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[[9] on Overcome. Paying one use of Indomitable Shell to get the 10+]


There's no defense against the God of Madness. At his shout, formations fall to pieces. Units fight amongst themselves in his noise and confusion. In the milling of ships, the flaring of stars, the stutter of smoke and cannon, Ares laughs.

And Alexa falls back. She flees! The engine room is chaos and shouting and pushing and shoving and climbing the walls and pain and--

There's no thought of defeat, no plan, no defense, only Ares and get away, over and over again. There's no formation. No unit, no comrades, nothing but panic. There's no pattern to figure out, no style of combat suited to counter the blows that rain down, nothing but running and enduring and the crackling of stone under clubs. All she can do is roll with the blows, and run as well as she's able, and hope that the pain stops soon.

Ares brings both arms around in a double-overhead chop, and the Aegis shatters under the blow. As she reels back, she catches a glimpse of the delightful chef, and a different kind of panic sets in. What is he doing here?
What you need to understand about train crews is that most of them tinker with the engine at some point. What time isn't spent on cleaning, maintenance, the normal chores of living, or scouting and clearing the road ahead, is spent with a diagram in one hand, a welder in the other, and usually a mad glint in somebody's eyes. Engines bristle with add-ons and cannibalized scraps of the Heart until it's not clear which bits are natural and which bits aren't.

Mister Conagher doesn't like it. The Mighty Natascha gleams, and nothing is added unless the architect thereof can prove, in simple words, that it is beneficial, necessary, and reversable. If a train desires a flamethrower, it can communicate such as needed. Anything else is gilding the lily.

Thus far, Coleman has held similar views. What point exists in adding to perfection?

But, as his eyes flit between Sasha and the Wreck... No! His mind rebels at the very thought. Sasha's not old enough to communicate, much less choose.

But there is potential there. A train, capable of shrugging off blows that would cripple lesser engines and make mock of the Flood's threats? He can't help but peer just a little bit closer.

[9 on Look Closely:
-Tell me about Amalgamation. How could it hurt/help me?
-Is something hidden or out of place? If so, what looks suspicious?
-Tell me about the Wreck. What are they doing? What will they do next?

I find out one of these answers the hard way.]
"They will be remembered," she intones, and offers a shaky smile to the deity behind her. Unspoken is the promise that just as Zelok and Faron will be remembered, so too will the four of them be remembered to Redana when the time comes.

Of course, that promise is, in itself, a ticking time bomb. If she cannot convince them that Redana's cause is virtuous--dubious, both for their hidebound attitudes and for her own doubt in the truthfulness of that fact--then when they retrieve her ward, they'll have two mutinies on their hands instead of just one.

Which is why Alexa is glad of the hard work of the engines. The redirection of flow and stoking of fire leaves little room for conversation and even less for thought. Just good, hard effort where she doesn't need to worry about--

“Ladies and gentlemen; do brace for impact.”

She needs to worry quite a bit, apparently, and a quick glance at the hoplites tells her she's not alone. Galnius' death glare makes it very clear that they signed up for glory, and despite all the evidence to the contrary littering the battlefield, dying by ramming an enemy larger than you is probably not what they had in mind.

Alexa gives a brittle smile and says, "Starsong. They did inform you who you were dealing with, I assume."

She does not waste time rushing to the speaking tubes and blurting out demands. Already she has brought shame to the Captain, and to further question her orders risks the already-fragile bargain for forgiveness she has brokered. Instead, she simply feeds more power to the engines, and does as commanded.


It's a quiet word, and one so out of place that Galnius can't help but cut off midmurmur in surprise to look at the statue. The murderstatue wants to talk? It can talk quietly?

Alexa's step never wavers as she talks, but she's also pointedly not looking at anything besides the path towards the sepulchral engine rooms. No, that's not quite right, Galnius realizes. She's not looking forwards, but back: back in time, back to other times and other faces.

"Tell me about them, Galnius. I know well the press of a shield wall. The press of brothers and sisters, side by side, shields firm to defend. When one falls, the hole must be filled at once, lest the phalanx fall and all be lost. But the wall is never the same, is it?"

It's not Jrav at your side. Not Jrav, third son of a petty noble. Not Jrav, who left his home to seek the inheritance he'll not receive from his family. Not Jrav, who hides his sketchbook from the rest of the platoon. Not Jrav, who delights in telling the worst jokes purely for the groans.

