimpering to realize it isn't her. She glances up at the sky to see if she's safe. She heaves a shuddering sigh of relief. And then she slowly turns her head to look at Bella. At the corner of the prayer slip clinging to her thigh that's smoldering where a snort of laser must have clipped it. Scribe headbutts her chin and flashes more writing in her face. Prayers.

The dragon's on her shoulder before she realizes she's moving. Beljani leaps and clings to Bella with every bit of strength the gods saw fit to leave in her soft and pampered body. Her armor gives way before Bella's: she ignores the bleeding. Ignores the heat. She's got a whole new letter to write and only her blood for ink. So she needs hold on and write fast before she gets shaken off and thrown down into her worse nightmares come to life.

See? She's putting it in writing this time. Artemis, we humble assassins are your daughters, your employees. Saghakahn forsakes you. We do not. Hades, lord, never forget the coins we left where we killed, where she left only seeds. Zeus. Zeus... she's got no right to ask for anything. But if that... thing gets to pretend to be a parent to her, then hurry up and get this over with. Because she'd rather be an orphan, a corpse, or both than let THAT get to claim her any longer.

Oh gods, she's gonna throw up. Ugh. Please. Please just let her have one last nice thing before you snuff her out. She'll savor it like it's the first treat of her life, she promises.
Hidden 4 mos ago Post by TheAmishPirate
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There is distance, but not enough.

The corpses move slowly, with an inexorable momentum. They cannot maneuver. They will not form complicated battle lines, or strike with technique immaculate. But they will reach. They will grasp with hungry thorns. And only one of them needs to take hold of you. There is distance, but not enough.

She’d filled her hours with pasta mistakes. Hestia taught her the ways of kitchens, homes, and comfort, and she survived on nothing but her lessons. She fled down paths of long-forgotten memory, chasing after a girl she knew, a girl she was, a girl she never reached. Once more she found home, held close to a heart she feared she’d lose forever. And today, in the driving rains, she feels the thorns burning her skin, the grip of the goddess breaking her down piece by piece. There is distance, but not enough.

The Master of Assassins cackles to have pulled such a trick. She throws her head back, too drunk to even see the ants formed up against her. Too far gone to count the bodies she will expend, for the weary work of finding more will belong to the Master of tomorrow. She stands, untouchable, atop her stone altar, so flush with divine favor that none, not even the heretic, might touch her.

There is distance, but by thunder it will not be enough.

“Zeus!” Her voice peals across the field, to meet the mad laugher of the Master of Assassins. “Who raises thrones and tears them down! Who casts her lightning, and obliterates her target without fail! Who stands atop the peak of Olympus!”

“Are you seeing this shit?!”

“She comes groveling to you, pretending to be outnumbered and hard put-upon, when all along she has such a host in her back pocket! She cries faithfulness to her office, when all along she plans to murder the very daughter her leige commanded her to retrieve! Your very daughter! Let her deny it before you, if she dares! If this is the sort of person you want carrying your favor, then let it be so! Your favor is yours, and you need answer to no one for how you spend it.”

“But we have not forgotten you either! I have not forgotten you! How could I?! Incorrigible meddler! Insufferable in your generosity! She of loudest, and most ill-timed laugh!” And lest you think she could exhaust your titles in such a short span of time, hold off the enemy for a few weeks and see how far down the list she can go! “We have no fancy tricks! We have no scheme to fall back upon! We throw our courage to the sticking place, and if that not be enough, then let no one say we held back a whit!”

“If she is to carry your blessing, then let it be so. But if you’re looking for an instrument, to show that no one may play lightly with the Thunderer’s favor, well!” Her hand traced the grip of her pistol. “Here are two, hanging from my belt, that will not put you to shame!”