There's a new man at your side. The phalanx stands tall and strong. But it's not Jrav, and it's not the same.

"I do not relish killing," she confesses with the solemn air of one admitting high treason to the king's face, and it takes all she has not to check to see whether Athena is standing behind her, listening. "It is all that I know. But if I must, then allow me to mourn. Please, Galnius. Tell me of them, that I may mourn with you."

[10 on Speak Softly.
-What should I be wary of when dealing with them?
-What would they have us do next?
-What can they tell us about themselves?]
Sasha rears, a steam-fuel bellow shrieking from her whistle, and Coleman lets loose an equally profane streak of curses as the motion throws him against a pressure gauge. Gingerly, he feels the spot and winces. Not bleeding, thank heaven, as he's not sure where he'd treat a head wound, but that's going to smart for days.

[Damaging Grace]

That soggy bitch. Watery tart! Soaking strumpet! Touch Sasha again, see what happens! Do you have any idea how many cuddles Sasha is going to demand for this? He's happy to give them, but that's not the issue! You hurt his baby!

And as Coleman starts to furiously manipulate the levers in the cockpit, it flits across his mind that it's probably for the best that Lucien isn't here to see this.

The first priority is to clear the area, because Sasha is already tired and whining under his touch. She needs rest and a space to burn her energy out.

Fortunately, she has a target on which to vent both her rage and her steam. At a pull of a stop, a hatch in the firebox opens and a jet of steam force-feeds meteors of molten coal down the lobster's stinking throat.

Coleman coughs and fans a hand across his face. And he'd thought the stench couldn't get any worse. But now soggy, wasted flesh is screaming, eyes melting, rope singing and catching alight, lobster reeling. One coal-peppered step at a time, the train forces the lobsster away from the group. Don't let up. Keep it on its toes. Don't let it retreat inside its shell, or make it so that it has to choose between coming after the little rodents behind him and protecting itself. Drive it towards the water. Keep it away from Sasha.

Yeah, definitely best Lucien doesn't see this.

[Keep Them Busy, 12.

Alexa scowls after the retreating Hermetician. And now that he's in the vents, he's basically untouchable. And there's enough vents here that finding him is basically an impossible task, short of lucking upon him by chance.

Hmm. Perhaps Hades might be willing to lend his aid in the search, but the cost is more than enough to make her hesitate.

But that's neither here nor there. Right now, she has grievously erred, and reconciliation is required before anything else can be done.

Gingerly, she kneels, head against musket, and intones, "Forgive me, Mighty Captain, for my trespass against your domain. In exchange for not exacting vengeance, please accept my oath to present you with the head--"

And the ship shakes as the Veterosk disengages, and Alexa's heart sinks. Because there's only one reason the ship would break off, is either because Redana has been captured or is otherwise not on the ship.

"--ofthisrogueHermetician," she finishes as quickly as would not violate the form, and offers a textbook-perfect salute. Come on, come on, don't draw this out please. Molech would gloat and lord it over her, please don't let's do that, she's getting away.
It would be so easy, you know.

It's not even watching her. It peeled her like an onion, took what it wanted, and discarded her once it had its prize. iIt deserves it. It's threatening the captain. It's a threat to her. Let it live, and it'll do it again. Do it for yourself. Do it for Dolce, wouldn't he be disappointed if you let his wife die? One simple thrust, and so many problems just disappear.

It should be easy. It's what she was trained to do.

And that, more than anything else, is what pushes her in front of the barrel, watching as it tracks her. And she is so, so tired.

"It doesn't have to be like this," she insists. "We can all be friends, here. See? No spear from me, no gun from you. You put your cannon away, I'll put my spear away, and we can negotiate without the threat of violence. You said it yourself, it's so much easier this way. You get to... Raving Direction? Right? Doesn't that sound nice?"

[5 on Talk Sense]

The stone is not.

Then one day, it is. It is aware. Knows that there was a time when it was not, and now it is. And the stone is happy.

For a time, that is all there is. Oh, do not mistake and think that nothing happens. Hands brush the rock. The stone feels the judder of motion, the cold of long times left alone.

And this is fine. The stone marvels at it, at the very thought of being aware of this. For so long, it was not, and now it is. And it is good!

Then it feels the touch for the first time, of the one it will come to know as father. Others have handled the stone roughly, shoved it too and fro, and the stone does not mind. But this touch is different.

For one, the touch is almost entirely absent. Always before there was the warmth, the brush of sensation of something that was not cold. But this touch is clinical. Cold. Wires scrape at the stone, clean it of its old friends. Something scritches across its surface, leaving residue behind.

And then comes the touch that the stone will learn to dread. A cold, hard line places itself against the stone, and abruptly carves a line of fire in the stone. Pain! Agony! Shards of the stone fly off and suddenly are not. And the stone, for the first time, knows fear.

The stone knows this pain and fear for too long. More than half the stone is gone by the time the stone hears for the first time. It does not understand the sounds--low murmurs, back-and-forth, one high and level, one low and scowling. It takes months of lost self before it learns names, words, emotions. Molech. Athena. Alexa. Promises. Contracts.

More months, and she can see. Can learn what her tormentor looks like. Can see the irritation in his face, the scowling, the judgement of her failure to be created in the way he envisions. Can feel the dismissive way he flicks at spare dust. Can brace, for the first time, for moment the chisel comes down.

The mouth comes last. Molech can see the way her eyes dart around, wince, screw shut, every time the hammer raises. Complaints are neither necessary nor wanted.
The second--the very instant second they're out of the water, Coleman is comforting Sasha. Is she the best train in the world? Absolutely! Is she going to get aaaall the coal tonight? Yes she is! Oooh, look at that steam whistle blow, she knows her name! Oooh, she's adorable! Lucien, come on, get in here! Rub that boiler, feel how she purrs at you? Come on, she likes it!

Really? Not gonna get in on this action?

Fine. Be like that.

And you will all be, just a little bit, more like creatures that can survive in the Heart.

You know, Coleman's granpappy had a saying that applies here. Very wise kobold, was Coleman's granpappy. Lived in the Heart all his life, just like his forebears. Knew how to get around, how to survive, how to avoid the Bats and dodge the flood.

Saying went something like this:

"Fuck that."

Look, there are sitations where it's wise to run. And he acknowledges that yes, he basically just left Lucien to fend for himself. But that was a train on a boat, and this is a train on a shoreline with a tower. It's completely different.

Here, there's space to run.

"Tie yourself to Sasha," he states, and starts to climb into Sasha's belly. Sorry, girl, we got more to do yet. "You grab her, I'll run."
It's almost universally acknowledged among experienced soldiers that you have more in common with your opposite number than you do your own leadership. The brass may go on about honor this, and defilement that, and ideals the other one, and for gods and empire and the whole shebang. But when you're at the front, in a line, desperately making promises and offerings to Hades, the guy on the other line is probably doing the same thing. And if it weren't for the order to advance, to kill one another, you'd probably get along fine over something toxic enough to rot away memory, perhaps while commiserating over said leadership.

So when Alexa and Galnius's eyes meet in passing, she perfectly understands the longsuffering eyeroll best expressed as, "Commanders, eh," and can answer in kind.

She seems a decent type. Probably a good social entry point into the local ranks.

No, wait. Statue. Foyer. Right. Not a soldier. A decoration in a king's palace.

Something twists inside her at the thought.

That's fitting. How many times did Molech tell her she was built for beauty? For his glorification? Be seen, Alexa. Be graceful. You are his creation, his glory. At any time, someone looking at you should be both struck by your beauty, impressed by your grace, and too intimidated to even think of starting trouble.

"Blessed be, o miracle! Show us the golden path through your enlightenment!"

Hah. Like she'd actually allow this cretin to touch her.

She shoots an apologetic glance at Galnius which, in body language, roughly expresses "sorry that you're going to get in trouble for this, but you just brought me behind the phalanx and served me your leadership on a silver platter. Join me for drinks afterwards?"

Then she's in motion, and the ship's communication tubes are filled with Jas'o's screams.

She can't move. Every thought is locked on the Hermetician, muscles tensed for fight, flight...

Surrender. This is good. This is a good thing. She's been complaining about Redana and her stupid seal for ages now, and this is how she leaves! She gets to have a peaceful life, being admired, not being asked to kill anyone.

No friends. No freedom. No long tea services with the delightful chef. Nothing but long days filled with staring at the same scene for the rest of eternity.

This doesn't have to be a bad thing.

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