No one hears the Captain, exchanging his own quiet words with the gods. But that is fine; the one he prays to prefers the quiet anyway. “Lord Hades, this is wrong.” His voice buckles beneath the horror, but he must carry on. “Please. Allow us to set it right. We will put them to rest. All of them. Only, let us do it properly. Let us carry the courage, the memory of all who have come before us. Let their hearts stand alongside our own, that whatever terror may strike us in the task, we will not break before it.”

For that, then, is the order passed down to their legions. The garden of Demeter, however fearsome, is slow, too many to achieve any complicated formation. It will fall, then, to the Kaeri, and the Plovers, and whatever other horrors she possesses, to be the hammer driving them against the anvil of Demeter. Do not forget which way you face. Do not let them take you where they want to. Stand strong, and show them the limits of fear.
Hidden 4 mos ago Post by Tatterdemalion
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It was bad enough seeing it on the flickering screen. At least then there was some distance, some interference, and Bella to decisively end the threat of one— just one— of these monsters.

Grey and pink and grey and pink and white, bleach-white, white as sand. Grey the bark and pink the leaves, cherry-pink, pink like the soft places of the body, eaten away, long gone, blossoming out of eye sockets and between jaws and bursting through bullet holes in the backs of skulls. Grey the wood that wraps around grey skin and bones, white bones, slick with rain, grey the skin that peeks out from archaic coats and too-recent uniforms, and pink the flowers that tear through guts and ribs.

Death was a horror bad enough. Jas’o, lying in the mud. Hatchan, headless. But this? This is worse even than Hatchan’s guards. This is the worst thing she has ever seen in her life. It is wrong and even when she blinks, even when she crushes her lids shut to stop looking at them, her auspex, throbbing in her socket, the eye of a goddess, won’t stop telling her the exact numbers. Forty to one. Forty to one.

“Hold,” she groans. “Hold,” she screams. Her sword comes up, stiffly, so that she does not drop it. Her throat burns. “I’ve— I know how to kill them,” she says. Thank you, Bella. Thank you. “Destroy the head. That’s… it comes apart when you do that. Through the neck, or up through the jaw. Nothing else. Losing an arm, being torn open— nothing else works. For the head.”

Rain trickles down her back, and she shivers. This is all wrong. She could be a whirling dance of steel if she needed to, but Imperial duelists aren’t taught to go for the head. She’ll have to improvise, use strikes she’s never practiced. And if she gets it wrong, if her sword and its wicked edge still gets caught in fabric or wood, then…

”’You have to be lucky every time,’” Bella said in her spookiest voice, reading from the book open in her lap, as Dany pulled the covers up to her chin and stared out at the vast room all around, shadowed and haunting. “The wolf said, pressing itself against the window. ‘I only have to be lucky once…’”
Hidden 4 mos ago Post by Balmas
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"Take it off."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm blind, not deaf, and I can hear the screams, take it--"

The blindfold whips off, blinding light sears into her eyes, and "Put it back on" dies on her lips, unspoken

She's going to see this tonight, she knows. In the quiet hours, when the ship sleeps, with only the dull rumble of the engine for company, these faces will be branded across her mind as brightly as right now.

It's unholy. Obscene. She's seen battlefields strewn with the dead, counted corpses, relied on the fugue of post-battle exhaustion to keep her from recognizing which were hers. But they always--always--got tended to. They burned, or were buried, or were committed to Poseidon, but always, Hades claimed them.

A hundred thousand eyes pierce her. She does not know them, but everywhere, sightless eyes stare at her, accuse her. She did not do this, did not plant the seeds, she does not know you, stop looking at her--

She can feel the aide's nervous gaze, even without looking. Feel her watching her, getting quietly more tense, watching her freeze. Damn you! Damn you for listening to her!

And damn her own eyes, for serving her! Because she had the blindfold removed for a reason! Everywhere, screams, chaos! The red glow of Ares approaching! Disaster, and only--

A whiff of cigar smoke lingers in the air. Acrid. Piercing. Sinus-clearing in its intensity. She staggers, and stares again.

Everywhere she looks, the unburied, the corrupted, the defiled! Stolen from life, stolen from death! Stolen from Hades and their quiet rest! The pitiful dead, victims as much as any of them!

They stare at her, yes! Pleading! Begging! Give us rest! Lay us down, free us from these shells, say the rites of Hades!

She takes one step, then a second, and then she's running, bounding and galloping across the desert to lead her troops. Saving the tides is hopeless--useful only as a battering ram, and now facing a wall too big to clear, but there are lives to save. Eyes on the Kaeri--see how they move, where they'll strike. They're against the anvil, and only avoiding the hammer's blows will save them.

Dimly, she's aware that she's singing. An old tune, from a sergeant who was old even before she was shaped. A hymn, a dirge, that beats with each thunderous footfall, to the god of the Dead.

Let her see this right, Hades. She does not know the dead, but this atrocity cannot stand. Only let them live, Hades, and all of these shall be given the peace they have not known for centuries.
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The macrocannons of the grounded battleships speak.

In another time being between the broadsides of two kilometer long warships would have been considered suicidal. This, however, is a wiser age. Ten tonne slabs of metal propelled by catastrophic chemical explosions smash into quadranix alloy hulls like hammers on a steel door. Some are poison shells and they rupture on impact, sending forth massive and billowing clouds of toxic gas. The Plousious is the larger ship and its broadside is mightier, but they are staffed by a skeleton crew of Kaeri and slaves. The volleys that erupt from the Anemoi are made with the speed and precision of a highly motivated and skilled crew born into their station.

Some shells are aimed at the battlefield, but these tend to be incidental. Warriors can easily evade them, or - working in unison - even catch them. Further, each volley takes the better part of three minutes to load and aim. By far the biggest impact of artillery like this is chaos and disruption - breaking phalanxes to enable swift warriors to close and pick off isolated targets.

So goes the maxims of conventional war. But this is, rather, a nightmare.

The flowering horde is barely sensate, operating with the deadened nerves and lack of cerebral powers shared by trees and the dead. The leaves of their branches wilt and shrivel when exposed to the toxic compounds of solid projectile gasses, but the hosts advance without care for the shock of it. They have no formation to be broken, no agenda to preserve life. They barely even dodge when solid shot crashes down into their ranks, carving furrows of broken limbs and snapped branches through the horde. That does not stop them either - survivors claw their way out from under enormous slabs of metal and rejoin the rush.

*

Redana!

Waiting to receive a charge is agony.

Poets and military theorists talk about the tension between Athena and Ares. Here you are, on the knife's edge between them.

One hand holds your blade steady, holds the phalanx immobile, perceives the conflict as flow and mathematics and resiliency. The flow of constant data from the Auspex comes into focus, providing an eagle's eye map in the corner of your vision, charting great flows of green against thin lines of violet.

One hand clenches your heart and tears out your guts. That for all the genetic alchemy in your veins, you are not so different from a hart. That hundreds of people are running at you as fast as they can. That the sky is thick with dark, predatory shapes like nightmare angels.

And you could die. Die and never see anyone again. Not Bella. Not anyone.

"Come, take my hand," said the Two Who Were One.
"Your destiny was always to be
a god/
a beast/
You were always meant
to rise/
to fall/
When they called you Princess
they knew/
they lied
It is time at last to be what you were always meant to be."

The mass is getting so close.

Brace/
Break.

Alexa!

The Kaeri soar to match your movements, and in this moment it feels like a race rather than war.

There's something beautiful about this, the way they move. They're enjoying themselves. They're enjoying this. This is the fulfillment of a purpose woven into their ancestors. Each of them boils with a chemical concoction of endorphins that runs right up to the line of making them combat ineffective. There's so much strength in those silently beating wings. So much life - but a strangely mechanistic formulation of it.

You're racing them along the edge of a Coherent phalanx. It's night and day, the difference between these forces. The Coherent are warriors, certainly, but they are warriors as a profession. They have sculpted their bodies for pleasure, for aesthetic, for the realization of self identity. They have preserved things that matter to them and learned how to act in harmony with a wild range of fellows. Their diversity does not make them weak - their phalanx is an organic thing, strength taught through lessons and experience. An army of complete souls choosing to be together, rather than an army of stunted souls grouping around the only thing they can understand.

It is strange how something so organic, so lively, something so joyous, can in the end be an instrument of hate as artificial as the blood groove on a spear.

It's strange how, for all the harmony of the Coherent, that they're still not complete. Already the Esoterics are coming up through the formation, those strange arcane weapons cabled to the mobile clockwork reactors. Too soon. Too vulnerable. Hunting instincts from the Kaeri are perfectly manipulating their opponents...

And you realize what the Coherent are missing. They're not complete without you.

Vasilia!

And then Zeus is above you, flashing and glowing and radiant, a nymph of lightning. Her eyes are brilliant blue, her indigo robe has burned to cinders, sparkling glitter cascades downwards and every part of her is alight with power, power, power.

"You gotta respect it, though!" said Zeus. "This? This is absolutely a king move. You think this happens by accident? Sagakhan has been getting up at the crack of dawn for two hundred and fifty years, just, like, backflipping out of bed, doing fifty jumping jacks, and then spreading her attention between administering a galactic network of assassins and bringing down the champions of a rival god! She put in the fucking sweat, the tears, the pain to make this happen. She's stood here before, eight spears in her chest, bleeding out of her eyes and she never once gave up. Not ever! There were so many shortcuts she could have taken, so many extra miles she didn't have to run, but she's gone for all of them. Don't think you know her! You've walked this road once! She walks it every year!"

She rises up through the air, alight, alive, each hair coursing electricity.

"And in the end all she asked me for was the rain!" she cries in joy. "Just rain! In exchange she offered me four thousand prisoners! And you want my thunderbolts - for what!?" Zeus laughs and the sky tears. "Because you are so righteous, Vasilia, and you always honour me with your prayers? Because I favour the underdogs and reward the unprepared? Because I want to see this monument to past successes burned? Because a quarter millennia after it began now is the moment when I decide to get involved in the squabbles of my siblings?"

And then she's back down in front of you, melting the sand into glass, eyes crystal sharp. She isn't just a girl in this moment. She is gravity. She is every planet in the sky. She is the solar radiation and the cosmic nebula. She is the heat of the Engine and the molecular bonds that hold your atoms together. She is dimension after dimension of invisible dark matter, defining everything by the implication of her presence. Magnetic force. Weak force. Strong force. All contained in a single girl of lightning.

"You want it, Vasilia?" said Zeus. "Earn it. Show me what you got."

Dolce!

"If I intervene," said Hades in a soft voice voice. "Then Demeter will arise to match me. If you believe this is bad then you do not comprehend the horrors that would be seen if we both took the field. Demeter has given Sagakhan her seeds. I have given you my beloved daughter."

He strode to the front of the line and looked out at the empty space surrounding Princess Epistia as terrible strength began to build around her.

"You would do well not to insult me by implying that I have given the lesser gift," said Hades softly.

Beljani!

Any one of a great number of monsters could have turned their gaze upon you in this moment. Any of them would have been preferable.

You get Demeter.

Consider the fieldmouse as it is swept up into the combine harvester. Consider the snap and crunch and thresh as it is rendered unto nourishment. Consider the smoke rising from the fields. Consider the snap and crackle and roar as it is rendered unto the hungry flame. Consider the soil as it is sucked dry and rendered unto sand. Consider the aeons of death and dissolution required to make it fertile again...

Her hands are stained with viscera and blackberries. She pulls you off Bella and casts you down the steps of the pyramid, and with each step you tumble down your fall is broken by mushrooms and new sprouts of grass. You see the Goddess of the harvest coming down the steps towards you. She is the fairest creature in all the worlds, cool water and the promise of life for another year, the beauty of the maiden and the fury of the crone.

"How dare you," she said in the voices of every thing here that is hers. "I permit no weeds in my garden."

But then you see a step off to the side. A glimpse of a silver suit 'midst the ranks of the Kaeri. A path that walks into the labyrinth of a phalanx. They stand tall and straight like rows of corn, and you dash into them seeking cover. You move through the ranks of tall and silent soldiers, just enough space between them to move without pushing them, and every few moments you catch a glimpse of silver in your view ahead.

And Demeter comes in pursuit.
Hidden 4 mos ago Post by Phoe
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This must be how Bella sees the world. That's a lot of time wasted being jealous, then. She can smell the rot and the sweetness and the warmth of harvest time all floating about her in a toxic miasma, and she hates it. She can hear the echoing of a thousand thousand voices screaming at her as if each one of them was perched on her shoulder, and all she wants to do is curl up on the ground and cover her ears before she bleeds out from the trauma of it all. She can feel the rain and the wind and the heat of her own body meeting the chill of the air, and it makes her limbs feel sluggish and heavy when she needs them to be faster than ever. Her stomach feels like it's full of biting ants and she finds herself an instant away from screaming, an instant away from death, because she pictures it and in the sudden rush of terror her mouth opens to vomit because it is true, it is, Demeter has planted tiny vermin inside her and they're eating her alive and, and, and!!

She is saved by the flash of silver. By moonlight in a suit. Beljani clasps her fingers over her mouth, and masters herself. Even though she has to bite them hard enough to draw blood to make them do it. Stupid! Now she's leaving a trail. Her heart pounds frantic and possessed, like it's furiously pushing the little dribbles out her faster and faster. Her breathing feels labored and desperate and horrifyingly loud to her own overstimulated ears. The sniveling and sniffling is even worse. This is cruel, she thinks. This is so cruel. Why did it have to be Demeter? How was she supposed to follow the path in front of her when every little part of her body was betraying her? The more it fought to keep her alive, the more it pulled this "weed" back into the goddess' grasp!

Another sliver of moonlight, stitched into a suit. All around her is power: the armor, the spears, the poise, the certainty of battle and even the lustful joy that accompanies its form. Wings beat in patterns that drown out the sound of footsteps and obscure movements, despite the pointlessness of it all in the incredible chaos of this clusterfrig. They are tall. They are proud. They are strong. They are everything Beljani is not, scrambling in between them while occasionally dipping down almost on all fours and hunching in on herself to disappear as completely as possible. Pathetic. There's much of the mouse in her, scurrying toward a prayed-for safety, and almost nothing of the wolf she took so much pride in till now.

It hurts. Oh gods, it hurts. Her knees hurt where she bends them. Her back hurts where she bounced off those mushrooms on her way down the pyramid. Her nose hurts from the stench of plant gore stuffed into every breath she takes. Her eyes hurt from the rain and from her tears and from the strain of holding them open all this time. Don't close them! Don't! If she closes them a hand will stitch them shut and she'll never see again! Artemis! Artemis! Please please please, she's begging, don't leave! D-don't...

l e a v e

Her gift is tiny. Dormant. Cold. No pleasure. None. Fear. Run. Fragile. One. Body. Easy. Break. Run. Stop. Die. Stop. Weed. Rot. Compost. Stop. Die. Nourish. Food. Stop. Don't. Follow. Turn. Around. Cease. Still. Be. Useful. Become. Food. You. Are. Prey. Pretend. Be. Predator. Stop. Don't. Lie. Don't. Lie! Moon. Won't. Save. You. Stop. Stop. Plant. Feet. Grow. Roots. You. Are. Many. Are. One. Be. Many. Be. Seeds. Be. Useful. No. Use. Stop. Stop. Die!

Beljani's neck feels heavy. Where the blood drips from her fingers onto the the wet sand, wildflowers blossom instantly. Her throat turns dry and even drinking all of Zeus' rain wouldn't be enough to wet it again. And yet. And yet. Her feet keep moving. Her eyes zip wildly about, looking for the trail. Even when she stumbles, she is precise. Doesn't touch a living thing. Doesn't come close to it. Where she has to, she pushes, and even though she doesn't invite a single Kaeri into herself, their dance suits her. The terror phalanx adjusts its formation flawlessly to accommodate her without giving up her position.

If... if Demeter wants to harvest her, she thinks, she'll have to hunt. And that's the domain of another goddess altogether. Her pride as an assassin is worth at least that much. Beautiful and Bella are worth that much. She sucks in another terrified breath, and this time the garden smells like cigar smoke. Another flash of silver catches her eyes. This time, she follows the path it implies instead of chasing straight after it.

She tucks her bloody fingers into her armpit, and the trail of flowers vanishes behind her. She creeps low, sometimes boosting herself forward with her good hand. It's a wolf's posture, she tells herself. Her nose is running and her eyes are bleary-red, but do you see her? Can you smell her, Bella? Your sister is fighting all by herself.

"I don't wanna die, I don't wanna die, I don't wanna die," she mutters a magic spell under her breath with every darting step, "I won't, I won't, I won't. Not like this. You can't make me."
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Mind. Heart. Sinew.

Redana breathes through the rose-pink silk, a long, slow breath. She adjusts the grip on her sword. The heart thumps in her chest, trying to escape. The Auspex hammers her perception with lines, with arrows, with the flow of battle. It hums and throbs and tries to explain to her the basic truth: that they will be overrun.

Green arrows crash over violet lines, over and over. If they hold and simply try to fight for time, they’ll get wrecked, isolated. (A shell explodes into caustic gas: up and to her right. The smell is horrible.) And the Kaeri behind, quick and clever and relentless. She’s lost to them once before.

Die. She could die. She’s going to die. Threads of possible futures snap one by one, until there’s only one left. Run. Run now. You’ll survive.

Her feet don’t move.

Maybe this is how she’ll prove it to everyone this time. That she really is sorry. That she’s sorry for failing Bella, sorry for hurting Dolce, sorry for dragging Alexa out here so that she could lose her arms. The only thing she’s not sorry for is wanting.

Mind. Heart. Sinew.

“How do I win?” She hisses, angrily, under her breath. The Auspex’s calculations of war halt for a moment, and then highlight the Master of Assassins. A monster. She’s seen what happens to monsters. She’s still got that thug in armor by her side, but…

But if Redana holds her life at the tip of a sword, maybe even she would yield. Maybe she doesn’t have to end this with killing someone. Maybe, just this once, as many people can walk away as possible. (The Auspex does not agree. But she’s the princess, not the Auspex. And she’s not going to— maybe even that old hag has a story and heart. Maybe even she can accept defeat.)

“Lacedo,” she says, placing one hand on her friend’s wrist. “Give ground. Don’t break, but don’t die for ground. I’m going to cut through.” And then she moves before she can let the fear catch up with her. While she’s moving, she doesn’t have to be afraid. And—

The Auspex roars in her skull, and the world falls away, and is replaced by golden thread, coiling, uncoiling, and the gods in a different shape. They are the space between the threads. They are everything. They are existence, and here, they are present— but look closer. They’re all here. They’re all always here. Her uncles and aunts and cousins, all present, always present, each one the size of the universe itself. Against them she is so small. So very, very small. But she is here.

“Could you always do this?” Silence. The Auspex (which should be part of everything, but is shut up, severed, made as concrete and discrete as Redana herself) simply draws a ribbon through the not-air for Redana to follow. And she darts forward like a hart with victory on its antlers.

[Redana, for the first time, marks Camoflauge on her Auspex.]
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